Mr. Dame was quite ready to lie down in his box with a door on it. There was, however, a spare feline sitting on his doormat and most definitely between Mr. Dame and his goal. The cat was white with calicoed ears, a bell around its neck, and blue eyes that stared intently at Mr. Dame, possibly contemplating whether or not the abysses of Mr. Dame’s soul contained any fish.
“Pardon me,” Mr. Dame said politely to the cat, “but I don’t believe this is your home. As such, there is no food for you here at the moment.”
The cat tilted his head, confused by the assertion that where it was was not its home and that the immediately available human was not prepared to offer it food. Mr. Dame shook his head helplessly at the cat: facts were facts. The cat rose with a shrug, and then sauntered off with a tinkle of its bell, pausing just long enough to stretch its back legs as it went.
Mr. Dame pushed open the door to his apartment. The glow from the television was illuminating something standing in the middle of the living room. He blinked at it for a moment before realizing that it was the back of a painting easel. Mild rustlings and jinglings suggested that there was somebody on the far side, painting a still life of the television. He stood and stared for a moment, wondering what was about to confront him. Whatever it was seemed content to rustle and jingle on the other side of the canvas.
“Um, hello?” he greeted, mildly surprised that his subconscious was not actively engaging with him as before.
A short but strikingly beautiful woman sidestepped out from behind the easel. She was dressed in white with a menagerie of buckles, buttons, straps, snaps, and fasteners from the toes of her boots to the top of her bodice. Her wrists wore manacles as bracelets, with bells where the chains might have been. Her flawless skin was accented with lust-red lips and hair curls of molten copper, with the sparkle of a cloudless summer sky twinkling in her eyes. She had topped herself off with a floppy black hat with a bouncy plume. She looked, rather as Polonius had, like a refugee from a Renaissance Fair — but swaying to music which was presumably rocking the inside of her head, and being generally pleased about nothing in particular. “You ought to be ashamed,” she said, “to look so antique,” greeting him with playful irony.
Mr. Dame smiled helplessly and finished entering his apartment. He kicked the door closed behind him. “So,” he inquired while simultaneously regretting his shortcomings in small-talking abilities and wondering if it would be particularly odd to try to make flirtatious banter with his own subconscious, “who are you?”
“Oh, I play at many parts,” she assured him with a drawl on the plurality. “Tonight,” she added, studying her handiwork while her private music apparently played on, “I believe my part is being a goddess.”
Mr. Dame considered protesting this: when the divorce had separated him from his comfortably conservative notions of how life was supposed to be, he had also shrugged off his previously conceived notions of God, a point that Nick’s visit had made clear. But Nick had also failed to mention the swaying redhead Goddess that Mr. Dame was now confronted with. And Mr. Dame certainly hadn’t ever gone so far as to face the blasphemous assertion that God’s — or Goddess’ — prime existence was buried in his mind somewhere. But Mr. Dame was too exhausted coming into the close of the academic year to protest what was in front of him. Instead, he peaked around at the painting. “What is it?” he asked as his eyes worked to comprehend what they were seeing.
Freeze-framed on his television was Fight Club thirty-five minutes in, with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in the neon-darkened dive-bar parking lot reveling in pain between dodgy old cars while the pay phone had impersonal messages for nobody. Smeared out across the canvas, She had created a benighted parking lot with three guys sitting together in a row and swilling beer. The man on the right had a boulder readily at hand; Mr. Dame suspected that must be Sisyphus. On the left, the man was bigger and had a big ball of specks tucked in behind him. In the middle, Mr. Dame saw himself, with a golden apple round enough for rolling tucked in next to him.
“It isn’t nearly as widely known of a fact as some people suppose it might be that Atlas wasn’t tasked with carrying the world around,” She said, briefly glancing from the canvas to Mr. Dame, “but rather with holding the sphere of heaven up and apart from earth so that existence couldn’t revert to primordial chaos. Of course, the mighty titan Atlas holding the sky out of reach of the common man probably isn’t quite what Ms. Rand had in mind, but it does seem so very apropos, doesn’t it?” Her voice rippled like warm honey. Mr. Dame felt himself wanting to let himself go and luxuriate in the sweet softness of it, but refrained: he couldn’t see the connection between what She was doing and what he had been doing that he might let go of it.
“This isn’t really about literature or my career at this point, is it?” he inquired.
“You seem to have some a priori needs that we should look at first, Ed,” she answered.
“So what does the painting mean?”
“Well it’s an image of inadequacy, isn’t it?” She responded with a shrug, “there you are, not being Greek, much less immortal, with such a smaller little ball to roll around.” She paused in the critique of her art. “But that’s only the first meaning. There may be more to it later. Anyway, overall, you got 53 points,” She stolidly declared while applying another dollop of paint to the canvas.
For a year’s worth of work, the number sounded desperately low — but it was missing a critical piece of context. “Out of how many?” asked Mr. Dame helplessly.
