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Berlin Dada Man-Machine

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I’ve been reading Matthew Biro’s outstanding book The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, which focuses on German Dadaist representations of human-machine hybrids (Amazon link here).

I remember seeing a Dadaism exhibit at the De Young museum in San Francisco many years ago, and being struck by how fresh and relevant the movement still seemed. If anything that only becomes more and more true. It is an art movement largely preoccupied with the shock to the human psyche caused by the fact of mechanical reproduction.

In Biro’s account, for the Dadaist, the human-machine hybrid was a manifold symbol which represented the degree to which the bourgeois citizenry had been mentally colonized by ideology; the degree to which the self is a post-human and transpersonal hybrid of organism, context, information and machine; and a recognition that the mechanics of the self are to some degree cybernetic in Norbert Wiener’s sense – that is, subject to characterization in terms of control system dynamics that can equally be applied to information systems, circuits, and complex machinery.

Obviously we are still within the horizon that the Dadaists identified and began to work through with their art – these ideas are more relevant than ever.

As it so happens, I learned recently that I moved to Berlin almost one hundred years to the day after the founding of German Dadaism with the delivery of Huelsenbeck’s Dada-Speech on January 22, 1918. I thought I’d commemorate the centennial and honor the Berlin Dada by translating his speech.

Dada-Speech, by Richard Huelsenbeck

Ladies and gentlemen!

This evening is intended to provoke interest in Dadaism, a new, international “culture direction” founded two years ago in Zürich. The instigators of this beautiful cause include Hugo Ball, Emmi Hennings, the painter Slodki, the Rumanians Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara – and I myself, last but not least, have the present honor to propagandize at this time for my old comrades and our old-new view.

Hugo Ball, a great artist and greater man, an entirely unsnobbish and unliterary man, founded the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 in Zürich, from which Dadaism developed with our help.

Dadaism was unavoidably an international product. Something common must be found between the Russian, Rumanian, Swiss, and German. There was a witch’s sabbath the likes of which you cannot imagine, a hullabaloo from morning till evening, a frenzy of timpani and negro drums, an ecstacy with steps and Cubist dances. The Rumanians came from France, loved Apollinaire, Max Jacob, knew much of Bazun, poetry and drama and the Cubists. Marinetti, Palazeschi, Savignio wrote from Italy. We Germans stood there quite harmlessly.

Ball was in fact the only one who absorbed and processed the problems of the Futurist and Cubist directions. Perhaps some may be found among you who have heard of the Expressionist Evening talk that I organized with him. That was in fact the expressionistic poem, such as Germany had never heard. Ball brought his “Barking Dog” to Switzerland, a phantasm of a strength that little people like Korrodie and Rubiner still suffer under.

The Cabaret Voltaire was our experimental stage, where we probed to try to understand our commonalities. Together we made an extraordinarily beautiful negro song with rattles, wood klappers, and many primitive instruments. I served as the precentor, an almost mythical figure. Trabaja, Trabaja la mojere – with lots of lard.

All the artisans of Zürich began a united campaign against us. That was the most beautiful thing – now we knew who we were dealing with. We were against the pacifists, because the war had given us the opportunity to exist in our full glory. And back then the pacifists were even more decent than they are today, now that every stupid youth with his books wants to exploit the economic boom against the times. We were for the war, and Dadaism is still for the war today. Things must collide – for too long they have not been horrible enough.

In the Cabaret Voltaire we first tried our Cubist dances with Janco’s masks, self-made costumes from colorful cardboard and baubles. Tristan Tzara, who publishes the Dadaistic journals in Zürich today, invented the schema of the poème simultan for the stage – a poem that is recited by several people in different languages, rhythms, and tones at the same time. I invented the concert des voyelles and the poème bruitiste, a mixture of poetry and brutalist music, as made famous by the Futurists with the rèveil de la capitale. The inventions reigned, Tzara invented the poème statique, a kind of optical poem which you see like a forest, I myself initiated the poème mouvementiste, lecture with primitive movements, which has not yet been done in this way.

My lords, so stands Dadaism, a focus of international energies. We had had our fill of Cubism, which began to bore us with its single-minded abstraction. You arrive at the actual by yourself, once you move and are a living person. Futurism as it existed was a strictly Italian affair – a fight against the fearsome antiquity with its slick business acumen that beats every talent into the ground there. Futurism, which here in Germany, where we have the honor of being last in all things, has until recently been despised as hocus pocus by the crassly ignorant and empty-headed, because its verses were bad or incomprehensible. This Futurism, my lords, was a fight against the statue of Apollo, against the Cantilène and the bel canto – but what does it have to do with us Dadaists?

Neither with Futurism nor with Cubism. We were something new, we were the Dadas, Ball Dadas, Huelsenbeck Dada, Tzara Daha. Dada is a word that exists in all languages – it expresses nothing more than the internationality of the movement. It has nothing to do with the childish stammer with which people sought to track it.

What then is the Dadaism that I wish to espouse here tonight? It is to be the faction of great international artistic movements. It is the transition to the new joy in real things. There are guys who have been assailed by life, there are types, men with destinies and the capacity to experience. Men with sharpened intellect, who understand that they are at a turning point in time. It is only one step to politics. Tomorrow, minister or martyr in Schlüsselburg.

Dadaism is something that has in itself overcome the elements of Futurism or Cubist theorems. It must be something new, for it stands at the point of evolution, and time changes with men who have the capacity to be changed. “The Fantastic Prayers,” from which I will recite a selection, have appeared under the Dada publishing imprint and, I hope, carry the color of this movement.

Written by Mesocosm

February 20, 2018 at 8:06 am

Posted in Art, Reviews

52:04 It’s Postmodern Time! Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

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“She has turned her face, more than once, to the Outer Radiance and simply seen nothing there. And so each time has taken a little more of the Zero into herself.” – Gravity’s Rainbow

ouroboros-benzeneGravity’s Rainbow is a novel about nothing. More specifically, it chronicles the emergence and proliferation of disembodied systems of mechanized thought and control which have no ultimate ground, and no ultimate purpose.

