I think some reviews miss the point of Women of Will. This book is not an academic text written by someone who hasn’t “trod the boards” but by a produI think some reviews miss the point of Women of Will. This book is not an academic text written by someone who hasn’t “trod the boards” but by a producer, director and actor of Shakespeare’s plays who’s been engaging with the Bard for 40+ years, and who is presenting the insights she has gleaned from her experiences. And even more, it’s the author’s particular conclusions about Shakespeare’s relationship with women and how that came out in his plays. The reader can accept Packer’s interpretations as valid or not, depending upon their own reading (or acting) of the plays. What makes Packer’s interpretations so interesting is certainly not their academic rigor but that they’re made in the context of a firmly held belief that words can remake the world:
The actor Shakespeare could feel in his body the truth; the writer Shakespeare could record what he saw in the outside world and he gave to women the words to expose the dichotomy between what lay within and what was expected from without. And the only way to bridge the gap, alter, and bring it to a new relationship is through love. The women acknowledge the love and go on the journey. Creativity? It is the ability to see the world as it is, imagine what it might be, and step out with love (p. 299).
I’m not going to discuss the whole book. Packer looks at most of the plays over the course of 300 pages. To give you a taste, though, I will focus on two that I find personally interesting – “Troilus and Cressida” and “Measure for Measure” – and a section the author calls “The Plague Years,” where she imagines what Shakespeare was up to during the 1590s.
Packer’s readings of Shakespeare don’t exclude others. In preparing this review I pulled Mark van Doren’s Shakespeare and Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All off my shelves to refresh my memory about what they had written. Van Doren’s “Troilus and Cressida” essay dismisses Cressida in less than a sentence, “That Cressida is not worth all this does not damage it as rhetoric…” (p. 174). As Packer argues in regards to Troilus, van Doren too appears unable to empathize with Cressida. Garber’s essay is more academic. She does treat of the women in the play but even she has little sympathy to spare for the young woman. Regarding “Measure for Measure,” van Doren is close to Packer, though he is writing from a broader perspective. She would agree with his conclusion: “It is the permanent symbol for a city, itself all earth and rotting straw, with which Shakespeare at the moment can do no more than he had been able to do with the diseased bones of Pandarus’s Troy. All he can do is stir it until its stench fills every street and creeps even into the black holes of prisons…. The bank of dark cloud above her [Vienna’s] forehead is never burned away” (pp. 191-2). In Garber’s “Measure for Measure” chapter, here too she and Packer are closer in readings than otherwise, touching on many similar themes, though – again – Garber’s perspective is broader. Which is understandable. Women of Will is not about anything but Shakespeare’s representation of women. Packer is interested in what she believes were Shakespeare’s encounters with real women that allowed him to grow as a writer and create increasingly sophisticated and nuanced characterizations not only of women but of men.
“The Plague Years”
This section is a speculative romp through Shakespeare’s life from 1587-1594, where Packer believes that something extraordinary happened to him: he fell in love. Through that love, his perception of women fundamentally changed. “He wrote as if he were a woman. Embodying them. Giving them full agency” (p. 52). The woman he fell in love with was the Dark Lady of the sonnets, whom Packer believes was Aemilia Lanyer (née Bassano), daughter of an expat Venetian musician and an English woman, also a musician. Shamefully perhaps, I had no idea that this remarkable woman existed, though now I’m interested in reading her work. It’s from his relationship with Aemilia, which may have lasted for these few years or perhaps for the 20 or so they could have known each other before his death, that Shakespeare “finally got it about women” (p. 90). His engagement with Lanyer inspired him to create female characters like Juliet, Beatrice, Rosaline and Lady Macbeth, and influenced his male roles as well, lifting them from the near greats like Richard III to the truly greats like Othello, Hamlet and Lear.
Of course, the Dark Lady wasn’t the sole influence that made Shakespeare Shakespeare during these years. Packer imagines quite a bit in reconstructing them. Aside from his new-found insights into women, perhaps the most important of these were the contacts he made with the circle of men and women who were the leading literary lights of the period and their noble sponsors – in particular Kit Marlowe and the Earls of Essex and Southampton. Shakespeare realized four things (according to Packer): One, poets were the greatest truth-tellers because their poetry gave them perceptions others couldn’t have [justifying Shakespeare’s life]. Two, music and poetry induced higher levels of knowledge and consciousness. [Shakespeare’s work began to incorporate music and his words became more rhythmic; he became conscious of the harmonies in a well-crafted sentence.] Three, poets are inspired, perhaps by something outside of themselves (the Muse) or something deep inside (the unconscious). Wherever it comes from, this “frenzy” cannot be denied. And, four, poetry – and even more so, theater – brought everyone, from the meanest pauper to the wealthiest noble, to the same perception and consciousness:
[J]okes about bodily functions and elementary sexual acts make people laugh, so they let go of themselves and un-self-consciously inhabit their bodies, and that this, combined with the most sublime poetry, allows the full spectrum of man’s being. Theatre can do something poetry by itself could never do – it can give us all of humanity, all kinds of people standing side by side, building a community of understanding, empathetic understanding. And that connection in turn fosters the perception and language of God. Potent and regenerative (p. 68).
