When I was in High School, I was often given writing assignments to analyze poems and novels to find the author’s hidden meanings. I thought this a rather suspect activity, simply because I doubted authors put little hints and references in their writings for readers to discover. To me, it was all make-believe, a futile and unnecessary exercise in intellectual fantasy. Such is youth.
I made a reassessment much later. I heard a story about Picasso when he was asked if he had deliberately meant to evoke a particular obscure and abstruse idea that the viewer thought he saw. Picasso answered by saying not only was that idea there, but many more than he could possibly imagine. I said, “humph”, and raised an eyebrow but not very high. It was Picasso who said that, after all.
Then, I began to write Eye of the Moon, and I discovered that my naïve assessment was wrong. I threw so many little tidbits, references, ironies, symbols, themes, concepts, and ideas into the story, I doubt a reader gets even a tenth. It was deliberate, and there to be discovered. When I write, so much more goes into the writing than can be easily expressed in the words. It is what I find to be the writer’s dilemma: complexity into simplicity.
As an example, in my previous blog post “Duality“, I reference Alice’s introduction to her diary. She writes to the reader:
“…Perhaps, I will only be a thought kept alive for three generations until the last person who has seen me and spoken with me is gone, at which point I will have vanished completely from living memory, and I will be no more.”
I had many things in mind when I wrote that. The first was the ancient Greek concept of kleos. The word means glory or fame. More fundamentally, it means “what other people say about you.”
In ancient Greece you didn’t go to heaven or live again. You entered the Underworld instead, which was a dim place of shadowy existences. The dead were like ghosts and referred to as an eidōlon, an image less real than a living person. There was no correlation between actions in life and one’s lot in death. Hades was where you would end up, and it was a grim place.
Juxtaposed to Hades was the Elysian Fields (also referred to as “Elysium”). They are alluded to in the Odyssey and were reserved for only a few especially good souls. According to the Greek poet Hesiod, Elysium was known as the “Fortunate Isles of the Blessed” and located in the western ocean at the end of the world. Life was easy in that place. Only very special people lived there, untouched by sorrow.
This more hopeful idea led to the creation of the Elysian Mysteries, rituals that were open to all who spoke Greek and hadn’t murdered (including slaves). The initiate was promised a happy afterlife provided one went through the procedures required. It was no wonder that the mysteries were popular, given the prevailing ideas of what was in store when death came calling. Christianity capitalized on this during Roman times, but that’s a later story.
During the Homeric period (circa 700 BCE), the only way to achieve immortality was to have one’s deeds and name glorified in songs and poems that could be spoken, remembered, and retold down through the ages. Fail to be mentioned, and the individual did not exist for future generations.
Paralleling those thoughts, Alice in her prelude writes that once three generations pass, or some sixty years into the future, no one will be alive who can recall having a personal conversation or connection with her. She will have passed from living memory and perhaps at that moment, die more permanently a second time.
This concept comes from the ancient Egyptians. According to them, it was indeed possible to die twice. Once when the physical body died, and a second time when no one spoke your name, at which point death became permanent. Pharaohs created and funded whole temples with priests who chanted their names over and over lest they die forever. Perhaps, the ultimate expression of this thirst to be remembered and gain a measure of immortality are the pyramids of Giza.
I was also thinking of Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley at the time I wrote those sentences.
I MET a Traveller from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed :
And on the pedestal these words appear :
” My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.”
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair !
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The irony here is that Ozymandias, the Pharaoh Ramses 2, long since dead and with no priests to speak his name, nonetheless remains alive in Shelley’s immortal words. Perhaps, Alice thought the same, and maybe I have similar aspirations.