Leda

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The latest addition to my family, my grand-niece Leda.

My first concern is that she not get too friendly with Swans.  Last time that happened a pretty little girl was born, and married Menelaus the Mycenean King of Sparta.  Helen of Sparta is not how we remember her, for Paris, son of Priam, stole her away to his home city.  And so we remember her as the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Illium.

Illium was the ancient name for the city of Troy, so Helen of Troy was daugher of Leda.  But who was the father of this child with the dreadful fate?  It was Zeus himself, who raped Leda, in the guise of a male swan.

And the brother of Menelaus?  The dread Agamemnon King of Mycenae itself, ruler of all the Achaeans as the Greeks called themselves in those days.  From this followed ten years of war.  Ajax and Achilles, Hector and Aeneas, wily Odysseus and his Trojan Horse.  Death and destruction as the Gods themselves engaged in the battle of the great Homeric Epic.

Calling a daughter Leda can come to no good I say.  But I am Cassandra and they shall not listen.

Leda and the Swan; by W.B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
so mastered by the brute blood of the air,
did she put on his knowledge with his power
before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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Fountain of youth

OLAY

About 80% of the cosmetics industry is based on selling a version of the fountain of youth.

María Rosalía Rita de Castro, the Galician poet, was born on this day in 1837.  Writing in Galego, the Galician language, whe was one of the leading lights of the highly nostalgic Galician romantic movement.

The theme of the poem below is the need to dream of eternal life because the despair of inevitable age, death and the void are too stark to face.  We know we delude ourselves, but we are happy to do so.

The concept of a fountain of youth is very old.  Herododus, the father of history, wrote about it, and every time mankind has explored a new land we have hoped to find there some secret to eternal youth.  Eternal life is not something you want, without eternal youth.  Someone who made that mistake was poor Tithonus, the better looking brother of king Priam of Troy.  He was so good looking he attracted the attention of Eos, Goddess of dawn.  Eos begged Zeus to make Tithonus immortal and Zeus did so.  But the youth aged and then became and old feeble man.  Eventually Eos shut him away in his room, and there he made scratching sounds until Eos turned him into a cicada.

The cosmetics industry sells 2 basic concepts.  For brevity we can call them “Eternal Youth” and “Up for it”.  The latter is focused on the market for women who want to find partners.  When women are at the most fertile part of their monthly cycle, most likely to get pregnant, the body naturally displays this with visible cues for potential mates.  Lips plump up.  The skin clears up and glows.  Breasts become fuller.  Pupils of eyes expand.   All these cues are replicated by the cosmetics industry to make you look your best for your big night out.

This is not to say there are no cosmetics for men, but lets face it, the big money is in the female market.

So “Up for it” dominates the market for 20 something females.  “Eternal youth” dominates the market for females, and for males, as soon as you spot that first grey hair, that first wrinkle or crows foot, that first laugh line that no longer leaves the face when you cease to smile.  The big money in cosmetics is in “eternal youth”.  And when it comes to selling this proposition there is a whole lot of snake oil out there masquerading as science.  There is an entire industry out there known by the term of cosmeceuticals.  According to de Castro below we know the dreams are just dreams, but we are happy to fool ourselves.

Dicen que no hablan las plantas; de Rosalía de Castro

The plants don’t speak they say, nor springs, nor birds,
not the rumour mongering wave, nor the twinkling stars,
so they say, but it’s not true, for always as I pass
they mutter and call out:
There goes that mad dreamer
believing in a fountain of youth, a land eternal,
but soon, very soon, her hair will grey,
and she will tremble, stiffen, a frigid winter meadow.

-Here are grey hairs on my head, there are frost meadows,
but I continue dreaming, poor deluded sleepwalker,
the eternal spring of my life dries up
perennial rebirth of fields and souls,
ages or burns away.

Stars and springs and flowers, don’t mock my dreams,
not needing them, how can you appreciate what is is to live without them?

From Apollo to Pavlova flieth the swan.

Cygnus

When Apollo entered the world, sacred swans circled the island seven times for it was the seventh day of the month. At once Zeus lavished many gifts upon his son including a golden miter, a chariot drawn by swans, and a lyre since legend has it at birth Apollo said, “Dear to me shall be the lyre and bow, and in oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.”

