Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar
Reading · Teaching

Transfiguring Grief

I taught the story of Phaethon in my Myth as Lit class last week.  In some ways, it’s become trite:  Young Phaethon gets caught up in his desire to drive his father’s car, to step in to his shoes too soon, and ends up literally going down in flames.  Phaethon’s dad happens to drive the sun, not just a Camaro, so when he goes too high he scorches the heavens, and when he drops too low he sets the world on fire.

Jove, his grandfather, has to shoot him out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Apollo, his father, mourns so that the world is sunk in to darkness, for he is too distraught to go to work. The only light comes from the burning wreckage of the earth. This sounds pretty dramatic as I write, but still the story of Phaethon taking on his dad’s role before he’s ready is pretty well known, and can feel obvious.

I classify it in class as one of the 18-year-old-itis tales—one where the only “tragic flaw” is youth. He is in that period of life when boys (girls too, but statistics bear out mostly boys) start taking big risks without realizing the consequences. When they feel bullet proof.  But they’re not.  And they die.  Icarus falls here too, of course, and for similar reasons—flying too high, too fast.

So that’s why it feels overused, I suppose, because it is. There are lots of stories of young men dying because they underestimate laws of physics and overestimate their own abilities. But reading it this time, I was struck not so much by that lesson, but more by the grieving family he left behind.

In Ovid’s tale, Apollo mourns his son with a depth and a humaneness that staggers me.  When he refuses to show up to work, he cries, “Let someone else/ now guide the chariot that bears the light!/ If none will do that, and the gods confess/ they can’t, let Jove himself take on that task!/ And when he plies my reins, at least for once/ he’ll have to set aside the thunderbolts/ he uses to strip others of their sons.” He is devastated, and he is a god. What chance, then, have the mortals who love Phaethon?

His mother mourns.  She wanders the world looking for a sign of him, any trace of his lost body.  When she finds the grave that nymphs have made for him, she throws herself on it and bathes it in tears.  His sisters follow, and in their grief, they transform in to poplar trees.  The mother loses more children, as she tries to tug at the branches to free them, only to be told the branches are their arms, and she’s hurting them more by holding on. 

A cousin, too, transforms in his sorrow, this time to a swan.  (His name is Cycnus, which means ‘swan,’ and we still have ‘cygnet’ in English, meaning a baby swan.) Ovid uses this and other opportunities to show that we have an underlying nature that can be revealed by transformation. Cycnus wails for Phaethon as a swan, while his sisters are rendered immobile by their grief.  Paralyzed.  They are able only to cry tears of sap, which, beautifully, transform in to amber. Those who could not abide the pain of grief gave themselves over completely. 

This message seems clear to me: grief is transfiguring. If we let it, it can undo us. It always changes us. In the context of Apollo and his creed–Know thyself; and Nothing in excess—we can come to see even grief can be excessive, but the gods also grieve, so there must be something noble in feeling loss so profoundly. 

In the larger context of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it anticipates the story of Proserpina’s (Persephone) marriage to Pluto, which bonds life to death in an unbreakable union, promising that death will never just be death; there will always be life attending—following in sequence as the seasons follow one another, and living together with death, so we can bear death more easily.

This scene struck me last week when I taught it. It resonates even more today, in the aftermath of the largest mass shooting in recent American history. I hope we let this grief transform us too, and resolve to take action to prevent it happening again.  Young men do lots of crazy things that put their lives at risk, but going to a concert shouldn’t be one of them.
[image from touristorama.com]

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.