“Simonides said that Hesiod is a gardener while Homer is a garland-weaver—the first planted the legends of the heroes and gods and then the second braided together them the garland of the Iliad and the Odyssey.”
Take a minute and imagine a tree in a park or garden. Make it a really nice tree, one you’d notice and remember if you lingered on it a bit, one that has been well situated in its environment. Think about the tree’s imperfect symmetry, the way it occupies its space.
Now think about this: someone planted the tree; others tended to it and trimmed it; more people spent generations selecting this domesticated tree from its ancestral stock. Think about the uncountable hands that made this tree possible, the saplings transplanted, the varieties combined over time. What were their lives like? What stories did they tell? What were trees to them?
Then think about the tree’s beauty, its aesthetics. What makes us set this tree apart from others? What is essential about it? Our appreciation is based on other trees we might not remember as well as an entire ‘grammar’ of human beings and the environment. Like any other native language, you learned its basic syntax without trying. You have a sense of the way trees should be.
You probably judge a tree differently from a shrub for historical aesthetic reasons. You have expectations on what trees should do, how they should look, and what function they fulfill. You are mostly not cognizant of these assumptions. But you almost certainly have different notions about a shrub or a bush.
Sure, the shrub comment may seem a bit of an aside, but it is really about genre. We have different sets of expectations for different categories of form based on explicit and implicit criteria.
Now, if someone asks you who is responsible for the tree, what do you say? Is it someone who designed the park? Is it a gardener? Is it the first person who imagined a tree in the garden?
Any single answer ignores those countless hands, minds, and environments that contributed to the treeness of this tree. It also ignores the salient fact that you are the one judging the tree and that your gaze is shaped by non-tree things.
For me, the Homeric epics are like that tree. They come out of a complex relationship between performance traditions, new technologies, and aesthetics that are both products and producers of the same song culture. The reception and transformation of this ancient song culture into something fixed and reanalyzed as a text with an author has shaped our own culture too.
How we respond to ‘arboreal’ questions is keyed into individual psychology and cultural discourse. We always simplify our interpretation of where the tree came from because our minds are too small to understand we are part of mind-networks and our lives are two abbreviated to trace time’s larger sweep. We impose simple origin stories on art and human products because it is hard to escape our own single experience of culture and see how it works in the aggregate.
These individual psychologies are shaped as well by a cultural system deeply interested in teleology and the import of design. Two aspects of this among many that interest me. First, our search for meaning in the empty universe encourages us to argue that design necessitates a designer. Second, our system of values and credit under capitalism emphasizes the metaphor of authorship as an opportunity for creating and maintaining value.
The two aspects are part of a shared problem: we assign meaning to the world we see based on patterns and human-mirroring things. We re-cast the pattern as a design and in that an intention we assign to authority and authors. So group activities that result in notable patterns are reanalyzed as communications of some type of an authorial intention.
And yet, we know that meaning is made from observation and reflection.
We impose a god/author model on complex things for cultural and psychological reasons. It is a fallacy to insist that design implies a designer when we recognize design as viewers conditioned to do so. The history of Homeric scholarship and its so-called ‘question’ (of which there are actually many) is dominated by the problem of design without an urgent exploration of what design may entail until the 20th century (in addition to work by Greg Nagy (recently Homer the Pre-Classicand Homer the Classic), see Casey Dué’s recent Achilles Unboundand Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer).
There’s no smoking gun about Homeric authorship. There will never be a clear answer to the issue. That we care so much about it is a problem. it is, dare I say, the rot at the core of ‘western’ liberalism and capitalism, this desperate search for ancient authority combined with a pathological need to extract profit from everything.
In searching for “Homer”, most people find what they want to find. (Something Casey Due makes the case for in looking at the invention of Ossian). My experience of teaching, reading, and writing about the epics for over two decades is that people cleave almost painfully to what they believe about authorship and art before they really listen to the Homeric poems.. That’s also why I keep returning to the bench and thinking as much about who is thinking about Homer and why.
And when I turn back I think less in terms of “who wrote the Iliad” than what the people were like who domesticated the epics and set them aside and why we still look at them today.
“For poets certainly tell us that they bring us songs by drawing from the honey-flowing springs or certain gardens and glades of the Muses just like bees. And because they too are winged, they also speak the truth.”
Trees in Homer: Paris’ Ship, Odysseus’ Raft, and Laertes’ Orchards
My metaphor of a tree for seeing Homer as something organic and exhibiting aesthetic beauty without a designing authority may seem a bit whimsical, if not outlandish. But I am in part inspired by what we find in Homer. In Homeric poetry trees are objects of wealth, inheritance and memory. They appear at a crucial moment in Odysseus’ return to Ithaca when he meets his father. Odysseus follows the patterns established earlier in the book and attempts to deceive his father before they both weep and he tries to prove who he is, first by pointing to his scar, and then by pointing to the trees.
Odyssey 24. 336–339
“But, come, if I may tell you about the trees through the well-founded orchard
The ones which you gave to me—when I was a child I asked you about each
As I followed you through the garden. We traced a path through them
And you named and spoke about each one.”
As Erich Auerbach famously observes, Odysseus’ scar is an entry-point into a universe of aesthetic thought. As I see it it, the scar is a metonym for identity and story traditions. It marks experiences and potential stories to be told. The trees are metonyms for stories themselves and they have are metapoetic as well. Alex Purves (2010:228) characterizes steps as Odysseus “taking an imaginary walk through the orchard in his mind just as [Elizabeth] Minchin has suggested that Homer takes a cognitive walk through the Peloponnese in order to recount the Catalogue of Ships (2001: 84-7).”
As Elton Barker and I explore in Homer’s Thebes (78) Whether or not Laertes’ trees mind the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, the trees are suggestive of the stories that are or could be told. [Cf. Henderson 1997:87 for the trees as “epic wood.” So too, “… the trees may stand metonymically for epic poems… the combined product of nature and nurture which have been shaped by the judgment (aesthetic and political) of countless constant gardeners” (628).
Of course, these assertions seem strange if we don’t look at other Homeric trees. For me, a signal moment in epic poetry comes when Odysseus is authorized to build a raft to escape from Ogygia and try to return home. The narrative pays special attention to enumerating the trees and specifying Odysseus’ skill in using them:
“She gave him the smooth axe and then took him on the path
To the farthest part of the island where the tale trees were growing,
Alder, ash and fir trees reaching to the sky,
Dry for a long time, long-seasoned, perfect for sailing.
Once she showed him where the great trees were growing,
Kalypso, the beautiful goddess, returned to her home,
While he was cutting out planks. The work went quickly.
He picked out twenty altogether and cut them with bronze.
He skillfully planed them down and made them straight with a level.
At the same time, the shining goddess Kalypso was bringing him augers
And he drilled all the pieces and fit them together.
As wide as a man who is skilled in wood-working
Traces out the line of a merchant ship—that’s
How wide Odysseus made his skiff.
Once he set up the deck beams he attached them to the
Close-placed ribs. And then he finished out the raft with long gunwales.
He fashioned a mast and placed on it a yard-arm.
He also made a rudder to steer with and then
He fashioned willow-branches and brush into a wall
To stand against the waves around the vessel.
And then Kalypso brought him a bolt of cloth
To make into a sail. He crafted that too, skillfully.
He tied into the raft braces, and restraints, and sheets
And using levers moved it down toward the shining sea.
It was the fourth day and everything was complete.”
Here we find a balance between nature and skill, between the material found and offered and the creative power of a maker authorized by a god. If the trees at the end of the Odyssey are symbols of tales that might be told, these Ogygian planks are echoes of stories that were told and lost. They also tell us about the relationship between narrative agent and story. As I write in my recent Many-Minded Man: “In this passage’s detail and the dramatization of Odysseus’s labors, the epic offers an anticipatory metaphor for the rebuilding of the hero’s identity. The material available has been there for years—it is not of Odysseus’s own making, but his skill and agency are critical for forming it into something new, something that can make a path or journey of its own. The selection of the trees stands in for the selection of stories and aspects of the self that will be reassembled as Odysseus journeys home.” ( 2020, 11).
But in this analysis, I might focus overmuch on the epic’s hero and not enough on the epic stuff itself. There is a relationship between the basic matter (the wood, the trees) and the stuff matter makes: ships, homes, vessels of meaning and vessels for meaning. It may be too cute to juxtapose, but there may be more to the Greek word for “matter” hule, which can also mean wood, than meets the eye.
Epic is deeply concerned with what comes after and some of its figures, like Hektor, imagine singular monuments, tombs that can be seen and act as reminders for men to come. In a way, the grave is a kind of scar left on the earth conveying its own story. But groves of trees and the ships they provide can carry on meaning and life in different ways. I am reminded here of a brief aside from the Iliad.
“Mêrionês then killed Phereklos, the son of the carpenter,
Son of Joiner, who knew who to fashion all sorts of intricate tings
With his hands. Pallas Athena loved him especially.
He is the one who designed Alexander’s fantastic ships,
Those kindlers of evil which brought evil on all the Trojans
And on him especially, since he understood nothing of the divine prophecies.
Well, Mêrionês, once he overtook him in pursuit,
Struck him through the right buttock. The sharp point
Went straight through his bladder under the bone.
He fell to his knee and groaned. Then death overtook him.
Ok, this passage may seem unconnected and offering it may seem indulgent even for me, but consider the way Phereklos is marked out as a carpenter’s son and how the ships that carried Paris to war are positioned as the vehicles of evil for them all. While as scholiast (Schol. bT ad Il.5.59) glosses the name Phereklos as “one who brings the turmoil of war through the ships” (Φέρεκλος ὁ φέρων κλόνον διὰ τῶν νέων), I would also like to believe that name Phere-klos, might make someone think of ‘fame-bringer’. And the connection between poetic fame and the activity of the war arises elsewhere in this passage two.
Note that the this Phere-klos is the son of Harmonidês, a man who, according to the passage, is the one who build the ships “the bringers of evil” (ἀρχεκάκους) for Paris (those ships which carried him from Troy to Sparta…). The name Harmonidês is not insignificant: Gregory Nagy has etymologized Homer as “one who fits the song together”. Phereklos’ father is a “craftsman” (“tektôn”) who built the very ships that allowed his son (and Paris) to bring the conflict to Troy and generate the fame of the songs it generated. Here, the ships are positioned as the first steps in evil, but I would suggest, that as the means by which the songs themselves travel across the sea, the ships are, as products of specialized craftsmen, both metonymns for the stories themselves and necessary vehicles for their transmission.
And here, even if asymmetrical, I find myself considering a life-cycle of Homeric trees: the way one set were cut down to fan the flames of war that launched myriad ships; that others fell to bring Odysseus home to gaze upon his ancestral orchards, potentials tales to be told or curtailed…once Odysseus journeys to a land where no one remembers the sea.
The conventional reading of the lyric assumes that the speaker is a lover (name: Sappho) who needs Aphrodite’s help to win (or punish) a reluctant beloved. An alternative interpretation: Sappho is a singer who needs Aphrodite’s help not to win a lover but to compose a persuasive love song. This reading turns first on the summons “come here” and “come”, and then on the god’s epiphany—or rather, the unexpected sounding of the god’s voice.
The temptation is to hear in the call to Aphrodite the traditional summons of lyric hymn. There, the suppliant speaker calls on the god to perform some beneficial task. For example, Anacreon 357:
On my knees I beg you,
Come to me,
Listen to my pleasing prayer:
To Cleobulus be
A good counselor so that he accepts
My love, O Dionysus.
In Sappho 1, things are somewhat different. The call to Aphrodite more resembles an invocation to the muse, the plea to enable song making (not find a lover). We might associate this practice with epic, but of course it exists in Archaic lyric too. Alcman 27:
Come, Muse Calliope, daughter of Zeus—
Begin with lovely verses—
Put charm into our hymn—
And make our dance a graceful one.
In Alcman’s figural language, the muse is to “begin” the very song Alcman himself is beginning to sing. Hesiod says of the muses, “they breathed into me wonderous song,” (Theog. 31-32) and Alcman asks the same of his muse. And so does Sappho. But what’s distinctive about Sappho is that she makes literal what is only metaphorical in the tradition. The voice of her responsive god literally issues from her throat as she sings her song (strophes 5 and 6). This is what it means for the god to have come: it is Aphrodite who “begins” when Sappho sings, enabling her song. The struggle of song-making: That’s the fight in which she needs an ally. In the absence of the allied muse, song-making would be an exercise in “vexations and frustrations.”
“Inevitable death is hung above everyone’s head alike. Everyone receives an equal share of it – both the good and the wicked.”
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.
The seer Megistias, examining the sacrifices, first told the Hellenes at Thermopylae that death was coming to them with the dawn. Then deserters came who announced the circuit made by the Persians. These gave their signals while it was still night; a third report came from the watchers running down from the heights of down. The Hellenes then took counsel, but their opinions were divided. Some advised not to leave their post, but others spoke against them. They eventually parted, some departing and dispersing each to other own cities, others preparing to remain there with Leonidas. It is said that Leonidas himself sent them away because he was concerned that they would be killed, but felt it not fitting for himself and the Spartans to desert that post which they had come to defend at the beginning. I, however, tend to believe that when Leonidas perceived that the allies were dispirited and unwilling to run all risks with him, he told them to depart. For himself, however, it was not good to leave; if he remained, he would leave a name of great fame, and the prosperity of Sparta would not be blotted out. When the Spartans asked the oracle about this war when it broke out, the Pythia had foretold that either Lacedaemon would be destroyed by the barbarians or their king would be killed. She gave them this answer in hexameter verses running as follows:
“For you, inhabitants of wide-wayed Sparta, Either your great and glorious city must be wasted by Persian men, Or if not that, then the bound of Lacedaemon must mourn a dead king, from Heracles’ line. The might of bulls and lions will not restrain him opposing strength; for he has the might of Zeus. I declare that he will not be restrained until he utterly tears apart one of these.”
