Friday, August 22, 2008

Keillor the Puritan

In the canon representative of America’s greatest contemporary literature, Garrison Keillor’s work is recognized at once for its witty depiction of issues related to religion, sexuality, and child-rearing. Most famous for his radio persona, Keillor’s appeal is great and has likely reached a gross majority of Americans, though many are unaware. Largely due to his puritanical upbringing, Keillor found himself completely fascinated by sexually-charged innuendo and reflects such in his writing (Sussman). In “Zeus the Lutheran,” Garrison Keillor draws on his own upbringing to inject satire into a classical myth and thus parallel a timeless tale with contemporary issues of religion and sexuality.

As a heterosexual male who has been characterized at times as a womanizer (“Garrison Keillor”), it is, of course, no stretch of the imagination for Keillor to become Zeus for the purpose of expressing his views on religion and sexuality. In the story, much emphasis is placed from the start on Zeus’ reputation as an amorous being with absolutely no desire to exercise control over his urges. He is positively shameless in taking any necessary measure to bed whichever current object of his affection happens upon his path and will strike down anyone who gets in his way. Typically, those who get in the way are lawyers acting on his wife’s behalf. Through the aloofness with which Zeus responds to his wife’s concerns and the beats he does not skip, Keillor is making a statement about the level of acceptability that infidelity rises to in today’s society.

In this capacity, Keillor is able to explore the role of the omniscient Zeus and through contemporary gender roles, depict exactly what Zeus would be up against were he to transport to the present time and become fixated on a woman in a stereotypical unhappy marriage. This marks his first exposure to women who are used to exerting control in their marriages (not to mention his first exposure to women who “mount” their men). It is no coincidence that Keillor chooses to “update” Hera as well, removing her from the patriarchal society in which she lived and giving her the emotional responses that would be expected of the contemporary jilted wife.

As Zeus endeavors to convince Diane to make love to him by inhabiting the body of her husband, chaos ensues all around. Not only has he become a man that Diane is disgusted by, but Hera has used her power to render him impotent. His predicament worsens as Diane grows affectionate toward him and he cannot perform, ultimately forcing him to sit back and observe the state of the world in which he finds himself. While Zeus becomes preoccupied with what he sees as a compromise of his manhood, critics note that this type of situation is recurring in Keillor’s work and, in response, Keillor himself notes that his aim is “not to imagine we are someone but to be content being who we are” (“Garrison Keillor”).

Not to be ignored is the fact that Zeus has traditionally had a veritable plethora of ruses and disguises at his disposal to seduce women. Yet, in Keillor’s story, Zeus chooses to inhabit the body of a Lutheran minister. As a member of a large family, Keillor was raised as member of the Plymouth Brethren, which was a group of small churches formed in the 1800s in England to oppose the established church. This resulted in a very strict upbringing for Keillor in which he was forbidden from dancing, drinking, smoking, watching movies or television, and even playing cards (“Garrison Keillor”). It has been observed through Keillor’s work that the two things he feels most strongly about in terms of their effects on man: religion and child-rearing (Frye). Keillor has felt traumatized by his childhood because of the damage his parent’s religion caused through the strict and repressive manner with which children are brought up (Frye). It was against this background that Keillor chose to become a writer. Of his work, he admits to rebelling against his puritanical background perhaps because of the excitement of the fear of getting caught (Sussman).

Hitherto having lived a life where he was the Supreme Being, Zeus finds himself in a world where he is an instrument society uses to connect with a different supreme being. Not only is he impotent, he has become a religious man. The combination of these two new experiences plunges Zeus into a prison of depression where he is sentenced to monogamy. Eventually, he must tend to his duties as a minister and go to church. Here, Zeus, in all his wisdom, is bored that the people do not see that religion is not a vehicle for change. Through Zeus, Keillor expresses that religion is primarily held together by loyalty and people mechanically do what their religion demands of them with little thought or emotion. Zeus proposes that the only way to affect change is through the heart. And to “hump like bunnies.”

Essentially, Keillor grew up in a very repressed environment. As such, he found a personal and appropriate way, through his work, to explore his curiosities. Through humor, he is able to mock the religious background that defines him while acknowledging a fascination with sexuality. Like Keillor’s other works, “Zeus the Lutheran” exists to draw out the conflicts he faced regarding discrepancies in the way he was raised held against the personal philosophy that somehow evolved nonetheless.

Works Cited
Frye, Bob J. "Garrison Keillor's Serious Humor: Satire in Lake Wobegon Days.(Review)." The
Midwest Quarterly 40.2 (Wntr 1999): 121. Academic OneFile. Thomson Gale. Library of
Michigan. 11 May. 2007

"Garrison Keillor." Contemporary Authors Online. 03 Mar 2006. Thompson Gale. 11 May 2007
Keillor, Garrison. “Zeus the Lutheran.” Literature: Reading and Writing with Critical Strategies.
New York: Pearson Education, 2004.

Sussman, Vic. "How guys live their lives: Lake Wobegon Garrison Keillor reflects on humor,
heroism and what it's like to be an aging male in today's America. (Interview)." U.S. News &
World Report 115.n19 (Nov 15, 1993): 77(1).

No comments: