COULD WITCHCRAFT (a.k.a. willed attention) BUILD A NEW WORLD?

Featured

Predictions are risky, but sometimes we feel they have to be made.

That’s how I felt after rereading Madeline Miller’s wonderful recent novel, based on her deep knowledge of Greek mythology (NY: Little, Brown & Co., 2018). Circe has already been praised as a fascinating page-turner, but an attending metaphysician might see it as a corrective potion for women and all others who fear they are powerless to affect the future.

Miller endows the witch Circe, a character in Homer’s Odyssey, with an intimately candid voice, and observational powers that could resonate with the consciousness of many women today, especially those inspired by the #MeToo movement. Considered ugly by her mother and stupid by her siblings, Circe was mocked and unloved among the minor deities. She craved the approval and attention of her father, the Titan sun-god Helios—whose leadership of the Greek pantheon has been sidelined, but not entirely crushed, by Zeus and the Olympian gods—but she is ignored. Until she schools herself in sorcery.

When their fellow Titan, Prometheus, is brought to Helios’ castle to be tortured for the crime of showing mortals how to use fire, Circe stays behind, offering him a drink of nectar–which he accepts–to comfort him before he is dragged away to suffer eternal torments. Though nearly powerless among the gods, she seizes this chance to show mercy, an act of tremendous courage for which she could have been killed if anyone noticed. Without experiences such as this, Circe confesses, she might never have broken away from thousands of years of “dull miseries” (13).

Her voice is raspy like a human but her eyes glint like gold, so she is named Circe, or hawk. Miller has her narrate this myth-soaked fiction with the authority of one who calls out her own foolishness and ignorance. With a raptor’s hawk eyes she perceives the destructive pride of legendary heroes and immortals. As for the seeming truce between Titans and Olympians, she warns: “Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two” (16).   She describes her life up to the episode with Prometheus as having been “murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it” (24). – Ah, the pull of individual initiative. Any relevance to current mortals?  Do ancient myths of Titans and Olympians have anything to teach us about national leaders?

Circe’s brother openly described himself as a pharmakis, or sorceror/witch, and was not punished but given his own kingdom (Colchis, birthplace of his daughter, the witch Medea, of child-murdering fame), because he’d told his father that his powers had come to him by accident, that he had not worked for them. When Circe asked him to teach her, he refused. “Sorcery cannot be taught,” he told her. “You find it yourself, or you do not” (69). He also noted that “pharmakeia is not bound by the usual limits of gods” (70)—that is, it is accessible to mortals as well. In Miller’s version of Circe’s world, witchcraft consists first in the patient, trial-and-error study of plants and herbs for the properties that can heal or strengthen the abilities of humans. But foremost, the most decisive component is a strong, focused, determined will.

But unbridled will, especially for revenge, can have terrible consequences.

Unfortunately, as she is developing her craft, Circe falls in love with a mortal, Glaucon, and uses potions to turn him into a god so that she might have an immortal companion. But as soon as he becomes a god his attention turns to another nymph, more beautiful but entirely selfish and uncaring—Scylla. Furious at Glaucon for this betrayal, Circe transforms Scylla into a multi-headed, man-eating sea monster. Thereafter her witch’s conscience is burdened by the weight of knowing that her magic causes the horrific deaths of untold numbers of innocent seafarers. Her brother tells her to choose better after Glaucon, that she has “always trusted too easily” (76).

The shocking transformation of Scylla threatens the rule of Zeus, who insists that Circe be exiled and live alone. Helios obliges by sending her to Aiaia, a magical island in Titan territory.  There she occupies a spacious mansion whose floors, dishes and laundry emerge clean each day by magic, and stores of food and wine are constantly replenished. She realizes that in carrying out this punishment, her father Helios has, despite Zeus’s order, equipped his daughter to rise in exile “higher than before” (80).

How many women find themselves in a much less exalted exile, where they must find their own lodging, clean everything, prepare food, and build not only a life but an identity? Circe’s first night alone is an epiphany in itself, where she realizes how many things she feared. Just being able to survive until the next morning, she is aware that “the worst of [her] cowardice had been sweated out,” and decides not to become like a bird bred in a cage, “too dull to fly even when the door stands open” (81). Similar to many mortals in other circumstances who have to push through their own ignorance, Circe explains:

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands. (83)

