Eula Biss and John Freeman
February 26, 2019
Seminar 4:30 PM | Lannan Center (New North 408)
Reading 7:00 PM | Copley Formal Lounge
From On Immunity
The first story I ever heard about immunity was told to me by my father, a doctor, when I was very young. It was the myth of Achilles, whose mother tried to make him immortal. She burned away his mortality with fire, in one telling of the story, and Achilles was left impervious to injury everywhere except his heel, where a poisoned arrow would eventually wound and kill him. In another telling, the infant Achilles was immersed in the River Styx, the river that divides the world from the underworld. His mother held her baby by his heel to dip him in the water, leaving, again, one fatal vulnerability.
When Rubens painted the life of Achilles, the River Styx is where he began. Bats fly across the sky of that painting and the dead ride a ferry in the distance. Achilles dangles from his mother’s hand by one plump leg, with his head and shoulders entirely underwater. This is clearly no ordinary bath. The three-headed hound who guards the underworld lies curled at the base of the painting where the baby’s body meets the river, as if the baby is being plunged into the beast. Conferring immunity, the painting suggests, is a perilous task.
To prepare her children for the hazards of life, my own mother read Grimms’ fairy tales aloud to us every night before bed. I do not remember the brutality for which those tales are famous as vividly as I remember their magic — the golden pears growing in the castle garden, the boy no bigger than a thumb, the twelve brothers who became twelve swans. But it did not escape my notice, as a child, that the parents in those tales have a maddening habit of getting tricked into making bad gambles with their children’s lives.
In one story, a man agrees to trade with the devil what-ever is standing beyond his mill. He thinks he is giving away his apple tree, but to his dismay he finds his daughter standing beyond the mill. In another story, a woman who has been longing for a child becomes pregnant and craves a plant called Rapunzel that grows in the garden of a wicked enchantress. The woman sends her husband to steal the plant and when he is caught, he promises their future child to the enchantress, who locks the girl away in a tall tower with no door. But maidens locked in towers will let down their hair.
And so it was in the Greek myths my mother read to me later. A king who had heard an ominous prophecy could not keep his daughter childless by locking her in a tower. Zeus visited her in the form of a shower of gold that left her pregnant with a child who later killed the king. When the infant Oedipus, left on a mountainside to die, was saved by a shepherd, he was not saved from the prophecy that foretold he would kill his father and marry his mother. And Thetis, Achilles’s mother, could neither burn nor drown his mortality.
A child cannot be kept from his fate, though this does not stop the gods themselves from trying. Achilles’s mother, a goddess who married a mortal, heard a prophecy that her son would die young. She made every effort to defy this prophecy, including dressing Achilles as a girl during the Trojan War. After he took up a sword and was discovered to be a boy, his mother asked the god of fire to make a shield for him. This shield was emblazoned with the sun and moon, the earth and ocean, cities at war and peace, fields plowed and reaped — the universe, with all its dualities, was Achilles’s shield.
My father’s father rode the rails
west into Grass Valley and buried three children
in the shadow of a tree that spread its arms around his bakery.
Cold nights he saw stars he didn’t
believe existed, and heard wild animals
howling with a loneliness he knew.
Wife dead, every morning
he woke to the bread and chill, horses
snuffling in the dark. He’d starved
before, in Canada, winter so ragged it
killed the dog, and this grief was that
feeling, shifted north into his chest.
The heart is not a diamond pressed down
into something hard like rock, but, rather, the word
my father’s father said to himself
those too-cold California nights when
all he could see was the work ahead of him,
the dead behind —
He’d say her name.
From Maps (Copper Canyon Press, 2017)
Read more about John Freeman