Analysis: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943): a spiralling lucid nightmare, Maya Deren, & A dialogue with the Unconscious

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is a memorable, experimental, surreal short film directed and written by Maya Deren. Referred to as poetic psychodrama, the film was ahead of its time with its focus on depicting fragments of the unconscious mind, externalising disjointed mental processes, dreams, and potential drama through poetic cinematic re-enactments brought to life by uncanny doppelganger figures. The enigmatic protagonist, played by Deren herself, enters a dream world in which she finds herself returning to the same spots and actions in and around her house, chasing a strange mirror-faced figure in a nightmarish, entangling, spiralling narrative. Whilst she ritualistically goes through nearly identical motions, with some slight changes, within a domestic space that is imbued with dread and a sense of doom, unreality, and foreignness – we also witness glimpses of multiple versions of herself, watching herself. The camera shifts from subjective to objective angles as the self-representation of the protagonist alternates between the dichotomous concepts of the self and the “other”. The domestic space revolves around certain recurrent symbolic objects. The film conjures up the uncanniness of dissociation or, more specifically, depersonalisation; self-obsession, a woman’s dual inner/outer life and subjective experience of the world, all congruous with Deren’s interest in self-transformation, interior states, surpassing the confines of personality and self-construct, as well as the self-transcending rituals of Haitian Vodou. The dream story, culminating in death, symbolically alludes to the -sometimes strange and terrifying- initial, non-rational stage of the Jungian process of the “transcendent function” (the symbolic confrontation with the unconscious) leading to the separation of awareness from unconscious thought patterns and the liberating reconciliation between the two opposites: ego and the unconscious, which also has the effect of integrating neurotic dissociations.

Continuity is absent in the disjointed dream narrative of the film. The woman goes up the stairs inside the house and unpredictably emerges from the window in a haunting shot, wrapped in and caressed by soft, semi-transparent curtains. After catching her distorted reflection in the polished knife, the camera follows her fluid bending movements as she is crawling on the staircase, whilst being strangely blown away by the wind in various directions within a claustrophobic space, levitating, trying to hang onto things, and eventually hanging in a crucified position against the wall. With her bat-like presence casting a larger-than-life shadow behind her, she gazes at her sleeping body on the couch through a point-of-view shot from the ceiling. This moment vividly evokes the concept of an out-of-body experience. She then watches a previous version of herself through the window, following the flower-holding, black cloaked figure outside. Unable to catch up, she enters the house, and the subjective camera movement switches to this version of her, whilst she catches a glimpse of the funereally dark, cloaked apparition walking up the stairs.

The elusive mirror-faced character is compelling and symbolically evocative. Nun, Grim Reaper, or mourner? The hooded black cloak and the ritual of bringing a flower to someone’s bed are immediately reminiscent of death, of mourning, and associations between bed/tomb and sleep/death. As the face of the obscure ghost-like manifestation is actually a mirror showing the reflection of the watcher, the scenario conjures up the idea of mourning one’s own death. After leaving the flower on the bed, the character disappears and the image of the woman also disappears and re-materialises several times, back and forth on the staircase.  She then heads towards her own sleeping body whilst holding a knife, proceeding to try to stab herself before she awakens and sees a man holding a flower in front of her.

The phantom steps of the hooded dream character are traced and re-traced by the man and the woman in what appears to be reality but turns out to be a dream within a dream. The man carries the flower upstairs, leaving it on the bed, a gesture that echoes the dream act but is seen in a different context- of intimacy rather than a religious or funereal act. The flower, a symbol of femininity, is therefore connected with death and sexuality, respectively. After a shot of the reflection of the man in the mirror next to the bed, we watch her lying down through the male gaze. The camera switches to the predatory look on his face, and, as he is about to touch her, she grabs the knife and tries to stab his face. At this point, the knife breaks a mirror instead, and the face of the man disintegrates into shards (another connection between the man and the dream figure), revealing an image -perhaps a memory- of waves and the beach. The man comes inside the house again to find the dead body of the woman on the couch- she committed suicide by cutting herself with a mirror.

