Ben Marcus Riffs on Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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Perseus and Medusa — Italo Calvino

At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals; Perseus, who does not turn his gaze upon the face of the Gorgon but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield. Thus Perseus comes to my aid even at this moment, just as I too am about to be caught in a vise of stone— which happens every time I try to speak about my own past. Better to let my talk be composed of images from mythology.

To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror. I am immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet’s relationship to the world, a lesson in the method to follow when writing. But I know that any interpretation impoverishes the myth and suffocates it. With myths, one should not be in a hurry. It is better to let them settle into the memory, to stop and dwell on every detail, to reflect on them without losing touch with their language of images. The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside.

The relationship between Perseus and the Gorgon is a complex one and does not end with the beheading of the monster. Medusa’s blood gives birth to a winged horse, Pegasus—the heaviness of stone is transformed into its opposite. With one blow of his hoof on Mount Helicon, Pegasus makes a spring gush forth, where the Muses drink. In certain versions of the myth, it is Perseus who rides the miraculous Pegasus, so dear to the Muses, born from the accursed blood of Medusa. (Even the winged sandals, incidentally, come from the world of monsters, for Perseus obtained them from Medusa’s sisters, the Graiae, who had one tooth and one eye among them.) As for the severed head, Perseus does not abandon it but carries it concealed in a bag. When his enemies are about to overcome him, he has only to display it, holding it by its snaky locks, and this bloodstained booty becomes an invincible weapon in the hero’s hand. It is a weapon he uses only in cases of dire necessity, and only against those who deserve the punishment of being turned into statues. Here, certainly, the myth is telling us something, something implicit in the images that can’t be explained in any other way. Perseus succeeds in mastering that horrendous face by keeping it hidden, just as in the first place he vanquished it by viewing it in a mirror. Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.

On the relationship between Perseus and Medusa, we can learn something more from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Perseus wins another battle: he hacks a sea-monster to pieces with his sword and sets Andromeda free. Now he prepares to do what any of us would do after such an awful chore—he wants to wash his hands. But another problem arises: where to put Medusa’s head. And here Ovid has some lines (IV740-752) that seem to me extraordinary in showing how much delicacy of spirit a man must have to be a Perseus, killer of monsters: “So that the rough sand should not harm the snake-haired head (anquiferumque caput dura ne laedat harena), he makes the ground soft with a bed of leaves, and on top of that he strews little branches of plants born under water, and on this he places Medusa’s head, face down.” I think that the lightness, of which Perseus is the hero, could not be better represented than by this gesture of refreshing courtesy toward a being so monstrous and terrifying yet at the same time somehow fragile and perishable. But the most unexpected thing is the miracle that follows: when they touch Medusa, the little marine plants turn into coral and the nymphs, in order to have coral for adornments, rush to bring sprigs and seaweed to the terrible head.

This clash of images, in which the fine grace of the coral touches the savage horror of the Gorgon, is so suggestive that I would not like to spoil it by attempting glosses or interpretations.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Light,” in Six Memos.

“This Is What All Good Writers Are Doing” — Tom McCarthy on Library as Source Code

A passage from Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:

This is what all good writers are doing, and always have been. Here I’d part company even with Robbe-Grillet: there is nothing “new” about this. Shakespeare was remixing Ovid, Plutarch, Holinshed, not to mention the authors of the King Leirs and Hamlets already in circulation when he penned his versions. Cervantes was remixing Montalvo, Ariosto, Apuleius, and any number of picaresque authors—and doing this with such delirious selfconcsiousness that at one point he even makes the characters of Don Quixote pause to take stock of the library, the engine room behind their mad associate’s reenactments, perusing it as though it were some kind of source code—which it is. Pound was remixing Villon, Daniel, and Sordello; De Mailla, Marco Polo, and Malatesta; Jefferson, Adams, and Jackson, merging all these feed together as he wound them through his typewriter, splicing them in with fragments of newsprint, shards of radio transmissions—merging them yet in a manner that made no attempt to mask their fragmentary, collated character, to “naturalise” them. With the Cantos, he kept up this furious enterprise for five whole decades, ramping its intensity up and up until the overload destroyed him, blew his mind to pieces, leaving him to murmur, right toward the end: “I cannot make it cohere.”

I Review House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s Ovidian Raunchfest

In his Paris Review interviewNicholson Baker says that “one of the questions House of Holes is trying to answer” is: is “there still a point to writing words about sex when you can see anything you want, and a lot of things you don’t want to see, on the Web?” The book answers a goofy, gooey, bright-hearted “yes” to this question, unfolding its pornographic vignettes in a surreal Ovidian holiday, a midsummer’s night sexfest that sails lusty and smiling over the borders of morality, social convention, and plain old biology. Baker creates an organic, oozing world where genitalia is swapped freely between lovers, where one might exchange an arm for a bigger dick, where old tattoos get fucked away, where a woman and a tree can make sweet, sweet love:

She looked out from her high-splayed vantage and she said, “I’m a treefucking woman!” Dappled sunlight shone and emptied itself onto her. She squeezed her Kegeling love muscle around the smooth, thickened branch within, and when the wind came up again all the leaves twittered and shook. The tree itself shuddered: It was having some kind of orgasm.

If it seems like I’m getting ahead of myself, citing text before outlining plot, I assure you I’m not: There really isn’t much of a plot to House of Holes. Well, if there is one, it’s something like this: Lila, a large-breasted madame runs The House of Holes, an equal-opportunity brothel/fantasy factory that can only be accessed through portals that appear in strange spaces. This pornographic Arcadia operates on slippery wet-dream logic in which strangers cheerfully and eagerly engage in all sorts of raunch. Characters of varying physical attributes screw their way through a surreal holiday. There are a few conflicts, most of which are too light to touch on (this is a light book, for sure).

Two conflicts stand out with some (slight) weight though:

First, there’s the Pornmonster, “a personification of polymorphousness unlike anything the world of human suck-fuckery has ever known.” The Pornmonster is the mutant offspring of all the bad porn slurry collected on a pornsucking mission (don’t ask). The Pornmonster is typical of Baker’s tone throughout House of Holes, and its polymorphousness embodies the book’s depictions of sexual metamorphoses. This monster is tamed through playful, loving lust, and becomes a good guy, its raw sexual energy redirected for the forces of good (i.e., good sex). This is a book full of good guys.

Second, there’s the Pearloiner, an embittered, sexually-jealous TSA agent who steals clitorises (two of our heroines are afflicted by this heinous crime). The Pearloiner is a product of post-Homeland Security draconian measures, and her inclusion is about as close to contemporary culture criticism that House of Holes approaches. Sexy fun times interest Baker more.

Like the Pornmonster, the Pearloiner finds herself redeemed at the end of the book; moral shifts of allegiance are as easy as physical transformations in House of Holes. The Pearloiner and the Pornmonster alike atone their sins with a facile simplicity that fits the ludic silliness of Baker’s book. They are invited to participate in the handjob contest that (quite literally) climaxes the book. It’s an easy, orgasmic end to an easy, orgasmic book.

In some ways, House of Holes is more remarkable for what it’s not. Most of the so-called pornographic literature (or literature of pornography, if you prefer) that I’ve read has a darker streak. (I’m thinking of Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, de Sade,The Story of O, Alan Moore’s The Lost Girls, etc.). Holes shares Willliam Burroughs’s sense of surreal transmogrification and picaresque rambling and J.G. Ballard’s infatuation with the bizarre intersections of sex and technology, but it’s never sinister or cruel, or honestly, even disturbing.

House of Holes is a fundamentally good-natured book,” suggests Baker in his Paris Review interview, also pointing out that it’s a work of “crazy joy”—and he’s absolutely right: The book is joyous, good-natured, affable even. When Baker approaches a remotely Sadean cuckold fantasy he punctures it with a politeness that’s humorous—but he also dramatically lowers any stakes that may have been in play. In short, this is a novel of pure fun, of infinite gain and no loss (quite literally—Lose an arm? Get it back. Lose a clit? Get it back). Holes is silky and slippery and light, more ephemeral than ethereal in the end.

But shame on me. I seem to be faulting the book for not doing something it never sets out to do (namely, I seem to be faulting Holes for a lack of depravity and depth and darkness, three “d’s” the book’s rubric never sets out to register). It’s pure fantasy stuff, reminiscent of the partner-swapping exercise A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I am not saying Baker is Shakespeare) or the erotic shifts in Metamorphoses (ditto: Baker is no Ovid) or the voluptuous Victorian serial The Pearl: dreamy, and perhaps (small r) romantic, but not turbulent—sure, Holes will ruffle unwitting feathers (let’s be clear, it’s pointedly sexually graphic), but it’s unlikely to damage anyone’s soul. (If you’re worried about soul-damage, check out the editorial style-sheet for Holes, which lays out Baker’s invented porn-lexicon).

Is House of Holes a novel or a flimsy pornographic riff? Baker is less interested in ideas than he is in sensations, or rather representations of sensations (which is the most literature can do anyway, I suppose). Holes is unwilling to offer any answers or explications about the deep mysteries behind human desire, but it does pose questions about those desires, and it poses those questions with shameless glee. A fun, breezy read.