In case you're just joining, let me get you up to speed. On April 1, my left kidney, whose name is Odysseus, will be surgically removed from my body and transplanted into my beautiful mother Ruth. I'll be out of commission one month, maybe two. Friends have been lovely in their support and I look forward to a long stream of pretty ladies drinking champagne at my bedside and bringing me DVDs. I'm doing this whole thing 99% out of love and 1% as a publicity stunt/way to win all future arguments with my mother.
I chose the name Odysseus because Odysseus's greatest act was going home, and it will be my kidney's greatest act, too. Odysseus was a mighty wrestler, sailor, strategist, kvetcher, and he was the fastest runner among the heros of the Iliad. I want my Odysseus to last a long time in the body of my mother, putting her on the rightmost tail of every curve.
People have been asking for the name of the other one, the kidney that's staying with me. Literary friends suggested Penelope, but that doesn't work because both of my kidneys are boys. Plus Odysseus ends up with Penelope in the end, whereas my two kidneys need to be fine bidding each other adieu for this lifetime.
I was thinking about naming my right kidney Menelaus.
Here he is supporting the fallen body of Achilles's beloved Patroclus. Menelaus made it through the war just fine and in the Odyssey we see him in wedded bliss with Helen, like nothing happened. I want my right kidney to be undaunted like that.
But Menelaus was a little too pretentious and Ethan kept insisting, until I eventually agreed, that my right kidney's name was Mike Tyson.
I've always had a soft spot for Iron Mike. The constant head movement, the handspeed, the purity of his biomechanics, the way he mastered the art of winning a fight before it began. Sure he might have bitten off some ears, but he is bipolar, as is my mom. Bipolar people do crazy things, but that doesn't mean you stop loving them.
People don't realize Tyson was a small heavyweight in modern terms, only 5'10" and 215-220 at his peak. My right kidney only weighs a pound, but I've seen it take down kidneys twice its size.
Tyson hosts a new show on Animal Planet about pigeons, and if you think I won't be glued to my computer watching every episode, you don't know me very well. I'm hoping that one day I can meet Mike Tyson and get him to bless my kidney.
In the mean time, Odysseus and Mike Tyson will be enjoying their last few months together snuggled beneath my floating ribs. This weekend, we throw Odysseus a going-away party. After the party I will be renouncing my degenerate lifestyle in preparation for surgery. Stay tuned for dispatches as I check off items on my Kidney Bucket List.
From Joan Grant's Speaking from the Heart:
Should you find yourself sitting on a ghost's lap in a crowded restaurant, as I once did in the grill room of the Savoy Hotel in London, it is better to have a companion who can warn you if you talk to it too loudly, otherwise you are liable to startle the waiters. This ghost was feeling exceedingly lonely, for there were no guests at his table. So I sent out an urgent call for his friends to come share it with him. In a couple of minutes six of them turned up, and to me seemed so solid that I was surprised that no one else saw them. Only when I was leaving the restaurant did I notice that there was a small brass plaque on the pillar immediately behind my chair. On it was inscribed: "This table was regularly used by Charles Frohman for many years up to 1915."
I suppose it was a kind of heaven for a fragment of his personality. For, as I later discovered, he did not die there but was drowned on the Lusitania.
Scylla and Charybdis are a famous pair of sea monsters from ancient Greece. They live on opposite sides of the narrow Strait of Messina, between Italy and Sicily. They contacted me early this morning to offer their birthday wishes for Daniel Deming, who turns 33 today.
According to Ovid (tr. Gregory):
Even brave sailors fear rock-caved Charybdis
Who drinks the waves, vomits them out again,
And Scylla with her barking dogs around her
Churning the waves that circle Sicily.
Sailors who needed to pass through the strait were screwed: go too close to Scylla and she would eat their crew, steer toward Charybdis and a powerful whirlpool would destroy the ship. The two have come to signify, according to Brewer's Phrase and Fable, "being caught between two dangers or fatal works."
(It's hard based on my shoddy Internet research to figure out if "between a rock and a hard place" and "between the devil and the deep blue sea" are directly descended from the myth of Scylla and Charybdis. Brewer's says of the latter, "The allusion seems to be to the herd of swine and the devils called Legion." Whatever that means.)
