Oedipus’ metamorphoses

By Alexandre Lacroix 24 September 2021


© Elisa Haberer / OnP

Œdipe (saison 21/22)

Oedipus’ metamorphoses
Wajdi Mouawad is presenting at the Bastille Opera his brilliant production of the opera Œdipe by Georges Enesco that we could describe as a powerful visual fresco depicting the different layers of this famous Greek myth. A plastic and scenic design feat, mainly thanks to Enesco’s libretto of this “lyrical tragedy”, which condenses and articulates in a clear and modern way everything that we know about the hero Oedipus, from his father Laius’ initial crime (who raped a child) until his death in front of the doors of Athens.    

If Œdipe by Romanian composer Georges Enesco remains a rather unknown work, it continues to spark off surprising revivals and metamorphoses, from Rosset to Mouawad.

First, he quite unusually decided to focus more on the text than on music itself, or in other words, to mostly highlight the libretto. As a result, instead of opening the opera with a musical overture, the performance starts with a prolog: a voice-over relates the crime once committed by Oedipus’s father, Laius, connecting this episode with the notions of desire and labyrinths. Some of the key quotes of Edmond Fleg’s libretto are simply said, others are yelled by the singers, but none are sung. The lyrics of the libretto aren’t merely screened on traditional supertitles device hanging above the stage: they are directly projected onto the mobile panels composing the stage sets, within the character’s reach. We are being plunged in a world forged by the text, by the reading, the tragedy; things that actually are the bias of a stage director who is a man of theatre.

But the visual side of this work is where Mouawad’s creativity turns out to be the most surprising operatic aspect. Costumes remind us a bit of Moebius characters with their strange flowery hats. There are countless innovations, if not bravura displays, often related to the geometrical figure of the circle. In the second scene, for instance, a video showing a cloud of birds flying in and out of a black circle is screened. In Ancient times, the templum was the sacred space within which augurs were predicting the future. Observing from this space flights of birds, their number and direction allowed them to read the lines of destiny. The templum back then was a rectangular space: it transforms into a circle in Mouawad’s work and the flights of black birds are a symbol of a frightening oracular threat. Later, the sphinx is caught in a circular cavity filled with a type of mucus evoking a vagina dilated by a speculum or the corridor of the womb filled with amniotic fluid. Still later, Jocasta (both mother and spouse to Oedipus) is wandering on the stage, a red long piece of fabric tied to her waist representing the umbilical cord, which fades into the decorative sky and in which Oedipus will eventually wrap himself… These are but a few examples, still they show how this production goes far beyond the Freudian explanation of the myth - which tends to reduce Oedipus to a simple daddy-and-mommy issue - and becomes an illustration of how each birth already contains death, but also how we all nourish, deep into our inner labyrinths, a desire of self-annihilation, threatening us like a hidden Minotaur and that we have to defeat if we want to reach light, at last.    

Clément Rosset: “My central philosophical discovery came to me while I was listening to the opera Œdipe by Georges Enesco on the radio”

In this excerpt of a second interview about Joy is deeper than Sadness (Stock/Philosophie Magazine éditeur, 2019), philosopher Clément Rosset discusses about / how the opera Œdipe, by Georges Enesco, turned out to be the trigger of a genuine philosophical clarity the day he first heard it on the radio, an experience which was then the key to a core-concept of his work, the notion of “double”. He analyses a central element in the libretto of this lyrical tragedy, written by Edmond Fleg: the fact that Oedipus is paying for his father’s crime, considered as only a “detail” for Sigmund Freud who tends to turn the Greek hero to a character driven by his own inner constitution, or a lonely neurotic confronted to his fate.    

Alexandre Lacroix: The myth of Oedipus was for you a trigger in the creation of your concept of the double. How did it happen?

Clément Rosset: It happened in less than a minute! My central philosophical discovery, the concept I’ve been developing in all of my books for over 35 years, came to me in a flash, like a moment of clarity. I suddenly realized that the very essence of the real is its absence of double. This complete singularity is in the real’s nature. As a result, all the pictures we have of reality, the dreams, the shadows we think we perceive from it, are nothing but ghosts and distortions.

I was struck by this idea on an evening – it was the end of February or maybe beginning of March 1974. I had a dinner with some friends in Nice. I was getting ready to go out, I was in a rush and was only half listening to the voice of a commentator on France-Musique who was presenting Georges Enesco’s opera, Œdipe. He was briefly summarizing the main storyline of Sophocles’ play, and at one point he mentioned the moment when, at the beginning, Oedipus learns from the oracle at Delphi of the prophecy about him. He immediately decides to escape his destiny and leaves the king and queen of Corinth, who he believes to be his actual parents but are, in fact, not. And that’s precisely this movement, born from his desire to avoid the oracle’s prediction, which sets in motion the chaos where he ends up killing his real father, the King of Thebes, and marring his birth mother, the Queen of Thebes. As I listened to the story, and even though I already knew it, I was suddenly all ears. “God, what an imbecile, he should have never left Corinth!” I thought to myself. But it almost immediately hit me: I was myself lost in a total illusion, thinking that these events should have happened differently. In a way, my discovery could be summed up into one sentence: what we take for a perverse version of reality is, in fact, the very real. Such a thought is vertiginous, if you take the time to think of all its consequences, something I’m still working on to this day. So when I arrived at my friends, I was aware of the exceptionally important moment I had just lived. It may sound pretentious of me, but I declared to my friends as they opened the door: “I’ve just been visited by the genius of philosophy”.    

