ARTSSCI 3A06: Literature
Time is creeping away from me. It is now late November and I wonder how the end came so quickly. It feels as if it has only been a few weeks since it all began. Ten works of literature. Ten poems, short stories, novels, and ancient classics, each with numerous lessons to teach. I am testing for common themes, probing my memory to see what has resonated. One theme in particular flows through my memory. I have heard it said that we are both oppressed and oppressors, but how is it that each of us can see and move beyond the unjust systems that entrap us? What do I mean by seeing and moving beyond systems of oppression? By “seeing” I mean becoming aware of the injustice by which one is surrounded. By “moving” I mean acting in ways that constitute a refusal to participate in or be complicit with injustice. Given that we are actors within unjust systems, the ways in which we are embedded within these systems are deeply rooted and complex. As such, refusing systems of oppression often involves action that Atwood describes as “creative” (38-39). Moving beyond systems of oppression, in Atwood’s words, requires being a creative non-victim – one who recognizes their position, but instead of feeling like a victim, embraces possibilities for creative action. What I am really curious about is the degree to which we need the help of others to engage in this creative action and move beyond systems of oppression. Asking for and accepting help is a very hard thing for me, for us. I, we, rarely do it. As I cast my memory back across the term, it has become clear to me that sight and movement beyond systems of oppression cannot be fully achieved in isolation. Rather, achieving full sight and movement requires help from others who are also questioning the system or modelling ways of living outside of it. I cannot speak to all that I have read. I do not have enough time, and I certainly do not have enough space. I will speak to that which stands out to me most prominently.
As the end draws near, I must trace the progression of my understanding of the relationship between help, sight and movement, beginning at the first question. Can sight and movement beyond a system of oppression be achieved in isolation? My memory takes me to the depiction of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope, mother of Odysseus, you were so often depicted as an isolated character, frequently in your room in tears over the loss of your husband or son, who had both gone away. If you were in the company of others, you were surrounded by your maid servants, who encouraged you to do little more than bathe and dress yourself when you were upset. Perhaps these women too were dominated by palace life, as you were. Perhaps, even surrounded by “help,” you remained alone because your servants were entrapped by the oppressive system of which you were shared victims. As your suitors swarmed the palace demanding your hand in marriage, you remained in a state of isolation. Without anyone to confide in about the oppression you were facing, you were not prompted to see beyond the system of oppression created by your suitors and palace life. Consequently, you had a very limited capacity to move, and the little movement you did make kept you within the system. I am thinking of your small act of creativity to hold off your marriage to the suitors. You told them, “young men, my suitors, now my lord is dead, / let me finish my weaving before I marry, / or else my thread will have been spun in vain” (2.104-106). You then embraced a form of creative action, proceeding to unweave the thread each night to prolong your marriage. Here, while you acted to hold off your immediate oppressors, the suitors, you were still submitting to an eventual marriage. As such, though your action was creative, it still kept you within the broader system of oppression, that being the suitors’ and castle’s domination over your autonomous life. I am beginning to understand. Penelope, you have introduced me to the idea that one cannot see and move creatively beyond a system of oppression in complete isolation.
I cannot help myself from wondering if the case of Penelope is too singular to draw such a broad conclusion. My memory brings me to Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. Achilles, in Book One, you rebelled against the injustice created under Agamemnon’s tyrannical leadership of the Argive army. You questioned why any soldier would let themselves be governed by him, exclaiming, “how could any Argive soldier obey your orders, / freely and gladly do your sailing for you / or fight your enemies, full force? Not I, no” (1.176-178). You then proceeded to withdraw yourself from the war in quiet rage, refusing to return in Book Nine, even with the promise of incredible gifts and honour. You even went so far as to question why you were at war in the first place: “Why must we fight Trojans, / men of Argos. Why did he muster an army, lead us here, / that son of Atreus? Why, why in the world if not / for Helen with her loose and lustrous hair?” (9.409-412). Unlike Penelope, it is undeniable that you reached some level of sight on your own, questioning the system of oppression within which you existed. You have complicated my understanding of sight and movement in isolation, Achilles. From you, I understand that one can start to question an unjust system without external help. But how much further can one get on one’s own?
