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Epic Overreach

Jason and Medeia

by John Gardner
Knopf, 354 pp., $7.95

A verse epic in twenty-four books complete with a council in heaven and a catalogue of heroes, the cast featuring a blind seer, Harpies and Sirens, an enchanted ship, and fire-breathing bulls. A mythological quest poem (the quest of the Golden Fleece) and a romantic tragedy rolled into one. Jason and Medeia, John Gardner’s latest work, attempts nothing less. If the thing is to be more than an archaeological exercise, the claim must be, as Time’s reviewer put it, that this is “not just…a tour de force but…an act of profoundly contemporary writing.” Somehow, Mr. Gardner must have made his old argument new.

The challenge of the story of the Argonauts’ voyage in search of the Fleece is that, although famous and sufficiently archetypal, it has never in its entirety received a supreme treatment. In ancient times Pindar, weaving with points of gold, drew on it glancingly for his fourth Pythian ode. The Alexandrian poet Apollonius of Rhodes made a picturesque if hardly a great poem out of it, the Argonautica. The story interested Roman poets; it kept its hold on the Western imagination, and Jason makes a brief, unforgettable appearance in the Inferno, antique magnanimity in ruin. Renaissance painters found it quite to their taste; individual episodes ministered to a variety of allegorical interpretation.

William Morris’s beautiful, passionless tapestry of a tale, The Life and Death of Jason, brought the saga to England: the nerve of heroic enterprise transformed into threads of bright pre-Raphaelite color; ancient adventure, bathed in the nostalgic light of distance, meandering through thousands of curiously enjambed couplets. More briskly, in Hercules, My Shipmate, Robert Graves turned it into a witty historical novel with much insider’s lore on cult and ritual.

And now John Gardner, having tried his hand at a brief rifacimento of heroic myth in Grendel (Beowulf retold from the monster’s point of view), brings Jason to these shores. Grendel he wrote in prose; Gardner is a novelist and prose is his medium. Jason and Medeia is in verse, not, as Time’s critic believed, in blank verse but in the freely syllabled six-beaters which Richmond Lattimore used to translate Homer. A shambling, ungainly measure at best, it yields in Mr. Gardner’s hands some thirteen thousand lines not one of which is so worded or cadenced that it gives pleasure on first encounter or remains in the memory afterward. The decision to cast his narrative in verse may be in large part responsible for what I take to be a full-scale literary disaster.

Gardner sets his scene in Corinth where Jason, his travels over, has come with Medea in search of a new kingdom, and a new wife—the king’s daughter. There he relates the story of the quest, the poem’s principal action, to the notables of Corinth. This serves to put a critical perspective on the quest story since they are skeptical of his motives, past and present. A further perspective is supplied by the intermittently intrusive author, “a poet from the world’s last age” contemplating this ancient action. It may give some indication of what happens to Gardner when he puts on singing robes if I say that to point up this incongruous contemporary presence he provides his fictive poet with a pair of spectacles which get fogged or lost at exciting moments. A rather workaday device, one may think, yet Gardner sees fit to draw our attention no less than fifteen times to this useful but unheroic piece of wear.

After some preliminary scene setting in Corinth we get under way with a council in heaven at which three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, debate the fortunes of Jason and Medea before the throne of Zeus. Gardner puts a twist on this epic convention, which was already growing unwieldy in later antiquity, by introducing a mysterious boy who tells Zeus that he is merely a momentary expression of “the demiurgic Mind.” The father of gods and men is digesting this bad news when a hermit turns up bearing the message of Buddha, and a warning of the author’s philosophic interests. Even the demiurgic Mind, he announces, lasts only for an “eyelidflicker of the Unnamable,” and the glory of the gods is nothing but “a distraction / from the Absolute, where all individual will is abandoned / and all is nothing and nothing is everything, and all paradox / melts.”

The Argonauts’ voyage begins in Book 6 and continues, with many intervening scenes in Corinth, through Book 18. Gardner follows the traditional account of how Jason set out on his mission and, even more traditionally, provides a catalogue of the heroes who went with him. Inevitably there is a good deal of this sort of thing: “From Argos came Talaos and Areion, and powerful Leodokos.” Rather heavy going? No, if you do not enjoy verse catalogues you should not read epic poems. However, the pleasure they give is bound up with the pleasures of form and ceremony, the metrical encasement of long, outlandish names and the stylized epithets that set them off, the cunning of their various placing along the line. The hexameters of Apollonius encompass the catalogue very well; so in their way do Morris’s couplets. Gardner’s parvenu six-beaters know nothing of ceremony and in consequence his catalogue is a mannered bore. It is hazardous to revive ancient conventions without really understanding them.

