Saturday, September 27, 2014

Butterflies

Full disclosure: I'm a fan of Julia Alvarez's work.  I really enjoyed her novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1992), so I was looking forward to reading In the Time of the Butterflies (1994).

In terms of their structure, the two novels are surprisingly similar.  As Alvarez remarks in her Postscript to Butterflies, "When as a young girl I heard about the 'accident,' I could not get the Mirabals out of my mind" (323).

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that like Garcia Girls, In the Time of the Butterflies narrates the story of the now-legendary Mirabal sisters--Minerva, Patria, Maria Teresa and Dede--and their opposition to Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship of the Dominican Republic through the perspective of each of the sisters.  The novel moves chronologically forward (as opposed to Garcia Girls, which reverses the narrative's chronology) to November 25, 1960.  

The next day, the bodies of Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa would be found in their Jeep, along with the body their driver, Rufino de la Cruz, at the bottom of a ravine. Although it was made to look like an accident at the time, it was later revealed that the three women and their driver had been beaten to death by Trujillo's henchmen--something that everyone suspected at the time of the incident.

The Mirabal sisters were known by their code name, Las Mariposas--"the Butterflies"--during their involvement with an underground resistance effort that they helped to found.  Known as "The Fourteenth of June Movement" (named in memory of those killed in a massacre that Patria witnessed on a religious retreat), the underground movement distributed information about Trujillo's crimes and stockpiled weapons and ammunition in preparation for an organized uprising.

The discovery of the bodies of the Mirabal sisters and their driver catalyzed a nation.  Regarded as national marytrs, their deaths in many ways paved the way for Trujillo's own assassination in 1961.

Alvarez's novel focuses, not on the historical events surrounding the death of the Mirabal sisters, but on an imaginative reconstruction of what their lives might have been like.  As Alvarez acknowledges, her goal was not to attempt to recreate "the Mirabal sisters of fact, or even the Mirabal sisters of legend" (324).

Instead, Alvarez's novel offers "the Mirabals of [her own] creation, made up" but created with an eye to remaining "true to the spirit of the real Mirabals" (324).  Alvarez openly admits that she "took liberties" with historical fact in order to "immerse [her] readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic" (324).

Somewhat paradoxically, Alvarez insists that this is an epoch that "can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination" (324).

While that claim may, in and of itself, be somewhat problematic, the fact of the matter remains that Alvarez has written an interesting and engaging novel--one that, I believe, encourages readers to find out more about thie history of the Dominican Republic for themselves.

By the end of the novel, you feel that you have come to "know" the Mirabal sisters in a way that you could not, if you simply read the historical and biographical materials.

This is the purview of the literary artist: to make a world come alive and to people it with characters you come to wish you knew personally.  Alvarez is a master of her craft and In the Time of the Butterflies is a novel that will remain with you long after you've finished reading.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Not As Planned

This week really hasn't gone as planned.

The first half of the week was just fine.  I finished a sock, I taught my classes, I got a bunch of writing done, and I read Coetzee's Foe.

I talked to a friend about Coetzee and my impressions of Disgrace.  She confirmed that my feelings were basically justified--I was right to not like the narrator-- he possessed "no moral insight"-- and she agreed that the novel was "completely unsatisfying" in terms of resolving the events of the plot.  So I felt greatly relieved.

And no, she wasn't just saying that.  If there's one thing that my friends and I agree upon, it's that you don't lie when it comes to your opinion about a book.  Because if you do, what will the world come to?

Lying about a book?  You must be kidding.  Chaos and moral anarchy will ensue, it's that simple.

That said, I finished Foe and I can safely say that this is basically going to be it for Coetzee and I, even though my friend did suggest that Waiting for the Barbarians was "okay."  I think I'll pass.

I liked the concept behind the novel (a retelling of the story of Robinson Crusoe), but once again, Coetzee's representation of women made me decidedly uneasy, and by the end of the novel, all I could think was, "Okay, that's enough of that."

I don't like when novelists try to show you how clever they are by name-dropping or including obscure references to texts that only a literary nerd like myself is going to pick up on.  And that's what the end of Foe had: a lot of pretentious literary name-dropping and waxing philosophical about "the nature of storytelling."  Spare me. 

