Thursday, January 29, 2009

"L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle."

Let me first say that I prefer my translations the old-fashioned way: original work on the left, translation on the facing page.* It's especially important with Dante. If you're not looking over every so often and reading the verse out loud in Italian (even if you have no idea what it means), well, there goes approximately 22% of your pleasure in reading Dante.

Really! Italian is like that. I also feel this way about Spanish poetry: it's just not the same unless you say it in the original language. And even if you don't speak Italian, Dante is ridiculously easy to sound out.

And why, class, does Fiona feel comfortable with it?

Well, it is supposedly unfair to claim (as many have) that Dante invented modern Italian. It's a very romantic notion. His real contribution was bringing his dialect (Florentine/Tuscan) of Italian into the literary tradition in such a major way that he rendered all the other dialects of Italy inferior. Italian exists in its modern form largely because Dante was so important. Without him, the Roman or Milanese dialects might have eventually won out when Italy decided "Hey, it's pretty stupid that we don't have a unified language isn't it?"

It's easy to forget what a literary rock star Dante was, even in his own time. Personally, he was kind of a hermit -- but this is not by any means a guy who had to wait till after his death to be recognized. Scholars began writing commentaries on the Commedia pretty much immediately, and they haven't stopped yet. People waited for the last installment, the Paradiso, like it was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I've only just begun reading (he's in the middle of a dark wood and there's a leopard), but I'm excited. If I recall, this is a very political poem, so hopefully there will be lots of Guelph/Ghibelline conflict in the subtext and I'll tell you all about it.

*for the Inferno I am reading the Hollander translation. Once I get to Purgatorio, I'm not sure if I will try to continue with this (i.e. make another library trip) or if I'll switch to the Sayers translation. We'll see.

flotsam; jetsam

1. Hee. Scott M. sent me this parody, A. E. Housman's Fragment of a Greek Tragedy. Being sent things related to the Iditarod pleases me very much. My mom sent me a bunch of musty old classics from her bookshelves, and Fiona's dad sent me an advice manual about becoming a professor (thanks, Tom!).

2. This review really makes me want to reread The Histories, which we are not reading for the Iditarod, but which is utterly delightful. I recall that he described and endorsed the system of one town wherein the most beautiful girls were auctioned off as wives to the highest bidder; the proceeds from this were then used to pay other men to take the plainer girls as wives. I love this idea. It is so practical, and everyone wins. Beauty becomes a communal asset! I defy anyone to come up with a better way to get all the young folks married off.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

things that will slowly drive me insane

Just for those of you who haven't read it (and, I don't know, have an aversion to the Wikipedia), here's a very quick recap of the plot of the Oresteia.

1. Agamemnon: Agamemnon comes home from the Trojan war, after being away for ten years. His wife, Clytaemnestra, has been resentful of the fact that he sacrificed one of their daughters, Iphigeneia, at the outset of his journey, apparently because Artemis would not provide the necessary winds without a sacrifice. Also, she -- Clytaemnestra -- has been getting it on with Agamemnon's cousin, Aegisthus, for some time. So when Agamemnon gets home, she coerces him into walking on some fancy tapestries, or something, because I guess this qualifies as hubris and will put him out of favor with the gods? Then she kills him while he's in the tub (not classy). Then she kills Cassandra, whom he'd brought back with him as a slave.

2. The Libation Bearers: Some uncertain number of years later, Orestes, -- the son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra -- who has long been elsewhere, returns to Argos and reunites with his sister, Electra, whom he finds mourning at their father's grave. They agree that their father was awesome and their mother sucks, and they hatch a plan to kill her. Orestes heads to the palace in disguise and proceeds to kill Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra.

3. The Eumenides: The Furies, who traditionally punish those who kill their mothers,* are after Orestes. Apollo tells them to cut it out, because the murder was justified and he told Orestes it was ok. The Furies are pissed about this, and Athena comes in to mediate. She ends up holding a little trial for Orestes; the jury is tied, so Athena breaks the tie in Orestes' favor. The Furies are pretty much shitting bricks until Athena, in essence, convinces them to use their power for good rather than evil. And they all lived happily ever after, the end.

Ok. So that's all very well and good, and you probably didn't need all that background, but there it is just in case. HERE IS THE PART THAT IS BREAKING MY BRAIN.

During the whole Apollo-Orestes-Furies disagreement, Orestes summons Athena to come help out. And in she comes:

Enter ATHENA, armed for combat with her aegis and her spear.
From another world I heard a call for help.
I was on the Scamander's banks, just claiming Troy.
The Achean warlords chose the hero's share
of what their spear had won -- they decreed that land,
root and branch all mine, for all time to be,
for Theseus' sons a rare, matchless gift.

Home from the wars I come, my pace unflagging,
wingless, flown on the whirring, breasting cape
that yokes my racing spirit in her prime. (The Eumenides 408-16)
Really, Athena? You just came from the Trojan war, just now? Because I am pretty sure it ended YEARS ago. Like, before Agamemnon came home. I mean, I don't think he bailed before the job was done, or anything. Are you a very, very slow traveler? Is there a hole in the space-time continuum?

Athena, I never ask you where you really were when you come home at four am and claim you were "just out with friends." I respect your privacy, Athena. So why would you lie to me? It hurts me when you lie.

*I love the exchange during which they explain this duty to Apollo:
Authority -- you? Sound out your splendid power.

Matricides: we drive them from their houses. (The Eumenides 207-8)

How's that for a company slogan? Matricides: we drive them from their houses!


Guys, I have to say, the Iditarod is a much slower process than I had anticipated. We started in early December, and I should easily finish the Oresteia on the Metro up to the gym tonight (Fiona has already started the Inferno), but that's, what, three books in almost two months? And other than Small World, I really haven't read anything else.

