The Pulse: B.C.
In the Dark Water
The Subcircadian Homework Blues
Narcissus laid down his tired head on the green grass. Death closed the eyes that had wondered at the beauty of their lord. Even when he crossed over to the abode of shadows, he kept gazing in the dark water of the Styx. — Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 3
The exam booklets are on every table of the Osbourne Gymnasium. The clock has struck the hour. The pennants flutter in the wind of the air-conditioner above. The thunderbird elders are watching, with eagle eyes. They’ve seen what the humans have done to the forests, the rivers, and the fish in the sea. They’re anxious to hear what the young humans have to say about it all.
The Inquisitors exchange wry glances across the gym, while the students recite The Lord’s Prayer in Tagalog, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, French, and English. Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death…
I must remember everything. Otherwise the Grand Inquisitor, who knows everything, will assume that I know nothing.
The Inquisitors are making their rounds of the gymnasium, like priests in Blake’s Garden of Love — And I saw it was filled with graves, / And tomb-stones where flowers should be: / And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds.
Gymnasium, from the Greek gymnós, "naked"; from gymnazo, "to train naked." The Grand Inquisitor, Dr. Anthony Rexroth, would like that.
The exam paper lies before me, like a siren mocking Odysseus. Old Rex even went to the trouble of printing the exam on coloured paper. Hellish shades of violet. A warning about the journey ahead.
2:00 Am the night before
Six hours to go until the exam. I consult the prep sheet. Six possible topics to write on: tragedy, the epic, beauty, the journey, love, and war. Dr. Rex added the following instructions: “You will write your essay on one of the six topics. At the beginning of the exam, I will roll a dice and Fate will determine when your number is up.” To underscore his point about Fate, he included a colour print by Walter Crane:
Six hours to go. Six topics to choose from. Six paths into the dark woods. 6 X 6 X 6. If that isn't ominous, what is?
I spent most of the last week guessing which topic Dr. Rex will choose. This isn't as crazy as it sounds: by doing that, I recalled what he said about each topic, and I made connections between them.
Four days ago, I went on a quest for a book I could use for all six topics. I finally found it: Germanic Myth: From Snorri to Wagner. Old Rex said something about it months ago. I found it, unopened, at the bottom of five or six books we were supposed to have read over the term.
Germanic Myth worked for all six topics: it was full of Fate and Tragedy, it had a journey of hell-bent demons in a boat, epic battles, beautiful flying women, mighty heroes, and powerful misguided men. When I cracked it open, the first thing I saw was The Battle of the Doomed Gods (1882) by Friedrich Heine:
The End of the World. While reading the first story — The Völuspá or The Prophecy of the Völva — I listened to Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, hoping that the spirits of the North would descend upon me like a storm of warrior poets ready for battle.
My eyes are weary yet caffeinated to the point of hallucination. The Epic, from Odysseus to J. Alfred Prufrock.
I suspected the Grand Inquisitor would pick that one. Why? Because Old Rex is a Classical Greek scholar and is in love with Byron. He also looks alot like J. Alfred Prufrock.
I pour a bath to settle my nerves, and set up a makeshift work station surrounding the furious tumbling of water. Germanic Myth is straddling the faucet, held in place by the hot and cold water taps. I turn the pages, slightly moistened by the turmoil below the falls. On the toilet seat is my trusty Mac Air — thirteen inches of screen and plastic keys connecting me to the chaos and harmony of the world.
I'm mesmerized by the apocalyptic language of the Völuspá. The rebel Loki, the wolf Fenris, and the giant snake Jörmungandr are making their assault on the Aesir gods. Together with the fire-giant Sutr, they’re about to tear down heaven, light it on fire, and sink it into the sea.
Old Rex is obsessed with the Greeks, their Golden Age, their law and order, their famed democracy, and, above all, their Iliad and Odyssey. Yet I can’t help thinking about two couplets, one by Alexander Pope in the 18th century, and the other by Sir John Squire in the 20th. One celebrates the dawn of the scientific age, epitomized by Newton and his angelic laws; the other responds cynically that science can just as easily lead the other way, where angels fear to tread.
"Nature and Nature's Law lay hid in Night. / God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light."
It did not last; the Devil howling, Ho! / Let Einstein be! restored the status quo."