The ending of Foe made offhand references to Dostoevsky and Dickens (that I couldn't really see the point of, quite frankly) and it did all kinds of literary loop-de-loops that only a well-read reader-in-the-know would be able to follow.

I suspected this was included so that readers could bask--along with Coetzee--in the feeling of just how smart they are.  I don't like that kind of thing.  Get over yourself.   Books are for everyone. 

On Wednesday, I woke up feeling really tired.  I was kind of surprised by that.  Especially when it lasted all day.  I thought it was just because I'd had a late night the night before.   But then, by evening, my allergies were acting up in strange ways that I couldn't quite explain.

At least, I thought it was my allergies.  I took allergy meds, but when I woke up at midnight sneezing, I thought, "Maybe I'm getting... sick...?"

So yes, I have a cold.  Nothing bad, just a pesky, annoying little thing.  I spent all day yesterday on the couch, reading and knitting.  Which was good, in a way, because I managed to read Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies-- I'll have to blog about that soon, since it's on my Classics Club list.

And I'm enjoying making all kinds of progress on knitting the back of a cardigan.  Although, I kind of thought the pattern would be a bit more challenging than it's turning out to be, so I've had to resist the temptation to start working on another cardigan.  Because I do have a sock on the needles as well.  Oh, and another sweater.  But now I'm not so sure about that last one--I don't know if I like it as much as I thought I would, so I may ditch it.

Basically, I'm using up my yarn stash.  I have a whole bunch of yarn that I bought over the last year or so, and I can't really justify buying more (well, I could, but it wouldn't be a solid argument--it would have a lot of loopholes and non sequiturs).

So that's what I'm trying to do.  And really, it's a good thing to have to do when you don't feel well.

The problem is, I don't really have to do it--it's all I feel like doing when I'm snuffling and sneezing all day long.  (And feeling grumpy--did I mention I feel kinda grumpy today?)  What I have to do, actually, is grade a few papers and then get a chunk of writing revised... by Monday.

It was okay that yesterday didn't go as planned.  But as far as today goes, I'm going to have to just power through what I need to do, and hope that this annoying bug goes away by tomorrow, when I'll need to get down to serious business to get ready for next week.

I hope it's not too much to hope.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Maybe They're Writing a Novel...

I've been having a really nice couple of days lately, because I went apple-picking yesterday.  This means a weekend full of baked goods is on the horizon, and that can never be a bad thing.

Don't worry: I swim and I bike.  I'll be okay.

I confess, I used to dread making pies because I didn't have a good pie-crust recipe.  And then my best friend gave me an AMAZING cookbook and my life has never been the same.  It has some of the best whole-grain recipes ever.  (Yes, ever.)

And one of them is for a really good pie crust.  It's so simple, and yet so wonderful.  I just made 3 pie crusts, in less than half an hour.

You take 2/3rds of a cup of oatmeal, grind it in a food processor, then add 1/3 cup of regular flour, 1/4 tsp. salt, mix it all up, then cut a stick of butter (4 oz) into pieces, pulse that into the flour, and add about 3-4 tbs of ice water.

When it all comes together, you take it out, wrap it in plastic wrap, let it sit in the fridge for a bit, and then, when you're ready, roll it out.

The trick to homemade pie crusts, I've learned, is not to fiddle with them.  The butter has to come straight out of the fridge and stay cold and the water HAS to be ice water.  Cold is key.  The more you fuss with a pie crust or handle it, the less likely it will be that the crust will hold together when you roll it out and the less likely it is that it will be light and flaky when you bake it.

So, when it comes to making pie crusts, I say move quickly and be done with it.  And this recipe is good for that.

Last night, I stayed up reading Coetzee's novel, Disgrace.  I did finish it.  I wish I could say I liked it.  I wanted to like it.  And believe you me, I gave it a serious chance.  And then some.

For the first 50 or so pages, when I was trapped with a self-centered narrator who did little more than whine about the fact that he was 52 years old and couldn't get laid as frequently as he did when he was 20, I thought, "Maybe it's about his eventual enlightenment.  Let's wait and see."

And then he began sleeping with a student (did I mention he was a professor?).  Great.  Just great, dude.  Uh-huh.  Okay.

And he was kind of a stalker about it, actually, and then that got chalked up to "the god Eros" or some such nonsense, which started reminding me way too much of the experience of reading Lolita and then when he lost his job over it, I got the impression that I was supposed to somehow see that as "unfair" in some way and to take a very ironic attitude toward the whole notion of "disciplinary proceedings" and "ethical conduct."

A group of young women who were opposed to rape were mildly ridiculed along the way.  At this point in my reading, I actually closed my eyes and took a deep breath and said, "Just keep going.  I'm sure it will get better.  It must be about his becoming more self-aware about his arrogant, misogynistic, pig-faced, jackassed behavior.  I'm sure that's what this novel is about."

It was an assumption that had no basis in anything I'd actually read up until that point, but I digress.

So then he lost his job (thank god) and went to live with his daughter and call me old fashioned, but I couldn't quite get over the fact that she just called him "David."  Just like that. With no explanation for why they might have been on a first-name basis.  Just "David."  Plain as could be.  So I turned a whole bunch of pages sustained by the thought that, at some point I'd find out why she called him "David" and that would help me understand his previous behavior and it would all culminate in his becoming more self-aware.  ( I was really hung up on that.)

And then, we found out that his daughter was a lesbian, but she was a lesbian who wasn't actually in a relationship with a woman at the time, so we never really had to deal with that.  The ex was conveniently in Johannesburg (this was mentioned more than once), but she never came back, so I'm not sure why it mattered, really, except it was supposed to make what happened to her later in the novel that much more upsetting.

Because some horrible things happened later in the novel and when they did, I thought, "Okay, now will be The Turning Point.  Self-awareness, here we come."  And that was basically the mindset that carried me through the remaining hundred or so pages.

At this point, it probably won't surprise you to learn that I once stood (yes, I said stood) through a five-hour (yes, I said five-hour) Russian Orthodox service, sustained by the thought, "I'm sure it'll be over in about five more minutes or so.  It must be almost done."

So, I'm here to tell you that there was no Turning Point in that novel last night.  There was no Self-Awareness, in the end.  It just went in some odd directions and had some truly implausible characterization (in my opinion), and the whole sleeping-with-a-student thing was returned to and justified, in some weird way, and God was mentioned in passing, and then it ended.

I sat with the book on my lap and stared at it for a bit. And then I stared at the clock for a bit.  And then I said, "Well, good-night," to no one in particular, because my cats had fallen asleep hours earlier.

And that was basically that.

But I really don't want to say that I don't like Coetzee's work so, masochist that I am, I'm actually going to try to read his novel Foe tonight.  I started it a while back, but I need to restart it and just get through it and see what happens.  Maybe Disgrace was a fluke.  Just not my cup of tea.  But the other novels he's written, who knows?

At this point, I would like to offer another confession: I hate William Hurt.  As an actor, I mean--I don't know him as a person.

Remember how popular he was in the 1980's?  And how he kept being nominated for all kinds of awards?  Well thank god that ended.  Because I kept wanting to figure out what it was that everyone liked about him (since personally, I didn't ever find him even remotely attractive), so in the 1980's, I saw Every. Damn. Movie. William. Hurt. Made.

In 1991, I told myself, "Enough. You've given it a decade.  Stop this." 

No one can ever say that I don't give things--and by "things" I mean "people"--a second chance.  Because I definitely do, to an extent that is probably rather unhealthy.  So when I found myself thinking, "I didn't like Disgrace, so I need to read Foe.  And maybe something else after that...", I did mentally warn myself not to "do that whole William Hurt thing again" with Coetzee.

We'll see.  I think I'll be okay.  And I really do think I'll like Foe.  (what is wrong with me?)

Meanwhile, I had been noticing for days that my keyboard on my laptop was having problems.  I'd type "s" and there would be no "s."  Same thing for "k" and "o" and the occasional "j."

I kept thinking that maybe the keyboard driver was corrupted, but as it turns out, there was a somewhat simpler issue:  the keyboard was full of cat hair.

Hunh.

I'm usually pretty good about taking care of that kind of stuff.  But as I began to notice the fur sticking out of the edges of the "s" and the "k" and the "o" and a little bit around the "j," I tried to remember the last time I actually cleaned my laptop's keyboard.

