Rufinus 5.87 (from the Greek Anthology)
Melissias will not admit her love,
But her body screams like it’s on the receiving end
Of a quiver of arrows: unsteady steps,
Bouts of gasping breath,
And hollow love-struck sockets.
Now then, O Longings, in your mother’s name,
(Cytherea with the beautiful garland)
Inflame the unyielding woman
Until she cries out, “I’m burning!”
ἀρνεῖται τὸν ἔρωτα Μελισσιάς, ἀλλὰ τὸ σῶμα
κέκραγ᾽ ὡς βελέων δεξάμενον φαρέτρην,
καὶ βάσις ἀστατέουσα, καὶ ἄστατος ἄσθματος ὁρμή,
καὶ κοῖλαι βλεφάρων ἰοτυπεῖς βάσιες.
ἀλλά, Πόθοι, πρὸς μητρὸς ἐϋστεφάνου Κυθερείης,
φλέξατε τὴν ἀπιθῆ, μέχρις ἐρεῖ ‘ Φλέγομαι.’
Isn’t it strange that the speaker’s great desire is for Melissias to say aloud what he purportedly already knows? This limited ambition begs the question, what in the first place justifies his belief that she’s in love? To hear him tell it, her body gives her away: her eyes, her feet, her breathing. It’s worth noting that the speaker describes Melissias’s body not as showing how she feels but as uttering it (κράζω: to shout, scream, shriek). It’s worth noting precisely because what the speaker is now asking for is more of the same: more utterances, but this time from the mouth.
But what’s gained by having her mouth join the chorus of signifying body parts? The idea seems to be that the mouth is uniquely subject to the will while eyes and feet, for example, are not. Speech, that is, evidences an internal reality, a second being which might well be free even after the body submits. If that’s the case, then the behavior of the eyes and feet don’t suffice as evidence of the love, undermining the speaker’s explicit claim to the contrary. In other words, it appears the speaker actually doubts the reliability of the signs his conclusion rests on. And so he’s asked for . . . more signs.
But words, like the body, can deceive. After all, Melissias has denied what she’ll next affirm. Where then is certainty to be found? That’s the speaker’s question, and ours. Here it’s worth recalling Wittgenstein’s insight: at some point the demand for certainty is no longer a desire for knowledge of the object but a desire to be the object. In other words, certainty would require collapsing the third-person and first-person perspectives, such that there would be no difference between saying “I know myself” and “I know her.” And that, I suspect, is beyond the power of the gods.
Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.