Considering this and wishing the win distinction for the Spartans alone, he sent away the allies rather than have them leave in disorder because of a difference of opinion.
During the Byzantine era, Greek fishermen and mariners made up the entirety of the population on these three islands, Prinkipo, Halki and Antigone. On the latter, there was a watchtower that gave the island its Turkish name, (Burgaz, a corruption of the ancient Greek πύργος), mentioned by Evliya Çelebi and other Westerner travelers, seen in an engraving by Cosimo Comidas, from 1794. The island of course looks very different today, with its wooden palaces built in earlier centuries, now a present memory of an earlier Istanbul that disappeared during the fires – both real and metaphorical, and punctuated by the vast inequalities of Turkey; the humble boats of the now Turkish fishermen docked alongside jet skies and sailboats. The Greek population has largely vanished, but many Jews from the city still have their summer residences there.
If you’ve been to Antigone on a summer day, you would recognize the scene, portrayed in Nektaria Anastasiadou’s debut novel “A Recipe for Daphne” (2020), when a group of Istanbul Greeks (known as “Rums”, I’ll return to this later) traveled by ferry to the island for a lunch at Aliki’s house:
“Do you see that old lady up there?” she said, nodding toward a woman with an arm dangling over her oriel sill. “Probably Rum,” said Kosmas. “She’d have to be Rum -or Jewish- to have an old house like that. That’s what I love about Antigone in the summer. You can ever hear Greek and Ladino coming from open windows. It’s like smelling the rich aroma of tsoureki bread wafting out of bakeries at Easter time.”
It’s impossible to miss the purple-dyed lilacs hanging from the windows, the pungent smell of pines, the mild saltiness of the Marmara Sea, and the loud chatter coming out of fish restaurants on the seashores. At lunch, in Anastasiadou’s novel, everything is made to seem extraordinary; the trays of freshly prepared food under mosquito tents, the smell of coffee, clinking glasses of cherry liquor, heated conversations with fists on the table and dances to the tune of music. Perhaps the music of Roza Eskenazi, the Jewish-Greek rebetiko singer from Constantinople, is playing in the background?
And yet, anyone who lived on the islands has been to such day-long gatherings, where always an elderly person will tell you that parties were so much better in the earlier years, without being able to say specifically why. Is this scene then a telegram from a lost world?
It’s a pity that the Greeks left, it’s the common explanation, after which a long silence settles in. During a phaeton ride (they have been banned since 2019), Daphne, our main character, wonders about the history of this place: They slowed for a turn. A derelict cottage of dry boards caught up Daphne’s eye. Through its glassless windows and tattered lace curtains, she glimpsed dusty, abandoned wicker furniture and a paper icon tacked to the wall. She wondered why the cottage’s owners had left without even collecting the furniture and curtains. Had they been deported in 1964? Had they been unable to endure the nationalistic pressures of the seventies?
In a different part of the novel, Kosmas’ mother Rea (he is courting Daphne) recounts the events of the pogroms against the Greeks in 1955, on the Princes Islands:
“–we were at our cottage on the island. It’s always on a Tuesday that these things happen, just like in 1453.”
“Mama, please. What do your shoes have to do with black Tuesday and pogroms and the fall of Constantinople?”
“When the mob arrived by ferry, my mother and I hid in the shed behind the house. My father and brothers took refuge in the fig trees. The thugs threw the bell of Saint Nicholas into the sea and killed the monk who used to make these crucifixes. They tried to burn our house, too, but the fire extinguished itself. My mother said it was because of the crucifix. She’d fixed it to the inside of the door before we hid in the shed.”
Yet, the central theme of “A Recipe for Daphne” is not the tragic modern history of the Greeks of Istanbul, although the events of 1955 lurk powerfully in the background: Fanis’ wife committed suicide after a rape on the night of the events, and Daphne’s parents, Ilyas and Sultana, an “Ottoman” (a polite nod to “Turk” and Muslim, often used in Greek media) and a Greek woman, migrated to the United States afterwards. Daphne is a Greek-American teacher from Miami, who travels to Istanbul for the summer (set in 2011), to discover this distant ancestral home, and try to make sense of her Greekness, which in a place like Istanbul, is far from a linear, well-organized narrative.
The actual theme of the novel is food. Yes, food. Lots of food. An incredibly fertile and vivacious metaphor for the pluriverse of the Mediterranean; richly extravagant descriptions of interminable plates, appetizers, confections, and pastries, make Istanbul feel alive!
The descriptions are mesmerizing: “A waiter brought a tray of cold appetizers in rectangular white dishes. Everything was fresh, impeccable, and tastefully decorated with red pepper slices, lemon wedges, olives, and minced parsley. Kosmas wondered what Daphne would like best. He ordered mussels stuffed with cinnamon-flavored rice, smoked eggplant salad, cod roe spread, and salt bonito in oil.” At times, I struggled to identify the English names, since I have known these dishes for nearly a decade only in Turkish.
Or think of this spectacular idea for a wedding cake: “For you I’d do five round tiers delicately accented with green cardamom from the Egyptian Bazaar. Butter-cream icing, without coloring, because the natural cream is understated and elegant, like you.” He paused. Car lights flashed from the rim of the bay, lighting up her face. She was smiling and looking directly at him now, as if no one else existed. He shook off the dizziness caused by her gaze and continued: “The decoration will be of the same cream color. Piped like embroidery, not stenciled. You’d never fit into a mold. The motifs will be Ottoman: foliage, tulips, carnations, hyacinths. From top to bottom, in an elegant curve, will stretch one stern of white orchids.”
It is a pastry recipe which holds the center of the narrative together and presents Anastasiadou’s complex but tender world. Kosmas is a trained patissier, proud Rum, and deeply knowledgeable about the history of the city:
“All the time. Ancient, Byzantine, Ottoman. Everything I find about the City. My favorite is Edmondo de Amici’s 1877 travelogue Constantinople. After raving about the beauty of the city from afar, de Amici begins his second chapter by describing Constantinople -in which he had, by that time, spent five hours -as a monstrous confusion of civilization and barbarism. Which is exactly what Istanbul remains to this day.”
Kosmas is searching for a lost recipe from the Ottoman world, a pastry called the Balkanik, and after many attempts, the original recipe was found in an old Ottoman language book from Uncle Mustafa:
He now understood the general construction: the Balkanik was a long hollow pastry with a consistency that fell somewhere between that of an éclair and a sponge cake. It was filled with lightly flavored creams: chocolate, vanilla, cardamom, rose, pistachio, saffron, mastic gum, orchid root.
Fanis looked down at the plate. If the Balkanik pastry could be resurrected, then perhaps there was hope for their community. “Bravo,” he said.
“I’m proud of you, son,” said Rea. She took the knife from Emine, symbolically crossed the pastry thrice, and cut it into slices. The inside was exactly as it always had been: Filled with different colored and flavored creams.
“Each cream represents one of the Ottoman Balkan peoples,” Kosmas explained. “Bulgarians, Romanians, Albanian, Greeks, Serbs, Croats, Jews and Turks.”
But who are the Rums and Greeks that Anastasiadou uses almost interchangeably? Here things begin to get complicated for Daphne and for us. The identity of Hellenic peoples in the ancient world was never a coherent whole, and this ambiguity significantly expanded during the Byzantine period, with the transition of power from West to East, and the inheritance of complex ideas about Roman citizenship. But fundamentally, “Rum” is merely the Ottoman term for Roman, or Ῥωμαῖος that the foundation of Constantinople in the year 324 came to problematize in its own particular manner, between contradictory ethnic, religious and cultural identities.
The question of who Byzantines were, has historically preoccupied scholars, especially given that the term Byzantine was never used by Romans themselves. Anthony Kaldellis, one prominent Byzantine scholar in this debate, for example, argues, that the terms of engagement were not homogeneous between elite identity and ethnicity, city and countryside, and that although for the most part, Roman, referred from that point in time onwards, to Greek-speaking Christians from the empire, this usage was not consistent. Rum is also used today in all Arabic-speaking countries to refer to all their native Christian Orthodox population and was at some point used in India in reference to all the peoples of the Middle East, both Christian and Muslim.
A number of conversations emerge in “A Recipe for Daphne” that touch on these unfinished debates and what they mean today for the tiny, dwindling, Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, now numbering in the few thousands. When Daphne criticized the idea of the Orthodox Homogeneia in describing Greeks only as a race, Kosmas’ mother slapped her hand onto the table and said “You’re not from here, Daphne,” […] “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” It’s a difficult conversation to have in a volatile and often violent environment, where public trust is absent, and a traumatized community is clinging to a last stand, wondering if there’s a future for the community.
In the novel, a sermon takes place at the local church (perhaps the Panagia Isodion church, in the district of Beyoğlu, around the corner from the Hazzopoulos restaurant?), that puts this last stand to the test with a folk tale based on Herodotus:
At the close of the service, the bishop delivered a short sermon about the survival of the Rum community: “When Leonidas, King of the Spartans, went forth to battle with the Persians at Thermopylae with a force of only three hundred men, someone asked how he planned to defeat an enemy so numerous with so few. Leonidas replied, ‘if you think I am going to get by numbers, then the whole of Greece would be insufficient to match the Persians, but if I am going to get by courage, then even this number is sufficient.’”
“You see?” said Daphne to her aunt. “Even this number is sufficient.”
We know now, nevertheless, that courage is not sufficient, for as Herodotus tells us (Hdt. 7.238.1) Xerxes gave orders to cut off the head of Leonidas and impale it, the source of great humiliation. Today in Istanbul it’s not necessary to be Greek in order to see clearly that more than courage is needed for a last stand that doesn’t involve dying as it was for Leonidas: Constant unrest, student protests, impoverishment, arbitrary arrests, sham trials, infinite nepotism, embezzlement, conspiracy theories and wars. One might harbor good intentions and faith, but the surface of reality cannot be trusted.
The order of history is so fragile and convoluted that a scene taking place in the green scenery in the Gezi Park, in central Istanbul, though set in 2011, now seems part of an archaic, nearly forgotten era. Since the Gezi Park protests that rocked the country in 2013, the park has been largely closed to the public and heavily policed, as a traditional site of political contestation between the authorities and the public. We can already sense here the permanent uncertainty:
“You can easily make your life there, but there’s little history and no decay, no domes and minarets, no craziness, no secrets. In Istanbul you never know what’s around the next corner.”
“It could be a policeman in riot gear, or a teargas canister, or a bombed synagogue or bank,” said Selin. […]
“Girls!” Gavriela made a zipper motion over her mouth. “Enough of the B-word. Half the people in this park are plainclothes cops. They might think you’re terrorists.”
In a way, we are constantly witnessing decay and deterioration as a marker of time, but it also seems to me as if the city has been always been decaying, since the very beginning of time, and that decay is one of its structural features, always trapped between its mythologies and its utopian dreams (to paraphrase here the sociologist Ekrem Işın). The idea, constantly appearing in conversations in Istanbul, that the past had been better, is always fraught with hesitation.
I can’t help but think of the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf and his recent book “Adrift: How Our Word Lost Its Way” (2020), where he mourns the vanishing world of Levantine Christians from Alexandria, to Adana, to Beirut, Cairo and Constantinople, he also hastens to add that the collapse of this multicultural world, though beautiful as it might have been, was unavoidable precisely because its foundations were not solid, anchored in the divide and rule policies of the Ottomans, followed by European colonialist adventures in the region, and the watching eye of American imperialism.
Fanis hated nothing more than solitude at the close of the day, yet there was nothing more certain than solitude for the last of the Levantine Christians and Rums.
Nevertheless there’s something especially relevant in “A Recipe for Daphne” far beyond the delicate metaphors around the Balkanik, and that is, a conversation about the complexities of the ancient world that resonate strongly now at a moment when there’s a fierce debate in the Classics around the meaning of antiquity and the classical tradition today, against a background of the role classicism has played in shaping Western political institutions.
On the one hand, the novel resorts to the traditional strategy of contextualizing Istanbul “Rums” as the descendants of “natives” from the Eastern Roman Empire, which of course we know to be historically flawed: The Greek community of Constantinople was destroyed during the Ottoman conquest and a careful look at Greek family names present in the 20th century Rum community, would inform us that the origin of many of these names is in fact in mainland Greece and that many Greeks relocated to Istanbul through the centuries primarily seeking the advantages of the imperial Ottoman capital.
On the other hand, one the characters in the novel, Jewish violinist Selin, explains to the audience that the various peoples of Turkey are not so different genetically, the result of countless intermarriages, conversions and migrations.
“Look at the key,” said Selin, pointing. “The light green represents the Minoan Greek gene. The Greeks have the same amount of that as the Turks. The black is Caucasian and Greco-Anatolian. The dark green is Arab and Jewish, the yellow Mycenaean Greek. The orange is also Mediterranean, and the red represents Hittite and Armenian.”
