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

Myths in Crisis

Myths in Crisis coverI have a chapter in Myths in Crisis: The Crisis of Myth, a new collection edited by José Manuel Losada and Antonella Lipscomb. Prof. Losada embodies the highly energetic centre of mythic activities in Madrid, which include a biennial conference, Amaltea, an open-access journal of myth criticism, and the ongoing work of Asteria: International Association of Myth Criticism. The book, Myths in Crisis, like the journal, conference, and websites, is trilingual – Spanish, French and English.

The book contains an impressive array of work on the presence of myth since 1900. As I understand the double crises of the title, the book addresses both the declining status of the mythical in contemporary life, and – where myth is found – its utilization as a colourful garnish, stripped of substance.

My chapter is called ‘Poetic Re-enchantment in an Age of Crisis: Mortal and Divine Worlds in the Poetry of Alice Oswald’, and looks in particular at Oswald’s collections Dart and Memorial. Oswald seems to me to be at the confluence of poetic concerns with classical mythology and with ecology, so she fits the theme perfectly. Some people I spoke to were put off by the ready populism of her verse, but I’m quite taken by the spare and lucid renderings of lines from Homer’s Iliad in Memorial. Compare these versions of the great, astral epic simile which concludes Iliad VIII.

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφὶ σελήνην
φαίνετ᾽ ἀριπρεπέα, ὅτε τ᾽ ἔπλετο νήνεμος αἰθήρ:
ἔκ τ᾽ ἔφανεν πᾶσαι σκοπιαὶ καὶ πρώονες ἄκροι
καὶ νάπαι: οὐρανόθεν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπερράγη ἄσπετος αἰθήρ,
πάντα δὲ εἴδεται ἄστρα, γέγηθε δέ τε φρένα ποιμήν:
τόσσα μεσηγὺ νεῶν ἠδὲ Ξάνθοιο ῥοάων
Τρώων καιόντων πυρὰ φαίνετο Ἰλιόθι πρό.
χίλι᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐν πεδίῳ πυρὰ καίετο, πὰρ δὲ ἑκάστῳ
εἴατο πεντήκοντα σέλᾳ πυρὸς αἰθομένοιο.
ἵπποι δὲ κρῖ λευκὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι καὶ ὀλύρας
ἑσταότες παρ᾽ ὄχεσφιν ἐΰθρονον Ἠῶ μίμνον.

Chapman (viii. 486-497) translates: The Trojans sat,

And spent all night in open field. Fires round about them shinde.
As when about the silver Moone, when aire is free from winde
And stars shine cleare, to whose sweete beames high prospects and the brows
Of all steepe hils and pinnacles thrust up themselves for showes
And even lowly vallies joy to glitter in the their sight,
When the unmeasur’d firmament bursts to disclose her light
And all the signes in heaven are seene that glad the shepheard’s hart;
So many fires disclosde their beames, made by the Troyan part,
Before the face of Ilion and her bright turrets show’d.
Fiftie stout men, by whom their horse eate oates and hard white corne,
And all did wishfully expect the silver-throned morne.

Oswald (Memorial, 65):

Like little campfire stars lit round the moon
No wind at all
Under an upturned glass of air
Exact black rocks show clear
And the world simplifies into cliffs and clefts
On nights like this
Light is unspeakable it is breaking out of heaven
And every star openly admits to god
Making the shepherd glad.

Chapman’s Homer is unassailable, but where translators often euphemize the Greek aspetos as ‘unmeasured’, ‘endless’, or ‘boundless’, Oswald opts for the dictionary form, unmediated: ‘unspeakable’, ‘unutterable’ (the dictionary being the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon). The decision to forego poetic licence invigorates Homer’s language in English and conveys the terrible awe of the numinous.