Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Icarus and Daedalus in Manchuria

Daedalus always seemed so benign to me. A tragic father who effects and witnesses his son's catastrophe. Richard Condon spoiled all that paternal benevolence for me. It was sort of like that moment when I saw the marvelous Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Potts, Jessica Fletcher) cast into one of the 20th Century's most fearsome villains, Eleanor Iselin.

Condon's Manchurian Candidate develops the frightening character of Eleanor Iselin, the wife of Senator Johny Iselin and mother of the hapless Raymond Shaw. Condon's novel was published in 1959, and many saw it as the proto-screenplay it became. The Frankenheimer film of 1962, and not the novel, has certainly gone on to become the 20th-century artifact.

My myth students know of my attachment to Condon's brilliant application of the Orestes theme with the novel. This post documents another clever mythological allusion that plays functionally in the novel. (Cf. OGCMA0770NOTOrestes_Condon)

Condon introduces Mrs. Iselin with a few quick strokes, then allows the chill to settle in over the novel's fullness. Those who have read to the end know that there is really, absolutely nothing this woman will not do to promote her ambitions. Nothing. Likening her to Clytemnestra, Condon makes for brilliant mythological shorthand.

In the midst of her introduction, Condon describes Mrs. Iselin as "a woman as ambitious as Daedalus. The sergeant was twenty-two years old.” (23)
 The simile here creates simultaneously of Mrs. Iselin a Daedalus and of Raymond an Icarus. The son's fall is as sure as can be. Marvelous is the imputation of inappropriate motives to the parent’s audacious undertaking. 

That master engineer, Daedalus, could never actually be contained. Neither the remoteness of Minos' island nor the limitations of humanity itself kept Daedalus from contriving winged escape from a tyrant. Let's give Daedalus his due: he brought unprecedented resource to bear as he figured out a way to fly out of Minoan captivity that day. Did he know his son would pay the ultimate price for the boldness he inspired?

I hadn't really thought of the story of Icarus and Daedalus as the story of Daedalean ambition until Condon gave me pause. 

In that momentary brilliance presenting his mother as Daedalus, Condon sets us up for Raymond Shaw to become the victim of Eleanor Iselin's ambition. A reader who misses the clue that she's going to be working behind the scenes as a masterful engineer had better go back and read it again.

If you are basing your knowledge of The Manchurian Candidate on Jonathan Demme's film of the same name, you won't have the same view of Eleanor and Raymond. At least the Frankenheimer adaptation will get you closer to Condon.



Friday, February 15, 2013

Atalanta is Wonder Woman

I'm totally OK with the fact that eyes glaze over when I tell people how much I typically dislike contemporary art. The benchmark standard for me is the Tate Modern. I really do not like that collection. But I really DO like the current exhibition in BYU's Museum of Art, called We Could Be Heroes. I like it all the way from the calendar to the potato-aerosol PVC bazooka to the colossal head of St. Theresa. It's a really really good exhibit.

One of the best works in it is a lithograph (2010) by Czech artist Catalin Ardelean, called "Atalanta vs Peleus": OGCMA0240NOTAtalanta_Ardelean. It's part of the artist's series of lithographs called "Elysian Fields." That collection, which I sought out at the Saatchi Gallery online, introduces several Marvel Comic heroes into classical mythological iconography, and all with very interesting effects. — There's Batman strapped under the belly of Polyphemus' favorite old ram, and Batman again playing board games with Ajax (an interesting nod to Exekias). And so forth. This art is worth some time for every student of classical myth.

See Saatchi Gallery online for information on artist.
While We Could Be Heroes is on at BYU-MOA, you should stop in and see Ardelean's "Atlanta vs Peleus" yourself. It's among a handful of other sort of classical icons in the same room. But do have a look at this lithograph. Ardelean is working with the familiar 6th-century hydria from Munich's Antikensammlung, a labeled pot with Atalanta wrestling Peleus over a boar's head and in front of a hung animal hide (the Calydonian Boar?). (Munich 596). Peleus's dark skin shows him to be a man of out-door action, while Atalanta's white skin makes her out to be a prize worth winning. Who will win this wrestle?

Typically Peleus wrestles women. He is most well known for his wrestle with Thetis. In that story she's a shape-changer, as are many sea-divinities. And Peleus is highly motivated, perhaps from days and days before the mast of the Argo, to woo and win the lovely Thetis. She is destined to bear a child who will be greater than his father. Achilles fits that bill, in the end. But, for the present pottery, Peleus is wrestling Atalanta. Apollodorus' Library 3.9.2 is the most readily available statement from an ancient literary source on this particular wrestle. He says that at the funeral games for Pelias — the guy who sent Jason on the quest for the Golden Fleece, the guy who was murdered in such grizzly fashion by his own daughters when Medea duped them into it — Peleus was bested by Atalanta. She, of course, was famous for her virginal stipulation that she would only marry a suitor who could beat her in a footrace. Many tried and failed. Corpses; for she murdered all she beat.

