Archipelagos of Time: On the Song of the Sirens

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Eirini Vourloumis, The Mermaid Madonna, (2015), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

Homer, Odyssey, 12.184-191, (trans. Emily Wilson)

‘Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known
from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!
Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy,
and they go on their way with greater knowledge,
since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know
whatever happens anywhere on earth.’

‘δεῦρ᾽ ἄγ᾽ ἰών, πολύαιν᾽ Ὀδυσεῦ, μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν,
νῆα κατάστησον, ἵνα νωιτέρην ὄπ ἀκούσῃς.
οὐ γάρ πώ τις τῇδε παρήλασε νηὶ μελαίνῃ,
πρίν γ᾽ ἡμέων μελίγηρυν ἀπὸ στομάτων ὄπ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς.
ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
Ἀργεῖοι Τρῶές τε θεῶν ἰότητι μόγησαν,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, ὅσσα γένηται ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ.

Traveling to and from islands is always, in a foundational narrative, a response to a search for origins, and finality, at the same time: “Islands are either from before or for after mankind […] Some islands drifted away from the continent, but the island is also that toward which one drifts; other islands originated in the ocean, but the island is also the origin, radical and absolute” (Deleuze, 2004). The second Homeric epic is a durational tale of the return of the hero to his home island of Ithaca, following the exploits of the Trojan War. While Odysseus was held for a year by the sorceress Circe on the mythical island Aeaea, she warned him about the song of the Sirens that he would encounter between Aeaea and the rock of Scylla: Whoever draws near their deadly song, he nevermore returns (Od. 12.36-54). He is advised to row past them, anointing the ears of his comrades with wax, and let them bind him to the mast of the vessel so that he may hear the voice of the two sirens and not come near them. But the survival tale of the hero leaves us wondering whether this isn’t one of the most cryptic passages in the epic.

In his first person account, Odysseus is unable to tell what it is exactly that he heard (Od. 12.180-194); it is a song without content, and the promise or threat of a song. The hero of the epic is fooling us into believing that he has heard a deadly song, and survived, rowing past the Sirens. The recital begins with the Iliadic expression πολύαιν᾽ Ὀδυσεῦ μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν (Il. 9.673; Il. 10.544, but esp. Il. 11.430 where he is faced with the possibility of death), “Odysseus, greatly praised, great glory of the Achaeans”, which appears nowhere else in the Odyssey. By re-introducing the militarism of the Iliad, the Sirens threaten Odysseus’ homecoming. This episode, however brief, has outlasted its importance in the diegesis of the Odyssey, and there’s an underlying contradiction that one cannot evade: “Since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know whatever happens anywhere on earth” is a flawed song and promise, for if they knew the future, they would have known that Odysseus sails on unmolested by their conditional offer.

The Sirens’ attempt to subvert time, expresses a desire to change the course of events not towards different historical events, but towards the one and single event: The endless repetition of the exploits of Troy. This temporal lacuna (a loss of vision) causes a rip in the texture of the Odysseic time-world, however minuscule and unsuccessful; according to the later account of Lycophron, the Sirens kill themselves after Odysseus escapes them (Lycophr. 1.712-716). This gap, a singularity, occurs as spatio-temporal remoteness: The Sirens know everything, except what is now present and visible. This remoteness is itself akin to an island – islands are unconnected. They represent a void in the continuity of the world, but also a last frontier that can be crossed, and yet a space without function: “Odysseus hears a voice without a story, and the audience a story without voice” (Schur, 2014). With these hypotactic metaphors in mind (void, island, breach, non-time), let’s travel to the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, where Odysseus made a brief stop en route from Troy to Ithaca (Od. 3.169).

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Eirini Vourloumis, The Mermaid Madonna, (2015), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

“The islands of the blessed” (Μακἀρων νῆσοι) they were called – Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Cos, and Rhodes, because they were ruled by Macareus and his sons, or because of their enviable prosperity (Diod. 5.81-82), but Diodorus Siculus also tells us, in the 1st century BCE, that Lesbos had been inhabited in ancient times by many peoples, since it has been the scene of many migrations. After the Pelasgians perished in the flood of Deucalion, “It came to pass that Lesbos was also laid desolate by the deluge of the waters”. The rule of the Macarioi was just the first installment in an interminable history of conquest and resettlement of Lesbos, extending through the Mytilenian Debate (Thuc. 3.36-49), when the city-state of Mytilene attempted to revolt against Athenian hegemony, to the raising of the Greek flag in 1912, after the surrender of the Turks who ruled over it for over four hundred years. After the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922, Greek refugees arrived in droves from Anatolia and settled in the northern part of the island, as Ottoman Muslims from Greece were exiled in the opposite direction.

Sea-locked in Lesbos, separated from Turkey only by a narrow strait, these former refugees once upon a time called “intruders, people with no identity, trash” (Papadiamantis, 2005), and at a considerable distance from the Athenian hegemony of today, were themselves the first ones to receive the new wave of refugees from the Middle East and Africa since 2015, enduring once again, the perils of Homer’s wine-dark sea (Od. 5.349). In this reenactment of a perpetual deluge through the island, without knowing yet the final destination (if there’s one), memories of unresolved trauma pile beneath new ones, and the role of an island as the focal point of a discentered void, becomes accentuated. “The desert island is the material of this something immemorial, something profound” (Deleuze, 2004). It’s not necessary for an island to be uninhabited to become deserted, or to contain inner deserts: There are manifold possibilities for being sea-locked; the raft on the water, the refugee camp of Moria in northern Lesbos, places of quarantine, and then the entire island. Archipelagos of time, zones of exclusion, confinement, para-legality.    

In Wu Tsang’s collaborative video-installation slash parafiction One Emerging From a Point of View” (2019, Fast Forward Festival 6, Onassis Cultural Center, Athens), the artist presents a polyphonic tale on the topic of migration that resembles more an epic than a linear narrative: Far from the logic of a documentary, a series of overlapping characters tell time (rather than specific events) in Lesbos not unlike the Homeric sirens – self-description becomes identical with a narrated event, time is a promise. What is promised is a story about history, but in the end we are faced with the condition of being outside of historical time, stuck, suspended, sealocked and unprotected by the spaces of mutual appearances. Realistic fragments from the present-day journey of a migrant, journalistic observations of life inside this political cosmogony (there’s no inside/outside on the island world), and the fictional narration of Yassmine Flowers, a transgender woman from Morocco, who escapes from a king to become a ‘deep sea techno witch’, interweave into a thick montage of present, fresh ruins.

In this hybrid fantasy world, events might be separated by impassable boundaries, where the border is not the limit of an experience, but its fundamental category. These different narrations collide in the photographic work of Eirini Vourloumis (one of Tsang’s collaborators), where she documents the physical traces of previous and current journeys from the viewpoint of an archaeology of borderwork: Working against a distinction between material and human (Hicks & Mallet, 2019).

panagia
Παναγία η Γοργὀνα

The iconic orange inflatable lifesavers are piled on the shoreline, a raft approaches the coast at night, and the debris of a makeshift settlement, all serve as a testimony of the new arrivals, but the testimony isn’t a memory – the deluge is still taking place, it has never stopped taking place (inside of the void, there’s no history, just one single continuous event). The Mermaid Madonna” is based on the eponymous novel of Stratis Myrivilis, published in 1955, set against the background of the Asia Minor catastrophe, but centered around two interrelated mythological characters: Our Lady of the Mermaid, (Παναγιά η Γοργόνα), a small church perched on a rock in the village of Skala Sykamnias, and the girl-nereid Esmeralda.

Centuries of oral traditions, transmissions and depictions in the Aegean, have blurred the distinction between various female mythological creatures, naiads, nereids, sirens, muses, tritonites, gorgonas, associated often with dual bodies/nature; they exist on the margins or at the borders of possible foundations. According to tradition the church took its name from what Myrivilis calls the strangest Virgin Mary in Greece and in the whole of Christianity, an apocryphal mural by an unknown folk painter that presented the Virgin Mary with a mermaid’s tail (now as an icon in the church). Esmeralda’s origin on the other hand is no less fantastical: A girl that doesn’t appear in the plot of the novel until several chapters later; she was born with emerald green eyes – like the sea, and golden curly hair – like the sun, so that the women in the village wondered whether she had been mothered by a nereid: “Who has given you such beautiful curls, my beloved? Your mother the nereid must be! Since you were born from the stars, go and ask the sun, whether it’s him or you who shines the world.” 

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Skala Sykamnias, church of the Lady Mermaid

Soon rumors around the dark powers of sirens, mermaids, nereids and muses began to circulate; a mythography around all the tragedies in Esmeralda’s life. Throughout the novel, the divine origin in the sea of Esmeralda is speculated, but she remains in the end like the Homeric sirens, unaccounted (Homer, always rich in adjectives, doesn’t offer a genealogy or even a description of the Sirens): “She anchored by the shadow of the rocks, then undressed completely and plunged into the water. Her body shone for a moment, illuminated by the moon, like an enormous golden fish, and then disappeared. The gorgona virgin, the young nereid, the deep sea techno witch, the migrant and the gaze of the photojournalist, all cross each other in Lesbos, but never encounter one another. “One Emerging from a Point of View” expresses the lost imaginary of the future, in which the Homeric siren song must be cut short: Completeness of knowledge, threatens the present. In the end, a new creature arises from the violent seas of the here and now: “This mermaid is Greece – half land, half sea”

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Wu Tsang, “One Emerging from a Point of View” (2019), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

The perplexing articulation of Tsang’s cinematic epic in Athens around the shrinking of historical time, was then augmented by an experimental theater piece, Thomas Bellinck’s speculative documentary “The Wild Hunt” (2019, Fast Forward Festival 6, Onassis Cultural Center, Athens) which begins with a reference to a painting by Romantic Scandinavian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo, “The Wild Hunt of Odin” (1872), recalling the Wild Hunt of Scandinavian folklore, a terrifying procession flinging across the skies during midwinter to abduct all those unfortunate who have been unable to find a hiding place. In this long audio performance (extending through hours, during which you only see the audible words projected on a screen), another sinister polyphony pieces together a portrait of today’s human hunt taking place throughout the Mediterranean, through snippets of dialogues in different languages between migrants, journalists, smugglers. The missing images of toil (the impossibility for Odysseus of sharing or reenacting the ephemeral sound of a deadly song) wrestle away from us the possibility of being shocked, and therefore, desensitized. 

NOR Åsgårdsreien, ENG The wild Hunt of Odin
The Wild Hunt, Peter Nicolai Arbo, (1872)

And the reality of this human hunt (humans have prices, markets, bidders), makes us question whether the typology of the island hasn’t erected itself as an entirely new politics? Archipelagos of time are those zones of enframing, confinement, enclosure, that exist outside an audible human world (where one is heard and can speak): Camp Moria and Camp de la Lande (in the Calais area of France) at the outermost borders of Europe. Who are those unfortunate who have been unable to find a hiding place? Roaming around the earth, these undesirables, are not fighting out only a conflict between a militaristic narrative and a homecoming, but rather, they have been abandoned by the Odyssey in the land of the Lotus eaters: “So they went straightway and mingled with the Lotus-eaters, and the Lotus-eaters did not plan death for my comrades, but gave them of the lotus to taste. And whosoever of them ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no longer any wish to bring back word or to return, but there they were fain to abide among the Lotus-eaters, feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of their homeward way” (Od. 9.91-97).

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Thomas Bellinck, “The Wild Hunt” (2019), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

It would be impossible today to discuss the structure of an emergency politics (the archipelago of time, the island, is the political condition of the exception, of the camp) without the Aristotelian sharp distinction between natural life and the polis (Aristot. Pol. 1.1252a.26-35), the demise of which is theorized by Agamben under the infamous concept of the state of exception: “When life and politics, originally divided, are linked together by means of the no man’s land of the state of exception that is inhabited by bare life -begin to become one, all life becomes sacred and all politics becomes the exception” (Agamben, 1998). Or, to put it more simply, the sovereign’s ability to commit crimes without suffering consequences: “Whoever entered the camp moved in a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which the very concepts of subjective right and juridical protection no longer made any sense” (Agamben, 1998). On the island, those who have been gathered by Odin, exist in a different universe where they might not be killed, but they’re also not permitted to die.

This sacrality of life, Agamben informs us, is here fully decontextualized: “The principle of the sacredness of life has become so familiar to us that we seem to forget that classical Greece, to which we owe most of our ethico-political concepts, not only ignored this principle but did not even possess a term to express the complex semantic sphere that we indicate with the single term life” (Agamben, 1998). Out of this indistinction, where the traditional categories of friend and enemy that sustain classical political theory have been suspended, new forms of violence become possible in which what is traditionally called hostility, war, conflict, enmity, cruelty and hatred becomes here thus unidentifiable (Derrida, 2004). The camp, as the expression of the exception is a war without war: “To kill without bloodshed, with the help of new techniques, is perhaps already to accede to a world without war and without politics, to the inhumanity of a war without war” (Derrida, 2004). Agamben, in his fine construction, however, spins the tale as the natural outcome of Western metaphysics and this decline narrative must be abandoned at once.

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Thomas Bellinck, “The Wild Hunt” (2019), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

Agamben’s willful oblivion of European imperialism brings us to a legal scholar to clarify the historical record. The state of exception didn’t rise out of Western metaphysics. It was in fact tried and tested by Europeans in their colonies, before it was shipped home and made to bear a constitutional face which is by no means exceptional, and thus destroys the traditional idea of colonialism as a period: “Colonialism is both place and process, a world-historical system that registers in different modes at different times” (Hussain, 2003). The island remains a liminal border of the colonial experience. Different colonial expeditions set sail not only towards inaccessible islands (Rufold Island in the Arctic) but also towards phantom islands: Islands that were previously recorded in maps and travelogues, but were found later not to exist. The exception of the camp is also a phantom island; it exists ghostly and outside cartography. The phantom island is also the story of the migrant stowaways on shipping vessels: a floating camp, bare life at sea, a site of radical difference (MacDonald, 2020).

What all these archipelagos of time share is actually the privation of time. Through dehumanizing borderwork (producing inside/outside border means to produce also illegality), impermanence becomes a form of transnational government and the bare life at sea (or on the desert, the island, the camp) articulates the interminability of colonial violence insofar as the permanence required to appear before others evaporates; the different languages of “The Wild Hunt” are inaudible gibberish without translation, just like the stuttering utterances of the deep sea techno witch, or in fact any inaudible story. Temporality is replaced with temporariness: The temporary becomes a space for politics, a time destroyed so quickly that it is perhaps shorter than the evénément (Hicks & Mallet, 2019).” Refugees are moved from place to place, their belongings destroyed, their institutionalization halted. But this privation of time isn’t simply by exclusion, it is also by reconfiguration: They’re condemned to exist in a time other than the timezone of modernity.

The everlasting present of this island functions as a geopolitics: “The temporal stasis that comes from the physical blockage arising from seeking asylum through irregular passage becomes the abhorrent condition of impermanence as abjection. Time is weaponized, as it was once before through Victorian savagery. But this now operates through the withdrawal of duration and the ongoing (post)colonial process of the imposition of different ages across different hemispheres” (Hicks & Mallet, 2019). As denizens of a global pandemic, we now know how difficult it is to sustain a world in which the fragility of human affairs isn’t mediated by our appearing together through sustained, mutual, acts of speech. The nature of human action is such, that as soon as the action ceases, so does the world. It was for example, in the Iliad, the factuality of public speech, of having a place where men can do battle with words, what guaranteed a truly political foundation (Barker & Christensen, 2013; Arendt, 1958). How do we inherit then Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet’s notion of ‘giving time’ (back) as resistance to the threat of inaudible speech?

