Mythology is fun to read and teach. I’ve always thought that. However, often the mythology that I feel the most connection to is fictional (I’m skipping over to what degree all mythology is fiction). When I think of mythic worlds that have most engrossed me, they are the myths of Tolkien, taken from “real” myths but changed to an accessible form. They are the myths plopped into modern day England in Harry Potter, where myths were hidden in plain site from the oblivious muggles. They are the time after time retelling of the hero who begins small and comes to be the most important person in the world, perhaps sacrificing himself in the process. The myths that most speak to me are the ones that are taken from our world, changed in the process, becoming less complicated so that they can be wrapped up, identifiable but accessible. Is that bad?
I taught “Going to Meet the Man” yesterday. While I respect this work so much, I also hate it. Or, more specifically, I hate to read it because it is so incredibly gruesome, in the description of the protester being beaten; in the description of Jessie’s sadistic arousal by violence; and even more so, in the description of the lynching at the end. I have never read the final scenes at the lynching without cringing and without wanting to stop reading, turn away, close my eyes to the horror. Yet, I purposefully assign this story every semester, partly to force myself to read it again and again; keeping myself from turning away from horrors of the past, just because they make me uncomfortable.
I recently taught Willa Cather’s My Antonio, and it reminded me why I have a dog named Willa. The large scale portrayal of Western settlement in this novel was captivating, and the description in the early chapters of the hardships faced by immigrant families moving to settle a plot of land in Nebraska was astonishing. What do we do today that is on this scale of difficulty? My implication there is that, for most of us, nothing is on this same scale. And it makes me think that something is missing in not having a big national purpose. At the same time, national purpose could be said to have been behind the atrocities that accompanied western expansion too. Still, though, I find in myself the desire to do something big, and it is to that desire that My Antonia speaks. The desire to settle a new land, explore where no one has explored before. The desire to do something different than the ordinary. The desire to have a dream.
What is the point of literature if not to make you feel! Sure, a point of literature can be to bring about change, but the great literature does that by making characters so real, in settings, and situations so identifiable that we can’t help but put ourselves in their places. Whenever I read The Awakening, I feel feelings. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always like to feel feelings. They’re unsettling, even when they’re good because then I want to keep feeling good. I think this must be, at least in part, how Edna Pontelier felt. After feeling lovelusthappiness for the first time in years, she set out to feel more of it. She set out to live deliberately, by her own rules, seeking her own feelings. And I hate how this novel ends. I hate that she ends by walking into the sea, where her feelings were first awakened, but this hatred is a feeling too and perhaps it’s one that could, that can, bring about change.
This last week I got to teach Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Heminway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” In a semester full of inspiring literary works, perhaps these two are among the most inspiring, not only because of their subject matter but also in terms of their composition and innovation. No matter how depressing “Snows” is, Harry’s regret that he never wrote what truly mattered and continual remembering of what he never wrote about underscores the need to do today whatever it is that we all want to do someday. The same theme permeates “Prufrock,” with the continual repetition of “There will be time,” “Do I dare?” and “Would it have been worth it all?” because there will never be time if we do not dare that it may be worth it to risk it all. It is so much easier to choose the safe road that leads to comfort, but as “Harry’s” regrets show, that comfort is the death of ambition, slowly suffocating his talent until in the end, all he had left was regret. So, rather than “measuring out my life with coffee spoons,” I choose “to descend the stair” in hopes that some day the mermaids will sing to me.