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Notes from the Dorothy Sayers Essay “Oedipus Simplx: Freedom and Fate in Folklore and Fiction”

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 86, Autumn 2000 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

Prepared by Kathryn Lindskoog

1. Freud interpreted the story of Oedipus allegorically in order to better communicate his theory that human males have an impulse to kill their fathers and marry their mothers.

2. Such use of old stories is natural and understandable; but it is an error to confuse the original story with the later allegory. The story of Oedipus is not about the Oedipus complex at all. The story of Oedipus is not about incest.

3. The story of Oedipus is one of many stories about man’s vain attempt to cheat the oracle. (Sophocles added a brilliant detective-story technique.) In these stories there is prophecy of disaster (often connected with the birth of a child), and no efforts to avert the fulfillment of the prophecy can succeed.

4. Attempts to cheat the oracle may appear simple, but they are not. They involve the riddle of fate and the inscrutable nature of time.

5. Efforts to avert the disaster often cause its fulfillment. Exposure and rescue of the key person in the prophecy is often part of the story.

6. Rulers always live in fear of being assassinated or deposed; it is a risk of their profession.

7. Perhaps the Greeks felt that it is wrong to try to cheat the oracle. Perhaps their view of morality was that if one submits to fate with cheerful piety, then there will often be a trick fulfillment of the prophecy that is benign. An example of this kind of fulfillment is found in the third book of the Aeneid, “eating their trenchers.”

8. The Greeks were not greatly concerned about morality; they believed that one was polluted by an accidental evil even if one’s intentions were innocent. Oedipus was as polluted morally by his unintentional incest as he would have been polluted physically by accidentally falling into a cesspool. Intention is beside the point.

9. The Hebrew story of Joseph in the Old Testament is the gayest and most charming of all the cheat-the-oracle stories. It includes the prophecy of usurpation, the exposure, and the rescue. In this story virtue triumphs.

10. The person who speaks the prophecy has no clear or detailed knowledge of its manner of fulfillment. It makes no difference at all if the person who spoke it has a wrong idea about how it might come true.

11. The witches in Macbeth are true prophets in spite of the fact that they are evil. In that play the prophecies are fulfilled in four quite different ways:

A. Some come true harmlessly when no one does anything about them.
B. Some are implemented by crime with disastrous consequences.
C. Some are fought against in vain.
D. Some are trusted (because they seem to promise success) in vain.

12. In 1927 a British mathematician and engineer, J. W. Dunne, published a difficult book called An Experiment with Time, a study of precognitive dreams (with statistics) and theories about the nature of time to account for such precognition without recourse to the occult or the supernatural.

13. J. B. Priestley (British playwright and novelist born in 1894) based two delightful plays on Dunne’s theories of time: I Have Been Here Before and Time and the Conways. They are a pleasure to read. (The actors who played the parts could not understand J. W. Dunne when Priestley invited him to talk to them. Dunne did not comprehend how difficult his technical knowledge was for ordinary people.)

14. John Buchan based his book A Gap in the Curtain on Dunne’s theories. Five men foresee a page of the London Times from a year in the future, and then they all try to cheat or manipulate the oracle in various ways, reaping various surprising fates.

15. The only safeguard against the future is to fix one’s heart upon something that is not endangered by time.

16. We have a built-in appetite for inevitability combined with surprise. We seem to desire a future both foreseeable and unexpected. We want our will to be both bound and free. Most people are equally offended by complete randomness and by complete determinism, which would reduce all actions and emotions to nonsense.

17. For artistic enjoyment we need a theory of time and fate that combines necessity with freedom — necessity as to the final results, and freedom as to the means by which they come about. (This is true of many kinds of stories in which we know the villain will be caught or we know the boy will win the girl, etc.)

18. Every novelist and reader of a novel takes for granted the combination of real time and created time; the author lives in real time, and the characters in the novel live in created time. The characters in the novel live in created time as if it is moving along from past to future; but the author sees created time all at once. The two kinds of time have nothing in common except that the author knows them both. The reader is also aware of a double time scheme. He might say, “Let’s see — Henry must be about thirty-seven now — isn’t it getting on for teatime?’

19. For the author, human or divine, there is neither before nor after in the story being told; each event is known in its own place in the story, all at once.

20. It is the mark of convincing prophecy to be fulfilled “all wrong” — along lines that the prophet and his contemporaries would never have guessed.

21. Responsible prophets or fortune-tellers will not as a rule claim that their prophecies have more than a very high potential for fulfillment; some parts of the pattern of events seem to be pre-determined, and others are flexible, with varying alternatives involved.

22. There is a type of prophecy based upon insight rather than foresight. That kind says, “The universe is so made that if you insist on doing so-and-so the consequences will be such-and-such.” This kind of prophecy is usuaIly negative and unpopular.

23. Max Beerbohm wrote a story about a man who read the palms of all the passengers in a railway compartment and found that all except himself were doomed to die right away in a common catastrophe. He lacked courage to pull the cord to stop the train. The next thing he knew, he awakened in a hospital, the sole survivor. “Tell me,” says the acquaintance to whom he narrates the painful episode, “was it marked in your hands that you were not going to pull that cord?”… “It was marked very clearly,” he answered, “in their hands.”

24. The last paragraph of the Sayers essay: Until prediction becomes an exact science — and how dull life will be when it does — it is probably best to take the thrill and let the profit go. We do not know enough; and the gods have a sardonic sense of humor that it is rather rash to provoke.