Meanwhile, I have all these new books that I want to read. And these. And some others. Seriously, it's out of control. The free book situation is killing me. Worse yet, my uncle has a new book and I have no excuse not to read it since my dad sent me a copy. And a few of my friends have writing projects that I have sworn to read that are rotting on my hard drive.

As a child I read constantly, often several books at a time. I was the kid who'd get in trouble for reading during class, who'd be so engrossed in a novel that I'd fail to hear the bell at the end of recess, who'd miss the point of every social occasion and make a beeline for the host's bookshelf. Adults would tell me, "Oh, I used to read too, when I was younger, but now I just don't have time." And I would think, how is that possible? Who doesn't have time to read?

It seems unreasonable. I don't do that much with myself. I go to work, I exercise, I take a shower, have dinner, do my editing, and the next thing I know it's midnight or one am and I've got to get to bed. Fiona squeezes in reading time by staying up late late late, but I'm a much less energetic person than she is, and I really need my seven-to-eight -- if I get less than six hours of sleep, I'm essentially useless, I barely function (it's not at all clear how I got through college).

The only time I find to read is on the metro, which I take when I'm going to the rock gym, so a couple of times a week. And sometimes on weekends I have a spare hour or two.

This is shameful. I need to do better, but I don't know how.

Monday, January 26, 2009

"We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing..."

Not to denigrate one of the great dramatic works of human history, but the Oresteia (mostly the Eumenides) is an awful lot like a Thanksgiving pageant.

After all, it reminds everyone of our noble origins. The characters go through tribulations (banishment! starvation! religious persecution! curses on one's house!) and it leads them to forge some of the founding principles of their culture. In the end, everyone sings. Democracy is awesome, you guys. Also when the Pokanoket share their corn.

"Listen my children, and you shall hear
Of the trial of Orestes by a jury of peers
He killed his mother but that ain't no crime
And Apollo was in favor of it at the time
The main point is justice and mercy and such
You can't be concerned with revenge. There's too much
Of that nowadays, kids, but you must resist.
Cause that way democracy cannot exist."

It's a celebration of cultural values, displayed in a simple and ritualistic way. But the Oresteia doesn't have any children with papier-mache muskets (and for that we are truly thankful.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tiny addendum, somewhat relevant

Serena's talk about Oedipus made me think of a monologue which I love and often quote, and which I believe she and I have discussed though I would not swear to it. I have discussed this one with a LOT of people. It's from Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, which should have won the Pulitzer in 1998 (damn you, Paula Vogel! Not really...):

PIP: No, I mean, it's just, like ... if some oracle told you were going to kill your father and marry your mother, wouldn't you just never kill anybody and stay single? ... And then, if you did inadvertently kill somebody, in the heat of the moment or something, and later started dating? Wouldn't you be smart enough to, like, avoid older women? I mean, to me the moral of that story is not your destiny awaits you. To me it's ... you know ... Do the Fucking Math.
WALKER: You must publish.

"Agamemnon is the king!"

Fiona always pronounces Aeschylus "ess-keh-lus" and I had always heard "ees-keh-lus." I looked it up to see which was preferred and I found a hilarious nightmare. If you have JSTOR access, check out this article; if you don't, carry on pronouncing it whichever way you always have, because it doesn't seem to matter either way (rather like "edd-i-pus" versus "eed-i-pus). Academics always gotta be fighting about something!

Anyway. Reading The Libation Bearers (the second of the three plays that make up the Oresteia) made me wonder about the Electra complex, which I had heard was the female version of the Oedeipus complex. This seemed sort of unfair to me, because in Aeschylus' version, at least -- I haven't read the Electra plays by Sophocles or Euripedes, although now I feel like I should, but not in these dreadful old versions that you can get for free online -- Electra doesn't do anything nearly as drastic as Oedipus (I don't think that she does in anyone's version of the story).

Appropriately, it seems like the Electra complex isn't as big a thing, anyway. According to Wikipedia,
The idea is based largely on the work of Sigmund Freud, who uses the Oedipus complex as a point of reference for its elaboration. The term, however, was introduced by Carl Jung in 1913. Freud himself explicitly rejected Jung's term, because it "seeks to emphasize the analogy between the attitude of the two sexes," and continued to use the [term] feminine Oedipus attitude in his own writings.

That's very good of Freud, since it doesn't seem reasonable to saddle poor Electra with all the baggage of Oedipus -- she doesn't appear to be in love with her father at all, though she does want her mother dead (come to think of it, I always thought Freud's terminology was a bit hard on Oedipus, too, since in the story he actually goes to great lengths to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother, rather than having some messed-up complex wherein he wants to do those things, although honestly if I were Oedipus and aware of that prophecy, which he was, I think I would've married a much-younger woman and avoided killing anyone at all, just to be on the safe side, but then there would be no play, I guess).

I will grant that Electra speaks of her father and her siblings with a degree of intensity that is rather off-putting, at least to my judgmental modern taste. When she and Orestes are reunited, she says,
You light to my eyes, four loves in one!
I have to call you father, it is fate;
and I turn to you the love I gave my mother --
I despise her, she deserves it, yes,
and the love I gave my sister, sacrificed
on the cruel sword, I turn to you.
You were my faith, my brother --
you alone restore my self-respect. (ll.240-247)

Hmm... yeah. Both she and Orestes are reeeeally into Agamemnon:
Dear father, father of dread,
what can I do or say to reach you now?
What breath can reach from here
to the bank where you lie moored at anchor? ...

Then hear me now, my father,
it is my turn, my tears are welling now,
as child by child we come
to the tomb and raise the dirge, my father. (322-25; 336-39)

Can we talk about this? One line about Iphigeneia "sacrificed/ on the cruel sword," with nary a mention of who was doing the sacrificing, and then they're both worshiping their father like he's the second coming? (Anachronism, schmanachronism.)

It's not clear to me whether Clytaemnestra's hatred of Agamemnon is a product of his having killed Iphigeneia, her desire to replace him with Aegisthus, or both. Or maybe neither. But you'd think, at least, that Orestes and Electra would feel a shade more ambivalence about the dude who killed their sister so that his ships could sail. Is that so much better than what Clytaemnestra did?

Speaking of family ties, man, I had forgotten how disturbing the description of the sacrifice is. (I wonder if it's this bad in other translations?) It's hard to blame Agamemnon for how sexual these lines sound, since they're spoken by the chorus, but I want to blame someone:
"My father, father!" -- she might pray to the winds;
no innocence moves her judges mad for war.
Her father called his henchmen on,
on with a prayer,
"Hoist her over the altar
like a yearling, give it all your strength!
She's fainting -- lift her,
sweep her robes around her,
but slip this strap in her gentle curving lips...
here, gag her hard, a sound will curse the house" --

and the bridle chokes her voice... her saffron robes
pouring over the sand
her glance like arrows showering
wounding every murderer through with pity
clear as a picture, live,
she strains to call their names...
I remember often the days with father's guests
when over the feast her voice unbroken,
pure as the hymn her loving father
bearing third libations, sang to Saving Zeus --
transfixed with joy, Atreus' offspring
throbbing out their love. (Agamemnon 227-47)

Is there any way that this scene could not have been intended to sound profoundly sexual? It's hard to think Fagles would've added all that reeking innuendo just for kicks. I wonder what the intention is there; that is, what purpose is served by making Agamemnon sound like a child molester as well as a murderer. Leigh Walton? Anyone?

Although, speaking of scenes that sound closer to PG-13 than you'd think would be necessary, let's go back to Electra one more time. Here she is at Agamemnon's grave:
What kindness, what prayer can touch my father?
Shall I say I bring him love for love, a woman's
love for husband? My mother, love from her?
I've no taste for that, no words to say
as I run the honeyed oil on father's tomb. (The Libation Bearers 87-91)

Well, shit. Maybe Jung was onto something after all.

"The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future too."

Man, you get into the Oresteia -- and yes, I've read it before, but still it is surprising -- and you understand why drama ever got off the ground. This is so raw. I don't quite know which bits are Fagles and which are Aeschylus, but this text is achingly gorgeous is a way you just don't see in modern drama. Or when you do it rings false.
I'd like a few words more, a kind of dirge,
it is my own. I pray to the sun,
the last light I'll see,
that when the avengers cut the assassins down
they will avenge me too, a slave who died,
an easy conquest.
Oh men, your destiny.
When all is well a shadow can overturn it.
When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge,
and the picture's blotted out. And that,
I think that breaks the heart. (Agamemnon, ll. 1345-1354)

Not to say that it's primitive.

I mean, it kind of is. But it has a level of dramatic sophistication that's also unexpected. The Greeks are the first we have, and as such we assume they only understood this visceral power of drama and the basic structures of things. But Aeschylus does nuance too! Look at the scene in which Electra discovers Orestes by following his footprints. That could be in Shakespeare. Or O'Neill, for that matter.

(O'Neill looooves Aeschylus. Witness Morning Becomes Electra, which actually is the Oresteia but set in the 19th century. Unfortunately, O'Neill didn't have Aeschylus' knack for saying a lot in a very short time. Witness O'Neill's NINE-ACT PLAY, "Strange Interlude." Which is all very well, but the Oresteia is a far better illustration of the different stages of womanhood when women are battered by fate and it is not NINE ACTS LONG. EUGENE.)

Speaking of that, I KNOW that if you've ever read the Oresteia you've been upset by this too, but REALLY we begin the tradition of democracy by proving that mothers aren't parents, but more like gardeners?
The woman you call the mother of the child
is not the parent, just a nurse to the seed,
the new-sown seed that grows and swells inside her.
The man is the source of life (Eumenides, ll. 666-669)

Thanks Aeschylus. Thanks a lot. I hope that resolved your mother issues right there.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Like a body wholly body"

Another factor in my shameful posting delinquency is the death of my laptop. I think it needs new parts, for which I am deeply reluctant to pay. I have this old desktop, but it is not only extremely uncomfortable to use, but also itself very dicey -- as a matter of fact, it just died as I was typing that. Way to prove my point, desktop. Anyway, my home computer situation is distinctly unreliable right now. And I am feeling whiny about that, as you can probably tell. Sorry.

Man. And that introductory essay -- which I finally finished -- was embarrassingly awful. I felt like I should read it because I don't have easy access to a lot of scholarship on the works that we're reading, and besides, the authors are two very respected classicists... but wow. Here's an example:
The Agamemnon coils, tightens; the light in the dark is strangled off at last. The Libation Bearers plunges out of darkness towards the light -- the disaster that plunges us into darkness once again. The Eumenides sweeps us through a phantasmagoria of light and dark, of darkness breeding light, until the night brings forth the torches of our triumph, like the torches of that Fury Clytaemnestra, "glorious from the womb of Mother Night." Night and day are mother and daughter, suffering and the illumination it can bring. For the energy of the Furies is as great with order as the energy of Dionysus. They are his wild maenads gathering moral force. They are the Mean Dynamic. ("The Serpent and the Eagle," 81)

Seriously, Robert Fagles? No, the entire essay is like this. Here's another choice quote: "Athena is both the Victor and the spirit of the loom; and as her citizens raised her robe to the wind, like a sail to buoy forth their ship of state, it may have symbolized the fabric of Athenian society, resilient and controlled, which they bestowed upon posterity" (91).

Yes. "Like a sail to buoy forth their ship of state." And I thought Seamus Heaney's introduction to Beowulf was bad. I had no idea. None. I'm not sure whether to blame W.B. Stanford or to chalk it up as another case of poets-can't-write-prose syndrome. (Wikipedia calls Fagles a poet, and his obituary in the NYT mentions that his B.A. and Ph.D were in English, but I'm not really sure whether he wrote much apart from his translations. Either way, they count as poetry, because they are beautiful and poetic and not super-literal anyway.)

Fiona said that the writing reminded her of graphic novels, and I can totally see that. The diction is very intense and very, I don't know, all-encompassing, like it's trying to say everything that can be said about the Oresteia, but compressed into 84 pages. Eighty-four interminable pages.

When I finished the essay and started Agamemnon, I realized that it's the same version we read in Hum 110. Going through the syllabus archive, I see that Reed first used the Lattimore and then the Lloyd-Jones before settling on the Fagles, perhaps because they don't use his Iliad or Aeneid. In any case, I wish we'd chosen a translation that I hadn't already read (you may have noticed that I enjoy comparing), but it doesn't much matter. I just wanted to re-read it because I felt like I didn't remember it particularly well.

One more thing about the introduction -- well, I could say a lot more, but it's almost midnight and I still have real work left to do. The authors use a ton of quotes throughout. For some they cite sources; for others they just use quotation marks and, I don't know, assume the reader gets it? So of course half the time I don't. But. "The Furies will generate life; Athena will lead that life to social victory. Together they express a 'blessed rage for order' " (85).

This refers to a very famous, very excellent Wallace Stevens poem that you may know already; if you don't, you should read it because it is amazing. It's probably on our booklist, but you can go ahead and read it now.

More soon.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


We are extremely sorry about our lack of blogulation this past week. The inauguration and related activities ate up all of our time, and although we actually did bring our copies of the Oresteia to read while we waited for the swearing-in to start, it was just impossible to get any reading done in that massive crowd, not to mention the freeeeezing cold, which is much worse when you have to stand totally still because there is no room to move.

As penance, Fiona has promised to tell some historical anecdotes about inaugurations; meanwhile, here are photos of us headed to an inaugural ball. After this we'll return to the Oresteia. Seriously. We are very sorry.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Illustrations make everything better

One of my excellent brother's friends liked our title and drew us a picture.

No seriously, how sweet is this?

Note that the sundae has totally taken one of them out already.

(Now I want ice cream. Darn it.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

also: tiny thoughts from my tiny brain

I wonder if Virginia Heffernan is as irritated by Kate Beaton as she is by Sarah Vowell. You know, with all her [Beaton's] silly, accessible jokes about history and literature, and her pop culture references. Or is does Kate Beaton get a pass because she doesn't really pretend to be educational? Because if that's the case, we're in the clear!

P.S. Horrible thought: maybe Kate Beaton gets a pass just because she is so goddamn funny. If that's the reason, I fear we are boned.

wait until you're older, dear, and maybe you'll be glad that you're a girl

So I finally gave up on the introduction to the Oresteia. It was making me want to die. I'm all for introductions, and I'm all for criticism, but this begins as an introduction and then goes on to describe each scene in each play and make a lot of lyrical statements about matricide and when I start to wish that Metro had an in-train magazine so I could read that instead, you know something has gone terribly wrong.

But before I abandoned it (over 60 pages in! I tried, oh god. I'll go back and finish it later, after I've been able to, you know, enjoy the play), I saw that Fagles and the other one were referencing all those other Greek myths where women kill their husbands, as you would if you were writing about Clytemnestra. And there are some great ones:

The women of Lemnos make an appearance in the Argonautika — the Argonauts land on their island and get a whole lot of sex because there are no men on the island. The deal is that the women forgot to pay homage to Aphrodite, and she cursed them with "an evil smell." So their husbands wouldn't have sex with them, and went to get new women. When they came back, the wives killed them all. (Except one, who hid her father fromthe other women inside a chest!) Aeschylus also talks about them in The Libation Bearers, thus:
First at the head of legendary crime stands Lemnos.
People shudder and moan, and can't forget —
each new horror that comes
we call the hells of Lemnos.
Loathed by the gods for guilt,
cast off by man, disgraced, their line dies out. (614-619)

Definitely. Killing your husband for being an adulterer is way worse than killing your daughter so that the winds will change and your ship can leave. No question.

Also, the Argonauts came and thewomen got lots of sex and had more kids! So their line didn't exactly die out, did it, Aeschylus? Eh? Eh? Wanna fight?

The other story is one that Aeschylus dramatized in The Suppliants, but that I first saw as Big Love (no relation), an adaptation by Charles Mee. Basically, fifty brides, all sisters, are on their way to Egypt to marry their cousins (as decreed by their father) but they don't want to. So they escape! To Argos! Where they ask the King for help, but he demurs until he can ask his people. And the people say 'yea' and the women are saved. That's the play we have. Apparently they've reconstructed the rest of the trilogy, and in it the Argive king is killed and the daughters are forced to marry, except then they all kill their husbands. Except one, whose new husband respected her wish to not have sex. Hey guys, respecting women is awesome! And life-saving. Hint hint. Anyway, all the other women are absolved, and eventually Hypermnestra's husband kills her father for being responsible for the deaths of all his brothers. And they start a dynasty.

So the point of that is maybe to make me feel better that Clytemnestra gets such a raw goddamned deal in this story.

