Revisiting THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and it still holds up after 65 years

Arachnophobia at the Movies

It’s 1957, and Sputnik is orbiting the earth. The launch of the first artificial Earth Satellite triggers a crisis in the United States, leading to a Space Race that intensifies Cold War antagonisms. Schoolchildren are learning about the “Duck and Cover” strategy, a slogan meant to remind them to seek shelter from radiation by hiding under their desks. There is much talk, and some action, about building fallout shelters. Yellow and black civil defense shelter signs become ubiquitous. Growing up in that era, I felt the impact of all those anxieties, especially when trekking, at age twelve, to our town’s high school at seven in the morning to take algebra, as part of a program to accelerate math and science learning. We were losing educational ground, and the Russians were getting ahead of us in the space race, a race tainted by fears about a nuclear holocaust.

1957 was also the year that I watched The Incredible Shrinking Man, a film directed by Jack Arnold, whose earlier credits included Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Tarantula (1955). What was Arnold capturing? Was the film, based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 novel The Shrinking Man, what one critic called the “quintessential Fifties movie,” fueled by anxieties about the fallout from hydrogen bomb tests in the early 1950s? Documentary footage of a test carried out in 1952 showed destruction so devastating that government officials kept it secret for a time. Or did the film reach back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the chilling descriptions of the dead as well as of survivors exposed to high doses of radiation? Fear of nuclear weapons and radiation was so intense that the U.S. government developed a program called Atoms for Peace to counter fears about what was called the “atomic plague” or “atomic bomb disease.”

While Godzilla was being awakened at the movies by the explosion of an atomic bomb in the Pacific and gigantic genetically modified killer ants were devouring humans on screen in Them! Scott Carey, the advertising executive in The Incredible Shrinking Man, is standing on the deck of a small yacht, suddenly engulfed by what is described in the novel as a “warm glittering spray.” Before long, he begins to lose weight, his shirtsleeves droop over his hands, and his wife no longer goes on tiptoe to kiss him. The loss of stature is both literal and figurative. As Carey shrinks in size, he also loses his status as husband and provider, becoming not just childlike but also childish, taking up residence, before long, in a dollhouse.

There is more to Scott’s shrinking than meets the eye. The story of his vanishing act turns fears beyond radioactive forces and geopolitical disarray. These are the years when women are beginning to enter the labor force, rising in numbers there by four million in the decade spanning 1950 to 1960. 1963 will be the year when Betty Friedan shatters the “myth of the housewife heroine” and identifies the “problem that has no name.” Friedan argued that the “feminine mystique” was a powerful force that led women to marry young and embrace the role of wife and mother, all the while abandoning aspirations for work that could provide a meaningful dimension to their lives.

Arnold’s film begins with a scene that captures the trouble brewing in the 1950s institution of marriage. “I’m thirsty,” Scott tells his wife. Louise responds by saying, “Interesting.” After some good-humored banter about which of the two managed to secure the boat on which they are vacationing, Scott agrees to spring for dinner if his wife gets the beer. “To the galley, wench,” he commands. It’s all perfectly agreeable, with a dose of good humor, but amid the teasing it becomes clear that there is an undercurrent of conflict about the gendered division of labor in caring and feeding on the one hand and earning and providing on the other.

As Scott shrinks, Louise turns from wife into mother, and, in the novel, into wage earner. She hires a babysitter to care for their child, Beth, and prepares lunch for her husband and repurposes a suitcase into a bed where he can take naps. But she is unable to shield her husband from the perils of nature red in tooth and claw. The family cat, tellingly named “Butch,” replaces Scott in the bedroom and mistakes the tiny man in the house for a mouse. Later, confined to the basement, Scott engages in combat with a tarantula (in the novel it is a black widow spider that threatens him). “Black widow. Men called it that because the female destroyed and ate the male, if she got the chance after the mating act.” As the favorites of goddesses and the familiars of witches, cats have a long history of being associated with the domain of the feminine. And spiders, those expert spinners who weave their webs in solitude, have long been gendered female.

The incredible shrinking man loses more than height. Doomed to perish in the basement after a narrow escape from “Butch,” he is trapped in Louise’s sewing box, a container that, ironically, holds the very tools he will use to reclaim his masculinity. It is in that underground space—representing the abject, grimy underside of the sterile, antiseptic domestic space upstairs—that Scott will regain his masculinity, mimicking the hero’s journey as defined by Joseph Campbell.  “I still had my weapons,” Scott maintains. For a good part of the remaining film, we see Scott enduring all the ordeals of the hero’s journey as he defeats the monsters in the dark underground space to which he is confined. Using ropes to climb a paint can and building a bridge with a paint stick, he uses his ingenuity, his “human brain” as he calls it, to improvise and engineer his way to more than survival. His resourcefulness (building a house from a match box and securing food from a mouse trap) pays off and presto! “I was a man again.”

