Saturday, April 14, 2012

Myth: Atlas and autobiography

During a recent visit to my massage therapist, when I complained about the nagging pain in my shoulders and the knots pinching my nerves, my clairvoyant intuitive masseuse whispered a single word: Atlas.

Condemned to shoulder the world – forever – by the gods he dared defy, freedom seems unattainable to Atlas.

Thus begins the back cover description of Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of “the myth of Atlas and Heracles” (Hercules).

I first read Weight (Canongate, 2005), her slim, “visionary and inventive, believable and intimate” modern mythological tale a year ago and recently re-read it. Winterson shows her autobiographical hand in the introduction. By contrasting authenticity with so-called reality TV and its opportunistic kin, she hopes to reclaim “the space where imagination used to sit.” She points towards a collective terror of the inner life, of the sublime, of the poetic, of the non-material, of the contemplative.

The brother of the freedom-loving fire-thief Prometheus, Atlas was one of the titans who revolted against Zeus and the gods. He was punished with the weight of the world, literally. Winterson narrates her tale in the first person, underscoring the blurred lines between memoir and fiction, identifying with her subject and inviting the reader to do the same. She laces her novel with wit, frequently of the self-deprecating variety:

It’s in my name, I should have known. My name is Atlas – it means ‘the long-suffering one.’

The author illuminates psychological truths latent in these stories, linking them to religions and fairy tales alike: His punishment was a clever one – it engaged his vanity.

In a chapter called "Leaning on the Limits of Myself," memoir enters the narrative’s stream and a confessional Winterson merges her voice with her subject’s. In an earlier scene where Atlas encounters Hera, the near-omnipotent consort of Zeus asks the hero questions he cannot yet answer, leaving him with cryptic pronouncements ringing in his ears. Oracles – from Delphi to the Matrix – are misunderstood when taken literally. They are frequently corrupted by greed and ambition. Winterson contrasts Atlas’ flawed but pure heart with that of his comrade, Heracles, who “had no brains but plenty of cunning.” A near-invincible champion and bully, Heracles’ unrestrained lust and over-sized ego will be the consequential end to means that can never be justified. With ironic poetic justice, Heracles remembers his portentous oracle only in the moment of his death.

What can I tell you about the choices we make?
Fate reads like the polar opposite of decision, and so much of life reads like fate.

So opens the autobiographical interlude that lends Weight much of the force of its title.

I realize now that the past does not dissolve like a mirage. I realize that the future, though invisible, has weight. We are in the gravitational pull of past and future. It takes huge energy – speed-of-light power – to break that gravitational pull.

Recall the thundering tremolos that have a gravitational pull all their own in Schubert’s setting of Heine’s poem Der Atlas.

Ich ungl├╝cksel’ger Atlas! This can be translated as “unhappy” or “unlucky” Atlas. Heine’s poetry walks a tenuous tightrope between bitter satire and romantic pining over loss. His best lyrics function on both levels simultaneously, and thus his Atlas is also exile and outcast, punished for the vaulting ambition that yearns after freedom.

The whole world of sorrows must I bear / I bear the unbearable / And it breaks the heart inside me…

Schubert’s two-minute song is among the most terse and fierce he wrote, full of venom and sarcasm, directed inward as much as outwards, one imagines. Winterson understands.

I try not to burn up my world with rage. / It is so hard.

She also knows Dangerous things have to be contained. This can be a sobering recognition for a writer unafraid of the dark. Schubert and Heine understand.

But her story is ultimately about letting go, about releasing the burdens of the past by working through them. The two chapters preceding her confessional are entitled "No Way Out…" and "But Through." Following the death of Heracles, Winterson’s Atlas meets Laika, a dog from a 1957 sputnik. In a tender moment holding up a world of truth, she writes,

Now he was carrying something he wanted to keep, and that changed everything.

Various spiritual traditions evoke images of calling back the true Self. Whether from a fractured past or a crippling present, a compromise in the name of “success,” “profit” or “security,” the self, disabled, neglected and / or abused, requires renewal.

Winterson’s meditation merges science and psychology, astronomy and metaphysics. Such porousness should be more commonplace. Perhaps it is too dangerous.

The story moves at the speed of light, and like light, the story is curved. There are no straight lines. The lines that smooth across the page, deceive. Straightforward is not the geometry of space.

In the year since I first picked up Weight, I have experienced the most painful loss of my professional life. I was fired by an organization I was helping turn-around from a period of artistic uncertainty and fiscal disaster. We shared considerable success, and I remain proud of my work. An artist’s work is his offspring, and the lines between work and life are as meaningless to the artist as the distinction “parent” is to a father. Neither “role” is something one assumes like a title: it is who one is. It reaches the core of one’s being. Like Atlas, I rebelled against elders I found unreasonable and unjust. I am not trying to romanticize the prosaic circumstances by which an artistic director was fired by his board via email. I don’t condemn the cadre of friends and colleagues I assumed would join me in a fight that never happened. Betrayal is always painful, even when it manifests in silence or the "easy" path of least resistance. Pain is a prerequisite for growth, and stinging burns can be clarifying.

I'd always identified with Prometheus and the ambition that kindles industry and fires creativity. The indomitable flame of the human spirit is sparked by this freedom-loving dissident. Prometheus is vain, arrogant and proud, but he is fearless and his vision enlarges. Many of us artistic directors are guilty of his sins. We should all strive to be a torchbearers of his vision. But I had never identified with Atlas, he who does not act so much as endure. I have a better understanding of Atlas today, and hope I might find the freedom to laugh at my folly and the burdens I’ve foolishly shouldered. In the weeks following my firing, I joked that the board of the professional chorus I had led to not inconsiderable acclaim had done me a favor and relieved me of a great burden. Of course the bitterness and resentment thinly veiled by my deprecating remarks was part of the burden I’d imposed upon myself to a point of uncontainable toxicity.

Let me crawl out from under this world I have made. It doesn’t need me any more. Strangely, I don’t need it either. I don’t need the weight. Let it go. There are reservations and regrets, but let it go.

Winterson’s conclusions remind me of a poem I’ve read like a mantra since a dear friend and cousin forwarded it to me. My closest comrade in empathy, and an even greater victim of betrayal and injustice in a vocational setting eerily similar to mine, shared the following E. E. Cummings poem (from Complete Poems, 1904-1962):

let it go - the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise - let it go it
was sworn to

let them go - the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers - you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go - the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things - let all go

so comes love

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