Old Rex himself told us that according to both Hesiod and Ovid the Greeks start in chaos and darkness, think briefly and freely in the sunlight, then fall back into darkness — war with the Persians, the execution of Socrates, then a fratricidal war with the Spartans. It seems to me that all of this was prefigured in the Iliad, with the fall of the beautiful, cvilized city of Troy. Several nights ago I was worried that Old Rex might pick the topic of war, so I watched Troy. I ws moved by how sad Achilles and Priam are at the end, when they see the enormous futility of it all. After all the lame reasons for battle and butchery, Peter O’Toole sneaks into the Greek tent and sits with Brad Pitt, the two lamenting as only enemies can. Achilles and Priam, having lost everything, for nothing.
If the Trojan War was the start of Western Civilization, it was a bad start. And it never really ends, does it? There’s no such thing as Mission Accomplished or The war to end all wars. Maybe the most sane voice is that of Wilfred Owen, who wrote poetry in the trenches of World War I, and then died a week before Armistice:
Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917)
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Maybe these Vikings — the ones we conveniently distance ourselves from, and treat as violent figments of the Dark Ages — aren't so different after all. Maybe the battle of the gods — the dark vision of the völva, with its destruction of the world — is what we keep doing, despite our vaunted Classical Age, our Renaissance, and our Enlightenment.
And maybe the women — represented by Wagner’s wild rheinmaidens and by the fateful valkyries — are our only hope. We see this idea in the figures of Athena or Mary, yet they aren’t alien to Norse myth — as we can see in this image of Freya, the goddess associated with both the visionary völva and the valkyries.
Freya resides over the dead in Fólkvangr, yet Rackham follows Wager in fusing Freya with Iðun, goddess of apples and youth. He arrives at a strikingly pure, and yet simultaneously impure possibility — reminiscent of Eve at the moment of her most human desire to know.
Also influenced by Wager, Edward Hughes depicts the usually dreadful valkyrie — who thunders through the air, choosing the slain from the battle field — as peaceful and compassionate.
There may be no Virgin Mary in Norse myth (even the lofty Freya is notorious for her promiscuity), yet there’s a deep connection to nature, and there’s a pagan redemption of sorts. This third image, also by Rackham, depicts the valkyrie Sigrífa, with what looks like a spear at her feet, lifting her arms to the beauty of the sky.
The gods and demons cascade downward through the spout, swirling into a maelstrom. I google images that might put this into some kind of artistic perspective, just in case Old Rex makes us write on Sappho and Wilde, Ovid and the Earl of Rochester. On one side are the fiery warriors from Muspelheim, full of old grudges. On the other side are the mountain nymphs, the Oreádes, among them the unfortunate Echo. One group of males rains down fire and anger from the heavens, while the other group of females rises upward to the heavens, away from the violence and the lechery of men:
I get lost in Bouguereau’s ascent of pink and white bodies. How to become part of that flow? How to go from a satyr to an angel in the sky? How to avoid the fate of Freya and Echo — to escape a capture by brute force or a desire so great that you turn into an echo of everything around you?
Maybe the Rheinmaidens are our only hope. Lifting up from the dark green depths, they offer an antidote to the violence and narcissism of men. They’re the beauty of Nature, and the nature of Beauty.
I get a piece of paper and try to depict it all in a diagram: tragedy goes down, beauty goes up. Beauty goes up, even if it's a tragedy. Tragedy enters into everything. The epic and the journey intervene, with all their combinations of love and war.
Beauty enters into everything, especially if we think of nature as beyond what we humans think. The sheep on the hill, the fish in the deep, the rheinmaidens from the swirling waters. Perhaps Coelho got it right in The Alchemist when he has the mountain nymphs remind the lake that it’s the true judge of Narcissus’ beauty: The lake remained silent, and then said, “I’m crying for Narcissus because each time he bent over at my water’s edge, I could see the reflection of my own beauty deep inside his eyes.”
Why do we fixate on Greek versions of tragedy when we've got so many versions of our own? Instead of repeating Aristotle’s fall of a noble man, why don’t we look at civilization itself, as it seems so willing to fall, again and again? It’s all there in Bob Dylan’s "Subterranean Homesick Blues": “Look out kid / It's somethin' you did / God knows when / But you're doing it again.”
I look down into the swirling water and see it all happening. I see the crowds swirling toward the beach. Promenade des Anglais. Nice. The beauty of the goddess Isis turned into a monster, mowing down infidels on the fourteenth of July. The Bataclan. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Vietnam and Iraq. Syria and the Congo. Water shortages. Eight billion people and counting.
The battle of the gods rises from the confused currents and trembling stretches of calm. This is going to be total collapse.