Axe-Wielding Assaults on Tea Kettles

Scott M. asked me the other day whether the MLA had affected my feelings about what I'd like to do with my life; that is, if getting some firsthand experience of that aspect of academic life had given me any useful insights.

I replied more or less as follows:

I'm not sure it affected my ideas about graduate school either way. The complaints I heard were about what I expected: it's hard to find jobs, harder to find good jobs, dissertations take a long time to finish, top-name schools aren't necessarily giving top-quality educations, etc. In a way, the most discouraging part was attending a panel ("Nothing and No Thing in Marlowe, Jonson and Spenser") and remembering how ridiculous academic work can be. The topics are interesting, but the results often seem so futile. So you wrote a well-received paper on the Faerie Queen from a Heideggerian perspective. You made a good argument, maybe got your promotion, but you haven't really achieved anything, changed anything. Next year someone else will say something different about the Faerie Queen, and no one will remember what you said in the first place. I don't know. The rules seem so arbitrary. Is anything ever accomplished?

His response was to link me to this column (the longer I know Scott, the more it seems that there is no topic on which he has not, at one point or another, written a column). It gets to the heart of something that has long bothered me about academic work, via the image of "chop[ping] a tea kettle,'" meaning "that a person makes a lot of noise without accomplishing anything."

Apparently that's a Yiddish idiom. Of course, it reminds me of the title of this blog (chosen by Fiona, to no one's surprise), which is taken from a well-known Vonnegut quote: "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae."*

Anyway. Scott uses the expression specifically in reference to academic conferences, but it could apply to many aspects of academic life and ritual. It's something I noticed a lot when I was taking lit theory, in particular. We had to read a lot of, oh, de Man and Derrida and Habermas and Grice, and much of that was thought-provoking and occasionally fascinating, but I often felt that I didn't get the point. I did some writing for that class that I was very proud of, but it felt like exercise, you know, or a game: you have to make x argument under y rules, but there isn't really goal z. It was more like something you'd do just for the sake of it, just to see if you could. (And it makes your brain feel strong.)

If you're a professor, of course, you don't write these papers just because you can. You do it (so I understand) because you want to get tenure, because you are not guaranteed stability or income until you have published a certain number of articles and books, until you have presented at a certain number of conferences or obtained a certain amount of grant money. And every profession has its red tape, of course. It just seems like academia has way more.

I do like the idea of contributing to the body of human knowledge. And teaching, of course (apparently female professors tend to take pride in teaching above other aspects of their work; the same is not true of male professors). Maybe anyone in the humanities is doomed to having an inferiority complex because achievements in the sciences are often so much more tangible.

I'm wandering again. But I'm curious about how other people view this. What do you see as the point of academic work? (Or of conferences, lit theory, or book reviews, for that matter.) Is it all just chopping of teakettles, or armored assaults on hot fudge sundaes?


ADDENDUM: Randall Munroe has something to say about this.


*Fiona, why didn't you title the blog "Armored Attacks on Hot Fudge Sundaes"? I'm lost.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Next Up, "Howard's End: Resurrection"

A post-it to make your day a little stranger:

There is going to be a video game based on Dante's Inferno. My excellent younger brother, who knows about these things, is very excited for it. Apparently there is also a video game based on the Iliad, which is similarly awesome.

The tagline for the Inferno game is "Go to Hell."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Atreides: They're just like Us!

In "The Serpent and the Eagle," their introductory essay to Fagles' translation of the Oresteia,* Fagles and Stanford write, "The suffering of Atreus and his sons is a very old and yet a very modern matter. They are less removed from us than we might like to think" (16-17).

Now, I can see why one might want to be "removed" from the house of Atreus. To review:
The founder of the line was Tantalus of Lydia... [who] offended the gods by feasting them on his son's flesh, and they condemned him to starve in Hades, 'tantalized' by the drink and luscious fruits just out of reach. But they restored his victim, Pelops, to a new, resplendent life. ... Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. When Thyestes seduced his brother's wife and contested his right to the throne, Atreus banished him and then, luring him back for a reconciliation, feasted him on his children's flesh. ... Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus.... Agamemnon became the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces that attacked Troy to avenge the seduction of Helen by Paris.... At the outset of the expedition, however, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his and Clytaemnestra's daughter Iphigeneia -- a fact that Homer had omitted, perhaps to exonerate the king for an aristocratic audience -- and so he comes an agent of the curse upon his house. (15)
So, yeah. I wouldn't really want to have a ton in common with the house of Atreus, it's true. But the argument the authors make to support their claims -- one, implicitly, that the reader would prefer not to identify with the characters of the Oresteia; two, explicitly, that these characters' actions and stories relate to the modern reader (and therefore, presumably, offer him insights into his own life or world) -- is never fully fleshed out (sorry, bad pun). The only connection they offer is that
[Atreus and his sons]... are cursed, their lives are an inherited disease, a miasma that threatens the health of their community and forces them, relentlessly, to commit their fathers' crimes. It is as if crime were contagious -- and perhaps it is -- the dead pursued the living for revenge, and revenge could only breed more guilt. For such guilt is more than criminal; it is a psychological guilt that modern men have felt and tried to probe. Every crime in the house of Atreus, whether children kill their parents or parents kill their children and feed upon their flesh, is a crime against the filial bond itself. (17)
So... Atreus and his sons have in common with us... the experience of feeling guilty for crimes we may or may not have committed? (Or perhaps -- less flippantly -- the inevitable feelings of guilt that result from the parent/child relationship.) That's pretty much all I'm getting from that. The argument that they are "less removed from us than we might to think" is not fully explained, let alone proven; it is used, instead, as a segue into a discussion of "the pathology of a culture ridden by its guilt" (17) and from there into ancient Greek religion and ritual, and the possible cultural underpinnings of the Oresteia.