Achilles, despite achieving some level of sight on your own, you found yourself in limbo. In the same self-contradicting breath, you said you must “let bygones be bygones,” but also that you “would not relax [your] anger” (16.69-71). You declared that you did not need honour and that your honour lay in the “great decree of Zeus” (9.741), but conversely, you spoke about wanting honour and wanting to be needed by the Achaean armies. Your contradictory words showcase the depths of your internal struggle, and lead me to believe that, confused and overwhelmed, you were unsure how to move forward. You were a man who questioned the system on his own, but was left stuck in a state of numbness. Though you threatened to go to your ships and leave the war, you stayed where you were. In fact, when your best friend, Patroclus, was killed by the oppressive system of war, you fell victim to that very system by returning to it. Numbed by your loss, you transformed, albeit temporarily, back into a killing machine with no remorse, contributing to the very system of oppression from which you were trying to escape. I have learned from you, Achilles, that acting in isolation can only get one so far. Individuals on their own can start to question and move beyond complete blindness, but they risk being left in a state of numbness, aware of injustice, but unsure how to move beyond the system of oppression.
And if one does attempt to move in isolation? Which text can help me with that? Cervantes’s Don Quixote comes to mind. I do not have much time, so I will be brief here. Don Quixote, though you resisted a system oppressed by social norms, you showed me that a singular creative imagination attempting to move beyond societal oppression will not succeed. You decided to break away from the world of reality, entering into an imaginative world in which you were a knight errant. By engaging with your own imagination, you acted incredibly creatively, boldly moving beyond social norms to an extent that Penelope and Achilles could not. Yet, you only got as far as your local inn before heeding the innkeeper’s words and heading home to pick up supplies, and more importantly, a companion (41). I am getting ahead of myself. I will return to your companion, Sancho, who plays a critical role, later. What is clear from the beginning of your story, layered over those of Penelope and Achilles, is that movement beyond a system of oppression in complete isolation, if one can even get to that point, falls short very quickly.
I must keep moving forward toward my conclusion. If one can only get so far on their own, what happens if they act with another person? Can the helper be a person acting within the system of oppression, or must they, themselves, have moved beyond the system to be helpful? I am searching for a memory that can answer my questions. Ah! Glaucus and Diomedes in Book Six of Homer’s Iliad – two men utterly dominated by the oppressive system of the Trojan War. Diomedes, in this scene where you met Glaucus on the battlefield, you began by asking him who he was (6.142). A very strange interaction played out between you two enemies, in which Glaucus provided a detailed account of his ancestral history. Hearing his story, you declared yourselves friends and proposed a truce, trading armour to show your pact (6.276-279). You two foolish men. You were so engrossed in the war system, that, despite discovering your enemy to be a friend by ancestry (6.257-258), you still could not see past the idea of war and enemies. Despite having each other as “helpers” to discuss your situation, the most creative collective action you could come up with was one that kept you within the war system: keep killing the enemy, but do not kill each other because your ancestors were friends. Not to mention the only reason you saw each other as friends instead of enemies was because of ancestral traditions, not because you saw your enemy as a human being! Even together, you two remained unquestioning and blind to constructs outside of war. I am getting closer to my conclusion. Glaucus and Diomedes, you have shown me that it is not just any helper that can enable sight and creative movement. An unquestioning helper who is blind to an unjust system is not a helper at all.
Casting myself back through my memory like this is helping me understand the contexts in which sight and movement remain restricted. What is left for me to ask is, in fact, the most important question of all. What kind of help does enable sight and movement beyond systems of oppression? If those who are stuck within the system cannot help, then maybe those who are starting to question and move outside of the system can. How did I not see it before? In fact, I should have known it as soon as I began to write about you, Achilles. Where I last left off with you is not reflective of where you are by the end of The Iliad. What changes you so? Of course! It is your interaction with Priam, a man who spurred a shift in you by acting outside of the usual oppressive war system. Though the gods were the driving force behind Priam coming to you and obliging his request for Hector’s body, a transformative interaction took place between the two of you outside of the gods’ requests. Upon arriving at your lodge, King Priam threw himself at your knees (24.560). He kissed the hands —your hands —that murdered his sons (24.561). Priam pulled at your empathy, Achilles, asking you to think of your own father and begging for pity. His actions were astonishing, even to me. What Priam did here was so unwarlike and un-king-like that it shocked you and your men into “marveling, beholding majestic Priam” (24.567). With the Trojan King kneeling before you, “pray[ing] his heart out” (24.569), you and your men were forced to truly look at Priam and see him not as an enemy, but as a person, something Glaucus and Diomedes could not do. You said to Priam, “poor man, how much you’ve borne – pain to break the spirit… you have a heart of iron” (24.605). Here, Achilles, you saw Priam as a human being in pain instead of an enemy, and you immediately stopped treating him as the latter. You gently took Priam’s hand, and the two of you wept together over your respective losses. Furthermore, you agreed to return Hector’s body and even offered to hold off your armies until the Trojans could properly mourn Hector. This came after you had told Hector that you would never return his body, “even if Dardan Priam should offer to weigh out / your bulk in gold” (22.414-415). Something changed in you, Achilles. You did something you swore to Hector that you would not do. This transformation did not happen because of divine intervention. It happened because Priam did something radical, moving beyond the usual treatment of the enemy in war. In moving beyond this system, Priam helped you to do the same. Together, for the first time, you two enemies saw each other as people, and moved beyond the system through an interaction underscored by peace. How does this help me come to my conclusion? Well, Achilles and Priam, you have shown me that the radical action of one person who is starting to question and move can enable sight and movement in another.
Wait. Perhaps I have blurred the lines between the helper and the helped too much. Perhaps the interaction between Achilles and Priam was more like the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho – one of mutual help. Don Quixote, you helped Sancho move beyond normative understandings of the world by bringing him into your own imagination, while Sancho, you pulled Don Quixote out of the depths of his fantasy world with your practicality and refusal to see all that he imagined. It was through your mutual pulling of each other that you moved beyond reality and fantasy together and fell into a world of imaginary reality, or dreaming within the confines of real life. By the end, it was unclear which of you was the helper and the helped. Yes, this mutual relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho helps me better understand Priam and Achilles. While it was Achilles who marvelled at Priam when he first arrived, the two men are later described as marvelling at each other, Priam at Achilles’ “beauty, his magnificence build” and Achilles at Priam’s “noble looks” (24.740-744). Looking at and engaging with one another, both men are changed by the other. Priam may have been the first to make a radical move, but it was the interaction between Achilles and Priam, rather than one man helping the other, that created change. The lines have indeed blurred. When two people are starting to see and move, there is not necessarily a “helped” and a “helper.” Rather, transformation is achieved through collective action.
The end is fast approaching, but I cannot help being stuck on whether the interaction between Achilles and Priam created permanent change. It was certainly transformative, but we are only shown the beginning of the transformation. What happens next is not clear from The Iliad. Where can I turn to understand what kind of help enables permanent sight and movement? I am thinking of Christa Wolf’s Cassandra. Cassandra, you, the daughter of the King of Troy, were consumed by the injustice of palace life and simultaneously stuck within the oppressive Trojan war system. Yet you permanently moved beyond the systems that entrapped you. How? In large part because of your experience with the cave community. You did plenty of work yourself, but the members of the cave community both actively and passively opened your eyes and showed you the way. What do I mean by actively? I mean that the people in the cave community asked you questions and told you things that led you to understand how to break away from an oppressive system. Think of Arisbe, who told you that it was up to you to free yourself from madness and bring yourself to sight. “Enough self-pity,” Arisbe told you, “open your inner eye. Look at yourself” (61). Arisbe forced you, Cassandra, to confront your own role in the system instead of blaming others by asking, “and what about your part in it?” (62). Through this questioning and encouragement to look inward, Arisbe empowered you to let your madness go and truly see that to which you had been blind, creating transformative realizations. You recognized, for example, that Helen was never in Troy and the reason for war was a phantom. You also had the critical realization that the enemy was not so different from yourselves in Troy, and it was just “easier to say ‘Achilles the brute’ than to say this ‘we’” (119). What do I mean by passively? I mean that, just by watching the way of life of the cave dwellers, you were transformed. You commented, for example, that the cave community taught you “not by words, [but] by being different, by extracting from their nature qualities [you] hardly dared dream of” (79). In this way, the cave community taught you by role modelling a way of living outside of the militaristic system of war and the oppression of palace life. I am thinking of places in the text where you explicitly referenced seeing anew when you were in the cave community. For example, when you awoke near the end and asked, “what kind of stones are those?” (124). You had seen the stones before, Cassandra! Yet, in the caves, your eyes were opened such that you saw the world in a completely new light. You needed role models. You needed a community that demonstrated what it means to act creatively and live outside the system to learn how to move beyond the system for good. This is exactly what the cave community did for you. Through this role modelling, you came to understand what it means to truly live for the very first time, defying your father and giving up the love of your life to escape the system. Seeing the creative movement of others allowed you to reach a level of permanent change that I did not see Achilles and Priam reach. Together, these two men engaged in one transformative interaction. However, had they been surrounded by role models who showed them a permanent way of living beyond the system, they likely would have permanently changed as Cassandra did. I think I too am being brought to sight. Cassandra, you have shown me that permanent sight and mobility is enabled through engagement with people or communities that role model creativity and reveal an alternative way of life outside of the system.