“Troilus and Cressida”
I like “Troilus and Cressida” because, of Shakespeare’s three great plays about star-crossed lovers [“Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” are the other two], this one seems to me to be the most honest. Which shows what a pessimist I am.
Packer unpacks “Troilus and Cressida” in relation to “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” and asks the question, “Why does this love fail?” Her answer is the unequal relationship between the lovers. Troilus is a prince of Troy, son of Priam. He has wealth, status, and the respect of family and comrades. Cressida is the daughter of a traitor and otherwise without family, status or wealth except for an oily uncle (Pandarus), whose situation mirrors her own. Her only asset is her virginity and she’ll be utterly vulnerable if she gives it up to Troilus.
But she does after both lovers pledge their undying love for each other in a scene worthy of the two more famous tragedies. But where Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra do die for each other, Troilus leaves Cressida at the mercy of Troy’s council, who have decided to trade her for the warrior Antenor. Abandoned and alone in the Greek camp, the teen-age girl’s spirit collapses and she throws herself on the mercy of Diomedes, a Greek warrior who seems sympathetic. Troilus, witnessing her from afar but unable to empathize with her plight, believes she’s unfaithful and abandons his love for the forgetfulness of violence. And so ends this love as one would expect it to in real life. The lovers don’t understand each other and fail to live up to the ideals they so readily espoused when their relationship was unthreatened; the relationship is destroyed; the lovers live on, though, and have to cope.
“Measure for Measure”
“Measure for Measure” doesn’t flinch from the fact that life is messy. Relying on a definitive recipe that answers all your questions, satisfies all your desires, and lets you get away with suppressing half of your identity leads to all kinds of trouble.
There are three protagonists: the Duke, Angelo and Isabella. Packer largely ignores the Duke as he’s peripheral to her intent. Angelo is a cold-hearted, supremely logical fellow who’s put in charge of Vienna to curb its carnal excesses. Isabella, arguably equally cold-hearted and logical, is a novice of the Order of St. Clare whose devotion to Christ is put to the test when Angelo threatens her virtue to save her brother. Both have walled themselves off form the messy business of emotions. When Angelo meets Isabella and argues with her over the fate of her brother, he recognizes a woman who can meet him on an equal footing and falls desperately in love with her. Unfortunately, he lacks the capacity to respond to her as an equal. He can only engage with her in debate or – in the end – by forcing her to accede to his desire. Isabella, for her part, is as constrained as Angelo. Unable, unwilling to admit to the possibility of love, she doesn’t recognize Angelo as a fellow soul. In the one moment when Angelo breaks down and opens the door to love, she refuses to walk through, instead threatening to expose him.
“Measure for Measure” examines the unconscious motivations present in all of us. Obviously, that’s not how Shakespeare would have put it but he recognized the relationship between repressed desire and physical violence. Once Angelo admitted to feeling a sexual attraction, he opened himself to myriad emotions that overwhelm his ever-so-rational mind: “Why does my blood thus muster to my heart, / Making both it unable for itself, / And dispossessing all my other parts / Of necessary fitness?” (2.4, 20-23)
“Measure for Measure” is listed as a comedy among Shakespeare’s plays. And everything does appear to work itself out in the end (as all comedies should) – Claudio lives and is reunited with Juliet, Angelo marries his fiancée Mariana, Lucio marries Kate Keepdown, and the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella. But I can’t imagine any of these pairings being successful except for Claudio and Juliet’s, which is the only one that’s based on any sort of mutual attraction and equality, the factors that Packer has stressed throughout the book that are critical to a successful relationship. It’s often brought up that Shakespeare leaves it up in the air how Isabella responds to the Duke’s proposal. By this point in the play, she’s speechless – literally. Various troupes have interpreted the character differently. Some have her responding with joy; others with horror. I lean toward the “horror” crowd. If they could get over their psychological hang-ups, it’s Angelo and Isabella who should marry.
There is one final thing I want to highlight. In one of her digressions, Packer discusses Shakespeare’s quest to discover what is the “soul,” which paralleled his discovery of the “female.” I thought it was an interesting insight. It sums us why she’s devoted so much of her life engaging with the Bard, and I quote her conclusion in full:
So I think in the end where Shakespeare comes out is: The soul is a verb, not a noun. It is substantive but not material. It lives in every breath we take. Therefore, the potential to be open to life is there within our bodies in every moment. The soul is the ability to sustain love – real love, which renews itself in the creative act. It is the maiden phoenix, the bird of the spirit, which burns up itself (which is painful) and, out of the ashes, creates itself anew (which is often hard but ultimately joyful). It can join with another, or many. It fills the body, is deeply erotic, and generates new life (p. 107).