How does Scott reclaim his masculinity and join the ranks of cultural heroes? Certainly not by declaring victory over nuclear weapons or beating the Soviet Union in an arms race. Instead he foils the house cat and defeats the spider in the basement, in ways that are surely symbolic of his triumph over the threat of being diminished by feminization. Outsmarting the cat is one thing, but killing the tarantula proves even more significant in its staging of the need to destroy an enemy that is larger than life and twice as unnatural. In a scene that prefigures the visceral horrors in the Netflix series Stranger Things, the camera zooms toward the arachnid’s gooey, hairy mouth and captures the flood of blood gushing from the monster’s pierced belly. In its creepy sexualization of the tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man reveals the real stakes in the struggle to avoid social diminution.

The shrinking man has finally grown in stature, Size no longer matters. The infinitesimal and the infinite converge: “The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle.” Undiminished and triumphant, Scott recognizes that he is “no zero” and declares “I still exist.”

 

 

 

 

 

I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois

When my brother texted the news of a shooting in the town where we grew up, I felt as if I must be reading an irresponsible, ill-conceived prank headline from The Onion or another satirical paper. Sleepy Highland Park the site of a mass shooting at a 4th of July parade down Central Avenue, a street lined with beach chairs, bikes, and strollers?

The house in which we lived is just three blocks away from where the parade came to a halt, down the street from the central library, and within walking distance of the train station that took you to Chicago. I later learned that the shooter had stationed himself on the roof of what had once been Garnett’s Department Store. That was the place I worked on weekends during high school, selling sportswear on the first floor to suburban mothers in the morning and doing the accounts for the entire store later in the day.

My first memories of Highland Park are breakfast at the home of the Mussers, with the intoxicating aroma of waffles in the air. I grew up in postwar Europe, and I was a skinny child, always hungry. We were newly arrived immigrants, refugees from Hungary, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in Highland Park. The church was later to install us in a house left to them by a childless couple, but for now we counted on the kindness and patience of parishioners, who welcomed, with warmth and generosity, a family of five, with three young children and  a fourth on the way. My brother was born in the hospital where the injured were taken after the July 4th shooting. It was the same place where my father performed cataract surgery for many years.

News of shootings is always devastating and impossible to process. There’s no making sense of assault rifles and streets lined with families celebrating a holiday with marching bands. When it hits home, it hits even harder, with unforgiving force. A friend still living in Highland Park sent an e-mail describing what it was like to have a man just a few feet away shot in the head before her eyes. She and her husband, both septuagenarians, managed to escape the barrage of bullets.

What has brought tears to my eyes hour after hour in the last day? The memory of the kindness of those living in Highland Park, a form of kindness that was instinctive and that did not ask for anything in return. They were the shooter’s targets.

Storytelling as Unpaid Labor

Maria Adelmann in conversation with Maria Tatar, 7 June | Online Event | AllEvents.inWhen the Brothers Grimm set out to record tales drawn from oral storytelling traditions, they chose a revealing title, one that pointed to the sites where folkloric traditions flourished. Kinder- und Hausmärchen has always been a challenge to capture accurately in English, since it points at once to the audience for the collected tales (children) and to the spaces where stories where told (home). The Grimms made a point of emphasizing that the twin forces of urbanization and industrialization were driving out stories that thrived in rural areas, with storytelling figuring as one of the domestic crafts deployed in spaces dominated by women

There were, to be sure, male informants, but the Brothers Grimm, like other collectors, gave a female face to their collection–literally–by adding a frontispiece to the second edition of their collection with the visage of Dorothea Viehmann, a “peasant woman,” as they described her, who was in fact the wife of a tailor. That she came from a French Huguenot family did not seem to tarnish her image as a source of authentic Germanic lore.

The Brothers of course attained literary fame, and Dorothea Viehmann, despite what were described as expert narrative skills, was reduced to the role of muse. She continued in that role for Edgar Taylor’s British translation, German Popular Stories (1823), which softened the features of the portrait drawn by Emil Ludwig Grimm and renamed her Gammer Grethel. She is described as “an honest, good-humoured farmer’s wife who, a while ago, lived far off in Germany” and “knew all the good stories that were told in that country.”

