Rejected Responsibility: A Real Riot

Rachel Bespaloff, The Comedy of the Gods (trans. Mary McCarthy)

The Iliad has its share of the comic spirit. It even has humor: the Olympians supply it. Zeus’s court plays much the same role that worldly society and Alexander’s satellites play in War and Peace. The absolute futility of beings who are exempted by fortune from the common lot achieves, in the Immortals, a kind of showy, decorative stateliness. The gods of the Iliad and the worldlings of War and Peace have that want of seriousness (and by seriousness I do not mean heaviness) that for Homer, as for Tolstoy, is the distinguishing mark of the subhuman; this is what makes them such exquisite comic figures. Everything that happens has been caused by them, but they take no responsibility, whereas the epic heroes take total responsibility even for that which they have not caused. The gods’ irresponsibility begins at home; they are not responsible for themselves. Where the free individual is not asserting himself against Fate, responsibility has nothing to grasp. Anger spills out in a burst of laughter that sanctions the triumph of incoherence. Thus the gods elude mortal classifications; both innocence and sin are beyond them. Agents provocateurs, smart propagandists, heated partisans, these belligerents do not mind the smell of carnage or the clash of tragic passions. Condemned to a permanent security, they would die of boredom without intrigues and war.

The Universality of Human Misery

Petrarch, Invective Against a Man of High Rank (33-34):

The human race lives for a few. Nay, and these few for whom the whole human race is said to live are not more frightening to the people than the people are to them. Thus, almost no one is free. Everywhere there is servitude, the prison, the noose, unless some rare person somehow dissolves the knots of the world with the aid of some heavenly virtue.

Just turn your attention wherever you’d like: no place is free of tyranny. Wherever there are no tyrants, the people tyrannize. When you seem to have escaped the iron fist of one, you fall into the tyranny of the many, unless you can show me some place ruled by a just and merciful king. If you can do that, I will move my home there and migrate with all of my luggage. Neither my love of my country, nor the charm and nobility of Italy will keep me here. I will go to India, to China, to the remotest reaches of Africa just to find this place and this king.

But the search is in vain – these things exist nowhere. Thanks to our age. Since it has made everything almost equal, it has spared us the work of trying to find somewhere better. To merchants examining grain, it is enough to take up a fistful, examine it, and judge the whole heap from that. One needn’t go skim the farthest coasts or pentrate to the remotest lands. Languages, clothing, and appearances are all different, but desires, minds, and customs are so similar wherever you go that those lines from Juvenal never seem more truly spoken:

To one who wishes to know the ways of all the human race

One house alone should do the trick.

Even when there were no people, you could still find tyrants.

Humanum paucis vivit genus; quin et hi pauci quibus humanum genus vivere dicitur, non formidolosiores populis quam populi illis sunt. Ita fere nullus est liber; undique servitus et carcer et laquei, nisi fortasse rarus aliquis rerum nodos adiuta celitus animi virtute discusserit.

Verte te quocunque terrarum libet: nullus tyrannide locus vacat; ubi enim tyranni desunt, tyrannizant populi; atque ita ubi unum evasisse videare, in multos incideris, nisi forsan iusto mitique rege regnatum locum aliquem michi ostenderis. Quod cum feceris, eo larem illico transferam, cumque omnibus sarcinulis commigrabo. Non me amor patrie, non decor ac nobilitas Italie retinebit; ibo ad Indos ac Seres et ultimos hominum Garamantes, ut hunc locum inveniam et hunc regem.

Sed frustra queritur quod nusquam est. Gratias etati nostre, que cum cunta pene paria fecerit, hunc nobis eripuit laborem. Frumenta mercantibus satis modicum pugno excipere, illud examinant, inde notitiam totius capiunt acervi. Non est opus oras ultimas rimari et terrarum abdita penetrare: lingue, habitus, vultusque alii, vota, animi, moresque adeo similes, quocunque perveneris, ut nunquam verius fuisse videatur illud Satyrici ubi ait:

Humani generis mores tibi nosse volenti,

sufficit una domus.