Fanis set the iPad on the table. “Do you mean to say… that the Turks are almost as indigenous as we are?” “Yes,” said Selin. “Nonsense,” said Gavriela. “I don’t believe a word.”
For an example from history, the key moment in the transition from Byzantine to Modern Greek, one of the cornerstones of Greek identity, as we know from a study by Henri Tonnet, took place in Istanbul but not even among the Rums; it was the translation of the Constantinople Torah by Greek-speaking Jews in 1547.
What we can learn today from this complex world depicted in a contemporary novel, is the liquidity of time: There are infinite permutations and narrative fluctuations between temporal horizons that are neither closed nor stable. The idea of Greekness presented here, departs from the indifference of the classical tradition to Byzantine and Modern Greek but also from the Greek state’s national narrative that presents a perfect continuity line between the rather brief classical period and the modern republic. This divergence is articulated in one simple sentence, in a conversation between Daphne and Kosmas that would seem puzzling to a Western audience:
“You’re an easterner, Daphne, one of ours. Frankish men aren’t for you.”
But the city remains, as it is… I can’t remember a single occasion when a Rum in Istanbul didn’t tell me that he or she was moving somewhere: Moving out of the Old City in the imperial era, and then now moving between Khalkedon and Prinkipo, Tatavla and Therapia, Pera and Fener, leaving the country, moving to Athens, moving to America, returning from Athens, leaving again. Always going somewhere as if in a peripatetic circle. But the city, both cruel and gentle, witness to the depth of time, has chosen to remain seated in its place.
“Do you know where you are?” “Of course I do. I’m in the City.” “Which city?”
“There’s only one. Istanbul.”
Lastly, a word about minor literatures: Why was a novel like “A Recipe for Daphne” not written in Turkish or Greek, both languages native to the author? In many ways, English creates a hermetic narrative, and thus, a distance impossible to bridge.
It’s the ornate palatial rooms, the saturation of light and life, the over-jewelled Istanbul women, and the trays overflowing with food. Or the precariousness of the cosmopolitan minorities with their lips tightly sealed, serving the local elites in exchange for protection, or the sad aura of rebetiko playing in a meyhane, now shuttered due to the pandemic. Or the cruel humor about sex and marriage, in both Turkish and Greek, characteristic of traditional societies. I assure you there’s not an inch of fiction in these descriptions, methodically excavated from life. In this sense, the novel is a form of minor literature (rather than minority) in the way envisioned by Deleuze and Guattari: “Minor literature is not a literature written in a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language. Rather than a literature of a small nation, minor literature is a form of expression, a subversion of a language by a minority use.”
And here minor is also a form of multidirectional memory: Minor in reference not only to the status of the Rums in Turkey and the Turkish language itself, but also minor in reference to mainland Greece and the Greek republican monopolization of a Greek identity that existed (perhaps it is appropriate to use here the past tense, with the exception of Istanbul) across Western Asia. It is the distance from both Greek and Turkish what I believe, creates this additional geography, around a central question: What does it mean to be the Other?
Last year, on the 6th of September, the memorial day of the pogroms against the Greeks in 1955, Nektaria launched “A Recipe for Daphne” in the courtyard of the Panagia Kumariotisa church, in the elegant neighborhood of Nihori (Yeniköy in Turkish). There, in the garden, there’s a bust of Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy, who lived in the area for three years in his youth and the house where he lived is now the stuff of legends. Gregory Jusdanis was the last Greek to attempt a search, which yielded nothing but an empty plot in the middle of a road intersection. It is Cavafy, a favorite of Nektaria Anastasiadou, who in a letter, once mentioned that he saw himself as “Hellenic” rather than “Greek”, a broader community defined by language and culture, more than an ethnic or national belonging to a place. I think Daphne would be comfortable with this reading.
That evening, without having yet read Daphne, walking along the shores of the Bosporus, amidst the prominent yalis of Yeniköy, returning from the church, I thought about whether it might not be a good time to leave the city, while the sky’s still blue and the lilacs in full summer bloom. Being unaware then of the days and the hours, both beautiful and terrible, that would soon engulf me and my new friend Daphne, after a certain day, weeks later, the most miraculous of all, on the Golden Horn.
I still haven’t left Istanbul, but that day, Cavafy’s poem for his beloved Alexandria came to mind.
C.P. Cavafy, The City, 1905-1915, trans. Evangelos Sachperoglou
Any new lands you will not find; you’ll find no other seas.
The city will be following you. In the same streets
You’ll wander. And in the same neighborhood you’ll age,
And in these same houses you’ll grow grey.
Always in this same city you’ll arrive. For elsewhere -do not
There’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Just as you’ve wasted your life here,
In this tiny niche, in the entire world you’ve ruined it.
Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θά βρεις άλλες θάλασσες.
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς
τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς·
και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.
Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού — μη ελπίζεις —
δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Έτσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κόχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γη την χάλασες.
“A Recipe for Daphne”, by Nektaria Anastasiadou, was published by Hoopoe Fiction/AUCPress, and is available here. All quotes in italics are from the book.
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.
Manliness is out, but it was once very much in. Ever since then, men have been trying to bring it back. Reading might not seem like a particularly masculine activity, but for centuries, writers have urged us to consider how manly the Classics are. John Milton claimed that the study of Greek should be supported so that students “…may despise and scorn all their childish, and ill-taught qualities, to delight in manly, and liberal exercises.” Dr. Johnson expatiated upon his course of reading thus:
“What he read during these two years he told me, was not works of mere amusement, ‘not voyages and travels, but all literature, Sir, all ancient writers, all manly: though but little Greek, only some of Anacreon and Hesiod; but in this irregular manner (added he) I had looked into a great many books, which were not commonly known at the Universities, where they seldom read any books but what are put into their hands by their tutors; so that when I came to Oxford, Dr. Adams, now master of Pembroke College, told me I was the best qualified for the University that he had ever known come there.’”
In a recent National Review commentary discussing Trump’s ban from Twitter, Victor Davis Hanson wrote that Democrats will take action to “emasculate their conservative opposition.” At this point, conservative pedants who know which of those four words will come in for censure might be reaching for their dictionaries to note that ‘emasculate’ can be used as a simple synonym for ‘weaken,’ with no reference to the more penile elements of life intended. These critics are invited to peruse a thesaurus as well, and note the preponderance of synonyms for ‘weaken,’ which are not, in origin, about depriving someone of his manliness.
Hanson, perhaps wishing that his name were Manson, is obsessed with manliness. Substantial portions of his old dumpster fire of a book, Who Killed Homer, read like an extended encomium to the most chiseled and hairy of the people whom we call men. Heath may have dropped out of the race, but Hanson has made a long career out of reclaiming the essential manliness of ancient literature against the onslaught of feminism and sensitivity training. In one of the book’s most patently absurd passages, Hanson and Heath imagined the Classics professor as the square-jawed protagonist of a Clint Eastwood western or a war fantasy:
It is too quiet an existence, mitigated not even by a battle-scarred centurion who – even if wrong – could at least have slapped you silly with “You are learning Greek to understand doomed courage from Socrates; the lot of man, courtesy of the words of Jesus. You study Greek to communicate to the uninitiated that there were always better, more mysterious things in the world than interest, depreciation, and Reeboks.” Red-faced and sore, surprised that someone wanted you to learn Greek, you could have then at least saluted at the failed effort and snapped back, “Thanks, Sarge, I needed that.”
If we are going to lose Greek, let us do so with burly, cigar-chomping professors, red-eyed from overload classes, wounds oozing from bureaucratic combat, chests bristling with local teaching medals and complimentary Rotary pens from free lecturing, barking orders and dragging dozens of bodies forward as they brave administrative gunfire, oblivious to the incoming rounds from ethnic studies and contemporary cinema.
It’s hard to tell whether triviality or testosterone predominate in this conception. I’m surprised that we weren’t given the Glenngary Glen Ross treatment, that they didn’t reach for the briefcase and say, “You know what it takes to teach Classics? It takes brass balls.”
There is a lot of verbal wrangling in Who Killed Homer, but the central message is that the Classics – and the humanities more generally – must be saved for men. “Ethnic studies and contemporary cinema” are cited as the enemies of Classics, but Hanson gave the game away here. Conservative critics of the academy regularly deride “area studies,” but that is exactly what Classics is. There is a tendency the reactionary to balk at labels like “Ancient Mediterranean Studies,” because their intended goal is for Classics to stand for all of human experience, in much the same way that they hope for “he” to continue serving as a universal pronoun.
Hanson has been operating in the field of cultural commentary for some time, and he has surely made more of a career as a member of the FOX commentariat than he has as a Classics professor. In the minds of men like Hanson, civilization is collapsing because the humanities have been so sensitized, so feminized, so emasculated. Hanson is an ardent fan of Donald Trump, and in addition to writing a book-length apologia for the orange man, he served in the ministry of propaganda which released the MAGA Manifesto on January 18th. I confess that it long puzzled me that a man who had tried to bill himself as an intellectual figure could perform such mental and rhetorical gymnastics to align himself with Trumpism. But one line of Trump’s last treasonous phone call to Mike Pence on the eve of January 6th, reveals the central strain of the Trumpian worldview: “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.”
No doubt, Hanson would feign mock astonishment and discomfiture at the vulgarism, but his career-long project of commentary upon academia amounts to this: the humanities are in danger of being “a subject for pussies,” as the rugged and manly readers of yore abandon their libraries for the woods and the insurrectionist stage. Hanson, and other men like him, have been engaged in a long project of masculine revanchism which seeks to make both academia and the world manly again.
The cult of the manly man is all around us. Why else does the figure of the macho lunkhead have such extensive social cache? Why does someone like Joe Rogan have an audience? Billed as an regular guy – a real man’s man – he is an ignoramus of staggering proportions, whose program consists of a mix of demotic everyman bafflement at the presentation of ordinary facts followed up by pontificating in the language of locker room cliché. But he provides a certain comfort to the fragile masculine core: it’s okay to be stupid, because Joe is too. He gets away with it because he has muscles. Jordan Peterson got away with it because he ate an all-beef diet. Donald Trump gets away with it because there is something reassuring for men in the sight of a president like him. When his supporters use the words “my president,” they feel an affinity for him because he allowed all of the rank and indolent stupidity of pure masculinity a free expression which it has not had for decades.
Even artistic depictions of Trump reflect the same anxious concern about idealized masculinity and musculature. We all know that Trump is colossally out of shape, but he is portrayed by his cultists as a Herculean figure. At least in the Classical past, people may not have seen the rulers and grandees who were sculpted with impossible muscles, but we are confronted with the image of Trump every day, and it is hard to spot the resemblance between the orange monster and the Hercules of Mar-A-Lago.
The project of these masculine irredentists is an old one. Before today’s heralds of revitalized masculinity arrived on the scene, there was Robert Bly. In his book Iron John, Bly formulated the concept of Zeus energy, which he described thus:
“Zeus energy, which encompasses intelligence, robust health, compassionate decisiveness, good will, generous leadership. Zeus energy is male authority accepted for the sake of the community.”
He had little idea in 1990 that Zeus energy would be paralleled by a number of similar masculine formulations: big dick energy, dragon energy (which Kanye West applied to Donald Trump), etc. The appeal of Zeus energy may help to explain the attraction of Trump. Bly is of course wrong to apply the qualities of intelligence, compassion, good will, and generosity to that celestial tyrant. Those who are up on their myth will remember Zeus as a petulant rapist who bristled at every challenge to his authority. As Ovid described Jupiter in the Metamorphoses, he “mixed prayers with threats in regal fashion.” What could be more Trumpian than the joint appeal of flattery and threats? Who better understood the Trumpian logic of sexual assault than Zeus? Perhaps what Hanson and others see in allowing Trump to abase us all is the “male authority accepted for the sake of the community.” And what was that male authority to provide us? Safety or stability? No – just a return to manly business as usual.
Trump is no Hercules, but his affinity for crude and unregulated violence is characteristically masculine. (It is worth noting that Joe Rogan earned his fame as a commentator on blood sport.) What the Hansonian school counsels is deference to the masculine writ-large. Consider this piece from Who Killed Homer, in which they praise the straightforward qualities of Homeric speech:
“I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me to hack your meat away and eat it raw for the things that you have done to me.” Not much worry about “universal inclusivity” here either. No blush that it might be taken as uncivil, cruel, or unfair, much less depressing or harsh; no concern other than that it is believed to be true and so should be said, to sink or rise on its own merits.
You see, the problem with kids these days is that they waste too much time in circumlocution before they fuck you up. In Hanson’s fantasy world, you might well murder a person with impunity, but the zealous eye of the PC Police will be watching to ensure that you don’t say anything uncivil beforehand.
As I suggested earlier, this is not a new phenomenon. Masculine grievance goes back a long time, but the particular strand of mythopoetic masculine revanchism is best embodied by Robert Bly. While Trump may be lacking in certain masculine traits, he is in many ways the perfect embodiment of Zeus energy, a presidential permission slip for men to let it all hang out again. Trump wanted to defund the PC Police. “Fuck your feelings” is Zeus energy distilled.
