In “The Archetypes of Literature,” Northrop Frye proposes that the central myth of art is the hero’s quest, which can be characterized as man’s superhuman crusade against the disintegrating forces of nature. The poet Dylan Thomas has been described as a champion of nature and the cycles of life: “He has been called a pagan, a mystic, and a humanistic agnostic” (Kershner). Yet, one of Thomas’ most celebrated poems, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” calls on man to defy the power of nature even as it recognizes his ultimate impotence against death. The poem relies on the psychic undercurrent of the hero myth to demonstrate man’s place in nature and his irrational, yet irrefutable, desire to overcome his mortality.
“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” operates in the tension between the recognition of nature’s forces, it’s unstoppable cycles, and the human desire to be free—the hero’s quest.
Frye argues for a centralized theory of literature based on archetypes drawn from “pre-literary categories” or “literary anthropology” (1308). In his survey of archetypes that inform literature on a grand scale, he concludes: “the central myth of art must be the vision of the end of social effort, the innocent world of fulfilled desires, the free human society” (1314). He calls this the hero’s quest, which is the “mingling of the sun and the hero, the realizing of a world in which the inner desire and the outward circumstance coincides” (1313). It is the soul’s quest for perpetual spring and the defeat of winter (Frye 1311).
Thomas wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” about his own dying father, but the poem addresses the broad subject of man’s life in relation to the forces of life and death symbolized by light and darkness, day and night. In each of the central stanzas Thomas describes the smallness of man’s life and dreams: The wise man knows “night is right,” but his words were never bright as lightening; the good man’s “frail deeds” are only waves in a green bay; and the grave man approaching death can suddenly “see with blinding sight” and be gay. Yet, the overriding message of the poem is that “old age should burn and rave at close of day,” and Thomas uses the villanelle form to repeat his call: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Thomas poets.org).
“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” operates in the tension between the recognition of nature’s forces, it’s unstoppable cycles, and the human desire to be free—the hero’s quest. Thomas pays tribute to the first—after all the night is “good”—and calls to the second: “Do not go gentle”—do not surrender to the darkness while there is still light. The poem was written late in Thomas’ career and was clearly motivated by his personal experience with his own father’s death:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. (Thomas poets.org).
However, the poem’s message reaches deep into the core of literary archetype described by Frye. Ultimately, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” celebrates the spirit and folly of man’s desire to overcome nature, which Frye describes as the pivotal myth of all art: “. . .the vision of innocence which sees the world in terms of total human intelligibility” (1314). Mankind is blessed and cursed by the fierce tears of its own desire, as day gives way to night.
Frye, Northrop. “The Archetypes of Literature.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1301-1315.
Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Poets.org 1997-2013. The Academy of American Poets. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
Kershner, R.B., Jr. Dylan Thomas: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1976. Print.
In the 2012 film Life of Pi, the viewer is taken on an unlikely journey across the ocean in a boat shared by a boy and a Bengal tiger. When the narrator—Pi as an adult—finishes the tale, he implies that a second account, a brutal struggle between humans for survival, may be the truth. He poses the question to the writer who is his audience, “Which story do you prefer?” (Life of Pi) The film exemplifies the medieval interpretive theory of polysemy, or multiple meanings, as described by Dante Alighieri in Il Convivio, not only because Pi literally offers viewers two possible versions of history—mythological and actual—but also because a deeper examination reveals a third allegorical reading that comments on the spirituality of man.
According to Dante, words can have many senses that fall under two basic categories of literal and allegorical. Allegory, he writes, is “a truth hidden behind a beautiful fiction” and includes symbolic, moral and spiritual interpretations (187). The main narrative of Life of Pi is portrayed in technically stunning, three-dimensional magic realism, a literary and artistic style with roots in mythology. Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker, have fantastic and harrowing experiences as a shipwrecked pair that eventually wash up on shore and go back to their human and animal lives. When Pi relates an alternative, believable story of how he killed the last man on the lifeboat to stay alive, it becomes clear that the fantastic journey may indeed be a “beautiful fiction.”
Is it Pi crying on the beach over the uncaring tiger, or God himself weeping at the indifference of man?