We now know that the famed series of twelve fairy tale volumes known as Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books of Many Colors was in large part the work of his wife and her female friends.  Leonora Blanche Alleyne, known as Nora, took editorial control of the series in the 1890s. She and her collaborators did the hard work of translating and retelling the stories in the collection. 

The frontispieces to fairy-tale collections often depict female domestic servants, grannies, and other old women as the tellers of the tales, Hans Christian Andersen credits the women in spinning rooms with the inspiration for his tales. Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose is seated by a spindle, telling her “contes” to a trio of children gathered around her. The visual point of entry to the world of print fairy tales is to this day an elderly, careworn peasant woman with a spindle or spinning wheel by her side and a cluster of attentive youngsters at her feet. Stylized as a generic figure, she has lost her individuality and has turned from frontispiece to nothing more than a front for the “authors” who have assumed the cultural authority denied to her even as they benefit financially from her creative labor.

Women have been using stories to entertain and educate the young and to talk to each other in coded language about matters ranging from sexual assault (“Mr. Fox,” “The Robber Bridegroom,” and so on) to the risks you run when you marry a charismatic man with wealth and power (“Bluebeard”). Those stories have been appropriated and monetized by the literary world in ways that remind me of how the media has exploited narrative therapy and the #MeToo movement.

“Tell your story to the world, and you will feel better.” Share all the details. Tears are good. We’ll set you up with a shrink after the show. That’s the promise of talk shows beginning with Oprah! and leading to Dr. Phil. And the #MeToo movement took what was once called gossip (that’s how women talk) and created an archive based on the whisper network, profiting from women’s stories in ways that are not so different from what talk shows continue to do.

Maria Adelmann’s new novel, How to Be Eaten, gives us a revealing look at how the media operate when it comes to recruiting victims to tell their stories. “We both escaped being eaten for lunch,” one of the women at a group therapy session comments, ” just to have the media eat us for dinner.” Victims are re-traumatized as their stories are told, and who profits but Google, Facebook, or Twitter.

There is a lesson in all of this, and it comes with a final flourish delivered with deadpan force: “If our stories were up for public consumption, then the least we could doo was them them ourselves. I had the other women’s blessings. I had some money coming in. I had to get to work.”

 

 

 

Mythsalon on May 5

May 5, 2022, I’ll be at Myth Salon, talking about The Heroine with 1,001 Faces with Dana White and others.

Here’s the link for registration: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register…

Curiosity, Care, and Craft: Heroines and Their Polymythical Ways

Building on the work of Joseph Campbell and expanding it to include heroines, Maria Tatar takes us back to Scheherazade and her use of domestic craft in the form of storytelling. With her 1,001 stories, Scheherazade deploys the art of telling tales not just to survive but also to save the lives of others and change the culture in which she lives. For centuries, women were unable to heed the call to adventure, embark on journeys, and return from ordeals with instruments for healing. Instead, they were obliged in the main to stay at home, using words as their weapons and homespun in the form of textiles to broadcast injury and repair the fraying edges of the social fabric.

The women who have figured prominently in our cultural imagination were bedeviled by curiosity. Like Pandora and Eve, they had more than a touch of evil and were shouldered with the responsibility for making sin and mortality a part of the human condition. This talk will focus on how curiosity can be etymologically linked with care, and how those two attributes, along with craft, form the defining features of the heroine. Women may not have been able to leave the house, but they found ways to tell their stories and bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

Mean Girls, Cruel Mothers, and Their Misdemeanors in True Crime Series

See Amanda Seyfried As Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes In Thrower At A GlanceThe Thing About Pam: Where is Pam Hupp now? And what did she do?

Is it any accident that, at a time when women are cast as heroines and saviors in a rebuke to centuries of being subordinated, sidelined, trivialized, and demonized, you need a “true” story to justify representing a woman on screen as a real monster?

In the last weeks, girls and women have broken another glass ceiling, reaching the top of the charts in the universe of true crime series. Inventing Anna, Dropout, The Thing about Pam, and The Girl from Plainville have all become crowd-pleasing hits. While it’s true that there’s some competition from men (Adam Neumann in WeCrashed, for instance), it’s still odd to find women as the dominant players in our current collective obsession with scam artists. After all, men have historically ranked as the masterminds of fraud operations large-scale and small (think Bernie Madoff who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history or Simon Leviev, The Tinder Swindler who bilked women out of millions by pretending to be the son of a billionaire diamond dealer).

