Why classical myth and autism?

Why classical myth and autism?

The idea for this project started to take shape at a meeting in 2008 with a special needs teacher, who mentioned that, in her experience and those of her colleagues, autistic children often enjoy classical myth. I began to wonder why this might be the case, and whether – as a classicist who researches, and loves, classical myth – there was anything I could contribute. I started this blog to report on my progress which was often sporadic until the launch of the Warsaw-based European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood (2016-21) to trace the role of classics in children’s culture.

My key contribution to the project is an exploration of classics in autistic children’s culture, above all by producing myth-themed activities for autistic children. This blog shares my progress, often along Herculean paths.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Hercules reaches the garden but is then expelled, de-centered or omitted. So... do Pleasure and Virtue need a man in the middle?

In the previous posting, I got to a point I’d been aiming for for a while. I wrote about the curious place Hercules reaches – the place when he encounters two women, each of whom offers him a particular way of life.

If he picks the way offered by one woman, Pleasure, he will get precisely what her name indicates – a life of food, drink and other pleasures without needing to toil for them. Should he choose the other way, offered by Hard Work or Virtue, toil is just what he will need to do. His life will be one continue toil, but with the reward at the end of enduring fame.

Detail of Choice of Hercules panel, Adam Room,Grove House, Roehampton.
Adaptation of photo by Marina Vorobieva for Our Mythical Childhood
The episode looks to be very much about Hercules. The women are each seeking to persuade him to choose their particular set of gifts. What Hercules chooses will determine the course of his future life. It is perhaps the most pivotal moment in the mythical career of the hero.

But what I said in the previous posting is that Hercules is not actually necessary to the scene. In this current posting, I shall explain what I mean by this. I’ll do this by setting out three different things I’ve experienced in relation to the episode. Or, at least: two of the things I’ll share are specific responses to the scene. The third is likely to be a response to the many artistic representations that were popular in art from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century.

The women approach Hercules

The first of the responses took place several years ago, in spring 2016, a few months before the ERC-funded project for which I’m creating the activities based on the chimneypiece panel began.

The academic year 2015-16 saw the University of Roehampton celebrating 175 years of providing Higher Education, particularly Higher Education for women – as Whitelands, now one of the colleges of the University, was founded in 1841. To mark this anniversary, the “Class of 2020,” 175 young women aged 14-15, were chosen from schools in the local area to come to campus on a series of Saturdays during the academic year, each time to take part in activities organised by one of the academic departments.

When it was the turn of my department, Humanities, colleagues and myself, led by Dr Marta García Morcillo, put together a set of activities based on the history of the campus, including its classically-inspired features. Included among these neoclassical elements was the chimneypiece in the Adam Room. I was based in in the room, to discuss the chimneypiece, particularly the panel, with the girls.

The Adam Room, Grove House, Roehampton with chimneypiece
panel bottom, middle. Photo by Marina Vorobieva
As a classicist interested in Hercules, my eye had always been drawn to the man in the middle, to Hercules. I saw the scene as something concerned with the hero and the Choice he is asked to make between two opposite paths in life. I’d considered the panel to be showing Hercules caught in the process of trying to decide: his face turned towards Virtue and his body towards Pleasure.

But it was not the man in the middle that the young women were interested in. What interested them were the two women and how each of them was making a play for the man – by their gestures, and the gifts they offer.

Thus, for the girls, it was possible to respond to the scene without focusing on Hercules, but on the two other figures on the panel.

Hercules is removed

The second thing happened at a workshop in Warsaw during one of the conferences linked with the Our Mythical Childhood project. This was a stage of the project before the creation by Steve Simons of his high-quality drawings of the panel. As a temporary measure, I had made what came as close as I could manage to a line drawing via the photo editing facility on my computer. The resulting image was far from ideal, but enough to give some sense of what scene entailed and what the activities involved.
Choice of Hercules workshop creations, Life is Cool cafe, Warsaw 2018
including Hercules cut out: middle of lower photo. 
At the workshop, I gave out A4 copies of the image along with things like colouring pencils, highlighters, post-it notes, stickers, glue and scissors. I encouraged people to cut out particular aspects of the scene that appealed to them. When I saw one of the participants cutting out Hercules, I thought it was because he wanted to make some specific use of Hercules, as a key figure amidst what is taking place. But, in fact, he was removing Hercules – cutting him out to get rid of him as an intruder. By cutting out Hercules, what could be left were the two women and the things that surround them.

Virtue and Pleasure come together

With this in mind – that is, an intervention which leads to a scene between Pleasure and Hard Work, without any man in between them – I would like to introduce something I found out about just over a week ago while I was looking at the website for Emma Stafford’s Hercules Project. What I’d been especially interested in was the public engagement event I wrote about in an earlier posting, where the participants updated Hercules’s labours by creating postcards showing the hero dealing with various contemporary issues.

The website also includes a presentation on the Choice of Hercules, where Emma presents Hercules as a figure of Virtue and then, as one caught between the two women. But what Emma also includes is the following badge, where there is Pleasure and Virtue but… no man in the middle – no Hercules:
Gold admission badge presented to William Hogarth in 1733.
Design attributed to Richard Yeo. Now in the British Museum.
More details 
here.
The badge was the “Perpetual Pass,” presented to Hogarth for Vauxhall Gardens, the most extensive and most visited of the London Pleasure Gardens. Visitors would need to be respectably turned out for entrance into the Gardens which were, as described in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848), set during their heyday, intended for:
The delight of all persons of reputation and taste.
The Gardens were spaces for Pleasure, but a Pleasure for respectable-looking people – people of ‘Virtue’ though, and this would be very Hogarthian – once darkness fell, the Gardens were known to become space where ‘Vice’ took over…

Francis Jukes, A Concert in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (1732)
after watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson
On the badge, there is Voluptas (Pleasure) taking the hand of Virtus (Virtue). Virtue turns in part towards Pleasure, her gaze at once ‘demure’ and directed towards the other. The inscription, beside each woman and on the scroll below, reads:

VIRTUS         VOLUPTAS 
FELICES UNA 
VIRTUE         PLEASURE  
ONE HAPPINESS
Without Hercules, there can be a coming together of Pleasure and Virtue. As early as the eighteenth century, the two women could be envisaged without the man in the middle.

What the group of twenty-first century young women focused on was not the man but on the women – though they did see the women as making advances towards the man. On Hogarth’s badge, meanwhile, the women are interested not in some third person – some person who chooses one or other of them. But there is a unity (‘una’).

Conclusions: Hope without Hercules?

There is a lot in all this that’s relevant to my activities. For one thing, the three things I’ve discussed all signal that the activities don’t need to centre on, or even include, Hercules. They can be concerned with Hercules – the hero who can stand for classics and for classics as communicated to children, and the hero who keeps speaking to ‘Western’ culture and all that can imply.  But they don’t have to be. There is a strange place, a site of pleasure, a site of hard work and where the two come together.

I shall be doing two things. I shall be embracing Hercules as one who can speak to autistic experiences. I shall also be doing what the participant at the workshop did: envisaging a scene without the hero at its centre.

The ‘Hope’ I have been looking at over recent weeks is concerned with Hercules as a Hope-Bearer but also with other sources of Hope – a Hope that comes with the fostering of autistic spaces, where choices can be made, but also where the terms of the Choice come together in a common happiness.

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