I am a recovering liberal arts major. I adore my liberal arts education that fed (and continues to feed) my inquiring and often fragmented literary brain through film and history and literature and as little science and math as possible. And lots and lots of theatre. I once heard my Harvard classmate Peter Sellars, a number of years after we graduated, say in a public talk about living a life in the theatre and reminiscing about how the museums and libraries of his youth in Pittsburgh encouraged him to be “an interdisciplinary child”. I’ve always loved that phrase. I continue to follow that interdisciplinary, connection-finding (hey some call it ADD but hey it works for me), overlapping-meaning-seeking, discipline-wandering way through theatre projects, writing projects, research projects, and just getting to know a series of home base cities over the past few years. I also come from a long line of fabulous women, some thwarted in their dreams and some who crafted treasures I am just beginning to try to understand. And sometimes all these worlds collide as they did on October 19, 2010 in the South Court Auditorium of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the 42nd Street Branch of the New York Public Library.
Once I obtained my New York Public Library card (see here for my theatre-life postings on that subject http://wp.me/p1dUHf-Cn) I began receiving presents in my email inbox announcing screenings and lectures and new acquisitions. Just the kind of thing that gets my geeky heart all a-twitter. And some weeks ago I received advance notice of three days of free public lectures on the subject of Virginia Woolf that I noted in my calendar. 10/19: “Goddesses and Ghosts: Virginia Woolf and Jane Ellen Harrison in Conversation”; 10/20: “When is a Printed Book as Good as a Manuscript? The Proof Copy of A Room of One’s Own“; and 10/21: “On Traffic Lights and Full Stops: Editing Mrs. Dalloway”. As my appointments developed in ensuing weeks, the 10/19 lecture, the first of the three lectures, on Woolf and Harrison (a boundary spanning anthropologist and classicist herself) emerged as the one lecture I could attend.
Ah, a delight. Jean Mills, Assistant Professor at John Jay College, CUNY has been writing on the work of these two women for some time, and graced the assembled crowd with charming context, imagery, substance, conversation. Woolf wrote in the pacifist essay Three Guineas (1938):
“… listen not to the bark of the guns and to the bray of gramophones but to the voices of the poets, answering each other, assuring us of a unity that rubs out divisions as if they were chalkmarks only … the capacity of the human spirit to overflow boundaries and make unity out of multiplicity”.
Mills presents the well documented case that Woolf (1882-1941) and Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) certainly knew each other and had an intellectual relationship. Mills argues that Harrison was for Woolf an “intellectual mentor” and that certainly the writing of the two women, their texts, talk to one another. I love this kind of thinking that combines biography with thick and careful reading of texts and the ideas contained within them.
Harrison, as I learn in this talk that focused not on mythology but on political positions about pacifism, is a classical scholar who reinterprets Greek mythology through a feminist lens at the beginning of the 20th Century. She eschews merely translating texts from the original Greek and Latin and instead illuminates archeological and anthropological facts and findings. She interprets cultures and icons and goddesses. She finds new meaning.
And as I listen to Mills discuss the legacy of this early 20th century thinker this lovely New York City afternoon, I recall, all too slowly, my own relative and her work in myth and anthropology and I wonder if there are any connections. Cornelia Steketee Hulst, an archaeologist and the sister of my great grandfather Jacob Steketee, a woman who died a few years before I was born, published the book Perseus and the Gorgon in 1946. I grew up hearing my mother speak with some pride of “Aunt Cornelia” who mother knew when she was a new bride, and who mom respected for living a life of the mind and having graduate degrees. I think Mom wanted me to know all about her and the possibilities of this kind of life. Mom had plans to name her final child Cornelia if it had been a girl (it was a boy she named Joe, who now has a delightful daughter of his own). I will summarize Cornelia’s work in this book from Olympia Dukakis‘ 2003 memoir Ask Me Again Tomorrow. In this book, Dukakis writes of the role this slim tome plays in her research for a role that becomes for her a continuing personal spiritual inquiry:
“From a box in the back of the store, I pulled out a small book called Perseus and the Gorgon, by Cornelia Steketee Hulst, an archaeologist who wrote about a 1911 dig on the island of Corfu. The book was dedicated to Gorgo, a goddess figure from Greek mythology — she with the hair of writing snakes — so terrifying that anyone who gazed at her would turn to stone. According to Hulst, the Gorgon of Corfu had once been the goddess Ashirat (which means happiness, energy, and joy). When the island was overrun by Perseus (whose name means “to lay waste”), he cut off her head and sacked her temple. He also decided that her name should be stricken from all written records and that henceforth she should only be known as Gorgon, the snake goddess. In describing what Perseus had done, Hulst wrote that he had ‘buried in oblivion and covered with silence the teachings of the Great Mother.”
I flipped to the sources in Great Grand Aunt Cornelia’s book when I returned home from the Woolf-Harrison lecture and there in the alphabetized bibliography is the cryptic listing J. E. Harrison, Ancient Art and Religion; Themis.
My world’s collide and new moons and stars are formed, and perhaps goddesses spin off to find their own orbits.
© Martha Wade Steketee (October 20, 2010)