As usual, both monsters are pretty sympathetic if you get to know them. Scylla started her life as a lovely sea nymph. The sea god Glaucus fell in love with her and accosted her as she strolled naked along the beach (more Ovid tr. Gregory):
When Glaucus saw the girl, he turned to fire,
And said things - anything - to hold her there
Yet she escaped; she climbed a sheet of rock;
It was a mountain that looked out to sea
And cast its shadow over trembling waters,
Nor did she stop till she stood high enough
To stand at proper distance from the man.
She gazed at him and saw a blue-green creature,
Longhaired, and where his manly thighs should be
She saw a scaled and twisted fishy member
Was he a god? Or some acquatic devil?
He looked at her and leaned upon a rock.
"Dear girl," he said, "I'm neither fish nor fowl;
But something better..."
But Glaucus's wooing does not impress Scylla, who coldly runs away. Glaucus swims off for the island of Aeaea, home of the powerful sorceress Circe. Aeaea is thought to correspond to Mount Circo on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy. It looks like a nice place to visit, as long as you don't fall into Circe's hands and get turned into a pig.
Glaucus begs the powerful sorceress to give him herbs to charm Scylla and make her love him,
But Circe said (and no one more than she
Was ready to make love at any hour-
Whether she had an innate liking for it,
Or whether Venus, angry at Circe's father
Because he had betrayed her love for Mars,
Gave Circe more than ladylike desires,
We cannot say-Except that she replied),
"Go find a girl or woman who's inclined
To be warm-hearted as yourself and eager--
And more than that, you need a full-grown goddess,
Even myself, a daughter of the sun,
Who has all charms to please you, songs and herbs
And much besides. I'll take you as you are.
As for that girl, treat her as she treats you;
Take me to bed, and in one loving gesture
You'll give two women all that they deserve.
When Glaucus refuses Circe, avowing eternal love for Scylla, the goddess is furious. But, as she loves Glaucus too much to strike out against him, she concocts a poison for Scylla instead, which she sneaks into the pool Scylla uses for her afternoon baths:
When Scylla came, she splashed waist-deep in coolness,
Then to her horror found her legs were gone,
And where her thighs should be, she saw a girdle
Of barking dogs' heads round her naked belly.
At first she tried to shake them off, to loose them,
Tear them away, but found
They grew out of the tender flesh below
Her breasts, as though wild Cerberus had twined
Himself a dozen times around her waist.
And there she sat, half naked girl, half monster
With mad dogs barking round her lower regions.
Greek, c. 340 BCE (via VROMA)
Charybdis's origin is harder to pin down. Some sources say she was a fierce daughter of Poseidon who acted as her father's lieutenant in his battle for supremacy against his brother Zeus, flooding hundreds of coastal towns to reclaim them for the sea. When Zeus won the struggle, he changed her into a ravenous monster, all mouth, who swallows water eternally, then belches it out. An alternate version has Charybdis stealing the cattle of Geryon from Hercules, and being thrown into the sea by Zeus as punishment. Some other sources (such as Ovid) simply describe Charybdis as a maelstrom.
Olaus Magnus, 1555 (via the wonderful Northern Lights)
Several heroes face off against this famous double-bind, and deal with the choice in characteristic ways. Wily and morally flexible Odysseus follows Circe's advice and steers well clear of the whirlpool, since Circe tells him it is better that he lose a few men to Scylla than his whole ship to Charybdis. Six of his friends are dragged off screaming by Scylla's many heads, and Odysseus mourns: "The most pitiful thing was this that mine eyes have seen of all my travail in searching out the paths of the sea."
Aeneas, my least favorite epic hero, sidesteps the question altogether and sails off around Sicily, where Hera hits him with some heavy weather.
The dreamy Jason navigates the monsters in the coolest way of all, with an escort of sea nymphs who frolic around his ship like dolphins and steer it through the dangerous waters. The whole Argonautica is online as is the entire Harryhausen monster-licious movie!
It's interesting that both Scylla and Charybdis were women, and that they were both punished for inappropriate appetites, Scylla having too little and Charybdis too much. In the olden days, nymphs were caught between a rock and a hard place.
