Thursday, May 29, 2008


Please settle in for a nice long post. It's been awhile since I've blogged and I've got a story to tell. It's an old Greek myth, but I've just discovered it and feel like I've invented it myself.

I've just returned from two weeks in the Greek islands, where the beaches are lovely,

the ferry boats and Orthodox churches appear everywhere you look,

the food and wine are delicious,

and the feral cats are always hungry.

While traveling, I read nothing but a tattered and yellowing copy of a book that was assigned reading in my freshman English class during high school. Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Ugh. That's how I felt about the required text when I was fourteen. Nothing but boring gods and monsters.

But in Greece, it was a whole other thing. I couldn't get enough of the Titans and the Twelve Great Olympians. They were so human and imperfect, just like me, and I loved the way Edith Hamilton told their stories.

"That is the miracle of Greek mythology--a humanized world, men freed from the paralyzing fear of an omnipotent unknown," writes Miss Hamilton, who looks to be a very strict and severe school mistress, judging from her picture on the book jacket, but who in truth and in secret except as revealed in her writing was more likely a lushly sensual woman. "The exact spot where Aphrodite was born of the foam could be visited by any ancient tourist; it was just offshore from the island of Cythera. The winged steed Pegasus, after skimming the air all day, went every night to a comfortable stable in Corinth."

Of all the Greek myths, my favorite is the one about Cupid and Psyche because Psyche is a bad girl who seeks redemption through love.

Psyche was a princess, the daughter of a king who had three daughters. Psyche was the most beautiful of the three, so beautiful that mortals worshiped her. Her beauty and fame made her sisters hate her and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, angry. "Her temples were neglected; her altars foul with cold ashes; her favorite towns deserted and falling in ruins," Miss Hamilton writes.
Edith Hamilton, Bryn Mawr College Archives

Aphrodite sought her revenge through her son Cupid, a winged youth whose arrows of love caused no end of trouble for the people they wounded. "Destroy Psyche," Aphrodite told Cupid. "Make her fall madly in love with the vilest and ugliest of creatures."

But before he could shoot his arrow into Psyche, her beauty so awed Cupid that it was as if he had pierced his own heart with the dart of love. Saying nothing to his mother, Cupid devised a plan that would make Psyche his own. He cast a spell so that no man would fall in love with her, and nor would she fall in love with any man. And so she stayed alone, worshiped from afar by many, as her sisters made good marriages to kings.

Psyche's worried father asked the oracle of Apollo, the God of Truth, why there was no love for Psyche, and the oracle replied that she must be placed atop a rocky hill, to await a fearful winged serpent who would become her husband. This her father did, because the oracle had spoken, and Psyche was abandoned to her fate. Alone and frightened, she waited and cried, until a sweet and mild wind carried her to a grassy and fragrant meadow, where Psyche slept deeply, and when she awoke found herself in a stately mansion, which looked something like this:
Mountaintop monastery, island of Folegandros

She was still alone, yet sweet voices greeted Psyche, telling her that the house was for her, and she must enter without fear and bathe herself and sit at a banquet made entirely for her. She enjoyed herself, luxuriating in sensual pleasure, knowing somehow that at night her husband would come.

And this is what happened. Psyche lay in her bed in the dark and was joined by her husband, unseen, but she felt no fear. Rather, it was ecstasy. "She knew without seeing him that here was no monster or shape of terror, but the lover and husband she had longed and waited for," Miss Hamilton writes. Every day for many days Psyche was alone in her mansion, and every night for many nights she was with her beloved and unseen husband.

But one terrible day, her husband warned Psyche that her two sisters were coming and meant her harm. "You must not let them see you or you will bring great sorrow upon me and ruin to yourself," he told her, warning her also that she must never try to see him because one look at his face would separate them forever. "If you saw me, perhaps you would fear me, perhaps adore me, but all I ask of you is to love me. I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as a god."

