Talking Sky

Queen Square, Bath, July 2017

As June turned to July, I took the slow train to Bath for the annual conference of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture. This year’s conference theme was ‘The Talking Sky: Myths and Meaning in the Celestial Spheres’. Judging by some of the conversations I’ve had, many people’s shutters come down at the mention of cosmology or the idea of meaning being derived from the stars – in short, astrology. And indeed the Sophia Centre is dedicated to the serious study of astrology. In the popular imagination, astrology is the dubious or fraudulent nonsense of newspaper columns (‘sun sign’ astrology, as it is distinguished). Such is the power of this belief, that even those who would seriously study ancient philosophy and mythology flinch from contemplating ancient astrology. And yet, as the speakers at this conference proved, with great erudition, charm and good humour, the movements of the heavenly bodies were of monumental importance to ancient people, and still hold meaning for many today.

A central idea for the conference was ‘naked eye astronomy’, as advocated by Bernadette Brady. Dr Brady provided a series of revelatory images of the annual interaction of the sun and moon as their relative position in the sky changes throughout the year. The high moon compensating for the low sun in winter, or the sun and moon rising and setting in the same positions at equinox, for example. The loss of naked eye astronomy – of the widespread knowledge of the patterns of sun, moon, and stars as they appear to us on earth – causes a ‘cultural divide’ between modern and ancient humans: we do not know the human view of the sky. Consequently, we lose access to the meaning contained in old myths because we do not recognise our sky.

This concept resonated most clearly in the papers which surveyed the astonishing constructions people built around the movements of the sun – standing stones, cairns, and the like. We all know about those. But what impressed itself upon me, as a novice in this area, was how much sheer trial and error the construction must have involved: generations of living with the knowledge of astronomical movements, and creating monumental structures which interact perfectly with the sun. Attendant to this is the realisation that the will to create these structures must derive from the sky’s significance to daily life in a way that is impossible to overstate.

Other papers addressed decidedly more modern materials. Claudia Rousseau drew connections between images of the coronation of the Virgin (such as that by Velázquez) and Ariadne’s catasterism in the Corona Borealis. Both of these have been addressed on this blog, but I never made the link between them (Ariadne here, Mary here).

Signe Cohen gave a delightful paper on the twelfth-century Norse poem ‘Alvíssmál’ (‘The Speech of the All-Wise’). In this poem, Thor challenges the dwarf Alvís to list the names of sky, sun, and moon, etc., as they are known to mortals, elves, gods, and the like. Alvís is turned to stone by the rising sun while he recites all the sun’s different names. As Dr Cohen drily put it, Alvís’s knowledge is ‘more theoretical than applied’. Once again, of course, the central idea is that, in the diverse names for the same cosmological phenomena, interpretations of the cosmos reflect the stance of the observer.

Ceiling Pan

Sunday morning at the conference began with Jenn Zahrt announcing she would start with some theory. This was music to my ears on this bright summer morning, and all the more involving for discussing the philosopher Jean Gebser, previously unknown to me. Gebser’s work is relevant to a strand of myth theory I have been researching which concerns myth as a system of thought (following Lévy-Bruhl, Cassirer, and so on). This is usually articulated as a split between the archaic or mythical mind and the modern, rational one. For Gebser the distinction is gradated rather than binary: he outlines five structures of consciousness: archaic, magical, mythical, mental/rational, and integral. Moreover, rather than the barriers between structures of consciousness being impermeable and culturally prescribed, it is possible to access all points on this scale. Is the comparative critical neglect of Gebser a result of his being perceived as a ‘new age’ figure? I’ll be looking into him.

Dr Zahrt’s talk also addressed astrologer Alfred Witte’s hypothetical planets. Witte struggled to name one of these planets, seeking an appropriate goddess. Eventually he settled on the name Hades. A strange decision, no? The perfect name was hidden in plain sight, next to Hades: why not Persephone? She is goddess of underworld, who often must not be named, referred to instead as the Korē, the ‘girl’. The unnameable goddess for the unnameable planet, still concealed behind Witte’s Hades.

