Writing Biography is Like Being In Love

Eunapius, Live of the Philosophers 2.2.4

“Even though I have recorded these things faithfully, I do recognize that some things have probably escaped me. And if, although I have applied great thought and effort trying to compose a continuous and clear history of the lives of the best philosophers and rhetoricians, I did not obtain my goal, I have suffered much the same kind of thing as those who love madly and obsessively. For they, when they see the one they love and witness her overwhelming beauty in real life, they look down, too weak and dazed to gaze upon the one they desire.”

Καὶ ταῦτά γε εἰς μνήμην ἐγὼ τίθεμαι, τοῦτο συνορῶν, ὅτι τὰ μὲν ἔλαθεν ἴσως ἡμᾶς, τὰ δὲ οὐκ ἔλαθεν. ἐκείνου δὲ καίπερ πολλὴν ποιούμενος φροντίδα καὶ σπουδήν, τοῦ συνεχῆ καὶ περιγεγραμμένην εἰς ἀκρίβειαν ἱστορίαν τινὰ λαβεῖν τοῦ φιλοσόφου καὶ ῥητορικοῦ βίου τῶν ἀρίστων ἀνδρῶν, εἶτα οὐ τυγχάνων τῆς ἐπιθυμίας, ταὐτόν τι τοῖς ἐρῶσιν ἐμμανῶς καὶ περιφλέκτως ἔπαθον. καὶ γὰρ ἐκεῖνοι, τὴν μὲν ἐρωμένην αὐτὴν ὁρῶντες καὶ τὸ περίψυκτον ἐν τῷ φαινομένῳ κάλλος, κάτω νεύουσιν, ὃ ζητοῦσιν ἰδεῖν ἐξασθενοῦντες, καὶ περιλαμπόμενοι•

Eunapius? A 5th century (CE) intellectual who wrote about sophists, picking up from Philostratus.

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Fruitful Latin Study Impossible Without Greek

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship Vol. III – Lucian Müller

“As a child, he [Lucian Müller] had lost the sight of one of his eyes, and was very short-sighted; as a boy, he repeatedly read through Zumpt’s larger Latin Grammar and made himself the best Latinist in his school. During his brief experience as a school-master, he proved an ineffective disciplinarian; his head-master, in the hope of improving the discipline of the boys, solemnly told them that they ‘did not deserve to be taught by so learned a master’, and repeated this remark to Lucian Müller, who replied, ‘Yes ! that is exactly what I have told them myself. He held that, for a great scholar, it was essential that he should have, not only wide learning and clear judgement, but also a strong power of concentration on a definite field of labour. It was this that led to his own success in the province of Latin poetry. But he was far from neglecting Greek, for he also held that, without Greek, a fruitful study of Latin was impossible. He was a skilful writer of Latin verse, and insisted on the practice of verse composition as a valuable aid towards the appreciation of the Latin poets. He was impressed with this fact during the preparation of his ‘History of Classical Philology in the Netherlands’ (1865), and he returned to the point in his biographical sketch of the life of Ritschl (1877-8), in the course of which he urged that it was, on the whole, more important for an eminent classical professor to train first-rate school-masters than to turn out classical specialists.”

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Trying To Drink From a Raging River

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.1084-1104

“But Venus lightly breaks the penalties suffered during love
And comforting pleasure is mixed in to temper the bites.
And there is hope in this: it is possible to extinguish the flame
In that same body, the place where the fire arises.

But nature prevents this from happening in every way.
This is the only matter: whatever we have more of,
The more our heart burns for it with dread desire.
For food and drink are absorbed into our bodies
And since they are able to be separated into clear parts,
It is easy to get our fill of bread and water.

But from a person’s appearance and pretty complexion
The body gains nothing except fleeting images
To enjoy: a pitiful hope often snatched away by the wind.

Just as when a thirsty man tries to drink in dreams
and can get no water to satisfy the fire in his limbs,
but he reaches for water’s image and exhausts himself
and stays parched even as he tries to drink a raging river;
In the same way Venus uses mere images to toy with lovers.
They can never satisfy their bodies just by looking,
Nor can they wipe any bit of it away by wearing down
Their tender limbs wandering lost over the whole body.”

Sed leviter poenas frangit Venus inter amorem,
blandaque refrenat morsus admixta voluptas;
namque in eo spes est, unde est ardoris origo,
restingui quoque posse ab eodem corpore flammam.
quod fieri contra totum natura repugnat:
unaque res haec est, cuius quam plurima habemus,
tam magis ardescit dira cuppedine pectus.
nam cibus atque umor membris adsumitur intus;
quae quoniam certas possunt obsidere partis,
hoc facile expletur laticum frugumque cupido.
ex hominis vero facie pulchroque colore
nil datur in corpus praeter simulacra fruendum
tenvia; quae vento spes raptast saepe misella.
ut bibere in somnis sitiens quom quaerit, et umor
non datur, ardorem qui membris stinguere possit,
sed laticum simulacra petit frustraque laborat
in medioque sitit torrenti flumine potans,
sic in amore Venus simulacris ludit amantis,
nec satiare queunt spectando corpora coram,
nec manibus quicquam teneris abradere membris
possunt errantes incerti corpore toto.

Lovers
 Sloane MS 2435, f. 9v.  (from this blog)

Heroes, Isolation, and Madness

The notion of the depressive and insane artist (etc.) is an ancient one. In this passage it is also related to the stories of heroes. The different symptoms of madness Aristotle offers here are interesting. For instance, Bellerophon’s avoidance of other humans is seen as a symptom rather than a cause of his madness.

Aristotle, Problems 30

“What reason is it that all those men who are preeminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the other arts are clearly melancholic and are so much so that they are also overcome by the afflictions from the black bile, as is implied in the tales of Herakles of the heroes? For that figure seems to be of this nature and because of this the ancients called the illnesses of epilepsy a sacred disease after him. And his madness toward his children and the outbreak of open sores before he vanished on Mt. Oitê make this clear. For this comes to many because of the black bile. These sores developed on the Spartan Lysander before his death.

In addition to this there are tales about Ajax and Bellerophon. The first of them was completely mad; but the second pursued isolated places, which is how Homer depicts him as “when that man was hated by all the gods / then he wandered alone on the Alêian plain / consuming his heart and avoiding the path of other people.”

And many other heroes seem to have shared afflictions with these men. In later times, Empedocles, Plato, Socrates and many other famous people [suffered] too. In addition, most of those who worked at poetry [suffered]. In many people like this the diseases develop from a kind of mixture in the body while in others there is a clear nature predisposing them to these maladies. But all, to put it simply, as has been said, are this way somehow because of nature.”

1. Διὰ τί πάντες ὅσοι περιττοὶ γεγόνασιν ἄνδρες ἢ κατὰ φιλοσοφίαν ἢ πολιτικὴν ἢ ποίησιν ἢ τέχνας φαίνονται μελαγχολικοὶ ὄντες, καὶ οἱ μὲν οὕτως ὥστε καὶ λαμβάνεσθαι τοῖς ἀπὸ μελαίνης χολῆς ἀρρωστήμασιν, οἷον λέγεται τῶν [τε] ἡρωϊκῶν τὰ περὶ τὸν Ἡρακλέα; καὶ γὰρ ἐκεῖνος ἔοικε | γενέσθαι ταύτης τῆς φύσεως, διὸ καὶ τὰ ἀρρωστήματα τῶν ἐπιληπτικῶν ἀπ᾿ ἐκείνου προσηγόρευον οἱ ἀρχαῖοι ἱερὰν νόσον. καὶ ἡ περὶ τοὺς παῖδας ἔκστασις καὶ ἡ πρὸ τῆς ἀφανίσεως ἐν Οἴτῃ τῶν ἑλκῶν ἔκφυσις γενομένη τοῦτο δηλοῖ· καὶ γὰρ τοῦτο γίνεται πολλοῖς ἀπὸ μελαίνης χολῆς. συνέβη δὲ καὶ | Λυσάνδρῳ τῷ Λάκωνι πρὸ τῆς τελευτῆς γενέσθαι τὰ ἕλκη ταῦτα. ἔτι δὲ τὰ περὶ Αἴαντα καὶ Βελλεροφόντην, ὧν ὁ μὲν ἐκστατικὸς ἐγένετο παντελῶς, ὁ δὲ τὰς ἐρημίας ἐδίωκεν, διὸ οὕτως ἐποίησεν Ὅμηρος

αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ καὶ κεῖνος ἀπήχθετο πᾶσι θεοῖσιν,
ἤτοι ὁ κὰπ πεδίον τὸ Ἀλήϊον οἶος ἀλᾶτο
ὃν | θυμὸν κατέδων, πάτον ἀνθρώπων ἀλεείνων.

