naming and re-naming, the Sphinx, Adrienne Rich, Psalm 1 “Blessed is the woman…”

Doing a little research for a paper, or even a little fact-checking, is the worst thing for getting the paper done. It is. I keep finding interesting tangents, darn it. I’m trying to write my introductory paragraphs to my Anne Sexton paper (on what how she’s re-naming, re-vising traditional male-dominated religious imagery in “The Awful Rowing Toward God”), was googling some Adrienne Rich stuff, and came across this cool new myth. Talk about re-visioning old myths to put women back into humanity.

“Myth” by Muriel Rukeyser (2000)

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was the Sphinx. Oedipus said, “I want to ask one question. Why didn’t I recognize my mother?” “You gave the wrong answer,” said the Sphinx. “But that was what made everything possible,” said Oedipus. “No,” she said. “When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered, Man. You didn’t say anything about woman.” “When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women too. Everyone knows that.” She said, “That’s what you think.”

Simple and powerful — “That’s what you think.”

As background, here’s a Wikipedian’s summary of the traditional myth: “The Riddle of the Sphinx

It was said in late lore that Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx […] to Thebes in Greece where, in the writings of Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, she asks all passersby history’s most famous riddle: “Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?” She strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer. Oedipus solved the riddle: answering, Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age.

Bested at last, the tale continues, the Sphinx then threw herself from her high rock and died. An alternative version tells that she devoured herself. Thus Oedipus can be recognized as a liminal or “threshold” figure, helping effect the transition between the old religious practices, represented by the death of the Sphinx, and the rise of the new, Olympian deities.

And here’s another description from Ruta Sevo at Momox.com which I like:

The Greek Theban Sphinx is the scary dame who interrogated Oedipus. She asked him a question, as she did everyone else, and would have eaten him if he didn’t give the right answer. She is a winged lion with a mature woman’s head.

Okay, I feel bad — or, should I feel some anger? — that I didn’t even realize that the head of the Sphinx is very often of a woman, and a strong woman at that.

Anyway, and here’s Adrienne Rich’s definition of revision, from “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” (1971)

Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for women more than a chapter of cultural history: it is an act of survival [for Sexton, it was also personal survival]. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society. A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped us as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative, and how we can begin to see and name-and therefore live-afresh. A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not going to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution. We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.

I’m thinking more about how utterly powerful the act of naming is, and how powerful names themselves are. I mean, this is something everyone knows somewhat intuitively. But it’s also easy, I think, to fall into believing that names are “just” names, and that, of course, a name cannot affect the essence or the identity of some one or some thing. And that may still be true. But the affect of names on others’ perception is immense, uncalcuable, and usually unconscious.

So you can’t just say, for instance, in talking about use of “Father” and “Lord” to name God, that these names do not actually mean that God is male — “because, of course, God is beyond gender.” And that Christians simply ought to know their theology enough to know that God is beyond gender, instead of going so far as to stop using “Father” and “Lord” and doing so almost exclusively.

All I can say is my life, my psyche, my ability to use my imagination and creativity churned up the day I first read Psalm 1 in this way, “Blessed is the woman who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked… She is like a tree planted by steams of water… Whatever she does prospers.” I thought, “Oh, shit! This is talking to ME.” I had read that psalm probably fifty times before that and yet it had never had ihalf that much affect on me. And all that time, I thought, men were getting this affect every time they read it.

We women had a 9 volt car adapter while men had a 10,000 gigawatt pulse generator.

It was later that I could play with using “Mother” and “She” and “Her” for God. That didn’t come as easily. Too awkward at first. But I could still, early on, feel the power surge in me, the human power, the psychic, alive, spiritually-charged life.

And besides, as all orthodox theologians will tell you, conversion comes in that immediate surge of recognition, but is also followed by a more gradual sanctification. The believer’s life becomes more and more powerful in Christ in whom “there is no male or female.” And in whom there is both male and female.

Okay, now back to this paper! Blog, stop distracting me!

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