“Hmmm?” She replied distractedly without looking away from her work.
“If I got 53 points, how many should I have gotten?”
“Oh there’s that inadequacy thing again,” She cooed. She paused in her painting and turned and gazed at him with sympathetic apprehension. Mr. Dame — Ed — felt his stomach collapse in on itself under the power of her gaze.
“By now you’ve had it spelled out for you that the overarching theme of literature studied is avoiding buried lives and heeding the mythological call to adventure, with a subtle sub-text of seeing how badly it all turns out because this is a public school you’re teaching at and the students need to not be getting uppity ideas in their little proletarian heads. The curriculum you were were contracted to teach, on face and as it stands, is a torture chamber of failures and horrors with the primary aim of stunting the ambitions of the most-capable students,” She said sadly. “Your opportunity,” She continued with winged words, “is to rebel against that agenda, not with braggadocio but with subversion. To teach the kids differently. Just because your sphere is small” — pointing at the small golden apple, pathetic next to a chunk of mountain or the whole of the heavens — “doesn’t make it not yours. To reject your burden just because it seems insignificant merely compounds the absurdity of it, as Camus knew: ‘A greater life cannot mean for him another life. That would be unfair.’ You’re supposed to be doing what you intend to do as well as you intend to do it and be thus satisfied with your results, or responsible to yourself for improving them.”
“I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” Mr. Dame quoted doubtfully, looking away.
“And what sort of word has escaped your teeth’s barrier? You mean: ‘I am not Prince Hammer, ergo I was meant to be squire Anvil,'” she said with audible dissatisfaction. “While you’re not happy about not being a great prince — never mind that Hamlet wasn’t even a good prince — you’re using the down-side of that, the ‘not meant to be,’ to defend yourself from having to improve. But Joe Campbell would readily tell you that ‘Not everyone has a destiny: only the hero who has plunged to touch it, and has come up again — with a ring.’ Or some other advantage that they salvaged from their times of distress and woe, as Bly would clarify. Just because you’re not capable of wrangling a princely destiny doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for your own.”
“Okay,” said Mr. Dame, frustrated at the same vague points he’d heard before being made again. “My real destiny would be what, exactly?”
“Oh, that would be telling,” She said mischievously, rolling her shoulders to an unheard rhythm. “But anyway, you wouldn’t want Hamlet’s destiny anyway. It doesn’t fit you.”
“What, with the whole stabbing and poisoning and whatnot thing? Yeah, that wouldn’t work out so well for me,” the thoughtful Mr. Dame said to her in answer.
Then in turn the red-haired Goddess corrected him: “No, I mean it wouldn’t fit you. You are the wrong size for Hamlet’s destiny. Because Hamlet was a minotaur,” She said with matter-of-fact confidence, turning back to her painting and adding a casual flourish. “That is,” She amended, “if you arrange the pieces in a certain way. Because if we start at the end and say that Hamlet is the mythology of how Fortinbras became King, then we see that the confession of Claudius sets him up as not just the bad guy, but a bad king who has set his personal gain before that of his people, as Campbell says Minos’s failure to sacrifice the bull of omen made him a bad king. The overwhelming concern of sexual impurity in Hamlet — going from Hyperion to a bestial satyr, for example — reflects how Pasiphaë was drawn to the bull. And then the destructive beast-man is hidden in the palace, Elsinore, instead of being allowed to return to Wittenberg, in a maze of misdirections and twisting passages, that being Hamlet’s insanity — real or feigned — and indecision. In the end, Theseus comes from the downtrodden land of Athens — or Fortinbras from Norway — to destroy the monster and when the monster is destroyed and he proves himself better than his mere lineage, he takes his throne without fighting for it. The roles of conqueror and ruler are thus separated, unlike how the ghost of Old Hamlet showed up in his 30-year-old warrior armor,” She concluded. Pausing to smear a bit of corner she added, “Or as Yoda would say, ‘Wars not make one great.’ So you can read some anti-imperialism in there as well.”
“So the Oedipal complex thing gets explained away in another way,” rejoined Mr. Dame, instantly feeling that he must be missing the point.
“When all you are is a tool, every problem looks like Freud’s mother,” She replied, adding a particularly incorrigible star to Atlas’s heavens. “There are three parts to a Freudian Oedipal complex as Dr. Freud originally envisioned it: first, the father is an unlimited despot who seizes all the women for himself; second, he kills or exiles all of his sons to prevent rivalry; third, the surviving sons unite and return to kill and cannibalize their father who was both their enemy and their ideal. Hamlet fails to hit the basic marks of that theory: Claudius isn’t banging Ophelia, Claudius and Gertrude want to keep Hamlet close to them, and Hamlet has no respect for Claudius at all. It wasn’t until Laurence Oliver won an Oscar for playing Hamlet opposite a Gertrude that was a decade younger than him that people started claiming that the Oedipal complex was obvious and important. I suspect it was merely popular,” she concluded disdainfully. “But the mythological hooks go deeper in Hamlet, stitching the drama on stage to the legends that they actively work to remind the audience of.”