Deren poetically described the moment of the intertwining worlds as “a crack letting the light of another world gleam through.” [Deren, “A Letter”, in Essential Deren]

The uncanny dimension of the film lies in the transformation of the familiar environment into something mystifying, the dream-reality ambiguity, the repetition compulsion, the doubling (tripling and quadrupling), the distortions in spatial and temporal awareness, as well as the repetitive use of familiar images such as household objects that seemingly gain unknown symbolic connotations, whilst functioning as mnemonic devices. The juxtaposition of objects also contributes to the sense of dread and paranoia- the off-the-hook phone, the silent record player, the flower left behind by the enigmatic figure, the knife, the falling key. We can associate the off-the-hook phone with loss of communication, the knife -phallic form, therefore masculinity, besides the surface level connection with danger and death, the flower, as mentioned, having a contrasting effect-femininity, but also, death in this context; the key represents confinement, repression, and feeling entrapped, but also the possibility to escape. When the woman pulls out the key from her mouth, perhaps she had “the key” to find the way out all along, and then, as the regurgitated key turns into a knife, there is a connection between escape and (psychic) suicide. The mirror stands for introspection, and the death by mirror cut might allegorically refer to the disintegration of the identity construct, linked to liberation. When a version of the woman picks up the knife, she is re-claiming her agency, wielding phallic power.

It is worth mentioning that the director strongly opposed and discouraged psychoanalytic interpretations of her film and of the symbolic significance of the objects the film revolves around, instead encouraging the viewer to only interpret them in the context of the film narrative as a whole to avoid going beyond conscious intent in art. This brings me back to an inner debate on the topic of film analysis, its limitations and the question whether there is such a thing as going “too deep” into conscious and unconscious meaning behind film. The “risk” of going too deep is ingrained in the nature of the work of any film scholar or critic, especially when it comes to cine-psychoanalysis. However, when it comes to surreal films in particular, the intentions are blurred and open to interpretation, and clearly Deren’s art is lyrical in its symbolic nature, created by association of poetic images, and influenced by her interest in psychology. Before turning to cinematography, Maya Deren expressed herself through poetry, but she found it too limiting to convey the images in her mind through words.

To respect the wishes of the creator, let’s also look at her own statements related to the film, as well as her general preoccupations and beliefs, which are transparently relevant to the film.
This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” —Maya Deren on Meshes of the Afternoon, from DVD release Maya Deren: Experimental Films 1943–58.

The multiplying of the character is connected to dissociation, alienation, emotional fragmentation, and potentially reintegration towards the end. The multiple incarnations of the woman evoke an internal schizoid narrative breathing life into alternative versions of herself- challenging her self-construct. Some of her personas are passively observing her more powerful, key-holding, knife-wielding persona. The suicide is symbolic, despite the fact that, in the final scene, it appears as if the layers of the dream world are peeled off and we have access to the real world. I believe the death symbolism is derived from Jungian psychology- i.e. the death and resurrection of consciousness. In light of this thought, the film can represent a visual representation of Jung’s Transcendent Function. What unfolds on screen is the process through which a person gains awareness of and confronts unconscious material driving their life in order to unite and re-channel the opposing energies of the ego and the unconscious into a third state of being, of wholeness. This would also have an integral effect that will merge the embodiments of the character’s dissociations. According to Jung, the process involves a challenging, unnerving unleashing of fantasies, dreams, and instincts. The sense of dread and panic evoked by the film matches this idea. The process is also associated with the notion of ego death in Eastern philosophies.

To further delve into Deren’s psyche and establish other links, let’s remember that she was fascinated by the rituals of Haitian Vodou and religious possession. She later participated in Vodou ceremonies and documented the rituals. Together with her love of dance (and later, her experience with recreational drugs) her immersion in and fascination with rituals were also a result of seeking to drift away from self-centredness, to go beyond self-construct and personality, and merge with something greater. This is again related to the Buddhist concept of ego death – a transcendent, life-turning mental state with self-revelatory consequences. We know that Deren has a preoccupation with the transformation of the self and reaching higher spiritual states of awareness. In this excerpt from An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film (1946), she makes insightful comments about ritual:

The ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalised element in a dramatic whole. The intent of such depersonalisation is not the destruction of the individual; on the contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the specialisations and confines of personality. He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning.”

I am glad she mentions depersonalisation and associates it with a form of spiritual awakening, as this coincides with my beliefs on depersonalisation and derealisation. The two often go hand in hand. Both experiences (note I’m not referring to them as ‘disorders’) involve a feeling of detachment – from one’s thoughts and from reality, as well as an awareness of this detachment (which distinguishes it from psychosis: there are no delusions or psychotic elements involved). Derealisation involves experiencing the world as if you are living in a dream or a film, and depersonalisation is the feeling of unreality of the self, which has been introduced as a psychiatric disorder of the dissociative type in 1930 and has been updated and re-interpreted several times in various psychiatric diagnosis manuals. Other common features mentioned in the DSM-IV are an uncanny distortion in visual and temporal perception, a feeling that other people, places, or events appear unfamiliar, unreal, or mechanical and lacking emotional depth. An individual experiencing this might feel like an outside observer of his or her own mental processes. All of this also applies to Meshes of the Afternoon where the protagonist is in a perpetual, adrift state of trance as she navigates the dream web and observes herself from an external perspective, whilst familiar objects appear foreign, strange, or ‘tainted’.

Here is an excerpt from Feeling Unreal, one of the few books tackling the elusive topic of  DPD- written by Daphne Simeon, MD and Jeffrey Abugel. The description matches the insight and feeling revealed by Deren regarding the state of depersonalisation in ritual:

“No longer grounded by familiar sensations or surroundings, they feel as if they’re losing their grip on reality. But unlike people with psychotic conditions like schizophrenia, they are not going insane at all. They are, if anything, suddenly overly aware of reality and existence and of the ways in which their own experience is a distortion of a ‘normal’ sense of a real self. Depersonalisation, in fact, resembles a sort of altered ‘awareness’ or ‘awakening’ that in some cultures is thought to be a level of spiritual growth.”

Back to the film, it is worth watching both existing versions: Your viewing experience might change depending on whether you watch the early silent version or the 1959 version accompanied by the official sombre, atmospheric soundtrack created by ‎Teiji Ito, Maya’s second husband. You may also realise that the dreamlike atmosphere and narrative of Meshes was a source of inspiration for David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001).

A glimpse of Perfect Blue

perfect-bluePerfect Blue (1997), directed by Satoshi Kon, is a disturbing, disorienting, surreal Japanese animated psychological horror/thriller film based on the 1991 novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis written by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Mima, a 21-year-old former pop icon pursuing an acting career, can no longer discern between reality and fantasy, as she is haunted by ghosts of her past as a teen idol, and subsequently delves into paranoid delusions and nightmares. Her doppelgänger, an elusive mirror figure seemingly belonging to a parallel reality- is an embodiment of her former J-pop self whose taunting remarks about her failed diva status seem to spring from her own unconscious mind. The underlying commentary of the film touches the theme of unstable selfhood correlated with celebrity and the vicious effects of stardom, in a dark critique of Japanese pop culture and the cult of celebrity.
This eerie stylised depiction of madness filled with blood, violence, and suspense, has been seen as an animated version of a Giallo thriller directed by Dario Argento, and has also been cited as the inspiration behind Darren Arronofsky’s work, the most obvious one being Black Swan.

Costume design symbolism in Crimson Peak (2015): Lucille’s breathtaking blue velvet dress

crimson-peak-lucille-blue-velvet-dress-symbolism

Crimson Peak (2015), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a visually stunning, gloomy cinematic horror spectacle, noted for its incredible and haunting aesthetic. A particularly remarkable and alluring feature of the intricate production design is Lucille’s breathtaking blue velvet dress. The bewitching symbolically-charged Victorian design of the dress includes a black garland resembling a vine with withered leaves, claustrophobically climbing towards her pale neck. The owner, played by the mesmerising Jessica Chastain, is a beautiful, tense, frigidly graceful corset-wearing ice queen filled with dark repressed emotions, whose attire reflects her inner state. Her blue, heavy rigid dress seems to blend with her eerie funereal surroundings, the underwater feeling given by the aquatic colours and the flickering interplay of light and darkness, the dark curtains, and the grandiose blue walls of the Gothic mansion. She is tragically connected to the ominous house and the dead vines tangled up around her body further anchor her in it, symbolising her psychological confinement. She is often shown in contrast to pure, innocent, and lively Edith, played by Mia Wasikowska, who wears light and loose gowns.

