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That Thing with Feathers that Perches in the Soul by James L. Secor

 bridge strut

In my wandering, I came across a land that I shall call, for want of a better name, the Land of Waiting. It was, in truth, a fine day when I stumbled upon this country. However, I found that the weather was very changeable, for within no time the climate worsened and my way became clogged with expectation.

My road took me through a low-lying area that I could see had once been marshy. A flood plain had been shored up. I saw fine, tall green grass and strips of cultivated land. Still, I could hear the encroachment of the great river as it sloshed and slapped against the dike.

The road followed the river wall. As with all roads, I knew I’d come upon a collection of houses or even a village and, sure enough, around a particularly wide  bend in the river I saw a huddled mass of people. They were gathered at the edge of the road, gabbling amongst themselves and gesticulating at the flood plain. Something was bothering them. Upon drawing nearer, I could see the ground between the road and the dike glistening and undulating. When I drew nigh the crowd, I could see the river had breached the wall and was once again running onto the flood plain. The grass was now reeds and the crops were drowned or drowning. The hole in the retaining wall was not very large, though the passage of water was wearing it into a larger fissure. But the people weren’t doing anything. That is, nothing other than pointing and complaining. Each time the river water encroached on the road, the gaggle of people jumped back amid screams and hubbub, as if getting their feet wet was akin to courting death.

I stood off to one side and listened to the undulating voices, watched the retreat and recovery of the rabble. Then I stepped closer and spoke to an old woman on the fringe who was not quite so vocal as the others.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as if it weren’t obvious.

“The river’s breaking through the weir,” she answered without looking at me.

“Why is nobody doing anything?”

“What can they do?”

“Is it not possible to repair it?”

The woman turned and looked at me. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No. I’m just passing through.”

“Best keep on going then. River’s rising.”

“I was hoping to find a place for the night.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s possible.”

“Oh.”

“Not that we’re not friendly, you understand. We’re just a little pre-occupied at the moment.”

“Yes. I see.”

“Yes. We’re being flooded out.”

It was true the roadway was becoming a tad muddied along its riverside border but there was no evidence of a flood.

“It’s inevitable,” she continued. “Like life and death.”

“But can’t you be rescued?”

“Nope. We’re done for.”

“The water’s not very deep. The hole can’t be that big.”

“Just one basket of earth shy,” she said with finality.

“Well, that could be remedied–”

“No it can’t.” And she looked at me again, full in the face. “Like I said, you’re not from these parts.”

“How could things come to such a pass!”

“Don’t go getting upset at what you don’t understand, young man.” She patted me absently on the shoulder. “Let me tell you how it is in these parts. Sense is hard to come by but mayhap you’ll understand anyway.” She didn’t say anything for a long time. Just as I began to fidget, she began her story. “We had to stop building. We ran out of dirt. One basket shy of a full load and there you have it. End of job. End of story. There’s nothing to be done about it.”

I looked around. “Seems like there’s enough dirt here,” I said.

“Seems like it, yes. But it isn’t so. It wasn’t requisitioned. Only that much,” she pointed with her chin, “was requisitioned and so that’s all there is.”

“Seems somebody made a mistake.”

“Yep.”

“I guess you could fix it, couldn’t you?”

“Like I said, you’re not from around here.”

I waited for more. When it didn’t come, I nudged her along. “Yes?”

“It’s fate, son. Fate. Destiny.” She chewed her gums a moment. “Pre-destination. Everything’s laid out according to plan, even people’s mistakes. It’d be the greatest pridefulness to think that you could do fate one better.” She chewed her gums some more. “Some things you just can’t change. Life is life. It’s inevitable.”

I stood silently watching the encroaching river water and the ruinization of crops and road and, perhaps, village. I looked at these people, gesticulating, gabbling and groveling before life, waiting helplessly for . . . for the end. The end for them being, of course, the end of all things. Fate.

