Living

The Woman in the Moon, or Archery and Archetypes

I have a very literary view of classical gods.  My understanding of them comes through years of studying literature—some more “authentic” texts than others (if we regard Apollodorus and Hesiod more authentic than Ovid, and Ovid more authentic than Chaucer or Spenser or Rick Riordan).  The gods have a tradition and a history as archetypes and characters, and I think about them fairly regularly for a 21st century American.
Diana/Artemis came up recently in my Chaucer class, for instance.  When I teach “The Knight’s Tale,” we talk about the gods whom the characters pray to for support.  The two young men who are in love with the Amazon Emelye pray to the god they think will help their suit—Arcite prays to Mars, since there will be a battle for her hand, and he wants to win.  Palamon goes straight to Venus, asking for her help in his love suit.  Emelye, on the other hand, prays to Diana.  She wants above all to remain a virgin, and if that doesn’t pan out, to marry the man who loves her the most.
Chaucer’s Diana condescends (very literally) to explain things to Emelye.  This almost never happens.  When one prays to a classical god, a flame flickers or a sweet odor wafts in to say yes.  The gods don’t chit-chat.  But Diana does here, and it is remarkable.  Perhaps because Emelye is an Amazon, a virgin who wishes to stay chaste, an obvious candidate for Diana’s troupe of nymphs in the forest–whatever the reason, Diana speaks.
Diana is the goddess of the moon.  As such she is associated with women’s cycles and with childbirth (the waxing moon representing the growing belly of a pregnant woman). She is also the first midwife, helping her mother Latona deliver her twin Apollo moments after she herself is born.  She is a virgin goddess, yes, but because of these associations, she is also the patron of childbirth—of that moment in a woman’s life when she is her least rational, most wild.
Diana defends the wild, as well.  She lives in the forest, eschewing the bright light of civilization and knowledge and patriarchy that Apollo represents.  She is the protector of animals, especially of their young, and of the wild in general.  She is the huntress, and the slivered moon is her bow.   She keeps balance in the forest by hunting, so one species doesn’t overrun another, and she is the goddess of instant death: if a woman dropped dead instantly (say, of a heart attack or a stroke), she was said to have been struck by Diana’s arrow.  She shares that appellation with her brother, who is the god of instant death (he shot men; she shot women).
In fact it is well to understand her in light of her brother.  They share the archer role, but they contrast in far more ways.  She is the moon; he is the sun.  She is wildness and soft, reflected light; he is the bright, illuminating planet by whose rays we see wisdom, prophecy, the arts, medicine, civilization in all its various facets.  He is the polis, the body politic.  She, though, she is wild.
Diana turns her back on the civilization Apollo offers.  She leaves.  No man will rule her; no sun will drown out her softer light.  She lives in and becomes the wild.  She is fierce.  She can be ruthless.  Actaeon stumbles across her bathing, and she lashes out at him, transforming him in to a stag who is immediately hunted and ripped apart by his own dogs.  She is resistance to the established, straight and narrow, well-lighted path.  She is the crooked path through the dark forest.  She can be violent and is always subversive.  She lights but dimly, and she roars in the darkness.

She’s been on my mind a lot since the Women’s Marches on January 21st.  Apollo, whom I most readily associate with, as he is patron of the arts and culture and poetry, is the literal light that illuminates our lives and spirits.  But sometimes it is appropriate that he yield to Diana, whose overriding impulse is not to yield.  She resists.  And right now, I’m finding her message pretty compelling.

