“What mortal person will escape
A god’s crooked deception?
Who steps with a light enough foot
To leap away through the air?
For destruction is at first friendly, even fawning
As it draws someone aside into a trap
From which it is impossible for any mortal to escape
Or even avoid.”
Each week we select scenes from a play, actors and experts from around the world, and put them all together for 90 minutes or so to see what will happen. This process is therapeutic for us; and it helps us think about how tragedy may have had similar functions in the ancient world as well.
This week we turn to our only surviving tragedy based on historical events: Aeschylus’ Persians which commemorates the Greek victory at Salamis, from the Persians’ point of view.
“I was present there—not merely hearing other’s words
Persians, I can tell you what kinds of terrible things occurred.”
Technical, Moral, Administrative Support: Lanah Koelle, Allie Mabry, Janet Ozsolak, Helene Emeriaud, Sarah Scott, Keith DeStone
“I have been silent for a while, struck with pains
By these evils. The disaster runs over all bounds
of speaking or asking about its suffering.
Still, necessity forces mortals to endure the pains
The gods send us. Pull yourself together,
Tell us everything that happened…”
Upcoming Readings(Wednesdays at 3PM EDT, Unless otherwise noted)
Euripides, Trojan Women, May 20th
Sophocles, Ajax, May 29th
Euripides, Andromache, June 3rd
Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos, June 10th
Euripides, Ion, June 17th[10 AM EDT/3PM GMT]
Euripides, Hecuba, June 24th
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, July 1st
“Friends, whoever gains some practice in troubles
Understands that when a wave of troubles come
We mortals tend to fear everything.
But when a god makes things easy, you think
You’ll always sail under the same favorable wind.”
In honor of mother’s day, our separation from each other, and missed parents everywhere, a re-post inspired by Paul’s Mom. I keep these words in mind all the time now when I reconnected with friends: we all have stories, we all want to be heard. As Arsenius records the proverb, “Conversation [ or ‘reason’] is the doctor for suffering in the soul” (Λόγος ἰατρὸς τοῦ κατὰ ψυχὴν πάθους.) To listen to another–and hear them– is a sacred act.
“To a youth talking nonsense, he said “We have two ears, but one mouth so that we may hear more but speak less.”
A few years ago now I noticed the Paul Holdengraber‘s 7-word autobiography from brainpickings.org.: “Mother always said: Two Ears, One mouth.” The phrase bounced around in my head a bit–it has that aphoristic perfection of brevity and familiarity. So, I reached out to Paul over twitter and told him it sounded like something from a Greek philosopher like Heraclitus.
Proverbs have a special place in language and society cross-culturally–they strike a promise of insight that demands contemplation or explanation. They also have an air of authority and antiquity, even when they actually possess neither. And, unlike longer, less anonymized forms of language, they are repeated, borrowed, and stolen without end.
My late father was a great aphorist–perhaps missing him is part of why Paul’s tweet stuck with me. Most of my father’s words, however, were far more Archie Bunker than Aristotle. Those I can repeat were likely taken from his own father, a Master Sargent in WW2 who died a decade before I was born. The tendency to inherit and pass down proverbs is something I only really noticed when I had children and found myself ‘quoting’ (or becoming?) my father (“if you take care of your equipment it will take care of you”) or my grandmother (cribbing Oscar Wilde: “Only boring people get bored”).
So, when Paul thought it would be a gas if we actually translated his mother’s words into ancient Greek (and eventually Latin), I was ready. I got help from some great Classicists too. We came up with a few versions.
First, I went with classical rhetoric, a close antithesis: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα. But our friend the Fantastic Festus argued that Heraclitus or Hesiod would not use use μὲν and δὲ so, so he suggested losing them for something like this:
μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα [“mother always used to say two ears, one mouth”]
This gave us Paul’s mother’s advice in seven Greek words and his mother’s advice. But this didn’t get us out of trouble. The critic, author and Classicist Daniel Mendelsohn suggested hexameters and from across the Atlantic the extraordinary Armand D’Angour obliged with a composition of his own:
At this point, I felt like I had entertained myself on a Saturday morning, involved my internet friends in a silly, though somewhat academic caper, and done a favor for a new friend to please the spirits of parents no longer with us. But the world wide web had a a plot twist I should have thought of.
Ancient Greek and Roman authors and scholars loved proverbs. Writers like Zenobius and Photius made collections and interpretations of them. The Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda, uses the word for proverb (in Greek paroimia) over 600 times and presents nearly as many distinct proverbs. (Many of which are wonderful.) And in the modern world, we have an entire academic field dedicated to the study of proverbial sayings: paroemiology. Let me tell you, we could have used en expert last fall.
