Every Work a Hydra, Every Work a Sphinx

September 2019

Preamble: Works

Let this text guide labor.
Let it befriend the symbols of beasts
and guide work, like spirit, to fill their forms.
Let it set out weights and measures
to evaluate its deliveries,
pulled from caverns and spawned from messy pools.
Let it mark each birth with direction,
leave no child to misinterpretation,
and discourage all but the long-sighted gains.
Let every work begin a hydra.
Let every work become a sphinx.
Let them amble in multitude,
reverently defiant,
and give us the courage to raise them into this world.


Let these assertions serve as a checklist for the composition of the work:


A hydra has no singular mouthpiece; it speaks as a many-headed beast.
Prophetic certainty, meticulous care, fervent excitement, and venomous contempt: a hydra is its own emotional chorus.
Each thread of the hydra may contradict or compete, snap or bark at the surrounding strands, but they trace back to one body.
Each head feeds the others, and they draw strength from the same metabolism. They are a singular and cohesive creature.


The hydra is a creature of fiction: it trades in the possible, the imaginary, and the desired.
Fiction provides a compass for navigating the possible; it imagines and inquires towards a desired future.
Unlike fantasy, fiction projects desire onto the possible, not the simple imaginary.
The hydra covers itself in the imaginary as a form of meaning-making, as a form of play-towards-meaning that is purposeful.
Serious fiction is woven into the daily meaning-making of the world; the hydra is equally quotidian.


The hydra is, by nature, symbolic. It emerges from its context pincushioned with all the trappings of history and mysticism.
One of its first actions should be the shaking out of these spears; discarding the worst and arming itself with the sharpest.
The hydra decries what it cannot carry; it leaves no unclaimed symbol in its wake to be turned against it.
Out of the mess it inherits, the hydra finds its own in a plurality of histories. It joins arms with diverse symbols in its bid for the future.
The hydra has no reverence for its mythology, and it must either vocally depose its symbolic heritage or become inevitably caged by it.


Traveling through the world, the hydra is exposed to a multitude of violences; at each cut it multiplies.
It nurses heads beneath its surface, preparing for each violence a complication.
A hydra is not vengeful and it does not harbor malice in anticipation of the cut. Complication is an act of resilience, not retribution.
The maturity of a hydra can be measured by the height and number of its complications. A venerable hydra rolls over the ground like a tangled forest.


Let these assertions serve as a checklist for the work in its context:


The sphinx builds its home along a road, aligning itself to a well-traveled context.
It always resides on a path between places. It craves the purposeful cross-traffic, never the insularity of a single discipline.
The sphinx is not too prideful to travel. It may spend years in the established -- and more in the wilderness -- before returning to its chosen range.
In choosing the location of its home, the size of the road is less significant than the character of its travelers; the sphinx always intends itself for a certain sort of person.


The sphinx opens with a question. It makes itself vulnerable through the unwinding of a riddle.
It poses the question not because it knows the answer, but instead because the sphinx is wound within the riddle. The lion is tied in a branch of thorns; it is caught in its own complication.
The winding of the riddle is fundamental to the sphinx's being. The riddle prevents the sphinx from devouring itself. The sphinx is undone with the riddle unraveled.
The sphinx revels in the complication of its riddle, and it follows the thread as far as it can go.


The sphinx occupies the road in an act of defiance. It seeks to make a place out of the space between places.
The sphinx winds its riddle around itself, stretching the road with the knot that grows there. When the sphinx unwinds, a space remains.
For each traveler on the path, the sphinx utters its riddle as a challenge, stepping before those who would otherwise pass it by.
The uninterested traveller is discarded by the sphinx, the belligerent traveler devoured. The traveler who opens themself in return is rewarded with the folds of the riddle. Each fold contains a gift that the sphinx gives freely.
The sphinx collects things in preparation for its unwinding. It hopes they will be useful when it is gone.


Simultaneously despised and revered, a monster is a symbol wielded by history to enforce its values. It is a tool of power.
The sphinx is a space-making creature, but it also re-tools itself to antagonize historical power. It antagonizes its mythology in order to present alternative values.
The sphinx does not tolerate the values of its former tooling. To do so would be to leave symbols unclaimed for misinterpretation.
Just as not all histories are tyrannical, not all monsters deserve re-tooling. A monster is inextricably attached to its history and the values it is built to enforce.

Afternote 1: Artists

An artist is a parent to their hydras and sphinxes. We raise them out of the primordial soup and into the world. They are shaped by the skill of our guidance. All of our values are imprinted in their mannerisms. A responsible parent of monsters evaluates themself on all three of these points. 1) When and what we raise into the world is a conscious choice, and we should not be too preoccupied with "can" to ask if we should. 2) We must cultivate the skills of our guidance; we should not be too preoccupied with "should" to ask if we can. 3) We must reflect deeply on our own values and shape ourselves first, because it is impossible to be selective in the values that we bring to our work.

Afternote 2: Communities

They say it takes a village to raise a child; a hydra even more so. Sphinxes get quite asocial in their riddle winding too. All works do well with the support of a community -- with people to shape them up and supervise playdates between them, with people to call out the misbehavior that a parent refuses to see. A diverse community carries each work past the tyranny of its history, and a loving community inspires each work towards a better future. Every sphinx swallows a knot out of love for the community that raised it; every hydra's compass is marked with the values of its home. When we join arms in pursuit of community, let us think of the creatures we will raise there and what they will say about us when they walk through the world.