Oedipus and the Other Two Sphinxes

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

“Nous avons annoncé d’autre part [en Position Surréaliste de l’objets] que le sphinx noir de l’humour objectif, ne pouvait manquer de recontrer, sur la route de que poudroie, la route de l’avenir, le sphinx blanc du hasard objectif, et que toute la création humaine ultérioure serait le fruit de leur étreinte.” André Breton, “Preface,” Anthologie de l’humour noir.

[“I have demonstrated elsewhere that the black sphinx of objective humour cannot fail to encounter, on the dusty road of the future, the white sphinx of objective chance, and that all further human creation must be the offspring of their embrace.”]

Three Sphinxes, Not One

In the Oedipus myth’s classic form—there are multiple versions, but the version in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, with certain important details provided by Euripides’ Phoenician Women and Apollodorus’ Library, is the one that has become something like the standard—the protagonist solves the riddle of the Sphinx and thus rescues Thebes from the monster’s depredations. But what if we find not one, but three sphinxes in the myth—one manifest, and two latent and unmentioned? The Sphinx whose riddle Oedipus solves is the manifest Sphinx. She appears explicitly in the story as transmitted by Sophocles, Euripides, and Apollodorus. By contrast the other two make no overt appearance and need to be coaxed out to show themselves. These other two sphinxes are the black sphinx and the white sphinx, as named in the preface to André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, quoted in the epigraph above. As such, they can be found as along a dusty road running through the mythical past as well as on Breton’s road of the future. The mythical road is the road to Delphi, where Oedipus and his father Laius, their identities unknown to each other, meet for their fatal encounter.

Unlike the Sphinx explicitly mentioned in the Oedipus myth, the white sphinx and the black sphinx are not themselves mythical figures. They are instead allegorical figures representing ideas that, through an act of interpretation, can throw light from an oblique angle onto the workings of fate in the myth and thereby disclose an unlikely streak of the perversely comic in a story that otherwise epitomizes the tragic.

The Black Sphinx

The black sphinx is in part the product of Breton’s interpretation of a passage from Hegel’s book on aesthetics. There, Hegel proposed certain qualities for a post-Romantic art that would move beyond the subjective humor and ineffectual irony of Romanticism and toward an objective humor—a humor rooted in the imagination as it engages the object in an affective, witty, and ingenious way. Slavoj Žižek offers a clear and concise gloss on Hegel’s idea: he describes objective humor as humor that “brings out the immanent inconsistencies/antagonisms of the existing order.” Objective humor is the humor of exposure, an ironic laugh at the expense of the discrepancies and conflicts hidden in or behind the way we think things are, or ought to be. In “Limits Not Frontiers of Surrealism,” Breton provided his own, similar, definition of objective humor as consisting in a “paradoxical triumph of the pleasure principle over real conditions at a moment when they may be considered to be most unfavorable.” Which is to say that objective humor consists in the idea that there is something gratifyingly funny about the absurdities and tragic inadequacies of what is, and that to recognize this is to destabilize and refute the claims to metaphysical legitimacy of the way things are. To find humor here is to turn the solemn pretensions of the given into a dark joke. Unlike the more famous Sphinx, the black sphinx is a joker, not a riddler.

By the late 1930s, Breton spoke more often of black humor (l’humour noir), which he seems to have more or less identified with his idea of Hegelian objective humor (l’humour objectif). Breton’s black humor grew directly out of the recent or living examples of irony he found in Alfred Jarry and Marcel Duchamp, and especially in his wartime acquaintance Jacques Vaché. Even more than Duchamp’s detached irony, Vaché’s nihilistic “umour,” which in a letter of April, 1917 to Breton Vaché described as the “theatrical (and joyless) pointlessness of everything,” was a formative, deep, and particularly lasting, indeed lifelong, influence on Breton—as was Vaché himself, despite what amounted to only a handful of meetings and letters exchanged during the war. Through Breton, Vaché’s “umour” lent objective humor an especially dark tint, to the point of transforming it into l’humour noir— “black humor.” The humor of the black sphinx.

The black sphinx’s humor is liable to have a streak of perversity if not of outright cruelty; in a sense it represents the revenge of human irony on reality’s way of treating human aspirations and expectations as so many exercises in futility. Through black humor, reality can be mocked with the indifference of a cold shrug signaling human resistance to the resistance of the real. Black humor is essentially mockery—our mockery of reality, and reality’s mockery of our claims to understand it. As Michel Carrouges pointed out, the “effect of humor is to provoke in the mind a state of radical hostility toward the outside world…[and] the feeling of the hopeless inadequacy of man and of existence.” Black humor finds its moment when the world refuses to cooperate, when it shows itself to be opaque and alien: when it becomes absurd, as Camus put it in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”—written in 1940, coincidentally the same year in which Breton’s Anthologie de l’humour noir would have been published, had it not been for the censor’s delay. (Breton’s book finally was allowed out in 1943).

The rock on which the black sphinx resides is thus situated at the point where human intention and pretension run up against the obstinacy of that which is. The black sphinx is two-faced, in that its humor cuts two ways. The butt of the joke may be the reality we mock—or it may be us whom reality mocks. It all depends on whether or not we recognize what is going on and are in on the joke. Either way, the only response to its humor is hollow laughter and a knowing smirk.

The White Sphinx

Breton claimed to have found the idea of objective chance either in Hegel or in Engels. In a radio interview with André Parinaud, for example, Breton quoted Engels as having defined objective chance as “a form of the manifestation of necessity.” The quote has been cited as having come from Anti-Duhring or Dialectics of Nature, but it doesn’t seem to have appeared in either; in any event, it is a good encapsulation of what Breton meant by the expression. In essence, objective chance is simply a way that fate reveals itself. Breton was not a systematic thinker and consequently never defined objective chance in a precise and compact manner, but a working definition would be that objective chance is an ostensibly coincidental or accidental encounter that is experienced as holding a profound personal significance such that the encounter, as incongruous or illogical as it appears to be, seems to have been predestined.

The white sphinx of objective chance turns up frequently in Breton’s writings, particularly in the late 1920s and through the 1930s. It is a pervasive presence in Nadja, Communicating Vessels, and Mad Love. In the latter work, for instance, it is—at least in Breton’s telling–with the help of a chance, yet significant, encounter that Giacometti solves a problem that had been nagging him: what form to give the face of a sculpture he was then working on. While visiting flea markets with Breton, the sculptor unexpectedly happens upon a strange-looking mask, which ultimately suggests to him a solution to the problem. For Breton, the mask was an objective intervention responding to a desire on the sculptor’s part to finish the work, as well as to a desire on Breton’s part to see the sculpture finished. The fortuitous encounter of these desires with an object that could respond to them and ultimately fulfill them was for Breton an instance of objective chance. Call it a meeting arranged by the white sphinx.

The Collaboration of the Sphinxes

The meeting of Oedipus and Laius on the road to Delphi, by Phocis, can also be seen to have been arranged by the white sphinx. Although the precise details of the encounter vary in the different versions of the myth as transmitted by Sophocles, Euripides, and Apollodorus, the basic events are these: While traveling along the road, Oedipus encounters an older man of apparently high station in a chariot; the older man tries to compel Oedipus to yield the right of way, which Oedipus refuses to do. In a rage, Oedipus kills the old man. He has no idea that the old man in fact was his father; all he knows at the time was that he was an obstacle to be gotten rid of. Laius, for his part, doesn’t know that the young man who won’t yield the right of way is his son. The irony is that each, having separately heard oracles warning of parricide—to be committed by Oedipus and to be suffered by Laius—had tried to prevent the oracles from being fulfilled. And yet through a fortuitous encounter, that one event which both wished to avoid in fact came about. In effect, the black sphinx had played a joke. But it didn’t act alone; it could play its joke only thanks to the white sphinx, since it is the significant coincidence of the meeting on the road to Delphi that leads Oedipus to his kill his father. Once they meet, the black sphinx can show one of its faces—the face that mocks human intention. The black humor of Oedipus’ situation—and of Laius’, for that matter—consists in the fact that the one thing he’s tried all his life to avoid is precisely what has just happened, despite his elaborate efforts to prevent it. The killing is the punchline to a joke the black sphinx perpetrated, whereas the meeting on the road, as the work of the white sphinx, was the necessary setup to that punchline.

