Friday, August 29, 2014

Cawdor - Robinson Jeffers

This is the third version of this story that I've read and without a doubt the most successful. Euripides' Hippolytus was more of a one dimensional fable discussing the cons of defying the gods, and I didn't think anything could come close to usurping Racine's Phaedra, but Cawdor is entirely in a league of its own.

In Euripides' Hippolytus, Hippolytus has sworn off love and instead has devoted himself to the goddess Artemis, his hunting companion, deeply offending Aphrodite; it is not a passive preference but rather a deliberate stiff-necked offence and he openly derails her as the "vilest of all the gods." This obviously annoys Aphrodite and she makes a plan for revenge; she will make his mother-in-law fall in love with him and it will destroy both of them leaving a trail of carnage and destruction in their wake.  

Aphrodite: " Look, here is the son of Theseus, Hippolytus! He has just left his hunting. I must go away. See the great crowd that throngs upon his heels and shouts praise of Artemis in hymns? He does not know that the doors of death are open for him, that he is looking at his last sun."

In Euripides' world there is a clear delineation of where mortals can and cannot tread. Theirs is a world with assigned rules and laws governing behavior of the classes. The play then represents one man's arrogance toward the gods and the just vindication they retaliate in turn. The fact that Phaedra is collateral damage is almost incidental.

In Racine's version things are a little different. While it is still true that Hippolytus is not really into love...he surprisingly finds himself infatuated with the daughter of his father's mortal enemy. When he has a premonition that his father has died, he returns home to either bury his father and discuss his inheritance or do his best to persuade Theseus that Aricia really isn't all that bad. He has been banished by his mother-in-law, Phaedra, they seem to bring out the worst in each other, but Hippolytus decides he must risk even this if it means being with Aricia.

Phaedra, while suffering from love sickness from the moment she saw Hippolytus, has refused to acknowledge it or even give voice to her malady. It is with great persuasion that her nursemaid, Oenone, finally draws out of her the reason for her abject misery. Oenone persuades Phaedra to reveal her curse to Hippolytus after they receive a message confirming the death of Theseus. Hippolytus is disgusted and in his hurry to get away leaves his cloak behind. About two minutes later in walks Theseus, not dead after all, and Hippolytus quickly tells him he loves Aricia, much to the chagrin of Phaedra. So he is capable of loving women, just not her. Oenone fabricates a lie on behalf of her mistress: Hippolytus has raped his mother-in-law while Theseus was away and, despite the murky veracity of this story, Theseus is enraged and calls down a curse from Neptune dooming Hippolytus to an imminent and painful death.

Pheadra, sick and disgusted by what she has become sees no other solution than to kill herself, and after ingesting poison makes her way to Theseus to exonerate Hippolytus of his crimes.  As the poison makes its way deeper into her veins, Theseus, disgusted leaves her to die alone and rushes off to embrace the now cherished remains of his son. 

Racine's version wrestles with the question of predestination and freewill. While the gods may set the course of our lives it is up to us to determine how we live. By taking responsibility for her guilt although doomed to suffer an endless temptation, she emerges virtuous and expresses her free will by engaging her temptation and battling with it to the death.

As Cawdor opens it is 1909 in the Big Sur region of California. A fire has swept through the hills destroying all but the most veteran farmers livestock.  As Cawdor watches the road among the animals fleeing in terror slowly comes an old horse carrying the charred semi-conscious remains of Martial and his bedraggled soot covered daughter Fera. Two years  ago the Martials decided to try their hand at farming and it was a catastrophic failure. Their cows ended up sick almost immediately and when one died in the creek, Martial, no longer having the strength to fight against nature, left her there to slowly poison the water supply, not out of malice but ignorance and dejection. Cawdor then had ridden over to remove the cow only to have the fetid carcass burst. Since that day Cawdor has despised Martial, but there's something about his daughter that quickens a place so long forgotten in his soul that he had thought it had died. Is it his heart? He allows them to stay for a short while so they can treat Martial's burns and get him healthy enough to travel.

As Martial is brought into the house he quietly whispers his anthem of failure: "Turn me that way before I go in, To the good light that gave me so many days. I have failed and failed and failed. Now I'll go in as men go into the grave, and not fail any more."

Cawdor at 50 would have sworn he was impervious to the potions of love, he is too old to woo and perhaps too pragmatic. He decides he will offer half courtship half blackmail and see what response he gets. He is too proud for rejection so he stacks the odds against her to ease the rebuttal, if one comes, as much as possible. He tells Fera it's time to go, if only she could stay....it's pitiful to see youth chained to helpless old age (when it is crispy and decayed of course) the unknown town might not be as kind as neighbors can be...he's never had time to play with colored ribbons -he's been a hard man that knew how to boss his men and turn a profit...

"and now I'm caught with wanting something and my life is changed....Oh, I'm still my own master and will not beg anything of you. Old blind man your girl's beautiful, I saw her come down the canyon like a fawn out of the fire. If she is willing: if you are willing, Fera, this place is yours..."

While the terms are still somewhat opaque, Fera bargains for marriage, only then will she have certain stability. Cawdor, embarrassed by his profession of love, ends the negotiations with the claim that he is certainly being made a fool, but in matters of the heart what can one do? And so in due course the marriage takes place and Fera pledges to be honest and love her husband well...which seems a foreboding promise to keep given her predecessors.

On the night of Cawdorr's marriage, his son Hood, away on a hunting expedition has a premonition that his father had died or was fast approaching death. In what is his slow and methodical way, he waits a few months to finish the hunting season and then begins the long trek homeward, on his way stopping to kill a mountain lion. Hood seems lacking in dimension, while his predecessors had taken a vow of chastity and instead worshipped at the feet of Artemis, Hood just likes to hunt. He's not in love with hunting, he's just a hunter, very measured and certain.