The topic of my paper was the sun as mythic force in modern fiction. It forms part of my ongoing project to locate and study the sincere engagement with myth in recent literature. I focused on two sun-stricken novels of the 1960s: Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris, and The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard. Despite the apparent differences between the authors in question, both novels are united in their use of myth, of psychological ideas, and of the sun as an active presence. The novels demonstrate how our star  – alongside its material presence – retains a spiritual power in human life, well into our apparently disenchanted, rational age. The two authors offer different perspectives of the same condition: a human in modernity captivated by the power of the sun. In each case, the sun proves itself as our primal deity, its seemingly ceaseless power of light and heat matched by an eternal psychological power over our moods, sanity, sense of self. I was deeply gratified by the warm and attentive reception the paper received, and I came away having been given many promising suggestions for other contemporaneous novels on similar themes.

The conference was held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, which occupies a tremendous building on Queen Square, which – I have only just discovered – was once the home of Dr William Oliver, inventor of the Bath Oliver, which is a cracker I could eat all day. Papers were delivered in a room with four oval ceiling recesses. Pan (or perhaps a satyr) is in one, Demeter in a second, the third is blank, and the fourth has ‘do not paint’, as if awaiting Michelangelo’s return. As the conference drew to a close, I was privileged to hold the eye of Marduk (a votive amulet), dedicated by Nebuchadnezzar II around the sixth century BC, now in a private collection (another is in New York). Marduk, the great Babylonian creator deity, clearly bestowed his blessing on the whole proceedings.

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Tom McCarthy at the British Library

‘Happy Bloomsday’, began Tom McCarthy at the British Library this evening (16 June). He was here to launch his collection of essays, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish. His talk was typically broad in reference, including some of his acknowledged favourites – Mallarmé, of course – among Edward Ruscha (whose ‘Orphic’ dismembered typewriter of Royal Road Test provided the opening image), Don DeLillo, cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, Georges Perec, Zinedine Zidane (as in the 2006 film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait), plus Hamlet, Don Quixote, Bartleby, Yeats, Freud, Auden, and Beckett. Written down like that, it looks awfully male, but I guess that’s several centuries of patriarchy for you.

Edward Ruscha, page from Royal Road Test (1967, printed 1971): Tab Key Top (photographed as found in bush)

As elaborated in the post-talk discussion, McCarthy’s concern centred on the idea of writing after Mallarmé (and indeed since at least the sixteenth century) as rewriting, as inauthentic, as mediated. Even the best writing is still inauthentic, but radically so. The ironic self-consciousness of this stance is evident in McCarthy’s fiction, which is written dispassionately, like a Freud case study, all emotion circumscribed or in suspension. Equally, politics is experienced on an alienated globalised or geopolitical level. Questions of visceral emotion, or political action, or spiritual transcendence are not relevant. It validates Ballard’s assessment of modernity as the time of ‘the death of affect’. It’s a style of writing that I enjoy tremendously, and it touches on many of my own interests, even though, at the same time, I am aware of something that I feel should be cracking through the surface of the prose. What is this lack – a cry of lamentation? the nauseous sense of urgency? (Perhaps my sense of this was highlighted on this occasion – still in the week of Grenfell.)

I read McCarthy’s last novel, Satin Island, in a state of tickled jealousy: the opening pages in particular present a hilariously vertiginous forging of links, associations, patterns, and structures in the modern technological environment, linking oil, tragedy, myth, and structural anthropology – a combination of topics that I addressed in my PhD thesis. But then, as if to make it more personal for me, there is a meditation on a ventilation system, the like of which is only equalled by my favourite song by The Beale (a group I later joined), ‘97 Circular’, in which the criminally underrated singer and artist, Adrian R. Shaw, proclaimed ‘I’m in love / With a ventilation shaft’, his voice cracking as he recalls ‘all its elaborate brickwork’.

Reading the opening pages of Satin Island was simply one of those sequences of chances which we all experience from time-to-time with an artwork which shares our outlook. In the case of Satin Island, anyone who casually observes the effluvia of globalisation and has an interest in structural readings of myth and tragedy (Lévi-Strauss is a prominent presence) will recognise themselves to some degree on the page.

Stéphane Mallarmé, pages from Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897)

McCarthy’s protagonist, named U, sees networks, randomness, designs, patterns, primal scenes, abstractions, complicity, and traumas, all resonating and repeating in his experience of the world. The novel chooses not to push the political or ethical demand that some will find inextricable from this network. It remains the novel of the protestant individual and not of the collective spirit: Dionysian ekstasis as synthesized MDMA that we come down from all too soon and re-atomised. So too in McCarthy’s talk at the BL, the constellation-patterns of Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de dés’ constitute a semiotic mark not an affective symbol, and Zidane’s famous headbutt of Materazzi is replicated in a playful GIF of colliding ‘Z’s. McCarthy’s stance definitively avoids kitsch and the emotiveness that occludes insight and reflection. And yet I am nagged by the cyclopean strength of this ironic posture of studiousness and play. In Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (the film which follows Zidane throughout the ninety minutes of a 2005 football game), at half-time, the film presents a montage of the day’s global news. McCarthy shows as a still from the aftermath of a car bomb in Iraq, in which a boy wears a football shirt with Zidane’s name. But this queasy conjunction cannot disturb the reflective repose of the British Library ‘Knowledge Centre’. How could it? Too remote in time, place and context.

Corbyn’s Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in response to the Peterloo Massacre, allegorising contemporary politicians as personifications of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy. Contrasted to these is Hope, ‘But she looked more like Despair’. Hope delivers an anatomy of Freedom (incorporating Justice, Wisdom, Peace, and Love) and calls on the English to rise up against Oppression’s slavery. Jeremy Corbyn quoted from this poem during his final speech of the June 2017 election campaign. His quotation is loaded with ironies and symbols.

One irony has become horribly apparent in the last two days since the avoidable fire at Grenfell Tower in west London. Governments tend not to commit massacres against their people these days, but the process of oppression and killing is more subtle: through cutting services, cutting regulations, incentivising landlord profits. These policies led directly (according to all informed reports) to the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire. The political ideology of division and social cleansing is the hidden successor to overt state violence.

The Peterloo Massacre (in which yeomanry charged at a crowd of peaceful advocates for parliamentary reform) inspired the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper which in its current form actively opposed Corbyn’s leadership until a few days before the June 2017 election. (For an informed comment on this particular irony, see this blog)

Shelley’s poem had been circling Corbyn’s campaign for a while, activating the mutual resonance between the campaign slogan “For the many, not the few” and the lines which close the poem (repeated from stanza 38) “Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number— / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you— / Ye are many—they are few.”

The reading by Corbyn, addressing a large crowd of supporters at the Union Chapel in Islington on the eve of the election, amplified through a booming PA system, is not intrinsically beautiful, but in the context, as his audience joins in the final line, and following an impassioned speech of stridently optimistic rhetoric, Corbyn’s performance is deeply moving. (At 29’46” here.)

Corbyn introduces the poem with reference to Mary Wollstonecraft, resident of Newington Green, her Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The connection Corbyn draws is political, befitting the occasion, but prefaced with the simple remark ‘you should never be afraid to say you love poetry’. This is perhaps in response to accusations from the philistine press of the sort that he would be better singing the national anthem or demonising immigrants than accepting a booking for an evening’s discussion with Ben Okri at the Royal Festival Hall.

There is also something implicit in this invocation of the traditions of English Romanticism. Beyond the immediate political exhortation and the Romantic contemporary context of Peterloo, the French Revolution, the counter-Enlightenment, and so on, there exists idealism, transcendence and living mythology. Symbolist critic G. Wilson Knight, commenting on Shelley’s Queen Mab, wrote, ‘The agonies of history with their paradisal goal ahead are seen in panorama, time being laid out flat beneath the Fairy’s dome’ (The Starlit Dome, 185). The temporal and the eternal meet in a panoptic symbol of communal responsibility. Corbyn’s Shelley is a vision of transcendent possibility in the political present.

The Last Wave

To ‘Pages of Hackney’ last month for a book launch. Pages is a great small independent bookshop I’d not visited before (it opened around the time I left London), with a lively programme of events and extensive second-hand department in the basement. The launch was held in the basement, where I found myself sat next to a display cabinet of pulp erotica. A couple of boxes of LPs were in another corner, and there was so much wine that bottles were stacked up the stairs.

The launch was for The Last Wave, the debut novel by Gillian Best. It centres on the life of Martha, told through the alternating first-person narratives of her family, neighbour, and Martha herself, jumping across time, non-chronologically, from her childhood, and resolving in a symbolic doubling involving her granddaughter.

The opening chapter is set towards the end of the story, boldly breaking the narrative arc by revealing the story’s trajectory, thus placing the novel’s emphasis on individual moments in a family’s life. As each chapter changes voices through the book, we are brought into lives which contain some joy and plenty of regret, and I had a better time with some members of the family than others. I was most won over by the granddaughter, Myrtle, whose combination of drive and wit optimistically counterbalanced the anxieties of adulthood.

