I know the psychoanalysts among us may find this a bit disconcerting, but I’ve been thinking a lot about poor, old Oedipus these days. It’s not Freudian, at least, for my parents’ sake, I hope it’s not; but there is a deeply seated mix of admiration and jealousy at work here. You see, when I think about Oedipus, I think about Sophocles, and when I think about Sophocles, I picture a figure I think I can understand: a writer with a deadline, trying to pull something together in time to make the cut for the annual drama competition in Athens in 429 BC. I see him sitting at his desk, shaking his head, unsure of himself. He has a basic plot, a story inherited from an earlier myth, something about the doomed King of Thebes, and he has characters and he knows he wants to say something, or more accurately, he wants to show the audience something. He wants to share a concern he has that touches on free will and fate, power and weakness, strength and desire, arrogance and shame. He has all the required elements and he probably has some sense of where he wants to go, but, like his character, he can’t quite see the full picture. The thing he does not have, not at this stage anyway, is his image, the image of Oedipus Rex.
Think about that for a second. There was a moment in the history of world literature when Oedipus’s story was still mostly undecided, a moment when Sophocles wasn’t sure about how it was all going to work out. He hadn’t done his thing yet, hadn’t sent his character off stage to commit his signature act of self-mutilation. This idea that we all take for granted now didn’t always exist. It wasn’t just lying around as “source material.” It had to be made up, created, by a real-life person with a real-life imagination. Something significant happened when Sophocles ignited that image and put it into action. The King with his empty sockets, the blood running down his face, his daughter leading him by the hand: this scene has been translated into every language on the planet and it has travelled all around the world, and all the way down through millennia, yet we still talk about it today and kids download plagiarized essays straight to their iPhones, because – and this part really is unbelievable – Oedipus is still relevant. He still matters.
It’s pretty basic, but in the end, I think all creative activity eventually comes back to the raw work and the strange and powerful forces of the imagination. And though I know it’s an old debate that’s been going on since at least the time of Aristotle, it’s also worth repeating that there is a profound difference between imagination and intellect. Both have value, and in my job as a teacher in a university, I have a deep respect for both endeavours, but when I turn to literature as an excited reader, I have to admit that I’m looking for the former rather than the latter.
I’m looking for originality and hunting for surprises and waiting, really waiting, for writers who can make up things that I have never seen before. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good historical novel as much as the next guy – and I read a ton of them every year – but the fact remains: diligence and discipline are not the same as creative power. We can be as earnest as we like and we can do countless hours of research to bring forth our annual harvest of historiographic metafictions, but all that archival material we’ve dug up on the injustices of the Seigneurial system or the victories of Bluenose won’t matter to readers unless it is harnessed to the shocking power of an imagination that can re-order and re-direct the project in new and unpredictable ways. Again: think of Oedipus Rex. Nobody ever read that story to “learn” about the sexual politics of Thebes.
Maybe this is a goal to strive for. If we can still see something essential in Oedipus, even though he comes to us from a distant place and time and he lives in a different culture, then could the reverse be true? Could contemporary writers produce stories and craft images that are powerful enough to cut back through the near-impossible distortions of space and time, to return to Sophocles, and find him quietly reading at his desk, nodding his head, and gasping with surprise and recognition?
Alexander MacLeod lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. His collection of short stories, Light Lifting, won an Atlantic Book Award and was a finalist for the Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Book Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. In the Spring of 2013, he participated as a visiting writer in the QWF’s Mentorship Program.
2 thoughts on “What Would the Ancient Greeks Think of This? Old-Fashioned Imagination in Newfangled Fiction by Alexander MacLeod”
I will take these words to heart as I research an idea for an historical novel this summer. To be meticulous and then to add that zing!