We must return here again to the Song of the Sirens and the opening Iliadic formula: πολύαιν᾽ Ὀδυσεῦ μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν (this time in the Wilson translation for clarity: ‘Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!’). Invoking Odysseus as the πολύαινος (polyainos, full of wisdom and knowledge), the one of many deeds and praises from the Iliad, the tale of force (violence, bare life), becomes a challenge to the hero’s present ainoi, his speech acts: The goddess Athena celebrates him for being a cunning liar, “among mortal men, you’re far the best at tactics, spinning yarns, and I am famous among the gods for wisdom, cunning wiles, too” (Hom. Od. 13.324-39) His survival depends now solely on his capacity for storytelling and persuasion. Returning home for Odysseus, as the opening lines of the epic tell us (Hom. Od. 1.1-6), establishes a relation between his mind (noos) and his return (nostos), so that in returning home, he also saves his life and his mind, after “getting to know/see different ways.” Odysseus refuses to submit to the interminability of the song, the precarious eternity. 

The opening of the Odyssey already contains the answer to the Song of the Sirens: “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me  how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home.” (Hom. Od. 1.1-5) Odysseus is not only relating the life of the mind, his soul, to the life of the community, his return, but he is also a πολύτροπος (polytropos): One who could change in many different ways who he was, and who takes on many different forms, a man of many devices, a complicated man (in the Wilson translation). It speaks of the capacity to use stories as foundations, in order to emerge from a primeval void (Homer’s epics were also a break with previous master narratives).

Gregory Nagy’s interpretation of Odysseus’ homecoming highlights that this isn’t just any homecoming, but a return to light and life. In Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s video work Remember the Light (2016, Sharjah Art Foundation), men and women are submerged deeper and deeper underwater, and strange things happen to the spectrum of color – it narrows into disappearance: “Those men, this woman, seems then the echo of all those persons traveling through the sea without knowing their fate.” But something resurfaces then again towards the light, and the spectrum of light begins to magnify until the light is in full view. Lebanese Joana Hadjithomas, from a Greek family that sailed for Beirut after the Asia Minor catastrophe, still wonders how many more homecomings are possible: “What is forgotten, what remains and what can be imagined? And the truth may just be this: that in a time of monsters, in which ‘the old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth’, the only thing that can bring us out of the darkness is the light of love, beauty, poetry” (Muller, 2006). 

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Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Remember the Light, (2016)
“I’ve stared at beauty too much”, Cavafy tells us in one of his poems. The scene has changed from Athens to Beirut. In Hadjithomas and Joreige’s video, “I’ve Stared at Beauty So Much: Waiting for the Barbarians” (2013), in reference to Cavafy: “Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come. / And some of our men just in from the border say / There are no barbarians any longer”, we see Beirut from the skies, overlapping realities, myths, we are confused, the view is blurred, and yet remains possible at the same time. As I wrote in 2014 about their lecture performance “An Additional Continent”: “For Hadjithomas and Joreige it is necessary not only to remember the past, but also to reinvent it as if it had never happened before. Hadjithomas insists that to re-stage is to re-start. They want to reframe the question of political foundations as a problem of culture (or of civilization). How to start something anew? How to be reinvented in uncertainty? How to live without foundations? And by foundation we meant the act of founding a body politic, a human community, a political stage.” Dialogue is the possibility of geography, the possibility of (again) time; but these conversations take a very long time, perhaps all the available time.

And then what does poetry have to do with the gift of time, in its practical implications? How is it possible to conflate the travels of Odysseus with the plight of unnamed migrants stranded and even lost at sea? Because the Odyssey functions as a master narrative, a self-contained universe, it allows us today to wonder at a time when we’re ourselves temporarily exiled from access to the immediacy of time (during a pandemic), whether this being lost at sea, as a political cosmology, isn’t growing between us as a new foundational narrative and a possible new world, even more violent than the old one.

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Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, An Additional Continent, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, (2014)

We should read this time the return to Ithaca against Cavafy, “To arrive there is your final destination. But do not rush the voyage in the least. Better it last for many years […]”, for we no longer want to delay time once it has been wrestled from our hands, and especially from their hands, into the evénément of the unexceptional exception of bare life at sea. But yet we will read it with Christos Ikonomou, from his collection of short stories “Good Will Come from the Sea” (2014): “In which land we are to live, I wonder, us and those who’ll come after us? In a country that will exist because it hates and is afraid? And I want to believe in something. I want to believe, okay? […] To know that something doesn’t exist and to believe in it – I think this is the only salvation left to us. Because if you believe in something that doesn’t exist, who knows, one day it could be born.” The procedure is simple; consciousness of limit, fragility, finitude, and only here, no other, distant worlds (Heller, 1993). The final word rests with Odysseus, in his address to the goddess Athena:

But even so, I want to go back home,
And every day I hope that the day will come.
If some god strikes me on the wine-dark sea,
I will endure it. By now I am used
To suffering – I have gone through so much,
At sea and in the war. Let this come too.

ἀλλὰ καὶ ὧς ἐθέλω καὶ ἐέλδομαι ἤματα πάντα
οἴκαδέ τ’ ἐλθέμεναι καὶ νόστιμον ἦμαρ ἰδέσθαι.
εἰ δ’ αὖ τις ῥαίῃσι θεῶν ἐνὶ οἴνοπι πόντῳ,
τλήσομαι ἐν στήθεσσιν ἔχων ταλαπενθέα θυμόν·
ἤδη γὰρ μάλα πολλὰ πάθον καὶ πολλὰ μόγησα
κύμασι καὶ πολέμῳ· μετὰ καὶ τόδε τοῖσι γενέσθω.

Homer, Odyssey, 5.219-224, (trans. Emily Wilson)

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Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, “I’ve Stared at Beauty So Much: Waiting for the Barbarians”, (2013), commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center, Visual Dialogues

Bibliography:

  • Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, 1998
  • Arie Amaya-Akkermans, “Why Eternity is so Precarious?”, Hyperallergic, 2014
  • Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
  • Elton T.E. Barker & Joel Christensen, Homer: A Beginner’s Guide, Oneworld Publications, 2013
  • Michael Bull, Sirens: The Study of Sound, Bloomsbury, 2020
  • Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, Semiotext(e), 2004
  • Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, Verso, 2005
  • Lillian Eileen Doherty, “Sirens, Muses and Female Narrators in the Odyssey”, in The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer’s Odyssey, ed. Beth Cohen, Oxford University Press, 1995 
  • Margalit Finkelberg (ed.), The Homer Encyclopedia, vol. 3, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
  • Agnes Heller, A Philosophy of History in Fragments, Wiley-Blackwell, 1993
  • Dan Hicks & Sarah Mallet, Lande: The Calais Jungle and Beyond, Bristol University Press, 2019
  • Nasser Hussain, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of the Law, University of Michigan Press, 2003
  • Megan C. MacDonald, “Bare Life at Sea (the Leper and the Plague)” in Biotheory: Life and Death under Capitalism, ed. Jeffrey R. Di Leo & Peter Hitchcock, Routledge, 2020
  • Nat Muller, “Beauty in a Time of Monsters” in Two Suns in a Sunset: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Koenig Books, 2016 
  • Pedro Jesús Molina Muñoz, “La imagen de la Sirena en la obra de Stratis Myribilis, La Virgen Sirena”, in Identidades Femeninas en un Mundo Plural, ed. Maria Elena Jaime de Pablos, AUDEM, 2009
  • Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Harvard University Press, 2013, online.
  • Αλέξανδρος Παπαδιαμάντης, «Τραγούδια του Θεού», Άπαντα, κριτική έκδ. Ν. Δ. Τριανταφυλλόπουλος, Αθήνα, Δόμος, 2005
  • Pietro Pucci, “The Song of the Sirens”, Arethusa, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Fall 1979)
  • David Schur, “The Silence of Homer’s Sirens”, Arethusa, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Winter 2014) 
  • Emily L. Shields, “Lesbos in the Trojan War”, The Classical Journal, Vol. 13, No. 9 (June 1918)

Acknowledgments to the people who through their suggestions and conversations in the past year contributed to this essay: Arca Alpan, Katia Arfara, Gregory Buchakjian, Joel Christensen, Musab Daud, Maria Eliades, Sofia Georgiadou, Joana Hadjithomas, Dan Hicks. 

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.

Satire’s Ire

“It is difficult not to write satire. For who is so willing to suffer this unjust city, so iron-clad, that they could restrain themselves?” [Juvenal]
difficile est saturam non scribere. nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se

The story goes that when Henry Kissinger was offered a Nobel Peace Prize, Philip Roth thought that satire was effectively over. I had much the same thought as I drove by a crowded Applebee’s here in San Antonio, a city which has experienced record increases in new coronavirus cases over the past week. How can The Onion even stay in business when people are ready to sacrifice themselves for the ad blitz which will note that Applebee’s burgers are literally to die for. “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” This sentiment of Constance Chatterly, at the beginning of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, could be modified to suit our own time by noting that ours is essentially a self-satirizing age. It is tragic, to be sure; but all of the language of anger or despair has already been co-opted by the very sources of the tragedy itself.

It has become impossible to write anything meaningful about the collapse of culture and civilization in the 21st century without referring to the orange man, and I will not buck this trend. Some people have apparently been amused by comedic treatments of Trump, but it is hard to see what is so funny in them. Satire relies heavily on irony and exaggeration – but can that tumescent orange pustule be exaggerated any further? What fictionalized headline about him could be so preposterous that we wouldn’t believe it?

If we live in a post-satire world, it is only because we are living in the post-truth world, in which words don’t really seem to mean anything in particular. Stephen Colbert could be funny when coining the idea of “truthiness” because, in that era which now feels long-lost, there was at least some vestigial sense that facts existed and that it was the job of language to track and represent them with some accuracy. But who could have predicted that America’s expert epistemologist Rudy Giuliani would one day announce his revolutionary doctrine that truth isn’t truth? In such a world, truthiness just isn’t funny anymore.

As Juvenal seemed to sense in the opening lines of his first book of Satires, the beginning of satire lie in vexation:

Shall I never respond, vexed so often by the Theseid of rough-sounding Cordus?

numquamne reponam | uexatus totiens rauci Theseide Cordi?

Vexation is in ample supply. In an age as ridiculous as ours, it is hard to mock any of the agents of our suffering because they have already expressed themselves in the most ridiculous terms. Indeed, in every sense, they speak for themselves. What can we do to make a travesty of something which is already a parody of itself? Nothing. And so, we are left only with expressions of unalloyed rage, with no raillery to add zest to these wholly unpalatable truths.

Satire is more effective when the fools and villains in power make some attempt to disguise their malice. When they instead make an open show of their hypocrisy, they preclude the possibility for mockery, because they no longer even pay lip service to a standard to which they can be held. We all know that the politician and the CEO have no shame; but at least they used to have to act out a public ritual of pretending to feel shame when assailed by public opinion. Recognizing the hollowness of that gesture, they now simply “say the quiet part out loud” and rely on bolder sallies further into the fields of patent hypocrisy to flee from any reckoning. Delivering his opening monologue today, Shakespeare’s Richard III would simply announce to the whole cast of characters that he was determined to prove the villain.

Compare these two headlines:

With coronavirus cases climbing, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says “no real need” to scale back business reopenings

City Enters Phase 4 Of Pretending Coronavirus Over

Very little separates the satirical from the reportorial here. But as we have seen during the reign of our circus clown in chief, the point at which evil and stupidity so exceed the bounds of credulity as to become parodies of themselves is the point at which they have removed themselves from public responsibility and become tyrants who need not answer to the anger or the mockery of the people. How nice it would be once again to live in a world where the fear and loathing of the people who run our lives could vent itself in jest.

Let such raise Palaces, and Manors buy,

Collect a Tax, or farm a Lottery,

With warbling eunuchs fill our Licensed Stage,

And lull to Servitude a thoughtless Age.

Heroes, proceed! What Bounds your Pride shall hold?

What Check restrain your Thirst of Pow’r and Gold?

Behold rebellious Virtue quite o’erthrown,

Behold our Fame, our Wealth, our Lives your own.

[Samuel Johnson, London 57-64]

Juvenalcrowned

Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma

“Alcidamas called the Odyssey a ‘fine mirror of human life’ ”

καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον

Aristotle, Rhetoric

Like many of the people I talk to, I find myself incapable of focusing on much these days as a I move mechanically from zoom ‘teaching’ to virtual meetings, all while doom scrolling on twitter. We joke about “the end of the world” even as it is in fact the end of an era. I often think of these repeated motions as a kind of paralysis: with no new goal, bereft of any way to change anything, just waiting for some report or action to show me the way. Then, at the end of each day, watching the news leaves me exhausted in the wake of intense, yet impotent, rage.

The image that comes to my mind too frequently is Odysseus on the shore of Kalypso’s island in the Odyssey’s fifth book. (5.151–159):

Kalypso found [Odysseus] sitting on the water’s edge. His eyes were never dry
of tears and his sweet life was draining away as he mourned
over his homecoming, since the goddess was no longer pleasing to him.
But it was true that he stretched out beside her at night by necessity
In her hollow caves, unwilling when she was willing.
By day, however, he sat on the rocks and sands
wracking his heart with tears, groans and grief,
Shedding tears as he gazed upon the barren sea.

τὸν δ’ ἄρ’ ἐπ’ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον· οὐδέ ποτ’ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ’ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ’ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ·
ἤματα δ’ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠϊόνεσσι καθίζων
[δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων]
πόντον ἐπ’ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων.

When we find Odysseus at the beginning of his epic he has been here on the shore of Ogygia, crying during the day for seven years (and, let’s not forget, having sex with a goddess each night, which has lost its charm). I think I go here because I have taught the Odyssey and I have spent the past five years writing a book about Homeric epic’s internal theory of the human mind, emphasizing how the Odyssey presents its characters responding to suffering and trauma in ways that correspond to modern psychological observations and interventions. I don’t know if this makes me any more capable of coping with what we are all facing, but it does remind me daily that the nothing we are experiencing  is something and that this drawn out, uncertain catastrophe is reshaping us.

What I have learned from these years of reading is that ancient poetry (and modern literature too) can come as close to anything else as offering a guide to our grief and providing a primer on how to stay human in inhumane times. And this makes it even clearer to me that not talking about these experiences while they happen is dangerous. I hear the trauma and fear in my own voice and in the words of my friends and colleagues, and I worry about who we will all be on the other side. Talking about this may make a difference. Acknowledging it might help us emerge a little stronger, if not faster, with fewer of us left behind.

 

Helplessness and Complex Loss

“The person who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”

Τῷ μὲν τὸ σῶμα † διατεθειμένῳ κακῶς
χρεία ‘στ’ ἰατροῦ, τῷ δὲ τὴν ψυχὴν φίλου·
λύπην γὰρ εὔνους οἶδε θεραπεύειν φίλος.

Menander (fr. 591 K.)

One of the things I think that gets overlooked when people focus on the Odyssey’s heroic narrative is the extent to which the epic features characters who are trapped and deprived of control over their life in some fundamental way. Odysseus, of course, is clearly marginalized from action right at the beginning of the epic. But when Athena—as Mentor—first finds Telemachus, he is caught in a daydream, thinking about his father:

“God-like Telemachus saw her much the first
For he was sitting among the suitors, pained in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts…”

τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής·
ἧστο γὰρ ἐν μνηστῆρσι φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
ὀσσόμενος πατέρ’ ἐσθλὸν ἐνὶ φρεσίν…

In his recent book about Telemachus, Charles Underwood sees this daydream as a type of fantasy where Telemachus explores possible futures (2018, 25–31). I like this formulation a lot, but what I also see here is that it is not until after several conversations with Athena that Telemachus can even conceive of acting himself. He is, essentially, a grammatical subject but not an agent, which makes him an object of the forces in his world and goes a great way to explain his lack of action.

