Badass women in literature: Antigone

 

Antigone painting by Frederic Leighton
Antigone painting by Frederic Leighton

It’s tough being a woman in classical Greek mythology and literature.   Most female characters fall into two categories.  They can be scary-strong, like Clytemnestra.  This charming woman, along with her lover Aegisthus, murders her husband Agamemnon as soon as he returns home from the Trojan War.   She not only kills him, but is positively gleeful about it.  Here she is bragging about killing her husband in Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon:

I struck him twice.  In two great cries of agony / he buckled at the knees and fell.  When he was down / I struck hi the third blow, in thanks and reverence / to Zeus the lord of dead men underneath the ground. / Thus he went down, and the lie struggled out of him; / and as he died he spattered me with the dark red / and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood / to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers / of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.” (1385-1391)

Not all women are this bad of course.  Some of them, like Helen of Troy, merely run away from their husband and country with another man and, in so doing, start a ten-year war.

Some female characters are good, of course—impossibly good. Odysseus’s wife Penelope waits faithfully for twenty years for her husband to come home from war, not knowing if he is even alive.  The war had ended after ten years, after all, and all the other surviving warriors had returned home.

Human females have the worst of it, but even the female goddesses have it rough.  Hera, who is married to Zeus, has to put up with his constant philandering.  And poor Calypso, who lives alone on an island, is gorgeous but lonely.  She finally finds some satisfaction with her sex hostage Odysseus.  But then she is ordered to send her boy toy back home to Penelope by the council of gods.  Now, what’s a goddess to do for fun?

This is why it is especially refreshing to come across a badass chick like Antigone, the heroine of Sophocles’s tragedy of 442 B.C.   Antigone is far from being a long-suffering goody-goody like Penelope, but she is no murderous she-monster, either.  Rather, she is a young woman who follows her conscience and does what she thinks is right, even though she knows doing so will bring her the death penalty.

Antigone is part of a dysfunctional family, to put it mildly. It turns out that Antigone’s mother, Jocasta, is also her grandmother because Jocasta had unknowingly married her own son Oedipus, who is Antigone’s brother and father.  As the play Antigone begins Antigone is now an orphan.  Jocasta killed herself when she learned that she’d been doing it with her son, and Oedipus, after poking out his own eyes, sent himself into exile.  Got it?

That left Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polyneices to co-rule their kingdom, Thebes.  The brothers did not like to share their toys, however, and they fought over who would be ruler.  Polyneices came back one day from exile and tried to start the whole city on fire.  That led to a fight between the warring armies of Polyneices and Eteocles, brother against brother.  Eventually, the Thebans won, but at the cost of both brothers’ lives.

All of this is back-story to the actual play.  When Antigone opens, her uncle Creon is now in charge.  Creon wants to show everybody who is boss.  One of the ways he does this is to declare that nobody may bury the corpse of Polyneices, the brother who attacked Thebes.  He argues that it would be unjust for Polyneices to be given proper burial rites after trying to destroy all of them.  He tells Thebans, “you shall leave him without burial; you shall watch him chewed up by birds and dogs and violated” (188).   Creon makes it very clear that anyone who buries this traitor shall be sentenced to death.

So Creon is feeling all smug and enjoying his newfound power.  But then Antigone comes along and buries her brother anyway.  She believes she has to do this because a) Polyneices is family and b) it is what the gods decree.    She knows that she is going against the will of Creon and she knows what the punishment is, but she buries her brother anyway and does not try to hide it.  She claims,

“I shall be / a criminal—but a religious one. / The time in which I must please those that are dead/is longer than I must please those of this world. / For there I shall lie forever.”  (lines 85-88).

Good point, Antigone.  We’re all going to be dead for much longer than we’ll be alive, so we should make the people with whom we are going to spend eternity happy.

At its most basic level this is a conflict between the laws of the state and the dictates of one’s conscience or religion. Creon states that there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority.  Antigone believes there is nothing worse than disobeying one’s conscience.  For this reason, she practices what Thoreau called Civil Disobedience and what great leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King practiced hundreds of years later.    Because people still have consciences and governments still make laws we consider unjust, Antigone still resonates with readers today.