Psyche's sisters arrived at the mansion, and she welcomed them because she had seen no body in such a long time, but the two women looked jealously on everything that was their sister's, and they filled her head with their spiteful talk. "Why can't you see your husband? Surely if he loved you, he would let you see him in the full light of day. But no, your husband is no man. We know for a fact that he is the evil winged serpent that Apollo's oracle spoke of."

"The Awakening of Psyche," Guillaume Seignac (1870-1924)

Crying and confused, Psyche asked what she should do, and her sisters told her to get a lamp and a sharp knife and stab her husband through the heart that very night as he slept. Then they left, pleased with themselves for having caused their youngest sister such misery.

All day long Psyche's thoughts were at war with each other, and when evening came she was still filled with uncertainty. There was only one thing she was sure of: tonight, she would see her husband's face.

"When at last he lay sleeping quietly, she summoned all her courage and lit the lamp," Miss Hamilton writes. "She tiptoed to the bed and holding the light high above her she gazed at what lay there. Oh, the relief and the rapture that filled her heart. No monster was revealed, but the sweetest and fairest of all creatures, at whose sight the very lamp seemed to shine brighter."

In her shame and excitement, Psyche fell on her knees and upset the lamp. Hot oil spilled onto her husband's shoulder, both wounding and waking him. Seeing the light, he knew his dear wife's faithlessness, and he jumped out of bed and ran out into the night. Psyche chased after him but by then Cupid had sprouted wings and flown off into the night. All she could hear was his voice, calling: "Love cannot live where there is no trust."

Psyche despaired and wandered the earth as she tried desperately to find Cupid and win him back. She went to his mother, and Aphrodite cruelly set impossible tasks for her, which Psyche accomplished only because the gods favored her. Finally, Aphrodite gave her a box to carry down into the underworld so that Persephone could fill it with some beauty, which the Goddess of Love said she had lost by worrying so much about her injured son.
"Psyche in the Underworld," Paul Alfred de Curzon, 1820-1895

Persephone did as asked and filled the box. And once again, Psyche's curiosity got the better of her and she felt that she must see what was inside it as she carried it out of the underworld. Psyche, too, hoped to retrieve some of the beauty she had lost from caring about Cupid.

Psyche opened the box, and though there was nothing there, she fell into a deep languor that carried her into a deadly sleep. But all was not lost, because this was a myth with a happy ending. At the very moment Psyche opened the lid of the box, Cupid revealed himself to her, and thus all was well. Cupid, the God of Love, and Psyche, who is the Soul, lived happily ever after.

In the way of all Greek myths when a human is brought to live forever among the gods on Mount Olympus, Psyche became an immortal and was never heard from again. She is at home now, cooking, cleaning and having Cupid's babies.
"Cupid and Psyche," Jacques Louis David (1748-1825)

Monday, May 05, 2008

Reviving Skittles, Part 9: Poetic Love

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was an 18-year-old orphan with a delicate poet's soul when he entered the British diplomatic corps. The Foreign Office had already sent him to Athens, Frankfurt and Madrid before he received his Paris assignment in 1863. Just 23 when posted to Paris, he was a romantic rebel, a champion of the oppressed who kept a watchful eye on the privileged lords strutting around Skittles’ parlor.

Tall, with a strikingly pretty face, Wilfrid had a poet’s manner because he was indeed a poet. Though he did little more than sit quietly in a corner, Skittles noticed him because it was impossible not to. He was exceeding handsome:
A Pilgrimage of Passion: The Life of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (Tauris Parke Paperbacks)

To draw out the shy young man, Skittles would break away from the chatter and high spirits to join him in the corner for a few moments before she flitted off. He could be brutally candid—-he called her lively conversation "fool’s talk"--yet she saw past that to his easily wounded nature. Wilfrid did not have Skittles’ social ease, and he would withdraw in a jealous funk when she was distracted by another salon visitor.

Though Catherine Walters was just one year older than Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, she understood that his gloomy passion masked his inexperience with women. He was a Catholic by conversion and still a virgin.

