gall and gumption

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Other Gods

When I was about 8 years old my grandmother gave me a simply enormous Webster's dictionary. It was a doorstop, about five inches thick. At the back, after all the definitions of words, were several more specialized dictionaries. My favorite was the dictionary of Greek mythology. I used to read through this--each entry was the name of a character or deity and a little summary of their story. And of course if I read about, say, Theseus, then I'd go read about the Minotaur at his entry, and then Medusa, and so on, and of course putting the stories all together. I read this part of the dictionary a lot.

The one thing I had a hard time understanding was what I now could describe (but couldn't then) as the amorality of the gods. Up through this time in my life I had gone to little Anglican schools where we sang hymns in the morning like "All Things Bright and Beautiful," and "Praise Him, Praise Him," and "Little Drops of Water" and "Immortal, Invisible." I did not believe a word of it, but I have a lingering affection for those hymns, and for years I could not shake the idea that if there were a God He would be nice to children and puppies and liked beautiful scenery.

So it was unsettling to read the Greek myths and find that there was, for example, a God of the Underworld who kidnapped Persephone, and I thought she was very foolish to eat the pomegranate seeds and cause so much inconvenience (I had never experienced winter, but from where I sat reading it seemed like a pretty harsh punishment, all things considered). Or Hera; what were you supposed to think of this jealous and vindictive personage? My favorite was Athene, but after all with Greek gods you can't just settle on one; you have to take the whole lot or none. It's polite. You can't just pull things to pieces. So these gods took up residence in my imagination--which was fine because they were fun, they were interesting, and they were only troublesome when I tried to make them fit some other model of good and evil. And this I didn't feel any compelling need to do. The general rule seemed to be "Don't get on their bad side," but then there were so many ways to get on their bad side. By not letting them catch you when they wanted to seduce you, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or giving them backchat, or showing off. Or by being born, like Oedipus.

As deities they seemed flawed, but powerful, and they certainly knew how to live it up. Compared to them the god of my churchgoing playmates (distant cousins, neighbors, and a few schoolmates) just seemed crazy mean. I don't mean the one I learned about in school, but the one they learned about from their parents. These children seemed to live in the apprehension of beatings and hellfire. With respect to the former, I regarded their fathers with awe, and was struck dumb with shyness in their presence, afraid that some minor unconscious infraction might cause one of them to start laying about him with a slipper or a belt. These playmates would occasionally try to impress upon me the threat of damnation and hell, but it just wouldn't stick. It was boring, and, I sort of instinctively felt, too mean to take seriously.

None of this affected me personally, except that when these various strict fathers came home from work in the evening it was usually less fun over at the friend's house.

When I read Milton's Nativity Ode, I always feel sorry for the pagan gods...

XIX,

The Oracles are dumm,
No voice or hideous humm
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shreik the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
Inspire's the pale-ey'd Priest from the prophetic cell. [ 180 ]

XX

The lonely mountains o're,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring and dale
Edg'd with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent,
With flowre-inwov'n tresses torn
The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.

XXI

In consecrated Earth,
And on the holy Hearth,
The Lars, and Lemures moan with midnight plaint,
In Urns, and Altars round,
A drear, and dying sound
Affrights the Flamins at their service quaint;
And the chill Marble seems to sweat, [ 195 ]
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.

XXII

Peor, and Baalim,
Forsake their Temples dim,
With that twise-batter'd god of Palestine,
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heav'ns Queen and Mother both,
Now sits not girt with Tapers holy shine,
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn,
In vain the Tyrian Maids their wounded Thamuz mourn.

...though I admit I wouldn't miss Moloch. Why couldn't they have been left alone to take care of things like Keeping the Stovewood Dry and Not Letting the Cottage Cheese Go Bad Just When I Felt Like Having Some?

I have a few things I read regularly to tune up my morals and generally refocus the big picture: Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, Persuasion, and Sophocles's Theban plays. Yes, this is a strange selection. No accounting for tastes, I guess, though I keep trying.

Reading and rereading Greek tragedy, in which those stories I read as a child were fleshed out, the characters given human voices, I reached the point where I understood, at least in literary terms, something about the not-so-good-but-still-great Greek gods. Or maybe it would be more right to say, I at least understood something of what these playwrights understood about the gods. I could see, for example, how Medea rationalizes her crime, talks herself into it, and how reason is put to the service of the mad jealousy that's really driving her. It's the same thing with Clytemnestra, in Agammemnon. It's the plausibility of their craziness that's so scary.

Or, by contrast, Oedipus coming to the absolute worst of self-knowledge and finding at last a sublime dignity and blessedness there, and you watch it sort of flame up in him over the course of the play as he gets stronger and more lucid each minute. Again, the presence of something invisible and powerful. You might say that his self-knowledge is the polar opposite of the madness of Medea; by it he becomes a divinity, by her lack of it she becomes a monster.

And still, there is so little of intention or will either way; one is always in doubt of one's power because, as the plays so powerfully illustrate, the gods are always just out of sight, their intentions are not revealed clearly, you don't know what is you and what is them, and that is, in a sense, what it is to be human. This is a much more interesting idea to me than the idea that so-and-so had a catastrophe because he got too big for his britches. So while Clytemnestra is making her perfectly reasonable arguments for murdering her husband while he's taking a bath, you realize that the arguments themselves indicate and invoke the presence of whatever divine power drives that crazy idea.

I got that. But it still wasn't personal.

Personal is when I realized I'm up against it too, I mean, up against forces in my own self, that distract me, that make me afraid or insecure or angry; OK I don't go murdering people in baths, but I murder time like nobody's business. A worry takes possession of me and I have to fight to get out from under it. A feeling tugs and tugs at my mind and won't let me settle down and concentrate on work I want to do. Or even stranger things. I remember years ago, not long after I had settled down into domestic life with The One, sitting down to read one afternoon, "Well, here we are, this is it and isn't it nice?" and after half an hour or so, instead of feeling contentment, I had panic, confusion, shortness of breath, and a desire to run like hell out of the house and never come back, a feeling of doom. I didn't run, but I was never quite at ease after that. And who hasn't had to talk themselves out of being in love at one time or another?

After all the excitement there you are with the slog back into your right mind, one foot in front of the other, day after day, in the hope of some small showing of grace from anywhere. The first virtue is endurance. This time last year I was in Sardinia.

2 Comments:

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it okay to say that I love this essay? Think it's perfect in every way? Would not change a thing? Have read it over and over again because I like the sounds of the sentences? My being here is a kind of murder and a grace-- murdering time by reading instead of getting down to the writing, but a grace to find such a beautiful contemplation of what it is to be human, as well as what it is to be a reader with all those characters, thoughts, feelings and situations making some sort of sympathetic sense as they live on in us. Thank you, Kia.

 
At 12:04 PM, Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

1. Is cottage cheese Kosher?

2. When the books are reading you, and the gods are coming around the bend, and it's the bend of your life, one might say, that's when you know your reading time's been well spent. Sometimes I don't know this for decades. But the suspicion at grad school that what was being discussed was, often, beside the point, well, that's confirmed. For me. You had better guides.

 

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