And this indeed is how the book is written – continually positing and then undermining its own plots, moods, and meanings, until the reader, like many of the book’s characters, are ineluctably thrown back into paranoid uncertainty regarding the meaning of the book, and of life itself.

The novel takes place in the final days of World War II, primarily in the European theater. Pynchon persuasively locates the roots of postmodernity in the strategic, bureaucratic, mechanized fragmentation of information and communication as it was collectively expressed on unprecedented scale by the confounded pedants, zealots, and office workers who prosecuted the war in the midst of the shattered European heritage.

In one reading, the novel is a grotesque celebration of the totality of the collective psyche insofar as it had advanced at that time. Conflicts, patterns, and mysteries arise, only to be meticulously deconstructed in a frenzy of verbose rhapsodizing, and the action moves on without any sense of progress or closure to the next theater of action. The story unfolds with a mechanical logic while signs and meanings arise, multiply, and vanish, much like the war itself:

The War needs electricity. It’s a lively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes – gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival.

Pynchon suggests the rocket as the sign of a new kind of worship for a new kind of God, and its handiwork is a cathedral to nothing. The bombed-out architecture of the London Blitz is described more than once as openwork, likening the networks of cracks and fissures to the tracery of Gothic cathedrals. How this is to be read – as atheism, nihilism, solipsism, or an apophatic theology which denies the knowability of God – is held in permanent suspension, signifying a crisis of meaning that still holds the Western tradition in its grip.

In hoc signo vignes,” Constantine saw in his prophetic dream of the Cross on the advent of Christianity’s ascension in Rome: “By this sign, conquer.” Thus, Pynchon:

Outside, through the dirty periscope, gnarled fog unloosens from the bright zone of frost that belly-bands the reared and shadowy rocket, where the liquid-oxygen tank’s being topped off. Trees press close: overhead you see barely enough sky for the rocket’s ascent. The Bodenplatte—concrete plate laid over strips of steel—is set inside a space defined by three trees, blazed so as to triangulate the exact bearing, 260°, to London. The symbol used is a rude mandala, a red circle with a thick black cross inside, recognizable as the ancient sun-wheel from which tradition says the swastika was broken by the early Christians, to disguise their outlaw symbol. Two nails are driven into the tree at the center of the cross. Next to one of the painted blaze-marks, the most westerly, someone has scratched in the bark with the point of a bayonet the words in HOC SIGNO VINGES. No one in the battery will admit to this act.

Note that again we see life’s primary action proceeding from the root of the world tree – it turns up again and again, wholly unlooked for.

**

Gravity’s Rainbow is famously about the V-2 rocket, but it is no less about the concept of zero, which serves as the point of origin and return.

In one arresting image, the zero is imagined as the ouroboros, or serpent devouring its own tail. It forms a zero with its very body, in an age-old symbol of the self-subsisting character of life itself.

In a well-known legend, the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé is said to have discovered the chemical structure of benzene after a night of fitful sleep while he was feverishly working on the problem. He had a vivid dream about the ouroboros, and awoke with the realization that the benzene molecule forms a ring. Pynchon uses this striking image:

Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity — most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to being with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life.

This is one of many overpowering images that seem to encompass the totality of the book in a single sign. These images frequently appear to the book’s enormous cast of characters, who are often paranoid, drugged, stupid, or mentally unstable, and who expend enormous energy gratuitously interpreting and theorizing about their meaning.

The central puzzle involves a mysterious link between the sexual conquests of Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrup and the sites of V-2 bombings in London during the Blitz. The sexualized/phallic character of the rocket plays like a book-length parody of the German Romantic motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which goes back at least as far Gottfried von Strassburg’s 13th-century masterpiece Tristan, but is better known today as the core motif of Wagner’s great opera. In this symbol, love and death are combined in a single image, uniting temporal existence in a dual expression of generation and extinction.

Obvious musicological parallels between Wagner’s method in Tristan und Isolde and this book may be drawn, particularly regarding the opera’s famous overture based on the “Tristan chord.” It progresses but never resolves, leaving the listener in a constant state of suspension, waiting closure like Vladimir and Estragon.

For Wagner, this endless chromatic progression implies the insatiable character of romantic love, but Pynchon elaborates it into an image of metaphysical estrangement. I believe the fact that the word Liebestod never appears in this book is a minor joke.

Music and its meaning is obviously of interest to Pynchon. One of my favorites of several ongoing philosophical arguments in the book is the debate between Gustav Kerl and Säure on music. Kerl argues that the new “atonal” style of Schoenberg and his disciples is the future of music, while Säure unapologetically argues for the sentimental music of the 19th century. In this scene, they wrangle over the Row, which is the basic compositional unit for Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition:

“You’re caught in tonality,” screams Gustav. “Trapped. Tonality is a game. All of them are. You’re too old. You’ll never move beyond the game, to the Row. The Row is enlightenment.”

“The Row is a game too.” Säure sits grinning with an ivory spoon, shoveling incredible piles of cocaine into his nose[..].. “Sound is a game, if you’re capable of moving that far, you adenoidal closet-visionary. That’s why I listen to Spohr, Rossini, Spontini, I’m choosing my game, one full of light and kindness. You’re stuck with that stratosphere stuff and rationalize its dullness away by calling it ‘enlightenment.’ You don’t know what enlightenment is, Kerl, you’re blinder than I am.”

This struggle between the human and the abstract may tell us something about a divide within the author. This book is, after all, extremely abstruse, and the very names of its characters often calculated to keep us at a distance in high Brechtian mode. Characters often evidence little interiority or personality and strike me as little more than pieces on a great board, or ciphers for theories or ideas.

Yet the interiority that Pynchon denies to his characters is evident in the voice of the novel itself, and may be sensed in how it focuses its attention. Gravity’s Rainbow often betrays its author’s deep concern with the real human cost of bad ideas, evidenced by numerous lacerating jibes at war, such as “Don’t forget the real business of War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals.”

One can only read real human feeling in such bitterness – a sentiment that the author clearly goes to considerable lengths bury in his book, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.