To Have Slain Or Not To Have Slain – That Was For Some Time a Question

Seneca, de Beneficiis 2.20:

There used to be a debate about Marcus Brutus, and whether he ought to have accepted the pardon of his life from Julius Caesar, when he thought that Caesar was to be slain. We will deal elsewhere with the reason which he followed for murdering him. To me, though he was a great man in other matters, Brutus seems to have made a huge mistake and not to have conducted himself in the Stoic manner. Either he feared the very name of king, since the best form of government is one under a just king, or he hoped that there would be liberty there where there was such a great reward of commanding and of serving, or he thought that the state could be recalled to its earlier form, though its ancient virtues had been loss, and thought further that there would then be an equality of civil law, that the laws would stand in their place, where he saw that so many thousands of men were fighting not about whether they would be slaves, but to whom.

How much he forgot either of the nature of things or of his own city! He believed not only that, following the death of one man, there would not be another who wished to do the same thing, though Tarquinius had been discovered after so many kings had been killed by sword and by lightning. But he ought to have accepted his life, but not to have held him in the place of a parent, because Caesar had come into the right of giving a benefice only through injustice. For Caesar did not save him by not killing him, nor did he give him a benefit, but only a reprieve.

Disputari de M. Bruto solet, an debuerit accipere ab divo Iulio vitam, cum occidendum eum iudicaret. Quam rationem in occidendo secutus sit, alias tractabimus; mihi enim, cum vir magnus in aliis fuerit, in hac re videtur vehementer errasse nec ex institutione Stoica se egisse; qui aut regis nomen extimuit, cum optimus civitatis status sub rege iusto sit, aut ibi speravit libertatem futuram, ubi tam magnum praemium erat et imperandi et serviendi, aut existimavit civitatem in priorem formam posse revocari amissis pristinis moribus futuramque ibi aequalitatem civilis iuris et staturas suo loco leges, ubi viderat tot milia hominum pugnantia, non an servirent, sed utri. Quanta vero illum aut rerum naturae aut urbis suae tenuit oblivio, qui uno interempto defuturum credidit alium, qui idem vellet, cum Tarquinius esset inventus post tot reges ferro ac fulminibus occisos! Sed vitam accipere debuit, ob hoc tamen <non> habere illum parentis loco, quia in ius dandi beneficii iniuria venerat; non enim servavit is, qui non interfecit, nec beneficium dedit, sed missionem.

Penn Libraries call number: Inc B-720

Accepting Useful Tyranny

Cicero, de Officiis 3.83

Behold for yourself the man who wanted to be the master of the Roman people and of all nations – and he made it happen! If anyone says that this desire is honorable, they are out of their minds. For it is to approve the passing of laws and liberty, and to think that wicked and detestable oppression is a glorious thing. Whoever confesses that it is not a noble thing to rule as a monarch in that state which was free and rightly ought to be, but that it was a useful thing for the one who was able to pull it off – with what upbraiding or with what conviction could I even attempt to ward that person off from such an error? For is it possible, by the gods, that the most shameful and base patricide of the fatherland might be useful to someone although he, who bound himself that way, be named a parent by his oppressed citizens? Utility must be directed by honor, and indeed, as these two things seem to differ from each other in name, in actual fact they seem to mean the same.

Quid igitur minuta colligimus, hereditates, mercaturas, venditiones fraudulentas? Ecce tibi, qui rex populi Romani dominusque omnium gentium esse concupiverit idque perfecerit. Hanc cupiditatem si honestam quis esse dicit, amens est; probat enim legum et libertatis interitum earumque oppressionem taetram et detestabilem gloriosam putat. Qui autem fatetur honestum non esse in ea civitate, quae libera fuerit quaeque esse debeat, regnare, sed ei, qui id facere possit, esse utile, qua hunc obiurgatione aut quo potius convitio a tanto errore coner avellere? Potest enim, di immortales, cuiquam esse utile foedissimum et taeterrimum parricidium patriae, quamvis is, qui se eo obstrinxerit, ab oppressis civibus parens nominetur? Honestate igitur dirigenda utilitas est, et quidem sic, ut haec duo verbo inter se discrepare, re unum sonare videantur.