The foundational female figures in our belief systems have always had a touch of evil, from Pandora, who released toil and trouble into the world when she opened that inviting box, to Eve, who brought sin into the world and made us mortal by eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Since when was curiosity and the desire for knowledge a bad thing?

Other mythical and biblical women are not so innocent, famously using craft and deceit to lure men into a world of debauchery. Recall the Whore of Babylon, that mother of harlots and all other abominations. Or the many sirens, femme fatales, and demon lovers stored in our mythical imagination.

Consider Dropout, a series starring Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, the fraudster who lured billionaires into investing in her worthless health tech company that claimed to revolutionize blood testing by using just a drop to diagnose diseases. The series has a brilliant title, capturing both the idea of abandoning an education at Stanford and also of taking just one drop out for the diagnostic procedure that Theranos was supposed to develop to the tune of billions in profits.

Elizabeth Holmes appears as the quintessential anti-heroine, a woman ostensibly driven by curiosity (she is a lifer in the school of ubernerds), craft (she is supremely clever at manipulating “old white men” as one episode heading puts it), and care (her mission is to ensure that no one has to say goodbye “too soon to people they love”). Curiosity, craft, and care—those are the features of cultural heroines as I defined them in The Heroine with 1,001 Faces. Curiosity and care are etymologically related, and they are linked in their orientation to what is outside the self, paying attention to others and procuring their safety. And craft, as I point out in the book, refers both to the domestic arts and to the ingenious deployment of storytelling and art/artifice to find a voice, send a message, and secure beauty and justice.

Elizabeth Holmes gives us a perversion of those heroic features. Her curiosity is limited: she abandons the complexities of science in favor of a silver bullet. Soon she is fixated on nothing but “getting the money.” Her craft is weaponized as deception. And as for care, listening to Holmes intone bromides (“we will change the world”) in her spooky, hypermasculinized voice, makes it clear that she cares about no one but herself. Greed and narcissism become the twin motors of her “scientific” mission.

Pam Hupp is cut from the same criminal cloth, the suburban version of Elizabeth Holmes, now past her prime and desperate to keep up the appearance of being the alpha female, an expert in mimicking “toxic femininity,” making a mockery of all the pressures women face to be caretaker-in-chief and make sure everyone is fed, clothed, and indulged. She wears the mask that lies and grins, but now without a trace of subservience or servility. Instead she embodies cruelty and sadism in its most emphatic form, leaving viewers in tears as they watch her humiliate a daughter who wets herself or engage in condescending behavior toward the two girls whose mother she murdered.

The prospect of watching The Girl from Plainville is almost more than I can bear, but if I can soldier through that and Inventing Anna, I’ll have more to say here.

Jason Mott’s Hell of a (Talking) Book

'Hell of a Book,' by Jason Mott book review - The Washington Post

In The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writes about the trope of the talking book, a double-voiced discourse that speaks in a black vernacular voice but takes the traditional form of a white literary text (an expressive form that was long barred to African Americans).  Autobiography (fictional or historical) is the preferred mode for the talking book, an introspective account that seeks to process a traumatic past, make sense of it, and find a path forward.

Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, winner of the 2021 National Book Award for fiction, is not just a talking book but also a metacognitive novel, a work of fiction that is an exercise in thinking about thinking–an effort to understand the things that go off in our heads. It weaves seamlessly from reality (the vertiginous book tour for Hell of a Book) to fantasy (the Kid, the dying father, the moribund mother, and much else), for Author (that’s the designation for the protagonist) suffers from a hyperactive imagination, a “pathological” condition (Enjoy your symptom! as Žižek urges us) that makes it impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Hell of a Book begins with an account of The Kid’s (the Author’s imagined sidekick) efforts to become invisible and unseen, a strategy for staying safe in a culture that makes it perilous to have a black skin. Signifying on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it inverts the trope of invisibility, turning it into something desirable rather than a pariah-like state. Yet what is more important to us than being seen, having a story, and at the same time staying safe even when and especially when you are exposed to the world, with eyes on your face and ears listening to your story?

What I especially admired in Hell of a Book is the reframing of heroism. In a sly allusion to Joseph Campbell, Mott’s Author writes “No matter how much I want to ignore this Call to Adventure, I know I can’t.” Capitalizing that phrase makes it clear that he is alluding to The Hero with a Thousand Faces as he begins a journey, criss-crossing the country, and undertakes a spiritual odyssey as well, one that challenges him to engage with social problems that haunt his past and present and that take on concrete form in The Kid.

Author’s trajectory is closer to that of the old-time heroine than to the paths followed by Campbell’s heroes, who move from the Call to Adventure through an ordeal to a return home, often with a boon or healing elixir. Like heroines from ancient times to the present, Author’s curiosity is aroused by a victim, in this case, the phantom spirit of The Kid, a boy for whom Author begins to care deeply in the course of his wanderings. And how does the care manifest itself? In the way that it does for so many heroines from times past, in an effort to find a voice that will tell a story, one that broadcasts injury and harm done and secures justice, or at the least makes the unseen and unheard both visible and audible. I’m reminded here of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, a novel that ends with Starr Carter finding her voice and telling a story that begins with “Once upon a time” and ends by memorializing her friend Khalil, a victim of police gun violence.

 

 

ENCANTO: An End to the Disney Magic (Or is it just redefined?)

Disney's Encanto Film Review

“A Magical Story with Family at its Heart.” That’s the headline for one review of Disney’s Encanto. It’s a surprising verdict for a film that resolutely moves in the direction of disenchantment and declares an end to magic to usher in a new age marked by the triumph of the ordinary. Encanto enacts a paradox, one of those powerful cultural contradictions that can never be resolved and that also inspires great storytelling.

Encanto gives us both a fable of migrants reinventing themselves and Disney reinventing its own image of what makes a fairy-tale hero/heroine. It falls into the category of what the literary critic Stanley Fish once described as a self-consuming artifact, a work that moves readers out of their comfort zones and takes them on a disorienting journey, one that undermines once cherished values by first embracing established beliefs, then replacing them with others previously rejected. Unlike the comforting linear stroll through a self-satisfying artifact (think Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty), the self-consuming artifact, discontinuous and unstable, accomplishes its work by changing us through its transvaluation machinery. Presto! magnetic beauties sleeping in coffins, girls putting up with beasts, and children shoving witches into ovens are replaced by heroines defined by their ordinariness.

This is not the hero’s journey as Joseph Campbell defined it in 1949 and Hollywood enshrined it in entertainments ranging from Star Wars to The Matrix. Nor is the ordeal of fairy-tale heroines as Disney defined it for so many decades. The magic of cinematic fantasies that trafficked in beauty and aristocratic lineage as the passport taking a girl from “Someday my prince will come” to happily-ever-after has been banished. Now it is the determination, courage, and cleverness of an ordinary girl that triumphs over magic as the solution to misery. I wrote about some of those figures in The Heroine with 1,001 Faces (2021).

Still, even as Disney sends a powerful message about the value of using your ordinariness to heal the world and repair what has gone awry, Encanto draws on special effects and mesmerizing music to put us under the spell of its artistry. And yet, by transmitting a message about how real magic is produced by hard work and communal solidarity, the film pays homage to the teams of Disney employees who provide us with the sorcery of stories. Finally the house of Disney gets some credit for its collective heroics.

 

Kike Maillo’s “A Perfect Enemy”

A Perfect Enemy.

Spoiler Alert [this review contains information about the central plot twist in this thriller]

I never thought I would be quoting Jacques Lacan to make an argument, but the French psychoanalyst provides the basic premise for Kike Maillo’s film about the return of the repressed. The unconscious, Lacan told us, is “structured like a language,” and it gives us “the discourse of the Other.”

Those concepts came to life as I watched A Perfect Enemy, with its two protagonists, a Paris-based architect named Jeremiasz Angust, who has gotten away with the murder of his wife, and a young Dutch woman named Texel Textor. “Texel” is one of the Dutch Wadden islands, off the coast of the Netherlands. Textor, as the twenty-something from Amsterdam reveals, comes from the Latin “textere,” meaning to weave. In other words, her name signifies what she calls “words woven together,” though she would prefer to have it signify “the one who weaves text.” “It’s a shame I’m not a writer,” Textor tells her weary, mildly annoyed interlocutor, who responds that she can always start.

And start she does. Texel begins weaving plots, telling autobiographical stories about disgust, fear, love, all permeated with violence and homicidal rage. Each story she tells resonates with something in Jeremiasz’s past, memories of childhood violence culminating in the murder of Isabelle, the women beloved by both Texel and Jeremiasz.  And killed, first in a story told by Texel, then in an account related by Jeremiasz. What?  That the duo are in fact doubles, one real and the other the embodiment of twenty years of repression, takes some time to register. For me, it was the uncanny moment at the Charles de Gaulle airport, when Jeremiasz strides through the airport, followed by Texel who mocks him by mimicking his every gesture and his body language.