Today our featured monster is Pinhead from Hellraiser, a series of movies Clive Barker wrote and directed based on his spooky little novella The Hellbound Heart.
Pinhead is a member of a race of otherworldy beings called Cenobites. These beings are summoned by humans who have solved a puzzle cube formed of interlocking geometric shapes. The cube, generally purchased at an obscure Moroccan bazaar, makes sounds like a music box as it unfolds, opening a gateway into the Cenobites' dimension. If you ever come into possession of such a cube, DO NOT OPEN IT.
The Cenobites are seekers of peak experience, and the kind of people who summon them are jaded hedonists who are tired with all the sensations this world has to offer. Cenobites aren't evil per se (Pinhead says they are "angels to some and demons to others") but are amoral, concerned only about their sadomasochistic experiments. In their quest for greater and greater intensity of experience, they pretty much torture to death anyone who is dumb enough to summon them by opening the puzzle box (see above re. not opening box).
The structure of the Hellraiser story is instructive for a writer, because it has two separate antagonists, depraved Uncle Jack, who once summoned the Cenobites and is now trying to free himself from them and the Cenobites themselves, whom the ingenue Kristy mistakenly summons while trying to free herself from Uncle Jack. Two antagonists are better than one, and it makes for a gripping plot.
I was inspired to check out Pinhead and his friends after seeing the incredible Francis Bacon retrospective at the Met. Bacon's figures of popes and businessmen imprisoned by thin, glimmering lines and eaten up from within by their own power and appetite evoked Barker's world quite strongly.
Here's Pope Innocent X:
- F. Bacon
Bacon was gay, as is Clive Barker, a fact that seems important to both men's aesthetics somehow. One of the prime sources of horror in Barker's world (and I'm thinking also of the stories in Books of Blood) is women's sexual power, an insight I doubt any straight male writer would have, at least not in the same way. The NYT critic touches on the importance of Bacon's sexuality to his work in her review.
Bacon seems like he would have been a cool dude to hang out with. He was a drinking buddy of Tom Baker of Dr. Who fame.
Champagne for my real friends; Real pain for my sham friends.
- F. Bacon (attributed)
He lived a bon vivant lifestyle, surrounded by a close circle of friends and lovers. His longtime companion George Dyer was a petty thief -- the two met when Bacon caught Dyer robbing his apartment. The most moving piece in the exhibition to me was a triptych depicting the hotel where Dyer killed himself (incredibly, on the night before Bacon's first major solo retrospective).
Ravana abducts Sita, the wife of King Rama and the goddess personified. Like the theft of Helen in the Iliad, this transgression sparks off the whole epic. Unlike Helen, the beautiful Sita was a loyal wife and did not go willingly.
Now Ravana assumed the shape of a wandering yogi; carrying a staff and a beggar's bowl, he came towards Sita waiting all alone for Rama to come back.
The forest knew him: the very trees stayed still, the wind dropped, the Godaveri flowed more slowly for fear.
But he came close to Sita, and gazed upon her, and was filled with evil longings; and he addressed her, praising her beauty, and asked her to leave that dangerous forest and go with him to dwell in palaces and gardens. But she, thinking him a Brahman and her guest, gave him food and water, and answered that she was Rama's wife, and told the story of their life; and she asked his name and kin.
Then he named himself Ravana and besought her to be his wife, and offered her palaces and servants and gardens.
She grew angry beyond all measure at that, and answered:
"I am the servant of Rama, lion amongst men, immovable as any mountain, vast as the mighty ocean, radiant as Indra. Wouldst thou draw the teeth from a lion's mouth, or swim the sea with a heavy stone about thy neck?
"As well mightst thou seek the Sun or Moon as me! Little like is Rama unto thee, but different as is a lion from a jackal, an elephant from a cat, the ocean from a tiny stream, or gold from iron. Indra's wife thou mightst carry off, and live; but if thou takest me, the wife of Rama, thy death is certain, and I, too, shall surely die."
And she shook with fear, as a plantain-tree is shaken by the wind.
