Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"The Riddles of the Sphinx" by Emma Biggins

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Gustave Moreau

The Sphinx is drowsy,
Her wings are furled:
Her ear is heavy,
She broods on the world.
"Who'll tell me my secret,
the ages have kept?"

The Sphinx, R. W. Emerson

Despite having several varieties of appearance, the Sphinx as a mythological creature is most clearly identified as a being that has animal features making up the body, usually with the majority of the body consisting of a lion’s form with the incongruous addition of a human face. Across the worlds of Ancient Egypt and Greece and down through the ages, this strange combination of the human and the animal has stood as a powerful representation of ambiguity.

The Sphinx at Giza

The Sphinx in Egypt and Greece
Perhaps the most imposing example of the image of the Sphinx is that of the Egyptian Great Sphinx, which is simply the largest example of a long-standing tradition of using these creatures in Egyptian iconography. In actual fact, we know very little about the Sphinx of Giza, including the exact date of its construction, its precise purpose, or even what those who built the structure would have called their stone sphinx. We do know, however that in Egyptian culture this mixture of the human and the animal appears to have become associated with ideas of royalty and power.

These positive associations with the sphinx-form are perhaps unsurprising, given the predilection of Ancient Egyptian culture for combining the human with the animal in their depictions of gods, but for the Ancient Greeks, this was not necessarily the case. Although there are examples of Egyptian-style decorative sphinxes in Greece’s past, by the time of Sophocles the dramatist and his play, the Oedipus Tyrannos, the sphinx had taken on a very different significance. In the Greek world, the Sphinx is not so much a monumental symbol as a mythological terror. Likewise, the Ancient Greek Sphinx is a singular creature, a unique oddity mixing a human face with lion body, and usually also sporting eagle wings (with the occasional snake tail) in the monstrous mix. It is also worth noting that the Greek Sphinx is always female, and possesses the face of a woman, whereas Egyptian versions tend to have the faces of males.

The Sphinx in Greece was a mysterious beast to be feared – a creature who killed all those who could not answer her riddle. In fact, one derivation of the word ‘sphinx’ comes from the word for ‘strangling’, which in some traditions is one of the creature’s favoured methods of destroying human beings.

Chios Coin
Oedipus against the Sphinx
The most famous mythological episode for the Greeks concerning the Sphinx is the victory of Oedipus in Thebes. Now, when we think of Oedipus, we often think of Freud and Oedipus’ downfall and unknowing marriage to his own mother, but this mythological figure had to rise before he could fall. The defeat of the Sphinx was precisely what gave Oedipus his heroic reputation and enabled him to become ruler of Thebes. Interestingly, unlike the physical achievements of other Greek heroes like Herakles and Achilles, Oedipus’ success comes from a game of wits. Oedipus cannot defeat such a powerful amalgam as the Sphinx with physical strength alone – he must win by mental strength, in a sense conquering the very idea of the animal and the monstrous (and perhaps even the female, given the patriarchal world of the age) with human intelligence.

Understanding Riddles
When Oedipus confronts the Sphinx, she asks him ‘What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?’ (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library, 3.5.8, trans. Frazer). The answer, of course, is ‘man’ - who starts life as a baby crawling on all fours, progresses to two legs for adulthood and relies on a stick as a third leg in more elderly years.

The famous riddle asked by this Sphinx clearly ties into the idea of demarcating humanity from everything that is confused, different and Other. In many ways, the riddle seems to imply a creature as strange as the Sphinx itself – a being that combines varying numbers of feet in a fashion as illogical as a gigantic lioness with the devouring face of a woman. The difference, of course, is that the Sphinx is a jarring mish-mash of disparate elements that do not appear to change, whereas humanity achieves different forms as a natural result of the progression of time. In solving the riddle, Oedipus is not only displaying the power of human cleverness, but shows that he recognises what it is to live and change as a human being.

Defeated by the abilities of humanity, the Sphinx destroys herself in a fit of rage, an indication perhaps of the Ancient Greeks’ view of Oedipus’ victory as a step on the road from the wildness and chaos of nature to human civilisation and rationality. The great irony, of course, is that despite Oedipus’ much-lauded insight and understanding of what it means to be human, he does not know himself at all and becomes something quite as grotesque as the Sphinx herself, by blurring the accepted limits of human relationships. Perhaps the lesson here is that while we may seek to defeat that which is disrupted and chaotic, we can only do so by being aware of when humanity itself blurs into the monstrous. 

About the author: 

Emma Biggins is now a freelance writer, but before she decided to take her first steps into the precarious world of penning articles for a living she worked in the financial sector advising people on what not to do with their money. Now she's raising her own family, working from home and finding out exactly where the dollars don't go....

Monday, April 21, 2014

Between the Interstice: On Lovecraft and Weird Fiction

Mike Robinson
 "Back then, with the visions, most of the time I was convinced I'd lost it. There were other times, though, where I thought I was mainlining the secret truth to the universe."
                                                                                    ------------ Rust Cohle, True Detective

          Behind the wide facade of Speculative Fiction twist the hedge-mazes of fantasy, brood the catacombs of horror and gaze the far-seeing floors of science fiction. Among them, between them, are the closets and crawlspaces of the niche, one of which -- a relatively bigger one -- is the place of Weird Fiction, a dark storage of many souvenirs from fantasy, horror and science fiction, though dusted with its own special charms. 
        The former subtitle for my new book, Too Much Dark Matter, Too Little Gray: A Collection of Weird Fiction was actually, A Collection of Speculative Fiction. As one prone to appreciate sprawling ambiguity, to resist specific categorization, it’s a little ironic that I wanted to specify further. But there was a reason for that, besides the stodginess of “speculative”, which has none of the zany, fluid charisma of “weird”. 

           While using “weird” may sound like a proud judgment, a literary outcast chest-thumping his identity as such, it’s more a direct homage to the tradition of Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers, H.P. Lovecraft and many others. Going further, it’s an accurate classification given my vision of Weird Fiction, a subgenre that, perhaps more consciously than other fields of speculative fiction, stirs together elements of the metaphysical, cosmological and horrific to grimly honor the Big Questions, remind us of our insurmountable ignorance, to pin down our squirming selves into our rightful position in the child’s seat, to whisper, maybe in some alien, mud-packed voice, that, hey, the world slippery and you won’t ever, ever catch it. The world, in short, is weird.

            And past all the horror, the strangeness, that to me is a nourishing thought. Let me explain.

            The moment I cemented my decision to not pursue an M.F.A (or any academic training) in writing is vivid. While enrolled at Otis College of Art & Design, I found in my mailbox a little perfect-bound literary booklet featuring work by the graduate students in fiction. I flipped it open to a random story. After wading cautiously into the second paragraph of a painful scrutiny of eyebrow-plucking, I was done. Other entries weren’t much better. Too many of them seemed concerned with stereotypical, high-literary minutia, unfortunately the focus and baffling preference of innumerable professors, awards, journals, and workshops (cough-Iowa-cough).

My first sale, the story The Hand of Spudd in 'Storyteller' Magazine

      Personally, I have little interest in quaint journalistic accounts of Malaysian transvestite violinists at the turn of the century (yes, I made that up), or the endless slew of aptly-termed “McFiction” featuring some cocky narrator coming of age amongst his or her overfed, dysfunctional family. No, I prefer going head-on at the Big Questions, going at them, as George Carlin might say, with no less than a sledgehammer. Give me ballsy confrontations with Life, Death, the Cosmos, with Existence, with God. 

            In their noble attempts at social redemption and inclusion, many contemporary teachers of literature treat writings in the framework of their political significance. To me, though, such attempts seem nothing more than new forms of division. It is looking at the grains and forgetting the shore. Does the world really need a Marxist reading of Huckleberry Finn, complete with ten-dollar jargon? Academics are on the lookout for the “next best thing”, the new trend in analysis, the new prism through which to see literary works of yesterday and today. I say: what about our shared heritage? Our shared -- and uncertain -- future? Not as any one ethnicity, gender, party, or faction, but as an entire civilization. A species. A collective piece of this vast Universe. 

            Of course, much of this material is studied, and much of it is exhaustively considered and written about. Enter Weird Fiction!

            As any fellow devotee will know, H.P. Lovecraft -- arguably the most esteemed and influential practitioner of the genre -- cleaned out the catacombs with his pen, defying tropes of ghosts and vampires and expanding imaginations with interconnected tales of ancient civilizations antedating our own, of towering alien-gods, of unseen dimensions and humanity’s sanity-shattering smallness in an inexplicable cosmos. All this made more impressive by the fact that he wrote in the 1920s, when so much of that stuff was barely on anyone’s speculative radar, including scientists’. His unknowns are truly Unknown, and will forever elude explanation. 

            Certainly Lovecraft’s work has failings, failings probably more surface-level than those of other lauded authors. He was well aware of his own wooden dialogue (hence, quotation marks are scarce in his pages) and his prose sometimes gushes into the purple. Nevertheless, his voice, with its richly archaic, darkly celebratory cadence, stands alone, and will survive as long as we’re unsure what lurks “out there”. 


Me suited up, scoping “out there”
         Sadly, Lovecraft, and especially his “Cthulu” mythos, have become somewhat franchised, relegated to corners of the market generally aimed at Dungeons and Dragons fans, horror enthusiasts, and nihilistic young adults sporting black fingernails and lipstick. It is a wide “cult following”, but nonetheless a cult following. Although some scholars have acknowledged his importance, many see him as a troublesome bridge from Poe to Stephen King. It is this identity that has, I’m sure, dissuaded many from giving him a serious go. “Lovecraft? Oh, no, I don’t like that horror stuff.” 

            But back up. Here we come back to the question of Weird Fiction itself, because I don’t necessarily consider the canon, or Lovecraft’s work, “horror”. Certainly there are horrific elements in his work, and his career does include several standard supernatural yarns. But in his treatment of cosmic mysteries, and the shadowed realms of prehistory, his is more a prying curious eye, forcing us to consider those Big Questions, to ponder notions of, and issues with, the likes of religion, biology, cosmology, archaeology, and psychology. He sets you on the outside looking in, a contrast to being in and looking further in to the point of navel-gazing. This exercise of outside-looking-in, one I believe most writers of fiction should undertake, helps in a kind of rounding out of thought. 

            No matter the genre in which one writes, I believe the best, most poignant stories have at least an undercurrent of  this “larger awareness”, a perception conveying authority and wisdom. So many stories feel constricted by their own world, characters or concerns. Yet to read Lovecraft is to confront directly that raw Unknown that surrounds us, that is us. To get a healthy dose of perspective: a shambling, roaring, behemoth upswell of perspective. 

            I mentioned earlier that I think such a perspective can be ultimately nourishing. In an era of economic, cultural and political tumult, when millions of Davids the world over shout in fiery voice against the few far-reaching, corrupt Goliaths, there is morbid comfort in knowing that, despite whatever the megalomaniacal egos of sadistic leaders, immoral bankers, or bribe-pocketing politicians might make of themselves, there are impenetrable forces beyond all of them that will cast mocking eyes towards their suited-up, gold-rimmed delusions, if they even care to acknowledge them. Lovecraft, and the general tradition of Weird Fiction, reminds us just how little power the powerful actually wield. After all, Goliath was, what, ten feet tall? When the mountain-sized Cthulu rises once more, those people will be nothing but scrambling ants -- along with the rest of us.