Epic Frivolity

W.H. Auden, The Shield of Perseus (Postscript: The Frivolous & The Earnest)

An aesthetic religion (polytheism) draws no distinction between what is frivolous and what is serious because, for it, all existence is, in the last analysis, meaningless. The whims of the gods and, behind them, the whim of the Fates, are the ultimate arbiters of all that happens. It is immediately frivolous because it is ultimately in despair.

A frivolity which is innocent, because unaware that anything serious exists, can be charming, and a frivolity which, precisely because it is aware of what is serious, refuses to take seriously that which is not serious, can be profound. What is so distasteful about the Homeric gods is that they are well aware of human suffering but refuse to take it seriously. They take the lives of men as frivolously as their own; they meddle with the former for fun, and then get bored.

When Zeus had brought the Trojans and Hector close to the ships, he left them beside the ships to bear the toil and woe unceasingly, and he himself turned his shining eyes away, gazing afar at the land of the horse-rearing Thracians and the Mysians, who fight in close array, and the noble Hippomolgoi who live on milk, and the Abioi, most righteous of men. [Iliad, Book XIII]

They kill us for their sport. If so, no human sportsman would receive one of the gods in his house: they shoot men sitting and out of season.

If Homer had tried reading the Iliad to the gods on Olympus, they would either have started to fidget and presently asked if he nadn’t got something a little lighter, or, taking it as a comic poem, would have roared with laughter or possibly, even, reacting like ourselves to a tear-jerking movie, have poured pleasing tears.

The songs of Apollo; the lucky improvisations of an amateur.

The only Greek god who does any work is Hephaestus, and he is a lame cuckold.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. Christianity draws a distinction between what is frivolous and what is serious, hut allows the former its place. What it condemns is not frivolity but idolatry, that is to say, taking the frivolous seriously.

The past is not to be taken seriously (Let the dead bury their dead) nor the future (Take no thought for the morrow), only the present instant and that, not for its aesthetic emotional content but for its historic decisiveness. (Now is the appointed time.)

My Futile War Against Time

ὁ δ’ ἄφυκτος ὁμῶς ἐπικρέμαται θάνατος·
κείνου γὰρ ἴσον λάχον μέρος οἵ τ’ ἀγαθοὶ
ὅστις τε κακός.

“Inevitable death is hung above everyone’s head alike. Everyone receives an equal share of it – both the good and the wicked.”

-Simonides

Few forms of aural and psychic violence can compare to that wrought by the alarm clock. They say that no one on their death bed ever thinks, “I wish that I had worked more.” Similarly, no one who hears that piercing and hateful noise wrenching them out of peaceful slumber has ever thought, “Thank God that ordeal is over.”

In Greek myth, Sleep and Death are brothers, but the intended parallel seems hardly suitable. Even the most desperate suicides don’t crave death in quite the same way that one might yearn for a fat nap. The former is a release, but not an anticipated source of pleasure. Coleridge’s ancient mariner had it that sleep is a gentle thing beloved from pole to pole, but his attitude toward death (and Life-in-Death) was somewhat more guarded.

I would do without sleep if I could. Being fond of the artery-splitting caffeine high myself, I would gladly trade the world of dreams for the floating experience of the coffee buzz any day, because I fear that I am too inclined to enjoy spending my life sprawled out unconscious in a kind of dress-rehearsal for death. It just doesn’t feel like living. Actually, maybe the Greek idea of the fraternity of Sleep and Death is not so poor after all.

Horace decried Homer’s nodding, but only the alert reader really feels it. Vergil may have been less prone to howlers (having the benefits of books, writing materials, and the time of the leisured poet), but the most famous literary nap before Rip Van Winkle occurred in his Aeneid. Palinurus, helmsman of the refugee Trojans, fell asleep at the helm, went overboard, and the pleasures of somnolent steering were paid for in blood. Propertius could stay out late for a party, and Cynthia would play the domestic Penelope of a night while she was awake. But once she feel asleep, she repaid the Propertian infidelity in kind. If Propertius had known about coffee, we would have had less poetry.

