Doubly Damned

Marina Warner

  • 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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