“What, really?” asked Mr. Dame incredulously wondering how many versions of Hamlet he actually had packed in his skull.
“Oh yes. Hamlet being 30 years old is very suspicious, right? Obviously Jesus, allegedly born of a virgin and dead at 33, started his ministry when he was 30. But also when Alexander the Great, allegedly born of a virgin and dead at 33, was 30 his power had climaxed and he had to turn away from invading India, but Hamlet found him stopping a bung-hole. And Julius Caesar, that Hamlet suspected of preventing winter drafts, was — get this — captured by pirates when he was 30, rather like Hamlet was. As Stoppard noted, ‘Pirates could happen to anyone,’ and Shakespeare’s putting the ex in that machina ensures that they deus.” Her hat wobbled happily while wordplay sunk in. “So the age is used to create mythic associations to previous men who were larger than life,” She continued. “But we can go further noting that the peasant gravedigger says that ‘every fool’ can tell that young Hamlet was born on the day that the last king Hamlet overcame the older Fortinbras. The mythological implication is that Hamlet was carved by his father’s might out of an enemy; mother Gertrude was utterly uninvolved in the manly birthing process. Alternately, Hamlet’s age is bound not necessarily to his actual date of birth, but to his father’s greatest exploit — there’s Veblen again — and that’s how his divine right to the throne is assured.”
The thoughtful Mr. Dame said to Her in answer: “And yet the more mythological prince Hamlet becomes, the more sense it makes to everybody that the very real Fortinbras is on the throne at the end of the play.”
“Quite,” She said with a glittering smile. “And what have become of Hamlet’s ambition if Hamlet could have gotten into ‘country matters’ with whomever he chose? Jay Gatsby explains that he didn’t really want to do anything, he just wanted to make pillow talk of it all. That’s the grand irony of The Great Gatsby: the allegedly ‘great’ people are trying to bury their lives, trying to get away from their heroic adventures, trying to reject the personal development that they should be going through while they’re out in the wilderness, fighting in Europe, rolling through the valley of ashes — not languishing somewhere else looking for idle comfort and a bottle of booze. But Myrtle gets subsumed in Tom as Nick gets subsumed in Gatsby as Gatsby gets subsumed in Daisy. What we are reticent to admit is that having sex with somebody doesn’t qualify as cultivating our own selves, our own inner lives. Rather, we chase after other people, often with more regard for their inner knickers than for our own inner lives — and over such a little thing” she said dismissively as her eyes wandered past Mr. Dame’s trousers. “The strange irony here is that Prufrock might be closer to escape than Daisy: Daisy has a co-dependent streak which is leaving her always wanting a protector even though she likely doesn’t really need one. Prufrock, being detached and thus closer to the absurd may also be closer to an internalized rebellion, except that he is living in regret which is the additional subtext of his desire to be a crab — he wants to go backwards, as Hamlet described to Polonius in Act Two. But Fitzgerald’s crowd isn’t just wishing to be crabs, they’re working at it. And probably catching crabs, but that’s neither here nor there.”
“Ah, but that’s because Daisy was stuck being a dependent of the leisure class, right?” asked Mr. Dame, willfully ignoring the crab-catching double ententre.
She answered him in great indignation: “Scott’s too busy shoving Nick towards nihilism for a major transformation of Tom or Daisy, which forces them to reconcile over some pretense-free cold chicken. Daisy’s spinelessness in reinforcing the might-makes-right de facto quasi-misogynistic conservatism of Veblen is also blithely ignorant of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House written almost fifty years prior. It’s not a surprising straightness of events given Scott’s relationship with Zelda, but the end of the book smacks of desperate nihilism. Scott, and thus Nick, knows that ‘time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away,’ but his solution is to not just paddle harder, but also face the wrong way: everything he sees is already past and what he doesn’t see are the rocks in the stream or the waterfall he’s being carried towards.”
Ed looked away, ashamed. None of the words had been at him, but they were all about him and there was nobody else here. Her tone had been an all-too-familiar rebuke.
She paused, considering the damage done. “You really ought to get that looked at,” She said gently, as if evaluating a wound beyond her skill to care for. “You know you’re supposed to be paddling. You know your boat isn’t optimally positioned for it. But your mind is still upstream. And the danger of assassination is not because being in the stream makes you vulnerable, but because your inattentiveness makes you vulnerable.”
“Wait, what?” yelped Mr. Dame, jolted by the suggestion of being assassinated.
She answered him in winged words: “Gatsby’s death on the water evokes the image of the assassination of Albrecht I while crossing a river. Dr. Jung used Al’s failed crossing of water as a two-part archetypal image: first, for the assassins, it was a transition out of their passive state into a state of decisiveness indicated by overcoming a physical barrier as it was for Mr. Wilson entering the yard and seeing the man on the water, but secondly — and for our prime concern — the misalignment to nature, the nature that will sweep us all away, accentuates the mortality and vulnerability of the great person crossing it. Conversely, if you look to the children of Israel leaving Egypt and going into Canaan, both in the crossing of the Red Sea and in the crossing of the Jordan the detail of crossing on dry land is explicitly included; breaking the archetypal image of crossing water suggests invulnerability for the Israelites in their times of transition,” She said as if the pinball progression of Her pontification were the most natural thing in the world.
For his part, Mr. Dame had no winged words for an answer. “Jesus…” he muttered.
“… walked on water to show the adherents to the new religion that vulnerability wasn’t necessarily fatal,” She happily burbled, quite distracted from his consternation by the sudden need to add a handicapped marker to a parking space in Her painting. “Compare to Saint Peter whose first attempt at the water-walking trick was almost cut short by his loss of focus on Christ: vulnerability didn’t make him vulnerable, inattentiveness made him vulnerable.” She paused to consider the contradiction for a moment before adding: “It may well also be attached to the mythological cliche of people being swallowed by whales. But they tend to survive that, and Gatsby never got eaten by a whale, and also didn’t survive it, so I might be a bit off-topic. Where were we?”
“Vampires;” answered Mr. Dame incorrectly, but flowing to his own tangent, “they traditionally can’t cross running water. If the current of the water is the symbol of time passing through nature and the vampire as undead is an unnatural suspension of time in an individual, then we again see the vulnerability that the flow of time puts in even the oldest and least-changing of institutions.”
“Except for the sparkly ones,” She added, “but I don’t think they count. However, if you consider the suggestion that — was it Rosencrantz? — made about time having stopped for the spinning of a single coin, and then notice that they don’t exactly survive the act of crossing water to England, you might conclude that they were vampires. Or not. It’s just a thought.”
“But the departure from the start of this tangent was wrong,” Mr. Dame returned, “because Gatsby died in a pool, not crossing a river.”
“Well that’s partially true,” She conceded. “But Scott would want it to work on multiple levels. What other levels might there be?”
Mr. Dame thought about this. He envisioned a mansion with a glittering, chlorinated pool beside it. He envisioned a rider being shot off a horse while crossing an icy mountain stream — he wasn’t sure why, but suspected he’d seen it in a movie at some point. She watched him as the pondered, Her hands criss-crossing through the air, weaving his visions together. Then the thoughtful Mr. Dame answered Her: “Gatsby’s wealth has allowed him to domesticate the water, but domesticating the physical element doesn’t give control of the symbolism associated with it. This is the inversion of the leisure class — they’ve got the physical proofs of their ancestral qualities, but aren’t actually demonstrating the underlying powers of exploit. This is the refrain from Tom’s stables of horses he isn’t riding, or Gatsby’s library filled with great books that he’s not reading. The point being that his lack of control of the symbolism left him vulnerable where he thought he was strong.
“But Gatsby is also an inversion of Faust, isn’t he?” Mr. Dame continued rhetorically, “Because Gatsby can’t get over a girl and ends up getting shot for her in a pool, but Faust accepts that after Helen of Troy there are essentially no more women for him so instead he goes after the sea itself, not for power or glory, but because he regards the creeping tidal flats as an act of insurrection against God’s order that ‘here is where your proud waves halt.’ So the other subtext that Fitzgerald puts in there,” he bantered on breathlessly, so hypnotized by Her swaying beauty that he didn’t even realize the improbability of ideas coalescing in his mind, “is that if you’re content to just float on by with the socioeconomic power you’ve accumulated — in other words, bury your practice of living beneath your past success — then you’re effectively dead and gone. Ultimately he wanted to remind everybody of the underwhelming humanity of the ballooning leisure class, but, as the library scene showed, he doubted that he’d be successful at it. But he went ahead and published it anyway.”
Her smile wavered unevenly, but balanced between patience and approval. His mind tripped over itself as it jogged backwards trying to determine where it had come from to leave Gatsby dead in the water. His head throbbed dully as he guessed “But where we were at was despairing over Daisy?”
Then in turn the red-haired Goddess answered him: “Because Daisy isn’t going to change, isn’t going to transform, and that makes us despair for her similar to the other dismal characters in that book. But it’s that same lack of transformation, that same ‘all of this has happened before and it will all happen again,’ that makes us hope for Janie that her almost-different story doesn’t end in a bedroom that a hated man built and a loved man inhabited.
“But even Janie buries her life under whomever is available. She’s Daisy if Daisy had gone with Gatsby: she accepts opportunities as they are delivered but merely survives them rather than capitalizes upon them. A member of the existential leisure class, if you will. And that, paradoxically, is why we hope that the cycle of her life will continue so that she won’t be alone despite the fact that she should be wholly capable of being a strong independent woman by the end of the story.” She paused to add some muscles to Atlas.
“You’re comparing her to Faust also, aren’t you? How Faust set the terms for his final opportunity and capitalized on it to the end?” Mr. Dame said with slight reproach.
“I’m comparing her to any mythological hero,” She deflected, “though Faust does show how to grab a destiny and work with it. Remember Campbell: the people who have destinies have plunged in after them and come back with a foundational element to build their destiny upon. That’s a test that Janie appears to be failing at the end of her story, despite having ‘done been tuh de horizon and back’ in proper mythological form.”
“But… exactly… she had already passed her test,” protested Mr. Dame, “because she had gone on her journey and overcome trials and then returned to teach her people what she could. Right? ‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day’ — Eatonville — ‘into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered’ — a hurricane, a mad dog, a white jury — ‘and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure’ — to Eatonville — ‘with the power to bestow boons…'”
“Are you so sure of that?” She asked, cutting his recitation of Campbell short with a wave of her hand and flick of her hip. “Remember the hesitation of the Buddha, and compare it to Janie’s conclusion.”
Mr. Dame considered this. The Buddha had considered enlightenment to be unteachable, and it was only the pleading of heaven and earth that convinced him to at least try. Janie’s conclusion, however, had been that God and living were unteachable and people had to figure it out for themselves. This seemed like a shortcoming, and he admitted it. “So she’s neither Faust nor Buddha. I still think you’re being hard on her,” he concluded.
“So what is she, then?”
Mr. Dame almost snapped “just a person,” but held his tongue behind the barrier of his teeth. There were so many bits and fragments over what had been concealed or lost or buried that it seemed to inherently be the wrong answer. Nobody could really be just a person in literature — even Mersault could be the whole of French Imperialism. But Janie, she had gone from being a young girl to an old woman on the road there and back again with almost no family, no history, no religion, no ritual, no mythology. Then in turn he answered Her: “She is the African-American, always separate, always differentiated, always a bit cut off. She can’t successfully abstract her experiences into being teachable because she’s generally cut off from all abstractions. And the cut-offness and subsequent disenfranchisement is — or might be, I guess — the distinguishing point of that culture, as Hurston saw it. And so what Hurston does, here, then, is write a book for the disenfranchised on how to live. She’s trying to give them a mythology without actually going mythological. The forms are there to be related to, but the content stops short so that it is culturally relatable.”
“Very interesting,” She said, swinging her hips around in lazy pirouette, “but how did a god figure into that?”
“I’m sorry, come again?” Ed said, caught off-guard by the question.
“You claim that she had no religion or ritual or mythology. But she did,” She asserted, “and we hear it in every prayer for protection, it comes out in every lament, it is what buried the mule, and in the end it stared into a hurricane. They had a god, it was the the god of the Personality Disorder that demands perpetual toil until he gets angry and goes on a rampage through his creation. Hurston says that ‘Real gods require blood’ and ‘dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped’ — with an extra p to make it read kind of like horsewhipped — in much the same way the brazen narcissist will go into a frenzy at imagined sleights, such that those close to them live in the quiet and servile fear of outbursts.”
“Not unlike the pet dog which is a beloved animal for its ability to comprehend it’s master’s mood,” Mr. Dame recalled from the discussion of Veblen.
Then in turn the red-haired Goddess answered him: “Quite so, but the point is that when Hurston wrote the line ‘their eyes were watching God,’ she may as well have written ‘their eyes were watching alcoholic plantation owner hitting the bottle again.’ Because that’s pretty much what she meant. This only gets vaguely downplayed by their conceptualization of heaven, described by Mule Heaven, in which their reward for virtue is watching their former masters be stuck laboring in hell for eternity.”
Then the thoughtful Mr. Dame said to Her in answer: “A mule hoof stamping on the face of humanity for ever?”
She, shining among divinities, answered him in winged words: “In terms of not being able to define themselves separately from their oppressors and thus from their oppression, yes. But overall even their adopted religion sets up punishments in life and in death only a promise of punishing other people. There’s no room to grow or aspire in there. Their aspirations come up in the myth-making ‘we were kings and queens in Africa’ Black counter-culture, which you may scoff at on the basis that their ancestors had likely been conquered by other tribes and sold into slavery before Africa was generally colonized by Europeans anyway — yet your own myths and fairy tales tell you ‘we were princes and princesses in the Old Country’ as well. Because the Old Country is pretty much the same infantile regression for everybody, psychologically speaking, except for the hopeless nihilists who treat it like Janie’s Grandma did: as a fiction to be ignored.”
“Or a conspiracy of cartographers?” Ed added, unable to recall whether it had been Rosencrantz or Guildenstern who had turned that phrase.
