Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hesiod's Theogeny

Works and Days and TheogonyIn my last two posts, I've written about Hesiod's Works and Days.  Another short "epic" (referring only the meter, not the more modern meaning of epic) by Hesiod is Theogony, an interpretation of the beginning of the world.  The poem begins with a long introduction which serves as an invocation to the muses to speak through the poet and tell the stories of origins.

Once the introductory hymn concludes, we begin to read about creation in terms that remind me of the Hebrew Bible: "In the beginning there was Chaos, the abyss."  But soon the texts part ways.  Hesiod stresses the importance of sexual reproduction in the invention of the world: "From the abyss were born Erebos and dark Night.  And Night, pregnant after sweet intercourse with Erebos, gave birth to Aether and Day."  In fact, those creations conceived without sex seem dangerous and evil: "Then [Earth] gave birth to the barren, raging Sea without any sexual love" says one line.  Another reads, "Sleeping with no one, the ebony goddess Night gave birth to Blame and agonizing Grief."

A great deal of Theogony is simply a listing of the generations of the gods and goddesses.  Often it reads like a  section from Genesis.  But in Hesiod we get some excitement: mothers and fathers "mingling in love" rather than just strictly begatting.

This positive view of sexual reproduction reminds me of the civilizing effects of sexual intercourse in Gilgamesh.  I'm looking forward to tracing how that storyline changes as I read through the literature that follows.

*  *  *

Hesiod contains some beautiful language.  "From his massive hand [came] a whirlwind of holy flame," writes Hesiod about Zeus.  "And the earth that bears life roared as it burned, and the endless forests crackled with fire, the continents melted and the Ocean streams boiled, and the barren sea."  I love the intensity and rhythm of this kind of poetry.

*  *  *

Well--that is the best part.  Much of Theogony is even more misogynist than Work and Days.  It is so icky that I don't want to go into much of it.  Perhaps this quote will suffice:

"They were stunned, immortal gods and mortal men, when they saw the sheer deception, irresistible to men, from her race is the race of female women, the deadly race and population of women, a great infestation among mortal men, at home with Wealth but not Poverty.  It's the same as with bees in their overhung hives, feeding the drones, evil conspirators.  The been work every day until the sun goes down, busy all day making pale honeycombs, while the drones stay inside, in the hollow hives, stuffing their stomachs with the work of others.  That's just how Zeus, the high lord of thunder, made women as a curse for mortal men."

*  *  *

Enough!  It is time for a woman to speak for herself.  After finishing with Hesiod, I'll be reading Sappho.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hesiod: Voice of the Poet, Voice of the Narrator

Hesiod, detail of a mosaic by Monnus

Stanley Lombardo's translation of Hesiod contains a marvelous introduction written by Robert Lamberton.  I'm especially intrigued by a pair of facts he points out: In Theogony, the author introduces himself as Hesiod--a narrative style we don't really see in Gilgamesh or Homer's epics, and one that is the precursor to modern first-person narration.  And in Work and Days, the author emerges "as an individualized human being with a story and a characteristic, idiosyncratic view of the world"--in other words, as a character himself.

Is his writing autobiographical?  When Hesiod speaks of his father and brother Perses, is he recounting the truth of his own life enough that we can use the information in our efforts to understand Hesiod's background?

In Work and Days, Hesiod gives Perses a long speech about his family and behavior.  It is important to realize that this is very much a constructed speech which he never would have given in real life--especially since he is presenting family history that his brother would have of course already known.  Instead this speech is designed to be heard or read by an audience.  In other words, as Lamberton says, "Not only Perses, but Hesiod himself, if first and foremost a fiction."

Although it is tempting to take his words as accurate historical information, it is equally possible that his whole story of inheritance "can very easily be imagined as pure invention, a fiction that has no relationship to the real world."

So Hesiod uses some devices that work against a literal reading.  They make for something almost universal or mythical in tone.  But throughout his writing, Hesiod also uses very specific details that make his work have the ring of truth, of autobiography.  Is the narrator the same as the poet?  Not really.  Are the facts that the narrator speaks the facts of the poet's life?  We have no idea.

