Perspective(s) and Premodern Monstrosity

We have seen this semester that, in simple terms, monstrosity lies in the eye of the beholder, and one group’s monster is another group’s beloved master (or family member, etc.).  A number of scholars over the years have considered this issue of perspective, including the influential critic Umberto Eco, whose late work ‘On Ugliness’ explores the monstrous things that repel us. Eco examines what the attraction (and repulsion) is to the gruesome and the horrific, and asks:  is ugliness also found in the eye of the beholder?  With such ideas in mind, for the first part of your Blogpost I’d like you to address in broad terms the ways in which monstrosity is, in essence, “in the eye of the beholder” as it pertains to one of our recent creatures.  I would prefer that you address one of Shakespeare’s characters in ‘The Tempest’ for this part, but if you want to consider the impact/influence of perspective on an ancient or medieval monster studied before spring break that would also be OK.

The second part of your Blog is related, but will be a bit more narrow and specific in its focus.  In his novel ‘The Counterlife’, renowned American author Philip Roth (speaking through the perspective of the writer who is the central character in the book) writes that “The treacherous imagination is everybody’s maker – we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other’s authors.”  What Roth is subtly getting at in this passage is the fact that we all construct our own reality, and we all perceive the world as we will, serving as the “author” of the truths around us.  For class this Thursday, you will be reading excerpts from John Gardner’s masterful novel ‘Grendel,’ which tells the well-known ‘Beowulf’ story from the perspective of the monster. Next week, you will be writing a longer account where you explore and consider the point-of-view of a specific monster, so as a kind of practice for this kind of thinking – and also to fuel some preliminary thoughts about monstrosity and perspective that we can consider in class Thursday – I’d like you to consider how the view of a particular monster changes if he/she is seen from a different perspective – from the point-of-view of another character or person from his/her world, or through the vision of him/her themselves.  Lately, we have considered this in the form of the ancient Greek Idylls that offer us the view of Polyphemus the cyclops, and you will obviously be exploring Grendel for class today.  So, I’d like you to pick another monster that we have studied of late, and offer some insights about what they might say if they (or someone else from their world) got to tell their story, about how their understanding of certain actions and “realities” would differ from those around them.  Feel free to be creative here, if you wish.

Ancient/Medieval Monstrosity and the “Act of Fear”

In Michael Chemers’ brief account of the “act of fear” (found on pp. 10-13 of the Introduction to ‘The Monster in Theatre History’), he mentions the scientific view that fear is “a neurobiological response to certain stimuli” and then goes on to note that “not only what we fear but also how we conceive and define what we fear” varies from time to time, place to place, and person to person.  For the first section of your blogpost, I’d like you to quote something interesting that Chemers says about “the act of fear” as it pertains to literature, and apply this quotation to one of the monstrous characters and stories from ancient Greece and medieval Europe assigned for class this week. Elaborating on your thoughts, you might consider:  How does Chemers’ idea about fear connect up to the story in question?  And in this story, which character is afraid, what are they afraid of, and how does it impact their behavior? Furthermore, what does this representation of fear suggest about the writer or society that spawned this particular story?

In recent class discussions we have mentioned several times that Unit Two will simultaneously move us forward into the realm of imaginary monsters, but also backward in that we will make frequent connections between our make-believe creatures and the various historical ideas and “real life” monsters we examined in Unit One.  So, for some early practice using this kind of thinking, in the second section of your blogpost I want you to connect an imaginary monster assigned for this week with a specific “real life” figure or idea from our studies of these periods during Unit One.  In other words, what are some of the links you can identify between the creative and historical monsters of the ancient and medieval worlds, and what larger ideas or issues can we discover through these connections?

Myth-Making and Fantasy in (Post)Modern Film

Since the earliest years of the cinema, fantasy has been one of the most common filmic modes — and it is no coincidence that many (or indeed most) fantasy films feature significant elements of myth and/or tragedy.  For your final Blogpost of the semester, you have three options: 1) Returning your attentions to the early days of the cinema in America, pick another popular and influential film from, say, sometime before 1970.  Much like with have done with the ‘Wizard of Oz’, I’d like you to consider:  just how does the film fit with some of the key archetypes or heroic adventures we have seen so far this semester? What are the “mythological” elements of your chosen film, how does it fit with the monomyth, and what lessons does it teach?  Be specific and detailed in explaining your answer.  2)  In the wake of our fun-filled screening on Friday of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, it would be interesting to hear some more words on the mythological (or tragic) elements, characters, or themes of George Lucas’s influential film.  However, given that we spent our time on Friday with the original ‘Star Wars’ film, it might also be especially interesting to see you address some of the ideas, heroes, or magical symbols in one of the other ‘Star Wars’ films that we did NOT watch in class.  Alternately, you could do something similar with the ‘Star Trek’ series if that interests you.  3) Finally, what do you make of the myth-making in J.R.R. Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and/or the Harry Potter franchise?  Since it is your final Blog of the semester, I have deliberately left this prompt a little bit open-ended, but I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts on some of the most famous (cinematic) “myths” created in the (post)modern world!

Folklore, Fairy Tales, and Film in Early America

In recent classes, we have been examining fairy tales from the European tradition.  Now, we are moving into folklore and “myths” from our own country of America, and getting closer and closer to our own day and age.  Historically, there are countless “tall tales” from far and wide in the fledgling United States, and the folktales of our land are simultaneously exceptional and unusual while also being discernibly connected to prior tales and traditions.  America is also home to Hollywood, which established new legends and myths during the rise of the cinema in the early twentieth century.  To examine these uniquely American developments, you have two options for this Blogpost:  1)  In response to the stories assigned for Monday (11/13), you should identify and choose a significant theme, idea, or image from a specific tale that you find to be particularly intriguing as a window into the beliefs, behaviors, politics, or social developments of early America.  Then, I’d like you to do a little research into the historical time period in question and the issue in question as it relates to that age.  Next, move on to examine the issue as it appears thematically in the story and offer a brief interpretive analysis of just what the author seems to be doing by way of rendering that issue for the reader in this tale.  As it relates to your chosen social subject, just what is the “moral of the story”?  2)  The second option for this response is intended for all you movie lovers out there.  On Wednesday (the 15th) we will be discussing one of the most famous movies of all time:  The Wizard of Oz.  In the story of Dorothy, this film may offer a new kind of hero for a new age.  On the other hand, Dorothy is simultaneously a hero of old, with traits that are kindred to those of the great heroes of ancient myth, such as Odysseus, Aeneas, and so on.  With this in mind, your second option is to consider how, specifically, The Wizard of Oz connects with some of the key archetypes, traits, behaviors, or heroic adventures we have seen so far this semester? What kind of hero is Dorothy, exactly?  How is her story similar to – or different than – the myths of old?

On Violence, War, and Peace in Sophocles and Homer

The significance and influence of the works of Homer and Sophocles cannot be overstated, and there is no doubt that the ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Oedipus Rex’ are both masterpieces of world literature.  These texts are crucially important examples of Greek mythological writing, but are also highly interesting when seen as political documents of a kind, texts about war and peace, kingship, imperialism, xenophobic hatred, and so on. Although the violent conflicts depicted in these works are fictional, they may well have been inspired by the real-life fighting that was persistent among the city-states of Greece.  Therefore, in this Blogpost, I want you to think about the ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Oedipus Rex’ not strictly as a mythological texts but as political documents, as creative acts that negotiate the day’s crises of power and authority.  To do so, I want you to address a particular war-oriented theme – such as violence, hatred, justice, mercy, authority, surrender, and negotiation – and examine that theme as presented in a particular speech or passage from the ‘Odyssey’.  Then, I’d like you to do the same with regards to the political content in a vital moment from ‘Oedipus Rex’.  In your discussion, you might bring the two texts into conversation and, at minimum, should identify the central issue(s) of your chosen lines, and detail the challenges and logic of the characters regarding the subject.  You should also feel free to offer some thoughts about what YOU think about the topic within the context of these stories (if not the culture of Greece more generally).