There is another layer to the conflict between Antigone and Creon, though: that of gender.  Creon is already foaming at the mouth to find out that somebody defied his law.  But when he found out it was a woman, and a young one at that, he went ballistic.  The reader can almost see his face turn red as he spits out these words:  “I swear I am no man and she the man if she can win this and not pay for it” (527-528).  He is not going to let a mere woman usurp his authority and get away with it.  She. Must. Die.

Antigone accepts her death penalty without trying to weasel out of it.  However, she does tell Creon what she thinks of him and his laws in her brash and brazen way that is so rare for ancient Greek maidens.  I think my favorite of her retorts to Creon is this one:

“Now, if you think me a fool to act like this,
perhaps it is a fool that judges.”    (513-514)

What a great, badass, retort from my favorite Greek heroine.

let us now praise badass women

 

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Pear Trees Are Obscene! Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

I'm a sexy beast.
I’m a sexy beast. Click here for source of photo.

 This post contributes to the Banned Books Blog Party hosted by hannah at her blog Things Matter.  Click here for more about her blog and the banned books blog party.

Pear trees in bloom should be banned.  They are just too sexy, too alluring.  They are, in fact, positively obscene.

This is the message I took away from learning recently that Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is on the list for Banned and Challenged Books.   You may be aware that September 21-27 is Banned Books Week.  Sponsored by the American Library Association, Banned Books Week

“is an annual  event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”    http://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek

One of the Banned and Challenged Books listed by the ALA is their Their Eyes Were Watching God, a gorgeous novel written in 1937 by African-American anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.  Their Eyes chronicles the story of a girl named Janie Crawford who, throughout the course of the novel, matures from a restless girl of 16 into a mature woman in her early forties.  Hurston focuses in particular on Janie’s search to find love, community, and a voice of her own.

Zora Neale Hurston from Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library, Yale
Zora Neale Hurston from Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library, Yale

This quest is made difficult, however, by the fact that, as a poor, black, southern girl in the early years of the 20th century, with no family except her grandmother, Janie is at the bottom of the totem pole.  As she learns from her grandmother, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (14).  Poor black women are used by others—including black men—to gratify their own desires.  Expecting, as Janie does, to forge her own destiny and find love on her own terms, is unrealistic and even dangerous.

That is why Janie’s grandmother marries her off at age 16 to an older man whom Janie finds repulsive.  Granny knows through experience what it is like to be treated as a “spit cup” by men and she does not want Janie to go through the same pain.  Janie’s marriage with Logan Killicks is not a successful one.  It serves as the springboard to her restless search for a better marriage, a better life, which she does find eventually.

So why is Their Eyes Were Watching God on list of banned and challenged books?  According to the ALA, in 1997 “a parent objected to the novel’s language and sexual explicitness.”

Sexual explicitness?  I have read this book many times (it is one of my favorites) and I cannot remember any sexually explicit scene.  Hurston’s language is poetic, full of metaphors and images, rather than any starkly realistic descriptions of sexuality.

I can only surmise, but I am guessing what bothered Concerned Parent is the central symbol of the novel:  the pear tree in bloom.  In the beginning of the story, Janie is a sixteen year old girl who is first beginning to feel the stirrings of her sexuality.  One lovely spring day, she is lying under a pear tree when she has a revelation:

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.  She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was a marriage!  She had been summoned to behold a revelation.  Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. . . .

Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom!  With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen.  She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her.  Where were the singing bees for her?”  (11)

http://www.balboapark.org/blogs/balboa-park-beat/pear-trees-bloom#.VCa3iPldVTQ

Click here for source of photo.

 

This vision of the pear tree helps her to really “get” what the “birds and the bees” are all about.  This glorious vision of “marriage” in nature fuels her quest for the rest of the novel.  She, too, wants to find a “bee for her blossom.”  She wants the natural ecstasy she observed in nature.

 https://www.threadless.com/product/684/Birds_The_Bees

Click here for photo source.

Apparently, for Concerned Parent, the pear tree is too explicit; it is like a saucy siren minx who lures on innocent youth to their demise.  Good point, Concerned Parent.  But why stop at banning Their Eyes Were Watching God?  We should ban all pear trees everywhere.  Pear trees have undoubtedly been the cause of many a ruined life.