This emergence of the individual narrator is a central development in western literature--one that Lamberton argues succeeds in "personalizing the speaking voice and inventing a narrator with an identity and a personality."  Perhaps it is that construction that sparks the almost-confessional lyric poetry about to come on the scene.  Fascinating.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hesiod's Works and Days

Works and Days and TheogonyHesiod, a beloved poet in ancient Greece, was a contemporary of Homer's.  Although his reputation has not remained nearly as strong as his peer's, Hesiod's writings are our oldest primary sources for much of Greek mythology. His work includes Works and Days and Theogeny, which are usually published together in one slim volume.  I'll talk about the first today and the second in an upcoming post. Since I enjoyed his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey so much, I read Stanley Lombardo's 1993 translation of Hesiod and found it quite readable.

Addressing his ne'er-do-well brother Perses, Hesiod in Works and Days seeks to teach us that an honest life consists of working hard to the end of one's days.

In imitation of Hesiod's direct style, Lombardo uses some colloquial or contemporary language that some readers might resist, while others might find it charming. For example, when the translator is introducing Eris (the goddess of strife), he writes, "She's a mean cuss and nobody likes her, but everybody honors her, this ornery Eris. They have to: it's the gods' will."

Works and Days begins with an explanation of "why life is hard"--that is, why human beings now have to work for a living.  Hesiod explains using a story: Zeus was irritated when a mortal man being stole fire and Zeuss decided to get even.  "I'm going to give them Evil in exchange for fire," said Zeus, "their very own Evil to love and embrace."

And what is that evil?  Woman.

He sets out to create Pandora, the world's first mortal woman, out of clay.  The gods give Pandora a beautiful figure, a host of feminine talents, "a bitchy mind and a cheating heart."  She is then sent to Epimetheus (a mortal)  "where she was a real pain for human beings."  In addition to Pandora, Zeus sends Epimethus a jar of gifts.  Epimetheus, despite advice to the contrary, accepts the gifts.  Out of great curiousity, Pandora opens the jar.  Out pour sorrows and evils--enough to blanket the earth and fill the seas.  Only Hope remains in the jar.

Why was hope in the jar of sorrows and evils?  That question kept me awake for an hour last night.  (I swear it started to make sense just as I fell asleep, but when I awoke I had forgotten how.)

The story of Pandora is astonishingly similar thematically to the story of Adam and Eve in the Hebrew Bible.  Eve, like Pandora, is a seductress who seeks more knowledge than God apparently wants humans to have.  Like Pandora's gods, Eve's god puts knowledge deliberately in her path.  And both Pandora's and Eve's quests for knowledge lead to the beginning of human sorrow and pain.  There is one difference: the Hebrew god supposedly creates Eve to be a companion for man, while the Greek gods create Pandora to be a punishment for man.

Hesiod suggests that the human fall from our paradisal state was gradual.  At first, humans lived with Chronus in the Golden Age where they had no need for work.  All was provided for them by the abundant earth. This race of humans were replaced by the people of the Silver Age--those who lived with Zeus and spent almost their entire lives as infants.  This race was replaced by the people of the Bronze Age--strong war-like humans who eventually destroyed themselves.

The Age of Heroes follows--the time from which come the noble Achilles and Odysseus.  And finally, we come to the Iron Age, where men must labor in misery and desperation.  It is the age of deceit, disrespect, and unhappiness.  The best course is to fight evil through hard work and steady routines.

Hesiod's generally snarky tone is beautifully summarized by what is perhaps his most famous quote.  He states that his hometown is "bad in winter, godawful in summer, nice never."

*  *  *

Hesiod's poetry does not have the same resonance today that Homer's epics do.  Homer's exegesis of character is what makes his two epics so powerful.  Hesiod's language is not as glorious, nor is his social analysis as relevant today.

On the other hand, there are certainly historical reasons to read Hesiod.  One idea from Hesiod that has shaped the way we envision human history is the idea of a "golden age" from which we have quite literally "descended."  Interestingly, we often pair the idea of a golden age with the idea that things were harder in the past.  Our grandparents may have had to walk uphill both directions to school, in deep snow all year 'round--but their world was a better one.  Perhaps we've combined Hesiod's proposal that hard work makes a better life with his idea of a golden age?

Hesiod does have pages of clever advice.  Reading him I thought of Shakespeare's Polonius and his "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech.  A few examples:

"Be sure to invite the fellow who lives close by.  If you've got some kind of emergency on your hands, neighbors will come lickety-split, but kinfolk take a while."

"Don't be tiresome at a potluck dinner:
It's good entertainment and cheap at that."

