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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Big Scene: Something missing in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

A little disappointed nearing the end of Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves not to have the one big scene - whatever it might be or have been - that the novel seems to be driving toward: will the narrator, Rosemary, take us to participate in the destruction of an an animal-experimentation lab? Will she go home to Indiana to confront her parents about ruining the lives of their children? Will she fine her "sister" Fern and have a tearful reunion, or otherwise? It seems this is a novel of promise and innuendo without the big payoff; now I don;t mean to be a Luddite and expect all novels to be entirely plot-driven, and I recognize the strengths of this one: there are two areas in fact in which Fowler surpasses the vast majority of her contemporaries. First, this is an extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking book; even tho at times it feels didactic and there's too much "telling" rather than showing, you can't help but ponder the issues of animal rights and of the boundaries between species, some just social conventions and others inviolable. Second, Fowler's narrative voice is completely engaging and because of her comfortable but not overbearing familiar address to readers we accept and forgive her unusual digressions and withholding of vital information solely for dramatic effect. That is, could we believe that realistically someone would tell her life story and only half-way through reveal that she was raised w/ a chimp sister? no, but Rosemary blithely explains that she is sick and tired of being called monkey girl and the like, and wanted to be known just as herself, not to have her life story defined by her relationship to her chimp sister - but then why are you writing this book? Yet she brings it off, she has a witty and conversational manner that's very welcoming and winning. Yet what are the big scenes in this novel? A night of drunken carousing in Davis, California? It's not enough - this a novel with lots of great material but the central events are undeveloped or perhaps not even present - many opportunities for drama and readers engagement flouted, missed.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Will Rosemary confront her parents in Fowler's novel?

Am a little disappointed that Rosemary's brother, Lowell, seems to make only a cameo appearance in k j fowler's we are all completely beside ourselves: he rolls into town (davis cal.) and after not seeing his sister or for that matter anyone in the family for about 10 years he shows up one night and immediately hooks up w Rosemary's best friend w out a thought to how that could hurt r's feelings. Then after a v awkward late night dinner Lowell spends the rest of the night and thru dawn filling r I to a degree about his life on the run. We understand that he is now a animal rights activist and terrorist. The problem here is that there's just too much telling and fowler doesn't integrate this material into the fabric of the novel. The culmination is his telling r about his attempt to see their chimp sister fern in the lab where she's being held w predictably horrible results. I truly find it hard to believe that both Lowell and rosemary would continue to think of fern as truly a sister. But I guess that's something a reader has to take on faith here. Lowell gives rosemary two important bits of info. First he says fern is living in a zoo tho he hasn't seen her since his visit to the lab - why not one wonders. Second he tells r that she had at age 6 or so made her parents decide btw her and fern  - would there really have been any other choice? He tells her not to feel guilt about that but what is she to feel? Then he takes a train presumably right out of the plot of the novel. So my prediction that the two of them would liberate fern looks wrong - and I would say this novel will live or die depending on whether fowler can manage to bring rosemary back to Indiana for a final confrontation w her father who put his children thru this hell for no good reason

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Two types of experiments: the conflict within We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves raises two parallel and to a degree conflicting issues regarding inter-species relationships. First, laboratory experiments on animals: much of the novel is concerned with the fate of Rosemary's "sister," Fern, a chimp with whom she was raised as a coeval sibling as part of an experiment by her psychologist father; the experiment went wrong in some manner - we don't yet (more than half-way through) know exactly what went wrong, but in any event Fern was removed from the family and the project, involving several grad students, ended - though one, Matt, apparently accompanied Fern to her next destination. This devastating removal led older brother, Lowell, to become a militant animal-rights activist, apparently involved in the bombing and destruction of several experimental labs; Fowler, or her narrator Rosemary, describe some of the clandestine activities of the (fictional?) Animal Liberation Front. Clearly, these experiments are hideous and we are meant to, and do, side w/ the ALF: they are reacting against treating animals as objects in these cruel experiments. Diet issues aside, who wouldn't hate these labs? This part of the novel reminds me of the interesting documentary If a Tree Falls about radical environmental groups that stop at almost nothing in drawing attention to their cause - a good film because it allows viewers to form their own opinions and to figure things out themselves. The second issue is the reverse: experiments that treat species, chimps in particular, as if they are human. Isn't it equally cruel to take a chimp and try to raise it (or her) as a family member? What good can come of this for the chimp or for the human children? Though we are sympathetic toward Rosemary and her brother, we have to see them as victims of an experiment every bit as cruel as the lab experiments - and just as destructive for Fern, it would appear. There's a pretty long chapter in which Rosemary recounts a lecture in one of her college classes in which the prof discusses the sexual behavior and social structure of chimp and bonabo clans - and student erupts in opposition to his assertion that it's all about the males controlling the females, the student arguing that the female bonabos have banded together and they actually control the society - at least that's what I think she said: some key points in this chapter and I should probably re-read to understand the book, but there's a little too much "telling" rather than showing or dramatizing through character and action in that section of the book, so I'll just move ahead with the story.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Some issues with Fowler's novel - strengths and weaknesses

The issues before us in reading Karen Joy Fowlers's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: Is it credible that a family could raise two children and a chimp as if they are family equals, treating each the same, and that the children, particularly the young girl who is the same age as the chimp, would treat the chimp as a beloved sister? Of course that's the experiment that Rosie's father, the research psychologist, engages in or rather puts his family through - and in terms of this novel, the experiment worked, that is, the entire family treated the chimp just like a human sibling or daughter - not like a pet. We see this as the recovery of the lost "sister," Fern, becomes the dominant theme in the lives of the two "surviving" children, Rosie, the narrator of the novel, and older brother, Lowell. Within the scope of this novel, I can accept it - but I'm not sure it's realistically possible, that the chimp would be accepted as anything more than a beloved pet. We all mourn our lost pets, dogs especially, but not to the degree expressed in this novel. But of course what we don't know: why did the parents get rid of the chimp, and in such a secretive, nocturnal manner? It's hard to believe there wasn't some major, precipitant cause, and that the children, especially the older brother, would know about it: attack, destruction, something. I feel the narrator, which is to say, the novelist, is holding out on us here: surely Rosie by this time in her life - college age - knows why her parents got rid of Fern; and surely she can't be surprised to learn that Fern wasn't sent to live on a farm, a preposterous palliative that she would have seen through pretty quickly, smart girl as she is. Fourth issue: can we believe that 18-yeara-old Lowell, a seemingly well-adjusted high-school senior and basketball star for that matter, would suddenly disappear and head off to live on his own, beginning a peripatetic life of maybe 10 years or so, without any family contact other than the occasional mysterious post card? Perhaps he's not such a normal kid, I can accept that, but such behavior - on his part, and on the family's that more or less lets him go after a cursory effort to track him down through a detective agency - is beyond the ken. A strange family, no doubt - but as we have not yet (half-way through) actually "met" either parent, it's hard to know how strange they really are or may be. Rosie is a tricky and unreliable narrator, which is part of the strength of this novel, but also part of its weakness - too many holes and gaps that feel like narrative stratagems.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A story that doesn't quite add up, at least for me

