Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Classical Mythological Christmas: Slover's Christmas Chronicles

Aficionados of the reception of Classical Mythology can do no better in their Christmas reading than to read the engaging little novel by Tim Slover, The Christmas Chronicles: the legend of Santa Claus (Bantam 2010).  Slover, whose brilliant musical stageplay A Joyful Noise deserves to be part of everybody's Christmas and Easter celebration, has actually outdone himself in his mythological usage of the Lapithocentauromachy within his endearing treatment of how two newlyweds came eventually to be the father and mother of Christmas.

Smack in the middle of the narrative Slover inserts one of the more effective mythological allusions a
mythologist will ever witness. The mythological usage enlarges the character of Anna, Klaus the carpenter's zesty bride. Among other characterizing strokes, Slover uses mythological shorthand to render Anna as a character of passionate action. The novel's first-person narrator defines what Anna brings to her new marriage in terms of her perspective on the binary oppositions inherent between mythological opponents Lapiths and Centaurs. Anna's actions at one moment in the novel touch upon an overt usage of the myth, which allows the reader to see her more clearly as a character of decision.

Newlywed Klaus and Anna are lolling of an evening snug in their bed. "Anna was embroidering a scene of the bloody and drunken battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths onto a coverlet she had just stitched, and Klaus was polishing off the last of her rabbit stew with sugared almonds." (Chronicles, 61) However blissful their circumstances, Klaus is unhappy. His abiding discontent needs to be shared, and he finally tells his bride about his arch enemy Rolf Eckhof (now one of Christmas literature's most memorable creations). Without their knowing, Eckhof's existence had caused an unsettling effect on their world. Thus, in her embroidery, Anna "had just come to the part of the battle where a Centaur was smashing a well-aimed hoof into the eye of a Lapith, all purple and red and black threads, and it was hard to leave off there, but she did." With the explication of his nemesis Klaus introduces discord into Anna's world. Later in the novel Eckhof will devise her death; but the loving union of Klaus and Anna, opposite goods equaling more together, will abide beyond mortality.

Centaur vs. Lapith on a metope from the Parthenon,
one of the Elgin Marbles owned by the British Museum.
"Lapithocentauromachy" is a sesquipedalian term given to the brawl that ensued when the wedding feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia turned ugly. In short: "The Centaur guests at the wedding feast grabbed the bride, and the groom had to lead family and friends to the rescue," and ever since, says Antinous to Odysseus, "there has been conflict between centaurs and men." (Odyssey 21.303; Shewring, trans.) Pirithous saw his wedding day descend into unimaginable social chaos. For, centaurs are essentially civilization's fringe-dwellers, ever capable of ascending toward upmost civility or plunging toward appalling bestiality. Like individual Jekylls-and-Hydes, centaurs' misbehavior "strikes at the most basic rules of human society, the rules of marriage." (Beard & Henderson, Classics: a very short introduction, 84). But there is in them also potential for good. For instance, a Pholus or a Chiron; neoclassically, C.S. Lewis' Mr. Apollinax stands ever ready as pedagogue for rearing the next generation's greatest hero; at their worst, Nessus rapes Heracles' bride, and his kin bludgeon the Lapith Caeneus with uprooted fir-trunks and boulders. Spurred by a little wine centaurs revert to nothing less than unbridled roughhousing such as they let loose at Pirithous' wedding feast.

In Slover's novel Klaus dealt before his marriage with growing turmoil caused by Rolf Eckhof's dastardly opposition, and he learns empirically how to counter his adversary's incremental assaults on the good will of Christmas. Now, days before their newlywed Christmas, Klaus is stumped as to countering Eckhof's evil. "'I cannot think of a way!' Nor could Anna, at first. But then her eye lighted on the scattered skeins of thread [the elements of her Lapithocentauromachy], and she clapped her clever hands together, because suddenly she knew the answer." (Chronicles, 63) That answer: Anna was to join forces as helpmeet with Klaus's abundant good will against Rolf Eckhof, the embodiment of cosmic darkness.

Along such lines, the Greeks thought productively with the centaur myth. Archaic and Classical Greek artists frequently depicted Lapiths mixing it up with Centaurs. The metopes from the Parthenon are best known now; but the François Vase, the west pediment of the Zeus Temple at Olympia, the frieze at Bassae's Apollo Soterios Temple, Micon's picture in the Athenian Theseum, and numerous vases famously manifest the theme. Centaurs indeed "were good to think with," especially because the exist largely as binary opposites to mankind, creatures who might become humane or the beasts we might become. The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs became the battleground for the opposite natures of centaurs and men.

The most colorful of written Lapithocentauromachies is Ovid's (Met. 12.210-535) — key for Ovid's literary programme is telling a love-story with the greater epic framework. This narrative foregrounds gruesome violence, ala Homeric aristeiai, such that Ovid apparently rivals Homer himself in narrative skill. All told, though, Ovid claims himself ever unequal to epic and manifests always propensity toward love-stories, his real knack. Thus, amid the hugger-mugger at Pirithous' wedding Ovid cherishes most dearly the parting of the centauress Hylonome and her slaughtered mate Cyllarus (lines 393-428), a tender scene that warrants Ovid's most careful anti-epic attention. Since even centaurs can love, and love truly, true love can humanize or, better, divinize mortal creatures.

In front of this rich mythological background, Tim Slover turns Anna toward the Lapithocentauro-machy. But to what end? The classical bipolarity of nature vs. culture is reengendered in Slover's pitting the archly evil Eckhof against the noble Klaus. Inasmuch as that rivalry had achieved new darkness, Christmas is not forfeited to Klaus' falling in love. Klaus thrives against Eckhof for many years. His bride, herself achieving new intuition by virtue of their marriage, comprehends the power of the adversary, an epic opposition of unending dimensions, and she manifests that awareness unwittingly in her handiwork. On a more tender level, though, Slover's application of the Lapithocentauromachy infuses Ovidian overtones into the tale, suggesting through the myth that truest love is created when opposites join in marriage. When one takes time and looks beyond the melee of conflicting worlds, the tenderness of Hylonome and Cyllarus remains.

— M
NB: This piece was written by me in 2011 for the ClCv 241 course and is drawn out of mothballs for the Mythmatters Blog this season.

Piero di Cosimo's disturbing painting of the Lapithocentauromachy, National Gallery, London, NG4890 = OGCMA0903NOTPirithousWedding_PierodiCosimo, deserves more attention. And David Backhouse's untitled sculpture depicting a lovely centauress with centaur in dance, at Whiteley's on Queensway until 2010 = OGCMA0905NOTPirithoutWedding_Backhouse, has sadly gone missing. Any information on its current whereabouts would be much appreciated!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Starbucks icon: seductress yes, siren no.