**

Although Gravity’s Rainbow is obviously a work of genius, in many important respects it is not a book that I enjoyed reading or would lightly recommend. It pointedly and continually poses deep aesthetic and interpretive challenges to the reader, and not always in a manner I found rewarding or enjoyable.

Indeed, it is often unpleasant. Like a bad acid trip, the book inventories the repressed contents of the European collective unconscious at punishing length, with numerous hateful scenes of debauchery and vulgarity that to me were exceedingly tedious – but not as tedious as the witless lyrics that fill this book in inexplicable songs that crop up repeatedly, caricatures of something that I think never existed. Here is one of the first:

It’s…
Colder than he nipples on a witch’s tit!
Colder than a bucket of penguin shit!
Colder than the hairs of a polar bear’s ass!
Colder than the frost on a champagne glass!

The point of these hateful songs is beyond quite me.

Pynchon revels in obscenity, and the book is crowded with long, repugnant descriptions of scatological fantasies and S&M orgies that left me equally revolted and mystified.

Perhaps these scenes serve the artist’s need to deal with the totality of humanity’s physical and psychic life in the same way that the novel Ulysses unflinchingly accompanying Leopold Bloom into the outhouse. But Joyce was concerned with people in their totality, while Pynchon’s use of the Freudian Id feels arbitrary to me – neither illuminating or amusing. To be sure, if I never see the word “cunt” in print again, it will be too soon.

**

Many of us are unlucky in the year of our birth, and it can be a diverting meditation to ruminate on which time one would have preferred. Perhaps one would have been happier living in Elizabethan London, rubbing elbows with bawdy playwrights and playing high-stakes political chess. Or one might have lived in Baghdad during its Golden Age, gathering in the great mosques alongside Neoplatonist philosophers and Central Asian spice merchants bound for the Tarim Basin.

When I play this idle game, I would like to have come of age in the 1920s, which saw the appearance of Ulysses, “The Waste Land,” Being and Time, To the Lighthouse, The Magic Mountain, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Bliss it would have been in that dawn to be alive, but to be young would have been very heaven!

Alas, I’m a castaway on the rocky shores of the late 20th century, having formed my worldview within the horizon of postmodernism, and I can only look back with wistful longing at the golden age that lies almost within reach. And in some sense, we are still in the wake of the great creative age of modernism, for the questions and concerns that haunt postmodernity were all well known to the modernist. It is only that the center of gravity has shifted – where the modernist was creative, the postmodernist is critical – and that is the tragedy.

parmigianino_-_madonna_dal_collo_lungo_-_google_art_projectI sometimes think this must have been what it was like to grow up in the time of Mannerism, so close to the Italian Renaissance, and to see the profound epiphany of Da Vinci and the theophany of Michelangelo debased into Mannerism in works like Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck.

But postmodernism is where we live, and if I doubted it before, I could doubt it no longer, having made my way through Thomas Pynchon’s novel, for it is just like the present, only more so.

**

I have three primary complaints about postmodernism. The first is that its fixation on a critical posture makes it reactive and alienates it from a truly generative creative impulse. It elaborates and responds, but never affirms, never becomes what Nietzsche refers to in Zarathustra as “a wheel rolling out of its own center.”

My second problem is with postmodernism’s critical engagement with epistemology and metaphysics. The central theoretical preoccupation of postmodernity is how to deal with structure and meaning in a world devoid of any transcendental basis or framework for understanding either. In my view, structure and value are not arbitrary, but emergent. That is, they arise from the interaction of elements of complex dynamic systems, and cannot be reduced to the individual elements.

The absence of a reductive or transcendental ground poses a crisis of meaning to the postmodernist, who sees values as arbitrary, historicized creations of human culture. In my view, they are not arbitrary, they follow the logic of systems. This problem was already largely solved in postmodernism’s heyday: Bertalanffy wrote General System Theory in 1968, and Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action appeared in 1982.

My third problem with postmodernism is that it’s often boring. I have never encountered a postmodern work that did not wear out its welcome, because once the rules of the game have been established, it can only continue to play, embracing its arbitrary quality as an aesthetic virtue. The reader absorbs the point, and then they’re just along for the ride while the artist pontificates like a Free Jazz soloist.

Gravity’s Rainbow would have benefited enormously from aggressive editing – I believe it would have worked far better at 400 pages than 750, and it was often tedious, repetitive, and dull.

**

I could imagine no more fitting testimony to Gravity’s Rainbow timeliness and success than the fact that it was literally awarded no Pulitzer Prize.

That is, the Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction unanimously voted for Gravity’s Rainbow to receive the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but their selection was vetoed by the board, and no prize was awarded that year. If you view the Pulitzer website, look for the Fiction award for 1974, and you will find nothing there.

Written by Mesocosm

September 24, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Literature, Reviews

BBC’s In our Times with Harold Bloom and Jacqueline Rose

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Ophelia

Ophelia (detail), by John Everett Millais

Here at Mesocosm we’re huge fans of Melvyn Bragg’s BBC radio show In our Times, which may be streamed on demand here. The format is simple – Bragg moderates discussions of interesting topics with a select group of two to four academic specialists. Hosting that show is basically my dream job – I’ve listened to spell-binding episodes covering everything from Faust to the An Lushan Rebellion in China to the Cambrian explosion.

I was unusually transfixed by an episode on Shakespeare and Criticism, a half-hour discussion between esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom and the dazzling Jacqueline Rose of the University of London. Their conversation quickly took flight from Shakespeare, using a discussion of Hamlet as a touchstone for an animated defense of the western canon, upheld by Professor Bloom, and a bold probing of its limitations by Professor Rose. It’s a conversation I will long remember, which articulately embodies a dialectical tension in the way the humanities are taught, and I recommend it very highly.

Written by Mesocosm

September 6, 2015 at 4:35 pm

Posted in Reviews

The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones

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Conrad Aiken’s beautiful and haunting little book of poems uses E. A. Wallis Budge’s translation of the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day, popularly known as the Book of the Dead, as a framework for exploring that which is eternal in the light of individual, transitory experience.

