Riddle of the Sphinx: The cat always knows

Day 24: Thursday

Morning, Tim!

First things first, I have some highly relevant news for you. In order to better curate cat photos and marinate on cat pun opportunities, I got a cat! Now, Tim, I know just what you might be thinking

WHAT?! YOU GOT A CAT JUST FOR THIS BLOG?!

Of course the answer is YES. Tim this level of humor takes dedication and time commitment. Of course next up will be continuing to grow my unique collection of spoons in order to build out unusual uses for them (we really should start a singular blog that captures that theme collectively…), but that’s for another time. So without further ado, I introduce you to Sophocles (who, coincidentally is a female cat and therefore goes by nicknames of Sophie and or Soph [long ‘o’ on both])

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Now I said at the beginning this is highly relevant because your question to me was about something she knows intimately.

You see, contrary to what you have suggested

No one can say for certain exactly what it was that the Sphinx asked Oedipus.

I think Sophocles knows because…well…(s)he crafted the story. So when you pose to me this challenge, this enigma:

Do you believe in sphinxes?

Of course I do. Seeing as I have the expert on matters relating to Oedipus and the Sphinx, I have it on good authority that sphinxes exist, and therefore I believe in them.

What I mean, of course, is that there are enigmas that challenge each of us. These enigmas, if we do not wrestle with and find a way to resolve them, can devour us. We spend our lives finding meaning — perhaps in the beauty around us, or capturing inspiring sounds and music. We find meaning in families, religion, helping others through volunteering or perhaps our careers.

Other of life’s puzzles deal not with finding meaning but rather making meaning of what’s been given. Failed attempts at humor, a plethora of other “why me” moments, or perhaps something more serious like a lost job in a changing world.

One way to find answers, to start to understand how to approach these puzzles is to read. Perhaps it’s Sophocles and an ancient play about a patricidal, incestuous, eye-gouging king or, hopefully in my case, something more instructive about how great thinkers discovered and understood (and, taken further and more interestingly, the societal implications of the discovery) of the gene. Whatever it is, there is a keen responsibility to read carefully, to think diligently.

But a reader, in the fullest sense of the word, is someone who assumes that a text contains hidden treasures worth searching for, someone who tries to uncover […]

Reading helps us understand how to think about and address our own enigmas.

Man I love reading.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

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Dark Sayings

Day 23: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

I noticed that while 16 people liked my “Pigeons Rummaging” entry there were proportionately very few plays of the sound recording.  As I see it these data could only mean one of two things: either people are not that interested in the sound of pigeon feet crinkling leaves in the park, or the people who liked the post didn’t necessarily read it all the way through.  Zak, since the first of these possibilities is clearly ridiculous, I’m going to assume that most people simply didn’t read far enough to realize that they would have the opportunity to indulge in the distinct auditory pleasure that is pigeons stepping on dry leaves.

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Question marks, a common symbol of mystery

Your question, Zak, is quite a puzzle. To use the ancient Greek word we might even call it an ainos, that is, a “riddle or proverb,” or to use the classical Hebrew,  a ḥîdah or “dark saying.”  The Greek is cool ‘cause it gives us the word “enigma,” but I have to say I prefer the meaning of the Hebrew.  I mean, dark saying?  Is there any cooler sounding concept in all the languages of the world?  I wish English had a word that meant “dark saying.”

So in 3rd grade, Jimmy and Sally S. got together one time.  I think most people only heard about it through the grape vine.  They tried to keep it a secret at first, but as I understand, the turning point came when they almost spent half of recess together.  Obviously, that got people saying things, which is how I heard about it in the first place.  They broke up after school, and Sally S. is still single at the moment.  At least that’s what I heard.  Other people say they’re still together.

I bring this up as an illustration that third graders a very wise individuals.

It takes the light of wisdom to discern the secrets of a dark saying.  The ancient world is brimming with stories of wisemen who uncover the hidden meaning of enigmas and cryptic riddles.  There’s Solomon who discerned the dark sayings of the queen of Sheba, and then there’s Oedipus, for example, who solved the enigma of the Sphinx.  We all know the famous riddle of the Sphinx:

“THIS TEXT HAS BEEN CORRUPTED.”

…Or do we?

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Oedipus (right) answers Sphinx (left, in darkness)

You see there’s a slight problem.  There are actually many different contradictory versions of this story preserved by different ancient sources.  Kind of like gossip.  No one can say for certain exactly what it was that the Sphinx asked Oedipus.  It’s quite an enigma.

So what do we do about this?  One option is to brush the whole thing aside.  You could simply say, “it doesn’t matter, because the Sphinx never asked anything, because, importantly, SPHINXES DON’T EXIST!”  Once you’ve said that, you can go find a third grader and tell them that Santa isn’t real and Christmas is just a capitalist consumerist trap invented by rich business owners.  This approach to literature is known as “Podsnappery.”

Another option would be to read the text anyway.  Sure it contains many contradictions.  Life contains many contradictions.  In fact, the less consistent a story is, the more interesting and realistic it becomes.

“I take a sip of my drink and think about the movie I wanted to write once. Something about a man who goes back in time to kill his dog or something. Oh well, it was too unrealistic.” –Flash365

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Deconstructed Church, Michael Jantzen

The duty of a reader is to uncover the light of truth buried in the obscurity of dark sayings.  There’s nothing wrong with being a Podsnapperist, but it’s different from being a reader.  Being a reader means engaging in the heuristic search for the underlying structural integrity beneath the surface of a text; it means, in the words of Solomon, “searching for wisdom as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).  Basically it’s what you did with juicy gossip in third grade.

“We know how to tell many lies as if they were true. But we also know, whenever wish, how to speak the truth.” -the Muses, from Hesiod’s Theogony

Authors tend to hide what is most sacred to them out of view from the Podsnapping public.  But a reader, in the fullest sense of the word, is someone who assumes that a text contains hidden treasures worth searching for, someone who tries to uncover precisely what it was that a nonexistent sphinx said that one time in ancient Thebes.

“If I’m vague, it’s only because upsetting topics distract people from the real issues of the world like coffee cups and muppet babies.” –Rarasaur

Zak, let me ask you a question; maybe you can discern its meaning… Do you believe in sphinxes?

Until tomorrow,

Tim