As should be apparent from my rating, I enjoyed this book. While some of her non-Shakespearean asides are cringe worthy, I found her Shakespeare-centered commentary stimulating and it made me see the plays in a new light. For example, her discussion of Goneril and Regan in “King Lear” revealed aspects of their characters that I hadn’t considered. They’re still not “nice people” but they’ve become more rounded individuals in my mind, and their motivations clearer.
Definitely recommended for Shakespeare fans, especially those interested in the insights of someone who’s directed and acted in the plays.
 Though Packer points out that Troilus’ language is more reminiscent of Romeo’s in regards to Rosalind, the woman he’s swooning for before meeting Juliet and whom he’s never actually met.
 Enough that I’ve ordered my own copy (albeit the paperback edition, which comes out next year (2016).
 As I write these words, I’m thinking in particular of her explanation of the Holy Roman Empire and the relationship between Emperor and Pope (p. 202)....more
A Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. It’s an extended introductory essay to the Canongate MythA Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. It’s an extended introductory essay to the Canongate Myth series, several volumes of which I’ve read: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, and A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, respectively, reinterpretations of The Odyssey, the Atlas myth, and the Viking Apocalypse.(1)
Armstrong asserts that myths are timeless stories that define what life is about. They answer questions such as why are we here? what is our relationship to the divine? where do we come from?, etc. They may arise from an actual event but aren’t bound by historical narrative. One of the examples Armstrong uses is Jesus Christ. As a man, it’s well established that Jesus lived in 1st century AD Palestine, claimed to be a messiah, and that the Romans executed him. As the Christ, his message became fodder for Paul’s mythologizing, transcending the historical fact of his existence. From this point of view, it’s not essential that Jesus existed. [But that’s a topic for another book and not central to what Armstrong is talking about here.]
Back to myths in general...
Myths are often characterized by a concern with death and our fear of (personal) extinction. They’re intimately connected with rituals, without which they become meaningless or (at best) entertaining stories (a la TV’s Xena). The most influential myths force their protagonists (and, thus, us) to go beyond their experiences. Myths also show us how to behave.(2) And, finally, myths reflect the higher reality of which we can only catch glimpses (in ecstatic trances or via drugs, for example). The “truth” of a myth lies in its effectiveness. As Armstrong writes, “[i]f it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth” (p. 10).
In the Introduction, Armstrong mentions modern society’s near total alienation from myth, which she’ll return to at the conclusion. In between, she divides mythological development into six periods:
1. Paleolithic (pre-agriculture) 2. Neolithic (agriculture) 3. Beginning of urban civilization (Sumer, etc.) 4. Axial Age 5. Post-Axial (up to the Reformation in Europe) 6. Post-Reformation Europe
Paleolithic myth(3) arose out of a desire to reconcile humanity with the violence by which they survived in the world – i.e., by hunting. Armstrong argues that in these earliest myths the “hero” was born. A person who faces the prospect of death and undergoes an arduous journey to return to his people with gifts and wisdom. She mentions Herakles and Artemis as most likely arising from this tradition. The chief divinity at this point, appears to have been a goddess figure (though this doesn’t imply that humans lived in a matriarchy, as some have argued).
Why should a goddess have become so dominant in an aggressively male society? This may be due to an unconscious resentment of the female. The goddess of Catal Huyuk gives birth eternally, but her partner, the bull, must die. Hunters risked their lives to support their women and children. The guilt and anxiety induced by hunting, combined with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy, could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they – not the expendable males – who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself – a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals. (p. 39)
The Agricultural Revolution didn’t displace the goddess but humans adapted their hunting myths to reflect a new understanding of their relationship with the Earth. The goddess assumed more maternal and nurturing aspects. She still represented – at times – the implacable and fatal aspects of life but she was now also a force of creation. Armstrong concludes her Neolithic chapter with the suggestion that humans were able to find a sense of optimism absent in Paleolithic myths: “The initiation at Eleusis showed that the confrontation with death led to spiritual regeneration, and was a form of human pruning…. [I]t could enable you to live more fearlessly and therefore more fully her on earth, looking death calmly in the face. Indeed, every day we are forced to die to the self we have already achieved. In the Neolithic period too, the myths and rituals of passage helped people to accept their mortality, to pass on to the next stage, and to have the courage to change and grow” (p. 57).