While the Book of the Dead instructs souls journeying to the afterlife on the visions they will see and the trials they must pass, Aiken makes an afterlife of this very world, giving voice to chairs, rooms, mirrors, and various other objects and allowing them to bear witness to the life of its titular character. They speak from a perspective strangely outside of time, giving an impression something like hieratic Egyptian figure drawings.

It is a stage of ether, without space, —
a space of limbo without time, —
a faceless clock that never strikes;

and it is bloodstream at its priestlike task,–
the indeterminate and determined heart,
that beats, and beats, and does not know it beats.

Or take this bit from “Mr. Jones Addresses a Looking-Glass,” possibly an echo of the classic Egyptian text “Dialog between Self and Soul”:

Mr Jones

how can you know what here goes on
behind this flesh-bright frontal bone?
here are the world and god, become
for all their depth a simple Sum.

The mirror

well, keep the change, then, Mr. Jones,
and, if you can, keep brains and bones,
but as for me I’d rather be
unconscious, except when I see.

Voices speak with a curious lack of interiority, and the effect is one of depersonalization, and of dawning awareness of a more transcendent movement passing through life.

and it is life, but it is also death,
it is the whisper of the always lost
but always known, it is the first and last
of heaven’s light, the end and the beginning,
follows the moving memory like a shadow,
and only rests, at last, when that too comes to rest.

A fascinating read, but sadly, rather difficult to find.

Written by Mesocosm

June 5, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Poetry, Reviews

The shamanic heart still beats in Europe

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CAPTION

Pelzmärtle, by Charles Fréger

The April 2013 issue of National Geographic contains a stunning article by Rachel Hartingan Shea called “Europe’s Wild Men.” It describes a project by photographer Charles Fréger, who spent two winters traveling around Europe to document a spectacular array of winter festival costumes. Collected in his book Wilder Mann, these images reveal the dark vitality of ancient, pre-Christian mythic rites that live on in European celebrations, year after year.

This fellow to the right, for example, is the German character Pelzmärtle (or Pelzmärtel), who appears at your door with the Christ Child on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day in the village of Bad Herrenalb, “to scold naughty children and wrap them with a stick.” The elaborate straw costume is sewed onto its wearer. Then Pelzmärtle makes his way through the town, traveling from travels from door to door and ringing the bell with hoots and hollers.

Compare this tradition to the Hopi Powamu Bean Planting Ceremony, described Erna Fergusson in her book Dancing Gods. This elaborate eight-day festival celebrates the return of the Kachina gods to the pueblo with a series of dances and precessions of figures in magnificent costumes (we looked at a related Zuni festival in this earlier post). Fergusson describes the action as follows:

Late on the fifth night Hahawuaqi, “mother of the terrifying monsters,” appears upon the kiva roof and announces in her weird falsetto call that she has arrived and wishes to see the children. An answering voice responds that the children have all gone to bed and urges her to postpone her visit until morning. Thus are the children warned of the presence of the horrible and thrilling beings who bring gifts for good children and punishment for naughty ones. It must fill with trepidation many a little brown Hopi snuggled into blankets and fearfully eager for the coming day.

Yet the monsters and their mother do not emerge until late afternoon, when they appear in procession. The mother, a man, leading, wears the black dress and a white mantle and leggings. Her mask is a flat black face, with hair in pigtails such as the women wear, feathers raying from the crown, and a fox-skin ruff. She carries a long Juniper whip, a whitened dipper, and a flat tray covered with gifts for the children: ears of corn, seeds, and bundles of sticks for little girls, and tiny snares of yucca fiber for little boys. The other woman figure, Soyokmana, is such a terrifying old witch as every people in the world seems to have invented to scare children into virtue. She is dressed like the “mother,” but her hair is straggling, her clothes are old and dirty, and she carries a crook in one hand and a knife in the other. The others (Natacka) usually appear in Navajo velvet shirts, belted around slim waists with heavy silver belts, and with white buckskin mantles over the shoulders. They all wear terrifying masks: great snouts, bulging eyes, and horns. Each carries a bow and arrows in his left hand, leaving the right hand free to receive gifts, for this is a begging expedition.

There are three such groups, one for each village. They visit every house in their own village, and every house in the other two villages into which one of their men has married. For in Hopiland the custom still lingers of a man’s going to his wife’s people. So one meets them everywhere, hooting as they pass along the crooked streets and as the “mother” calls at every door or at the top of every ladder. Her queer cry always brings out women with food or children to be admonished. Children cling to their mothers or to each other, bright black eyes peering bravely over blanket folds, or they stand sturdily to face the fearful being, determinedly not afraid. (1)

It is impossible not to be forcefully reminded of such traditions looking at the array of unnerving costumes so marvelously captured by Fréger.

The full photo gallery is viewable here.

 
References
1) Fergusson E. Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. The University of New Mexico Press. 1931. pp.127-8.

Written by Mesocosm

April 28, 2013 at 10:54 am

Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet Machine”

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Ophelia

Ophelia, John Everett Millais

I throw open the doors, to let in the wind and the cry of the world. – Ophelia

Although not well known to English-speaking audiences, Heiner Müller is considered by many Germans to be a leading dramatist of the twentieth century. Many of his plays rework classical myths in a struggle to make sense of the collision between mythology and ideology in post-war Eastern Europe.

His Hamlet Machine is a postmodern masterpiece and a harrowing portrait of life under totalitarian rule. Much of the complex work consists of dramatic monologs, dense with allusions to Shakespeare’s play and other monuments of European culture and history.

The Hamlet-actor begins in Brechtian mode, aware of his own role in the ensuing drama, announcing: “I was Hamlet. I stood at the shore and talked with the surf BLAH BLAH, the ruins of Europe in back of me.” (1) These lines echo the Fisher King of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” who “sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”. (2)

Like Eliot, Müller also presents “a heap of broken images,” where mythological symbols flail like broken engines, gesturing wildly toward inhuman meanings.

