Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Memory & Monsters

These days I'm spending time with On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen Asma, a book that explores the idea (so far) of monsters and memory. I'm not very far, but one of the things it addresses -- an idea I ran into first on a History Channel/Discovery Channel entertainment-doc about monsters -- is that the myth of the cyclops -- a giant, one-eyed man -- might have come from people in antiquity digging up mammoth bones.

It seems almost too simplistic to consider, but, you know -- you're a dude, you're digging in the ground, you don't know anything about dinosaurs or mammoths or species-gone-extinct. You find this in the ground, you do your best to explain it. That's not to say people in antiquity were stupid or any less imaginative than we are in 2011 -- it's just to say that they had a different foundation for understanding the world around them. Asma also theorizes that the idea of the satyr may come from reports of monkeys in India ("India" apparently meant "anything in Asia where something weird happens"). Dog-faced men from lands beyond may have been baboons (I think). It's all a way of understanding the world. An interesting anecdote comes from Pliny the Elder, who discounts the idea of the werewolf (as DZ might call them, the wolfmans), because according to the story, a man goes into the woods, becomes a wolf for nine years, then becomes a man again only if he's managed to evade any human contact for that near-decade. Then he puts his clothes back on -- the same clothes that have been hanging on a tree for nine years -- and returns to civilization. Pliny, who believed in satyrs and manticores and cyclopses, found the idea of clothes just hanging from a tree for nine years beyond the ken. And the thing is, I totally agree. Better a dog-faced man than a shirt that's just going to hang there for nine years. Nine years!

O Brother Where Art Thou, probably not the best Coen Brothers movie but the one I think about the most, has a cyclops. He's played by John Goodman with a Southern drawl. The movie kicks off with a claim to be adapted from The Odyssey, by Homer, which is honest and direct. I don't know if I've ever written a single thing that I didn't steal from someone else, knowingly or not. O Brother is about a captain of men trying to get home to his wife, having adventures that waylay him, and then when he gets home, he has to battle his wife's new suitors. In my bones I love the archetypal story that is retold in another time. O Brother might not hit the Odyssey beat for beat, but the heart of it is there. It might even reach different conclusions -- but that's part of the struggle. Take this story that is in our bones, tell it right now (even if it's set in a time not our own, we are telling it now), and see how it's different.

Amanda Bynes dressed up as a boy in She's the Man, which is based on Twelfth Night, and which sticks too close to its source for its own good. It's not a bad movie, but it's not a surprising movie, either. I felt the same way about Rango this weekend. Both movies are charming in their own way, both take their stories from stories we already know in our bones (in Rango's case, it's a more general American Western place), but neither of them move beyond their inspiration to talk about what that story means today, the way O Brother does. And that's what I'm trying to talk about -- it's important to tell our stories again, often and imperfectly, and to change them a little bit every time.

I was going to try to tie this all into making shopping lists, and how I do it for groceries and should do it whenever I leave the house. I know I need to buy new pants and new shirts, but when I go out I talk myself out of it, because spending the money seems silly, and buying clothes feels indulgent. But when I go to the grocery store -- it says "oatmeal" on the list, but I don't want oatmeal right now, on a Sunday afternoon, and though my guts tell me not to buy it, I am going to honor the covenant of the list and the wishes of my past self, and I am going to buy oatmeal. And then, Monday morning, all of a sudden I am grateful that I bought that oatmeal after all. Had I listened to my bones, I'd be stuck with just toast.

But I'm not sure how that relates anymore.

No comments: