Myth Mother Invention: Infans

Today in our discussion group Myth Mother Invention we have moved on to the topic of “Infans” – the pre-lingual baby and child. In preparation for our meeting, I shared with the group, the so-called ‘Danae fragment’ by the ancient Greek lyric poet Simonides in the following translation:

… when in the chest, intricately fashioned,
the blowing wind
and the sea stirred into motion
cast her down in fear, with cheeks not free from tears
she put her loving arm around Perseus 
and said:
“My child, what pain and trouble I have! But you are asleep,
and in your milk-fed baby’s way you slumber
in this cheerless brass-bound box
gleaming amid the night,
 stretched out
under the blue-black gloom.
The thick spray that looms over
your curly head as the wave
passes by means nothing to you,
nor the wind’s clamorous voice, as you lie
 in a crimson cloak, with only your lovely face showing.
If to you what is fearsome were truly fearsome,
then you would turn that delicate ear
to hear my words.
But I tell you: sleep, my baby!
Let the sea sleep, let this unmeasured evil sleep!
May some shift in purpose appear,
father Zeus, from you;
and if I pray too boldly here,
or ask for other than what is right,
forgive me….”

I recently reread this poem when thinking about the way the myth of Narcissus and Echo becomes mapped onto not only the figure of the mother and the child, but the performer/interpreter positioned between an artist and an audience in the work Social Dissonance by Mattin at documenta 14.

I was especially transfixed by the lines:

If to you what is fearsome were truly fearsome,
then you would turn that delicate ear
to hear my words.

In these words I heard the frustrated call of Echo to the oblivious Narcissus as well as the voices of Mattin’s Athenian performers/interpreters, whose voices and labor were not heard by the visitors in Kassel, busily looking past them for the artist who, for the most part, was not present. (I proceeded to make an intervention in the performance when I visited Germany, annotating Mattin’s score with a version of Simonides’ poem)

What I had not been attuned to at the time was the way Simonides contrasts the soothing voice of the mother to the sleeping child with the violent sounds of the natural world surrounding them in the form of the “wind’s clamorous voice”.

I was only after discovering a reference to Simonides’ Danae fragment in a short book by Jacques Rancière called Short Voyages to the Land of the People that I realized that the noise of the natural world was not only being contrasted with the maternal voice, but was also being soothed by it as well as the infant. Rancière quotes Michelet, who writes:

And yet what were the mother’s laments? They alone could say. The very stones cried for them. Ocean himself was moved on hearing Simonides’ Danae.

Ranciere reads this in terms of the “theory of the symbolism of mother nature”, to make an analogy with the historian’s discourse, which, like nature:

gives shelter to the abandoned child and gives voice to the unspeakable lamentations of the woman [whereby] [t]he historian is a son who returns to the maternal source of meaning…

The extreme reversal of Michelet in making nature speak for Danae, rather than, like the infant Perseus, hear her calming words, made me wonder that perhaps I had missed something.

It was then that I was reminded of a brief scene in the 2016 short film by filmmaker Abbe Leigh Fletcher, made with the artist Jessica Akerman called My mild mannered mother-in-law from Mildmay. The main focus of the film is a conversation with Akerman’s mother-in-law about growing up and raising her children in Dalston in the 1950s, the same area of London where her daughter-in-law (Akerman) and son are living in the present day. While the filmmaker and artists mothers ask questions and offer responses, the main discourse of the film is that of the reminiscences of the mother-in-law. The film, while edited in 2013, was filmed over a period between 2011-2012 in which both Fletcher and Akerman had very young children, who had yet to start speaking. The scene that I am reminded of today (around 5:10 in) is a shot of the mother-in-law and the two infants.

When the infant girl, Lois, seems to be about to cry, her mother, speaking from behind the camera, starts to soothe her by pointing to her image on the camera screen as she is filming. She says:

Lois, that’s you, that’s you, look, that’s you…

As Lois smiles and laughs, we hear both her mother (behind the camera) and the mother-in-law (in front of the camera) verbally react by laughing as well, at which moment the audio cuts back to the latter’s continuing narration.

This moment in the film made me think that the non-verbal communication of the infant had a power beyond both the voice of the mother and the threatening natural world in Simonides’ poem. At the same time, it is the mother’s voice that has the uncanny power to initiate the infant’s pre-lingual power – to quell the surging cry and tease out a trickle of laughter.

[This post is dedicated to my sister, Abbe Leigh Fletcher, who taught me to love art, life and the connections between the two, before I could even speak. Happy Birthday for Sunday, Abbe!]


One thought on “Myth Mother Invention: Infans

  1. Rick Livingston

    Apropos of the effects of the mother’s voice, you might be interested in Bowlby’s work on attachment theory [e.g. A Secure Base]. And, on mutual laughter, Christopher de Bolla’s Cracking Up.

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