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Oedipus's tragedy was not inevitable: Oedipus rescripted [ Notice what's hiding in plain sight! ]

Communication theory shows us how Oedipus's tragedy was not inevitable. All that would have been necessary is for Oedipus to have broadcast what he knew, e.g., by wearing a tunic with something like the following written on its front and back:

Attention all! I am Oedipus!
An oracle has told me that I am fated to
kill my father and marry my mother.
Help me prevent this tragedy!
In fact, perhaps much less would have been required: Had Oedipus told his adoptive parents (whom he believed were his biological parents...) what he had found out, they could have explained to him that he was their adopted child, and he could have lived in safety with them, instead of fleeing from them in a well-intentioned but unnecessarily ill-informed attempt to prevent the prophesy from being fulfilled.

Oedipus's tragedy was a result of social conventions which ordain that "some things are too awful to talk about". Perhaps there are cases where this is true, but Oedipus's story shows that, at least in some cases, the truth is rather that not talking about the thing is what causes it to happen, i.e., the potential consequences of not talking about some awful things are too awful to let anything stand in the way of their disclosure.

Perhaps you, my reader, may object that prophesies are unavoidable and therefore my proposal is worthless. If prophesies are unavoidable, then, yes, you are correct that my proposal would not have prevented Oedipus from killing his father and marrying his mother, although, while it is fairly easy to imagine the first act taking place in a fit of irrationality, it is rather difficult to imagine Oedipus, wearing his admonitory tunic, going through a wedding ceremony with his mother except under highly unusual circumstances, e.g., surrounded by an evil-minded gang of criminals (or gods!) threatening to kill both of them (or worse) if they didn't go through with the ceremony.

And that leads me to my "corollary": Even had such communicative disclosure as I propose been unable to prevent the acts which were prophesized, it would have improved the social context so that the parties involved would have had better social support to cope with their personal situations. All the harm would clearly have come from outside and not from within community: the cultivated space of human(e)ity which should only nurture persons and not add to the sufferings which befall persons from forces outside the community's control.

Oedipus's tragedy (perhaps like that of certain pregnant teenage girls today...) is an example of the consequences of misplaced "politeness" and "good manners" (some things are too awful to speak about...). Stated constructively, it is an example of the consequences of society failing to base itself on the unstinting cultivation of universal dialog [see: "Are We Free?"].

Sentimentality » Waste: Famous stupid O. Henry story revisited[ Notice what's hiding in plain sight! ]

There is a famous O. Henry story, "The Gift of the Magi", the gist of which, I was told, when I was young: A young man and a young woman love each other but both are poor. Each wishes to surprise and make the other happy, with a very special Christmas present. Their two most prized possessions are the man's watch and the woman's long hair. The woman sells her beautiful hair to buy the man a chain for his watch. The man sells his watch to buy combs for the woman's hair. Thus the woman gets combs but no longer has any hair, and the man gets a watch chain but no longer has a watch.

From the first time somebody told me this story, I thought is was stupid. I also thought it was cruel, because, in the course of the story, the pair lose a lot of what little they had, and to add insult to injury, they lose it through good intentions, not sloth (etc.).

I never read the story until after I wrote this critique of it, because I thought it would be a waste of time, and because I knew I would not be able to reach through the pages forcibly to restrain its author (whoever pseudonymed themself: "O. Henry"...) from having written it. Before I read it, I thought the story showed a hidden meaning of "sentimentality": waste. Actually reading the story did not alter my assessment of it.

We saw (above[ Recall how Oedipus tragedy was avoidable! ]) that Oedipus wrecked many persons' lives despite having the best of intentions, because he was too polite (or too embarrassed or too ashamed... -- all of which are sentimental affects...) to ask the persons he thought were his parents, about the oracle. Here, we see how two more persons end up hurting each other due to not frankly discussing their intentions to do something nice for each other.