More distressing, though, are Gardner’s own contributions to the convention, as in the description of Hylas, the beautiful youth beloved by Herakles. “You see them sometimes, boys like Hylas, and you pause, as if / snatched out of Time, stunned for an instant. It’s as if you’ve come / suddenly, turning a familiar corner, to a world more calm, / more innocent than ours, and there at the door of it, / a deity, child-like, all-forgiving….” That in trying for “poetry” he should come up with nothing better than a stale echo of Eliot: this is really damning.

Only prolonged quotation could do justice to the unflagging banality of diction and imagination in Jason and Medeia. Gardner tries to make us see his ancient occasion. “They sat in their fine apparel, kings and the minions of kings, / drinking from golden bowls….” How much sharper an eye for the then-ness of ancient times has Mary Renault in her two books about Theseus. At dramatic moments he gives us mere novelese. “…Watched / with eyes like dagger holes…He seemed / carved out of weathered rock.” “…The full moon shining on him / from a cloudless sky, she saw him in all his radiant beauty / and gentleness. Her heart was flooded with desire; she had to / struggle to gather up her shattered wits.” Since this is an epic, there are grand inkhorn terms out of the Latin dictionary: ignivomous, noctivagant, reboation, ultion. Trouvailles from the OED rub shoulders with what I take to be nonce words: quopping, quisquous, thestral, curkling. The diction remains in the doldrums.

This is however a verse narrative and in some important sense the story must be what matters. Take two episodes where the author is obviously enjoying himself. In Book 9 the Argonauts come to a land ruled by one Amykos whose unpleasant custom is to challenge strangers to a boxing match and kill them. Graves, seldom at a loss for an ingenious notion, is content to give a lively blow-by-blow account of the fight, which ends with the death of Amykos at the hands of the Greek champion Polydeukes. In Gardner’s version, Amykos begins by describing himself as a “murderer of men,” then at once launches into a philosophical disquisition. “The world’s insane,” he says. “It used to fill me with anguish when I was a boy. I’d stare, / amazed, sick at heart, at the old, obscene stupidity—/ the terrible objectness of things….”

In time he discovered a first principle, his own existence, and this gave a meaning to his murderous encounters which hitherto had been mere accidents lost “in the buzzing, blooming confusion” (one of the many happy phrases Gardner has derived from his reading). Now, they are “no casual synastry,” and this rude Philosopher King, as he styles himself, warming to the task, goes on to another point, Plato’s analogy between the economy of the single soul and that of the city. The boxing match itself is dispatched in a few lines, then philosophy breaks in again as Amykos’ subjects fall on the victorious Polydeukes “as if to avenge themselves / on the whole ridiculous universe.”

It is hard not to believe that by using this primitive story as a peg for his shop-worn metaphysics Gardner has chosen the worst of all possible approaches. To make this brutal savage quote Plato is presumably intended as a stroke of wit, but Gardner is not a witty writer and the joke, if that is what it is, falls flat on its face.

Amykos, admittedly, is unpromising material and a writer may be forgiven for trying to draw attention away from the narrative itself. The next episode, that of the blind seer Phineus and the Harpies, is a good deal more suggestive. Granted the gift of prophecy, Phineus betrayed his trust by revealing to men the secrets of Zeus and was duly punished by the Harpies, who befoul his food and snatch it from his lips.

The Argonauts come on the old man by the side of the road, smelling horribly and apparently dead. He revives and agrees to tell them “the whole insipid tale” of his fate. The Harpies’ actual assault is passed over very quickly—Gardner makes little of the visual, or the mythological, possibilities of this foul visitation from the heavens which had once sent the prophet their visions of the true—and we are in for another bout of metaphysics. Phineus tells his guests how he met Oedipus (Why Oedipus? Well, why not?), a man who in the end discovered “a rhythm,” and there follows a dreadful allegory out of Freud and Plato. “I’m the phoenix; the world,” Oedipus says. “Thanatos and Eros in all-out war, / the chariot drawn by sphinxes, one of them black, one white; / one pulls toward joy, the other toward total eclipse of pain.” Phineus elaborates on this for a while, then matters become very deep as Jason has a dream encounter with Death, who tells him, in italics: “Fool, you are caught in irrelevant forms…. Beware the interstices.” He wakes up and has (I think) a vision of the world after the Bomb. “I racked my wits for the meaning,” Jason adds.

It may seem unfair to pick out single episodes from a very long narrative and indeed it does not sufficiently convey how relentlessly pretentious and tedious the whole thing is. The pity is that some of the discussions in The Sunlight Dialogues showed that Gardner has interesting things to say. But here his singing robes fatally impede him and drive him to posturing and intellectual buffoonery.

Why, the reader cannot but ask, why retell these old stories: unless you can make something of them? Yet this may be the wrong way to put it, for “making something of them” too easily means imposing your own, contemporary, meanings upon ancient material. A myth or heroic legend is not a neutral vehicle, a mere narrative framework into which any thematic content can be inserted. It makes a particular statement, carries the tone and color of its own age and society. Myth, we may believe, is permanent (“universal”); it is also local. To live in the retelling, it must of course be made new in some way, but although the experiencing mind is of our day, what it experiences comes from afar. There must be, as in Pavese’s mythological Dialoghi con Leucò, an encounter between Then and Now in which both are modified. The tale of Phineus and the Harpies, deriving perhaps from the archaic folk belief that the souls of the dead come to snatch away the living, might in Pavese’s hands have yielded something remarkable.

Gardner adopts what one may call the French tactic (as in Sartre or Anouilh). He guts his traditional stories and then fills them with a stuffing of his own confection. When need be, he psychologizes—surely the least rewarding, most self-regarding approach, whereby myth is simply the projection upon the universe of our own unconscious hopes and fears. “My mind made monsters up,” his Phineus says at one point. But myth speaks from a time when men saw monsters, and gods, and experienced a whole animate universe. If this ancient vision is denied you, it is wisest not to meddle with the world’s morning.

Gardner is in fact at his best, or his better, when he is content not to intervene and lets the story more or less tell itself. Books 14-16, relating the capture of the Fleece and Medea’s elopement with Jason, are taken fairly directly from Apollonius and have a certain power. But he is too ambitious to do this for long, and in a series of very mannered speeches in Book 20 he seeks to uncover the significance of the Argo’s voyage. There have been several indications that, as Jason the culture hero puts it, “our grand mission was insanity”—insane, because the stuff of things will not take the impositions of man’s will. We are probably meant to ponder a statement in Book 11: “The essence of life is to be found in frustrations of established order: the universe refuses the deadening influence of complete uniformity.” An interesting enough position: Gardner could have developed it far better in a novel.

The main action is now over but we have not yet been told about Jason’s treatment of Medea. So, surely an act of incredible structural folly, Gardner tacks on to the very long account of Jason’s mythological or heroic voyage the tonally quite different story of Jason the vulgar opportunist who abandons Medea for a more profitable bride. Euripides made a great tragedy out of it. Gardner’s hurried version is at most melodrama.

Book 24, our final port of call, “an island of flaking shale,” which the blurb identifies for us as “New York on fire…in the final days.” The Argo turns up again, Oedipus puts in another appearance and, for good measure, summarizes the plots of the Aeneid, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. There are a few more dark saws on the nature of reality: “Life is a foolish dream in the mind of the Unnamable.” Or, “I came to accept what you preach to us now, / the voracious black hole at the core of things.” (One must hope that this dreadful astronomical conjecture will one day find its poet: think what Tennyson might have made of it.) Pretentious to the last, the poem ends as “deep in the night old snakes were coupling with murderous intent.” L’éternel retour? Why not? We haven’t had it yet and it would be a pity to miss it.

The only moral I can discover in this lamentable affair is that reviewers should take care how they praise young and ambitious authors. “Establishes him as a major American writer whose promise for the future now seems unlimited.” So the critic in The New York Times on The Sunlight Dialogues. An interesting book, certainly, but not to be discussed in terms that would befit a new Tolstoy. Unhappily, Mr. Gardner seems to have made the mistake of listening to his admirers and as a result has disastrously misconceived his talents.