The Pulse (B.C): Matthew 1
The Subcircadian Homework Blues
Dr. Rexroth is staring down at me with his usual intensity. He says drily, “Don’t mess it up this time, Matthew,” and drops the exam instructions, front facing downward, on my desk. The piece of paper is violet, unlike the white sheets dropped onto the desks by the professors of Sociology and History.
Exam instructions are now on every desk of the Osbourne Gymnasium, which is the proud home of the UBC Thunderbird teams. According to the website, on October 30, 1948 the Kwicksutaineuk people “officially grant permission to UBC to use the Thunderbird name and emblem.”
The clock is about to strike the hour. The pennants flutter in the wind of the air-conditioner above. The thunderbird elders are watching, with eagle eyes. They’ve seen what the humans have done to the forests, the rivers, and the fish in the sea. It’s late summer, and they’re anxious to hear what the young humans have to say about it all.
The Doctors of Philosophy exchange wry glances at each other from their makeshift tables at the front of the gym. Meanwhile, the students recite The Lord’s Prayer in Tagalog, Spanish, Cantonese, Punjabi, French, English, and Greek. Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death…
The clock strikes the hour, and the students turn the page.
The exam paper lies before me, like a siren mocking Odysseus. Old Rex even went to the trouble of printing the exam on coloured paper. Hellish shades of violet. A warning about the journey ahead.
The Inquisitors are making their rounds of the gymnasium, like priests in Blake’s Garden of Love. And I saw it was filled with graves, / And tomb-stones where flowers should be: / And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds.
I must remember everything. Otherwise the Grand Inquisitor, who knows everything, will assume that I know nothing.
2:00 Am the night before
Six hours to go until the exam. I consult the prep sheet. Six possible topics to write on: tragedy, the epic, beauty, the journey, love, and war. Dr. Rex added the following instructions: “You will write your essay on one of the six topics. The day before your exam, I will roll a die and Fate will determine when your number is up. The die will decide; there’s no point trying to second-guess my intentions.” To underscore his point about Fate, he included a colour print by Walter Crane:
Six hours to go. Six topics to choose from. Six paths into the dark woods. 6 X 6 X 6. If that isn't ominous, what is?
I spent most of the last two weeks guessing which topic Fate would choose. This isn't as crazy as it sounds: by doing that, I recalled what Old Rex said about each topic, and I made connections between them.
Ten days ago, I went on a quest for a book I could use for all six topics. I finally found it: Germanic Myth: From Snorri to Wagner. Old Rex said something about it months ago. I found it, unopened, at the bottom of five or six books we were supposed to have read over the term.
Germanic Myth worked for all six topics: it was full of Fate and Tragedy, it had a journey of hell-bent demons in a boat, epic battles, beautiful flying maidens, mighty heroes, and powerful misguided men. When I cracked it open, the first thing I saw was The Battle of the Doomed Gods (1882) by Friedrich Heine:
The End of the World. While reading the first story — The Völuspá or The Prophecy of the Völva — I listened to Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, hoping that the spirits of the Northern gods would descend upon me like a storm of warrior poets ready for battle.
The gymnasium is almost silent. The only sound is that of students turning pages frantically and clicking their pens nervously. My eyes are weary yet caffeinated to the point of hallucination. The topic lies before me: The Epic, from Odysseus to J. Alfred Prufrock.
Did he really roll a die the day before to arrive at that topic? I doubt it. I suspect that the game is rigged. Why? Because Old Rex is a Classical Greek scholar and is in love with Byron. He also looks alot like J. Alfred Prufrock. He looks haunted by all the epic journies he never took.
I pour a bath to settle my nerves, and set up a makeshift work station surrounding the furious tumbling of water. Germanic Myth is straddling the faucet, held in place by the hot and cold water taps. I turn the pages, slightly moistened by the turmoil below the falls. On the toilet seat is my trusty Mac Air — thirteen inches of screen and plastic keys connecting me to the chaos and harmony of the world.
I'm mesmerized by the apocalyptic language of the Völuspá. The rebel Loki, the wolf Fenris, and the giant snake Jörmungandr are making their assault on the Aesir gods. Together with the fire-giant Sutr, they’re about to tear down heaven, light it on fire, and sink it into the sea.
Scholars often reinforce the divide between the northern and the southern epics: the Greeks and Romans on one hand and the Norse and Germans on the other. Yet I wonder if they’re really all that different.
Old Rex is obsessed with the Greeks, their Golden Age, their law and order, their famed democracy, and, above all, their Iliad and Odyssey. And yet they also fell into chaos and darkness — war with the Persians, the execution of Socrates, and then a fratricidal war with the Spartans. It seems to me that all of this was prefigured in the Iliad, with the fall of the beautiful, civilized city of Troy.
Several nights ago I was worried Old Rex might pick the topic of war, so I watched Troy. I was moved by how sad Achilles and Priam are at the end, when they see the enormous futility of it all. After all the lame reasons for battle and butchery, Peter O’Toole sneaks into the Greek tent and sits with Brad Pitt, the two lamenting as only enemies can. Achilles and Priam, having lost everything, for nothing.
If the Trojan War was the start of Western Civilization, it was a bad start. And it never really ends, does it? There’s no such thing as The war to end all wars or Mission Accomplished. Maybe these Vikings — the ones we conveniently distance ourselves from, and treat as violent figments of the Dark Ages — aren't so different after all. Maybe the battle of the gods — the dark vision of the völva, with its destruction of the world — is what we keep doing, despite our vaunted Classical Age, our Renaissance, and our Enlightenment.
And maybe the women — the wild rheinmaidens and the fateful valkyries — are our only hope. Leaning into my Mac Air, I take a close look at Arthur Rackham’s image of Freya, who resides over the dead in Fólkvangr, yet is also a goddess of apples and youth. To me, she seems like Eve at the moment of her most human desire to know. Are Athena and Mary that different from her?
Likewise, Edward Hughes’ valkyrie, often seen thundering over the battle field, is peaceful and compassionate.
There may be no Virgin Mary in Norse myth (even the lofty Freya is notorious for her promiscuity), yet there’s a deep connection to nature, and there’s a pagan redemption of sorts. Rackham’s valkyrie Sigrífa may have a spear at her feet, yet she lifts her arms to the sky.
Maybe the Rheinmaidens are our only hope. Lifting up from the dark green depths, they offer an antidote to the violence and narcissism of men. They’re the beauty of Nature, and the nature of Beauty.
I get a piece of paper and try to depict it in a diagram: tragedy goes down, beauty goes up. Beauty goes up, even if it's a tragedy. Tragedy enters into everything. The epic and the journey intervene, with all their combinations of love and war.
Beauty enters into everything, especially if we think of nature as beyond what we humans think. The sheep on the hill, the fish in the deep, the rheinmaidens from the swirling waters.
Why do we fixate on Greek versions of tragedy when we've got so many versions of our own? Instead of repeating Aristotle’s fall of a noble man, why don’t we look at civilization itself, as it seems so willing to fall, again and again? It’s all there in Bob Dylan’s "Subterranean Homesick Blues": “Look out kid / It's somethin' you did / God knows when / But you're doing it again.”
I look down into the swirling water and see it all happening. I see the crowds swirling toward the beach. Promenade des Anglais. Nice. The beauty of the goddess Isis turned into a monster, mowing down infidels on the fourteenth of July. The Bataclan. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Vietnam and Iraq. Syria and the Congo. Global Warming. Water shortages. Eight billion people and counting.
The battle of the gods rises from the confused currents and trembling stretches of calm. This is going to be total collapse.