She smiled at him politely. “But Hamlet also has problems with God as alluded to by Wittenberg, the place where Martin Luther started railing against the Catholic church. And while Polonius may well have claimed that function follows form, the point behind Wittenberg is that there’s disagreement on that point. To borrow David Hawkes’ very exacting language: ‘According to the Roman church, a sacramental sign is performative, so that participation does not merely signify but causes the advent of grace in the soul of the participant.’ Which Luther disagreed with because that’s how magic, not faith, works. And this conflict is brought back in burying Ophelia, trying to trick God into not damning her suicidal soul by giving her body a ritualized Christian burial, obviously, but then also when Hamlet thinks — in an odd breach of character — that Claudius could commit regicide but still go straight to heaven if he died while in a devout position; in both cases, the magical sign of devoutness supposedly causes God to behave in an exceptional way. And this may well have affected how the play was interpreted by the mixture of protestants and Catholics who’ve seen it over the years. The bit about worm-diets is the most trivial religious allusion in Hamlet; it’s the big ones that work like a river’s current — everybody ends up at the same point, but they’ll hit very different rocks on the way there.”
Mr. Dame’s head was spinning. He’d heard claims that the bit about worms eating Polonius being a pun on the Diet of Worms which had resulted in the official Edict of Worms, branding Martin Luther a heretic — but the possibility that it was a vein running through the play, and that Hamlet’s reference to it after slaying Polonius might indicate a protestant allegiance to function over form, had been beyond fathoming. It turned out that Mr. Dame still wasn’t Prince Hamlet nor…
“Alfred,” he said suddenly, “we’ve not really spent much time talking about him.”
She pondered this in her heart before she answering him with winged words and addressing him: “It is said of Odysseus, that ‘By nights he would lie beside her, of necessity, in the hollow caverns, against his will,’ where ‘her’ is Kalypso, the watery nymph-goddess of Being Away From Home. This is interesting because Alfred is not only not Hamlet, but also not Odysseus: while Odysseus wanted to get away from the sea-girl in her chambers of the sea so he can go home, Alfred wants to linger there with Kalypso specifically because he prefers Being Away From Home. But other than that, what’s to mention?” She shrugged. “After all, Alfred believes in the disinterested god of the Valley of the Ashes that might prefer to see a world of meekness through his soot-smeared bifocals, but certainly doesn’t show the meek any favor here. And Alfred’s belief is that similarly meek definition of ‘belief’ that means ‘hasn’t thought enough about to think or act differently.’ Similarly, Nick’s passive complicity makes him party to all manner of malfeasance. For them, morality and goodness are not forces or actions, but rather the default state of the liberal man, a state they can remain in so long as they resolutely refuse to take actions — even if they happen to find themselves in a compromising position with a mermaid. But Eliot rails against this attitude and these sorts of people throughout his work. In ‘The Hollow Men,’ Eliot lays out a hell for them: a parched savanna, always clouded but never raining wherein they are only vaguely remembered. Which is not far afield from where Mersault existed. The differences between those hollow characters are surprisingly slight.”
“If that’s how you’re measuring people, I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Winston,” Mr. Dame said, wondering how the whole of the curriculum would thus unfold.
For a moment She stood still, struck out of her rhythmic swaying by confusion. “Oh, you mean O’Brien,” she said with realization, her hips picking up the inaudible beat once more.
“No,” said Mr. Dame, suddenly confused and uncertain, “I meant…” he trailed off, realizing that he was effectively contradicting himself. The thoughtful Mr. Dame answered Her, asking: “What do I mean?”
Then in turn the red-haired Goddess answered him: “Mythologically speaking, O’Brien is the relevant actor in 1984. He views himself as Zeus, waiting for the Prometheans like Winston to come and steal the fire of hope for the people of the dystopian future. When Aeschylus wrote the myth of Prometheus, he grants the martyred hero lucidity; ‘no misfortune can fall upon me that I have not myself already foreseen,’ says Prometheus about the wrath that Zeus will unleash upon him. But in Orwell’s work, it is the vengeful O’Brien telling the weak and pathetic Winston ‘Nothing has happened that you did not foresee.’ With the power of the gods, O’Brien set out to smite some titans but all he got was some guy that he’s entrapped into rebellion in the first place.” She pondered this for a moment before adding, “Of course, if the Party really was trying to enforce the Hegelian end of history, then the reference to Prometheus would be an intentional reflection of the myth: the acquisition of fire may be regarded as the start of human history, oppressing every would-be fire-stealer is necessary to keep human history at its end.”
Mr. Dame gawked. “Wait, does that mean that 1984 is dystopian not so much because it’s horrid, but because it reverses a mythology to stack the deck against any protagonist, tragic or otherwise, ever? And at that level of the framework, the astounding implausibilities in the writing — like O’Brien spending years to create a trap for Winston — lose their relevancy because they’re not meant to be taken literally?”