Telemachus is, I think, in a kind of paralysis that issues from his experience of the world (rather than in it because he has done so little).  And he sets us up to see other figures in the epic from the perspective of agency and object, of limitations that our views of ourselves in the world impose on whether we think we can act in it. Penelope, Odysseus, and even minor figures like Eupeithes the father of a slaughtered suitor appear in frozen states. In each case, the epic invites its audiences to see how a character’s experiences and context shape or constrain their ability to act in the world.

And here’s a simplified explanation for what the epic is reflecting. When we cannot run from a threat or rise to fight it, we are shocked into a moment of inaction, frozen in time like proverbial deer in headlights. From modern perspectives, this paralysis is rooted in a deferred fight-or-flight response. We have all encountered such moments when we do not know how to act, but deferment prolonged over time can have psychological consequences, creating pathological anxiety responses and forming an essential part of our relationship with trauma. Chronic activation of this stress response can have serious consequences for mental and physical health. Digestive issues? Yes. Sleep? Yes. Immune response? Yes, unfortunately 

In his book The Evil Hours, David J. Morris talks about how people suffering from trauma exist in a “liminal state” between life and death (2015, 6-7). To what extent people get stuck in this state has little to do with who you are before—no one can predict the overlapping impact of emotional and somatic responses. But a sense of helplessness can enhance the impact of trauma considerably. As a category, psychologists have discussed “learned helplessness”—the process of becoming habituated to a lack of agency and control over life—and its maladaptations for over a century. A developed sense of helplessness can make it hard to learn new things or demonstrate what you have learned; it has been linked to depression and anxiety; and it can prevent us from making plans for the future because we believe or suspect our own agency does not matter at all (see Mikuluncer 1994 for a full study).

A sense of lost agency—which contributes to depression on its own—is just not about helplessness: it has a recursive and reinforcing relationship with trauma. Prolonged helplessness changes the way we see the world and is itself traumatizing; helplessness in the face of prolonged suffering can be dehumanizing.

The Odyssey, I think, gives us a range of figures subject to helplessness and marginalization from different sources. Odysseus, of course, is the most obvious figure (followed by Telemachus, as I write about in a few places). But many major and minor figures are trapped in cycles of behavior from which they have little escape. Menelaos and Helen in book 4 are engaged in “off task coping” (drugs and alcohol), arguing about the past through the stories they tell, constrained by the decisions they made, the actions they committed, and the inability to imagine any different future.

The enslaved people of the epic have either completely internalized their worthlessness and commitment to their masters (Eumaios and Eurykleia) or they lash out with ‘misbehavior’ only to be murdered for it later (Melantho, Melanthios, the other enslaved women). Laertes has retreated to his gardens, repeatedly going over the same works again and again. Penelope reduces to tears amid her pacing from room to hall, expressing that most human of needs to feel something or give up. Her uncertainty is like the fragmentation David Morris describes in traumatized figures: their past and present seem disconnected and the future is hard to imagine at all. Trauma and helplessness undermine the internal assumptions of causality which makes it possible for us to act in the world.

The Odyssey also gives us a sense of trauma’s multiple sources: it is not just that people are marginalized by their sense of helplessness, but they are also undone by unresolved loss. Characters like Penelope, Menelaos, and Eupeithes (the father who lost his son and speaks in favor of killing Odysseus at the end of the epic) are shown undone by the grief that comes from not knowing if someone is dead or alive (in reference to Odysseus) or not being able to attend to their grief in a way they understand (as in Eupeithes’ desire for revenge). In recent years, researchers have called these types of emotion “ambiguous loss” or “complicated grief” and have explained how they create and perpetuate states of inaction (see Boss 1999) or paralytic returns to the topic of loss and uncertainty (see Hall et al. 2014).

So, if you feel paralyzed for events, stultified by your own response, or lost in trying to make some sense of each day, that’s your brain and body telling you something. The world is changing in ways we cannot fully understand, and it hurts. It is ok not to write a book during your isolation; it is normal to feel distracted and lost.  Overeating or drinking too much? Look at the suitors waiting for something to happen in their lives. Having trouble sleeping? Both Telemachus and Odysseus stay awake all night. Having trouble not sleeping? Penelope is overwhelmed with exhaustion (and weeping) by Athena.

File:Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the Island of Ithaca by Giuseppe Bottani.jpg
Athena and Odysseus by Giuseppe Bottani

Collective Trauma and Social Memory

Continue reading “Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma”

Revising The Future of the Past

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 4.25

“An epidemic in that year provided a break from other problems.”

Pestilentia eo anno aliarum rerum otium praebuit.

Today Nandini Pandey has a smart piece out in Eidolon (“Classics After Coronavirus“) where she asks a group of people who see different perspectives of Classical Studies to think about what impact COVID-19 will have on the future of these disciplines. (And it is smart not because she asked me to write something for it, but because she got a group of really smart other people to write thoughtfully in the midst of a crises: check out the article for good prognostications by Joy Connolly, Sarah Bond, Amy Pistone, Del A. Maticic, Scott Lepisto, Michelle Bayouth, Mira Seo and Shelley P. Halley”).

It’s no secret around my house that I think about these things a lot. Really, I am one or two turns in life away from being straight-up prepper. And I may be breaking a little alarmist here, but I worry that COVID-19 is merely a dress-rehearsal for the ravages of climate change, which may well include new pandemics in additional to destabilized weather. Even more frightening, old pandemics and viruses could find new life our changing environment.

At least, this is what science fiction says: archaeologists in Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book resurrect the boubonic plague while plying their craft. It’s not all bad: Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio presents an ancient retrovirus that hastens the next stage in human evolution. But, really, apart from that, it gets pretty bad: the worst usually comes when man conspires with nature as in the famous apocalypse of Stephen King’s The Stand or the vampire trilogy by Justin Cronin (The Passage, The Twelve, and The City of Mirrors) which centers, gulp, around academics playing with life and death in places like Cambridge, MA and New York City.

My point is not that we should keep hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but that I think my comments in the Eidolon piece do not go nearly far enough because, as I think Scott Lepisto is starting to say, we need radical change fast and we’re not talking about Classics. If there is a silver lining in this shitberg our current leadership is piloting straight towards, it is that we might just get hurt enough to change our ways, to avoid the worst of what could come.

Or, well, that’s what I say so I can sleep tonight. At the end of it, the fact is that we are more likely to see a civilization shifting cataclysm now than five years ago. And we should be thinking about what that means for the way we talk about the past.

So here’s a re-post from last year.

*     *     *     *

In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.

Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.

Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.

The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognota series or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”

ὁ μὲν γὰρ Θετταλοῖς περὶ Ἄρνης δοθεὶς χρησμὸς ἐκέλευε φράζειν: “κωφοῦ τ᾿ ἀκοὴν τυφλοῖό τε δέρξιν”  Plutarch, Obsolesence Of Oracles (Moralia 432)

A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.

Continue reading “Revising The Future of the Past”

Less Human Apart: Isolation and Civilization in Myth, Science Fiction and RL

Iliad, 2.721–723

“Philoktetes lies there on the island suffering harsh pains
In holy Lemnos where the sons of the Achaeans left him
suffering with an evil wound from a murderous watersnake.”

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

Odyssey 5.13–15

“He lies there on the island suffering harsh pains
In the halls of Calypso the nymph who holds him
under compulsion. He is not capable of returning to his paternal land.”

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

Isolation. “Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos,” By Jean Germain Drouais

The figure of the isolated hero in ancient Greek myth and poetry is one who is set apart, on an island, separated from other humans and, by extension, from human culture. The impact of isolation is often communicated through the heroic body, even if it is offered in some way as a cause: Philoktetes’ dehumanization is reflected in the wound whose antisocial attributes cause him to be abandoned (described like a disease in Sophocles’ play). Odysseus seems arguably less human insofar as he is stripped of agency and, until Hermes comes to move him, clearly more an object of interest than a subject of his own.

Indeed, the Odyssey has deep ethnographic concerns, focusing on how people make their livings and how they live their lives. When Odysseus describes the island of the Cyclopes, he remarks on how it might be a good place to live, but the Cyclopes themselves are “arrogant and lawless” (ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων, 9.106). They aren’t human because of the  way they live (they do not cultivate the land, 108-111). And they are less than human because of how they organize their lives (Odyssey 9.112–115):

 “They don’t have council-bearing assemblies or laws,
But instead they inhabit homes on high hills
In hollow caves, and each one makes laws
For his children and wives—they do not have concern for one another.”

τοῖσιν δ’ οὔτ’ ἀγοραὶ βουληφόροι οὔτε θέμιστες,
ἀλλ’ οἵ γ’ ὑψηλῶν ὀρέων ναίουσι κάρηνα
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι, θεμιστεύει δὲ ἕκαστος
παίδων ἠδ’ ἀλόχων, οὐδ’ ἀλλήλων ἀλέγουσι.

In a way, Odysseus anticipates here the later Greek use of the term idiotês for the person who fails to understand that the commonwealth directly impacts individual possessions—indeed, it makes possible the existence of individual goods. The ancient idiot, in this political sense, is a kind of naïve libertarian who is incapable of conceiving of shared human society as the very thing that makes life possible and also worth living.

*          *          *          *

Current events are forcing us to explore some of the same tensions: inasmuch as some are aghast that we are not willing to die to preserve the economy, the rest of us remain horror stricken at how much our public health and collective good have been sacrificed to prop up the wealth of a very few. Even though my training directs my thoughts consistently to the past for parallels to cope with the present, my own reading history and proclivity for speculative fiction keep taking me to narrative futures. In my impatience to be done with the now, I am busy manufacturing anxieties about what will become of us later.

In Isaac Asimov’s Robot novel The Naked Sun (1957), the detective Elijah Bailey is dispatched to one of the “spacer” worlds to investigate a murder. In Asimov’s world, humankind lives in a mixed future where billions are crowded into cities on earth while a select elite escape to fifty “Spacer” worlds. Over time, the antagonism between Spacer and Earther expands as the former use their greater resources and technology to dominate the latter. And Earthers suffer from a fear of the outside, a reluctance to leave the comfort of their cities.

The Spacers, those libertarian techno-overlords, fear contagion and disease and contact with the human rabble left on earth. When Baily meets with the widow of the murdered scientist on her planet Solaria, Gladia, she will at first only see him through “viewing” (a video screen). Eventually she breaks Solarian taboo and comes to him in person and to help solve the crime. (No spoiler, but it wasn’t a robot.)

Many years later (in our world) Asimov returns to Solaria generations later in his Foundation and Earth (1986). In the intervening years, the Spacer planets were eclipsed by the rapid expansion of the population of Earth into the galaxy, fading quickly into obsolescence and obscurity. The Solaria found here is populated by a few human beings who intentionally developed hermaphroditic qualities so they would never have to encounter other human beings in person again. The Solarian world is expansive—each person lives on massive estates, engaging with others only through mediated viewing and using technology to ritualize isolation.

E. M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops” (1909, 1928) puts humankind in a sub-terrestrial, dystopic future. People must live in isolation, in basic rooms from which they engage in the world only through video conferencing. One of the main characters, Vashti, spends a great deal of her time broadcasting her ideas over this ersatz internet, recycling and repackaging ideas for consumption and replacing most human relationship with a distanced presentation of the ‘self’. The main plot of this tale, of course, is about the “machine” which supports all of this life collapsing, but the lingering sense it leaves is one of the panopticon in which the ability to broadcast, to send a message, is traded for being watched and people live separate from one another both out of fear and out of habit.

I have been thinking about both of these speculative narratives over the past few weeks as my work has converted online completely and my social life has blended into it. I “zoom” with colleagues, skype with friends, and merely text-message with my extended family. I watch as my children are habituated to the same kind of mediated existence. There is an hour each day when three of us are on zoom simultaneously, in the same house but in separate rooms, sometimes irked that the sound of another intrudes on our distanced engagement.

We have been living with some of the rapid consequences of these kinds of mediated communication networks for years. Is something as bizarre as pizza-gate possible without facebook or other online fora? Do these media ever produce anything but the strangest and saddest common denominator?

Modern science fiction is no stranger to this too. In his post-apocalpytic Seveneves, Neal Stephenson—an author a bit too libertarian and soft on techo-capitalists generally—puts a surviving remnant of humanity in space, isolated in a network of space capsules connected by a communication network dubbed “spacebook”. In order to survive, these clutches of life have to preserve resources and follow a very basic plan. But paranoia explodes in the social network: one week, a thought leader proposes that in space humans do not need legs, so they should cut them off and eat them to preserve the protein. Soon, a critical number of people depart with precious resources to try to make it to Mars because they convinced themselves in their echo chamber of madness that this was a good plan, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary.

Neal Stephenson's SEVENEVES — Dennis D. McDonald's Web Site

(they all die. A mere handful of people survive their stupidity.)

Of the many ways in which COVID-19 will change our lives, one is how it will accelerate our embrace of life online. Children are having playdates online: ours have had dance classes, piano lessons, and speech therapy in just the last week to go along with 2-3 ‘Montessori’ zoom lessons a day. Although I am deeply grateful to these teachers and instructors for bringing some sense of normalcy to our children’s days, I worry that this will be their baseline: no playgrounds, no playmates, but video-streamed encounters and mediated experiences. They will be open to the supercharged pathways of disinformation that propagate quack cures for plagues and easy arguments for denying collective action against global warming.

Asimov’s Solarians are independent-minded elitists whose fear of disease and love of long lives pushes them further and further apart; Forster’s subterraneans are addicted to the comfort of their regulated lives and distracted by the ability to be ‘experts’ and temporary celebrities in the global machine. Stephenson’s human race barely survives an apocalypse followed by human caused ruin thanks to individual heroics and fantastic evolutionary science. The Coronavirus won’t suddenly turn us into any of these groups, but it may make us just that much less human.

*          *          *          *

Modern studies in narrative emphasize how our identity develops from social relationships and studies in cognitive psychology show how isolation can have damaging effects on us emotionally and mentally. When separated from others we can experience an increase in fear and paranoia (See Andersen et al. 2000, 19.); studies in the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners demonstrate a marked increase in the development of psychopathology under the influence of isolation which can eventuate in neurobiological transformations. The brain of an isolated human being may demonstrate fewer neural connections and correlate with distortions in memory and a deterioration of language abilities. Isolation, to put it simply, can break down those very things that make people who they are. (see Ravindran 2014, Gilmore and Nanon 2014; Kaba et al. 2014)

Ancient Greek myth and poetry seems to communicate this through figures like Philoktetes—who languishes for a decade after being marooned on the island of Lemnos—and Odysseus, who suffers in quasi-isolation for seven years, weeping on the edge of the sea (but having sex with Calypso at night). Odysseus cannot return home directly from this. His journey home requires him to repeatedly tell stories about himself and to reaffirm his identity step-by-step through reunions with the important people in his life. It is Odysseus too who brings Philoktetes back into society in Sophocles’ play.

I think ancient audiences saw the sufferings of both figures as a result from their isolation, from their separation from communion with other human beings. Both Homer’s epic and Sophocles’ play emphasize political themes and social consequences: Odysseus and Philoktetes are at times calculating and full of rage, leaving characters in the poems (and audiences outside them) unsure of if or when they will lash out.

What each narrative emphasizes, however, is that the isolated figure needs fellowship and partnership to return to human society. Odysseus’ return home is not complete until he is recognized—and recognizes himself—in his son, spouse, and father. Philoktetes needs to be persuaded to return, to be cajoled and guided and distracted from the fact he is being used.

This is, perhaps, cold comfort for those of us isolated now. But it does remind us that having other people around us is important and that, when the time comes to reintegrate, it won’t be simple or easy. We will have to tell each other our stories and listen to who we confirm in each other we are.

And perhaps it will force us to think about the world we create for ourselves. The plot which drives Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is a choice about the future of life in the galaxy: whether it will continue on as it has, with everyone charting separate courses of self interest or it will change radically, adopting the life-form model of a planet called Gaia where all inhabitants shared consciousness and fate, yielding some sense of free will.

When I read this choice to its conclusion in the late 80s, I was horrified because it seemed (spoiler alert) that the protagonist was choosing communism! But it did not take many years for the wisdom of this choice to make a little more sense. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home and murders 108 suitors. The epic almost ends with a civil war but for the intervention of Athena and Zeus who declare an amnesty, insisting that the Ithakans and Odysseus need to live together (24.486, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω). In this, the individual leader is forced to change his ways; but the people have to submit to forgetting and forgetting the violence and malice which brought a generation to ruin.

What choices will we face? Which ones will we be able to make?

Some things to read

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

Foundation and Earth (Foundation #5) by Isaac Asimov

Barker, E.T.E. and Christensen J. P. Homer’s Thebes. Washington, D.C. 2019.

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

Kaba, Fatos et al. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442–447.

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

Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.

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

Underwood, Charles. 2018. Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning, and Agency in Odysseus’ World. Lanham: Lexington Books

High Noon Homer *or* Western Lit

One would not expect Homer to figure importantly in an early 20th century realist novel about the struggle of Californian ranchers against the evils of the railroad, but his influence is felt throughout Frank Norris’ novel The Octopus. While the novel features an expansive cast, with frequent frictionless transitions from one character to another, Norris spends the most time and attention on the aspiring poet Presley, whom we follow from the very opening of the book until its depressing and unsatisfying conclusion. This is understandable enough, given that Presley seems to represent the figure of Norris himself.

Presley is not a rancher, but is closely involved with the social circle of the ranch community set in a fictionalized southern California at the end of the 19th century. His two chief friends in the community are Annixter, a brilliant but wildly churlish owner of a mid-sized ranch who hopes to cash in on the improvements he has made to the land once the railroad offers it for sale, and Vanamee, a wandering mystic who, endowed with a naturally poetic spirit, filters in and out of the community as he struggles to cope with his lover’s death. Presley admires Vanamee in large part due to his natural poetic sensibility, no doubt refined by his frequent solitary perambulations through the southwest.

Presley’s ambition is to write an epic of the American West:

Vanamee understood him perfectly. He nodded gravely.

“Yes, it is there. It is Life, the primitive, simple, direct Life, passionate, tumultuous. Yes, there is an epic there.”

Presley caught at the word. It had never before occurred to him.

“Epic, yes, that’s it. It is the epic I’m searching for. And HOW I search for it. You don’t know. It is sometimes almost an agony. Often and often I can feel it right there, there, at my finger-tips, but I never quite catch it. It always eludes me. I was born too late. Ah, to get back to that first clear-eyed view of things, to see as Homer saw, as Beowulf saw, as the Nibelungen poets saw. The life is here, the same as then; the Poem is here; my West is here; the primeval, epic life is here, here under our hands, in the desert, in the mountain, on the ranch, all over here, from Winnipeg to Guadalupe. It is the man who is lacking, the poet; we have been educated away from it all. We are out of touch. We are out of tune.”

Presley’s fondness for Homer was well known to the other ranchers. Annixter is regularly found reading David Copperfield. Mrs. Derrick, the wife of Magnus Derrick (the most prominent and respected of the ranchers), is an eager enthusiast for literature, but is troubled both by Presley’s fondness for Homer and his own literary efforts:

The monotony of the ranch ate into her heart hour by hour, year by year. And with it all, when was she to see Rome, Italy, and the Bay of Naples? It was a different prospect truly. Magnus had given her his promise that once the ranch was well established, they two should travel. But continually he had been obliged to put her off, now for one reason, now for another; the machine would not as yet run of itself, he must still feel his hand upon the lever; next year, perhaps, when wheat should go to ninety, or the rains were good. She did not insist. She obliterated herself, only allowing, from time to time, her pretty, questioning eyes to meet his. In the meantime she retired within herself. She surrounded herself with books. Her taste was of the delicacy of point lace. She knew her Austin Dobson by heart. She read poems, essays, the ideas of the seminary at Marysville persisting in her mind. “Marius the Epicurean,” “The Essays of Elia,” “Sesame and Lilies,” “The Stones of Venice,” and the little toy magazines, full of the flaccid banalities of the “Minor Poets,” were continually in her hands.

When Presley had appeared on Los Muertos, she had welcomed his arrival with delight. Here at last was a congenial spirit. She looked forward to long conversations with the young man on literature, art, and ethics. But Presley had disappointed her. That he—outside of his few chosen deities—should care little for literature, shocked her beyond words. His indifference to “style,” to elegant English, was a positive affront. His savage abuse and open ridicule of the neatly phrased rondeaux and sestinas and chansonettes of the little magazines was to her mind a wanton and uncalled-for cruelty. She found his Homer, with its slaughters and hecatombs and barbaric feastings and headstrong passions, violent and coarse. She could not see with him any romance, any poetry in the life around her; she looked to Italy for that. His “Song of the West,” which only once, incoherent and fierce, he had tried to explain to her, its swift, tumultous life, its truth, its nobility and savagery, its heroism and obscenity had revolted her.

“But, Presley,” she had murmured, “that is not literature.”

“No,” he had cried between his teeth, “no, thank God, it is not.”

We can understand readily enough that Mrs. Derrick found Homer violent. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are replete with scenes of appalling and horrific violence. But the impression that Homer is coarse is owing to a curious admixture of upper class snobbery and a rarefied notion of literary polish. (Indeed, one could argue that Pope’s Homer was so poorly received because Pope tamed Homer by rounding off all of the jagged edges and polishing him into rolling, monotonous, and correct Augustan insipidity.) The idea that there is something wild, primal, or untamed about Homer’s poetry had long been a cliché. John Dryden, in his preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern, compared Homer’s free and wild genius to the more restrained intellectual virtues of Vergil:

For the Grecian is more according to my genius than the Latin poet. In the works of the two authors we may read their manners and natural inclinations, which are wholly different. Virgil was of a quiet, sedate temper; Homer was violent, impetuous, and full of fire. The chief talent of Virgil was propriety of thoughts, and ornament of words; Homer was rapid in his thoughts, and took all the liberties, both of numbers and of expressions, which his language, and the age in which he liv’d, allow’d him. Homer’s invention was more copious, Virgil’s more confin’d.

Indeed, it was the wild, violent, or heroic aspect of Homer which made him such choice reading for the manly man in search of poetry. Thus, in his essay, Reading, Thoreau notes that we need not worry that Homer could have an enervating effect on us as readers:

The student may read Homer or Æschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.

Thus, there is some precedent for Mrs. Derrick’s aversion to Homer, and Presley’s own reception of Homer as something peculiarly endowed with a raw, vital, and unbridled energy perfectly at home in the rugged American West. Even at a social event among the ranchers, he filters life through the Homeric lens:

Presley was delighted with it all. It was Homeric, this feasting, this vast consuming of meat and bread and wine, followed now by games of strength.

As The Octopus progresses, Presley continues to struggle with the development of a Western epic. Though he writes a poem addressing the injustices which the railroad visits upon the ranchers who work the land intersected by the tracks, the grand story of the frontier remains unwritten. Here we see Presley as the stand-in for Norris himself most clearly. In his essay, A Neglected Epic, Norris laments that a story as violent, exciting, and important as the conquest of the frontier had produced no Homeric literature of America:

But when at last one comes to look for the literature that sprang from and has grown up around the last great epic event in the history of civilization, the event which in spite of stupendous difficulties was consummated more swiftly, more completely, more satisfactorily than any like event since the westward migration began — I mean the conquering of the West, the subduing of the wilderness beyond the Mississippi — what has this produced in the way of literature ? The dime novel ! The dime novel and nothing else. The dime novel and nothing better.

The Trojan War left to posterity the character of Hector; the wars with the Saracens gave us Roland; the folklore of Iceland produced Grettir; the Scotch border poetry brought forth the Douglas; the Spanish epic the Cid. But the American epic, just as heroic, just as elemental, just as important and as picturesque, will fade into history, leaving behind no finer type, no nobler hero than Buffalo Bill.

The young Greeks sat on marble terraces overlooking the Aegean Sea and listened to the thunderous roll of Homer’s hexameter. In the feudal castles the minstrel sang to the young boys of Roland. The farm folk of Iceland to this very day treasure up and read to their little ones hand-written copies of the Gretla Saga chronicling the deeds and death of Grettir the Strong. But the youth of the United States learn of their epic by paying a dollar to see the “Wild West Show.”

One senses here that, despite all of the apparently demotic appeal which Homer (or other epics) are supposed to possess, that Norris acknowledges the fundamentally aristocratic origin of epic by contrasting it with vile and tawdry popular entertainments.

Rather than spend all of his energy lamenting the lack of Western epic, Norris bent his mind to an ambitious project: a novelistic triptych, The Epic of the Wheat, which was to chronicle the production of wheat in southern California (The Octopus), the processing of wheat in Chicago, (The Pit), and the consumption of wheat in Europe (The Wolf). Due to his early death at the age of 32, Norris never even began the last book of his trilogy. There is some irony in attempting to replicate the organic and non-teleological development of more authentic epics with a systematized plan for a trilogy. Perhaps the reason that Vergil satisfies so much less than Homer, and Milton seems so lacking in vitality compared to Beowulf, is just this: Vergil and Milton are too methodical, too self-consciously artistic, and too literary. But Norris compensates for this with a violent and primal literary energy of his own. Indeed, though The Octopus is a novel, he manages to capture some of the verbal effects most prominent in Homer, through the use of repetitive phrasing/imagery, and a kind of paratactic pile-on that refuses to deal too much with the lifeless niceties of subordinate clauses. (The Octopus was also apparently written in one go, with minimal editing. While some critics found fault with Norris’ scriptorial quirks, seeing in them little more than sloppiness or lack of attention, I think that they have neglected the parallel between Presley and Norris himself, and thus, overlooked the Homeric program on display in the book.)

I will never know exactly why the American West suggested itself to readers and writers as something especially Homeric. Perhaps it is the brutality, the harshness of life and the constant threat of death, and the general sense that most of that suffering is utterly tragic because it is brought on by human folly and in the last estimate is all for naught. In antiquity, the reception of the Trojan War typically featured the lament that it didn’t have to be that way. The eradication of an entire civilization, and the destruction which was in turn visited upon the eradicators, could have been prevented if humans were slightly less prone to error:

And Troy would still stand, and you, o lofty citadel of Priam, would still remain!

Troiaque nunc staret, Priamique arx alta maneres. [Aeneid, 2.56]

What if Troy still stood? What if the history of the American West were something other than one of genocide, plunder, and brutality? The cultural logic of human civilization made both of those counterfactuals impossible. Similarly, in The Octopus, the greed of the railroad and the unwillingness of the ranchers to yield to its depredations resulted in the murder of almost all of the ranchers; the arch-capitalist railroad agent S. Behrman dies after falling into a shipping hold of wheat, ruined by his greed; and Presley leaves America in disgust. But the railroad continues on as a malevolent but inescapable, impersonal force in human life. Frank Norris may not be Homer; but in The Octopus, he gave America the epic of senseless suffering and brutality it deserves.

The_Curse_of_California
G. Frederick Keller, The Curse of California

A Penis on the Screen: Playing a Bard During a Plague

Homer, Odyssey 11.333-334

“So he spoke and they were all completely silent:
they were in the grip of a spell in their shadowy rooms”

ὣς ἔφαθ’, οἱ δ’ ἄρα πάντες ἀκὴν ἐγένοντο σιωπῇ,
κηληθμῷ δ’ ἔσχοντο κατὰ μέγαρα σκιόεντα.

Aristophanes, Peace 870

“Everything else is complete—but we need a penis.”

καὶ τἄλλ᾿ ἁπαξάπαντα· τοῦ πέους δὲ δεῖ.

 

Halfway through my 306th performance of my one-man folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in song, something happened that had never happened in the previous 305 performances. 

An audience member drew a penis on the screen.

That’s right. An audience member drew a penis on the screen and that penis was visible to the 75 other people who had logged in to Zoom to watch my very first ever virtual Odyssey performance.

Perhaps I should backtrack a bit and contextualize this particular penis because there is a clear hazard in leaving an uncontextualized penis out there.

A (not so) quick summary of how we got here: I graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 90’s with a Bachelor’s Degree in Classics. Not long after I graduated I composed a 35 minute continuous one-man musical folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey consisting of 24 first-person songs inspired by the characters and events of the epic poem.  

After years of development and long periods of hiatus, I built the program up to where by the mid-2010’s I was performing it at high schools and universities across the country.  In 2016, I wrote about my experiences as a “modern bard” for Eidolon.

Since writing that article, my reputation and calendar have grown and earlier this year I celebrated my 300th performance (which occurred in Arlington, Texas, at UTA) and performances in my 40th (Hawaii) and 41st (Wyoming) states. 

Some places to read and hear about my Odyssey performances are here, here, here, and here, and you can find a studio recording of the entire piece on YouTube.

2020 was supposed to be a banner year for me and my Classics-related music. By working really hard on booking, I started the year within shouting distance of getting shows scheduled in the remaining 9 states I needed to complete my goal of performing in all 50 states.  A month-long Odyssey tour of Europe in October and November was confirmed with dates in the UK, Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Italy, and Greece.

And there was also new Classics-related music to start sharing in addition to my Odyssey.

The first week of March, just before the full-on coronavirus crisis began manifesting, I premiered a new cycle of songs called “The Blues of Achilles”, a reframing of Homer’s Iliad, as part of a wonderful program called Conversations with Homer at San Francisco State University.  Samples of this performance can be viewed here, here, and here.

The rest of the spring was to include three weeks of shows in Ohio, New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland, and Illinois, some Odyssey shows, some Blues of Achilles shows, an artist-in-residence opportunity, and a chance to perform Blues of Achilles songs as part of a program that brings classics to the incarcerated population. 

But of course by the second week of March I could see none of these shows were going to happen.  Campuses began to shut down and move online, travel became unwise, and by the third week of March my entire spring schedule, some 20 gigs, was gone, and the rest of my year’s touring (including Europe) was in doubt. 

I should interject here that I feel extremely lucky that I do not rely entirely upon performing music for my living.  These cancellations have resulted in a sizable loss of income, but I also have a guitar teaching practice (not to mention a partner with a job) to fall back on, so while these losses hurt (many of which I do hope to reschedule and all of which were done with compassion and understanding by understandably freaked and stressed out teachers and administrators), the pain was more from a standpoint of planning and momentum than the dire financial situation that many performing musicians have suddenly found themselves in.

Then last week something interesting happened: I got a DM on Twitter from a high school Latin teacher in Pennsylvania who wondered if I might try performing my Odyssey online through Zoom for some of her students. The sudden shift to online learning had left teachers scrambling to find activities and material with which to engage students. This teacher had seen me perform at the PAJCL convention in 2017 and thought my program would make for a good online event.  

I initially recoiled: so much of what I love about my Odyssey performances is wrapped up in the magic of the interaction between me and an in-person audience.  How would this online thing work? How could I truly encounter my audience if they were hundreds of miles away watching not me but 1s and 0s that represent me, listening not to my actual voice but to my voice as compressed through their computer speakers or earbuds, taking it in not as a group in the same room but in separate isolated spaces? 

