Living · Reading · Teaching

The Road to Memory is Paved with Giant Teeth

I’m thinking about memory again.

My position on reading print over electronic texts is not changing. When I discussed Maryanne Wolf’s recent book, Reader, Come Home, I was looking (because she was) at the different ways we read when we read print on paper versus screen. Wolf demonstrates that we read more superficially when we read on a screen, in part because of the distractions possible through advertisements and notifications. We are more interruptible in that context, and we read more content, but much less deeply.

This weekend on the patio I had a moment.

My well-worn Penguin edition of the Prose Edda. I am a reader, not an illustrator.

I was strolling through the fertile fields of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda on Saturday for… I don’t know… maybe the thirtieth time, reading about the creation of the cosmos from the head and body of the giant Ymir. After they kill the evil frost giant, Odin and his brothers dismember him and use his parts for raw materials. They use his skull to form the dome of the heavens (and install unfortunate dwarves at the cardinal points to hold it up). The use his bones to make Midgard, the realm of humans. They use his blood to make the oceans.

This time I stopped here and pondered. It’s gross and gory, yes. And I usually just tromp right through, almost mechanically tallying the parts with their upcycled functions, so I remember them when students ask: his bones become mountains, teeth become rocks, brains become clouds. His blood becomes the oceans.

I paused. I lifted my eyes from the book and gazed for a moment into the distance as one does when contemplating spiritual truths. In mid-ponder, my partner bustled out, mid-chore, and couldn’t help but notice my philosophical stance. He asked what on earth I was doing.  

Processing. I was processing. I imagined giant blood for oceans and, put off by the sheer grossness of it all, I pushed on that image for a minute in my brain. This guy was a frost giant. What do frost giants bleed? Maybe water. Thirty times reading this, in all sorts of contexts with people way more and way less experienced than I, and it had never occurred to me that frost giants must perforce bleed water. The oceans are water.

Well, then. That’s fine.  Way less gross. Cool, even—those clever Norsefolk.

Rob was still looking at me.

And it occurred to me how I read differently online than in a book. When I’m staring at a screen, it’s much harder for me to glance away and think, so I don’t do as much questioning or imagining or connecting to other books and things I know. The screen keeps me riveted, and that keeps me in receiving mode exclusively. I read more quickly. I don’t reflect as much. And if I don’t reflect and somehow connect what I’m reading to other ideas in my head, I don’t remember as much.

Books present information in a lovely, static format. If I lift my gaze, there is no risk that when I look down again the text will be altered or gone. But virtual text taunts me with that possibility all the time—sometimes from faulty internet connection, but sometimes I hit the wrong key or place on my phone’s screen, and I lose the whole damn thing and can’t get it back. (Totally justified) comments about my technical ineptness aside, the risks are greater in the ephemeral world of electronic text, and that may be one reason why I dare not look away. And there is always the risk that some ad in the margin or some clickbait at the bottom will draw me away from the Thing I’m Trying To Read, and I’ll never wend my way back.

This has far-reaching ramifications, my friends. If we only receive a steady stream of information, and don’t give ourselves time or mental space to process it thoroughly, it’s no wonder we read more superficially.

But we also won’t remember as much.

“I’m reading,” I said to my expectant spouse. “This is what reading looks like.”

Reading

Orpheus is Hip Again

He is timeless, of course. The impulses are all just as real, the loss just as horrible, the potential just as tempting. In the new Broadway musical, Hadestown, Hermes keeps repeating “It’s a sad song, but we’re going to sing it again.” It really never gets old.

Orpheus is a worldsinger. He is able, through his music (helloooo, poets!) to control the natural world. His music makes trees uproot themselves and walk closer to him. It makes rocks hurled at him fall out of the sky and roll up to his feet, prostrating themselves before him, asking forgiveness for their audacity (at least in Ovid’s rendering.)

His music makes the furies cry. It makes Hades relent. It changes the world.

Orpheus plays the lyre.

When Orpheus goes to hell to find his bride, all lovers and artists go with him. Anyone who has ever tried to write something or create something to capture the spirit of someone they’ve lost knows what he’s doing. If we can remember our loved ones, they’re still with us. So we take pictures and write letters and bake their favorite cake, and try to feel what it was like when we still had them.

But Orpheus actually goes after her. His art gives hope to all of us; it succeeds. He makes Hades feel remorse. He makes Hades feel empathy. He reminds Hades of his own love, and Hades relents. He agrees to let Orpheus take his bride back, conditionally, of course.