But Ravana's yellow eyes grew red with anger and the peaceful face changed, and he took his own horrid shape, ten-faced and twenty-armed; he seized that gentle thing by the hair and limbs, and sprang into his golden ass-drawn car, and rose up into the sky.
But she cried aloud to Lakshman and to Rama.
"O thou forest and flowery trees," she cried, "and thou Godaveri, and woodland deities, and deer, and birds, I conjure you to tell my lord that Ravana has stolen me away."
Ravana is a great, sexy villain. There's a way in which - like all characters in the Hindu epics - he's just doing his job.
The epic culminates in a huge battle in which many great heros, demons, and monkeys are slain. This painting shows Ravana in the chariot on the right with his army of demons. King Rama (AKA god) sits on the left with the bow of Shiva, watching his monkeys advance.
Each like a flaming lion fought the other; head after head of the Ten-necked One did Rama cut away with his deadly arrows, but new heads ever rose in place of those cut off, and Ravan's death seemed nowise nearer than before -- the arrows that had slain Maricha and Khara and Vali could not take the king of Lanka's life away.
Then Rama took up the Brahma weapon given to him by Agastya: the Wind lay in its wings, the Sun and Fire in its head, in its mass the weight of Meru and Mandara. Blessing that shaft with Vedic mantras, Rama set it on his bow and loosed it, and it sped to its appointed place and cleft the breast of Ravana, and, bathed in blood, returned and entered Rama's quiver humble.
Thus was the lord of the rakshasas slain, and the gods rained flowers on Rama's car and chanted hymns of praise, for their desired end was now accomplished -- that end for which alone Vishnu had taken human form.
The heavens were at peace, the air grew clear and bright, and the sun shone cloudless on the field of battle.
"O thou great-armed, younger brother of Vaisravana, who could stand before thee?
"Gods and rishis thou hast daunted; not to be borne is it that a man, fighting on foot, hath slain thee now!
"But thy death has come to pass because of Sita, and I am a widow. Thou didst not heed my words, nor didst thou think how many fairer damsels thou hadst than her.
"Alas! how fair thou wert and how kind thy smile: now thou art bathed in blood and pierced with shafts! Thou wert wont to sleep on a couch of gold; but now thou liest in the dust.
"Why dost thou fare away and leave me alone? Why dost thou not welcome me?"
But the other wives of Ravana consoled her and lifted her up, saying: "Life is uncertain for all, and all things change."
Sorry it's been so long since I've done a God of the Week or Monster of the Week. Time to get back on track. But first, here's a recap of our past winners.
When a god or monster is selected the "God/Monster of the Week" by the Spiral Staircase, he/she/it receives a small scholarship toward career development and is invited to attend a special winners-only reception held every summer solstice at the Ritz-Carlton on Atlantis.
If you are a mythical creature or divine being who wishes to be featured on our blog, please send your name and CV to our attention. You just might join the ranks of our illustrious winners below!
GODS AND GODDESSES
This show gave me magical dreams. These women are amazing, as are the musicians who accompany them. The last show is a matinee tomorrow. If at all possible, run out and see it.
This photo is from the Times' slightly-missing-the-point review.
Nothing about the performance is "crude." In fact, the thought occurred to me while watching that this might be the most refined form of culture I've ever experienced. Like, if aliens were going to blow up the Earth, I'd send in Nrityagram to justify our planet's existence through dance.
This is a good show for fans of the Hindu god Krishna. The pieces that end the second half are both introduced by readings from the Gita Govinda. The duet about Krishna and Radha together on the banks of the Yamuna is a powerful spiritual transmission. The solo that follows, in which Radha suffers because Krishna comes to her late and disheveled from making love to another woman, is mind-blowing.
The reason I love Krishna more than any other deity is because he loves women. All women. His greatest devotees were the women around him.
She ornaments her limbs,
When a leaf quivers or a feather falls,
Suspecting your coming,
She spreads out the bed
And waits long in meditation.
Making her bed of ornaments and fantasies,
She evokes a hundred details of you
In her own graceful play.
But the frail girl will not survive
Tonight without you.
Jayadeva (12th century)
Gita Govinda (Tr. Barbara Stoller Miller)