I looked up at the darkening sky and thought I’d better be on my way. I couldn’t wait forever for food and lodging and there was a copse of trees up ahead. I could rest the night there. Yes. The inevitability of it all.

They had drawn a line in the sand and just waited for it to be crossed, at which time their world would end. There was nothing to be done. If I fixed the leak with rocks and sand and whatever was at hand, I’d be damned. Maybe even stoned to death. What would they have done with such a reprieve anyway–torn away their saving grace? Sad as it may be, I had to leave them to face their problem. Their fate.

You just can’t mend a sinking boat in the middle of a river.

A couple days later, just after passing the mouth of the river where it emptied peacefully into the ocean, I ran into another time marker. There were no retaining walls in this part of the country. The horizon was far and wide and the sky broad, albeit rather cloudy. There was not much wind, though, so the rags that hung helter-skelter on the near-skeleton lying on the side of the road remained limp and unmoving. Yellowed grass, dry and desiccated, grew around him–I could see it was a him. No insects or birds sang, though on and off crows would settle to ground and strut around inspecting the spectacle. Skin draped itself over pointy bones that threatened to poke through. Rubber boot-clad feet lay tilted, both to the same side. Fingernails were long and grimy. Hair hung tangled and dusty about a wizened face with jutting cheekbones, long sun-bleached teeth, lips pulled back in a grin or a grimace and protruding eyes.

I slowed my pace.

The big bulging white eyes with their pinpoint pupils followed me.

I stopped and held my breath.

“Hi,” croaked the near-carcass.

“Hi.” What else could I say?

“Betcha wonder why I’m here,” he rattled on.

I couldn’t see him breathe. The barely flesh-covered ribs that poked out from the remains of a shirt did not move.

“Do you need help?”

“No. No. I’m fine.”

“Well. That’s . . . good.”

“Yeah. Yeah. It is.”

I didn’t know what to do, so I stood there looking down at this replica of a man before the breath of life was blown into him.

“Yeah. I kinda look like death warmed over, right?” I did not feel I could say anything. “That’s ’cause I am.”

“Could I get you some water?”

“No. No. That’d defeat the purpose of living.”

“But you’re dying!”

“Yep. That’s true.”

Neither of us spoke for awhile. His eyes rolled around in his sockets like lopsided marbles.

“I’m here because I’m a fisherman,” he wheezed.

I looked out over the sea. It rose and fell and gently slapped the shore. There were no boats out there. There was no dock.

“Hey. I’m over here.” I turned back to him. “I caught a fish once. Big fish. I ran back here with it. House is all gone now. I was so happy. I caught this marvelous fish. I deserved my title. Fisherman. A time of celebration. Let the good times roll. It ended all too soon. Like everything in life. And so you see me here.”

“Why is that?”

“I forgot my fishing gear. So I lost my chance. Now it’s just the inevitable.”

“Couldn’t you get some more?”

I looked back the way I came. What was wrong with these people?

“Only one chance. I blew it. So long.” He let his eyes roll off to one side.

I did not move. I could not move. This poor man . . . lying there . . .

“Go on. I’m finished. Shoo. Shoo.”

So, I shuffled on down the road, befuddled at such behavior, behavior that defied reason. Was everybody in this country just sitting around waiting? Couldn’t anybody do anything? I felt sorry for them. I hurt for them. So wasteful.

I stopped in the middle of nowhere and looked back the way I’d come. I looked the other way. I had done this before, of course, wondering what was going on around me. Always at a cross-roads. Always coming and going at the same time. And what was my journey for? What was I looking to find? Even with all this travelling, I wondered whether, in fact, I, too, was just waiting for something to happen.

As I approached the northern border, I came upon a great river. There was no bridge over it that I could see but there was a sign that named it: The Great Divide River. It was quite broad and, though the water along the shore pooled and eddied playfully, out in the middle the water streamed by, occasionally splashing dirty sudsy-looking water over submerged rocks. On the far side of The Great Divide there was a group of people with placards. “CRISIS” and “HELP” and “SAVE OUR SOULS” and “DEATH STALKS US” and “SURCEASE PLEASE” and “BUDDY CAN YOU SPARE A DIME.” They were shouting and chanting but no one on my side of the river could hear over the rush of river water and distance. It was maybe a kilometer across. On this side of the river there was only me and a man in a hair shirt type of robe. A washed-out saffron sash sagged over one shoulder and wound its way around his body. He was bald. His arms were folded over his knees but every once in awhile he raised a hand and waved at the people on the other side. A gold ring glistened in the diffuse sun light.

“Hey!” I shouted. “What’s going on?”

The becassocked man stood up and turned toward me. He was wearing thick leather sandals. They looked new. Hanging from his neck was a large round medallion on what looked like a spun-gold brocade ribbon. Perched on his small button nose sat a pair of enormous glasses, encasing eyebrows, eyes and cheeks. He was smiling, a kind of benign, meant-generally-for-everybody smile. He waved at me–or at least, he raised his hand on high, revealing a gold watch on his fat wrist. From the way his gown hung, he was well-fed. What was he doing out here in the rocky wasteland of the northern border?

“They got problems!” he shouted back.

So I surmised.

“Are you doing anything about it?”

He cupped a hand around a large ear and cocked his head to one side. I obliged him by clambering over and around the rock-strewn riverside until I stood at the base of his stone pedestal. He smiled down at me, a silver tooth with a diamond in it gleaming. His glasses were Armani and his watch Rolex. He held out a well-manicured hand, pink and soft in my grip.

“I’m the Great Doylee the Lame.” I looked down at his clean feet. “It’s just a title. Don’t worry about it. What was that you said?”

“I just asked if you were helping in any way.”

“Well, yes. Of course I am. What do you think I’m doing out here?”

I looked over at the crowd across the way and back to him. Here he was, one man across a great expanse of hustling water–what is it he could do? One man and so very far removed from the action.

“Ah. I see. Have a seat, I’ll explain everything to you. I’ve got all day.”

The great gold-bedecked Doylee the Lame squatted on his haunches. I sat on the edge of the smooth boulder. It was warm despite the overcast, grey sky. It looked like rain.

Doylee the Lame raised both hands to the throng on the other side of The Great Divide and then crossed his arms over his knees.

“It’s a sad thing over there in West Rising Branch of Life. They are fighting for their lives, for their sovereign right to life. Everyone has a right to life, even a life filled with illusions and attachment.”

“Is their problem an illusory one?” I knew that people did get upset over perceived wrongs, striking out haphazardly in their delusion. Could it be that these people were, basically, protesting nothing?

“Oh, no. Their brutal domination is real enough,” he answered.

“Surely they did not bring it upon themselves.”

“No. No. For a fact I know, no. Though it is true that people can bring down the wrath of the gods on their heads seemingly out of nowhere but in reality due to their own dirty souls though they are unaware of their sin, maybe.” He spoke in a soft, compassionate, sing-song counter-tenor. “Maybe there are some there clinging to illusion but in general not.”

“You certainly know a lot about those people.”

“Yes. Yes. I do. They are my people. I know they are kind, decent, obedient, respectful people who know their place. Their place in the great scheme of things. They are good people, my people. Though, of course, there are always a few bad apples. No one knows where evil comes from but anyway it is an illusion as so much of life is, you know. My people are trained to look deep into themselves to see their weaknesses and attachments, their faults, for if there were no faults in them they would have no problems in the world.”

“Why do you call them my people?”

“Because that is what they are. My people. I am their leader.”

“But you are here and they are there!”

“Yes. So it seems. But you see I escaped the evil empire. Those who in their mad illusion spread lies and deceit and mete out death as if they were emissaries of the gods. I escaped. They helped me to run away so that I could continue to lead them and be an inspiration from a distance. A dead leader is no leader at all.”