But let’s not stop at just pear trees.  Let’s ban all trees.  Their spring-time hanky-panky sets a bad example for the Youth of America.  For that matter, let’s get rid of spring time altogether.  You know how adolescents get when they feel those soft May breezes stroking them into a frenzy of desire.  But, as long as we’re at it, let’s ban nature.  All those plants and animals reproducing constantly.  It’s obscene and I won’t put up with it any longer—nor should you.  Let’s act now to end nature and its obscene allure.

Please join me in signing the attached Petition to Abolish Nature in All Its Forms So That Our Children Will No Longer Be Sullied.

Bird sluts
Bird sluts

Click here for source of photo

Diversiverse Challenge
Diversiverse Challenge

 

 

 

 

This post is a response to Aarti’s #Diversiverse challenge.

For more information about her #Diversiverse challenge, click here.

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

I have been nominated for ‘the Very inspiring blogger award by Travelogues of an African Girl (http://africanahgirl.com/2014/09/13/very-inspiring-blogger-award/.  Thank you, “African Girl” for nominating me!  I am very grateful!

 Very inspiring blogger award

The rules of this award are the following :

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and add a link to their blog.
  2. Display the award on your post.
  3. List the award rules so your nominees will know what to do.
  4. State 7 things about yourself.
  5. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award.
  6. Contact your nominees to let them know you have nominated them. Provide a link to your post.
  7. Proudly display the award logo (or buttons) on your blog.

Here are seven things about me.

  1. My first real international travel was my junior-year-abroad experience in Aix-en-Provence, France. I spent an entire year there and took classes at the university with other French students.  This year profoundly changed my outlook on the world in ways that are hard to articulate.
  2. I have dabbled in several foreign languages, but the only one I speak (or spoke) fluently (besides English) is French. I am not happy about this.  Before I die, I would like to become fluent (or almost fluent) in another language.
  3. In pursuit of the goal I mentioned above, I started studying Arabic a couple of years ago. I can’t say I have come very far.  I tend to start, stop, start again (which means reviewing what forgot) and so forth. BTW, It is freaking HARD to learn this language!
  4. For sheer gorgeousness (of landscape, people, art, food, everything), I think Italy is my favorite country, although France is a close second.
  1. The biggest disconnect for me between travel expectations and travel reality has been in Arab countries. I first fell under their spell in Egypt.  Then I spent six week in the small Persian Gulf countries of UAE, Qatar and Kuwait.  Finally, I spent another six weeks in the West Bank of Israel.  In every case, I was overcome by the warmth and hospitality of the Arab people.

6.   I never seem to tire of reading, travel, or learning about other countries. I could work full-time on this blog for years to come and never run out of books to write about or places I want to learn about.

 7.  My cats’ names are Tennessee, Zelda, and Muffin.

I nominate the following bloggers for educating me, entertaining me, inspiring me and making me think.

 

Kinna Reads (kinnareads.com)

Attenti al Lupo (attentiallupo2012.com)

From Ethiopia with Love (fromethiopiawithlove.com)

Of Means and Ends (ofmeansandends.com)

Musings of an Old Fart (musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com)

In Saner Thoughts (lobotero.com)

The Classics Club (classicsclubblog.wordpress.com)

Nomad, Interrupted (catbirdinameria.wordpress.com)

Lotenna Blog (lotenna.wordpress.com)

Tales Along the Way (talesalongtheway.com)

E-tinkerbell (etinkerbell.wordpress.com)

Transitionally Speaking (Transitlens.wordpress.com

Saudiwoman’s Weblog  (http://saudiwoman.me/)

Sachemspeaks  (sachemspeaks.wordpress.com)

Confessions of a Readaholic (amandeepmittal.wordpress.com)

 

 

 

Home to Lebanon: Anthony Shadid’s “House of Stone”

This post is a response to Aarti’s #Diversiverse challenge.  For more information about her #Diversiverse challenge, click  here.

(I don’t know if Arabs are considered people “of color,” but they are certainly a minority group who have been much maligned as of late.)

 

 

“To my family, separated or reunited, Isber’s house makes a statement:  Remember the past.  Remember Marjayoun.  Remember who you are.” (xviii)

Shadid's restored house in Marjayoun, Lebanon.
Shadid’s restored house in Marjayoun, Lebanon.

 Click here for photo source.

The Arabic word bayt translates as “house” in English.  However, according to Anthony Shadid, the connotations of bayt “resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred.  Empires fall. Nations topple.  Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve or, without warning, be altered.  Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade” (xiii).  Bayt is not just a building; it is an identity—an idea as much as a physical space.  But, “what happens to the idea of ‘home” [or bayt] for migrants who live far from the lands of their birth?  How might their travels impact upon the ways “home” is considered?” (John McLeod 210).

Anthony Shadid grapples in The House of Stone with this question, addressing the repercussions faced by immigrants or their descendants who have lost their bayt, the roots of their identity.  Shadid, who died recently, was known mainly for his work as a journalist in the Middle East.  In his House of Stone, Shadid recounts his process of restoring his abandoned and ruined family home in the town of Marjayoun in what is now Lebanon.   At the beginning of this process, he feels depleted, lost and rootless.   He uses the term  “mahjour, an Arabic word meaning abandoned, forsaken, lonely (xvi)” to describe his great-grandfather’s house, but this term also applies to Shadid’s own run-down emotional state. By the end of the restoration period, however, he finds he was able to rebuild not only the house, but also a more solid identity with stronger roots.

             One thing I find interesting about House of Stone  is the process Shadid uses to rebuild their sense of bayt, one that was disrupted by the processes of history and migration.  More specifically, I suggest that he uses the technique of bricolage to effect this more satisfying identity. The term “bricolage” comes from a French word that describes the process of creatively using bits and pieces of materials leftover from other projects to create a new artifact.  Within the realm of cultural studies, the term was popularized by anthropologist Levi Straus and is often used to mean the processes by which people create new cultural identities by combining various social constructs they find at hand.  Bricolage, thus, emphasizes notions of “eclecticism, flexibility, and plurality” (Rogers 1). I argue that Shadid believes that Arab-Americans need to be inventive and flexible in using whatever cultural “bits and pieces” they have at hand to create a hybrid Arab-American identity.

House of Stone is Anthony Shadid’s Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. His book is structured as a mosaic of different pieces, or “tiles,” if you will.  House of Stone is, in part, an account of the frustrating yet rewarding process of restoring his abandoned family home.  It is also in large part a history of Shadid’s ancestors who left the town of Marjayoun and emigrated to the United States.   These ancestors, not surprisingly, left Lebanon because of larger historical/political forces; for that reason Shadid also outlines for readers some of the convulsions of recent Middle Eastern history. If that is not enough, Shadid also introduces readers to some of the people who currently live in Marjayoun.  In the end, though, I would argue that this book is most importantly a memoir of healing.

At the beginning of the book, when Shadid first moves to Lebanon, he is divorced, exhausted, rootless and dispirited.  He is at a point in his life when he needs the sustenance of a real home, in the deepest sense of the word, which is why he returns to his great-grandfather Isber’s home.  This house was built in order to “join us [his family] with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories” (xiii).  The process of restoring his family home, using the literal and metaphorical technique of bricolage helps to restore his sense of a grounded identity.  But what is the nature of this identity? The question is harder to answer than it might at first seem.  The old adage, ‘you can’t go home again’ is at least partially true. The Marjayoun to which Shadid returns is a far cry from the Marjayoun where Isber resided.  Decades of civil war in Lebanon, along with larger upheavals in the Middle East, changed the region almost beyond recognition.  By the time Shadid arrived in Lebanon in 2006, he observes that

“Politics was refracted through unyielding religious discourse or more ancient affiliations, and identity flowed exclusively from them, irrespective of culture and language.  It seemed we have been left with tribes bereft of citizenship.  Home, united, as other generations had known it, had long been lost, though an older architecture still whispered of times glimpsed in broken masonry and solitary arches.”  (6)

The Lebanon that Isber once knew was gone, as Shadid acknowledges, and yet that does not stop him from continuing his quest for home.  If the Lebanon of the present reality has little continuity with the Lebanon of his imagined past, then what does he hope to find there?  One could argue that he is seeking to live with people who share his identity, but who are these people?   Identifying as a Lebanese-American has little meaning to him because of the artificial origins of this nation, with its boundaries demarcated by European colonial powers.   He believes these borders and boundaries are toxic.    He asserts that “Marjayoun suffered with the advent of borders, losings its true hinterland in Palestine and Syria and all the more accessible towns there.  Those towns of an older antiquity—Haifa, Jerusalem. . .—shred with it  common geography, history, trade, and culture, unfettered by borders, and for generations that land was the place of opportunity for those who chose to remain in Marjayoun.  Now they no longer could” (98).