Every morning, I (like many of my fellow sufferers around the world) am forced to awake and trudge off to a job I hate. Actually, I wouldn’t hate it were it not for this one unfortunate quirk – they insist that I be there at a particular time, and for a fixed duration. It’s the damndest thing, but apparently the whole business of teaching is critically dependent upon a certain semblance of regularly scheduled order. If I were in charge, tempus fugit would become Tempus? Fuck it!

The problem with utopian social planning is not that it’s fanciful, but that no one ever gives it a chance. TikTok may dominate the digital culture now, but tick-tock held sway for centuries before that. Modern chronometry was not required to feel the press of time, and perhaps the death in miniature of the sun upon the dial made one more conscious of what time’s passing really meant, on a personal level. But now, the watch hand offers us the velvet glove over the iron fist. But though temporal demands were in ample supply in antiquity, the relation between events and expectations of punctuality was less rigorously exact than it is today. Reactionary projects are all the rage, but even the most retrotelescopically oriented conservatives never think to turn back the clock by getting rid of it entirely. If Caesar hadn’t reformed the calendar, maybe things would have gone better for him. Perhaps there would have been confusion about the Ides if some intercalary period had intervened. It was not Brutus, but Chronos who drove the dagger into the Julian flesh.

Perhaps Anti-Chronometry won’t ever become a mass revolutionary movement, but forget about utopian scheming – it would be nice to devise a little workaround to this sticky business of the schedule. I love to teach, but it strikes me as an egregious offense to human nature and dignity to insist upon people not only being awake but also busily plying themselves to some task before the hour of noon. Indeed, my students seem to agree with this, so I’m not sure how we find ourselves in this little pickle.

The laws of God, the laws of man

let him keep who will and can…

My relationship with time hasn’t gotten much easier as time has continued to pass me by. To adapt the Heraclitan metaphor, no one grabs the same river twice. Just as I think that I understand time (this is the present – the past is all gone forever – maybe there’s no future), I reach in and grasp aqueous nullity.

The alarm clock rings and that enigmatic little stream of Heraclitus becomes the Scamander and launches a real assault. Or perhaps the river of time is more like the Simois, where

the Simois churns so many shields, helmets, and strong bodies of men, snatched beneath its waves…

ubi tot Simois correpta sub undis

scuta virum galeasque et fortia corpora volvit

Seneca writes that the only resource which we can never replenish or recover is our time. He also notes that it is, paradoxically, the one which we are in general the most profligate wasters of. I confess, I didn’t look that passage up for insertion here because I was reluctant to lose time by doing it.

Dr. Johnson once remarked that nothing focuses the mind quite like the prospect of being hanged. The death of people whom you know is a fair substitute. Last week two of my colleagues died unexpectedly. The first died in a horrific single-vehicle car crash in a ditch half a mile from my apartment. The second was found dead at home. Two instances, even in a short time, don’t make a pattern, but perhaps that’s just the point. Death’s randomness and unpredictability are reminders that there is almost nothing separating us in the realm of the living from those in the land of the dead. It only took Odysseus a bit of light digging and a sprinkle of blood to commune with the dead – they must not be that far off.

I have written about death for Sententiae Antiquae before. So has Joel. Everyone writes about death, and judging from the surviving literature of antiquity, everyone used to do it too. Death is the human subject. Given its universality, we all think about it, we all have our opinions. Yet it is the only subject about which you can say that no living person is an expert. C.S. Lewis likened the return to school following a break to the experience of approaching one’s inevitable death. Sometimes I find the feeling of being jarred awake in the morning to have much the same character. Indeed, the inexorability of the alarm, keyed to a minute on the clock, is the only thing other than the thought of death which keeps me up and anxious at night. What a curious inversion – the prospect of returning to conscious life in the morning takes on the horrible aspect of death. Thinking it over again, maybe that Hypnos-Thanatos connection does need to be cast off.