While we were playing around with translations, one of our ‘players’, the grand Gerrit Kloss, let us know we were, to use a proverbial saying, reinventing the wheel. Zeno, the Cynic philosopher, was credited with this saying over two thousand years ago:
“Alcidamas called the Odyssey a ‘fine mirror of human life’ ”
καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον
Like many of the people I talk to, I find myself incapable of focusing on much these days as a I move mechanically from zoom ‘teaching’ to virtual meetings, all while doom scrolling on twitter. We joke about “the end of the world” even as it is in fact the end of an era. I often think of these repeated motions as a kind of paralysis: with no new goal, bereft of any way to change anything, just waiting for some report or action to show me the way. Then, at the end of each day, watching the news leaves me exhausted in the wake of intense, yet impotent, rage.
The image that comes to my mind too frequently is Odysseus on the shore of Kalypso’s island in the Odyssey’s fifth book. (5.151–159):
Kalypso found [Odysseus] sitting on the water’s edge. His eyes were never dry
of tears and his sweet life was draining away as he mourned
over his homecoming, since the goddess was no longer pleasing to him.
But it was true that he stretched out beside her at night by necessity
In her hollow caves, unwilling when she was willing.
By day, however, he sat on the rocks and sands
wracking his heart with tears, groans and grief,
Shedding tears as he gazed upon the barren sea.
When we find Odysseus at the beginning of his epic he has been here on the shore of Ogygia, crying during the day for seven years (and, let’s not forget, having sex with a goddess each night, which has lost its charm). I think I go here because I have taught the Odyssey and I have spent the past five years writing a book about Homeric epic’s internal theory of the human mind, emphasizing how the Odyssey presents its characters responding to suffering and trauma in ways that correspond to modern psychological observations and interventions. I don’t know if this makes me any more capable of coping with what we are all facing, but it does remind me daily that the nothing we are experiencing is something and that this drawn out, uncertain catastrophe is reshaping us.
What I have learned from these years of reading is that ancient poetry (and modern literature too) can come as close to anything else as offering a guide to our grief and providing a primer on how to stay human in inhumane times. And this makes it even clearer to me that not talking about these experiences while they happen is dangerous. I hear the trauma and fear in my own voice and in the words of my friends and colleagues, and I worry about who we will all be on the other side. Talking about this may make a difference. Acknowledging it might help us emerge a little stronger, if not faster, with fewer of us left behind.
Helplessness and Complex Loss
“The person who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”
One of the things I think that gets overlooked when people focus on the Odyssey’s heroic narrative is the extent to which the epic features characters who are trapped and deprived of control over their life in some fundamental way. Odysseus, of course, is clearly marginalized from action right at the beginning of the epic. But when Athena—as Mentor—first finds Telemachus, he is caught in a daydream, thinking about his father:
“God-like Telemachus saw her much the first
For he was sitting among the suitors, pained in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts…”
In his recent book about Telemachus, Charles Underwood sees this daydream as a type of fantasy where Telemachus explores possible futures (2018, 25–31). I like this formulation a lot, but what I also see here is that it is not until after several conversations with Athena that Telemachus can even conceive of acting himself. He is, essentially, a grammatical subject but not an agent, which makes him an object of the forces in his world and goes a great way to explain his lack of action.
Telemachus is, I think, in a kind of paralysis that issues from his experience of the world (rather than in it because he has done so little). And he sets us up to see other figures in the epic from the perspective of agency and object, of limitations that our views of ourselves in the world impose on whether we think we can act in it. Penelope, Odysseus, and even minor figures like Eupeithes the father of a slaughtered suitor appear in frozen states. In each case, the epic invites its audiences to see how a character’s experiences and context shape or constrain their ability to act in the world.
