We are Minotaur, or: Eat your Darlings (Part II)

This week we’re following up from Chad, Brian, special guest Caitlin Baker (University Book Store in Seattle), and their discussion of Part II of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, “Against an Abandonment: The Case of M.” Here, Gospodinov throws us for another loop, as we move from the halls of memory for the courtroom. Here, our newest favorite public defender offers his best pro bono work for Asterius, the Minotaur of Crete. Drawing on depictions of Asterius from historians, poets, artists, and video game designers, Gospodinov, argues that this bull-headed man has been wrongly painted as a monster. Oh, also—very related—there’s an awful lot about children being eaten.

Mythic Degrees of Libel

The construction of this section, as Chad pointed out during the podcast, is strange when considering a more conventional novel. The first section of the piece, “The Bread of Sorrow,” despite being composed of short, formally disconnected sections, was bound together by the narrator’s ability to embed himself in the memories of those around him. Whether he jumped from his great grandfather’s memories, to the memories of a slug being shoved in a wound for the restorative properties of its mucous, to his own experience living in a basement as an ant god, or some other entity of another importance, the reader is carefully guided through sensory leaps sustained by a common focal point via the narrator.

“Against an Abandonment: The Case of M.” (which interestingly enough follows “Dad, What’s a Minotaur?” the last subsection of Part I) challenges readers yet again by forcing them into a mythic courtroom, where Gospodinov, newly appointed public defender, makes a case against the public representation and subsequent treatment of Asterius (the name given to him by Pasiphae, his mother), Minotaur of Minos. What develops here still draws upon the previous. We return to the minotaur as a mythic core, we return to a young Gospodinov and his family, and we return to discussions of dark basements and abandonment through children. With these root subjects in mind, Gospodinov has changed the shape of the piece. Where we previously had short narratives we now have arguments, historical accounts, character testimonies, and the like. Gospodinov presents his case to the Honorable Mr. Minos who is pulled from the underworld to serve as the judge in this case.

George Frederick Watts. The Minotaur. 1895. Oil on Canvas. Wikimedia Commons.

His defense of Asterius begins with a simple, but early argument generated by the narrator’s grandfather, who wrote:

The Minotaur is not guilty. He is a boy locked up in a basement. He is frightened. They have abandoned him. I, the minotaur.

From here, Gospodinov does his best to build his grandfather’s case by outlining the historical misrepresentation of Asterius and clearly outlining who is at fault.

They have Abandoned Asterius

Gospodinov draws on numerous historians, both real and constructed, to provide testimony to the misrepresentation of Asterius. Ovid’s descriptions paint him as a “double-natured shame” and a “disgrace from his abode.” He draws on Seneca, who did his best to smear the reputations of both Asterius and his mother. Additionally, Dante “The Inferno” Alighieri, placed Asterius as a guardian and torturer on the seventh circle of hell—the circle of violence—while, in the same stroke of his quill placed King Minos in the second circle—the circle of lust—which is just slightly closer to God’s love. Virgil, who approached Asterius with the same ‘neutral’ language as Apollodorus, is not free of guilt as Gospodinov highlights that this kind of neutrality is still soaked in revulsion, as Virgil described Asterius as the “result of unnatural relations.”

And beyond these literary misrepresentations of Asterius, visual arts were often inspired by the disgust of these authors and saw such revulsion to its inevitable end. Gospodinov notes the obsession in visual art with Asterius’ death, noting a series of frescoes that depict the moment when Theseus has Asterius by the horn, and ready to kill it. And we’ve been led to experience a deep satisfaction, thanks to depictions like these and ideologies spread by the aforementioned authors. This profound pleasure of killing one who we have marked as guilty and inhuman is continued into the 20th and 21st centuries with three-dimensional representations of Asterius in video games, Gospodinov argues.

While World of Warcraft, where the Minotaur-inspired “Tauren” race stood as a politically nearsighted parallel for Indigenous American people (often nomadic, driven from their home lands by brutal conquerors, ‘noble savages’), God of War provided a moment for the player to experience that Thesian satisfaction. As I, through god-killer Kratos, grabbed them by the horns and thrust my sword into their hearts, dragging the blade throat-ward, I giggled with glee as I was rewarded with healing magics and extra experience points for performing the most brutal possible takedown of Asterius’ kind.

Gospodinov, I turn to you, as guilty as many of these writers and artists and designers. And Asterius, I look into your large, dark eyes, and I am deeply sorry.

Asterius is a boy locked in a Basement. He is frightened.

