Most everyone knows the story of Oedipus meeting the Sphinx — how he bests it by solving its riddle, goes off to Thebes, nails his mom, and ruins his life. So what?
The Sphinx is four things in one: the body of a lioness, the torso of a woman, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a serpent — she is part of the primordial world of chaos, full of monsters and those dark scary things that are hiding just behind you when you’re in the dark, born before the first gods came. Ooga booga!
Oedipus’s story is similar to its historical precedents: Achilles beats down a river god, Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, Perseus decapitates Medusa, Odysseus defeats the cyclops — and its antecedents: St. George defeats the dragon, all those kids confronting It, &c. These are very popular stories. It’s part of the story of the culture hero versus the chaos monster, where the hero fights, then subdues the chaos monster and returns to the village or city-state, where he is showered with praise, women, and money, and if lucky, might ascend to god-hood. Everyone is safe forever. Cue credits.
However, there is something different about Oedipus’s story: his besting of the Sphinx is not through brawn, but through his cleverness. He doesn’t strike down the Sphinx; he reveals its secrets, unravels the riddle.
And what of Oedipus? His power the extent to which he can extend or express his Will. This is a trap that will snare Oedipus: he begins to feel that he can control his own life solely from the influence of his Will; he produces order or a paradigm from which to view/influence the world; he places limits on the world around him, makes boundaries. Yeah, the guy’s a smart mother fucker. But that’s not enough. No matter how smart Oedipus is, no matter how strongly he exerts his Will onto others, the world pushes back. That’s why even though he tried to change the course of history, he unwittingly kills his dad, nails his mom, and generally screws up the lives of everyone in Thebes. His mental map of the world is inconsequential to the unknowable forces that influence his life.
We can give meaning to our lives by acting out into the world, solving our problems, making maps and sorting our world into boxes. We can explain everything we encounter if we just impose our Will. Therefore, culturally, solving the riddles of the universe is the same as killing the chaos-monster.
The problem is that we are dealing with a chaos-monster that will not die. The chaos that bubbles underneath the surface doesn’t follow this traditional narrative. It’s not The Hero With a Thousand Faces or a Positivist understanding of approaching certainty. It is the many-headed Hydra, and each time we cut off one head, another two grow to take its place. Science is a never-ending chaoskampf against the chaos that is so far beyond our comprehension. If we were to discover the way things truly were, we would be unable to cope with such a shift in understanding, for the world is vast, dark, and indifferent.
Newton? He thought he could explain away the mystery and failed. Bohr’s model of the atom couldn’t stand up.
Think of the world’s reaction to Einstein: he was hailed as a hero: he was Prometheus bringing down fire. Women fainted at his lectures, he received ticker-tape parades, and so on.
He was Time’s Person of the 20th Century, for goodness sake! Later in life he was treated like a saint.
And yet, his theories were not the final blow; the monster, the destruction of our paradigms, keeps coming back, and yet we see it only as a small patch-job for the foundations of science.