καὶ ἄλλοι δὲ πολλοὶ τῶν ἡρώων ὁμοιοπαθεῖς φαίνονται τούτοις. τῶν δὲ ὕστερον Ἐμπεδοκλῆς καὶ Πλάτων καὶ Σωκράτης καὶ ἕτεροι συχνοὶ τῶν γνωρίμων. ἔτι δὲ τῶν περὶ τὴν ποίησιν οἱ πλεῖστοι. πολλοῖς μὲν γὰρ τῶν τοιούτων γίνεται νοσήματα ἀπὸ | τῆς τοιαύτης κράσεως τῷ σώματι, τοῖς δὲ ἡ φύσις δήλη ῥέπουσα πρὸς τὰ πάθη. πάντες δ᾿ οὖν ὡς εἰπεῖν ἁπλῶς εἰσί, καθάπερ ἐλέχθη, τοιοῦτοι τὴν φύσιν.

Another figure often seen as less than sane is Philoktetes who his described as (2.721)

“He lies there on the island suffering strong pains
In fertile Lemnos where the sons of the Achaeans left him
Suffering with an evil wound from a murderous watersnake.”

ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖτο κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων
Λήμνῳ ἐν ἠγαθέῃ, ὅθι μιν λίπον υἷες ᾿Αχαιῶν
ἕλκεϊ μοχθίζοντα κακῷ ὀλοόφρονος ὕδρου·

When Odysseus is described in book 5 of the Odyssey, his first line is identical with Philoktetes’ (Od. 5.13-15):

“He lies there on the island suffering strong pains
In the halls of Kalypso the nymph who holds him
By necessity. He is not able to return to his paternal land.”

ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖται κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων,
νύμφης ἐν μεγάροισι Καλυψοῦς, ἥ μιν ἀνάγκῃ
ἴσχει· ὁ δ’ οὐ δύναται ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι·

If we can imagine an “abnormal mental state” for these figures, the implication is the inverse, perhaps, of what Aristotle indicates for Bellerophon. Their madness is caused by isolation rather than causing it. When commenting upon Odysseus’ first appearance in book 5, an ancient scholar records Aristonicus’ comment that the language is more fit (οἰκειότερον ἐν ᾿Ιλιάδι) for the Iliad at 2.721 where Philoktetes is described. He adds that it would be right for him instead to be “tortured in his heart” (νῦν δὲ ἔδει τετιημένος ἦτορ εἶναι, Schol. H ad Od. 5.13).

Psychologists have studied the emotional and physical effects of isolation over the past few generations. These studies reinforce important themes of the Odyssey, namely that individual identity is constitutive of social relationships without which we cease to be ourselves. Modern studies of isolated individuals have shown that limited social engagements have deleterious emotional effects including a rise in fear and paranoia and a decrease in self-esteem. Some have even argued that over time, the brain of an isolated person has fewer neural connections and a thinner cerebral cortex. Inmates have difficulties with memory, distorted perceptions of reality, and display a deterioration of language function. Isolation’s biological changes affect the very parts of the brain that facilitate social interaction, higher order analytical thinking, and the ability to plan and act in the world.

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David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependency of Discourse. Ann Arbor. 2000.

39: “Beginning with ancient Greece, Thiher’s study demonstrates that literary stories of mental discordance have provided the foundation for scientific explanations of cognitive deviance. Rather than view this historical material as superficial and primitive, Thiher argues for a historical vision of madness as that which could productively give voice to the existence of disparate, and even antithetical, “realities”.

Some inspirations

Andersen, H. S., Sestoft, D. D., Lillebæk, T. T., Gabrielsen, G. G., Hemmingsen, R. R., & Kramp, P. P. (2000), ―”A Longitudinal Study of Prisoners on Remand: Psychiatric Prevalence, Incidence and Psychopathology in Solitary vs.Non-Solitary Confinement.‖ , 102(1), 19.

Betty Gilmore and Nanon M. Williams. The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons. Dallas 2014.

Fatos Kaba, Andrea Lewis, Sarah Glowa-Kollisch, James Hadler, David Lee, Howard Alper, Daniel Selling, Ross MacDonald, Angela Solimo, Amanda Parsons, and Homer Venters.  “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442-447.

Shruti Ravindran. “Twilight in the Box.” Aeon 27 February 2014.

Thiher, Allen. 1999. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor.