This masculine revival is clothed in Classical imagery. One can see why the ancient world offers such a rich treasury of fantasy for the modern man in revolt against the feminine. It’s easy enough to conjure up an ancient Greece where men could really be men, a real boys’ club of gymnastic, oiled-down, hairy masculinity, and the whole corpus of Greek literature skews a bit penisy.
Trump’s small hands may no longer be on the levers of power, and some of his acolytes may even be in jail. But his influence lives on like the blood of Nessus: a poison which threatens us even in the absence of the man himself. There are many strains to the particularly virulent reactionary conservatism which fueled his rise, and while we may glean some insight about the inarticulate and movie-fueled madness of some of his supporters by endlessly rewatching the Capitol assault, we ought even more to reflect on the motives of his intellectual apologists. In the case of Victor Davis Hanson in particular, it is hard not to see his support of Trump as predicated entirely on his fondness for masculine grievance.
As Joel has written on this site countless times, the Homeric epics can teach us meaningful lessons about grief and trauma. But in Who Killed Homer, Hanson looked back upon manly, merciless brutality as a salutary antidote to the effeminate cultural sensitivity of our times. The impulse to treat Homeric scenes as paradigms for modern behavior is the same as the impulse to bring back ritual stoning and beheading – a fetishization of barbarism under the guise of the restoration of masculinity.
Masculine irredentism is necessarily mythopoetic, and relies on vaguely mythical structures because they provide the ideal material for clouding the mind while suggesting something primal, something long-forgotten and long-lost in human society. Even in antiquity, authors like Caesar casually drew parallels between culture/civilization and effeminacy. Today, this primitivism is nearly universal in lifestyle fads. Several gyms near my house have the word ‘Primal’ in them; life-advice is offered by the un-ironically named ‘Art of Manliness’; and figures like Jordan Peterson are selling millions of books, picking up where Robert Bly left off. The future may be feminine, but the past was undoubtedly masculine, and it is to that zenith of penile power that both Hanson and Trump would like to return. Classics provides pretty solid ground on which to erect a monument to wounded masculinity, so perhaps we should not be surprised that the raving insurrectionist and the square-jawed professor have so much in common.
The Greek noun trauma, meaning “wound”, does not appear in Homeric epic where we find more commonly helkos (ἕλκος) or ôteilê (ὠτειλή). Indeed, there is a surprising range of fatal and nonfatal wounding to be found in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Wounds are like almost everything else in Homer: places where stories can be advanced or where they begin. As Erich Auerbach notes in his famous Mimesis, Odysseus’ scar reveals a remarkable connection between memory, metonymy, and poetic art, making the story and the detail powerfully present
But Odysseus’ scar is also about the connection between the past and the present through the memory of pain. The word used to describe it-–oulê--is also a possible source for the Roman variant on Odysseus’ name, Ulysses, perhaps meaning the “scarred man”. Odysseus’ scar is a marker of his story and his past, a sign of his identity for his nurse Eurykleia to recognize, and a connection between the boy who earned the “hateful” name Odysseus (folk-etymologized in Homer as “hateful”) and the man who returns home. This wound—this trauma—is part of what makes Odysseus who he is, for better or worse.
And even though the same words are rarely used to describe literal physical wounding and emotional pain in Homer, the idea that the experience of prior suffering stays with us is there. Penelope complains in book 1 of the Odyssey that the story of the failed homecoming of the Achaeans causes her pain and Odysseus repeatedly cries at hearing famous tales of himself arguing with Achilles or deploying the wooden horse. Yet we also hear that stories of past pain can bring some pleasure: Eumaios invites Odysseus (in disguise) to share with him the story of his troubles as they dine and drink. This pleasure comes in part from sharing tales that confirm who the speakers are and in reciting pains that are certainly over.
Pain without resolution, or stories without end? They cause suffering that lingers too. The Odyssey and the Iliad may not use the word ‘trauma’ to describe it, but both seem to have the concept embedded in their structure.
* * *
I have never been shy about my interest in what literature does in (and to) the world. I started my academic career trying to understand how the Iliad engaged with and enforced ideas of politics and rhetoric, how epic poetry explores the use of language to create and destroy communities. This was in no small part influenced by the fact that 9/11 happened in my first week of graduate school at NYU and that I was writing my dissertation prospectus during the many tragic missteps of the war on terror.
In fact, I always considered myself an ‘Iliad’ person, preferring to see that epic as more complex and interesting than the Odyssey. This affinity or alignment made it extra frustrating for me as I repeatedly failed to teach the Iliad well, despite the fact that I taught at the time at the largest veteran serving institution in the country (UTSA) and had students who had grown up and into adulthood around the rhetoric of war.
The Odyssey, however, always resonated with them. I would find myself going through passages and books of the Odyssey with students and reaching that breathless, brain buzzing point where they were saying things about the poem I had never heard and I was framing it in ways I never imagined. There was an energy to their responses that left me wondering about my own tastes.
In January 2011, my father died suddenly at 61 of pneumonia. I talked to him on the phone as he was admitted to the hospital on a Saturday afternoon, chastising him for not taking better care of himself and got a call 10 hours later to tell me he was gone. I don’t think I cried for 6 hours: we had to get on a plane from Texas to Maine; we had to secure release from duty for my wife (who was serving in the Army, stationed at Ft. Hood); we had to figure out what to pack for a funeral for an 8 month old. I broke down when the plane left the ground.
There is no way for me to divide the work I eventually did on the Odyssey from the emotional and ultimately physical shock of my father’s death. Back in the classroom, I would teach about the Lotus-Eaters making the choice to live a life of oblivion, and think of my father. I would make it to the final recognition scene, when Odysseus makes his father Laertes weep and then comforts him by taking him for a tour of their family’s orchards and choke up, finally understanding that the trees they tended together were a metonym for their relationship just as the gardens and lawns my father and I cut out of a pine forest were a record of our time together. And I saw for the first time the rupture of stories left incomplete, how the Ithacans were left without news of their sons and fathers for decades and how that destroyed their community.
I also learned something more deeply that I had suspected all along. A work like the Odyssey changes the more you read it, certainly; but it also is reshaped by your experiences in life. It is a different poem to a young man than it is to a young father. It transformed for me entirely over an 18 month period as my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world, lost my father, and then 11 months later had a son.
* * *
During the summer of 2012 or so, I walked into a class where I was teaching the Odyssey after reading a newspaper column that mentioned the idea of Learned Helplessness, the psychological phenomenon whereby people met with failure over time will both attempt tasks less frequently and also demonstrate declining success on those they try. Learned helplessness has been observed in animals and human beings and has been used in part to explain endemic poverty, depression, suicide, chronic illness, and premature death. It can also be triggered by unresolved trauma.
In that class, I told the students about the idea and then asked them to think about Odysseus on the edge of Ogygia, crying every day as someone suffering from the effects of learned helplessness and it was the first time I felt I really understood why he lingered there, without trying to act, mindlessly having sex with the goddess Kalypso every night. Suffering, failure, and repeated trauma can condition people not to try to improve their lives because they believe they will fail anyway.
In following summers and classes, I kept pressing on these ideas, reading through the epic looking for expressions of agency and determination and reflections of other ideas from modern psychology and cognitive science. At the same time, I started reading more from these modern subjects, getting increasingly sure that we underestimated the sophistication of what I came to think of Homeric “folk psychology” or epic’s “theory of mind”, the implicit assumptions about how human minds work in the world (and what happens when they don’t).
Of course, I wasn’t the first person by any means to talk about Homer in this way. Jonathan Shay demonstrates convincingly in his Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America that the Homeric epics reflect complex psychological experiences. But his approach does what much conventional scholarship on Homer does: it follows the natural emphasis of the text on elite men and ignores the reflections and lives of women and the enslaved. So, a good deal of the book I eventually published—The Many Minded Man—traces both the positive and negative impact narrative can have on human minds. I moved from thinking about how Odysseus uses narrative to regain agency, to how he imposes his will on others and how the epic itself depicts (and even creates) the mental conditions of oppression.
What I thought were the final stages of my work took me back to the people of Ithaca, to consider them not as villains and foils for Odysseus’ return but as a reflection of the majority of people left behind thanks to ‘heroic’ behavior. One of the things I like to emphasize to students is that the mythical term ‘hero’ does not overlap well with our modern usage. Where the modern term has a sense of sacrifice and nobility, the ancient one points to a person from a specific generation who has certain characteristics which include, above all, the capacity to suffer or to cause suffering (as articulated so clearly by Erwin Cook).
Part of what sets Homeric poetry apart is how it gives depth and care to most of its characters: the Odyssey individuates the suitors and allows their families and those of Odysseus’ lost companions to express their grief. In finishing my work on the Odyssey, I tried to see the whole of Ithaka as representing a people traumatized by their experiences, by the uncertainty of their political situation and their losses in war.
* * *
“Your father is not here, for he died, used up by unfair fates”
nec genitor iuxta; Fatis namque haustus iniquis / occidit
Statius, Silvae 5.64-65
Living into and through 2020 made it hard for me to turn away from Greek epic and myth. Before the beginning of the shutdown here, I wrote about the politics of plagues in Greek myths and I spent my spring worried about the effects of isolation followed by a Fall wondering about the impact of not properly mourning the dead. The US election cycle had me returning to the end of the Odyssey to think about whether opposed sides can ever truly find peace. And since November at least I have been thinking about the long-term effects of paralysis. When finishing my work on the Odyssey, I picked up Robert Scaer’s The Body Bears the Burden to learn more about what happens to the human body and neurobiology from a long term lack of resolution in the fight or flight instinct. As Scaer explains, the prolonged “freeze” moment can cause us physical harm as well as psychological trauma, impeding our learning, altering the way we remember, and changing the way we react to danger. The longer we remain incapable of running away or doing something about our situation, the worse the effects can be.
So I’ve been thinking about Hektor in the Iliadas someone whose behavior might be better understood from this perspective and about how we might think about ourselves and our fellow human beings as peoples besieged by a plague, by anxiety about the future, by hateful racism and harmful politics, and by an inability to understand that the suffering we feel in our minds leaves its scars on our bodies too.
I have a tendency to reduce things at times to just-so stories, a moral to take from the Iliad, a paradigm to follow from the Odyssey. What I have learned at some cost is that living along with epic in my hands and my mind has helped me make sense of the world and my place in it and has helped me be a better ‘reader’ of Homer too.
Epopopoi popoi popopopoi popoi, here, here, quick, quick, quick, my comrades in the air; all you who pillage the fertile lands of the husbandmen, the numberless tribes who gather and devour the barley seeds, the swift flying race that sings so sweetly. And you whose gentle twitter resounds through the fields with the little cry of tiotiotiotiotiotiotiotio; and you who hop about the branches of the ivy in the gardens; the mountain birds, who feed on the wild olive-berries or the arbutus, hurry to come at my call, trioto, trioto, totobrix; you also, who snap up the sharp-stinging gnats in the marshy vales, and you who dwell in the fine plain of Marathon, all damp with dew, and you, the francolin with speckled wings; you too, the halcyons, who flit over the swelling waves of the sea, come hither to hear the tidings; let all the tribes of long-necked birds assemble here; know that a clever old man has come to us, bringing an entirely new idea and proposing great reforms. Let all come to the debate here, here, here, here. Torotorotorotorotix, kikkabau, kikkabau, torotorotorolililix.
The one-hundred-and-thirteen elaborate wooden panels that make up the Damascus Room at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology testify to the immense wealth of the era, at the beginning of the 19th century when wood and ceiling panels adorned the reception room of Damascene houses in Ottoman Syria. A detailed composition of city landscapes, bouquets of flowers, bowls of fruits and Arabic calligraphy was executed around a main framework in which vertical panels, niches, wall closets, doors and windows were integrated, often aggrandized by the use of mirrors in a sophisticated painting technique known as ‘ajamī (Persian). This pastiglia style involved preparation of the wood with a rough white ground layer, followed by more colorful paint layers, underdrawing, transfer of patterns, then followed by application of ornaments, metal leaf and dyed glazes.
Scholar Anke Scharrahs interviewed Damascene artists revealing that knowledge about this intricate painting technique of the 17th and 18th centuries (rich in organic pigments and animal resins) was subsequently lost to modern pigments and European influences. In fact the panels were often washed down, restored and repainted every few generations, therefore only a few original interiors remain in Syria itself, so that the preservation state of the Damascus Room is nothing short of astonishing (only four such interiors exist in the Western world).
But the journey of the Damascus Room to its present splendor took two centuries, and is as protracted as the history of the museum housing it. The Dresden Museum of Ethnology dates back to 1560 with the cabinet of curiosities established by Augustus, the elector of Saxony, and was subsequently transformed into different museums, under different names, as European ideas about culture were being shaped by both science and colonialism.
It was the year 1898 when a German art collector, Karl Ernst Osthaus, known primarily for his interest in the avant-garde movement, traveled throughout the Ottoman Empire, collecting artifacts from bazaars and workshops. But there was one treasure hunt that couldn’t be completed: The search for an Oriental interior. Although he traveled far and wide in all the major cities of the empire, it was to no avail, and at the end of his journey, he passed on the responsibility to the German consulate in Damascus. The consulate in turn assigned photographer Hermann Burchardt to the task, who had been living in Damascus since 1893. A suitable interior was found (dated 1810-11), purchased, disassembled and sent to Germany. Osthaus was then very involved in modern art, so when the pieces arrived at his estate in Hagen, they were kept in an attic and quickly forgotten.
