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

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