Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hercules and Minerva at Thoreau's Walden

A former student, who might not need to remain nameless, shared the following observations with me. He comments on two mentions of classical mythology in Thoreau's On Walden Pond. I'd categorize them as OGCMA0249NOTAthena_Thoreau and  0556NOTHeraclesAugeas_Thoreau, respectively. Enjoy. Thanks, M.N.!

"So, I graduated and moved away so I don't have easy access to the Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts to know if this usage was in there already or not; but, I did find a couple of usages during some leisure reading that you were probably already aware of, but just in case you didn't know them, I thought I would send them to help you in your quest to take over the world by recording all usages of classical myth. :) [The secret is getting out!]
Both usages are from Henry David Thoreau's Walden. The first of which is as follows:
The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my
neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an
end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any
monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolas to burn with
a hot iron the root of the Hydra’s head, but as soon as one head is
crushed, two spring up... How many a poor immortal soul have I met well
nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of
life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean
stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage,
mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with
no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to
subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh. (Pages 7-8)
The smoking gun is clear enough, as is his meaning. It is hard to miss the call to live simply in Walden, and the fact that many people find themselves in ceaseless labor throughout their lives in order to satisfy their lavish and worldly desires, they are worse off than Hercules, who at least eventually finished his labors. [Thoreau's] poor countrymen labor endlessly, all their lives, and never have anything to show for it. No trophies, no accolades, and no reason to remember them after they are gone.

The second usage invokes the Minerva myth...
And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer
but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. As I
understand it, that was a valid objection urged by Momus against the
house which Minerva made, that she “had not made it movable, by
which means a bad neighborhood might be avoided;” and it may still
be urged, for our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often
imprisoned rather than housed in them; and the bad neighborhood to
be avoided is our own scurvy selves. I know one or two families, at
least, in this town, who, for nearly a generation, have been wishing to
sell their houses in the outskirts and move into the village, but have
not been able to accomplish it, and only death will set them free. (Pages 27-28)
Again, it is unfortunate that I was unable to grab a copy of the OGCMA to read up further on this mythical reference in a zero-grade setting, as it was I was forced to consult Wikipedia. 
It is telling that Thoreau would side with Momos, the minor figure who was ultimately cast out for his criticism of those in power. [See Hesiod Theog. 214, for the earliest mention of this personification of fault-finding.] Rather than siding with the major Gods as most narratives do, deriding Momos for his unjust and jealous criticism, [Thoroeau] claims that it was a valid objection. He would be no stranger to criticism for his writings, especially his essay on Civil Disobedience, in which he criticized government and its lack of morality, especially in matters of taxation. Perhaps, (and this may be a stretch) he means to draw a parallel between the foolish and vain Gods of antiquity and the unjust, overreaching government.

Just some thoughts. I didn't know who else to share them with that might get a kick of them, but I remembered you hoped that your students would continue to alert you to narrative gains and uses of classical myths."

— submitted by M.N. 30 June 2014

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Jocasta + Oedipus in the Colombian highlands: Oedipus Mayor is really about Jocasta

Oedipo Alcalde (Oedipus Mayor), 1996, Colombia (dir. J. Alí Triana), screenplay by Gabriel García Márquez et al.0758NOTOedipus_Triana

Edipo the dashing proponent of peace leaves the big city, venturing into the highlands where mob violence has threatened the utter destruction of the region. A nighttime standoff at the bridge into one village results in Edipo’s dispatching his unseen opponent with a single shot. A clean bullet-hole obscures the windshield, and nobody sees inside. Two and two will not be put together soon enough. And, as violence will beget violence, the search first for Laio, then for his killers, brings blood feuds to the surface of the small town, with Creonte  
leading the anarchy.
       It is not that the participants are too dumb. The problem is articulated by Creonte: since the army is too weak private militias are in local control. “Do you think it a coincidence that the mob should kidnap Laius just as you arrive, Mr. Mayor?” Next thing, Laius shows up dead. Yocasta says to Edipo, “You chose an ill fated day to appear.”Indeed.      
      Yocasta (Ángela Molina) has squandered most of her best years in a loveless marriage to Laio. But she soon learns love with the handsome newcomer; he reciprocates. Any viewer of a film called "Oedipus" will have recognized the direction of this steamy affair. And the director plays the eroticism way up. It earns an R-rating, to be sure. The first scene of intimacy is chillingly maternal. But the sordid reality of the affair dawns only very late upon the lovers. Where the adapted narrative seems to surpass even its brilliant Sophoclean source is in articulating how deeply Jocasta longs to plunge unpleasant memories of her newly departed husband into the depths of her desire for Edipo (Jorge Perugorría).
The Freudian element is gratefully underplayed for a 21st-century film. The filmmakers leave these details for the knowing viewer to grapple with. Far away are the heavy-handed treatments, say, of Cocteau's Œdipe and Jocaste bedding down beside the cradle of the bride's conspicuously lost child, as Jocaste undresses her "big baby" and he calls her "my little mother dear." Ugh! García Marquez and Triana are considerably more astute in their presentation of Jocasta's ill-fated passion. The abiding effects of Jocasta’s galling error linger into the film’s last frames and beyond. For, though Edipo plummets from a great height, the film closes with him groping through thickened traffic of an evening in Bogota, a scruffy beggar in the metropolis, far from the highlands where he was momentary king.  This film, though, is much less about him. Whereas Sophocles — and most of his adaptors — forces the chorus and audience to ponder the height of the Oedipal fall to these gore-filled eyeless sockets and clicking staff, the final blood in Triana’s film comes from the belly of Jocasta sprawled on the floor of her bedroom, a huge pair of shears piercing her belly and the incestuous foetus within. She has made sure their baby died first, then she herself.
The Jocasta contrived by García Marquez and company never enjoys the maternal pleasure of childbearing, for in its brevity her fling with Edipo does not bring those cursed children Antigone and her siblings into a potentially happy home. Yet, Sophoclean Jocasta did have those years that may well have been joyous. Why should they not have been? What with the queen of Thebes celebrating prosperity alongside the king who could do no wrong. Sophocles contrives her fall as appalling and swift. She sees, to be sure, the writing as it forms on the wall; and she urges her consort to halt his investigation. At that point she must know; and gradual discovery of Laius' murderer is the point beyond which Jocasta will never know happiness again. But Oedipo Alcalde offers an affair between Oedipus and Jocasta that is only about incipient erotic love and the gutwrenching effects on the partners.
In the space of a 100-minute film, this director allows Jocasta to enjoy a new side of herself with the welcoming heart of a man she must not love. When it comes undone, Jocasta’s world is as bitter as it ever was joyful.
Jane Davidson Reid’s Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300 – 1990’s (Oxford UP, 1994) crowds all narratives about Jocasta into the articles s.v. “Oedipus”. Failing to differentiate between narratives, such as Oedipo Alcalde or Martha Graham’s Night Journey, that more fully emphasize the plight of Jocasta, is an oversight of the OGCMA. I would propose that this film be categorized not under Oedipus narratives, but especially among Jocasta narratives — OGCMA0623NOTJocasta_Triana. 

submitted by RTM

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Clash of the Perseids (2010): Percy Jackson v. Clash of the Titans, part I

My nifty new — and free for this entire semester (Thanks, OUP!) — Netflix subscription has allowed me to see a number of films I haven’t otherwise seen. This oversight is mostly due to the fact that I am too cheap to pay full price for cinema. But, Netflix has recently brought me on back-to-back nights the Percy Jackson Lightning Thief and the same year’s reride of The Clash of the Titans (2010). This post will deal with the latter, and next week I’ll write about Percy.

My stance on mythological usage has me scratching my head about Louis Letterrier’s film, based on a screenplay by Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi. A handful of overt allusions to the 1981 Clash tend to classicize the predecessor. In fact, Beverley Cross' 1981 screenplay gets credited at IMDB. From the 1981 I thought Bubo had died a quaint mechanical death; but he’s back for a moment. The DVD’s frontmatter features the 1981 theatrical trailer, but it also includes an elaborate advert for the related video game. Casting Flora Robson to reprise her role as one of the Stygian Witches (i.e. the Graeae) for the remake is an amusing nod in homage.

In 2010, when the film’s ramp-up began, I watched the first trailer offered me, because I wanted to see whether the infamous Kraken would once again be released. To my chagrin, it was. To the redoubtable Liam Neeson befalls the odious burden of that fated line, “Release the Kraken.” … What is about this film that it compels directors to drag first Sir Laurence Olivier and now another Oscared actor to their shared post-prime nadir? However it works, the Kraken rides again. He’s back, and this time he’s really angry.

The screenplay committee has woven some fascinating novelties into the new script, though. I have no recollection of religious fanaticism running thematically through the 1981 film. The 21st Century gets to consider the effects of societal hubris, but it must be sure to steer clear of the mob’s inclination to fervor. The mob wants to see Andromeda dangle like bait for the dreaded Kraken. For Cassiopeia’s arrogance has provoked divine wrath. “[Andromeda is] more beautiful than Aphrodite herself. The Olympians should envy her. We are the gods now,” she boasts. But a satanic Hades arrives, as Maleficent in her fiery fury, to correct Cassiopeia’s course. For he causes the instantaneous aging and ugly death of Cassiopeia, who mere moments before was as lovely as Polly Walker.

This divine war against Olympus has been waged for years by the haughty Cepheus and his queen. The film begins with the accidental death of Perseus’ adoptive family, who find themselves at the precisely wrong spot of coastline when Cepheus’ henchmen are toppling a colossal votive of Zeus into the sea. Who knew that Cepheus was in on this too? My whole life it has seemed to be Cassiopeia’s arrogance alone that provoked the gods. In this new film, the king too is complicit for pilaging temples, toppling statues, starving the Olympians of the sacrifices they live on, and plotting a war to rival the Titanomachy.

When classical mythographers considered a cranky Olympus, they had Zeus wipe out mankind by sending the Great Flood, ending the generations of wickedness and causing earthlings to begin anew with Deucalion and Pyrrha. The now classic (?) Clash of the Titans (1981) presented Perseus as the savior of Joppa and by extension all mankind. At least this writing team is smart enough to put Perseus in Argos, even if the comic-book CGI sea-side landscape is not even remotely like unto Peloponessian Argos. The new Clash adds the peculiar twist that the Argives really do not deserve salvation. The mob is despicable; the monarchy also. But moreover, Perseus expresses no desire to remain with Andromeda in Argos and become the Argive king who sorts it out. Maybe the generation raised on Marvel needs its superhero to remain aloof at the end of his quest.

Hades, classically speaking, is not satanic. King of the Underworld though he may be, Greeks did not see him as a tempter. Indeed, LDS audiences might find the most fascinating vignette of this film to be the discussion on Olympus in which Hades (Ralph Fiennes) discusses with Zeus (Neeson) the desirability to compel mortals to worship the gods. Zeus’ inclination to allow men to choose for themselves resonates in an interesting way.

Io. Here she is not a cow. Rather, Io is an intriguing divine presence who inspires and prods the Letterrier Perseus toward his destined potential. Her perspective sees Danaë’s impregnation altogether differently than the classical versions. For my money, the reworking of Io is far and away the most interesting feature of this new film. From her initially unidentified narrative introduction — she explains the Titanomachy, the conception of the Kraken, the tyranny of Zeus (as if she knew her Aeschylus) — to the final coaching of Perseus, the daughter of Inachus is worth examining in small detail. She of all mortals knows best the lumps that come from contact with the King of Gods and Men.

How about those Titans, though? Did it bother anybody but me that the 1981 Clash included no Titans? That film’s plot was a clash of the Olympians. A bitter Calibos urges his mother, Thetis (… huh?), to right his wrong by releasing the Kraken. Olympians Zeus and Poseidon also control this mythical monstrosity. But where are the Titans? Send in the Titans! So, when this new generation’s remake is equally bereft of the Overreachers, though the Stygians do celebrate a catastrophic pitting of “A Titan against a Titan!”

Did I mention the stunning Pegasus footage throughout? It’s pretty cool. Had the 2010 Perseus zipped about on borrowed talaria, the CGI team would have had much less to do. So, let’s overlook the filmmakers’ impulse to have Perseus mount Belerophon’s steed.

So, in summary: purists might sneer down their long noses at the 2010 Clash for its lack of mythological fidelity. I might even admit the occasional inclination to that myself. But the religious fervor and especially the remarkable insertion of Io, to the extermination of Athena, make this film worth considering on deeper levels. 