After Osthaus’ death in 1921, the panels were discovered and donated to the Dresden Museum of Ethnology in 1930, and the collections of the museum were about to go on show at the Zwinger palatial complex (dating back to the 18th century Baroque), but the space provided for the Damascus Room proved too small – the surface area of the room is 4 x 5.5 m and 5.4 m high. This mismatch turned out to be a fortunate event, because the room would have been completely destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
Once again forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1997, but by then no one knew how to assemble it together. How do the one-hundred-and-thirteen pieces fit together? Two students from Dresden, Ulrike Siegel and Antje Werner, took up the challenge of putting the puzzle back together, measuring every single piece, meticulously documenting each item and following the number coding written onto the backsides.
But then it needed to be restored. 200 years hadn’t passed in vain, and many of the wooden pieces had been eaten by worms, damaged by dampness, large flakes of paint fell off and the entire thing was covered in dust and mold. A restoration began that wouldn’t be completed until the end of 2019. The following year, in the autumn of 2020, amidst the raging pandemic, as if continuing the trail of oblique historical journeys, it met a peculiar contemporary artistic intervention coming from the place where it all had begun, modern Syria and Turkey.
An installation consisting of colorful glass swallows with their heads tilted downwards, placed on the floor of the lavish room, would tell a story where the different pasts and presents of these interiors would meet: Improbable journeys and the (im)possibility of travel, exile, migration, uncertainty, memory and the feeling of having fallen out of the world, whilst living in the presence of all its traces.
2. Birds Without Wings
Three years earlier, in 2017, Turkish glass artist Felekşan Onar arrived in Berlin from Istanbul with the intention to work at a glass studio, and blow into plaster moulds closed winged birds for her project “Perched”, without knowing at the time its final destination. The wingless swallows with their heads tilted downwards, resembled for Onar, the millions of Syrian refugees stranded in Istanbul, not knowing where to go, or what is going to happen next. In Onar’s words, “Simply perched on sidewalks, like birds without wings”.
This reflection however, was interlocked with an earlier metaphor: She began thinking about the birds after a reading of Louis de Bernières’ novel “Birds Without Wings” (published in 2004); set in the era of population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, in the period following World War First; the novel chronicles an era of intolerance and forced migration, still consequential to this day for both countries.
The plot of de Bernières’ novel revolves around the tragic love story between Philothei, a beautiful Greek woman, and Ibrahim, her Muslim suitor, who loses his mind halfway through the novel after returning from the trenches of war, vividly recounted. The novel is set in the fictional village of Eskibahçe, based upon Kayaköy, a Greek village in the Turkish province of Fethiye, deserted after 1923, when a series of agreements that would define the present-day borders between Greece and Turkey meant the forced migration of all Christian Greeks from Anatolia to the Greek mainland, and Muslims in Greece to Anatolia.
These peoples left behind their homelands, becoming refugees in newly established countries, shattering an ancient multicultural geography. Kayaköy is today a derelict ghost town after many failed attempts of the Turkish government to lure Muslims from Greece to occupy the abandoned houses.
This story was familiar to Onar: Born in the Aegean region of Turkey, in the town of Söke–some hundred kilometers from Izmir, the ancient Greek Anaia, renamed Soka in the Byzantine era–it was impossible for her not to be immersed in the cultural world of the population exchanges: A housekeeper from her childhood, Nazmiye Hanım, had come from Crete to Söke as a result of this population exchange, and often told mesmerizing tales about her homeland in the heavily accented Turkish of a native Greek speaker. Therefore, years later Onar identified Nazmiye Hanım with many of the characters in de Bernières’ narrative.
At the height of the Syrian crisis, Onar saw in these birds without wings, part of “Perched” (there are ninety-nine birds in total), a slow meditation not only on the present circumstances but on the permanent waves of migration and spatial redistribution of peoples that form of the core of Mediterranean history since antiquity.
In the words of Nadania Idriss, the founder of Berlin Glassworks (herself of Syrian background) where Onar completed blowing the swallows, “The pigments and surface texture of each unique sculpture recall the multitude of hues that hold in Syrian daily life; and yet these swallows sit patiently, heads tilted downward as they try to understand the situation that has befallen them.”
It was Idriss who facilitated a conversation with the Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, and as a result the first stop in the journey of the wingless birds was the famous Aleppo Room at Pergamon in 2018. In fact, this might be the most spectacular of all Syrian interiors in the world, dated as far back as the early 17th century, and acquired in 1912 by German orientalist and archaeologist Friedrich Sarre in Aleppo. A conservator at the museum, Anke Scharrachs, then encouraged Onar to connect with other museums in possession of Damascene interiors (Scharrachs was involved in the restoration of the Dresden panels).
And that’s how “Perched” traveled then to the Damascus Room in Dresden, and the year prior, to the Islamic Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A double metaphor grew out of the Aleppo Room at Pergamon with its spectacular colorful panels, laden with rich ornamental fauna, according to Stefan Weber, director of the Islamic Museum: “The lively, colorful peacocks, ducks and pigeons on the wall panels stand in almost oppressive contrast to the small, fragile birds with clipped wings seated on the ground. Not only does the installation resonate with the sad fate of a once flourishing metropolis – now destroyed by the civil war – but it also picks on the reality of Syrian refugees in modern Turkey.”
From ambers, to amethysts and greys and blues, greens and pinks, the iridescent colored glass swallows hint at the archetypal role of birds in the ancient Mediterranean as both messengers and mediators, rather than silent spectators in the drama of mankind.
3. The Debt to the Birds
When “Perched” opened at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology (part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, one of the largest and oldest art and artifacts collections in the world), it was already September 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and it was no longer possible for anyone in Turkey, and not only refugees, to fly anywhere in Europe, so that the metaphor came home to roost: The artist Felekşan Onar was unable to travel for the exhibition.
At the time a monograph about the entire journey of “Perched” was in preparation, which saw the light in December, and was supposed to be launched at the museum, but with the closure of cultural institutions in Germany due to the pandemic this wasn’t possible either. For this monograph, de Bernières contributed a short story, “The Debt to the Birds” (Onar and de Bernières met for a public conversation at the Victoria & Albert), that sets the story and trajectory of Onar’s birds, on a different, much more complex itinerary.
“The Debt to the Birds” is a deceptively simple tale about a boy that was given a gun by his father on a promise: “You must promise me never to shoot a bird that you do not intend to eat, nor ever shoot a man unless you’re at war. Do you promise?” The young boy, like his father before him, was tempted by his father’s words and shot a sparrow, watching it die in the grass. Three years later, he found a young jackdaw with a broken wing, and brought it home to cure it, in order to repay his debt to the birds. The bird healed quickly and became his loyal companion, perched on his shoulder, and then he was instructed by his father to teach it how to fly, at the risk that it might fly away. When it flew off with a posse of jackdaws, never to return, both father and boy thought that they had finally repaid their debt to the birds. The boy became a father and passed on the gun to his son, but yet he did not tempt him by telling him not to shoot the birds.
Distant from the historical world of de Bernières’ “Birds Without Wings”, there happen to be a number of uncanny parallels between “The Debt to the Birds” and Aristophanes’ play “The Birds”, performed in 414 BC at the Dionysia festival in Athens.
These parallels ground the spatiotemporal framework of Onar’s “Perched” in a larger, aporetic logic, allowing the viewer (as if the audience of a live, theatrical performance) to move in between different temporalities, depending not only on the context. The Oriental interiors function here also as a springboard that releases the audience away from the historical context onto a nondescript area, free of allegory and actually also free of debt (I will return to this at the end). They are both are interrogative texts, set specifically against interpretation, by taking place outside any context whatsoever. One couldn’t name a specific timeframe in which the events unfold.
This is in fact an anomaly in Aristophanes’ surviving plays, and by all means an innovation, although it is written in the conventional style of old comedy. “The Birds” contains no direct reference to the Peloponnesian War, and hardly any references to Athenian politics (although much has been theorized about political allegory in the play), and in the manner of Aesop’s Greek tales, it is set in remote, but undefined times.
In “The Debt to the Birds”, there are two oblique references to war, ‘never shoot another man unless at war’ in the promise, and the father having been a soldier himself. But we know nothing about when or where the events take place. There seems to be a search for redemption in both texts which ultimately fails, by means of different strategies: In Aristophanes, the conclusion of the play is the instauration of a human-led tyranny after the defeat of the gods, and in de Bernières a potential cycle of return to debt with the birds.
In the larger scheme of Aristophanes’ play we know that it is a narrative about the foundation of a political community, but in such terms, so fantastic (two elderly Athenians convince the birds to create a walled city in the air, to prevent the aromas of sacrificial offerings from reaching the Olympian gods), that the cloud-cuckoo-land becomes less than a metaphor, offering something alien to the pattern of problem-and-solution of the comic universe, namely, a suspension.
For de Bernières, on the other hand, the smoothed out but always latent cycle of repetition between violence, debt and settlement, indicates a species of non-linear time, more akin to myth than to history. This time out of joint that cannot be put back together, resembles simultaneously the chaotic temporality of the ancients, marked only by events and decay, and the timelessness of Onar’s swallows, head tilted down, waiting and waiting, still at the Damascus Room.
4. Unfamiliar Futures
The resemblances between the ancient comedy and the contemporary tale do not end with the site of temporality. There’s a crucial passage in de Bernières: “The essence of man is to be a prisoner, but the essence of a bird is to be free. A bird shows no passport at the borders. It pays no taxes. A bird has no pockets and when it dies it has no shroud.”
Not only is this passage immediately connected to a key fragment in his novel “Birds Without Wings” (“Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows”) but also to Aristophanes’ play, when the starring humans, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, ask the Hoopoe, formerly King Tereus who metamorphosed into a bird, what is it like to live with the birds? The idea of a utopian, moneyless, political community, resonates strongly in both authors, and the impossibility to realize this fantasy reveals in its aporias a tension that remains without offering resolution.
Aristophanes, Birds, 154-161
I would not be Opuntian for a talent. But come, what is it like to live with the birds? You should know pretty well.
Why, it’s not a disagreeable life. In the first place, one has no purse.
That does away with a lot of roguery.
For food the gardens yield us white sesame, myrtle-berries, poppies and mint.
Why, ‘tis the life of the newly-wed indeed.
Yet, the most interesting parallel between them, concerns the antiquity of birds, thus, once again, the question of the origins and new beginnings (and therefore of foundations) returns. In “The Debt to the Birds”, the father explains to the boy, “Did you know that dinosaurs are not extinct after all? We were all completely wrong. They’re beginning to think that the little dinosaurs survived, so now we have lizards and amphibians, and birds […] We look out of our windows and see the trees full of little dinosaurs!”
The story continues later, with a moving passage on the boy: “That evening the boy sat his jackdaw on its perch and looked into its face. He recognized the extreme antiquity of its being, and said to it ‘Your soul is millions of years more ancient than mine. My soul is young compared to yours.’ The bird looked back into his eyes and shook its wings a little, just as fledging does when hoping to be fed.” And furthermore: “That evening the boy repeated to the bird on its perch in his bedroom ‘Your soul is more ancient than mine.'”
In these apparently innocuous passages, de Bernières is enlarging the historical space of Onar’s birds, breaking down the repetitive cycle of timelessness: Trapped inside an infinitely expanding present, these refugees moving across the world, but particularly visible in both Turkey and Germany, cannot articulate stories that narrate either past or future; they’re rooted in the presentism of despair that quickly devours the future as a temporal index, while at the same time not being entirely free from the immediate past. All recollection is fragmented. These birds, caged by traumatic events, acquiesce to a type of memory-work, structured by repetition and transitoriness, rather than a series of checkpoints in reality to orient yourself in the world.
The introduction of a primeval consciousness of time, a time before time, of unquantifiable properties, preceding the uniformity of historical experience, opens up a dialogue between de Bernières and Aristophanes, on a crucial passage from “The Birds”. In the one-sided agon of the play (there’s no antagonist, and the formal argument is constructed around convincing an already eager audience) a political cosmogony is laid out, by means of which the realization of a utopian city in the sky acquires legitimacy. The birds are now endowed with a new, previously unknown, master narrative. Enlarging the past works here in two directions: At first it provides a lasting consciousness of duration by probing the depth of origin, and then, it brings out an invented, alternative future, on which the past itself can be re-inscribed back, without the horizon of continuity losing its template.
Aristophanes, Birds 465-485
By Zeus, no! But I am hunting for fine, tasty words to break down the hardness of their hearts. To the Chorus. I grieve so much for you, who at one time were kings…
Leader of the Chorus
We kings? Over whom?
…of all that exists, firstly of me and of this man, even of Zeus himself. Your race is older than Saturn, the Titans and the Earth.
Leader of the Chorus
What, older than the Earth!
By Phoebus, yes.
Leader of the Chorus
By Zeus,but I never knew that before!
That’s because you are ignorant and heedless, and have never read your Aesop. He is the one who tell us that the lark was born before all other creatures, indeed before the Earth; his father died of sickness, but the Earth did not exist then; he remained unburied for five days, when the bird in its dilemma decided, for want of a better place, to entomb his father in its own head.
So that the lark’s father is buried at Cephalae.
Hence, if they existed before the Earth, before the gods, the kingship belongs to them by right of priority.
