Thursday, October 16, 2014

From Ugliness to True Beauty at CiRCE

No, not my Circe.

I spent half of last weekend in the company of the CiRCE Institute's president Andrew Kern, his lovely wife, and one of their great speakers, Vigen Guroian, discussing three fairy tales (Annika, you would have loved this--a taste of the course they no longer offer at Sewanee). Those who know me know that I place a good deal of emphasis on the story (see what I did there?) as education, and fairy tales were a big part of our curriculum, even on the high school level. To hear these men speak from their hearts on matters so close to my own was sheer pleasure.

It was beyond amusing to hear Mr. Guroian open with the story of Nasreddin's sermon, with which I have also occasionally opened a talk. N.B.:  He tells it better than I do.  At the 2013 CiRCE conference Mr. Guroian spoke on King of the Golden River, one of my favorite fairy tales. The story is available in this anthology, and on Kindle here. Mr. Guroian's CiRCE talk on the story is here (check out the many other worthy selections as well).  So few people I know have read this story that just meeting someone who has was nearly enough for me.

But CiRCE offered far more on that rainy day. Three classic fairy tales, The Ugly Duckling, The Princess and the Pea, and Grimms' Cinderella, were given the CiRCE treatment--studied, not deconstructed; valued, not devalued; imagined, not re-engineered--to the delight of the fortunate attendees.  And no feminist lenses blurred the gimlet eye as we searched for beauty in the texts.  We read, they read, and we all simply talked about the stories.

It would take a better memory (and ears, frankly, for the audience was not on mic) than mine to do justice to the erudition of the audience, but it thrilled me to be among them. The gentlemen themselves presented the stories to us passage by passage in close reading to help us find the good, true, and beautiful in each story. We read plenty of ugly in each tale as well, but through the ugliness we see beauty, don't we?

The sessions were rather like drinking wine with experts. One tastes, takes notes, and hopes he might recall the details later. But one also enjoys the moment when the wine first hits the palate, the moment it warms in the mouth, and the finish as you reflect and anticipate the next draught. This meeting resembled a vineyard afternoon. We drank the literature deeply, and savored the flavor together.

 A few highlights: The notion of surrendering to beauty in The Ugly Duckling; the idea of sensitivity in The Princess and the Pea; and the truth of the communion of saints in Cinderella. Want more? Check out CiRCE's audio library. Much of the content is free, and most of the rest is a mere pittance. Perhaps these talks will be made available, but similar talks are on the website.

Please, reread these stories in good translations, not simplified versions, to find the details in full. A picture book version, while beautifully illustrated, will often, at best, dumb-down the text for children, or, at worst, sanitize the text, removing all the beauty along with the ugliness, rendering the story meaningless.

Edited to add:  The Usual Suspect has a tag line in class, "Just read the book," which is his answer to just about everything we ponder. Of course, it has become a bit of a friendly class joke. Wish he had been there to hear Mr. Kern say the very same thing...

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