Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A Tear and a Smile by Kahlil Gibran

Source of book: I own this.


About five years ago, I read The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran’s most famous work. Since then, I have collected several other volumes of his work, typically for next to nothing at library sales. 

 One of the original illustrations by the author.

Because I gave a good bit of biographical information in the previous post, I won’t repeat it here. I do recommend The Prophet as a good place to start with Gibran. 


A Tear and a Smile is not, like The Prophet, a single work. Rather, it is a collection of Gibran’s early writings in Arabic, written when he was in his twenties, just starting out as a writer. What ties the collection together is not so much a theme as the time in which they were written. Thus, the volume ends with a collection of songs, starts with title essay, and contains both poetry and prose in addition to the beginnings of the “prose-poetry” that his mature work would be characterized by. 


Like most juvenalia, the quality is a bit uneven. Gibran is starting to find his voice, but is still trying on some different ideas. Probably the greatest flaw is the tendency in some of the essays to be very black and white in his thinking, showing the earnestness and lack of nuance of youth. Compared with his later work, it feels a bit rough, a bit judgmental, and a bit simplistic. However, you can see the trend toward his maturity. Alongside the rougher stuff, there are also beautiful poems, thoughtful musings on what really matters in life, pointed observations on the moral corrosion of wealth, and flights of mystical lyricism. 


I think the introduction by Robert Hillyer is illuminating:


Like those of many romantic poets, his youthful flights were toward the white radiance of eternity, away from a world that seemed largely in the hands of injustice and violence. The recoil of a sensitive mind from reality frequently takes revolutionary forms of which political revolution is merely the most obvious. With Gibran, the revolt was not directed toward institutions so much as toward the individuals who became the accomplices of abstract evil, of greed, injustice, and bloodshed. Most of the human figures in his early works are therefore personifications, with the result that parable and allegory are the usual method. 


To view these early works in that light is helpful. All sensitive minds recoil from the injustice in the world - and find themselves frustrated with the individuals who seem to be so willing to be accomplices of evil. This is the core of why I left organized religion six years ago. There is no place for a sensitive mind, for someone who recoils at injustice rather than excuses it, and who cannot stay silent while others spew violence, greed, and hatred toward the most vulnerable in our society. The role of the poet as prophet and conscience of the community is an important one, and one that is currently rather out of style in our society. One of my favorite poems in the collection is about that very thing. 


The Poet


A link

Between this world and the hereafter;

A pool of sweet water for the thirsty;

A tree planted

On the banks of the river of beauty,

Bearing ripe fruits for hungry hearts to seek.


A singing bird

Hopping along the branches of speech,

Trilling melodies to fill all bodies with sweetness and tenderness.

A white cloud in the sky at even,

Rising and expanding to fill the heavens,

And then pour out its bounty upon the flowers of the fields of Life.


An angel

Sent by the gods to teach man the ways of gods.

A shining light unconquered by the dark,

Unhidden by the bushel

Astarte did fill with oil;

And lighted by Apollo.



He is clothed in simplicity

And nourished by tenderness;

He sits in Nature’s lap learning to create,

And is away in the stillness of night

In wait of the spirit’s descent.

A husbandman who sows the seeds of his heart in the garden of feeling,

Where they bring forth yield

To sustain those that garner.


This is the Poet that is unheeded of men in his days,

And is known by them on his quitting the world to return to his heavenly abode.

This is he who seeks no thing of men save a little smile;

Whose breath rises and fills the firmament with living visions of beauty.

Yet do the people withhold from him sustenance and refuge.


Until when, O Man,

Until when, O Existence,

Will you build houses of honor 

To them that knead the earth with blood

And shun those who give you peace and repose?

Until when will you exalt killing

And those who make bend the neck beneath the yoke of oppression?

And forget them that pour into the blackness of night

The light of their eyes to show you the day’s splendor?

Those whose lives are passed in misery

That happiness and delight might not pass you by.


And you, O Poets,

Life of this life:

You have conquered the ages

Despite their tyranny,

And gained for you a laurel crown

In the face of delusion’s thorns.

You are sovereign over hearts,

And your kingdom is without end. 


What particularly resonated with me about this poem is the way that our human society tends to glorify and exalt soldiers and militarists. I understand the dilemma that leads to a perceived need for soldiers - as long as evil and narcissistic men have access to weapons (from Hitler to Putin and so many in between), there will be a need to protect the innocent from aggression. But to glorify those who start wars, who invade their neighbors, who pursue “glory” utilizing the lives of younger men? We have no business exalting them. Rather, we should be glorifying the healers, the teachers, those who create life and beauty rather than destroying it. Anyone can destroy. Creation and healing is a lot more work. 


The title essay is in the form of the sort of prose-poetry that The Prophet utilizes so well. I thought it was a good description of the experience of being a sensitive and compassionate human. 


I would not exchange the sorrows of my heart for the joys of the multitude. And I would not have the tears that sadness makes to flow from my every part turn into laughter. I would that my life remain a tear and a smile. 

A tear to purify my heart and give me understanding of life’s secrets and hidden things. A smile to draw me nigh to the sons of my kind and to be a symbol of my glorification of the gods. 

A tear to unite me with those of a broken heart; a smile to be a sign of my joy in existence. 

I would rather that I died in yearning and longing than that I lived weary and despairing. 

I want the hunger for love and beauty to be in the depths of my spirit, for I have seen those who are satisfied the most wretched of people.. I have heard the sigh of those in yearning and longing, and it is sweeter than the sweetest melody. 

With evening’s coming the flower folds her petals and sleeps, embracing her longing. At morning’s approach she opens her lips to meet the sun’s kisses.

The life of a flower is longing and fulfillment. A tear and a smile.

The waters of the sea become vapor and rise and come together and are a cloud.

And the cloud floats above the hills and valleys until it meets the gentle breeze, then falls weeping to the fields and joins with the brooks and rivers to return to the sea, its home.

The life of clouds is a parting and a meeting. A tear and a smile.

And so does the spirit become separated from the greater spirit to move in the world of matter and pass as a cloud over the mountain of sorrow and the plains of joy to meet the breeze of death and return whence it came.

To the ocean of Love and Beauty - to God.


The bittersweetness of life and love and beauty. 


In a prose essay, “A Vision,” which is, according to Gibran, a public response to a letter from a viscountess, he envisions Youth and Man and a host of other allegorical figures, as he surveys the wreckage of humanity. There is one line in there that stood out to me. 


I beheld priests, sly like foxes; and false messiahs dealing in trickery with the people. And men crying out, calling upon wisdom for deliverance, and Wisdom spurning them with anger because they heeded not when she called them in the streets before the multitude.


This is an accurate summary of the Trump Era in American Evangelicalism. But more than that, it is a timeless observation about wisdom. It is easy to forget that in Proverbs, the two women are both allegorical. Wisdom is a woman, of course. But so is her opposite, “the adulteress” - otherwise known as Folly. In our Puritan hangover in the English-speaking world, we have debased Folly into a literal adulteress - those crafty oversexed women lying in wait for innocent men, whose penises find themselves magically outside their pants. (Hence the absolution granted to every celebrity pastor who commits clergy sexual abuse - it’s always her fault.) 


But I digress. The iconic moment in Proverbs involving Wisdom is that she is calling out in the streets. 


Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square; on top of the wall she cries out, at the city gate she makes her speech: “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings. But since you refuse to listen when I call and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand, since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you— when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. “Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD. Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.”


Gibran remixes this (as he does passages from the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, and the Koran) in a memorable way. The key point is this: Wisdom has been calling in the streets, but people love Folly more. They reject wisdom and reject wisdom and reject wisdom until disaster overtakes them. 


This has been the pattern of Evangelicalism for decades. They have rejected wisdom because it doesn’t solely come from inside the tribe. The leaders have embraced the idea that science is an atheist conspiracy, medicine is an atheist conspiracy, mainstream history is an atheist conspiracy (and a “woke” conspiracy…) and so on. Then, when a pandemic hits, basic public health measures from masks to avoiding gatherings to vaccines become “oppression” and instead quack cures and racist conspiracy theories are embraced. 


And don’t get me started on the false (and very orange) messiah. 


On a related note, the brief essay, “Before the Throne of Beauty,” illuminates another facet of what has gone badly wrong in American religion. 


And on her lips was the smile of a flower and in her eyes the hidden things of life. She said: “You, children of the flesh, are afraid of all things, even yourselves do you fear. You fear heaven, the source of safety. Nature do you fear, yet it is a haven of rest. You fear the God of all gods, and attribute to Him envy and malice. Yet what is He if not love and compassion?”


This is an observation my wife and I have been discussing a lot lately. She is now manager of the ICU units at her hospital, and has had to deal with even more of the most difficult family situations. What is shocking and inexplicable is that those who most claim to believe in an afterlife (of whatever kind - this transcends any one religion, eastern or western - it seems to afflict the most devout of all sorts) are the ones most terrified of death, particularly the death of a loved one. In one recent case, a family was threatening lawsuits for supposed poor care, because their family member died. 


Said family member was in their 90s. 


The fear runs so deep. I do not think it is “even yourselves” as “particularly yourselves.” To be so afraid of one’s self that you cannot trust your own conscience? Your own body? To be so suspicious of anything that doesn’t come from whatever charlatan you decide has the very words of God for you? I cannot fathom how deeply soul-crushing such an existence must be.


In another short essay, “O My Poor Friend,” Gibran laments those who suffer under systems of oppression. One paragraph was particularly fascinating. 


O soldier who is sentenced by man’s cruel law to forsake his mate and his little ones and kin to go out on the field of death for the sake of greed in its guise as duty. 


This applies to so many soldiers, including those we traumatized in Vietnam for the sake of geopolitical proxy wars. I can’t help but think of the conscripted Russian soldiers right now, becoming cannon fodder for Putin’s ambitions of Empire. So many wars are nothing more than greed disguised as duty or country. 


One of the most beautiful prose-poem essays is “My Birthday,” composed for the 25th birthday of the poet. Gibran reflects on who he is, and who he hopes to be. This one paragraph is breathtaking:


I have loved freedom, and my love has grown with the growth of my knowledge of the bondage of people to falsehood and deceit. And it has spread with my understanding of their submission to idols created by dark ages and raised up by folly and polished by the touch of adoring lips.


Me too, Kahlil, me too. 


The final section consisting of songs is the most consistently good poetry in the book. I was torn as to which to feature in this post. There are odes to waves and rain and beauty and happiness and flowers. There is even one to humanity and the human spirit. It concludes with “A Poet’s Voice,” a prose-poem that is too long to quote other than a passage or two. (See below.) I decided to go with this one:


A Song


In the depths of my spirit is a song no words shall clothe;

A song living in a grain of my heart that will flow not as ink on paper.

It encompasses my feeling with a gossamer cloak,

And will not run as moisture on my tongue.

How shall I send it forth even as a sigh

Whilst I fear for it from the very air?

To whom shall I sing it that knows no dwelling

Save in my spirit?

I fear for it from the harshness of ears.


Did you look into my eyes, you had seen the image of its image;

Did you touch my fingertips, you had felt its trembling.


The works of my hand reveal it

Even as the lake mirrors the shining stars.

My tears disclose it

Even as dewdrops that proclaim the rose’s secret as the warmth scatters them.


A song sent forth of silence,

Engulfed by clamor

And intoned by dreams. 

A song concealed by awakening.


O people, ‘tis the song of Love;

What Ishak shall recite it?

Nay, what David shall sing it?


Its fragrance is sweeter than the jasmine’s;

What throat shall enslave it?

More precious is it than the virgin’s secret;

What stringed instrument shall tell it?

Who shall unite the sea’s mighty roar

With the nightingale’s trilling?

And the sigh of a child with the howling tempest?

What human shall sing the song of the gods?


I want to close with an observation from “A Poet’s Voice.” 