Reading · Teaching

Reading for Character, Reading for Plot

Lettore READER Lettrice
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Relax.  Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.  Let the world around you fade.  Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room” (3). When you sit down to read Calvino’s hypernovel, the narrator starts talking to you directly.  He addresses you, the Reader, in the second person, just like he’s talking to an old friend.  He draws you in, you–the Reader, by describing what can be seen as pretty generic descriptions of how people read. But just like when you read a horoscope or a Facebook quiz, the description is vague enough (and informed enough—he knows what readers do) that you can find enough truth in it and buy in to his game.
But he addresses you as Reader.  In English this is wonderfully vague.  It is gender-neutral and judgment-neutral. The latter matters because in this book about the acts of reading and writing, there are lots of kinds of readers and lots of kinds of writers, and there is certainly some judgment thrown around.  At the beginning, though, we don’t know what kind of reader you are; you are just a Reader.
In class I spend considerable time asking my English majors what kind of readers they are.  Do they read for plot mostly, to find out what happens?  Do they read to get to know the characters?  Some people won’t read a book unless they like or can identify with an important character.  Do they read for long, richly evocative descriptions, like Dickens’s three-page description of Mr. Tulkinghorn descending into his wine cellar for port?  Do they read to see their favorite kind of story retold anew?  What people look for in books varies, and the students sometimes form support groups for factions.
The self-described “plot whores” hang together and defend each other.  Story above all!  The “character-lovers” share each other’s outrage when film versions give lines to the wrong character or when adaptations make the characters do something contrary to their original character. “Hermione didn’t say that!  Ron said that in the book!”  We decide how we read in relation to Calvino’s characters, and deny others like Lotaria, the overly zealous critic whose acts of interpretation seem violent attacks on the book (at one point she puts novels through a word counter and only reads the list of frequent words to figure out what the book is about! Another time, she rips one chapter out of a book and says that’s all she needs to judge the book.)  All of this helps people figure out their own reading persona, and sometimes through reading this book, they even get a bead on their writing persona.
But this time when we talked about the Reader, the subject of identification with the Reader got a little more attention.  In English, “Reader” is gender-neutral. That means until “you” get in to the second chapter, “you” could be anyone, and it is only at that point where the Reader Calvino envisions identifies as a man, trying to meet an attractive woman, the Other Reader, that female readers have to adjust. (This confusion doesn’t exist in Italian, where the word “Lettore” indicates a man, and later on, a female “Lettrice” appears.) I have read this book a dozen times, and every time it’s a little letdown.  I enjoy the pages where it feels like he’s talking to me—really to me, not the character he’s asking me to be. And sometimes I slip in to my new role as male character with more grace than others. I’m used to it, after all. The default has been male for so long, and I’ve read so many books where the protagonist is male. And sometimes I’ve gone right ahead and identified with him, because I’m trained: females are asked to assume a male persona more regularly than the converse. Still, I’m often a little jarred when I reach the point where I can no longer pretend he’s talking directly to me.
It’s this point that stuck today, in this reading, after the Women’s Marches around the world.  The default is still male.  This book was written in a far more sexist time and culture than 21st century America, but the default is still male.  Gender is understood by more people now as a spectrum than a binary, though, and somehow it was this strict adherence to increasingly outdated gender assumptions that made it feel dated this time, rather than the story about the guy who runs from house to house, thinking all the landline phones along his jogging route are ringing for him.  We talked about how we read and what we looked for in books, and none of those groups of character-readers and plot-fiends were divided along gender lines.  This book keeps bringing up questions about how we read and why we write, and some of the answers are changing, but the most important ones are not.  We all know who we want to identify with—the readers of novels who really enjoy books, who use them as links to understanding other people, who throw stories like ropes across the void between souls, to make friends.  
Reading · Teaching

Why Read Calvino? Or Any Other Classic Author?

I’m teaching Italo Calvino again, and that means starting with his essay “Why Read the Classics?,” wherein he decides ultimately that the strongest reason to read the classics is that it’s better to have read them than not.  He gets there through a list of fourteen attempts to define what a classic is or does, all while crafting a definition everyone can agree upon.  This is at once, I think, an important discussion and one whose reality we deal with in the effects it produces—what ends up on bookstore shelves and stays in print—and a futile discussion, but one I continue to have.
It is of course necessary to distinguish between those traits of a classic that you think everyone would benefit from, and those more personal preferences that make a work classic for you, but that may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  He addresses this.  He goes so far to name them “personal classics.”  When I discuss the essay with my English majors, we distinguish between “Upper Case Classics” that are somehow empirically classic, and “Lower Case classics,” our own personal favorites.
Ten years of discussing this issue with English majors, most of whom self-describe as “avid readers” and so invested in the discussion, and I have come to think he’s right:  it’s a muddle, and there are lots of traits of classic literature that ring true, but nothing that pins it down neatly.  If we can’t pin down what’s good about classic literature among people who almost uniformly love it, we don’t have a prayer of explaining what’s good about it for every person on the planet.
Part of the problem is logistical:  we can’t very often find a work of “classic” literature that everyone in the room has read. The two times we have, it has been Hamlet.  So we’re trying to triangulate positive traits in or definitions of classic books by finding several books that most of the class have read, and hoping there is enough overlap that everyone can stake their claim.
This year we loosely decided that Classics should make us think and feel deeply (hopefully inspiring us to change or grow), and that within those functions, we can choose what kinds of subjects or characters or style works more effectively on each of us.  This leads in to our discussion of the first novel of the quarter, If on a winter’s night a traveler, where Calvino tries to build a classic everyone can agree on, and which I’ll think more about for next week.  Meanwhile, I put the questions to you:  Is there something that classic literature does for us that Dan Brown or JD Robb or Tom Clancy don’t do?  What do we gain from reading something old, attested, and approved by previous generations?
Living

