Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Odyssey

The homecoming king

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In my last year at college, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to come back from the dead. I had decided to write my senior thesis about Amphiaraus, an obscure figure from Greek literature best known for a brief appearance in the eighth Pythian ode of Pindar. (When you’re majoring in a field that has been generating articles, term papers, and dissertations with monotonous regularity for centuries, you take your subjects wherever you can find them.) Amphiaraus was the legendary king of Argos, proverbial for his wisdom, who joined the doomed assault of the Seven Against Thebes, although he knew that it would end in tragedy. Because he was beloved by the gods, at the moment that he was about to die in battle, the earth opened up beneath him, swallowing him whole. Much of my thesis was devoted to describing his afterlife as an object of cult veneration, where he appears to have persisted as a chthonic oracle, delivering dreams to pilgrims at his sanctuary as they slept on the ground. He also occasionally returned in person, at least in literature—in Pindar’s ode, he’s evidently some kind of ghost or revenant, since he appears in a speaking role at a point in the narrative at which he should have been long dead. This is striking in itself, because in the ancient Greek conception of the underworld, most men and women survive only as shades, shadowy figures without any trace of memory or personality. In technical terms, when we die, we lose our noos, which can roughly be regarded as the part of the soul responsible for conscious thought. And the remarkable thing about Amphiaraus is that he seems to retain his noos even after his death, as an oracular hero who remains fully aware and capable of returning to our world when necessary.

As I tried to define what made Amphiaraus special, I went down a linguistic rabbit hole in which I was perhaps overly influenced by a curious book titled The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. Its argument, presented by the linguist Douglas Frame, is that the word noos, or “mind,” is connected to nostos, or “return,” the central theme of the Odyssey. (It’s where we get the word “nostalgia,” which combines nostos with algos, or “pain.”) The quality that allows Odysseus to make his way home to Ithaca is his intelligence—which, by extension, is also the attribute that enables Amiphiaraus to return from the dead. A rumor of this theory somehow reached John Updike, of all people, who wrote a story called “Cruise” that offered a portrait of a lecturer on a cruise ship that I’m still convinced was inspired by one of my professors, since he was literally the only other man in the world, besides Douglas Frame, who sounded like this:

His sallow triangular face was especially melancholy, lit from beneath by the dim lectern bulb. The end of the journey meant for him the return to his university—its rosy-cheeked students invincible in their ignorance, its demonic faculty politics, its clamorous demands for ever-higher degrees of political correctness and cultural diversity. “ΚΡΝΩ,” he wrote on the blackboard, pronouncing, “krino—to discern, to be able to distinguish the real from the unreal. To do this, we need noos, mind, consciousness.” He wrote, then, “ΝΟΟΣ.” His face illumined from underneath was as eerie as that of a jack-in-the-box or a prompter hissing lines to stymied thespians. “We need no-os,” he pronounced, scrabbling with his invisible chalk in a fury of insertion, “to achieve our nos-tos, our homecoming.” He stood aside to reveal the completed word: ΝΟΣΤΟΣ. In afterthought he rapidly rubbed out two of the letters, created ΠΟΝΤΟΣ, and added with a small sly smile, “After our crossing together of the sea, the pontos.”

In the end, I moved away from this line of reasoning, and I spent most of my thesis developing arguments based on readings of words like poikōlos and polēplokos, which described the quality of mind—a kind of flexibility and resourcefulness—that was necessary to achieve this return, whether to Ithaca or to the world of the living. Until recently, I hadn’t thought about this for years. Over the weekend, however, I read a wonderful profile in The New York Times Magazine by Wyatt Mason of the classicist Emily Wilson, who has published a new translation of the Odyssey. Much of the article is devoted to a discussion of the word polytropos, which appears in the very first line of the poem as a description of Odysseus himself. Wilson explains:

The prefix poly means “many” or “multiple.” Tropos means “turn.” “Many” or “multiple” could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner…So the question of whether he’s the turned or the turner: I played around with that a lot in terms of how much should I be explicit about going for one versus the other. I remember that being one of the big questions I had to start off with.

And it’s precisely this notion of slipperiness and changeability that I often saw in descriptions of Amphiaraus, who, like Odysseus, has affinities with the god Hermes—the crosser of borders, the conductor of souls, the trickster.