I took a sabbatical in 2008, and it really was a wonderful experience in many ways, not the least of which is that it left me with a very clear chronological marker that my occasionally faulty memory can draw upon.   You see, I have a tendency to think, "I just did X the other day" or "last week" or "a little while ago," only to realize that "the other day" or "last week" or "a little while ago," is actually "2 years ago" or "before my dad died" (in 2006). 

Basically, if I remember doing something in the house I lived in before I went on sabbatical, but not since, that means I probably haven't done it since 2008.

Likewise, if I remember last seeing some object or possession "before I went on sabbatical," I automatically declare it "lost" and just assume that I threw it out or, if I'm feeling slightly more accusatory, I announce to whoever is listening that "the movers probably got it."  I find that it saves me a lot of time and emotional energy in the moment, and on those rare occasions when I've eventually found the thing I declared "lost" or "gotten," I'm extremely happy.

It gives me hope.

I would like to say, however, that I'm quite certain I must have cleaned my keyboard sometime since 2008, because as it turns out, there was no orange fur in it, and my poor little kitty who died in 2012 was orange.  All the fur clogging my keyboard this time around was grey.

And ye gods, there was a lot of it.  I started with the air-can, but it quickly became clear that wasn't going to cut it.  So I had to use q-tips and, I confess, tweezers.

But now it looks so clean and even kind of shiny, it's quite nice.  I asked my kitties how this fur-backlog happened, but the only thing I got in response was a vague reminder from Freya that I have the tendency to leave the laptop open all the time (signaled by an extensive bout of face-rubbing on the corners of said laptop) and the assertion that "shedding happens" from Smokey and Juno.  (This assertion was then punctuated by Smokey's descent into the basement to dramatically cough up a hairball.)

But perhaps there's more to this whole keyboard-full-of-fur-thing than meets the eye...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"The God of Small Things"

I love books with beautiful sentences and Arudhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997) is simply full of them.

It's the story of fraternal twins, Estha and Rahel, who return to their childhood home in Ayemenem to remember and sort out what happened to them, to their cousin, Sophie Mol, and to their mother, Ammu, years before.

Roy's sentences are lyrical and elliptical, but also startlingly simple and direct.  She has clearly mastered the art of verbal cadence, and the ability to suggest more than is written.
Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits have appeared like a team of trolls on their separate horizons.  Short creatures with long shadows, patrolling the Blurry End.  Gentle half-moons have gathered under their eyes and they are as old as Ammu was when she died.  Thirty-one.

Not old.
Not young.
But a viable die-able age. 
(5)
Her style is further enhanced by the structure of the novel's plot.  Roy interweaves past and present, blurring the boundaries between what happened "then" and what is happening "now" and complicating the reader's sense of everything that happened in between then and now.

This works particularly well for Roy's story, which focuses on the complex roles that colonialism, Marxism, Christianity and globalization have played in India's history.  The novel opens with the scene of Sophie Mol's funeral, and as the novel unfolds, readers are forced to return to that initial scene, to try to make sense of what they read--what they thought they were witnessing.

The tragedy of Sophie Mol's death becomes a far more complicated thing than the reader can anticipate, and Roy's skill revolves around her ability to keep events from the past central to her novel's lyrical exploration of family, identity and the accidents of history.

Who is "The God of Small Things"?  That is the question the novel repeatedly returns to, as characters confront both events and individuals:
...the Air was full of Thought and Things to Say.  But at times like these, only the Small Things are even said.  The Big Things lurk unsaid inside (136)
Roy's novel cleverly focuses on how to suggest the Big Things that "lurk unsaid inside" by describing the "Small Things" that are said and done by Estha and Rahel when they are children.

And, perhaps more importantly, it suggests that the things of life and of history--both the big and the small--are intertwined in memory in ways that are never simple, direct, straightforward or chronological.
It is unreasonable to expect a person to remember what she didn't know had happened.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Metta

It was a suddenly hectic week, but it promises to be a peaceful weekend.  I've kept my sanity by swimming and biking, the occasional kitty-cat-conversation-and-snuggle session, and a whole lotta knitting, so that's good.