And here’s a simplified explanation for what the epic is reflecting. When we cannot run from a threat or rise to fight it, we are shocked into a moment of inaction, frozen in time like proverbial deer in headlights. From modern perspectives, this paralysis is rooted in a deferred fight-or-flight response. We have all encountered such moments when we do not know how to act, but deferment prolonged over time can have psychological consequences, creating pathological anxiety responses and forming an essential part of our relationship with trauma. Chronic activation of this stress response can have serious consequences for mental and physical health. Digestive issues? Yes. Sleep? Yes. Immune response? Yes, unfortunately
In his book The Evil Hours, David J. Morris talks about how people suffering from trauma exist in a “liminal state” between life and death (2015, 6-7). To what extent people get stuck in this state has little to do with who you are before—no one can predict the overlapping impact of emotional and somatic responses. But a sense of helplessness can enhance the impact of trauma considerably. As a category, psychologists have discussed “learned helplessness”—the process of becoming habituated to a lack of agency and control over life—and its maladaptations for over a century. A developed sense of helplessness can make it hard to learn new things or demonstrate what you have learned; it has been linked to depression and anxiety; and it can prevent us from making plans for the future because we believe or suspect our own agency does not matter at all (see Mikuluncer 1994 for a full study).
A sense of lost agency—which contributes to depression on its own—is just not about helplessness: it has a recursive and reinforcing relationship with trauma. Prolonged helplessness changes the way we see the world and is itself traumatizing; helplessness in the face of prolonged suffering can be dehumanizing.
The Odyssey, I think, gives us a range of figures subject to helplessness and marginalization from different sources. Odysseus, of course, is the most obvious figure (followed by Telemachus, as I write about in a few places). But many major and minor figures are trapped in cycles of behavior from which they have little escape. Menelaos and Helen in book 4 are engaged in “off task coping” (drugs and alcohol), arguing about the past through the stories they tell, constrained by the decisions they made, the actions they committed, and the inability to imagine any different future.
The enslaved people of the epic have either completely internalized their worthlessness and commitment to their masters (Eumaios and Eurykleia) or they lash out with ‘misbehavior’ only to be murdered for it later (Melantho, Melanthios, the other enslaved women). Laertes has retreated to his gardens, repeatedly going over the same works again and again. Penelope reduces to tears amid her pacing from room to hall, expressing that most human of needs to feel something or give up. Her uncertainty is like the fragmentation David Morris describes in traumatized figures: their past and present seem disconnected and the future is hard to imagine at all. Trauma and helplessness undermine the internal assumptions of causality which makes it possible for us to act in the world.
The Odyssey also gives us a sense of trauma’s multiple sources: it is not just that people are marginalized by their sense of helplessness, but they are also undone by unresolved loss. Characters like Penelope, Menelaos, and Eupeithes (the father who lost his son and speaks in favor of killing Odysseus at the end of the epic) are shown undone by the grief that comes from not knowing if someone is dead or alive (in reference to Odysseus) or not being able to attend to their grief in a way they understand (as in Eupeithes’ desire for revenge). In recent years, researchers have called these types of emotion “ambiguous loss” or “complicated grief” and have explained how they create and perpetuate states of inaction (see Boss 1999) or paralytic returns to the topic of loss and uncertainty (see Hall et al. 2014).
So, if you feel paralyzed for events, stultified by your own response, or lost in trying to make some sense of each day, that’s your brain and body telling you something. The world is changing in ways we cannot fully understand, and it hurts. It is ok not to write a book during your isolation; it is normal to feel distracted and lost. Overeating or drinking too much? Look at the suitors waiting for something to happen in their lives. Having trouble sleeping? Both Telemachus and Odysseus stay awake all night. Having trouble not sleeping? Penelope is overwhelmed with exhaustion (and weeping) by Athena.
“An epidemic in that year provided a break from other problems.”
Pestilentia eo anno aliarum rerum otium praebuit.
Today Nandini Pandey has a smart piece out in Eidolon (“Classics After Coronavirus“) where she asks a group of people who see different perspectives of Classical Studies to think about what impact COVID-19 will have on the future of these disciplines. (And it is smart not because she asked me to write something for it, but because she got a group of really smart other people to write thoughtfully in the midst of a crises: check out the article for good prognostications by Joy Connolly, Sarah Bond, Amy Pistone, Del A. Maticic, Scott Lepisto, Michelle Bayouth, Mira Seo and Shelley P. Halley”).
It’s no secret around my house that I think about these things a lot. Really, I am one or two turns in life away from being straight-up prepper. And I may be breaking a little alarmist here, but I worry that COVID-19 is merely a dress-rehearsal for the ravages of climate change, which may well include new pandemics in additional to destabilized weather. Even more frightening, old pandemics and viruses could find new life our changing environment.
At least, this is what science fiction says: archaeologists in Connie Willis’ Doomsday Bookresurrect the boubonic plague while plying their craft. It’s not all bad: Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radiopresents an ancient retrovirus that hastens the next stage in human evolution. But, really, apart from that, it gets pretty bad: the worst usually comes when man conspires with nature as in the famous apocalypse of Stephen King’s The Stand or the vampire trilogy by Justin Cronin (The Passage, The Twelve, and The City of Mirrors) which centers, gulp, around academics playing with life and death in places like Cambridge, MA and New York City.
My point is not that we should keep hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but that I think my comments in the Eidolon piece do not go nearly far enough because, as I think Scott Lepisto is starting to say, we need radical change fast and we’re not talking about Classics. If there is a silver lining in this shitberg our current leadership is piloting straight towards, it is that we might just get hurt enough to change our ways, to avoid the worst of what could come.
Or, well, that’s what I say so I can sleep tonight. At the end of it, the fact is that we are more likely to see a civilization shifting cataclysm now than five years ago. And we should be thinking about what that means for the way we talk about the past.
In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.
Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.
Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.
The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognotaseries or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.
“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”
A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.
Over the past few weeks we have presented readings of Euripides’ Helen and Sophocles’ Philoktetes (in partnership with the Center for Hellenic Studies and the Kosmos Society and Out of Chaos Theatre). This week we turn to Euripides’ Herakles, a play which contemplates just how much one person should be alone and the cruel machinations of divine will. So, uplifting reading for everyone!
Euripides, Herakles 772-780
“The [gods] heed the unjust and
Hear the pious too.
Gold and good luck
Drive mortals out of their minds,
And pull unjust power together.
No one dares to glance back at time:
They pass by law to honor lawlessness
And break the dark chariot of wealth.”
Tim Delap – Tim has performed several times in leading roles at the National Theatre and in the West End. He recently played Rochester in the critically-acclaimed Jane Eyre
Evelyn Miller – just finished playing Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe. Other recent credits include leading roles at the National Theatre and RSC. Evvy is an associate director of Actors From The London Stage.
Richard Neale – associate director of Actor From The London Stage with whom he has toured the US playing leading roles in The Tempest, King Lear and Othello. A director and teacher, Richard has almost 20 years’ experience of performing in the UK.
Paul O’Mahony – artistic director of Out of Chaos with whom he created the award winning Unmythable. He recently toured the US in their production of Macbeth and is currently working on two productions inspired by ancient culture. He has twice been a visiting artist at the CHS.
Euripides, Herakles 1425-1426
“Whoever wishes to have honor or strength instead of
Good friends reckons badly.”
The figure of the isolated hero in ancient Greek myth and poetry is one who is set apart, on an island, separated from other humans and, by extension, from human culture. The impact of isolation is often communicated through the heroic body, even if it is offered in some way as a cause: Philoktetes’ dehumanization is reflected in the wound whose antisocial attributes cause him to be abandoned (described like a disease in Sophocles’ play). Odysseus seems arguably less human insofar as he is stripped of agency and, until Hermes comes to move him, clearly more an object of interest than a subject of his own.
Indeed, the Odyssey has deep ethnographic concerns, focusing on how people make their livings and how they live their lives. When Odysseus describes the island of the Cyclopes, he remarks on how it might be a good place to live, but the Cyclopes themselves are “arrogant and lawless” (ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων, 9.106). They aren’t human because of the way they live (they do not cultivate the land, 108-111). And they are less than human because of how they organize their lives (Odyssey 9.112–115):
“They don’t have council-bearing assemblies or laws,
But instead they inhabit homes on high hills
In hollow caves, and each one makes laws
For his children and wives—they do not have concern for one another.”
In a way, Odysseus anticipates here the later Greek use of the term idiotês for the person who fails to understand that the commonwealth directly impacts individual possessions—indeed, it makes possible the existence of individual goods. The ancient idiot, in this political sense, is a kind of naïve libertarian who is incapable of conceiving of shared human society as the very thing that makes life possible and also worth living.
* * * *
Current events are forcing us to explore some of the same tensions: inasmuch as some are aghast that we are not willing to die to preserve the economy, the rest of us remain horror stricken at how much our public health and collective good have been sacrificed to prop up the wealth of a very few. Even though my training directs my thoughts consistently to the past for parallels to cope with the present, my own reading history and proclivity for speculative fiction keep taking me to narrative futures. In my impatience to be done with the now, I am busy manufacturing anxieties about what will become of us later.
In Isaac Asimov’s Robot novelThe Naked Sun(1957), the detective Elijah Bailey is dispatched to one of the “spacer” worlds to investigate a murder. In Asimov’s world, humankind lives in a mixed future where billions are crowded into cities on earth while a select elite escape to fifty “Spacer” worlds. Over time, the antagonism between Spacer and Earther expands as the former use their greater resources and technology to dominate the latter. And Earthers suffer from a fear of the outside, a reluctance to leave the comfort of their cities.
The Spacers, those libertarian techno-overlords, fear contagion and disease and contact with the human rabble left on earth. When Baily meets with the widow of the murdered scientist on her planet Solaria, Gladia, she will at first only see him through “viewing” (a video screen). Eventually she breaks Solarian taboo and comes to him in person and to help solve the crime. (No spoiler, but it wasn’t a robot.)
Many years later (in our world) Asimov returns to Solaria generations later in his Foundation and Earth(1986). In the intervening years, the Spacer planets were eclipsed by the rapid expansion of the population of Earth into the galaxy, fading quickly into obsolescence and obscurity. The Solaria found here is populated by a few human beings who intentionally developed hermaphroditic qualities so they would never have to encounter other human beings in person again. The Solarian world is expansive—each person lives on massive estates, engaging with others only through mediated viewing and using technology to ritualize isolation.
E. M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops” (1909, 1928) puts humankind in a sub-terrestrial, dystopic future. People must live in isolation, in basic rooms from which they engage in the world only through video conferencing. One of the main characters, Vashti, spends a great deal of her time broadcasting her ideas over this ersatz internet, recycling and repackaging ideas for consumption and replacing most human relationship with a distanced presentation of the ‘self’. The main plot of this tale, of course, is about the “machine” which supports all of this life collapsing, but the lingering sense it leaves is one of the panopticon in which the ability to broadcast, to send a message, is traded for being watched and people live separate from one another both out of fear and out of habit.
I have been thinking about both of these speculative narratives over the past few weeks as my work has converted online completely and my social life has blended into it. I “zoom” with colleagues, skype with friends, and merely text-message with my extended family. I watch as my children are habituated to the same kind of mediated existence. There is an hour each day when three of us are on zoom simultaneously, in the same house but in separate rooms, sometimes irked that the sound of another intrudes on our distanced engagement.
We have been living with some of the rapid consequences of these kinds of mediated communication networks for years. Is something as bizarre as pizza-gate possible without facebook or other online fora? Do these media ever produce anything but the strangest and saddest common denominator?
Modern science fiction is no stranger to this too. In his post-apocalpytic Seveneves, Neal Stephenson—an author a bit too libertarian and soft on techo-capitalists generally—puts a surviving remnant of humanity in space, isolated in a network of space capsules connected by a communication network dubbed “spacebook”. In order to survive, these clutches of life have to preserve resources and follow a very basic plan. But paranoia explodes in the social network: one week, a thought leader proposes that in space humans do not need legs, so they should cut them off and eat them to preserve the protein. Soon, a critical number of people depart with precious resources to try to make it to Mars because they convinced themselves in their echo chamber of madness that this was a good plan, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary.
(they all die. A mere handful of people survive their stupidity.)
Of the many ways in which COVID-19 will change our lives, one is how it will accelerate our embrace of life online. Children are having playdates online: ours have had dance classes, piano lessons, and speech therapy in just the last week to go along with 2-3 ‘Montessori’ zoom lessons a day. Although I am deeply grateful to these teachers and instructors for bringing some sense of normalcy to our children’s days, I worry that this will be their baseline: no playgrounds, no playmates, but video-streamed encounters and mediated experiences. They will be open to the supercharged pathways of disinformation that propagate quack cures for plagues and easy arguments for denying collective action against global warming.
Asimov’s Solarians are independent-minded elitists whose fear of disease and love of long lives pushes them further and further apart; Forster’s subterraneans are addicted to the comfort of their regulated lives and distracted by the ability to be ‘experts’ and temporary celebrities in the global machine. Stephenson’s human race barely survives an apocalypse followed by human caused ruin thanks to individual heroics and fantastic evolutionary science. The Coronavirus won’t suddenly turn us into any of these groups, but it may make us just that much less human.
* * * *
Modern studies in narrative emphasize how our identity develops from social relationships and studies in cognitive psychology show how isolation can have damaging effects on us emotionally and mentally. When separated from others we can experience an increase in fear and paranoia (See Andersen et al. 2000, 19.); studies in the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners demonstrate a marked increase in the development of psychopathology under the influence of isolation which can eventuate in neurobiological transformations. The brain of an isolated human being may demonstrate fewer neural connections and correlate with distortions in memory and a deterioration of language abilities. Isolation, to put it simply, can break down those very things that make people who they are. (see Ravindran 2014, Gilmore and Nanon 2014; Kaba et al. 2014)
Ancient Greek myth and poetry seems to communicate this through figures like Philoktetes—who languishes for a decade after being marooned on the island of Lemnos—and Odysseus, who suffers in quasi-isolation for seven years, weeping on the edge of the sea (but having sex with Calypso at night). Odysseus cannot return home directly from this. His journey home requires him to repeatedly tell stories about himself and to reaffirm his identity step-by-step through reunions with the important people in his life. It is Odysseus too who brings Philoktetes back into society in Sophocles’ play.
I think ancient audiences saw the sufferings of both figures as a result from their isolation, from their separation from communion with other human beings. Both Homer’s epic and Sophocles’ play emphasize political themes and social consequences: Odysseus and Philoktetes are at times calculating and full of rage, leaving characters in the poems (and audiences outside them) unsure of if or when they will lash out.
What each narrative emphasizes, however, is that the isolated figure needs fellowship and partnership to return to human society. Odysseus’ return home is not complete until he is recognized—and recognizes himself—in his son, spouse, and father. Philoktetes needs to be persuaded to return, to be cajoled and guided and distracted from the fact he is being used.
This is, perhaps, cold comfort for those of us isolated now. But it does remind us that having other people around us is important and that, when the time comes to reintegrate, it won’t be simple or easy. We will have to tell each other our stories and listen to who we confirm in each other we are.
And perhaps it will force us to think about the world we create for ourselves. The plot which drives Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is a choice about the future of life in the galaxy: whether it will continue on as it has, with everyone charting separate courses of self interest or it will change radically, adopting the life-form model of a planet called Gaia where all inhabitants shared consciousness and fate, yielding some sense of free will.
When I read this choice to its conclusion in the late 80s, I was horrified because it seemed (spoiler alert) that the protagonist was choosing communism! But it did not take many years for the wisdom of this choice to make a little more sense. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home and murders 108 suitors. The epic almost ends with a civil war but for the intervention of Athena and Zeus who declare an amnesty, insisting that the Ithakans and Odysseus need to live together (24.486, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω). In this, the individual leader is forced to change his ways; but the people have to submit to forgetting and forgetting the violence and malice which brought a generation to ruin.
What choices will we face? Which ones will we be able to make?
Some things to read
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.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102:19.
Barker, E.T.E. and Christensen J. P. Homer’s Thebes. Washington, D.C. 2019.
Gilmore, Betty and Williams, Nanon M. 2014. The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons. Dallas.
Kaba, Fatos et al. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442–447.
Ravindran, Shruti 2014. “Twilight in the Box.” Aeon 27.
Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.
Thiher, Allen. 1999. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor.
Underwood, Charles. 2018. Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning, and Agency in Odysseus’ World. Lanham: Lexington Books
A week or so ago Paul O’Mahony pulled together a few people from the Center for Hellenic Studies (Lanah Koelle and Keith DeStone) with me and several members of the Kosmos Society (including Janet Ozsolak, Helene Emeriaud, Sarah Scott) with an idea: bringing together Hellenists and actors in isolation to do readings and discussions of Greek Tragedy during these strange times. We talked about how important it is to retain human contact and communication to stay sane, how the arts help us reflect on being human and how in these frightening times the humanities have no less a purchase on our imaginations and our needs than at any other.
We sketched out a basic plan to read a play a week and invite professional actors to read scenes together. And then we tried it out the next day. We recorded it rather than performing it live because we had no idea how well it would go. Here it is:
Designed by Paul O’Mahony with consultation from the Kosmos Society and Joel Christensen (me!)
Scenes include: Helen’s opening speech Helen and Teucer (l. 68-164) Menelaos speech (l.386-438) Menelaos and Old Woman (l.437-484) Menelaos and Helen meet (l.528-661) Menelaos and Helen plotting (l.1031-1093)
I hope you take some time to watch this and read along (we use this text). The conversation was unscripted and mostly unplanned–some of the comments about seeming and being and living at the edge of things or through mediated experiences struck me pretty hard.
We plan to do this on a weekly basis and are looking for experts in tragedy and actors who would like to participate. Please reach out! We hope to give people a chance to spend time thinking about Greek tragedy, engaging with one another, and meeting new people, learning new things.
For next week, we will be running the show live and opening it up to the public: