This seems like a good place to log some thoughts I jotted recently about the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
I suspect Middlesex will be a classic studied by college students one day. Tracing the familial and genetic history of a Greek family whose intersections resulted in the narrator’s birth as a hermaphrodite, the story wrenches the heart by relating experiences that resonate with any reader. Alienation, loneliness, desire—all are human experiences. But the author makes the narrator even more human by recognizing those less definable feelings, emotions that blend and blur at the edges: the mournful joy of autumn, the hatred of mirrors that comes with middle age.
The narrator is Calliope Stephanides. Calliope is also the muse of epic poetry, and Calliope Stephanides’s creation is indeed an epic undertaking. Her paternal grandparents, Desdemona (Greek for unfortunate) and Lefty are brother and sister. As children they are very close, described as like one four-legged, two-headed being scrambling down the mountainside where they live in Smyrna. This alludes to Plato’s symposium, where Socrates hypothesizes that soul mates are drawn together because in the dawn of time, they lived conjoined as one being. Desdemona harvests silk from silkworms, providing cocoon imagery and foreshadowing Calliope’s later transformation from what appears to be a normal girl into an adult that self-identifies as male. Lefty’s name is not explained, but maybe it’s a hint that he is Desdemona’s other half? Does “Lefty” connote a sinister quality, since, while Desdemona’s willingness to marry him wavers, it is Lefty who pushes the envelope? Maybe it is sinister in the older connotation, because they keep their identity as siblings secret after their marriage. The left hand was regarded as untrustworthy, deceitful and dirty in ancient Greek and Roman culture. The right hand was used for eating and greeting friends, while the left hand was used when urinating.
Desdemona must flee Smyrna to escape the invasion of the Turks, who murder and burn everything in their wake. As all they know is destroyed and they barely escape with their lives, Desdemona and Lefty find comfort in each other.
Sure, incest is a gross and creepy idea. But these two tried to find other romantic interests, and somehow keep ending up back together. When they lose their parents, their home, their village—when everything else familiar is taken away, you can’t help but have sympathy for two lonely, frightened people seeking comfort in the only familiar thing left to them. (Please don’t misread me, pervy people. I’m only saying I sympathize, nothing more.)
In telling Calliope’s story, Middlesex references the story of Teresias, who was transformed into a woman for seven years as a punishment from the gods, Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, Orpheus, who swore he could never love another woman after he lost his wife Eurydice at the gate to Hades, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy, Love Story, That Obscure Object of Desire, and probably many other texts I’m not well-read enough to know. It is masterfully written.
When the doctors are trying to determine Calliope’s sexual orientation, I hate how they are trying to categorize him/her—their probing, their cold, clinical labeling of Cal’s most private features. It makes me angry, because, fiction or not, I know this sort of pigeonholing and invasion of privacy has happened to innumerable people. Real, vulnerable people.
But I guess only a well written piece of fiction can make you really angry like this.
Oracles in Middlesex
On the drive home, I was wondering why the recurrence of oracles, augurs and prophets in Middlesex, besides their obvious frequent appearances in Greek mythology. A hermaphroditic oracle appears in Fellini’s Satyricon, although this character has no source in Petronius’s text. Perhaps their recurrence is in part because an oracle has a foot in two worlds, so to speak–the present and the future–in the same way Calliope has a foot in two worlds, male and female.
It also occurred to me that prophesies in Greek myth are inescapable, immutable. The crux of many Greek tragedies is that as the protagonists struggle to avoid the circumstances of their predicted doom, they inevitably bring about the events they seek to avoid. Oedipus’s parents hear the prophesy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, so they send him away to another city. Years later, Oedipus is offended by a stranger and kills him, only to find out later this man was his father. Sometimes the prophesies are not believed, as in the sad case of Cassandra–always right, never heeded.
I think Cal’s mention of oracles and prophesy indicates his desire for his existance to be deliberate, intentional. Rather than a mistake, a fluke, a freak accident. If Cal’s existance was fated by genetic prophesy, an inescapable event, that suggests there must be some reason for his experiences and sufferings. Cal fears that he is a monster. But if unseen powers planned his existance, intended his biological design, then he does not have to be an aberration. Most humans need to believe there is a reason, a purpose for things, I think. Entropy, like Medusa, is hard to look in the face.
Osiris in Middlesex
A few more disjointed notes on Middlesex:
Cal/liope is born in January, which is named for Janus, the two-faced, Greco-Roman god of doorways and the new year. He looks backward at the old year and forward to the new one. When Cal and family come to the house on Middlesex Street, there is a scene where Cal gets stuck in one of the strange, pneumatic accordian doors in the house. Like Janus, Cal lives in a place between–between genders, between the past that created him and the future that he embodies. In the last scene of the book, we find Cal guarding the doorway to the house during his father’s funeral, in the old Greek tradition, to ensure his father’s ghost does not return to the house. Raised as a girl, he now fills this traditionally male role–carrying out an old-world ritual, he stands considering the future.
Cal’s father’s name is Milton, reminiscent of another man who authored an epic. I believe Milton had gone blind at the time he wrote Paradise Lost, having dictated it in its entirety to his daughters. This may be what Eugenides had in mind throughout Middlesex, with Milton’s blind faith in President Nixon and his inability to see the viewpoints of others.
Eugenides also references another myth when Cal mentions the Osiris grass growing around the houses in Detroit. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was married to his sister Isis, but was killed by his brother Seth. Seth cut Osiris’ body into a number of pieces (the stories vary as to how many) and scattered them. Isis found and reassembled all of Osiris’ body parts, except she could not find the phallus, which was eaten by a fish. So she fashioned a new one for him out of gold, and brought him back to life. However, because he could no longer reproduce, he could not be completely brought back to life, and he became the god of the dead.
Cal does not want to be sliced up and sentenced to a half life, so he runs away rather than submit to gender re-assignment.
I’m not quite sure what to make of the way Lefty begins to be eclipsed from the moment Cal is born. I’m certain it’s significant, but I’m not entirely sure what it means.
More thoughts on this later, and the Freudian implications of the houses in Middlesex.