If I could rewrite this story of foolish good intentions "from scratch", I would have the man tell the woman he was thinking of selling his watch to buy combs for her beautiful hair, and the woman tell the man she was thinking of selling her hair to buy a chain for his cherished watch. The two would laugh at their intended folie à deux, and they would love each other more than before due to each learning the other's willingness to sacrifice for the other's pleasure. And their impoverished lives would also continue to be enriched by their continuing enjoyment of their most cherished possessions.... Perhaps they would join a union to try to get better wages to assuage their shared poverty, which prevented each from giving the other a gift without spoiling the conditions which make the gift of value. "The sentiment is what matters" is one on-ramp to the hackneyed superhighway to hell that is paved with good intentions.

If I could not rewrite the whole story but just add on to the end, I would have the jewelry store that sold the combs offer a 30 day money back policy, so that at least the couple could return the combs and use the money to get the man's watch back, thus leaving the two worse off than they were before "only" by the woman's loss of her hair (hair once cut off, cannot be put back onto the head). In any case, I would have the two learn a lesson: They would vow always to tell each other what they were planning to do before they did it, to try to prevent unforeseen consequences from causing good intentions to lead to bad results.


[ Notice what's hiding in plain sight! ]To repeat Kofi Annan's words yet again: "We need transparency" -- including in "Oedipal" and "sentimental" situations.
See  cover of Harvest Books edition of Sophocles' Oedipus plays which I read in "prep school", and thoughts this picture evokes for me....
 
[ Email me! ]E-mail me your thoughts.
Return to Table of Contents (above).
 
[ ]Read heart-warming story of a dutiful son. 
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[ ]Read heart-warming story of a person's selfless concern for another. 
[ ]
[ ]Read heart-rending story of a single mother's housing problem. 

Read essay about ambivalence (sentimentality's siamese twin).
Read my critique of the sentimental artistic ploy: the surprise ending.
Discover a big secret about secrets.
Enjoy your obligatory pleasures!
 
[ Notice what's hiding in plain sight! ]Read about a constructive role for myth in modern life.
What I believe ("The net").  [[ Go to 'This I believe' page via intro.... ]View intro!]
 
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Col. John Boyd on the theory of war

One day, in 1983, there was an all-day lecture at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, by a retired Air Force Colonel, John Boyd. Someone must have told me about it around 9:30AM, and I immediately hastened to the auditorium, where the man was already in medias res. He lectured all day, until about 6:00PM, only taking time out for lunch, it seemed, for the sake of the audience, and, presumably, to have a more intimate talk with a few people. That he spoke engagingly for such a long time, without referring to notes (and was still going strong at day's end...), was one of the least remarkable aspects of his presentation, the content of which was remarkable for its sustained depth of insight, which was grounded in phenomenological and hermeneutic method, even if Boyd didn't make direct reference to such authors as Husserl and Gadamer, and, as far as I know, maybe he had elaborated his methodological orientation and arrived at many of his conclusions in large measure "by himself".

At the time I thought, and 14 years have not altered this assessment, that John Boyd was probably the most intelligent (astute and wise, not just "smart" or clever) person I ever encountered, and that, if the governance of the United States and its military was altogether in the hands of such persons, we would be in good shape indeed. A few years later, I wrote a suggestion that IBM contract with Boyd to help it with its corporate difficulties, but my suggestion apparently had no effect (as had another, less "grandiose", suggestion I had made earlier, urging the company to hire a person I had previously worked for, who was at the time and still remains the person with whom I have actually had a significant relationship, whom I most respect...). (I read in the 4 January 1998 New York Times Magazine, that John Boyd died in 1997.)

Boyd's basic orienting conceptual scheme was the "OODA loop": a four stage recursive model of human action in life.

  1. You Observe your situation. (For instance, you are a fighter pilot, and you see an enemy fighter ahead of you.)
  2. You Orient yourself in the situation. (For instance, you interpret that you can chase the enemy plane, and shoot at it from behind.)
  3. You Decide what to do in the observed situation as you have oriented yourself in it. (For instance, you decide to shoot the other plane from behind.)
  4. You Act on your decision. (for instance, you pull the trigger on the gun aimed forward at the enemy plane).
  5. You start through the cycle of steps 1 through 4 again, in the new situation which has arisen as a result of having gone through the cycle. (Of course, this recursion does not need to be as discretely sequential as this, especially if, instead of one's "OODA loop" smoothely running its course, the situation alters unexpectedly. For instance, instead of reaching the point where you pull the trigger and either hit or miss the plane in front of you -- either setting it afire or presenting you with the need to continue the chase and aim again... --, instead, you suddenly find yourself being shot at from behind and the enemy plane no longer anywhere in sight....)
Boyd's "theory of war" was to "get inside" your adversary's OODA loop: to manipulate what he observes, so that he orients himself to unreal conditions managed by you, makes decisions based on the false premises and acts accordingly, while you maintain control of the real situation thus produced and are able to act in ways which the adversary cannot understand or meaningfully respond to.... Boyd based himself explicitly on Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and explained: The ideal military objective is to win your adversaries over to your side. When that cannot be done, the best strategy is to win in war not by beating your enemy in direct combat, but by so managing his perception of his situation that he becomes disoriented and collapses psychologically and ceases to be able to fight. The objective is to drive your enemy to mental breakdown, and then move in and take over without a struggle (Sun Tzu: "The great General wins without fighting.").

Boyd spoke about a lot of things, much of which I forget. Two things I specifically remember: He asserted flatly that America's error in Vietnam was that we did not first do the most important thing in fighting a guerrilla war: to seize the high moral ground and offer the people genuinely better opportunities for their lives than the enemy. The second thing I remember is Boyd's analysis of the Mig 15 versus the American F-86 Saberjet, in the Korean War. Boyd began by noting that, on paper, the Mig outperformed the F-86 across the board. But, he continued, the American plane had full hydraulic controls, whereas the Mig had mechanical controls, which meant that an American pilot could maneuver more quickly than the adversary (kind of like "power steering" in a car). Boyd devised his strategy for engaging the enemy accordingly: The American pilot would let a Mig come up on his tail. The Mig pilot would think he had a straight shot at the American plane, which could not fly as high or as fast as the Mig. Just before the Mig came close enough to fire, the American pilot would do a 360 degree roll, up and over the Mig (which would fly straight on ahead of the F-86...), thus reversing the situation. The F-86 pilot could now quickly fire at the Mig from its behind, before the enemy pilot could get out of the way.... I was strongly impressed with this analysis (which, of course, I did not understand in detail), because it so compellingly illustrated the (hermeneutic, etc.) principle that what things "are" is not fully determined by material factors, but rather by what they mean [to the participants] in their specific context (the priority of interpretation over empiricism; individual insight over mass force...).

Boyd's IBM Research lecture took place at the time of the first concerted effort in the computer programming world to reduce the management of data processing complexity to mass hierarchical organization ("structured programming", etc.). I found these "new programming methodologies" repugnant, and the enthusiasm of programmers and managers for them analogous to the enthusiasm of lemmings to jump off a cliff (mass hysteria). It should be obvious why Boyd's emphasis on the application of small efforts informed by transformative insight would have appealed to me. Of course, not all problems can be solved by pinpoint action (it takes a lot of provisions, delivered as millions of individual meals, vaccinations, etc. to rescue a large starving population...). But even in the solution of massive distributive problems (which often arise, in the first instance, due to lack of insight!), individual interpretive acts (Gestalt perceptions) are levers to help make the direct efforts of [what a manager I once had eloquently called:] "asses and elbows" maximally efficacious.

See diagram of OODA loop process.
[ Learn more about John Boyd's ideas! ][ Learn more about John Boyd's ideas! ][ ]Learn more about John Boyd's ideas.
Also here: Defense and the National Interest.

(The Annals of Aviation:) The Fall of Icarus was avoidable

[ See Brueghel's painting 'The Fall of Icarus'! ]In the Greek myth, Icarus attempts to fly to the heavens with wings attached to his body by wax adhesive. He gets too close to the sun, the sun heats the wax, the wings come unglued, and Icarus falls to his death in the sea. I think there are some lessons to be learned from this story.

