Monday, August 18, 2014

The Power of Myth: the last 20 books I read, January - July 2014


It took longer than usual, but here's my latest round-up of the last twenty books I read, with excerpts from each (you can also check out previous #JoelsReadingList round-ups). After the first six books, which I selected randomly, a conscious pattern emerged. I began alternating fiction and nonfiction, hoping to balance between my instinct for information and a desire to spark my imagination. I also assembled a backlog of books that were thematically-linked, so that each title would lead subtly into the next based on a similar theme or subject; not only did I think this would provide an enjoyable reading list, I knew it would make for an interesting round-up when I finally published the result. These approaches emerged around the time I began reading Full of Secrets, a compendium of Twin Peaks essays; unexpectedly, that book also led to an unforeseen development. I became obsessed with Twin Peaks and David Lynch again and was soon writing, watching, and otherwise engaging with those subjects to the exclusion of much else. That's one reason, after moving at a fast clip, it took me forever to finish the reading list I'd assembled.

It also occurred to me, after the fact, that the last fourteen books in the lineup (and even perhaps some of the early ones) are all linked by an overarching theme: the importance of mythology - dreams, fairy tales, spiritual riddles - in making sense of life. Whether battling demons both literal and figural, struggling to purify their souls, or seeking the Grail itself, the authors, subjects, and characters involved in the following books exist in a realm limited to neither tangible, material reality nor otherworldly fantasy. Instead, they embrace both and risk getting lost in the quest for a greater truth.


For a long time I believed that there was progress in the history of law, a development toward greater beauty and truth, rationality and humanity, despite terrible setbacks and retreats. Once it became clear to me that this belief was a chimera, I began playing with a different image of the course of legal history. In this one it still has a purpose, but the goal it finally attains, after countless disruptions, confusions, and delusions, is the beginning, its own original starting point, which once reached must be set off from again.

I reread the Odyssey at that time, which I had first read in school and remembered as the story of a homecoming. But it is not the story of a homecoming. How could the Greeks, who knew that one never enters the same river twice, believe in homecoming? Odysseus does not return home to stay, but to set off again. The Odyssey is the story of motion both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile.

The Reader (1995), by Bernhard Schlink

She was gazing off into the blur of the dance floor, moving her uptilted head very slightly to the rhythm of the band. "This is the kind of music that's supposed to make everybody our age very nostalgic," she said. "Does it you?"

"I don't know, not really I guess."

"It doesn't me, either. I'd like it too, but it doesn't. It's supposed to remind you of all your careless teen-age raptures, and the trouble is I never had any. I never even had a real date until after the war, and by then nobody played this kind of music any more, or if they did I was too busy being blase to notice it. The whole big-band swing period was a thing I missed out on. Jitterbugging. Trucking on down. Or no, that was earlier, wasn't it? I think people talked about trucking on down when I was in about the sixth grade, at Rye Country Day. ..."

Revolutionary Road (1961), by Richard Yates

Sarah: Among the ashes.
All there is now of the town is ashes.
Mountains of ashes. Shattered glass.
Glittering cliffs of glass all shattered
Steeper than a cat could climb
If there were cats still... And the pigeons -
They wheel and settle and whirl off
Wheeling and almost settling... And the silence-
There is no sound there now - no wind sound -
Nothing that could sound the wind -
Could make it sing - no door - no doorway...

Only this.

J.B. (1958), by Archibald MacLeish


I am one of America's Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people. Whenever I swim in an ocean, I feel as thought I am swimming in chicken soup.

Like me, many American socialists were freshwater people. Most Americans don't know what the socialists did during the first half of the past century with art, with eloquence, with organizing skills, to elevate the self-respect, the dignity and political acumen of American wage earners, of our working class.

That wage earners, without social position or higher education or wealth, are of inferior intellect is surely belied by the fact that two of our most splendid writers and speakers on the deepest subjects were self-taught workmen. I speak, of course, of Carl Sandburg the poet from Illinois and Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky, then Indiana, and finally Illinois. Both, may I say, were continental, freshwater people like me.

