Ages ago now, Alison asked me in the comments to write about one of the Canongate Myths books I liked (as opposed to the one I didn’t particularly care for), and some 11 months later I deliver, re-reading Weight to round out my Winterson Week.
This installment in the series is a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles. The basic story: Atlas has to hold up the world as punishment for making war on the gods. Heracles needs some apples from Atlas’s garden. Heracles, the only man in the world strong enough to relieve Atlas of his burden, takes the earth for a while so Atlas can go pick some apples. Heracles then tricks Atlas into taking back his burden before he is ready.
Somewhat unusually, Winterson gives us an introduction, which is quite enlightening. As she explains:
Weight moves far away from the simple story of Atlas’s punishment and his temporary relief when Hercules takes the world off his shoulders. I wanted to explore loneliness, isolation, responsibility, burden, and freedom too, because my version has a very particular end not found elsewhere.
Simply put, she succeeds in all that, and brilliantly. Atlas, one of the only men capable of even carrying out his punishment, stands alone, holding up the earth, his burden, his responsibility, isolated but listening to the sounds of the earth near his ears, feeling close to all these people he can hear and must support, but totally alone in the Nothing.
And freedom. It is Heracles, I believe, who first brings it up—the question why:
‘Why are we doing this, mate?’
‘You’re holding up the Kosmos and I’m spending twelve years clobbering snakes and thieving fruit. The only good time was chasing Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, and she didn’t want anything to do with me when I caught her….’
There was a pause. Atlas was silent. Heracles drank another skinful of wine. He didn’t want to think. Thinking was like a hornet. It was outside his head buzzing at him.
‘What I mean to say, Atlas, is why?’
‘There is no why,’ said Atlas.
‘That’s just the trouble,’ said Heracles. ‘There is a why here, or here, or here,’ and he started hitting the side of his head, trying to squash the droning thought.
But Atlas, in his years holding up the Kosmos, has spent much time listening in on the lives of men, and has become convinced of their futility. He understands Fate.
Interspersed in the myth are Winterson’s meditations on her own life, which fit very well to form a cohesive whole. She understands Fate too:
The ancients believed in Fate because they recognised how hard it is for anyone to change anything. The pull of past and future is so strong that the present is crushed by it. We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour. The burden is intolerable.
The burden is intolerable. After a very poignant section where Atlas gains a new friend in Laika, whom he plucks out of her sputnik, long after the gods have lost their power and his punishment is truly futile, Atlas revisits that question from Heracles: “Why? Why not just put it down?” Over the course of the retelling that’s become a very powerful message, the more so because of the authentic, personal sections, “the molten stuff that welds together disparate elements.” And Winterson is really so well cut out for this project, with her love of “Cover Versions,” retellings, and the recurring motif here, so like something out of Lighthousekeeping: “I want to tell the story again.”
Weight is definitely one of my favorites of The Myths, but I think my number one pick would have to be Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy. You simply must read Litlove’s recent post on that one; it expresses just what I’d want to. I have a feeling I’ll be getting to some other Ali Smith stuff myself next week. I almost think I need a new category for my Borgesian theme chart: “Joy.”