Thinking about Oedipus this week: tomorrow I teach Antigone on my tragedy course; I'm still picking my way through the Thebiad and I have been having various thoughts about the myth. To that end I'm reposting, here, something I originally wrote about Wells's The Time Machine for another blog, a blog that's now an ex-blog, a blog that has rung up the curtain and joined the bleedin choir invisible. The immediate context for my Oedipal thoughts is the observation that Wells's Time Traveller, arriving in the year 802,701, meets, in the Eloi his own descendents. So when he sleeps with Weena, he is, in a manner of speaking, having sex with his children.
The Traveller repeatedly refers to the Eloi as children: ‘I felt like a schoolmaster amidst children ... like children, but like children they would soon stop examining me and wander away after some other toy’. Whose children are they? His of course (at once point he even calls them ‘my graceful children’). Like the Morlocks, the Eloi are his descendants. When he breaks-off a metal lever which which to defend himself and Weena against Morlock attack he notes:From there I spool-out some more general thoughts about the myth.
I longed very much to kill a Morlock or so. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things.In strict terms Morlocks and Eloi both can be male or female; but in terms of the symbolic logic of the story the Eloi are feminised and the Morlocks masculinized: the former share ‘the same soft hairless visage, and the same girlish rotundity of limb’; the latter though also diminutive, are more aggressive, physically stronger, more of a threat. The Traveller's adventure, in other words, is to hop over time, encounter his own children, sleep with his daughter and murder his sons. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! It's a deliberate, and deliberately unsettling, inversion of the myth of Oedipus.
Oedipus, in the myth, solves two riddles. Indeed, one of the striking things about him in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus is how self-confident he is of his ability to generate such solutions, and how unhappy this facility makes him in the end. First he meets the Sphinx, and solves her riddle: ‘What is that which in the morning goes upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the evening upon three?’ It's a very famous story, and a very famous riddle, although that very fame should give us pause: Oedipus's answer is ‘man’, who crawls on all fours in his infancy, strides on two legs in his maturity, and walks with a stick in his dotage. It is the trajectory as much as the actual answer here that is relevant to Wells's sphinxine novella: the passage from our collective infancy, through maturity, and into the decay of the species: Eloi and Morlocks, rabbits and crabs, into something even less definite and so to terminal nothingness. (It may not be too fanciful to see the pick-a-number,-drop-down,-come-back-up-to-one-less-than-the-original-number shape of this ‘4, 2, 3’ pattern in Wells's famous future-date, 802, 701.)
This riddle is also posed by The Time Machine in a more straightforward manner: in the original myth the sphinx describes a strange monster, but the answer reveals that this monster is not so strange; that, in fact, the monster is us. Wells, in effect, does the same, asking: what are these vacuous, diminutive infantile beings, unable to care for themselves? And what are these other monsters? These pale troglodytes that feed on human flesh? These gigantic crabs? This blob of darkness? And once again the solution to the riddle is: they are man. Which is to say: they are you, they are us. It is in this answer that inheres the buried force of the original oedipal riddle, the enduring power of that myth. The sphinx says: ‘I shall describe to you a bizarre-sounding monster. Can you say what it is?’ And Oedipus replies: ‘Le monstre, c'est moi.’ We can speculate that all the previous challengers to the sphinx's puzzle failed not because the riddle is hard, since (famously) it really isn't that hard, but rather because they were unwilling to take that last step, and accept that the terrible beast being described is they, themselves. Rather than accept their essential monstrosity, many people would rather die. That's one of the things this myth is saying, I think.
But there's a second riddle in the Oedipus story, and it is posed not by a sphinx but by the land itself. The fields sicken, the crops die, a curse is on Thebes. Oedipus sets out to solve this riddle too, unaware that it has the same answer as the first one. What is the source of the curse? Oedipus himself. This second riddle both reveals and embodies the short-circuit of existence: man comes from sex, from the mother, into selfhood and along that temporal trajectory sketched by the first riddle towards death, and the mirroring of these two riddles reveals a profound and upsetting truth that all these things are the same thing. Sex is incest, birth is death, existence is a curse, all is folded into all.
My personal reading, here, is that this was always the coded significance of all those legs in the original riddle. After all, we can only claim that a crawling baby ‘walks on four legs’ by confusing arms and legs, a very foolish sort of confusion. Arms are not legs. No: though the answer to the ‘four-legs’ portion of the sphinx's riddle is indeed ‘baby’—which is to say, the answer is the origin of human life, its starting point—the actual solution is more ribald. Just as Shakespeare describes a copulating couple as ‘the beast with two backs’, so the sphinx describes two people having sex as a four-legged beast, two lower-bodies tangled together. It is not until the second riddle, the one at the heart of Sophocles’ play, that we finally understand the two individuals are Oedipus and Jocasta. The remainder of the riddle also anticipates the events of the Oedipus Tyrannus, I think: Oedipus standing alone, after Jocasta's death, in the blazing noon-light of total comprehension; and then Oedipus seizing a ‘stick’, a new limb—the bronze pin from his wife-mother's dress—and blinding himself with it, bringing the darkness, the ‘evening’ which the sphinx promised.
