British cultural historian extraordinaire at Delphi

Marina Warner, cultural historian extraordinaire, made a flying visit to Greece last weekend to speak at a symposium on «Places and Spaces» organized by the British Council. Though not her first visit to Greece, it will be the first to Delphi, where the symposium is being held, and Warner was delighted at the prospect, she told Kathimerini English Edition by telephone from London on Friday, not long before her departure. Delphi, home to the oracle of Apollo, is a resonant location for Warner, who has made her name with a series of works exploring the feminine in myth and history, and who has, as she says, spent much of her life writing about prophecy. In her talk, she was planning to look at «some of the myths connected with fate and oracles, and at the female voice and female prophecy and female fate.» The heroine of Warner’s latest novel, «The Leto Bundle,» has a direct connection with Apollo, the author explained. «The book is inspired by the story of Leto, the goddess, who gave birth to Apollo. She was originally pursued and harried across the world like a kind of refugee. In this novel, she’s a figure of the woman in flight, the one we see so often now in all kinds of regional conflict, in different upheavals and horrors in the world. «There are several myths of persecuted women, of mothers bearing children, that are very highly connected with Greece «The theme of the whole conference is places and spaces, so the theme of the fleeing woman with her bundle of children and possessions seems to me quite appropriate to bring up in that context. «Io is one of them – Io, who was changed into a cow then plunged to her death in the Ionian Sea – she is the ancestral mother of the Danaans, the Greeks. So there is a very strong mythological link between the idea of the refugee, the woman in flight, and the founding, the beginning of civilization.» Outsiders «It’s a very perplexing, paradoxical and strange connection, considering our criticisms of outsiders and strangers, and yet so many stories have at their beginning this figure of the persecuted outsider. «Leto herself was pursued; she couldn’t give birth because no land would accept her until Poseidon took pity on her and raised the island of Delos to give her a haven for a while, so she could bear the children there. «My novel is set both in time past – the archaic past, and in time present.» Since completing that book, Warner has pursued other topics which she also intended to raise in Delphi. «I’ve written quite a lot about possession and trance. I’m writing a book about how we think about people, what we think of consciousness, what we think somebody is inside. There are some persistent strands in the thought; there are also changes; but one of the strands that does interest me is the idea of the prophet who is not mad but who is taken over, who has become possessed by either a vision or by hearing things. The Delphic priestess is a perfect progenitor in many ways, so I’ll bring that in too.» On her website, Warner declares: «I write to discover things. Writing makes things happen.» Asked to elaborate, she said: «It’s a slight reflection of something W.H. Auden famously said in a fit of despair: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ I think he wrote it at a very low point, just after the outbreak of World War II. «My feeling is quite the opposite. I don’t think that individual writers can take charge. I don’t think that we individually can direct or control anything. It would be very hubristic and quite arrogant and foolish to think that it can be consciously done. But I think the collective endeavour of remaining vigilant and writing as honestly and well as one can, that collective endeavor in a society can help, it can make things happen. I think it is a very, very important task. «One shouldn’t assert that one knows is right, but I think that one should follow one’s feelings and try and express them. It’s a difficult, precarious tightrope walk, because I’m not keen on oracular pronouncements – talking of Delphi – on the part of writers, because I think that’s claiming far more than we can be. «I think that if you look at the past, bad books have definitely – unfortunately – made things happen, and good books have helped.» Asked for an example of a «good» book, Warner cites Jonathan Swift’s «Gulliver’s Travels» as «a wonderful satire of how strangers or outsiders are treated. All that does have an effect on children, when they read it; I think it’s a good warning.» The Apocalypse As for an example of a bad book, Warner isn’t afraid to go out on a limb: «I think the Apocalypse is a bad influence. I don’t think the Apocalypse is at all Christian in its message. This is a book about revenge and catastrophe. And it only just made it into the canon. One of the historical oddities of the Bible is that the final editors who laid down the actual arrangement of the Bible argued fiercely about whether the Apocalypse was authentic or not – this was way back in the third century – and it just got in by a squeak. I think that this fundamentalist, retributive, angry Christianity has not done any good in the world at all. «And its power, its doomy, gloomy, violence, its slasher-movie kind of effect, has attracted a lot of interest. I’d prefer a Christianity that’s completely different. I’m not a Christian any more, but that’s a good example, I think.» In her writing and lectures, Warner has always adopted a cross-cultural approach. What effect does she think European unification and the worldwide dominance of the English language have had on the cross-cultural approach? Parochial «I think that we are a little parochial in terms of translation,» said Warner. «There’s not as much translation into English from countries all over the world as there could be, because of our inherited sense that we can go anywhere speaking our language. And that does need to be reconsidered. But I think on the whole in these islands we do try to have more sense of Europe, but there’s a huge way to go. «The real balance of power when it comes to the English language of course does not lie with the UK anymore; it lies with America.» The hegemony of American culture – world culture, sport, entertainment culture in every form – is another vast issue. Warner believes that if European literatures and Anglophone literatures from other continents come together, they can exercise some some sort of cultural counterbalance, although, she adds: «Of course we are very interconnected, and there’s a huge amount of influence from America and vice versa. Nevertheless, I think there is a sense among a lot of people that we need to make common cause.» And English literature itself is changing, Warner said. «It’s not just the canon itself that is is constantly under scrutiny and changing, but people around the world who write in English are changing what English literature is. «It no longer runs seamlessly from Shakespeare to Iris Murdoch. It’s a many-headed, large-limbed beast.»

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