Fate and Conditionality

Objective chance is the significant coincidence, or better, the coincidence that signifies. If objective chance manifests necessity, it does so in a way that must be deciphered. To understand an instance of objective chance is to divine the meaning of the event that embodies it. This suggests that the fate it manifests is a conditional fate. To divine the meaning of an instance of objective chance and thus to grasp the possibility of the realization of the fate it signals would, in effect, be to unmask the workings of fate, and in knowing what they are and that they are present, potentially to derail them. If one correctly interprets the signs through which objective chance manifests itself, one presumably can read one’s fate in them and hence take an active role in either realizing that fate or avoiding it. Fate consequently would take on the guise of a possibility conditioned on a free choice arising from one’s understanding of one’s situation. Which permits the question: had Oedipus recognized what was signified by the coincidental meeting on the road to Delphi, would he have been able to take action to avoid his fate? In Sophocles’ version of the myth, the oracle’s prophecy that Laius would be killed by his son is unconditional. The answer, then, would seem to be a simple “no.” But perhaps the answer isn’t that simple; perhaps it is really “no, but…” Because by necessity, fate plays itself out in light of the contingencies that make its realization possible. While fate itself may not be conditional, its realization at any given time or place is. An outcome may be fated, but the specifics of its coming about are a matter of circumstance—opportunity, accident, impulse, ignorance, or any other of a number of factors at play in a given moment. Even though the meeting on the road was a fatality—for Laius, in that it brought about his death, and for Oedipus in that it caused his own eventual downfall—there was still an element of freedom about it. Oedipus may not have been free not to kill Laius, but he was free not to kill Laius at that moment; he could have yielded the road to the older man. (Conversely, if more unlikely because of his greater age and higher station, Laius could have yielded the road to Oedipus.) It was a contingent encounter the outcome of which, itself contingent on choices made by both Laius and Oedipus, could have been otherwise. Oedipus’ killing of Laius at that moment, at that place and under those circumstances, was the result of a choice that did not have to be, even if his killing of Laius—however, wherever and whenever—had to be.

“Natural Necessity” and “Human Necessity”

In this connection it is worth noting that in his conversation with Parinaud, Breton confesses that he thought that the “problem of problems” was that of the relationship between “natural necessity” and “human necessity.” This is more complex than a simple antinomy between fate and freedom, although it encompasses, and at times may be cast in terms of, that opposition. Rather, the two necessities Breton identifies are larger, more enveloping and shaded in their implications. We can think of “natural necessity” as, roughly, the supra-human order of the cosmos, transcendent of human purpose and with a logic of its own; when we catch a glimpse of it we might call it “fate.” “Human necessity,” on the other hand, encompasses the demands of the human lifeworld and the various forms of motivation and agency through which those demands are expressed and which we often think of in terms of the freedom to act. That this relationship is an intimate one between seemingly incommensurable halves divided by a necessarily porous barrier is what makes possible the fortuitous conjunctions of objective chance as well as the maddening disjunctions of black humor.

Natural necessity, in the guise of fate, plays itself out in the arena of human necessity, whose conditions make its realization possible, conditions that come about through the confluence of human agency and the events in which human necessity is situated. The outcome or resolution facilitated by objective chance may be predestined—it may be a “manifestation of necessity” rather than merely a conditional possibility—but how necessity manifests itself, and through which means it attempts to fulfill itself, comes down to human actions taken and choices made within the context of accidents of time and place, and within the limits of knowledge. Framed in terms of objective chance, the conditions in which human necessity plays itself out are the practical face of a riddle the meaning of which the white sphinx is careful to obscure. And in fact that last variable—the meaning those conditions may carry—is particularly important. For it may be only later that the significant coincidence is understood as having significance, and its meaning revealed. The white sphinx is a teller of riddles and, like an oracle, not given to unambiguous utterances; its meaning may not be revealed until it’s too late to make a difference.

And yet that meaning is crucial. The solution to the white sphinx’s riddle may coincide with the answer to a personal predicament of profound importance, but it may not be arrived at through ordinary means. Breton claims as much in Mad Love, when he describes objective chance as consisting in “the emergence of a solution, which, by its very nature, could not come to us along ordinary logical paths.” The meaning of the significant coincidence must somehow be intuited through a kind of leap over reason. By evading the logical path, objective chance obscures what it announces; the solution it brings is the riddle and the riddle is the solution. The white sphinx only shows its cards if you know how to read them.

The solution the white sphinx brings may—if deciphered–resolve a personal predicament, but there’s no guarantee the resolution will be a happy one. For Giacometti, the encounter with the mask is supposed to have brought a happy solution to the sculptural problem that stymied him. By contrast, the solution to Oedipus’ predicament of identity was anything but happy. It was a solution nevertheless, and revealed the answer to the riddle of who he really was. Perhaps it was the only manifestation of natural necessity through which Oedipus could realize the human necessity, particular to him, of solving that riddle.

The Existential Bearing of Objective Chance

To the extent that it is a necessity—to the extent that it is objective—what objective chance is purported to reveal is a fatality, an event that is destined to occur. This would appear to preclude any element of free human agency, but in this case the appearance is deceptive. For if at a rough level of description objective chance is fate, it is a kind of fate that carries an element of choice and implies a certain kind of freedom. The choice it affords consists in the fact that we must choose to recognize the seemingly random coincidence as carrying a personal significance that communicates something of consequence, which we must then embrace in our freedom. Things could always be otherwise: we could always misrecognize or fail altogether to recognize the significance of the coincidence, or we simply could refuse to embrace it, albeit at our own risk. The event in which objective chance reveals itself is like an oracle that must be interpreted; the white sphinx’s generic riddle in any of its given appearances is always, “what does this mean for you?” To that extent, one has to make a hermeneutic decision regarding its meaning—a meaning that is latent in the situation in which it is encountered—and then freely assume it as one’s own. Complicating the picture is the fact that not every coincidence is an instance of objective chance; some are just coincidences that mean nothing. It is the significant co-occurrence or meeting of the unrelated that counts, and the meaning of which one must freely accept as one’s own.

That objective chance reveals a destiny that I must freely accept as mine gives it a properly existential meaning, a meaning Breton left largely unarticulated, at least in those terms. Such an acceptance consists in a specifically existential realization, because it involves recognizing the chance occurrence’s meaningfulness in the concrete context of a given moment within the realm of human necessity as I live it, a moment in which I find myself engaged as an embodied agent with concerns in the world. Objective chance may be objective to the extent that it is the product of the convergence of two unrelated causal chains external to me (and to each other), but what constitutes it as objective chance as such rather than the collision of random events of no importance is its relevance to me at the moment, in relation to the modes of being—enacted as desires, needs, aspirations, and so forth—through which my embodiment of human necessity makes itself felt and through which I project myself into the world. It is a significance for me, and it is in the recognition that the event is a significant one, and that its significance is for me, that my acceptance of it hangs. My acceptance of it represents my way of keeping faith with it, through the choice I make in accepting it. Ferdinand Alquié was surely right when he described Surrealist freedom as “less free will than fidelity to destiny.”

Thus the paradox of objective chance is that, as objective as it purportedly is, it relies on a substantial element of subjectivity in order to work. That element consists not only in the subjective recognition of the particular coincidence as an instance of objective chance, but prior to that, in the basic choice of a stance toward the world, a stance through which the world is encountered as latent with fatal significances that can be read in the seemingly random intersections of causally independent events. What is important to emphasize here is that this stance represents a fundamental way of being in the world, and as such is the result of an ordinary act of choosing. To choose this stance is to make a choice among existential possibilities; specifically, it is to choose a mode of being in the world bound up with an essentially divinatory outlook in which the world is read as a repository of signs whose decipherment reveals possibilities uniquely one’s own. To the extent that it involves this choice of a mode of being in the world, objective chance entails a properly existential bearing toward the data of concrete experience.

The Meaning in the Absurd

Oedipus eventually does find the solution to the riddle of his identity. It comes to him in that shattering moment Carrouges speaks of, when the meaning of one’s life reveals itself in the absurdity and perversity of an adverse change of fortune. The shattering moment is precisely ,the moment when the black humor of the situation breaks through.

But if black humor recognizes the absurdity of the world, it is an absurdity of a particularly paradoxical sort. Rather than an absurdity of meaninglessness, it is an absurdity that instead is meaningful, albeit in a way that appears to run against human logic and rationality. It may make no sense to us, but only because it has an impenetrable logic of its own. We may get a glimpse of this logic through the shattering revelation, which breaks open our habitual acceptance of the world as it appears to be and consequently denatures it and shows it to be something alien that requires an understanding other than the understanding that accompanies our everyday acceptance of things as they are. Once this everyday acceptance is broken, the way is open for a different kind of meaningfulness to be detected.

Seen from the outside, the irony of Oedipus inflicting (literal) blindness on himself as a result of his (figurative) blindness to the meaning of events and to his own identity and the fate that identity makes possible, is humorous in the darkest way imaginable. We, who are not Oedipus, are in on the black sphinx’s joke. We “get” a deeper layer of the joke when we realize that Oedipus’ figurative blindness makes him unable to see the white sphinx standing in front of him—that is to say, unable to see the meaning of the coincidences that lead him to fulfill the prophecy he was attempting to escape, in the act of attempting to escape it. This darkly comic undertow to the Oedipus myth can only be seen from outside because Oedipus’ figurative blindness precludes him from seeing through events to the two sphinxes’ machinations. The black sphinx’s objective humor is only humor when one is in on it, even if—especially if—one is the target of the joke. The white sphinx’s objective chance is a riddle that requires that one recognize the significance of the apparently chance encounter—that one read the coincidence as a sign rather than as an accident with no particular significance. In either case one must freely accept it—the joke, the coincidence—as being for oneself.

