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