But as I gave it more thought, I saw reasons to give it a shot. 

Some were practical, as in “this is the way the world is working now so you might as well try to adapt if you want gigs” and “if this format does work what kind of additional markets and opportunities might it open up for you.”

Some were artistic and intellectual as in “can I make these songs work in a new medium?” and “what might it illuminate for me as a classicist/Homerist about oral performance?” 

So I decided to go forward with it.  My contact and I had a conference call with a very patient and generous tech support guru from her district and we settled on using Zoom as the best platform to both accommodate both my performance needs and also comply with some of the privacy issues associated with educational institutions. 

We gave Zoom a trial run with a couple of students and teachers and it seemed to work well. We could mute all the cameras and microphones of the attendees and I could share my screen which would contain a powerpoint of the lyrics of my songs so the audience could follow along as I sang (I do this in every in-person show as well). 

I was nervous as I sat in my office with my wife sitting just out of the webcam shot to advance the powerpoint. I could see the online audience grow to 75 and after an introduction from the teacher, I was off and singing.  

It began well enough. My voice felt good and the teacher was texting my wife some feedback on the sound which seemed to be coming through fine.  I was just starting to settle in when suddenly some lines started popping up on my screen. Scribbled lines as if someone was able to draw on his or her iPad. 

Clearly we hadn’t quite gotten the settings right and the audience members had the capability to write things on the shared screen for all to see.

It was a little distracting to me and (I assumed) the audience but I pushed on.  I was on song 6 of my 24 when the scribbling became written words. I stopped singing and announced that if the scribbling continued, I’d have to stop the performance.  

This seemed to work for another 6 songs but just as I finished singing the song in which Odysseus finally lands on Ithaka in book 13, there is was:

That hastily drawn penis on the screen right next to my lyrics.

Image result for ancient greek phallus

Some quick observations: First, though in the moment I was not particularly thrilled with the phantom penis, it should be noted that the Greeks and Romans loved penises and were happy to have them in their art and theatre. One need look no further than the #phallusthursday hashtag on Twitter for ample evidence of this.

Second, I feel fairly confident that this penis was drawn by an adolescent male and the reason I feel fairly confident in this conclusion is that I myself was once (and sometimes still am) an adolescent male in whose life and psyche penis-related jokes and pranks figured prominently. To wit (and I believe the statute of limitations on this crime has expired), my senior year of high school the entire bass and tenor sections of our choir conspired to, in our performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, replace the word “truth” with the word “penis.” 

How disruptive could this be? you ask. Well, at one point in the arrangement the basses and tenors sing the phrase “truth is marching” over and over, something like 12 times in a row.  Perhaps now you can imagine our confused choir director searching around the room for why things didn’t sound quite right (sorry Mr. Hayes) as a group of 15 adolescent males melodically chanted the phrase “penis is marching” over and over.

So as I promised I would, I stopped the performance.  The teacher had determined the only way to fix the problem was by ending the Zoom session, creating a new one with the correct (non-screen writing) settings, and letting everyone log back in.

So that’s what we did: for the first time in 306 performances, I took an intermission.  Almost everyone came back online to the new session and I finished the performance without further incident, singing the remaining 12 songs that chronicle Odysseus’ reintegration into his home on Ithaka. 

Afterwards, I read and responded to audience questions from a Google docs as well as questions texted to me by the teacher. And then it was over.

Very suddenly, it was over.

In a regular performance, I’m used to a much more gradual ending.  Members of the audience often make their way to the stage to chat with me while I pack up my guitar. Faculty introduce themselves. There’s almost always a meal or a drink with a host or a group to get feedback and continue discussion.

But with my virtual performance, none of that.

Until I looked at my phone and saw social media messages and emails from some of the audience members.  Videos and pictures showing students glued to their computer screens watching me perform. Notes from teachers thanking me for giving them and their students something to break up the days stuck at home. 

Suddenly the penis didn’t matter so much and I saw a number of truths about this unique moment both in history and for me as a modern bard. 

First, everyone is trying really hard to do their best in a tough situation. Teachers are trying to teach, parents are trying to parent, students are trying to be students, all in a largely new environment. There are going to be bumps and difficult moments and it’s going to take some time to figure out what works and what doesn’t but in general folks are trying so hard and succeeding.

Second, this quick change to fully virtual learning is putting incredible forced stress on the people involved but from incredible forced stress sometimes comes innovation.  I would never have even attempted a virtual performance without these extenuating circumstances and outside pressures, but now because I have I am excited to develop it as a complement to what I do with in person performances and ultimately as a chance to reach more people with my music and the experience of hearing Odysseus’ story sung by a bard. I’m thinking in particular of places and schools that don’t have the budget to bring me in for an in-person performance but might be able to facilitate an online performance.  

Third, for all my preciousness about my in-person Odyssey performances and how they recreate the original oral environment, this virtual performance embodies all the same concepts I detailed in my Eidolon article with some unique and beautiful twists.  I’m always fascinated with how performance space impacts audience perception and therefore meaning, and in this case there were actually 75 different performance spaces, all acting upon the listeners and resulting in different experiences and meanings. The teacher who initially reached out to me said that while she enjoyed my performance at PAJCL (which was for an audience of 400), she liked the online performance even more because it felt like I was singing directly to her.  For all my misgivings about the technological distance, there was actually something more intimate about my online performance.

Fourth, my online performance is yet another example of how enduring, adaptable, and resilient myths and oral tradition are.  For as different as my performance looked from Phemios’ in book 1 or Demodokos’ in book 8, it was essentially the same as what bards have been doing for three millennia or more: singing stories to groups of people.  My guess is that if you offered a Homeric bard the chance to do a performance from the comfort of his home, he would have jumped at it before you finished telling him he might have to endure interruption by phantom penis drawing. 

As Joel added in the comments when he so graciously edited this piece: “Antinoos would totally have drawn a penis on his screen if he had a screen.”

In the end, perhaps it’s best to think that my virtual performance relates to my in-person performances in the way that the text we have today relates to a Homeric performance. They are related, connected at some point, but ultimately different ways to communicate and pass on stories.  It’s not a choice of either but rather an embrace of both, and this embrace ensures that the names and stories will continue to echo through history for new audiences in new times.

You might even say that “time is marching” but that is dangerously close to the phrase “truth is marching” and… well, you remember where that road leads.

Joe Goodkin is a modern bard who performs original music based on epic poetry and other subjects.  He can by seen and heard at http://www.joesodyssey.com http://www.thebluesofachilles.coom or http://www.joegoodkin.com and emailed at joe@joesodyssey.com about bookings or anything else.

 

Mark Pattison and Scholarly Misery

“The common cause is overmuch study; too much learning hath made thee mad.”
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

We scholars are all miserable, but from the historical list of sad sacks, none seems sadder than Mark Pattison. His name is much forgotten outside of academic circles and close readers of Middlemarch, and it is that oblivion which renders his case even more affecting. Perhaps he was just born to be miserable, but I think that one could make the case that Pattison read himself into his misery. The early pages of Pattison’s Memoirs reveal his youthful obsession with reading. Assuming that it is not mere backward telescoping, Pattison suggests that his bibliomania was, apart from a withdrawn self-loathing, the most consistent part of his character.

I had read much more than most boys of my age, but I did not seem to understand anything. […] I read enormously. Constable’s Miscellany, Murray’s Family Library, the publications of the Useful Knowledge Society, were coming out at that time; we took them all, and I read them. I read ten times as much as I remembered; what is more odd, I read far more than I ever took in the sense of as I read it. I think the mechanical act of perusal must have given me a sort of pleasure. Books, as books, irrespective of their contents, were my delight. […] I was already marked out for the life of a student, yet little that was in the books I read seemed to find its way into my mind. [Memoirs, pp. 37-8]

Pattison seems to have sensed from an early age that it was a scholar’s life which awaited him. Earlier in his youth, he had dreamt of an academic life [Memoirs p. 10], but feared that an affliction of the eyes would prevent him from achieving this goal. This malady led Pattison to refrain from reading at night, though he was still able to partake in literary and academic pleasure by listening to his father’s recitation. Eventually, the young Pattison was taken to an oculist in London, who determined that he suffered from an affliction of the eyelids, and need not fear for the loss of his sight altogether.

The young Pattison’s anxiety for his eyesight was perhaps not unwarranted if he had already begun to read sufficiently to internalize the stock type of the half-blind scholar. Milton, one of his literary idols, famously went blind from a course of heroic reading. Edward Gibbon writes in his autobiography that he too abstained from biblio-lucubration out of a concern for his eyesight: “[I]t is happy for my eyes and my health, that my temperate ardour has never been seduced to trespass on the hours of the night.”

Gibbon’s abstention from reading at night is not his only similarity to Pattison in this field, as both men seem to have regretted the mode in which they read in youth. Though they had been unregenerate bookworms as children, as adults they lamented the lack of scientific or programmatic reading:

It was now that I regretted the early years which had been wasted in sickness or idleness, or mere idle reading; that I condemned the perverse method of our schoolmasters, who, by first teaching the mother-language, might descend with so much ease and perspicuity to the origin and etymology of a derivative idiom. In the nineteenth year of my age I determined to supply this defect; and the lessons of Pavilliard again contributed to smooth the entrance of the way, the Greek alphabet, the grammar, and the pronunciation according to the French accent. At my earnest request we presumed to open the Iliad; and I had the pleasure of beholding, though darkly and through a glass, the true image of Homer, whom I had long since admired in an English dress. After my tutor had left me to myself, I worked my way through about half the Iliad, and afterwards interpreted alone a large portion of Xenophon and Herodotus. But my ardour, destitute of aid and emulation, was gradually cooled, and, from the barren task of searching words in a lexicon, I withdrew to the free and familiar conversation of Virgil and Tacitus. Yet in my residence at Lausanne I had laid a solid foundation, which enabled me, in a more propitious season, to prosecute the study of Grecian literature. [Gibbon Memoirs of My Life]

This echoes Pattison’s lament that his early perusal of books was pleasurable but unprofitable. Of course, it would be hard properly to estimate the value which may have accrued to them later, as intellectuals, from this widely discursive mode of reading. Samuel Johnson ardently advocated reading solely from inclination, yet even he felt the need at various points in his life to draw up mathematical plans of systematic reading, which his biographer Boswell notes typically remained incomplete.

Gibbon’s stock of reading serves as Pattison’s comparison point for his own youthful study in the Memoirs. He notes that at fifteen, Gibbon had read far more broadly in history than he (Pattison) had read by eighteen. A modern reader, to whom it may be surprising that teenagers would be applying any substantial time to systematic reading of history, may find the difference of those three years to be a trifling thing when compared to the amount of study which these men later undertook. Moreover, this is a sentiment penned by an old man reflecting upon his stock of teenage erudition as set against another who had long been dead. Pattison had a sense of competition in him, and it played out on the field of learning. Something rankled Pattison, even in his advanced age, about the fact that he was behind in his studies before they even formally began. Reading, and the effort to catch up on the accumulation of erudition, were afterward to serve as the central motivational strand in Pattison’s life.

As a way of palliating his apparent loss in the field of study to the young Gibbon, Pattison writes:

As, however, to mere Greek and Latin, I had covered a surface vastly more extensive than even the best of the ordinary sixth form boy. I had read Sallust through, about a dozen speeches of Cicero, twenty books of Livy, Vergil through, Horace through, Juvenal through, Persius through, Caesar through, Terence through; in Greek, the Gospels and Acts, Xenophon’s Anabasis, Herodotus, Thucydides, some six or seven Orations of Demosthenes, Homer’s Iliad, Pindar, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Porson’s four plays of Euripides, seven plays of Aristophanes – all these not in scraps, but through. They had not been well read…” [Memoirs, 62]

Reading an author through is meant to inform the reader that Pattison did not simply read isolated excerpts from these works, as was (and still is) the fashion in ancient language instruction. Most of this early reading takes place with a lexicon or commentary in hand, and in the initial stages can be quite tedious and time consuming. Having not received a traditional formal education, Pattison’s reading at this point is impressive. Yet, while this is meant to set Pattison’s skill over and above that of the average student, he nevertheless cannot refrain from highlighting his own perceived failure to read the texts well. Moreover, this reading had done nothing for him personally, beyond giving him an “empirical familiarity with the languages, an enlarged vocabulary, and an idea of various and contrasted styles.” [Memoirs, 63] Yet, at such an age, what more could Pattison want? Had he truly bought into the Classical Education sales pitch that reading these works instills in one a sense of elegance, humanity, and knowledge of the world? More than anything, Pattison’s lamentations on his youthful buffet-style intellectualism reflect an ingrained habit of self-loathing. Satisfaction was ever out of his grasp, and after a lifetime of disappointment, he was unwilling to allow that his youth was anything but the seed of his future failures. Discussing his failure to advance socially during his first year at Oriel, Pattison writes, “As it was, my weakness of character was such that I came to the conclusion in the end that the fault or defect, whatever it might be, was in me.” [Memoirs, p. 47]

During the period in which he was beginning to prepare for his degree examination, Pattison’s chief problem lay in his inability to conceive of the proper system on which to make his way through the books. “What I had no power of conceiving was, how the books were to be studied so as to acquire the power of answering the questions upon them.” [Memoirs, p. 119] Throughout the Memoirs, Pattison laments the nature of the Oxford tutorial and examination system, which fostered superficial reading and a hasty cramming of facts and pre-digested interpretations of texts designed to make a sufficiently good show for the examiners. This is not wholly different from the dominant mode in education today, which most strongly emphasizes the acquisition of sufficient knowledge for success on standardized exams, but gives the student very little in the way of what could properly be termed education. Though Pattison on various occasions criticized this system, he nevertheless found himself forced to contribute to it as a cog in the relentless machinery of grinding. Lionel A. Tollemache relates:

Pattison was coaching an undergraduate in the Ethics. The pupil, perplexed by Aristotle’s reasoning, embarrassed his teacher by his importunate desire to understand it. At last Pattison said tartly: “Never mind understanding it, only get it up.” The pupil was naturally hurt by this unpleasant rebuke; which, however, probably meant that the time was short, and that, if the pupil insisted on discussing first principles, instead of merely learning the answers which would satisfy the examiners, he might be disappointed in his degree, as Pattison himself had been. [Recollections, p. 53]

As interpreted by Tollemache, it is Pattison’s own profound sense of disappointment which served to make these governing and formative decisions in his life. Much the same is often said of A.E. Housman, whose apparent coldness and savagery has been attributed by many biographers to his initial academic failure at Oxford and his amatory failure with Moses Jackson.

In his youth, Pattison was not the cloistered pedant which his ardour for reading and his life dedicated to study might suggest. During his first Long Vacation, he returned to his family seat in Hauxwell, where,

What was really of most use to me this vacation was the free air of the fields and moors, and the long solitary rambles during whole days, in which Nature insensibly penetrated the recesses of the soul, without my having yet become, as I afterwards became, passionate for the poetry of Wordsworth and of country life. [Memoirs, p. 110]

Walking, and especially extended country walking, was very much en vogue in Victorian England. Perhaps the most famous example of this fashion among the literati is Dickens, who was said to have regularly walked 20 miles a day. But this was not mere walking, it was rambling, and the hint of ecological paganism betrayed by the capitalization of Nature reflects the Wordsworthian spirit of the age. Nature as opposed to the ugly industrial and commercial life of the cities, or Nature as opposed to the relentless grind and cram of the university. Pattison’s early discovery of a joy in rustic and natural amusements would serve him in good stead following his loss in his first struggle for the Rectorship of Lincoln College, after which he withdrew frequently for periods of restorative rustication in Scotland and in Germany.

