BMCR 2006.10.39

Il mito di Edipo: immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi

, , Il mito di Edipo : immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi. Saggi ; 862. Torino: G. Einaudi, 2004. xii, 249 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 22 cm.. ISBN 8806157264. €18.00 (pb).

This densely packed, handsomely written volume belongs to the series “Mythologica,” coordinated and co-authored by Maurizio Bettini. Promised studies of Antigone (with Eva Cantarella) and the Sirens (with Luigi Spina) will join volumes on Narcissus (with Ezio Pellizer), Helen (with Carlo Brillante), and the current Oedipus. Each publication bears the same subtitle and shares a similar format. In Mito di Edipo, Bettini’s short story recreating Sophokles’ play precedes Giulio Guidorizzi’s eight-chapter analysis and “letture” of extant Oedipus myths. In the final section, Stefano Chiodi and Claudio Franzoni introduce an illustrated iconography, 20 images of O. from Greek vases to Pasolini and Louise Bourgeois.

Edipo‘s jacket calls Bettini “essayist, novelist, professor of Classical philology” and a contributor to Rome’s daily La Repubblica. The expectation that B. might offer something other than dry and dusty scholarship is only encouraged by his prize-winning 1998 book Nascere. Storie di donne, donnole, madri ed eroi. “Donnola” means “weasel,” and a pert, snow white representative of that species graces B.’s cover. In Edipo‘s opening pages, B. imaginatively recreates how a modern Sophokles is inspired to write his Oedipus. Presumably because film is our closest analogue to ancient Greek drama, B.’s “Kles Sóphos” visits the film director Apollonius, the formidable blond Dr. Delf…, and outlines a plot for his new story, partly derived from a comic book. Baby Oedipus is seized by a slave and sold in Corinth; long afterwards, when he discovers the truth, he kills himself. In a dark and magical stage setting, Apollonius—with some help from K. S.—rewrites this script, building the basic story and also a drama as a prophet reveals the truth from the start. At the end, Apollonius proclaims Oedipus’s character full of hate, and not only at the fortune that crushed him. He kills without hesitation; he blinds himself to make others suffer; through hatred he means to kill his mother. As B.’s scenario recreates Sophokles’ ancient tale, hatred is B.’s dark vision of Oedipus’s emotional, passionate character for Sophokles.

It is right that Edipo begin with Sophokles’ play, as most people thus know Oedipus. Otherwise, literature only later becomes a focus for this study. Guidorizzi begins with a systematic, synthetic analysis of the elements of O.’s myths. As his prologue indicates, there is not one O. but “a forest of tales,” from the tribal O. of archaic myth down through the medieval Christian O., Nietzsche’s Dionysiac O., and Freud’s everyman O., for whom as for us “blame becomes necessity and Fate is transformed into the Subconscious” (34), in a struggle not against choice or destiny, but against a part of his psyche that he is ignorant of but irresistibly drawn to. Yet although many stories parallel the Greek myth of O., they are not Greek myths and perhaps not myths. Thus for example, “Greek myth tends not to illustrate the game of chance or the inscrutable work of Providence which casts a man into the abyss then to glorify him” (40). G.’s subject is O., and the main components of O.’s story.

I. “La carriera di Laio” begins with the striking resemblances and narrative parallels between O. and his father. Each knew exile as a boy, each tried to escape his destiny predicted by an oracle, each shed the blood of a relative, and each became king and slept with the same woman, siring offspring both cursed and destined for self destruction (43). But Laios is more purely dark than O. He raped his host Pelops’s son (he is reported to have invented male homosexuality: n. 12), thus violating aristocratic norms of initiation. Intoxicated, he defied the Delphic oracle by impregnating his wife, thus also endangering the community where he was king. Finally, he tried to kill his son. Seeking to prevent natural succession is a recognized psychological syndrome (the “Laios complex”: n. 31) which myth expresses as fate. Laios stands as the model of paternal violence. “Bad guest, bad initiator, bad husband, bad father” (55), he was unable to manage any social relations in a balanced way.

II. “La preistoria di Edipo” first critiques historical interpretations of the early O. myth, in particular Max Mueller’s O. as allegory of nature, Carl Robert’s O. as cult hero first at Eteonos (between Boeotia and Attica), and the ritual O. of James Frazer and Marie Delcourt, as youthful vigor challenges a declining old order, an interpretation useful also to Freud. G. summarizes as best we can the many fragmentary variants of O.’s story down through the fifth century, excluding Sophokles. For Sophokleans these make for fascinating reading: for example, that O. dueled with his father, that he cursed his own sons, and that Jocasta killed herself over the dead bodies of Eteokles and Polyneikes or else was killed by O. Compare also Pherekydes’ report, probably from the lost epic Oedipodeia, that O. married first his mother Jocasta (producing two sons Phrastor and Laonytos), then Eurigania (producing Eteokles, Polyneikes, Antigone, and Ismene), and finally the Theban Astimedusa. The chapter ends with what we can know of O. in Aeschylus and Euripides, both far from Sophokles’ “tormented solitary hero” (79). In Euripides’ Oedipus, O. is blinded by servants of Laios who still think him the son of Polybos, possibly in a conspiracy by Kreon to seize power. G. briefly situates Aeschylus’s and Euripides’ O.s within the thematic contexts of their extant plays.