The reveal, which comes late in a film that takes advantage of tropes from “The Sixth Sense” to choreograph its central illusion/delusion, suddenly makes sense of Texel’s name and of the encoded plots she weaves. Presto! The stories she weaves, her “lies,” turn out to reveal a higher truth. She becomes not just the voice of the conscience, speaking in the symbolic language of the unconscious, but also the enemy within that will prevent Jeremiasz from committing the perfect murder (even if he may still elude the criminal justice system).

What is fascinating to me is that the film evidently changed the gender of the uncanny Other from male to female (and the name from  Textor Texel to Texel Textor). And in line with a literary and mythological tradition that genders justice, revenge, and nemesis (along with all manner of furies) female, the embodiment of Jeremiasz’s guilt emerges as a sassy twenty-something, a woman who could be the child  whom  Isabel, not coincidentally on her way to Amsterdam, was carrying. And what are the weapons of this lethal figure but those that women have been wielding for centuries in the name of justice: words and stories, images woven, and plots spun.

Helen of Troy Talks Back

 

Helen of Troy

 

Read the Agamemnon, and see whether, in process of time, your sympathies are not almost entirely with Clytemnestra.

Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”

 

Odd isn’t it, that so many see me as evil? My life has been turned into a cautionary tale, a warning about the toxic effects of beauty. What did I ever do to deserve that kind of treatment? Today I picked up another one of those books about Greek “mythology.” They now take our history and our religion, put them between the covers of a book, and promote “myths” as entertaining and instructive reading for the young. In the “lavishly illustrated” volume of Greek myths that came into my hands, I was given the usual totalizing identity treatment. I’m a woman of “legendary” beauty with “mythical” reach. I’m turned into a “lethal beauty” or “femme fatale.” One writer claims that I may be the most “fatale” of “femmes,” the deadliest woman of them all. After all, I led Greeks and Trojans alike into fierce rounds of fighting, as they deployed slings and hurled javelins and spears at each other in a massacre lasting ten long years. How on earth could my beauty, or any kind of beauty at all, unleash that kind of violence? And how in the world did my life story become a fable for educating the young?

Let me clear things up. Remember Peleus, the mortal who married Thetis, the sea nymph who gave birth to Achilles?  When Zeus threw a wedding party for the parents of Achilles, Eris was excluded, and guess what?  The goddess of Discord (wasn’t that name a tip-off to avoid insulting her?) got wind of the festivities, she crashed the wedding and plotted her revenge. What could create more ill will than an improvised beauty contest? “For the fairest”—that’s what Eris inscribed on a golden apple (τῇ καλλίστῃ), and, the next thing you knew, the apple landed among the guests.

No one caught the beautiful piece of fruit, a real work of art, but Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each claimed it as their own. And dutiful goddesses that they were, they turned to Zeus for a decision. No fool, Zeus was not about to get involved, and he handed the apple over to his messenger Hermes, who promptly delivered it to Paris, the son of Priam. The King of Troy had been told that a son would one day bring ruin to his country, and, after his wife gave birth to a boy, he sent Paris off to Mount Ida, where he stayed out of trouble, living a perfectly contented life as a shepherd. Zeus declared that Paris would have the last word in that famous beauty contest. The goddesses would accept Paris’s decision, he added in his message, knowing full well that at least two of them would turn against the judge of the beauty contest.

Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite were also no fools. When Paris arrived to judge the beauty contest, they stripped down for him, whispered sweet nothings in his ear, and, when that didn’t work, they dangled bribes. Hera promised political power, telling Paris that she would make him ruler over Europe and Asia Minor. Athena offered wisdom and military power. As for Aphrodite, the goddess of love, what did she offer but beauty and love? She promised to help him abduct me, the world’s most beautiful woman, as I was known. True, I was already married, but all Paris had to do was travel to Sparta, and, as soon as King Menelaus left the house, he could whisk me away to his ships. That’s what Paris did, and before long a thousand Greek ships set sail, headed for Troy to bring me back home.