Even after she has learned which plant have what properties, nothing goes right unless she pays full attention, and gives her best energy to it. What is it about attention, we ask, that it alone empowers someone who lacks sufficient divine power? Whatever that is, even a lowly, rejected, isolated and basically ignorant woman has it.  By rights, Circe should never have come to witchcraft, because all the gods “hate toil, and are spared all forms of drudgery due to their power,” and witchcraft is “nothing but drudgery.” “Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again” (83)     — So why bother, unless you happen to be human? Circe’s answer:

For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who loved me a little did not care to stay. Then I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands. I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt. (84)

Through her many years of solitude and loneliness, her island is visited by various types of desperate men—some honestly shipwrecked, whom she helps; others led by cunning, cruel leaders who eat her food, drink her wine, and, seeing she has no man to protect her, are ready to rape and even kill her if she resists. Ring any #MeToo bells?  So she develops a potion to add to their wine that turns them into pigs. Too bad some of us mortals can’t do the same, except by identifying them as such.

When the famous warrior Odysseus shows up at her door, abandoned by his patron goddess, Athena, he is the first man who really listens to her, and becomes the closest thing Circe has known to a friend and lover. Except that he is married to the loyal Penelope, and intends to return to her and to Ithaca, the island where he is heir to the throne. Odysseus entertains her with stories of the Trojan War, its heroes and losers, and his keen understanding of his men and their weaknesses—knowledge as important as awareness of their strengths. He is honest about his own treachery, lies, and betrayals–promising to spare a captured spy, and killing him after he’d divulged all his valuable secrets–sneaking into a rival army’s camp and slitting the sleeping soldiers’ throats.

Circe’s experience seems comparable to that of so many women who learn from men the complexities of warfare, the brutality of which that destroys all purity of honor and heroism. Odysseus’s tales confirm to Circe that there are no glories in war, especially when men serve the egos of gods and goddesses in competition for glory.

The great god Apollo appears to Circe before Odysseus leaves, forcing her to be silent as he gives her a vision of Odysseus at the entrance to the underworld, where he faces the blind prophet Tiresias and the spirits of Achilles, Ajax, Hector and other warriors he’s seen die on the battlefield. Rather than feel honored by this vision from Apollo, Circe is enraged and humiliated: “I wanted to tear him with my nails. The gods and their incomprehensible rules.  Always there was a reason you must kneel. …How many times would I have to learn? Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. …at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished” (230).

The gods she resents, evidently, are those who interfere with others’ lives, denying powers of choice and personal agency.  We don’t see them as gods these days, but aren’t powerful interests still imposing their own rules on our lives?  What kind of powers can we muster to  break free of them?

Before Odysseus leaves, Circe gives him instructions and potions that will protect and enable him to meet with Tiresias and return to Ithaca. She does not know yet that she is pregnant by him.  When it is time to give birth, she feels the gods are preventing her child from being born, so she cuts herself open and pulls the infant out screaming.  When it is clear the boy will survive, the great goddess Athena appears, commanding Circe to give up the child, without explaining why she intends to kill him.  Although Athena offers to give Circe another man who will give her another son, plus her eternal favor and protection, Circe refuses, thinking to herself (and us): “Athena had no babe, and she never would.  Her only love was reason.  And that has never been the same as wisdom.”

Athena belittles Circe’s “weeds and little divinity,” and vows to take her son in the end. It is very moving that after Athena leaves Circe alone with her infant son, the witch calls out into the empty air: “You do not know what I can do” (251). It is one of the great messages of Miller’s novel.  What Circe cries out is more for herself than for Athena’s ears.  She has to assure herself–and us–that the powers that try to control us for selfish ends should never underestimate our determination to protect those we love.  The will, driven by love, is stronger than others’ lust for power and fame. …It’s just that we need to overcome self-doubt, and do not ourselves know how much we can do.

When Telegonus is15 Circe tells him about his father, and from then on all he dreams about is sailing alone to Ithaca to find Odysseus. Rightly terrified that he will be killed by Athena, Circe is so determined not to lose her son that she descends into the darkest depths of the sea to challenge Trygon, the ancient creator-god, to lend her the use of his poisonous tail, known to be capable of killing a human with the slightest contact, and of making a god suffer unending pain. No gods had ever succeeded in borrowing Trygon’s tail.  Circe’s brother tried, but had not been up to it.

