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kottke.org posts about Madeline Miller

Highlights from Circe by Madeline Miller

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2019

I’ve been enjoying sharing the highlighted passages from the Kindle books I’ve read lately. Going over your notes is a good way to solidify a book’s themes, ideas, and plot threads in your mind, especially for someone like me who tends to forget a lot of the earlier bits of what I’m reading. So I thought I’d go back through some previous reads in the same fashion, sharing some of the best bits of favorite books and refreshing my memory.

First up is Madeline Miller’s Circe, which was recommended to me by my friend Alaina. In the NY Times, Alexandra Alter called Circe “a bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right”.

I’m starting here because I recently finished her debut novel, The Song of Achilles (the highlights from which I will share soon). I loved both books — Miller’s prose is somehow both spare and chock full of lyrical analogies and clever turns of phrase. Many of passages below highlight those qualities in her writing.

Page 3:

My mother did not argue further. Like everyone, she knew the stories of Helios’ temper when he was crossed. However gold he shines, do not forget his fire.

Page 14:

You cannot know how frightened gods are of pain. There is nothing more foreign to them, and so nothing they ache more deeply to see.

Page 37 (I am already bracing myself for the “you don’t understand…” of my kids’ teen years):

That is one thing gods and mortals share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.

Page 48:

All I knew was that I hated her. For I was like any dull ass who has ever loved someone who loved another. I thought: if only she were gone, it would change everything.

Page 66 (on useful fictions):

“Yes,” he said. “That is how it works, Circe. I tell Father that my sorcery was an accident, he pretends to believe me, and Zeus pretends to believe him, and so the world is balanced. It is your own fault for confessing. Why you did that, I will never understand.”

Page 67:

All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone.

Page 85:

You can teach a viper to eat from your hands, but you cannot take away how much it likes to bite.

Page 90:

He stood up — I will not say gracefully, for he was too solidly built for that — but easily, like a door swinging on a well-fitted hinge.

Page 129:

I had not thought him so bold. But of course he was. Artist, creator, inventor, the greatest the world had known. Timidity creates nothing.

Page 129 (Reminds me of the quote “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.”):

I yearned for his hands, for all of him, mortal though he was, distant and dying though he would always be.

Page 132:

In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.

Page 138 (a metaphor for inequality in America):

Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect, and age. It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.

Page 186:

And Odysseus, I thought. The spiral shell. Always another curve out of sight.

Page 186:

But there is a hand that must gather all those pieces and make them whole. A mind to guide the purpose, and not flinch from war’s necessities.”

“And that is your part,” I said. “Which means you are like Daedalus after all. Only instead of wood, you work in men.”

The look he gave me. Like purest, unmixed wine. “After Achilles died, Agamemnon named me Best of the Greeks. Other men fought bravely, but they flinched from war’s true nature. Only I had the stomach to see what must be done.”

His chest was bare and hatched with scars. I tapped it lightly, as if sounding what lay within. “Such as?”

“You promise mercy to spies so they will spill their story, then you kill them after. You beat men who mutiny. You coax heroes from their sulks. You keep spirits high at any cost. When the great hero Philoctetes was crippled with a festering wound, the men lost their courage over it. So I left him behind on an island and claimed he had asked to be left. Ajax and Agamemnon would have battered at Troy’s locked gates until they died, but it was I who thought of the trick of the giant horse, and I spun the story that convinced the Trojans to pull it inside. I crouched in the wooden belly with my picked men, and if any shook with terror and strain, I put my knife to his throat. When the Trojans finally slept, we tore through them like foxes among soft-feathered chicks.”

Page 190:

It was a trick of his, to set a sentence out like a plate on a table and see what you would put on it.

Page 191:

Sometimes, I would see him watching me. An intentness would come over his face, and he would begin to ask me his casual, sideways questions. About the island, about my father, the loom, my history, witchcraft. I had come to know that look well: it was the same he wore when he spotted a crab with a triple claw, or wondered over the trick tides of Aiaia’s east bay. The world was made of mysteries, and I was only another riddle among the millions. I did not answer him, and though he pretended frustration, I began to see that it pleased him in some strange way. A door that did not open at his knock was a novelty in its own right, and a kind of relief as well. All the world confessed to him. He confessed to me.

Page 194:

I held off as long as I could, but in the end she was the scab that I must pick.

Page 208:

Odysseus, son of Laertes, the great traveler, prince of wiles and tricks and a thousand ways. He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.