Maybe it will be helpful to know something about my birth. Guess who my father was? Yes, Zeus, and, as usual, he was up to his pranks. My mother, Leda (yes, that Leda), was the wife of King Tyndareus. She lived in Sparta and was renowned for her beauty—white as snow, lips red as blood, and eyes black as pitch. Sound familiar? Zeus thought it would be a good idea to disguise himself as a swan in this instance, and he forced himself on Leda, who soon found herself carrying four children: two by Tyndareus and two by Zeus (they say she slept with both husband and god in one night). The product of those unions? Castor and Clytemnestra (mortals whose father was Tyndareus), and then my brother Polydeuces, also known as Pollux, and me (Zeus was our father).

But there’s a juicier version of that story, one that I’m glad never made it into the PR on me. Zeus evidently had an interest in Nemesis, the goddess who punishes hubris, the pride that my culture found so intolerable. Nemesis was not willing, and she used her powers to shapeshift, turning herself into a goose. That’s when Zeus outsmarted her, turning herself into a swan and assaulting the goddess, who evidently then produced the egg from which I was born.

My sister Clytemnestra married young. You remember, she’s the one who threw a net over her husband Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, and then stabbed him to death. My father had a hard time arranging my marriage. Suitors lined up in droves, asking for my hand. Suitors! Why call those opportunistic brats suitors? Most of them are just hoping for an advantageous alliance, with a cash payout that I’ll never be able to touch. While they were milling around, Odysseus, who was also in the running, whispered a suggestion in my father’s ear, one that would avoid the possibility that those gathered would turn on each other. That man of twists and turns did not need to resort to convoluted logic in the plan he proposed. Just get all the suitors to agree that the man you choose will be supported by all the others, in times of peace but also in times of war, that is, if some fool tries to abduct the beautiful Helen. And sure enough, Paris showed up in Sparta, waiting until Menelaus had left the house to take me captive.

They say Eros shot an arrow through my heart when I set eyes on Paris, but that’s sheer nonsense. I didn’t “elope” with Paris. Did I have a choice? What would you do if armed soldiers appeared at your door, nodded politely, took you by the arm, and ordered you to follow them? Would you hesitate? Slam the door on them? Spit in their faces? No use calling for help. With Menelaus away, there was no one there to countermand their orders. Did I really want to risk a struggle that would most likely leave everyone in my chambers dead? And so I was obedient, following the men to the ship that took me to Troy. When we landed at last, I was slumbering peacefully in the arms of Paris.

You are “an exquisite agent of extermination,” one scholar whispers in my ear. I am heralded as the “gold standard” of outer beauty, my name used by Helen of Troy Ltd. to distribute beauty products. But I am also dangerous, an embodied paradox that combines power with vulnerability, perfection with destruction, a woman who arouses lust and revulsion alike. Have they forgotten my backstory? I was a girl when Theseus raped me. And then he left me locked in a fortress while he went off to chase Persephone. Thank goodness for my brothers, who rescued me and then, in retaliation, invaded Attica, laying waste to the country and enslaving Theseus’ mother. Oh yes, even as a child, I became the causus belli, the origin of conflict, violence, and bloodshed. The beautiful Helen, much admired and much reproached. Reproached for what?

Men chase me, abduct me, make love to me, rape me, and then they blame me. After all, it was my beauty that aroused them. I turned their heads, seduced them, and led them astray. It’s all my doing. Just like that exasperating creature named Eve, who lived in in the Garden of Eden and then stupidly talked Adam into taking a bite of forbidden fruit. Sure, it was fruit from the tree of knowledge, but everyone knows she was really barking up the tree of carnal knowledge and that she and the snake were up to no good. After all, she was responsible for bringing sin and evil into the world.

Just look at what the Church Fathers say about Eve. Look at Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve, with Eve posed like Venus, an apple in both hands, the snake hovering over the apple. Artists love nothing more than naked women, and my favorite painting of Eve is John Stanhope’s “Temptation of Eve,” There she stands, next to the tree of knowledge, the snake, entangled in the bountiful tree, whispering into her ear, while  she plucks an apple from the tree. She’s almost a twin of the anthropomorphized snake—a kindred spirit at the least—and at times you can’t tell whether it’s her long locks or its slithering body wrapping itself around the vertical figures. Snake, branches, hair, it’s all a phantasmagoria that makes me think of poor Medusa and her venomous locks. We are the serpents.