 

 

Reflections on reading

Published in Education in the Digital Era, March 2019

Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. […] They are a way of being fully human.”- Susan Sontag

The multifaceted nature of literature encompasses an abundance of purposes when it comes to the act of reading, such as functioning as a vehicle of escapism, working as a tool to enhance self-awareness, setting in motion cultural and social change starting from individual transformation, inspiring metaphorical deaths and resurrections of selves, summoning childhood magic and nostalgia associated with books we grew up with and memories entangled with their reading, perceiving the human spirit as shaped through time within specific historical and cultural frameworks, as well as strengthening our connection with others by making us recognise ‘the other’ within us, and providing a mirror that we can use to face the world with empathy and acceptance as we fully acknowledge its realness and complexity.

Reading can be seen as a spiritual journey, since it inspires a form of awakening. Stories we read during our formative years, during an early stage in our lives that is of utmost significance memory-wise, those stories will potentially remain the most enchanting reading experiences, because they enter our mind at a time when we tend to simply absorb every evocative image, every symbol, indiscriminately, unassumingly, with naivety and curiosity, and when simple yet vivid memories are formed. Later, as we mature and acquire more knowledge- not exclusively literary, whilst we learn to be more discerning, selective, as well as developing critical thinking, we are encouraged to deeply reflect on the strings of words in front of our eyes- sometimes, however, at the expense of the child-like wonder and the child’s way of seeing, of disappearing, and truly living within a story.

While expressing her views on reading, Virginia Woolf emphasises that, whereas we should follow our instincts in reading rather than having someone else dictate the way in which we experience a literary piece, we should also avoid falling into the trap of projecting our pre-conceived ideas and judgements onto a piece of writing immediately, and instead, at first, decrease the volume of our critical voice in order to embrace the author’s voice and the creative process, to open our minds and let the thoughts of another flow into them. Afterwards, as cultivated readers, we can ponder on underlying themes and psychoanalytical symbolism, stylistic categorisations, meta-references, the larger aesthetic value of the work, character development, feminist interpretations and critiques, and the historical, socio-cultural, political or conceptual frameworks. As a Literature and Film graduate, I have found that temporarily tuning out certain aspects of this critical side that became a natural inclination in my reading is ideal if I wish to retain the pleasure of the act and to prevent disillusionment. Otherwise- and I have known Literature and Film students at university who faced such concerns- the enjoyment of a piece of writing or art in general might be diminished. When we let ourselves be fully engrossed by the words, something pure and beautiful happens: we disappear and live within a story, we allow ourselves to be bewitched by lyricism, to recognise the emotions evoked in a poem, to let them inspire us; we perceive and visualise the world conceived by another mind, unfolding within our own mind. That is when we can identify with a character, as well as finding traces of this character within ourselves, savouring every mental image, finding something interesting and revealing in every echo while devouring a good book. This way, we shift from clichés to something more intimate, from patterns of thinking to a unique taste of and insight into individual consciousness.

During literary studies at university, our way of reading pieces of literature is, indeed, interestingly shaped, to a certain degree, by the modules we opt for and their structure, particularly the recommended critical interpretations and analysis of the works in question or, more broadly, of literary movements, periods, and other divisions. Once you place everything in a cultural, social, or historical context, or consider the psychoanalytical dimensions of a text, or interpret narratives from a feminist point of view, it can influence your process of experiencing other works and how you delve into them. This aspect is also facilitated by a tendency towards syntopical or comparative reading, which is recommended within an academic context- particularly in analysing critical theory books and essays- and rightfully so, since it is a useful tool for finding your own voice, forming your own opinions, gaining perspective, and developing critical thinking skills which are so essential in various areas of life. As a result, while reading prose fiction for instance, our minds may involuntarily jump to underlying commentaries and themes, paying more attention to connotations of nuances and how they fall into a wider sociocultural, ideological, or psychological framework. This may seem like a double-edged sword because it appears to be in contrast to the previous idea of experiencing a written story viscerally, intimately. However, as previously mentioned, the mind can be trained to read differently for pleasure, inspiration, or educational purposes and everyone can shift between different methods of reading.