In Shakespeare’s play, it will be recalled, the hero’s father fell victim to murder at his uncle’s hands, abetted by Hamlet’s complicit mother. Hamlet Machine describes the funeral thus: “The bells tolled the state-funeral, murderer and widow a couple, the councilors goose-stepping behind the highranking carcass’ coffin, bawling with badly paid grief”. (3)

Müller’s inspiration for Hamlet’s father was Traitscho Kostoff, a Bulgarian communist who was executed in a Stalinist purge. (4) Contemporary audiences may sooner think of the bizarre state funeral of Kim Jong-Il, but the subject of the allusion does not matter. While different actors play the parts, arriving on cue for their prescribed roles, the historical drama does not change. Hamlet reflects:

The set is a monument. It presents a man who made history, enlarged a hundred times. The petrification of a hope. The name is interchangeable, the hope has not been fulfilled. The monument is toppled into dust. (5)

Historical action is fixed by a small number of possibilities, pre-determined by unpersuasive narratives that bind action to violence and oppression. Even the utopian visions they nominally serve have lost the power to persuade or animate. One thinks of the playacting technocrats of Müller’s East Germany, tunelessly singing Marxist-Leninist songs.

As the play proceeds, the Hamlet-actor attempts to reject the role to which he has been consigned, refusing to go along with this murder-drama. The dramatic action breaks down, and a political demonstration explodes onto the stage, suggesting the 1967-8 student protests in Berlin.

The Hamlet-actor is swept up in the angry mob and pushed to the police lines, where, in one arresting image, he confronts his own reflection in bullet-proof glass, and sees himself facing himself from the opposite side of the line.

He responds with rage to his own complicity in totalitarianism:

Heiner Müller

Heiner Müller

I look through the double doors of bullet-proof glass at the crowd pressing forward and smell the sweat of my fear. Choking with nausea, I shake my fist at myself who stands behind the bullet-proof glass. Shaking with fear and contempt, I see myself in the crowd pressing forward, foaming at the mouth, shaking my fist at myself. (6)

He then goes home to watch television, “at one / with my undivided self.” (7) In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, inaction is a fatal flaw, but when all courses lead to murder, and the character is forced to choose between several dreadful alternatives. Inaction and action both mean self-betrayal, and purity is found only in death, or, in its political equivalent, television.

***

“I am Ophelia. The one the river didn’t keep.”

Ophelia chooses suicide instead of murder. Like Nietzsche’s ascetic, her violence turns inward, sublimating her will to power. Her character represents a type for Müller, a woman whose inflexible moral code renders her capable of anything.

She is the “woman dangling from a rope,” suggesting the far-left RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, whose strident critique of hegemonic capitalism ignited a series of bank robberies and murders. (8) Eventually she was captured, and hung herself in her cell.

Müller’s Ophelia would also choose death as a way of dismembering the mechanisms of oppression:

I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home. I fling open the doors so the wind gets in and the screams of the world. I smash the window. With my bleeding hands I tear the photos of the men I loved and who used me on the bed on the table on the chair on the ground. I set fire to my prison. (9)

Compare to Meinhof’s approving citation of Fritz Teufel’s statement that “It is still better to set fire to a department store than to run one,” written after her group set fire to a Frankfurt department store in 1968 “to protest against the apathy of society in the face of the murders in Vietnam.” (10)

***

Born in Eppendorf in 1929, Müller spent his childhood under the shadow of the Nazi regime. In “The Father,” an early autobiographical prose-poem, he describes being woken from sleep when he was three years old:

In 1933, January 31 at 4 a. m., my father, a functionary of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, was arrested from his bed. I woke up, the sky outside the window black, noise of voices and footsteps. In the next room, books were thrown to the floor. I heard my father’s voice, higher than the other voices. I climbed out of bed and went to the door. Through a crack I saw how a man was hitting my father in the face. (11)

Two officers of the Nazi SA, the predecessor to the notorious SS, took his father to a concentration camp, where he was held for over a year for his socialist activities. Müller was shunned as the son of a criminal, and other boys in his village were not allowed to play with him.

After he visited the camp with his mother, he was haunted by the image of his father diminished behind the wire mesh fence, and later, by memories of walking for hours in bitter cold to meet his father upon his release.

caption

Flandern (detail)
Franz Radziwill
Image by Barnaby Thieme

I wish my father were a shark
Who tore to pieces forty whalers
(And in their blood I had learned to swim)…. (12)

In these early memories, we find the germ of his later political views. Müller would remain a socialist for the rest of his life, though he appears to have been deeply demoralized by Stalin’s tyrannical abuses. He was tolerated as a high-profile artist of the GDR, but was also a fierce critic of his country. Hamlet Machine was banned in East Germany until its final days. (13)

Perhaps in these early memories, we also find the seeds of his feverish, fragmentary style. Hamlet Machine resembles the disjointed impressions of a child-dreamer, woken from sleep by disturbing events for which he has no context or compass.

Perhaps Müller seeks to bring his audience to that moment of his childhood, to share with them his epiphany of chaos. It may be the only truth of which he was certain.

***

“One can make many things of Hamlet Machine,” Müller said. “First of all, its unperformability certainly stands for stagnation.” (14) Indeed, the play is notoriously difficult to stage. The playwright Tony Kushner notes:

Certainly the most immediately striking fact of Müller’s dramaturgy, of all of his dramatic texts, is that they were written intentionally to resist production, to make of their production an act of appropriation. When one first encounters Müller’s plays one worries how they ‘should’ be done, one searches in vain for the key to their staging, assuming that the author has hidden such a key in the text or that it may be uncovered through some sort of anthropological investigation. Research, and learning, is required; but ultimately, familiarity with the plays’ referents and antecedents will not reveal how they are to be staged. Eventually any theater artists intent on doing Müller’s works will find themselves faced with a heady and alarming freedom, for the key to the staging must, to a far greater degree with Müller’s plays than with any other major body of dramatic work, be invented upon the occasion – by the historically informed, politically engaged imaginations of those doing the staging. (15)

This may gives a clue to the title of Müller’s play. It is sometimes taken to refer to the author himself, i.e., Hamletmaschine (HM) = Heiner Müller (HM). The author himself “carefully disseminated this interpretation.” (16)

I prefer to think of the play itself as a meaning-making machine. It runs on interpreters, directors, actors, readers, and an audience; all are free to move among its fragments, and to create something for themselves.