The technical wonders of modern society have given us two broad, parallel trends: the institutionalization of mass death, and the acceleration of wasted time. For all of the labor we have saved, technology has deprived us of a comparable amount of meaningful experience, and it is hard not to feel at times that social and mass media are a place of purgatory following the death of experience. Our relationship to technology is so passively accepting and yet so naively optimistic. One cannot help but wonder whether our faith in technical progress has enabled  or even caused the mass death event of the pandemic. We don’t listen to scientists’ warnings – but we do feel confident that they will engineer a high tech solution. This same faith underlies the hope for carbon capture technology to combat global warming, the plans to colonize Mars (a currently uninhabitable planet) as an escape route from the world we’re destroying (a currently habitable planet), and the more far-fetched immortality schemes of people like Ray Kurzweil who are just trying to live long enough to reach the singularity.

But to return to the personal. Two totally unrelated people whom I knew, talked to, worked with – two people who were alive just days ago are now dead. That could be me, it could be you. Memento mori and all of that. Somehow, memento mori sounds less urgent as a cliché than it does when reified as the death of people you know. Yet, instead of treating that as a call to live a fuller life, here I sit penning maudlin reflections of the sort we all entertain whenever death strolls within our ambit.

There is a lot of both grandstanding and hand-wringing about the value of Classics, the humanities, and literature more broadly. Joel and I have both written here about the experience of processing and understanding death (and trauma more broadly) through the Classics. I don’t mean to advance the argument that Classics should be studied as a form of therapeutics, nor that it has a monopoly on sensible mortality reflection. This is not a manifesto – simply a confession. I don’t know what I would do with grief and fear were it not for literature. Are the Classics, and literature more generally, printed repositories of bullshit? Yes, but so too is life. Can you manage grief without literature? Certainly. But I don’t think that I could. And reader, I suspect that you have read this far because you, too, feel that literature is not for school, but for life. That behind all of the occasional silliness, or ham-fisted dialogue, or rhetorical trickery there is, as Pliny said, no book so bad that it isn’t useful in some respect.

Time, death, sorrow – these are enemies ranged against us in a battle that we – all of us – will one day lose. Following the old command ‘divide and conquer’, the emperor of time takes us all singly, and allows us space before it happens to us personally. But a losing battle may still have its own joy. I often wondered how Dr. Faustus, after selling his soul to the devil, managed to enjoy any of his supernatural power with the appointment for his eternal damnation so fixedly set. We may not have the prospect of hellflame before us, but permanent nothingness doesn’t seem like a great time either.

I have no illusion that literature is a panacea, but in a world so marred by tragedy, is it not worth pointing out that some things matter? Literature reminds us of those things. Literature is not separate from them, but in some ways an integral part of them, forming a feedback loop of source material and interpretive lens. Here are some things that matter: love, sex, betrayal, hatred, death, sorrow. As Ovid said of Rome, it’s all here. When Seneca complained of people learning not for life, but for school (non vitae sed scholae discimus), he touched upon the point which the detractors of literature and the humanities single out: their apparent divorce from life, whether in the form of pure literary escapism, or in the professorial abstraction of the ivory tower. But when read right, literature offers us more life  – vicarious experience which we could never hope to have. There is no way that I could ever “live life as the ancients did”, but I can glean some insight into their thoughts from reading. In giving us more life, literary and historical study helps us to defy that old tyrant Time, who would never allow us such a rich world of varied experience and insight outside of literature.

I read shelves’ worth of Roman history before I ever went to Rome. That city is so magical that one need know nothing about it beforehand to fall under its enchanting spell, but every moment of my stay there was spent in an intoxicated fever thanks to the richness of my experiences in the armchair. Every time I walked over the Tiber, I thought of all the bodies thrown in that river, all of the political and social passions which it has witnessed in the centuries when this city flourished upon its banks. But then I recall old Heraclitus, and realize that a river never flows over the same body twice, or for more than one instant. The Tiber’s waters are not the waters which Cicero saw, nor is the city, despite its physical continuity with the ancient one, still the city of Cicero. All of that exists only on the page, only in our collective memory as long as we continue to read those pages. Cicero has no real claim on that mental real estate, but in a world which has already lost and forgotten so much, do we really need to lose or forget more?

Everyone who studies the Classics comes to them with some different motivation, but I have long suspected that underlying all of our conscious reasons for focusing on ancient Greece and Rome when there is such a wide field of other interesting humane study available has to do with an unconscious fear of and sorrow about loss. Classics is defined by what has been lost – what is missing – even more than by what remains. Very few of us are just studying what is there, known and available to everyone. The textual critic, the historian, the archaeologist – they may say that they are trying to discover something new (the imperative of research), but what they are really looking for is something old but hidden by the waters of collective Lethe. The Renaissance seems like such a classicizing moment because it was then that Petrarch and co. began to be conscious of and truly concerned about what had been lost. Thanks to the impetus for recovery, there are far more ancient texts available to us today than there were in the Trecento. But the popular feeling of indifference to those treasures is just the same as what prevailed before Petrarch’s time.

Moreover, despite this act of recovery, we have still lost countless voices who never broke beyond the personal and into collective memory.

“…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” [George Eliot, Middlemarch]

There are the known unknowns in Classics: lists of published and reasonably popular work circulating in antiquity which we no longer possess. But what about all of those Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns? It barely makes sense to talk about marginalized voices in antiquity. Our literary remains come from such a stratified elite, almost all of the lives in antiquity were in the margin, and those margins have been lost – we barely have a tenuous strip of midsection remaining.

And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas

I think instead

Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,

The careless athletes and the fancy boys,

The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics

And the Agora and the noise

Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring

Libations over graves

And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly

I think of the slaves.

And how one can imagine oneself among them

I do not know

It was all so unimaginably different

And all so long ago.

[Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal, IX]

 

How many songs were sung in antiquity whose lyrics we will never know? How much was written and recorded, never to be put into broad enough circulation to make us aware of its loss? What a wealth of experience lies forever silent. These are the things which will never be recovered, the lives lost to history forever. One may well marvel at the wealth of information stored in libraries, archives, and databases, but it is the silence of lost experience which serves as the negative space that gives contours to the sum of knowledge as we have it. Everything we know is literally defined by what we have lost.

Horace’s carpe diem and quid sit futurum cras are all very well in their way, but it simply will not do to cast too focused an eye on the ephemerality of our own experience. Every beautiful moment which you share with someone is itself a form of loss. These moments come into being and then cease to be just as our conscious mind has begun to process them as experience.

When we think of loss in the Trojan War, we tend to focus on the immediate and obvious fact of death. The participants in the conflict exist for us as defined by their participation in the war. And yet, war heroes was not what they were supposed to be. We don’t know how many years Odysseus lived. But in the time of the Odyssey, most of his adult life had been spent at war and on the road. Yet he thought of himself as having a home, a story, an identity as king of Ithaca. But that was no more than the idealized projection of the homesick traveler, and seems not to have meshed well with the reality that he experienced upon his return. When he returned to Ithaca, he heard no trumpets blown for the conquering hero. He had to employ a deceit even greater than the Trojan Horse (Athena’s supernatural disguise), and had to kill more people within his own house than he had since sacking Troy. Odysseus, the sacker of cities, was also the destroyer of his own dining hall.

He was totally unwilling to go to the war in the first place. But after all of that traveling, all of that murder, and all of his purported eagerness to be home, he is eager to leave again. Odysseus lost not just a home, but himself – the actualized self that never was. The person he would have been – homebody and conscientious objector – was subsumed in the cunning strategist, the counselor of Trojan infanticide, and the insatiable traveler always roaming with a hungry heart. But a stroke of fate made that previous life impossible. Every moment may present us with choices which entail forever the loss of particular personal narrative paths. Our choices through a lifetime amount to a loss of nearly infinite possible futures. My colleague lay dead in a ditch, but any number of factors (leaving a minute later, going 5 MPH slower, straying offroad 20 feet farther back) would have saved her.

We focus a lot on last words. When I reflect on the last things that I have said to every person in my life who is now dead, I realize that they are invariably inane. Their narratives have reached an end, and my own final contribution was a dead-end or a non sequitur.

