Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.39

Almut-Barbara Renger, Oedipus and the Sphinx: The Threshold Myth from Sophocles through Freud to Cocteau.   Chicago; London:  University of Chicago Press, 2013.  Pp. vi, 126.  ISBN 9780226048086.  $25.00.  

Reviewed by Adam Lecznar, University of Bristol (


Classical reception has rarely been so succinctly taxonomised as by Simon Goldhill, when he set out what he saw as its three main forms in another review in BMCR (2009.09.58). The first involves a concern with the movements of an ancient text or myth through history from one author to the next (e.g. Soyinka reading Nietzsche reading Euripides), the second focuses on postclassical authors and their engagements with antiquity (e.g. Hegel’s Greeks), while the third pays attention to the cultural discourses that inform the possibility of classical reception for any given historical period or artistic movement (e.g. the Victorian appropriation of Greece and Rome). The work of the French playwright, novelist, poet, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) seems suitable for all three methodologies. Cocteau’s investment in a variety of ancient mythical figures (Antigone, Orpheus, Oedipus) could profitably be construed as part of the long reception histories that different postclassical authors have built up around them; at the same time, a comparative approach to these figures could explore the specific investments Cocteau held in these different myths as part of his broader attitude towards ancient Greece and Rome. Finally, Cocteau’s particular historicity begs to be viewed against contexts such as his relationship with contemporary artistic movements, including Dada and Surrealism, and the critical junctures of modern history that he lived through, such as the two World Wars and the dissolution of the French empire.

The first thing to note about Almut-Barbara Renger’s Oedipus and the Sphinx: the Threshold Myth from Sophocles through Freud to Cocteau, a translated version of the author’s 2009 Habilitation thesis, is the slippage between the sort of reception promised by the book’s title and structure, and the sort advertised in its introduction. The title suggests that the reader will encounter an exercise in Goldhill’s first form of reception, and that the book will trace the development of representations of the encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx from antiquity into modernity. This expectation is corroborated by the book’s structure, which Renger divides into ancient and modern halves. The first of the four chapters discusses Sophocles’ representation of the episode, while the second makes a case for the importance of the anthropological concept of the threshold to the ancient Greek tragedy. The third chapter proceeds to examine Sigmund Freud’s attitude towards the Sphinx as part of his broader self-identification with Oedipus, while the concluding chapter explores Cocteau’s dramatization of their mythical encounter in the second act of his 1934 play La machine infernale.

But rather than starting with the ancient material, Renger makes Cocteau the main focus of her six-page introduction. For Renger, Cocteau is a mythographe déconstructeur who ‘culled and used particular elements from antiquity’s mythological storehouse […] through the recombination and blending together of biblical as well as French and German figures, incorporating traditional, national material as well as elements of the modern techno-industrial world’ (1). Furthermore, he is, for Renger, ‘someone who blurred boundaries and crossed borders, someone who in his life and work produced liminality — zones, thresholds, transitions’ (5). Renger thus creates the expectation that the study will dwell on Cocteau’s reception on its own terms and not as part of a transhistorical and teleological analysis of Oedipus and the Sphinx.

Chapter One opens by exploring Sophocles’ allusive treatment of the Sphinx episode in Oedipus Tyrannus. Renger reads Sophocles’ play in its original performative context, where, she argues, the Athenian audience would have viewed Oedipus’ hubristic invocation of his victory over the Sphinx during his argument with Tiresias as an interrogation of the dark side of Athenian enlightenment in the 5th century: the king’s unwillingness to take heed of Tiresias’s warnings is motivated precisely by his memory of overcoming the Sphinx. Renger then makes the first appeal to the visual paradigm that proceeds to guide the analysis: she draws attention to the fact that the absence of an explicit representation of this scene in Sophocles’ play comes against the backdrop of an obsession with the scene on contemporary vase painting. As we will see, the invisibility of the Sphinx in the Sophoclean and Freudian retellings of the Oedipus myth invites the question of just what it is that audiences are not seeing and why it is that they are not seeing it; Cocteau’s vivid attempt to dramatise an answer to this question is central to his innovation.

A two-page discussion of the receptions by Seneca, Corneille and Voltaire that intervened between Sophocles and the nineteenth century follows before Renger launches into a theoretical second chapter discussing the anthropological framework of liminality that structures her ideas about Oedipus and the Sphinx. Renger initially draws on Walter Benjamin to play on the relationship between the German word for threshold, ‘Schwelle’ and the etymological root of Oedipus as the ‘swollen-foot’, or ‘Schwellenfuß’; Oedipus’ story becomes one of thresholds, which Renger defines as ‘a zone of equivocity and ambiguity, a place where boundaries are dissolved, where one side passes into the other’ (27). She revisits the writings of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner on rites and states of liminality to explain how the Sphinx represented to the Greeks the potential dangers of the threshold, rather than its guardian as in Egyptian and Assyro-Babylonian mythology. The discussion of Sophocles’ Oedipus concludes with the argument that the king’s prior encounter with the Sphinx ‘initiates [him], in a sense, into his own inherently hybridized double nature’ (40): that is, his self-aware ability to solve a riddle to which the answer is ‘man’ does not help him to understand his own identity. This fosters his dual status as Self and Other, Man and Monster, which will manifest itself most concretely in his incestuous relations with Jocasta. The memory of this previous act of gazing at the Sphinx comes to haunt the drama’s dénouement, where Oedipus ‘deprives himself of the eyes with which he first came into a transitional relationship with the enigmatic and the monstrous, recognizing it as his double’ (41).