Disappointing as were his social adventures during his first terms at Oriel, Pattison learned a salutary lesson on the nature of professorial knowledge and authority from G.A. Denison, who “had a reputation as a scholar.”

When we went in to Denison, some one or two members of the class (a large one) did their piece well; to my flat amazement most of them stumbled over the easiest lines. When we came to the first lyrics,Φοῖβ’; ἀδικεῖς αὖ τιμὰς ἐνέρων, the tutor put the question, “What metre is this?” It went the round, no one had any idea; it came to me, and I remember the trembling excitement with which I answered, “Anapestic dimeter.” So much information was not far to fetch, for Monk had a note on the metre of the passage, and most of the class had Monk, but they had not read the Latin note. Denison gave me a look as much as to say, ‘Who the devil are you?’ He had evidently not been accustomed in his class to meet with such profound learning. I do not remember in the whole course of the term that Denison made a single remark on the two plays, Alcestis and Hippolytus, that did not come from Monk’s notes. [Memoirs, 65]

That is, what separated Pattison from his peers was the fact that he had read. Monk’s notes were the wellspring of all of Denison’s erudition, and in reading them, Pattison was able to achieve some parity with the professional scholar. One can detect the note of savage mockery in the comment, “He had evidently not been accustomed in his class to meet with such profound learning.” Yet, while it reinforced Pattison’s belief that reading was the key to real knowledge, this discovery nevertheless brought with it a new wave of disappointment. “In less than a week I was entirely disillusioned as to what I was to learn in an Oxford lecture room.” [Memoirs, 66] While reflecting on the rise of Oriel College in the 19th century, Pattison reflects upon the deficiencies of the university, where “A very little literature, and a modicum of classical reading, went a long way.” [Memoirs, 69]

Much of Pattison’s history of and attitude toward reading can be gleaned from his biography of Isaac Casaubon. Bibliomania and an obsession with reading may be considered marks of the scholar more generally, but it was Casaubon’s singular focus on spending as much time as possible in reading which serves as one of the points at which Pattison is able to anchor a projection of his own personality and concerns upon his biographical subject. He attempts to palliate Casaubon’s vexation with his wife at interrupting his studies by writing,

But over and above Casaubon’s constitutional fretfulness, we must make allowance for the irritability engendered by a life of hard reading against time. Casaubon thought every moment lost in which he was not acquiring knowledge. He resented intrusion as a cruel injury. To take up his time was to rob him of his only property. Casaubon’s imagination was impressed in a painful degree with the truth of the dictum ‘ars longa, vita brevis.’ [Isaac Casaubon, pp.28-29]

As it stands, this apology for Casaubon is at the same time a defense of himself. The scholar is reflected in the patchwork of classical allusion deftly woven together in this paragraph. The notion that all time is wasted which is not spent in reading is borrowed from Pliny, and the idea that time is one’s only property is taken from Seneca. The final thread in the allusive fabric is given by the old tag that art is long but life is short, quoted from Horace. Casaubon the obsessive reader is the paragon of the old scholarly ideal, entirely lost amidst his books. Just as figures like Machiavelli and Keats engaged in ritualistic sartorial preparation for their literary labors, so too would Casaubon comb his hair in preparation for the eminently serious business of communing with the ancients. The most heroic example of his scholastic fortitude is the result of his autopsy, which revealed that his bladder had been monstrously swollen as a result of denying the calls of nature during his protracted periods of reading and writing. Casaubon’s devotion to the life of the mind was enough to put Didymus Chalchenteros (Brazen Guts) to shame.

Pattison finds more similarities with his subject in Casaubon’s attachment to thoroughness in research. While it is true that the bibliography for any given subject was far more manageable in the 16th century than in the 19th (and certainly less unwieldy than in the 21st), this was counterbalanced by the comparative difficulty in obtaining books. Despite their relative inability, Pattison writes that Casaubon took no half-measures in his research:

From Casaubon’s commentaries we see that the style of his work demanded nothing less than a complete collection of classical remains. He wants to found his remarks, not on this or that passage, but on a complete induction. It seems easy for Bentley to say ‘Astypalaea of Crete does not once occur in ancient authors.’ But a lifetime is behind this negation. [Isaac Casaubon, p. 34]

This same bibliographic thoroughness can be glimpsed in Pattison’s advice to a friend that he would be prepared for writing after twenty years of reading everything on his subject. Recounting the primarily theological reading which he was doing in 1845, Pattison says that he was at that time meditating upon writing Medieval and monastic history, “with several other things, each of them a task for a life.” [Memoirs pp. 185-186] Yet it is unclear whether this relentless requisition of scholarly data was an innate characteristic of Pattison’s, or something which he learned through his own intense study of the great scholars of the past.

As noted above, Casaubon resented interruption to his reading, and complains frequently in his diary about visits of his friends, pithily rendered in Latin as amici inimici (“My friends are my enemies.”) Pattison, too, was inclined to think that friendship was a dangerous thing, writing after a weeklong visit from a friend, “These visits of friends were then, as they are now, fatal to study.” [Memoirs, p.118] Like a thoroughgoing introvert, Pattison insists on the necessity of solitude, and chafes at the attentions of another unnamed friend at Hauxwell because the very presence of another person disrupts Pattison’s ability to focus. Here too he finds a parallel between his own case and that of Casaubon, who wrote in a letter [Ep. 213] Otium et quietem altam studia haec postulant, “these studies require leisure and deep tranquility.” [Also see Ep. 1023 Ea molimur in literis quae animi tranquilitatem desiderant.]

Pattison’s recollections of his vacations in 1833 and 1834 make for grim reading. While it is true that his Memoirs as a whole are suffused with sorrow and lamentation, there does seem to be something particularly depressing about a man complaining, decades later, that in his vacation, “There was more industry, more work, but as mistakenly laid out.” [Memoirs, p.136] Though he spent time on the necessary philosophical studies in addition to reading Herodotus, Pindar, and Thucydides in Greek along with Livy and Vergil in Latin, he notes that he “wasted time over outlying classics, which did not form part of the degree list.”

Surely, at the time that Pattison wrote these memoirs in the fading light of his senescence, the use or misuse of his vacations from Oxford was of little lingering practical consequence. Yet the fact that Pattison dwells so obsessively, as an old man, on each of the periods during which he either read less than he hoped or got less from his reading than his older self would deem appropriate suggests that these were registered in Pattison’s mind as serious failures which he was unable to get over. By his own confession, Pattison was never able to enjoy any satisfaction in the things which he did, but it may be that he traced his perceived failures in later life to his insufficient application to books at this time. A man in this frame of mind is eminently suited to sympathize with a scholar like Casaubon, who was engaged in “hard reading against time.” Even the formulation of the phrase reading against time suggests that the most important faculty which death deprives us of is the faculty of study. Thus, toward the end of his life, Pattison was perhaps more conscious than ever that he was reading against time, and could not help but regret that he had not applied himself more diligently to it in earlier life. Pattison is nevertheless sensible of the dangers of excessive reading, noting that “…accumulated learning stifles the mental powers…” [Memoirs, 78] This comment was of course written late in Pattison’s life, when it seems that accumulated learning through incessant application to his books had prevented Pattison not only from producing much scholarship of his own, but also from much interpersonal human experience.

The written word occupied such primacy of place in Pattison’s consciousness that he was not only “always reading something” [Memoirs, p. 117], but even had his first quarrel with his father through a combination of a disagreement concerning finances and the father’s concern about Pattison’s reading. [Memoirs, p. 111] Part of this centered upon an essay which Pattison’s father edited for his son, but in the main seems to have stemmed from Pattison’s eagerness to be done with a series of lessons in Tacitus which his father wanted to conduct with him:

Besides this instance of bad taste and bad temper I was restive over the Tacitus readings. My father expected me at a fixed hour every morning to read the Annals with him. It was true he could not be of any use to me, as he knew little of the language and nothing at all of the history. But it was the only thing he required of me, and I ought to have complied with a good grace, instead of coming unwillingly and finding excuses for shirking altogether. [Memoirs, p. 113]

For as long as he could remember, Pattison wanted to be a scholar. Naturally, such a man was able to say of his young self as he enrolled in Oriel, “I had come up all eagerness to learn.” [Memoirs 53] The following paragraph of his Memoirs reads “I was soon disillusioned.” Pattison’s disappointment in his education is a function of his unreasonable expectations (perhaps fostered by romantic ideals which he had developed in his autodidactic reading) and the tendency to scathing criticism which was occasionally directed to people other than himself. Of the group of young men with whom he roomed, he wrote that they had “no souls” and that they had “no inner life, no capacity of being moved by poetry, by natural beauty, who are never haunted by the ideal, or baffled by philosophical perplexities.” [Memoirs p.52] Haunted by the ideal is perhaps the best was to describe Pattison’s mental and spiritual life. So potent was the image of the ideal in his mind, and so pale an imitation of it did he experience in the outside world, it is no wonder that Pattison retreated inward to the life of pure intellection. Such a man may make a savage critic, though he may be prevented by this very spirit of criticism against the standard of the ideal from making any attempts at creative production himself. Here, Pattison’s case is paralleled by that of the Renaissance humanist Niccolo Niccoli, who was perhaps the foremost expert on Latin style in his time, and on that account never published anything in Latin: his knowledge was so great and the ideal so difficult to achieve that he felt palpably the likelihood of disastrous failure.

We know so much about Pattison’s reading because he kept both a commonplace book and a diary of his reading from his early youth. He himself points out that he had begun this project of recording his reading before he learned that his biographical subject, Isaac Casaubon, did the same thing. As a result, most of the memories in the Memoirs which are not anchored by specific pivotal moments in his academic career are anchored instead by a recollection of what Pattison was reading at the time. This was the sum total of his life. Not only did Pattison keep a log of his reading, he also formulated a systematic plan for his reading life:

As soon as I found myself settled at Hauxwell with a box of books, I laid out for myself a plan of reading. I have this scheme before me now, for in July 1833 I began a student’s diary on the same plan as I have kept up, with intervals, to the present date (December 1883). This diary only exceptionally mentions what I do, or see, or hear, it deals with what I read or write. […] My plan of study, allowing for a tone of pedantry which cannot be avoided when such things are written down, is not in itself a bad one. But looking at it as the road to Oxford honours, it has the fatal defect of requiring too much time. It is a scheme of self-education, rather than of the hand-to-mouth requirements of an examination. My scheme required years for its realisation; I may say that I have been all my life occupied in carrying out and developing the ideal that I conceived in July 1833, more than fifty years ago. [Memoirs, pp.119-120]

Here we see most clearly the Mr. Casaubon of Middlemarch, the pedantic bookworm buried under the mass of material being stockpiled for a work of erudition. Of course, it may be that Pattison was still engaged upon the task of reading according to his initial plan because the scheme of self-improvement and education is an infinite task, but Pattison himself also highlights his comparatively sluggish pace: “Neither then nor at any time since have I been able to read in an hour the same number of pages that other men can.” [Memoirs, pp.123-124]

Philology, as Nietzsche noted, is the art of slow reading. Anyone who has spent time learning ancient languages knows that meaningful reading fluency in them takes substantial time to develop for several reasons: the antiquity (and thus fundamental foreignness) of the languages themselves; the absence of native speakers from whom to gain immersive fluency/the wholly artificial way in which they are learned; most of what the student will read consists of extremely rarefied “masterpiece” literature, which was designed in many cases to challenge even native users of the language. As such, early training in ancient languages can, if embraced, foster a slow and meticulous mode of reading. Further, all ancient literature is beset by textual difficulties of some sort. When one reads an English translation of a Greek tragedy, it is easy enough to assume that the text is simply the text. But many portions of ancient texts are either corrupt in minor ways (which escape all but the most minute notice), or are so bad as to render some passages entirely senseless. Much of the scientific apparatus of philology was developed specifically for the purpose of solving these difficulties and making the text yield some sense.

Pattison was afforded training in the classical languages. From his own account, it seems that it fell short of the lofty standard set by scientific German philology at the time, but he nevertheless learned something of critical method and analysis of the text. His comment about his slowness in working through texts seems to suggest a kind of methodical reading. Yet, for all of that, Pattison was not a particularly good reader. Anthony Grafton has noted Pattison’s “inability to quote a document accurately, his ineptitude at establishing dates, and his incompetence at summarizing plain German accurately in English have led me to wonder whether he deserves the authority he still enjoys in the English-speaking world.” [American Scholar, Vol. 52, No. 2] Grafton wrote this scathing indictment of Pattison nearly forty years ago, and it is not clear that Pattison today enjoys much “authority,” even in scholarly circles.

Pattison’s inability to achieve any meaningful scholarly feat was well summarized by Housman’s comment [that Pattison had surveyed the whole of human existence and turned away in revulsion]. It seems that it was Pattison’s insistence on surveying all relevant material which kept him from producing anything of his own. Where Housman sees in Pattison a nausea induced by the horrors of human existence, others may see a kind of scholarship so meticulous and exacting that it never gets off the ground. Pattison boasted that he lived his entire life for study, and we learn from a friend that,

“He suggested that I should edit Selden’s Table Talk. The preparation was to be, first to get the contents practically by heart, then to read the whole printed literature of Selden’s day, and of the generation before him. In twenty years he promised me that I should be prepared for the work. He put the thing before me in so unattractive a way that I never did it or anything else worth doing. I consider the ruin of my misspent life very largely due to that conversation.” That this severe judgment on the Rector may not be taken too literally, I will quote from the same letter, “He was one of the best friends I ever had. He was not in the least donnish when one came to know him.” [quoted in Tollemarche, Recollections of Pattison p.5]

Pattison’s devotion to reading puts him in company with his biographical subject and spiritual inspiration, Isaac Casaubon, who constantly complains in his diary that he has spent insufficient time with his books. Amici adhuc libris silentibus. Ita vita perit. “My friends are still here, and my books remain silent. Thus my life is wasted.” Elsewhere, Casaubon remarks Amici inimici, “My friends are my enemies,” because they have kept him from his reading. Elsewhere in his biography of Casaubon, Pattison notes that “Research is infinite.” [IC, p. 54] A.D. Nuttall, in his Dead from the Waist Down, examines at length the identification of Pattison with the Mr. Casaubon of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. While traditionally the ascription is thought to be based on Pattison’s apparent later sexlessness and possibly loveless marriage, there is much to be said for basing the identification on Pattison’s endless amassing of material with no discharge.

Pattison’s devotion to the life of study and reading for its own sake brought him into sharp opposition with Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol College. Logan Pearsall Smith recounts a conversation which he had with Jowett on the topic of Pattison’s university ideals:

This ideal of endowment for research was particularly shocking to Benjamin Jowett, the great inventor of the tutorial system which it threatened. I remember once, when staying with him at Malvern, inadvertently pronouncing the ill-omened word. “Research!” the Master exclaimed. “Research!” he said. “A mere excuse for idleness; it has never achieved, and will never achieve any results of the slightest value.”

Jowett’s haughty dismissal of research would be well received by a modern day university administrator. Indeed, the disdain for apparently idle study is the prevailing mode not just among the administrative class, but contemporary society more broadly, which has come increasingly to expect concrete physical or pecuniary results issuing from labor of all kinds, and which fancies that it sees through the mystic veil of erudition now that access to knowledge has been entirely democratized by the search engine. But Jowett’s attitude reflects his own limitations. True, there was an old college rhyme composed upon the professor’s erudition:

Here come I, my name is Jowett.

All there is to know I know it.

I am Master of this College,

What I don’t know isn’t knowledge!