III. “Il figlio del bosco e del monte” opens with O.’s exposure on Mt. Cithaeron, paralleled by Amphion, Zethos, Paris, and other heroes. Partly inspired by Charles Segal, G. offers structuralist analyses—nature/culture, death/rebirth—of these stories and of O.’s perpetually liminal state, ending as vagabond buried outside the city (Sophokles OC). G. circles back to themes of mountains, themselves now liminal, preserving O. and other heroes (Cyrus, Ion, Iamos) so that they might come of age, and of abandoned children—in O.’s case nameless and thus not yet fully human. In other myths O. is abandoned at sea, typical of chosen heroes (Perseus, Moses) and representing themes of ordeal or of death and rebirth. The chapter closes with reflections on O.’s vacillations between internal and external, and the initiatory rites de passage of a young man living in the mountains, then reentering the civilized world—although O.’s case was more complicated.

IV In “Il corpo dell’eroe,” O. is further enlightened by comparative themes. The chapter begins with an analysis of the blindness or leg injuries often afflicting Greek heroes (Lykourgos, Orion, Achilles, Philoktetes), sometimes for sexual offenses. O. suffered from both afflictions, Laios sticking pins in his ankles at birth, and O. sticking pins in his own eyes once he learns the truth. By his act of apotropaic magic Laios sought to avoid being haunted by O.; as on a slave’s body, that act of disfigurement also set O. apart from his aristocratic peers. However, comparative mythology indicates that such marks can also serve as symbolic compensation, as in the myth of Hephaistos, with many parallels to O. After comments on Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist interpretation of O.’s lameness (which Lévi-Strauss himself repudiated), G. turns to the parallels which Vernant drew between O. and Kypselos, tyrant of Corinth and whose mother was lame. Both O. and Kypselos became tyrants, and their families collapsed amid violence and the abuse of women. G. further suggests other possible qualities of the lame, including intuitive intelligence, heightened sexuality, and defective fertility. The lame and others marked by the foot (e.g., Jason) or leg (Odysseus) may also return to take revenge. Finally, G. turns to O.’s blinding, a form of surrogate suicide but a punishment which myth often associates with sexual offenses (cf. Orion and Euripides’ Phoenix); Georges Devereux interpreted blinding as a symbolic form of castration. Yet blindness is often linked with wisdom, most conspicuously with Teiresias; G. adduces other parallels also.

V. “Uccidere il padre” now focuses in on Sophokles’ tale, as, exchanging no words, Laios meets his son for only the second time and again tries to kill him: but the current of violent hatred is opposite to Freud’s complex. As Vernant observed, this father and son do not walk down the same road, but from opposite directions try to pass where there is space for only one. Laios, father and king, assaults O. with a club, again as if a slave. So far innocent, O. explodes in rage, striking back and killing his father as the family curse now turns back on him and on Thebes where he becomes tyrannos. The primitive, uncivilized killing instrument ( skeptron) is transformed into royal scepter and later becomes O.’s walking stick; O.’s violent, arrogant, suspicious persona is typically that of an Attic stage tyrant. Many succession myths parallel O.’s, some violent, some involuntary. O.’s act was definitive.

VI. Again focusing on Sophokles, “Il potere della parola: oracoli, enigmi, ambiguità” first discusses oracles, as Laios and O. uselessly try to flee the indecipherable destiny which the gods have in store for them and indicate through riddling language. Tragic irony offers Sophokles a second way to express words’ ambiguous traps and man’s inability to master himself and his destiny. Right at the start of the play, O. inadvertently curses himself by promising to drive out Laios’ killer; later mentions of crossroads and prophesies are also ironic. O.’s debate with Teiresias further reveals the limits of rationality and self-knowledge. Theirs is not a contest between faith and reason but between two types of thought, rational and oracular. As Hillman and Vernant have discussed, O. solved the Sphinx’s riddle on one level, but failed to grasp that it also designated him, “walking in foreign lands, tapping the earth with a stick” as Teiresias foresaw (line 456). Finally, dreams offer a third means of ambiguous communication, most famously in Jocasta’s statement of the frequency of incestuous dreams, rare today but commonly attested in antiquity, although their meaning was uncertain.

VII. “Le donne di Edipo” begins with the many powerful but failed women in O.’s life: the virgin prophetess Pythia, his infertile adopted mother Merope, his unmarried daughters, and the dangerous cannibal Sphinx, whose killing led to O.’s marriage with his mother. G. discusses incest and marriage practices from several social-anthropological perspectives, in particular the belief that incest was characteristic of gods and tyrants. As a result of the blood she shares with tyrant O., Sophokles’ Antigone overvalues her own philoi such as her brother and also her father, in her speech proclaiming that she would not have buried her husband or children (an interesting perspective on that notorious passage). G. offers detailed comparative discussions of the various myths of the Sphinx, who combined wisdom and cruelty and whose defeat marked the successful completion of O.’s initiatory adventure. Finally Jocasta, whose relationship with O. in Sophokles’ play is not sexual (as it was for Pasolini) but pertains to the transmission of power. O. was tragically ignorant of his involuntary marriage offense; his clan was no incubator of psychosexual traumas. Finally, G. circles back (as elsewhere) to the dysfunctional binary qualities of all O.’s family relationships, brother/father, husband/son, and so forth.

VIII. “Epilogo” ends, as we began, with Sophokles’ play, and the question whether Sophokles’ O. deserved his sudden transformation from king to outcast monster, in comparison with the alternative transformations of Kafka’s and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. O.’s destiny, from anagnorisis to peripeteia by hamartia, was central to Aristotle’s canonization of this play, and O. was guilty: but especially of not understanding himself. O. presses in pursuit of his own identity, a painful, even impossible search for the opposite, even antithetical qualities at every person’s center. “In Greek drama, the essence of the tragic is the impossibility of tracing a boundary between just and unjust, that coexist mixed in every being and every circumstance, and of therefore providing a plausible explanation of the apparently absurd occurrence of suffering and defeat” (188). Although in his many variant legends O. comes to different ends, for Sophokles O.’s story stops with his transformation. No longer protagonist, he now wanders at the margins as Laios had for him, and as Eteokles and Polyneikes continue the tragedy of his family.

G. follows his eight chapters with three “letture”: first, a superb ten-page survey “Edipo nel tempo” after the Greeks, including imperial Rome (scandals of incest), medieval times through 1900 (including a rich discussion of Corneille’s Oedipe : lots of new love interests and—under Louis XIV—King O. now celebrated for having royal blood!), to end with good detail on Hoffmansthal, Cocteau, Stravinsky (nicely spelled three ways), Gide, and Pasolini’s heavily autobiographical film. G.’s second “lettura” lists the testimonia for episodes in the myth. His third is the bibliography. Learned, lucid, and always courteous, G.’s systematic explication of the O. myth is informed by a broad understanding of mythology, Greek theater, and post-Classical intellectual history. Most chapters include a comparative element, the many stories that echo motifs in O.’s myth and which G. uses to illuminate O. Given these many parallel stories, was it mere chance that Sophokles’ Oedipus proved a brilliant literary success and hence focused us on O., and not for example on Telephos (see pp. 84-85)? G.’s writing is often moving. The reader senses that he feels personally the power and fascination of these stories that illuminate human dilemmas and tragedies. Although we are taught to read with knives at the ready, this book contains almost nothing where I could slip in my blade. G. does pay a price for dividing O.’s myth into its component parts, instead of treating each version as a single tale within its own historical and literary contexts (see in particular the remarkable version in Nikolaus of Damascus, pp. 138-39). Division into parts may nonetheless have been the best choice, as so many accounts of O. are fragmentary. In a publication intended for the educated public, G. rightly refrains from dramatic new hypotheses and lengthy bibliographical references. This book’s main contribution is its intelligent, well informed, and concise explication of the complex O. myth, illuminated by a broad humanist learning, and written in an elegant Italian. The book maintains a remarkably even tone and economy of expression. The absence of odium philologicum is exemplary.

Technically also, the text is nearly perfect, missing italics on p. 155, substituting in for il on p. 162, and duplicating di (110), che (157), and anche (178). The notes (not included in the index, cf. 196 n. 9 on Orestes) and bibliography are not quite so pure, especially for foreign words and titles (cf. 194 n. 9, 195 n. 16, 197 nn. 14, 17). They also have not always negotiated the complexities of English capitalization and its inconsistencies in rendering Greek words. These minor blemishes will not confuse.

Following Guidorizzi’s contribution, S. Chiodi and C. Franzoni briefly introduce a selection of images of O., which down to Francis Bacon focus heavily on the Sphinx.

Beyond the physical attractiveness of this volume one is struck by its price, not atypical for Italy. Apparently the “American model” has not yet destroyed a broadly educated Italian market for humanist studies, among which this collaborative volume will justly take its place.