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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book Reviews

Carrying the Weight of the World

Weight: the Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeanette Winterson. Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2005, 199 pages, $18.

Courtesy Canongate Books
Jeanette Winterson’s recent novel, Weight, a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles, opens with a preface that addresses contemporary literature’s constant preoccupation with the past and emphasizes the need for a more active engagement in the form of textual cross-referencing. Winterson’s novel—part of the ongoing series that now includes Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (see Charles Rowan Beye’s review, in this issue)—builds toward an understanding of time as a process that is analogous to the formation of sedimentary rock, which keeps expanding, eroding, changing. Taking geology as a model, the writer uses the material formation of rocks and fossilized life as ways of looking and examining the past, not as a teleological concept, but rather as a process of continual rereading and rewriting. As Winterson claims at the beginning of her novel:

Sedimentary rock is formed over vast expanses of time, as layer upon layer of sediment is deposited on the sea bottom.
Being formed in this way, such rock is usually arranged in a succession of horizontal bands, or strata, with the oldest strata lying at the bottom.
Each band will often contain the fossilised remains of the plants and animals that died at the time at which the sediment was originally laid down.
The strata of sedimentary rock are like the pages of a book, each with a record of contemporary life written on it. Unfortunately, the record is far from complete. The process of sedimentation in any one place is invariably interrupted by new periods in which sediment is not laid down, or existing sediment is eroded. The succession of layers is further obscured as strata become twisted or folded, or even completely inverted by enormous geological forces, such as those involved in mountain building…. (Italics and larger typeface in the original, pp. ix-x.)

As the author implies in these opening lines, her own story can be viewed as part of the process of sedimentation that supplements the already existing layers or records of specific myths, like those of Atlas and Heracles: a record that is far from complete, an archive that is constantly subjected to temporal or spatial erosion and the threat of extinction. As with some of her previous work, Winterson employs the idea of materiality not only to explore one’s relationship to our past histories and myths, but also to our present time, in order to demonstrate through writing how particular myths keep expanding and extending beyond their own time and space.

And so, without violently removing them from it, Winterson “reads” Atlas and Hercules as figures outside their own mythopoeic context and uses them to:

Explore loneliness, isolation, responsibility, burden, and freedom too, because my version has a very particular end not found elsewhere….
Weight has a personal story broken against the bigger story of the myth we know and the myth I have re-told. I have written this personal story in the First Person, indeed almost all of my work is written in the First Person, and this leads to questions of autobiography.
Autobiography is not important. Authenticity is important. The writer must fire herself through the text, be the molten stuff that welds together disparate elements. I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real. (pp. xiv-xv)

Winterson’s tale then becomes what literary critic Phillip Stambovsky calls a ‘‘mythicized autobiographical” story, in this case understood as or told through the myth of Atlas and Hercules. Autobiography here supplements all the other elements (in the myth) and vice versa: one cannot be separated from the others. In that sense, the author uses not only mythical sources to construct and represent her own self, but writing itself naturally becomes part of the process of textual sedimentation and archivization. Winterson’s rewriting of myth is an example of modern transformation and recontextualization without, however, negating or destroying the original myth’s permanence in time.

The myth of Atlas (his name probably means “he who carries” or “he who endures”) is the story of a Titan, son of Iapetus and Clymene, the guardian of the pillars of heaven who took part in the rebellion of the Titans and was punished by Zeus and the victorious gods to carry the vault of the sky on his shoulders. He lived in the far West, in the country of the Hesperides, and was referred to by Herodotus as Atlas, the mountain in North Africa (this is, of course, one of many versions of Atlas’ story). In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, we see Atlas turned into a rock by Perseus, who confronted him with Medusa’s head after slaying the Gorgon. During his eternal punishment, Atlas encounters Heracles, the most famous Greek hero, on his way to collect the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, one of the twelve labors. Since Heracles himself cannot collect the golden apples (according again to a version), he persuades Atlas to perform this task for him after he relieves the giant from his burden by taking over the sky vault. But while Atlas thinks that Heracles can go for a while carrying his weight, he is tricked by the Greek hero, who persuades him to take over again for a moment so Heracles can put a pillow on his shoulders and finds himself once again bound in his eternal punishment. Heracles picks up the Golden Apples and leaves; he later dies after wearing a poisonous tunic that his wife Deianeira has given him believing that its magic will make him renounce his mistresses and love her forever.

What is it, then, that this author, Jeanette Winterson, contributes to this myth; what is, to use her own words, “the record of contemporary life written on it”? Why does she keep emphasizing the need to ‘‘tell the story again”?

Contrary to some previous (post)modern tales, Winterson’s novel does not attempt to rewrite the past in order to question the origin or legitimacy of ancient texts. Her intention is not to question what is turned into a myth, and how it is done so. She attempts, rather, as the literary theorist Linda Hutcheon would say, to ‘‘de-naturalize the temporal relationship’’ that frames the author’s rewriting of the story of Atlas and Hercules. She does so by constantly retelling and therefore recycling particular stories (the geological metaphors are quite indicative here). In other words, the purpose of Winterson’s tale is to emphasize the relevance of the classical story within a contemporary—sometimes autobiographical, sometimes historical—context and address issues of desire, selfhood, fate, and freedom.

Like my brother Prometheus, I have been punished for overstepping the mark. He stole fire. I fought for freedom.
Boundaries, always boundaries.
I keep telling the story again and though I find different exits, the walls never fall. My life is paced out—here and here and here—I can alter its shape but I can’t get beyond it. I tunnel through, seem to find a way out, but the exits lead nowhere. I am back inside, leaning on the limits of myself. (p. 14)

Although these words are spoken by Atlas, they could very well serve as a reflection of the author’s own understanding and preoccupation with freedom and boundaries. Starting with Atlas’ narrative (told in the first person) and through her masterful and poetic use of language, Winterson demonstrates her ability not only to tell the story but also to bring it as close as possible to her own experience.