Yet, this rhyme is surely more reflective of Jowett’s magisterial air as observed from below by his pupils, and not a meaningful reflection upon either the breadth or depth of his scholarship. Today, both Jowett and Pattison are largely forgotten, but Jowett can claim a greater degree of posthumous fame thanks to his still-readable translations of Plato. Jowett’s high-minded ideals for a broadly humanist university may seem inspirational today, but Jowett’s scholarship earned the scorn of A.E. Housman:

The Regius Professor of Greek throughout Housman’s time was Jowett, and from the single lecture of Jowett’s which he attended, Housman came away disgusted by the Professor’s disregard for the niceties of scholarship. [A.S.F. Gow, A.E. Housman: A Sketch (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press) p.5]

If Jowett seems to strive after an early Renaissance ideal of forming a Ciceronian man of learning, taste, and action, then Pattison hearkens back to the impossibly knowledgeable scholars of the age of erudition in the 16th – 17th centuries. Pattison wished to write a biography of Joseph Scaliger, but found himself unequal to the task. Turning instead to Isaac Casaubon (to whom alone Scaliger said he must yield), Pattison wrote his largest and most comprehensive work of scholarship. This age of erudition seems to have ended with the generation of Richard Bentley and Leibniz, supplanted by the free-thinking of the Enlightenment, which scorned the amassing of knowledge and citations from written works in favor of a notion of scientific and philosophical progress.

As should be sufficiently clear by now, Pattison found a genial subject in Casaubon because so much of his own personality and experience could be mapped so readily onto that of his subject. Both men exist only in their writings now, though both are entirely forgotten by the educated public. Because Pattison is the authority on Casaubon, and because they share a kind of spiritual kinship, it can be difficult to determine at times from their writings alone where Casaubon ends and Pattison begins, down to the abiding sense of failure which each of them felt toward their ambitious projects. As such, it will be useful to examine the figure of Isaac Casaubon in order better to understand the man on whom he exerted such influence over the distance of centuries.

Casaubon and Scaliger lived at the close of the Renaissance. Historically, we think of this as the Early Modern Period, but intellectually, it can be termed the Age of Erudition. Pattison sums up the spirit of the age:

The creative period is past, the accumulative is set in. The prophet is departed, and in his place we have the priest of the book. Casaubon knows so much of ancient lore, that not only his faculties, but his spirits are oppressed by the knowledge. He can neither create nor enjoy; he groans under his load. The scholar of 1500 gambols in the free air of classical poetry, as in an atmosphere of joy. The scholar of 1600 has a century of compilation behind him, and ‘drags at each remove a lengthening chain.’ [IC, P. 110]

Though much of Pattison’s biography of Casaubon is taken up with religious and theological controversy, the preeminent obsession throughout the book remains Casaubon’s reading. Indeed, Pattison sees Casaubon’s reading as his defining characteristic: “Casaubon, indeed, was what he was by his incessant reading, seconded by capacious memory.” [IC, p.104] Memory takes second place to the continuous application to books, and the faculty of critical thought is elided entirely. Perhaps the scholar seems an anachronism in the modern world, where even the most poorly educated person has access to an infinite wealth of instant information. All of the information there was in Casaubon’s day was, however, largely unsifted and unsystematized. A more original thinker may have chafed at the sheer amount of data collection in which scholars like Casaubon engaged, but the freewheeling adventures of human reason undertaken in the Enlightenment were in large part made possible by the tedious act of collection, systematization, and indexing which the scholars of the late 16th and early 17th centuries completed.

Pattison attributes Casaubon’s preeminence as a scholar to his reading habits, yet in the biography as elsewhere, he himself acknowledges the dangers of reading to excess. “The use he made of the library was one, which no librarian ought to make – it was to read the books.” [IC, p. 104] Reading the books may seem innocent enough, but the nature of Casaubon’s reading meant that this would constitute an enormous distraction from his duties as a librarian and from his other scholarly work.

One can see the figure of Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon in the Casaubon recorded by Pattison. After presenting a detailed list of Casaubon’s projected editions, commentaries, and other works, Pattison writes,

Of all these schemes, and of others not a few, hardly any traces remain among the papers, because hardly anything was ever put on paper. He deceived himself into thinking that he had made progress in writing, when the material was heaped up only in his memory. He got at last the habit of putting by any topic as it came up, with the remark, “this we have discussed elsewhere at length.” The distinction between what he had read, what he had noted down, and what he had printed, became obliterated in his mind. [IC p.433]

Elsewhere, Pattison suggests that Casaubon found writing unpalatable because of the “necessity pressing on his mind, that his criticism, if it were to be worth anything, should exhaust the authorities.” [IC, p. 421] We hear again echoes of Pattison’s advice to spend twenty years in research before publishing. Both Casaubon and Pattison found themselves wholly oppressed by the project of conducting thorough and complete research. “When he had written, he was dissatisfied with the result.” [IC p.422] This is virtually indistinguishable from Pattison’s remarks in his Memoirs that he is never fully satisfied with anything that he has done. He adds, “It is better to write nothing than to produce incomplete work. And research is always incomplete.” [IC, p. 422]

For one who read as prodigiously as Casaubon, the fact that research remained ever incomplete seems astounding. Here was a man who rose early every day and tried whenever possible to read the whole day through. Throughout his Ephemerides, Casaubon rejoices on days when he has been afforded the luxury of uninterrupted reading, and laments when friends or business have taken him away from his books.

After six hours’ reading and writing at this pace in the library, there must be recreation. This he takes, on his return to the deanery, by more reading, but of a lighter sort, such as Wake’s ‘Rex Platonicus,’ or by taking lessons in rabbinical hebrew [sic] from a young man of that persuasion. [IC p.365]

One must not think of this as reading in the relaxed or recreational sense which most people understand today. Rather,

“Reading is not an amusement filling the languid pauses between the hours of action; it is the one pursuit engrossing all the hours and the whole mind.” [IC, p.436]

If Casaubon was reading this much, why did he feel the need to do so much more before publishing? One may be tempted to accept Pattison’s explanation that every project requires just a bit more research before being ready to ply pen to paper, and this perfectionist impulse is no doubt some part of the reason. Yet it also sounds like rationalization. Today, scholars and other professional writers are well aware of the temptations and pitfalls which beset their work: one cannot even innocently turn on the computer to use a word processor without some temptation to check e-mail or see the latest on social media. Distractions and other modes of procrastination may have been in shorter supply in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the urge which underlies doing something for a few minutes before sitting down to the serious task of production must have been just as strong. Casaubon, and Pattison after him, must have found something particularly salutary and gratifying in the very act of reading, doing the research, satisfying one’s own curiosity. Each of them shows signs of being deeply introverted and more attracted to the pure pleasure of reading and research than the accolades or gratification of vanity which may result from publication.

In short, it seems that for Casaubon and Pattison alike, research was an end in itself. “Learning is research,” Pattison writes [IC p.453], and,

To the great, the fashionable, the gay, and the busy, the grammarian is a poor pedant, and no famous man. The approbation of our fellows may be a powerful motive of conduct. It is powerful to generate devotion to their service. It is not powerful enough to sustain a life of research. No other extrinsic motive is so. The one only motive which can support the daily energy called for in the solitary student’s life, is the desire to know. [IC, 437]

Pattison explains that Casaubon was a man torn between his Classical reading and texts of theological or ecclesiastical import. This had in particular to do with his unique position as Royal Librarian in Paris. Casaubon had been granted a pension by king Henri IV, and it was understood that the primary purpose of this pension was not to compensate him for any specific labors which he might undertake (valued as those might be), but rather, to entice him from the Calvinist to the Catholic faith. Ultimately, these efforts at pecuniary persuasion failed, and the learned Jesuits of Paris in particular realized that they would have to try a different approach with an erudite man like Casaubon: they would have to engage him in the field of a learned controversy. Having announced that he would be susceptible to conversion if reading in theological and patristic texts would validate it, he began a course of ecclesiastical reading which took considerable time away from his Classical projects. One cannot wholly understand Casaubon without understanding the religious conflict of his time and place, with much of his productive work being undertaken in times still riven by the conflict between Catholics and Protestants brought to something of a head in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. [IC, 186-187]

Consequently, Pattison spends much of his time in the book explicating the religious conflict of the time and Casaubon’s place within it. He concludes that this turned Casaubon into a man “of divided interest” [186], but this could just as easily be said of Pattison himself. As an old man, Pattison laments the “hours I wasted over religious books…” [Autobiography 173] Casaubon took up residence in Paris in 1559, and was for eleven years pressed for his conversion to Catholicism until he went to London in 1610. These invitations to conversion were lamentable distractions to his work, but they also served to change the nature of his studies. Pattison notes that, beginning with Casaubon’s employment as librarian, he would relax from laboring upon his edition of Polybius by spending some time in “controversial reading” [IC p.186]. Pattison suggests that this can be attributed to a certain “double mindedness” in Casaubon, tearing him between the study of pagan and Christian antiquity, and between “the biblical and the ecclesiastical” fanaticism.

Casaubon’s involvement in religious controversy is paralleled in Pattison’s life. In 1838, Pattison found himself drawn to the Tractarian movement [p. 172] under the influence of Newman. Just as Casaubon was in some measure tempted away from his Huguenot upbringing during his years in Paris (1600-1610), so too was Pattison drawn toward the Catholic faith in the 30’s. In both cases, it may be argued that the refusal of conversion hampered their worldly advancement for some time, though this may have been beneficial on the whole to the cause of their studies.

Pattison, like Housman after him, loved to pass judgment upon other scholars, and seems to have enjoyed a remarkable capacity for sizing up the work of others, even though he was not himself the most productive of the laborers in Academus’ garden. Casaubon’s contemporaries rated him highly. Thus, Scaliger says that he yielded in his study of Greek to Casaubon alone, and felt that he himself was the only person capable of appreciating Casaubon’s work. [IC, p. 238] “For whom should he write, now Scaliger was not there to read?” [IC, p. 238-239] Yet Pattison, with the advantage of centuries, is able to identify the shortcomings in Casaubon’s scholarship readily enough, noting especially his deficiency in Greek composition. Moreover, as Casaubon himself acknowledged, his limits were in great measure fixed by a lack of easy access to the requisite books. [IC, p.361] What does constant reading avail a man who cannot read everything he needs? Similarly, Ladislaw notes in Middlemarch that Mr. Casaubon could have spared himself many a learned investigation if he only knew German. An entire fount of erudition lay untapped, effectively hamstringing the effort of the diligent accumulator of facts.

And it is as an accumulator of facts that he achieved his fame. Casaubon’s mind was amply furnished with erudition, but he made no serious efforts at textual criticism. Though he had access to variant manuscripts for the authors on whom he worked, he nevertheless avoided getting bogged down in the finer points of evaluating the texts. “As he wanted to read, not to collate, new material was what he looked out for…” [IC, p. 363] That is, Casaubon was not interested in “settling hoti’s business” [Browning, Death of a Grammarian] but of stocking his own mind. His scholarship was of a fundamentally selfish type: geared not toward the production of knowledge or the advancement of classical understanding, but to the creation of the learned man. Few people outside of scholarly circles have even heard of Isaac Casaubon, and even within them, there are few who read anything which he wrote. It is tempting, therefore, to suppose that he produced little as a scholar, but this is to misunderstand the product of his learning. His mind itself was the product, and he was ever in the process of improving it further. The old tag nulla dies sine linea became with Casaubon nulla dies sine lectione. Thus, Casaubon was renowned among the greatest scholars of his generation who could recognize in him the vast stock of accumulated learning which had taken a lifetime to acquire, but the product of all of his labors ceased to exist when he succumbed to illness in 1614.

As was Isaac Casaubon’s learning, so too was Mark Pattison’s. He was a fantastically learned man, and this was recognized by his contemporaries, but he too has been largely forgotten. Indeed, his biography of Casaubon and the fashionable identification of Pattison with the Mr. Casaubon of Middlemarch are his chief claims upon modern attention, and these admittedly count for very little. Having retreated within himself to a world of isolated but self-improving erudition, Pattison produced very little scholarship because he was too busy making himself a scholar. Pattison criticizes Richard Kilbye, an English contemporary of Casaubon who was also a Rector of Lincoln College, by describing him as, “a fair specimen of the academical professor of his time; with some reading, but without learning or even the conception of it as a whole…” [IC, p.367] Pattison’s conception of the ideal scholar was the model against whom he criticized all living claimants to the title. Yet it was that vision which kept him ever engaged in the pursuit of unattainable perfection, and a life of perpetual and apparently unproductive disappointment.

MacDonald, Alexander, 1839-1921; Mark Pattison (1813-1884), Rector (1861-1884)

Reading Poems at the End of the World

I have been taking the end of the world seriously, but not really that seriously, for a while now. Last fall, I wrote an essay on Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin, called “Loving Latin at the End of the World“. Last Spring, I tried to think about the fate of Classical Studies in some kind of an apocalypse, sketching out ideas for “The Future of the Past.” Eidolon has had the market cornered on Classics and the end of the world, with Nandini Pandey’s article “Classics in a time of Quarantine” hard on the heels of their End of the World Edition. But, then things jumped off the screen into the real.

For the past few weeks the best adjective I can use to describe my general feelings is “elegiac”—and  I mean this in the rather modern reception of the word which emphasizes its funereal tone, its use in epitaphs, rather than its metrical/generic use. Being part of a slow-motion disaster, a horrendous and at times horrifying transformation of our human communities, is in some ways indescribable, ineffable. In emails and with others I find myself trying to calm with the same phrases we all use about being in “unchartered territory” and how we need to be patient and reserve judgment for later.

But the refrain in my head is this:

T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

As I have talked about on Scott Lepisto’s Itinera podcast, my formative years were spent reading, in the isolation that living in a rural area before the dawn of the internet can bring you. I started graduate school at NYU a few weeks before 9/11 and my primary coping strategy—apart from drinking too much—was throwing myself into Homer.  And for this disaster, I am a professor. 

So, in a way, I should be really well-prepared emotionally for COVID-19’s brand of slow-motion destruction. I think this is probably true, on an intellectual level; on an emotional one, however, I am probably a wreck. And part of my particular brand of being a wreck is (1) I sleep even less well than usual and (2) fragments of poems fill my waking hours and sleep.

These are not fragments of my own, but poems ancient and modern that have been part of my life, either in education or from reading. I have engaged with the world through written words for nearly as long as I can remember—they are comfort, paradigms for guidance, distraction, etc. But poetry has a special place in my heart. Long before I poorly translated Latin and Greek for twitter, I spent time trying to write poetry (and was quite limited at it). These years gave me practice reading, memorizing, and keeping poetry close to heart.

And in the heart, there’s no timeline, there’s no catalog to separate things. So, when Langston Hughes jumps to mind with his Advice:

Folks, I’m telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean-
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.

I can’t help but thinking of Catullus’ Vivamus mea Lesbia (Carm. 5) and his “We must sleep a lonely endless night” (nox est perpetua una dormienda) summoning to mind 11th grade’s Andrew Marvell’s great beginning, from To His Coy Mistress “Had we but world enough and time” eventually receding into what I still find ridiculous in his “vegetable love should grow.” Poems join me when, like Billy Pilgrim, I come unstuck in time.

There’s no shortage of poems exhorting us to live. There’s Ashurbanipal’s famous epitaph, dishing out the wisdom straight: “Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart / By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.” (εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,/ τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις). For every serious injunction to memento mori or carpe diem with Horace there are humorous ones too, like Martial’s poem 5.58 which ends, “Postumus, even living today is too late; / he is the wise man, who lived yesterday” (Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est: / ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.)