Why do I feel enthusiasm for the Classics? In truth, they are just a taste that I developed in my teens. A friend in college told me that he could think of nothing more dreadful than learning Greek, but I thought that his enthusiasm for computer science was curiously masochistic. Would I have developed the interest in Classics today in my mid thirties, had I not become an enthusiast in early life? It is impossible to say. It may even be that my fascination for Classics now has less to do with my concern for world heritage, intellectual history, or even literature itself than it does with my longing to retain a connection to my former self. Except for my family, Classics is the only thing that remains of myself as a teenager.

The Trojan War imprinted itself on Odysseus, but at the same time, he projected himself forth into the Trojan War narrative. He was the clever one, the sacker of cities, not just the schmuck who got duped into going against his will. His beating of Thersites reveals that he was all in. On his travels, the only time that Odysseus tells the truth about himself, he disregards his life story for everything preceding his part in the war – maybe it’s just not important anymore. I always think of myself as a Classicist despite shrinking from the commitment to graduate school, despite the fact that I now read Latin and Greek with less of the enthusiastic zeal which I once felt. But all of this Greek and Roman shit became a part of me then. I can never read Ars Amatoria or The Satyricon without reminiscing of my year learning those texts in an informal seminar over wine and dinner on Tuesday nights – the first time I ever felt like I had arrived at adulthood, experiencing a meaningful literary life. I remember the jokes, the wine, the snacks, the mistakes I made construing passages. The gossip, the route to the house, the enchantment of stepping out into the warm Texas evening at 10PM into a neighborhood I could never afford to live, with a head throbbing from a fresh accession of Latin knowledge. It was the last time I remember feeling that I had a future, that the possibilities for my own narrative still lie wide open. I will never feel that again. It was just one of the infinite Heraclitan rivers which once rushed over my feet, never to return.

Portrait of the author as a young man. The book on the bottom is a mid-size LSJ. Some Greek text or other on top. My fondness for napping has not abated.

Venereal Disease? Try Venereal Death!

Ovid, Amores 2.11.21-36:

Let savage Amor break up my lazy hours of sleep, and let me not be the only burden upon my bed! Let my girlfriend wreck me with no one there to stop it. One may be enough, but if she isn’t, then two! I can handle it. My limbs are slender but not without their strength, and my body lacks mass but not sinews. Besides, the pleasure will add fuel for my strength. No girl has been fooled by my effort. Often I have consumed the time of the night lasciviously, only to wake up perfectly useful and strong in the morning.

Lucky is the one whom the mutual contests of Venus ruin! May that be the cause of my death! Let the soldier offer up his chest to the adverse slings and arrows and buy his eternal name with blood! Let the miser look for his fortune; let the sailor drink up with his treacherous mouth the waters which he wore out by ploughing. But let it fall to me to waste away in the motion of Venus, and when I die, let me go slack in the middle of the work. Then someone may say at my funeral, “At least your death was suited to your life!”

at mihi saevus amor somnos abrumpat inertes,
simque mei lecti non ego solus onus!
me mea disperdat nullo prohibente puella—
si satis una potest, si minus una, duae!
sufficiam—graciles, non sunt sine viribus artus;
pondere, non nervis corpora nostra carent;
et lateri dabit in vires alimenta voluptas.
decepta est opera nulla puella mea;
saepe ego lascive consumpsi tempora noctis,
utilis et forti corpore mane fui.
felix, quem Veneris certamina mutua perdunt!
di faciant, leti causa sit ista mei!
Induat adversis contraria pectora telis
miles et aeternum sanguine nomen emat.
quaerat avarus opes et, quae lassarit arando,
aequora periuro naufragus ore bibat.
at mihi contingat Veneris languescere motu,
cum moriar, medium solvar et inter opus;
atque aliquis nostro lacrimans in funere dicat:
‘conveniens vitae mors fuit ista tuae!’

Platonic Degradation

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Chp. 5):

Indeed, the very first acknowledgment (as far as I am aware) of the attraction of mutilated bodies occurs in a founding description of mental conflict. It is a passage in The Republic, Book IV, where Plato’s Socrates describes how our reason may be overwhelmed by an unworthy desire, which drives the self to become angry with a part of its nature. Plato has been developing a tripartite theory of mental function, consisting of reason, anger or indignation, and appetite or desire – anticipating the Freudian scheme of superego, ego, and id (with the difference that Plato puts reason on top and conscience, represented by indignation, in the middle). In the course of this argument, to illustrate how one may yield, even if reluctantly, to repulsive attractions, Socrates relates a story he heard about Leontius, son of Aglaion:

On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go and look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, “There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on this lovely sight.”

Declining to choose the more common example of an inappropriate or unlawful sexual passion as his illustration of the struggle between reason and desire, Plato appears to take for granted that we also have an appetite for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation.

Surely the undertow of this despised impulse must also be taken into account when discussing the effect of atrocity in pictures.

Pitiless Force a Pitiful Possession

Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force (trans. Mary McCarthy):

Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. The human race is not divided up, in the Iliad, into conquered persons, slaves, suppliants, on the one hand, and conquerors and chiefs on the other. In this poem there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force. The common soldier in the Iliad is free and has the right to bear arms; nevertheless he is subject to the indignity of orders and abuse:

But whenever he came upon a commoner shouting out,

he struck him with his scepter and spoke sharply:

“Good for nothing! Be still and listen to your betters.

You are weak and cowardly and unwarlike,

You count for nothing, neither in battle nor in council.”

Thersites pays dear for the perfectly reasonable comments he makes, comments not at all different, moreover, from those made by Achilles:

He hit him with his scepter on back and shoulders,

so that he doubled over, and a great tear welled up,

And a bloody welt appeared on his back

Under the golden scepter. Frightened, he sat down,

Wiping away his tears, bewildered and in pain.

Troubled though they were, the others laughed long at him.

Achilles himself, that proud hero, the undefeated, is shown us at the outset of the poem, weeping with humiliation and helpless grief – the woman he wanted for his bride has been taken from under his nose, and he has not dared to oppose it:

. . . But Achilles

Weeping, sat apart from his companions,

By the white-capped waves, staring over the boundless ocean.

What has happened is that Agamemnon has deliberately humiliated Achilles, to show that he himself is the master:

… So you will learn

That I am greater than you, and anyone else will hesitate

To treat me as an equal and set himself against me.

But a few days pass and now the supreme commander is weeping in his turn. He must humble himself, he must plead, and have, moreover, the added misery of doing it all in vain.

In the same way, there is not a single one of the combatants who is spared the shameful experience of fear. The heroes quake like everybody else. It only needs a challenge from Hector to throw the whole Greek force into consternation – except for Achilles and his men, and they did not happen to be present.

Strength Not Absolute

Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force (trans. Mary MacCarthy):

Perhaps all men, by the very act of being born, are destined to suffer violence; yet this is a truth to which circumstance shuts men’s eyes. The strong are, as a matter of fact, never absolutely strong, nor are the weak absolutely weak, but neither is aware of this. They have in common a refusal to believe that they both belong to the same species: the weak see no relation between themselves and the strong, and vice versa. The man who is the possessor of force seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose, between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection. Where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence. Hence we see men in arms behaving harshly and madly. We see their sword bury itself in the breast of a disarmed enemy who is in the very act of pleading at their knees. We see them triumph over a dying man by describing to him the outrages his corpse will endure. We see Achilles cut the throats of twelve Trojan boys on the funeral pyre of Patroclus as naturally as we cut flowers for a grave.

These men, wielding power, have no suspicion of the fact that the consequences of their deeds will at length come home to them – they too will bow the neck in their turn. If you can make an old man fall silent, tremble, obey, with a single word of your own, why should it occur to you that the curses of this old man, who is after all a priest, will have their own importance in the gods’ eyes? Why should you refrain from taking Achilles’ girl away from him if you know that neither he nor she can do anything but obey you? Achilles rejoices over the sight of the Greeks fleeing in misery and confusion. What could possibly suggest to him that this rout, which will last exactly as long as he wants it to and end when his mood indicates it, that this very rout will be the cause of his friend’s death, and, for that matter, of his own? Thus it happens that those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.