It is only when we extract this meaning through an interpretive act similar to a decoding that we can understand the event as holding significance for us and as revealing something we would describe as our fate, rather than as a meaningless confluence of events, objects, or people. To recognize encounters with things and with people, or the turn that events take, as instances of objective chance is to decipher the world, to read it as containing a certain meaning of fatality. At that point, it enters into our own symbolic order, which is to say the complex, interpretive web of meanings and gleanings, both cognitive and affective, through which we attempt to make sense of the world. Within that order, the event reveals itself as my own possibility; by interpreting it as such, I am in a position to embrace it and make it mine. It is through this free act of interpretation that the event takes on a reality that lifts it out of an otherwise indifferent world of things and happenings, and allows me to recognize it and freely to embrace it as my own. But because objective chance is by its very nature something occult—something latent under the surface of exterior reality—accomplishing the necessary decoding and consequent acceptance is not an easy thing. As it wasn’t for Oedipus.

As a case of objective chance, Oedipus’ meeting Laius on the road to Delphi certainly counts as particularly fatal, but it is only later that its significance is freely accepted. For the moment and for many moments afterward, Oedipus is blind to the meaning of the encounter. His (figurative) blindness may be his defining characteristic, but it is understandable to the extent that by its very nature, objective chance is prone to concealment. Like Heraclitus’ nature of things, it likes to hide, and it is only when something like black humor’s shattering moment occurs, and not before then, that it reveals itself. Only then can Oedipus see the significance of the events on the road, and come to accept what they mean for him. His story, as it turns out, is also the story of the other two sphinxes.


In the meeting on the road, the white sphinx offers a riddle and the black sphinx tells a joke. The riddle can be fleshed out beyond its generic “what does this mean for you” to say, “who is it that chance has brought you face to face with, and what does that mean for you?” The riddle goes unanswered because it goes unrecognized. Consequently, the black sphinx seizes the opportunity to tell its joke. Which is: “Two men meet at a crossroads, and each holds the key to the other’s fate, a fate that could possibly be avoided. It is the most meaningful encounter of their lives, the misinterpretation of which will have fatal consequences for them both. And here’s the punchline: they have no idea of any of this, and thus condemn each other and themselves to the fates they were trying to avoid.”

The black sphinx’s empty laughter carries over the dusty road. ∎

Works Referenced

Ferdinand Alquié, The Philosophy of Surrealism, tr. Bernard Waldrop (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1965). Quote from p. 102.

André Breton, Anthologie de l’humour noir (Paris: Le Livre de poche, 1966).

André Breton, “Anthology of Black Humor (excerpts),” tr. Stephen Schwartz, in André Breton, What Is Surrealism?, ed. & introduced by Franklin Rosemont (NY: Pathfinder, 1978) Quote from p. 249.

André Breton, Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism. With André Parinaud and Others. Translated and introduced by Mark Polizzotti (New York: Paragon House, 1993). Quote from p. 107.

André Breton, “Limits Not Frontiers of Surrealism,” tr. David Gascoyne, in In What Is Surrealism? ed. & introduced by Franklin Rosemont (New York: Pathfinder, 1978). Quotes from pp. 204-205.

André Breton, Mad Love, tr. Mary Ann Caws (Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska Press, 1988). Quote from p. 12.

Apollodorus, Library II (Loeb Classical Library 122) tr. J. G. Frazer (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1921).

Michel Carrouges, André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism, tr. Maura Prendergast (University, AL: U of Alabama Press, 1974). Quote from p. 87.

Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 1996).

Lowell Edmunds, “The Sphinx in the Oedipus Legend,” in Oedipus: A Folklore Casebook, ed. L. Edmunds & Alan Dundes (Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

Euripides, Phoenician Women, in Euripides V (Loeb Classical Library 11), tr. David Kovacs (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2002).

Mark Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, Second Edition Revised and Updated (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2009). Vaché letter quoted on p. 38.

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, in Sophocles I (Loeb Classical Library 20), ed. & tr. Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 1994).

Slavoj Žižek, “Hegel on Donald Trump’s ‘Objective Humor’,” in the Philosophical Salon 15 Jan 2015.