Reading · Teaching

Every Story is a Palimpsest

Spring semester classes started today for those who have a Tuesday/Thursday schedule. This semester I am teaching classical and medieval mythology and postmodern novels—quite a spread in time, if not culture. Ovid’s Metamorphoses takes up a little over half of the myth class, and the postmodern author I’m teaching is Italo Calvino, so there’s overlap in Italy, albeit 2000 years apart.

I often take some time to impress upon the myth students how valuable it will be to have learned these stories. I show them how the same motifs and characters keep getting reused through the centuries, how some of the stories even inform our language, as in the case of the myth of Narcissus giving us ‘narcissicism’ and the Hercules myth leaving the metaphor of a ‘Herculean effort.’

Today as I was teasing that idea out, we discussed the need for some familiarity in our stories. No one wants to read the same thing over and over, but no one wants everything about a story to feel new either.  So even stories that are set in wildly inventive places use character types and plot lines that we’re familiar with. We need a foothold or an entry point. If it’s all new—new setting, new character types, new plot elements, new structure—we can’t make sense of it. We say it’s too weird. It’s stupid, or that most damning of student responses: it’s boring.

But if you give us something familiar—a reluctant hero, say—in a new context—let’s say the futuristic world of the Matrix movies—then there’s enough for us to follow along with.

This strikes me as a Cosmic Truth related to “It’s all connected.” And it’s one I think is most succinctly captured by Alberto Manguel in his recent book, Packing My Library.  He writes, “Every story is a palimpsest…” (80). And he’s absolutely right.

A palimpsest in its strictest sense is a piece of paper or vellum that has had something written on it that has been erased, so something new can be written over it. In the Middle Ages it was very common, because vellum was so expensive to produce, that scribes would scrape off the top layer of skin and with it the original text, so they could use it again. In later times, you can imagine erasing from paper and getting the same effect. What matters here is that some of the old text remains, kind of a ghost in the background, still visible under the new text.

Manguel’s use of it is metaphoric, of course, but no less vivid. Every story we tell has ghosts of other stories behind it. Sometimes that ghost is the plot, like a new rendering of the King Arthur tales or the Trojan War or a biblical story. Sometimes it’s a character type, like Neo’s reluctant hero archetype in the Matrix example. Sometimes it’s structural, like the frame narrative structure (of stories within stories) of the Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales or Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

As I begin another semester with three new groups of students, watching them pick through the pages of the past, introducing them to characters they already know but didn’t realize how old they were, I think this might be my favorite part of the term. It’s a type scene too, of course—the Hero on the Frontier: where you stop and take stock and think about what’s about to happen, planning the best approach and reveling in the anticipation.

When I get older and my filters drop, I’ll probably start saying the things I always think: ”Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” Turn the page. Read this story again. You already know it, but now we’ll look closer, go deeper.  Let’s just hope I stop before getting to the part where we close the wall up with our English dead.

Living · Teaching

The Case for Joy, or the Other Side of Job

There is a significant thread in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales considering the issue of the biblical “Book of Job.” “The Clerk’s Tale” tells the story of Patient Griselda, a folk heroine often likened to Job. The Wife of Bath, in her Prologue, casts herself as Job’s wife, telling her husband to curse God and die. Other tales make reference more obliquely, but it is clear that it is a running trope, and that Chaucer keeps bringing it up from different angles invites us to ruminate on the lessons it teaches.

A painfully short summary of Job, so we’re all on the same page, is: Job is a wealthy man with a large family, and Satan tells God it’s only because of his many blessings that he is so devout; if God took away his gifts, Job would curse Him. God tests Job by having his crops fail, his children die, his body afflicted with sores—the works. His wife tells him to curse God. He does not. He does, however, question God, reporting that everyone around him thinks he must be pretty awful for God to be punishing him so. God even responds, and when He does, he explains that humans have too narrow a vision of suffering. It is not a result of sinning; it is character-building. God wins his bet, and Job gets everything back—even new kids.
Tonight it’s the narrow understanding of suffering that catches my attention. Do we need suffering to become our best selves? It certainly builds sympathy, but I like to think empathy can be developed through our imagination, not just experience. For tonight’s blog, my friends, you need to know that I am an incontrovertible happy-ass. (“Optimist” works too, but you lose the “happy,”and I’m not ok with that.)
I think we can imagine other people’s suffering and learn from it. Not as viscerally, certainly, but I don’t think we need to suffer everything to realize some things are terrible. I’ve never lost a limb, but I can imagine how that might change my life. I have had heart problems, but I don’t think I feel any more deeply for others with heart problems than for those who’ve lost limbs.
You can feel free to argue with me on this point, but if you wait, I’ll give you another one to argue. I want to consider the opposite conjecture tonight. We may have too narrow an understanding of suffering, but if so, we also suffer from an inadequate appreciation of joy.
If suffering builds character, joy defines it. The things that give us joy are the things that make us unique. You can’t choose what gives you joy any more than you can choose whom you love or whether or not you like brussels sprouts (I do—they make me feel like a giant Mopsy Rabbit raiding Mr McGregor’s garden), so we kind of identify and understand ourselves by those affinities.
When we feel joy, when we’re super giddy and delighted, we seem to sport a sort of shield against the world’s woes. When I’m on my way to class to teach a text I particularly love, I bounce a little and dance a little and smile really broadly. Mostly it’s infectious, but sometimes it’s disconcerting for folks. But that just entertains me more because I’m already in joy-mode, so my shield is up and other people’s lack of understanding doesn’t dim me at all. You know the geeks who get all goofy when they talk about what they love; that’s what I’m talking about.
There is power there.
The smaller moments of joy matter too—what the Danish call “hygge,” or cozy delight. They mean the warm, fuzzy feeling you get wearing warm, fuzzy slippers in front of a fire while drinking something warm and (not fuzzy) delicious. The point is clear. We use the metaphors because the physical feelings are so deep. That is joy too, if calm and simmering rather than bouncy and electric.
Another thing joy does for us, in addition to helping us understand how we are unique, is it allows us to make connections with other people. When we meet someone who likes the same things we do, we immediately feel a bond. English majors, for instance, how many of you form an instantaneous  attachment when you see someone in the wide world reading a book you love? I know best friends who have been besties for decades because they bonded over a particular book. If it speaks to both of you, you must be in some way the same.
We are, all of us–in lots of ways–the same.
When we find something that gives us joy and we meet someone else who also loves it, that’s enough to forge a connection. When we meet folks who love something we don’t really get, we can still react to the feeling, still sponge a little vicarious joy, and (ideally) encourage them to keep on loving it.
Joy produces joy. It also makes us healthier. There’s lots of research on this, some of which is summarized very briefly in the UC Berkeley Greater Good article linked at the bottom of this piece. But the evidence is piling up. If we don’t give enough thought to how suffering helps us, we also don’t recognize the profound impacts of joy. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe the point is just to feel it, not to analyze it to death. But if we understood it a little more, maybe we would make choices that put us in joy’s path more often. That seems like a good project.
Find what you love. Get it; do it; be it–boldly. Help others do the same. I’m off to read a book in my fuzzy slippers.
Also the cocoa picture is mine, but the picture of the young ladies, Mopsy, Flopsy, and Cottontail is, of course, from Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”
Living · Teaching

Ancora Imparo: I am still learning

I’m glad to say I’m still learning.
Over the first ten years of teaching, I really worked on developing my teaching persona.  Who I am in the classroom is a little different from who I am in my street clothes.
Also, I have developed (or appropriated) some tag lines or truisms that have come to characterize my approach to the world and to literature and language: It’s all connected; There’s treasure everywhere; Never trust a vowel.
When students realize that Big Bang Theory is making use of ancient type scenes, or when they realize they can figure out the meaning of an old, say Middle English, word because they know a modern Spanish cognate, I say “It’s all connected.”
When they think a text sounds ridiculous (the titles of The Mabinogion and the Nibelungenlied always get snickers), or that it’s too old and foreign to matter to them, but they find some gem that sparkles for them, and that leads them in to loving it, I remind them “There’s treasure everywhere.”
When they beat their heads against the wall (figuratively!) trying to figure out how to translate Chaucer or Beowulf, sometimes a well-timed “Never trust a vowel” leads to an epiphany.
This year I’ve discovered a new truth: Context is everything.
I’ve taught Ovid’s Metamorphoses for ten years, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for fifteen, and they still remain fresh and vivid to me. Classics can do that. But part of my enjoyment is shifting this year, as I look deeper in to the order of events and stories within the works.
I have always encouraged students to look for structure and order in the works we read, but somehow this year, the context of ideas like the tragic deaths of children in Ovid (Apollo loses his son Phaethon and Inachus the river god loses his daughter Io, and both fathers mourn deeply) seem to come to a head in later stories, or at least to lend gravitas to them. After seeing several parents pine for their lost children, the story of Demeter succeeding in regaining her daughter from the land of the dead, even for half the year, is a consolation to all the grieving parents thus far.
In the Canterbury Tales, too, I’ve often noted that the connections between the tales get more subtle but also more numerous as the Tales go on, but this year I was compelled to read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in the context of the earlier “Reeve’s Tale” (where there is a rape which is treated as a lark by its grim, bitter narrator, despite the obvious discomfort of the audience). The Wife’s tale, then responds to that whole scene—the Reeve’s introduction, his tale, and its reception—with a tale of rape that is not laughed off, but punished, the rapist threatened, put through an ordeal, and apparently rehabilitated. Yes, she’s a strong woman writing a tale of wish fulfillment for herself, but after she shows the Reeve what she thinks ought to happen to men who perpetrate or cosign such violence.
As a medievalist, part of my job is drawing attention to texts that came before the ones we read, helping my students to see the progression of ideas (or not) and the continuity of traditions. It makes us feel part of a historical continuum and lends a richness to contemporary and pop culture.
But this year, I’m devoting more attention to the connections within the text itself—adopting and exploring the idea that the text itself teaches us how to read it most fully. Context is everything.  We’ll see how much mileage I can get out of that.
*There’s Treasure Everywhere” comes from the delightful 1996 Calvin and Hobbes treasury by Bill Watterson. I use it for wildly different texts and scenarios, but it remains a pretty universal truth.
** Ancora imparo is Italian for “I am still learning,” and attributed to Michelangelo and therefore appearing on plaques and paperweights everywhere, as well as the top of this blog.
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.