Thursday, October 1, 2015

(AP Lit & Comp) The Elgin Mushrooms

Elfin Saddle mushroom on Munger Trail. I like the
freckles on this one.
I love it when my interests in literary history and natural history coincide. During the last couple weeks, I've been taking pictures of mushrooms on the Munger Trail, now that wildflower-season has come to an end. One of the less common species of fungi is Helvella crispa, also known as Elfin Saddles. These tiny mushrooms, with their marble color and fleshy texture but wildly irregular and seemingly-truncated shapes, always make me think of the Elgin Marbles, which Mary Shelley saw in London at the time she was writing her most famous novel Frankenstein

Why do these mushrooms make me think of a bunch of ancient Greek sculpture fragments? Well, they look semi-human, like little ears sprouting up from the ground, or like little limbless torsos. --And if you change the "f" in Elfin to a "g," you're there!
One of the Marbles. Photo credit:
Chris Devers / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

When I think of the Elgin Marbles, I think not so much of Keats' famous sonnet, not so much of the on-going debate about whether they should be returned to Greece, but rather about the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon's first response to seeing them. 
"The first thing I fixed my eyes on was the wrist of a figure in one of the female groups, in which were visible, though in a feminine form, the radius and ulna. I was astonished, for I had never seen them hinted at in any female wrist in the antique. I darted my eye to the elbow, and saw the outer condyle visibly affecting the shape as in nature. [...] My heart beat! [...] and here was I [...] perfectly comprehending the hint at the skin by knowing well what was underneath it!" (qtd in Jennings, 129) 
"Like little limbless torsos." 

This passage got lodged in my memory back in grad school, perhaps because I was impressed with the passion of Haydon's excitement. He believed the ancient Greeks had studied anatomy and their careful observation of the human body made them great sculptors. Seeing the Marbles confirmed his suspicions. He felt that the artists of his day needed a better knowledge of musculoskeletal reality, that they needed to observe more closely the actual human form; otherwise, their work would be idealized and unrealistic. I think the intensity of his response also comes from his pleasure at being able to connect what he knew with what he saw. Even a little knowledge can mitigate the strangeness of the unfamiliar...

"Like little ears, sprouting up from the ground."
When the British public first saw the Marbles, people argued about whether they were beautiful or not. Folks were either fascinated or repelled by the fragments, expecting or fearing that they might somehow spring to life, so well equipped were they with bones, muscles, veins, and sinews. Accustomed to much more idealized images of human bodies, people were pleased or shocked by the ancient yet novel realism of the Marbles. 

We readers react in a similar way to Frankenstein's Creature, himself a collection of human fragments. Is the Creature truly ugly, or is he merely a larger, and therefore shockingly real, human? Is he just one being, or is he an angry mob, moving and acting with one vengeful purpose? Does Victor find him repulsive because he knows too well what's under the Creature's skin? Victor claims that the Creature's parts, viewed separately, were beautiful, but once assembled and animated, became horrific. Perhaps some folks prefer their art broken into harmless bits, into ancient, ruined fragments, never to be reconstituted...
I can see the resemblance--can you? 
Photo credit: 5telios / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Certainly, the Romantics were fascinated by ruins, but perhaps mainly by the idea of ruins, the idea of once-great works subject to the ravages of time. It may well be that the sight of real ruins, like the Elgin Marbles, exposed too well the shocking effects of time and of man's mishandling of the past. 

In any case, my Elgin Mushrooms are, for the most part, harmless (folks argue about whether they are edible or not) and charming, a pleasure to see and to photograph, not frightening at all, though admittedly a little strange. I hope to see a few more before winter comes.
I didn't notice the tiny snail on this one until I was editing the photo!

Work Cited

Jennings, Humphrey, Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge (eds). Pandaemonium: The Coming of 
       the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, 1660-1886. New York: Free, 1985. Print.
       (This citation was created with EasyBib.)

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you when you say that the creature is a shockingly real human. You see the extremes in humanity very well in the creature. I don't think it's a coincidence that the creature is called 'the creature', and the word 'creature' is used many times to describe other humans as well. I think that Shelley was deliberately pointing out that the humans who shun the creature aren't so different after all. The creature is both full of love and hatred. In the beginning, he is almost super human with his reverence, kindness, and love. After the creature has suffered, he becomes destructive, spiteful, and angry. The creature's anger isn't even his primary emotion. The anger is a secondary emotion, a mask for his heartbreak. The creature is a constantly changing mix of good and bad. He possesses the ability for both extremes, just as we do. I think that everyone who has ever lived has known how quickly love can turn to hatred. Victor sees the creature's vow for revenge and destruction as monstrous; I disagree. It's human nature to lash out when we feel pain. Victor ensures that the creature will live in solitude, so the creature vows to do that to Victor by killing everyone he loves. The creature doesn't want to live alone. If that isn't possible, the creature will settle for not being alone in his pain. We've all been hurt, and therefore hurt others. Isn't that what the monster is doing? And what's not human about that?