Saturday, March 15, 2014


I've only made it halfway through Marina Warner's NO GO THE BOGEYMAN, whose first few chapters I talked about here.  The book's theme seems rather sprawling, and she's been accused of simply accreting loads and loads of data and dumping it into a thematically disorganized book.  I won't have an opinion on that until I've reached the end, but I'll say that even IF I find it true to some extent, I credit Warner with having gone the extra mile in her researches.  I'm particularly impressed with the detail she applies to the Classical and medieval figure of "Gryllus," a latter-day elaboration to Homer. The name applies to a sailor from the ship of Odysseus who, after being enchanted into beast-status by Circe, refuses the chance to become a man again and stays behind on Circe's isle, sort of a precursor to the animal-men of Wells' ISLAND OF DR MOREAU.  I'd never heard of this figure and was quite interested to learn how long the name survived into other times and climes.

I have noticed that much of Warner's analysis hinges upon the concept of folklore as "apotropaic magic." In my previous Warner-essay I concentrated upon the example of "dangerous lullabies," which may have an analogous function.  The parent singing them conjures up horrible fates for the innocent child (being stolen by marauders, falling from the top of a tree).  Is this a means of exorcising the parent's own hostilities toward the child, or of keeping away potential real horrors by imagining unreal spectres?

Whichever option one chooses, it should be a given that all such mythopoeic responses evolve out of subconscious, rather than conscious, impulses. No mother singing a dangerous lullaby is likely to have thought out, "Now I will sing this song to ward off evil."  The songs as Warner reports them seem too inchoate, too ambivalent, to be the product of rational cognition.  So it would seem that such impulses-- to sing baleful songs, or to erect baleful figures like the "sheela-na-gig" of Ireland-- are things that humans do because they feel that they "have to do" them.

I have reservations about seeing humankind in this light alone, however, as myrmidons guided by their impulses.  It may be impossible, or even undesireable, that humankind would ever throw a spotlight on*everything* the subconscious contains, but surely within the history of folklore that Warner surveys, there is some *conscious* intent as well; some sense of embracing the magical and mysterious because it's what "we want to do. But only once in the section of the book I've read does this impulse come up, and it's in the relatively late writings of Michelangelo on the subject of the grotesque-- which really deserves exploration in a separate essay.

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