The advent of cities caused yet another fundamental change in myth. Humans were gaining ever greater (though still precarious) control over their destinies and growing ever more alienated from Nature. And the gods reflected that new distance. Myths arose or were adapted to celebrate and justify cities, writing, bureaucracy, and the other appurtenances of civilization. Another interesting development was the increasing prominence of human agents, as in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which challenged the traditional mythology of the Mother Goddess and asserted that it was best for gods and humans to remain apart.
The loss of the old certainties embodied in Neolithic mythology led to the spiritual crisis that ushered in the Axial Age (beginning around 800 BC). “[The Axial Age] marks the beginning of religion as we know it” (p. 79). In terms of myths, they became more introspective and often had an ethical cast. And the gods (or God in the case of the Jews) continued to become more remote. It became impossible to experience the sacred in everyday life; only through breaking down the normal consciousness could people contact the divine. In this section of the book, Armstrong reviews the varying responses China, India, Israel and the Greeks developed in response.
And their responses (including the later developments of Christianity and Islam) held true until the 16th century AD, when Europe entered the Modern Era, a chief aspect of which “was the death of mythology” (p. 119):
The Western achievement relied on the triumph of the pragmatic, scientific spirit. Efficiency was the new watchword. Everything had to work. A new idea or an invention had to be capable of rational proof and be shown to confirm to the external worlds. Unlike myth, logos must correspond to facts; it is essentially practical; it is the mode of thought we use when we want to get something done; it constantly looks ahead to achieve a greater control over our environment or to discover something fresh….
But logos had never been able to provide human begins with the sense of significance that they seemed to require. It had been myth that had given structure and meaning to life, but as modernization progressed and logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early at the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place. We are seeing a similar anomie today in developing countries that are still in the earlier stages of modernization (pp. 121-2).(4)
The loss of mythology has made it difficult for people to face the unspeakable, though not for want of trying. Art, music, drugs, films and more: all attempts to recapture the certitude and significance that mythology had formerly supplied. “But there is something unbalanced about this adulation. The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation. We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative” (p. 135).
In the last few pages of the book, Armstrong calls for new myths (or – as we shall see – myth-like stories) that will help us identify with our fellow humans, realize the importance of compassion, create a spiritual attitude that challenges individual selfishness, and venerates the Earth as something more than a resource to be exploited. As she writes, “unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet” (p. 137).
She also connects this extended essay to the purpose of the Canongate myth series: Using the novel as a means of achieving what myth had done for our ancestors. She likens the reading of a book to meditation since readers have to live for a while in a world outside of their lives and – in a good novel – find themselves a different person when the experience is over.
A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world (p. 149)
I would recommend taking a look at this book. It packs a lot into a small package, and there’s much that Armstrong can only assert without being able to back it up with extensive argument, but I think many of her points are defensible and much in her analysis of what’s wrong with our world, true.
1. My favorite is Weight but can recommend the other two as well. 2. This is not necessarily ethical behavior. The earliest myths are more concerned with ritual purity and preparing the listener for the afterlife, among other things. Morality – as we understand the term – would only become an integral part of mythology with the Axial Age. 3. I should mention that Armstrong’s focus in this short book is on West Asian mythology, though she’ll mention in passing other cultures. 4. I would say the “developed countries” are still attempting to cope with the modern world....more
Daniel Mendelsohn’s choice of title in this collection of essays is not meant to convey a sense of impending doom as is usually associated with the phDaniel Mendelsohn’s choice of title in this collection of essays is not meant to convey a sense of impending doom as is usually associated with the phrase “waiting for the barbarians.” Rather, he wants to suggest its meaning in C.P. Cavafy’s original: The barbarians are awaited with a sense of hope; they offer welcome change and the possibility of renewal.
“Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion? (How serious people’s faces have become.) Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, everyone going home so lost in thought?
- Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come. And some who have just returned from the border say there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.”
Thus, the essays in this collection “consider the ways in which the present, and especially popular culture, has wrestled … with the past.” (p. xi)
The second theme found in these essays is what Mendelsohn calls the “reality problem”: The extraordinary blurring between reality and artifice, made all too possible by the latest technology, has bled beyond just our entertainments to affect how we think about and conduct our lives.
He divides the book into four sections: “Spectacles,” which reprints the type of reviews that initially endeared me to him – looking at popular culture through the lens of our past; “Classica,” which focuses on reinterpretations of the Classical canon; “Creative Writing,” which deals with more modern works of fiction; and “Private Lives,” which considers how a private life ends up represented on the printed page.
As with Mendelsohn’s other critical volume, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays, I was entranced by the author’s erudition and insights. Even stuff that I would not normally be interested in, Mendelsohn makes so interesting and relevant that I feel compelled to – at the very least – look at the source material to see what he’s talking about. (The compulsion sometimes passes – despite the reviews here, I feel no need to watch Avatar or rewatch Titanic (more about both below); on the other hand, his interpretation of Achilles’ character in his piece on Stephen Mitchell’s Iliad does have me itching to reread the poem.)