Let me just say I probably don't understand Paul Lafarge's story in current New Yorker, Rosendale (a place name - a seeming upstate slightly artistic NY town perhaps modeled on Hudson?), in which a girl, Annoyingly always referred to as Alice P, who dreams of being a writer, moves to from Boston, lives with an older hippie-ceramicist woman who seems to have a crush on the much-younger April (p); April can't make ends meet takes a job as a stripper or sex worker, which is both politically incorrect and liberating at same time. Ceramicist, whose name I can't remember, evoking the Shelley-Byron contretemps that led to Mary S's composition of Frankenstein, poses a similar contest: who can writer the better horror story. April abandons hers, but later in this story seems to be followed by a Golem figure (based on her view of her roommate's hideous-looking sculpture; at the end, we get a quote from April's writing, and she realizes that she has won the contest. OK so there are multiple layers here: April wishes to become a writer (in my experiences, that's a very different thing from wishing to, or needing to, write), and it appears on some level that the story we are reading is her story. But then how are we getting her back story? She apparently worked in a bar and had the idea of writing a memoir to be called Bar Girl, a chapter of which her community-college writing teacher praised highly - which is a goddamn long way from being a "writer." This all would work better for me if either of the two parts of the story - the rather dreary tale of this lost, mixed-up young woman and the horror story she finds herself living in, or writing - were more compelling and original. In other words, if the story were able to bring together a Joyce Carol Oates type portrayal of a troubled, tough young woman and a Stephen King or Lovecraft horror element, scary and original, that would be some feat; as it is, there's stuff going on here, a character sketched in who could become a protagonist for a much longer piece, a coming of age novel perhaps, and some of the story may have eluded me - there may be connections I'm not making - but at least for me the story doesn't quite add up: 1 + 1 = 1.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

I was right (for a change): Guessing the surprse in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Readers will see that I was right (for a change - I still remember how I completely mis-predicted the plot of The Woman Upstairs as I was reading the novel, though I also still think my plot would have been better) that Rosie's sister, Fern, is a chimpanzee; we learn this about 80 pages into the novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. As K J Fowler's narrator - I think her name's Rosie? - writes, she expected some readers to guess this salient fact somewhere along the way. She also realizes her readers will be, as I was, a little annoyed at her withholding this information - her narrator is very realistic and conversational, feels much like a new friend telling you her life story - except that it's pretty much inconceivable to me that she could or would withhold this fact: I can imagine telling your life story, up to a point, without ever mentioning your sister, Fern - but if you do mention her, as R. does numerous times, you can't not tell her that she's a monkey for crying out loud. Anyway, Fowler makes the best of it, has her narrator explain that she's sick and tired of having this family fact be the dominant chord in the song of her life. I can accept that, to a degree - and am in any event willing and eager to move along with this novel, as Fowler's narrative voice and sharp wit have kept me fully engaged. Shall I predict more? She's made it clear that Fern is still alive (it's about 15 years or so since she was removed or exiled from the family); we also learn that the long-lost brother has also tried to find Rosie; we also know that Rosie chose, oddly, to attend UC Davis because she'd heard that her peripatetic brother had settled there for a time: my guess is that the two will get together, along with R's new friend the adventuresome Harlow, and will "free" Fern from captivity. We're not sure, yet, and maybe never, exactly what R's father the psychologist was trying to prove or study by including a chimp in the family - but the strong fraternal (or sororal?) attachment R still feels from Fern suggests that the experiment was a success on some level: hers is not the kind of attachment one would feel toward a beloved pet, but true sisterly longing and affection. On the other hand, there have to be reasons why Fern was abandoned: violence, destructiveness, or something else? (Hard not to think of the horrible story of the chimp mauling in Conn. - these are still wild animals, strong and unpredictable. There's reasons why we have not bonded over the millennia w/ chimps as we have with dogs and cats.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Trying to figure out the "surprise" in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

As M forewarned me, there is a surprise in Karen Joy Fowler's Booker-nominated We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (what's this, a new title trend, sentences as titles? I find I can never exactly remember them) - so though I have read only the first 60 pp and have only my own guess as to what the surprise I may give it away so stop right here if that bothers you. In any event, I half figured it out before even starting the book (and no I did not read blurbs or reviews or jacket copy) - from the acknowledgements on the copyright page where Fowler thanks the Kafka estate for permission to quote from A Report to an Academy: K's well-known story about an ape captured and raised as a human who is speaking to an assembly of scientists. My first thought: the narrator's actually a chimp or an ape. The novel begins with her as an eccentric - very talkative child, now a student at UC Davis, kind of a loner, gets into a bit of trouble because of her impulsiveness, gets befriended by a very out-there wild woman named Harlow - but unless all rules of narration are broken she's obviously not a chimp. She tells us that her father - a psychologist at a university (Indiana) suggested she begin telling her tale in the middle, which she does, so not until about 40 pp in to we hear her back story, and that's when it became clear to me: she talks about being sent to stay w/ her grandparents and when she returned "home" the family had moved to a new house and her sister, Fern, was gone. So it appears that her father, a great experimentalist, was raising her alongside a chimp to see the effect on each other and on the family (there's an older brother). Well, you can certainly accuse Fowler of authorial manipulation - no narrator would tell her life story while artfully concealing the central point, but this is art and entertainment, not documentary realism, so I accept her playful narration - including her very appealing narrative asides to the reader and her general light but fast-paced narrative style. My guess is that the long-vanished brother - who seems to be looking for narrator near the Davis campus -- will reconnect w/ her and the two will set off, with Harlow, to find and to free the "sister" Fern. Though this novel isn't a documentary, if my suppositions are correct it seems to have been inspired by the recent documentary on families trying, with little success and sometimes w/ serious consequences, to raise a chimp as a child.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Naturalism v Realistm: in A Dance to the Music of Time

Books Do Make a Room, volume 10 of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, is so far the most "literary" of the series; Powell gives as an amusing an acerbic glimpse of the life of a small press and small left-wing literary magazine during the heyday of independent British publishing (ca 1948-50), days long gone, days when people read a lot and cared deeply about what they read, when publishers would take a chance on really obscure books and articles, and when, in London at least, the world of literature was very clubby and those with access published incessantly - stories, novels, memoirs, review, essays - think of Burgess or Naipaul and their writings about their literary origins. We also get, for the first time at any extended length in this series, discussions about literature - although again, surprisingly, little to nothing about the narrator's (Nick Jenkins') literary taste, habits, or publications - other than that he's working on a book on Robert Burton and the Anatomy of Melancholy, which he quotes a few times (in an  earlier volume, he quoted Proust, the obvious influence on Powell). The literary discussion is primarily a drunken monologue by the self-absorbed but talented writer X. Trapnel - who quote correctly distinguishes between naturalism, which he favors, and realism - arguing that no novel is precisely "real," that to record or transcribe a scenes as actually lived or spoken would seem highly unrealistic in print, in a work of fiction. I'd have liked even more from Trapnel - but he seems to be a one-volume character in this series, which ends quite sorrowfully with two powerful scenes: Jenkins and Widmerpool showing up at the decripit apartment where Trapnel was living with Widmerpool's wife - Trapnel stands up to the odious though wronged Widmerpool - arousing Pamela's sexual ardor (a rarity for this beautiful cold fish), and the second scene in which T finds that Pamela has abandoned him and, in jealousy, destroyed the only copy of his near-completed novel (days before laptops). He never recovers from this, we infer - understandably, a novel would be nearly impossible to re-create, and losing a novel has destroyed others (e.g., Ellison). I wonder if Trapnel is based on any known writer - in fact, if any of the characters in Dance are - it's hard to say but with his bombast and his walking stick affectation, perhaps Dunleavy comes to mind - or maybe he's a pastiche made up of many.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Is England the size of a village? A Dance to the Music of Time

One of the real pleasures of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time is his use of dialogue (or, often, monologue) to create and delineate character; I wish I could capture this from memory, but the only way, really, is to quote the text, so you'll have to find some passages for yourself - but those who have read his books will agree that he uses dialogue not exactly realistically but in a broadly satiric matter. For ex., Widmerpool - to read any of his pompous and self-absorbed but finally idiotic declamations completely tells you that this guy is an ass and an ass-kisser completely self-absorbed and incredibly insecure at the same time. Or the novelist X. Trapnel, introduced in vol 10 Books Do Furnish a Room, a sponger and lout but a writer of some talent who despite his disheveled appearance and eccentric mannerisms somehow exudes charisma and attracts a band of acolytes: Powell captures Trapnel's acidic wit and his lofty sense of his own significance. In this volume, somehow, however improbably, Trapnel has persuaded Widmerpool's beautiful and unhappy wife, Pamela, to walk out of the marriage and run away with him. In other books, with other characters, we would shrug this off as ridiculously unlikely, but in Powell's work there is a constant shuffling about of characters and couplings, characters appear and fade out and show up again volumes later and the narrator, Jenkins, crosses paths with with those from his past with such uncanny frequency that we have the odd sense that the entire scope of his world over a lifetime consists of about 20 people and that England itself is about the size of a village. Maybe it is.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The writer's life: Dance to the Music of Time and the publishing biz

The 3rd (long) chapter (of 5) in Anthony Powell's vol 10, Books Do Furnish a Room, is about two parties and a conversation in a pub: the first party is at the home of the Latin American soldier-spy-diplomat Flores and his wife, Jean, formerly Dupont, and also the long-lost first love of narrator Nick Jenkins - he sees at this party how Jean has changed and how wealth becomes her, and he his wife, Isobel, about whom we know next to nothing, invite the Floreses to dinner at their house but learn that Flores has been summoned home because of some political changes - he's either rising in the government or a dead man. Second part is Jenkins and the title character of this vol Bagwich (?) meeting one of the promising authors for the new publishing house, a guy named X. Trapnel who characterizes the self-absorbed writer - everything about him is pretentious, including his walking stick with a skull at the head, his penchant for taking cabs everywhere in order to avoid, or so he says, bill collectors, and most of all his bloviating about his own writing. That said, it's about time that Powell start to give us some sense of the literary life in London - in that he is a writer, his series is somewhat autobiographical - in the same way that Search of Lost Time is, a writer's attempt to unfold his consciousness and experience in literary prose - and Jenkins himself is an acknowledged published novelist - though up to now we know almost nothing about his literary qualities, tastes, and habits. This volume, however, is the first that's really about the publishing world; the 3rd part of this chapters is about the kickoff party for the new lit magazine Fission; Jenkins is on as the book reviewer. The party is of course replete with the usual drunkenness and bluster - but holds out some hope that the writers will begin speaking (or Powell begin writing) about literature: and yet, we also see, quite accurately, that writers can be secretive and defensive and reluctant to talk about what they're writing or even what they're reading, and that most of the conversation is just high gossip.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Possibly the longest set piece in Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time

Second a very long chapter in Anthony Powell's Books Do Make a Room, vol 10 in A Dance to the Music of Time, is entirely focused on the funeral service for narrator Nick Jenkins's brother-in-law Erridge, or Erry - yet another example of the strange, shifting way in which Powell develops characters, or doesn't; one of the earlier volumes included a lot of scenes and info about Erridge, if I remember correctly, the oldest brother and an eccentric and ascetic pacifist and leftist - lived in a few cramped rooms in the remote family estate, gave away most of his space, and his fortune, to leftist causes, was ostracized as an objector to the war - but then over multiple following volumes we learn nothing more about him, and now he's posthumously once again at the center - and of course as in all volumes of this series characters keep making surprising, quite ludicrous re-appearances, often strangely enough now married to other members of the tight if dispersed social circle: prime example here is the radical leftists and sexual libertine Gypsy Jones turns up at funeral now married to publisher Carridge who offers Nick an editing and reviewing job. This does not seem a likely fate for the iconoclastic Gyspy but within the weird rules of Powell's fiction it makes sense. No normal reader could possibly keep straight all of the characters and the references and cross-references in the many conversations at and after the funeral - but as usual Powell draws our attention to Widmerpool and in this case toward his beautiful and disturbed young wife who makes a considerable disturbance leaving the church during the funeral, then becoming ill during the post-funeral gathering. This long set piece, one of the longest extended scenes in the whole series so far, is hilarious in some ways (the doddering elderly uncle who can't quite express himself, the clean-up after Mrs. W pukes in a huge Chinese vase) and at other times sorrowful: Powell does great job capturing the mood of post-war England, when all of the survivors feel both blessed and guilty, faced with opportunity but still suffering deprivation (gas rationing, and the strange presence at the funeral of a German POW functioning as a house aide) and uneasy in the peacetime economy.

Friday, September 19, 2014

What we learnin volume 10 of Dance to the Music of Time

Returned to Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, picking up with volume 10, Books Do Make the Room (once again, Powell shows himself to be terrible at titles), now we're in postwar England with narrator Nick Jenkins returning to school - it appears to be Oxford - to resume his studies - which btw seemed a long time ago, he's had practically a whole career since college and before national service - on something like the equivalent of the GI bill; a lot of the students are older, and it's not clear if he's actually seeking a degree, seems rather to be doing some research, on Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, of all things, The main theme, however, seems to be, in the first chapter, to get him in touch again w/ his favorite don, the cultish figure Sillers (sp?); Nick shows up for one of the typical evening salons at Sillers's rooms, events entirely dominated by Sillers, with undergrads mostly of leftist stripe taking it all in. Among several things we learn: Sillers has kept an assiduous diary - which should be a window on the lives of many characters in these novels - and he's working with a young woman, his "secretary," to get them edited and maybe published. There was every implication that S. was asexual or homosexual, but maybe not after all. The woman, however, tells him she's taking a job at a new publishing house, and it seems pretty clear that this venture will be the next stage in Jenkins's career. As in previous volumes: it's amazing what gaps Powell leaves in J's otherwise detailed narration of his life; his wife and children play almost no role and for the most part he seems like a single guy - to what do we attribute this? Is his "wife" a mask, much as Proust's heterosexual relationships were? Also, there are, increasingly, references to his life as a writer - the woman he meets at Sillers's says how she admired one of his prewar novels - but we never see his life as a writer (boring as that might be, admittedly) or see him engage in any serious literary discussions. I know Brits are famous polymaths, but can we really accept him as a published novelist? Finally, of course, everyone seems to know Widmerpool, who now has been elected to Parliament, which says more about Parliament, and English electoral politics, than anything else in the novel; much snickering about his sexy wife and how they can possibly work out their marriage.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

New Yorker on a roll: Another fine debut story

Another new writer (to most readers I guess) introduced this week in The New Yorker - I've criticized the mag's fiction selections for some time and I have to say they're now on a roll - which continues with the publication of a very intriguing and promising story by Victor Lodato, "Jack July." OK on one level it's yet another day-in-the-life-of-an-American-loser story, in this case a one-day span entirely within the desultory and cranked consciousness of a 20-something meth addict walking the blazing hot streets of Tuscon, coming down (to a degree) from a fix. Jack, looking for relief and solace, both physical and emotional, visits variously a fast-food place where he's turned away, his ex-girlfriend in her trailer - she threatens to call the cops, tosses a glass of water at him, his mostly estranged mother - he crawls through the window of his vanished sister's bedroom - very slight echo of Salinger here - and is confronted by his mother's new "roommate," who chastises Jack for the pain he's caused his mother over the years. At last, he returns to his very temporary home, an apt shared with a fellow meth-addict, a gay Mexican guy who came onto Jack in a restaurant men's room. Yes, very dark stuff, but much leavened by Lodato's terrific writing: he closely follows the heaving confusion of the addicted brain, with some at times very funny misperceptions (he has no idea what the restaurant greeter is saying to him - thinks somehow she's asking if he needs to "shit or pee" - very odd, and just on this side of credible), at other times with a feeling of authenticity - don't know where Lodato gets his info but he convincingly gives us access to a consciousness of an outsider. I also credit Lodato for giving this potentially wandering and flat narrative a real shape and purpose: over the course of the day, we learn, through Jack's reflections, about the deepest trauma of his life - the day when a vicious dog attacked his sister, and his lingering guilt; this plot element feels shoe-horned in a bit but it's rare to see a (presumably) young writer who's willing to push the story beyond its, or his, obvious strengths and pay homage to plot and character, the elements, let's face it, that readers like the most. All in all, a promising first look at a writer who I hope will give us much more.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Raising the dead: Odysseus' journey to Hades

Just a few more notes on The Odyssey, as I read the final sections of Stephen Mitchell's intro; particularly interesting was Mitchell's discussion of the descent into hell: it's a section kind of easy to skim over, it's narrated by O when he tells the Phaeacians of his long voyage and is easy to overlook as it represents a triple pause: a pause in his journey, a pause in the narrative of the journey, and a pause in "Homer's" narration of his story. As Mitchell says, O is discouraged and disappointed to have to make this voyage to Hades - he'd rather just head homeward - but he does so on the orders of a god (was it Athena? I don't remember). In Fogle's translation of the Aeniad, F notes that all great epics have a section in them that seems to make no sense, that interpolates or interrupts, and that these odd sections contribute greatly to both the beauty and mystery of these works: it's as if the poet were taking just a moment to indulge in his or her personal obsession (can't remember exactly what the passage was in the A. that led hi to make this comment - a section I think about a conflict between two Roman clans/?); the journey to Hades plays a similar role in the O.: it could be cut, and probably often is, but adds a great deal to the texture of the work: the distant and dark, densely overgrown island; the pouring of ram's blood on the ground to raise the spirits (glad to be reminded by the strangeness of this by Mitchell's intro - I kind of read right over it while going through the poem), the dead rising like mist or clouds and gorging on the blood, the only way that they car resume corporeality; the frightening expression from all of them that they would do anything to return to physical life; Tiresias's inexplicable prophecy of O making a voyage to a distant land, carrying an oar; O's futile attempts to embrace his mother, Achilles' jealousy of the living, the appearance of the immature sailor on O's ship who fell off a roof on Circe's island and died - requesting a proper burial service. Death and the underworld are part of the mystery at the heart of this voyage - and perhaps of any voyage: all travel carries with it the risk of death, imprisonment, and exile.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Some notes on Mitchell's notes on The Odyssey

Some comments on Stephen Mitchell's intro to his translation of The Odyssey: great that he, too, read an abridged v. as a youth and was taken by this fabulous story of monsters, giants, and mysterious civilizations in distant islands - yes, me too. Mitchell makes a shrewd remark that the odyssey within the Odyssey is like Odysseus' own epic poem, that there's no verification for it and that it may be a fantasy or tall tale within the work, nestled like Russian dolls - which leads to discussion of the seductive power of art and poetry - the call of the Sirens is analogous to the spell that epic poets cast on their audience. Also he notes that Odysseus is not a conventional Greek hero, in fact that he's somewhat unmanly: his interest in words and language and craft, so different from the purely physical Achilles et al., even his use of a bow and arrow rather than the more "manly" direct combat - but I'm not convinced of this, as there are many descriptions of his extraordinary strength and powerful physique. He notes that the Odyssey probably not written by that same "Homer" who wrote the Iliad, as the styles are each distinct and different - maybe so, but we'll never know for sure; mostly it's amazing to have two such powerful works from the same era still with us today and accessible. He also points out as have others that the Trojan Horse is never mentioned in the Iliad. He cites Aristotle's one paragraph summary of the plot, noting that the rest is "episode" - very true, it's all in the telling, and he notes that interpolated episodes of epic narration move O to tears, he's the most sensitive of the characters. The two tropes behind this narrative, he notes, are the return of the rightful king and the homeward journey - from the moment we meet O., he is in mourning for his homeland, and even willing to give up eternal life and youth with a beautiful goddess in order to return to Ithaca.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Stories by Lawrence and Mann that touch on their major themes

Read two more stories in that beat-up old anthology I carried w/ me over the weekend, each in its way very typical of the work of its respective author, and in compressed form: like taking a Thomas Mann pill or a D.H. Lawrence pill w/out having to read The Magic Mountain or Women in Love (just kidding - each novel worth reading and a great story always stands up well in its own right): Mann's The Infant Prodigy is one I'd never read before, about a 9-year-old musician-composer who gives a concert under the wing of an impressario and a doting mother; Mann gives us, over the course of the performance and, briefly, the reception, the interior thoughts of the child performer and many in the audience, and in doing so touches on some of his key themes: the mesmerizing nature of performance ( cf Mario and the Magician), the difference between true art and bourgeois conception of art, the scorn and contempt for those who think they understand and appreciate art but have not devoted their lives to the pursuit of or appreciation of beauty (Tonio Kroger), and even a hint of the old man's attraction to dapper young boys ( Death in Venice) - not his most artful story by any means but a catalog of some of his thoughts, precepts, and themes. Lawrence's The Horse Dealer's Daughter - though it's not about a coal miner nor about an aspiring artist or writer, captures the loneliness and darkness of a midlands industrial village, especially the miserable captivity of a man of intelligence and intellect consigned to that life - and the hardness of family life, especially for a woman with no or few options: daughter of a late failed horse dealer (a looming presence who never appears in the story) has to break up the family household - each of her 3 brothers, though now penniless, has somewhere to go to continue on with their lives, but she doesn't; she attempts suicide by walking into a clay-pit pond and is rescued by the local doctor, a friend of her brothers; he takes her home, revives her, wraps her in blankets - and as she comes to she begins kissing him frantically, and he realizes - or at least he says - that he loves her; the appear to have sex (DHL unusually coy on this point), and we see that their lives have been changed by this unexpected physical encounter; the sexual energy of the story - cutting through the dire and abject poverty of these lives - very typical of DHL, even extends to his description of the horses that opens the story, and for a strange and poignant touch he has the doctor feeling very sick with a serious cold - and we can't help but think of DHL himself and the TB that eventually killed him in his 40s or so.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The secret sharer

Re-read Conrad's great story The Secret Sharer , which many had commented on in re Exiles because of the theme of doubling and of "covering" for the double - there are similarities tho by no means a precise match. Wish I wrote as well as Conrad! This story has some of his best and most evocative writing about the beauty of the sea - the ships anchored in the outer channel of the gulf of Siam waiting for a fair wind to embark on the long voyage , the ship at might approaching the looming cliffs of a desolate island searching for a land wind. Some of the nautical writing is among his most technical and few lay readers will understand all of it nor are we meant to - the familiarity w the arcana of seafaring helps us understand that the unnamed narrator is now an expert seaman but reflecting on a time when he was an insecure novice first voyage as captain. His secret sharer is a sailor he hoists in from overboard who is wanted for killing a shipmate. The narrator understands or believes in the man's innocence and protects him - shelter's him in his quarters for first days of the voyage until they work out a plan to set him free near shore. Several layers of meaning. First and most obvious the sharer represent aspects of the captain's personality that he sheds or must shed in order to go on to his successful career - impetuosity adventure comradeship. Second he represents a course not taken in life - and the last opportunity for a new life - interesting to imagine the impossible sequel of the sharer's life story. Third the homoerotic element - their time together almost like a courtship in the same cabin the whispered conversations the mysterious and hidden nature of their time together. Fourth the possibility that the entire connection is delusional that the captain imagined this encounter either at the time or after to help guide his spirit to the next phase of his life and career - he needed and therefore imagined a companion - whom he could set free and move onward much as a child often has an imaginary pet or friend.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield is a writer we seldom hear of today but she was much anthologized back in the 60s. I came across one of her stories Her First Ball as I'm poking around in a very old pb anthology great modern European stories. The editors wisely pair her story w chekhov's great The Kiss - both about an insecure outsider who has an epiphanic moment at a dress ball chekhov's from the male pov and Mansfield from the pov of a young woman 18 who's lived in the English countryside and is going to her first dress ball w her much more sophisticated city cousins. After some initial excellent and succinct description of the excitement and nervous energy of the event m sets the dance in motions. The central char Leila dances shyly w the first two men making awkward conversation about the floor - is this the way all conversations must begin she wonders - and the in the 3rd dance w an embittered and overweight 40ish man things change - he noted nastily that by the times she's his age she'll be sitting on the stage w the parents her youth and beauty gone - Leila is devastated by this cruelty but for a moment only. M leaves us w a vision of her dancing and bumping into the cruel man and not even recognizing him but of course we recognize the sorrowful accuracy of his cruel words - and his isolation as well. M apparently died at about 35 and had written many stories but I guess Bcz there's no one great novel we don't pay much attention today to her works. That too is sorrowful.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

New Yorker story

Very good debut story in current New Yorker from Irish (?) writer Danielle McLoughlin the dinosaurs on other planets - a fairly long naturalistic story w limited cast of chars - a 50ish woman married to a 70ish man who is cranky and withdrawn - they have not slept together in more than a year and he will not discuss anything about their relationship - and repressed and ashamed she feels she must keep this estrangement or rejection a secret - they have two grown children one long absent in japan. The other daughter Emer announces a weekend visit (from London) and shows up w her 6 year old son and new boyfriend. From there the story unfolds v much like a play as the central char - Kate - feels ever more deeply alone and at the same time strangely enlivened by daughter'a boyfriend's evident interest in her. It's one of those rare stories that feels complete in itself and yet in which the characters are sufficiently round and also sharply delineates so that we can imagine them living off of or beyond the page. We are left w just enough doubt and unanswered questions to sharpen our attention: what is the building that husband Colman is ripping down at the outset of the story? Who is boyfriend Pavel and why is he suddenly cast aside?

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thoughts on the Odyssey, the Iliiad, and Homer's unwritten volume 3

After the blood-spattered conclusion to The Odyssey - anyone who's read it remembers how Odysseus, Telemachus, and two loyal subjects overcome and massacre the suitors in the sealed off dining chamber, the screams of terror echoing throughout the palace - O shows some mercy to two of the hangers-on who plead for their lives, saying they did no wrong - one was the poet whom the suitors had coerced into providing some entertainment, no surprise the Homer would let him off the hook - and O is pretty vindictive against the handmaids whom he believes have become prostitutes for the suitors - but can you blame them? They were slaves - looking for the best, the only, opportunity for survival. Long odd scene of his reunion with the ever-tearful Penelope; nobody can doubt her unearthly devotion to him, or perhaps to his memory, but isn't it odd that the nursemaid, even the dog, recognize O on his return but she does not, even after a very long conversation with O in disguise? It's very touching that, after all the tribulation and bloodshed, the epic concludes with O's visit to his now-widowed father, Laertes, on his remote farm - a kind of pastoral conclusion to this oceanic voyage. Thinking back, it strikes me that there's an obvious contrast between the Iliad and the Odyssey (there are many but I'll pont out one): the Iliad is about attack or penetration - trying the get inside the walls of Troy, finally achieved through O's cunning; the Odyssey is about escape - from many imprisonments and enchantments, most dramatically from the cave of the Cyclops. Another final note: O spoke several times about his concern about killing all of the suitors; they're all from powerful families, most of them on the island of Ithaca I think, and O is rightly concerned about any or all of the families attacking his palace and seeking revenge. That's still an outstanding issue at the conclusion; is it possible that Homer was pondering a 3rd volume?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The coldness of Odyssues and a word about the "handmaid"

As I near the conclusion of The Odyssey - with Odysseus in the palace in Ithaca pretending to be an elderly beggar in order to get close to the legion of suitors and prepare a surprise attack at which he and Telemachus will wipe them all out - I can't help but be amazed at the emotional coldness of Odysseus. Obviously as we learn in the very first line of The Odyssey he's known not only for his great strength but his "craftiness" and he has formulated in his mind an elaborate plot to overcome a force that ridiculously outnumbers his - and his success depends on keeping his identity secret (even though he's already shown that he's very powerful, in a fight against a seemingly younger and more fit mendicant) - but the lengths to which he goes to conceal his identity are almost preposterous: he has a long conversation with his wife, Penelope, whom he hasn't seen in 20 years, who's been in constant mourning for him, and he spins a whole fake tale about his supposed homeland, Crete, where he saw Odysseus many years back - not giving the slightest hint to Penelope and not feeling torn or troubled or wracked by guilt and pain for not being able to reveal himself to her. He's identified twice: first, by his old dog, Argos, who slowly wags her tail and then dies - to me the most touching moment in the entire epic, so believable actually, except for O's reaction, which is essentially nothing - not a tear, not a choked up feeling? Second identification is from Penelope's elderly servant who recognizes a scar on O's leg (leading to a long back story about how he was injured by a wild boar during a hunt) - he makes her sweat to secrecy, which is fine, and then tells her: if you break this promise I'll kill you along with the other handmaids. Wow, to even consider that is quite appalling, and ruthless. A word about "handmaids" by the way: another example of the brutal class structure in "classical" society - these women hanging around the court are at best slaves but also, it would appear, sex slaves, as it seems evident that all this rubbing with oil and pouring warm water over the men's hands and serving bounteous dishes had a sexual component: these women are there to serve pleasure of the nobility; the Mitchell translation has them called, at various times, sluts and bitches, but we might also consider calling them what they were: prisoners.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

2 observations on The Odyssey: nobility v servitude, and family reunions

Just two notes on The Odyssey today, both Odysseus and Telemachus have returned to Ithaca and they meet - O in disguise - and the rude farmhouse of the ever-loyal swineherd, Emmeus (?). After an evening of dining and drinking, E. tells his life story to O (I think) and reveals that he was a prince who was kidnapped and essentially sold into exile and slavery (reminds of Sansho the Bailiff, which I just saw) - so now we get it, the guy who's the truly loyal, selfless, devoted, asexual servant isn't really of the servile "class" at all but he's of noble birth: only the nobility know how to be truly servile and self-effacing. It's an ideal they hold so high that none but they can execute it. So this goes far beyond the loyal servants in, say, Shakespeare, who seem to have little purpose in life other than to prostrate themselves so that their "masters" can step on their backs. Homer went one big step further in his ideology: to be a true servant is to be ennobled, and vice versa. Second, what about the meet between Telemachus and Odysseus? I don't know if others agree but it seems to me a cold and unemotional reunion: O hasn't seen his son in 20 years (the timing doesn't seem exactly right as T behaves more like a teenager than a 20+, but no matter) and T has traveled around the Mediterranean just search of news of his father - but when they meet there's not a lot of tearful embracing and expression of emotion, it's just a recognition and, almost immediately, setting forth on a plan to clear out the suitors and reclaim Penelope and the seat of power. What's with this?

Monday, September 8, 2014

The mystery of Alice James - book group discussion

Book group largely puzzled by the life and the significance of Alice James, as we discussed the Strouse bio of same - I opened by asking the fundamental question, that is, was AJ a potentially great writer whose talent never came to fruition and if so, why didn't it? The Stouse bio definitely had a feminist POV and I was surprised by the resistance to that interpretation in the group, with several members saying there was no evidence, at least from quoted material we read, that AJ was an exceptional writer in any case (I thought she was a very sharp and observant, and suspect her letters were terrific but most were destroyed - a mystery in itself). General agreement, however, that she was a victim of the low expectations of her narcissistic father, that he was of no help to her - general concurrence w/ my view that his need for constant relocation and failure to enroll AJ in any sort of formal schooling led further to her social isolation - I think what she really needed in that difficult family was just a friend or two. We also noted that the failure to become a significant writer was not solely a gender issue, as the two middle brothers led desultory lives at best. I brought up the obvious comparisons with Dickinson, the ultimate outsider artist and the ultimate insider artist, both unpublished but for completely different reasons. Of course AJ despite her talents might not have been suited to become a writer - but we noted that her family and cultural expectations dictated that the only suitable occupation would have been as a wife, which she obviously was not suited for. General bafflement and uninterest as to whether she was a lesbian - I believe or want to believe that she enjoyed a sexual and romantic relationship w/ Katharine Loring, but there's no evidence and as JRi noted historians are confined to the evidence in hand. Complete puzzlement as to exact nature of her illness - though agreed that it was real and severe and not simply a way to "get attention" - in her day it was a form of hysteria, which is rarely discussed or diagnosed as such today - leading to discussion of how the culture of the times leads to certain illnesses or at least to certain diagnoses - the prescribed treatments of the day are a window onto what the culture accepts as normal behavior or defines as ill or deviant.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Story marking new territory for McGuane