But there is one voice that stood up for me. For the ancient Greeks I became a symbol of “shameless beauty” and “betrayal,” a sharp contrast to my cousin Penelope, praised for fidelity to her straying spouse. I’m the treacherous wife, the libertine who chose pleasure over family. Yes, there is a counter-narrative, a story revealing that there was no real basis for the myth Homer—that blind bard—constructed. Truth be told, I never left home. Stesichorus, a sixth-century poet from Sicily, is the man who rehabilitated me. He once went along with the same old story, the one Homer told, and was struck blind for slandering me. And then, he recanted, and, presto, his sight was restored, unlike Homer, who remained forever blind. He tells god’s truth—I never sailed for Troy. The Greeks were fighting over my eidolon, a ghost, a shadow, an image of me. Stesichorus has the courage to stand up and say that the Trojan War was not fought for a woman but for a woman’s image, a mere fantasy, a will-o’-the-wisp, a delusion. After all, maybe the siege of Troy was driven by the greed of the Greeks, their eagerness to loot a city renowned for its resources, a treasure chest of shiny things to keep drowsy Emperors awake.

 

Homer: Not sure what all the fuss is about. I was just telling a story about war, and, yes, it all started with that reckless move by Paris, so cocksure that he could get away with kidnapping Helen. Dante, my friend, why do you insist on torturing her?

Dante: Well, there’s a place for her kind, and it’s right in the Second Circle, the place inhabited by the lustful, those who gave in to carnal desires.

Alexander Ross: She was a strumpet, not just in her younger years with Theseus but also when she was married to Menelaus. She became Paris’s whore and betrayed the city of Troy. She may be beautiful, but without any inner beauty at all, she is just a gold ring in a swine’s snout.

Ovid: You’re all wrong. I blame Menelaus. What did he think would happen when he left his wife alone with Paris, the two under the same roof with an absent husband? Do you trust a hawk with doves? Do you leave a wolf with sheep? I absolve Helen of all blame.

Sappho: Get real, guys. It was Aphrodite who led Helen astray. After all, golden, muscular Paris was irresistible, especially next to Menelaus.   Of course Helen sailed away, abandoning her child and her parents, forsaking all others. What is more powerful than desire, and how could Helen possibly resist?

Colluthus: You’ve got that right. But there are two ways of looking at that story, and I captured both in my little poem about the abduction of Helen. First, I described how Helen could not take her eyes off Paris. She fell under the spell of those “sparkling eyes” and the “splendors” of his face and ordered Paris to take her to Troy. Then I gave a different account, the one dreamt up by Helen’s daughter Hermione. “Don’t blame me,” Helen insists. “The man who came yesterday was a deceiver who abducted me.” It was a clever move on my part. I made sure that no one will ever know the truth. Maybe it happened one way, maybe another. And by the way, each time the story is told, zest and flavor is added, another ingredient in the great cauldron of tales. I doubled the pleasure with my poem, and what’s more, I gave the Greeks something to talk about, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. And guess what? She’s still the talk of the town.

 

 

“Succession” and Its Aesthetic of Excess & Excess of Ethics

Brian Cox on Succession Season 3, Playing Logan Roy, and the Series Endgame

Watching “Succession” reminded me and many others of the famous opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own.” “Unhappy”—the Roy dynasty gives new meaning to that word with its hyper-dysfunctional family headed on a downward spiral that gives the lie to the title of the series devoted to it.

One recent critic compared the show to a British sitcom, but “Succession” feels to me more like a soap opera on steroids, a hyped-up mix of myth, fairy tale, and melodrama in the mode of “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” and other shows about the superrich.

Let’s start with fairy tales, and the telling surname of the family: Roy, close to the French roi, or king. Yes, Logan is the king, but he is also a mythical figure, a Kronos bent on devouring his children before they have him for lunch. Who knows how it will end, and Roman wonders out loud about who will climb up Mount Olympus “to be the new Dr. Zeus.” What fairy tale and myth do supremely well is to invest their plots with transcendent moral meaning. The stakes are high in the battles they stage between good and evil. Fairy tales famously end with virtue rewarded and vice punished, a happily ever after that provides closure. In “Succession,” by contrast, evil is forever winning out, in large part so that the show can go on.

“Succession” gives us an aesthetics of excess, with its overblown rhetoric, its sanctimonious snark, its self-conscious reaching for the sublime (the latter all-too-often takes the form of those embarrassingly thrilling shots showing caravans of black cars, whirring helicopters, and speedboats—cue the trademark music). Melodrama has its own logic, and “Succession” is a series that, despite its existential gloom, nihilistic outlook, and contemptuous cynicism, gives us an ethical framework for thinking about virtue and vice, as well as about restoring meaning and coherence to a world that has lost both in the drama unfolding before our eyes.

[to be continued]