Prior to joining the diplomatic corps, Wilfrid confided to Skittles, he had been schooled with the Jesuits and at one point had considered becoming a priest. His father, a Protestant country squire, poet and Tory, had gone off to war and died in battle when Wilfrid was 2. His mother, shy and sensitive like her son, had died of tuberculosis when he was 13, just after joining the Catholic church.

What Skittles now saw before her was a proud and intelligent young man, a sensualist in desperate need of the mothering. But he could take only so much of Skittles’ frivolity, glowering when she left him to enjoy a drink and a laugh with another guest before focusing her attention on him again. Sometimes he would leave her house abruptly, and she would let him disappear into the Parisian night without trying to stop him.

But one fateful night, Skittles followed Wilfrid discretely as he wandered the streets and finally approached him. Their encounter that night became an encounter that he would return to in both memory and fantasy for the rest of his life. The experience became the subject of a 58-sonnet poem, "Esther, A Young Man’s Tragedy," published in 1892. In this a highly personal and melodramatic work, Wilfrid speaks in the first person of meeting and falling in love with a woman named Esther in Lyons. Clearly, the place and the woman are stand-ins for Skittles and Paris.

The poet describes the event in terms that carry grief-tinged romance to an absurd level, starting with the first line: "When is life other than a tragedy."

It is the evening of the St. Martin’s Day fair, a popular event in agrarian France that celebrates the autumn harvest. "Working bees and drones," as Wilfrid calls them, mob the fairgrounds in search of mad laughter, and the poet, a stranger in a strange land, is carried along with the crowd to The Booth of Beauty, a freak show. Two female monsters, one with the disfiguring spots of a leopard and the other a seven-foot-tall giantess, "The Queen of Love," fascinate and sicken the poet, and as he goes faint he feels a woman’s hand behind him in the crowd, clutching at his arm.

Laughing, half aloud, she is a little woman dressed in black, "who stood on tiptoe with a childish air, her face and figure hidden in a sacque, all but her eyes and forehead and dark hair." This is Skittles, as Wilfrid sees her, "wise with woman's wit," but with a face that had "something, too, pathetic in its gaze." He also sees that she has a pale scar on her cheek, and this tells him "she had not lived a nun." She is beautiful, but it is a broken beauty, marred yet gracefully natural in its degradation, and this fires his bashful heart "to a zeal divine."

In other words, the virgin poet sees a sexy young woman whose look assures him that she would welcome him into her bed.

She is also a tease, because she complains that the poet, being so tall, can easily see the Queen of Love, and she can see nothing. She points to a chair and has the poet lift her up to stand on it, insisting that he keep his arm around her waist in case she falls. The giantess' attention is drawn to the laughing girl and the shamefaced boy, and she challenges them to come to her. The girl pushes the boy up to the stage, and at the leering crowd’s insistence, he touches the freak’s knee. When his deed is done, the air swirls darkly around him, and the blushing poet turns and flees, leaving Esther behind.

Too elated to simply return to the inn where he is staying, he doesn’t know where to go. He feels that he's on the threshold of evil, his soul until now "a thing pure from sensual strife," and on the verge of corruption. Wandering the streets, musing upon the world’s wickedness, the poet crosses the path of a woman as she angrily leaves a house on a side street, calling out an insult in French as she slams the door. It’s the broken beauty from the fair, and upon seeing the poet her look suddenly turns from fierce to gay, her black eyes gleaming with triumph "as they caught, like some wild bird of chase, their natural prey."

Telling him she’s not angry, but only too soft-hearted, she takes his hand and presses it to her heart. "Why did you follow me?" Esther/Skittles asks, mockingly. "Here, feel how my heart beats." The poet feels it is his own heart’s match, yet the girl pushes him off, saying he followed her only because he thought she was his fat Queen of Love from the fair. Now he’s confused and grows angry, turning to leave, but then her mood changes again, and she tells him in all seriousness that his John the Baptist’s face has turned her head.

"We are strangers both among these heavy Lyonnese," she says. "By right we so should hold together….I saw it in an instant in the booth that we should know each other and be friends."