Which is all very well and good. The authors have a lot of ground to cover in this essay, the sole piece of criticism/commentary in this edition. But the line caught my eye because it seems to me that critics of literature are always trying to tell me that the works they study are pertinent to my life, my world. It's as though they're afraid I'll see their arguments as pointless, their life's work as unworthy unless it reaches some particular threshold of relevance.

And that got me to thinking ("I couldn't help but wonder"): Is it a necessary condition of "literature" that it offer some enduringly relevant insight? I can see that scholars of ancient (and modern) works would want to believe that those works offer some sort of timeless wisdom or message to the reader; I know it's a common criticism of academia that it has too little to do with the so-called real world. (The term "ivory tower" is pretty self-explanatory.)

And -- god help me -- is a piece of literature "good" because it offers insight, or does it offer insight because it is good?

The gist of Tolkien's argument in "The Monsters and the Critics" is that Beowulf had been studied more as a historical document than as a work of literature because critics felt that it wasn't good enough to be studied as literature (structural weaknesses, or something; too many monsters). It is, too, good enough, Tolkien argues. It is beautiful poetry, and what's more -- oh, yes -- its themes are timeless. Beowulf, according to Tolkien,
glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts; it stands amid but above the petty wars of princes, and surpasses the dates and limits of historical periods, however important. At the beginning, and during its process, and most of all at the end, we look down as if from a visionary height upon the house of man in the valley of the world.
Well, then. Oh, and lest you thought you could be distant from Beowulf the character, if not the broader themes of his story, Tolkien would like you to know that "Beowulf is not... the hero of an heroic lay.... He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy."

I'm not trying to mock Tolkien. Far from it. I'm just thinking about this idea that literary merit is somehow connected to this standard of relevance, this idea that literature is that which teaches us something important, something lasting about people or life or the way of the world.

I won't fall into the trap of attempting to ascertain what exactly counts as literature, let alone how we determine that something is "good" (I was once in a conference class wherein the day's first topic was what constitutes literature; it became the day's only topic when the discussion was hijacked by an indignant ponytailed Classics junior who would not give up her argument that a grocery list could be considered literature. Finally, the professor -- a genial middle-aged Chaucerian who normally gave us very free rein -- cut in and said, "No. No." And that put a stop to that, except class was nearly over by that point anyway).

But it is curious to me to think that literature must have some particular bearing on life. I'm not sure how much I could say that literature has taught me anything about life; trust me, I did plenty of reading throughout childhood and adolescence and I was clueless.

It's a dangerous road, thinking that we should identify with literary characters and/or learn from them. There once came into my possession -- not through any doing of my own, let me assure you -- a book entitled Where There's A Will There's A Way, Or, All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Shakespeare, by one Laurie Maguire (who apparently did not learn it in kindergarten). Now, I did not actually read this unfortunately-named tome -- I sold it to Powell's the first chance I got -- but I gather that it's some sort of self-help book... based on Shakespeare. No. Really. I have to quote from Amazon's product description:
Covering such universal subjects as love and hate, the battle of the sexes, family relationships, and loss and death, Maguire shows how the dilemmas illustrated in Shakespeare's plays can help readers explore their own emotions and judgments. Together, Maguire and Shakespeare offer suggestions, comfort, empathy, and encouragement as they set out a timeless principle for living.
Apparently Shakespeare is "the ultimate self-help guru and life coach." I am not making this up.

This isn't to say that Fagles and Stanford (and Tolkien) share Maguire's absurd conclusion that literature can find you a boyfriend, or whatever. There's a big leap from "this work applies to your life and mine" to "this work will teach you to work through your grief over your father's death." Maguire has gone audaciously, hilariously literal with the idea that fictional characters are like us.

But hey, at least she's attempting to be pragmatic. Really. Will I get less out of the Oresteia if I can't identify with Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra or Orestes? Am I missing something crucial if I can't see how their lives relate to mine, how the trilogy's themes still apply to the world of today?

I find that I am confounded by the question. It seems presumptuous to think that what Aeschylus had to say has anything to do with me (Agamemnon died for my sins!); but it seems insulting to say that his work no longer has relevance.



*We are reading the 1977 Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Fagles; introduction, notes, and glossary written in collaboration with W.B. Stanford. Stanford was Irish, and his political career looks interesting, too. Have a look.


ADDENDUM: Fiona worries that I may have conflated "I can identify with the characters" with "the work offers enduring insights." I don't think that I did; I was aware of the difference while writing the post, and I was fairly careful to distinguish between them in what I said. What I did fail to do is to explain how I see the relationship there. So I want to explicate just a little.

The line with which I began was this: "The suffering of Atreus and his sons is a very old and yet a very modern matter. They are less removed from us than we might like to think."

Essentially, this claims that we have something in common with these characters; we are not removed from them, we should on some level be able to identify with them. But also, their suffering is a matter, an issue that is modern, that is, a theme that remains relevant. Their guilt is "a psychological guilt that modern men have felt and tried to probe."

That is to say that the reason, ostensibly, that we should be able to identify with these characters is that their sufferings have something to do with our sufferings. Their stories, therefore, may tell us something about ourselves or our world.

Similarly, Tolkien emphasizes that Beowulf is a man (i.e. a person) like us as opposed to a mythic hero. His tragedy, per Tolkien, is specifically that he is a human being; his story "moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts...." So the tale of Beowulf, insofar as it is a tale about a human being, offers a message that applies to all human beings.

