Viewport width =
August 4, 2008 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Greek mythology and the American Dream

You know when someone sends you an email with “my thesis of awesome” in the subject line it’s going to be something special. Pippa Ström talks about her MA thesis in classics.

Pippa Ström’s Master’s thesis is an in-depth analysis of James Lasdun’s poem Erisychthon. The poem is a reinterpretation of the myth of Erysichthon, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and tells the story of a man who chops down a tree in a sacred grove, and is punished by the gods with insatiable hunger. To satisfy himself he needs to eat and eat and eat, selling all that he has, including his daughter (several times, thanks to Poseidon granting her the ability to metamorphosise and escape) to buy more and more food. In the end, even this is not enough to satiate Erysichthon, and driven mad by hunger, he consumes himself.

Lasdun’s retelling is set in America, and Ström is looking at the implications the myth has for modern American society. Erysichthon becomes a big time property developer, who chops down a tree (a tree defended by a hippie cult) on one of the properties he is improving. Representing all that is stereotypically American, Erysichthon rushes out to consume truckloads of Big Macs in a frenzy. At the conclusion of the poem, in a departure from Ovid’s version, Erysichthon himself metamorphosises into a concrete pipe, the “double orificied essence of greed and waste”.

Ström explains that she must be one of the few people outside Los Angeles, or even in Los Angeles, to be in love with the place. She described how she went to a wedding there, and was just amazed at all these women with varying levels of plastic surgery, forever metamorphosising, consuming, attempting to better themselves. Such overconsumption is the object of Ström’s fascination, explaining “You consume and consume, and eventually you consume yourself.”

Ström contrasts the American Dream with ancient Greek society. She notes that in classical societies, the ‘Golden Age of mankind’ is in the past. But in America, Ström describes a ‘fruition myth’: everything is about progress and selfimprovement, “one more thing” is always needed before the Dream will be finally realised. She notes that Lasdun is himself an immigrant (from England), and fits within the multitudes of those drawn to America in the hopes of a new life. But whereas in the past immigrants would move to the cities, moving to the suburbs later once they have become settled and Americanized, modern immigrants often head straight for suburbia, fuelling the development that Erysichthon engages in.

Ström departs from previous research by asking “Why does the myth exist?”, instead of “What does it say?” She wonders what led Lasdun to write his reinterpretation now, instead of at any other point in history. She asks what the purpose of the myth is, and what it symbolises about the cultures represented in it. The process of developing a workable research proposal was complex. Ström had originally anticipated a much more ambitious thesis topic, but had to cut it down to make it viable. Her research supervisor, John Davidson, encouraged her to read Lasdun’s poem, and she found a topic that was actually workable.

Ström’s passion for her research is almost tangible. In relation to targeted email ads for online degrees, she asks “Why would I want someone to write my thesis for me? That would be like paying someone to eat my lunch.” She explains how to her everything appears connected to what she’s doing. She has a story of walking down a street, and seeing a single tree next to a McDonald’s sign reading “hunger never sleeps”. Then she observes that the tree will need to be cut down, as its roots are encroaching on the road. The symbolism!

She wants her research to be exhaustive, and feels the need to read everything she comes across that might be relevant. For example, the medical term autophagia, which refers to, literally, ‘consuming yourself’, of which even nail-biting is a mild form. She wonders, “What would make you consume yourself?”, and “Could a country consume itself in the same manner?”

The original idea had come from an undergraduate essay Ström had written on Icarus and Daedalus. While writing this essay, she observed that in Greece, hubris led to punishment, but in America astronauts are heroes. The Americans place little value on moderation; there is no reason not to strive further and higher. Quoting George Santayana, she says “Americans don’t solve their problems. We leave them behind.”

Pippa Ström holds a BA in classics, philosophy and English literature from Victoria University, and a BA (Hons) in English literature from the University of Auckland.


About the Author ()

Comments (2)

Trackback URL / Comments RSS Feed

  1. Graham Lean says:

    Very interesting – Ms. Strom might take a look at the current travails of the financial sector and Wall Street’s excesses – a system that has destroyed itself from within, consumed by those who couldn’t get enough … perhaps the subject for another thesis on this theme.

  2. Pippa says:

    Thanks Mr Lean – mmm, destruction from within in finance, and if you talked to people within, probably any number of other sectors/ industries, including those involved in natural resources.. ! There seems to be a constant trend of “this is it!” thinking – everything’s rotted, collapse is nigh – but then things change and continue.. so perhaps our fascination with stories of excess comes from imagining things taken to dramatic extremes they do not usually reach (eg. eating everything (Erysichthon), losing everything (stockmarket players), eating nothing (and dying), having everything (dictators..) ..), and scaring ourselves with the possibility … and we are tending to think that things are getting worse – looking back to a Golden Age.. Perhaps the pervading American spirit is about preferring to hang onto the progress-is-the-way ideal: “Time isn’t pushed from the remembered past to the felt present to the mysterious future. It is pulled by the golden future from the unsatisfactory present and away from the dim past.” – David Brooks in an NY Times Article “Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopia”, about the feverish consumption and imagination of American people. Perhaps when people under this “Paradise Spell”, as Brooks calls it, cut a tree down, they see only the dream that is just out of reach but comes closer with every chop. What kind of mixture of the American Dream and the moderation-loving ancient Greeks do NZers see themselves as I wonder?

Recent posts

  1. VUW Halls Hiking Fees By 50–80% Next Year
  2. The Stats on Gender Disparities at VUW
  3. Issue 25 – Legacy
  4. Canta Wins Bid for Editorial Independence
  5. RA Speaks Out About Victoria University Hall Death
  6. VUW Hall Death: What We Know So Far
  8. New Normal
  9. Come In, The Door’s Open.
  10. Love in the Time of Face Tattoos

Editor's Pick

Uncomfortable places: skin.

:   Where are you from?  My list was always ready: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, puppy dogs’ tails, a little Spanish, maybe German, and—almost as an afterthought—half Samoan. An unwanted fraction.   But you don’t seem like a Samoan. I thought you were [inser

Do you know how to read? Sign up to our Newsletter!

* indicates required