On the surface the film is about which story to believe—the literal or the allegorical, the ugly or the beautiful, the factual or the poetic. However, both versions of the tale inform an additional sense to Life of Pi, which Dante may have categorized as anagogical: Man may be a spiritual being—a higher being in medieval terms, closer to God—but he remains tied to the natural, animal world as long as he lives in the flesh.
Early in the film Pi is depicted as a young boy in search of God and love as he devotes himself to a number of religions and embarks on a romance with a beautiful dancer. He is also fascinated with the sublime but fierce Richard Parker. Pi’s love, his principles, and his faith are all challenged during his journey with the tiger, as he is forced to do things he never imagined to stay alive. Caring for Richard Parker is the only thing that sustains his soul as the two float seemingly endlessly at sea.
But the tiger ultimately never returns Pi’s love. Finally washing up on a Mexican beach, Richard Parker rises from the boat and walks into the jungle. Pi cries bitterly because the animal didn’t turn to look back or “say goodbye.” Love, it seems, has no home in nature, which is brutal and existential. However, in the second version of the story, it’s the so-called “higher beings,” the humans, that fight each other to the death. Is it Pi crying on the beach over the uncaring tiger, or God himself weeping at the indifference of man?
As Dante states in Il Convivio, “It is impossible to arrive at the other senses, especially the allegorical, without first arriving at the literal” (188). Having placed the viewer at the intersection of myth and reality, Life of Pi, takes it’s audience to another level of reflection. In Dante’s words, “ . . . that which is spiritually intended is no less true” (187). In the film, the writer responds to Pi’s question by preferring the story with the tiger because it’s “the better story.” Pi answers, “And so it goes with God” (Life of Pi).
Alighieri, Dante. Il Convivio. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 184-188.
—. The Letter to Can Grande. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 188-190.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 177-184.
Augustine. On Christian Teaching. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 154-162.
Life of Pi. Dir. Ang Lee. Perf. Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall and Gerard Depardieu. 20th Century Fox. 2012. Film.
I grew up on a military base in the wide open Indian Wells Valley of California’s Mojave Desert. With a fantasy-prone mind and a peace loving heart, I felt a sublime fascination with the technology that powered jets up to speeds that broke the sound barrier and left trails in the skies above the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Yet, my life primarily evolved around home, church, and school, where I learned to color and write, think about God, sing, and dance. My father was a computer programmer, educated as an aeronautical engineer and gifted as a musician and poet. He would play the guitar with pens in his pocket. My mother worked as an accountant and could tap at a mean pace on an adding machine. At home her fingers were more often crocheting elaborate hanging planters, cooking homemade meals, or feeding material through her sewing machine. She was so adept at growing things that she actually made tulips come up in the hard, dry dirt of our backyard. Great with numbers, my mother still writes them with extra beautiful curves.
Since the beginning of human history, the making of things has involved both aesthetics and engineering.
Coming from this home of engineers and artists, I always felt they were naturally parts of one whole. It wasn’t until I ventured into the wider world as an adult that I understood the cultural divide that I now feel compelled to challenge in my work as a science communicator and in my education and experience in the arts.
Fortunately many others are attempting to join what C.P. Snow called “The Two Cultures.” Yesterday, I visited the Life Art Science Tech (LAST) Festival in San Jose, originally conceived by author and historian Piero Scaruffi and organized by the Thymos Foundation. As described on the LAST Festival website, the event combines and fuses these disciplines “to help reshape the cultural environment of the 21st century towards a multidimensional form of individual and social creativity.”
The art exhibit, curated by Joel Slayton, playfully meandered across the art-science divide. Scientific concepts and technology were brought to bear on aesthetic concepts and displays that teased the mind and delighted the senses. Many were interactive pieces that operated on the viewer’s physical presence, movements, or sounds. Gary Boodhoo’s Deep Dream Vision Quest took images of viewers standing in front of a large screen and turned them into a rich dreamscape digital painting of layered familiar shapes, ceaselessly morphing. The piece uses videogames and machine learning to generate what Boodhoo calls “interactive science fiction” that “turns dreaming into a shared experience.”
Cere Davis’ Water Organ looked like a Dr. Seuss laboratory experiment: funny tin vessels moved on water via sound waves and magnets. The ambient sound composition coming from these curious components could be silenced by placing a finger on a strip of tin foil just in front of the sculpture. The softly shifting, goldfish colored sculpture with its dreamy sound patterns had a trance-like effect – all the while, I wondered what invisible forces were at work. According to her bio, sculptor, engineer, musician and dancer Davis plays at the boundaries of “engineering, soulful expression, and laboratory experimentation.”
As Daniel H. Pink writes in A Whole New Mind, “Human beings sometimes seem naturally inclined to see life in contrasting pairs.” Science is exact, disciplined, factual, logical, and analytical. Art is open, meandering, and based in emotion. Art is atmospheric; it appeals to our senses. Science is specific; it tells us about reality and enables useful inventions. Yet, even as I write these descriptions in order to place art and science on opposite poles, I see traces of each on the other side of human experience. Science is certainly open to new discoveries, and great artists are precise and rigorously trained. A beautiful equation can give scientists goose bumps, and art has contributed real power to civilizations. Since the beginning of human history, the making of things has involved both aesthetics and engineering.
I am the mangled feet
the carcasses of baby girls,
casting shadows on a landscape
I am the sting of whispers
on the necks
whips cut horrors
into my way
I am the breaking bones
battered with stones,
pieces of my body
hitting blades of sorrow
yesterday, last century,
Raped, bent, abandoned,
I am woman.
I am maimed.
In “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud identifies the mechanism of fear produced by horror stories as one that reveals what is hidden. The uncanny, he states, is something “which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (833). Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, is set in a time and place ripe with restraint. The small town of Bodega Bay harbors good housewives, mothers and teachers who smile while their eyes reflect less-innocent feelings centered on one man—the lawyer Mitch Brenner. When a deviant, cosmopolitan socialite comes to town to court Brenner, birds start flocking and attacking. Viewed through Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the uncanny, the birds in Hitchcock’s film represent unconscious female drives, which once awoken through the arrival of a sexy stranger, threaten the psychic sleepiness of the shuttered community.
The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force.
In his 1919 essay, Freud traces the roots of the German unheimlich (uncanny) to two converging meanings: familiar and concealed (828). Unfolding narratives in The Birds provoke the tensions inherent in this meeting of terms. When the attractive Melanie Daniels arrives in Bodega Bay to surprise Brenner with a pair of lovebirds, the town’s folk glare, Brenner’s mother and ex-girlfriend act threatened, and the local fowl refuse to eat. The suspicion inherent in the tense behavior of the community suggests that there is something below the surface that should be guarded from strangers, like a family secret shared by the intimacy of a closed group. As the birds in the film become increasingly violent, the hidden motives in each woman surface through their tentative relationship with Daniels. Strained conversations and emotional outbursts unearth their jealousy and despair.
What is the source of their angst? According to Freud, “every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety” (833). To the housewives of Bodega Bay, Daniels represents a dangerous freedom. Her bold antics in pursuing Brenner are amplified by her reputation: according to a gossip column Brenner’s mother read, the socialite had once jumped into a Roman fountain in the nude. In Freudian terms, Daniels is what the housewives of Bodega Bay once knew and had to hide beneath their small-town social mores: the power of their own libidinal drives.
The menacing birds in Hitchcock’s film are the materialization of the women’s latent sexuality. At the local diner Daniels tries to convince an elderly female ornithologist that the birds attacked children at the school. The woman retorts, “Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss, they bring beauty into the world.” In other words, lovely creatures, birds or women, cannot be dangerous, and yet they are. The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force. Daniels becomes the focal point of the women’s hysteria as the avian horror plays out. A mother at the diner strikes out at the stranger: “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil!”
The Birds was produced on the advent of the sexual revolution in America, more than two decades after Freud’s death. Hitchcock’s “uncanny” portrayal of women’s sexuality as both familiar and concealed is placed perfectly in the tension between conservative 1950s and the liberating 1960s. At the end of the film, Daniels is driven by her bold curiosity to an attic room where the birds trap and ravish her. In a state of shock, she allows herself to be taken into Brenner’s mother’s arms. Tamed at last, Daniels smiles up at her—a good daughter’s smile. As Brenner drives the family out of town through a mass of eerily docile birds, the viewer is left to wonder if they will attack again.
The Birds. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette. Universal Pictures. 1963. Film.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 824-841.