Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bound Together

After finishing the Aeneid (and pronouncing it wrongly in front of friends and co-workers for days and, come to think of it, still forgetting how to pronounce it without embarrassment), I got on a short-lived Greek kick. This also comes from watching Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and thinking about the Aegean. Because this followed swiftly my Scandinavian kick, I thought the perfect way to tie my brief obsessions together would be to read Nobel Laureate Par Lagerkvist's Sibyl.

The Aeneid took days to read, and though one never really wants to embark on epic poetry, it gets you in the end. But the Sibyl was instantly engaging, written in a style both beautiful and elementary. I was so moved by this novella that the night I finished it, I forced my roommate, Kristin, to listen to the whole story as paraphrased by me. I was nearly in tears by the end.

A traveler, a foreigner, comes upon a small, crude house on a mountain slope and sits down to tell his tale to the old woman who lives there with her imbecilic son. Due to his experience in his country observing a crucifixion procession, the traveler has been cursed (I don't want to spoil the story for you, but it's surprising and unsettling). He has come to the old woman to tell him his destiny as she (once an oracle herself) is the only one who can help him. After hearing his story, the old woman tells her own. As a young country girl she received the sacred call, having been selected by the priests for her simplicity and purity and called by the god (Apollo, presumably, though he is never named except through a reference to his symbol, the laurel.)

She falls in a way that is unsurprising, and though one may predict her path, Lagerkvist's language and the characters' constant questioning carry the narrative through. As the oracle, the woman felt embraced by the god in her moments of ecstatic trance, but when she was not possessed, she felt empty, longing for intimacy and peace. Instead she is a vacuum and cannot sense his will. Through the birth of her son, she becomes a reborn Leda, a heathen Mary. The oracle's wrestling with her identity as the mouthpiece of a god, with her life as the bride of the divine, forms the bread and meat of the book. Her story and her voice are dominant, and the traveler's tale is merely a prelude.

Both the foreign traveler and the ex-priestess share the commonality of having their destinies conjoined with the will of god (never named, a god who can become Hellenic or Judaic depending on the context) and they understand the un-understandable void of the divine mystery, what it means to be both inscrutably cursed and blessed by the deity. This story is mythic, with themes both folk-tale and Old Testament. The familiar language of the Bible is spoken through the pagan oracle, and this suggests that perhaps the author affirms that the need to respond to the divine call is one that all humans share, and that this binds both the Palestinian traveler and the ancient Greek woman to a life of more searching, more doubting, and more revelation.

The book culminates in a stream of words from the old sibyl, beginning as a pseudo Magnificat, as she comforts her fellow unfortunate. "What would my life have been without him? If I had never been filled with him, with his spirit? If I had never felt the bliss that poured from him, the anguish and pain that is his also, and the wonder of being annihilated in his blazing arms, of being altogether his? Of feeling his rapture, his boundless bliss, and sharing god's infinite happiness in being alive? What would I have been without that? If I had never experienced anything other than myself?
"Yet I cannot forget all the evil he has done me, and the horror. How he took possession of my whole life and took from me almost every earthly joy. How he opened his abysses to me, his evil depths. I don't forget that and I don't forgive! But sitting here, old and alone, it is you, my god, that I think of. For it is you who have been my life, you who consume and who burn all things like fire. You who leave nothing in your wake. My life is what I have lived in you. The cruel, rich, bitter life you have given me. May you be cursed and blessed!"

The honesty and lyrical intensity of this tirade against heaven reminds me of Job. Read it. It's complex, but brief. I hope I didn't give everything away.

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