"Give's a good girl, but Gimmee's a goblin."

"Don't piss standing up while facing the sun."

And, in the spirit of Hesiod's misogyny:

"First, get yourself a house, a woman, and a plow-ox
(A slave woman, not for marrying, one who can plow.)"

"Don't wash in a woman's bathwater,
Which for a time has a bitter vengeance in it."

"Don't let a sashaying female pull the wool over your eyes."

Hm...wool...must go pull out my knitting so I can do some more effective sashaying...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Seeds of Mortality and Immortality

Photo by Shimon Sandler

I find the "Hymn to Demeter" one of the most interesting and appealing poems in the Homeric Hymns.  The story is well known.  Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, is the mother of Persephone.  After her abduction by Hades (done with Zeus's permission), Persephone is forced to live in the underworld as Hades's wife.  Demeter is heartbroken.  As she searches for her missing daughter, she allows the fertile earth to go barren.  Nothing grows.  Mortals can make no sacrifices to the gods, for there is nothing to sacrifice.

Zeus, Persephone's father, eventually convinces Hades to allow Persephone to return to her mother.  Hades says that she can only go back if she has eaten nothing while in the underworld.  But during her time there she has eaten a few pomegranate seeds--and therefore must spend four months of each year with Hades rather than on earth.

The myth of Persephone is often used to explain the Earth's seasons.  While Persephone is with her mother, Demeter makes the earth come alive and the fruits of the soil bloom.  When Persephone must be with Hades, Demeter weeps and the earth enters winter and barrenness.

In the Homeric Hymns at large, the long stories about male gods deal explicitly with their births.  Interestingly, the two stories about female gods--this one about Demeter and also the story of Aphrodite--deal with the fertility and sexuality of the goddesses instead of their births--that is, their ability to cause birth.  Specifically, the poems address how Zeus tries to control--not always completely successfully--the power that the goddesses have because of their fertility and sexuality.  As we see in this story, Zeus is so desperate to have life come back to the earth that he must allow Demeter to have a say in what happens to her daughter.

I'm fascinated by images of mortality interwoven with sexuality in this story.  Persephone eats food not designed for the gods--that is, meant for mortals.  Eating like a human condemns her to "die"--at least for a season, just as the earth does.  Persephone eats against her will: when she is symbolically raped as Hades forces his seed into her ("most unwillingly" says Persephone in the Diane Rayor translation, he "put into me" the seed).

Effectively, the rape of Persephone turns her at least partly into a kind of mortal.  She must confront death, at least a partial death, again and again.  But Persephone shares something else with humans.  It is through sexual reproduction--instituted when the man shares his seed with the woman--that mortals achieve their own sort of immortality.  For Persephone, it means she must be in the land of the dead for one third of the year.  For us, it is instead a blessing.  Our children's children continue even after we are gone, making our own immortality as cyclical and halting as Persephone's.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Comparing Translations

As I mentioned in my last post, there are multiple translations of the Homeric Hymns.  I've gotten a chance to peek through several attempts.  From what I've seen, my two favorite editions are the ones by Diane Rayor and Sarah Ruden.  Both volumes have luscious poetry and very smart introductions that explore not only the historical context but the themes and politics of the Hymns.

Here's a section from the beginning of the "Hymn to Demeter," as translated by each author:

1. From Diane Rayor's translation:

I sing of the revered goddess, rich-haired Demeter,
and her slim-ankled daughter, whom Hades snatched
(far-seeing, thundering Zeus gave her away)
while she and Ocean's deep-breasted daughters played,
far from the golden blade Demeter, who bears shining fruit.
She picked lush meadow flowers: roses, crocuses,
lovely violets, irises, hyacinths--and a narcissus
Gaia grew as a lure for the blossoming girl,
following Zeus' bidding, to please Lord of the Dead.
Everyone marveled at the bewitching sight,
immortal gods and mortal folk alike:
from its root blossomed a hundred sweetly
scented heads, and all wide heaven above,
all earth, and the salty swell of the sea laughed.

2.  From Sarah Ruden's translation:

Here I sing fearsome, lovely-haired Demeter
And her trim-ankled child seized by Aidoneus.
Far-seeing, thundering Zeus had sanctioned it.
Gold-sword, bright-grain Demeter did not know.
The girl played with the Sea's deep-bosomed daughters
In a lush field, picking hyacinth's, bright violets,
Irises, crocuses, roses--and the narcissus,
Which the earth grew to trap the flower-faced girl,
By Zeus's tactics, for the hos of many.
Gods whose life never ends and mortal people
Were dazzled by the flower when they saw it.
From a single root a hundred blossoms flourished
And smelled so sweet the whole wide sky above it
Laughed, and the whole earth and the salt sea laughed.