Then came Hippomanes. So handsome that Atalanta chose to lose to him, Hippomanes entered the race equipped with three golden apples offered for this purpose by Aphrodite. As she stopped during the race three times to pick up the golden distractions her suitor rolled, she willingly lost the race and won a mate.  Atalanta also participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt.

Wonder Woman must exude that same sort of attraction that compelled Atalanta's many suitors to lose it all in her pursuit. She, Wonder Woman, has the same charisma that would qualify her to go shoulder to shoulder with the greatest (male) heroes in the two greatest pre-Trojan-War heroic endeavors, the sailing of the Argo and the Calydonian Boar Hunt. She's the right figure for Ardelean's comic heroic update of one moment when one of those greatest heroes, Peleus, really met his match.  
... And as long as Wonder Woman is on the mind here, one might note (in reference to another work in the We Could Be Heroes exhibit) that Wonderwoman is one of the rare superheroines who doesn't wear high-heels when she saves the world from bad guys.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sisyphus by Bulwer-Lytton

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is infamous for having penned originally that immortal opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night." Much maligned, Bulwer-Lytton's lowest annual commemoration is the awarding of the eponymous prize to the worst writing in the English language.

Bulwer-Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii remains a fascinating artifact of 19th-century classicizing Romanticism. As engaging as it is off-putting, the historical novel seems to be receiving again increased attention. Or maybe it's just in my circles that people are talking about it of late. A marvelous show at the Getty Villa is now reopening at the Cleveland Museum of Art to run through the summer 2013. The Last Days of Pompeii: decadence, apocalypse, resurrection is based upon a narrative foundation of Bulwer-Lytton's novel.

Later in his life, Bulwer-Lytton composed a batch of narrative poems called, collectively The Lost Tales of Miletus. These were published in 1866, some 40 years after LDoP. Still striving for the integration of his own propensity for fictional narrative into existing classical survivals, the poet here writes a batch of poems that he pretends are lost narratives that once stood beside the Fabulae Milesianae

Having now read two of them, I'll give a mixed review: thumbs up to "Death and Sisyphus", but a negative to "Cydippe, or the Apple." What the latter lacks in real wit and charm (try as it might!), the Sisyphus poem really scores quite nicely. This, of course, is my own opinion.

"Death and Sisyphus" narrates at some length the reasons behind the epic punishment of Sisyphus. We know it famously from the moment that Odysseus tells of having seen Sisyphus rolling the stone incessantly up that hill in the world of the dead (Odyssey 11). Homer spends only a clutch of lines. People have been memorizing and recommenting them for the centuries since. And, remarkably, Homer takes no thought of telling us why Sisyphus is consigned to this immortal activity; rather, he states only that Sisyphus rolls and rebounds.

Bulwer-Lytton draws upon ancient "mythologists," specifically the scholist on Pindar's Olympian Odes. But he creates a charming narrative of Sisyphus as supreme trickster, who deceives Death on the day of his visit. Who knew that Sisyphus was as tricky and clever as Prometheus or Hermes? And who remembered that the detention of Death at Sisyphus' home resulted in such disruption on earth, in Olympus, and in the Underworld? No wonder, observes Bulwer-Lytton, Zeus was compelled eventually to send Hermes to release Death from Sisyphus' wiles and restore order to the universe.

Bulwer-Lytton concludes his narrative, of course, with the "sentence" of Sisyphus. Not at all demoralized by his consignment to rock-rolling for all time, Sisyphus explains to Orpheus that life can thus go on.

Check out Bulwer-Lytton's poem: 1008NOTSisyphus_Bulwer-Lytton

Friday, February 1, 2013

Minotaur in Berlin

An email this morning from the Greek Cultural Foundation of Berlin (die Griechische Kulturstiftung Berlin) announces an exhibition of sculptures by Bärbel Dieckmann called "Die Rückkehr des Minotaurs" (the Return of the Minotaur). The overview reminds us why the Minotaur remains a functional motif for artists and thinkers.

(I translate:) "Sculptor Bärbel Dieckmann has engaged herself in her work with the ancient theme of the Minotaur. The Minotaur theme springs from Greek mythology and is an important element of  European cultural background. The Minotaur is half bull and half man. He embodies a being that feels at home neither in the one body nor in the other. This makes the Minotaur the prototypical Outsider who wrestles with himself and seeks for his own identity.
"In her sculptures Bärbel Dieckmann expresses this conflict with particular method and manner. She provokes the beholder of her art to take a stand, for she lends a range of differing views to her Minotaur variations. We acknowledge in her figures the triumphant gestures and pride as well as grief and diffidence, but also vulnerability and grace. In these contrasts humane existence puts on its universality.
"Without doubt, Bärbel Dieckmann through her works has presented a powerful approach to contemporary dimensions of experience. Especially in her power of commonly dangerous forms and simultaneously globally militant expressions. Similar to great works by Goya and Picasso, the artistic works by Bärbel Dieckmann inspire immeasurable revulsion, which is judged through humanity, but also the persistent striving for beauty and harmony."

The Return of the Minotaur will run through 28 April 2013 at the Museum Neukölln (12359 Berlin) and admission is free (Tue - Sun 10 to 6)