lit love

Literary Love: Greek Mythology

I hold the firm belief that the greatest gift we have is, invariably, the power to feel. I believe that our emotions are the purest and most human form of magic. I believe that they transcend the boundaries we have set for them. I believe that they give us the power to do terrible and terrifying things. I believe that they are endless and joyous and disruptive. I believe that they are the most beautiful natural disasters. There is no story greater or older or more inevitable than the one borne of our capability to be heart-liftingly happy and then soul-wrenchingly sad, all in the space of moments.

Their names are Icarus and Daedalus.

And they are, perhaps, not the first two that come to mind when I speak of the power to feel, however abstract or vague that might be- but if I believe in anything, I believe in a boy with a heart that defines and then defies itself. In his father who plants the seeds. And in both of them, this boy and this man, who are so hapless and courageous that they rewrite their own story.

Literary Love, affectionately known as #litlove, is a feature wherein I and friends around the blogosphere extol the virtues of various bookish topics. This month we’re talking about Greek mythology! Don’t forget to check out the others’ posts on this topic: Alyssa on Persephone.

We don't often speak of Daedalus when we recount the story of Icarus. He seems to be cast aside too often, left as a footnote in his son's shadow.

But Daedalus is just as much part of the story as Icarus: the long, painstaking hours spent moulding the waxen wings; the hiding of his creations from the men who guard him; the gnarled and clumsy fingers of a brilliant architect, fumbling through the building of these enormous wings. These keys to the universe. These manifestations of defiance, of a spark that refuses to die.

And Icarus, too-small boy with a too-big heart, who grows up locked away from the wild and beautiful world, who loves his father fiercely, desperately, with all the love he cannot give to the rest of it. Who stares at these wings of feather and wax and sees not just freedom, but a chance to experience all that he has never known. A chance to feel - finally, helplessly, powerlessly.

So here they stand at last, poised on this windowsill as the world awaits. And Daedalus whispers into his son's ear: don't fly too high or the sun will melt your wings; don't fly too low or the sea will drag you down.

And he says: Icarus?


Are you listening?

And Icarus says: of course, of course, of course, but here is this feeling again, this fierce and terrible feeling for a world he is so very close to tasting, this feeling he can't yet name - and Icarus says of course, of course, of course, but I think you and I both know he is only listening with one ill-fated ear.

So when they take off into the air, it is Icarus who soars high and then low, who pinwheels through the salt-stained wind, who races the oblivious gulls, who laughs loud and giddy and drunk on this newfound freedom, this newfound ability to feel.

And when Daedalus calls - be careful, son, be mindful - Icarus does not listen.

He twirls through the air and higher - and higher - and here, now, here is the sun singing through the burning sky, and Icarus flies up to meet her, flies up to share this with her, to show her all that he is only now discovering, to say look - look at this - what a miracle it is to feel -

- and he flies too high.

And then Icarus is falling, his wings little more than tattered feathers, and Daedalus is crying from above as his son spirals down - down - down. As he disappears beneath the cruel waves, still glowing.

This is the story of Icarus and Daedalus.

It is one of tragedy, yes.

But. It is also one of fierce and desperate hope. It is one of love. And of anger, and of sadness, and joy, and of dizzying wonder, however fleeting, however short. It is a story of the power of feeling. It is a story not of despair, but of two people who grasped hands and made the choice to fly. And of one who let go and made the choice to fall.

It is the story of a man who chose surviving over wilting, and of his son who chose living over surviving.

I think that is something all of us can learn from. The power of feeling. The way we grasp hold of the sunbeams - never too low, but always high, high, higher.

Somewhere in the distance, a boy with wings is wheeling towards the sun.

On his face is the brightest expression, and on his back there are feathers sighing towards the sea. At last - at last - at last - he has learned what it means to feel.

And it is enough.

For what comes after. For this. For now. Just for now.

Literary Love: Sylvia Plath

(FIRST. Are you our sort of a person?

Which is to say: are you flawed (but not too flawed)? Perfect (but not too perfect)? Compliant (but not too compliant)? Defiant (but not too defiant)? Intelligent (but not too intelligent)? Airheaded (but not too airheaded)? Which is to say: are you willing to dance exactly the right steps, unless we require you to make a mistake?

No, no?)

Literary Love, affectionately known as #litlove, is a feature wherein I and friends around the blogosphere extol the virtues of various bookish topics. This month we’re talking about Sylvia Plath! Don’t forget to check out the others’ posts on this topic: Alyssa on Ariel and Christina on Lady Lazarus & Witch Burning.

Oh, Sylvia Plath.

Of all of the poets who have made me laugh and cry and wonder and shiver, I think Plath tops the list. She is a writer who pens words that seem to echo within the core of my being, dripping with emotion as raw as it is exquisite. There is something about Plath's work that tears out shreds of my heart and then, just as effortlessly, puts them back together again. Perhaps slightly crooked. (Tell us a little bit about yourself, won't you?)

The Applicantis, hands down, my favourite of Plath's poetry. Which is saying something, because I love all of her work fiercely.

But there is something aching and familiar about The Applicant, its scenes of an unnamed young woman tossed from interview to interview, from courtship to courtship, desperately trying to find a deeper sort of love in a world that wants nothing more than to objectify her as nothing more than a living doll. (In your opinion, what are your best qualities? ... Oh dear, please don't brag. We don't need an exhaustive list.) Perhaps Plath was tired of it too, this constant, ever-present fixation on shaping women into aesthetically pleasing robots. Perhaps I am. Perhaps all of us are.

Of course, you don't need me to tell you that we live in a world of striking misogyny. You know it, you've seen it, this dark, cloying stain, spreading across to the way we work and the way we love. (Tell us about your experience at your previous company. You do have work experience, don't you?) The standards to which men hold women, to which women hold themselves -- they are contradictory, paradoxical, impossibly and frustratingly high.

And Plath understands. Oh, how she understands.

The Applicant is a picture of a woman who grooms herself to become what she believes is needed by men, who makes sacrifices she does not fully understand for a prize so coveted -- and ultimately, so disappointing. (What is your greatest weakness? ... No, no, please answer honestly. This is very important for us to know.) It is a raw, striking portrait of the misogyny in marriage, one that is less an indifferent observation and more a cry for help.

But there is more to the story than despair. The last stanza displays a kind of hope -- one that is tenuous, but no less real, no less resolute. (What do you think qualifies you for this job?) It works, there is nothing wrong with it, Plath tells us. After all of the contortions and the distortions, after all of the not good enough, after all of the ways we have heard over and over that we must go further than we have ever been comfortable with:

it works, there is nothing wrong with it.

And this is what makes Plath not only a truly beautiful artist, but also a truly beautiful human being.

Maybe we don't need to rearrange our souls in order to find the right man, she seems to say. Maybe we are more than fragile artefacts to be kept behind glass, more than zoo animals in dresses and false eyelashes. Maybe we don't need to reach impossibly high or sink impossibly low, to squeeze ourselves too small or stretch ourselves too large.

Maybe who we are is good enough for now.

(And finally, why should we hire you? ... Last resort? I'm afraid I'm not quite sure what you mean.)

The Applicant is a poem of uncertainty and of oppression -- but I believe it is also more than that. In the final stanza, Plath delivers a soothing reminder: we do not exist to conform to the standards of what society demands, of what men demand. We are all that we need. Just as we are. Just as we have always been.

We are women.

And it is enough.

(Thank you for applying. We'll be in touch.)

Literary Love: Edgar Allan Poe

I have hair like a lion's mane. That is the kindest way I know of saying that I have hair that refuses to sit down and stay flat and behave yourself, dammit. My hair enjoys the, shall we say, fluffy things in life. It is rather unapologetic in its reluctance to delicately curl over my shoulder. Or something.

(Can you tell I'm stealing from characterisations for '60s film heroines?)

(I promise this is going somewhere. Stay with me.)

To further add to the sad state of affairs with my hair, up until a year ago I had no one to commiserate with. There are a precious few people who are resigned to dealing with the daily struggle of shampoo and hair gel and [insert other product here that smells of vanilla and inevitably breaks the promise to solve all of your hair care problems with just one squirt!].

So I do hope you will forgive me when I say that I was introduced to one of the loveliest (most grotesque, macabre, utterly and beautifully terrifying) writers in history because of our shared struggles of voluminous locks.

Literary Love (affectionately known as #litlove) is a feature wherein I and friends around the blogosphere extol the virtues of various bookish topics. This month we're talking about Edgar Allan Poe! Don’t forget to check out the others’ posts on this topic: Alyssa on The Tell-Tale Heart, Taylor Lynn on The Raven, Christina on The Masque of the Red Death, and AnQi on Annabel Lee.

It's true. Shamefully so, but true all the same.

This is how the story began: a friend emailed me the picture linked above. As a joke, really - look, here's a writer who doesn't let his hair issues cramp his style! - but all the same, my interest was piqued.

A quick Google search turned into something far less quick: a Sunday afternoon spent reading short story after short story, as many as I could possibly get my hands on - and thanks to the Internet, that translated into quite a few indeed.

There is something truly captivating about the way Poe writes, interlacing the impossibly delicate with the shockingly grotesque. The elegance lies in the tragedy, the horror in the grace; perhaps we as readers are drawn to this impossible paradox, and Poe takes a twisted sort of delight in providing it to us.

Still, I think it's fitting that the piece that truly unraveled me was not one of his short stories, nor even a more famous poem. No, the poem that shares my soul is just as unconventional as the way I found him: one that holds horror and tragedy only as minor roles in a much larger cast, one that contains something like - heaven forbid for any die-hard Poe fan - joy.

It's called The Bells.

Read it, won't you? I'll wait here.

And now, read it again - if you'll indulge me, out loud this time.

Do you hear it?

There is a music in this poem that can't be found in his other work, and it's brought by the emotion infused in every word. Here are four stanzas that could not be more different from one another, tied together only by the fact that they are spilling over with the rawness of humanity.

Poe brings together merriment too light for air and desolation too heavy for tears, weaves them into a tapestry of emotion stretching far further than we might expect at first glance. One can hardly read the poem without feeling the velvety delight, the stricken alarm - and, more importantly, without recognising them in oneself.

And herein lies the magic: though the piece is, most certainly, a far cry from Poe's usual shiver-up-the-spine brand of horror, the range of emotions it encompasses holds a poignancy that is a rare and lovely thing to stumble across. In this poem, we see ourselves as we are, as we have always been, as we might someday be: whether it is laughing in merriment, dancing in joy, fleeing in alarm, or sighing in tragedy.

It is, I believe, the ultimate triumph: Poe manages to capture the spirit of humanity and the essence of something far greater. The horror is there, yes - but rather than dominating the tale, it plays only a small role in a study of what fundamentally ties us together.

It's the things like bad hair days (or bad hair in general); it's the things like horror stories illuminated by flashlights and eyes wide open in the dark. It's the things like the happiness, the joy, the fear, the sadness, and through it all: the ever-present tolling of the bells - the bells - the bells.