Damanaki 2006: 31, quoting Voltaire in Greek translation. I have used the version in Besterman 1968–1977). The quote is from Voltaire, “Première Lettre Sur Oedipe” (2d ed., 1719), 15n.
Chapter 8. 1974–2007: After History
I call this stone Oedipus. It too is irregular, with deep
grooves for eyes. It too rolls down with swollen feet. And
when motionless it hides a fate, a reptile, my forgotten
I call this stone Oedipus.
For although by itself it has no meaning, it too has the
shape and the weight of choice. I name it and I lick it.
Until the end of my story.
Until I understand what choice means.
Until I understand what the end means.
—Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, “I Have a Stone”
There are many ethnographic moments where Oedipus turns up in an unexpected location: in testimonials by the detainees at the camps, in Lancaster's account of the Distomo massacre in 1944 (where the Germans killed all the men and set the village on fire), in a number of instances during the trial of 17N, and in journalistic accounts the figure of Oedipus raises its head, stands up on its feet, so to speak, not as the infant who envies the father and desires the mother but as the sovereign who is crushed under the weight of his responsibility and who plucks out his eyes as he encounters his accountability, the recognition that he has to account for his actions even if they were inadvertent, not intended. So far as he knew, he killed a man in self-defense, he did not kill his father; and he married the widow of a king, he did not marry his mother.
Maria Damanaki, one of the two voices of the clandestine radio during the Polytechnic uprising, now a deputy with Parliament with PASOK, prefaced a piece that she wrote about the Israeli attack on Lebanon in August 2006 with a reference to Voltaire's Oedipus: “on doit des égards aux vivants; on ne doit aux morts que la vèrité [we owe respect to the living; to the dead we owe nothing but the truth].”
These ethnographic instances ask that Oedipus (the play, the myth, the cinematic account) be read again, against the grain of the expected readings, along the grain of markings on the flesh. Such a gesture allows me to think the mythical (Oedipus as the king of Thebes, the offspring of Laius and Jocasta, the brother of the Sphinx, the father of his siblings, the son of his mother) as commensurable with the political (the face whose feet and eyes come to the mind of political prisoners after torture has rendered them akin to his image). Not that we need to invent new ways of addressing the events around us, because, as Schiller noted in his letter to Goethe, “Everything is already there, so it needs only to be extricated.” But we need to address the mythic again in this new mythical era that we are living. In this context, a reading of the myths that have participated in the construction of Western systems of subjectivities—reading, interpretation, and representation—imposes itself anew, and there is hardly a myth more definitive of the ways we have come to understand subjectivities than the myth of Oedipus. It is also in this context that the reflection upon the mythical as commensurate with the political becomes imperative.
So, let's do what is rarely done: take a look at the myth in full. Oedipus, after leaving the Delphic oracle, killed a man at a crossroads. This is the crucial event of the myth. The myth tells us that Oedipus did not know who the man at the crossroads was. As a matter of fact, when he killed the man at the crossroads he knew as little about anything in his life or outside of it as could be possible. Before arriving at the oracle Oedipus knew that his father was Polybus and his mother was Merope, the royal couple of Corinth. But that (ephemeral) knowledge had been shaken when as a young man Oedipus was taunted by a drunkard, who told him that he was not his father's son. He asked his parents if that was true, and they, outraged, denied it. But Oedipus was not satisfied. So, without telling them anything, he set off for Delphi, to the oracle, to ask the god who, exactly, he was. Apollo sent him away, having said nothing about his lineage but having delivered the famous oracle: “You are fated to couple with your mother; you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see—you will kill your father, the one who gave you life.” From there he ran away—as far away as he could from Corinth. He wandered around until, on his way to Thebes, he came upon a crossroads, where in self-defense he killed a man in a carriage coming from the opposite direction. A little further on, he encountered the Sphinx.
In a different version, this segment has appeared in Panourgiá 2008a.
An engraving of a fisherman who has caught the head of Oedipus in his nets. Note the liberties taken in refashioning the myth. The engraver, A. Duvivier, is rendering a marble statue by Leon Eugène Longepied entitled “A Fisherman Catching the Head of Orpheus in His Nets,” presented at the Salon des Beaux Arts in 1882, and changing the name Orpheus to Oedipus. Longepied had produced another statue depicting the same fisherman having caught Ophelia in his nets. Collection of the author.
The Sphinx was a monster, known from Egyptian mythology, who had the body of a bull, the nails of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a woman. In Egypt, the Sphinx was male; in Thebes, female. In Greece, the Sphinx was herself the product of the unconventional and incestuous union of two natural elements who were, structurally, a mother and a son: Echidna, the chthonic worm or snake, and her son Orthus, the dog protecting the monstrous hunting hound Geryon. According to Hesiod she was the daughter of Chimaira and Orthus (Dawn). According to Apollodorus (as presented by Athanasiou 2008) the Sphinx was the daughter of Echidna and Typhon. In both accounts, she was the sister of the Nemean Lion, which was slain by Hercules. According to yet another version of the myth, the Sphinx is the illegitimate daughter of Laius, born before Oedipus. On the imagined meeting of mother and daughter, the Chimaira and the Sphinx, see Flaubert's The Temptation of Saint Anthony, where the two monsters attempt first to obliterate each other verbally and then to leave together, failing in both and parting ways at the end. For a reading of the Chimaira and the Sphinx as a means to rethink theory as it bears upon architectural practice, see Jarzombeck 1992. On the issue of female homosexuality as the danger posed by “Oedipus,” especially as it pertains to the problem of the Sphinx, see Athanasiou 2008.