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