Oedipus the riddle-breaker finds himself caught in a riddle; the coils of the enigma 'What am I?' tighten around him until he comes to the horrific knowledge that he is himself insoluble: husband of his mother, brother of his daughters. The question of his true identity is related to the Sphinx's original riddle - 'What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon and three feet in the evening?' - and it's odd that Oedipus' predecessors couldn't solve it, since it was an old chestnut. Perhaps the Sphinx ate her victims and strewed their bones about the Theban desert because their bafflement showed they hadn't been paying attention: if you can't answer such a simple question about being human, you haven't begun to reflect on your nature or your fellow creatures. Her poser is a bit lame; yet it goes deep. Freud brought with him from Vienna to London in the last years of his life his collection of figurines, vases and paintings showing Oedipus in deep conversation with the Sphinx, and kept them in his study close to his desk. The question touches the heart of things: at Delphi, seekers after knowledge were met by the oracle's command, 'Know yourself.' As Eleanor Cook points out in this original study, riddling illuminates the greatest mysteries through the smallest things. 'The world presents itself as a riddle,' she writes. '"Here is what I am like," it says to us. "What am I?" Willy nilly we choose an answer to this riddle . . . Good writers help.'
LRB 8 February 2007 | PDF Download