— by Rebecca Barr with contributions of Roger Macfarlane

The Starbucks "Siren" seduces customers worldwide. The coffee dynasty’s marketing team purposefully developed the logo believing that “there was something about her — a seductive mystery mixed with a nautical theme that was exactly what the founders were looking for.”[1] Yet, technically, the twin-tailed figure departs iconographically from classical definition of the
the "new" Starbucks logo debuted in 2011
            The Starbucks marketers equate the “16th-century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid” to a Siren. The earliest account from Homer, Circe advises Odysseus that “they bewitch any mortal who approaches them. If a man in ignorance draws too close and catches their music, he will never return.” (Od. 12.40-64) The song of the Sirens is famously seductive. “Come hither, renowned Odysseus, hither, you pride and glory of all Achaea!” Perhaps each man may insert his own name here. And his own proclivity here: “Pause with your ship; listen to our song. Never has any man passed this way … and left unheard the honey-sweet music from our lips; first he has taken his delight, then gone on his way a wiser man.” (12.184-91) The several dozen Homeric usages of this verb τέρπειν (“take delight” in Shewring’s translation) do not suggest any specifically sexual overtone. For the Sirens’ destructive threat is no respecter of inclination. They do not admit openly their song’s ruinous effects, even if they claim its universal appeal.
Beyond their veiled threat to a man’s homecoming (nostos), Homer provides no information about their physical appearance. In classical depictions they were avian creatures with women’s heads.[2] Their habitation of rocky Mediterranean coastline was the essence of their threat. For the Sirens lure mariners onto their shoals and reefs, but they are not technically marine creatures themselves.[3] Although similarly respected for their powers of seduction, Sirens are not mermaids.
            The Greeks had the conception of lovely marine girls who attract and sometimes cavort with sailors. The most famous of the nereid sea-nymphs is Galataea. (Theocrit. Id. 11) Homer identifies the benign Leucothea, who rescues the shipwrecked Odysseus. (Od. 5.333ff.) And Peleus the Argonaut fell for the lovely Thetis while she and her sisters bobbed seductively in the ship’s wake. (Cat. 64.12-21) He pursued and eventually wrestled with the prodigious girl until he overcame the wiley shapechanger. (Ov. Met. 11.217-65) Thetis and her piscinesque peers might certainly stand as forebears of what we would recognize as mermaids. But nereids are not Sirens.[4]
            Greek mariners thought enough about the Sirens that they identified them by name: Ligeia, Leucosia, and Parthenope. This last lived on the rocky outcropping within the Bay of Naples, where the stood city once named Parthenope after her. Legend has it that when she failed to waylay Odysseus, she flung herself despondent into the sea and — unaccustomed to the water, presumably, for she was not a marine creature — she drowned and washed up on the reef at Margellina beneath Posillipo.
            Irony characterizes Starbucks’ application of its Siren’s destructive seductress. “She is at the heart of Starbucks.” (Steve M.) For, overtly admitting seduction in their marketing, the company achieved an icon that depicts an attractive force that pulls customers (against their better judgment?) into their stores. Aware of the potential disaster, Odysseus bade his men to bind him “with galling ropes as [he stood] upright against the mast-stay”, as the Sirens enticed him to ruin by their lovely voices. Lest they themselves succumb, Odysseus had his crew deafen themselves with waxen ear-plugs. The Seattle dynasty links its success to its having seduced global society into real or perceived addiction. Whether the societal impact wrought by these caffeine dealers wrankles as physical or environmental or merely fiscal exploitation, the marketing that literally leads every customer under the seductive image on the shingle outside is stunningly brazen. “She is urging all of us forward to the next thing. Who can resist her?” asks the company’s website. Each customer is invited openly to consider the seduction and presumed (?) danger of the transaction beyond the lovely young temptress who beckons.
            Starbucks’ search for the classical mythological figure for ruinous seduction is remarkable. Not quite a home-run, the usage gets complicated when you figure that mermaids sing a different tune.

[1] Steve M., “So, Who is the Siren?” posted 5 January 2011 at http://www.starbucks.com/blog/so-who-is-the-siren (accessed 25 November 2013).
[2] M. Morford et al., Classical Mythology, 9th ed. (OUP, 2011),  530
[3] Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, s.v. “Odysseus” [O. Touchefeu-Meynier].
[4] OGCMA, s.v. “Nymphs: Nereids and Oceanids” clarifies; cf. Morford & Lenardon, 166.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Boys, Don’t make passes at goddesses in glasses! Ross MacDonald cools up the Greek gods

Ross MacDonald illustrates the cover of Penguin's edition of
Graves' Greek Myths (2012).
Ross MacDonald has made Greek mythology even cooler with his illustrated cover of Graves’ Greek Myths (Penguin Deluxe Classics 2012). The original comic strip narrates an amusing history of the gods from Gaia and Ouranos right through to our present. With a few learned, but decidedly stylized strokes, this master of modern satirical comicbook-illustration steals the show from a blockbuster reprint that delivers Robert Graves’ lapidary classicism behind a splashy cameo by Rick Riordan. MacDonald’s contribution is the most rewarding element of this marketing flash.

Robert Graves (1895 – 1987) filled the middle of the Twentieth Century with literary classics such as I, Claudius, love poems, and translations of Apuleius and Suetonius for Penguin. His encyclopedic The Greek Myths, appeared first in 1955, “the first modern dictionary” on the subject. Though it was set in a two-volume format, Graves’ Mythology packed even more learning into subsequent editions that soon followed in 1957 and 1960. The current Penguin version weighs in with nearly 800-pages and includes each of Graves’ introductions. The Graves collection is the peerless English account of all those myths and offers a truly stirring array of most variants for all those variegated myths and collects all the documentation to assure that you’ve got all the material to back them up. Did I say "all"?

Ross MacDonald starts his theogony with
Gaia and Ouranos taking a Hollywood dip.
Don’t judge this book by its cover. MacDonald’s 10-frame strip belies the tome’s stolid, rechercée interior dustiness. Gaia and Ouranos fill the first frame, headlined by the caption “With Incest, Betrayals”. A couple embraces: he clothed in stars, all square-jawed, Bryl-creamed and darkling. Iconically, the image of the ringed planet Saturn holds his cape on his pecs. He dips his dreamy lover back in a moment of passion; she, in a verdant plunging gown, coos from her in the speech balloon “Ooh, Son…” Never mind the apparent confusion between Cronus (Saturn) and his father Ouranos (Uranus). Open to Graves 6.a to confirm that “Uranus fathered the Titans upon Mother Earth.”

MacDonald’s cover tells quickly how the gods came, affected humanity, and then abandoned us once. The graphic myth riffs on Marvel and DC prototypes. The gods “all seemed to just … vanish!” In frame seven, astonished Gothamites in circa-1945 suits and fedoras look longingly into the empty skies above their metropolis, and only a winged oxford of a departing Hermes leaves at super-heroic speed the cloudy blue globe far below in frame eight. Frames nine and ten bring the double perspective tableaux, as a caped-crusader Ares ponders dusk-lit skyscrapers, “waiting” like the Dark Knight himself to descend and resolve human ills once more. The gaudy
Ross MacDonald's Ares broods
over the Gotham-dämmerung.
colors, the capes and boots, the comic-book blocking all help MacDonald reshape his theogony into an exciting fresh perspective.

For me the image of Artemis on the front flyleaf is the most clever of all the mythological vignettes here. Is it the virgin-huntress’s icy-blue skintone? Is it that pesky bustier, or the subliminally fertile crescent moon on her brow that attracts? MacDonald imagines Artemis in eye-glasses, like a co-ed from Barnard. She of the winsome smile and a quiver-full of lethal darts. Caveat Actaeon! The ingeniously bespectacled Artemis is the best moment in this cleverly divine apparatus. The back flyleaf has Perseus and Medusa and Andromeda in no apparent interaction; amongst them Icarus incongruously skirts super-heroically near the sun. Open Graves 73.k to read of the connection between Perseus, Andromeda, and the Gorgon, then his note to learn how it’s all related to Marduk and Isaiah and Astarte the
Ross MacDonald's Artemis of Morningside Heights?
lecherous Sea-goddess (230 – 31). But, close the book…. and we’re relieved to be back out on the cover, where MacDonald’s four Olympians bring their essential attributes to their co-starring roles. The cover’s lower margin promises an “Introduction by … the author of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.”