A broken man returns to the land of his ancestors, hoping to find a place where he fits in, hoping to find a home in the deepest sense of the word.  Instead, he finds that almost everything worth cherishing is gone, destroyed by the ravages of war.  One possible reaction to this loss would be despair.  He could give up on the whole idea of finding something meaningful in his family’s past and recreate himself as a newborn American without a past.  (I would argue this is what happens with many, maybe most Americans.)  However, Shadid does not take this path.  Instead, he (metaphorically) looks around the culture and history of the Middle East and picks up the “bits and pieces” that he finds useful and beautiful.  In a process of bricolage, he incorporates these remnants into his newly emerging identity.

The pieces of the Middle Eastern identity Shadid finds most useful is the idea of the Levant.  The Levant for him is more than just a geographical concept.  He notes:

But the Levant was really more a culture than an expanse of land or group of nations or homelands.  It was a way of living and thinking that bound Asia Minor to the Middle East and Egypt to Mesopotamia.  It was, in essence, an amalgamation of diversities where many mingled, a realm of intersections, a crossroads of language, culture, religions and traditions.  All were welcome to pass through the territories and homelands within its landscape, where differences were often celebrated.  In idea at least, the Levant was open-minded, cosmopolitan; it did not concern itself with particularities or narrow concepts of identity. (119)

The quality of the Levant that Shadid finds attractive and wishes to retain is its diversity, what he calls the “mosaic” of different cultures, different identities which, for the most part, were able to live together in relative harmony.

Intriguingly, Shadid finds a material artifact that symbolically represents his ideal of the best of the vanished Middle East:  the cemento tiles that he installs on the floor of his restored house.  He devotes a significant portion of his memoir to commenting on these tiles and what they mean to him.  Here he describes the moment when he first notices them:

“As I walked toward the smooth stone stairs, I noticed some ornate Italian tile peeking from beneath all the dust.  I was immediately drawn for reasons I can’t explain.  I am no aesthete, but I knew that the tiles were called cemento (though they were known these days as sajjadeh, Arabic for carpet, a name suggested by their repeating colorful patterns.)  Through the dirt I could see only black and white, but I suspected other hues lay hidden beneath all those years.” (29)

These tiles captured Shadid's imagination.
These tiles captured Shadid’s imagination.

Click here for photo source.

He said he had undoubtedly walked on cemento tiles many times before in the Middle East, “but it was the cemento here in Isber’s house that drew me.” (30)

These tiles drew him in, I suggest, because they offer him a concrete means by which he can construct his new identity.  These tiles, for him, represent what is best about the Middle East, the Levant of his great-grandfather’s time.  He says, “The tiles at my feet were the remnants, in Arabic the atlal, of a lost Marjayoun.  They were artifacts of an ideal, meant to remind and inspire, vestiges of the irretrievable Levant, a word that, to many, calls to mind an older, more tolerant, more indulgent Middle East.” (118)

The endless fighting and narrow sectarian identities of the current Lebanon appall Shadid.  The cemento tiles, however, hearken back to an earlier time and a way of life that values craftsmanship rather than war. These tiles

“did not speak of war, or frontiers, and the spaces they narrowed, but rather grandeur.  The tiles returned one to a realm where imagination, artistry, and craftsmanship were not only appreciated but given free rein, where what was unique and striking, or small and perfect, or wrought with care was desired, where gazed-upon objects were the products of peaceful hearts, hands long practiced and trained.  War ends the values and traditions that produce such treasures.  Nothing is maintained.  Cultures that may seem as durable as stone can break like glass, leaving all the things that held them together unattended. I believe that the craftsman, the artist, the cook, and the silversmith are peacemakers.  They instill grace; they lull the world to calm.” (118)

Shadid spends a great deal of time, effort, and money to find just the right tiles (from different merchants) and then laying them in just the right way.  As he lay these tiles, he notes that “It felt as though I was lifting history and putting it back in its place.” (126)  I suggest that this effort is not simply to create a beautiful house; it is simultaneously his way of creating his own identity as a tolerant, cosmopolitan Levantine who values craftsmanship, art, and peace.  It is his way of lulling himself into an internal state of calm.   The way he shops for, chooses, and carefully lays the tiles as a way to create his house AND his identity exemplify the process of bricolage—in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

