Maybe Music Can Stop the Plague?

COVID is so 2020. Let’s add Monkeypox and Marburg virus to the anxiety pool.

Plutarch, On Music (Moralia 1146c-d)

“The degree to which the best governed states have dedicated themselves to fine music finds ample testimony, especially in the case of Terpander who brought an end to the civil strife that was ruining the Spartans.

There’s also Thaletas of Crete who people say listened to the Delphic oracle and went Sparta and returned people to health with music, saving Sparta from the Pandemic that was gripping the land, as Pratinas claims.

Homer too says that the Greeks stopped a plague with music, for he says that “sons of the Achaeans propitiated the god with song and dance all day long / singing the noble paean and praising the / far-shooter who took pleasure in hearing the song.”

I’ll leave those verses as the final words in my argument about music, good teacher, since you started this discussion by quoting them to us. In truth, music’s first and finest labor is to give thanks back to the gods, and after that comes a cleansing of the soul, sure tone, and sustained harmony.”

Ὅτι δὲ καὶ ταῖς εὐνομωτάταις τῶν πόλεων ἐπιμελὲς γεγένηται φροντίδα ποιεῖσθαι τῆς γενναίας μουσικῆς πολλὰ μὲν καὶ ἄλλα μαρτύρια παραθέσθαι ἐστίν, Τέρπανδρον δ᾿ ἄν τις παραλάβοι τὸν τὴν γενομένην ποτὲ παρὰ Λακεδαιμονίοις στάσιν καταλύσαντα, καὶ Θαλήταν6 τὸν Κρῆτα, ὅν φασι κατά τι πυθόχρηστον Λακεδαιμονίους παραγενόμενον διὰ μουσικῆς ἰάσασθαι ἀπαλλάξαι τε τοῦ κατασχόντος λοιμοῦ τὴν Σπάρτην, καθάπερ φησὶν Πρατίνας. ἀλλὰ γὰρ καὶ Ὅμηρος τὸν κατασχόντα λοιμὸν τοὺς Ἕλληνας παύσασθαι λέγει διὰ μουσικῆς· ἔφη γοῦν οἱ δὲ πανημέριοι μολπῇ θεὸν ἱλάσκοντο / καλὸν ἀείδοντες παιήονα, κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν / μέλποντες ἑκάεργον· ὁ δὲ φρένα τέρπετ᾿ ἀκούων.

τούτους τοὺς στίχους, ἀγαθὲ διδάσκαλε, κολοφῶνα τῶν περὶ τῆς μουσικῆς λόγων πεποίημαι, ἐπεὶ φθάσας σὺ τὴν μουσικὴν δύναμιν διὰ τούτων προαπέφηνας ἡμῖν· τῷ γὰρ ὄντι τὸ πρῶτον αὐτῆς καὶ κάλλιστον ἔργον ἡ εἰς τοὺς θεοὺς εὐχάριστός ἐστιν ἀμοιβή, ἑπόμενον δὲ τούτῳ καὶ δεύτερον τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καθάρσιον καὶ ἐμμελὲς καὶ ἐναρμόνιον σύστημα.”

The oldest picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633)

Skylla and Charybdis? An Easy Choice

Last year I ran the following poll. The results surprised me.

This year, people did a bit better

 

I had imagined that Simonides made things clear:

Simonides, fr. 356

“Everything comes to a single, dreadful Charybdis—
The great virtues and wealth the same.”

πάντα γὰρ μίαν ἱκνεῖται δασπλῆτα Χάρυβδιν,
αἱ μεγάλαι τ’ ἀρεταὶ καὶ ὁ πλοῦτος.

No? Ok. Here’s a proverb and an explanation

Michael Apostolios, Collectio Paroemiarum 16.49

“Avoid Kharybdis and come close to Skyla.” This is similar to the saying, “I avoided it by finding a better evil”

They say about Skyla that she was a Tyrrhenian woman, something if a beast, who was a woman down to the navel but she grew dog heads beneath that point. The rest of her body was a serpent. This kind of a cerature is very silly to imagine. But here is the truth. There were the islands of the Tyrrenians, which used to raid the coasts of Sicily and the Ionian bay. There was a trirereme which had the named Skyla. That trireme used to overtake other ships often and use their food and there was many a story about it. Odysseus fled that ship. trusting a strong and favorable wind and he told this story in Corcyra to Alkinoos, how he was pursued and how he fled and what the shape of the ship was. From these stories, the myth was formed.”

Τὴν Χάρυβδιν ἐκφυγὼν, τῇ Σκύλῃ περιέπεσον:
ὁμοία τῇ· ῎Εφυγον κακὸν εὗρον ἄμεινον

Λέγουσι περὶ Σκύλης ὡς ἦν Τυῤῥηνία, θηρίον τι, γυνὴ  μὲν μέχρι τοῦ ὀμφαλοῦ, κυνῶν δὲ ἐντεῦθεν αὐτῇ προσπεφύκασι κεφαλαί· τὸ δ’ ἄλλο σῶμα ὄφεως. τοιαύτην δὲ φύσιν ἐννοεῖν πολὺ εὔηθες· ἡ δὲ ἀλήθεια αὕτη· Τυῤῥηνίων νῆσοι ἦσαν, αἳ ἐληΐζοντο τὰ περίχωρα τῆς Σικελίας καὶ τὸν ᾿Ιόνιον κόλπον· ἦν δὲ ναῦς τριήρης ταχεῖα τό τε ὄνομα Σκύλα· αὕτη ἡ τριήρης τὰ λοιπὰ τῶν πλοίων συλλαμβάνουσα πολλάκις εἰργάζετο βρῶμα, καὶ λόγος ἦν περὶ αὐτῆς πολύς· ταύτην τὴν ναῦν ᾿Οδυσσεὺς σφοδρῷ καὶ λαύρῳ πνεύματι χρησάμενος διέφυγε, διηγήσατο δὲ ἐν Κερκύρᾳ τῷ ᾿Αλκινόῳ, πῶς ἐδιώχθη καὶ πῶς ἐξέφυγε, καὶ τὴν ἰδέαν τοῦ πλοίου· ἀφ’ ὧν προσανεπλάσθη ὁ μῦθος.

Ok. Maybe that wasn’t clear.

Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 70

“Charybdis is an obvious name for luxury and endless drinking. Homer has allegorized manifold shamelessness in Skylla, which is why she would logically have a belt of dogs, guardians for her rapacity, daring, and pugnacity. “

Καὶ Χάρυβδις μὲν ἡ δάπανος ἀσωτία καὶ περὶ πότους ἄπληστος  εὐλόγως ὠνόμασται·  Σκύλλαν δὲ τὴν πολύμορφον ἀναίδειαν ἠλληγόρησε, διὸ δὴ κύνας οὐκ ἀλόγως ὑπέζωσται προτομαῖς ἁρπαγῇ, τόλμῃ καὶ πλεονεξίᾳ πεφραγμέναις·

Yeah, that doesn’t help matters. How about this?

Philo, On Dreams, 70

“But you, go away from “the smoke and the wave” and depart the ridiculous concerns of mortal life as from that fearsome Charybdis without touching it at all, don’t even, as the people say, brush it with your littlest toe.”

ἀλλὰ σύ γε τοῦ μὲν “καπνοῦ καὶ κύματος ἐκτὸς” βαῖνε καὶ τὰς καταγελάστους τοῦ θνητοῦ βίου σπουδὰς ὡς τὴν φοβερὰν ἐκείνην χάρυβδιν ἀποδίδρασκε καὶ μηδὲ ἄκρῳ, τὸ τοῦ λόγου τοῦτο, ποδὸς δακτύλῳ ψαύσῃς.

Plutarch, with an assist

Plutarch, Fr. 178, Stobaeus 4.52 from his On the Soul [Plutarch uses the same image elsewhere]

“For satiety seems to be becoming worn out in pleasures from the soul suffering in some way with the body, since the soul does not shirk from its pleasures. But when it is interwoven, as it is said, with the body, it suffers the same things as Odysseus, just as he was held, clinging to the fig tree, not because he desired it or delighted in it, but because he feared Charybdis lurking below him. The soul clings to the body and embraces it in this way not because of goodwill or gratitude but because it fears the uncertainty of death.

As wise Hesiod says, “the gods keep life concealed from human beings.” They have not tied the soul to the body with fleshly bonds, but they have devised and bound around the mind one cell and one guard, our uncertainty and distrust about our end. If a soul had faith in these things—“however so many await men when they die”, to quote Heraclitus—nothing would restrain it at all.”

 καὶ γὰρ ὁ κόρος κόπος ἐν ἡδοναῖς ἔοικεν εἶναι τῷ μετὰ σώματός τι τὴν ψυχὴν πάσχειν, ἐπεὶ πρός γε τὰς αὑτῆς ἡδονὰς οὐκ ἀπαγορεύει. συμπεπλεγμένη δέ, ὥσπερ εἴρηται, τῷ σώματι ταὐτὰ τῷ Ὀδυσσεῖ πέπονθεν· ὡς γὰρ ἐκεῖνος τῷ ἐρινεῷ προσφὺς εἴχετο καὶ περιέπτυσσεν οὐ ποθῶν οὐδ᾿ ἀγαπῶν ἐκεῖνον, ἀλλὰ δεδιὼς ὑποκειμένην τὴν Χάρυβδιν, οὕτως ἔοικεν ἡ ψυχὴ τοῦ σώματος ἔχεσθαι καὶ περιπεπλέχθαι δι᾿ εὔνοιαν οὐδεμίαν αὐτοῦ καὶ χάριν, ἀλλ᾿ ὀρρωδοῦσα τοῦ θανάτου τὴν ἀδηλότητα.