This is the magical moment in the new musical by Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown. In this version, Hades has turned the underworld in to a mine, and the inhabitants are working for him. Hades has been working to craft jewelry to keep Persephone happy. He has been convincing the dead souls that they need him and a wall to protect themselves. He has doubts—about his love, about his power, about everything.

In Mitchell’s hands, the story of an artist weaving a spell capable of overturning death takes on shades of class and social justice and ageism, along with the birth of seasons and love. Mitchell’s Hades is a surly foreman and a jealous, older husband who returns for Persephone early because he misses her and because he doubts.

Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney as Eurydice and Orpheus, respectively, in Hadestown

The descent of Persephone brings the onset of winter, which makes Eurydice hungry. In fact, hunger is Eurydice’s defining characteristic in this production. She is poor but scrappy, and she ultimately trades her life with Orpheus for the comfort and lack of want that Hades peddles. Perhaps that is the greater tragedy here—not that art cannot bring love back, but that art is a luxury that many can’t afford, can’t even survive long enough to enjoy.

When Orpheus arrives in Hadestown, Persephone advocates for him. Against all odds Eurydice remembers him, and Hades succumbs to his magic. But as they leave, Hades adds the condition—Orpheus must not look back. He must not give in to doubt. This is made all the more clearly a test, given that Hades has already exhibited even he doubts his love. What chance does Orpheus, just a poor boy with a song, have?

The possibility that others will follow Orpheus and Eurydice looms in the musical as well as the myth. If Orpheus can escape, why not others? This is the underlying problem with people like Orpheus; their unearthly power threatens the natural order. Letting Eurydice go back would be one thing. Starting a zombie revolution is quite another.

But that’s another of the threads woven through this new retelling—revolution. The possibility of revolution in response to poverty is terrifyingly real. And the idea that despondency can be alleviated by art and beauty is powerful—empowering. For me the take home message of Orpheus has always been that love, expressed through art, has the power to change everything.

Yeah, Orpheus will never not be cool.

Living · Reading · Writing

The Wedding Vow is a Performative Speech Act

In the category of Wonderful Things I Never Thought I’d Do, I officiated at a wedding.

It was on Halloween, or Samhain, or Dia de Los Muertos, or Midterms, depending on your denomination. And it was an utter delight. This is good news, as it was quite stressful for me in the months working up to it. Contrary to popular belief, the ability to stand before a room full of undergrads and talk about how we read myths judiciously is not the same as the ability to enunciate clearly the knitting together of two souls before the people who care about them most in the world.

But I did it. And I am grateful for the honor. And I had such a lovely, lovely time, that of course, I have to write about it.

I was terribly, terribly nervous.

I was enchanted by the ritual of the thing. This couple—former English majors and alumni from my school—wanted some literary reading, a Welsh handfasting, and “whatever medieval badassery” I could come up with.  Hours of careful internet and bookish research convinced me that the formula was easy, but it was all about the details. Such is life.

You need a greeting and a general spiel about marriage and/or love. I got to say my version of “Dearly beloved” and mention that this couple met in a literature class, and that went some way to explaining why I was there, and why I was deploying William Butler Yeats instead of Ecclesiastes.

You need a reading—from a spiritual text typically, but in this case, I read Yeats’s “The White Birds,” and the bride’s uncle read the description of love from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. (I hadn’t read that before, and holy wow, is it beautiful.)

You need some rings, and some vows to accompany the exchange. (I may have made a cheap Lord of the Rings joke. I hope no one filmed. It was shameless.) And you need some promises you know you can keep. In this iteration, the vows were punctuated by the mothers of the couple binding their hands with  a sash, and when they had spoken their vows, they could literally tie the knot. That was very satisfying.

And then they smooched. That’s important too. It’s all important.

The vows are important; the words are important. The wedding vow is one of very few “performative speech acts” left to us in a literate society. As Westley notes in The Princess Bride, “If you didn’t say it, you didn’t do it.” But the march is also important. The recession of the wedding party, followed by the crowd. The first dance. The toasts. The cake. These are all formalities, all weighty, and all observed with remarkable consistency even at a wedding as funky and cool as a masquerade on Halloween.

Human life is formulaic. Our rituals are too. If we’re honest, our arts are too—music, literature, even visual arts. We bear according to pattern in so many things, from the genes we pass on to our children to our “regular” dishes at our favorite restaurants.

And that’s just fine. Because we find ways to make each step our own, while sharing enough structure to create bonds with others. Now this couple has their wedding story to share. It is uniquely their own, with all the goofy, delightful specifics and also its shared participation in a tradition. And in that lovely way that events turn in to stories, and stories belong to all who live and tell them, I now have a new story too.