The same qualities, of course, also tend to be present in writers, poets, scholars, and all those who, in W.H. Auden’s words, “live by their wits.” This may be why translators of the Odyssey have been so preoccupied with polytropos, which stands as a signal at the beginning of the poem of the intelligence that you need to make it all the way to the end. As Mason writes:

You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s sixty some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started.

Mason lists dozens of variants, including Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; and T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded.” Perhaps for sentimental reasons, I’m partial to Lawrence’s version, which recalls my old favorites poikōlos and polēplokos in evoking a sort of visual variety or shiftiness, like the speckled scales of a snake. And Wilson? She clearly thought long and hard on the matter. And when I read her solution, I felt a shiver of recognition, as well as a strange pang of nostalgia for the student I used to be, and to whom I still sometimes dream of returning again: “Tell me about a complicated man.”

Written by nevalalee

November 6, 2017 at 8:44 am

“A kind of symbolic shorthand…”

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"A kind of symbolic shorthand..."

Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 36. You can read the previous installments here.

When we remember a story after the fact, our minds have a way of producing juxtapositions and connections that weren’t there before. Most fans, for instance, are aware that Kirk and Khan are never in the same place at the same time in Star Trek II, and their only real face-to-face confrontation, courtesy of a viewscreen, consists of a single scene. Still, they’re indelibly associated in our imaginations, certainly more so than the modern incarnations of the same two characters who shared so much screen time in a far less memorable movie. Similarly, in the movie version of L.A. Confidential, Jack Vincennes says just one line to Bud White—”White, you better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody”—and Bud doesn’t even bother responding. Yet we rightly think of Vincennes and White as two points in the movie’s central triangle, even if they interact largely through the contrasting shapes that they assume in our heads. As I wrote in a post on Legolas and Frodo, who also interact only once over the course of three Lord of the Rings movies: “We think of a novel or movie as a linear work of art that moves from one event to the next, but when we remember the books or films we love the most, even those that follow a strict line of action, we have a way of seeing everything simultaneously, with each piece commenting on every other.” When the book is closed and put back on the shelf, all the pages overlap, and links appear between characters that aren’t really there when the story is experienced as a sequence.

You could also make the case that separating characters can paradoxically result in a closer relationship than if they were physically together. When two characters share a scene, they can’t help but be themselves; when they’re further apart, each one begins to seem like a commentary on the other. Closeness tends to emphasize dissimilarity, while distance stresses the qualities they share. Some movies do this deliberately—like Heat, which keeps Pacino and De Niro separated and invites us to draw the parallels—while others do it by accident. (In L.A. Confidential, it seems to have been a little of both: Vincennes and White simply wouldn’t have much to talk about, and trying to force them into a conversation would have subtly diminished both men.) Movies and books benefit from the way we’ve been taught to read them, in which we assume that two lines of action will eventually converge. It’s a narrative technique as old as the Odyssey, and it can be used to create anticipation and lend structure to the story even if it never quite pays off. The first season of Fargo devoted a lot of time to foreshadowing a confrontation between two characters, played by Allison Tolman and Billy Bob Thornton, that it ultimately didn’t feel like providing. This worked well enough as a strategy to unite a lot of disconnected action, but the second season, which has consisted of a series of immensely entertaining collisions between disparate characters, reminds us of how satisfying this kind of convergence can be if it’s allowed to play out for real.

"I'm not responsible for what you've heard..."

And one of the unsung arts of storytelling lies in drawing out that distance as much as possible without losing the connection. One of the basic rules of visual design is that two elements in a composition, like two dots on a canvas, create a tension in the space between them that didn’t exist before. Elsewhere, I’ve written:

Two dots imply a line…No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story…In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.

The tricky part is the placement. Put your dots too far apart, and they no longer seem related; too close together, and we tend to see them as a single unit. Much the same goes for characters, and it’s no accident that many of the fictional pairings we remember so vividly—like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, or Holmes and Moriarty—consist of two figures who spend most of their time apart, which only adds to the intensity when they meet at last.