“If it helps,” She assented. “Campbell’s studies showed him that ‘In the later stages of many mythologies, the key images hide like needles in great haystacks of secondary anecdote and rationalization; for when a civilization has passed from a mythological to a secular point of view, the older images are no longer felt or quite approved.’ But the symbols are there, almost certainly by intention — but buried under almost-plausibility, perceptible only to the people who aren’t focused too directly on them. ‘Project Mayhem,’ for example,” She said with an acknowledging gesture at the founding members of Fight Club on the glowing screen, “is laughably implausible in its particulars, but remains a relevant symbol — so it’s important to ignore the particulars. Unfortunately it’s the people who think the hardest about the particulars that need to be able to see the symbols at work the most. Janie’s Grandma, for example.
“O’Brien, however, is less implausible than you think: if they find themselves at the end of history, then there’s nothing else worth mentioning going on that would distract O’Brien from trapping Winston. But Orwell, in the strange company of intellectuals who excused Stalin’s gulags, failed to realize that there is no path to the end of history. The mere notion of the end of history exists only for the benefit of people who can’t justify what they’re doing now: it allows them to jump to absurd conclusions and imagine a future which redeems their current unjustifiable malfeasance — a phantasmal future which not only does not currently exist, but almost certainly never will because the one thing that history is good at is continuing past that point. Orwell’s redeeming optimism against the end of history throughout 1984, however, is that the Party has to lie about everything, revealing a lack of control: history will begin again, probably where least expected — such as Orwell’s choice to not write 1984 in Newspeak.
“I will totally grant your students that the British sex was dismal, though,” She declared with a slight embellishment of Sisyphus’ rock. “Albert mentioned a ‘dreary accumulation of erotic and criminal scenes… which, paradoxically, leaves the reader with the impression of a hideous chastity.’ I think it applies to Orwell even if Albert claimed to be critiquing the Marquis de Sade at the time. Then again, perhaps it is simply difficult to appreciate how little lust is required when none is allowed and, conversely, how little lust is desirable when it is unavoidable.” She shrugged helplessly.
“So I suppose you saw that, uh, particularly notorious song-and-dance routine, then?” Ed asked. The antics of celebrities that had coreographed a groin-grinding strip routine for national broadcast had once again lit up the Internets to be critiqued and parodied and even defended (though only in the abstract). The celebrity nymphette in this particular instance was barely older than Jenny, a point that moved Mr. Dame from merely cringing at the performance to being actively uncomfortable with it. Even so, it refused to be unseen: a pair of pretty people capturing the wealth and attention of a nation as they stripped down and dry-humped on the stage, managing to flaunt their sexual impunity while simultaneously remaining celibate. And no matter how often Ed told himself that he was alone to avoid getting hurt, that sort of display was a keen reminder that being alone also hurt.
The red-haired Player-Goddess stared patiently at his mortal frailty. “Well what I’ve seen,” She answered, “is porn stars performing with more professionalism, credible emotive depth, and dignity.” She shrugged. “Really, it’s not like I care what they do — but then they insist on doing it so badly. So inhumanely. And that’s the real reason you want no part of that, Ed,” She said gently. “You don’t really want that because you’ve chosen to not want that. I’m your goddess, not Aphrodite. And I know it hurts, but you are fulfilling my one demand: make your choice and pay for it.”
There was something in the sympathetic tone of Her voice that was concurrently infuriating and paralyzing in the rawness of its superiority. Mr. Dame wanted to shout at her, to tell her that she wasn’t much of a Goddess for reality to be this miserable, but he found himself gagging on his own breath. After a moment he regained enough composure to ask, “Do I at least get to know what choice I made?”
She smiled at him in a way that might have been reassuring if it didn’t mask worry so poorly. Yet she managed to answer him with winged words: “You chose to focus the whole of your being on serving the boundless future as a teacher, Ed. It wasn’t a rational decision. I’m not even sure it was a good decision. None of the justifications you dreamed up when you decided to pursue this vocation have survived the tests of time. But you have. You’re still here. And now that what you thought you were building your life out of has been blasted to ash, it’s up to you to figure out what you can salvage from the experience and carry forward — on this path, or on another.”
“Thank you for being so supportive,” he said bitterly, “No wonder I’m feeling so miserable and afraid.”
“Don’t blame me, Ed; your fear and misery is what makes your decision a dubious one, not the other way around. And you’re unhappy on the expectation that you’re failing at a life that’s meaningless,” She said bluntly. “Your job is to force literature down the throats of your students faster than they can possibly comprehend so that they will be, like Daisy, sophisticated, not by their efforts but by yours — where your efforts are following somebody else’s plan. You have difficulty going beyond merely following plans because you acknowledge that you are not the real teacher, you are merely the readily-replaceable substitute; anybody could carry out the ritual you are performing. And that ritual generates an idolatrous performative sign: the depth of humanity that should be signified by the literature is instead buried under the practice of dumping more literature on people whose lives are too young and insular to fully grasp it, such that result is a classroom full of sophisticated eidolons. That is the fear that is inhibiting your libido now, and it’s not much changed from the fear that helped drive your ex away. But most of all, that fear is what you have to rebel against with the whole of your being because you refuse to do anything less.”