In a breathtaking encounter with this ancient creator-god, Circe hears that the price for using Trygon’s tail is an eternity for her of physical suffering.  Despite her overwhelming fear, she focuses her mind on the image of her son’s bright, innocent, hopeful face, and extends her hand to accept the penalty.  I urge everyone to read this thrilling scene, but I almost laughed when Circe hesitates, wondering if she is being played a trick, and Trygon has to insist that she cut off his tail, and dismisses her fear that it could lead to war between the Titans and Olympians!  He has to remind her that she’d come all that way to demand this favor!  As Circe reluctantly begins to cut off the deadly tail, she thinks to herself–even realizing that she will survive this ordeal–that she cannot bear this world for another moment.  The primordial god hears her thought, and replies, Then, Child, make another.  (282)

What can we make of this modern twist on ancient Greek mythology?  Miller, not Homer, creates this dialogue between Trygon and Circe.  The ancient world would not have given a female immortal such a vote of confidence to go forth and make a better world.  But today we have a woman author with knowledge of the classics,  who writes about a witch goddess who would rather be a mortal woman.  Most readers of this novel can relate all too easily to the drudgery, loneliness, numberless failures and mistakes–including being raped–that Circe undergoes to acquire her skills. Even today, the term witch bears the burden of disapproval and exile.  Miller’s contemporary personification of Circe has the will, and hears the command of a much more ancient and powerful god, to make a new world. That’s what a new mythology might be able to accomplish, if we only paid attention, and applied our will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THANKFUL FOR MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S LILA

Featured

A week before Thanksgiving the National Book Award winners were announced. Previously I’d paid little attention to this event. Then I heard that Marilynne Robinson was being nominated for the year’s best work of fiction—her third nomination. So I was hoping the third time would be a charm. Sadly, Robinson was passed over again for an award she richly deserved. As luck or topicality would have it, the award went to a collection of short stories by a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No disrespect to this year’s winner, but it goes to show that there should be no winners or losers in the realm of great writing. In my view, Robinson’s work goes beyond the scope of a National Book Award. Hers is Nobel Prize material.

I’d no idea of Marilynne Robinson when I bought a copy of Gilead in 2005. The title caught my eye. I wondered whether it referred somehow to the mysterious balm of Gilead mentioned in the Bible. Instead I was entranced by the voice of a country preacher, 77, with heart disease, writing a long letter to his seven-year-old son who would not grow up knowing him. This old man, Rev. Ames, had fallen in love with the boy’s mother when she appeared one rainy Sunday at the back of his small church. Here was the kind of literary figure considered impossible to make interesting: a sincerely good man. Even worse in terms of narrative challenge, he was a man of the cloth, with no checkered past, no addiction to booze, no action-packed city or frontier life to pepper the plot. Except that as a young man he’d lost his wife and son in childbirth and we find him after he’s spent 40-odd years a lonely widower. Ironically, his best friend, whom he has tried mightily—and at a crucial moment fails—not to envy, is a fellow preacher with a loving wife and eight children.

The most inspiring moment for me is when Ames tells his son how he fell in love with the boy’s mother, his much younger wife, who had stepped into his church simply to get out of the rain. She was a total stranger, and he didn’t even know if she was married. He admits that he flushed shamefully, lost track of what his sermon was about, and was only too well aware that he was doing everything in his power to hold this woman’s interest. If there is anything greater in modern literature about the mystery of love and the surrender of all pretense and dignity to the gaze of the beloved, I haven’t seen it. I wasn’t surprised when Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize for that novel.

Then came Home, set in the same place and time, but told from the perspective of a peripheral character in Gilead. This inimitable character is the youngest daughter of Rev. Boughton, Rev. Ames’ best friend, who—unlike her father—never passed judgment on her beloved youngest brother, Jack, the alcoholic black sheep of the family and godson of Rev. Ames.

Jack Boughton is a different kind of prodigal son. He comes home to the little town of Gilead no longer young, only to find that his father is frail and dying, and his godfather likewise. He’d been hoping to ask Rev. Ames to marry him and his common-law African American wife, whom he’d met after completing a ten-year prison sentence for a crime he had no memory of—perhaps it happened during a drunken black-out. He’d dared to hope that his wife and child might be accepted there, since the state, unlike its neighbors, had no anti-miscegenation laws. But he quickly finds that the community still holds him in deep suspicion, that his father cannot understand why the colored people have to riot in Birmingham and elsewhere (this is the fifties). And while he is there he gets a letter from the woman he loves, that seems to say she has succumbed to the wishes of her father—also a clergyman—to marry a black man who has promised to adopt the child she conceived with Jack.

Both Jack and Rev. Ames’ wife are present when the two old preachers discuss the topic of greatest torment to Jack: the religious doctrine of predestination—whether or not a person is doomed from birth to be destined for hell, no matter how mixed his or her life is with both selfish and goodhearted acts and intentions. The same conversation occurs in both Gilead and Home, and in both cases it is Mrs. Ames who ends it by declaring, “People can change.” In each case her words come as a shock, because she is a person of few words. All they know is that she arrived out of nowhere and that Rev. Ames loves her and respects her completely. If anything, she and Jack are almost equal in their isolation and outsider status. In fact, the only time we hear her name is when Jack says, “Thank you, Lila,” after she utters that resounding truth.

The high point of Home for me is the awkward, soulful talk Jack finally manages to have with Rev. Ames, when his godfather, who has long judged him as a disgrace to his family and his own name (he was baptized John Ames Boughton), sees that his seemingly ne’er-do-well namesake is actually a good man. He has given his whole heart to a good woman who loved him and bore him a son, whom he won’t be able to marry given the prejudice of society.  They both have sons who will grow up not knowing them.  Ames’ bitter disappointment in his godson is washed away in a flood of compassion and regret that he won’t live long enough to help Jack reconstitute his family. In that regard there will be no balm for them in Gilead. But there may be some when the reader pieces together the possibility that Jack was not doomed by God, but by the judgments of his own family and the secretly animosity of the man chosen to be his godfather. No wonder Rev. Ames longs to rechristen Jack as he leaves Gilead for a life of exile.

Lila is a novel written from Rev. Ames’ second wife’s point of view, and it is a masterpiece.

Why? Hard to say without sounding superficial. You see, this Lila is about as homeless as a person can be. She doesn’t know her real name, first or last. As a child she was stolen away from her natural family by a homeless woman called Doll who’d survived a near-fatal knife fight with a man. Doll may have done some housework for the girl’s family, or simply noticed that they had a daughter who’d been allowed to starve, whose legs were too spindly to walk on. Doll, by kidnapping her, saved the girl’s life, pulling her out from under the table where she slept in rags, carrying her away one night.

Over several years Doll had protected this girl, naming her Lila after the deceased aunt of a lady who’d let them stay with her while Doll nursed the child to passable health. Eventually they joined a small group of migrant workers, making their own campsites and sleeping out in the open or staying in occasional work camps, picking up whatever farming or other jobs they could find. For almost a year Doll took a job cleaning house so Lila could attend school and learn to read. With Doll and the others Lila learned the dignity of solitude, hard work, honesty, and not to trust anyone. In time the group disbanded, Doll got into another knife fight and this time killed her attacker, was badly cut herself, and probably went off somewhere to die. Lila was sent to work in St. Louis, unaware that the job was in a house of prostitution. It was after she’d left that place and went on the road by herself that she passed by the town of Gilead and stepped into Rev. Ames’ church to get out of the rain. She has no religion, no understanding of why people bother to go to church, and cannot understand why this kind old man (she does recognize that he is kind) would think twice about her.

What a love story.  She can’t believe or trust Rev. Ames’ love, and wishes she could be free of her love for him. They can hardly talk to one another. Lila carries an ocean of sorrow and untold indignity and destitution within her. Yet she has built a ship of self-reliance and inner dignity on which to navigate it.  She gives honest work for fair wages–cash or food–and when she feels overpaid out of charity she finds a way to work extra, unpaid. She catches her own fish and guts them with the knife she inherited from Doll.  She washes her body and her clothes in streams. There is deep beauty in how she sees things. I’ll offer just one quote:

She liked to do her wash. Sometimes fish rose for the bubbles. The smell of the soap was a little sharp, like the smell of the river. In that water you could rinse things clean. It might be a little brown after a good rain, soil from the fields, but the silt washed away or settled out. Her shirts and her dress looked to her like creatures that never wanted to be born, the way they wilted into themselves, sinking under the water as if they only wanted to be left there, maybe to find some deeper, darker pool. And when she lifted them out, held them up by their shoulders, they looked like pure weariness and regret. Like her own flayed skin. But when she hung them over a line and let the water run out, and the sun and the wind dry them, they began to seem like things that could live.  (p. 60)

Lila had been taught to walk past shop windows in towns, not to look inside, because Doll had told her not to want what she couldn’t have. She hated charity, and people’s pity. What she liked best about Rev. Ames was that he was well acquainted with loneliness. It was something they could share. Barely able to read, her vocabulary is modest, and she has to ask Ames what he means by “existence.” She quickly understands that it is something she knows from the ground up.

I could go on, but words are failing. Read Lila. It’ll give you a whole new dimension of the art of paying attention.