Daily Archives: 11 November 2020

November verse 7 & Jeanette Winterson’s Weight

November verse 7: Pick your myth
Trump's confidence is his Achilles'
heel? He's sulking in his tent.
Freud's Oedipus was doomed to kill his
dad. Camus' Sysiphe was meant
to be heureux. And Jeanette Winter-
son: will Atlas represent her?
Did those old poets know us all,
no life too big, no fate too small?
I dip into the well of fable,
ornament of childhood days,
and find Perseus in the maze.
With Ariadne's thread, he's able
to find his way. But I'm not sure
I'm ready for a minotaur.

This verse was prompted by a piece of US political commentary and by:

Jeanette Winterson, Weight (©2005, Canongate 2018)

Weight is Jeanette Winterson’s contribution to Canongate’s series The Myths. Other titles in the series include Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus, the Scoundrel Christ and Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy.

Weight is a lively retelling of the Greek myth of Atlas, the Titan who was condemned to hold the heavens on his shoulders for eternity. This being Jeanette Winterson, there’s quite a lot of rhapsodic testifying as to the myth’s deeper meanings and its personal significance for the writer.

The retelling focuses on Atlas’s relationship with Heracles, who briefly relieves him of his burden. There’s a bit of rough humour at Heracles’ expense and reflections on their different kinds of strength: Atlas can hold still and Heracles is a man of action. Heracles comes close to stealing the limelight as the narrative follows him to his marriage to Deianeira and his horrible death in the burning shirt of Nessus. But Atlas has his quiet surprises as well, such as when Laika, the astronaut dog, comes into his life.

I confess I didn’t quite follow a lot of the meditation on the myth’s meaning. Something about boundaries and desire, fate and decision. It becomes personal. Jeanette Winterson finds in Atlas an echo of her own adoption story, her ignorance about her birthparents (this was written before Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, where she writes about her birth mother), and her rejection by her adopted mother:

Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself.
My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex.

The task she took on, first as a rejected child and then as a writer, was to create a world of the imagination, a world that she has had to carry as a great weight.

I generally read Jeanette Winterson’s writing with a mixture of irritation and exhilaration. This book was no different. I’m irritated by the (presumably deliberate) false version of the myth that Atlas held up whole the world, when it was the heavens that he had to hold up in the original story. I’m irritated by the crude dick humour around Heracles (though maybe it’s not meant as humour but, even more irritatingly, as a version of male sexuality). I’m irritated by the way the prose sometimes feels like revivalist preaching, whether the subject is scientific cosmology or the pain of not know who your parents are. I’m irritated by occasional lapses of logic. But – and this is why I kept reading and am glad I did – I’m exhilarated by the way the book yokes together a scientific understanding of the universe with images from Ancient Greek myth (Laika nestling in Atlas’ shoulder, for example) and, in the final pages, I’m exhilarated at the notion of Atlas (and so possibly Jeanette) laying down his (and possibly her) burden.