I wrote this review for the online literary magazine Requited, where it appeared in August 2011. However, it now seems to have disappeared from their site, so I thought I would reprint it here. It is, after all, a review I’m rather pleased with, about a book that I thought was outstandingly good.
Of late, ‘-punk’ seems to have become as ubiquitous a suffix for proliferating subgenres as ‘-gate’ is for political scandals. After cyberpunk and steampunk we have, most recently, been informed of mythpunk. Punk generally tries to suggest an urban, street-wise edge to the fiction, and so long as mythpunk is roughing up the bland and characterless environs of generic fantasy, then I’m all for it.
The trouble is that myth itself is rougher and tougher, edgier and rawer than anything mythpunk could hope to achieve. Because the writers of mythpunk are producing modern novels and stories in which, of necessity, novelistic virtues play a part. In a work of fiction these days we look for believability and coherence, neither of which has much part to play in genuine myth; in fact, quite the opposite. Myth was, after all, the record of feeble humanity trying to come to terms with a world that was vast and cruel and incomprehensible. By its very nature, therefore, myth is incoherent and unbelievable, because that is the nature of what beset people struggling to survive. If their experience of life was nasty, brutish and short, then the forces that directed their fate must be cruel, incontinent and mysterious. Myth at its most basic never told coherent, sanitised stories but rather presented heartless and violent vignettes.
Getting to the heart of myth, trying to recapture for a modern audience something of the raw affect of these heartless and terrifying tales, is no easy matter. Our world view is sanitised and smoothed out, we have explanations for most things that take us away from the horrifying mystery of survival, myth has consequently become quaint, rather endearing, often comic. Our response to myth has become exactly the opposite of what these oft-told tales would have originally generated.
That is exactly the attitude that Gregory Feeley comes up against in this extraordinary little book. He attempts to present myth in a bare handful of short stories, but these inevitably demand things like characterisation and plot that really have no place in the haunted origins of myth. So he gets around this by pairing his stories with essays which approach and unravel and argue with the crude and fragmentary birthplace of myth. It may seem counter-intuitive to attempt to suggest something of the nature of myth not through fiction but through the even more refined vehicle of an essay, and an academic essay at that. But somehow the enterprise works, indeed better than we perhaps have any right to expect. The result is one of the most exciting books I have read this year.
The myth he has chosen to disembowel before our eyes is the story of the origins of the centaurs. Now we all know the centaurs: half-man, half-horse, and given to being either wise advisors or drunken louts. And in our invariably hazy sense of how the Greek myths work (one part Graves to two parts retellings for children) we probably assume that this is one more example of the inter-species sex that is such a recurrent feature of the old stories. Oh, and it probably involves a jealous god, since most of the myths seem to. Well, yes, but that is very far from being the whole story.
As Feeley makes clear, the origin of the centaurs is an oddly convoluted story. Bits of the myth appear in a number of sources, though the earliest and only full account is part of an ode by Pindar, Pythian II – “The history of Kentauros in the development of Greek mythology seems to end where it began, with Pindar” (13). The story starts with Ixion, king of the Lapiths, who murdered his father-in-law but was able to get Zeus to purge him of his crime. When a guest in Zeus’s home, Ixion either developed a crush on, or attempted to rape, (accounts vary) Hera. To test Ixion, Zeus now conjured a simulacrum of Hera out of cloud, though she was still substantial enough to bear Ixion’s child, Kentaurus. And it is Kentauros, cast out of heaven for the sin of where he came from, who mated with a horse and begat the line of centaurs.
Feeley’s first essay, which opens the book, deals primarily with the story of Kentauros’s birth. What he brings out extraordinarily well is how much our modern reactions to the elements of the story differ from that of the ancient Greeks. This past really is a very foreign country. For instance, contemporary sources make little distinction between whether Ixion seduced or forced Hera – “Greek love magic was inherently coercive” (33) – and though she was a formidable and powerful character in her own right, in this story her desires or opinions count for nothing. Ixion’s crime, in fact, was not the rape or seduction of Hera, but the hubris of desire, and especially of desire for a god: hubris clearly outweighs all other sins. Later generations of the centaurs would even hail it as a sign of the might and worth of their progenitor that he sought to sleep with Hera. As Feeley says: “However deeply aspects of Greek myths may speak to modern readers, we are repeatedly reminded that their sexual politics are bound to a specific and very alien culture” (9).
Ixion would go on to be bound to a wheel in Hades for all eternity, one of the more striking and lasting images from the catalogue of horrors that was Greek myth. (In an interesting aside in the second essay, Feeley reports that Ixion’s wheel, which Pindar describes as feathered, recalls a reputedly lustful waterfowl that was tied to a wheel as part of Greek sexual magic. The fowl was called an iunx, which gave us the word jinx.) But Ixion was not actually the father of the centaurs. His cloud mistress, unnamed in any source, gave birth to a son, Kentauros, whose cursed nature was recognised by the Graces even before his birth – “from such a monstrous act spring monsters” (32), though we don’t know whether Kentauros was himself monstrous, he is the only figure from Greek mythology never to have been painted or sculpted; but he was certainly treated monstrously. The son of a king and an immortal, he would ordinarily have been a hero, but he wasn’t even noticed by the poets, other than Pindar. “And after four brief lines describing his ignoble engendering of the race of hippocentaurs, Kentauros disappears from the extant body of Greek literature” (10). In a nod to postmodernism, Feeley notes how marginalised Kentauros is in his own myth: though he provides the vital link between two well-known myths, he himself disappears from his own story almost as soon as he has been introduced. It is this disappearance that draws Feeley to the legend (the second and best of his three stories, which stands at a tangent to the rest of the book, tells of Byron in the final year of his life and Mary Shelley working as his copyist, and an abortive attempt to render the lost legend of Kentauros, it ends with the legend lost again), but he is also quick to find resonances with other myths. Thus, although creating a simulacrum in this way has no parallel in Greek mythology (itself a suggestive point), Feeley also notes that Zeus was referred to by Homer as “cloud gatherer”. There are metamorphoses throughout Greek mythology, but nothing like the cloud Zeus gathers to deceive Ixion, a cloud that can still give birth.
