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Published: Mon Jan 23 2017
Salman Toor, Construction Men (detail), 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, N.Y. Photo: Farzad Owrang.
Don’t Get Hysterical, Get Historical—and Mythical

Precisely a week before the dreaded inauguration, I found myself thinking about work written by Euripides, W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman, and—a couple of months ago—by some of my students at Rutgers-Newark. In however zig-zaggy and haphazard a fashion, allow me to try to join this constellation of dots—or as Auden put it in “September 1, 1939,” these “ironic points of light.”

A graduate seminar on myth in literature I taught this past fall met on Wednesday afternoons. On November 9, I walked the students through “September 1, 1939.”

To the best of my recollection, not one of the dozen of them (both MA and MFA students) was familiar with Auden’s work at all. Marilyn Hacker, in her trenchant essay “Poetry and Public Mourning,” reminds us that “Auden wished to excise some of his early political poetry from his oeuvre because he had ceased to hold the convictions there expressed: many readers go on reading these poems, wherever they stand in their politics.” It’s well known that “September 1, 1939” was widely circulated on the Internet after 9/11. It’s also the case that some people quickly began to refer to November 9, 2016 as “11/9.”

The reading on our syllabus that week was Euripides’ play _Iphigenia in Aulis. _And although for part of the afternoon Iphigenia yielded air time to Auden, her compelling and nightmarish story continued to preoccupy the students. In addition to Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians, we’d read Barry Unsworth’s hard-hitting 2003 novel The Songs of the Kings, also about the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon and his henchmen, and we had seen Michalis Cacoyannis’s 1978 film Iphigenia, which adheres closely to Euripides’ language. An ambitious father, a nubile daughter, an angry mob: “Iphigenia? Ivanka?” asked my student Ariel. Logical? Not exactly. Compelling as a parallel? Undoubtedly. For her final project, Ariel, a poet, wrote a short play on the subject. Another student wrote a dialogue, another a sequence of poems—all works that took these young women (all women) outside their usual generic comfort zones and that considered the ugly but endlessly ambiguous story of the sacrifice from multiple angles. No myth has a single or simple meaning; to understand it, you almost have to retell it, and in retelling it you can’t help changing it a little. “The forms of the tales that work survive, and the others die and are forgotten,” writes Neil Gaiman of myth in The View from the Cheap Seats. True enough; but just think of all the teeming life forms stories take before they become (as some certainly do) extinct.

Are the classics irrelevant? Walt Whitman thought so. In “Song of the Exposition” (1871) he wrote:

Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus…”

Whitman calls for “a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain.” But his breezy optimism, his airy dismissal of stale grievances, didn’t seem to pertain to the world we found ourselves living in last fall. Instead, my students were mesmerized by the darkly compelling, ironic, and multi-faceted story, which varies in every retelling, about the ruthless father and his daughter and the political backdrop against which the drama plays out.

Myth, I tell my students over and over, presents not a lesson but a vision, and lets us make of that vision what we will. At the tail-end of 2016, I was drawn back to Auden—not “September 1, 1939” this time, but to New Year Letter, a long and immensely eloquent poem Auden wrote a few months later, about politics, art, and much else. I’d remembered and sought out again the ominous notes this poem strikes at the start, his matchless evocation of global jitters leading up to World War Two. But I’d forgotten the wonderful passage, also quite near the beginning of the poem, in which Auden authoritatively puts the case that art offers neither realism nor an easy set of instructions but rather

An algebraic formula,
An abstract model of events
Derived from past experiments,
And each life must itself decide
To what and how it be applied.

What does all this have to do with the Trump era we’re being pulled into? Well, that words matter; that the classics retain their relevance, even if only because (as Auden puts it in “September 1, 1939”) “we must suffer [it] all again.” That we have to keep thinking for ourselves; even great literature of the past presents no easy answers. That the insistent tweet of the present mustn’t drown out the past or the future. Robert Frost reportedly said at a dinner party in 1960, “Don’t get hysterical, get historical. If they get some sense of historical background they’ll see how these things happen over and over again.”

Writing, teaching, journalism—these occupations, these vocations and avocations are more important now than ever. In the immediate future, they may become endeavors that call for more courage than many of us have at our disposal. Maybe we won’t need our courage; maybe we will. Some of us will find it. Time will tell—mythic time as well as the other kind; the past as well as the present.

Rachel Hadas’s verse translations of Euripides’s two Iphigenia plays are forthcoming in 2018, as is a poetry collection, Poems for Camilla (updated 8/2017)

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