Placing a literary piece into the complex puzzle of history, can be particularly revealing and useful, for instance, when we read literature associated with silenced voices and with otherness: such literary works give us the chance to get an insight into the psyche of figures whose lives seem so distinct from ours and explore uncharted mental territories, an inner journey which will also prove to be self-revealing, whilst at the same time requiring transcendence. Reading can, indeed, often initiate us into a ritual of self-transcending. Language mediates our connection with our own selves as much as it mediates our connection with the world around us. Reading can be viewed as a process of merging contrasts: between temporality and atemporality, the tangible and the incorporeal, presence and absence, closeness and remoteness, self and other, the intimate and the universal, the evanescent and the eternal, a grasped world and an elusive one.

A close reading of Sappho: beyond the erotic

Sappho, the first notable female interpreter of the human soul to speak her mind through lyric poetry, is a symbol for women’s self-assertion, as well as the inventor of romantic imagery that has since become common and often used in our culture. The reader who enters the Sapphic realm will be initiated into an atmosphere of ritual, ecstasy, contrasting outpouring of emotions, all of this being both concealed and revealed by fragmentary, yet vivid aesthetic descriptions of a nature inspired by the Lesbos Island. Sappho’s poems seem to reflect the balance of Apollonian and Dionysian essence that characterises art, in Nietzsche’s view. The Apollonian nature of her work lies in the beautiful, evocative and musical forms and structures of poetry, while the Dionysian is represented by the powerful underlying emotions and experiences.

Focus on sensual and emotional awareness
While the theme of love is essential in Sappho’s writing, this should not be reduced to the elements of lust, desire, or to assumptions about the author’s homoerotic passions, as it happened during the Victorian Era. Her work is concerned with sensuality, with a disintegration and reconstruction of the senses and with the bittersweet nature of love. The purpose of this poetic sensuality, as stated by Judith Halleth, is to act as a social means “to impart sensual awareness and confidence in young females on the threshold of marriage and maturity” and to encourage the development of female identity. While Stehle argues against this, saying that the personal intimate reality in Sappho’s work is the most important, it is fair to say that there is a connection between the private and the public in Sappho’s world and in her poetic intentions. On the same note of inspiring sensuality, Josephine Balmer also believes that “Sappho’s poetry is sensual and emotional rather than sexually explicit”. In poem no 32 for instance, in which the narrator shares memories of past bliss with a tone marked by the suffering of parting with the lover, there is an emphasis on the senses: The surroundings radiate sensuality. Elements such as the flowers (violets, roses and crocuses), the floral scented perfume, the garlands and the bed are all associated with the notion of love and depict the relationship between the two lovers in terms of colours and scents.

Ritual imagery
The Dionysian atmosphere of ecstasy that encourages revelling in sensual pleasures is present throughout several poems, such as no 79 in which Sappho creates her ideal image of the temple of Aphrodite, seeming to describe a paradise ruled by a mix of haunting perfume, beautiful pastoral landscape dominated by flowers and the soothing sound of rivers, finishing with a very vivid simile and metaphor of pouring “like wine into golden cups,/ a nectar mingled with all the joy of our festivities”. Wine is a characteristic of ritual imagery, as well as a fundamental Dionysian element in its perception-altering effect. The feelings conveyed in the poem can be resumed in Baudelaire’s famous line from Correspondances, “Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent”.