If on a winter’s night a reader

Winter is a time for introspection, or so say the ‘olde bookes’ I grew up reading.  These books were mostly written in Europe, though, where winter means cold, short days and long, dark nights, so it makes sense.  Summer is the time for action, when the world conspires to make you energetic and affords you more time to do—to grow crops, craft materials, travel, and shore up resources for the winter.  Winter is when you rest and use, rather than produce, those resources.  It is when people still their bodies, and therefore can flex their minds.  When one shifts focus from production to reflection and appreciation.  If people are made of bodies and souls, summer is for the work of the body, and winter is for the work of the soul.
Some of this seems deeply ingrained in my psyche.  (I’ve recently found out, via one of those “spit in a tube” DNA analysis systems, it may also be printed on my cells—I’m entirely European—lots of different strains, but entirely European, which will no doubt take another post to process.)  I feel like things should slow in the winter, like I’m entitled to long evenings with cocoa and candles and reading and staying indoors.  My problem, if you can call it that (and I tend not to), is I live in Southern California.  There are no deep freezes, no storms that prevent travel, no freezing temperatures that keep me indoors or actually slow me down in any way.  I could go and have gone all year round, without taking what feels like a real winter break.
This year, though, I feel like we got it right.  We didn’t travel.  A number of times people came to us, for dinner and evening holiday parties, for New Year’s Eve festivities, but we stayed home and let them come.  That meant we focused more than some years on our little, happy home.  We cleaned, purged, and polished up a good bit to be ready to welcome people, and when they came, we played host.  I felt holed up.  It was wonderful.  I know I’ve been beating the Wind in the Willows drum lately, but I am reminded of the “Dolce Domum” chapter, where Mole finds his burrow in the snow after living several months on the river, and feels like he has reconnected with a part of himself.  It happens to be Christmas when he does, and so the usual field mice come (without knowing he’d been gone), and they pull together a warm, inviting feast and celebration.  There I go being Moley again.  That scene was magic, and that was kind of my winter break.
It wasn’t a reflective, studious break, which sometimes people advocate in the winter.  I didn’t read ten books or push myself to develop any skill.  I played and communed and socialized and filled my tank with all those warm, fuzzy, cocoa-drinking, be-slippered feelings the Danish call ‘hygge.’ (I love this word.  Not only does it encapsulate the notion of cozy, warm camaraderie we seem to lack in So Cal, it also looks and sounds like ‘hug.’) I was reluctant to leave the cocoon to face this winter quarter, but when I did I came back from break more refreshed than usual, more purposeful, even, than I normally do.  Apparently winter is more a state of mind than a temperature range.  Wishing you all productive changes and peaceful transitions.
Reading

Reading to Teenagers—the retro experiment

I have read to my kids for years, and we certainly have our favorites.  When they were little, we read several picture books every night, and I bought new books tirelessly.  We amassed a pretty impressive library of picture books, if I do say so myself.  In fact, now that they are 14 and 16, I have gone through the picture books several times to cull from them books we no longer need.  Part of my agreement with myself to buy ALL THE BOOKS requires me to share those we’re truly done with; I give them to teachers to pass on to their students who don’t have enough books.  Just recently, though, I went through for what turned out to be the last time.  We have reached a point where I can’t part with any more picture books.  All that are left, I adore, either because of the story on its own merit, or for some happy memory reading it to my kids.
For a few years after they outgrew picture books, we’d still occasionally read some on one night, just to be retro and remember what those stories were and who we were when we first encountered them.  But mostly we’ve moved on (well, they have.  I’m seriously not letting another picture book out of my house.  The ones we have left are all required.)  We moved through “chapter books” to what I regard as real novels, and as they got older, I started reading them adult literature as well.  Beowulf.  The Ramayana.  The Lord of the Rings.  The Iliadand the OdysseyA Tale of Two Cities.  Somewhere after our Homer-fest, we decided it was time to revisit a children’s classic and take things down a notch.  We chose The Wind in the Willows.
You may not be surprised to learn the person who decides to hang on to 400-odd picture books might be in the market for the most delightful edition of such a classic as The Wind in the Willows.  In fact, I occasionally troll Amazon.com for new editions of many favorites, especially those which are or can be illustrated.  Such a find was this:  last year for my birthday I bought myself the Collector’s Edition 2014 reprint of this book in a charming, small, hardback edition with gilt edges and the real feature—illustrations by Arthur Rackham.  (You may also not be surprised to learn I have favorite illustrators and a propensity to track down their work like a bloodhound.)  This particular edition also includes an introduction by A. A. Milne—another treasure—and I read it aloud to my kids too.  I reproduce the best part here:
“One can argue over the merits of most books, and in arguing understand the point of view of one’s opponent.  One may even come to the conclusion that possibly he is right after all.  One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows.  The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters.  The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly.  The book is a test of character.” (10)
With that daunting description in mind, we returned to a book we (fortunately) all remembered loving.  But this time it was quite a different experience.  The first time I read it they were too young—maybe 5 and 7—and couldn’t follow the British expressions very well.  The second time was perfect—around 8 and 10—and everyone adored it.  They giggled in all the right places and loved the characters like real friends… like Christopher Robin loved Pooh and Piglet, now I think of it.  But this time they were big, and the book, we thought, had stayed little.  This was a return.
We began by remembering favorite scenes and characters.  Dad’s favorite characters were Ratty and Otter.  (Dad cares very much about character and less about symbolism or plot or setting.)  The girly remembered the least, being the youngest, and encouraged us to read the story and not reminisce.  The story begins with Mole, as he becomes disgruntled with spring cleaning and bursts out of his hole in to the sunshine, on the riverbank where the rest of the story will take place.  The girly was all over this.  “Oh my gosh, mom.  You’re so Moley.”  I don’t disagree with this statement, but I was curious.  Was it my lack of interest in housework or my jubilation in nature, as Mole “jump[s] off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living, and the delight of spring without its cleaning” (12), or something else she was responding to?  “All of it. Mostly your happy willingness to do stuff and to make everything an adventure.  Everything makes him happy.  That’s you.”  This was not going to be a reading like last time.
From that scene on, every time a new character was introduced, he (yes, all the characters are he’s) was immediately claimed or ascribed to another member of the family.  Dad IS Otter.  The girly thought she was Badger—an introvert who hides with his books in his little, cozy cave was what first attracted her, and as we got deeper she did not disown the problem-solving, authority-bearing figure Badger becomes.  She embraced it and took it as a logical corollary of the first description.  My son identified with Ratty—very much in the moment, deeply involved in his interests (“Ratty’s just a river-geek!”), and a kind and thoughtful friend.  No one owned up to Toady. J
This desire to find themselves in the text was not present when we read years ago.  There may have been an occasional acknowledgement that someone did something you admired, but not this kind of sustained argument.  My daughter was treating it like a thesis, hoping the character comparison would hold up for the entire book, so she wouldn’t be proven wrong and have to choose a new approach.  Every scene was potential evidence for her claim—or threatened to unravel it.
Along with that, I found both kids quick to censure Toad.  It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to identify with him; they thought he was a jerk, and from time to time got so exasperated with him, they wanted to skip scenes or at least a few lines.  I did not accommodate them this time.  Closer to the end, they found they still liked Toad, despite him being so hard to deal with, and through Toad’s friends’ patience with him, they learned to take him as he was too.  But they were not having any of his proclaimed “reformation” at the end.  They had made their peace with Toad and accepted his foibles better than his own friends.  They were better friends to Toad than Ratty or Badger in the end, and in some way their assimilation to characters in the book was complete.  This was a much more involved, much more personally engaged, and much more intellectually challenging experience than reading it had been six years ago.  I was delighted by the whole thing, and found new reasons to love an old favorite, as well as the process of reading together.  This was the last novel we read together, and we went out with a bang.  Our reading now will be sporadic, not religious, but we have had a glorious run.
      Kenneth Grahame.  The Wind in the Willows.  1908.  Arthur Rackham, illus.  The Collector’s Library Edition.  London:  CRW Publishing Limited, 2014.