Wells's Time Traveller, as we have seen, provides himself with a ‘stick’ when he wrenches off a metal bar to kill the Morlocks, which is to say, to visit death upon his own children. But there is an earlier ‘limb’ that may be more relevant here: the lever that operates the time machine itself, and which he detaches and puts in his pocket to prevent monkey-curious Eloi from accidentally steering the device into an irrecoverable othertime. This, I think, in turn speaks to the story-logic of this Oedipal riddle. We walk on the two legs of conventional one-second-per-second time travel, but Wells's ingenious device gives is a third option: to leap over time altogether. He would return to this bizarre world-leaping figure, the tripod, in The War of the Worlds a few years later. We could put it this way: conventional time is a single road, but Wells's machine gives us a new-branching path, a short-cut, and turns the road into a tripartite crossroad; and if that recalls us to the site of Oedipus's fatal encounter with the man he did not recognise as his own father, then maybe it is supposed to. Aeschylus wrote an Oedipus trilogy before Sophocles (Laius, Oedipus and Seven Against Thebes, of which only the last play survives; it ended with a satyr-play called Sphinx). From Aeschylus's Oedipus only this one fragmentary line survives, spoken by Oedipus himself: ‘We were coming on our journey to the place from which three highways part in the branching roads, where we crossed the junction of the triple roads at Potniae’ [this is Herbert Weir Smyth translation]. It's the sense of returning to the fatal, triadic primal-scene that is powerful; of time rolling back to reveal what nobody saw until now but which has always been true.
Now, all this may seem like an abstruse and rather remote way of engaging with Wells's novella, but I do think it touches on something central to the way that work disseminated itself, and continues to disseminate itself, into the world. Really, it's the stroke of intuitive genius that Wells's imparted to his story: he invents a machine that offers a kind of ultimate freedom, escape from the ‘now’, the whole of the past and the future our playground. It is, when you boil it down, the fantasy of escaping mortality as such—for what is death but the formal structure of our various individual timelines? Wells's skill was to realise that the escape-route from death leads directly back to death: the death of the individual becomes the death of the species. There's a reason Wells's terminal beach has proved so iconic for science fiction writers:
The ultimate destination of humankind's evolutionary journey through time, according to The Time Machine, is a strange globular creature, at first mistaken for inanimation, as black as blindness, round like one of Oedipus's plucked-out eyeballs, subsisting at the very end of time that is death.
A shallow sandbank had appeared in the sea and the water had receded from the beach. I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock. The stars in the sky were intensely bright and seemed to me to twinkle very little.The rayless obscurity of this eclipse is Oedipus's blindness; the black, flopping blobby sphere is all of humanity resolved into its ultimate form, death as such, mortality as such. And the only escape from this terminus is to return, to come back in time, to go back to where you originally came from. The secret Oedipus discovers is that sex does not lead into new life and new possibilities, as the conventional wisdom claims that it does, but rather reverts back upon itself, returns to its source, the mother, folding sex and incest and death into one monstrous taboo-violating unity.
Suddenly I noticed that the circular westward outline of the sun had changed; that a concavity, a bay, had appeared in the curve. I saw this grow larger. For a minute perhaps I stared aghast at this blackness that was creeping over the day, and then I realized that an eclipse was beginning. Either the moon or the planet Mercury was passing across the sun's disk. Naturally, at first I took it to be the moon, but there is much to incline me to believe that what I really saw was the transit of an inner planet passing very near to the earth.
The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.
A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.
The Time Machine is informed by Wells's understanding that the sphinxine riddle superposes sex and death. This is why it is worth recovering the original perversity and monstrous transgression of the ‘romance’ between the Traveller and Weena, though normalised by fans and by the book's reception. It is an incestuous mirror-image of Oedipus and Jocasta, and just like the original myth it leads into the auto-involutions of death. It is no coincidence that, having invented this extraordinary device, a machine for travelling in time, Wells never re-uses it in his very many subsequent fictions—a fact that stands in the starkest contrast with all the SF writers who followed him, who all used and re-used time machines in their work all the time, sometimes reusing Wells's actual machine. On the one hand, Wells's refusal simply to rehash his earlier ideas is a testament to his impressive ingenuity and innovation. But on the other it is a tacit acknowledgement that there's nowhere else for the machine to go but back to its own source, and death. We might think that this device, and science fiction itself, will speed us through possibilities in ways that make appear dazzling new wonders transforming the everyday into the rich and strange, as per the quotation with which this blogpost opens: the sun hopping swiftly across the sky; the palpitation of night and day merging and the sky taking on a wonderful deepness, a splendid luminous color of blue, the jerking sun becoming a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space. Wonderful! Indeed, sense-of-wondrous! But although this novel shows us these things, and the technicolour far-future, and the pretty-faced young elven descendants of humankind with whom we can eat and take our ease and with whom we can even have sex, it only gives us a surface glimpse of the colour and excitement. The longer we sit on the saddle, the more these superficial excitements blue-shift into invisibility; the more alarming and disgusting truths begin to emerge from the subterra, the infra-realms of reality; things that have always been true and always before us, but unnoticed, hidden in the lower-depths. Humans are monsters that devour themselves, literally as cannibals and erotically as oedipal figures transgressing the taboo on incest. Futurity and the past are the same, inescapable path, and it leads only to death and blindness. The curse cannot be escaped-from, because the curse is us, we are the monster. Wells's Time Traveller has no name in this story because what we are, as humans, is nameless. It's a wonderfully riddling text that invites us to try and unriddle it. And generations of SF fans and writers have accepted that invitation. We should be careful, though. We're no more likely than was Oedipus to like the answer it gives us.