Tag Archives: Minotaur

We Each Create Our Own Labyrinth: Theseus by André Gide

When I teach my second year Latin students about ancient heroes, I always have to begin by explaining the distinctions between the modern and ancient concepts of the term hero.  Nowadays the word hero brings to mind first responders saving children from burning buildings,  a good Samaritan saving another person from drowning, and other selfless and kind acts.  Ancient heroes, however, are much more complex, controversial and are prone to carrying out acts of violence even if the end result is for the benefit of the community.  However, more often than not,  they are acting on their own behalf, they are seeking glory and honor and recognition for themselves.  Homeric heroes, for instance, are fighting at Troy for kleos, to be remembered and revered long after they are dead.  Hercules, Theseus and Jason save communities from various beasts and horrible monsters, but their true motivation is for glory and honor that comes with such brave acts.  But the ancient hero also suffers from loneliness, isolation and difficult relationships.

André Gide, in his short story “Theseus” reimagines the myth of the Greek hero Theseus and fills in the gaps where the ancient narratives are lacking.  Gide adeptly captures the pressure to perform that each hero experiences.  In the first chapter, Aegeus, Theseus’s father,  says to his son, “Your childhood is over.  Be a man.  Show your fellow men what one of their kind can be and what he means to become.  There are great things to be done.  Claim yourself.”  After Theseus defeats various, local monsters, he is eager to take on his biggest challenge yet, defeating the Cretan Minotaur.

In Gide’s story, when Theseus lands in Crete he visits the artist Daedalus who explains to him how his labyrinth works and the only way to defeat it.  This passage showcases Gide’s brilliance as a writer, an artist, and even a philosopher:

I thought that the best way of containing a prisoner in the labyrinth was to make it of such a kind, not that he couldn’t get out (try to grasp my meaning here), but that he wouldn’t want to get out.  I therefore assembled in this one place the means to satisfy every kind of appetite.  The Minotaur’s tastes were neither many nor various; but we had to plan for everybody, whosoever it might be, who would enter the labyrinth.  Another and indeed the prime necessity was to fine down the visitor’s will-power to the point of extinction.  To this end I made up some electuaries and had the mixed with the wines that were served.  But that was not enough; I found a better way.  I had noticed that certain plants, when thrown into the fire, gave off, as they burned, semi-narcotic vapors.  These seemed admirably suited to my purpose, and indeed they played exactly the part for which I needed them.  Accordingly I had them fed to the stoves, which are kept alight night and day.  The heavy gases thus distributed not only act upon the will and put it to sleep; they induce a delicious intoxication, rich in flattering delusions, and provoke the mind, filled as this is with voluptuous mirages, to a certain pointless activity; ‘pointless,’ I say, because it has merely an imaginary outcome, in visions and speculations without order, logic or substance.  The effect of these gases is not the same for al of those who breathe them; each is led on by the complexities implicit in his own mind to lose himself, if I may so put it, in a labyrinth of his own devising.

An interesting commentary for the 21st century where many are caught up in a labyrinth of their own choosing, a labyrinth composed of people and things that induce a “delicious intoxication” and are “rich in flattering delusions.”

Daedalus’s advice to Theseus is to keep hold of the thread that Ariadne will give to him and not let it go so she can pull him out of the labyrinth.  But the hero, who is used to fighting his own battles, doesn’t want to be tethered to anyone, especially a woman.  When he arrives in Crete, Ariadne throws herself at him and he views her as a silly girl whom he can use and toss aside.  Ancient heroes, in general, have a very hard time with women; they do not take well to marriage, settling down, domesticity.  In addition to Theseus and Ariadne, the relationships between Jason and Medea, Hercules and Megara end badly.

Gide, however, does linger on the story of one, special woman who is able to captivate Theseus precisely because she poses a challenge for him, the Amazon Antiope.  Theseus says of her, “An accomplished runner and wrestler, she had muscles as firm and sturdy as those of our athletes.  I took her on in single combat.  In my arms she struggled like a leopard.  Disarmed, she brought her teeth and nails into play; enraged by my laughter (for I, too, had no weapons) and because she could not stop herself from loving me.  I have never possessed anyone more virginal.”

Each person in the Theseus-Ariadne-Minotaur myth has his or her own unique point of view.  But, in the end, there really is no happy ending for any of them, is there?

This book has greatly piqued my interest in reading more Gide.  This slim volume that was sitting on my shelf also contains Gide’s Oedipus story, another interesting hero to explore.  Maybe in another post…

 

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Review: The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov

I received a review copy of this book from Open Letter Press through Edelweiss. This book was originally written and published in Bulgarian in 2011.  It has been translated into English for this edition by Angel Rodel who won a PEN Translation Fund Grant in 2010 for Georgi Tenev’s short story collection. She is one of the most prolific translators of Bulgarian literature working today and received an NEA Fellowship for her translation of Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow.

My Review:
Physics of SorrowIn The Physics of Sorrow  the story of the narrator, Georgi, and his family are told through the lens of the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull creature that inhabits the dark tunnels of a Cretan labyrinth.  The story itself feels like a labyrinthine journey which the author leads us through; we feel like we are groping around in the dark, never sure towards which style of writing the author will lead us next.  Sometimes we encounter a story about the narrator’s grandfather, at other times we are launched into a tale about the narrator himself.  Short stories, anecdotes, memories, pictures and even lists are presented as part of the narrative.

Gospodinov uses the story of the Minotaur from Greek mythology to highlight three themes in his book: abandonment, isolation and misunderstanding.  Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story “The House of Asterion,” provides us with the Minotaur’s perspective of his dwelling and his pathetic hope of eventual redemption.  The Physics of Sorrow expounds on Borges’ characterization of the Minotaur as a creature who is worthy of sympathy and whose half-human, half-bull form are certainly not his fault.  At some point in his young life Asterion, the Minotaur, must have been abandoned by his mother and placed in this dark, isolated and lonely labyrinth.

Georgi grows up in Socialist Bulgaria, which itself is an isolated and lonely place.  The author points out that before 1989, 80% of Bulgarians had not left their native country.  Georgi’s parents have good jobs, but due to the strict controls by the government on housing, his family lives in a cramped basement apartment, their own type of dark labyrinth.  Georgi tells us that because of his enclosed childhood dwelling he is afflicted with the “Minotaur Syndrome.”  Left alone from the age of six in this basement apartment he must fend for and amuse himself until the adults come home at the end of a long day.

Abandonment and isolation are situations which Georgi’s grandfather struggles with first in the story.  At the age of three he is almost left behind by his mother at a mill and not until they are half-way home does one of his seven sisters realizes that he is missing.   I held my breath at the vivid description of the toddler’s abandonment and thought “hurry up” as his sister raced back to gather the distraught and afraid little boy.  The grandfather,  who later fights in World War II,  also has one of the toughest choices to make in the novel: which of his two sons should be abandon because he cannot live with and raise both of them.

Georgi has an issues with intimacy and he can’t seem to truly get close to a any woman. His fear of intimacy is part of the reason that,  shortly after his daughter is born, he falls into a deep melancholy.  At his doctor’s advice he travels around aimlessly and Europe itself becomes his labyrinth where he trudges from city to city and hotel to hotel trying to shake off his extreme gloominess.  He abandons his family to try and save his sanity but he ends up isolating himself from the world even further.  After he leaves his family, Georgi moves back into his boyhood home in the basement and now, living in this dark labyrinth all alone, the minotaurizing of himself has become complete.  At the end of the novel he tries to use the language of quantum physics to describe, sort out and even deal with his sorrow.

The greatest lesson we can take from The Physics of Sorrow is one of empathy and compassion.  At one point in the book the Minotaur is put on trial and given his day in court to defend himself against the charge of being a violent monster.  He is half-man and half-human and therefore never able to fully fit into to any society, man or animal.  We must also show compassion for characters like Georgi who, growing up under a totalitarian regime,  lost some of the most basic freedoms we take for granted in the West. This book shed a whole new perspective for me on the story of the Minotaur and the country of Bulgaria which, to be quite honest, I have never really given a second thought.

About The Author:
Georgi G.Georgi Gospodinov is the author of Lapidarium (a collection of poems, 1992) – National literary prize for debut book; The cherry tree of a nation (a collection of poems, 1996) – Annual prize of the Association of the Bulgarian writers for book of the year; Natural Novel (a novel, 1999) – Special prize in the national contest “Razvitie” for modern Bulgarian novel; And Other Stories (a collection of short stories, 2001). He is the co-author of: Bulgarian Crestomathy (1995); Bulgarian Anthology (1998). He works and lives in Sofia.  Follow this link to read an interview with Godpodinov about The Physics of Sorrow: http://bombmagazine.org/article/453046/georgi-gospodinov.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation