- Enigmas and Riddles in Literature by Eleanor Cook
Cambridge, 291 pp, £48.00, February 2006, ISBN 0 521 85510 1
Oedipus the riddle-breaker finds himself caught in a riddle; the coils of the enigma ‘What am I?’ tighten around him until he comes to the horrific knowledge that he is himself insoluble: husband of his mother, brother of his daughters. The question of his true identity is related to the Sphinx’s original riddle – ‘What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon and three feet in the evening?’ – and it’s odd that Oedipus’ predecessors couldn’t solve it, since it was an old chestnut. Perhaps the Sphinx ate her victims and strewed their bones about the Theban desert because their bafflement showed they hadn’t been paying attention: if you can’t answer such a simple question about being human, you haven’t begun to reflect on your nature or your fellow creatures. Her poser is a bit lame; yet it goes deep. Freud brought with him from Vienna to London in the last years of his life his collection of figurines, vases and paintings showing Oedipus in deep conversation with the Sphinx, and kept them in his study close to his desk. The question touches the heart of things: at Delphi, seekers after knowledge were met by the oracle’s command, ‘Know yourself.’ As Eleanor Cook points out in this original study, riddling illuminates the greatest mysteries through the smallest things. ‘The world presents itself as a riddle,’ she writes. ‘“Here is what I am like,” it says to us. “What am I?” Willy nilly we choose an answer to this riddle . . . Good writers help.’
Riddles have provided one of the ‘basic building blocks’ of expression – the phrase comes from Alastair Fowler’s Kinds of Literature. Cook likens her enterprise to Terence Cave’s Recognitions and Leo Spitzer’s study of harmony (she might have added Edwin Honig’s Dark Conceit, an exploration of allegory) – topics of far greater salience and weight. For as she is keenly aware, her subject, like folklore, elicits mainly boredom, condescension and a general wariness. A riddle comes in the form of a snap joke, playing with similitude and incongruity in order to spark laughter; but enigma is a larger matter, and allied to the sacred. So at one end of the spectrum, riddles can be very feeble, silly or smutty (‘What goes in hard and comes out soft? Answer: Macaroni’); at the other, they can be baffling, like the kennings of Anglo-Saxon poetry, some of which have still not been answered, or the mystery of the Eucharist or the Trinity. Like nonsense verse and nursery rhymes, they are as ancient as anything ever told, and they occur in every culture: in the game of dozens played in the ghettoes of the US, in the kinship fables of Aboriginal Australians, in Shakespeare’s plots and Borges’s tales. Rival poets in Scotland exchanged flytings that were packed with riddling conceits; schoolchildren in Nevis trap one another in double entendres; Dante intricated fearsome and solemn symbolic enigmas, while Lewis Carroll poked gnomic fun at various targets in a rather more comic spirit.
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Vol. 29 No. 4 · 22 February 2007
Marina Warner describes the riddle posed by the Sphinx and solved by Oedipus as ‘an old chestnut’ (LRB, 8 February). She goes on to praise Eleanor Cook for ‘a brilliant and enjoyable decoding’ of a poem by James Merrill: ‘The body shapes in the word “body” are revealed in a poem set out with a head and shoulders and torso, the o “like a little kohl-rimmed moon” between the b of birth and the d of death, and the y standing for something Oedipus might have asked the Sphinx.’ This seemed familiar to me for some reason, and a brief web search turned up the following, from a piece by Laura Quinney in, of all places, the London Review of Books (LRB, 4 April 2002):
The poem looks closely at the letters in the word ‘body’, and sees in their configuration an emblem of that body’s trajectory from b(irth) to d(eath), or rather the trajectory of the little o, the embodied subject or soul, which ‘plots its course’ towards extinction just because it is embodied. It crosses the night sky like the moon; or else, like an actor, it crosses the stage, moving in an irrevocable pattern from origin to end. And yet it does not experience itself as mechanical. The o is the ‘I’, as its likening to ‘a little kohl-rimmed moon’ (a mascara-lined eye) punningly suggests, and the way in which the ‘I’ experiences its course is always novel. It must remain bewildered, as the puzzle of why – y – it exists goes unsolved. At the end, the poem turns directly to the evocation of this bewilderment, instructing ‘you’ (who is first Merrill himself, and then the reader) to mark the baffling anomaly of your own subjectivity, a paradoxical o or zero, a mark of annihilation, which stands for a nothing that is something, and a something that is nothing.
I then looked up the poem itself, which is constructed as a riddle, and ends by asking what the b and the d stand for. It’s not a hard question to answer, which would explain how Quinney and Cook came up with their (not so) uncannily similar interpretations. Cook’s decoding is hardly deserving of the epithet ‘brilliant’, then; though Quinney’s reading of the 0 as an eye, and therefore as an ‘I’, still is. Incidentally, I was full of admiration for Michael Wood’s declaring that when the dog in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day says, ‘Rr Rff-rff Rr-rr-rff-rrf-rrf,’ this is ‘easily scanned as The Princess Casamassima’ (LRB, 4 January). Full of admiration, that is, until I started reading the novel (since abandoned) and saw that Pynchon in fact scans the barking for us. I wonder, does it happen a lot, this critics’ claiming of credit for things that novelists and poets have already pointed out?
Vol. 29 No. 6 · 22 March 2007
Martin Harris (Letters, 22 February) scolds me for praising Eleanor Cook’s commentary on James Merrill’s riddle-poem ‘b o d y’ without realising that Laura Quinney had discussed it in similar terms in an earlier issue (LRB, 8 February). It’s not unlikely that I read Quinney’s review of James Merrill’s Collected Poems: Merrill used an Ouija board – and the help of the spirit Ephraim – to write his long, autobiographical work, The Changing Light at Sandover, and I was then researching connections between psychic phenomena and poetic inspiration. (Yeats is well known to have been interested in these connections; but before him, Frederic Myers, a force in the Society for Psychical Research, won a prize at Cambridge for a poem some of whose lines were later found to have been written by others in earlier works: Myers wasn’t put out, simply saying that he had acted as a kind of oracle, filled with voices – a ‘channeler’, in the term used today.) However, I don’t remember reading Quinney’s review at the time. I may have responded with such pleasure to Eleanor Cook’s close reading of Merrill’s riddle poem because unwitting recognition worked its charm (heard melodies are sweet, but those twice-heard are sweeter?). Looking up Quinney’s piece, I now find there are overlaps between her exegesis and Eleanor Cook’s, but they arise from the manifest structure of the poem. So I stand by my calling Cook’s account ‘brilliant’: she attends perceptively to much else as well in this ‘riddle of reading’. Quinney’s illuminating gloss of the ‘little kohl-rimmed moon’ as ‘the eye/ What am I?’ of the traditional riddle form appears only in her review; and yes, Martin Harris is right, this shines, too.