Master of Creative Arts - Research
Faculty of Creative Arts
Cahill, Nea, The nightfiller's handbook and Taking on the gods, Master of Creative Arts - Research thesis, Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong, 2011. https://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/3524
The tension between human capacities and limits plays itself out in literature from the ancient Greeks to the new millennium. My collection The Nightfiller’s Handbook is a story-cycle that draws on the rich metaphoric literature of human relationships with the gods to explore how our identities, aspirations and actions are shaped in the face of our mortality. This collection and accompanying exegesis consider the extent to which we can discover and test our capacities and limits through connections created in the metaphoric realms of art.
In the story-cycle, my protagonists find themselves taking on the gods, dealing with death, loss, violence and the struggle between insignificance and heightened experience. This concept of taking on the gods is informed by original sources in Greek mythology, particularly Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. As well, modern scholar Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony – a seamless retelling of and commentary on the four great classical story-cycles: the Cretan cycle, the Argonauts cycle, the Theban cycle and the Trojan cycle – influences the tone of my protagonists’ relationships with the gods. The motif of heroes’ journeys to the Underworld, as described in the works of comparative mythology by Joseph Campbell and in Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, also informs the creation of my collection. I also draw on the Bible and Goethe’s Faust, particularly Faust Part II, which political philosopher Marshall Berman characterises as a “tragedy of development” in his text that explores modern identity, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity.
Rather than a modern re-imagining of the ancient myths, my story-cycle considers humans’ relationships with “traditional” gods – elemental forces that surround us like family (living and dead) and nature. The gods are echoes, shadows, reflections cast on the modern worlds of the stories’ protagonists. “Modern” gods of progress, money, materialism and globalisation add their influences to the protagonists’ struggles to create their own places in society.
In the story-cycle, the realm of myth is navigated by multiple, layered associations, particularly those invoking works of literary fiction, narratives in popular culture as well as myth-making “art objects”, such as artefacts in art museums and religious and cultural monuments.
The structure of and techniques used in the stories in The Nightfiller’s Handbook draw on two main ideas about the attributes and strengths of short stories. The first is the view of novelist and short story writer Richard Ford about the way short stories explore whether characters can be “significantly known on the strength of rather slight exposure.” The second approach is characterised by poet, academic and mentor Dr Ophelia Dimalanta as the power of short stories to work within three levels of human experience at once: the personal, socio-historical and cosmic. In The Nightfiller’s Handbook, both approaches lead the writer and reader towards possible life-changing experiences for the protagonists from – in Ford’s words – “one little manufactured moment of clear-sightedness.”
The exegesis discusses the contextual and theoretical underpinnings of the story collection, especially its concept of taking on the gods in the mythical/traditional and the contemporary sense, and its use of the short story form.