Is that toilet paper or a manuscript in his hand? Smiling skeleton, from Ars bene moriendi, France, 1470-1480

Ending the World in a Poem

The problem is that I don’t know many poems about the end of the world. There is not too much about the world ending in the modern sense in ancient Greek and Roman texts that I know of prior to the period that gives us the Biblical Revelation. Greek and Roman Cosmogony tends towards the cyclical and not the epoch-ending stuff we see in Norse Ragnarok. There are certainly a lot of disasters and they tend to reflect natural disasters like the flood which appears inset in the Gilgamesh Narrative, as part of the Sumerian Atrahasis, in the Biblical Genesis, or in the tales we have of the Greek Deucalion who survived a flood too. 

Ovid’s version of this flood in the Metamorphoses is an unmaking of the creation that begins his poem. In the creation, everything which before was all mixed together and “compressed because of its own weight” (et pressa est gravitate sua, 1.30) is reorganized when ‘some god’ “separated the mass and apportioned the portion into parts” (congeriem secuit sectamque in membra redegit, 1.33). In anger over Lykaon’s sacrifice of human flesh, Zeus attacks the land until “the land and sea were showing no difference” (Iamque mare et tellus nullum discrimen habebant, 1.291). Of course, humans and their cities rise again, under the threat/promise that destruction is always imminent for hubristic and impious souls.

It is not that ancient authors are not concerned with death, but rather not with species death, with the eradication of humans as we know them. Perhaps this is because such an act prior to our anthropocene era of extinction was unthinkable, beyond the ken of the ancients. Perhaps, it is really too big for most of us to handle. (Which helps to explain our rapid, even if wildly imperfect, response to COVID-19 and our absurd denial about climate change.)

The end of a single life functions as easily as a metaphor for the end of humankind as the end of humankind does for the end of an individual life. (And this later function, I think, is important in popular, modern eschatology which uses civilization ending narratives to force us to think about mortality.) Mediterranean thought does show some evidence of the metaphor of one life as all of humankind, Philo sees the death of the individual as of no consequence to art “unless unless we believe that the death of one individual person in turn visits ruin upon humankind” (εἰ μὴ καὶ ἀνθρώπου τινὸς τῶν ἐν μέρει θάνατον φθορὰν ἐργάσασθαι φήσομεν ἀνθρωπότητι, The Worse Attack the Better 206). In this, he echoes lines in the Qu’ran and the Talmud making similar interrelational claims.

 

Living and Dying in Poems

My point is that while the ancients do not talk about civilization-ending plagues, they do talk a lot about death, and that is, for better or worse, part of what has drawn me to ancient poetry. In modern poetry on death, we get ruminations like Hektor’s in the Iliad: just as he says “may I not die ingloriously,” so too Mary Oliver writes (in When Death Comes):

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

I first read Oliver with the poet Olga Broumas when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis. Olga encouraged us to read a book of poetry a week and I kept that up through my first semester of graduate school until Hektor took over completely.

Is there any reason for poetry to exist beyond the contemplation of life and death? I am sure there is, but many days I might be unable to hear it, searching instead in its words for that reflection of what I fear and seek myself. Modern poetry can differ from the major themes of ancient death in contemplating in how it communicates its stark simplicity: poets like Ibykos and Mimnermus acknowledge death is all around us while a modern talent like Gwendolyn Brooks turns our ear to the deaths of the unknown in The Boy Died in my Alley:

Without my having known.
Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died alone.”
“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the dead.

Greek poetry often celebrates the infamous and the famous alike, leaving forgotten the passing of most. (Although there are memorials of even minor figures if you look hard enough.) Brooks remarks on the momentous deaths that fail even to bring us pause. (And in this I shudder to think of the humanitarian disaster being prepared in our American prisons and on the streets for the homeless and unknown.) 

But many poems home in on our personal relationship with death. Death’s coming is unexpected, as Pablo Neruda writes in Nothing But Death  “Death arrives among all that sound / like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it.” Yet, of all things in life it should be fully expected, fully anticipated. We know it is coming: we can prepare.

Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps the end of the life of an individual is ultimately unthinkable. We cannot see our way out of our bodies because they are all we have and no matter how many times we read Plato’s Phaedo the basic assertion—that because we think and exist now we must always have existed and just don’t remember it—does not square with the intuitive knowledge that I did not exist before so I will not exist again. Sometimes, we can embrace this, or at least make it more concrete as F. G. Lorca does in Gacela of the Dark Death, when expanding on the image of death as sleep:

  I want to sleep the sleep of the apples,
I want to get far away from the busyness of the cemeteries.
I want to sleep the sleep of that child
who longed to cut his heart open far out at sea.

But this peace, this sense of surrender is beyond me. When wading into the news these days, I am too often reminded of the words Dylan Thomas wrote for his father in is final years:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Rage in/Against Poems

Can a Homerist think of rage without thinking of Achilles? If I think back to the notion of the death of the individual as a metaphor for humankind (and the reverse), the Iliad itself is something different for me Everyone knows that Achilles has two choices: he can live a long life, without fame; or he can die young with glory.  But the choice he does not have at all is about whether or not he has to die.

The Rage the poem sings from line 1 is variously anger over Agamemnon’s slight to his honor or his anger at Patroklos’ death. This second cause is his more famous rage, that which kills Hektor and drives much of the action of the poem. On the other side of that rage, as my friend Emily Austin emphasizes in her work, is longing, a desire for what is lost in the form of Patroklos. And Patroklos, like Enkidu for Gilgamesh, is a stand in for the hero himself.

There are 16 books of the Iliad before Patroklos dies. Perhaps a unifying feature of Achilles’ rage is anger over death and life itself? When we find Achilles in book 9, contemplating his own life, he insists “The coward and the noble man are held in the same honor / the lazy man and the one who does a lot die the same.” (ἐν δὲ ἰῇ τιμῇ ἠμὲν κακὸς ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλός· / κάτθαν’ ὁμῶς ὅ τ’ ἀεργὸς ἀνὴρ ὅ τε πολλὰ ἐοργώς, Il. 9.320-321). This is typically taken as indicating Achilles’ existential issue with the “heroic code” or Achaean society. But if we take the Achilles from the Odyssey more seriously, the one who tells Odysseus not to  “sweet-talk me about death” (μὴ δή μοι θάνατόν γε παραύδα, 11.488), Achilles’ rage is more like Thomas’. It is that deep, fundamental incredulity that I who am now alive must one day be dead.

And in giving in to rage, Achilles lost much of the time he would have had to be alive—this, is, perhaps one of the lessons of the Odyssey. Perhaps Achilles would have benefited from reading Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival:

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

 

Creating Something with Poems

One of the more amusing memes to circulate over the past few weeks has been about the accomplishment of some famous people during plagues. Newton invented Gravity! Shakespeare wrote King Lear! The least we can do is put on pants!

The call to use this time of isolation well is predictably met by the objection that such expectations are a little bit unreasonable. (And also conditioned by some of the very dysfunctional aspects of capitalism central to our problems.) The desire to read something long and complex is understandable, but the reality is that our attention spans are fragmented. Why not start small? Why not read a poem?

Now, for me, a ‘poem’ is an expansive term: a song is a poem.  This is especially true in Ancient Greece where song culture was a pervasive part of all life. No one ‘read’ Homer and Sappho in early Greece: they listened, they recited, they returned to it. (So listening is equal to if not better than reading in some ways). Modern high and low culture distinctions have obscured this; they too often deny the title “poem” to creations that do what poems do.

A poem should be defined not by some external aesthetics but by the internally sensed impact of what a poem does in the world: it creates. Our word poem comes from Greek poiêma, related to the verb poieô, “to make”. The Greek noun poiêtês, then, can be seen as “maker, creator”. This is an important meaning to me because poetry creates space, it creates worlds. A poem’s space is that of communion between its audience and others; it helps us see ourselves in humanity through that Aristotelian “identification” and it helps us develop humanity in ourselves, by seeing the world through other perspectives. Poetry should invite us, challenge us, and encourage us to see more than ourselves. And this, for me, is the goal of all reading, to bridge the gaps between our subjective consciousnesses, to help us see others as real and worthy of our attention, worthy of our regard, and worthy of our love.

Poetry in this sense is an act of creation, a reaffirmation of creation, by constituting and then providing access to the commonwealth of human understanding. My favorite metaphor for this from the ancient world is that passage from Plato’s Ion where Socrates describes poetic inspiration as being like a magnet imbuing successive links of metal with its force. The last link in the chain is the audience, the middle link is the performer/medium, the penultimate is the poet/creator and the source is “god/the muses”. For me, that source, that deity, is the human collective, the grand and sometimes random total sum of our shared memory (the Muses!), the shared wisdom and experience that helps us to define ourselves, to situate ourselves within a larger whole.

So I guess what I’m saying is that you should read a poem. Feel something, remember it. Share it with others. Carry it around in your head, in your heart. In these days of uncertainty and isolation, this is one way to be less alone. Or, in a way, even when alone, to be more together.

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

We will be putting up a call in the next few days for people to send in their own passages, favorite poems, and even posts for the site during the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you want something posted or would like to write a guest post, email me or Erik.

A random list of poets whose work was in earlier versions of this:

Franz Wright, James Wright, Nikki Giovanni, Mark Strand, Linda Gregg, Jack Gilbert, Maya Angelou, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. S. Merwin, Louise Gluck, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, Adrienne Rich. At some point I just started keeping only American poets of the 20th century, ignoring way too much from the rest of the world but, for what it’s worth, keeping true to my own education. Happy to have further suggestions.

Also, Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets online:

Reader Suggested Poems:

William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris

 

Beyond Sappho: Learning and Teaching About Women Authors

I went through thirteen years of Classical education and only read ancient work by one woman in one of my classes. And that was in high school when we were preparing for the Catullus AP exam: we read a little bit of Sappho to help contextualize Catullus’ Carm. 51 (Ille mi par…). It is not that Sappho was not on the official courses when I was an undergrad or graduate student—I either missed the subject in rotation or skipped it.

My scholarly world was not wholly barren of Sappho, however. When I was in graduate school I worked my way through a fairly extensive reading list of Roman and Greek authors. I had some of it completed before I arrived, but spent the better part of every break and summer for three years working on a pared down canon of Classical texts. Of all those authors, there Sappho was the only woman on the list.

(And, to make matters worse, I am sure I encountered articles equivocating on whether or not Sappho’s poems can even be taken seriously as compositions by women).

PhD comprehensive exams are not just about reading Latin and Greek: you also need to pass topic exams and literature exams. I read the Conte, the Pfeiffer; with my peers I made bibliographies and Oxford Classical Dictionary-like summaries for all the authors on the reading lists. I passed my exams and the worst error I made was confusing Plato’s Gorgias and Protagoras.

These exams are both about providing students with sufficient exposure to the CANON! Of ancient literature as it has been passed down for us to do a credible job at imitating our betters. They also prepare us with the raw knowledge to speak and teach in the field. So, I made it through a PhD and into a tenure track teaching job knowing the names of only two women authors from the ancient world: Sappho and Sulpicia (and the latter only because I was a research assistant and got tasked with finding citations of an article about her). The Latin poet has also had her existence questioned.

And, I suspect like my own teachers, I perpetuated what I had learned. The first few years after the PhD are hectic, especially if you end up in a teaching heavy program where you are also expected to publish. When I taught a “Classical Literature Survey” course in my first year, it was pretty much the authors from my PhD reading lists (excepting those I really didn’t like.)

So I taught and wrote—I professionally professed!—with such an impoverished knowledge of the ancient world that I shudder to admit it know. I somehow didn’t know of the fragmentary work of Korinna—who allegedly made Pindar a better poet—or Praxilla. I did not learn of Nossis or Erinna until I started reading through the Greek Anthology to find more material for this website. I did not learn of dozens of other names until I received an email from a professor from my undergraduate English department. Certainly, some of this is my fault since I did not go looking for these authors. (And the list of the books below makes it clear that it was possible to learn more.) But the way we build and prioritize the received canon of works that a Classicist needs to read exacerbates it.

One gets the impression from reading overviews of ancient literature that women were not engaged in its production with the exception of a very few. Given the pervasive nature of song culture in early Greece, however, it seems incredible that there were not many more women’s songs. (And Andromache Karanika does a fabulous job of thinking about this in her book Voices at Work, 2014.) We see depiction of women playing instruments and singing in art and we hear them depicted singing while weaving. And this is just the beginning.

Well into the imperial age, we have evidence that elite women were engaged in activities similar to those of men. But we have limited examples of their work because ancients did not keep them. While we have the work of Julia Balbilla (see Patricia Rosenmeyer’s book for more), it survives in inscriptions and not because it was preserved intentionally. The marginalization of women authors started when contemporary male audiences and subsequent editors did not record and circulate their poetry and songs. As Classicists we need to admit and publicize more broadly that the canon we have is not purely accidental. Women authors have been systematically left out for millennia.

And it is not just poetry and literary evidence which is either lost or ignored. We have, I think, sufficient evidence that women were actively engaged in philosophy as well. The philosophical fragments of Perictione—pseudonymous and attributed to Plato’s mother—the Pythagorian Aesara (5th Century BCE), and the Spartan Phintys (3rd Century BCE) are not included in any of the new philosophical collections in the Loeb Classical Library. Even though the editors find the time to track down nearly every testimony for most minor philosophers. A small part of Perictione’s fragmentary text preserved by Stobaeus is printed on LCL 527 (437-8) in support of other Pythagoreans.

Last year I spent some time reading through and translating poets like Nossis; this year I pushed myself through the fragments of the philosophers above. While the provenance and authority of the texts are beyond problematic, their content is important. Perictione and Phintys present what is purportedly treatises on how to be a good woman from a philosophical perspective. And they read more like male fantasy screeds. But I think we could also see them as engaged in some cultural and intellectual realpolitik. Perictione’s emphasis on what “likemindedness” really means to a wife (basically accepted everything her husband says, likes, and does) should make us re-think how audiences received Odysseus’ wish for Nausikaa in the Odyssey and reconsider James Redfield’s arguments for homonoia/homophrosune as signaling consent. Aesara’s work is fascinating to me because it breaks down the soul/body dichotomy which Plato really solidifies in Greek philosophical traditions and sees a more complex engagement between thought, anger, and desire.

I have made a little noise talking about the problem with canons in classical curricula and how we overlook that what we have been taught is beautiful shapes what we look for in the world. We have to be critical in examining the way previous generations’ curation of the canon has shaped what we consider marginal and what we pass down to our students. We need women philosophers in the Loeb Classical Library. We need handbooks of the history of Classical literature and scholarship that do a more accurate job of telling us what women were doing in the ancient world and why we have such little extant evidence. And I don’t mean to imply that there are not scores of people doing this work already; but I think we need to make this kind of work more central to what we do as a discipline.

Yes, the ancients did not preserve much of the work created by women. This does not mean that it did not exist. Our discipline’s history until very recently is shaped by not having the evidence and by not teaching it. (And thanks much to the work of the Women’s Classical Caucus.) But part of figuring out whether or not Classical Studies as a discipline can survive is a critical re-evaluation of how we teach and learn about the ancient world at every level.

Image result for pfeiffer history of classical scholarship
Don’t look for Women in this index

There are many good texts about women in the ancient world. Below are some about women authors. Please email or comment to add some more. For great resources, please visit Diotima.

Balmer, Josephine. 1996. Classical Women Poets.

Greene, Ellen. 2005. Women Poets in Ancient Greece and Rome. Oklahoma.

Plant, I.M. 2004. Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology. Oklahoma.

Raynor, Diane J. 1991. Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece. Berkeley and Los Angeles

Snyder, J. M. 1989. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Southern Illinois.

The blog It’s All Greek to Me posted this entry with good sources for women writing

The title of this post is in part inspired by Sarah Bond’s repeated reminders that the women in the ancient world are more than Sappho.