Riordan’s contribution to this whole enterprise deserves attention. Penguin won’t let us overlook it. It’s even billed on the book’s spine. The seven-page introduction tells the warmly familiar story of how Riordan came to write the Percy Jackson series to help his son cope. Graves’ Myths were reportedly instrumental. And since Riordan’s days in the middle-school classroom, Graves informed his mythological research. So, here is the apprentice’s homage to his venerable forebear. I can’t help thinking, though, that the best thing about the Percy books is their modulation of classical myth to our normalized world. How unlike Graves they actually are. Haley Riordan, Rick’s son, was blessed by his father’s creative adaptation of classical myths to the world he was learning to endure. Thumbing the nose at stodginess of classical narratives, Percy and his creator have ridden the elevator to the top of the heap. The result, Percy Jackson and 33 million copies sold. Tables turned, Penguin now uses Riordan to market Graves.

I’ll keep using Graves. The marketing sleight of hand won’t put me off. I hope, however, that Penguin does not confuse the market and undermine the availability of its more nimble handbook, The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology by P. Grimal, ed. by Stephen Kershaw from A.R. Maxwell-Hyslop’s translation (Penguin Reference 1991). [My current copy is a 2009 reprint.] That's where I'll send my students for a paperback dictionary of Greek myths. The Grimal/Kershaw Dictionary goes so much more easily into the backpack and delivers the information you need for most myths without Graves’ hit-and-miss speculation on the origins of all things. Save Graves for the library; take Grimal/Kershaw into the field.

And Ross MacDonald’s comic book theogony? Though utterly out of place on this book, MacDonald has produced a genuinely amusing addition to the modern reception of classical myth.

— M


Monday, October 21, 2013

mill-grist: Kate Bernheimer's collection of new myths

A recently published collection of Fifty New Myths deserves careful consideration by students of classical mythology.

Kate Bernheimer, ed., xo Orpheus: fifty new myths (Penguin 2013), offers plenty of grist for the mill
of classical mythological reception.  The editor has drawn in a richly variegated assortment of fifty shortstories into this anthology.

Contrary to my initial expectations, only one narrative in this collection treats the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, "Dark Resort" by Heidi Julavits. Because of Rachel Arons' notice of this book in this week's New Yorker, which featured Bernheimer's seven most favorite usages of the Orpheus myth, I was expecting her collection to offer a heaping plateful of (four dozen plus?) new Orpheus myths.  But the Penguin anthology casts the net more broadly and draws in about one new narrative for each classical myth considered

Indeed, not every item in Bernheimer's edited collection is based upon the "classical" mythology from Greece and Rome. Rather, the catch hauls in myths from Native American, Inuit, Aztec, and Punjabi, Norse cultures and so forth. Thus, while all installments will attract most readers, for students of classical reception, per se, the scope limited to about three dozen intriguing artifacts.

The nourishing feature of the collection, to maintain the mill-grist metaphor from above, is the statement at the end of each myth, a germ from its author stating particular gains intended in the new telling. Thus, Julavits indicates in her observation that she was consciously telling the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, even though the names do not appear directly in her unhappy story of loss at the beach. Had we encountered in an open field Julavits' story of nameless honeymooners on a violent seashore, could we have said with certainty that that's Orpheus (himself) who fails to bring appropriate aid in time? Each author, we can piece together, arranged with Bernheimer to address one or another myth; and this one was pinned for the Orpheus slot. For added intrigue, Julavits explains her intention to write the story according the cinematic code of the Dogme school. With this information in hand, a scholarly sleuth can read the new myth against a zero-grade telling of Eurydice's — or Orpheus'?—  demise.

If Bernheimer tells us how the stories were chosen or assigned, I do not see it. I piece together from the individual authors' statements that individual choices were made. But never mind that. The creation is marvelous. Bernheimer's collection can be consulted alphabetically — e.g. Daedalus, Daphne, Demeter — or by author, so as to see how Aurelie Sheehan or Elizabeth Evans measures up against classical materials. And there is much to dig into here. Especially with the authors' own statements leading the path to discovery, students in the Classical Mythology course should find something that will inspire great efforts.

Classical usages include these:
Argos, Odysseus' faithful dog: Joy Williams, "Argos"
Bacchantes: Sabina May, "The Sisters"
... and, later under "m", Maenads: Elizabeth Evans, "Slaves"
Baucis and Philemon: Edward Carey, "Sawdust"
Candaules and Gyges: Elanor Dymott, "Henry and Booboo"
Cronos: Aimee Bender, "Devourings"
Daedalus (bis): Ron Currie, Jr., "Layrinth" and
                        Anthony Mara, "The Last Flight of Daedalus"
Daphne: Dawn Raffel, "Daphne"
Demeter: Maile Meloy, "Demeter'
Demeter and Persephone: Willy Vlautin, "Kid Collins"
       and Emma and Peter Straub, "Lost Lake"
Eris: Gina Ochsner, "Sleeping Beauty"
Galatea and Pygmalion: Madeline Miller, "Galatea:
Golem and Pygmalion: Benjamin Percy, "The Dummy"
Hades: Kate Bernheimer, "The Girl with the Talking Shadow"
Icarus: G-O. Chateaureynaud, "An Occasional Icarus"
Lamia: Elizabeth McCracken, "Birdsong from the Radio"
The Lotus Eaters: Aurelie Sheehan, "The Lotus Eaters"
Narcissus: Zachary Mason, "Narcissus"
Odysseus (bis)" Michael Jeffrey Lee, "Back to Blandon" and
      Davis Schneiderman, "The Story I am Speaking to You Now"
Oedipus: Imad Rahman, "The Brigadier-General Takes his Final Stand, by James Butt"
Orpheus and Eurydice: Heidi Julavits, "Dark Resort"
Phaethon: Kevin Wilson, "What Wants My Son"
Poseidon: Laird Hunt, "Thousand"
Sisyphus: Kit Reed, "Sissy"
Trojan Horse: Johanna Skibsrud, "A Horse, a Vine"
Zeus and Europa: Sarah Blackman, "The While Horse"
Edith Hamilton's Mythology  also features in one short story.
   This contribution is clearly among the collection's most intriguing. Coauthors Kelly Braffet and Owen King offer in "The Status of Myth" [citing Edith Hamilton's Mythology as the referent] a handful of brief character vignettes glimpsing ghosts of mythological types in modern situations. One tale convinces us that those girls who emerge by night in the San Fernando Valley are neither zombies nor vampires, but actually Artemis' train: "Stay away from Main Street after dark. If you can. But if you can't avoid it, and you do find yourself among them, don't look too closely at their faces." Orion is the benign tracker who assures his peers after little Irena was abducted from a playground. The pop star Ganymede, who goes by G, pops in on a cancer patient. Rhea shelters her children from her abusive husband. Narcissus, Athena, and that bacchante revelling in an unbreakable relic from the past — all  articulate Braffet and King's "extremely literal" rendering of stories from Edith Hamilton's Mythology, "lay[ing] them directly atop contemporary characters. What does it mean to be Ganymede in 2013 What does it mean to be Rhea in 2013?"