Below, I want to give an abstract of the reviews collected here. I cannot recommend this book too highly, and would encourage any interested reader to hunt a copy down and read it for themselves so they can get the full force of Mendelsohn’s arguments.
“The Wizard” – Mendelsohn begins with a review of James Cameron’s Avatar. His title refers to the movies’ similarities to The Wizard of Oz (which Cameron has alluded to). But where the latter film ended with a reaffirmation of reality, “by contrast, the message of the new movie … is – like the message of so much else in mass culture just now – that ‘reality’ is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, is whatever you care to make of it …. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don’t have to wake up. ‘There’s no place like home’ has become ‘there’s no need for home.’ Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie of our time.” (p. 17)
“Truth Force at the Met” – This is a laudatory review of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, an opera about the life of Gandhi. Mendelsohn concludes by writing, there is no plot but there is a structure which “achiev[ed] a large effect that exceeded, finally, the boundaries of the theater, this marvelous work made you feel that it had done something. And what is that, if not drama?” (p. 35)
Not a fan of opera, this was one of those essays that moved me while reading it but afterward my disinclination for the genre reasserted itself. I’m not sure I could feel what Mendelsohn does were I to see it (at the conclusion of the performance he saw, the author writes that he burst into tears), but the general point quoted above is a valid measure of what makes a book, a film or a play significant.
“Why She Fell” – “Why She Fell” is Mendelsohn’s thoughts on why Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man was such a disaster. Taymor attempted to combine the classical transformation myth with the modern American version. Her failure was two-fold. First, the two conceptions are incompatible. Where, in ancient tales, metamorphosis is a punishment and a humiliation, in the American version, transformation is empowering. And she tried to make a blockbuster movie rather than stage a play: “Like a character in some Attic play, she was led by a single-minded passion to betray her truest self and abandon her greatest virtues. These … lie not in elaborate Hollywood special effects … [that] make the fantastical seem real and persuasive, but in a very old-fashioned kind of magic that doesn’t pretend to be ‘real’ at all.” (p. 49)
“The Dream Director” – “The Dream Director” is a review of Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, a film about the final days of Hirohito’s reign as god-emperor of Japan. Mendelsohn also discusses Sokurov’s other works – Russian Ark and Moloch. The underlying theme of all three being the gap between “human realities and what [Sokurov] calls the ‘theater’ of ideological performances.” (p. 55)
“The Mad Men Account” – In this New York Review of Books piece from 2011, Mendelsohn rips into the TV show Mad Men, about which he writes: “The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the direction is unimaginative. Worst of all … the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic …. [I]t proceeds … like a soap opera.” (p. 67)
The show commits a surfeit of sins but they can be condensed down to four chief ones: (1) The show raises serious themes without giving them serious thought or textured characterization. (2) The direction is static and unimaginative. (3) The acting is unexceptional “and occasionally downright amateurish.” (p. 73) And (4) there’s an ad hoc quality to the writing.
But he goes on to argue that despite these manifest flaws (I don’t watch the show so I can’t attest to their veracity), Mad Men appeals to a viewing demographic who were children during the show’s time period and watched their parents living their lives – “the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.” (p. 78)
“Unsinkable” – Back in the day, my ex dragged me to see Titanic when it came out. In her defense, she went only because we were double-dating with her best friend, who was a fan. The film is really rather awful, an opinion shared by Mendelsohn. But he takes this piece of schlock as an opportunity to examine why the Titanic has become a modern myth. It comes down to two things. The story’s ability to be a canvas on which we paint our anxieties about modernity, technology, class, race and all the other problems we face. Mendelsohn compares Cameron’s vision of the myth to two Greek tales: Iphigenia, where two maidens are sacrificed to male egos, and Oedipus, where two heroes – symbols of achievement and overweening pride – are brought down by their own flaws. The second need the Titanic can fill is our perverse desire to see something beautiful destroyed.
“Battle Lines” – As I’ve mentioned, Mendelsohn has a genius for making the reader see a work in a whole new light. Such is the case in his review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad. Here, Mendelsohn argues that Achilles’ capacity to be human expands over the course of the poem but only at the cost of his closest friend – pathei mathos, we suffer into knowledge – and that Homer suggests “the whole range of human action and emotion – of an existence that … has meaning precisely because we, like Achilles, know it will end.” (p. 112) (He treats of a similar theme in the last essay from this section.)
Strictly in terms of Mitchell’s translation, the author is positive, and makes me want to get a copy to see the rest of Mitchell’s work. Compare this excerpt from the Lattimore edition to Mitchell:
LATTIMORE: “You wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart. Never once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people.”
MITCHELL: “Drunkard, dog-face, quivering deer-hearted coward, you have never dared to arm with your soldiers for battle.”
“In Search of Sappho” – In his review of Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, Mendelsohn’s primary focus is on Sappho’s role in modern imagination. Of the (reputed) nine volumes of Sapphic verse that reposed in Alexandria’s library, we retain one complete poem, one nearly complete lyric (recovered only in 2004), and a bunch of fragments (sometimes no more than a few words). And they’re found in the oddest places, such as Apollonius Dyscolus’ On Pronouns, or a quote from Herodian’s On Anomalous Words, included because it contained a curious spelling of the word “sky.”
Under such circumstances, “Sappho” is often not much more than a reflection of her translator or biographer. While the author praises Carson’s translations generally (e.g., eptoaisen = “put the heart in my chest on wings”), he criticizes choices such as rendering Fragment 108 as “O beautiful O graceful one” when the Greek clearly uses the word kore, “maiden.” Or translating optais amme (Fragment 38) as “you burn me,” even though the pronoun is plural and more correctly translated “you burn us.” “[S]he’s chosen to sacrifice what the words actually say in order to project an image of Sappho as we want her: the private voice of individual erotic yearning.” (pp. 135-6)
“Arms and the Man” – Mendelsohn argues that Herodotus was the first serious prose writer in Greek. Prior to his Histories, there wasn’t even a word for prose it was considered such a debased form of writing. While the Landmark edition reviewed here has some admirable qualities (particularly the plethora of maps and illustrations), it fails to capture Herodotus’s charm as a writer, and it fails to understand Herodotus’s purpose in writing: To make the actions of ordinary men as important as the deeds of the heroes in the Iliad and other myths. “Herodotus may not always give us the facts, but he unfailingly supplies something that is just as important in the study of what he calls … ‘things that result from human action’: he gives us the truth about the way things tend to work as a whole, in history, civics, personality, and … psychology.” (p. 156)
“The Strange Music of Horace” – This is another review that takes a translator to task for failing to grasp the meaning or importance of the works he’s translating – in this case J.W. McClatchy, who fails to reflect Horace’s meticulous use of form.
“Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar” – I don’t have any notes from this essay, which posits: What would Oscar Wilde have produced if he had become an Oxford don?
“Epic Endeavors”* – “Epic Endeavors” is a composite review of three recent novels based on classical Greek myths “that, to varying degrees, not only ‘do’ the Greeks … but … do the Greek thing: play with the texts of the past in order to create … a literature that is thoroughly of the present.” (p. 197)
David Malouf’s Ransom builds upon the scene where Priam and Achilles meet to discuss a truce so Hector’s father can bury his son. This is Mendelsohn’s favorite of the three books as (he argues) it successfully expands “the possibilities of Homer’s story.” (p. 202)
Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is not as successful. Some of Mason’s imaginings are clever but Mason’s tricks “pale, in both scale and complexity, beside the ones that Homer mastered three millennia ago …. The clever games that the Odyssey plays are, in the end, games worth playing. Mason’s book is merely jokey – too clever by half.” (p. 206)
The third book is John Banville’s The Infinities, which reimagines the Amphitryon myth in the story of a modern-day mathematician and his family. Not as good as Ransom but better than The Lost Books of the Odyssey.
All three books, however, in Mendelsohn’s estimation, whatever their flaws, are evidence of the “inexhaustible … potential of the classics themselves.” (p. 209)
“After Waterloo” – “After Waterloo” is another essay where I made no notes. It’s a rave about Richard Howard’s translation of Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma – both the translation and the novel in general.
“Heroine Addict” – I was excited to find this review in the collection. I discovered Theodor Fontane just this year (2012) and thoroughly enjoyed the two novels I’ve read so far – Irretrievable and Effi Briest. I became positively giddy to find that Mendelsohn shares my enthusiasm for Fontane, writing that the key to Fontane’s success as a novelist is his narrative style: “a gift for obliquity, for knowing what to leave out, and above all for letting the reader ‘overhear’ the speech of his characters …. It is this skill at delineating characters through dialogue … that creates the sense of intimacy that his novels have.” (p. 226)
I feel a sense of satisfaction when my own critical faculties are validated by a professional whose opinions I respect.
“Rebel Rebel” – This is a disquisition on the poems of Rimbaud. The most interesting thing I found in this piece was Mendelsohn’s observation that Rimbaud is a poet of adolescence. He stopped writing at the age of 20 because he grew up, and the urgency of rebellion died. (p. 256)
“The Spanish Tragedy” – “The Spanish Tragedy” introduced me to another author I’d never heard of – Antonio Muñoz Molina, and his novel Sepharad. It’s a glowing review of a book that Mendelsohn writes is “something of a masterpiece.” (p. 274)
“In Gay and Crumbling England” – In this essay, Mendelsohn reviews Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. While the essay is interesting to read, it’s about an author and a subject I have no interest in, so – again – no notes and nothing to write.
