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.