I find Shadid’s embrace of the tiles and their representation of  Levantine identity interesting for a couple of reasons.  First of all, he admits that this open-minded, tolerant Levant no longer exists.  His language (“in idea at least”) suggests that perhaps in its idealized version, it may not ever have existed.  Nonetheless, this imagined past can still provide emotional sustenance for him.  Also interesting to me is that the Levant, at least as he defines it, is a place that is attractive precisely because it does NOT represent a clearly defined, restricted identity.  Rather, the Levant is a “crossroads of language, culture, religions and traditions” that eschews “narrow definitions or identities.” Shadid, then, is a man who is hoping to find a more rooted identity by going back to his family home.  He does find this sense of home, but he does it by forming an emotional bond with a place that no longer exists and embracing an identity that paradoxically eschews narrow definitions of identities.  He is not really going back to reclaim an old identity.  He is creating a brand new one, one that incorporates the past, but just the parts of it he finds sustaining.

 Click here for a link to Shadid talking about the house and tiles on a Youtube video.

Sorry Honey, I Ate the Kids! The Eating Disorder of the Greeks

Tantalus painting by Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)
Tantalus painting by Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)

 

Americans have a problem with food.  The media is awash with stories of how we eat too much fast food, junk food, processed food, sugar, salt, fat, meat, carbohydrates and on and on.  We all eat too much, except for those of us who eat too little.  We don’t eat enough home-cooked food, we don’t spend enough time eating with our families, we don’t eat food slowly enough, savoring every bite of it, and the list goes on.

I am not going to deny any of these charges.  I would just like to point out that it could be worse.  At least we don’t eat our children.

The characters in ancient Greek mythology did, or at least some of them did.  I am re-reading The Oresteia by Aeschylus, which is based on the myth of the House of Atreus.  The story is complicated, but its basic point is this:  if you serve people’s children for dinner, bad stuff is gonna happen to you and your descendants.

The mythological figure of Tantalus started the whole mess.  This guy thought he was the coolest dude on the Mediterranean because the gods sometimes invited him to dinner.  (For a 21st century American, that would probably be like being invited to dinner by the hottest Hollywood movie stars or perhaps by your favorite NFL team.)  His head started to swell (not unlike some professional athletes and movie stars) because of this swell treatment, and he developed a condition known as hubris—the overweening pride that usually goeth before a fall.

So one night a bunch of gods and goddesses came over for dinner.  He was all out of groceries, so rather than calling for take-out, he decided to chop up his own son Pelops and serve him, roasted, to his high class friends.  (Some versions of the myth say he was trying to test them to see if they were really omniscient.)

Let’s just say the party didn’t go all that well.  When the gods found out that their meal wasn’t made of tofu, they were horrified.  They brought Pelops back to life and sent their pal Tantalus to Hades.  His punishment was to be eternally thirsty and hungry.  The gods surrounded him with luscious food and drink, but whenever he tried to reach for food and drink, it blew away, out of his grasp.  Thus, he remains tortured eternally by thirst and hunger and is the source of our word tantalizing.

You’d think Tantalus’s descendants would learn from the errors of their ancestor, but apparently they weren’t that bright.  A whole heap of bad stuff happened to Tantalus’s descendants after the ill-fated dinner party.  We will fast forward, though, to the rivalry between Thyestes and Atreus, the grandsons of Tantalus.  They both wanted to be king, so they were always fighting.  First, Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife.  Then, to get revenge, Atreus followed in his grandpa’s footsteps.  Rather than cooking his own children for dinner, though, he cooked Thyestes’s children and served them to Thyestes, who unknowingly ate his own children for dinner.

So if you are beating yourself up over your latest trip to McDonald’s or the Dairy Queen, give yourself a break.  You could do a lot worse.

Just saying.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

Armand Assante as Odysseus in the  1997 made-for-TV movie version directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Armand Assante as Odysseus in the 1997 made-for-TV movie version directed by Andrei Konchalovsky

In my World Literature class, we are finishing up Homer’s The Odyssey.  Odysseus has finally made it home to Ithaca after being away for 20 years—ten in the Trojan War, and ten lost at sea on the way home.  He is greeted not by the warm embrace of his people, but by a band of snarling suitors who want to kill him, as well as a wife who isn’t sure who he is.