And the fact that Ixion could conceive a child on the cloud is also important, “for the male orgasm possesses a numinous significance in Greek mythology” (12). Yet it is a story that remains absent from what has survived otherwise of ancient Greek literature, though you get odd asides, such as Ovid referring to the centaurs as “cloud born”.
As for the centaurs, their name seems to derive from kentein, to prick or goad, and tauros, bull, hence they are bull-drivers or, in modern parlance, cowboys. This last is an extension of the term that Feeley does not make explicit, though it has to be said there are similarities between the role of the wild, free drinking centaurs of Greek myth and the wild, free drinking cowboys of western legend. But Feeley offers another derivation for Kentauros, kentein, to prick, aura, the air, a reference to the generative act that conceived him.
Feeley no more differentiates between essay and fiction than the Greeks apparently differentiated between rape and seduction. Whether essay or story, the chapters of this book are untitled, other than a simple “one”, “two” or whatever. The two forms are clearly meant to feed into each other. Thus we grasp what is happening in the first story, “two”, which shows a naked and disoriented Kentauros finding himself earthbound having been cast out of Olympia, in large part because this dramatises something hinted at but not explored in the essay we have just read. Similarly this story resonates in the second essay, when Feeley points out that “The lone individual who, blameworthy or innocent, ranges across a comfortless landscape as a pariah did not engage the Greek imagination” (32). Of course it engages ours, for that is precisely the story we have just read. And having dealt with a modern appropriation of myth in the Byron story, he opens his third and final essay by saying that “Modernism was never involved in myth-making, but in the welding of mythical elements into vast superstructures” (74). Joyce’s Ulysses, and later works like Gravity’s Rainbow, employ myth but they are not myth, though I suppose they might be mythpunk. What I think Feeley is doing in his blurring of the line between fiction and essay is illustrating the difference between our worldview and that of the Greeks, and hence pointing how difficult it is for us to grasp the original sense and resonance of the myths. Mythpunk, we might say, may be punk but it cannot be myth.
What represents the difference in worldview more than anything, what prompts the sheer nastiness of so much myth, and what runs through the core of this entire book, is sex. The sexual politics of the myth is a very vivid reminder of the difference between then and now. In the myths sexual conquest always was a conquest, a matter of the strong enacting their will upon the weak, and blame, if there was any, invariably attached to the conquered not the conqueror for allowing themselves to be overcome. In a tangential discussion of Hesiod’s invention of Pandora, for instance, Feeley notes that “Hesiod would be incredulous at the suggestion that mortal women, whose harmful traits had been inserted like faulty genes into their natures by an omnipotent malevolence, were in any way less culpable for this” (38). Feeley keeps returning to the brutal power play enacted within the myth, a situation that, in the modern liberal world, we can in truth barely begin to understand. And the brevity of the extant story of Kentauros is what allows Feeley to examine the rawness of the myth and the world it reveals.
In his third essay, which examines myth in the modern world, Feeley makes the point that a myth is more akin to a joke than a fiction: tight, limited, focused, all it’s reversals directed to one end, and invariably short. Ambiguity, sentiment, subtlety, interiority, are all absent. We might wonder what Medea was thinking, no Greek source did. The myth cuts, and is intended to cut, straight to the heart. It cannot be dressed up, it cannot be intellectualised, it cannot be explained, it is just that point where the violence of unthinking man meets the violence of unthinking nature. All a myth can say is that and no more; we rob it of its power and its universality if we expect it to be modern, if we expect it to be susceptible to our concerns, attitudes and beliefs. Myth is the embodiment of our deepest and darkest anxieties, which is what makes Kentauros “the bell, shaped like us, that sounds but elicits no echo” (82).
And so, as he must do, Feeley returns to Kentauros, his third essay closing with a passage that encompasses within a few lines all the power and the poetry that is in this superb book:
Haunted not by what he has done, like Lord Jim, or might do but has not, like Prince Hamlet, Kentauros stands beyond the limits of action, for no act can change the nature of his essence. He is unwelcome in the universe, and the one act he commits – a desperate attempt to score the surface of a cosmos turned away from him – only replicates in travesty his own misbegetting. Eternal punishment for overreaching is comprehensible; so is degradation for a bestial nature. But to be cast into a world keyed to an alien pitch, to wander unloved – interaction leading only to monsters – does not stir the phantom limbs of myth, but instead stabs straight at the nerve. It is the story too raw to tell, its outlines lost even to mythology. (83)
One final story follows, in which Kentauros encounters and is destroyed by his own offspring. Our story of sex and generation must lead only to death. But that is how myth always works, and all its ugliness and cruelty and vigour has never been brought more tellingly in front of a modern audience. Kentauros, lost even from mythology, is finally rediscovered.