Posts Tagged ‘mythology’

I come from a large family of people who are not especially kind. When I was young, I got angry quite easily, but I recognized how powerless I was to vent my frustrations on my older siblings, so I’d grip my little hands into fists and turn red and grit my teeth until smoke poured out of my ears. Those older siblings enjoyed the show so much that they spent all their leisure time making me angry for no other purpose than to watch me get angry. What does a child learn from this? First, he learns to conceal his feelings. I was so adept at this that I myself didn’t know what I was feeling for most of my life. Now, I’m shy enough that when people meet me, I seem not to have any personality at all, so they project their opinions, desires, and prejudices onto me as if I were a tabula rasa. It gives me a chance to try being different people, but the real me always surfaces eventually, often to jarring effect.

Second, he learns that the world is an unfair place, inimical to his own interests. Those with power make others suffer with impunity, and those who are responsible for keeping him safe are either too busy with other matters, too indifferent, or too powerless to do any good. Life isn’t fair, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As I got older, I’d occasionally try to create some sort of justice, but I quickly discovered that I have no sense of proportion. Any attempt of mine to right the scales of justice leaves them leaning too far to the other side. When you don’t expect the world to be fair, you don’t try to make it fair. When injustice is normal, justice no longer seems like a goal worth reaching toward. As I’ve gotten along, I’ve tried to supplement my deficient sense of justice with moral rules, but everyone knows that rules only really matter in board games. This is why I try so hard to be kind; there’s a baseline of fairness that makes it possible for us to live in a society, that I am lacking. Though I often apply the principle inconsistently, I find kindness easier to manage, and I also find that people don’t mind if you’re unfair if you’re unfair in their favor.

I’ve enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s fiction for quite some time – The Blind Assassin was new when I first loved it – but this is the first nonfiction book of hers that I’ve read, and it is quite good. The reading goes very quickly, and the book takes stories and concepts that we are familiar with and presents them to us in a new light. Five chapters, forty pages each, but they don’t feel that long. If it were a novel, I’d try to read it as an Elizabethan drama, but it’s not a connected story. Well, maybe it is.

Part one, Ancient Balances. Humanity’s earliest laws governed the balancing of accounts, as did our earliest religions. The Egyptians believed that after death, a human heart was weighed against truth, and justice claimed the soul for either good or ill. This belief spread through the other pagan religions, as well as into Judaism and its descendants, Christianity and Islam. In fact, it seems to have predated our evolution into human beings, as primates also have an acute sense of justice. The interesting thing about justice, though, is that it’s always represented as being female. I think that it’s because our sense of justice comes from our mothers, the primary caregivers in most societies. My mother had too much of a temper to manage her children effectively; sometimes punishments were excessive, sometimes they were insufficient because they had been excessive, and sometimes they were nonexistent. I guess it’s easier to love some children if you don’t look too closely at what they do. The ex-wife is also a woman of quick temper who loves babies, but she has a rather extreme sense of justice, which occasionally makes me uncomfortable. By getting divorced, we kept her from having more children than she can manage, so hopefully my children will be more emotionally healthy, more human than I have been.

Part two, Debt and Sin. As we saw with the Egyptian scales, the things we do in this life are often seen as a series of moral debts and credits, that great accountant’s ledger in the sky. I’ve mentioned before how incomplete this metaphor seems to me, how easily it can be used to justify acts of great evil by balancing them with a series of small charitable donations. However, Atwood points out that it’s not only the debtor who is seen as the sinner; the creditor is also morally damaged by the lending of money. Think of our culture’s opinion of pawnbrokers, a career so questionable that it seldom appears outside of Dickens novels or TLC programs. We see them as profiting by taking unfair advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, as if the pawnbroker forces them into sin. As if the act of borrowing money itself were a sin. My own debts make me uncomfortable; I’ve taken on a second job to try to pay them off. But they were also necessary; when I moved here, I needed some money for a security deposit on an apartment, and I was also in need of food. I got a new credit card because I couldn’t make it on my own. It’s like this: if I have a skillet, I can make healthy food for a few dollars a day. If I don’t have a skillet, I can eat unhealthy fast food at a rate of eight to ten dollars a day. So, it makes sense for me to buy a skillet. If I don’t have the money for a skillet, I’m stuck eating expensive food. I could decide not to eat for three or four days and so save enough money to buy a skillet, or I could borrow the money. I chose to borrow it. I don’t think that makes me a sinner, just a human being who values his health.

In this section, Atwood also talks about the importance of record-keeping. Remember Fight Club, when Jack/Tyler’s plan was to destroy all the credit card records? Apparently that’s a historical trend. Erase the record of the debt, cancel the debt without paying it. It’s what all we debtors really want, isn’t it? And what we refuse to do when we become creditors. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Part three, Debt as Plot. As Cecily points out in The Importance of Being Earnest, memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels one encounters. Specifically, memory of debts. The nineteenth century novel is full of debts and repayments. In graduate school, I once wrote about how Wuthering Heights is a rewriting of Byron’s “The Giaour,” where money has replaced religion. One of the strongest examples that Atwood uses is one of my favorite books, The Mill on the Floss. She also discusses the imaginative power of millers generally. In Eliot’s novel, life is a matter of inheriting and settling accounts; Maggie Tulliver tries to create a world where relationships are built on more than debts, and it eventually kills her. The next logical step is

Part four, The Shadow Side. Revenge. A good portion of this is about Shakespearean tragedy, which revolves around vengeance. There’s also The Merchant of Venice, which covers a humanized Shylock and his overgrasping vengeance. Atwood mentions a production that used a Native American actor for Shylock, which I think must have been quite compelling. For me, though, thoughts of Shakespeare generally turn to Twelfth Night, the play most interested in giving gifts, and the debts that gift-giving creates. Indeed, it’s a play about unwanted debts, where people become creditors against their will. Years ago, I decided that I would never lend money to a friend. I will gladly give, and if they want to return it that’s their choice, but I won’t give money to someone if I need it back. This practice can lead me into trouble, like when I gave money to someone who was a bad risk, and then he moved to a different continent while promising to pay it back. It would have come in handy a year later, when I was getting a new credit card instead of buying a skillet with my own money. Así es la vida.

I prefer to pay my debts off, but I will forgive any creditor who comes my way. Even those people who have repaid my love with violence and neglect. Let debts go, even those of emotion and soul. Let there be love and peace. Let forgiveness overcome our desires for war.

Part five, Payback. I believe that the human desire for payback leads to more unnecessary conflict than anything else. Jesus fuck, just let it go. It doesn’t matter if you have a right to exact vengeance; relinquish your rights and let it go. Clinging to your vengeance binds your debtor to you more closely. The only way to be free of him is to let go.

The bulk of this section is taken up by a rewriting of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, updated for our time. We can’t imagine a man so consumed by the love of wealth that he won’t spend on himself, so the Nouveau Scrooge does. But when he’s faced with the price of his wealth, the destruction of the earth led by the industrial age, he changes his mind and gives his money to support the preservation of nature. Atwood finishes her tale of human history with the renunciation of wealth, the reversal of the nineteenth century – a vision of a future where capital is used to benefit the earth instead of the individual, where species are saved, and we stop acquiring more than we need.

It may seem strange, to write a book about money and spend most of it talking about religion, fiction, and the environment, but it makes sense. Atwood has spent this book telling us who we are, what makes us human. Fair play, justice, getting into and out of debt, yes, but more importantly, we are the stories we tell. If we keep telling the story of capitalism, we will keep living in a world of more and more extreme capitalism. There are other stories to tell, though. Stories of community, stories of cooperation, stories of peace, stories of kindness. As the Barenaked Ladies once sang, It’s time to make this something that is more than only fair.

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The ex always had more active senses at night. For the first few years, she continually woke me up to investigate strange sounds or smells that I could neither hear nor smell. There was never anything there, or maybe I just never woke up enough to perceive it. One night, though, she brought me out of a sound sleep to take care of a bat. As creatures go, bats are fairly nonthreatening. Most only eat plants or insects, so they don’t bite people unless they’re threatened. If they get into your house, they circle around trying to find a way out. The best thing to do is to throw a towel over them, or otherwise knock them to the ground. A bat needs a running start to get in the air, which is why they don’t land often. A bat on the ground is easy to transport against its will. I found out all this the day after the bat attack. All I knew that night was that there was a wild animal in the house with my wife and children and I had to get rid of it. I got a broom and chased it around until it settled to circling my oldest son’s room. He was three and slept through all of this. I stood in the doorway trying to hit the bat as it came by; with each pass it got lower and lower, until I threw an empty cardboard box over it. Then I swept the box over to the door and released it outside. D. H. Lawrence has this weird collection of poems about flowers and animals, and he tells a similar story.

