Saturday, February 16, 2008

My Sweetest Downfall

So I was thinking this morning in the shower about Oedipus Rex.[1] When we highly self-impressed people refer to Sophocles' play, we invariably say Oedipus Rex, not the English translation of "Oedipus the King." Well, of course -- far better to say things in their original tongue, after all. You just sound *smarter* if you say "Shichinin no Samurai," or "Malleus Malificarum," or whatever. And even if we don't say "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu," we do prefer to say "In Search of Lost Time" rather than "Remembrance of Things Past," these days.

Problem is, I thought to myself in the shower, the name of the play obviously can't be "Oedipus Rex." Rex is Latin, which Sophocles surely wasn't writing in! So Oedipus the King -- king in ancient Greek is usually "basileus," I thought, though now that I check the title of the play is actually Oedipus Tyrannus. The Greek title's clearly the more authentic, so why hasn't it caught on?

I've done only some lackadasical Googling on this, but I have turned up an 1880s translation that uses the proper title, and some more recent scholarship seems to push for the original name. But I'm deeply curious as to how this change happened -- I presume it has to do with available translations and when scholarly attention was first focused on the play. Aristotle's Poetics mentions the play several times, I know, and this helpful page on The Name of the Rose points out that post-Medieval knowledge of the Poetics is traceable to translations of the work into Arabic and Latin, which would seem to tell a simple-enough story -- given Aristotle's intellectual dominance, having the primary references to Oedipus be in the Latin translation available to scholars would create a great structural bias in favor of the Rex appelation (apparently the direct Greek-to-Latin translation was mostly ignored in favor of a Latin translation of the Arabic translation, but the point stands).

The only problem with this is that Aristotle refers to the work as "the Oedipus" or "Sophocles' Oedipus" (I've checked this, as best as I'm able, against the Greek original of the text; I don't speak the language, of couse, but "toi oidipodi" seems clearly to omit the "king" portion). And at any rate this noodling about omits the critical question of when the play first received concentrated attention from the scholarly community -- it might have been in the humanist revival of the Renaissance that attitudes and appelations were fixed, after all, in which case we'd still expect Latin but Aristotle's hegemony would be less, er, hegemonic.

Probably this is overthinking the question far too much -- Latin dominated scholarly discourse for centuries, so of course there's a structural bias in favor of the Latin name -- but still, the fact that it's persisted, when other Greek works are known by their orginal titles (cf. the Odyssey, which is a slight bastardization of Oduessia or however you want to transliterate it, but clearly cues off of the Greek rather than the Latin Ulysses) is a bit puzzling. An intro to the play would probably be handy for laying out the scholarly treatment of Sophocles, which would likely provide further clues, but sadly I didn't bring my copy out to CA with me, and I'm too lazy to check further online, since it's time for breakfast.

[1] This is not as perverse as it sounds. I've been reading a book on the bible[2], and, before going to sleep last night, I'd read through a bit about Samson. Predictably, I was thinking about this as I woke up -- wondering about the similarities in the birth stories between Samson and Samuel, for example, though I think the coincidences there really are just coincidences, inasmuch as there was a whole class of "nazirites," so-called, holy men who refused to cut their hair, and you'd need some etiological explanation for why their parents had so dedicated them. Infertility until god intervenes is a logical place to go. Anyway, but so this got me singing the Regina Spektor song Samson, because I enjoy singing in the shower far too much. But in turn that got me thinking about how Regina means "queen" in Latin, a fact which for the first time prompted me to think how weird it would be if the name Reginald was somehow a masculinized version of Regina and derived indirectly from Rex (usually the feminine forms derive from the masculine, I've found) (and it turns out Reginald is actually from the German, ragin=advice + wald=rule, which further confuses things because those sure sound like the attributes of a king, don't they?). At any rate, I had "rex" on my mind, which led inevitably to Oedipus.

[2] Specifically, I'm reading How to Read the Bible, by James Kugel (first link goes to the Amazon page, second to the NYT review). It goes through more or less chapter by chapter comparing the way that the traditional interpretation was constructed, and then walking through the modern scholars' historical and interpretive findings. It's quite a lot of fun, though -- one short section on how Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright is headed "Jacob's Back Pages," for example. "My Back Pages" is a Bob Dylan song -- even if you don't know the name, you've heard it: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now" -- and the title plays with the facts that 1) Dylan's son is named Jacob and 2) Dylan is another Jew who changed his name.

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