   For me, the Braffet and King approach shows much more vitality than others in the collection. Kit Reed's ostensible contribution to the Sisyphus myth confuses me. "Sissy" opens with an overt allusion to Oedipus: "To become a man, every first son has to kill his father. Oedipus taught us that, right?" I read through the apparent misdirection of that opening, watching for allusions to Sisyphus, for the story's over-title and placement in the collection tell me that "Sissy" is a telling of the Sisyphus myth. The abusive patriarch in a wife-beater maligns his son each page as "sissybitch" and "sissy" lords it over his white-trash home by battering and bruising his tolerant wife. The tale sure feels and looks every bit Oedipal. Kit Reed reveals in her afternote that "Sisyphus makes a perfect protagonist. ... So I took the story of Sisyphus and on the basis of a hasty Google, knew what I wanted to do with him. Yes, 'Sissy' is about a guy. He's one of those males who has to kill his father before he can take the throne — and like so many only sons he has mother issues."

I wish she hadn't admitted that. A Google search is the basis of the research? I want to think that the crafting of a good read took some time and some effort. Perhaps the classicist in me emerging. Perhaps the allusions to the creation of San Jose's Winchester Mystery Mansion constitute convincing reference to the Sisyphean project. But an admission by the author that "two myths fused at tremendous speeds" makes me negatively critical of the story's failure to separate clearly  the Oedipal from the Sisyphean. Or, perhaps I write in haste, and a third — or subsequent — reading will yet clarify how the story's protagonist is actually the beaten wife, one Sarah Lockwood Winchester and her toil is the point of the tale.

I have a long way to go before I've plumbed these depths. There is much in this collection of myths that will distract and delight students of Greek mythology. And the engagement will occupy their energy much more productively, I dare say, than what many facile retellings of classical myths apparently offer.

— M


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sisyphean vs. sisyphean (with lower case "s")

I stumbled this afternoon upon a really great internet site called MUBI.com. It’s a site that offers streamed access to a huge number of international films at the rate of one per day for a small monthly fee. It also offers a sort of chatroom for film buffs. The site is clearly managed by a knowledgeable film afficionado who has earned his chops by watching critically hundreds and hundreds of films. But, I’ve got a beef.
     I came to the site, because I was looking for information about a film in which a student has perceived a usage of the Sisyphus myth, and I went to see whether others have worked on this same premise. A three-year old thread on MUBI’s beta site brought me up short — again! — starring in the mirror at my uncommon approach to mythological usage.
     The reader(s) of Mythmatters know(s) that I am particular about what stands for mythological usage. I insist on a “verifiable” acknowledgement or overt reference to a myth within a work of art. I call this a “smoking gun” reference, that thing in the narrative that reveals the artist knows he’s dealing with the myth. While I sometimes perceive myself standing upon eroding sands when I take one stand or another, I generally maintain that if the artist wants me to think about a particular myth, there will be a give-away reference. If I have to work too hard to make the connection to the myth per se, then it seems highly likely that I’m inferring the myth more than the artist has implied it. If she wants me to think on it, she’ll tell me to.
     Martinus began a string on MUBI nearly three years ago with this invitation to his interlocutors thus:
I know, it’s a Sisyphean task in itself: trying to list every movie that has something in common with the myth of Sisyphus.
- useless struggles
- absurd situations without hope
- eternal return
- no escape possible
- pointless punishments
- an endless task
- a neverending story
This myth has many aspects. The more the movie has in common with the situation of Sisyphus, the higher I will rank it on the list, which you can watch here: http://mubi.com/lists/19451
You, fellow Sisyphean moviewatchers, can help to make this list endless.

I applaud Martinus’ attempt to gather a list such as this. Especially because I am working on a similar project regarding the Orpheus myth, I admire the MUBI bloggers’ response to the invitation. Yet, I object to the groundrules of this particular game. This is the territory where my academic stenosis occurs. For, I believe that the ground rules should be more limited, along such lines as: “If the film mentions Sisyphus in its title or in its narrative, it belongs to the Sisyphus tradition.” This is too big a net for catching the right kind of quarry.
     Allowing that filmmakers illustrate cinematic narratives with overt allusion to Sisyphus will draw attention to narratives that involve “useless struggles,” “endless tasks”, “neverending stories”, and so forth. A narrative, however, must not necessarily depend upon the overt expression of the Sisyphus myth per se to articulate those feelings of endless and absurd futility. Not all narratives about futility are Sisyphus narratives.    
     Martinus lists his number one Sisyphus film: Jankovics Marcell’s “Sisyphus” (1974), a stunningly poignant black-and-white animated short that is guaranteed to affect every consideration of Sisyphus in every beholder after one viewing. The film is called “Sisyphus”.
    Marcell depicts the grunting, screeching upward striving against gravity and friction of a human figure beneath a gigantic mass. It’s Sisyphus. And its creator titled it “Sisyphus”. 

    Martinus’ expansive qualifications of a sisyphaean film invite “every movie that has something in common with the myth of Sisyphus.” That’s provocative in its enormous expanse. And the net brings in dozens of recommendations which my narrow qualifications will never allow. Surely. Truth be told, I have not seen most of the films on the lists his readers submit; but, I think the net is cast so wide that the quality of the catch is suspect.
   I have seen Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993) and consider it remarkable. The
Sisyphus? I doubt it.
prognosticator finds himself stuck in a universe of repetitive experience, where everyday is exactly the same until he chooses to improve himself and his neighbors. Martinus consider it to manifest “the Sisyphean hero struggling with his fate which he defies and accepts at the same time.” Having seen the film a few times — though never through the scrutiny of a Sisyphus-mythwatch — I dare say there is no overt allusion to the Sisyphus myth in the film. Although the many films offered up by Martinus and his bloggers will no doubt include some specimens which bear overt allusion to Sisyphus and his peculiar plight, I am not prepared to admit that Groundhog Day foregrounds an overt reference.  Sisyphus and Phil may struggle in similar manner, but Phil is not Sisyphus.
    I will gladly revise my view, if, in a subsequent viewing of Groundhog Day, I discover — or have pointed out to me — the detail that has eluded my notice to date. It will be, perhaps, a framed print of Sisyphus on the wall of the coffee shop where Phil learns to be friendly with Rita, or the French text Phil claims to have mastered is Camus' Mythe de Sisyphe: essai sur l'absurde, or a heretofore unnoticed revelation that "Needlenose" Ned Ryerson’s middle initial is “S” for Sisyphus. I’m happy to watch for such clues that would inform me that Ramis was aware of Sisyphus in the creation of his cinematic marvel.
    Yet, the listing of thirty-three other reputedly Sisyphean films offered by Martinus must include at least a few where Sisyphus really is implied. I doubt Vertigo will pass my threshold of acceptance. But, Sidney Lumet’s The Hill? Or The Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais? Nolan’s Memento? Ars longa, vita brevis.

This rant is not intended to cast aspersions upon MUBI.com. Not in the slightest way. My purpose is to knock the dross off this idea of mine and see whether it glides.