I also read Toni Berhhard's How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013).  Bernhard was diagnosed with a chronic illness in 2001, and her first book, entitled, How to Be Sick was about coping with that.  How to Wake Up addresses a more general audience, but it follows in the footsteps of her earlier work.

I confess, I've always been drawn to Buddhist philosophy, because I find its basic tenets quite fascinating and often compelling.  Like all forms of spirituality, it posits quite a few ideals that I'm not sure little old human me could ever fully attain, but unlike many forms of religious thought, it continues to emphasize the process rather than the product.

Buddhism focuses on the Path or the Way, rather than on the Anointed or the Elect.  I like that.

And in many ways, I liked Berhard's book.  Like many texts targeted for a general audience, I thought it became a bit repetitive at times, but I could also see why that would be helpful for someone trying to grasp (and potentially apply) the basic tenets of Buddhist thought for the first time.

In a nutshell--and really, this is truly a nutshell, since Buddhist thought is far more nuanced and complex--Buddhism suggests that all life, all existence, is impermanent.  This includes the world around us, the relationships around us, and our own sense of self.

Suffering arises through attachment: when we become attached to things that are, by their very nature, impermanent, we struggle and suffer.  As Bernhard points out, "In Buddhist philosophy, wisdom refers to seeing things clearly just the way they are so we're less likely to be deluded or confused about what to expect in life" (9).

What we should expect is that all things will change, both the good and the bad will pass away and new things (both good and bad) will take their place, we ourselves will change, constantly, unceasingly, and, at times, we will all suffer.

But we will all experience joy as well.  Paradoxically, however, we may suffer even in joy because of our sense of attachment.  We want to keep happiness as a permanent condition (obviously), but given the nature of the universe, this simply isn't possible.  The sooner we learn to accept that, the better.

But acceptance, of course, is a continual struggle.  It's human nature to think, "That's not fair" and to kvetch and complain accordingly, even though we know that the actual kvetching will change nothing.  We refuse to acknowledge the fact that, without our complaints, things will always change anyway, because that's the nature of existence.

One of the goals of Buddhist practice that I find particularly compelling--and particularly difficult, but therefore particularly useful--is "equanimity."

Equanimity is exactly what the word itself suggests: a state of balanced or "equal" spirit (in Latin, "animus" means "spirit")--as Bernhard notes, it is a state of "holding both our joys and sorrows 'in an ease-filled balance'" so that "when we see people going about their everyday lives, friendliness is our natural response" (188).

As opposed to getting up on the wrong side of the bed, checking email and getting aggravated, and then heading out the door to think, "Look at that jackass.  Cut me off, why dontcha, you ... bastard...".

This is not equanimity.  It is also not "metta," which means "kindliness" or "friendliness."

In Buddhist practice, you seek to cultivate kindliness or friendliness for everyone.  Yes, I said everyone.  Why not, really, if we're all suffering and all is impermanence? --this is the philosophy of Buddhism.

Again, like the Christian philosophy of forgiveness (see my previous posts, Forgiveness and Forgiveness Too), this is a concept that I find intellectually appealing, but something that I personally struggle with in day-to-day life.  But unlike the Christian philosophy of forgiveness, which I personally think is abused on a daily basis by all kinds of people looking to justify all kinds of behavior, the Buddhist concept of "metta" focuses on the process and the practice, rather than an end-result.  (Although obviously, metta is an end result in and of itself as well.)

As Bernhard points out, there is a difference between "assessing" and "judging."  While Christianity also warns against judgments that do not come from God--hence, the caution, "Judge not, lest ye be judged"--in my opinion, it tends to blur a crucial state of human conflict in a rush to push us all towards an ideal of forgiveness.

I can see why sitting in judgment on others is a bad idea--as my mom would advise quite simply, back in the day, "Mind your own business, and worry about yourself."  But it's a huge leap from that point to, "It's okay, what you did there."

As Bernhard points out, this isn't a state of wisdom according to the tenets of Buddhist thought, because wisdom comes from seeing the world and the people in it clearly, without delusion.  "Bad" isn't "good"--it isn't even "okay," actually.  It's bad.

But, that said, it's impermanent.  So repeatedly reacting to it--in short, attaching yourself to such thoughts and allowing the bad things and the bad people in your life to cause you to suffer--is futile.

