Marina Warner sees the myths of our moment
Marina Warner, English writer, lecturer and former president of the Royal Society of Literature, is an authority on things that don’t exist. Magical spells, monstrous beasts, pregnant virgins – if the imagination can conjure it up, she probably wrote about it in one of her nearly forty books, which mine myths, folk and fairy tales and religious texts to the human truths they reveal. The work offers convulsions of associative surprise: Oedipus, who goes blind after having slept with his mother, is linked to the sandman of the nursery rhyme, who sprinkles dust in the children’s eyes to punish forbidden desires. In Warner’s Hall of Mirrors, it’s impossible to predict which face – that of Scheherazade, that of Jorge Luis Borges, that of Derek Walcott – might pass next.
Warner, a regular contributor to The New York Book Review and the London book review, is no stranger to controversy. “Alone of All Her Sex,” her study of the cult of the Virgin Mary, enraged Catholic conservatives with her feminist arguments, and she published scathing essays on how market ideologies distort academia. (In 2014, she wrote about feeling thrown out of her professorship at the University of Essex after she protested the school’s treatment of professors.) She has also written short films fiction and novels. ‘The Lost Father’, which examines the situation of Italian women under fascism, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1988 and is inspired by Warner’s own ancestry. Her mother, Ilia, grew up in Bari and met Warner’s father when his regiment was deployed to Italy in 1944. Shortly after Marina’s birth in 1946, the family moved from London to Cairo, where a cosmopolitan elite flourished in a context of resistance to the West. (Another novel, “Indigo,” examines Britain’s colonial heritage.) After the Cairo fire of 1952, in which Egyptian revolutionaries burned down hundreds of foreign businesses, including the Warners bookstore, the family decamped. in Belgium, then in Cambridge. “Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir” (New York Review Books), Warner’s first comprehensive autobiographical work, is out this month, and it traces both the early years of his parents’ union and the remnants of his earliest memories.
To read Warner’s writings is to appreciate how the stories, persisting for thousands of years, shape and are shaped by the societies that tell them. Her ability to unravel the hidden relevance of a stock persona makes her a sought-after commentator on modern politics, gender relations, and internet culture. And her willingness to listen when a tale’s message is unpalatable — when Mother Goose spews misogyny, say, rather than sibling empowerment — sets her apart from a crop of scholars who seek to put our collective dreams and nightmares in the service of ideology. I recently spoke to Warner about myths, #MeToo and his memory trick. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
As a mythographer, you study the roots of all stories. Do you often have “Aha!” » moments while reading the news? “It’s like Ulysses and the Sirens. . . .
It’s not enough as one to one. I constantly marvel at how the vicissitudes of human existence are covered in these very ancient texts. It’s really quite strange that people from so long ago seem to have understood so much. And, if you look at things like sex, it’s amazing: there’s hardly a permutation that hasn’t been shrouded in myth. They knew everything.
I remember once hearing John Berger give a lecture. It was about art, and it took place in a disused London Underground station. And we went all the way down, and as we did, he took us down a timeline of art. At first we looked at Renaissance portraits, then we looked at Egyptian mummies, then we went to the bottom and lay on the platforms like the figures in Henry Moore’s drawings of people sheltering from the Blitz . And Berger came down from the tunnel – he was a very charismatic man with an amazing voice, and his voice came out of the tunnel. He said, “At first there was no trial and error.” He was talking about cave paintings, the first paintings we have. There is something similar in literature: at the beginning, there was no trial and error. “Gilgamesh” is very rich in psychology, on death, on friendship, on love between men and on monsters. And the Iliad, the Odyssey, as you said. These works are inexhaustible.
Is there a story or myth that you think particularly illuminates the present moment?
I guess the stories I like shine a light on cruelty. Scenes that warn against paying attention to people’s inner worlds. A story that has obsessed me for a long time is that of Callisto, seduced by Jupiter. He poses as the goddess Diana, to whom Callisto, as a nymph, is dedicated. When Callisto becomes pregnant, Diana throws her out, and she is persecuted and despised. This particular triangle of deception and cruelty is illuminating.
And the way she was not listened to. There was no pity for her. So I guess the lesson is that we need to listen to people’s stories of what happened to them. And then, of course, there’s also a very strong #MeToo element to Jupiter’s deception. He is in a position of power and destroys someone powerless, and seems completely unrepentant.
Several years ago, you offered an amazing reading of Rapunzel’s story. You watched the beginning, in which a pregnant woman craves the parsley growing in a witch’s garden so badly that she steals it, and the witch punishes her by taking her baby away. The baby grows up and becomes Rapunzel, the girl with long hair who is locked in a tower. I’m thinking about history now because our Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. [On Friday, the Court overturned Roe.]
Yes, I had read a book called “The Poison Principle”, by Gail Bell, whose grandfather was guilty of murder by poison. The author mentioned in passing that parsley was an abortifacient and poisonous in large quantities. It hit me like absolute love at first sight. It’s not uncommon for fairy tales to be meaningless – that’s part of their charm, part of their power. But, in that case, why would the mother crave that particular herb and not mind giving it to her child? This is how I understood: that the story showed a buried lesson, both about the necessity of abortion and the dangers of seeking or obtaining one. And, of course, you also have the witch, which perhaps offers insight into childless women who want children. The story therefore presents a double encounter of need.
In 1994, you gave a series of lectures on “dealing with monsters,” describing six tropes you found pervasive in contemporary life: the evil mother, the male warrior, the innocent child, the cannibal, and so on. of these types have evolved since?
Well, they all continued to thrive in a weird way. I am always quite proud of these conferences. I’m rather surprised that they haven’t been fully retired—it’s a bit alarming. What is interesting about the evil mother is that it is now a subject of female work. There are many writings by women about their mother’s oppressive role in their lives. I’d be interested in revisiting the theme, actually, because I was first drawn to studying fairy tales because there was so much misogyny in them. The same is true of myths. And I wondered why that was so, because it seemed to me that it was also a feminine form, a kind of writing or storytelling very much associated with women. Why were the women writing and speaking against each other in these stories? And I think that’s an interesting thing that we could continue to explore.