Connection between the Sensual and the Spiritual
The sensual is closely related to the spiritual in Sappho’s poetry. There is a spiritual dimension to Sappho’s love, which is reflected through the rituals of worshipping the Goddess of Love. Her Ode to Aphrodite imitates a prayer, similar to a Homeric one, in which she begins by invoking the goddess and describing a previous encounter; and finishes symmetrically, in a ring composition, by asking her to come again. Sappho’s description of the previous spiritual encounter is very evocative: it seems to flow perfectly, encouraging the reader to visualise and re-live her experience. The description ends by switching from an indirect approach to a direct one through which Aphrodite asks in a non-hesitant, straightforward manner: “Who shall I persuade this time/ to take you back, yet once again, to her love;/ who wrongs you, Sappho?”.

The figure of Aphrodite
Aphrodite’s tone is very familiar and impatient, because of the repetitive reason of the invocation, namely regaining a lover’s affection. Some critics saw the tone of the ode as “an expression of the vanity and impermanence of her passion, composed in a spirit of self-mockery ”. From this perspective, Aphrodite appears to remind Sappho that all pain is ephemeral and that time will heal all wounds. However, the power of the goddess of love is strongly emphasised in the poem in the sixth stanza by listing the three inversions that are about to happen: instead of running away from, the beloved will run after Sappho, instead of shunning gifts, she will give, and even against her will, she shall love Sappho. The structure and content of the poem makes it difficult to tell whether it was meant to be performed in public or in private. It is said it might have been performed as part of the cult of Aphrodite, but the way Sappho addresses herself in the fifth stanza through Aphrodite’s voice, together with the intimate sense we get from the invocation, gives the impression that it was private. This personal use of myth is one aspect contributing to Sappho’s originality, and it is depicted through the lyric form of her poetry, which is focused on individuality.

Adopting epic language within a lyric context
In her description of Eros, Sappho employs Homeric terms such as “limb-relaxing”. Her poetry gives new meanings to the epic language. Sappho transforms Homer’s similes into metaphorical terms, almost personifying nature by associating human behaviour with the rhythms of nature. Her vivid descriptions, with their melodic nature, are Apollonian in the harmony they create. The vocabulary she uses is simple and familiar, but the combination of words is suggestive, flowing in a natural, seemingly effortless way. It is also very often open to interpretation: Scholars generally argue about the true meaning behind Sappho’s metaphorical language. For instance, some think that the expression “greener than grass” from poem no 20 suggests that the narrator is envious (green with envy) of the man that is fortunate enough to marry her beloved, while others think that it is not jealousy she experiences – it is, instead, her reaction to the overwhelming beauty of her loved one. To support the latter view, one can compare the figure of speech with Penelope’s suitors’ reactions in the Odyssey: “their knees were loosened, and their hearts were beguiled with passion”. It could also be an association to Homer’s expression “green fear” of war, or a feeling of sickness and pallor or, on the contrary, a symbol of regained youth. This openness of interpretation proves Sappho’s capability of stirring the reader’s wonder through the effective use of simple, lyric expressions.

The fragmented self
In the same poem (number 20), there is a disintegration of senses, and a notion of fragmented self. This aspect is conveyed through powerful imagery in which Sappho’s experience of senses, so important throughout her poetry, gets distorted: “my voice deserts me/ and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire/ suddenly races underneath my skin,/ my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle[…]/ and sweat pours down me and a trembling creeps over”. The Dionysian experience implies a loss of self, a near-death experience; yet it is described in such a clear harmonious way, that we get the feeling it complies to Nietzsche’s idea of balance in art – namely the balance between the order lying in the form, and the disorder given by the feelings evoked and by the treated subject. The contradiction, or paradox in this poem comes from the idea that the speaker seems to be capable of recording this near-death experience which is supposed to silence her voice. It almost seems like Sappho divides herself in two entities: the one that is there, experiencing those feelings, and the one that can judge and observe everything and compose a song about it. It is a reflection of the notion of lyric persona, of the “subtle and complex use of ‘I’ in poetry”, as Josephine Balmer points out. The verb “seem”, repeated throughout the poem might suggest that everything is an illusion, that feelings do not shape reality, on the contrary, they have the ability to distort it (“It seems to me”/ “I seem to be no more than a step away from death”). Sappho thus brings this inherent truth in her lyricism: that feelings can be exaggerated, they can burn one’s heart and poison one’s mind.