Apollo is the Greek God of music and poetry, arts and archery amongst other things.  Swans were held to be sacred to him.  The most common swan in Europe was the mute swan, not quite mute, but not a renowned singer.  But legend held it that at the moment of death the Swan, finding itself moving closer to an afterlife with Apollo, would erupt into a beautiful funeral song.

So it is that we give the term swan song to a final performance.  One last great moment before retiring to anonymity.

The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear; …
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;

The words of the Poet Laureate of Britain and Ireland, Alfed Lord Tennyson above inspired the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns to write Le cygne which is the central theme to the ballet, The Dying Swan which was performed by Anna Pavlova from 1905.  The Russian ballerina toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920’s and sparked off a 90 year row between the two nations.  The argument was over which country invented the eponymous Pavlova dessert.  Oxford English Dictionary ruled in 2010 that based on analysis of cookbooks the dish originated in New Zealand.

And so to Gernald Stern, who celebrates his birthday today, sharing it with another great American poet; Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Swan Song; by Gerald Stern

A bunch of old snakeheads down by the pond
carrying on the swan tradition — hissing
inside their white bodies, raising and lowering their heads
like ostriches, regretting only the sad ritual
that forced them to waddle back into the water
after their life under the rocks, wishing they could lie again
in the sun

and dream of spreading their terrifying wings;
wishing, this time, they could sail through the sky like
horses,
their tails rigid, their white manes fluttering,
their mouths open, their sharp teeth flashing,
drops of mercy pouring from their eyes,
bolts of wisdom from their foreheads.

Mind Bending

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I enjoy writers who challenge the way we see the world, and give us a new way to perceive our reality.

A lot of people say they would like to be taller, but it turns out they only want to be a tiny bit taller.  Play “would your rather” and ask if you would you rather be 3 feet taller, or 3 feet smaller!  That is revealing.

Gene Wolfe challenges firmly held conceptions brilliantly in his “Book of the New Sun” series.  He describes dawn in terms of the horizon slipping below the arc of the sun, rather than the sun rising over the horizon.  Throughout his work he challenges the way we look at the world.  He even manages to engender our sympathy for the “Guild of Torturers” as they carry out their work on the condemned.

It is interesting how we celebrate our lives in the time from birth to present.  Funny how sinister it sounds when you point out to a person on their birthday that they are one year closer to the grave.

Time is relative to what you do with it.  A school clock moves only five minutes in every twenty whereas party time clocks always seem to register half an hour in only ten minutes.  The famous choice of Achilles is a prime example of this:  a long and dull life or one that is short, exciting and leaves a reputation that endures forever?  When people ask me if I find my commute to be long I turn it around.  Commuting is just like life, it is not how long you spend on the train that counts, it is how enjoyable you find that time, how productively you use it, whether you engage with others or create barriers to communications.  Me?  I love the train.

Another interesting choice faced Tithonus.  He was granted enteral life by Zeus on the request of his lover Eos, the titan of the dawn (Aurora to the Romans).  But she forgot to ask for eternal youth.  Eventually, when crippled and bent, she could no longer look upon him and had him sealed away.  In some tellings of the tale he was transformed into a Cicada, and spends eternity chirping, asking for death.

Trafalgamorians from Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut are a race for whom time does not exist.  There is no past, no future and no concept of causality.  Everything happens in the moment, and we can move forwards and backwards in time at will and visit any moment of existence at any time.  If you can move backwards in time, how can your ‘past’ actions influence your ‘future’?  That is a powerful concept for a novel.

It is also a theme that was explored by Heinlein in “Stranger in a Strange Land”.  He explains how human speech is too bounded in concepts of time and place for his “Stranger” who is more comfortable with biblical style prose such as “is now and will be for all time to come”.

Seafarer; by Archibald MacLeish

And learn O voyager to walk

The roll of earth, the pitch and fall

That swings across these trees those stars:

That swings the sunlight up the wall.

And learn upon these narrow beds

To sleep in spite of sea, in spite

Of sound the rushing planet makes:

And learn to sleep against this ground.