Friday, July 18, 2014

Yourgrau's Song of Jacob Zulu measured against Aeschylus' Oresteia

Tug Yourgrau mentions Aeschylus’ Oresteia among the sources that influenced his 1992 stageplay The Song of Jacob Zulu.[1] Born a white South African, Yourgrau bases his first published drama upon the trial of Andrew Zondo, a young black man who confessed to killing four shoppers at a Durban mall by detonating a shrapnel bomb. Dozens of innocent people were also injured in the incident. Yourgrau’s courtroom drama engages issues of justice and atonement. It is called by some critics an oresteia.
Steppenwolf Theatre (Chicago), production of
The Song of Jacob Zulu (1992); from the Theatre's website.

Oresteias narrate the plight of the House of Atreus in its critical emergence from the Trojan War. The Rape of Helen precipitated the War; the murder of Agamemnon punctuated its conclusion. But closure could not come to the Atreidai until Orestes avenged his father’s homicide through matricide and endured humanity’s most gut-wrenching dilemma. One young man is obligated to atone for all the ills of all Tantalus’ posterity. It is the equivalent, in Greek mythological terms, of one individual’s reversal of the effects of Adam’s transgression.

Jacob Zulu is Yourgrau’s literary creation whose crime parallels Andrew Zondo’s. According to his creator, Jacob’s name recalls the protagonist of Genesis. The character’s parents are portrayed as god-fearing Christians, the Rev. and Mrs. Zulu staunchly advocating the value of righteousness and confession. Aside from the Reverend’s advanced social status, the elder Zulus would scarcely bear any resemblance to Orestes’ notorious parents, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. The social circumstances of young Jacob’s upbringing, we learn during the dramatized trial, have created an environment where the murder of innocents effects somehow a bright day for ending the human stain of Apartheid.

Yourgrau’s narrative is conceived as a tragedy and constructed from tragic conventions, as well. A nine-man chorus is comprised of a vocal group complete with leader and choral responsion. Yourgrau overtly connects the play’s chorus to the iconic acapella ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The chorus participates at key moments throughout the play portraying the sentient activities of various groups throughout the action. They sing traditional South African songs as Jacob’s congregations, his high-school class, the guerillas of the African National Congress who indoctrinate him, and ultimately the courtroom spectators who must watch him hanged. Clearly Yourgrau heeds classical Greek tragic form. But two important external coincidences flow into the fictionalization of the drama:  Yourgrau had developed an emotional attachment to the music of Ladysmith before he wrote the play, and one of Ladysmith’s founders, Joseph Shabalala, had been murdered as a result of racial tensions connected to Apartheid.

Against this frightening social backdrop, Yourgrau casts the tragic narrative of Jacob Zulu as a young man who, though driven under the rigors of courtroom cross-examination, refuses to bear witness against the ANC who pressed him to his crime. Rather, Jacob puts his faith in Jesus. “If I could give part of my flesh to th[e survivors and their families], I would do it gladly.” But most importantly, he pleads for cessation of retaliation: “I hope that the South African Defense Forces do not retaliate for these deaths.” Jacob Zulu mounts the gallows expecting that his demeanor in the docket has warranted God’s full forgiveness.  “I am not sad, really, because my soul is going to glory. … And I hope that my life is a lesson to my brother Martin and to all the youth.”

Generous interpretations of The Song of Jacob Zulu conclude that “the Christ-like life and death of the Orestes figure brings about an end to violence.”[2] And the play’s choral epilogue articulates the same hope before the empty gallows. “This is the song of a young man called Jacob Zulu,” the Leader sings, “who suffered for the sins of South Africa. This is the song of those for whom the good news of the end of apartheid comes too late.” Chronologically seen, Andrew Zondo’s 1986 execution anteceded the negotiations by Frederik Willem de Klerk (1990) and Nelson Mandela’s eventual release and success in the 1994 elections. The Song’s 1992 premier announced the “end of apartheid” on the grounds of the 1991 official abolition of apartheid laws.

Further, Yourgrau’s intro, written June 1993 (in the weeks after the play closed on Broadway): “As I write this, news reports announce the setting of a date in early 1994 for free, democratic elections in South Africa. I wish deeply that this comes to pass — and with a minimal loss of life. Nine thousand people have died in political fighting in the three years since Nelson Mandela was freed. A new day may be dawning in South Africa, but the birth is traumatic, and it is still very possible that the labor pangs will kill the child. History, I am afraid, will claim many more victims before a free South Africa comes into being.”[3]

A confessed terrorist, Jacob Zulu’s “Christ-like” lifestyle may be questioned. And the assessment that Jacob’s confession and willing execution wrought “an end to violence” is the playwright’s narrative contrivance. Historical fact may not bear Yourgrau’s connection between cause and effect.

My critical sensibilities — whatever they are worth — resist too blithe connection between this narrative and the great Oresteia of Aeschylus. Yourgrau set out “to tell the story of a young man such as Andrew [Zondo] in the form of a Greek drama, but with an African twist: Aeschylus set in Zululand.” That intent notwithstanding, Stefan Tilg’s assessment goes too far when he refers to “Tug Yourgrau’s South African version [of the Orestes myth], The Song of Jacob Zulu (1993, a success on Broadway), in which the Christ-like life and death of the O[restes] figure brings about an end to violence.”

Orestes’ plight is thrust upon him by circumstances well outside his own actions. Fate has destined him for the role of avenger who must sully himself with matricide. Jacob Zulu was raised in a respectable family amidst circumstances that brought him into contact with murderous creatures. Peers of Jacob, as is true of Andrew Zondo, endured unthinkable oppression and hardship because of the color of their skin. In Yourgrau’s overarching assessment the bomber was “an innocent, bright boy whom the fates — in this case, the apartheid system — ground up and destroyed.” The tales, however, end differently: Jacob Zulu’s brilliant resolution comes about at some future time; Orestes’ absolution from blood-guilt is effected with great suffering and decisively in the lawcourts of Athens. That is the story of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, that critical third element in the great dramatic trilogy.

As conceived by Aeschylus, the tale of Orestes is not a tragedy, in that modern sense — a narrative of a protagonist who is ground up and destroyed. Rather, the classical Oresteia is a dramatic production that leads toward a remarkable sea-change. Within the narrative confines of Orestes’ dramatic experience, as it is played out for the audience in the theatre, Orestes endures a three-phase survival from catastrophic ruin. The cycle of human revenge is perpetuated while the savior is helpless to stop it in Agamemnon. That cycle brings him into active participation in Choephori. And finally, the tragic hero’s needful “suffrance into truth” snatches Orestes from the brink of personal catastrophe even as Athena’s ascendancy over Apollo rescues all mankind from the brink of cosmic annihilation.

Yourgrau’s play emerges hopefully from dark with an expression of hope, a prayer. Aeschylus instructs the audience that emergence from that darkness will necessitate cooperation of human endurance and extreme divine ingenuity.

The structure of Aeschylus affects Yourgrau’s play far more than the comparison of Orestes to Jacob allows.  Because of the disconnect, I do not think one can really call The Song of Jacob Zulu a “version” of the Oresteia. Stefan Tilg seems to be following the lead offered by Kevin Wetmore, who in his book The Athenian Sun in an African Sky (2002) saw Yourgrau’s play as such.  Yougrau admits that his play is structurally related to “the great Greek dramas, especially Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle” whence inspiration and guidance came. And there is the playwright’s observation that his tale of the Zondo trial is “Aeschylus set in Zululand.” Yet, if the cosmic magnitude of Jacob’s trial can be compared to Orestes’ trail at the Areopagus, that is if the critical impasse of Jacob’s guilty innocence is equivalent to Orestes’, then we must submit to the playwrights’ conclusions and forgive Yougrau for obliging his audience to connect the dots between his play and Aeschylus’.

Tug Yourgrau’s Song of Jacob Zulu is not a great play in the magnitude of Aeschylus in Argos. The end of apartheid, however, may be as glorious a human event as the judicial intervention that ended the cyclic violence of the Tantalids. But, structurally, the glimmering optimism that races through the epilogue of The Song is a pale representative of the rigorous conclusion worked out by Aeschylus for his 5th-century audience. Had Yourgrau striven to the same end, I might be inclined to celebrate his literary accomplishment more energetically. As it is, The Song of Jacob Zulu resonates more as a version of Choephori than as a version of the grand collective, The Oresteia.

[1] Tug Yourgrau, The Song of Jacob Zulu (New York: Arcade, 1993), viii-xi. The play premiered in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in April 1992, and ran a peculiar course for seven weeks on Broadway in late Winter 1993. Bruce Weber, “Case of the Vanished Audience,” NYT 7May1993, C4. Weber attributes the play’s early closure not to artistic problems but to economic factors: discounted tickets to less affluent clientele undermined word-of-mouth publicity. Cf. B. Weber, “Author of Jacob Zulu faces unpleasant choice,” NYT 19 Feb 1993, C2.
[2] (S. Tilg), s.v. “Orestes” in Reception of Myth and Mythology, ed. by M. Moog-Grünewald.
[3] Yourgrau, Song of Jacob, introduction xii.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Zeus chills with Ben & Jerry's Strawberry Shortcake GSFY

Ben & Jerry's Greek Style Frozen Yogurt comes in Strawberry Shortcake flavor. I wouldn't know this, except it was advertized recently in the Kings Cross/St Pancras station of the London Underground.
 Unilever USA offers on its "Brands in Action" website a highly amusing video that animates the vignette shown in the billboard above. Zeus chills on a strawberry top, a air-conditioner whirs in the firmament; outdoors enthusiasts ski and kletter on the yogurt-topped peaks beneath him. The detail of the video is extraordinary, as the image below shows: the Jovian reading material is titled, his chair-back features Heracles wrestling the Nemean Lion, and (not shown here) the thunderbolts hurled by the sky-god fly with Olympian determination.
Click the image for a link to the Unilever USA Brands in Action website.
Who deserves credit for this little moment of advertizing brilliance? I am able at the moment only to credit Unilever USA; but I would like to attribute it more precisely.

Narrative gain? Ben & Jerry's BSFY seems to originate on Olympus beneath the aegis of a jealous Zeus.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Arrested Flight: Icarus, Daedalus, and Buster in Arrested Development 1.3

          By Cassie Ball with contributions by RTM
Arrested Development (Fox TV, 2003 – 2006, 2013; created by M. Hurwitz) has attained cult-status for its maniacal devotion to one-off jokes, site gags, and obscure references. These jokes are extremely easy to miss, but often foreshadow important plot points or hint at crucial information. A classic — and classical — example is episode 1. 3 “Bringing Up Buster.” A fleeting reference to the Icarus/Daedalus myth throws the episode’s unifying theme into sharp relief.

Justin Bateman (r) plays Michael Bluth, Michael Cera
plays his son George Michael in "Bringing Up Buster"
At first glance, “Bringing Up Buster” appears to follow three disparate storylines with no real relationship to each other beyond the characters they feature. First, Michael Bluth is surprised and hurt when his teenage son, George Michael prefers to not spend his Saturday with Dad. Michael attempts to bridge the widening gap between them by taking time off from the family business and buying George Michael a new bicycle. Unfortunately for Michael, George Michael is more interested in pursuing a certain off-limits girl than in a paternal bike-hike.

Tobias Funke, meanwhile, becomes the director of his daughter Maeby's high-school play
Tobias Fünke is played by David Cross
because he, an ex-psychiatrist and aspiring actor, believes that she's using a shared interest in theater to get closer to her father. Tobias has surmised this incorrectly; but the issue becomes moot as he soon becomes distracted by the promise of acclaim and forgets all about paternal bonding with Maeby.
Finally, Lucille Bluth, tired of her youngest son Buster’s shenanigans, tries to push him onto Michael. Although Buster is thirty-two years old, he and his mother had, up to that point, enjoyed a creepily co-dependent relationship. Michael, because he dislikes his mother and finds her relationship with Buster disturbing, takes full advantage of the opportunity to create some distance between them. During his day with Buster, Michael finds many opportunities to malign their awful mother. Buster joins in with (apparent) enthusiasm, using long strings of words far too filthy for network television. This naturally leads Michael to believe that Buster is ready for a more independent adulthood.