Notes
This essay originally appeared on the Modern Mythology blog here.

Heiner Müller’s play Hamlet Machine is available here (English, PDF), und hier (auf Deutsch).

References
1) Müller H. ed. Carl Weber. Hamletmachine and other texts for stage. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p. 53
2) Eliot T. S. “The Waste Land,” lines 423-5, from The Complete Poems and Plays; 1909-1950. Harcourt, Brace, & World. 1971. p. 50.
3) Müller, 1984. p. 53
4) Müller H. Krieg Ohne Schlacht; Leben in zwei Diktaturen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch. 1994. p. 292
5) Müller, 1984. p. 56
6) Müller, 1984. p. 56
7) Müller, 1984. p. 56
8) Müller, 1994. p. 294
9) Müller, 1984. p. 54-5
10) Meinhof U. “Setting Fire to Department Stores.” from Everybody Talks About The Weather … We Don’t; The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof. ed. Karin Bauer. Seven Stories Press. 2008. p. 248
11) Müller H. A Heiner Müller Reader. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001. p. 14
12) Müller, 2001. p. 15
13) Müller, 1994. p. 296
14) Müller, 1994. p. 295
15) Kushner, T. “Foreward,” from Müller, 2001. p. xvi
16) Müller, 1984. p. 51

Written by Mesocosm

April 7, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Literature, Reviews

Black Elk and the Fabrication of Memory

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Black Elk, wife, and son

Black Elk, wife, and son

Like millions of readers, I became aware of Black Elk through the work of John Neihardt, an amateur historiographer and poet who interviewed the Oglala Lakota medicine man at length about his life. These recollections were fashioned into the classic Black Elk Speaks, a poeticized rendition of the account.

A great many readers have been alerted to Black Elk Speaks by Joseph Campbell, who was especially impressed by one particular episode, which he referred to many times in writing and speaking.

When Black Elk was nine, the story goes, he took ill for twelve days, lying in a coma, in an apparent shamanic initiatory crisis of the kind we have discussed several times on the blog, such as here.

During his coma, Black Elk experienced what he later called his “Great Vision,” an elaborate journey through the sky to the the Rainbow Teepee where the Thunder Beings dwell. The culmination of his vision, to which Campbell glowingly referred, was a journey to the center of the earth, and his discovery that all people are one.

As Neihardt gives it, in Black Elk’s voice:

I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy. (1)

As a footnote to the comment that he was taken to the center of the world, Neihardt notes “Black Elk said the mountain he stood upon in his vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills. ‘But anywhere is the center of the world,’ he added.” (2)

It was the latter comment that amazed Campbell, who marked its similarity to the Hermetical teaching of the late Middle Ages that “God is an intelligible sphere whose circumference is infinite, and whose center is everywhere.” On its face, this does seem to be a remarkable correspondence.

I was sufficiently impressed myself to quote this passage on this very blog, and to pick up a copy of Black Elk Speaks. But when I began to read it, I was immediately troubled.

The book begins:

Black Elk Speaks:
My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills. (3)

Although I was not particularly familiar with the Lakota oral style, I have read a certain amount of world literature, and I was immediately convinced that this is simply not how Black Elk would have spoken. It reads to me like an undistinguished author writing under the strong influence of Goethe’s early work and the American Transcendentalists.

I began researching, and learned that Niehardt transformed Black Elk’s simple speech, dressing it up in free verse and rearranging it into a story format. Purist that I am, I became deeply concerned about the degree of Neihardt’s interpolation – particularly in the above-quoted revelation. Was Campbell’s convergence a true example of like images arising in distant lands, or was it simply Neihardt’s invention?

I was gratified to learn of the existence of Raymond J. DeMallie’s The Sixth Grandfather, a beautifully annotated publication of the raw transcripts of Black Elk’s conversations with Neihardt, as rendered into English to Neihardt by Ben Black Elk, Black Elk’s son, and transcribed by Neihardt’s daughter Enid.

DeMallie’s book immediately confirmed my worst suspicions. Black Elk’s account is far more plain-spoken, though no less engaging. I was not surprised to learn that the introduction passage quoted above was a pure fabrication.

I was, however, quite surprised to learn that the oft-quoted passage about the great hoop of all peoples was not only completely invented by Neihardt, but is, in fact, quite contrary to the actual content of the vision.

The closest we come is this:

They [the spirits] said: ‘Behold the center of the earth for we are taking you there.’ As I looked I could see great mountains with rocks and forests on them. I could see colors of light flashing out of the mountains toward the four quarters. Then they took me on top of a high mountain where I could see all over the earth. Then they told me to take coverage for they were taking me to the center of the earth….

[The] western black spirit said: ‘Behold all over the universe.’ As I looked around I could see the country full of sickness and in need of help. This was the future and I was going to cure these people. … After a while I noticed the cloud over the people was a white one and it was probably the white people coming. (4)

There is nothing about “the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle.” On the contrary, he strongly differentiates between his own people, the Lakota, and the white people. Much of his vision is, in fact, a premonition that he will lead his people to victory against the whites in battle.

In the transcript, Black Elk continues:

The sixth grandfather showed me a cup full of water and in it there were many small human beings. He said: ‘Behold them, with great difficulty they shall walk and you shall go among them. You shall make six centers of the nation’s hoop.’ (Referring to the six cups of water, meaning that the six centers of the nation’s hoop were the different bands or tribes: 1) Hunkpapas, 2) Minneconjous, 3) Brulés, 4) Oglalas, 5) Shihela [Shahiyela, Cheyennes], 6) Idazipcho (Black Kettle)…. ‘Behold them, this is your nation and you shall go back to them. There are six centers of your nation and there you shall go.’ (5)

This passage, which was simply omitted in its entirety from Black Elk Speaks, elucidates the hoop of the peoples solely with respect to the Lakota and Cheyenne. These are not all peoples, they are his people.

As for the comment that “anywhere is the center of the world,” nothing like it is found in the transcript. Perhaps he said it elsewhere to Neihardt, but I have serious doubts.

I’m truly surprised that Campbell was taken in by this. From a very young age, he studied the anthropology, ethnography and lore of the Native Americans, including the Lakota. The stylistic problems should have been immediately obvious. Nobody’s perfect, I guess.

I do not mean to imply that Black Elk’s story is diminished or not worth reading – on the contrary. Anyone interested in spirituality or American history is sure to enjoy his account. But I urge the reader to shy away from Neihardt’s version, and go for The Sixth Grandfather instead. The Lakota, after all, have a right to their history, and Black Elk has the right to his memory.

Update (Dec, 2012): Here are my full reviews of Black Elk Speaks and The Sixth Grandfather.

Update 2 (May, 2020): I’m now of the opinion that Neihardt’s conscious or unconscious source for the supposed vision is Cicero’s “The Dream of Scipio”:

See! the universe is linked together in nine circles or rather spheres; one of which is that of the heavens, the outermost of all, which embraces all the other spheres, the supreme deity, which keeps in and holds together all the others; and to this are attached those everlasting orbits of the stars.

Cicero’s intriguing text received an important commentary by the Neoplatonist Macrobius and was heavily circulated in the Middle Ages. See here for a full translation.

 

References
1) Neihardt JG. Black Elks Speaks; Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, As told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow). University of Nebraska Press. 1993. pp. 42-3.
2) Neihardt, p. 43.
3) Neihardt, p. 1.
4) ed. DeMallie RJ. The Sixth Grandfather; Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. Neihardt, p. 134.
5) DeMallie, pp. 140-1.

Written by Mesocosm

December 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Bill Viola and the Seventy Veils

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Viola with his Memoria
(click to enlarge)

Unlike things and their reflection in the mirror and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark. – Eihei Dogen

Last night, at a fundraiser for the San Francisco Zen Center, artist Bill Viola described his childhood preoccupation with perceiving reality from different angles and perspectives. He would stare at reflections of objects in the water, or lie on his side with his head on the ground for a long time, and things would take on a different aspect. Even giving close attention to the reflective fringe on a piece of fabric can open the door to another world.

He sensed that in those moments of perspectival shift, something real was disclosed. Perhaps he was seeing something more true than the ordinary world that we usually experience.

This sense of discovery and insight, in the midst of time-dilated experiences, characterizes a great deal of his video and installation art. There is a sense of mystery as blurry images gradually become clear, remote images move slowly toward the viewer, or the camera angle slowly shifts until we finally realize what it is that we’re seeing. There are continual images of transit and transformation, metamorphosis and epiphany.

Art historian John Walsh, who curated a Viola show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, recalled hearing the artist reflect on the Sufi doctrine of the seventy veils that lie between human beings and God. As described by the great Sufi master Ibn al-‘Arabi:

The Prophet said, “God has seventy veils of light and darkness; were he to remove them, the glories of His Face would burn away everything perceived by the sight of His creatures.” Look how subtle these veils are, and how hidden, for God says, “We are nearer to him than the jugular vein” (50:15), while those veils exist, preventing us from seeing Him in this mighty nearness…. (1)

In ordinary life, when we’re constantly distracted by the intellect and its strategic concerns, there is a continual bewildered engagement with the various energies and images that direct our attention, but periods of stillness or of deep human experience hold the possibility of real awareness, of standing in relationship to a God who almost seems to break through the threshold.

During the brief Q and A following the lecture, I wanted to know about the possibility of openness that seems to absorb him as an artist – the sense of discovery that his art creates for audiences by preparing the viewer for peripatetic shifts in which everything suddenly resolves.

What is that open space, I asked, and is it possible to peer beyond the veil? Or are there only more veils?

I can only paraphrase his thoughtful and detailed reply, in which he talked about the different kinds of veiling and disclosure that can occur throughout life. Each experience has its own sense of discovery, and carries its own particular meaning. For example, as you age, things gradually come into focus, or things that were once clear can become unclear.

Some doors never open, he observed, and this is not a bad thing. There are doors that turn you away, and that turning away sustains the mystery that people need in order to live. Some doors remained closed because what they conceal would destroy you.

But there are also moments that convey something that is real, something that is known not with the mind but with the the heart and the body, and the totality of one’s being, something beyond words.

I think it is those moments of value that Viola tries to evoke in works like “The Passing,” a video work that juxtaposes unflinching images of the death of his mother with images of birth. The point of the work is immediately obvious, but the effect is profound, for the piece is not explanatory but visionary. It does not evoke a new intellectual understanding, but a reorientation of perspective and value.

Of the artists I’ve come across in my life, Viola has been the most effective at consistently bringing such moments forth for me. When I first came upon a huge retrospective of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago by chance in 1999, the effect of it was life-changing. At the time I was living in Charlottesville, studying Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Virginia, but when I saw his work, I realized that there was a whole world going on out there, and I wanted to be part of it. I knew I wouldn’t find it if I remained cloistered away in intensive study for ten years. As a consequence of that discovery, I left school and moved to San Francisco.

Viola spoke with generosity, reflecting on the many kindnesses that were necessary for the process of creativity, and equally necessary for life itself. He encouraged everyone to embrace the creative force that not only forms the essence of art, but is the creative power that sustains the whole world.

Think of all of the things that were necessary to bring you forth and to prepare you for life, he counseled, all the teachers and parents who gave you what you need in order to live. Your past has been held by a lattice of inconceivable supports that you could never have hoped to ask for. And trust, as you move forward into the unknown, that your future will be, too.

References
1) Chittick WC The Sufi Path of Knowledge; Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination. State University of New York Press. 1989. p 364.

Written by Mesocosm

November 10, 2012 at 11:55 am

The Shamans of Prehistory

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The good folks at Erowid have posted my review of The Shamans of Prehistory by Jean Clottes & David Lewis-Williams, two prominent authorities on paleolithic cave painting. I am sympathetic to the book’s central argument that many painted caves served a ritual function related to archaic forms of shamanism, but I found their specific cognitive-archaeological model to be under-developed.

Clottes and Lewis-Williams ground their theoretical framework in an altered states model of shamanism and speculate that early shamans may have utilized visionary plants to induce trance states. The Erowid site which hosts a massive online archive of information relating to psychoactive plants and chemicals and their use.

You can read the full review here.

Written by Mesocosm

August 24, 2012 at 6:54 am

Child-Sized Mythology: The Brothers Grimm

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This morning I chanced upon Joan Acocella’s article on the Brothers Grimm, “The Lure of the Fairy Tale,” in The New Yorker. It will surprise no reader of this blog to hear that I’m a huge fan of the Brothers Grimm – you can see a translation I did of “Mary’s Child” here. I was interested to read Acocella’s piece and think through some of the questions that she raises.

She lays out a brief biographical and historical sketch of the folklorists and their work, and puzzles through some of the interpretive dilemmas posed by the fairy tales. They are childish in their brevity and narrative simplicity, but often include gruesome acts of violence, with starving parents abandoning children to die in the woods with startling frequency.

Acocella singles out “The Juniper Tree” as an especially shocking tale. I’ll give the gist of the story, but interested readers can read the whole thing here (in English) or here (auf Deutsch).

Once upon a time, the story begins, a young bride prayed and prayed for a child, but to no avail.

One fine winter’s day, while peeling an apple beneath the juniper tree in the courtyard, she cut her hand, and when she saw the drops of blood on the snow, she sighed, “If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow.”

Well, time went by and the snows began to fade, and the world returned to flower, and as it did, the woman also became fruitful, and when the new growth of the woods came to surround them, she became great with child. And when the juniper tree bore fruit, she ate of it ravenously, and becomes sickened.

In the ninth month following her wistful prayer, she bore a beautiful little boy, and told her husband that when she dies, she is to be buried beneath the tree. And so she did pass away, brought to her death by the life-giving tree.

Time passed, and the boy grew with lips as red as blood, and skin as white as snow. His father took a new wife, and had with her a daughter, called Marlene.

Unfortunately, his new wife hated the beautiful little boy, and one day, moved by the spirit of evil, she invited him to take an apple from the bin. When he reached inside, she clapped it shut and knocked his head clean off!

The evil stepmother then covered the boy’s head with a white scarf and fastened it back to his body. Marlene found him an uncooperative playmate, though, and complained to her mother that the boy would not speak. The stepmother told her “Then go box his ears!”

The daughter soon did, and immediately raced back in terror, crying “His head has come off!”

The evil stepmother told her they must keep it a secret. To dispose of the body, she said, she will cook the boy into a stew. She served it to his father to eat, and he found it so delicious that he insisted he should eat it all, as he was filled with the sense that it was somehow intended just for him.

Well, the daughter was horrified by all this, naturally, and she gathered her half-brother’s bones in her silk scarf and buried them beneath the juniper tree. It was only once they were interred that her anguish subsided.

Then the juniper tree began to move. The branches moved apart, then moved together again, just as if someone were rejoicing and clapping his hands. At the same time a mist seemed to rise from the tree, and in the center of this mist it burned like a fire, and a beautiful bird flew out of the fire singing magnificently, and it flew high into the air, and when it was gone, the juniper tree was just as it had been before, and the cloth with the bones was no longer there. Marlene, however, was as happy and contented as if her brother were still alive.

And so the boy was reborn as a glorious bird with a beautiful song, and he set about making matters right.

Kinder- und Hausmärchen, First Edition

It’s really quite a spectacular story – I highly recommend having a look at the whole thing. But what is significant for our purposes here is that Acocella found it to be very disturbing, saying “Parents should simply not read it to children. If they give the child the book, they should get an X-Acto knife and slice the story out first.”

So we have a dilemma, posed by the co-occurrence of a childish narrative style with dark and shocking material. To make sense of this problem, Acocella reviews several scholarly interpretations of fairy tales, ranging from the Freudian readings of Bruno Bettelheim to the comparative approach of Jack Zipes.

Unfortunately, she neglects to consult the author who represents, in my opinion, the strongest interpretation of the Grimm Brothers stories, Joseph Campbell. His approach makes short work of the apparent dilemma.

Campbell articulated his general approach to the Grimm Brothers’ stories in his magisterial essay “The Works of the Brothers Grimm,” written as an introduction to a translation of the tales, and also published in his book Flight of the Wild Gander. In this essay, Campbell interprets many fairy tales as reductions or remnants of very old myths. They contain the same content and quality as the great narratives of the world’s religions. Time and wear, for a variety of reasons, have pared the stories down to their bare bones, and as such, they appear child-like at a glance.

If we evaluate “The Juniper Tree” not as a didactic fable for children but as a myth, we immediately recognize all of the principle elements of the story: the miraculous birth, the association of death and rebirth with a tree or evergreen, the murder of an innocent, and the ritual consumption of the body. This is a myth of immense geographical distribution, as we’ve known since Frazer first published The Golden Bough.

It amuses me greatly to see Acocella recoil from this story, since every one of its basic elements can be found in the Gospels.

We can also see a link between the apple and the pains of childbirth, which echoes the story of the Fall. And there exists, of course, a very old allegorical tradition that links the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden to the Tree of Eternal Life, i.e., the cross. The former is seen as the beginning of history, and the latter is seen as its completion.

We are not dealing with a pedagogical morality tale here, we have a myth – a story which renders an image of basic facts of life. We have a narrative image of the cycle of life and death in which we all must participate, and to which, ultimately, we must all surrender ourselves, for the cycle of killing and being eaten in turn both gives life and brings us back to the root. And the fairy tale, like the myth, presents this problem without judgment or advice.

People preserve these stories for millennia because they disclose something that the audience recognizes to be true. The best place to start, then, is to ask what that might be.

Written by Mesocosm

July 17, 2012 at 11:49 am