— M

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

OGCMA0762Oedipus_Shelley: recommendation for a paper topic

Once-Banned Drama to Play on DeJong Stage

That Oedipus the King should have been banned from the English stage for practically a century seems stunning in our modern sensibility. Sophocles plunges his heroic investigator into revelations of incest and patricide. Sure. But, censored? For nearly a hundred years?

In 1905 Gilbert Murray, the great classical scholar, wrote to William Butler Yeats: “I am really distressed that the Censor objected to [Oedipus the King]. It ought to be played not perhaps at His Majesty’s [theatre] by Tree, but by Irving at the Lyceum, with a lecture before … and after. And a public dinner. With speeches. By Cabinet Ministers.”[1] That would really rub their noses in the mistake perpetuated over decades that had relegated the Sophoclean to silence.

Percy Bysshe Shelley had perpetrated the offense in 1818 with his burlesque satire of King George IV which he called Oedipus Tyrannus; or Swellfoot the Tyrant. This “highly altered version”, as McDonald characterizes it, bothered the Lord Chamberlain, and a period of censorship ensued. Highet sees the Swellfoot more as the brilliant Shelley’s “greatest failure … an attempt at an Aristophanic farce-comedy based on the scandalous affair of Queen Caroline.” Intriguing is the fact that Shelley’s play was published in London, but not until 1820. Shelley’s reception of classical literature ought to invite hearty scholarship in our day.

This looks like an interesting usage, one that will likely reward further research. I think that, because the author is a major figure in English literary history. Further, Shelley’s Swellfoot the Tyrant offers
a)    an overt usage of a classical myth — so, I won’t have to work hard to prove THAT Shelley was using the myth consciously — and
b)   an apparent purpose, or narrative gain, for Shelley’s working with the myth — i.e. a gifted thinker’s likening a moment in contemporary cultural politics to one of classical antiquity’s most salient myths. Shelley’s usage effected plenty of scandalous discomfort.
How does the poet’s commentary on George IV and his queen gain by its being likened to the Oedipus story?

My plan for research, if I choose to investigate further involves first checking to see whether Reid’s OGCMA already references the work. Then I will look to see whether Reid offers any leads for further reading. After that, I will start reading around and hope soon to form a compelling thesis statement. Then I will read around further and try to muster evidence to prove the point articulated in my thesis.

   Reid offers these references for further reading:
·      An edition of Shelley’s poetry, where I might find a footnote or something of interest in an introductory essay: T. Hutchinson, ed. The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1932.
·      The promise of some analysis and explication awaits in this monograph (apparently) on the author and his work: T. Webb. Shelley: a voice not understood. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1976. — p. 201
·      Analytical treatment of the work’s place in the broader classical tradition: G. Highet. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman influences on western literature. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.  — p. 421 and 678 (fn. 44)

I would not limit my research to those items, but I would certainly start with them.


[1] Murray to Yeats, 27 January 1905 in Finneran et al. (1977), cited here from F. Macintosh, “Tragedy in Performance: nineteenth- and twentieth-century productions,” in Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. by P.E. Easterling (Cambridge UP 1997), p. 297.

Oedipus the King at Classical Greek Theatre Festival

Oedipus the King, produced by The Classical Greek Theatre Festival (Westminster College, Salt Lake City); performed Saturday 14 September, O.C. Tanner Theatre, Springdale, UT.

Circumstances found my wife and me in Southern Utah on Saturday morning, unable to see the annual CGTF production in any other scheduled performance but free to arrange for a visit to Springdale and the magnificent venue of the O.C. Tanner amphitheatre. As the morning unfolded, we found ourselves wondering why in the future we would ever choose to see a CGTF production in any
Classical Greek Theatre Festival 2013 
location but here. So marvelous — and marvelously used — was this venue.

Oedipus the King stands, in its 2013 CGTF manifestation, as a straightforward and accessible interpretation of the venerable Sophoclean mainstay. Staging, costuming, message are classical. Sandra Shotwell eschews devices that other directors sometimes employ to “update” the ancient text or make it speak to some overtly modern context. Credibility accrues, rather, as the Prof. Shotwell lets this mighty tragedy speak for itself 
 A lovely moment of exquisite staging, which will not be replicated in any other performance of the CGTF OT has Oedipus turn his back on the audience and shouts his genealogy into the soaring red rocks beyond stage. When the mantic void echoes his ancestors’ names back, the effect is poignant. The lines in question are 265 – 70:
“I fight in [Laius’] defence as for my father
and I shall try all means to take the murderer
of Laius the son of Labdacus
the son of Polydorus and before him
of Cadmus and before him of Agenor.
Those who do not obey me, may the Gods
grant no crops spring from the ground they plough nor children to their women!”
                      (David Grene, trans.) 
The intellectual impulse in Oedipus drives him toward assumption of the legitimate right to act in behalf of the murdered king. We know, if we care to explore the bloodlines of the Labdacids, that Oedipus is in very fact a direct descendant of Agenor. At line 268 of this play, the Sophoclean Oedipus is some thousand lines from full awareness. Inasmuch as Oedipus does not yet perceive that Agenor’s lineage is yet viable, this pledge to bring its exterminator to justice resonates irony. No response rises from the stage; it echoes, rather, back upon Oedipus from the majestic red cliffs that soar a thousand feet above the Tanner stage. The theatricality is magical.

Pity that spectators who view this production in a modern theatre, or even at others outdoor venues, will miss the spectacular device availed by the Virgin River’s handiwork in Zion Canyon. The morning sun’s rising over the Springdale audience’s right shoulders provides the actors with a focal point for addressing Apollo on a handful of occasions during the play. This is a turn-around from the gorgeous Red Butte Gardens stage, where the morning sun rises in the spectators’ eyes leaving the actors look into a publicum that is either blinded or holding their hands in front of their faces. One gathers that the Tanner open-air venue may perhaps be among the very best situated stages for any production of a Greek tragic play.

The CGTF OT achieves a definitive success through minimalist adherence to the Sophoclean text. Marianne McDonald’s English translation drives the play. In spite of some overtly awkward acting from some actors, the play works. Because Oedipus’ agones against Tiresias and against Creon preciptate so immediately into shouting matches — more quickly, I feel, than the textual script actually warrants — I came away with the feeling that the actors were directed into an interpretive oversimplification. True, Oedipus’ character did manifest rash outrage that fateful day at the junction when Laius went down. So, maybe the King ought to shout down his interlocutor at every first sign of resistance. Diminished nuance in this aspect of the director’s choices put me off. Only in one late flashing moment does this Oedipus exhibit that intellectual heroism Sophocles wanted Oedipus to possess. When examining the shepherd, Oedipus presses toward revelation that will illuminate the extent of his hamartia.

Jocasta plays her part, particularly when downstage, with gut wrenching intensity. Sophocles’ brilliant plot structure is adequately matched by this Jocasta’s response to the revelations and her anticipation of what is coming next. If you consider the human inclination to circumvent fate to be this play’s chief caution, you will appreciate the roll and performance of this lead character especially rewarding. The off-stage scream was unnecessary; for, on-stage the actress showed the turmoil crush the queen.