Tom McGuane story The Motherlode in the current New Yorker is one of the best I've seen in this magazine in years. McGuane recently has been writing a lot of stories about the nouveaux riches in the Northwest, Montana specifically, or, if not quite the riches, at least the professional class that is making money - realtors, car dealers - from the vacationing Hollywood moguls on the play-ranches. This story marks another shift for McGuane: it's about a slice of Northwest-Plains State culture, but the characters here are the outsider-loser-strivers so typical of American fiction, especially short fiction. The main character - story told in very close 3rd-person narration - is a 20-something guy, not especially driven or intelligent, living at home w/ mom still, who's started a reasonably successful business at cow-insemination, much in demand among the ranchers of Montana, and he's good at it. The job is kind of like a traveling salesman's and he has a route across Montana and as he makes his rounds. In one small town he notices he's being watched by a kind of creepy guy who inexplicably says he's come there to watch the comets; the guy comes up to him in a parking lot, holds a gut to his ribs, and orders him to give him a ride to a ranch about 2 hours away. From this kidnapping episode a whole skein of events unravels, as the protagonist, feeling like the outsider sucker he is, joins in an obscure drug-running scheme. The narration shows McGuane at his best - simple, clear prose that is filled with sharp observation and shrewd turns of phrase but that never draws attention to style or voice and keeps the story moving rapidly toward it's stunning conclusion. If this marks new territory for McGuane, it looks like a rich field: the underbelly beneath the recent Western prosperity, the young who see all the wealth around them and want a piece of that action, by whatever means

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Loyal Subject - in literature and in The Odyssey

Odysseus the crafty wanders across Ithaca in disguise - as noted in yesterday's post I'm not sure the disguise was really necessary and that his "disguise" was most likely that he'd aged 40 years - and is taken in by his most loyal subject, an old swineherd, the template for about a thousand characters who followed in world literature of the loyal, self-sacrificing, non-sexual servant - that is, the aristocrat's view of the ideal subject - who feeds him and offers him a the best comfort he can. Odysseus - for reasons we don't yet quite understand - maintains his disguise and launches onto a long cock-and-bull story about his wanderings after the Trojan War - tells of a voyage to Crete along with the King of Crete's son, Idomeneo. Today's readers may recognize this story of Idomeneus (sp?) that now has a life of its own, captured in one of Mozart's lesser-known but still beautiful operas. What's Odysseus' motive here? He wants to enter the palace, his own home, stealthily to get a leg up on the competition - the many suitors who have gathered, seeking to marry Penelope, eating and drinking up all the available food, plotting to kill Telemachus - and at this point I suppose it's trust nobody - even his most loyal subject might give the game away. All dog-lovers, however, will remember that when O arrives at the courtyard he is greeted by his elderly dog (Argo?), who licks his hand and then dies: now that's the definition of a truly loyal subject! We can accept that with dogs, but why must the serfs and peasants, ever loyal to their masters (in literature, at least, if not in life) have to live like dogs?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Two odd scenes at the pivotal moment in The Odyssey

Two notes about the pivotal section of The Odyssey, that is, the chapters in which Odysseus completes narrating the tale of his 20-year journey to his hosts, the Phaeacians, and they prepare to transport him back to Ithaca: First, O finiahes his tale, bringing the narrative right up to the present point, his release from Calypso's enchantment and shipwreck and recovery by the sailing experts, the Phaeacians: the kind of the Ph's is so moved by Odysseus' tale that he literally orders each of the noblemen gathered in his hall for the banquet to make some lavish and totaly superfluous gift to O - golden tripods and cauldrons or something like that, like a bride receiving say 20 Cuisnarts - ever hear of a gift registry? - and you can just imagine the noblemen thinking Oh, great, another thing we've got to spring for - but wait, the king takes the sting out of this and says he'll make sure they all get paid back for this expense by raising a tax on the people. Great, terrific way to run a government, let alone a democracy, if it even was such a thing. I guess you could say the gifts to O are not only a tribute but a form of foeign aid, buying his allegiance and loyalty in case there's a future Mediterranean war, not so different from the "investments" we make in 3rd-world countries today. Anyway, they tansport him home to Ithaca - he sleeps the whole way, real first-class travel - and a bit of a hint that he's not so far from home after all - and they leave him with his stupid cauldrons on the shore. A very touching scene ensues when he wakes but does not recognize his homeland - an experience everyone knows, I think - things look similar but oddly misplaced on return after long absence and it's hard to recognize even familiar places, and faces. Athena comes in to guide him, however, and she gives him the "disguise" of making him look much older: aging his hair, clothes, musculature. One would expect that O would in fact truly be much older and not recognizable - after 20 years of war and hard travels. But there's something touching in how Homer has to "dress up" his hero: rather than say he's aged and looks like a 70-year-old man, he has the aging be a god-given disguise. We're all only mortals, but the Greeks cannot face up to the mortality of their heroes, for some reason, so since they can't be gods, they can be ageless - and the sign of aging can be explained away as just a disguise.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The complex use of time in The Odyssey

Odysseus' visit to Hades to summon the dead and hear the prophecy of Tiresias is one of the stranger moment - among the many - in the Odyssey; it feels like a pause in the voyage, and it is, as O's shipmates are angry that he makes this stop after their freed from Circe's enchantments - they want head straight back to Ithaca - but O has sworn (to Circe?) that he will make this stop and besides he wants the intelligence from Tiresias. Home gives relatively little description of Hades, unfortunately, just that it's out beyond the farthest reaches of the Ocean (an all-purpose word, it seems, sometimes denoting the sea and sometimes a great river) and in a land so overgrown that it's constantly dark as night; the men pour some libations and make some offerings to the dead - yes, to the dead - which brings back a bit of spite memory as I recall my daughter's idiot h.s. English teacher knocking her down a grade on a fine essay on the Odyssey because she said that they sacrificed to the dead and the idiot teacher said no they sacrificed only to the gods - and the spirits arise from a pit in the ground. Tiresias gives O some valuable but disturbing information - that he will wander at sea for many years and if he does return home it will be in another's ship and he will find trouble at home - all because Poseidon was angry at the blinding of his son the Cyclops (got a better solution, Po?). O also sees the spirit of his mother who gives him some updates on the family back in Ithaca; he tries to embrace her but it's like embracing a cloud of smoke. This is a section of the Odyssey that you'd think maybe doesn't have to exist, maybe could be cut in the interest of pace and economy - but I think it adds to the complexity of time and space in the Odyssey: We begin the epic toward the end of the journey, with Telemachus waiting for the return of his father, uncertain of O's fate; then we hear rumors that O is still alive - and only then do we enter O's story, near the end of his voyage. We don't learn the "back story" until 1/3 through the poem, as he relates his journeys to the Phaecians; and now we get a moment in the back story when, through the prophecy, he looks - we look - even farther ahead, to the time of O's eventual arrival in Ithaca. These interlocked and layered strands of chronology give us a dislocated sense of time and in that sense make the poem feel timeless: from any point in the narrative we can look forward to the conclusion or backward to the source (also many references to the battles of Troy and to the Trojan horse - more on that than in the Iliad I think): Homer uses time to make his narrative stand outside of time.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Odyssey and interstellar flight

The Odyssey in The Odyssey finally begins in section 9, about a third of the way through the epic poem, as Odysseus, rescued after a shipwreck by the Phaecians (?), expert sailors who promise to take him on a safe voyage home at last, entertain O with Olympic-style games - at which, after being taunted, he beats everyone in the discus throw - and then in a banquet. After the banquet an epic poet sings of the Trojan War and O burst into tears; the hosts ask him to identify himself and tell where his home lies - oddly inexplicable that they wouldn't have asked this straight off; there must have been some obvious tipoff - language? - that showed them he was a ruler and not some castaway ordinary sailor - and at last he tells them he's the very hero of whom they've been hearing, and he begins the tale of his journey. Of course The Odyssey is what makes The Odyssey The Odyssey, and it's every bit as enthralling and richly imaginative  as you remember - from the Land of the Lotus Eaters (a surprisingly brief segment of the poem) to the captivity by the Cyclops and Odysseus' cunning in outwitting him and gaining safety for some of the men to the attack by the Laodecians (?), smashing all but one of the boats, to the landing on the Isle of Circe, the first place of enchantment. The ancient Greeks must have imagined that each of their thousands of islands had its own story and its own life form; most people would never travel and would have little or no news of life beyond their immediate horizon, except for the fantastic tales that the poets told. Shelley called poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world but in fact poets were the unacknowledged journalists of the world as well - providing the only way in which people understood that there was life elsewhere and that human culture was one. It would, however, be much easier for ancient Greeks to give credence to stories about one-eyed giants living within a day's travel - the world was entirely populated by their imagination, they were not as fact-bound as we are today (they might imagine life on the Mediterranean isles as we imagine life on other planets or in other galaxies; anything's possible beyond the physical or visible world as we know or see it). It's not exactly that they would have taken the story of the Odyssey as literal truth - but the story may have verged on the edge of credible, as an imagined story of interstellar flight - Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, et al. - does for us today.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why the Greek gods are a form of propaganda

Very absorbed in and very much enjoying reading the Stephen Mitchel tr. of Homer's The Odyssey, yet of course feeling a little uncomfortable as well: yes this a seminal work of world literature and yes it's written from the viewpoint of an entirely different culture and yes our world has evolved, perhaps even for the better, over 2 + millennia and yet: are others troubled by the class structure of "classic" Greek literature? We extol the virtual of Greek literature, philosophy, and, most important, Athenian democracy - but reading Homer we also see how limited any democratic principles were when it came to afflicting any of the powers of the oligarchs - however wise and benevolent they may have been. This was a slave society, there's no other way to put it, and the wealth was concentrated in the hands of the very few who, through their well-armed militias, protected that wealth. Yes, much of The Odyssey concerns Telemachus' protection of his family fortune - but by whose right does he own that fortune? You can be sure there were (quiet) voices of dissent in Homer's time - but not from the official (that is, protected and preserved for posterity) court poets. If there weren't some form of dissent or uprising, Homer and his cohort would not have felt compelled to create the superstructure of deities that seem to "control" all of the action in the Odyssey: this control by the Greek gods is a difficult concept for modern readers, but you have to see it as a form of social control: it's not just that your king controls all of the wealth in the kingdom and keeps armies and harems of palace slaves, it's that all of this behavior, this class structure, this oligarchy, is sanctioned from on high, it's not the way of the world it's the way of creation, the way of the universe. The deities with their many appearances on earth in human guise serve the real, ultimate purpose of making readers and listeners believe that the structure of Greek society is somehow "natural" - when in fact it's imposed by power. The Greek gods are a form of literary propaganda.

Monday, September 1, 2014

First glimpse of Odysseus in The Odyssey - not till part 5

Surprisingly, Odysseus does not appear in The Odyssey until the 5th (of 24) sections, at which point we find him not in heroic mode but in despair: he's sitting on the beach, mournfully looking at the horizon and dreaming of home. He at last tells Calypso that she has to release him - though she's more beautiful and alluring and of course eternal as a goddess than his wife, Penelope, he wants to go back to P. - this element of The Odyssey is like about a thousand teenage love songs - and she agrees at last to let him go. She brings him to a forest on her island, gives him the tools, tells him to make a boat, which she will provision. Well, I'd be stuck right there, but O of course knows how to build a boat from 20 felled trees, though fearful of undertaking the voyage alone, he heads off to sea. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, so to speak, the suitors for P. have now learned that Telemachus has sailed off to try to learn of his father's fate and they plot to lay in wait for him on his return, ambush him, and kill him. So the forces of the epic poem are truly converging on Ithaca, as both T. and O. are heading there, with trouble awaiting. Again, I am struck by how deft and complex this narrative structure turns out to be - we are entering the story near the end, and the most famous part of the narrative, the voyage of Odysseus, comes much later - presumably, if my memory serves, a narrative that O relates to others on his return to Ithaca. Also, as noted previously, I am struck by how much of The Oddyssey is a coming-of-age story - Telemachus becoming a man, preparing for the return of his father, protecting his mother and the family legacy.