The third chapter takes the reader through Sigmund Freud’s identification with Oedipus and the myth’s centrality to early psychoanalysis. Renger begins with two instances of the Sphinx illuminating a visual dimension of Freud’s renowned reception of the myth. The first is the reproduction of Ingres’ Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808) that hung by the foot of his famous couch in Vienna (and which now hangs facing the tourists at the Freud Museum in London); the second is the commemorative medallion that Freud received for his fiftieth birthday in 1906, inscribed with an image of the key episode and with the chorus’ final description of Oedipus as ‘he who solved the famous riddle and was a most powerful man’. In both cases, Renger argues that the image of Oedipus encountering the Sphinx reminds the viewer (whether the regular analysand or Freud himself) of the fundamental structure of psychoanalysis as riddle and solution; furthermore, Renger takes the association between the idea of a riddle and the female Sphinx to expose the gendered hierarchies of the Freudian project, where woman is always figured as inscrutable. In her discussion of the second image Renger invokes anecdotal evidence that Freud turned pale on receiving the medallion since he claimed that as a young student he had dreamed of one day being honoured with a bust that bore the exact same quotation. This scene becomes the basis of a speculative, but imaginative reading which suggests that, at the moment when the Sphinx was brought to Freud’s attention visibly rather than theoretically in conjunction with this resonant quotation, his identification with Oedipus was destabilised since he was reminded of Oedipus’ blindnesses after solving his famous riddle. This led fleetingly to the messy consequences of Oedipus’ hubris flashing before Freud’s eyes as a model for his own fears in his role as the archetypal riddle-solver of psychoanalysis and its possible outcomes.

We now turn to Cocteau. The fourth chapter begins with an account of Cocteau’s vehement opposition to Freud and their differing approaches to the subconscious. Cocteau objected to Freud’s hermeneutic imperative to solve the riddles included in dreams, which he saw as antithetical to his own desire to use art to reproduce those sames riddles. This is the strongest part of the book and the argumentation becomes more assertive as Renger deftly discusses the relevance of Cocteau’s cultural interests to his portrayal of the Sphinx. For example, her central discussion of La machine infernale is set up with a sketch of the ubiquitous presence of liminal, hybrid features in Cocteau’s artworks, including his Orpheus trilogy, and in his comments on contemporary society. A particularly memorable instance of this is his description of the German film star Marlene Dietrich that makes her a modern analogue of the Sphinx. Renger describes Cocteau’s treatment of the encounter between Oedipus and Sphinx in La machine infernale in great detail (pp. 75–89); her account makes a convincing case for Cocteau’s Oedipus, and his Sphinx, to be regularly read alongside their more famous cousins.

This slim book offers a novel and creative approach to the extensive amount of material it marshals, particularly in its focus on the visual dimension of the scene’s representation and reception; it is also exceptionally well-produced, and includes thorough endnotes and bibliography that will provide researchers at all levels with an extremely useful and accessible introduction to the different topics up for discussion (though it passes over Lowell Edmunds’ helpful discussion in his 2006 handbook to the Oedipus myth and Fiona Macintosh’s work on the performances of Cocteau’s adaptations).1 Nevertheless, it remains torn between a concern with Oedipus and the Sphinx as transhistorical mythical category on the one hand, and as specifically and historically bound in Cocteau’s particular imagination on the other. In conjunction with the book’s brevity, this leads to some notable blind spots. For example, compared to Renger’s insightful and in-depth discussions of Cocteau’s cultural interests and of Athenian intellectual culture, the book’s allusions to the political framework of Cocteau’s rendition are frustratingly bloodless. Colonialism is dealt with briefly when Renger states that ‘Œdipe is for all the world like a colonial hunter who has defeated the Beast and enslaved the Other’ (84), while the context of the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War is dealt with through the elliptical comment that Cocteau’s ‘audience is urged to examine collective myths and “hypnoses” with a critical mind’ (87).

A more expansive concern with Cocteau’s life and work would also have provided scope for discussing another of Cocteau’s uses of the mythological pairing in Testament of Orpheus (1960), his valedictory film from three years before his death. It included many allusions to his earlier films, including his 1950 Orpheus which had featured in the lead role Jean Marais, Cocteau’s long-term collaborator and one-time partner. But though Marais appeared in this film he did so not to invoke Orpheus, but Oedipus. The film’s final scene depicts Cocteau with his eyes shut groping his way through a rocky landscape. He first passes a bright white Sphinx that gently flaps her wings and follows him, before he stumbles towards the blinded Oedipus, who is being led towards him by a young girl, presumably Antigone. Cocteau’s voice intones over the images: ‘The Sphinx, Oedipus, what we wanted to know . . . It is possible to meet it one day without seeing it.’ That Cocteau should want to close his artistic oeuvre with this explicit reference to Oedipus and the Sphinx suggests that Renger’s analysis is only the first step towards appreciating his inventive engagement with the mythical pairing, and with antiquity more generally. The different approaches hinted at in this book bring to light the many paths that such a journey could take.


1.   See Edmunds, Oedipus (London and New York, 2006), esp. 116–20, and Macintosh, ‘The French Oedipus of the inter-war period’ in S. Goldhill and E. Hall (eds.), Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition (Cambridge, 2009), 158–78.

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