Ed gawked at her. The grim undertone of her melodious voice sounded as if she expected the sacrifice of human lives tossed into the meat grinder of time. Which might not be so far from the truth.
“You can turn away,” She mentioned. “You can choose a different path. Nobody will think less of you but yourself. And whatever path you choose, because you are the person choosing it, you’re going to be right back here, with me, wondering why you feel so small against a task so large because you’re convinced that it takes the entirety of your being to pursue. Wherever you go, there you are.”
“So what would you do?” Ed asked. “If you were me, I mean.”
Then the red-haired Goddess, shining among divinities, answered him in winged words: “If I were you? Oh, you know what I’d do. I’d double-down. I’d say that I’ve been doing this for years and now I’m going to do it better because I’m doing it for me. I’d say that if anybody can do what I’m doing, then I need to get focused and try harder until what I’m doing is special, maybe even unique. Yes, it’s been a long and difficult year and you were not up to the task at hand. Even in the best there is still something to improve, but the easiest way to improve is to not be the best. Do you think you would have learned anything, realized anything, had any memories or recollections triggered if your students had all just nodded their empty heads and regurgitated whatever you asked them for as you’d expected when you started? No! The pains of inadequacy that you felt were the blessing of growing pains so you can do better in the future.”
“So… what? The kids I was utterly failing to teach make me a great teacher? That’s nonsensical.”
She sighed. “They opened up an opportunity that you have to bring to fruition over time. The lack of literary role models from the forgotten beginning to the unforeseeable end should be teaching you Joe’s best advice that, ‘All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it.’ And that’s something you should be able to do no matter how precocious your students turn out to be.”
Then he answered Her in turn, saying: “Pardon your servant, but I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant,” with sarcasm biting at truth. “I am slow of speech and tongue. Sometimes I think even my students know more about life than I do,” he concluded, glancing around the dingy apartment, bespeckled with shreds of rejection letters. “This kind of thing makes me wonder if my life is just another bad example.”
“What sort of word escaped your teeth’s barrier?” She said testily, regarding Her painting. “You and Atlas and Sisyphus are having quite the nice conversation on life.”
Then skeptical Mr. Dame answered Her: “Oh? And what are we saying?”
“If Albert were here,” She said, darkening Atlas’ shadow, “he would tell you that you guys — the titan, the superman, and the substitute — are sitting around and saying to each other: ‘You are not a god.’ Which is in many ways one of the critical points of being a good human.” She smiled at him in consolation.
This struck Ed as being quite odd: “But you claimed to be a Goddess; isn’t that a bit… blasphemous?”
She cocked an eyebrow at him, pausing as if to determine what She might say that he could understand. “What is blasphemy? It is taking a big truth and making it small. Or, conversely, taking a small truth and making it big. It can be taking a god’s name in vain when not catching a ball, or thanking a god when scoring a touchdown. You say I am a Goddess, and regard me as She and Her. But I said I was a goddess, with a small g, and am merely me. I’m not here to be The Truth, I’m merely here to be a truth. A bit of truth to make you hungry for more. Eastern religions line up their chakras and want you to progress up the little truths until you get enlightenment. Jesus denied his archetypal status, saying ‘Why are you calling me good? No one is good except God!’ And even Zeus was the son of Kronos. See the pattern of progression? So what blasphemy really is… is thinking that you’ve managed to wrap your head around it.”
A very small light dawned on Ed, a vision of the darkest reaches of infinite space still being illuminated by a similarly infinite quantity of stars. “And we invent a Santa Claus to teach kids about abstract virtues,” he added, “and that’s amazingly great, except that I don’t feel like Santa Claus. I feel” — he waved at the painting, at the two convicts of the gods with their chained balls and him with a golden apple — “like I’m being punished.” His vision of the universe shifted slightly; the stars were incalculably distant and he was anchored in the vacuous abyss by the gravity of the small golden sphere. He tried to howl in frustration, thrashing his body about as violently as he could, but no sound issued forth and there was nobody else to witness the spectacle. Exhausted, he felt himself collapse inward slightly. In the periphery of his vision, a crack appeared in the culture he’d been plastered in.
“Oh Ed, haven’t you learned?” she asked, kissing her paint-smeared fingertips and then reaching up to wipe away Ed’s tear, “The dangerous man is the one who claims a monopoly on truth. The poor man is the one who can only afford one truth and squanders the balance of his belief on the first one he hears. What is lovable in a man is that he is a crossing and then a descent; that what is great about a man is that he is a bridge, and not a destination.”
Ed laughed at the seemingly untenable divinity of the statement. “Well,” he suggested half-heartedly, “we’ll know better next time?”