The Epic Gilgamesh vs. the Myth(s) of Hesiod

The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely recognized as being, perhaps, the earliest masterpiece of world literature.  Hesiod, who wrote his Theogony hundreds if not thousands of years later, is widely credited with helping to establish the immensely influential tradition of Greek mythical writing.  One of these is an anonymous text carved onto clay tablets using cuneiform script, while the other is often seen as amongst the earliest examples of alphabetic literary writing.  One of these works was mostly hidden from view for over a millennium and is from the ancient, mysterious, and often undervalued society of Mesopotamia; the other comes from the later, well-documented, and widely praised culture of Greece.  Yet despite tremendous differences of time, place, subject matter, and textual form, there are some remarkable similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Theogony, not to mention some telling differences.  Thus, I’m interested in seeing what might happen if we bring these ostensibly distant and divergent works together in very precise ways.  In particular, what might get revealed about the differences between early “epic” and “myth” by comparing, for example, the trials and tribulations faced by Gilgamesh with Hesiod’s tales of his favorite god Zeus?  To see what might come out of a focused exploration of these two monumentally important work, please pick two characters (one from each text) and compare/contrast them.  What does this interaction suggest about the characters themselves, and more importantly, about key elements of each masterpiece (if not their respective societies)?  What does your comparison reveal about the two works, and the two different types of work in question (i.e. epic vs. myth) ??

Tragedy, the Monomyth, and Stories of Creation/Destruction

This week, we are working to lay important intellectual foundations for our class by introducing the classical theories of Aristotle (on the subject of tragedy) and the recent scholarship of Joseph Campbell (on the “monomyth” and the mythical hero).  To more fully comprehend the theories in question and the first mythical stories on the syllabus – myths of creation and flood/apocalypse stories from the ancient world – I want see how you can tie them together in a very specific way.  You have two options for this exploration.  1)  In the first case, you may apply specific ideas from Aristotle’s theories of tragedy to a specific myth (assigned for Wednesday) of your choosing.  I was particularly thinking that it would be interesting to see how the plot of your chosen tale fits certain “tragic” modes (such as leading toward a “catharsis”), or to consider how the characters fit Aristotle’s ideals – especially of the “tragic hero.”  2)  On the other hand, you might work with and through key ideas from Campbell’s influential scholarship.  If, for example, you would like to explore the notion of a “monomyth,” you might compare/contrast the similarities between several of the creation tales.  Alternately, it might be interesting to think about how a given story depicts the stages of the hero’s journey according to Campbell’s terms (i.e. separation, initiation, return).   For this first Blog post of the semester, it’s all about applied critical thinking – and it will be interesting to see what kinds of intellectual connections you can make by utilizing the ideas of Aristotle or Campbell.

Observations on Ovid

In the Art of Love, Ovid writes that “He who has enjoyed kisses, if he does not also enjoy other things, deserves to lose even those that were given to him.”  This whimsical line perfectly embodies much of Ovid’s verse:  playful and provocative to the very core.  Ovid was willfully suggestive in his writing, and he found himself in “hot water” in his own lifetime, as he was exiled from Rome in part (it seems) because of the controversial nature of his (often satirical and sexually-oriented) verse.  No one can be sure what happened to him after his death, but the great medieval poet Dante places Ovid in Limbo in his Divine Comedy, found in the first circle of hell in a “splendid school” of writers who lived before Christianity and thus cannot ascend to heaven.  But one might well wonder whether Ovid would have been divinely blessed had he been born at a later date, given the controversy and tumult he seemed to create/invite during his own day and age.  Bearing in mind the mixed reactions that have greeted Ovid for thousands of years, in this post I want you to offer your own two cents’ worth about this important and influential poet, a writer far more controversial than any others we have considered in Unit One.  What is YOUR impression of Ovid as a writer?  More to the point, how does he fit the overall arc of our study thus far in class?  In what ways do his works serve to continue and further cultivate key ideas and approaches to mythological writing that we have seen over the first few weeks?  On the other hand (and perhaps more importantly), what marks him as an author who is doing something different, something that pushes the very bounds of mythical writing and takes this generic type in new and fresh directions?  When answering such questions, it would be useful if you cited lines from his writing in order to illustrate and support your over-arching perspectives on the writer whose full name was Publius Ovidius Naso.

War & Peace in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ (version 2.0)

The importance and influence of Homer’s works to Greek culture and history simply cannot be overstated.  He has been labeled the “teacher of Greece” and he was widely lauded in his own day, as he continues to be in our day and age.  Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ is a monument of world literature, and it is a vitally important example of Greek mythological writing.  It is also fascinating as a kind of political document, a manifesto about war and peace, imperialism, violence, hatred, and so on. Although the Trojan War was an imaginary  conflict, its depiction by Homer (in both the ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Iliad’) is vivid and harrowing, and this may be because, depending on when Homer was really writing, the horrors of war might have been all-too-real in a land where civil strife and conflict amongst city-states were common.  With this possibility in mind, I want you to think about the ‘Odyssey’ not strictly as a mythological text but as a kind of political document, a creative act that negotiates the day’s crises of power and authority.  Hence, I would like for you to explore something related to war and peace as depicted by Homer and articulated through his many character dialogues and speeches.  Specifically, I want you to address a particular war-oriented theme – such as violence, hatred, justice, mercy, authority, violence, surrender, and negotiation – and examine that theme as presented in a particular passage from the ‘Odyssey.’  Pick a quotation or two from the text and then discuss it in terms of its political content.  In your discussion you should identify the central issue of your chosen lines, and detail the challenges and logic of characters concerning the subject; then, you must offer some thoughts on what YOU think about the topic within the context of the story (if not the culture of Greece more generally).  To borrow from one translation of the opening lines of the text:  “Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.”  Tell ME, fair students, about the trials and tribulations of this hero, and tell US what you think the text has to say about war and peace in the context of Greek myth (and/or Greek society).  I shall be curious to see where the “muse” takes you in this response!

On Mythological Tricksters, Warriors, and Lovers

For our final Blog post for Unit One, I want you to run with one of three broad options, which are inspired by the content of our latest readings.  Specifically, you may consider and respond to the following:

1)  The very first line of Virgil’s Aeneid gets right down to the heart of the matter.  In my translation, the famous line reads, simply, “This is a tale of arms and of a man.”  In other words, the story of Aeneas is a story about a man at war, a warrior-hero who will fight bravely and who will be, in essence, defined by his valor and prowess on the battlefield.  Hence, I’m interested in seeing what you can do here to address the war-making that is so common in mythological stories.  Using the Aeneid as a test case, offer some thoughts about the meaning and significance of war in the world of myth (and, please, give us some specific examples or quote some passages to help support your case!).

2)  The Roman poet Ovid was widely known as the quintessential love-poet, and indeed one of his masterpieces was appropriately titled the Ars Amatoria (‘The Arts of Love’).  Accordingly, I would like you to use the excerpts you read from Ovid as a way into the question of the “arts of love” (to borrow his title) within a mythological context.  If you go with this prompt, then, I’d like you to provide some commentary on the meaning and significance of love and sex in mythical narrative – in what ways is Ovid’s verse typical of the handling of these topics, and in what ways is his writing utterly unique within the context of mythical storytelling?

3)  For the third and final option, I am curious to hear your thoughts about the mythical Trickster-figure.  The Trickster is a commonly-found character who takes great pleasure in breaking rules and playing tricks on both humans and gods.  Tricksters are often shape-shifters who flaunt the rules of society, but they also frequently play an important role in the creation of the world or the establishment of important human traditions.  They are, in other words, complex figures that raise many questions about the role of the hero and the morality of a specific mythical society.  Your response should pick out one of the Tricksters read for class and use him to discuss the general importance and impact of this common character type.