I thought about this constantly when I was cracking the plot for Eternal Empire, in which Wolfe mostly keeps her distance from Maddy and Ilya, the two other points in the narrative triangle. Maddy and Ilya eventually converge in a satisfying way, but Wolfe isn’t brought into their story until the very end, and even then, their interactions are minimal. In the case of Maddy, they consist of a voice message and a long conversation in the last chapter of the book; with Ilya, Wolfe has little more than a charged exchange of glances. Yet I think that Wolfe still feels integrated into their stories, and if she does, it was because I devoted a fair amount of energy to maintaining that connection where I could. Wolfe spends a lot of time thinking about Maddy and following her movements, and even more so with Ilya—who also gets to send her a message in return. In Chapter 36, I introduce the concept of the “throw,” a symbolic shorthand used by thieves to send messages. An apple cut in half means that it’s time to divide the loot; a piece of bread wrapped in cloth means that the police are closing in. And when Wolfe finds a knot tied in a dishtowel at the crime scene in Hackney Wick, she realizes that Ilya is saying: I’m not responsible for what you’ve heard. As a narrative device that allows them to communicate under the eyes of Ilya’s enemies, it works nicely. But I also love the idea of a visual symbol that allows two people to speak over a distance, which is exactly what happens in many novels, if not always so explicitly. As Nabokov puts it so beautifully in his notes to Eugene Onegin, which I read while plotting out this trilogy: “There is a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another…”

The genius and the journeymen

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Yesterday, while reflecting on Built by Hand and the beauties of vernacular architecture, I wrote:

What vernacular architecture expresses, more than anything else, is the pragmatism of collective activity over time. Each house is rooted in generations of trial and error, as builders experimented with new techniques and gradually established what worked and what didn’t, and it stands as a reminder of how limited individual effort, even by architectural “visionaries,” can seem by comparison.

Yet this isn’t entirely accurate. There’s a place for vision and genius along with collective progress, and vernacular architecture was shaped, like all art forms, by an alternation between the two: a long period of experimentation crystallized by the work of one highly gifted individual, then subjected to an equally lengthy process of consolidation and refinement. Humanity as a whole can modify and improve traditional techniques, but the really epochal innovations in architecture—the post and lintel, the arch, the dome—are more likely to have emerged in a disconnected flash of insight and intuition. Continuity only takes us so far; it’s the sudden discontinuities, the ideas that abruptly reinvent what we thought we knew, that lead to real innovations. And it’s only through individual moments of genius, rooted all the while in tradition, that such leaps forward take place.

If I speak with such confidence about the history of architecture, despite not being an architect myself, it’s because we can see the same process at work in all areas of human endeavor. Literature offers us the same pattern again and again: stories and narrative strategies are developed over time, formed into a cohesive whole by the efforts of one extraordinary artist, and then refined into a genre by the journeymen who follow. The Homeric epics, for instance, are obviously the product of an oral tradition, and scholars have long since discarded the myth of a single blind poet in favor of the work of generations of professional storytellers. Yet the Iliad and the Odyssey as we know them now are the product of several particular moments—notably the Peisistratean recension and the editions made by the scholars Zenodotus of Ephesus and Aristarchus—that standardized the text into its current form. These editors engaged in selection, emphasis, and editorial shaping, and much of the beauty and coherence of the resulting text can be credited to their efforts. And it’s almost certain that the material on which they worked had been advanced and elevated at earlier stages by the work of one or two exceptional rhapsodes.

Achilles and Ajax

Even in more recent times, literary genres are the product of the same pattern of alternation. If The Woman in White is widely considered to be the first detective novel, it reflects a gathering up of material that had already been worked on by the likes of Poe and Dickens, and the genre as we know it now is less the product of any one author than the sum of the innovations of many lesser works. Every generation or so, these hints, buried here and there in the existing literature, are compiled, reimagined, and carried higher by an author who points the way forward. It’s impossible to understand either half of the process without the other, and neither is as powerful on its own. Geniuses who work in complete isolation—if such a thing is possible—are deprived of the collective discoveries made by the larger culture, while the culture as a whole depends on discontinuous insights to advance to the next level. This is even more evident in the sciences, which rather uneasily depend on an alternation of incremental progress and epochal disruption. Darwin, as Daniel Dennett notes, may have had the greatest idea of all time, but it came into the world at a point when evolution was in the air, waiting for a major figure who could unify the clues.

