Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Jack London, old and new

Source: The Bancroft Library
Jack London was the writer who ignited my lust for books. Weirdly, I don't remember how old I was. It might have been 10, could have been 12. I had laughed over Dr. Seuss, of course, and I'd read a lot of stuff lying around our rambling old house. But it wasn't until The Call of the Wild fell into my hands that I experienced the impelling desire for books.

I remember that experience common to a lot of us: searching through the stacks at the library for "another [insert favorite author]." I found and devoured White Fang. But that was all our library had of Jack London. I moved on to other dog stories, thinking (hoping) that it was "dog stories" I wanted. It would have been too unbearable to imagine that I wanted only something that did not exist: more Jack London books.

In retrospect, it was an unexpected spark, that book. A more unlikely steel to my flint would be hard to imagine. I was a dreamy-eyed kid, anything but hardened by my travails, such as they were. I'd been raised to believe in a different ethic, not the one Jack London preached in all the pages of that book. I was taught to love my enemies; London's hero and mine, the reborn dog Buck, taught me valor, strength, cunning. Survival of the fittest. Later someone would label this for me: it's the heroic code in modern dress, the code of Beowulf and his ilk, and before him of Achilles and Hector, stalking glory on the battlefield. Here you boast, not in weakness, but in strength. Humility, on this field, is taken for weakness. And prowess is valued, not buried in shame.

There is no accounting for loves. What I devoured when I read those books was not social Darwinism, but the cold austerity of courage, stripped down, made vital. And the language--London's words are often deeply moving, merciless in their confrontation of that wildness he courts. Poetic, inspired, impassioned.

Maybe it was just that--his passion. Maybe I took that up in my veins through the ink that was, as it were, his blood on the page.

I couldn't say. I only know this: I revisited The Call of the Wild last month. And still, though I shrink back from that brutality, and though I sense better now the cost of embracing his vision of what and who we animals are, I felt the call of the wild in its pages, even so. It moved me, drew something from me, as Homer still does, and Beowulf.

And there's more, I think. In my exhausting efforts to lay low, bury my prowess at this or that, not vaunt myself--I start to hear that call drifting down from the timberland. Some day, I will meet that call. Not to become a brute, but to reconcile my desire and my skill with the things I've been taught, the civilizing influences I've taken in.

You can read The Call of the Wild at Project Gutenberg, or on an e-reader near you.
Here's a nice, brief biography, by Dr. Clarice Stasz.
Here's a nice summing up of its potency and value, by Robert McCrum.
Here's how you treat this book when you're afraid of the wild: "Common Sense" Media

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Origins of Mythology: "Introduction"

This is an old-school weblog series, tracking my progress through The Origins of the World's Mythologies, by Michael Witzel, a thick monograph published by Oxford University Press in 2012.

Photo credit: Oxford University Press

In the intro, Witzel, a Harvard Sanskrit professor, lays out the terrain for his study, which intrigued me the moment I read this: review of it. I have formal education in religious studies and mythology, and I like writing what some folks call "mythic fiction" (which isn't actually limited to mythology). So I was intrigued enough to buy a copy, partly because I immediately recognized that the premise for this book is unusual, even unique. Let me explain.

Witzel claims that the far-flung mythologies of the world can be traced, scientifically (on the model of linguistics), back to an original mythological complex or "storyline." He promises to use various methods to recover this storyline in the upcoming chapters. But here (in the intro) he's setting out what's unique about his approach, and why it just might work. This is common fare for academic books (for good reason), but I won't rehash all the arguments. A brief catalog of the 36-page intro:

  • some older theories about why myths from different eras and geographical locations share so many similarities
  • weaknesses in said older theories
  • a survey of various attempts to interpret myths
  • how all of the above differ from the approach of Witzel in what is forthcoming in the book

The take-aways are more interesting than the bits just referred to. Here are a couple.

Witzel's definition of myth (a bit complex, but worth tackling):
a 'true' narrative that tells of cosmology and society as well as of the human condition and that is frequently employed to explain and justify social circumstances (p. 35)
 Or, more eloquently:
myth tries to make a significant statement about human life itself: 'where do we come from, why are we here, where do we go?' Just like Gauguin's enigmatic painting, myth artistically combines many motifs into a meaningful whole, modifying the older (even the reconstructed original) layout according to individual local conditions… Myth still binds humans to their natural habitat and social background; it provides people with reasons for the cyclical seasons of nature, for festivals, rituals, and social strata; myth also tells of a deep underlying meaning of human life itself, satisfying basic spiritual needs (p. 34)
This description nicely brings together some important observations about myth. One, that it "combines many motifs." In fact, its vitality and "meaning" are related to its combinatorial quality, the complex interactions of elements in the myths (see Claude Levi-Strauss). Another, that myth is tied to ritual and festival. That makes it public, social, cultural. And finally, Witzel helpfully keeps in view the religious dimension of myth, or its "spiritual" dimension if you prefer, which is important but surprisingly rare (among scholars of this material).

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to give a glimpse of his main methodological point, which is the purpose of his introduction. Witzel's unique contribution here is going to be to take whole complexes of actual mythologies (say in Japan, India, Greece, etc.) and compare them, searching for "path dependencies" or "descent lines" still in evidence across those cultures. Older approaches (some of them groan-worthy if popular) just compare individual stories. So Witzel's work is massive, cross-disciplinary, and so far pretty compelling. I'll let you know when I get through chapter 2, which promises to be a fairly quick run through theories of comparison.

I linked to Frederick Smith's review of the book above, but here it is again (PDF).
And I found a good shorter review of it here: "Comparing Mythologies on a Global Scale: A Review Article By N.J. Allen" (PDF)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reading Undine

Ondine (photo)
"Ondine," photo by Eva the Weaver
 Of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful
- George MacDonald
I'm not ready to go as far as MacDonald, but I will say that reading Undine, the classic fairy story by Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué (how's that for a French-German hybrid name?), was very pleasurable for me. Here's why.

When I read a new fairy tale, or one I've forgotten, it's like eating a nectarine. You know what it's like. You sit at the table, and in just a moment the soft peel is off that perfectly round fruit. Then it falls apart into slices, tailor made for human mouths. Twelve, thirteen little bites, and it's done--delightful, tangy, juicy, sweet. A perfect snack.

But never a meal.

Now imagine you could have a tangerine and you could eat it for a good half hour, like you would a full dinner. Sound nice?

<< Well, no, you might say. Halfway through the meal, my tongue would get so cloyed from the sweet, juicy, intense thing that I'd lose my appetite.

But suppose I could make it last that long without cloying your palette?

<< Then it would be so watered down that it wouldn't have any flavor, you might object. Or any nutrition at all!

Ah, and there's the beauty of Undine. Somehow, reading this story was like reading a fairy tale that lasts and lasts. Its sweetness is strong enough to engage the palette, but not so strong that it cloys. Its substance is light enough to draw you into the magic of faerie, but not so light that it feels empty or watery.

Somehow--I don't know quite how--Undine draws you into a longer adventure, all framed in the old fairy tale storytelling tradition, with light touches of description and only glimmers of the inner life of the players. Just like a real fairy tale. And yet it doesn't lose your interest in the places where it takes you or the people who live there.

A meal of tangerine. A meal where the tangerine is somehow transformed into something much larger, more substantial even, without losing its essence.

So maybe I can see why MacDonald called it the most beautiful fairy story. Still seems like strong praise. But surprisingly good? I can agree with that.

Note: You can find Undine free at Project Gutenberg, or on an e-reader near you.


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