The fact that we can identify with its characters need not entail that a work tells us something about life; and a work can still offer insight even if we don't particularly identify with its characters (let me tell you, I do not identify with Henry Chinaski, but that doesn't mean that Charles Bukowski has nothing at all to teach me about life -- for one thing, I learned that I hate Charles Bukowski).

But I guess what I am saying is that when I speak here about identifying with characters, I mean it in a relatively broad sense. For example, when I read Troilus and Cressida, I identify with Cressida more than with the other characters because she is a woman in a difficult situation who is harshly judged by people who really don't know her or attempt to understand her. And that's quite specific. But when I read Beowulf, I can't relate to Beowulf as a character in the same way I relate to Cressida. What I can do, at least according to Tolkien, is relate to Beowulf as a human being whose life is finite, whose most spectacular achievements have a limited impact (see Fiona's post on the ends of Beowulf and Hamlet).

It's not like Fagles and Stanford are arguing, say, that we should identify with Agamemnon because hey, remember that time you had to sacrifice your young daughter and it was awful and then your wife was really pissed?

Wow, I actually have a lot more to say about this, and I could keep going for a long time. I hope I've at least clarified this issue rather than confusing it further.

me: i'm trying to make sense of this blog post
which is now a hydra
damn it
Fiona: the blog post is a hydra?
me: yeah
Fiona: I think you have to cauterize the stumps
me: i tried to cut off one of its heads
and it grew more heads
Fiona: I think that is how he did it
me: and i'm out of lighter fluid

"Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three."

I don't think either of us has gotten to the actual beginning of the Oresteia at this point because the introduction is long and at times arduous. It says many things, among them that the Oresteia is the sole surviving Greek trilogy. (Originally it was a tetralogy, but we'll pretend that final satyr-play was like Back to the Future III: Unnecessary and ultimately detrimental to the series as a whole.)

But hey, I hear you protest, what about the Theban plays? Gentle reader, that was my reaction as well. So I did research (on the google!) and it turns out that Sophocles' Theban plays (Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus) are each from separate tetralogies. Each is the sole survivor of its particular family of plays, and they've banded together like so many scrappy orphans in a Dickens novel.

And thus was the mystery solved.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New, Improved, and in Chronological Order

Periodically I'll do a booklist update. This one is very important because it turns out half this stuff was slightly out of order with respect to years and now I am fixing that.

Beowulf (700-1000 AD)
The Odyssey (we are not talking about this)
The Oresteia (458 BC)
The Divine Comedy (1308-1321)
Piers Plowman (1360-1387)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 1300s)
The Canterbury Tales (1380-1400 or so)
Everyman (late 1400s)
Le Morte d’Arthur (1485)
Utopia (1516)
"Defense of Poesy" (1581)
“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (158?)
“The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” (158?)
Tamburlaine (1587-88)
The Faerie Queen (1590)
Edward II (1592)
Amoretti (1595)
The Merchant of Venice (1596-98)
Romeo and Juliet (1597)
Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99)
Julius Caesar (1599)
As You Like It (1599-1600)
Othello (1603)
Volpone (1606)
Antony and Cleopatra (1606-7)
The Sonnets (1609)
The Tempest (1610)
Ben Jonson's Elegy to Shakespeare (1623)
John Donne's Holy Sonnets (1633)
John Donne's "Elegy 20" (1633)
John Donne's "The Bait" (1633)
John Donne's "The Flea" (1633)
Tartuffe (1664)
“To His Coy Mistress” (1650-52)
Paradise Lost (1667)
Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
All for Love (1678)
Anne Bradstreet's “A Dialogue Between Old England and New” (1678)
Anne Bradstreet's “To My Dear and Loving Husband” (1678)
Anne Bradstreet's “The Author to Her Book" (1678)
Anne Bradstreet's "Upon the Birth of One of Her Children” (1678)
The Way of the World (1700)
"A Description of a City Shower" (1710)
Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" (1711)
Alexander Pope's “Rape of the Lock,” (1712)
Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Moll Flanders (1722)
Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
Alexander Pope's "The Dunciad" (1728)
"A Modest Proposal" (1729)
Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man" (1734)
Jonathan Edwards' “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)
Tom Jones (1749)
Tristam Shandy (1759)
Candide (1759)
The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)
She Stoops to Conquer (1771)
The Rivals (1775)
The School for Scandal (1777)
Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789-94)
Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93)
James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Mary Shelley's “Vindication of the Rights of Women” (1792)
Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
Samuel Coleridge's “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1797-98)
Samuel Coleridge's “Frost at Midnight” (1798)
William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (1800)
Faust (1806-1832)
William Wordsworth's “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807)
William Wordsworth's“I Wandered Lonely as Cloud”(1807)
Walter Scott's “Marmion” (1808)
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Samuel Coleridge's “Kublai Khan” (1816)
John Keats' “Fall of Hyperion” (1817)
Percy Shelley's “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1817)
Childe Harold'd Pilgrimage (1818)
Percy Shelley's “Ozymandias” (1818)
Percy Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind” (1819)
Don Juan (1819)
John Keats' “To a Nightingale” (1819)
John Keats' “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819)
Percy Shelley's “Defence of Poetry” (1821)
Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia (1823)
Alfred Tennyson's “Lady of Shalott” (1832)
Alfred Tennyson's “Ulysses” (1833)
“Nature” (1836)
Oliver Twist (1837-39)
Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess” (1842)
Margaret Fuller's “Women In the Nineteenth Century” (1845)
Wuthering Heights (1847)
Vanity Fair (1847-48)
Alfred Tennyson's “In Memoriam, A.H.H.” (1849)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (1850)
The Scarlet Letter (1850)
House of the Seven Gables (1851)
Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny (1851)
Moby Dick (1851)
Emily Dickinson's “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” (185?)
Emily Dickinson's “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” (185?)
Emily Dickinson's “I Felt a Funeral In my Brain” (185?)
Hard Times (1854)
Alfred Tennyson's “Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854)
Walden (1854)
Robert Browning's “Fra Lippo Lippi” (1855)
Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" (1855)
Walt Whitman's “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1855)
Bartleby the Scrivener (1856)
Madame Bovary (1856)
Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Mill on the Floss (1860)
Notes from the Underground (1864)
Walt Whitman's “Oh Captain, My Captain” (1865)
Crime and Punishment (1866)
Matthew Arnold's “Dover Beach” (1867)
Middlemarch (1871-72)
Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
The Bostonians (1886)
Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
Yellow Wallpaper (1892)
W.B. Yeats' "Lake Isle of Innisfree" (1893)
W.B. Yeats' “When You Are Old” (1893)
Arms and the Man (1894)
Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
Heart of Darkness(1902)
The House of Mirth (1905)
Diaries of Adam and Eve (1906)
Is Shakespeare Dead? (1907)
Howard’s End (1910)
Death in Venice (1912)
Pgymalion (1912)
Duino Elegies (1912)
Ezra Pound's “In a Station of the Metro” (1913)
"The Dead" (1914)
"Araby" (1914)
Robert Frost's “After Apple Picking” (1914)
Robert Frost's "The Mending Wall" (1914)
The Metamorphosis (1915)
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
Robert Frost's "Birches" (1916)
W.B. Yeats' "Easter 1916" (1916)
Wilfred Owen's “Dulce Et Decorum Est” (1917)
T.S. Eliot's “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917)
Ulysses (1918-1920)
This Side of Paradise (1920)
W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" (1920)
T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" (1922)
Langston Hughes' "I, Too" (1922)
Sonnets to Orpheus (1922)
Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Love Is Not All" (1923)
Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Conscientious Objector" (1923)
Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Time Offers No Relief" (1923)
Edna St. Vincent Millay's "I Will Put Chaos Into 14 Lines" (1923)
The Great Gatsby (1925)
Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son" (1926)
Langston Hughes' “The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1926)
To the Lighthouse (1927)
A Room of One’s Own (1929)
The Sound and the Fury (1929)
“A Rose For Emily” (1930)
Brave New World (1931)
W.B. Yeats' "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" (1933)
Robert Frost's "Design" (1936)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
W.H. Auden's "Funeral Blues" (1937)
Hills Like White Elephants (1938)
The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1938)
The Iceman Cometh (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" (1939)
W.H. Auden's “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (1940)
W.H. Auden's "Epitaph on a Tyrant" (1940)
A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941)
T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" (1945)
George Orwell's “Politics and the English Language” (1946)
Waiting for Godot (1948-49)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Dylan Thomas' “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” (1952)
Dylan Thomas' “A Child’s Christmas In Wales” (1955)
Lolita (1955)
D.H. Lawrence's “Why the Novel Matters”(1956)
W.H. Auden's "The More Loving One" (1957)
Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B" (1959)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Why they named an epic after this guy I can't imagine.

I have actually read the Odyssey before. How did I forget that Odysseus is a terrible human being? I remember the bit with the maids, but I figured if that's the bit of injustice everyone fixates on that it must be the worst of it. Ha. Ha.

Maybe the best is when, at the very end of the book, he goes to visit his father, Laertes. Not only did Odysseus' mother die because she missed him so much, Laertes refuses to eat and basically tends his garden wearing rags because he grieves so much for his lost son. So Odysseus has reclaimed his palace and his wife and he decides to go visit his dad. And when he gets there...
Long enduring Odysseus, catching sight of him now --
a man worn down with years, his heart racked with sorrow --
halted under a branching pear-tree, paused and wept.
Debating, head and heart, what should he do now?
Kiss and embrace his father, pour out the long tale --
how he had made the journey home to native land --
or probe him first and test him every way?
Torn, mulling it over, this seemed better:
test the old man first,
reproach him with words that cut him to the core. (24.257-266)

Dick move, Odysseus. I know when my father is old and infirm and dying of grief because he thinks I'm dead, I'll LIE TO HIM a little bit just to see if he's plotting against me.

And that's after Odysseus slaughters everyone who ever opposed him in the grisliest possible ways. One guy, Melanthius, who tried to help the suitors, meets this fate:
They hauled him out through the doorway, into the court,
lopped his nose and ears with a ruthless knife,
tore his genitals out for the dogs to eat raw
and in manic fury hacked off hands and feet. (22.501-504)

It's not enough to kill your enemies. You have to do it in the most disgusting way you can think of.

I didn't remember any of this from the last time I read it. Maybe it was phrased more delicately in whatever translation that was? So yes, children, eat your beets and you can grow up like Odysseus, man of twists and turns and hideous revenge fantasies.

Friday, January 2, 2009

onward and upward: a post-it

So we're back to your regularly scheduled (or not) Iditarod. I started the Fagles translation of the Oresteia on the plane back from San Francisco, but the introductory essay was so boring that I read the in-flight magazine instead. And finished the crossword puzzle (with only a couple of errors: I'm bad at baseball players and model trains). I will try again as soon as possible.

I seem to have lost my company's wireless card on the trip back from San Francisco. I feel like Calvin when he broke his dad's binoculars. Awful.

Meanwhile, here are two pictures from the MLA to keep you entertained. They pretty much give away where I work, if you hadn't guessed by now. Please note that despite the MLA overlap, this is Fiona's and my personal blog. The views we express here are solely our own and do not represent our places of employment in any way. I'm very, very lucky to work where I do, and it's extremely useful in terms of grad school research, but it is a job and this is my personal blog. So. Pictures are for illustrative purposes only. I think blogs are more fun when they have pictures.