I am really glad I'm looking at both translations.  This passage is completely approachable, as is the vast majority of the poetry of the Hymns--but the two translations emphasize different images.  Rayor' makes me hear "the Ocean's deep-breasted daughters"--because of her rhythmic, almost onomatopoetic translation?--in ways that Ruden's "Sea's deep-bosomed daughters" doesn't.

On the other hand, Ruden's "bright-grain Demeter" seems much more immediate than Rayor's "golden blade Demeter"--again, perhaps partly because of the sharpness of the rhythm.  The two stresses next to each other--"bright" and "grain"--definitely put an emphasis on the phrase.  Rayor's translation seems like a formulaic metaphor (very Greek) where Ruden's seems poetically literal.  The literal is far more appealing (or surprising, as Iser might say) to me, even though the formula might be more faithful to the original.  The translator Apostolos N. Athanassakis, whose translation is admired by scholars searching for a faithful rendition, uses the very formulaic "mother of the golden sword."

In my next post, I'll talk a bit about the larger themes of the "Hymn to Demeter" and try to compare it a bit to some of the other themes that weave throughout the Homeric Hymns as a whole.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Starting the Homeric Hymns

As you may have noticed if you've been reading this blog over the last two months, I went a little overboard on my odyssey through the Odyssey.   I read the epic itself but also several modern versions and updates.  While I found them fascinating, I must admit that I've been feeling a little burned out on Homer.  It has taken me a couple of recovery side books as well as a lot of knitting and film watching to finally get on to the next book on my Lifetime Reading Plan list: the Homeric Hymns.

Unlike Homer's classic epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Homeric Hymns are primarily stories about the ancient Greek gods.  While gods certainly appear in these big epic narratives, the main plots deal with the experiences of human beings.  Homer spends the stories contemplating Achilles's heroism and Odysseus's long journey home.  Both of these mortal men have interactions with the gods throughout the stories, but it is their own growth as humans that moves the reader.

In the Homeric Hymns, on the other hand, we have a collection of short poems--sometimes very short--about the birth of various gods, about their strengths and powers, and often about their relationships (and struggles) with the head god Zeus.  If you want to brush up on your Greek mythology, this collection of stories is an excellent place to start.  Also unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, each of the poems is a clear homage to a particular god, celebrating his or her power and asking him or her to favor the speakers in whatever lies ahead.

We know very little about who wrote the Homeric Hymns, how they were performed, or even when exactly they were written.  Although Thucydides believed that Homer wrote these poems, very few people then or now seem to agree with him.  They were probably written by a variety of poet-performers--and sung or recited aloud at a variety of celebrations or rituals.  Many of the hymns seem to be introductory material to invoke the gods before a larger presentation.  Some are long enough that they might have been solo performances.  Most scholars seem to agree that the poems were written sometime during Homer's era, but they differ in opinion about whether they come slightly earlier or slightly later.

While the poems do not have the psychological resonance for me that I got from Homer's big two epics, I am very much enjoying the poetry of the Homeric Hymns.  Below you'll find links to five different respected translations of the Hymns.  Although I adore almost every book I've seen put out by either Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics, in this case I have not actually seen either translation.  Personally, I have been reading Ruden, Rayor, and Athanassakis.  All three editions have strengths to recommend them.  I'll talk a little next time about a few of the differences between them.

Homeric HymnsThe Homeric HymnsHomeric HymnsThe Homeric Hymns: A Translation, with Introduction and Notes (Joan Palevsky Classic Literature Book)The Homeric Hymns

Please join me next time when I start a brief discussion of the Hymns. I hope you can find a translation of this very short little book at your local library or bookstore and read along with me. If any of you have additional suggestions or comments about translations, speak up!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Playing Shakespeare

Playing ShakespeareIn 1984, the director John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company led nine workshops for actors.  During the sessions, called Playing Shakespeare, the actors discuss how they interpret and perform Shakespeare: how they read the words, understand the rhythm of the poetry, contemplate motivation, etc.  Luckily for us, the workshops were all filmed--and they are available on Netflix.

