On Tinkers

October 6, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Myth is what happens to a strong belief once the belief has changed. In other words, what was once firm belief, turns into cultural story and entertainment. They become important narratives, but not necessarily belief systems. For example, we know who Zeus is, but I doubt that anyone believes the story of Leda and the Swan. (I say that with some hesitation because one could argue that the story is really about transformation, and that that particular myth represents the idea of change. I do concede that change is indisputable.) My point is, rather, that at one time, a society upheld Zeus as a supreme being and now we anthologize those representations into myth as opposed to religious texts. These stories often address the uncertainty of change or new beginnings. They analogize situations for which we have no data and no real coherent answer. They often come from ancient societies, but in today's blog I want to take a peek at a recent novel which, I argue, demonstrates the way that history sometimes feels mythic.

Recently I read the contemporary novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding. I felt that the novel ably demonstrated this idea of transformation from the almost-impossible (or unspeakable) into the mundane. By weaving fictional texts in and out of his story, Harding creates the mythic beginnings of a family. Through a poetic, winding style, the reader must piece together the family history. The men in this family all carry one trait, that of epilepsy. In the beginning, societal fears surrounding epilepsy in conjunction with the other-worldly experience of a seizure, defines the men. The omniscient narration style allows for historical notions to fluidly enter the stream of consciousness of one who experiences an episode. Therefore, through three subsequent generations, we better understand the historical time period as well as the individual characters.

In the first generation, the father is sent to an insane asylum (which was the only 'treatment' for epilepsy at this time). In the next generation, the insane asylum option exists, but the father abandons his family before being committed. Instead, he turns to a mundane city life in which he bags groceries and remarries. In this new life, he is valued and treated as normal. It is as though he has gone through a transformation from mythic beginnings to mundane humanity. Once the men remove long-held beliefs (placed upon them by society or reputation), they achieve the power to direct their own lives. They have stepped outside of the long-held belief which previously devalued their lives. Instead, the reader hopes that future generations will go on to live a life which achieves some level of happiness, despite disability.

The passage below exemplifies these mythic beginnings. In this section, a son watches a father fish for an apple. Whether he is actually watching this scene is less important than trying to see how the son understands his father. He literally imagines (or sees) his father's disintegration. The narrator does an excellent job of describing this ethereal being return to what must be the stuff of all beginnings.

“Another time I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in the window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father's, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, or lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father's fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull – no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.”

Many thanks to the conversation group which opened up this incredibly poetic text to me!

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Linguistic Clues

September 8, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

According to Merriam-Webster, a clue is:

  1. something that guides through an intricate procedure or maze of difficulties or
  2. a piece of evidence that leads one toward the solution of a problem

Clue offers one example of how language changes and is, therefore, the subject of today's blog. I love this word because it visually expresses its meaning better than the string of the four letters c-l-u-e. Somehow this word morphed from clew – or a ball of yarn or thread – into clue (as defined above). Both words are still in use today, but clue exists in the mainstream, while clew is known only to those interested in fiber arts. To understand how this happens, we have to reach back into ancient mythology and understand one of the myths of young Theseus.

King Minos of Crete demanded yearly payments from Athens in the form of seven men and seven women to feed his Minotaur. In the third year of the tribute, Theseus, son of King Aegeus, asked to be sent as one of the seven male pledges. Therefore, fourteen young Athenian men and women entered the Labyrinth with the Minotaur. No one had ever escaped the Labyrinth or the Minotaur, until Theseus. He, of course, killed the beast. As happens with so many of the myths involving heroes, however, he required some help to navigate the Labyrinth. Ariadne, King Minos's daughter, instantly fell in love with Theseus. She gave him a spool of thread – or a clew – which unraveled as he traveled through the Labyrinth. After slaying the bull, he followed the magical thread back to the entrance. Theseus sailed away from Crete with both his pride and his prize: Ariadne. (Unfortunately, Theseus's gratitude did not extend very far because he soon abandoned Ariadne on the shores of Naxos. Do not worry about Ariadne, however, as Dionysus soon rescued her.)

The first use of clew dates back to somewhere near 900. Originally recorded in Old English as cliwen or cleowen, over time, the final 'n' sound dropped off and became clew in Middle English. This word is still used today to describe yarn. Clue, in the sense of figuring out a puzzle, first came about in the 1600s and now exists as a stand-alone concept. The OED credits a poem from Michael Drayton in 1605 with the first metaphorical usage. Drayton wrote, “Loosing the clew which led us safely in, [We] Are lost within this Labyrinth of lust.” Of course today, we take for granted that this concept has long existed. For example, it has become the title for mysteries, games and children's television shows. In so doing, it becomes a literal example of its own definition. Walking backward through language gives literal clues to the history of culture and the human mind. For some reason, the metaphor of walking a labyrinth resonated with a large majority or English speakers. As the word gained in popularity, the more abstract definition slowly replaced the physicality of any labyrinth.