I see myself as a stranger in one land, and an alien among one people. Yet all the earth is my homeland, and the human family is my tribe. For I have seen that man is weak and divided upon himself. And the earth is narrow and in its folly cuts itself into kingdoms and principalities.


The core insight here is this. Humankind isn’t so much divided between its members as it is divided upon itself. It is as if a man chopped himself to pieces - a self-dissection. We are not drawing the lines between us and them. In reality, we are cutting ourselves off from ourselves, trying to pretend that this leg or this lobe of the heart isn’t part of ourselves too. This is the central tragedy of humanity - our original sin, so to speak. (A less blockheadedly literalist reading of Genesis reveals that truth. We are squinting so hard to see Genesis as literal history that we miss the way the Fall led inexorably to the first murder, until the whole earth was filled with violence and injustice.) This puts the teachings of Christ in a different light than the narrow minded and withered-hearted spiritualization that they have been given by Evangelical doctrine, doesn’t it? The reconciliation of all things - the Kingdom of Heaven, neighbor-and-enemy love, the fury at the commercialization of religion - it is all about undoing that fatal self-dissection of greed, us-versus-them, and human tribalism. 


A Tear and a Smile isn’t as universally good as The Prophet, but it has its thrilling moments. Gibran’s mature writings show the effect of time and experience on the best of his ideas, but you can see the seeds in his early writings. 


Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Pandora's Jar by Natalie Haynes

Source of book: I own this


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This one, I might have discovered eventually, but was glad to read it now. In fact, this one won our vote by a good margin this time around (we vote on three months at a time - top three win.) This was somewhat on brand for books we have read over the last few years - we apparently like new spins on the old Greek myths: Circe, The Song of Achilles, The Penelopiad, and most recently, Fates and Furies. (You can check out all of the books from the club that I have blogged about here.) 

This book was a bit different in that it is non-fiction. Rather than a retelling or re-imagining of myths, Haynes goes back and looks at women in Greek myths in their more complete and three-dimensional form. 


For most of us, our introduction to many of the old myths was through the classic Victorian retellings. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, or Thomas Bulfinch. Others may have read Roger Lancelyn Green. My kids’ generation is more likely to experience the myths in movies. 


The risk with any of these, however, is that one tends to get the “approved” version - the ones the Victorians went with, which often misses the many different versions that existed in the past. The Victorians in particular were prone to minimizing the role of women, eliminating their backstories, making their motives more passive than active, or straight up treating them in a more misogynistic manner than the ancient Greeks. (And that’s saying something too.) 


In actual fact, all of these myths had alternate versions, richer and more complicated back stories, and a variety of approaches to the subject matter. 


Haynes encourages the reader to look at the stories from different perspectives, ancient and modern, and see them as living tales, not a museum. 


I particularly appreciated her going back to Hesiod, and forward to the playwrights who reinterpreted the stories, particularly Euripides, whose plays often focus on the women of myth, and have far more of their perspective. In addition, she refers to a lot of works of art with mythological subjects, particularly statues and pottery. These too indicate what the ancient Greeks thought about the stories, and how they interpreted them. 


Haynes studied the Greek classics at Cambridge, but is best known for her work with the BBC. And for a handful of novels based on the myths. 


There are ten chapters in the book, each focusing on a different woman - or group of women in one case. In each case, Haynes assumes some background knowledge (although she does fill in a bit of the story as she goes.) I am fairly familiar with mythology, so I think Phaedra was the only one I was a bit shaky on. 


In order, Haynes looks at Pandora, Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea, and Penelope. 


There were a lot of great lines, a certain amount of snark (Haynes is my generation, so I definitely was down with the vibe), and a tone that was both casual yet highly informed. 


The opening chapter on Pandora really sets the stage. Pandora was hardly some foolish girl playing with a box, as the title hints at. Rather, she has a jar, created by the gods. She is used to deliver it to humanity in retaliation for Prometheus’ gift of fire. Not only that, but she is the first woman, made from the ground, not from humankind. In that sense, she is Eve yet not Eve, but firmly in the “everything was fine before women” genre, unfortunately. Hesiod seems particularly pissed at women in his digression during his telling of the myth into all the problems he finds with women. 