The most incredible thing about the documentary is the range of actors who participate.  Seeing a young Ben Kingsley or David Suchet is only matched by watching Judi Dench or Patrick Stewart in other episodes.  What I love is that we get to see them not only act but think aloud about how they are acting, try out other styles, and see how the collaboration between great actor and great director can work.

One of my favorite scenes is in the first episode, when Ian McKellen tries out the beginning of The Merchant of Venice: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad."  His very first performance of the line is wonderful--but then director asks him to try it in differing moods or emotions: sadly, humorously.  Then Barton asks the actor to consider the character's motivation. What does the character want the line to accomplish?  Barton suggests options: he wants to explain himself, he wants to avoid explaining himself, to make light of his sadness, to try to put an end to the conversation.  McKellen tries them all out.  By focusing on motivation rather than emotion per se, a great deal of depth began to come out.  This type of acting allows the actor to "make a connection between the mouth and the brain, and maybe the heart," as McKellen says.

The episodes are full of little insights into Shakespeare, big "ah ha!" moments into the whole world of early English drama, and a view of a world I could never have imagined: that which goes on in the weeks and months before the curtain rises.

Highly recommended--including for those of us who do not know a whole lot of literary history.  I've been watching the episodes with my partner David and our 12yo son--all of us fairly inexperienced in serious literary scholarship, to say the least--and all of us are loving it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Fictional 100

The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and LegendLucy Pollard-Gott's The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend is a fabulous book of short essays about the friends we make as we read.  "We have all felt the tug of fictional characters on our lives," Pollard-Gott says.  "From Hamlet to Holden Caulfield, Scrooge to Superman, Romeo and Juliet to Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, they are as much a part of our lives as our family, friends, and next-door neighbors."  Our relations with fictional characters sometimes last a lifetime: "Befriending us as children and inspiring us as adults, they can even be the object of our first love.  As we imagine relating to them in their worlds, we can expand our vision of ourselves and the possibilities that life offers."

Of course, after reading that quote, I started to think about the fact that all my first crushes were indeed on fictional characters.  In third grade, I fell in love with Jo (from Little Women), swept up by her ability to create whole worlds in her head and on paper.  I loved the message that what Jo lived in her real life was worthy of a novel--and of course the subtler message that what Louisa May Alcott lived in her own life was worthy of a novel.  Then a year later, I fell in love again, this time with television character John-Boy Walton.  Perhaps what drew me to him was exactly what drew me to Jo: the recognition that what is ordinary and plain can nevertheless turn into powerful stories if we only keep our eyes and ears and minds open.

Pollard-Gott's book ranks the hundred most influential characters in order of their influence.  Of course, such a ranking is completely subjective.  I promise that some of the characters who most influenced your own life will be missing.  Nevertheless, the author's choices are both obvious and inclusive.  Her decisions were influenced by not only characters' global popularity but also on the ways they have influenced more contemporary literature and culture.

Since in the last few months, I've spent way too long lately reading about how the characters of the Homeric epics resonate and play across the centuries, I was thrilled to see Odysseus in second place on the influence list.  Pollard-Gott recognizes that Odysseus's true battle began only after the Trojan War.  His journey to heroism--unlike Achilles's--is to "stay alive and win his homecoming."

Although in Homer's epic Odysseus returns to Ithaca and Penelope, "his numerous admirers through the centuries, both readers and writers, have always wanted to get him on the move again." as Pollard-Gott cleverly says.  "His wit, endurance, and resourcefulness are equal to any challenge, but what good is such abundant capability if he is left cocooned in a tranquil home with no dangers to overcome?"

Although his journey is a classic model for literary journeys throughout the following centuries, Odysseus gives us "precious little gist" for readers to understand or identify with the character psychologically.  Unlike more contemporary characters, Odyssseus is almost devoid of any internal dialogue of self-reflection.  Although this fact may make the character seem one dimensional, it also encourages us to use this man of action to model our modern odysseys on his, on this man of twists and turns who at the same time is always pointing towards home.

Pollard-Gott's insights into Achilles are also fascinating.  She points out that he is in many ways the first flawed and tragic hero--and therefore an early model for Hamlet among others.  Achilles, the author claims, is a man whose intelligence is clouded by his passion.  In opposition, Odysseus clouds (or constrains) his passion through the use of his intelligence.

The author observes that Agamemnon's theft of Achilles's concubine parallels Paris's theft of Helen from Menelaos, Agamemnon's brother.  I'd never put these together--but once I read Pollard-Gott's analysis, I can't imagine seeing it any other way.

Pollard-Gott points out that the works of Homer have been of central importance for many years: "Of 1,596 ancient Greek books which archaeologists have found preserved on Egyptian papyri, half were copies of the Iliad or the Odyssey or related commentaries."  Astounding.

I have only read a handful of the character essays in The Fictional 100 so far.  Each essay has been an absolute joy: an accessible appreciation of the place a particular character plays in our lives, as well as a fairly scholarly analysis of the role of that character throughout literature.  I'm looking forward to reading more essays as I read the classic books in which they appear,  I promise to share some of the Pollard-Gott's insights as I proceed.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

This month, the Classics Circuit is staging a duel between those favorite nineteenth-century authors Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.  I've always been a strong Austen fan--loving Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and all of her other novels since I discovered them in eighth grade. 

Quite recently, I discovered there is more the the Austen oeuvre than I realized.  In addition to the canonical six novels, there are two incomplete novels and one short completed novel.  The short work, Lady Susan, is fascinating historically and literarily, but it is not nearly as successful in the end as the better-known novels.

Although it is not entirely clear, most scholars seem to believe that Lady Susan was written as early as 1794.  In many ways, Austen's later novels are among the very first of a distinctively nineteenth-century English novel.  But Lady Susan feels much more like it came from an earlier era.

First of all, it is an epistolary novel.  Although Victorian novelists including Anne Bronte used letters to convey a plot, the style was far more common during the 18th century.  To the modern reader (or at least to this modern reader), the narrative seems stilted and strange.  Perhaps our own distance from relationships carried on via extensive letters makes it harder for us to accept learning so much about others solely from the correspondence of friends.  Or perhaps it is just hard to accept from Austen--that intimate, natural writer we've known for so long.

Secondly, the characters in Lady Susan are morally less complex.  There is good and evil--or at least the goodness or evilness of characters are quite obvious and unambiguous.  I love how Austen characters like Emma and Mr. Darcy are flawed individuals, subject to growth and change and maturation.  Lady Susan, on the other hand, is apparently pure evil.  Even her flirtatious side casts her as evil.  While some of the other folks in the story are drawn a little more subtly, they are still almost caricatures in their basic responses: "Oh no!"

Although Lady Susan is cruel, she is in many ways a character Austen asks us to identify with or at least see as a kind of anti-heroine.  As I read, I was thinking about William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair.  Lady Susan made me think of Becky Sharp.  Given that Lady Susan was not published until late in the nineteenth century, I think it is highly unlikely that Thackeray was aware of the echos--but the idea of asking readers to sympathize and identify with a flirtatious and dishonest woman seems ahead of its time.

While I don't think Lady Susan is nearly as good as Austen's other novels, I did enjoy it very much.  Partly, it is just a joy to see Austen fresh again.  For so long, my experience of her work has only been as rereads of books I have read so many times before (and rewatches of a variety of filmed versions of these books I have read many times).  I thought I would never be able to experience Austen truly through the eyes of the adult, since each time I pick up one of her novels I am immediately transported back to high school.  The idea of getting some Austen that I haven't grown up on is delightful--even when I realize that the book might not repay numerous rereadings.

So Lady Susan is a must-read for us Austenites--and definitely fascinating for anyone who is interested in the historical development of either novels in general or the role of women in fiction.  If you love the sensational literature of the nineteenth century in general, you might see links as well.  (I say this having not read a drop of sensational literature yet, but planning to soon....)  Enjoy!

But if you love Austen just for the subtle character development and manners of Austen's more popular novels, you might give this book as pass.  Reread Emma instead.

*  *  *

Emma: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)Frances of the blog Nonsuch Book steered me to the gorgeous new Penguin "Threads" editions. I love the Emma cover!  Click through to her post to see the back cover of this book as well as the Threads editions of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Anna Sewell's Black Beauty.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Gap

A little more than a week ago, Jillian (of the wonderful blog A Room of One's Own) asked her readers to recommend texts on literary theory.  In her comments, Katherine Cox mentioned a series of Yale lectures available for free online.  I am in the midst of trying to finish knitting a wool sweater before it gets to be too hot and humid to knit--and onscreen lectures are just what I need to keep me occupied while I stitch.

This morning I've been watching the fourth lecture, where Professor Paul Fry talks about the work of Wolfgang Iser.  Iser, one of the founders of reader-response theory, is especially fascinated in the hermeneutics of reading.  That is, he is interested in that conversation that goes on between the author and the reader.  The meaning of a text happens in a "virtual" place where the author's ideas and the reader's ideas come together.  This place is a place of uncertainty, of flexibility, of openness.  There are an infinite number of readings as individual readers come to a book, filling in the gaps between their previous understanding and the text, each in their individual ways.

Prof. Fry states that the "gap" between text and reader is not merely an abyss of unknowing.  Instead, it is a place of great productivity.  Fry suggests the gap in reading is parallel to the workings of a spark plug.  In order to make electricity come into being, the points of contact must be "gapped" or kept apart at a precise distance.  The space cannot be too small or too large in order to ignite.

I love this metaphor.  When I read a book whose ideas are too far removed from my understanding, I wind up feeling alienated or overwhelmed.  On the other hand, if an author does not go beyond what I already have experienced, it is likely to bore me and be quickly forgotten.  Iser suggest that there must be "a violation of expectation" that requires the reader to do a bit of work.  A book that creates that perfect gap between text and this reader--the place that encourages the electrical currents in my brain to ignite--has the potential to surprise me, open my eyes and transform me.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Eudora Welty's Circe

I have loved Eudora Welty's stories since I was in high school.  What has always appealed to me most about her writing is Welty's emphasis on gentle but biting portrayals of a wide variety of characters.  Reading stories like "Why I Live at the P.O."--long a very favorite of mine for reading aloud--reminds me of my grandmothers telling stories about their ridiculous neighbors and friends, all deeply loved and appreciated for all their eccentricities.

Welty is also a consummate storyteller.  She has the rhythm of someone entertaining their family members, telling stories while shelling peas from a big wicker basket.  The stories are often the everyday adventures of those slightly larger-than-life characters.  We recognize their foibles and their strengths as our own.

The Golden ApplesIn short, Welty's stories are completely accessible for a small-town southern girl.  But now that I am becoming a better-educated big-city adult, I am beginning to see far more in her stories than I appreciated when I was younger.  In addition to her wonderful voice and amazing characters, Welty's stories are full of allusions to classical literature.  I mentioned in a previous post how "Why I Live at the PO" rewrote a story from the New Testament.  What I realize now is how many of her stories play of ancient mythology.  She even titled one of her story collections The Golden Apples--an image I have discussed before.  I am eager to read her stories again now that I can catch some of these allusions.  The mythological weight of some of her stories (like "A Worn Path" with its main character named Phoenix, or "The Petrified Man" with Medusa) certainly came across to me, but the fact that Welty deliberately situated her creations in conversation with the ancients completely passed me by--as stunned as I now am by that blindness of mine.

In most of her fiction, allusions to classical mythology are below the surface.  Perhaps the only exception is a story written late in her career: "Circe" in The Bride of the Innisfallen.  Although this is not one of my favorite Welty stories, it is a fascinating step outside of the author's more typical approach.  Here, she gives voice to Circe, the character from the Odyssey who turns Odysseus's men into swine.  Homer tells the story from a point of view that allows for the ommission of Circe's understanding of events.  Welty retells the story, emphasizing the feminine roles and limitations of her central character.  The story begins with an interruption: "Needle in air, I stopped what I was making."  Circe, unlike Odysseus, is unable to make her own Odyssey because of her responsibilities to home.

Welty's retelling of a story from the Odyssey made me think of Margaret Atwood's work.  Although their approaches are radically different, both Atwood and Welty attempt to retell classical myth from the perspective of women.  Both, whether they intend it or not, root their stories in contemporary gender politics.  Welty is writing at a time and place of more traditional ideas about gender, while Atwood wants to express a more explicitly feminist ideology.  Despite this difference, the act of reclaiming female characters from classical literature, no matter what one's perspective, is both playful and thought-provoking.

I would love to understand why I was less taken by both myth-rewriting works--both Atwood's and Welty's--than I am by their other writings.  Are they just weaker?  Are the authors taking bigger risks?  I certainly appreciate the idea intellectually, but I don't find either text especially satisfying.

Are there earlier feminine rewritings of classical myths?  Does Woolf do anything, for example?
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