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]

 

Ghosts of Harvard

Like every good heroine these days, Cadence “Cady” Archer in Francesca Serritella’s Ghosts of Harvard is on a social mission, one driven, in her case, by the desire to understand why her brother Eric committed suicide. True, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but Cady feels sure that there were other forces in play—people who might have pushed him, literally or figuratively, over the edge.  Like her parents, Cady is guilt-ridden, tormented by the thought that her brother’s suicide could have been prevented. Newly arrived at Harvard as a freshman, she begins her detective work, piecing together the story of her brother’s death in an effort to begin the process of healing, for herself and for her parents.

Cady has her own demons, and they manifest themselves as a trio of disembodied voices from Harvard’s past: J. Robert Oppenheimer, who graduated from Harvard in 1925 and went on to become the “father” of the atomic bomb; Bilhah, an enslaved woman who died in 1765 while “in service” at the residence of Harvard’s president; and finally an undergraduate named “Whit,” who longs to participate in the war effort as an aviator. Deftly woven into the narrative arc of Cady’s search for answers about her brother, these three figures take on a life of their own, reminding us that every tragic event in the history of institutions like Harvard is entangled in a web of narratives, some known, some forgotten, and some calling out to be told for the first time.

At a service commemorating the lives of Bilhah and three other enslaved people who had labored at Harvard, President Drew Faust noted that “the past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore.” And John Lewis reminded those present for the affixing of a plaque on Harvard’s Wadsworth House in honor of Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba that, as a nation, we have tried to “wipe out every trace of slavery from America’s memory, hoping that the legacy of a great moral wrong will be lost forever in a sea of forgetfulness.”

Heroines from times past used words and stories to repair the fraying edges of the social fabric as well as to mend, heal, and make whole. The auditory hallucinations that haunt Cady are both a disturbing sign of possible derangement but also a genius way of channeling voices from the past, retrieving their stories from Lewis’s sea of forgetfulness. In her poem, “i am accused of tending to the past . . . ,” Lucille Clifton told us how “the past was waiting for me / when I came” and how “the faces, names, and dates” of History, once nurtured, become “strong enough to travel” on their own. In Ghosts of Harvard, they do just that, waking us up and reminding us that there is value in tending to the past.

Double Trouble: Medusa and Embodied Paradoxes

perseus-medusa

Medusa’s name derives from the Ancient Greek Μέδουσα, which means “guardian” or “protector,” and yet, in a stroke of tragic irony, Medusa was unable to shield herself from harm. She ended up first as a literal shield for Perseus, who used her decapitated head to petrify adversaries, then on the shield of Athena, the goddess who had betrayed her. Ovid tells us in the Metamorphoses that Medusa was once a beautiful young woman with stunning tresses. She had the misfortune of catching the eye of Poseidon, who raped her in sacred precincts, desecrating a temple built to honor Athena. The enraged goddess took out her anger, not on Poseidon but on the victim, turning Medusa into a monster with the power to petrify anyone who beholds her face and venomous locks.

It is worth going back to Ovid as a stark reminder of just how blind we have been to the facts of Medusa’s origin story (or at least in the canonical version told by the Roman poet):

She was very lovely once, the hope of many

An envious suitor, and of all her beauties

Her hair most beautiful – at least I heard so

From one who claimed he had seen her. One day Neptune

Found her and raped her, in Minervaʼs temple,

And the goddess turned away, and hid her eyes

Behind her shield, and, punishing the outrage

As it deserved, she changed her hair to serpents,

And even now, to frighten evil doers,

She carries on her breastplate metal vipers

To serve as awful warning of her vengeance. (IV, lines 774-803)

The backstory of a woman who is raped and demonized resonates powerfully with what we see in the headlines today. As Christobel Hastings writes in Vice, Ovid’s account reads less like an “ancient myth” than a “modern reality.”

How has Medusa resurfaced today? Not so much as a shining example of victim-blaming and punishment (no one bothers with her backstory, in part because they are so rivetted by her face), but as a monster who threatens to undermine the political and social order. Hillary Clinton, whose severed head was brandished as a trophy by a triumphant Trump in several campaign memes, was just one of many women politicians to get the Medusa treatment. Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Margaret Thatcher (“We’ve got to shoot her down,” the British pop band UB40 sang in “Madam Medusa”): their features have all been superimposed on Caravaggio’s snake-headed Medusa.

Why are we still talking about Medusa? Classics professors remind us that the most enduring legacy of Ancient Greece does not take the form of their democracy but of their belief system or mythology, which often guides our thinking in ways more powerful than biblical wisdom. Many children today grow up with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and graduate to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in high school. Like the familiar fairy tales from times past, Greek myths have migrated into the literary culture of childhood. Yet they also haunt the adult cultural imagination, and, as Mary Beard tells us: “More often than we may realize, and in sometimes shocking ways, we are still using Greek idioms to represent the idea of women.”

How do we account for the staying power of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters, and all the other fantastic creatures of Ancient Greece? Athena, Zeus, Odysseus, Achilles, Circe, Arachne, and Medusa are as familiar to many of us as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Part of the answer turns on how Greek myths take up what the French anthropologist Claude-Lévi Strauss referred to as cultural contradictions—conflicting binary terms such as life/death, compassion/hostility, nature/civilization. Myth processes these contradictions in symbolic form, through metaphorical substitutions and forms of mediation that “resolve” the conflict, at least provisionally. Cooks, for example, operate as mediators between the “raw” (shorthand for nature) and the “cooked” (products of culture), transforming what is found in its natural state into something consumed by humans

Medusa, like many of her mythical cousins from the Minotaur to Medea, is an embodied paradox, with the name already controverting her fate. In this instance, nomen is not omen, but rather a retraction or negation of what has been enunciated in it. Medusa cannot protect herself and is instead weaponized by Perseus, who then passes on her gory head to serve as an emblem on Athena’s shield. It was Athena who transformed Medusa from a beauty into a monster, once again underlining that mortal woman’s status as a living paradox. In addition, Medusa herself is a grotesque hybrid of human/animal, tressed to kill, as it were.

Beyond the paradoxes of Medusa’s name and embodiment are the contradictory ways of reading her story. A victim of Poseidon’s assault, she becomes the target of a goddess’s wrath, while the sea-god remains free to engage in one dalliance after another. Is it perverse to think of her snaky appearance as a way of punishing the gaze of male predators, disabling them with her own deadly gaze? But then again, it is Perseus the man who immobilizes his enemies with the severed head of Medusa. This is a story that challenges us to enter a dizzying funhouse that is also a hall of mirrors, one that exaggerates and distorts and gives us endlessly new perspectives on a seemingly simple story that is in fact the expression of complex thought.

Is it any wonder that Einstein told us to read fairy tales to children—that is, if we wanted to raise them to become intelligent. Like fairy tales, myths draw us into a universe that challenges us to make sense of what is nonsense and make-believe, yet always also deeply fundamental and foundational in the making of beliefs.