Italo Calvino wrote, in his “The Literature Machine”, that all works are intertwined, and the reading of a book is not just the reading of one book, but of many books. Classics “bring … in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through … If I read the Odyssey I read Homer’s text, but I cannot forget all that the adventures of Ulysses have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering if these meanings were implicit in the text, or whether they are incrustations or distortions or expansions.”
Apart from how fantastically happy it makes me that he’s put “incrustations” in a sentence, I can’t help but nod my head as I read this. In fact, as I read Calvino’s entire chapter on the relevance of classics. But everything he’s written does this to me, there’s an intrinsic connection between Calvino and my nodding mechanism… But I digress.
In this post-modern world we all know that when you write a text, you’re writing about other texts. In fact we’re so well aware of this that a large portion of our culture and, bless it, particularly our humour, derives from this intertextuality. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Mel Brooks’ epic Space Balls… Any form of genre fiction, particularly romance or horror. So this idea of intertextuality isn’t new, but it’s certainly something I find absolutely fascinating.
Calvino goes on to say that “the reading of a classic ought to give us a surprise or two vis-a-vis the notion that we had of it,” because our notions are so often now formed by the “smokescreen,” which is made up of what other people say about a text, all the criticisms that exist, academic work and cultural murmurings… Classics are such an oft-talked-about thing that by the time you get around to reading them, there’s so much material already relating to that text in your head, that it’s pretty impossible to get a clear, untainted reading of it.
I’ve had this problem a bit lately; I’m at an age were I feel like I need to get as many classics under my belt as possible, so I’ve been chewing through them between everything else. Also, one of my units at school, “World Myths & Narratives” requires me to get through about 10 “classic” books throughout the semester, so my Classic-Intake has roughly doubled.
I’ve just finished reading Sophocles’ “Oedipus The King”. This play has been around since about the 5th Century BC, and it’s a highly influential text, so that pile of academia and cultural murmurings is quite sizeable. The most obviously influenced text being Freud’s idea of “the Oedipus Complex”.
I’ve known the story of Oedipus for a long time. He, unwittingly, kills his father and marries his mother, before inadvertently killing his mother and blinding himself. Okay, good, sounds messed up but relatively simple.
So, going into “Oedipus,” I wasn’t expecting anything too earth-shattering.
About three-quarters of the way into the book, I began to feel really uncomfortable. No matter how many times I’d heard that summary (“he kills his father and marries his mother, before…”) nothing could prepare me for the incredibly visceral nature of Sophocles’ actual play.
Here’s a snippet from the height of the action:
“He leapt upon the doors / Burst from their sockets the yielding bars, and fell / into the room; and there, hanged by the neck, / We saw his wife, held on a swinging cord. / He, when he saw it, groaned in misery / and loosened her body from the rope. When now / She lay upon the ground, awful to see / Was that which followed: from her dress he tore / The golden brooches she had been wearing, / Raised them, and with their points struck his own eyes … He smote his eyeballs with the pins, not once / Nor twice; and as he smote them, blood ran down / His face, not dripping slowly, but there fell / Showers of black rain and blood-red hail together.”
Feeling a little queasy yet?
Now, I didn’t just find the book surprising in terms of how confronting the violence is. I also found it quite amusing in people’s reactions, and what they say to one another.
Theirasius, a blind prophet, comes to Thebes to tell Oedipus a prophecy about all that’s to come to pass. Oedipus, of course, is quite offended by what he hears. So what does he tell the prophet? In modern English, he tells the prophet, “you’re shit because you’re blind, so shut up!”
Throughout the play Oedipus and Iocasta have this huband-and-wife-banter about whose prophecies are right, every few pages one of them kind of says “HA! See? In your face!,” to the other.
And when Oedipus come out, blinded, and the chorus sees what he has done, they say to him “What the hell did you do that for?! I can’t even look at you! Blind?! You could have at least killed yourself!”
So I found the actuality of Oedipus a lot more exciting, a lot more amusing, and a lot more visceral than I expected. This text, for me, is definitely a perfect example of Italo Calvino’s “smokescreens” and “notions” which often hide the real text.