This is the starting ground for metta.  As Bernhard observes, "Setting aside judgment doesn't mean we have to actively seek out the company of people we don't enjoy or who treat us poorly.  But we can decide whether or not to be with them without adding a negative judgment" (151).

Thank god, I say.  Because if one more person told me I "should" really like someone that I really just don't, I would probably scream.

No, I shouldn't just "like" them, actually.  Because when I assess their behavior, they do things that aren't kind or honest or ... kind.  In short, the things that they do have caused me to suffer.  As Bernhard argues,
There's a difference between assessing and judging.  Assessing is a neutral sizing up of people or our environment by sticking to the facts we've been presented, whether those facts please us or not.  Judging is what we add to assessing when we measure those facts against some standard we've set up regarding how we think people or things should be.  So in judging, there's an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be... (150)
It's the difference between, "Mary always says she'll call, and then she doesn't," and "Mary always says she'll call and then she doesn't, because she's immature and irresponsible."

As Bernhard points out, when it comes to our relationship with other people, "We can genuinely feel, 'I wish for you to find peace and contentment even though I won't be hanging out with you.'"  And being able to acknowledge someone's existence in that spirit is the essence of metta and equanimity.

I think I like this idea because it resonates with so many of the common-sense maxims I was raised with, like,  "Give 'em a wide berth" and  "It takes all kinds to make a world."

Metta, like all of the elements of Buddhist thought, hinges on the premise that you "start where you are"-- that what is, is.  It may not be good, and if it isn't, you shouldn't try to pretend that it is. 

Instead, you should do something to help that ever-ceasing state of existential change along because, in fact, the times they are a-changing, so you might as well do your part to try to move that change in a positive direction that alleviates suffering (whether your own, or others', or both).

As Bernhard observes, "Loving your fate doesn't mean you shouldn't take action to improve things personally and globally when that action can lessen suffering for you and for others.  It simply means that your starting point is life as it is" (197).

Put simply, it's a response of, "Oh.  Okay.  So that's what that is.  Now what?"  And the "what" that you decide on is more useful if it isn't simply a litany of complaints and criticisms about what's landed on your doorstep.

In Buddhist meditation, you practice sending metta first to yourself, then to someone you love, then to someone towards whom you feel neutral, and finally towards an enemy.

Sharon Salzburg describes an interesting scenario presented in the Vissudhi Magga: If you were walking in a forest with your loved one, your neutral person, and your enemy and you were attacked and told you must sacrifice someone, who would you choose to sacrifice?

You might think the "correct" answer is, "Myself."

But actually, it's "No one."

You cannot practice metta if you don't treat yourself kindly as well. 

That means seeing people for who they are and what they do (and not for who you wish they were or what you wish they would do or had done), acknowledging that, like you, they struggle and suffer, but realizing that this does not require that you enable them to harm you again or to continue to cause you to suffer.

Because, in the end, this benefits no one.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Medea"

When, last summer, I saw that National Theatre Live would be re-broadcasting Danny Boyle's Frankenstein AND a new production of Euripides' Medea this fall, I was thrilled.

I didn't jump for joy, necessarily, but I did give a small hop and a little cry of glee.  I majored in Classical Studies and Literary Studies as an undergraduate (a double major), and I always loved Euripides best of the Greek tragedians.

Today, I went to see Medea.  It was more than worth the wait.  Helen McCrory (who played Narcissa Malfoy in the last three films of the Harry Potter series) played the title role, and she was unbelievably good.

As she comments in a short introduction to the film, to walk on stage and put Medea's grief out there for an audience to see is no small task.  I'm not sure how she has managed to accomplish that feat night after night, because the role is an intense one, to say the least.

While the figure of Medea is often invoked nowadays in reference to real-life women who kill their children--and, as McCrory points out, there are some startling similarities between Euripides' character and contemporary psychological research on women who commit this crime--I think to regard her entirely in this light would flatten the character somewhat.

It isn't just that Medea kills her children.  That one act is not what defines her, although it is (of course) one of her most memorable deeds.  She is a figure taken from myth and, as such, Euripides uses her to represent multiple things in his Medea.

Medea traces her lineage to the god of the Sun, Helios: he's her grandfather.  Her aunt is Circe, the woman who turns Odysseus's crew into swine in The Odyssey.  Medea is thus very (very) aware of ancestry as a significant component of identity--as a way of defining what she is "worthy" of and what she "must" do when faced with degrading circumstances.

And Jason has made the ultimate mistake: he has degraded her.  Because she loved him, she helped him obtain the Golden Fleece (Medea's husband is the Jason of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts).  In particular, she helped him steal it from her father, King Aeetes and, when her father set sail in pursuit of Jason and the Argonauts, she helped him to escape.

She did this by cutting her little brother into pieces and then scattering the pieces on the water as she fled with Jason.  She knew that her father would stop to collect the pieces of her brother's body so that he could bury his son, and that this would slow him down, enabling Jason and the Argonauts to escape with the Golden Fleece.

So Medea has a history of violence (towards family members) and she has a history of taking sacrifice to a whole new level.  At the same time, she is not the kind of woman who will allow someone to reduce her to the status of a cast-off and an exile--she's the granddaughter of the Sun, for heaven's sake.  Medea is also a witch.  She knows her way around a poison recipe and she is repeatedly characterized as "other," in the sense of both foreign-born and other-worldly, in all of the renditions of the myth.

In short, she's not like the nice wives of Corinth, where she and Jason have settled.

When I've taught Euripides' play, the female students in the class often respond  to the figure of Jason with a fair amount of fury all their own: "jerk" and "full of crap" are the nicest things they typically have to say about him and about his behavior towards Medea.

What I think is most interesting in Euripides' Medea, however, is the fact that Jason and his new father-in-law Creon know what Medea is and what she is capable of--they know her history, they know about her past actions, and Creon openly admits that he's afraid of her.

And yet, they don't see the warning signs that are all around them.  The Cracknell production of the play captures this extremely well: everyone around Medea is afraid of what she will do.  People who meet her for a minute or two quickly become very worried.

So how, then, can Jason and Creon not see what's coming?  This is a fascinating question to consider, and I think in it lies Euripides' commentary on power.  Because Jason and Creon think that they hold all the cards, they "forget" what Medea is capable of.

They can't fathom that she could basically do it all over again (or worse), and that this time, she might do it to the two of them.  I think this is the essence of Euripides' commentary on power: be careful what you forget about.  Be careful what you overlook.

In a sense, Jason and Creon don't recognize the extent to which their behavior overlaps with the scenes from Medea's past.  Creon's concern about his daughter Creusa's wedding can't help but remind Medea of what she did to her own father in order to have the man of her dreams--namely, Jason.

Yes, Jason.  The very guy who is now ditching her for someone else, and claiming that he's only doing what's best for everyone, because that's just the kind of great guy he is.  It's an attitude that can't help but remind Medea that, but for her, he wouldn't even be the kind of man who could marry a king's daughter in Corinth.

He's riding high on his reputation as the hero who obtained the Golden Fleece, forgetting that it was Medea who helped him obtain it.

For her part, Medea is stuck in the past.  She admits as much, and it hinders her ability to envision a future for herself and her children.  And to the Greek audience watching this play in the 5th century B.C.E., it would be relatively clear that, without her husband Jason, Medea and her children really don't have a future anymore.

When Jason remarries, his wife--the future queen of Corinth--isn't going to worry about his children from his previous marriage to Medea.  They're the children of a foreigner, and as such, they have no status, even if Jason does step in line to succeed Creon and become King of Corinth.

This is openly suggested in the play, when the children take Medea's gift to Creusa.  She wants nothing to do with them, until Jason manages to convince her to give them a minute of her time.

It's a bad sign.  Creusa already doesn't want to see Medea's children, already feels annoyed by their presence and their very existence--and she and Jason have only just married.  Jason manages to obtain permission for the children to stay in Corinth, but even this doesn't necessarily augur good things for them in the future.  Medea understands court intrigues and she understands shifts in family loyalty--she's lived them.  In a sense, she knows what people are capable of, because she knows what she herself is capable of.

Revenge.  Terrible, mind-numbing, self-destroying revenge.

And that is the essence of Euripides' depiction of her and the essence of the National Theatre's production of the play.  I highly recommend it.