Modernist aspect
The motif of the fragmented self, as well as the speech incapability from poem number 20 resonate well with modernist techniques and views, such as the unreliable narrators and the irrationality of a seemingly rational society. The fragmentary self seems to mirror Sappho’s fragmentary body of work, which has been associated metaphorically with her supposed suicide, with her body that was broken on the rocks . This metaphor amplifies Sappho’s appeal to a culture fascinated with imperfection, destruction and loss.

Focus on women’s values
Another essential aspect that assures Sappho’s success is her focus on women and women’s values. She moves away from male values of war, heroes and conquest expressed in the epic poems of the ancient writers – towards the female world of ritual, enchantment and love. A great example of this is poem number 21, in which she presents Helen of Troy in a positive light, very differently from Homer’s treatment of the myth. In Sappho’s poems, Helen is seen as a heroine, as a woman who acts independently, as an agent, not just an object of desire. Similarly, Sappho is an active figure who chooses to voice her passions through poetry, and to reject the conventional themes and style of epic poems. She shifts from her philosophical approach of a universal question to a personal situation, from legend to her own time- which involves the importance of the beauty of Anactoria over male values of war associated with Lydia. This writing “breaks the silence of women in antiquity”, and consequently, it is clear that it has inspired so many female writers in finding their own voice. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who wrote in the style of confessional poetry, were both influenced by Sappho:
“A young and very ambitious Sylvia Plath ranked Sappho as the first among her rivals for poetic fame and Anne Sexton toward the end of her life wrote a poem about a modern Sappho that reveals Sexton’s own interest in literary fame as well as her dread of losing conventional supports in pursuit of it” (“The Red Dance”, 1981, 530-31).

Lyricism and the female voice in poetry
There are so many aspects of Sappho’s work that create this wholeness of emotions, despite the fragmentary nature of its form. Its sensuality, spirituality, original treatment of myth and of women have brought her recognition among both men and women, both Romantics and Modernists. Despite some critics’ focus on the biographical truth behind her poetry, she is generally seen as a symbolic icon representing female poets, as well as lyric poets.

Author of the essay: Diana Marin
As part of the BA in Film & Literature, University of Essex, 2015

>Continue reading for Sappho excerpts and bibliography

Transformations of Morgan Le Fay

morgan-le-fay

Goddess, fairy, healer, enchantress and necromancer are some of the evocative terms associated with Morgan le Fay since her earliest known appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini.

The Welsh cleric depicts her in a positive light, as an otherworldly creature possessing the arts of healing and shape-shifting. She is the fairest, the most intelligent and most skilled of the nine sisters ruling the Island of Apples – a paradisiac island where Arthur is taken to be healed.

Another notable twelfth century description, introduced by one of the greatest French romancers, Chrétien de Troyes, retains Morgan’s healing power and makes her Arthur’s sister, as well as the lover of Guinguemar, who is given Morgan’s original role as a ruler – that of Avalon.

It is the Vulgate Cycle that adds a wicked, negative dimension to Morgan’s character for the first time. Supposedly influenced by the image of Morrígan, the Irish goddess of battle and sovereignty, a symbol of “life and death, sexuality and conflict” , the authors of the five-part cycle attribute Morgan unrequited feelings for Lancelot, jealousy of his love for Guinevere and hatred for Arthur and Guinevere. She captures knights in the Valley of No Return, yet paradoxically helps Arthur in the end.

In the late Middle Ages, Morgan starts degenerating in beauty, motives and power. She either learns magic from Merlin or in a convent school – a reference to the fear of cultivated women. Her magic scope is reduced to drugged potions, petty spells, plotting against Arthur and Guinevere and maintaining the illusion of beauty after her youthful body suffered because of her connection with the dark forces.

There is no definite reason for this process of degradation, but it has often been associated with a misogynistic fear of powerful, leading female characters or with a Christian rejection of paganism. Even the healing power that represents the original defining quality of Morgan, is given negative connotations in a Christian Middle Ages context in which healing herbs and natural cures are the mark of old women condemned and burnt as witches.

The painting displayed is “Morgan Le Fay” by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. This particular visual representation depicts a beautiful, seductive version of Morgan.