My wife and I recently spent an afternoon at the Harvard Art Museums. In one of the galleries–a small sunlit space with bronzes, dark against the bright background–we spied a statue of Daphne. The piece was small but striking. Daphne’s hands were thrust up in a triangle above her head as both her arms and her whole body transform and becoming a tree. The myth tells of shape shifting in the face of perverse pursuit. A story for our own troublesome times, perhaps.
I was moved by both the piece itself in the memory of seeing the marble Apollo and Daphne by Bernini many years ago in an art history class. In each moment, past and present, I was struck by the ability of the artist to capture movement in a stationary slab. Seeing these sculptures, I’m reminded of the ever presence of myth in our spaces, in our language and in our consciousness. Apollo and Daphne, Icarus and Daedalus, Echo and Narcissus: these are the prodigious pairs. Then you have your solo stars: Aeneas, Odysseus, Hercules, Oedipus, Achilles. These are all figures from mythology, yes, but they’re also frameworks to understand our place in this world. What are we made of? What are we up against? What are we willing to endure? These heroic figures are also all fraught with flaws: vanity, disobedience, pride, rage. Their follies were their downfall. This is the lesson that both myth and the art works it has inspired try to teach us.
I wonder, in these days of silos and echo chambers, if we understand these follies fully?