I have one last question and I must ask it quickly. Despite Cassandra’s transformation, the war system remained intact. What I am left wondering is how help can dismantle an entire system, beyond just one person or community. Where have I seen this happen? I am thinking of Jeff Ho’s Antigone:方 . This book takes place within a highly undemocratic dictatorship, wherein “irregular” people, as deemed by the government, are sent to a facility for “re-education” (8). Neikes, the transformation in this play began with you. Like Arisbe, you played a critical role in inducing sight and movement in others by forcing them to reflect on their own role in a system of oppression. First was Tiresia, one of the leaders of the system that oppressed your mother and all people in need of “re-education.” You questioned Tiresia’s understanding of re-education and reminded her of her role in enabling such an oppressive force. You angrily told her, “you lead this hell on earth” (7), and questioned how the treatment of your mother was “protection.” This questioning clearly initiated a shift in Tiresia. Not only did she make a movement beyond the system by helping you and Haemon escape, but we also explicitly saw her reflect on her own role in a monologue on the next page where she confessed to your mother, “I silenced you so that I could have a voice. I have kept you hidden so I could spare your children pain. But the ghosts of my guilt are waking: your son’s truth swallows me whole” (10). Now, I have already concluded that the help of someone who can see and move can transform another. What does this play show us that the other texts do not? Well, in Antigone:方, we clearly see the rippling effect of help. Tiresia, newly sighted and capable of movement, you took on the role of helper to someone else: Kreon. Like Neikes, you forced Kreon to acknowledge his role in the system. You reminded him by saying, “I am a part of this mess, we both are, old friend” (84), as you denounced the re-education system and pleaded with Kreon not to clear the Square. However, sight and movement did not reach Kreon quite yet. That came from another ripple, one that ran from Antigone to Ismene to Kreon. In refusing to remain powerless, breaking the law, and going to the Square to find Neikes, you started a new ripple, Antigone. Your sister, Ismene, was transformed while watching and hearing your defiance of the system. She transitioned from someone who defaulted to authority, saying “it’s a world of kings and men out there” or “We. Have. No. Power” (20), to someone who stood up to her father, questioning his actions and, ultimately, leaving his side to go to her sister’s. It is especially clear that you changed, Ismene, when you stood up to authority and told your father “everything is a choice” (91), a sharp contrast to your initial belief that you were powerless as the daughter of an authoritative leader and as a woman in a society underscored by male superiority. Then the ripple continued from Ismene to Kreon. With pressure from the protestors, Tiresia, Antigone, and now Ismene, Kreon was finally brought to sight and movement. His slow realization was beautifully depicted in the stage directions of the play. Kreon, you slowly started to whisper, “stop.” Then it seemed that you were hit by sight all at once, commanding, “Stop the tanks! Stop the bulldozers! Stop clearing the square! Stop this chaos!” (92). Unlike any other text, Antigone:方 has shown me not only how one person can be brought to sight with the help of others, but also how this transformation ripples from one person to the next, slowly reaching the top where it brings down an entire system.
The end looms before me. What I have learned is of paramount importance, extending far beyond the world of literature and into my own life. Is that not exactly what Christa Wolf was telling us in her piece, “Speaking of Buchner,” when she wrote, “it is, strangely, the language of literature which seems to come closest to the reality of man today, and which knows him best” (185)? I am walking towards the end and I carry with me new wisdom. It is difficult, but possible, to see and question when one is in a state of isolation, but it is near impossible to move. What one needs to enable sight and movement in systems of oppression is not just any helper, but one who is also starting to move beyond the system, creating collective action through mutual aid. To create permanent transformation, however, one needs help from people who model alternative ways of living beyond the system. The beauty is, once someone is transformed, they can become the transformer, transmitting sight and movement throughout the population. The end is here, but I don’t mind it. The interdependency inherent to the human condition has never been more apparent to me than at this moment. Coming to this realization makes things harder, easier. Asking for help is a difficult thing for me, for us. I —we—rarely do it. And yet, help is the only way we can transform ourselves and our society. Yes, it is harder to say this “we.” However, it seems that it is in accepting the necessity of this “we” that we reach liberation and discover the possibility that lies, as suggested in Wolf’s novel, beyond “killing and dying”: “living” (118). How wise Cassandra became.
Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. House of Anansi Press, 1972
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. Translated by John Rutherford, Penguin Books, 2003.
Ho, Jeff. Antigone. Playwrights Canada Press, 2016.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books, 1990.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1961.
Wolf, Christa. Cassandra. Translated by Jan van Heurck, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.
Wolf, Christa. “Speaking of Buchner.” The Author’s Dimension. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1993, pp. 185-186.