“You can’t kill a martyr,” I countered.

“Seeking after martyrdom is earthly attachment. That kind of renown and hubris is a passing fancy, an illusion. To die by the sword runs counter to the doctrine of peace.”

“You believe in peace.”

“Why, yes. I have a medal to prove it.” He held up his gold heraldic device.

He placed the heavy ornament in my hand. It was a mighty chevron with a man-cameo and bend sinister and around the edge was engraved Pris de noblesse oblige de pièce de résistance. I turned it over. Emblème carte blanche was beveled into the gold.

“You must be proud,” I said, handing it back to him.

“Quite the contrary. I am humbled by the honor.”

“I have heard of this honor before. It comes with a bequest, does it not?”

“Yes indeed it does. I dedicate the money to the life of peace.”

“You are truly amazing.”

“Thank you. Glad you enjoy me.”

I looked over at the horde on the other side of The Great Divide River. They were becoming more animated, jerking their signs up and down. Still, they could not be heard.

“What are you doing for them?”

“I told them to protest non-violently but of course they didn’t.”

“Why not?”

The Great Doylee the Lame shrugged his shoulders. “You know people.”

“I cannot believe that you believe you are helping them–your people–sitting over here on a rock waving at them.”

“I’m not waving at them. I’m blessing them. The more blessing the better. And I am giving them moral support.”

“What?!”

“Yes. Moral support. The bulwark of the hope of the people.” He sighed. “And. . .I sent a statue of the Great God of Mercy, Abera Khardomumma Shaktiputakaka to them.”

“That will help?”

“Worshiping his likeness will bring the miracle of mercy, peace to the people.”

“How did you send it to them?” No one was powerful enough to throw anything one kilometre.

“I threw the clay idol into the river to let the water of life carry it to them.”

Just then there was a hullabaloo on the road. We turned. A large ox-cart with a roof and red interior stood in the middle of the road. Three men in robes were shouting at us.

“Ah. There is my ride. I must leave you now.”

And off he went. I followed him to the roadside. He mounted the cart and sat in the plush velvet interior and waved good-bye to me, the ever-present dazzling benign smile still on his face.

“Peace be with you.”

He did not offer me a ride. I was left, instead, to continue on my way in his dusty wake. More than once I choked and had to stop for coughing. It irked me that, to get out of the Country of Waiting I had to follow in the tracks of a self-proclaimed hero and leader of people.

Finally, I could take no more and stopped, moving off the road and onto the golden sands of the riverbank. The water rippled over rapids here, filling the air with a cool mist and peace settled around me.

 

Jimsecor spent much of his life traipsing all over the world. Rarely as a tourist. He was, too, a wandering scholar. All those cultures and histories inhabit his writing. So, too, does his social activism, born during the avant garde American theatre days. The absurdism of his theatre and the times have only deepened, colored by his travels. He has led many lives. He has published in three countries and three languages but to no financial success. But what else is there to do? Write, write, write. He writes by hand with an ink pen, a real fountain pen. He has many, many, many. And some “forever ink.” He can be found at Linkedin, at http://labelleotero.wordpress.com (named after and/or to honor me, Minna vander Pfaltz) and can be cursed or praised as you wish at hellecchino@eclipso.eu.  Jimsecor is also a Chicago Editing Specialist, though, actually, it was his teaching that kept him (us) afloat. For awhile.

Literary Misinterpretations and New Insights by James L. Secor

 

Oedipus Rex.

From the first time I read Oedipus Rex all the way through doctoral studies, all I heard was that Oedipus was the tragic hero, the man fated to fall; I heard that he suffered from hybris–excessive, overweening pride–as all the tragic heroes do. (This is, incidentally, not true; the more so regarding Oedipus.)

Oedipus’s hybris? First, I was told that he would not get off the road so a king (any royalty) could pass. Royalty owned the roads. But Oedipus was royalty. No hybris, here. Just a clash of rights. Not at all unexpected that a youth should overcome an old man. It was not out of order for the king’s vanquisher to marry said king’s widow, either.

Second, I was shown how Oedipus’s hybris was doggedly following through to the conclusion of a problem. Intellectual endeavor a bad thing? What a lesson! Especially at a time of high rationality and logical argumentation as found in classical ancient Greece.

Quite a conundrum for me. I simply could not get my head around the problem despite all the information necessary being known, though all the pieces were scattered about.

What set me off on the road less travelled was reading and rereading the myth of the curse laid on Laius: The House of Laius would last no longer than three generations. That is, Laius’s grandchildren would be the last of the line. That would make the children of Laius–Oedipus–the second generation.

Is it any wonder Laius wanted no children? Every king wants his kingdom to last forever, no? So, too, the queen.  

Iocasta was Laius’s wife and, therefore, queen. As woman, she would be as nothing without giving birth, her queenship be damned.

However, Laius went to the Delphic Oracle about his off-spring before engaging in babymaking with Iocasta. That Oracle we all know: Laius would be killed by his son who would marry his mother.

Nope. No children.

The problem for the Laiuses was that without children their House would not last three generations. It would be a flash in the pan.

So, Iocasta, before setting out to gain status by getting pregnant, also sought out the Oracle at Delphi. The telling was that her son would live to a green old age. Which means her son will, indeed, live. Green old age? Wise before living a long time; before experience. A youth with wisdom? How proud a parent would be!

Nothing dangerous here! Iocasta’s status and reputation are more important than possibly wreaking havoc, according to the gods. Iocasta is selfish and self-centred. She put herself before all, even the gods. So, she overrode Laius’s oracle by pointing out the more recent and, therefore, more apt oracle. Her oracle.  

At the appropriate time after birthing, Iocasta took her as yet unnamed child to Delphi to have the obligatory blessing and fate foretelling. This oracle was the same as that Laius had received before. To wit: the babe would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother.

Well! This is a horrible prediction handed down from the gods. Ai-eee! What has Iocasta done?! What can Iocasta do to rectify her lack of good judgment?

Here comes real hybris.

Iocasta decides to put one over on the gods. To outsmart the gods. To be better than the gods.

She can solve the problem if she kills her babe. This could best be accomplished by exposure. After dying, the body would be disposed of by wild animals. There’d be no tracing the remains to its parents. Iocasta’s hands are clean.

We know this. Yet it does not dawn on us that not only is infanticide a horror but surely the gods do not condone it. That Iocasta did not succeed is beside the point. Not only did she not succeed in killing her child but she did not succeed in pulling the wool over the gods’ eyes. What is important is that she believes she has been successful. This false belief, gotten to via hybris, is termed hamartia. Hamartia brings about the fall.

By answering the riddle of the sphinx, Oedipus released the city-state of Thebes from a plague. Happy days are here again.

This is past history. But it should not be forgotten. The Greeks certainly didn’t forget. To forget your history is to forget yourself. Very, very foolish.

Now to the play.

Right at the beginning, Teiresias makes it known that there is still a pollution in Thebes. Still. That means this pollution existed before Oedipus. We miss this because we come to the play with a preconception of blame and retribution, a prejudice of interpretation. To the Greek audience this “still” would not have been lost. Even though old Teiresias says Oedipus is the cause. We moderns accept blind Teiresias’s statement as true. Well, the old blind seer has been right every time before, not only with Sophocles but with the other tragedians. The old man has never missed a beat. His word is the word of the gods. But what does he mean by “cause”? It is not possible that Oedipus created the pollution as it remains from before he came along. Therefore, the pollution was not fully purified to begin with and somehow or other its continued presence is because of Oedipus. . .and Oedipus has made it worse.

What is it he has done? And what is he going to do about it?

Oedipus, who has the good of the Theban people at heart is determined to discover what it is he’s done so he can correct his mistake and cleanse the city. What a man!

The first discovery is that Iocasta had a child by the old king and that the babe Iocasta set out to die did not die. This happens early on in the proceedings. Iocasta tells Oedipus not to delve further and she tells him and tells him and tells him–Stop! But Oedipus persists. He must. Thebes is suffering because of him. That is, we know, he has married the pollution and thereby allowed the continuance of the pollution (infanticide) via another pollution (incest), however fated. Iocasta eventually runs off leaving Oedipus to discover that he has married his mother. What kind of monster his mother-wife is!–as he adjudged her at the beginning of the play. 

Iocasta hangs herself.

Iocasta is the tragic hero, the doomed one, fated to fall.

Iocasta is the pollution that still exists in Thebes.

No one is saddened by Iocasta’s death: an arrogant, murdering, lying bitch.

Oedipus and his children are innocent bystanders, as it were. Today, we call them collateral damage, the less to disturb our sensibilities.

This fits with Sophocles’ belief–a cultural given–that when tragedy strikes, the innocent are also adversely affected. Therefore, Oedipus is not the tragic hero. He is the victim. Being the victim who suffers because of another’s malfeasance is far and away more tragic and moving than having the bad guy get his just desserts. We, in fact, applaud the comeuppance of the maleficent.

The lesson, the insight gained from the play, is about the blindness of humanity in the face of the gods–what the Greeks of that time would have called Fate–of the playing out of a purpose larger than humanity’s perspective: we believe (think) we know but, in fact, we don’t.

And we do not stand isolated.

By our misinterpretation, we have missed the play’s intent.

But all is not lost.

This new way to see Oedipus Rex opens up other avenues of sight, shows us a much more human element in the workings of god-given Fate.

Although Oedipus is the focus of the tragedy, it is noteworthy that Oedipus did nothing wrong given his beginnings, his knowledge, his beliefs. Oedipus suffers from hamartia, as does his mother, as he believes something that is not true; though unlike Iocasta he did not do anything and then try to hide it. But, yet, he believes that he has beat the gods’ prediction. When he finds out life, his life, is not what he believes it to be, that he is not who he believed himself to be and that he has not escaped the oracle, he gains insight into life and living and fate; and, to forego any more such mistaken identities, blinds himself. Now, he is what he is. A blind man. . .with a damnable past. Blind because things are not what they seem and he does not wish to be mislead by appearances. Because we tend to judge by appearances. Because he believes it is all his fault and he must pay. Oedipus has, however, become the other prediction: a wise old man while still young.

The fact that he was just somebody in the Theban area is easily extrapolated to. . .just anybody. Everyman. We all stand to fall, as it were, because what we believe may, in fact, not be true. And what are we going to do about it?

Are we going to (continue to) maintain we know it all?

Are we going to maintain, even in the face of the gods’ inscrutable, impossible to fathom knowledge that we know what the gods are thinking and what they want?

This is hybris.

In one way or another, though, we all suffer from hybris of some kind. If we are so proud and sure of ourselves, we are bound to suffer also with hamartia–a mistaken belief about what we assume to be true. Next on the list is a fall. A fall is no more (?) than discovering that everything you knew and held dear and true is delusion. Your learning and adjustment are important.

The closeness of Oedipus’s situation to the average Joe’s, as it were, ought to be enlightenment enough. The tragedy itself, the play, in this light, has a much more powerful effect, a longer “arm of the law.” It means much more than being simply a part of a fateful myth.

We writers often re-arrange myths and legends and folktales to tell a particular story we are interested in, our life view. Unlike Aeschylus, Sophocles was interested in character, and how that played into the great scheme of things. Oedipus suffered but he was not the author of his tragedy; he did not bring it down on himself via pomp and circumstance. He was not due for a fall, for a comeuppance, like his mother-wife.  But is he not to blame? He did not know. In his ignorance is he innocent?  

Now. . .what do you see?

  

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