Undoubtedly, but sharpen your beak well; Zeus won’t in a hurry to hand over his scepter to the woodpecker.
It was not the gods, but the birds, who were formerly the masters and kings over men; of this I have a thousand proofs. First of all, I will point you to the cock, who governed the Persians, before all other monarchs, before Darius and Megabazus. It’s in memory of his reign that he is called the Persian bird.
Aristophanes, of course, was aware of a double-bind that we have carried over into the modernist imaginary: Cosmogonies are also structures of power and the pendulum can swing in any direction. Narratives can be manipulated as well, as the conclusion of “The Birds” exemplifies, under the new tyranny of Pisthetaerus. But as a mythology of origins, this cosmogony throws the body politic (of the birds) back to a future that is assumed to exist, as if the past had shed light on it (and yet fails).
When Euelpides and Pisthetaerus turned to the birds for help, and yet with a masterplan to create a new city in the sky, what they longed for was more than a political community itself; it was about an impossible political community where utopia and law could coexist. De Bernières subtly touches on this sentiment from the father’s viewpoint: “For us the birds represent all the freedom that we can never have. They give us something to aspire that we cannot reach. And sometimes when you aspire to what you cannot reach, one day after all, you will reach it.”
The long duration translates in de Bernières’ story into a multi-temporality, projected back on the journey of “Perched”: The journey of migrants towards Turkey and Europe contains many other journeys from the past, articulated here through the accumulation of cultural meanings embedded in the glass birds across time, and of which the current predicament is only one among the possible worlds. What emerges here is the possibility of an unfamiliar, yet un-created future, not necessarily the direct consequence of the past.
New foundations and master narratives can be anchored anywhere in the temporal index: It is not only the history of Syrian refugees perched on the streets of Istanbul juxtaposed to the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, but also the arrival of Byzas of Megara in the 6th century BC to found the city that three political orders later would become Istanbul, and the permanent condition of migration that shaped the Mediterranean cultural space since times before time (no less than the modern world) or the long journey of glass since the 4th millennium BC, appearing simultaneously in Syria, Eastern Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, long before it adorned the Ottoman palaces of Istanbul, challenging constantly our ideas about archaeological contexts and mobility networks.
5. Whose Cultural Property?
Yet it is significant that the journey of “Perched” has begun in European encyclopedic museums, and has been decidedly defined by their interiors and galleries. The encyclopedic museum, we recognize today, is deeply rooted in the experience of colonialism and the concept of universal history. This all-encompassing history, with Western mankind at the center, is a politically heliocentric universe, largely flawed, but at the same time, manufacturer of the colonial world-system, which has inflicted infinite violence on large swaths of the Earth.
As large collections of artifacts from all over the world, the Western museums perform what archaeologists Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet, have called in their work, the weaponization of time: The dispossession of both cultural property (in museums) and peoples (at the borders of nation states) is not simply circumstantial or situational, but ontological. Controlling time, by placing objects outside of everyday historical experience, often destroying complex systems and contexts along the way, suspends the temporality of objects under the unfulfillable promise of permanence. But isn’t the most fundamental reflection underlying “Perched”, the struggle of memory against the destruction of richly layered, pluriversal, complex contexts? An answer is difficult to arrive at.
And thinking about birds, is for us, always thinking also about the museum. Most of our knowledge about birds comes from the collections of encyclopedic natural museums, often mediated by the utilitarian beliefs of 19th century social science. Commenting on the 33,000 years old Water Bird in Flight from the Hohle Fels Cave in south-west Germany, carved in stone during the Upper Paleolithic, John Berger made an important remark for our context: “The supposition that animals entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.” Is there an intrinsic relationship between promises and debts?
If we have a debt with the birds, what does this debt consist of? And if de Bernières is correct, and birds do in fact represent freedom, shouldn’t we be free also from debt? Hannah Arendt was one of the first modern thinkers to treat the faculty of making promises with philosophical seriousness, arguing that they help stabilize the world by making it predictable to the extent that it is humanly possible and that the reality of the space of appearances, where concerted power could arise, is guaranteed only by mutual promise or contract.
But it was David Graeber in his monumental anthropology of debt, who made the connection between debts and promises: “A debt is the perversion of a promise.” All human economies have been heretofore based on a system of debt and credit that boils down to trust between peoples, and not to barter as economic historians have chosen to believe. All revolutionary movements in the ancient world were defined by a single program: The cancellation of all debt.
If the crucial question here is the settlement of a debt, could we try perhaps to free ourselves (this was a fundamental argument in Graeber’s work: we can only be free with each other, not from each other) and cancel our debt through a promise? The promise of time, of giving time, of giving time back, another idea I’m borrowing from Hicks and Mallet. What would it mean to give time back in the context of the birds in the Damascus Room?
All of the Oriental interiors in Germany were legally acquired as per extant documentation, and there’s no restitution claim for them as in the case of say the Benin Bronzes or the Parthenon Marbles (Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, recently staged an intervention in Dresden through ‘missing’ posters in the city over one of the Benin Bronzes at the museum) but the question remains whether the grand tour of collecting antiquities in the Near East during the era of the great archaeological discoveries wasn’t embedded in terrible imbalances of power that remain to this day and account for many violent conflicts in the region.
Archaeology has been the main factory of universal history, and as decolonization struggles all over the world inform us, there’s in fact no such a thing as universal heritage, because heritage isn’t a concrete set of parameters for the preservation of a common past, but instead, a notion and symptom of time crises, in order to (re)produce pasts as touristic sites, with the present tense as the boundary event of our world.
Yet there’s something perplexing happening in the journey of Felekşan Onar’s swallows through these stately rooms in Berlin, London and Dresden: The birds, both as metaphor and artifact, imbued with so many blueprints of time, recent and distant, have begun accumulating contexts rather than merely reflecting them. With an eventual journey back from Germany to Istanbul in the horizon (a number of birds have been accessioned to the collection of the V&A Glass Gallery, and the permanent home of “Perched” will be in due course of time at the Dresden collection), they are now also pregnant with unfamiliar, open-ended, contingent futures.
Giving back time to cultural artifacts and peoples means essentially to re-insert them into temporality not only in absolute terms but through the relative durability of institutions and political agency. One can’t help but wonder after a reading of “Perched” through de Bernières and Aristophanes, whether it wouldn’t be possible to create new future-oriented cosmogonies for these artifacts and stories, beyond and outside closed museological systems.
A striking passage in Aristophanes, during the first formal argument between the two elderly Athenians and the hoopoe, brings to mind a poetic spatial metaphor: When Pisthetaerus asks the hoopoe to look up and down and what he has seen, the sky (οὐρανός) the bird says to have seen and the pole (πόλος) of the birds that Pisthetaerus refers to, do not carry identical meaning. The sky is a region of the atmosphere and outer space, a kind of unbounded expanse, whereas a pole, is a vaulted dome, the firmament, that in ancient cosmologies divided the primal sea from the dry land.
This firmament as David Konstan argues, is a bounded space, ‘not everywhere’, which necessarily grounds the utopian city in the sky within the framework of the polis, a community. Pisthetaerus goes on to add that this pole is a place (τόπος), expression which Seferis identifies with a country or fatherland in Mythistorima X. There’s a circumscribed place to stand on, even in the sky.
Aristophanes, Birds, 178-196
What have you seen?
The clouds and the sky.
Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
How their pole?
Or, if you like it, their place. And since it turns and passes through the whole universe, it is called ‘pole.’ If you build and fortify it, you will turn your pole into a city. In this way you will reign over mankind as you do over the grasshoppers and you will cause the gods to die of rabid hunger.
The air is between earth and heaven. When we want to go to Delphi, we ask the Boeotians for leave of passage; in the same way, when men sacrifice to the gods, unless the latter pay you tribute, you exercise the right of every nation towards strangers and don’t allow the smoke of the sacrifices to pass through your city and territory.Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
By earth! by snares! by network! by cages! I never heard of anything more cleverly conceived; and, if the other birds approve, I am going to build the city along with you.
The gift of time that cancels debt, at the heart of “Perched”, is a with-world, beyond the space of appearances and the realm of objects, which according to Sophie Loidolt, in her study of Arendt’s political intersubjectivity, “emerges through our intersubjective relations and which holds all these dimensions of meaning together in one world where we can exist as humans.” The gift is a promise, the promise of multiple meanings embedded in concrete, actual experienced time, looking backwards and forwards, without the grip of the instant. Where’s eternity then?
“Perched” by Felekşan Onar is on view at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology, September 5, 2020 through February 21, 2021 (the museum is currently closed due to pandemic regulations), the monograph “Perched: Felekşan Onar”, published by Paul Holberton Publishing, with contributions by Felekşan Onar, Nadania Idriss, Stefanie Bach, Louis de Bernières, Stefan Weber, Mariam Rosser-Owen and Glenn Adamson, is currently available, in English and German.
Detail from Felekşan Onar’s “Perched”, V&A Museum, Islamic Galleries, 2019. Photo Credit: Daniel Oduntan.
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
Gregory Dobrov, “Aristophanes’ Birds and the Metaphor of Deferral”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall 1990)
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, 2012
Francois Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time”, Columbia University Press, 2016
Dan Hicks & Sarah Mallet, Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond, Bristol University Press, 2019, open access
David Konstan, “A City in the Air: Aristophanes’ Birds”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 1990)
Sophie Loidolt, Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity, Routledge Research in Phenomenology, 2019
Annegret Nippa & Anke Scharrahs, The Damascus Room in Dresden – A Treasure of Ottoman Interior Design in Germany, 2003, online
Anke Scharrahs, “Insight into a Sophisticated Painting Technique: Three Polychrome Wooden Interiors from Ottoman Syria in German Collections and Field Research in Damascus”, in Studies in Conservation, Volume 55, 2010
“As a serpent awaits a man in front of its home on the mountain,
One who dined on ruinous plants [pharmaka], and a dread anger overtakes him
As it coils back and glares terribly before his home.
So Hektor in his unquenchable [asbestos] fury [menos] would not retreat,
After he leaned his shining shield on the wall’s edge.
He really glowered as he spoke to his own proud heart
As he stands before the walls of his city in book 22, Hektor is compared to a snake, coiled to strike an intruder. This moment of anticipation of violence is prolonged as Hektor turns away from the pleas of his family not to face Achilles. In a moment marked by the repeated speech introduction “ (ὀχθήσας δ᾽ ἄρα εἶπε πρὸς ὃν μεγαλήτορα θυμόν), Hektor ruminates, and worries despite what the opening simile anticipates. He resolves to face Achilles, but then immediately changes his mind: “When Hektor noticed Achilles, a tremor overtook him and he could not bear to wait for him / but he left the gates behind and left in flight” Ἕκτορα δ᾽, ὡς ἐνόησεν, ἕλε τρόμος: οὐδ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἔτλη / αὖθι μένειν, ὀπίσω δὲ πύλας λίπε, βῆ δὲ φοβηθείς).
What happens between the end of Hektor’s speech and his choice to run from Achilles?
In the fall of 2019, I submitted my final manuscript for a book about the Homeric Odyssey and modern psychology. To say I had spent a lot of time with this book would be as much of an understatement as to make the overly banal claim that I learned a lot in the process. Both statements are true, but neither gets to the core of how much researching and writing this book changed the way I read ancient literature and think about just being a human being.
This project started with the observation in class one day in 2011 that Odysseus and Telemachus may be suffering from something we’d call learned helplessness and ended up with a reading of the whole epic as rumination on human agency, traumatized peoples, and the way stories have the power both to liberate and to chain us.
But, as with most long projects, my feeling at the submission was one of release and escape–every time I finish a paper or book, I wonder if I am done, if I have written all the words in me, and whether I have any other thoughts worth forming. I wanted to be done with the Odyssey and its trauma for a while, to think about something new, or, perhaps, to think about nothing at all.
And so much of what I read for the Odyssey book continued to course through my mind. Some people may bristle at the terminology, but it was clear to me that we were being collectively traumatized: by our fear about the safety of our lives and our loved ones’; by our inability to do anything about it; by the massive and arrogant failure of our government to protect or aid us; by fears about losing our homes and feeding our children; by the necessary and powerful reminder of racist rot at the core of our civilization provided by the #BlackLivesMatter protests; by the horrible uncertainty of the Trump administration’s attempt to steal the election; by rising threats of violence; and by a white supremacist coup. Each week and month of the pandemic was a frozen moment in an actual apocalypse, the unveiling of the terrible truths of who and what we are.
The question I started asking myself in April was whether or not knowing you’re being traumatized helps you process the trauma. The answers I found were contrary. So I started doing the very thing I swore I wasn’t going to do anymore, to think about Homer and human psychology. Somewhere along the way that took me back to Hektor, Troy’s prince and protector.
Very few people who read or write about the Iliad can make great sense of Hektor. His traditional character is part of James Redfield’s widely cited The Tragedy of Hektor (1975) and his strange engagement with his advisor Poulydamas–with whom he argues on three separate occasions–is seen as a function of the limits of Trojan politics but rarely as evidence of the emotional response of an actual human being.
Indeed, throughout the Iliad, Hektor’s behavior can be hard to parse, and so much harder to defend. He is harsh to his brother, but within limits; his kindness to Helen and joy in his son seems ill-fit to his rejection of Andromache’s advice. In war, he seems relentless, speaking repeatedly of glory and the alternating chance of war, while pursuing an offensive onslaught that seems either wholly irrational or an artificial hastening of the war’s ultimate plot. Sure, we see the man-killing Hektor in all his unquenchable fury, but there are questions: he barely fights Ajax to a draw in book 7; he needs the help of another man and a god to slay Patroklos in book 16; he must be tricked to face Achilles when the final conflict awaits him.
