Reading · Teaching

Primary and Secondary Epics, or Why Virgil is Harder than Homer

Primary vs. Secondary Epics, or why students have more trouble with the Aeneid than the Odyssey

My students finished the Odyssey last week. I think it went well. We had good talks about all the things—from the mythic underpinnings to the historical details to the glory of oral formulae and the literary delights of the epic simile. (They found the animal similes charming—Odysseus as lion, as octopus… I still prefer Odysseus imaged as a sausage rolling in a pan, close to bursting.) We even discussed translation issues, and the fact that class issues are not obscured in Emily Wilson’s new translation—slave status was clearer than ever.

And we wrapped up, thinking this old tale is still beautiful, provocative, useful, and relevant. Mission accomplished.

Then we started Virgil’s Aeneid. And many of them balked.

It’s harder to read. They feel like they’re missing something. It’s so dense. And they’re absolutely right.

The Odyssey is a primary epic. Even though we pin our hopes on someone named Homer, it doesn’t feel authored. It feels straightforward, accumulative, formulaic, inevitable. It feels like it has been composed orally, around hundreds of hearths. It reads quickly, and it’s full of action. Everyone felt able to comment because it invites everyone inside. It builds its lessons by comparing examples of how to treat guests, for instance.  

The Aeneid, in contrast, is VERY authored. Commissioned by Augustus Caesar to give weight to the destiny of Rome, this story follows the Trojan survivor, Aeneas, on a comparable path through the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, but continues on to the west coast of Italy, where he will found the city of Rome. The content is comparable, but everything else is different.

First, Virgil has a commission. He’s writing for the emperor—the most glorious audience, about the origins of Rome—the most glorious of subjects. So he’d better make it sound glorious. He does. But what makes a poem glorious can also make it difficult. He uses elevated language; he relies on his audience for allusions he makes to other texts and myths; he weaves in subtext about the possible collateral damage on the way to Rome. Especially for the protagonist, Aeneas, the founding of Rome must take precedence over anything he might want for his personal life—a happy second marriage in Carthage, for instance.

So we have a lot to unpack that we didn’t when reading The Odyssey. The poem begins, for instance, with Juno raging about Aeneas’s relative success. It summarizes neatly three main reasons Juno despises Aeneas. (Trojans have spurned her beauty and taken her daughter’s job, not to mention the fact that Trojan-founded Rome is destined to overthrow her cherished Carthage in the Punic Wars.) Virgil expects that his audience is familiar all these intertexts, and that they know the history of Troy and its many founders, and all the variant names of Roman gods. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

This means the first day of the Aeneid discussion was more literary and history lecture than most. It was more damage control and me assuring them that it was a really good story, worth the time to sink in to. Fortunately, there’s plenty to appeal. All I have to do (with any text, really) is show them where to look.

What you gain with an author over a folk composition is detail. Virgil details scenes and the emotions they evoke with painstaking, breathtaking precision. When the old Trojan king, Priam, dies at the hands of Achilles’s son, all the pathos of the young, disrespectful thug desecrating the sacred altar of the Trojan gods bring one to tears:

                “…he dragged him to the very altar stone,
                with Priam shuddering and slipping in
                the blood that streamed from his own son. And Pyrrhus
                with his left hand clutched tight the hair of Priam;
                his right hand drew his glistening blade, and then
                he buried it hilt-high in the king’s side.
                This was the end of Priam’s destinies.” (Aeneid II. 738-43)

And when Dido falls in love with Aeneas, tempting him to linger in Carthage, his divine mandate to leave and get back to his destiny makes Dido desperate, and she lashes out at him:

“Deceiver, did you even hope to hide
so harsh a crime, to leave this land of mine
without a word? Can nothing hold you back–
neither your love, the hand you pledged, nor even
the cruel death that lies in wait for Dido?” (IV. 410-14)

She vacillates between outrage and despair, and she sounds at once timeless and current–psychologically real. That’s what an author adds that oral formulae don’t achieve. These characters pulse and bleed. We feel we know them. The emotions  they feel are real and immediate; we feel with them.

So it may take a little longer to get in to, but when we do, all will be well. Authored texts offer different experiences, and they’re usually the kind that English majors respond well to—ones where we can talk about how knowledge of the culture and the author add to our understanding. Folk texts are not less cool, with their archetypes and patterns and regional “flavors.” But they are different. It depends on whether you’re in the mood to read about “Jack” or Jay Gatsby. You get to choose.

Except when it’s assigned for a class. Then you read what is assigned. Yes, there will be a quiz.

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.  

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.”
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?