Helen Stoller (American, b. 1915); Collage.
WCMA Blog

Where is Delphi?

The first time I looked at Katy Schimert’s Oedipal Blind Spot with Professors Gail Newman and Lara Hutson, and a friendly bunch of us, in order to find a point of entry and get my bearings, I followed the geographical landscape that this mural maps out.  Since that first viewing, I have remained fascinated by a particular feature of this Oedipal landscape:  Where is Delphi?

When Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex opens, the city of Thebes has been afflicted with a terrible plague.  To discover the plague’s cause, Oedipus, Thebes’ beloved ruler, has already sent his brother-in-law Creon to consult Apollo’s oracle at Delphi.  Creon now returns from Delphi to report that, according to the oracle, the killer or killers of the previous king, Laius, still live in Thebes and must be expelled for the plague to end.  Thereafter, Oedipus’ energetic search for Laius’ killer or killers becomes enmeshed in his search for the answer to another question that Oedipus pursues, “Who are my parents?”  As these two searches coalesce, the validity of Apollo’s oracle at Delphi becomes a crucial issue for the play’s characters and also for its audience, as the play examines difficult epistemological questions, for instance: how are we to interpret not just oracles but all kinds of signs, how are we to determine what counts as evidence, and how are we to coordinate the different pieces of evidence so they constitute a causal sequence — a narrative?  Just as Katy’s Oedipal Blind Spot invites its viewers to piece together a story, so Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex invites its audience to join the play’s characters in piecing together the following story, which begins some forty years before the time of the play. 

 

Once upon a time, in the city of Thebes, a baby boy was born of King Laius and Queen Jocasta.  Because of an oracle from Delphi saying that this boy will one day kill his father and have children by his mother, Laius and Jocasta arrange for the baby’s feet to be pinioned together and for the baby to be exposed to die on nearby Mt. Cithaeron.  The Theban shepherd charged with the second task instead gives the baby to a Corinthian shepherd whom he happens to meet on the mountain, and who then takes the baby to Corinth.  Corinth’s childless king and queen, Polybus and Merope, make the baby “their own,” naming him  “Oedipus” because of the physical condition of his feet: in Greek, the name “Oedipus” can mean “swollen foot.”

Oedipus grows up as the beloved son of Corinth’s king and queen.  But when Oedipus is a young man, a drunkard at a feast tells him that he is not in fact the son of Polybus and Merope.  Although assured by them that of course he is their child, Oedipus is still haunted by uncertainty about his parentage.  So, Oedipus — whose name suggests not only “swollen foot” but also the verb  “to know” (especially through seeing) — Oedipus goes to Delphi, the site of the oracle of Apollo, a god who also oversees young men’s final initiation into adulthood.  When Oedipus asks Apollo’s oracle the big question, “Who are my parents?” the oracle responds, “You will kill your father and marry your mother.”  Even though Oedipus has come to the oracle precisely because he isn’t at all sure who his parents are, he now leaves Delphi determined to avoid Corinth and the people who, inexplicably, he now seems to be confident are indeed his “parents.”  The Oedipal blind spot.           

Oedipus soon comes to a crossroads where he must choose between taking the road to Corinth or the road away from it, the road that leads to Thebes.  There, Oedipus kills a stranger who blocks his way in the road.  When he arrives in Thebes, Oedipus rescues the city from a plague by solving the riddle of the Sphinx — a riddle that famously involves a problem about feet and the human condition. As the heroic savior of Thebes, Oedipus soon marries the recently widowed queen Jocasta, and has four children by her, two sons and two daughters.

Now, the project of recovering and putting in order the numerous elements of this earlier narrative constitutes most of the action in Oedipus Rex.  Simultaneously, the play’s very action becomes in many ways a reenactment of that prior narrative.  In particular, the difficulty Oedipus has in recognizing the answer to the question he so ardently pursues in the play — “Who are my parents?” — recalls the blind spot he first exhibited at Delphi some twenty years earlier.  At last, however, even Oedipus cannot fail to recognize his relationships to the man he killed at the crossroads and the woman he then married, and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes.

As a blind and broken man at play’s end, Oedipus is just beginning to learn not to “fill in” his blind spots unthinkingly, and instead, how to correct for his blind spots:  by relying on others, including the god at Delphi and especially his daughters Antigone and Ismene, who bring him comfort. Many years later, Sophocles’ last play, Oedipus at Colonus, will explore more fully our need to rely on one another, to love and to nurture one another, as our best hope of compensating for our blind spots, and as its own reward.  After years of painful exile and wandering, Oedipus arrives in the Athenian deme of Colonus.  There he disowns his two sons and Thebes itself for having failed to provide him the trophe, the loving tendance, that Oedipus now claims gives meaning to the terms father, son, and fellow citizen.  By contrast, since Antigone and Ismene have shared with him the travails of his blind and aged exile, they are his daughters, as he is their father because he lovingly raised them.  Since Athens’ king Theseus and the demesmen of Colonus now welcome Oedipus to make his final home among them, Athens, not Thebes or Corinth, is Oedipus’ city.  Oedipus now mysteriously disappears into the Furies’ sacred grove — the very place, according to Oedipus, that Apollo’s Delphic oracle spoke of long ago as his final resting place.         

Perhaps now you can appreciate my response to the map on this wall:  where is Delphi?   It’s not there!  But look: the blind prophet Tiresias is here on the wall, and in the Oedipus Rex Tiresias indeed reenacts the role played years earlier by the oracle at Delphi.  Tiresias identifies Oedipus as Laius’ killer and as the child of Laius and Jocasta, but Oedipus stubbornly resists solving Tiresias’ easy riddles, and the truth remains in his blind spot.  Does Tiresias “stand in” for Delphi here?  Perhaps.   Though I prefer to think that Delphi is “present” here in its absence, that Delphi is the blind spot of this entire piece.  Or that Delphi is here, where the optical nerve creates a “blind spot.”

Permit me now to toss out some ideas about how Oedipal Blind Spot might engage in dialogue, via Sophocles, with the other art in this exhibit, and some ways it might continue the dialogue we’ve been having with one another about all these works.

Now, any Delphic utterance is Apollo’s response to a question.  And yet, no less than the Sphinx’s mode of utterance, a Delphic “response” is really a riddle.  And what is a riddle other than an answer in search of the right question?  What is the question to which, say, the depictions of MRI’s on this wall, or Katy’s A Woman’s Brain, might be an answer?  In previous weeks, no doubt inspired in part by the title of this exhibit, several people have suggested that these depictions of the brain, in its materiality and its processes, might be answering the question, “What is the mind?”  Yet, such a simple equation of brain with mind cannot be right, not least because the brain engages in many activities that we would not recognize as activities of the mind.

But, perhaps to speak of the mind as the same as the brain would make sense if that’s just shorthand for “mind” as an effect of the brain, much as, for instance, the activity of breathing would be another effect of the brain.  But if mind is an effect of the brain, that does not make it the same as the brain, any more than breathing is.  Moreover, if mind is an effect of the brain, then it is an effect that the brain registers in the form of a further effect, when, to provide obvious examples, I think about thinking, or I remember something.  All this takes us into a hall of mirrors, or a system caught in a loop — the dreaded balloon on our computer screens.  So, even if this model of mind-as-effect-of-brain were tenable, its solipsistic (I am tempted to say, incestuous) mind still cannot know itself directly, however much it may try.  At this point I’m put in mind of a saying already traditional when Telemachus utters it in the first book of the Odyssey, that a person cannot know, for himself, his own engendering.  Our own engendering:  that is each person’s ultimate blind spot.  Each of us “fills in” that blind spot in numerous ways but can never know its contents directly. 

If the “brain-mind” or  “mind-in-itself” is today’s version of “our own engendering” that we cannot know directly, perhaps, then, we can best “see” the mind simply in actions, in behavior. Consider the robot programmed to negotiate a maze, whose “mind” some believe is evidenced by the robot’s visible activity.  Well then, perhaps the oracle’s response to Oedipus’ question “Who are my parents?” was simply the god’s way of saying, “You will know your father when you kill him, your mother when you sleep with her.” But this behaviorist explanation would deny significance to Oedipus’ experience, that killing a threatening stranger who obstructs his way or sleeping with his wife are very different from killing his father or sleeping with his mother.          

Katy’s mural, for me, has something very important to say about all these issues.  For instance, the multi-perspectival dynamics of Katy’s piece, and above all its evocation of Oedipus’ pain, seem to me to speak to the inadequacies of a behaviorist notion of mind and human meaning.  This mural also challenges simple equations of brain and mind, and even subtler schemes of mind-as-effect-of-the-brain, by having this mind include what it sees but by still according to the things and people seen their own, independent existence, and by linking in complex networks the exterior and interior — in fact, linking them such that the terms exterior and interior no longer seem adequate.  Most of all, her mural reminds us that a map of a landscape is not the same as that landscape.          

Let’s think a little more about Apollo’s oracle and about the right question to which it might be an answer.  When Oedipus learns that Polybus of Corinth, whom he is assuming to be his biological father, has died, he reflects that he might indeed be said to have killed his father, since Polybus died of longing for him.  Soon thereafter Jocasta observes that all men dream about sleeping with their mothers.  These would have been perfectly legitimate “fulfillments” of Apollo’s oracle, by Greek standards.

Keeping in mind these and any other riddling possibilities of Apollo’s oracle we might imagine, I’ll conclude by suggesting another approach to discovering the right question for which Apollo’s oracle might be the answer, an approach that Oedipal Blind Spot has inspired me to imagine.  Why do we take for granted, “fill in” the notion, that Oedipus has necessarily fulfilled Apollo’s oracle in the acts of  killing Laius and marrying Jocasta?  Who are Oedipus’ parents, after all?  The man and woman whose bodies produced him, or the man and woman who lovingly raised him?  Aren’t both sets of people his parents?  The name Oedipus, “swollen foot,” registers and even insists on the essential role of specific bodies, those of Laius and Jocasta, in creating this child, on Oedipus’s corporeal reality and his origins in biological matter and processes — origins which even his Corinthian parents acknowledge in the name they give him.  At the same time, however, in the very act of naming Oedipus, whose name also suggests “to know,” these parents place Oedipus in a social network, the world of language and society and of culture — culture that, like the brain itself, compels each of us towards knowing things outside of ourselves, knowing others and knowing ourselves in relation to others, as beings constituted by interactions with others and yet also somehow distinct from them.  As beings who desire and are desired, who need and are needed. 

If Katy’s Oedipal Blind Spot has, as its own blind spot, Delphi, it more than compensates by including, in addition to Mt. Cithaeron, Thebes and Corinth, Oedipus’ mysterious final resting place at Colonus, as promised him by the oracle from the god at Delphi.  

- Meredith Hoppin, Frank M. Gagliardi Professor of Classical Languages

Above images: Katy Schimert’s Oedipal Blind Spot, 1997 (2010); aluminum tape, conte crayon, pastel, graphite, thread, pins. Exhibition copy from the Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland; Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

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