When he arrives home he finds that not only is his father still very much alive, but he has taken the neighbor's daughter as a wife. He recognizes the wind in her eyes although she has changed much from the sallow girl he had seen two years ago on the barren farm. He gives her the lion skin as a present and she, undisturbed by the fact that it has only recently been skinned and still very much a bloody carcass drapes it over her shoulders.

This Fera at first is pitiable. She is a girl of 19 entering into a marriage to save her father, who only manages to live a short time after. While she has promised love and honesty these things are far beyond her grasp. She has been complicit in her father's failure and along with the dripping lion carcass wears her own failure, deep and embedded in her soul, its talons gripping her heart. She must prove to Hood that she is worth looking at. And what begins as a pin prick of desire to be recognized and seen turns into an obsession to be loved and to conquer.

As Hood remains in his father's house Cawdor becomes suspicious of his obsessively chaste son. After her father dies, Fera now free of all obligations to the dying man, walks into Hood's room and propositions him, as she finishes making her plea to Hood's disgust and horror, in walks Cawdor:

"His confused violent eyes moved and shunned hers and walked the room, with the ancient look of men spying for their own dishonor as if it were a lost jewel..."

He knows something is awry, Hood is standing in his bed sheets half naked, but Fera plays the part of one deeply mourning and briefly lets them both off the hook. As Hood continues to reject her though, her pursuit becomes frenzied and while the men dig the grave for her father she asks Hood to cut some laurel branches for his casket. This is obviously a ruse, but one she creates with deft hands.

"Before you came I used to come here," she caught her quivering under lip with the teeth to keep it quiet, "for solitude. Here I was sure no one would come, not even the deer, not a bird; safer than a locked room. Those days I had no traitor in my own heart, and would gather my spirit here to endure old men."

She has been living in hell, has been taken captive by love and its talons are ripping her apart, either he submits to her desires or she will tell Cawdor he has raped her. For a moment his options seem limited and he drops to the bed of leaves to consummate her crazed desire. But...this is not who he is, Hood is a hunter, not easily stymied by a cunning fox and so he grabs his knife and plunges it into his thigh so that the pain will focus his attention and he will not respond to Fera's caresses.

This is the second time she has aggressively propositioned him and the second time she has been rejected.  She would kill herself, but is caught in an existential crisis of the hereafter. What if death does not offer a reprieve from these feelings? What if the mind is left forever chained to its wild and monstrous forever ruminations? Does she exchange one hell for another? If Hood will not make love to her than will he kill her? Will he, as a hunter, end her life with one quick stroke of his blade? There is no rest for either of them while she is alive. But as usual, Hood denies her request.

"You will be grateful tomorrow, for now we can live and not be ashamed. What sort of life would have been left us?"  "No life is left us," she said from a loose throat....

Fera decides to wear the lion skin and wait in the bushes...if he will not intentionally kill her she will make him kill her unintentionally, but at the last minute she convinces herself that Hood won't shoot but instead will track her up the mountain and maybe she can work in proposition number three. Hood shoots. In the dark he takes aim at the bushes and hits only her arm, crippling her, but not mortally wounding her. As Hood realizes what he has done a mix of indecipherable feelings rush through him and he quickly makes his way to deep into the woods to await the prognosis.

As Cawdor begins to piece Fera back together he discovers that her arm has been fractured and must be reset.  As he tries to put the bone back in place, Fera, thinking she is being tortured screams out the lie she has been quietly nursing: Hood has raped her, but she is innocent, why must he continue to torture her? Cawdor, suspicious from the start has all the proof he needs, when he has pieced her back together and she is quietly resting he tracks his son through the forest and kills him with little regard for his version of the story.

Fera decides she will try again to kill herself and this time hangs herself over the bedpost, but the maidservant hears her feet scuttling on the floor and rescues her. So then Fera, too weak to attempt suicide again, tells Cawdor it was all a lie. That she has been playing him for the fool he really is this whole time. That she always loved his son. She hopes she will arouse the rage she knows he is capable of and that he will strangle her, ending her misery once and for all, but instead she wakens only grief. She wants him to strangle her, but instead he walks away, disgusted and jaded.

Finally, her last card. She has tried to kill herself 3 times and has failed every time. She goads Cawdor into telling his other children and the farm hands that he has killed Hood, hoping that someone will maybe push them off a cliff...but instead, after his narrative, Cawdor gouges out his eyes and when Fera loses her nerve at the last moment and is unable to jump off the cliff herself, Cawdor is led back into his house, blind and aged to spend the rest of his waking moments buried in regret.

At the same time that Hood witnesses Fera's initial disgrace, two years ago as the Martial's primitive farm is filled with exploding cows, the hunter accidently maims an eagle. Despite his initial inclination to put this majestic bird out of its misery, his sister has nursed it back to health and it now remains crippled and encaged. Each day, Hood's sister brings it squirrels with just enough life in them to keep the bird of prey trapped in the farce that it is still a hunter.  As Hood sees the bird for the first time in almost two years he ponders the pitiable existence of this once formidable hunter:

"Hood remembered great sails, Coasting the hill and the redwoods. He'd shot for the breast, But the bird's fate having captivity in it took in the wing-bone, against the shoulder, the messenger of human love..."


Since that moment Fera has been cursed with a love sickness far deeper than that of her predecessors, in a world where fate is unalterable and agency is always outside of ones grasp. Fera has been consumed by Aphrodite's curse at a cellular level, every pore and gland oozes the curse and as she is consumed by her desire, Aphrodite finally has her revenge on the hunter. 

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