In terms of style, Lawrence’s poetry is quite what you’d expect if you read his novels. This collection deals much more extensively with animals and our relationship to them than his prose, though his prose often involves vivid descriptions of plant life (like that time when Rupert Birkin runs naked through the woods in Women in Love). In terms of attitudes, again there are no surprises: disdain for women, foreigners, and the working classes.

There’s one piece where he describes these purple flowers, and they make him think of Hades. In case you missed Greek (Roman) mythology, once upon a time there was a god named Hades (Pluto/Dis) who literally got the short end of the straw and had to administer the Underworld. He got kind of lonely down there, so one day he chose a wife. Persephone (Proserpina) was a young goddess out picking flowers with her friends when suddenly there’s an earthquake and the God of Hell rises out of the ground and drags her down with him. Her mother Demeter (Ceres) is the goddess of harvests and nature, and she was so depressed with the loss of her daughter that she sank the world into an eternal winter, just like Elsa in Frozen. Eventually the gods convinced Hades to give her up to save mankind from freezing and starving to death. He had one condition, though: she could only leave if she had never eaten or drunk anything while she was there. The whole eternal winter thing had become a real threat, so she had to have been down there for at least a year. She held out almost that entire time, since goddesses can’t starve to death, but they do get hungry; Persephone ate five seeds from a pomegranate, so she has to return to Hades for five months every year. During that time, her mother mourns again, and we have cold weather when crops don’t grow. Lawrence focuses on spring and summer, when lonely Hades wanders the earth looking for his wife, and he calls her a women’s rights activist. I guess you can see Persephone as a suffragette, but that’s a totally messed-up way of looking at the sexual dynamics of equal rights. Lawrence’s sympathies are with the abandoned rapist, and political activists seem domestically irresponsible and doomed to failure.

He gets kind of possessive of women, too – he talks of England as a graveyard where all the women of his life are buried, and then he calls their ghosts to follow him to America. He does a “My Last Duchess” bit of jealousy with his dog. She’s a cute little thing, but she loves everybody, and he keeps losing her because she will run after anyone who isn’t loving her as much as she wants to be loved. Lawrence’s verse derives rather a lot from our great American poet, what with the long lines, long poems, and plain language, but it’s not a straightforward appreciation: he calls the dog “a Walt-Whitmanesque bitch” because there’s nothing she doesn’t like. She’ll even eat shit. I suppose he thinks Uncle Walt did the same.

As for other forms of elitism, here’s his response to meeting a couple of Mexicans who shot a mountain lion.

And I think in this empty world there was room for me and a mountain lion.
And I think in the world beyond, how easily we might spare a million or two of humans
And never miss them.
Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost face of that slim yellow mountain lion!

I’m all for protecting nonhuman life, but really? He’d rather see two million people burning in hell than one dead mountain lion? I don’t deny that big cats are beautiful, but this does seem a bit extreme.

Lawrence has an interest in animal mating habits that also seems a bit extreme. I’m happy that animals reproduce, and I’m in favor of sex generally, but I have never written a poem about a tortoise screaming during ejaculation. Or, this bit about goats:

With a needle of long red flint he stabs in the dark
At the living rock he is up against;
While she with her goaty mouth stands smiling the while as he strikes, since sure
He will never quite strike home, on the target-quick, for her quick
Is just beyond range of the arrow he shoots
From his leap at the zenith in her, so it falls just short of the mark, far enough.
It is over before it is finished.
She, smiling with goaty munch-mouth,
Mona Lisa, arranges it so.

Orgasm after orgasm after orgasm
And he smells so rank and his nose goes back,
And never an enemy brow-metalled to thresh it out with in the open field;
Never a mountain peak, to be king of the castle.
Only those eternal females to overleap and surpass, and never succeed.

Hardly complimentary to the poor woman, who probably regard his repeated orgasms as somewhat premature.

Most of these poems were written in either Italy or America, and he brings the two together briefly:

Evil, what is evil?
There is only one evil, to deny life
As Rome denied Etruria
And mechanical America Montezuma still.

Lawrence goes into his fascination with Italians in Etruscan Places, where he goes on a tour of the ancient pre-Roman tombs. As in America, there was a group of people living close to the soil, and then a more technologically advanced society took them over and used their home as a headquarters from which to launch an empire that would cover most of the continent. Technology tends to drive us further from nature, and away from a value for human beings who are different than we are. I’m not sure if Lawrence does a better job of avoiding this evil than other people do, but I do enjoy his books.

Further on America, and the identity crisis we’re still having almost a century later:

THE AMERICAN EAGLE

The dove of Liberty sat on an egg
And hatched another eagle.

But didn’t disown the bird.

Down with all eagles! cooed the Dove.
And down all eagles began to flutter, reeling from their perches:
Eagles with two heads, eagles with one, presently eagles with none
Fell from the hooks and were dead.

Till the American Eagle was the only eagle left in the world.

Then it began to fidget, shifting from one leg to the other,
Trying to look like a pelican,
And plucking out of his plumage a few loose feathers to feather the nests of all
The new naked little republics come into the world.

But the feathers were, comparatively, a mere flea-bite.
And the bub-eagle that Liberty had hatched was growing a startling big bird
On the roof of the world;
A bit awkward, and with a funny squawk in his voice,
His mother Liberty trying always to teach him to coo
And him always ending with a yawp
Coo! Coo! Coo! Coo-ark! Coo-ark! Quark!! Quark!!
YAWP!!!

So he clears his throat, the young Cock-eagle!

Now if the lilies of France lick Solomon in all his glory;
And the leopard cannot change his spots;
Nor the British lion his appetite;
Neither can a young Cock-eagle sit simpering
With an olive-sprig in his mouth.

It’s not his nature.

The big bird of the Amerindian being the eagle,
Red Men still stick themselves over with bits of his fluff,
And feeling absolutely IT.

So better make up your mind, American Eagle,
Whether you’re a sucking dove, Roo-coo-ooo! Quark! Yawp!!
Or a pelican
Handing out a few loose golden breast-feathers, at moulting time;
Or a sort of prosperity-gander
Fathering endless ten-dollar golden eggs.

Or whether it actually is an eagle you are,
With a Roman nose
And claws not made to shake hands with,
And a Me-Almighty eye.

The new Proud Republic
Based on the mystery of pride.
Overweening men, full of power of life, commanding a teeming obedience.

Eagle of the Rockies, bird of men that are masters,
Lifting the rabbit-blood of the myriads up into something splendid,
Leaving a few bones;
Opening great wings in the face of the sheep-faced ewe
Who is losing her lamb,
Drinking a little blood, and loosing another royalty unto the world.

Is that you, American Eagle?

Or are you the goose that lays the golden egg?
Which is just a stone to anyone asking for meat.
And are you going to go on for ever
Laying that golden egg,
That addled golden egg?

And, my personal favorite from this collection:

PEACH

Would you like to throw a stone at me?
Here, take all that’s left of my peach.

Blood-red, deep;
Heaven knows how it came to pass.
Somebody’s pound of flesh rendered up.

Wrinkled with secrets?
And hard with the intention to keep them.

Why, from silvery peach-bloom,
From that shallow-silvery wine-glass on a short stem
This rolling, dropping, heavy globule?

I am thinking, of course of the peach before I ate it.

Why so velvety, why so voluptuous heavy?
Why hanging with such inordinate weight?
Why so indented?

Why the groove?
Why the lovely, bivalve roundnesses?
Why the ripple down the sphere?

Why the suggestion of incision?

Why was not my peach round and finished like a billiard ball?
It would have been if man had made it.
Though I’ve eaten it now.

But it wasn’t round and finished like a billiard ball.
And because I say so, you would like to throw something at me.

Here, you can have my peach stone.