I found that where the world was close to my ears, I could hear everything. I could hear conversation, parrots squawking, donkeys braying. I heard the rushing of underground rivers and the crackle of fires lighted. Each sound became a meaning, and soon I began to de-code the world….
I can hear the world beginning. Time plays itself back for me. I can hear the ferns uncurling from their tight rest. I can hear pools bubbling with life. I realise I am carrying not only this world, but all possible worlds. I am carrying the world in time as well as in space. I am carrying the world’s mistakes and its glories. I am carrying its potential as well as what has so far been realized….
There is no longer Atlas and the world, there is only the World Atlas. Travel me and I am continents. I am the journey you must make. (pp. 24-25)

Heracles, on the other hand, is a macho character, driven by his sexual desires, a man who seems incapable of serious thought but who nevertheless believes he understands his place in the world and, so, overvalues his significance and strength. And yet, at the same time, even if only for brief moments, Heracles questions his identity as a heroic figure, as well as the burden of his fate—or the requirement for his posthumous fame—to perform one labor after the other. There are moments in the story in which

[Heracles] no longer understood the journey, or rather he understood there was a journey. Until today he had gone about each task unconcerned by the one before or the one after. He had met the challenge and moved on. He did what he had to do, no more, no less. It was his fate. Fate could not be questioned or considered.
Today was different. Today, for the first time in his life, he thought about what he was doing. He thought about who he was.
Ladon had told him to go home. What if he did? What if he walked out of the garden and turned away. He could find a chip, change his name. He could leave Heracles behind, an imprint in time, like Ladon, that would fade as the grass grew.
What if he bent the future as easily as an iron bar? Could he not bend himself out of his fate, and leave fate to curve elsewhere?…
“Go home, Heracles”… no, he would never go home. It was too late (pp. 43-44)

Although, in the end, Heracles is unable to escape his fate, or to choose his own path, he nevertheless falls into an “existential” anxiety, albeit for a moment, because of his inability to explain the rationality behind his own actions. Outside his traditional role and boundaries of destiny, and carrying the weight of the world this time, Heracles feels vulnerable but at the same able, despite the unpleasantness, to experience the weight that the Other carries on his shoulder. We hear that:

Heracles was more afraid now than he had been in his whole life. He could accept any challenge except the challenge of no challenge. He knew himself through combat. He defined himself by opposition. When he fought, he could feel his muscles work and the blood pumping through his body. Atlas was right, it was too heavy for him. He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t bear this slowly turning solitude. (Italics in the original, pp. 71-72.)

For Heracles, ‘‘inwardly, some part of him was riven—not by doubt—he did not doubt what he must do, but by a question. He knew what, he no longer knew why?”(p. 45) Unlike Sisyphus in Camus’s story, Heracles is unable to find meaning in his task.

The question of ‘‘why’’ and its relationship to meaning, suffering, responsibility, and freedom haunts the two mythic figures in the story, and brings them together despite all their other apparent differences. While Atlas uses thinking as a way to avoid death, Heracles chooses material labor and heroic action. The switch of roles between the two (when Heracles takes over Atlas’ task so the latter can bring him the Golden Apples) only renews their anxiety and experience of eternal loneliness.

[Atlas] tried to understand the ways of gods and men, and was mentally constructing a giant history of the world. His thoughts kept him from dying. His thoughts kept him from feeling. What was there to feel anyway—but pain and weight?
Now, gazing at this tiny world, he felt an emotion he hardly recognised. He did not dare to name it.
Heracles, his strength bound without motion, was having a panic attack. He was not alone. There were no fires, no lights, no cooking smells. There was no one to listen to his stories, or to get drunk with, or to praise him. His only company was the hornet buzzing outside of his head, the thought-wasp, buzzing Why? Why? Why? (pp. 66-67)

Winterson masterfully explores how these myths reflect on contemporary selfhood, how they contribute to the ways we construct and, most important, represent our notions of self and identity. In that sense, the novel mirrors the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, how we use myths and fiction(s) to talk about ourselves, and how writing about the self very much depends on the fictional and the imagined. In the end, as the author suggests, it is perhaps only within a specific mythopoeic context that we can invent and talk about ourselves, forge our own desires and destiny: “Looking at the glowing globe, I thought that if I could only keep on telling the story, if the story would not end, I could invent my way out of the world. As a character in my own fiction, I had a chance to escape the facts” (p. 139).

Winterson’s story is about the weight we all carry on our shoulders, and the philosophical questions related to it. It is a meditation on our ability to go beyond boundaries that have been defined or imposed on us by others. It is a story about our ability to imagine transgressing, like Atlas, the material weight we carry with us. The author’s writing and imagination become means of liberating both herself and the original mythical figures—specifically, Atlas, whose mind is freed of any material condition. Writing becomes a moment of mutual realization. The writer reinvents herself through the telling of the myth. While we are aware, as readers, of the distinction of the author’s voice (and personal experience), there is no binary opposition between the author and the figures in the story. While the story reflects on one’s ability to break boundaries, it is also about creating new ones. It is about learning to live with your weight, that of your own past, and, most important, that of the stories carried by myth.

The beauty of Winterson’s tale rests in her ability to carry the weight of her own life and past, but also of particular myths, through her writing. Although she recycles old ideas about fate and responsibility, the story is so beautifully told and so engagingly interwoven with personal life that it renews our interest in the old myths—and thus rekindles our desire to tell or write the story again and again.

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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