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David J.S. King

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Creon and Oedipus, an historian's murders
by David J.S. King   

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Literary Fiction




Understanding of the values and goals of the WWII generation in terms of alchemy,the ancient myth of Oedipus the King, and murder.



CHRISTOPHER SANDERSON (narrator and senior graduate student in the history department) is plagued by the difficultly of representing actual events in the language of the history profession he is about to join. He attends the funeral of a professor and wonders what the various words said about him could mean about the man. He would never have even attempted such a study, but he has been assigned to supervise the work of MARK DOUGLAS (first year student), who has chosen to leave the university on the professor’s death and another senior student, ESTHER LUNDBERG, has seen enough that she too has left the profession. He must understand alone.
The story begins with Mark's arrival on campus at the beginning of semester. Chris has just heard he could be in a professor next year and is on top of the world. But Chris’ own university is not free of mystery. A homeless person is found dead on campus that first day. Although Mark knows nothing of the victim, he is shocked that history has nothing to say about this particular human tragedy and could at best only understand it in terms of some other impersonal model. He argued instead that historians should concentrate on the specific -- an approach he calls "human history".
Mark has met Chris's old friend Esther doing research and they had discovered that they had both never known their fathers. When Mark gave Esther a secondhand book on alchemy and finds railroad coupons that have only been partially used, Mark in each different case finds in murder a credible explanation. Chris and Esther reminded him that he has no evidence on which to base a historical opinion.
Impressed by a paper Mark has written as an undergraduate on the WWII generation, the three senior history professors -- all veterans of WWII – decide to allow him to use his new approach under Chris's supervision, but, as a little research revealed that the earlier owner of the book on alchemy has in fact died suddenly on a train , Mark chooses to write about that instead of the death of the homeless person.
Research uncovers many facts, but Chris has difficultly accepting Mark’s increasingly autobiographical interpretation of them. Indeed, he understands what is happening more in terms of the myth of Oedipus than as a professional history paper. As he is becoming increasingly involved with another history graduate student, SANDRA KARENSON, he leads the paper temporarily under the supervision of Esther, who, however, is primarily interested in Mark's understanding of his father's absence. Mark discovers two more related mysterious deaths-- or he would say "murders" -- and Esther fears she has lost control. In a last attempt to bring the paper back to Mark's father, she takes them both to experience what death is in the cemetery. She has also introduced them to the languages of alchemy -- her dissertation topic in the subject of a lecture series on campus -- and the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes.
Chris feels increasingly that his ability to understand Mark’s investigations is a test of his ability to do history at all. Research reveals still further mysterious deaths or murders and he must struggle to salvage the paper from the autobiographical. At the same time, the person who died on the train clearly understood what he is doing in terms of his interpretation of alchemy. And research is increasingly showing that the murders were connected and associated both with Mark's father and adoptive father and a professor at their own university.
The connections to WWII and to alchemy are shown in a story they discover among Mark's father’s papers shortly before they attend a dinner with the three senior history professors and a professor of chemistry – who is also giving the lecture series on alchemy -- , also a veteran of WWII. When Mark delivers a class lecture, he realizes how much his preoccupation with the murders has influenced all his work, and all three senior history professes and the chemistry professor -- now all suspects in what he sees as a series of murders -- are present at his lecture.
Further research shows that the chemistry professor must be either a new victim or the murderer in the story and at the last of the lecture series on alchemy, he invites them back to dinner. Both Chris and Esther feel it would be absurd to accept this invitation, but Mark secretly goes. Alone, he experiences the meaning of alchemy, the dreams of WWII, and the tragic failures to realize them. In his explanation, the professor essentially confesses to the murders -- it turns out that the homeless person found dead at the beginning of the year to have been a millionaire lawyer associated with the others. And yet, in the process, Mark’s understanding of the professor changes and the professor also dies. Mark can no longer try to sum up the professor’s life as a history paper and leaves the University, Esther also feels her interest is not purely academic and also leaves, and Chris is left alone to understand what has happened.
Although everyone seems to know what has happened and acted accordingly, the police and the law -- yet another language to retell the same story -- cannot see it the same way. It is not the purpose of this novel to present the answer to this mystery, but rather to understand the way it is treated in different languages. In the PostScript, Chris comes to terms with his own not knowing and desire to pursue the history profession.

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Reader Reviews for "Creon and Oedipus, an historian's murders"

Reviewed by Willie Maartens 12/14/2007
Dear David

I am reading your ‘Creon and Oedipus’, but I am having a hard time.‎

I know Oedipus (“Swell Foot” – I have the same ailment) was the king of ‎Thebes and that murder and suicide seemed to follow him wherever he went. ‎After blinding himself, he went into exile and his brother-in-law Creon took ‎over as regent from him.‎

I also know that in a certain sense, alchemy represents attempts to discover ‎the relationship of man to the cosmos and to exploit that relationship to his ‎benefit. It will therefore yield the key to the Creator’s intentions and will ‎hopefully make man happy.‎

I share your idea of problems with ‘language though, e.g. the language of the ‎history profession. Science is so compartmentalised into different disciplines ‎within science itself that it has become impossible, for example, for a ‎geologist to have an intelligent conversation with a geneticist on biology or ‎physics. A cardiologist might even have trouble in understanding, for example, ‎an orthopaedic surgeon. They speak ‘different’ languages. Today one get ‎Physics for medical students, for different kinds of engineers, for ‎mathematicians, etc.‎

The problem with science is the language barrier between various sub-‎specialists. They never can understand one another and will not even sit ‎together to talk. This reminds me of the story in Genesis 11:1-9, where the ‎people of Babel wanted to build a tower to reach heaven.

God, in His wisdom, stopped this project by giving different people different ‎languages. Since they could not communicate, the tower could not be built! In ‎science this is the reason why they are not able to get things right.

Specialisation and reductionism has killed the real progress there. David ‎Ewing Duncan of the San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday, 19 December 2004) ‎calls this the ‘bio-Babel’. There is a law that says that ‘anything that divides ‎eventually disappears’. Today science has divided so much that in medical ‎science we have ‘right ear specialists’ and the ‘left ear ones’ that do not seem ‎to see eye to eye on any ear! ‎

Your simile of the train, or railway, crops up all over your writing. I wonder if ‎this is somehow a means to the past, a way to freedom?‎

Then there is WW11 and its concomitant value system, which was as far as I ‎know very Victorian still.‎

What distinguishes the pattern of values called Victorian from the culture of ‎today? Is it that the Victorians were the last people to believe that patterns of ‎intellect are subordinate to patters of society? In fact, what held the Victorian ‎pattern together was a social code, not an intellectual code. The one ‎dominating question of ‘the post World War I period’ by contrast is, are the ‎social patterns of our world going to run our intellectual life or is our ‎intellectual life going to run the social patterns? Cultures are unique historical ‎patterns that contain their own values; they could hardly be judged in terms of ‎values of other cultures. This is a very serious complicating factor in our ‎struggle to survive! ‎

I will have to read the book to have any hope to see how you brought all this ‎together in a coherent whole. It all sounds very intriguing though.‎

Best wishes

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