(Left) Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
(Right) Oedipus and interlocutor as envisioned on a 5th century BC Attic plate
The brilliantly moving and efficient organizing conceit of Danny Boyle’s Academy-Award-winning hit film from last year, Slumdog Millionaire − the fact that every single question asked of the unlikely young television contestant on this Bombay version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? turns out to be as-if precision engineered specifically for him (and that together, one after the next, these questions can almost be seen to limn his entire biography) − is a conceit with a history, one that goes all the way back.
For in fact it is the conceit at the very heart of the Oedipus legend. Oedipus, it will be recalled, was the infant son of Laius, king of Thebes, and his queen, Jocasta, who, in turn, upon being told early on that said child would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother, decide it the better part of valor to kill off the sorry wretch, doing so in the prescribed manner of the time, by hammering spikes into the ball joints of the infant’s ankles and abandoning it to the elements. Little do they know that the baby will be rescued by a pair of peasants who, removing the spikes, will go on to raise him as their very own, under the name Oedipus (which is to say, Swollen Foot − oedi as in edima; pus as in pod, podiatry etc.).
Years later, after our hero has grown into young manhood, he will set off into the world, presently encountering an advancing royal retinue at a portentously Y-shaped crossroads (that shape, of course, evoking…well, you get the idea − see my response to Mr. Clem’s contest submission #5). Rude jostling over right of way will debouche into a sword brawl, leaving Laius, the king of Thebes, dead by the side of the road, a spike driven into his heart. Whereupon our hero will resumes his wanderquest, presently coming to the outskirts of starving Thebes, laid siege by a gruesome sphinx, the game show host to end (or, maybe, rather, to launch) all game show hosts, who refuses to lift her curse upon the city until some hero can come along and answer her riddle (wrong guesses resulting in immediate death to all would-be contestants). Talk about Reality programming!
So along comes our proud young hero, convinced that he can rise to the challenge, and what riddle does he have the uncanny seemingly good fortune to get asked? What creature, asks the sphinx, walks on four legs (pus-es) in the morning, two puses at noon and three puses in the evening?
Why, replies Oedi-pus, Man, of course! Whereupon, with game show-host Sphinx completely routed, the siege of Thebes gets lifted, and hero Oedipus enters the town in triumph and presently gets awarded the recently widowed queen’s hand in marriage. And so forth. Aye.
It will be noted, in this context, how, as in Slumdog Millionaire, the particular specificities of the hero’s life are given to stand in for something much larger: after all, Oedi-pus doesn’t answer “Me!” but rather, generalizing out from his own experience, “Man” (this in turn will be the launching off point for Freud’s yet wider meditation); similarly, contestant Jamal Malik’s story is clearly meant to be read as a microcosm for something much larger than itself. Indeed, Jamal seems to stand in for all of India: at any rate, all of India seems to be identifying with him as the televised contest reaches its climax. Granted, of course, one hopes, with better longterm prospects than those afforded his Theban predecessor.
My own favorite translation of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex is that of Thomas Gould in the old Prentice Hall Greek drama series (1970), Mr. Gould being a rampant footnoter after my own heart (foot-notes, of course, bearing more than their usual Freudian weight, in this context). It turns out that Sophocles’s version of the tale is veritably larded with ironic wordplay, as in, for example, the use of the term “ball joint,” as Mr. Gould translates the Greek word artha (at lines 712, 1032, and 1270). For here we have a tale of an infant who has spikes driven through the ball joints of his ever-after swollen ankles, who upon growing older will drive a spike through the heart of his (as yet unrecognized) father, and upon answering the sphinx’s swollen-footed riddle, will go on effectively to drive a spike through the womb of his (unrecognized) mother (his own testicular ball joints witnessing the violation: as in, testicles, which is to say, “little testifyers” or “little witnesses”), and then later on, once he himself at gruelingly-slow long last uncovers the whole sordid tale, will go on to drive his mother/wife’s broche-spikes through the ball joints of his own eyes in the cathartic purging to end (launch) all subsequent cathartic purgings.
When it comes to irony, at any rate, the legendary Socrates had nothing on his contemporary Sophocles.
If you think that last a bit far fetched, or at any rate far-stretched, take a look at Dr. Charles Rado’s interpretation of the sphinx’s riddle in his article, “‘Oedipus the King’: An Interpretation” in The Psychoanalytic Review of 1956 (available here).
Dr. Rado begins by taking exception to an earlier analyst’s interpretation:
In his book, The Riddle of the Sphinx, Geza Roheim comments: “The observer first sees four legs (i.e., the father on all fours); then the outstretched legs of the mother and finally one leg which mysteriously disappears…We may suspect that the Riddle of the Sphinx is concerned with the primal scene.”
Rado attempts to clarify Roheim’s conception (“One is tempted to conclude that the Riddle refers to the sexual act as observed by the child: the numbers would then indicate how many legs become visible in the successive positions.”) However, Rado demurs from Roheim’s conceit, noting how:
“A brief reflection shows that such an interpretation would be wrong. The high reward given to Oedipus is a sure indication that his answer was considered an exceptional achievement, but there is nothing exceptional about a child’s observing his parents during the sexual act; many children have had such an experience. The passing of time − morning, midday, evening − must have a meaning. And there must be a convincing reason why the numbers 4, 2 and 3 follow each other in this particular sequence.”
While noting that “Psychoanalytic authors agree that the encounter with the Sphinx must have a great significance,” Rado (in full-father-slaying mode, it should be noted) observes that none of his predecessors “have analyzed it in detail, nor have they explained the meaning of the Riddle.” No, he concludes:
“Our own interpretation is this: In the beginning there is the sexual act of the parents (4 legs); from the embrace of the parents is born the child (2 legs); grown to maturity, the boy develops a third (sexual) member (3 legs).”