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The Lewis Legacy-Issue 86, Autumn 2000

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

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 apetite 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.