I have always had a soft spot for Hektor–in his acceptance of his doomed state, I used to find a welcome nobility in contrast to Achilles’ selfishness. And, yet, the way he dismisses Poulydamas or ignores Andromache has always troubled me. His final flight from Achilles has always been something I failed to explain to students. Over the years I have called it denial, escapism, a wavering panic when the doom on the horizon finally appears. Who among us can say we won’t quail in our final moments, or shudder and engage in a brief fantasy that there’s more life yet to live?
During the pandemic, I started to think of Hektor as someone marked by prolonged uncertainty and torturous anticipation. In a way, we have lived in our own kind of siege over the past year: often unable to leave our homes, afraid of what days and weeks would bring, and plagued beyond all else by uncertainties that undermined many things we held to be true, even sacred. I started to think of Hektor and the Trojans as living this way not for one year, but for nine, hearing of the deaths or abductions of family members in other cities, seeing no way to break out. Before the beginning of the epic we know, Hektor spent nine years pacing the walls of his city, unable to fight off his enemies yet unable to flee. Until, of course, the Iliad’s action lets him break free.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
In the third edition of his The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease (2014), Robert Scaer looks at the cycle of arousal and rest that characterizes the function of our nervous system in response to crisis or danger. In simple terms, we can think of the fight or flight response which triggers different neurotransmitters to prepare for rapid response: in a resting state, our bodies are prepared for and more efficient at digesting and storing nutrients and also at processing and storing knowledge of facts and events (13). The fight/flight response puts us in a high-energy nervous state, raising blood-pressure and moving blood into our muscular system.
Such a shifting of biological resources is an essential survival tool. But when we experience prolonged arousal without release or resolution we can become locked in or frozen, establishing an unstable state that may look immobile but may actually be “rapid and exaggerated sympathetic/parasympathetic oscillation (15). To put it in other words: when we face a crisis situation we can neither fight nor flee, our “freeze” reaction is a parafunctional cycling through the same fight/flight and resting process over and over again. In this state, our minds can become “numb and dissociated” and our vascular and digestive systems suffer. So, if over the past year you’ve found yourself inexplicably tired, facing unanticipated digestive issues, out of breath with a racing heart while sitting still, you may have been showing the symptoms of your body encoding our trauma
As Scaer outlines (15-16), Animals often show remarkable responses to this freeze (a “discharge”) that can include convulsions and more in an instinctive attempt to restore “autonomic homeostasis” (16), that is, stability. Human beings, however, rarely show such ‘rests’ to discharge the trauma and reset the body. Such an inability to resolve the freeze moment, it seems, compounds the long term dangers of physical responses to trauma and the likelihood that memories of the events will incite similar physical responses, a return to a traumatized state. Scaer argues that many chronic diseases may be rooted in the reshaping of our brains by trauma and the inability of our conscious minds to distinguish between now and traumatizing events.
Reading Hektor’s Trauma
I see so much of my sleepless nights, habitual doom scrolling, and somatic disarray in this description. And during these moments, I have wondered how this can change the way we approach Hektor both in a single moment and from the perspective of the whole narrative.
When we see Hektor before the walls of Troy, he is “coiled” like a snake (elissomenos) and he wouldn’t retreat because of his unquenchable heart. Note that I translate that participle clause ἄσβεστον ἔχων μένος causally. This is, of course, a significant choice, but I think a well-motivated one. This is the only time in Greek epic when menos—one’s energy, life force—is described as asbestos, “inextinguishable, unsatisfiable”. The adjective appears to mark extreme or powerful expressions of emotion as in describing the laughter of the gods at Hephaistos (1.599) or war cries of groups as they engage in battle (11.500, 11.530; 13.169; 13.450; 16.267). In the Odyssey, asbeston twice modifies kleos (4.584; 7.133). This word seems to describe extreme moments of pitch, or aggression with a sense of duration. But as Lorenzo Garcia argues in his Homeric Durability, asbestosmarks things that ultimately cannot endure: what the sound of a laugh or a war-cry share in common with Hektor’s menos is an unsustainable intensity. In addition, the adjective marks something that is public, shared, or heard by others. Here, the asbeston menos is something private, a massive, unsustainable thing somehow contained within a single person.
The simile compares Hektor to an animal coiled for attack; in describing his refusal to retreat, the narrative uniquely describes the energy driving him; the speech introduction that follows places him in a motif of deliberation over fighting or fleeing. Speeches introduced by the formula “He really glowered as he spoke to his own proud heart” (ὀχθήσας δ᾽ἄρα εἶπε πρὸς ὃν μεγαλήτορα θυμόν) are dramatic representations of deliberation—moments that happen in an instant but are unfolded in the time of performance to allow audiences to consider the inner workings of heroic minds. The simile of the serpent creates extra space and invites audiences to consider the space between the image of the coiled snake and Hektor’s actions: it is as much about how Hektor is the snake and how he is not.
For mortals, the moment of deliberation seems to be that very freeze before the selection of fight or flight: at 11.404-410, Odysseus, caught alone in battle worries about being overcome as the battle rages around him. At 17.90, Menelaos pauses in the defense of Patroklos’ body, afraid to face Hektor alone. At 18.5, Achilles is paralyzed by fear that something has happened to Patroklos and later at 20.143, Achilles finds himself perplexed at the sudden disappearance of Aeneas who has been rescued by the gods. At 21.552, Agenor the son of Antenor pauses mid-battle to decide to run or face Achilles.
The participle characterizing the speech, okhthêsas, moreover, expresses anger or resentment and may be an iterative of ekhthomai, that same root that gives us Greek words for hostility and enmity. Especially when combined with the asseverative particle ἄρα, this verb communicates an inward wrath at a choice with no good options. It is the coiling of anticipation, of loss, and of a loss of control. It is, I think, a formulaic marker for the process of navigating between fight and flight. In its pairing with the opening simile, it marks Hektor in that same moment, in an extended freeze. His resolution, however, contrasts with the other scenes: Hektor ends up acting contrary to his choice to stand.
Hektor’s menos, his anger, is a reflex of his loss of control and of his longing for something to be different. Andromache anticipates this when she speaks to him in book (6.407-409):
“Divine one, your menos will destroy you and you do not pity
Your infant child and my wretched fate, the one who will soon
Be your widow. For the Achaeans are on their way to kill you…”
Hektor’s drive to protect those he cares for most is the very thing that separates him from them, that unites them only in loss and longing. This calls to my mind the work of my friend, Emily Austin, who has written a book foregrounding the thematic importance of loss and longing (pothos) in the Iliad: it is the sudden absence that motivates Achilles’ menis. I think it is also the unconquerable fire that keeps Hektor from ever truly being still.
Thinking about the fight/flight/freeze complex as described by Scaer helps us confirm the poetic function of a Homeric formula: it also serves to invite audiences into a mind navigating a moment of crisis, of choice or judgment (hence Greek krisis) over running away or facing danger. In combination with a striking simile and a strange description of Hektor’s menos, this pattern also helps us see what can happen when the deliberation fails, when the freeze prolongs. Hektor’s menos is overloaded, it is too thoroughly interiorized, coiled inside him, breaking him from within.
Hektor, Fighting and Fleeing
Almost 15 years ago, Elton Barker and I wrote an article about debates over fight or flight in the New Archilochus Poem and Homer. In it, we argued that both Homer and Archilochus were engaged in a tradition of poetic debate about the merits of fight or flight, transcending our narrow concepts of genre and operating ahierarchically, that is, prioritizing neither Homer nor Archilochus, but providing evidence of debate and reflection over time. I don’t think we’re wrong, still; but I do think that this debate is about more than drama and poets: it is about representing human emotion and cognition.
Broadly speaking, Scaer’s framework and my own experience makes me think that we need to rethink Hektor’s behavior throughout the epic and the depiction of Trojan responses to the war in general, allowing more richness to the emotive and cognitive content. There are thematic ties that tell a story of their own.
When Hektor speaks to Andromache in book 6, he anticipates the shame he worries about in book 22 and considers his wife’s suffering after his death. He expresses a characteristic fatalism when he dismisses Andromache to her weaving, saying, “I claim that there is no one who has escaped his fate, / whether a good person or a bad one, after they are born” (μοῖραν δ’ οὔ τινά φημι πεφυγμένον ἔμμεναι ἀνδρῶν, /οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ἐπὴν τὰ πρῶτα γένηται, 6.488-489).
Perhaps it is too much to read into this passage to say that Hektor thinks flight is impossible (he does…), but it certainly helps explain his subsequent actions: keeping the Trojan army out on the field at night in book 8, breaking through the Greek fortifications despite a bad omen in book 12, and refusing to return to the defense of the city in book 18. When Polydamas calls for them to retreat, Hektor continues to insist Zeus is on their side and declares, “I will not flee him from the ill-sounding battle, but I will stand / against Achilles either to win great strength or to be taken myself. War is common ground and the one who kills is killed” (…οὔ μιν ἔγωγε / φεύξομαι ἐκ πολέμοιο δυσηχέος, ἀλλὰ μάλ’ ἄντην /στήσομαι, ἤ κε φέρῃσι μέγα κράτος, ἦ κε φεροίμην / ξυνὸς ᾿Ενυάλιος, καί τε κτανέοντα κατέκτα, 18.306-309).
When Hektor freezes in the choice to fight or flee in book 22, he knows there is no other option. In his speech, he often surprises modern audiences with a wish that he and Achilles could exchange pledges like young lovers and wishes neither would have to die even as he admits that shame would prevent him from retreat. As another friend Justin Arft has recently argued, Hektor “transitions from imagined mediation, to being unarmed, to being a woman, to intimate discourse, to he and Achilles in the place of lovers” (SCS 2021) and is flipping through cognitive schemas (patterns of behavior) trying to figure out what to do. It is as if Hektor has a handful of cards and is repeatedly flipping through them, looking for one that will change a fate he knows cannot be changed. He goes back through his own stories, perhaps stopping at his conversation with Andromache and thinking about what he loses, what he needs, and the absence of choices remaining to him. At the end, he returns to that deceptive idea, that fate alternates and he just might win the day (εἴδομεν ὁπποτέρῳ κεν Ὀλύμπιος εὖχος ὀρέξῃ, 130).
After not even a year yet in a society in trauma, I now see Hektor as someone whose response to the false hope of choice is to overcompensate, to come on too strong, and to engage in willful denial. He fights to extremes and then he flees excessively too. He is burdened by the weight of his past failures and the ultimate futility of his actions.
The Trojans in Trauma
Of course, there’s not a single way to think about this moment. David Morris in his 2015 The Evil Hours notes that Freud theorized that war neuroses came from an internal conflict between self preservation and responsibility to honor and comrades (15). As Jonathan Shay adds in his Achilles in Vietnam, trauma undermines “the cohesion of consciousness” (1995,188). And this fragmentation has been born out by neurobiological studies since.
The additional thing to think about for Hektor and for us, is that the impact of trauma can be increased by duration. What if we think of the Trojan leader as coiled for nine years, as representing a people besieged, constantly poised between the need to fight and the desire for an impossible flight. The repeated suppression of the fight or flight choice, the prolonged freeze would be traumatizing neurobiologically. It would change the way Hektor’s mind and body worked.
I do want to be careful to say that I am not saying the Greeks would have seen it this way precisely, but rather that there is clearly a traditional marker through the collocation of simile, deliberative introduction, and the invitation to the audience to linger with Hektor for a moment (the freeze) that modern observers have seen as having both psychological and neurobiological components. Ancient audiences would have seen their own peers shaped and reshaped by similar traumas and their poems show evidence of understanding the long term impact experiences like isolation, betrayal, and helplessness can have on the working of human minds (think of Philoktetes, Ajax, Odysseus, and others like Klytemnestra and Medea in tragedy).
So, this is not a positivistic reading saying “this thing is definitely that” but more that our modern scientific discourse has outlined a space of behavior that traditional poetics found meaningful too and that the correlation between these observations may help us understand something about Hektor others have missed. But I think this is bigger than Hektor: it may be about the Trojans, a people besieged, as a whole.
In the traditional story of the Trojan War, the story of the horse seems all but ridiculous (ok, it is ridiculous). But what if we considered the Trojan willingness to accept a clear trap, to engage in such extreme denial, as a function of their collective trauma? We are no strangers to large parts of our population refusing to accept what others see as fact, in engaging in clearly self-destructive behavior because it adheres so much more closely to what they want to be true and reality causes them so much pain.
In Greek myth, trouble tends to run in families and cities, traveling from father to son and grandson until the whole line is used up. This too resounds with what we have learned over the past century. We know trauma can be passed down three generations. Large-scale studies of oppressed populations show greater evidence of trauma related behaviors (depression, suicide, drug use) in the grand-chhildren of those who suffered abuse and displacement than their peers. And these responses may be about more than the power of discourse and socialization. There’s growing evidence for the reshaping of DNA as a result of trauma. Our ancestors’ experiences may impact those parts of our DNA that inform our mental health and shape our responses to traumatic events in our lives.