So is it possible to have some “eurekas!”, or flashes in philosophy?

Absolutely. You have similar flashes of inspiration in some classical authors; take Descartes, Pascal or Rousseau. And it’s not rare that some of the ideas that will live inside of us during a lifetime will show up, unexpectedly, in a moment of inattention, or in a dream. That reminds me of a comic by Georges Crumb, an album called Head Comix, in which the characters are randomly hit by some mysterious wads, coming from nobody knows where. The origin and the nature of these wads are the subject of a considerable deal of speculation. Well that night, I was hit by a wad...    

Let’s now dig a little bit deeper into the myth. What’s your opinion about Freud’s interpretation of Oedipus’ myth?

There is one major flaw in his interpretation: Freud overlooked the origins of the whole story. And it’s precisely impossible to have a clear understanding of poor Oedipus’ actions if you don’t know the story of Oedipus’s real father, Laius, and his crime. Freud based his notion of the “Oedipus complex”, today one of the basic concepts of the psychoanalytic theory, exclusively on Sophocles’ version of the myth (Oedipus King) and, what’s more, a truncated one.    

What is the criminal record which got censored by Freud?

As you know, Laius was the king of Thebes. One day, way before Oedipus’ birth, he welcomes in his palace Pelops, king of Pisa in Elis and his son Chrysippus. Chrysippus, whose name actually means “golden hair”, was a splendid child, only a dozen years old. Laius was burnt with such a libidinal desire for this young boy that he kidnapped him during the night and raped him. The rape of Chrysippus is the main argument of a play by Euripides, Chrysippos, which is lost to us today, though we found a few fragments. This motif appeared later in many works, such as in Parallel lives, by Plutarch, and Tusculanes by Cicero. So this rape was well-known by the readers of Antiquity. But Laius’s story doesn’t end here! Soon after they left Thebes, Chrysippus told his father what happened. In his rage, Pelops begged Hera, goddess patroness of the home, to avenge him. Back then, humans could speak to the gods in a most direct way than today… The oracle of Delphi revealed Laius his punishment: he had his life his life would be spared, but he was forbidden to conceive a child. And should he ever have a boy – an heir capable of taking his place on the throne and carry on the lineage- the oracle predicted him this boy would kill him and marry his wife.

So you grant little credit to the complex of Oedipus?

Hold on, don’t make me look like a cheap denigrator of the psychoanalysis! I do consider Freud as a huge thinker. But I think we should not overemphasis the importance of Oedipus in the Freudian construction. Something else is bothering me in Freud’s theory, and that’s his tendency to assert that some things which are true in a case automatically turn out to be true on a universal scale. In other words, the psychoanalytic theory states that all the children must go through this Oedipus crisis phase, regardless of their family situation, their parents’ psychological profiles, or whether they have siblings or not. I’m quite suspicious of this “universal law” often mentioned in Freud’s, which is, I think, linked to a particular context, at a time where scientism stated that to be true, a law had to be applicable to all.

What about your own interpretation of the myth? Based on the story of Oedipus, you invented a concept called “the oracular double”. Could you explain it to us?

I’m developing this notion of oracular double in the first part of The Real and its Double, a book I wrote in 1976 and where I started my researches on the real- which I’m still working on to this day. I’d like to go back to my epiphany, my illumination in Nice. When I heard the France-Musique commentator telling us about Oedipus’s misadventure, I couldn’t help shouting: “What an imbecile, why did he ever leave Corinth for! He’s heading right into trouble…” Why did I react that way? Because I thought things should have happened differently. How differently? I had obviously in mind another story, another fate for Oedipus. But which one? If you really think about it, the scenario of this myth is extremely well constructed: there is no other path for Oedipus to accomplish the oracle’s prophecy in such a direct and plausible way. How could a man ever kill his father and marry his mother otherwise? So, in a way, the myth here represents reality. The real has its own implacable, limpid mechanics. It’s direct. But it can be surprising. It can outwit us. Because we have in mind a “double” of the real: we think that the way things go should take another direction.

For example, we may think that Laius should have acted differently, like killing his son himself or keeping him in the palace, under close surveillance…

No, that’s not it. You have to understand a central idea of my theory: the double, and in this case the oracular double, is not an alternative scenario carefully built. Actually, it’s more an illusion of a double, a simple cloud. When we say that things should have happened differently, we believe that we have in mind something else when, in fact, we don’t. The double’s nature is an elusive one, it has no content, and yet it envelops the real and hides it to us. The double is an illusion of thought and not an illusive thought.

In "The Real and its Double" you write: “Yes, there is something which exists and that we call destiny: but it does not describe the inevitable nature of unfold events, but rather its unpredictable nature.” Could you explain this paradox?

In this beginning of the 21st century, we do not really believe in destiny anymore – at least, not in the Greek sense of the word. And yet, we are keen to accept that reality is what we can’t escape from. Causes and effects are inexorably unfolding. Everything that happens is absolutely necessary. But we can’t predict what will happen tomorrow, in six months, in five years. As a result, everything which happens is both inevitable and confusing.”    

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