 

Poet or Lying Sack of Shit?

Petrarch, Against a Certain Physician 1.38:

We leave the lying to you, as well as the worst kind of falsehood, lying with the greatest danger and loss to those who believe it. If you don’t believe me, ask the common people, who have turned it into a proverb to say to one lying openly, “You lie like a physician.” The pursuit of a poet – I would not dare to deem myself worthy of this name, which you in your madness have leveled as an insult against me – I say, the pursuit of a poet is to adorn the truth of things with beautiful coverings, so that it may elude the ignorant mass (of which you are the deepest part) and so that it can be more difficult and more sweet for intelligent and eager readers to discover.

Otherwise, if you persuade yourself falsely, as do the uneducated who curse what the cannot understand, that the business of a poet is to lie, then I would have you believe in this consequence as well: that you are then the greatest of poets, a man whose lies nearly exceed the words he has spoken. Old Homer would yield to you readily, Euripides would concede defeat, as would Vergil, and Helicon would be left empty just for you, with the laurel unplucked and the Castalian fountain undisturbed.

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Mentiri vobis liquimus; quodque gravissimum mendacii genus est, mentiri summo cum discrimine damnoque credentium. Id si michi non credis, vulgus interroga, cui et illud in proverbium versum est, ut apertissime mentienti dicant: “Mentiris ut medicus”. Poete – neque enim me hoc nomine dignari ausim, quod tu michi, demens, ad infamiam obiecisti – poete, inquam, studium est veritatem rerum pulcris velaminibus adornare, ut vulgus insulsum, cuius tu pars ultima es, lateat, ingeniosis autem studiosisque lectoribus et quesitu difficilior et dulcior sit inventu. Alioquin, si tibi falso persuades – quod quidam indocti solent, qui quod consequi nequeunt execrantur – ut scilicet poete officium sit mentiri, illud tibi consequenter persuadeas velim: esse te poetarum maximum, cuius prope plura mendacia sunt quam verba. Ultro tibi meonius senex cedet, victus cedet Euripides, cedet Maro, vacuus tibi Elicon linquetur, indecerpta laurea illibatusque castalius fons.

Healthy Contempt for the Intangible

E.M. Forster, The Longest Journey:

“‘What does philosophy do?’ the propper continued. ‘Does it make a man happier in life? Does it make him die more peacefully? I fancy that in the long-run Herbert Spencer will get no further than the rest of us. Ah, Rickie! I wish you could move among the school boys, and see their healthy contempt for all they cannot touch!’ Here he was going too far, and had to add, ‘Their spiritual capacities, of course, are another matter.’ Then he remembered the Greeks, and said, ‘Which proves my original statement.’

Submissive signs, as of one propped, appeared in Rickie’s face. Mr. Pembroke then questioned him about the men who found Plato not difficult. But here he kept silence, patting the school chapel gently, and presently the conversation turned to topics with which they were both more competent to deal.

‘Does Agnes take much interest in the school?’

‘Not as much as she did. It is the result of her engagement. If our naughty soldier had not carried her off, she might have made an ideal schoolmaster’s wife. I often chaff him about it, for he a little despises the intellectual professions. Natural, perfectly natural. How can a man who faces death feel as we do towards mensa or tupto?’

‘Perfectly true. Absolutely true.’

Mr. Pembroke remarked to himself that Frederick was improving.”

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That Sickness Which Has No Cure

Propertius, Elegies 2.1.57–66

“Medicine may help all human pains—
Love alone responds to no doctor in its sickness.
Machaon healed Philoktetes’ twisted limbs;
Chiron the son of Phillyra saved Phoenix’ eyes
And the Epidaurian god with herbs from Crete
Returned dead Androgeon to his father’s home.
Even the Mysian who felt the wound from the Haemonian spear
Also found restoration from the same blade.
Anyone who is able to relieve me of this
Will be the only person to place fruit in Tantalus’ hand.”

omnis humanos sanat medicina dolores:
solus amor morbi non amat artificem.
tarda Philoctetae sanavit crura Machaon,
Phoenicis Chiron lumina Phillyrides,
et deus exstinctum Cressis Epidaurius herbis
restituit patriis Androgeona focis,
Mysus et Haemonia iuvenis qua cuspide vulnus
senserat, hac ipsa cuspide sensit opem.
hoc si quis vitium poterit mihi demere, solus
Tantaleae poterit tradere poma manu

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1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C 1, f. 33r