Costuming bows to the archaic. Each chorus member is robbed in earth-toned sackcloth and each leans upon a crook, which is used as a percussive tool from eisodos right through the entire play. There are no masks. When a new character is required by the text, a chorus member changes costume subtly and emerges to stand opposite Oedipus. Before the play has ended, each on of these players has taken a shot at Oedipus’ blind preference for human intellect over blind belief in mantike. The director’s clever circulation of faces deftly implicates the chorus in the disclosure of the play’s action while economizing the production’s cost. Stage properties are minimalist. The oboeist’s upholstered chair and a meagerly stylized skene are the only fixtures on the stage. The doorframe’s rhomboid geometry suggests that the entrances and exits from the House of Labdacus can never be squared with outright propriety.

The decision to include a gifted auletes — well, obeist — in the company is a major plus. CGTF productions have rarely, if ever, been so well endowed with such lovely musical accompaniment. The effect is unobtrusively essential. That feeling one often perceives in less subtle productions, some atonal accompaniment articulating the on-stage proceeding or other, is neither pursued nor inflicted upon this elegant production. One comes away from this production wishing that all Greek tragic performances could accomplish this production’s musical grace. The choral odes are chanted by a well rehearsed troupe, to be sure. The rhythmic effect of McDonald’s translation is less lyric, though, and will certainly seem “other” to most in the audience.

In all, again, the 2013 production of the CGTF Oedipus the King is well worth the ticket price. A pre-play lecture by the affable Professor James Svendsen really adds to the value. Now as adjunct professor at Westminster College after his distinguished career at the University of Utah, Prof. Svendsen continues as dramaturge for the CGTF and seems fit for another full run through the Greek tragic canon.

Looking forward with unaccustomed anticipation to 2014.

—  RTM


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Clack's Diana now not so hard to get ... ?

E.J. Clark, "Diana"
Hunting for the nude Diana in London’s Green Park used to be harder than it is now. The refurbishment of the three-line Underground station there has relocated John Clack’s bronze Diana from its original seclusion in a lovely clearing approximately 300 yards west into, now, the park’s busiest corner on the verge of Piccadilly and adjacent to the Ritz. During my recent pilgrimage visit, scores of bustling passers-by disgorged from the Piccadilly and Victoria and the Jubilee Lines while I glimpsed the goddess perched high over their heads. The bronze dog with her is the key to understanding the sculpture.
    Nobody catches a glimpse of the divine huntress with impunity. Actaeon learned that lesson the hardest way possible. Metamorphosed by the enraged goddess into his own quarry, the stag Actaeon was ravaged by his own hunting dogs. This punishment was Actaeon’s just dessert for having stumbled upon Diana bathing naked among her nymphs. Stern retribution for a chance encounter. Was it accidental? Was it premeditated? The infamous execution, in Ovid’s telling, stirred Diana’s peers to dispute the harshness of her judgment.
   The modest goddess in typical iconography shows no more skin than a shapely lower leg. The mistress of the hunt must hike her skirt a bit to allow for swiftness and free movement. And artists from the archaic through the classical periods preserve the standard garb that covers the virginal goddess’ privacy as chastely as she would herself. A browse through the LIMC reveals nothing more than a shapely calf or an occasional thigh. Even the classical depictions of Actaeon’s indiscretion show Diana covering up and gazing sternly upon the unwitting victim. Not all modern depictions of the
von Gleichen, "Diana the Huntress"
hunting goddess adhere to this modest attire, of course. A 5-minute walk across Hyde Park Corner leads to another bronze, fully nude, Feodora von Gleichen’s Diana the Huntress. After Saint-Gaudens disrobed Diana so infamously as weathervane atop Madison Square Garden (1891, 1894), there was no getting her back under wraps. Yet, much as Manship's 1921 Diana, also Clack’s Diana's appearance in the altogether connects his Green Park bronze to the Actaeon myth.
   Clack’s Diana group depicts an energetic intensity as the goddess unleashes the hound’s pent up potential energy. The cord in the her right hand restrained til just now all that canine force that springs now up and away from the lunging dog; her left hand must have been holding the collar. The exquisite release creates a torque that from some angles just conceals the goddess’s nude torso. Her nudity is more conspicuous because that dog is springing free.
   The Constance Fund awarded its prize to James Clack for this sculpture in 1954. The bronze was made originally as a drinking fountain for dogs — presumably on leads — that would drink from the three receptacles at its base while on walks in Green Park. The mistress of wild animals, whom the Greeks identified as the potnia theron, offering refreshment to dogs in a metropolitan greenspace was to be right at home. For over half a century the dog fountain offered its mid-park watering hole at a place along the Piccadilly side of Green Park. Though centered in London’s megalopolis a clearing in its former greenspace was just remote enough that Clack’s Diana seemed to tempt only the infrequent humans who stumbled upon her there, midway between the Hard Rock Café and the throngs at Buckingham Palace. A chaste Olympian might be more likely be caught au naturale in a place like that. I like to think that Clack’s sculpture maximized the effect of its original location. Diana on a dog fountain. The relative seclusion of a spot in Green Park. An unwitting passerby. Divine retaliation answers the intruder.
   For the 2012 Olympics, the sculpture was reassigned to the busiest footpath within the park. Transferring Diana to the Green Park Station sort of ruins the artist’s original conceit. Even though the maps at the park’s main entrances still show Clack’s tripedal bronze where it stood since 1950’s, a wholly unmythological installation now functions as the Constance Fund's fountainhead: The Watering Holes drinking fountain by Robin Monotti Architects and Mark Titman has replaced Clack’s Diana. And over by the Tube station, Clack’s canine drinking fountains at Diana’s base will likely never serve thirsty dogs again. The bustle of passengers will now always violate that one-time isolation that disarmed (and disrobed) the wary goddess in the quieter copse where the unwary once might go to gaze upon her.
    So, don’t fail to be aware of Clack’s Diana. But … be careful that your gaze doesn’t offend the vengeful goddess.

OGCMA0232NOTArtemis_Clack, a mastery image

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Medea + Achilles: sometimes life imitates art

Achilles and Medea are married partners in the underworld realms of Elysium according to archaic Greek poets Ibycus and Simonides. This seems amazing to me. It's not exactly a match made in Heaven. But maybe it's not the marriage from Hell, either.

Pitt in Troy (2004) and Caldwell in Medea (1984).
She won one of her four Tony Awards for this compelling portrayal.
The Hellenistic scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica 4.805ff. preserves the attributed detail that were otherwise lost.
 ὅτι δὲ Ἀχιλλεὺς εἰς τὸ Ἠλύσιον πεδίον παραγενόμενος ἔγημε Μήδειαν πρῶτος Ἴβυκος εἴρηκε, μεθ᾿ ὃν Σιμωνίδης ["Ibycus and following him Simonides first said that Achilles reached the Plain of Elysium and took Medea to wife" Schol. in Ap. Rhod. 4.814-15a p. 293 Wendel = Ibyc. frg 291 Campbell and Simonid. fr. 558 Campbell]
This long forgotten pairing is not cataloged in Newman & Newman, Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology and shows up only in an occasional footnote.

Since Homer produced Achilles from the gloom for the interview with Odysseus, Achilles himself is no surprise inhabitant of any other poet's conception of the netherworld. But after what Medea did to her sons and her brother and her father... It's hard to fathom a worldview that puts her among the blessed company of Elysium. The only way I can reconcile this oddity is to figure that when Simonides and Ibycus wrote, Medea had not yet fallen into the disrepute she now so infamously shoulders.

Euripides may not have been the first mythographer to project Medea, the sorceress turned infanticide, in such appallingly terrible shades. His play of 431 BC that now narrates for the ages the activities of the world's most terrifying mother may have itself been a novelty. She may not always have been so despicable. Euripides may have bent public opinion against her.

Hesiod's Theogony seems to find something appealing about Medea, the slender-ankled (ἐύσφυρος, 960; no comment from West) daughter whom Idyia conceived of Aetes when she was "overpowered with longing by golden Aphrodite". Line Hesiod (ca. 725 BC) up beside Ibycus and Simonides as poets apparently attracted to Medea.

So, where does such a woman end up in the afterlife?
Everlasting marriage to Achilles seems pretty pleasant as a reward. Even if the Achilles role is not played by Brad Pitt, it would certainly seem that archaic poets' notion of Achilles was pretty positive. Yoking Medea to such a hero seems like a big positive.

When I was researching the perplexing details of Medea's eternal reward recently, I bumped into a real-life oddity. It turns out that two important Italian papyrologists named Medea Norsa and Achille Vogliano corresponded in the 1930's. My friend Francesca Longo Auricchio wrote a useful article documenting the correspondence in Papyrologica Miscellenea. Without suggesting that any amorous interaction existed between those two scholars, I do admit amusement over the literary potential.

Ovid's Heroides are literary fantasies that offer should-have-been correspondence between partners such as Dido and Aeneas or Acontius and Cydippe, a letter from Penelope to Odysseus or Sappho to Phaon. Invented correspondence between Medea and Achilles would have been a precious conceit by the Roman master of erotic poetry. Maybe the practical side of Ovid's realism intervened: Medea, after all, has got to be a neat generation older than Achilles. Achilles is the offspring of a union formed during the voyage of the Argo, when the ship and crew were on their way to Colchis. Medea is going to be at least 15 years older than Achilles. ... Details, details. Maybe somebody needs to write this poem: a pair of epistles ala Ovid's Heroides between Achilles and Medea.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Düsseldorpheus, 1585

Johann Wilhelm, the Duke of Jülich, Kleve and Berg married at Düsseldorf on 16 June 1585 the countess Markgräfin Jacobe von Baden. The celebration was epic. Well, mythological at least.

On the third day of the event, a huge artificial mountain with two peaks was constructed. Upon each peak a musician representing the mythological musicians Amphion and Orpheus sat, playing. Amphion had applied his musical gifts to the building of the legendary walls of Thebes, charming the walls into place with his music and never lifting a hand. (Ovid Met. 6.146-312; 'most postclassical treatments of [Amphion] in the arts celebrate the power of Amphion's music.' Reid. Cf. Hor. Ars 391ff. Orpheus and Amphion are the first poets to teach mankind.) Orpheus' representative at the Renaissance hochzeit played on the false hilltop among a throng of wild animals assembled for the show.

A woodcut published two years later in Cologne shows the scene.

The allegorical purpose of the scene had something to do with invoking the muses, "in the form of Orpheus and Amphion," as sponsors for the newlyweds. Guests were told by placards posted around the scene how the mythological allusions had anything to do with the wedding. I well might have needed some help in the explication, too!

Orpheus gets top billing in lots of weddings, especially after 1600, when the wedding of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV of France witnessed the premier of Peri's Euridice — a watershed event in the history of opera that joined the forces of Caccini and Rinuccini at Florence's Palazzo Pitti and that is still being talked about. Throughout the 17th Century, Orpheus charmed the nethergods into relinquishing Eurydice in no fewer than 30 operas premiered from Vienna to Wolfenbüttel and from London to Madrid.

And further, Vienna and Graz had witnessed a similar mise en scene in 1571, when an artificial hill was erected — apparently like a parade float, in today's conception, pulled by four white drafthorses — and upon this mobile hilltop sat Eurydice and Orpheus along with representations of the inhabitants of the Underworld who were charmed by Ovid's Orpheus (i.e. Ixion and Tityos, and Tantalus, etc.).

So, particularly in light of that precedent, it is especially remarkable to me that Orpheus is there at the Düsseldorf wedding at the dawn before the 17th Century singing an entirely different tune.

Near contemporaries include Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queen (1596) includes Orpheus' music calming strife among the Argonauts (FQ 4.2.1), likely a role similar to that conceived in the company of Amphion at Düsseldorf.

The mythological pastiche is nicely explicated and brilliantly contextualized by E.-B. Krems, "Das Drama des Sehens und der Musik: zur Darstellung des Orpheus-Mythos in bildender Kunst und Oper der frühen Neuzeit," Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft 36 (2009) 269 - 300. I owe all my knowledge of the Düsseldorf Orpheus/Amphion to her article, pp. 269 - 71.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Orphic Finality: vous n'avez encore rien vu

A celebrated film maker of advanced years produces a film adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and observers quickly surmise that this is the director's "final film." How do they know that it's not merely the "most recent"? He's still working, after all.

Alain Resnais' Vous N'avez Encore Rien Vu (2012 = You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet) adapts two Anouilh plays, particularly Eurydice. The film competed for but did not with the 2012 Cannes Palme d'Or, and will be released in American art-house theatres in June 2013. My friend Will Brockliss saw that it was showing at the University of Wisconsin student union and drew my attention to it. I hope to know more about it.

Leslie Nesselson's review at rogerebert.com insightfully scrutinizes the critics' hasty assignment of the term "final film" to Resnais' most recent narrative. She wryly notes that Resnais is working on his next film already. Though significantly advanced in years, Resnais may or may not have left his Orphic film as his last piece. If she's right, and Resnais produces something further beyond this Orpheus, then we won't ultimately be able to note how Orpheus narratives seem to cap artists' collected ouevres.

The imbd.com summary of Vous N'avez Encore Rien Vu:

From beyond the grave, celebrated playwright Antoine d'Anthac gathers together all his friends who have appeared over the years in his play "Eurydice." These actors watch a recording of the work performed by a young acting company, La Compagnie de la Colombe. Do love, life, death and love after death still have any place on a theater stage? It's up to them to decide. And the surprises have only just begun...
The fictious playwright in this premise clearly has that Orphic role of immortal artist. Presumably, in an autobiographical claim, Resnais is making himself an Orpheus. His use of the Eurydice myth is clearly a smoking-gun reference that pins the narrative to mythological shorthand. When I see the film, I'll be watching with great interest for value the new narrative can add to the familiar myth. Nesselson has convinced me that there's much about Resnais' allusiveness I will not be able to appreciate — like his intertextual references to his entire cinematic corpus. But I hope to be able to appreciate the director's adaptation of the myth itself.

This post is obviously a place-holder in which I hope merely to indicate awareness of a mythological narrative that seems likely to warrant further and deeper investigation. Comments are welcome.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

It all began with the Argo

The Argonautica was the fore-runner to all western literature. It was the heroic event that happened before the Trojan War. Two of classical literature's greatest works start with reference to the Argo's sailing, the beginning of the end. Events on board the ship started a process that resulted in the end Troy. Jason's assembly of a dream-team crew and their journey to distant Colchis  introduced acquisitiveness and greed to Greece. Long before Agamemnon launched a thousand ships for Helen; and before Paris took her away, the sailing of the Argo pitted West and East in the first international act of aggression. For the son of Achilles is, of course, the famous offspring of Thetis and the argonaut Peleus. Had the Argo never sailed, no Marriage of Peleus and Thetis, no Apple of Discord,  no Judgement of Paris, no Rape of Helen, no Achilles, no Fall of Priam, no Trojan Women... The sailing of the Argo really started it all.

So, before a long flight I rented on iTunes and watched Ben Affleck's highly successful film wondering whether there would be a moment where the screenplay would admit that it was working with the ominous mythological usage. Would there be an allusion to the classical myth?

The situation was laid. For the 1979 storming of the US embassy in Tehran created a real East/West conflict. Stealth, chutzpah, brawn, amazing teammates... In short, all the things that famously allowed Jason to walk into far-away Colchis and ask for the return of Golden Fleece — expecting to get it! — were the essential plot elements of Tony Mendez' brilliant sleight of hand that sprung a clutch of American diplomats from the beneath the noses of their revolutionary captors. The CIA's mission in this high-stakes heist could fairly pass as a sort of Argonautica. And I was sort of hoping to see a moment where somebody said something like "we're gonna storm Tehran, Mr. President, and return from the East with the booty they wrongly possess, Sir." And Jimmy Carter or some cabinet member was going to say something like, "That'd be just like Jason waltzing in and demanding Phrixus' Golden Fleece."

I read the imdb blurb. It looked promissing. I really only know this narrative from the film at this point. I must read Mendez' book. In the cinematic version the screenwriters do tip their hand. They make two mythological allusions and sharply foreground the reference to the classical voyage of the Argo in such a way that the reference is clear and overt.

The film unfolds the process whereby Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes upon the notion of forming a mock film production company which pretends to be earnest in the creation of the world's worst "Star Wars rip-off". Once he hatches the it-just-might-work hair-brained idea of sending a filmcrew to Tehran, in fact Mendez assembles a little dream-team as Jason did. Jason packed the Argo with all the great heroes from the generations before Troy. The film's script show Mendez et co. plowing through mountains of dreadful scripts, looking for that stinker, they happen upon and reject one called "The Horses of Achilles". This is rejected as having to do with the Trojan War, even if Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) thinks it sounds like a western. This overt reference to classical myth, though, is preceded in the film by the appearance of the masterful makeup artist, John Chambers (John Goodman) enters the film on the set of a weird-out sci-fi film at the moment that some shapely "lab assistant" is tending to some operation upon a freakish and virile minotaur. You definitely get the sense that these Hollywood producers are more interested in applying classical myth to sci-fi than George Lucas cared to allow. And they want to tell you they could, if they wanted to.

Once Mendez and Siegel and Goodman hatch the plan to produce their film "Argo", they undertake the shameless (faux) promotion of the film. They schedule a big script reading, complete with press coverage. At the reading, a journalist presses the brash Siegel with questions about the Argonautica. Is this script related to the classical myth? Is there a Jason? Does anybody watching know about the Argo? I consider this overt special pleading. Such moments foreground the smoking gun. The moment in the film, though, is played for yucks, when the producer says something really rude to the journalis, something along the lines of "Ar, Go Jump in the Lake." (Only he doesn't really say anything about a lake. It's line that is repeated many times through the film's remainder. I think it's supposed to be funny.)

The screenwriters in that moment reveal that, indeed, they do know something about the classical myth. They want the viewer to know that they know. But, alas, I have to conclude in the end that we were not on the same wavelength. All that code I want to bring to an allusion to Jason's voyage — acquisition, primal violation of human society, the introduction of deceit into the world, etc. — seems to have been lost on them. They did clearly work it in on purpose; but they missed so many opportunities to ...   OK, I guess I need to just write it myself.

On the big question — does the mythological allusion qualify as a "smoking gun"? — the answer is yes. Ergo = OGCMA0617NOTJasonArgonauts_Affleck.
    In case anybody cares, I intend to assign the usage to Affleck, the director, especially because he crafted the smoking-gun scene with the journalist. If Tony Mendez' autobiographical book, The Master of Disguise, uses the mythological allusion, then I'll distinguish between the book and film by listing the book as ...0617NOTJasonArgonauts_Mendez.

To weigh the idea of how the Argo initiates human malady, consider these two instances.

Medea's nurse foreshadows the deepest domestic tragedy ahead when she begins the prologue with the Argo. "If only the Argo's hull had never flown through the deep-blue Symplegades and penetrated the land of Colchis! If only the pine on the slopes of Pelion had never been cut and felled! If only the hands of heroes who went after the golden fleece for Pelias had never seized the oar!" (Eur. Med. 1-6)

Εἴθ’ ὤφελ’ Ἀργοῦς μὴ διαπτάσθαι σκάφος
Κόλχων ἐς αἶαν κυανέας Συμπληγάδας,
μηδ’ ἐν νάπαισι Πηλίου πεσεῖν ποτε
τμηθεῖσα πεύκη, μηδ’ ἐρετμῶσαι χέρας
ἀνδρῶν ἀριστέων οἳ τὸ πάγχρυσον δέρος
Πελίαι μετῆλον.
The Medea by Euripides holds few surprises for 21st-century audiences, because we know the horrifying story. The Nurse foreshadows the tale's tragic end by allusion at the play's outset to the sailing of the Argo, the beginning of "it all."

Catullus 64 begins at the same spot of human history. Pelion's deforestation, plans to steal another nation's treasure, and the sweeping of the sea. "Once the pines begotten upon Pelion's summit, they say, sailed through Neptune's watery waves to the surge of Phasis and Aeetes' lands. Chosen youth, the stock of Argive loins, seeking to steer away the Colchians' golden fleece, dared to hasten the salty sealanes in their ship as they swept the blue deep plane with fir fronds." (Cat. 64.1-7)
Peliaco quondam prognatae vertice pinus
dicuntur liquidas Neptuni nasse per undas
Phasidos ad fluctus et fines Aeeteos,
cum lecti iuvenes, Argivae robora pubis,
auratam optantes Colchis avertere pellem
ausi sunt vada salsa cita decurrere puppi,
caerula verrentes abiegnis aequora palmis.
Before it's all over, Catullus 64 will have led its reader through intensely personal heart-ache — the appalling desertion of Ariadne on the shore —  through an ambiguous prophecy regarding Achilles' tragic fate, and then to a epilogue on overall human degeneracy.

Between Catullus and Euripides a ghostland of literary aftifacts walk like the undead. Apollonius of Rhodes conceived the Argonautica in the spirit of learned Alexandrianism, losing details of his agenda on first-time readers everytime the new-age epic is read. Latin literature's Golden Age masterpieces could not have been conceived without Apollonius, nor without the work of Ennius. His Medea Exul opens with a stunning reappropriation of Euripides' prologue:

Utinam ne in nemore Pelio securibus
caesa accidisset abiegna ad terram trabes,
neve inde navis incohandi exordium
coepisset, quae nunc nominatur nomine
Argo, quia Argivi in ea delecti viri
vecti petebant pellem inauratam arietis
Colchis, imperio regis Peliae, per dolum.
Nam nunquam era errans mea domo ecferret pedem
Medea, animo aegra, amore saevo saucia.

Deforestation, overseas acquisition, deceit. Intercultural love affairs. Without these, Medea might now be happy. This nurse sees it this way. Interesting is that Ennius turns the events into a different order.  But, this is getting way out of hand. Maybe more on another day.....