“Transgression” – “Transgression” was another essay I was pleased to see as I’ve had Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones on my wish list for a while now. (There’s a copy at one of my libraries but I’ve never gotten around to taking advantage of its availability.) Mendelsohn argues that the book is working on two levels: One is a historical fiction that addresses the violence and inhumanity that lurks beneath the “kindly” exteriors of ordinary people. The second level is a mythic-sexual element that asks “What is justice?” and how does it appease the desire for vengeance. In his estimation, separately the two threads work. The difficulty comes when Littell attempts to combine them into one novel. In making Aue (the protagonist) a “brother,” the historic passages excel but they’re undercut by the mythic ones, where it becomes harder and harder to understand Aue as a fellow human being. He becomes “precisely the kind of cliché of depravity that so many of this novel’s strongest passages successfully resist.” (p. 303)
In his conclusion, Mendelsohn recommends the novel as it “can give us nightmares that will haunt us long after the show is over.” (p. 308)
The final section, “Private Lives,” was the least engaging for me. In it Mendelsohn focuses on memoirs, with the most interesting to me being the essays on Noël Coward and Susan Sontag. Among the general claims he makes, I found this observation the most intriguing: “Ideally, a memoirist’s revelation of himself should seduce readers into a comparable willingness to examine themselves and their lives without vanity, without props. In this way, a literary experience can lead to a profound life experience.” (p. 375)
Let me reiterate here that this is a remarkable collection of essays, and I strongly recommend it. However, if there’s one criticism I would level at Mendelsohn it’s that many of his sentences are too long (“discursive,” to use a more erudite word; or “prolix,” to use another one I have a fondness for). He starts out with a beautifully simple subject and verb but then goes off on a tangent that occupies a clause or two before getting to the predicate (many of the ellipses in the quotes above are reflections of this). It’s a tendency I don’t recall from How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays. This may diminish the reader’s enjoyment but not – I would hope – enough to dissuade him or her from reading these essays.
* Mendelsohn has an interesting digression at the beginning of this piece where he mentions the ancient Greeks’ penchant for revising and retelling their myths. In Euripides’ Phoenician Women, for example, Oedipus and Jocasta are still alive many years after the revelation of incest and parricide; in his fragmentary Oedipus, the king’s blindness is a result of injuries sustained when he killed Laius. And in his Helen, Euripides dramatized a popular myth that claimed the real Helen spent the Trojan War in Egypt, remaining faithful to Menelaus; Paris spirited away a phantom. Anyone who’s read Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths will have already encountered this.
The topic is of interest to me because – as anyone who’s browsed my bookshelves will know – I happen to take an interest in several modern mythologies. Namely, Star Trek, Star Wars and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I’d like to see the owners of these properties relax their grips, ideally trashing the idea of “canon” entirely, and let us return to the days when authors like James Blish, Sondra Marshak, Diane Duane, John M. Ford (to name some ST authors) or Alan Dean Foster (to name a SW author) could write their own interpretations without being strait-jacketed. (I know there’s fan fiction out there that does this but its reach is very limited, even in the age of the internet. I want to see the phenomenon go mainstream, as they say.)...more
There is a section in Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? where the author discusses the difference between “literature” – those works of prose and verse thatThere is a section in Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? where the author discusses the difference between “literature” – those works of prose and verse that are read and discussed for generations – and what isn’t – those works that may be well written and engaging but don’t have the power or impact that survives the ages. Two of the authors he chooses to illustrate this are Homer and Stephen King. The distinction, Edmundson writes, is that Homer (and “literature” in general) challenges the reader. He makes the epic genre do things it usually doesn’t, and forces you to ask questions about the assumptions you make about life, morality, religion, war, etc. Stephen King is a good author but ultimately he doesn’t challenge you to move beyond a certain comfortable zone of limited expectations:
King is an entertainment. King is a diversion. But when you try to take him as a guide to life, he won’t work. The circles he draws on the deep are weak and irresolute. And this is so in part because King, for all his supposedly shocking scare tactics, is a sentimental writer. In his universe, the children…are good, right, just, and true…. Just about all adults who are not in some manner childlike are corrupt, depraved, lying, and self-seeking. This can be a pleasant fantasy for young people and childish adults…. But bring this way of seeing the world out into experience and you’ll pretty quickly pay for it. Your relation to large quadrants of experience…will likely be paranoid and fated to fail. (Why Read, pp. 133-34)
I’m reminded of this in Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles, where she argues for a similar conclusion when she attempts to explain why The Iliad is still read and discussed three millennia after its creation. While she doesn’t cite Edmundson (nor King, oddly enough :-), she wants us to see that The Iliad is not a glorification of war and the warrior (as some parts can be interpreted or misconstrued). Neither is it its opposite – an anti-war manifesto (as other parts can be understood). If is, rather, an unflinchingly honest story about why men fight and the price they and their families and comrades pay. It remains a story about Achilles’ rage and the choice he must make – glory and a short, long-remembered life or mediocrity and a long but quickly forgotten life – but the poet demands a deeper exploration of the choice than the typical epic cycle, where there’s rarely even the pretense of a choice and the worth of glorious battle and defeating one’s enemies is taken for granted.