But what is she actually like? We get only one phrase which might tell us, before Hesiod gets side-tracked explaining how women will only want you if you aren’t poor, and comparing them unfavorably to bees.


This is not just a problem the Greeks had either. The long tradition of Abrahamic religions has been pretty sordid in its views of women, perhaps predictable in a patriarchal society. If you want to deny women equality, better denigrate them so you feel better about it. If anything, the modern era has been worse about this, with artists pretty universally focusing on the box and the evils and blaming Pandora for what the gods did. 


The emphasis in Pandora’s story for centuries has been her single-handed role in the fall of man. Just as Adam and the snake dodge so much of the blame in Eve’s story, so Zeus, Hermes, and Epimetheus have been exonerated in almost every later version of Pandora’s. The guiding principle when searching for the cause of everything wrong in the world has been, all too often: cherchez la femme. 


Haynes points to Erasmus (of all people, I didn’t expect that) for the switch to “box” instead of “jar.” A mistranslation, whether accidental or intentional, although he was neither the first nor last to do that. (Both ancient mythology and ancient holy books have been subjected to the same careless treatment over the centuries.) More concerning is the idea that Erasmus applied to the story. 


But somehow, he coined an idea which has echoed through the centuries. Everything used to be okay, but then a single, irreversible bad decision was made, and now we all live with the consequences forever. It’s reassuring in a way: the problem was caused long before we were born and will persist long after our deaths, so there’s nothing we can really do about it. It allows us to be children again: injustice, cruelty, and disease are all someone else’s fault, so it isn’t our problem to try and fix them.


Again, a bit unfair to just blame Erasmus - this is literally a core teaching of Protestantism, one I grew up with, and one that I see continues to perpetuate evil in our world. (I also think it is a misinterpretation of scripture, and it becomes particularly toxic when combined with eschatalogical thinking, as it leads to the “get everyone to convert to our theology because the planet will be destroyed in a few years by god anyway” kind of thinking. As Haynes points out, this absolves us from either taking responsibility for our role in the evil in the world, or doing anything about it. 


There is a fascinating passage in this chapter where Haynes looks at a Twilight Zone episode in which a mysterious box appears, with a magic button. Press the button, and you get the money you need, but someone you do not know will die. This raises some interesting ethical questions. 


Like so many Twilight Zone episodes, the story interrogates the darker side of human nature: what would you do if you were desperate? Or not even desperate, but just poor and getting poorer? How much do you value the lives of people you don’t know? We might think we would respond differently to the offer, but we all ignore the traumas of strangers every time we watch the news. How else could we survive? We can’t care as much about every single person alive as we do for our loved ones. And there is an ethical difference - isn’t there? - between ignoring a stranger who needs help, or money, or a kidney, and actively killing them. Neglect isn’t the same as animus. But to the person on the receiving end of no help (no medicine, no food, no kidney), the death they face is awfully similar to the one they would face if you deliberately assassinated them.


This is what the better people on the Right Wing do not seem to grasp. Death by neglect is still death. Because we as humans cannot, through individual acts of random (or even purposeful) charity make sure everyone is okay, we need the use of social mechanisms - otherwise known as that dirty word, government, to make sure that others do not fall through the cracks. The worse people on the Right, unfortunately, understand this very well, and are determined to make sure that “undeserving” people die, and decrease the surplus population


I am not going to quote something from every chapter. For example, the story of Jocasta is fascinating, but I didn’t see a zinger there that I wanted to put in this post. Likewise, the chapter on Medusa is really good - particularly the fact that disembodied Gorgon heads decorated things long before the story was created. So in essence, it is a “just so” story about why we have disembodied heads on our armor. 


There is an interesting bit in the chapter on Helen. Apparently, the idea that the “real” Helen wasn’t taken to Troy by Paris. Rather, he took an “eidolon” - a simulacrum of her. The real Helen hid out in Egypt or some other distant place. 


I first ran across this idea in an unfinished short work by C. S. Lewis, wherein he imagines the reconciliation of Helen and Menalaus, ten years later. At this point, in Lewis’ version, she isn’t the 20-something of the myth (even the Greeks were horrified by the original kidnapping of Helen - before Menalaus - at the age of seven) but a frumpy middle age. I really regret he didn’t finish it, because I am curious where he would have gone with the idea. The part we have hinted that he was perhaps moving away from some of his earlier sexist ideas about women, but who knows?


Having read Agamemnon, I found the discussion of Clytemnestra quite fascinating. The play really should have been named after her, just like Cymbeline should really have been named after Imogen. Aeschylus bases the play around her, and, with the exception of the fact that she kills poor Cassandra, it is really difficult to hate her. After all, she was forced into a marriage with Agamemnon, who is a bully and a lunk and just about loses the Trojan War because he wants to be pissy and petty with Achilles. He also is dumb as fuck, failing to see the danger from his wife, even though she pretty much telegraphs everything. The chorus certainly sees it, but he is too stupid. And also, he parades his war captive and rape victim, Cassandra, in front of her. 


The Greeks were a bit obsessed with the terror that a woman might sleep around….like men were expected to. Thus, the penalty for adultery was greater than the penalty for rape. Which tells you about as much as you need to know about how the ancient Greeks viewed women. But there are also the plays, which in some measure do push back on the society they were written in. Thus, Clytemnestra gets to share her side of the story in the play, explaining her burning rage that her daughter Iphegenia was sacrificed to the gods by that idiot of a husband. 


And then there is Medea. While she is horrible for the way she killed her children, she too has more depth of character. Oh, and in some versions of the myth, she doesn’t kill her children - the Corinthians do, in revenge for her killing her husband Jason’s new wife, the one he is banishing her and the kids to marry. One of my favorite plays, and the basis for Fates and Furies


Medea basically is the reason Jason doesn’t sleep with the fishes before his heroic venture gets halfway started. Throughout the story, she gives him the cheat codes for everything, and even sacrifices her younger brother so they can escape. She has given up everything for him, given him everything, and then he throws her over. Yeah, of course she is pissed. Jason, as so many men in the myths are, is a flaming idiot. 


We have a strong hint from these descriptions of her magical power that Medea is a very valuable ally and a formidable opponent. You would think the person most aware of that would be Jason.


But you would be wrong. For Euripides, Medea’s actions are not only justified, but indeed blessed by the gods, who give her a ride in a chariot during her escape from Jason. The great hero, as she predicts, will die when a piece of the crumbling wreck of the Argos falls on him. He is crushed by the memory of his great deeds of the past, having thrown away his most important weapon.


Another interesting thing in the play is brought out by Haynes: the trope that would endure of servants playing a key role in a drama, often getting the most memorable lines. 


The nurse tells the chorus that it’s better to be an ordinary person rather than rich or powerful. And in Greek tragedy, at least, she is right: disaster rains down on the high-born. You are much better off being the nurse or the tutor if you’re hoping to survive to the end of a play. 


Penelope may be the most familiar of the women to most - high schoolers still have to read parts of The Odyssey around here. There is an interesting observation in that chapter which I remember noting even when I first read the work in my high school days. While it might seem that Penelope would have been tempted to remarry, given that her husband was gone and presumed dead for at least a half decade. But in the text itself, it is clear that the suitors are a bunch of idiots. They are terminally dumb. You can just see them drinking Odysseus’ wine, fucking his slave girls, leaving their trash all over the place for the servants to pick up. They seem to have no genuine love for Penelope herself, just for the chance to inherit her wealth. Yeah, can’t blame her for holding off as long as she could. Particularly since Odysseus spoiled her - he may have been unethical and tricky, but he was no fool, and clearly saw something in Penelope that he loved for her own sake. 


The conclusion of the book has a couple of observations that I want to highlight. 


First is this idea of “declinism.” I remember a frustrating conversation with my father years ago, one of our early breaks on matters political and religious. I can’t even remember what we were discussing, but he went with what he thought was a trump card: “how do you square that with the descent of mankind?”


No, it wasn’t a reference to Darwin, but to an article of faith within Fundamentalism: that the people of the past were better than us. Smarter, more moral, and better in every way. In fact, the high point of humanity was Eden, and ever since, people have gone downhill constantly. 


This has always stuck in my craw, and not just because the obvious corollary is that parents are always better, smarter, more moral than their children. Rather, looking in the past, it is easy enough to see significant progress. I mean, we don’t think it is okay to burn people at the stake, let alone crucify them! Most of us oppose slavery, torture, genocide, the murder of children, and so on. Things that were taken for granted as perfectly moral in some contexts by people in the past. (Steven Pinker wrote an excellent book about that, which I highly recommend reading.)


I love that Haynes pushes back against that idea. 


When the contents of Pandora’s jar escape into the world, we have tended to see this as something bad. [F]or ancient authors, the contents of the jar aren’t always themselves evil; in some versions of the myth, they are good. But those versions haven’t prevailed as the favoured narrative, perhaps because we find it easier to believe that things aren’t as good as they used to be. There is an enormous temptation to believe in some sort of declinism: that things are always getting slightly worse.


As Frank Kermote notes, we tend to extrapolate ourselves to the universe. Because we have more problems as adults than as children, because our bodies get old and wear out and we eventually die, it is all too easy to see the universe as declining along with us. 


Haynes sets for the idea that what Pandora really represents is change. She is a duality in the myths, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, just like her gifts are both. Nothing is that simple. 


We do not live in a world of heroes and villains, and if we believe we do, we should really consider the possibility that we haven’t thought about things properly.


The enduring power of the myths is that they hold a mirror up to human nature. For all their blind spots, the old Greeks did examine all facets of human psychology, and nothing about modern humans would surprise them. (The same goes for Shakespeare too, which is why he continues to fascinate us hundreds of years later.)


The final thought I want to end with is this one: 


When the question arises - why retell Greek myths with women at their core? - it is loaded with a strange assumption. The underpinning belief is that women are and always have been on the margins of these stories. That the myths have always focused on men and that women have only ever been minor figures. This involves ignoring the fact that there is no “real” or “true” version of any myth, because they arise from multiple authors across multiple locations over a long period. The version of a story we find in the Iliad or the Odyssey is not somehow more valid than a version we find in a fifth-century BCE play or on the side of a vase merely because it is older. 


This is a key idea that I really wish I could make more people understand. 


There is no “real” or “true” version of any of this.


This goes just as much for the Bible and religious doctrine as for anything else. It was written over a long period of time by a lot of different humans in a lot of different places, with a lot of different perspectives and ideas and even vastly different conceptions of god and morality and history. 


There is nothing magic about John Calvin’s views - in fact many of them are downright toxic. There is nothing magic about what Saint Paul used as a metaphor, or his particular approach to living in a deeply patriarchal society. There is no “one true interpretation” or “one true doctrine.” What there is is an ongoing discussion, a striving toward the Divine, toward better understanding of ourselves and the universe. That is why true religion is not at war with true science


We do not need to “find” justification for the equality of women in the writings of ancient men, whether the old Greeks, the old Hebrews, or the Victorian men who interpreted them.


Reimagining, retelling, breathing new life into the old stories, making them new again, seeing ourselves and our world in light of new discoveries, of new perspectives, of new challenges. This is the real work of myth and storytelling generally. And ultimately, this is the core of our humanity, religious and otherwise. We are a story-telling species. 


The thing is, stories have to change to survive. They are living embodiments of humanity, not museum pieces to be looked at and occasionally polished. We ought not to worship static idols. Life is change, the universe is change, growth is change. So rather than focus on finding the “one true version,” we need to be making the stories our own, finding new ways of living them in harmony with others. 


I’ll end with a bit from another work inspired by the old myths: Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” I think this captures the ongoing work of living our stories and making them new again. 


There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.