The World is Too Much With Us

I watched Clash of the Titans last night to perform my solemn FCC-like duty of identifying any language, images, or other content unsuitable for my wife’s 7th grade students. I claimed never to have seen it before, but as Perseus approached his climactic battle with Medusa I admitted that the mechanical owl, Harry Hamlin’s lips, and the white-washed quality of the Mount Olympus boardroom were all familiar, having lodged themselves in my memory way back when. I can almost but not quite recall reclining on a couch some frigid Sunday afternoon when I was 11 or 12 and happening to catch part of the movie – and it stuck there like a leaf caught in the webbing of a storm drain, for some reason not dislodge-able by the sloshing of water or the passing of time. Why did it stick? The answer is kind of obvious – it stuck because it resonated with something deep in my consciousness, the way myths themselves do.

The ancient Greek myths are basically great and imaginative stories about conflicts so particularly and basically human that they (the conflicts) define what being a human is—that is they define and dramatize the trials people undergo relating to heavy and unavoidable topics such as revenge, justice, loyalty, and relationship to the natural world. The myths remind you of the rich difficulties of merely being a son, father, brother, member of a community, citizen. And they remind you because you need reminding.

7th graders often face the choice—one that is highlighted in the Perseus story—of revenge or justice. When a spitball hits you square in the forehead, do you spit one back, employ your fists, tell the teacher, or do nothing at all? Do you succumb to emotion or do you conquer it? Can you conquer it without dying a little inside? Whatever you choose, did you choose that because of who you are, or does deciding on and executing one particular response actually make you who you are? Most 7th graders, if they’re anything like me, basically live that every day (without necessarily parsing out and labeling those choices and consequences). But the reasons 7th graders should watch this movie aren’t the point here; the point is crack open your Oxford World Classics The Major Works (including The Prelude) of Wordsworth to page 270:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

I show this to non-literature students if I have any reason to really briefly explain Romanticism. No matter how many hours of video games they play, they all feel really busy and so can easily understand and identify with the first line—which in itself seems to prove WW’s point, since if college freshmen, most of them unmarried and childless, can feel the world is too much with them, the world has pretty much succeeded in taking over the world. But the point I like them to get is that WW envies the Greeks’ ability to transform their closeness (perhaps “communion” is better) with nature into vehicles for understanding.

Medusa: looking at something powerful can blind you – i.e. the sun. And you can’t look at the sun yourself but you can make other people look at it. And Calibos: the jilted son of Zeus, actually looks hideous the way a soul might look like if the soul’s owner’s father withheld love. Proteus: perfectly embodies the longing and desire and impossibility of clairvoyance, turning into a snake or a lion or a bear when you catch him.

WW can’t even imagine us inventing something like a Proteus in 1807. It almost seems quaint to want to know the future in 2008, after Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Proust, Joyce, and Heisenberg, and all the doubt of the Enlightenment, modernity, post-modernism, and the digital age, it’s even less conceivable. Things are too messy now. For example, some believe that what you do (or even what you think) and who you are sometimes imperfectly align. Temporary insanity or a chemical imbalance can excuse anything – even excessive boredom.

Not only that, but the world has won. Kafka, the 20th century’s imagination, imagines Poseidon, the great Sea God, not riding the waves with his trident, but at a desk, attending to mountains of paperwork. What sort of world will it be later in the 21st century, when there isn’t even time for paperwork?

It seems they might like it. 7th graders seem to be into the sorts of things you find in the movie: superpowers and monsters under your bed and comical birds and talking swords and hideous deformities. They’re watching it this week, minus 3 brief nude scenes.

I just glimpsed the future, grabbed Proteus by the throat! My sons sons sons will read and watch all day, trying to identify what’s inappropriate for them to read and watch.

May 29, 2008