Remaking Myths

I spent Thursday at the excellent Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century colloquium, which Dr Emma Bridges and colleagues had organised at the Open University in London. Coupled with a train journey there and back re-reading Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon (of which more below), this made for a wonderfully myth-haunted day.

I was at the colloquium to interview Amy McCauley about her disturbingly-brilliant Oedipa poems, but this also meant I got to attend the whole day. Across twelve half-hour slots, a mix of academics and practitioners explored some of the many ways in which ancient Greek and Roman myths are being used and reshaped in the arts today. Midway through the morning session the creative energy in the room was already crackling and it didn’t let up all day. Music, installation art, performance art, theatre, cinema, video games, novels and (not least) poetry.

The standard was consistently excellent and people had interpreted the day’s brief in refreshingly different ways. There isn’t space here to do justice to all of the talks, but Justine McConnell gave a fascinating paper on links between fukú — a concept somewhere between a curse and fate — and the myth of the house of Atreus in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, while novelist/academic Emily Hauser riffed brilliantly on Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad. Both papers left me eager to read the novels in question (as well as Hauser’s own For the Most Beautiful, which has been on my wishlist for some time).

David Bullen drew convincing parallels between two different “subversive advent” clusters in contemporary cinema and the Bacchae, bringing in films as diverse as Chocolat, Footloose, The Dark Knight and Skyfall. Artist Anna Parker talked us through her installation on the Hermaphroditus myth and prompted some of the widest-ranging questions of the day around sources, inspiration, materials and the creative process. I also enjoyed hearing academic and musician Malcolm Atkins talk about his work with dance group Avid for Ovid, accompanied by clips that showed how powerfully music and dance interpretations can transmit mythic material.

For me the stand-out talk of the day was Emma Cole on Jan Fabre’s Mount Olympus (also a clear winner for best session-title: “Twerking for Dionysus”). Fabre’s monumental 24-hour production — part play, part performance art — refashions a number of myth-cycles into an immersive piece of “post-dramatic” theatre that pushes the endurance of the performers and audience to the limit. This excellent talk focused on the Oresteia section of the work and left me once again feeling how intensely, thrillingly alien Greek tragedy really is to our twenty-first century minds — something that amplifies rather than lessens its ability to affect us. I was reminded of Francis Bacon’s distinction between paint that transmits itself “directly onto the nervous system” as opposed to by “a long diatribe via the brain”. During the Q&A Dr Cole admitted to a fascinating tension between her academic understanding of catharsis and the indescribable emotions she felt at the end of the 24-hour performance that touched on the popular (and technically vague) use of the term.

In poetry, Josephine Balmer read three sonnets from a recent sequence refashioning material from Virgil and Livy as part of a multi-layered response to bereavement. It was illuminating to see these reworkings alongside the classical originals, and Fiona Cox and Elena Theodorakopoulos counterpointed each reading with their own insights and responses to the poems.

I’ve admired Amy McCauley’s Oedipa poems ever since they first started appearing in magazines a couple of years ago. Transposing the Oedipus myth from ancient Thebes to contemporary Scarborough and regendering the protagonist, these dazzling, difficult poems are ferociously intelligent and radioactive with subtextual menace. The project now exists simultaneously in two versions: a poem-sequence and a verse play. Amy read the opening of the latter at the start of our session, weaving between and behind the audience like someone casting a spell (which, in some ways, is exactly what she was doing). It was a powerful performance and many people were visibly moved. After which it was my turn to come blundering in with questions about how the project originated.

It was a real privilege and hugely enjoyable to interview Amy about a work I’ve been curious about for so long. In the course of this Amy suggested that Oedipus rather than Orpheus is the true archetype of the poet in Greek myth (forever interrogating his own origins and identity, forced through blindness to exist in a world of sound) — an idea that resonated strongly with me for reasons I don’t yet properly understand.

It was clear from the Q&A that Oedipa was a serious hit with the audience: I only hope that someone will have the vision and judgment to publish it in book form before too long.

The day was a fantastic example of what contemporary academia can and should be — engaging, collaborative, deeply relevant. I’m very grateful to Emma Bridges and her colleagues for organising it, and for the opportunity to participate (especially knowing that they were turning good papers away because they had so many strong submissions).

It’s hard to think of a better companion for the journey there and back than Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon. This remarkable book engages with multiple aspects of the myth of Helen of Troy (“or Helen of Sparta, depending on your bias”) and the wider Trojan war, refracting competing ideas of Helen through a fractured prism of contemporary life. Ancient contexts become a modern hotel, street, chatshow —

Studio lights singe her chestnut plait of hair —

Today’s topic:
‘So your husband sacrificed your only daughter that he might win the
war for his brother’s wife’

At times the modern world is a place of dislocation, a linguistic analogue for the more disturbing kind of dreams that exist just-to-the-side of reality:

In her wine-coloured suit
and burgundy shoes
she asks the night manager
to make a reverse call
and he is struck
by her poise

In her hand
the receiver becomes        some object
.              cut loose

(That “wine-coloured” so resonant of — and so distant from — Homer’s wine-dark sea.)

Elsewhere the threat is more politically concrete, as in the near-perfect opening to section xxxv:

Tiresias, in all matters sacred you are ever-present
         as the eunuch in rites of fertility
virile only in speech
you cut a waifish glance
at the cameras
escorted before the Assembly
to receive due punishment

demoted with dishonour        you announce
your intention to live
as a woman in prison
how fitting        to be turned out of the world of men

the andron shuts in
.             its flash of medals

Eidolon has a complex, multidimensional relationship with the preceding millennia-long reception of the Helen myth. A fascinating essay at the end of the book gives us an insight into some elements of Parmar’s approach to the project (although it’s hard to shake the sense that this apparently-objective piece of textual apparatus is actually an extension of the creative text). Elsewhere, the poems directly tackle earlier poets’ treatment of the myth, including the legend that Stesichoros (he of Autobiography of Red fame) was struck blind by the now-divine Helen for libelling her:

.                                Stesichoros blinded
for watching her
cross the street
outside and into
the car, horn blaring

Eidolon is a magnificent book — one of the most profound, challenging, intelligent works of poetry I’ve read all year. It’s impossible to do justice in a couple of paragraphs but I feel compelled to recommend it to anyone who’ll listen. Earlier this year Sandeep Parmar gave a joint reading with Cathy Linh Che as part of Robert Peake’s Transatlantic Poetry series where you can listen to extracts from Eidolon, and which gives a much better sense of the work than anything I can say here.

By the time I got home my head was full of myth in all its nuances and transformations. At a time when large parts of our public discourse seem to have suddenly, wilfully and dangerously forgotten how to think, it was life-affirming to be reminded of how much engaging, necessary, excellent work is still being done. Thursday was a good day.

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