A Man Without a Country (2005), by Kurt Vonnegut

She was fired and perhaps rightly so, for failing to teach the fundamentals. Such things must be learned. But she left a passion in us for the pure knowable world and me she inflamed with a curiosity which has never left me. I could not do simple arithmetic but through her I sensed that abstract mathematics was very like music. When she was removed, a sadness came over us but the light did not go out. She left her signature on us, the literature of the teacher who writes on minds. I have had many teachers who told me soon-forgotten facts but only three who created in me a new thing, a new attitude and a new hunger. I suppose that to a large extent I am the unsigned manuscript of that high school teacher. What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.

"...like captured fireflies" (1955) in America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, by John Steinbeck

Sometimes your emotions double triple on top of each other on account of the emotions themselves, like I was upset and shaky but I think it had to do with my being really surprised or shocked or something at the way I reacted to what I saw on the TV. In other words I was upset because I had gotten so upset. But also because I was mad at myself for shaking my mother's arm off. Kennedy also beat McCarthy in South Dakota that same day. Who cares.

Any doubts I might have still had about talking to Mr. Bieniwicz were gone for some reason, and on my way through the park to the station I decided to talk to him that day after practice.

On the subway all I saw was RFK SHOT! all over the place on all of the Daily Newses being read with the usual blank expressions on their faces and I'll tell you the truth, I didn't have the nerve to wear my McCarthy button that day.

The Boys on the Rock (1984), by John Fox



• • 

But Eraserhead deals with child abuse in an obscure and phantasmagoric way. Todorov is careful to exclude from the fantastic both poetry and allegory, because the worlds they propose are manifestly fictional and not to be equated with the real world. The fantastic requires a world that we can take as real and that we anxiously try to explain as we would the real world. Eraserhead immerses us in a mental world that unfolds according to its own weird logic and may be seen as poetic or allegorical: it is in any case an inner, imaginary world that allows no natural explanation and thus has none of the distinctive tension of the fantastic. That Twin Peaks portrays a more recognizably real world may be attributed to its being a more commercial project than Eraserhead; but it is also due to the fact that in the thirteen years that separate the two projects family violence has become much more a part of our recognizable reality.

"Family Romance, Family Violence, and the Fantastic" by Diane Stevenson, from Full of Secrets (1995), edited by David Lavery

I turned back to look across the room and there was an enormous rat sitting there. I knew in the dream that it was coming after me, and that it wanted to bite my foot off. I became so afraid! I saw it come closer and closer to me and I tried to think of a way to stop it, or a place to run away, but there wasn't anywhere to go, or anything I could do!

I know it may sound funny, but it was so frightening. I sat very still and tried to keep my feet tight against my body so that the rat couldn't get to my foot. I couldn't stop thinking of how awful it was going to feel when it closed its jaws around my ankle and bit down. I didn't want to feel that, and I didn't want the rat to come near me. Don't come near me! I just kept thinking of how much pain there would be...And so, in the dream, because I knew all he wanted was my foot, I bit my foot off myself.

The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), by Jennifer Lynch

Several years after my therapy roused this particular memory, I read another draft of Diane Middlebrook's biography, then nearing completion. In possession of my own history at last, I began to see some startling parallels that remained invisible to Diane. As with everything else in Mother's life, her work of the imagination tapped deep down into her daily existence, both present and past.

In the mid 1960s, the period during which she pushed me for an increasingly inappropriate sexual and emotional intimacy, Mother was absorbed in writing Mercy Street, her loosely autobiographical play, produced off-Broadway, about a daughter's incestuous entanglements with both her father and her loving aunt. The play exposed many of her most deeply intriguing - and troubling - fantasies and ideas.

Searching for Mercy Street (1994), by Linda Gray Sexton

A simple A-frame and this too was
a deception - nothing haunts a new house.
When I moved in with a bathing suit and tea bags
the ocean rumbled like a train backing up
and at each window secrets came in
like gas. My mother, that departed soul,
sat in my Eames chair and reproached me
for losing her keys to the old cottage.
Even in the electric kitchen there was
the smell of a journey. The ocean
was seeping through its frontiers
and laying me out on its wet rails.
The bed was stale with my childhood
and I could not move to another city
where the worthy make a new life.

"Red Riding Hood" in Transformations (1971), by Anne Sexton
The wolf is a transvestite who appears "in his ninth month" after eating the heroine and her grandmother. The woodsman rescues Red with a "carnal knife" and delivers her via cesarean section. It is as if the male characters have taken over the apparatus of womanhood, from clothing to pregnancy, while Red Riding Hood awaits rebirth in the belly of the beast - a space that is vaguely disturbing, and suggestive of a larger darkness. Throughout her poem, there is constant questioning of the trite as well as the fundamental details of the story - of gender, sexuality, villainy and rescue. Yet the heroine and her grandmother remain unaware - they eat wine and cake, "remember nothing" of being swallowed and trapped in the darkness of the beast's belly, oblivious to their own plight and how they have been marginalized. Sexton's poem, with its interrogative tone, implies that the reader, too, has been blinded to or deceived by elements of the plot, and perhaps by elements of her own life.

Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked (2002), by Catherine Orenstein

"Little Red Riding Hood" by Gigi D.G., from Fairy Tale Comics (2013), edited by Chris Duffy

So engrained is the myth of the hero that even the lives of historical figures, such as the Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad, are told in a way that conforms to this archetypal pattern, which was probably first forged in the Paleolithic era.

Again, when people told these stories about the heroes of their tribe, they were not simply hoping to entertain their listeners. The myth tells us what we have to do if we want to become a fully human person. Every single one of us has to be a hero at some time in our lives. Every baby forced through the narrow passage of the birth canal, which is not unlike the labyrinthine tunnels at Lascaux, has to leave the safety of the womb, and face the trauma of entry into a terrifyingly unfamiliar world. Every mother who gives birth, and who risks death for her child, is also heroic. You cannot be a hero unless you are prepared to give up everything; there is no ascent to the heights without some form of death.

A Short History of Myth (2005), by Karen Armstrong

With a grimace, he peered into the water, saw his face mirrored there, and spit at it. Feeling profound weariness, he released his arm from around the tree trunk and rotated his body a little so as to let himself fall vertically, sink at last into the depths. With closed eyes, he sank toward death.

Then, from distant reaches of his soul, from bygone realms of his weary life, a sound fluttered. It was a word, a syllable that he now spoke aloud, mindlessly, his voice a babble, the first and final word of every Brahmin prayer, the holy Om that meant the perfect or perfection. And the moment the sound Om touched Siddhartha's ear, his slumbering spirit suddenly awoke and recognized the foolishness of his actions.

Siddhartha was deeply shaken. This, then, was how things stood with him. He was so lost, so befuddled and bereft of knowledge as to have been capable of wanting to die.

Siddhartha (1922), by Herman Hesse

The hero is engaged in life. The hero is not the one who displays force and muscle without deep insight or the courage to be. The hero may not look heroic from the outside but may go through powerful developments in a quiet way. The difference is that the real hero engages life and reflects on it. She becomes more and more what he or she is destined to be.

All of this is implied in the classic story of the dream birth of Siddhartha Gautama, who became "the awakened one," the Buddha. Perhaps this is the ultimate dream, the deep journey of life that ultimately makes sense of your existence. It's your ur-myth, your primal and most profound identity, the deepest self that you only glimpse in moments of epiphany. Dreams are the windows and doorways to that essential identity, without which we feel lost and wandering. Dreams reveal the odyssey of the soul and the path of spirit.

A Religion of One's Own (2014), by Thomas Moore

"What has God got to do with this? My intellect, all by itself, found the secret."

"What secret?"

"What being a prophet means. Your holiness also knew it once, but I think you've forgotten."

"Well, sly Thomas, remind me - it might come in handy again. What is a prophet?"

"A prophet is the one who, when everyone else despairs, hopes. And when everyone else hopes, he despairs. You'll ask me why. It's because he has mastered the Great Secret: that the Wheel turns."

The Last Temptation of Christ (1953), by Nikos Kazantzakis
The church in western Europe had once been in love with the risen Christ, who joined his bride in the earthly garden of delight and helped her tend it. Beginning in the ninth century, she began to doubt her lover and took a violent Lord into her bed, lay with him, blessed him, and finally, took him into the Christian family by marrying him. Erotically enthralled by her seductive abuser, the church spawned devotional pieties of fear, sorrow, torture, and death, whose progeny journeyed into the world determined to destroy their own shadows and neighbors. To solidify this unholy union, the church sacrificed her former love by killing him repeatedly and partaking of his mutilated body. She told herself that conquest, genocide, and the colonization of Jerusalem were God's will, a holy pilgrimage that would some day, if she sacrificed and suffered enough, deliver salvation, end the violence, and restore her to her first love.

Saving Paradise (2009), by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

"I have seen such things as are beyond the power of the tongue to describe or the heart to recall; and had I not sinned I should have seen much more."

Sir Launcelot was told how he had lain as though dead for twenty-four days and twenty-four nights, and he understood that this must have been in penance for his twenty-four years of sin. Then, just by the bed he noticed the hermit's hair which he had worn for nearly a year, and he felt that his vow to the hermit had been broken.

"What cheer?" he was asked.

"By the grace of God I have recovered. But, I pray you, tell me where I am."

"In the castle of Carbonek, where your quest of the Holy Grail has come to an end, for you shall see it no more."

Le Morte d'Arthur (1470), by Sir Thomas Malory (adapted Keith Baines)

In its most popular role, the Holy Grail is identified as the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. After the Crucifixion, it was supposedly filled with Jesus's blood by Joseph of Arimathea. This concept first arose in the 12th century, but its perpetuation was largely due to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Holy Grail, published in 1859.

It was Sir Thomas Malory who first used the words Holy Grayle in his 15th-century adaptation of the French le Saint Graal. Malory referred to 'the holy vessel', but also wrote of the Sankgreal as being 'the blessed blood of Christ', with both definitions appearing in the same story. Apart from such mentions, Malory gave no description of the Grail - only that it appeared at Camelot 'covered in white samite' (a fine silk). It was seen by Lancelot in a vision and eventually achieved by Galahad.

Bloodline of the Holy Grail (1996), by Laurence Gardner
And Galahad fled along them bridge by bridge,
And every bridge as quickly as he crost
Sprang into fire and vanish'd, tho' I yearn'd
To follow; and thrice above him all the heavens
Open'd and blazed with thunder such as seem'd
Shoutings of all the sons of God: and first
At once I saw him far on the great Sea,
In silver-shining armour starry-clear;
And o'er his head the Holy Vessel hung
Clothed in white samite or a luminous cloud.
And with exceeding swiftness ran the boat,
If boat it were - I saw not whence it came.
And when the heavens open'd and blazed again
Roaring I saw him like a silver star -
And had he set the sail, or had the boat
Become a living creature clad with wings?


And o'er his head the Holy Vessel hung
Redder than any rose, a joy to me.
For now I knew the veil had been withdrawn.

Idylls of the King (1842 - 1885), by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

2 comments:

MKSolomon said...

What a list! The format of book with quote is enjoyable, and I am enticed by quite a few of them, but I am impressed that you built an intentional program for the year's reading. I tend to navigate purely by serendipity and the enthusiasms of the moment, but now you have me imagining a more thoughtful approach. And I think some of these will now be on my own reading list....thanks!

Joel Bocko said...

I don't know if I'd recommend the approach! After a while, it began to feel very obligatory. Still, made for a good post...but immediately after finishing I abandoned my next pre-planned batch of books and just began reading whatever I felt like haha.