I have this theory that human understanding is proportionally linked to our separation from nature. This perceived independence from nature actually moves us toward a more figurative language – and yet, perhaps deprives us of the ability (or interest) to understand the etymology of basic words. As daily pace increases, we are forced to rely upon derivatives of nature – much the same as our language. “Clue” is a simplistic example of this notion in which the concept is driven by an actual object. It is no coincidence that clue comes from a literal cord or tether – something that binds us to oral traditions – yet, I doubt that many people know its history. That our current understanding of clue is a figure of speech, or that it comes from ancient Greek myths. Just as I did not. And having discovered this new treasure, I am overwhelmed with the way that language carries such a depth of knowledge.

Why is it important to think about the reasons that figurative speech might become more common than literal? Why is it important to understand the etymology of the word? How does the history of the word enhance our definition of clue? These are questions that I ask every time I am working with translation...which makes it painfully clear why translation is so slow and laborious. Each word is a wormhole in its own way. But it also gives a better understanding of just how rich we are in words.

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Meeting the Gods

August 4, 2017

“As a student I wanted to stand up at the mic during Q and A to challenge the terms under which one applies the term myth not to mention legend but I did not because the line was long because the speaker was well-known well-respected in other words he was a legend but not a myth.” - Layli Long Soldier, “Whereas”

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

As a former high school English teacher, I appreciate any new materials that make teaching easy and accessible. Recently, I read some of Rick Riordan's series of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I was very impressed by the amount of accurate detail that he included in his texts about the ancient gods and goddesses. In The Lightning Thief, the reader is introduced to some very important mythic figures such as the Fates, Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Medusa and a variety of other gods.

Classical mythology can seem chaotic because it is. The first gods are often both spouse and sibling. Many of them try to kill each other and there is a lot of fear between fathers and sons. Also, the Greek gods are also often the Roman gods, only with different names. Therefore, mapping a family tree becomes complicated very quickly. Instead of simply creating a map, Riordan places the gods into a modern-day environment, allowing fictitious humans to interact with them. In many cases, the gods are true to their mythic figures. Riordan offers details about ancient societies also. Not coincidentally, the reader comes to learn that Percy is actually short for Perseus. Many of the details of Percy's life actually reflect the legend of Perseus. It is interesting to see where the stories intertwine and mix and diverge. Of course, I am already familiar with a good number of these gods, and so I am capable of navigating between the ancient myth and modern-day invention.

I appreciate Riordan's attention to detail and resolve to faithfully describe the gods. Whereas the a few internet sites actually offer some useful details, I was fairly disappointed with the film. I understand that it is difficult to introduce and develop many characters in so short a space, however, I feel that the Disney version left out many important details. I believe that Riordan's text offered a great opportunity since he already laid the groundwork in bringing an ancient belief system into contemporary life. Unfortunately, the movie left out all details about the ancient society. Instead, the movie focused on stunts and action. From the very beginning, the movie vastly differed from the text. In the same way that the Disney film of Hercules left out the motivating factor for Hercules' anguish (the fact that Hera hated him because he was an illegitimate son of Zeus), this film leaves out necessary portions about nearly all of the gods. There is very little understanding about the gods and their motivations, which removes a lot of the impact and tension. Also, the book is set up as a bit of a mystery, which is altogether missing in the movie.

I find this film interpretation very disappointing because the groundwork had already been done. I believe that many missed opportunities turned the film into a fairly flat piece. While it did attempt a nod or two in the direction of ancient myth, they were few and far between. Having said all of that, I do believe that students can learn a great deal from an actual comparison between text and film. For example, in reading the text, then outlining the characters, and finally comparing story lines between text and movie, a student might gain a good working understanding of mythology. This would be a fairly straightforward English assignment, easily implemented in most classrooms. I can think of a number of other exercises which would translate into other necessary skills. So, regardless of my disappointment in the film, a combination of film and text still manages to create useful and worthwhile lessons.

One of the most important elements, that I see, is the way in which myth is depicted in each medium. The quote from Long Soldier at the beginning of this post hints at the fact that, while myths were once a system of belief, as soon as we start to use the term 'myth', then we no longer believe in the transcendent power of that story. Therefore, myths are an ancient system of belief, one in which we no longer believe. As an example of ancient thought, however, myth continues to be relevant. While the story loses power as systems of belief change, the idea that spurred the story is still very much relevant. And this is where Riordan's work excels. He has transported the story into present-day, making it both comic and tragic for teenagers today. He grabs teenagers' attention by creating contemporary contexts for ancient myths. I like this technique in getting readers interested, in making the stories real and relevant for them, and also in displaying a use for creative writing. All in all, I believe that Riordan's work offers an interesting and unique path for a first meeting with the gods.

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