Oedipus and the Riddle

By Sean Carroll | August 19, 2011 12:33 pm

Thanks to Richard O’Connell for suggesting this Jorge Luis Borges poem as appropriate to the time-travel theme.

Oedipus and the Riddle

Quadruped in the dawn, erect at noon,
and wandering on three legs across the blind
spaces of afternoon; so the eternal
Sphinx saw her inconstant brother, Man.
And to her rocky silence came a man
who unlocked the riddle in the mirror;
terrified, he saw the shattering image
of his destruction and his error.
We are Oedipus, doomed as he, to be
the triple beast: child, saviour, suppliant-
all that we will be, all that we have been.
It would annihilate us in an instant
to glimpse our monstrous being; mercifully
God grants us issue and oblivion.

Sadly, God grants us nothing of the sort. But happily, we are not annihilated by glimpsing our monstrous being. We may be disappointed, disillusioned, or discombobulated; but those are temporary conditions that we can strive to overcome. Embrace your monstrous being! It’s the only true strategy in the face of Time’s relentless march.

  • spyder

    Of course, it may turn out that the monstrous being is our own anti-matter; waiting in the uni/multiverse to surprise us with complete annihilation.

  • keith

    Wow, Sean. You’re smarter than Borges too now. Quite a roll you’re on.

  • Jens

    Sean: “It’s the only true strategy in the face of Time’s relentless march.”

    I agree, but I thought you thought that there was no relentless march.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    An ass in a despairing state
    Spoke thusly to his wedded mate:
    “Since I’m so dumb and you’re so dumb,
    Let’s kill each other, come.”
    But, as happens almost daily,
    The two continued living gayly.

    –Christian Morgenstern

  • http://sites.google.com/site/pietrhitzig/ Pietr Hitzig


    I’d rather Morgenstern than Sartre or Camus.

  • CTC

    “If one advances confidently in the direction of one’s dreams, and endeavors to live the life which one has imagined, one will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

    -Henry David Thoreau

  • steve norton

    Hi Sean
    Got your book, and since entering my elder years I`ve become curious about what time is. I found your insights informative and somehow comforting . Thanks

  • david

    Your rss feed is broken. Cosmic Variance isn’t showing up in the general Discover Magazine feed either.

  • david

    RSS is fixed. Thank you!

  • Dear God Man

    that closing statement sounds a bit preachy doesnt it? indeed, also I tend to think that you’re completely wrong.

    Here is some preaching… If you glimpse into your ego, it can be annihilated. Inherantly, you’ll know it when it happens…but usually forgotten…in the hussle and bussle. Being disappointed, disillusioned, or discombobulated is the very moment you are looking through the external vision in your mind. The disconnected empathetic times…small moments in the workings of your psyche when your vision reaches outside of your own needs. Yet, in most other personal actions…as a human, selfish thoughts persist. Nature requires this to survive. Just because we’ve turned away from nature…because of our nurture, doesnt mean that it isnt within every part of us.

    There is no point in striving to overcome our disappointment, accept it. Go through the steps of grief and mourning for the collective conscience, because it is overwhelmed by corruption/corporation. Of course, I’d rather we all peacefully rise up against such evils.

    anyway, i ran out of time. cya

  • Kaleberg

    There’s nothing about eight legs. Isn’t that the basis of the Octopus complex? (After all, if forewarned is four armed, there’s nothing like an octopus. h/t Walt Kelley)

  • http://plasmasturm.org/ Aristotle Pagaltzis

    Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel it’s worth living?

    Kubrick: Yes, for those of us who manage to somehow cope with our mortality. The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism – and their assumptions of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge afresh a sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

  • Pingback: Mystery – Worlds Within Words (Puzzle Poem) « bardicblogger()


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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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