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  • The Sphinx Experiment
  • Heather H. Yeung (bio)

We all know the story.

A man, on the road toward the city that is his birthright and his doomed future, comes to the intersection of three roads and encounters a strange thing: a creature not-quite a woman not-quite a lion not-quite an eagle.

The creature, guilty of ruining the agricultural produce of the distant city and terrorizing those who pass outside the city bounds, aggressively poses a riddle to the man. Should he fail to solve it he will never reach the city limits and will become one with the pile of bones of other travelers over which she presides.

But he solves the riddle, passes, fulfills the second stage of a prophecy, and rules, for a while, the city that he is moving toward.

Defeated, the creature leaps from a cliff and plummets to her death.


To be like the sphinx is the basic condition of the nonnormative person at any border zone.

In encounters with self-nominated protectors of the border, she becomes a being-made-thing. She lacks the appropriate bearing. She can't—or won't—appear wholly "acceptable." The viewer/interlocutor tries to classify the nonnormative person, and in the process is somehow permitted to throw away their handbook of personal ethics.

The sphinx baffles us on multiple levels: its age, its appearance, its manner of being, its language. So we must test it on all these levels. [End Page 209]


— Is it always the case that anything appearing to be both within and outside the norm will give us pause, will trouble our thoughts?

— In an encounter with this enigmatic thing, what makes us interrogate it, force it to produce its credentials and answer any questions we feel like posing?


A colleague has invited me to chair a panel at a conference on the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft. I'm delighted to do so; the panel intersects with some of the concerns of a book I am trying to amass out of a series of articles I have already written.

Before the session, I introduce myself to one of the panelists. Hands are shaken.

And then the question, enunciated with ponderous clarity:

So are you a student here, dear?

I clarify that in fact I am a faculty member, an assistant professor in the English literature department.

So have you always been interested in philosophy?

I gently mention that my next book—about female intellectual identity at the limits—deals with concerns similar to those of the conference.

During this conversation, my interlocutor continues to look a little puzzled.

Your English is very good. Where did you learn it? (school in England)

But where are you from? (Scotland)

No, where are you actually from? (I'm British)

You don't look it, with dark hair and … are you from …? (it may help you to know that one of my parents is from Hong Kong)

Ah! that's it, I knew there was something exotic about you. You could almost be a Turkish girl; you look like one of my students.

(a pause)

Did you come here with your husband? (silence, as I wonder, —?)

A moment of delight:

You will be happy to hear that in my talk I'm going to defend your type. I'm going to argue that Wollstonecraft actually liked literature. (I respond, Will the talk therefore, given it is going to look at Wollstonecraft from a [End Page 210] Kantian-cum-Aristotelian perspective, pay some attention to Wollstonecraft as a novelist of Reason? Her Mary? Maria?)

I give voice to my questions. Conversation tails off with an expression, still, of moderate incomprehension, a shrug. The discussion is not renewed.


Human enough to speak to, human enough to question, but not human enough to be declared as such or incorporated within the realms of the growing polis, the sphinx is not quite: not quite human enough in appearance, not quite occupying a human space, and not quite operating on the same temporal or linguistic level to be tamed. Not quite anything enough, she cannot be fully accepted.

She confounds, in multiple ways, her...


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pp. 209-216
Launched on MUSE
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