Because he has no real marketable skills, Buster contributes nothing to the family business. Instead, Buster occupies his time with Michael building a new bike, ostensibly for George Michael. When George Michael doesn’t want the bike, Buster is invited to go on a ride with Michael in his place.  It is then revealed that while Buster built the bike for speed, he had neglected to build the brakes. This shortcoming emerges during the bike-ride, as Buster careens brakeless down a hill and into an off-camera obstacle.

Jessica Walters plays Lucille Bluth
When Lucille hears about Buster’s lengthy potty-mouth rant, she is shocked and horrified  — although weirdly, she seems utterly unfazed by news about the bike accident. She demands that Buster return to her penthouse with her, but Michael angrily stands up for him, telling Lucille that Buster is his own man and should make his own decisions.  Buster surprises Michael by saying that he would like to go with Lucille. Their exchange ends with the following: 

Michael: "You were flying today, buddy." 

Buster: "Yes I was flying today. But a little too close to the sun."

To understand this reference, we first have to understand the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. On its surface, it’s a myth about a child’s hubris dooming him to death. As they flee from the Cretan labyrinth using wings made of feathers and wax, Icarus defies Daedalus’ famous
Tony Hale plays Buster
urging: fly neither too near the sun nor too close to the waves. Icarus’ disobedience causes the wax to melt, and effects his mythic fall. The arrogance of filial disobedience causes Daedalus to lose him forever. While it seems like a simple story, the true meaning of this myth extends far beyond a tale of a fatally disobedient child. A deeper reading shows that the myth is, in truth, about a paternal fears of filial independence. Icarus fall symbolizes the death of his childhood. And Daedalus’ loss is what every parent experiences when his child grows up and doesn’t need him anymore.

With this in mind, the brief conversation between Buster and Michael re-contextualizes the entire episode. Just like that, the theme becomes clear. Instead of a simple chronicle of the disjointed misadventures of a dysfunctional family, the episode’s tripartite tale becomes a unified examination of the different ways in which parents deal with their children’s burgeoning independence. 

— CB

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Greek Myth Meets Manga

Classical Mythology has unquestionably impacted the West, but in our cosmopolitan world it is beginning to blend intriguingly with the East as well. Japanese manga artist Zelda C. Wang has repurposed and expanded mythological stories in a remarkable series of comics.

Wang’s online MYth comics (found here) focus on the Olympians. While her iconography is for the most part consistent with classical versions, Wang re-envisions the gods in traditional manga style, generally making them more youthful.

Zeus with traditional oak, lightning,
and cloud iconography, but also with
a fresh, "manga" physique 
As Wang states on her website, “Since it's MY version, the storyline differs from the classic mythology.” MYth: My Seasons and MYth: Eternal Gift deal with the rapes of Persephone and Amphitrite respectively. The two myths emerge from classical myth differently: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is as canonical as can be, though Amphitrite's abduction by Poseidon is less broadly treated (cf. Hesiod Theogony 930). While Wang derives the plot from ancient sources, she feels no compunction at expanding drastically both backstories and characters' motivations in each graphic narrative. She also adds new critical elements to the story (such as earth goddesses dying if they have a child).

Perhaps the most innovative story is MYth: Sunny, in which the modern-day girl Sunny worships Apollo. When her childhood friend dies, Apollo removes the painful memories of the boy as an act of mercy. When Sunny learns what has happened and confronts the god, Apollo contacts Hades and restores her friend to life. The story’s themes of friendship and loyalty are certainly in keeping with the manga genre, but an original story about ancient gods raises some interesting questions.

Wang's youthful Demeter drawn in
typical manga style
 Classical reception normally deals with the repurposing of ancient stories to comment on modern ones. But what happens when an author writes an unprecedented story about the gods? Wang’s MYth: Sunny has no classical model, yet represents the gods in their traditional roles. It is not a re-telling, but rather an expansion of the classical tradition. Is this expansion of classical myths even in the same category as classical reception? Is the classical cannon closed? Or could an innovative writer like Wang create a sequel with the ancient stories as a starting point?  Perhaps mythologists in future centuries will include her story of Apollo’s charitable act alongside Ovid’s version of Apollo slaying of the Python. Probably not, but the idea is intriguing.

In any event, Wang’s art is enjoyable for those seeking mythical adaptation or manga. Those who appreciate her artwork can find more myth paintings here.

— DD