War & Peace in the ‘Odyssey’

The importance and influence of Homer’s works to Greek culture and history simply cannot be overstated.  He has been labeled the “teacher of Greece” and he was widely lauded in his own day, as he continues to be in our day and age.  Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ is a monument of world literature, and it is a vitally important example of Greek mythological writing.  It is also fascinating as a kind of political document, a manifesto about war and peace, imperialism, violence, hatred, and so on. Although the Trojan War was an imaginary  conflict, its depiction by Homer (in both the ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Iliad’) is vivid and harrowing, and this may be because, depending on when Homer was really writing, the horrors of war might have been all-too-real in a land where civil strife and conflict amongst city-states were common.  With this possibility in mind, I want you to think about the ‘Odyssey’ not strictly as a mythological text but as a kind of political document, a creative act that negotiates the day’s crises of power and authority.  Hence, I would like for you to explore something related to war and peace as depicted by Homer and articulated through his many character dialogues and speeches.  Specifically, I want you to address a particular war-oriented theme – such as violence, hatred, justice, mercy, authority, violence, surrender, and negotiation – and examine that theme as presented in a particular passage from the ‘Odyssey.’  Pick a quotation or two from the text and then discuss it in terms of its political content.  In your discussion you should identify the central issue of your chosen lines, and detail the challenges and logic of characters concerning the subject; then, you must offer some thoughts on what YOU think about the topic within the context of the story (if not the culture of Greece more generally).  To borrow from one translation of the opening lines of the text:  “Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.”  Tell ME, fair students, about the trials and tribulations of this hero, and tell US what you think the text has to say about war and peace in the context of Greek myth (and/or Greek society).  I shall be curious to see where the “muse” takes you in this response!

Epic vs. Myth, Gilgamesh vs. Hesiod

As discussed in class, the Epic of Gilgamesh is widely recognized as being, perhaps, the earliest masterpiece of world literature.  Writing hundreds if not thousands of years later, Hesiod is widely credited with helping to establish the immensely influential tradition of Greek mythical writing with his Theogony.  One of these is an anonymous text carved onto clay tablets using cuneiform script, the other is often seen as amongst the earliest examples of alphabetic literary writing.  One of these was mostly hidden from view for over a millennium and is from the ancient, mysterious, and often undervalued society of Mesopotamia, the other comes from the later, well-documented, and widely praised culture of Greece.  Yet despite tremendous differences of time, place, subject matter, and textual form, there are some remarkable similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Theogony, not to mention some telling differences.  Thus, I’m interested in seeing what might happen if we bring these ostensibly distant and divergent works together in very precise ways.  In particular, what might get revealed about the differences between early “myth” and “epic” by comparing, for example, the trials and tribulations faced by Gilgamesh with Hesiod’s tales of his favorite god Zeus?  To see what might come out of a focused exploration of these two monumentally important work, please pick two characters (one from each text) and compare/contrast them.  What does this interaction suggest about the characters themselves, and more importantly, about key elements of each masterpiece (if not their respective societies)?  What does your comparison reveal about the two works, and the two different types of work in question??

Applying the Ideas of Aristotle and Joseph Campbell

This week, we are working to lay more intellectual foundations for our studies by considering the classical theories of Aristotle (on the subject of tragedy) and the recent scholarship of Joseph Campbell (on the “monomyth” and the mythical hero).  And at last, we have gotten to our first mythical narratives of the class, myths of creation and flood/apocalypse stories from the ancient past, as depicted in various cultures.  Thus, to fully understand the theories in question and the first stories on the syllabus, I want see how you can tie them together in a very specific way.  You have two options for this exploration.  In the first case, you may apply certain ideas from Aristotle’s theories of tragedy to a specific myth (assigned for Wednesday) of your choosing.  I was primarily thinking that it would be interesting to see how the plot of your chosen tale fits certain “tragic” modes (such as leading toward a “catharsis”), or how the characters fit Aristotle’s ideals — especially of the “tragic hero.”  Alternately, you can work with and through key ideas from Campbell’s influential output.  If, for example, you would like to explore the notion of a “monomyth,” you might compare/contrast the similarities between several of the creation tales; on the other hand, it might be interesting to think about how a given story depicts the stages of the hero’s journey according to Campbell’s terms (i.e. separation, initiation, return).   It’s all about applied critical thinking here, and it will be intriguing to see what kinds of intellectual connections you can make and the interpretive suggestions you might draw out by utilizing the ideas of Aristotle or Campbell.