κρύψαντες γὰρ ἔχουσι θεοὶ βίον ἀνθρώποισι

κατὰ τὸν σοφὸν Ἡσίοδον, οὐ σαρκίνοις τισὶ δεσμοῖς πρὸς τὸ σῶμα τὴν ψυχὴν κατατείναντες, ἀλλ᾿ ἕνα δεσμὸν αὐτῇ καὶ μίαν φυλακὴν μηχανησάμενοι καὶ περιβαλόντες, τὴν ἀδηλότητα καὶ ἀπιστίαν τῶν μετὰ τὴν τελευτήν· ἐπεὶ τήν γε πεισθεῖσαν, ὅσα ἀνθρώπους περιμένει τελευτήσαντας καθ᾿ Ἡράκλειτον, οὐδὲν ἂν κατάσχοι.”

So, to be clear:  Charybdis=death. 

 

Britannia between Scylla & Charybdis. or— The Vessel of the Constitution steered clear of the Rock of Democracy, and the Whirlpool of Arbitrary-Power. James Gilray, 1793

 

All Unhappy Families….

Homer, Iliad 9. 447-461

. . . I first fled Hellas famed for fine women
after rows with my father, Amuntor, son of Ormenus.
He was enraged with me over his well-coiffed mistress.
He loved this woman and he disgraced his wife,
my mother. She pleaded with me all the time
to screw the mistress–make her rebuff the old man.
Persuaded, I did it. But my father found out,
cursed me bitterly, called on the hated Furies
that he never hold a dear son of mine
on his knees. The gods fulfilled the curse,
chthonian Zeus and dread Persephone.

I planned to cut him down with my sharp sword,
but a god checked my rage–he showed my heart
what folks would say, people’s bitter insults–
so I wouldn’t be “father-killer” among Achaeans.

***The final 4 lines are recorded by Plutarch but do not appear in manuscripts or papyri of the epic. Plutarch claims without evidence Aristarchus excised the lines.

οἷον ὅτε πρῶτον λίπον Ἑλλάδα καλλιγύναικα
φεύγων νείκεα πατρὸς Ἀμύντορος Ὀρμενίδαο,
ὅς μοι παλλακίδος περιχώσατο καλλικόμοιο,
τὴν αὐτὸς φιλέεσκεν, ἀτιμάζεσκε δʼ ἄκοιτιν
μητέρʼ ἐμήν· ἣ δʼ αἰὲν ἐμὲ λισσέσκετο γούνων
παλλακίδι προμιγῆναι, ἵνʼ ἐχθήρειε γέροντα.
τῇ πιθόμην καὶ ἔρεξα· πατὴρ δʼ ἐμὸς αὐτίκʼ ὀϊσθεὶς
πολλὰ κατηρᾶτο, στυγερὰς δʼ ἐπεκέκλετʼ Ἐρινῦς,
μή ποτε γούνασιν οἷσιν ἐφέσσεσθαι φίλον υἱὸν
ἐξ ἐμέθεν γεγαῶτα· θεοὶ δʼ ἐτέλειον ἐπαρὰς

τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ βούλευσα κατακτάμεν ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ:
ἀλλά τις ἀθανάτων παῦσεν χόλον, ὅς ῥ’ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
δήμου θῆκε φάτιν καὶ ὀνείδεα πόλλ’ ἀνθρώπων,
ὡς μὴ πατροφόνος μετ’ Ἀχαιοῖσιν καλεοίμην.

Ingmar Bergman. Scenes from a Marriage.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Paris’ Weakness and the Glory of Education

Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 42

“For when the barbarians and the Greeks were struggling against each other around Troy because of one man’s lack of self-control they endured the most terrible calamities—some in war, some in the return home—and the god assigned a punishment for that single injustice for one thousand and ten years, providing an oracle for the sack of Troy and requesting the journey of maidens from Locris to the temple of Athena in Troy.

[Pythagoras] used to harangue the young men regarding education too, demanding that they consider how strange it would be to judge rational thought the most desirable of all things when one must judge concerning everything else using it, yet people spend no time nor toil in practicing it. And this is when care given to the body is similar to worthless friends in abandoning you quickly; education, however, is like the most good and noble companions who stay by your side right up to death—and, for some, it provides immortal glory after life is over.”

