Monday, March 30, 2015

CAMWS scholars present numerous papers on mythological usages

The CAMWS (Classical Association of the Middle-West and South) annual meeting 2015 took place this last weekend in Boulder. Four full sessions on the first day of papers treated the reception of classics kept me busy for a very instructive day. The next day featured two further sessions, nearly four more hours!, in the afternoon. While not all paper-topics in these sessions pertain to the reception of classical mythology, every one taught me something new. The papers that fit into the scope of the MythMatters blog receive here some commentary, even if they deserve much more. The abstracts for the papers are published at

Meredith E. Safran (Trinity College) talked about “The Heraklean and Promethean Protagonists of Supernatural (2005-2015).” I learned from Safran to regard Supernatural as a “post 9/11 narrative”. Having watched a grand total of one episode of the CW series, I could still follow Safran’s detailed explication of how characterization of the one Winchester brother manifests systematic allusion to the traits of Heracles from Greek mythographical sources. The classical Heracles’ famously voracious appetites for food and sex play subtly into the character of the monster-slaying protagonist. Numerous details were presented in Safran’s compelling treatment. All the way from his near-miss brush with death in the cradle to his consumption of ginormous sandwiches, according to Safran, the character is drawn with intentional similarity to Heracles. Prometheus got somewhat shorter schrift; but, I quite enjoyed learning about the numerous characters in Supernatural whose attributes involve the great Titan’s willful recalcitrance.  Even though she presented less information about the one episode of Supernatural I know — I watched “Remember the Titans” (season 10, ep. 13) for its Prometheus content, because current myth student Danielle Orrock’s spectacular paper— Safran dealt with this particular episode in Q&A.

Polly Hoover (Wright College) read a paper about “Theo Angelopoulous’ The Traveling Players and the Transformation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia.” This is a film I have never seen, but its usage of the Orestes myth was presented in an engaging way. The play-within-the film, a traveling production of a drama called “Gorgo the Shepherdess”, brings together several elements of an oresteia, and the film’s narrative frame has only one character named after the mythological Tantalids. Others assume roles like unto Aegisthus, Agamemnon and so forth.

Yasuko Taoka (Southern Illinois University) treated compelling questions of mythological reception in her paper “Reception and Pastiche in Peter Milligan’s Greek Street.” Taoka showed that the creator of the graphic novel Greek Street raises matters of reception in a rather sophisticated way. As gritty and off-putting as Milligan’s unpleasant style may be, the narrative includes characters who know their classical mythology. And Taoka left the audience reconsidering whether a low-brow façade can front a useful mythological reception. One wonders whether the reader to whom the cartoon’s sleaze and gore will appeal most is going to care about the high-brow ideas Taoka introduced today. I think she is raising serious question about the groundrules for reception studies. Whether I will dig deeper into the Greek Street narratives, I have to admit that today’s paper made me think.

Summer Trentin (Metropolitan State University of Denver) walked us through Raphael’s fresco cycle on Cupid and Psyche in the Chigi Villa Farnesina. “Apuleius and Intellectualism in Raphael’s Loggia of Psyche” was a well illustrated talk. Even if Trentin’s pictures were primarily available in public domain online, it was still delightful to walk virtually through the Psyche cycle with a trained expert. Q&A brought out some detail pertaining to the specifically named Neo-Platonism that the presenter had grouped into the rubric of “intellectualism” during the paper.

      I regret that another commitment kept me from hearing Sarah G. Titus (University of Washington) discuss “Socrates, Fénelon, and Kauffman: negotiating identity through common experience”.  It was reported as a very fine paper.  
       The 1699 didactic prose work Les avantures de Télémaque by François de Salignac De La Mothe-Fénelon was tremendously influential in the 18th Century in Europe and then secondarily in 19th-century America. It is a myth built neo-classically into the narrative space Homer and the classical tragedians left wide open, namely the experiences of Telmachus after the Odyssey’s conclusion. Familiar faces from Homer are there: Idomeneus, Nestor (again), Athena (though called Minerva, of course), the Sirens, and many others are all here.

         The panel on recent literary reception of the classics capped the afternoon quite nicely, with a session of five good papers. Catherine M. Schlegel (University of Notre Dame) explicated “Auden’s Homer: ‘The Shield of Achilles.’” Sarah H. Nooter (University of Chicago) read “The Loss of telos: the Oresteia of Athol Fugard.” This paper left me thinking that I will have to examine connections between Fugard’s play and Tug Yourgrau’s Song of Jacob Zulu, which I addressed in an earlier Mythmatters blogpost. Though Sarah Ahbel Rappe (University of Michigan) was unable to attend, her paper was read in absentia: “Teaching ‘Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition’ as a Course in the State Prison System” is a personal experience of Rappe’s reading classical tragic texts with convicted felons in the Michigan penal system. Remarkably, many of these women have experienced first-hand the very unspeakable crimes that the classical tragedians narrate. Especially because a student in my myth course last week told me that Medea-like crimes “statistically never happen,” Rappe’s account was personally moving for me.
Finally, the afternoon’s most passionate paper was delivered by Carolin Hahnemann (Kenyon College): “Translucent Transplants: on the sublime similes in Alice Oswald’s Memorial.” Hahnemann demonstrated intimate familiarity with the formidable 2012 poem. Because Oswald’s poem focuses on the mythological elements of Homer’s Iliad, the poem deserves to be included in the OGCMA’s next edition. Hahnemann has been lecturing much on Oswald’s rather innovative reception of Homer and the Troy War myth. Let’s call it OGCMA1047NOTTrojanWar_Oswald.

On Friday, an entire session treated classical reception in music. And the topics were broadly divergent. Byron Stayskal (Western Washington University) presented on “Innovation and Tradition: Charon in the Libretto of Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo.” Robyn M. Rocklein (Ringling College of Art and Design) treated “Distortions of Dejanira: visions of female virtue in Handel’s Hercules (1745). And David T. Hewett (University of Virginia) introduced me to the remarkable mythological depth of the band Genesis during the 1970s especially: “Forever to Be Joined as One: Genesis’ ‘The Fountain of Salamacis’ and Ovid.” Other songs by the band in their formative years manifest classical mythological sophistication. Educated schoolboys knew their myths and worked them into their albums and stage shows.

Friday’s session of papers on reception in film had a surprisingly small audience, perhaps because the springtime weather was so fine. Chris Ann Matteo (Fairfax County Public Schools) argued from an anthropological interpretation that Baz Luhrmann’s treatment of Orpheus reenacts the Dionysiac sparagmos (ritual dismemberment of the poet). In “Dissecting Orpheus in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!” Dr. Matteo considers the songs of the film’s soundtrack as artistic dismemberments of their originals, wrenched from their original contexts and significantly altered in style or intent.

In another paper Scott A. Barnard (Rutgers University) sought to rehabilitate the reputation of the filmmakers, who have been for a decade now the target of narrow-minded classicists’ pedantry. The author looked for and provided evidence of truly Homeric details in “Authentic Inauthenticity: Homeric resonance in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004).”

O Brother, Where Art Thou has taken on new meaning for me, because of the paper by Ryan C. Platte (Washington University in St. Louis) called “Scholarly Feedback: homeric studies and American song culture in Coen Brothers Films.” He argues that that film narrates the musical event called the first folkmusic revival. Homer’s historical bearing, at the transition between oral and written culture, makes his Odyssey narrative especially apt for the vehicle for telling it. Likewise, in another Coen Brothers film, matters of folk music are addressed and, again, the Odyssey is the narrative frame. Platte’s paper now has me looking for all manner of electrical innovations that populate the visual landscape of Coen Brothers’ sophisticated film. But his interpretation of the “stringing the bow” episode is for me the most persuasive part of Platte’s paper.
Rocki Wentzel (Augustana College) offered commentary on a less-than-obvious mythological paradigm in one of my favorite mythological films in “Beyond Pygmalion: the writer as Narcissus in Ruby Sparks.”

And in “Politics and Violence in Jorge Alí Triana’s Edipo Alcalde,” by Prof. Annette M. Baertschi (Bryn Mawr College) the remarkable Chilean film was analyzed in a sensitive treatment of the film’s violence. The paper was more about Creon, perhaps, than about Jocasta’s incest. [The Mythmatters reader(s) may recall my blogpost about Edipo Alcalde’s gut-wrenching Jocasta narrative.] For me the most valuable part of Baertschi’s paper, the detail I will anticipate most eagerly prior to publication, is her documenttion of Nobel-laureate screenwriter Garcia Marquéz’ preoccupation with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex throughout his career and correspondence. The film is absolutely worth further study, and Baertschi’s interpretation will play an important role in classicsists’ understanding it.

Finally, the conference ended on a reception high-note, when George Frederic Franko (Hollins University) offered a paper that seemed to me more about Shakespeare than about Ovid. “Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe: lamentable new comedy,” was a highlight of the conference for me, especially because Franko has clear control of the Sahkespearean context as well as the Ovidian text. Because I was presiding as the session where he spoke, I was able to tell Prof. Franko how much I enjoyed his insightful paper. in the blogpost, I can only encourage the reader(s) to go and consult Franko’s abstract, and all the many others, at

—— RTM, 29 March 2015

Friday, March 6, 2015

Hermione's statue in Winter's Tale: is Leontes Pygmalion or not?

Shakespeare's Winter's Tale concludes a stunning scene of transformation in its final act. Queen Hermione was reported to have died in the most abject circumstances some sixteen years earlier (WT 3.2.3). Over the years her memory has been kept alive by a sculpted likeness by her husband's Leontes. In the play's finale a remarkable denouement occurs to the amazement of the on-stage characters (as well as the audience, to be sure). Some critics see the transformation of the statue into a living Hermione (WT 5.3.11) as a a parallel to Pygmalion's creation in the classical myth (Ov. Met. 10.243-98).

Engraving by Robert Thew of Wm Hamilton, R.A.,
"Statue of Hermione".
Jane Davidson Reid's Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts lists the statue of Hermione as a usage in the Pygmalion article (p. 956). Corroborative scholarship includes Carroll (1985) 213ff. and Barkan 1986 283-87.

The MythMatters blog's reader(s) know(s) of my reticence to allow Shakespeare's Hamlet to be listed as a usage of the Orestes myth. Nutshelled: Hamlet clearly references Neoptolemus' murder of Priam and imposes the mythic paradigm of that narrative upon the events raging in Elsinore and in Hamlet's tormented mind; overt reference to Orestes' plight is wholly lacking in the bard's masterpiece. When Shakespeare alludes to a classical myth, in my opinion, he knows how to do so, and he tends to let his audience know it.

The Winter's Tale's application of a classical myth is somewhat problematic for my narrow definitions of what is allowable in Shakespearean myth-use criticism. For, I see no overt reference to Pygmalion and his ivory girl (aka Galatea in post-classical parlance). Criticism perhaps ought to pause at the threshold of treating this "parallel" — i.e. Leontes:Pygmalion::Hermione:"Galatea" —and settle merely to observe that the scene merely seems to draw upon the Ovidian forebear. Yet, that positively-spun Pygmalionism infuses Leontes' dedication to his lost wife, who after years of separation comes back to him. Presumably all the work that Pygmalion had put into prayers to Venus and into masterful craftsmanship has been expended by Leontes in the interim since Hermione's unfortunate demise. (The play's text itself states that not Leontes himself but one Giulio Romano had sculpted Hermione's likeness for the widowed king.)

Shakespeare clearly knew Ovid's Metamorphoses. The Pygmalion myth comes into Western literature through no other way than through the text that the bard is known to have read, at least in Claxton's translation if not in Latin, in his school days. Reid offers as "classical sources" for Pygmalion "Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.243-98. Apollodorus Bibliotheca 3.14.3." However, that latter passage includes no tale of an animated sculpture: "οὕτος [Κινύρας] ἐν Κύπρῳ, παραγενόμενος σὺν λαῷ, ἔκιστε Πάφον, γήμας δὲ ἐκεῖ Μεθάρμην, κόρην Πυγμαλίωνος Κυπρίων βασιλέως..." (Cinyras migrated to Cyprus with a people, founded Paphos, and married there Metharme the daughter of Pygmalion the king of the Cypriots). Ovid alone gets the provocative sculptor into our literary tradition.

Was Shakespeare working with the Pygmalion story as he received it in Ovid's Metamorphoses/ The motif of a statue-made-flesh was certainly available to him. But does Leontes become a Pgymalion in the Winters Tale? I'm leaving the jury out a bit longer.

BYU's dramatic production of WT in late March 2015 may give me a chance to watch the play and sharpen my judgement.


MIT's Shakespeare project text:
J. Miller, "Some Versions of Pygmalion: in C. Martindale, ed., Ovid Renewed (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: metamorphosis and the pursuit of paganism (New Haven, 1986).
William C. Carroll, The Metamorphosis of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton, 1985).


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Jean-Luc Godard's elegy for Penelope: Le Mépris (Contempt)

Le Mépris (Contempt) dir. by Jean-Luc Godard 1963

Godard's Contempt is nearly as old as I am. But, where has this film been all my life? I watched it last night and don't plan very soon to stop thinking about it. It's a game-changer for married adults. And it's an extremely provocative treatment of Penelope (and, oh yes, Odysseus). This highly intriguing film is clearly about film-making. The opening credits make that clear by deconstructing the process of filming a tracking shot, while a disembodied voice reads audibly the details of director, producer, cinematographer, etc. And this dialogue with film-making recurs all throughout the film.