The novel is weighted by what one might think of as hot topics for a newspaper: not just Alzheimer’s, but also cancer! Not just post-war sexual repression, but also twenty-first century lesbian coming out! But Best deals with delicate themes authoritatively, avoiding crassness, and with some subtly powerful detail, as in a quiet observation of death’s bureaucracy. When siblings Harriet and Iain are shown a catalogue of cremation urns, Harriet’s thoughts turn unexpectedly to the copy-writer: ‘I thought about the person who had had to write the copy for the brochure, to quietly and sombrely extol the virtues of a gold-plated urn over a simple and understated china white urn. […] It was absurd’ (283-84).

The sea, specifically the English Channel, provides a persistent backdrop for the book, whoever the narrator, and whatever the time-period. Martha derives spiritual strength from the sea, but this remains elusive to those around her, and the sea stops short of taking on the archetypal or transcendental status of a character itself. Yet the book begins with an archetypal image, introducing a terrifically tense opening chapter inside the mind of Martha’s husband. John reaches out for the absent Martha in their bed, her whereabouts unknown. This is a motif that goes back to the ancients: Menelaus does it to the absent Helen in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (424-5); more recently, Mr Ramsay does it in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (Time Passes §3). Best takes this image and embellishes it with items from the world she has created – the sand, the seabed – making it resonate freshly.

Madrid, myths, emotions

In October I presented a paper at the biennial myth conference at Universidad Complutense, Madrid: ‘Myth and Emotions’. This was my second visit (the first, in 2014, culminated in a chapter in the fine collection Myths in Crisis: The Crisis of Myth, which I covered below). It’s a big conference, from Monday to Friday with papers in Spanish, French, and English, and I wasn’t able to attend the whole week. When I arrived, part way through an afternoon session, my Englishness painfully apparent, the empty bowl of tea-bags was instantly replenished. That’s the sign of some devoted and thoughtful conference organising.

Detail of horse from Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica detail, 1937. Museo Reina Sofia

The Essex myth blog hosts an endearing report on the conference, and I wrote some preliminary remarks there, so here I’ll limit my comments to other matters. In 2014, I planned an afternoon away from the conference to see Guernica at the Reina Sofía museum (it was controversially relocated from the Prado a few years ago). It is, of course, an absorbing work; one detail that impressed me, seeing the painting in the room, was the care paid to the texture and shading of the horse’s teeth, and then the paint being allowed to run. This juxtaposition of painterly verisimilitude and deliberate carelessness creates a rupture: a small piece of artistic violence as a focus for the horror depicted throughout the canvas.

Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child (Prado)
Bernard van Orley, Mary and Child, 1515-1520. Museo del Prado

On this latest visit to Madrid, my gallery destination was, naturally, the Prado. With just a few hours, it is only possible to see a small fraction, hence it became a trip through the greatest hits, taking in Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Brueghel, The Triumph of Death, and whole rooms of Velázquez. I somehow managed to miss Titian entirely. These days I don’t get out much, and I could tell I was missing my family because some of the paintings moved me terribly: Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child, in which the Christ child tugs on a red rosary, symbolising his eventual crucifixion; the geographical scale and quotidian detail of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt credited to a follower of Joachim Patinir, which recalls the Shield of Achilles in scope; the small exhibition ‘Childhood unveiled: Images of children in Spanish Romantic art’ had some wonderfully, delightfully expressive young faces, especially the gentle care in Joaquín Espalter y Rull’s Manuel y Matilde Álvarez Amorós, and the playfulness of Carlos Luis de Ribera y Fieve’s Retrato de niña en un paisaje. But it was Velázquez’s The Coronation of the Virgin which made me shudder. For some reason, the paintings in the Prado made me particularly sensitive to the human emotion of the Christ narrative. Well, the title of the conference was Myth and Emotions, and here I was, profoundly affected by the great numinous tale of the common era. Happy Easter.

Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin (Prado)
Diego Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin, 1635-1636. Museo del Prado

Translating Myth Q&A

Last month, the Open University Classical Studies blog posted a Q&A about Translating Myth. Pietra Palazzolo, my co-editor (who works for the OU), and I answered a few questions about the book, its rationale, and the associated events at the Essex Centre for Myth Studies. If our fellow editor, Leon Burnett, seems enigmatically silent in the conversation, it is because he was spared the interrogation, but he nodded his assent. Many thanks to Emma Bridges for her questions and for hosting the interview.