In a daze, the poet agrees, and the girl goes on talking like a running stream, "without more reason or more pause or stay than to gather breath and then pursue her whim just where it led her, tender, sad, or gay. Her moods seemed all alike to her."

Joyfully, yielding to sin, he stops resisting and drowns in her torrent of words. The night grows cold, she shivers, and she tells him to follow her. Like two lost children, hand in hand they walk the streets of Lyons, pausing aimlessly here and there, until they come to a house, her dressmaker’s, she says, where Madame Blanche is too wise to pry into the affairs of her customers, no matter what hour of the night they choose to come. The poet is led to an inner room, where for the first time in his life he hears the language of a woman’s clothing spoken as the girl throws off her hat, unties her veil, undoes her jacket and then the jet buttons of her dress one by one,

And stood but clothed the more in loveliness,
A sight sublime, a dream, a miracle,
A little goddess from some luminous field
Brought down unconscious on our Earth to dwell,
And in an age of innocence revealed,
Naked but not ashamed. Nay, wherefore shame?
And I, ah, who shall blame me, who shall blame?

The poet chooses modestly not to tell the secrets of what happened in that inner room, and when we return to it with Madame Blanche, we see him kneeling as Esther/Skittles kisses his face and dries and comforts the former virgin’s tears.

The poet and Esther stay together only three days, and what for more experienced men might merely be a dirty weekend is for Blunt a life-changing event. It shocks him to see that after their precious days together, she blithely return to the Parisian high life and her undemanding and rich older lover. The girl, he decides, is a destroying angel incapable of real love:

Esther had no soul which Heaven or Hell
Could touch by joy or soften by the rod.
She could not really love me…Now life's light
Illumines all, and I behold her gay
As I first knew her in my love purblind,
Dear passionate Esther, soulless but how kind!

Watch for Part 10 of Reviving Skittles, when we learn why a long-term relationship between Skittles and Wilfrid could never have worked and what made her decide instead to be a great courtesan and never fall in love again.

Friday, May 02, 2008


I've just returned from a trip to the north woods of Wisconsin, where I spent some time visiting my niece at her college on the shores of Lake Superior.
While there, I ate a delicious grilled Superior whitefish dinner.Mmmm. Most excellent. Fresh off the boat (not this boat, but something like it.)
My niece is attending an environmental studies college, which seems to attract two different types of people: 1) deerhunting hockey players; and 2) animal rights vegetarians. She's in the second camp, as is her friend Francesca.

This is a story about Francesca, a college freshman who tried hard to be a good girl as she defined it, but failed. Before arriving on the shores of Lake Superior, Francesca lived in California and ate a raw food diet. I'm pretty sure a raw food diet involves chopping, pureeing and mixing uncooked fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains into a creative variety of dishes. I'll have to look it up some time. Anyway, it's labor-intensive and supposed to be very good for you.

Winter came to the north woods, and Francesca tried to be faithful to her raw food diet--a raw food diet to which she had added the extra requirement of being made strictly with locally grown produce. That was no problem in California, where Francesca had access to tropical foods such as bananas and other yummy things like carob powder and crushed macadamia nuts, which take easily to a raw food diet.

But in the north woods of Wisconsin in the middle of winter, when the snow drifts up to your waist? M'eh...not so much. Francesca found herself gnawing on a lot of raw tubers. According to The Cook's Thesaurus, "Tubers...are swollen underground plant stems, but it's easier to think of them as the 'family of potato-like vegetables.' They're used worldwide as a source of carbohydrates, often taking a back seat to more flavorful and colorful ingredients."

So what do you think happened? Did Francesca make a deal with the devil by giving up her vegetarian ways and dating a deerhunting hockey player who supplemented her raw food diet with venison sushi? Did she spend a looooong north woods winter eating nothing but raw potatoes? Did she choose starvation?

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., online student edition.

Nah, she cooked. And I really hope she doesn't feel like a bad girl because she did.