Blonde-bombshell Bridget Bardot plays a tragically
Penelopean figure in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt.
But Contempt is also about deeply human relationships. In the guise of an Odyssey adaptation, Godard tells the tragically tender failure of a marriage. The skeletal narrative treats an international production of the filming of an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey.  An insufferably boorish American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) has tired of the German director’s  (Fritz Lang, ipse) waning attempts to construct a film a deeply hormonal American simpleton male can understand. Accordingly, the producer has summoned a new French screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) to the ragged backlot of Cinecittà for a consult. The screenwriter’s wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot) is clearly a Penlope, but here she is drawn away from her failing Odysseus by the questionable attractions of the American in a red Alfa Romeo droptop. Every time the actor-qua-Odysseus appears on the set, Paul's progressive failure as husband becomes increasingly apparent. The film-within-a-film is an artsy Odyssey, but it is structured enough and sufficiently recurrent to provide the subtext and framework upon which the couple’s agonizing failure can be hung and dried.  One critic calls Contempt “Godard’s richest study of human relations, and a film very much about a tortured kind of movie love.”
         Prokosch promotes from the start his thesis that Penelope is unfaithful to Odysseus. Lang and Paul see the fault as Odysseus’ and his specifically criticize his apparent eagerness to stay away for 10 years beyond what he could have achieved. 
         Bardot in 1963 was at the height of her sex-appeal. Godard was pressured by his actual producers to prostitute her famous physique and her attendant attitude made legendary in Et Dieu ... créa la femme (And God Created Woman) (1956) and other films. While Godard's camera features
Bardot never assumes this pose in
the Godard film. The poster-maker
exploits the star's physique in ways
the film-maker overtly avoids.
Bardot's famous backside in several scenes from beginning to end in Contempt, the sexuality of the starlet actually declines precipitously through the narrative. The patriotically red-white-and-blue filtered nude-scene at the film's outset is the rare moment of tenderness between Camille and Paul, the chaste height from which the couple's relationship plummets. Paul falls out of love with his sizzling wife as the film progresses. She vice-versa. So, when late in the film Camille plunges (off-camera) into the spectacular waters off Capri and swims (unclothed and on-camera) away from Paul and out to sea, it is the last time they are seen together in one shot;  they could not have grown farther apart. 
        The American producer — acting a part that has autobiographical significance for Godard's own marital mishaps — has come between Camille and Paul in a way that Homer's Odysseus never really allowed.
            I assign the film to OGCMA-Penelope rather than to the perhaps more obvious choice of "Odysseus-Return of Odysseus". The film is a loving elegy to Penelope. Casting the hottest French cinematic commodity (Bardot) in the female lead indicates Godard's belief in the importance of the role. Piccoli did acquire considerable fame for his part. But the critical performance is Bardot's Camille. She is the one who responds to the failures of her capable husband; she is the one who must consider the advances of Prokosch. While caught between her Odysseus' negligence and the primitive testosteronic advances of her Suitor, Camille is willing to sublimate her inherent Bardotesque sexuality (her hyper-famous blonde mane) beneath a brunette bobbed wig. Paul's failure to see this cry of submissiveness leads to the Camille's open rejection of his later feeble attempts to recover her for his pride's sake. 
    Godard's Contempt belongs among the most provocative Penelope receptions we'll see.


The Criterion Collection has done a tremendous service by overdubbing the film (reissued 2002 as Criterion Collection #171) with a provocative audio commentary by Robert Stam.

A fine essay by Phillip Lopate, “Totally, Tenderly, Tragically” (copyright 1998, available excerpted on the Criterion’s website) is very useful  (click here). — He calls Palance’s Prokosch “vilely virile”.

Joanna Paul, "Homer and Cinema: translation and adaptation in Le Mépris," in A. Lianeri and V. Zajko, edd., Translation and the Classic: identity as change in the history of culture, Classical Presences (OUP 2008), 148 - 65.

Colin MacCabe and Laura Mulvey, edd., Godard’s Contempt: essays from the London Consortium, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Brief contextualization in the short overview of “The French New Wave (1959 – 1964)” in Bordwell & Thompson’s Film Art: an introduction 475 – 77.

Godard's film is itself an adaptation of the 1954 novel by Alberto Moravia originally entitled Il Disprezzo which was variously translated: A Ghost at Noon, trans. Angus Davidson (London: Secker & Warburg, 1954) and Contempt (New York: New York Review of Books, 1999). 
— characters in the Moravia novel are named Riccardo and Emilia Molteni, Rheingold (=Lang), and Battista (=Prokosch).

Valuable for its contributions by Godard himself:
Histoire(s) du cinéma — DVD St. Charles, Ill.: Olive Films, 2011, 2 videodiscs (266 min.): sd., col.; 4 3/4 in., French DVD 7246 pt.1 Floor 4–S, HBLL Media Center Desk —Description
"An extraordinary look at motion pictures as seen through the eyes of the reknowned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who transformed the face of cinema with his prolific, influential, and revolutionary body of work, which includes such classics as Breathless, Weekend, and Contempt. Consisting of eight episodes made over a period of ten years, the series covers a wide range of topics, from the birth of cinema to Italian neo-realism to Hollywood and beyond."