In the end, though, Odysseus prevails.  He gets his kingdom, his wife, and his son back.  He is home.  He and his family will live happily ever after, right?

Well, not according to Lord Alfred Tennyson.  He wrote a poem called “Ulysses” in 1833 and published it in 1842.   This poem is based on the myth of Odysseus/Ulysses as it appears not just in Homer’s Odysseus, but also in Dante’s rendition of Ulysses in his Inferno.)

In Tennyson’s poem, reproduced below, Ulysses is far from living happily-ever-after with his family.  On the contrary, he laments being stuck at home.  He is bored with his job (being king!) and with the yahoos he rules.  Worse yet, his wife is aged. After hanging out with all the sex-starved nymphs he met on his travels, Ulysses probably finds Penelope rather unappealing.  So he decides to light out for the territory again.

I have mixed feelings when I read this poem.  On the one hand, this is a blog devoted to travel and other forms of exploration.  How could I not love lines such as these:

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

 

This is a gorgeous poem, no doubt about it.  But although I understand the travel bug infecting Ulysses, I can’t help but think about his family, especially Penelope.   She waited faithfully for twenty freaking years, and now he wants to leave again? It’s enough to drive a woman to drink with the swineherds.  Did it not even occur to him to ask her if she wanted to accompany him?  Aaarrrgh!

Tennyson’s poem reminds me of my own pendulum swing between home-travel-home-travel home.  Personally, I like having a solid home base.  It’s wonderful to travel, but it’s always great to come home as well.

But Maybe that’s a woman thing.  Classic literature is bereft of male heroes who are content with their domestic fires.  They are much more inclined to be “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

 

What about you?  Would you spend all your time travelling and exploring if you had the option?  Or would you come home to Penelope and stay put?

 

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d

Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

 

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil

This labour, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees

Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere

Of common duties, decent not to fail

In offices of tenderness, and pay

Meet adoration to my household gods,

When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

 

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

What Makes the Chinese Chinese?

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Is it possible to define what makes a culture distinct from other cultures?  Or is the question an impossible one to answer?

David Keightley, a renowned sinologist, attempted to answer this question in regards to China.  More specifically, he asked, what makes Chinese people distinctively Chinese?  How, if at all, are the Chinese different from the ancient Greeks, a civilization that serves as a (partial) foundation for Western culture today?  Keightly attempts to answer these questions by studying the ancient past.

I am greatly simplifying his answer for the sake of brevity, but here are a few of his conclusions.

  • The Chinese have a deeply ingrained hierarchical social order, in which everybody knows his or her proper role and acts accordingly. This hierarchy occurs not just in this life, but in the afterlife as well.   If you are at the top of the social ladder in this life, you will remain on the top in the afterlife.  Conversely, if you are low in social status in this life, you will remain low in the afterlife.
  • Whereas the West values the individual above all else, the Chinese focus on the needs of the group (such as the family or the state). Significant to this focus on the group is the emphasis on lineage and ancestor worship.
  •  An ethic of service, obligation, and emulation (as opposed to an ethic of individual achievement and distinction dominant in the West.) This ethic is so strong, Keightley argues, that soldiers and other servants of the king willingly die and are buried with him so that they can continue their service in the afterlife.
  •  Whereas the Greeks had a deep sense of tragedy and irony, Keightley argues that the Chinese do not share this world view. He suggests that this could be at least partly explained by their view that death does not mark a huge change for people: one remains with one’s family and in the same basic circumstances after death as before it.

Overall, Keightley suggests that a combative individualism reigns in the West, whereas a harmonious social humanism predominates in China.

I am taking an online Introduction to China course, and the two professors teaching the course disagree on the validity of Keightley’s argument as a way to explain Chinese culture.   One of them believes Keightley made a strong argument for the difference between Chinese and Greek civilization, at least as it manifested itself in ancient times.  The other, however, dismissed Keightley’s argument as a vast oversimplification that cannot explain the past few hundred years of China’s history.

What do you think?  For those of you who are Chinese or familiar with Chinese culture, do you see any validity to Keightley’s argument?  Do you think it is even possible to make generalizations about an entire civilization?

Source:

David N. Keightley, “Early Civilization in China: Reflections on How It Became Chinese” in Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization, edited by Paul S. Ropp. (c) 1990 by The Regents of the University of California. Published by University of California Press. pp. 15-54.