An example: All know why Achilles abandons the war in its final year. Agamemnon, the Greek high king, seizes Briseis, a captured Trojan woman, when his own prize, Chryseis, is ransomed by her father. Achilles stalks off to sulk in his tent, and the Achaeans come near to losing everything as the Trojans take advantage of the Phthian’s absence. The hero abandoning, for a time, the “cause,” is a common trope in ancient literature, but Alexander argues that Homer uses it as an opportunity to raise questions about why we fight and under what conditions must you obey a leader who is manifestly incompetent and wrong.
As an example of the first contention, the author points to Achilles’ reply to the embassy sent to try and convince him to return to the fray. Alexander writes, “Achilles, moreover, not only rejects the Embassy but…goes further, challenging the very premise of the heroic way of life” (p. 87):
I hate his gifts. I hold him light as a strip of a splinter….
…For not worth the value of my life are all the possessions they fable were won for Ilion, that strong-founded citadel, in the old days when there was peace, before the coming of the sons of the Achaeans….
Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting, and the tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses, but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier. For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans, my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting; but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers, the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly. And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back home again, since no longer shall you find any term set on the sheer city of Ilion, since Zeus of the wide brows has strongly held his own hand over it, and its people are made bold.
Do you go back therefore to the great men of the Achaeans, and take them this message, since such is the privilege of the princes: that they think out in their minds some other scheme that is better, which might rescue their ships, and the people of the Achaeans who man the hollow ships, since this plan will not work for them which they thought of by reason of my anger. Let Phoinix remain here with us and sleep here, so that tomorrow he may come with us in our ships to the beloved land of our fathers, if he will; but I will never use force to hold him.
So he spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence in amazement at his words. (pp. 97-8)
The infamous Thersites articulates the second contention in his confrontation with Agamemnon, who has foolishly decided to test the Achaeans’ resolve by advocating that they go home:
It is not right for you, their leader, to lead in sorrow the sons of the Achaeans. My good fools, poor abuses, you women, not men, of Achaea, let us go back home in our ships, and leave this man here by himself in Troy to mull his prizes of honour that he may find out whether or not we others are helping him. And now he has dishonoured Achilles, a man much better than he is. He has taken his prize by force and keeps her. (p. 34)
A strength of the book is that it made me – once again – reconsider the character of Achilles and appreciate him as a human being far more than ever before. He does find a reason to return to the war – the death of Patroklos – and Alexander suggests a parallel between Achilles’ reaction and that of modern-day soldiers who lose comrades, “[c]ombat trauma undoes character” (p. 169):
So the glorious son of Priam addressed him, speaking in supplication, but heard in turn the voice without pity: Poor fool, no longer speak to me of ransom, nor argue it. In the time before Patroklos came to the day of his destiny than it was the way of my heart’s choice to be sparing of the Trojans, and many I took alive and disposed of them. Now there is not one who can escape death, if the gods send him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one of all the Trojans and beyond others the children of Priam. So, friend, you die also. (pp. 167-68)
Compare that to a modern soldier’s reflection:
I just went crazy. I pulled him out into the paddy and carved him up with my knife. When I was done with him, he looked like a rag doll that a dog had been playing with…. I lost all my mercy. I felt a drastic change after that…. I couldn’t do enough damage…. For every one that I killed I felt better. Made some of the hurt went [sic] away. Every time you lost a friend it seemed like a part of you was gone. Get one of them to compensate what they had done to me. I got very hard, cold, merciless. I lost all my mercy. (p. 169)
There is much more to Alexander’s arguments than the few points I’ve raised here, all equally fascinating and equally well presented by the author. E.g., she points out that Homer plays with readers’ expectations by describing visions of marching armies with scenes of life (pp. 39ff). Elsewhere, she argues that Hera’s extortion from Zeus of a promise to let Fate take its course reflects Homer’s recognition of the mutually destructive nature of war – no one can win, all are destroyed (pp. 60ff). Another observation I found interesting was the probable origin of “Achilles”: He was not a hero from the epic tradition but a figure of folktales. A late addition to the cycle that made him someone Homer could use to comment on the war (pp. 83ff).
While classicists and those obsessed with ancient Greek literature may find The War that Killed Achilles thin fare, the general reader will find it a valuable commentary on The Iliad and I would recommend it....more