(As a necessary aside, this makes it even harder to defend people who deny the justice of reparations on financial or ethical grounds. The legacy of past traumas are still shaping people today.)
Trauma impacts our physical health; it impedes learning and new memories; it alters how we respond to crisis; untreated, it deprives us of even instinctual advantages. The Iliad’s story of the Trojan War gives its audiences traumatized warriors and families on both sides. It shows people fraying then unraveling under the pressures of long term conflict. And it provides us with vignettes of men and women trying to make sense of the world as everything they know breaks down. When Hektor tries to face his death, but then runs, the traditional language and its images unfold a human mind at its most intense moment of crisis.
Over the past few years, I have often found myself arguing about what the humanities are, about what they are good for. A poem like the Iliad is not some timeless relic, a perfect object to be worshipped for the unmixed good it can bring. But it is a deeply complex inheritance, a poem that gives us the opportunity to move between what we know and see now and what others experienced thousands of years ago. By tracing out the story of Hektor’s mind and his body’s burden, we may find just a little help in learning how to carry our own.
I am entirely aware that the following review of Eric Adler’s The Battle of the Classics cuts a little deep and comes at an inopportune moment. Nevertheless, Adler sent me this book before the outbreak of white supremacist and rightwing violence last week prompted multiple calls for increased training in the humanities. Our context and Adler’s implicit invitation prompted me to finish and post this review, despite our collective exhaustion.
To be clear, Adler’s book has no connection to last week’s coup. But there’s a cyclical and reactive debate about the impact of the humanities on current events, and claims that the humanities are not political are as vacuous as those insisting they are responsible in some significant way. In a sense, both Adler and I serve as mere proxies in broader, contentious debates.
Indeed, I was hesitant to post this review at all for fear of appearing less kind than I aspire to be or of giving the ideas in this book additional attention. Yet I grow increasingly tired of our intellectual histories pretending objectivity while still supporting a trenchantly ideological system. We need Classicists to perform critical and honest histories of our field to help us chart better courses forward. We don’t need sophistic prevarication.
The reaction of many humanists and classicists to the ‘revelation’ that our fields are racist in practice and in origin is not dissimilar to the responses by white intellectuals and politicians to the 1619 Project, which Trump has countered with the risible 1776 Project: resistance, minimization, denial, and outright violent rejection. Even those who try to accommodate new historical analyses may suffer cognitive dissonance, reluctant or incapable of acknowledging that the degree to which one realizes how toxic academia—and classics—is depends upon one’s own positionality.
It is a farce for any field of critical inquiry to refuse to conduct or accept a critique of its own history. To study the past without being interested in how earlier generations shaped this study and how their political, racial, gendered, and otherwise formative discourses influenced them is to engage in intellectual cosplay. This is, of course, an insult to the latter: at least cosplayers know they are engaging in fantasy. How much more ironic and hypocritical it is, then, for a field so proud of the Delphic “know thyself” to resist the practice of doing so!
Some readers are going to leave this piece with a forced misconception, carrying some ridiculous takeaway like “Homerist cancels Homer” or the like. (There’s a free headline for you!) Much to the contrary, this is a call to live up to the aspirations of the practice of the humanities, to force ourselves to be more than simple agents of tradition.
Adler’s primary emphasis in his book—that we need to advocate for the humanities based on their substance or content—is left abstract until its end. It is also at the end that some potential audiences emerge. What starts as a softer, center academic voice (see Adler’s welcome critique of the neoliberal university and educational consumerism) drifts rightward in the conclusion, characterizing Reed college’s inclusion of Mexico City and the Harlem Renaissance in its Hum 110 course as “a capitulation to contemporary American identity politics…[which] reinforces the sense that reforms, nominally aimed at a genuine cosmopolitanism, instead underscore American provincialism” (Adler 220).
Of course, I have excerpted the previous statements to make it seem as if Adler were making them and not merely repeating the kinds of things people say (which is how the paragraph is couched) because the closing chapter, intentionally or not, flirts with dog-whistles and gives a platform to arguments familiar to readers (or victims) of Quillette and the Heterodox Academy, at its best, and the ravings of less rational actors, at the worst.
Once he offers an overview of some texts he might suggest for the “wisdom of the ages”, Adler suggests, “In such a curriculum, diversity and inclusiveness remain important organizing principles. Yet they are not attained by a relentless, tokenizing pursuit of representativeness for its own sake. On the contrary, they emerge from a more intellectually serious investigation of how we as a species have sought to answer the most fundamental questions of life” (222).
This all may sound reasonable on the surface, until one imagines how these phrases resound with certain audiences and how they appropriate the language of inclusive pedagogy and practice to signal that there is a higher principle of rigor and quality. These are like the words of colleagues I have encountered who are happy to hire a woman or BIPOC scholar, as long as we don’t have to sacrifice “quality” to do so.
This summary also leaves out how selectively Adler shapes his intellectual history and how much his argument relies on the deeply problematic conservative scholar Irving Babbitt. On the whole, this book provides a somewhat interesting overview of some debates over the classical humanities in higher education in the United States. It is not clear, however, that the discussions paced over a century would have been recognized by anyone as a specific or continuous “Battle of the Classics”. In ignoring the fact that the “Classics” have always been selective and exclusive (and in eliding the Humanities and Classics), Adler joins his subjects as idealizing the content of the Classical tradition irrespective of the process that delivered it.
In aiming to argue for a “wisdom of the ages” that improves the human condition, Adler trains his gaze always on the idea of the objects rather than the subjects who benefit from them. At some level, I do deeply agree with the plea that we should focus on how the humanities can make us better humans—I just think this is a capacity we bring to the texts as subjects ourselves rather than magical qualities a set of texts may grant to us with the right shamans as our guides.
“So he spoke, and a dark cloud of grief covered Achilles.”
῝Ως φάτο, τὸν δ’ ἄχεος νεφέλη ἐκάλυψε μέλαινα·
I don’t know why I’m surprised that I find it hard to write about the Iliad. Or rather, why I find it so much harder to write about the Iliad than I do to write about the Odyssey.
Everything around the Iliad has always been harder and heavier for me as a classicist and a modern bard. And as a human being.
From the first time I read it as an undergrad studying Classics at UW-Madison, I’ve felt that the Iliad punishes the reader in a way that the Odyssey (which to be sure, itself has plenty of punishment) doesn’t.
To be sure, the context in which I’m writing about performing my Homer-inspired musical works has changed. “A Penis on the Screen” was written at the beginning of the first full escalation of the pandemic, more than nine months and three hundred thousand US deaths ago.
It was also written after only a single virtual performance of my one-man musical Odyssey, and before any virtual performances of my one-man musical Iliad, “The Blues of Achilles. Since that initial phallus-inscribed voyage I have completed fourteen virtual Odysseys and eleven virtual Blues of Achilles shows.
In a way these two blogs mirror how the creation of my two epic works unfolded. I wrote “Joe’s Odyssey” in the naive afterglow of my undergraduate studies when I didn’t know any better, when I was too young to understand how audacious it was to create a thirty-five minute non-narrative modern folk opera telling of the Odyssey, let alone to ask folks to sit still for it. That actually worked in my favor, as youthful ignorance sometimes does. I wrote a prompt in my songwriting book that read “create a one-man 24 song folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey” and three months later I premiered it in my parents’ living room, with a full performance for a group of students less than two months after that.
By contrast, sixteen years later when I decided to take on the Iliad, I spent almost a full year reading, researching, even interviewing veterans, before I wrote a single song. Once I composed the songs that comprise “The Blues of Achilles,” I played small samplings of them in modest workshop scenarios for another year before I finally debuted the full cycle in San Francisco in early March just as the pandemic took hold (a selection of songs from that performance can be viewed here on YouTube).
All of this is to say that these two pieces came from and were in two wildly different places in March as I started to consider how I would continue to perform them in a streaming environment: on the one hand, I had 300 plus Odyssey shows under my belt, on the other I had the Blues of Achilles with… one single show (and one in which I performed with an ensemble).
In reading my initial impressions of performing virtually as detailed in the Penis on the Screen blog, I have to give myself a little credit: almost all of what I wrote there about the Zoom performance environment bore itself out as correct over the course of repeated performances of my Odyssey.
(NB: I am so infrequently right about things I have to make a big deal of times when I am. For instance, as she will vouch for, I saw where the pandemic was going early on and told my wife to stock up on canned goods and alcohol for quarantine in early-February. I also correctly predicted that Dwyane Wade would be an NBA Hall-of-Famer after watching the 2003 NCAA tournament. Take that, Calchas).
But while my routines around my virtual Odyssey shows were immediately informed by the hundreds of previous live shows and discussions, The Blues of Achilles was a blank slate. Would I perform all the songs without stopping? Would I work in spoken narrative passages as I did in the public debut in San Francisco? Would I talk about all the works that informed my songs ahead of the performance, or let the audience lead me to such considerations in a discussion?
My Odyssey performance had years and years to develop organically along with my abilities, going from a living room to high school classrooms to university settings over the course of more than a decade. In contrast, The Blues of Achilles had immediate opportunities with very high level college audiences.
Luckily, I had the songs I wrote for the characters we know most intimately from Homer’s Iliad: a number of songs for Achilles of course, but also songs sung by Chryseis, Bryseis, Agamemnon, Hector, Hecuba, Priam, Helen, Andromache, Patroklus, and Thetis. Songs sung by the bard (me in this case) telling the story as well as other more impartial observers to the human suffering portrayed in the poem.
I had these songs that I loved very deeply and I felt said something interesting, deep and most importantly true about the characters and story, something that modern audiences might have a harder time accessing when considering them in millenia old translated texts.
(There should be a word for when you read a sentiment similar to one which you’ve arrived at entirely independently, especially when it is confirmed by a lauded source. Joel suggested “serendipity” which is true and good but doesn’t quite capture the validation and confidence boost such an occurrence can confer upon an artist or intellectual.)
If excavating love from the grief of the Iliad was good enough for Simone Weil, it was certainly good enough for me. I thought perhaps this relationship between love and grief was the heaviness that had created such apprehension in me about considering the Iliad.
It was actually several months into these pandemic performances of The Blues of Achilles that I fully realized why adapting the Iliad scared me more and was so much harder for me than adapting the Odyssey.
In April, the songwriter John Prine died of Covid complications. In a beautiful New York Times tribute to this amazing artist, Jason Isbell (a brilliant songwriter in his own right) wrote about the genius of Prine’s writing in general but in particular the song “Angel From Montgomery,” which opens with Prine singing “I am an old woman/named after my mother.” Isbell has this epiphany: “songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right.”
When it came to the Iliad, my anxiety was (and is) rooted in the fear that I couldn’t get the details right. And I knew that for these characters deep inside the machine of war and their legacies, the details were a matter of life and death. This was why I spent a year reading any war literature I could get my hands on from All Quiet on the Western Front to Catch-22 to Slaughterhouse Five. I read Achilles in Vietnam and The Things They Carried and Letters Home from Vietnam and Dispatches. I interviewed veterans who served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Enduring Freedom. I interviewed a Gold Star father who lost his son in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I found myself by chance in a hazy whiskey-fueled late night conversation with a veteran military journalist who turned me on to the album Soldier’s Heart, a set of songs by Jacob George, a veteran of OEF who wrote and recorded this album of the truest war stories I’ve ever heard before he died by suicide in 2014.
And with these details and a new vocabulary, I went back to the text and as is the case over and over with Homeric epic I found truths hovering in the spaces around the words, waiting for me. I thought about some of the other Iliad adaptations I read: Memorial by Alice Oswald, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, the play An Iliad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. Casey Dué’s Achilles Unbound helped me recognize the multiplicity inherent in oral tradition and gave me even more confidence to find my own Achilles.
And out of me in less than 30 days in early 2019 came tumbling my 17 love songs. If Homer’s Iliad tells of the Anger of Achilles, my Blues of Achilles makes its focus the Grief that is prominent in the first syllable of Achilles’ name and the Love that is so inextricably connected to Grief (for more “serendipity,” see Emily Austin’s work in particular the forthcoming Grief and the Hero.)
Frank Zappa purportedly said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and whether or not he actually did, the sentiment is correct. I write songs to capture something that other types of writing cannot convey so I won’t try to describe what my online Blues of Achilles shows are like in detail other than to say they are heavy, connected, and beautiful. I break the songs up to allow for audiences to ask questions and contribute to the meaning as we go rather than waiting until the end for them to participate and engage. Pandemic audiences seem particularly attuned to the less central characters to whom I try to give voice, to the characters who have been pulled into the grievous orbit of the principle tragic figures of the story.
I’ll be doing these shows (both Odyssey and Blues of Achilles) online for at least the first half of 2021: while I’m hoping that later in the year conditions might allow for safe travel and gatherings, it might be even into 2022 before that’s possible. But I know that eventually I’ll be able to bring The Blues of Achilles (and my Odyssey) to audiences in-person.
Whereas my online Odyssey shows were informed by live in-person performances, my live in-person Blues of Achilles shows (when they happen) will be informed by my online performances and I’m interested to see how this inversion impacts the futures of both pieces.
I return to one of my first impressions of performing online which is that these stories are so durable and rich and full of possibility that they can thrive in any sort of performance environment. Maybe better put: making the change from in-person to virtual is no big deal when a story has survived the transition from oral performance to written text and the thousands of years since.