And it’s fascinating to watch the same principles at work today. I’ve railed more than once at the problem of misquotation—or, more accurately, of misattribution—but it’s possible to see the garbled versions of famous quotes as a kind of collective revision, an editorial process that occurs as scraps of text and information are passed from one listener to another. “To gild the lily” may be a misremembering of “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,” but I’m not entirely sure that Shakespeare would have minded; he may have thought that the misquoted version was tighter and more memorable. The original line from King John may have been the work of a moment, while the rest of us have had centuries to mull it over and find a version that we prefer. This doesn’t excuse more egregious distortions of meaning, and I don’t want to reduce our cultural heritage to one long game of telephone. But time can do mysterious things when combined with the erratic workings of many human minds, especially when it meets an individual personality that can shake it into a new form. We’re smarter in the aggregate, but mostly in predictable ways, and we need both occasional genius and collective wisdom to survive.

Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2014 at 9:41 am

“When the door of the guest room opened…”

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"When the door of the guest room opened..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 27. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Stories are about convergence. At least, they are these days. The very oldest stories we know—fairy tales, folklore, biblical narratives—tend to follow a single protagonist from one event to another, as do the earliest stories we write as children. It didn’t take long, however, for storytellers to discover the power of converging action. We see this kind of structure as early as The Odyssey, which opens with Telemachus, Penelope, and the suitors at Ithaca before cutting away to our hero, with the implicit promise that the two threads of the narrative will converge before the poem is done. Ever since, writers have understood that two or more stories, properly arranged, can add up to more than the sum of their parts: given a pair of characters in initially separate storylines, the reader naturally wonders what the two parts of the plot have to do with each other, and looks ahead to their ultimate collision. This kind of anticipation is central to suspense, which is really just another word for any narrative in which we’re curious about what happens next, and the techniques of intercutting, parallel action, and intersection are among the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal.

And the true potential of convergence wasn’t fully realized until the coming of film. Every cut in a movie is a form of narrative juxtaposition, with edits that marry segments of footage that might have been filmed days or weeks apart, and filmmakers quickly realized how useful a tool this could be. We see this at the climax of a movie like Argo, for instance, which manipulates the audience beautifully as it cuts between pursuer and pursued, and also at higher, more sophisticated narrative levels. I’ve spoken many times about how deeply influenced I’ve been by the structure of L.A. Confidential, which follows its three very different cops on separate investigations that converge ever more insidiously as the plot unfolds. Even more lovely is the structure of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, which follows Julian and Vicky as they enter the world of ballet, allowing them to cross paths occasionally, only to reveal, deliciously, that they’ve fallen in love while our attention has been elsewhere. And it’s for reasons like this that all of my published novels have been conceived with such a tripartite structure in mind.

"I don't want to go back to the share house..."

That said, the trouble with this sort of plot is that a lot of moving parts need to be set in motion, and given room to develop, before their convergence can have any meaning. This is one reason why The Icon Thief and City of Exiles can seem, at least to some readers, to take their sweet time in revealing what they’re really about: unlike a novel that follows a single character all the way through, these books need to establish three distinct storylines, with their attendant backstory and exposition, before finally bringing them together. Extend the process too long, and the reader becomes tired and confused; cover the ground too quickly, and you lose some of the frisson that comes when the pieces finally entwine. Finding a balance that will allow these storylines to gather the necessary momentum, while also giving the reader a satisfying experience in the meantime, has been one of the most challenging aspects of writing these books, and I’m not always sure I pull it off. There are times, for instance, when I wish that The Icon Thief were a little bit faster out of the gate. But when the threads do converge, I’d like to think that the effect is worth the wait, as in Chapter 27, when Maddy and Powell properly meet at last.

Although I haven’t checked in a while, I’m pretty sure that this is one of the longest chapters in the novel, and for good reason. I’ve spent close to half of the book establishing these two characters, and now, after the heist that Maddy witnessed and which Powell failed to prevent, they have a lot to talk about. Ilya, my third protagonist, isn’t present, but he’s certainly there in spirit—and it’s here, as Powell questions Maddy about what she saw, that all the pieces of the narrative finally become one. In some ways, this is the hinge moment of the entire novel, and the rest of the book will be devoted to working out the implications of the components I’ve laid out so far. Of course, it isn’t enough to simply bring the pieces together without some additional complication. In this case, it comes after Powell is gone, when Maddy and Ethan leave the mansion and, somewhat to their surprise, end up spending the night together. This is the second big convergence in this chapter, and one that will have significant consequences for the rest of the story, as it starts to subtly shift in tone from intrigue to paranoia. In some ways, this is where the story really begins. But the pieces have been waiting to come together for a long time…

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

The Shining, Apocalypse Now, and the uses of allegory

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On Saturday, in what seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate the completion of Part I of my new novel, my wife and I caught a midnight showing of The Shining at the Music Box in Chicago. Watching The Shining again was a reminder of how central this extraordinary film is to my experience of the movies: while 2001 may be Kubrick’s most ambitious film, and Eyes Wide Shut his most narratively intricate (as well as underrated), The Shining strikes me as his most purely satisfying work, and as such, it has always occupied a peculiar place in my imagination. The Overlook Hotel, as conceived by Stephen King and brought to life by Kubrick, is one of the greatest locations in all of cinema, and it’s the perfect stage for a series of unparalleled set pieces that are frightening, beautiful, and often very funny.

After the movie was over, I showed off a bit to my wife by pointing out the symbols that Kubrick uses to imply that the story of the Overlook is, in fact, an allegory for the history of America: it was built on an Indian burial ground, occupied by the British (as symbolized by the incongruously English ghost of Grady, the hotel’s previous caretaker), and inherited by American pioneers (hence Jack’s lumberman’s jacket and axe). And this network of symbols informs many aspects of the film, both large, like the uncomfortable fate of Scatman Crothers’s black psychic, who makes the long trip back to the Overlook only to be slaughtered on arrival, and small, like the designs on Danny Torrance’s sweaters, with their handmade versions of Mickey Mouse and the Apollo 11 spacecraft. It all ends with a closeup of a single date: July 4, 1921. And I believe that Kubrick’s use of such images is very intentional.

But then my wife asked a question that brought me up short: “So what is it trying to say?” Which caught me at a bit of a loss. My first response was that trying to sum up The Shining into a single message was doing the movie a disservice. After all, if Kubrick had meant it to be an allegory, clearly the movie itself was the simplest possible expression of the message he had in mind. But the more I thought about it, the less certain I became that there even was a message, which raises the question of what the allegorical elements were doing there at all. The question seemed all the more urgent because I’d had a similar experience, earlier that week, while watching Apocalypse Now Redux on Blu-ray. Coppola’s flawed masterpiece openly evokes not only Heart of Darkness but also the Odyssey—the river patrol boat encounters the Cyclops, the Sirens, Hades, and (in the extended version) the Lotus-Eaters. Which is great for critics playing a game of spot-the-reference. But what does it really mean for the viewer?

My more considered response, which I’m still working through in my own head, is simply this: it doesn’t necessarily need to mean anything. The role of allegory, at least in terms of my own reactions, isn’t so much to convey a message as to set up a chain of associations in the viewer’s mind. The Shining and Apocalypse Now are echo chambers in which images and symbols can jangle against one another, evoking other myths and works of art, and setting off unexpected vibrations within the story. The best allegories should be all but invisible, at least at first viewing, and even afterward, they continue to resist verbalization, because any allegory sounds weak and reductive when boiled down to a sentence or two. If we say that The Shining is about the violence inherent in the American experience, we risk two responses: first, a sense that this message isn’t exactly original, and second, a stubborn insistence that the movie isn’t about this, but rather a series of images and moments that can take up their own life in the experience of the viewer.

Which brings us to perhaps the most useful aspect of allegory: it helps the author find his way. I’ve written before about how structural constraints allow a writer to make unexpected discoveries about his own story, and though I was referring mostly to genre and plot, it also applies to allegory—which is only another way of bringing the reader from point A to B. And it seems clear that Coppola and Kubrick came up with artistic discoveries, using their allegorical elements as a guide, that they wouldn’t have made otherwise. Coppola admits that he didn’t have an ending to Apocalypse Now until almost the day they shot it, when he saw that a mythic journey had to have an equally mythic ending—that is, the sacrifice of the divine king. And The Shining is full of design choices that owe their existence to an almost subterranean allegory, invisible at first, but imperceptibly enriching the viewer’s experience. Is there a deeper meaning? Sure. But not one that can easily be put into words—at least not when it’s all there in Nicholson’s eyes.

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