First, we note that Icarus's father, Daedelus, did safely fly to the pair's destination, by staying at low altitude, where the sun's heat was less intense. Is the moral of the story, then, that humanity should "stay in its place", here below, and, even if we do learn to fly, we should not try to fly too high, but content ourselves with a relatively low[ly] position?

Moderation and prudence are always good advice, but I think a further lesson can be learned from Icarus's experience: If you wish to fly high, with temperature-sensitive wings, avoid forces which would melt the wax. Icarus could have made his attempt at the altitude record at night, when the sun was not a factor.

If the gods are interested in "keeping us down" (or are simply indifferent to our aspirations...), it seems to me our best strategy is to try to avoid them, since they have power even if not goodness on their side. If they "do us in" anyway, despite our best attempts to help prevent them from hurting us, then their wilfulness and/or obtuseness should thereby at least be brought into most radiant relief (not that they would presumably care about projecting a negative image of themselves in the [sublunary] world, but they might, and they should -- for humans have the faculties of knowledge and judgment...).


On the other hand, Icarus's fall (like Charles Lindburgh's flight) did not matter much.
[ Email me! ] E-mail me your thoughts.
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Learn  important engineering contribution my maternal uncle, Isadore Znamirowski, made to WWII air combat: How the Star acquired Bars and saved lives. [ ]
[ Learn how the Star acquired Bars and saved lives! ]
 
[ Notice what's hiding in plain sight! ]Read about a constructive role for myth in modern life.
What I believe ("The net").  [[ Go to 'This I believe' page via intro.... ]View intro!]
 
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Why I was deemed unfit to be trained as an architect by Yale University

In 1980, I wanted to become an architect. Louis Kahn was one of my "heroes" (he still is...). I wanted to design physical environments that would enrich persons' shared social and personal lives (I still do...).

[ Go to Yale! ]Pursuant to this aspiration, I visited my undergraduate "alma mater" (B.A., '68) -- Yale's -- Architecture school, and spoke with the director of admissions, Professor Martin Gehner. I showed him some designs I had done. He responded that my work did not exhibit any three-dimensional freehand drawing skill, and he suggested I attend the non-credit Harvard summer Career Discovery in Architecture program, to see if I really wanted to pursue this vocation (and, presumably, to test my three-dimensional freehand drawing aptitude).

I took Professor Gehner's advice: The next summer, I took six weeks off from my computer programming job, to attend the Harvard Career Discovery program. I thrived on the design assignments (see, e.g., a design I did for a student's apartment).

[ Visit building to study The Decline of The West! ]After finishing the program, I returned to visit Professor Gehner, to show him the projects I had done (of which I had had professional quality photo-reproductions made...). Professor Gehner looked at the designs and, again, observed that my work did not exhibit three-dimensional freehand drawing skill (that it did exhibit uncommon mechanical drawing dexterity, and integration of physical design with a rich context of social and philosophical issues, was, apparently, irrelevant).

Professor Gehner volunteered that, once, Yale had accepted a student like me, and, after a year, the student had had to drop out due to his lack of freehand drawing skill. Somehow, I was in a kind of "lucid" state that day, and, in consequence, instead of just going away like a kicked dog, I asked Professor Gehner: "And what happened to him after that?" Professor Gehner replied: "He took a one-year drawing course at his local junior college, returned and finished our program."

At this point, I would have liked to repeat George Steiner's malediction on Sir Anthony Blunt to this man I was facing ("Damn the man!"), but I felt that would be both unseemly and futile. I left Professor Gehner's office, and, after, throughout the preceding decade, having given more each year to Yale, I now stopped contributing anything to this clearly non-loving "mother". (An irony of this situation, which could not have been known at the time, is that, a few years later, computerized CAD programs would render the skill of freehand drawing largely irrelevant to architectural achievement, if it ever was essential. I devoted much of my time in those years to producing a substantive body of computer graphic art, using such a program.)


Learn  about Abbot Suger, the Cathedral of St. Denis, Yale's History of Art I course, and me (as an undergraduate student).
 
Return to Table of Contents (above).
 
Return to H.F. Broch de Rothermann page.
Revisit Yale with me, 27 April 2001.
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06 April 2006 (2006-04-06 ISO 8601)
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