But while he is hidden away in the labyrinth, and branded as a sin, Asterius is nothing more than the result of generations of guilt and sin before him. But, additionally, he is forced to bare the weight that his forefathers refused to. Pasiphae’s lust for Poseidon’s white bull was the direct result of King Minos’ obstruction of a direct order from the god of the sea. Additionally, he received the white bull after asking for a blessing as so that he could overpower his brothers for control of Crete. Furthermore, the Athenian youths that were sent as a sacrifice to Crete were the result of an age old conflict where the Athenians killed the son of another Cretan king—who then went on the decimate Athens. Asterius serves as nothing more of a vessel to be filled with the sins of the men before him, as this small list of transgressions could go on for eons in the imagination of the right historian.

Gospodinov also traces the history of the Trojan computer virus, from the Trojan war horse, to Daedalus, master inventor of the Aegean Sea. He points to the Daedalan Cow—the cow-shaped contraption that allowed Pasiphae to copulate with Poseidon’s white bull. But while Asterius is branded an unnatural beast, a veritable unnatural union is a fake cow, that in the words elder Augustine:

[. . .] Fly and ram, tulip and oak do not copulate.

The mistake made was not by Asterius, but by Daedalus, the architect of this unnatural creation, and King Minos, for defying Poseidon—we can keep peeling the layers of history back, finding transgression behind slaughter, behind greed, and so on. Yet, we are called to cheer as Asterius is dragged lifeless from his prison, time and time again, into the light of day.

Asterius is not Guilty

And from this deep dive into Asterius and his monstrous historicization, Gospodinov looks then to all the children of greek myth, and their absence. He points out that throughout myth, children are eaten, in what can be almost seen as a tradition. “Where there is Time, there is light,” he states, and with this reasoning the only safe place for children to hide is in the dark, as did Asterius, as did narrator Gospodinov, and his father, and his grandfather, and so on. In many ways, Gospodinov took the position of public defender for the shamed Asterius to bring to light the sins that children are forced to bear—and how they carry the weight of the generations before them.

Francisco Goya. Saturn Devouring his Son 1819. Oil on Canvas. Wikimedia Commons.

I was at first confused when I encountered these details of children being devoured throughout Greek myth. Gospodinov starts at the earliest where the titan Chronos consumed the godly children of his that would eventually burst from his body and subjugate him, and his kind.

Even our beloved narrator, at a point, was threatened to be devoured. He writes of a particularly titanic aunt:

I had an aunt who always threatened to eat me up every time she came to visit. Huge and hulking, a distant offshoot of the Titan’s line, she would stand in front of me, spread wide her enormous arms with their rapaciously painted nails, bare her teeth malevolently, two silver caps sparkling, and would slowly step toward me with a deep growl coming from her belly. I would curl up into a ball, screaming, while she shook with laughter. She didn’t have any children, she must have devoured them.

But this doesn’t exist as an isolated occurrence within his family alone. He also recalls the experience of a friend, describing a photograph:

It’s an ordinary baking pan, large, with indelible traces of endless use. The rice has been washed and lightly steamed, amid the white—little balls of black pepper. You can clearly see that the stove has been switched on, the oven door is open, and two hands are carrying the tray toward it. There’s just one unusual detail—that’s no chicken or turkey on top of the rice, but a baby, naked and alive. I almost said raw. It’s lying on its back, its arms and legs in the air. It is clearly only a few days old and weighs no more than a middling turkey.

And as clarified by our round table, the traces of these mythic situations still linger today, as adults still talk about how sweet their children are and threaten to eat their toes during playtime. All this darkness, and devouring of children, leads us back to Gospodinov’s core myth: Asterius in the labyrinth.

There, in that damned place, while the entirety of history brands him a monster, and artists make iteration after iteration of his death hoping to get as close as possible to their audiences experiencing it firsthand, he exists as nothing more than a child. Thrown into the timeless darkness and fed children—as only adults could think that makes sense (bulls are herbivores, Gospodinov reminds us. Only following his final moments is he allowed to be brought to the light. In a state of timelessness he is maintained, until he is made example of for the wrong reason to the wrong audience.

Before I end this post, I want you to take one more look at the painting I shared above: Asterius, with either Ariadne’s twine or his own bindings in hand, mouth slightly ajar, out in bright daylight looking over the ocean as the wind blows through the soft tufts of his fur—contemplating the infinity of a well-lit day.

Asterius is all abandoned children, vessels of the sins of their forefathers, forced into the dark, twisted, and consumed when needed.

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