Page 214 (there’s a relief in knowing, no matter how dire the details):

My madness in those days rose from a new certainty: that at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.

Page 217:

Do not listen to your enemy, Odysseus had once told me. Look at them. It will tell you everything.

Page 220 (reason != wisdom):

I looked into that shining gray gaze, her eyes like two hanging jewels, twisting to catch the light. She was smiling, her hand open towards me, as if ready to receive mine. When she had spoken of children, she had nearly crooned, as if to lull her own babe. But Athena had no babe, and she never would. Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.

Page 243 (endurance is also a virtue of mine…and a detriment):

But endurance had always been my virtue and I kept on.

Page 271 (I still remember reading this passage for the first time. It devastated me and I had to put the book down for awhile. Like much else in life, parenting is a struggle with yourself.):

Two children he had had, and he had not seen either clearly. But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.

Page 274:

I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.

Page 279:

Once we were his again, he wanted something else. What is that if not a bad life? Luring others to you, then turning from them?

Page 286 (on the responsibility of perfection):

I remembered what Odysseus had said about her once. That she never went astray, never made an error. I had been jealous then. Now I thought: what a burden. What an ugly weight upon your back.

Page 294 (Telemachus is the main speaker here):

“That is how things go. You fix them, and they go awry, and then you fix them again.”

“You have a patient temper.”

“My father called it dullness. Shearing, cleaning out the hearths, pitting olives. He wanted to know how to do such things for curiosity’s sake, but he did not want to actually have to do them.”

It was true. Odysseus’ favorite task was the sort that only had to be performed once: raiding a town, defeating a monster, finding a way inside an impenetrable city.

Page 313:

But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself.

“My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes”

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 09, 2019

Filmmaker Charlie Tyrell’s father passed away when Charlie was in film school. Feeling like he never really knew his father all that well, he went through his stuff after he died, looking for clues as to who he really was. His tools, his police uniform, his cancer diagnosis. Charlie made a short film about his dad: My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes.

We hold onto our loved ones when they pass. Objects can become talismans, and memories become mythic. Some objects become sacred for no reason and are just as impenetrable as the people who left them. I came to a conclusion during my process: You can’t take it with you, but you can pass it on.

The tapes mentioned in the title don’t feature all that much in the film; it’s actually about family secrets, breaking a generational cycle of abuse, and parenting. In talking about her husband’s difficulty connecting with his children, Charlie’s mom says: “you bring what you know to parenting”. As someone who often struggles as a parent, that line hit me hard. From a post I wrote a few years ago:

I worry about my children, about my relationships with them. I worry about being a good parent, about being a good parenting partner with their mom. How much of me do I really want to impart to them? I want them to be better than me, but I can’t tell them or show them how to do that because I’m me. I took my best shot at being better and me is all I came up with. What if I’m just giving them the bad parts, without even realizing it?

And from Madeline Miller’s Circe:

Two children he had had and he had not seen either clearly. But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.

AI-Generated Human Faces That Look Amazingly Real

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2018

The opening line of Madeline Miller’s Circe is: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” In Miller’s telling of the mythological story, Circe was the daughter of a Titan and a sea nymph (a lesser deity born of two Titans). Yes, she was an immortal deity but lacked the powers and bearing of a god or a nymph, making her seem unnervingly human. Not knowing what to make of her and for their own safety, the Titans and Olympic gods agreed to banish her forever to an island.

Here’s a photograph of a woman who could also claim “when I was born, the name for what I was did not exist”:

AI Faces

The previous line contains two lies: this is not a photograph and that’s not a real person. It’s an image generated by an AI program developed by researchers at NVIDIA capable of borrowing styles from two actual photographs of real people to produce an infinite number of fake but human-like & photograph-like images.

AI Faces

We propose an alternative generator architecture for generative adversarial networks, borrowing from style transfer literature. The new architecture leads to an automatically learned, unsupervised separation of high-level attributes (e.g., pose and identity when trained on human faces) and stochastic variation in the generated images (e.g., freckles, hair), and it enables intuitive, scale-specific control of the synthesis.

The video offers a good look at how this works, with realistic facial features that you can change with a slider, like adjusting the volume on your stereo.

Photographs that aren’t photographs and people that aren’t people, born of a self-learning machine developed by humans. We’ll want to trust these images because they look so real, especially once they start moving and talking. I wonder…will we soon seek to banish them for our own safety as the gods banished Circe?

Update: This Person Does Not Exist is a single serving site that provides a new portrait of a non-existent person with each reload.