τῶν γὰρ βαρβάρων καὶ τῶν ῾Ελλήνων  περὶ τὴν Τροίαν ἀντιταξαμένων ἑκατέρους δι’ ἑνὸς ἀκρασίαν ταῖς δεινοτάταις περιπεσεῖν συμφοραῖς, τοὺς μὲν ἐν τῷ πολέμῳ, τοὺς δὲ κατὰ τὸν ἀνάπλουν, καὶ μόνης <ταύτης> τῆς ἀδικίας τὸν θεὸν δεκετῆ καὶ χιλιετῆ τάξαι τὴν τιμωρίαν, χρησμῳδήσαντα τήν τε τῆς Τροίας ἅλωσιν καὶ

τὴν τῶν παρθένων ἀποστολὴν παρὰ τῶν Λοκρῶν εἰς τὸ τῆς ᾿Αθηνᾶς τῆς ᾿Ιλιάδος ἱερόν. παρεκάλει δὲ τοὺς νεανίσκους καὶ πρὸς τὴν παιδείαν, ἐνθυμεῖσθαι κελεύων ὡς ἄτοπον ἂν εἴη πάντων μὲν σπουδαιότατον κρίνειν τὴν διάνοιαν καὶ ταύτῃ βουλεύεσθαι περὶ τῶν ἄλλων, εἰς δὲ τὴν ἄσκησιν τὴν ταύτης μηδένα χρόνον μηδὲ πόνον ἀνηλωκέναι, καὶ ταῦτα τῆς μὲν τῶν σωμάτων ἐπιμελείας τοῖς φαύλοις τῶν φίλων ὁμοιουμένης καὶ ταχέως ἀπολειπούσης, τῆς δὲ παιδείας καθάπερ οἱ καλοὶ κἀγαθοὶ τῶν ἀνδρῶν μέχρι θανάτου παραμενούσης, ἐνίοις δὲ καὶ μετὰ τὴν τελευτὴν ἀθάνατον δόξαν περιποιούσης.

The Love of Helen and Paris, Jacques-Louis David, 1788

Always Relevant: An Iliad of Troubles

Erasmus, Adagia 226:

Ἰλιὰς κακῶν, that is, an Iliad of troubles; used when speaking of the greatest and most numerous calamities, because in Homer’s Iliad there is no type of problem which isn’t covered. For this reason, the learned think that the premises of tragedies were taken from it, just as the plots of comedies were taken from the Odyssey. It is, however, a rather wordy work, hardly finished in twenty-four volumes. Thus, they call any speech which is a little more prolix than necessary ‘longer than the Iliad,’ as Aeschines, against Demosthenes wrote, ‘Ταῦτα δὲ εἰπὼν δίδωσιν ἀναγνῶναι ψήφισμα τῷ γραμματεῖ, μακρότερον μὲν τῆς Ἰλιάδος, κενώτερον δὲ τῶν λόγων οὓς εἴωθε λέγειν’ that is, ‘with these words he gave the decision to the scribe to be read, more long-winded than the Iliad, but more empty than the words with which he usually speaks.’

Eustathius inverts the saying thus: ‘Καὶ παροιμία μέντοι κακῶν Ἰλιάδα φησίν, αὕτη δὲ καλοῦ παντὸς Ἰλιάς,’ that is, ‘the proverb says an Iliad of troubles, but this is an Iliad of everything good.’ Synesius writes in a letter to his brother, Καὶ ὅλως κακῶν ἂν Ἰλιάς περιέστη τὴν πόλιν ἡμῶν, that is, ‘in sum, an Iliad of troubles has surrounded our city.’ Plutarch, in his Conjugal Precepts, writes, ‘Ὁ δὲ ἐκείνων Ἰλιάδα κακῶν Ἕλλησι καὶ βαρβάροις ἐποίησεν,’ that is, ‘but their marriage rites brought a whole Iliad of troubles upon the Greeks and the barbarians.’ For he is talking about the wedding of Paris and Helen, which was the cause of inestimable troubles. Cicero, too, uses this expression in his letters to Atticus: ‘such a great Iliad of troubles hangs over us.’

Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, by Nikolay Ge

Ἰλιὰς κακῶν, id est Ilias malorum. De calamitatibus maximis simul et plurimis. Propterea quod in Iliade Homerica nullum mali genus non recensetur. Vnde ex hac docti putant tragoediarum argumenta fuisse sumpta, sicut ex Odyssea comoediarum. Est autem opus verbosum, viginti quatuor voluminibus vix absolutum. Vnde et quamuis orationem plus satis prolixam Iliade longiorem vocant, vt Aeschines aduersus Demosthenem. Ταῦτα δὲ εἰπὼν δίδωσιν ἀναγνῶναι ψήφισμα τῷ γραμματεῖ, μακρότερον μὲν τῆς Ἰλιάδος, κενώτερον δὲ τῶν λόγων οὓς εἴωθε λέγειν, id est His dictis decretum scribae legendum tradit, prolixius quidem lliade, vanius autem verbis iis quae dicere consueuit.

Eustathius inuertit adagionem ad hunc modum: Καὶ παροιμία μέντοι κακῶν Ἰλιάδα φησίν, αὕτη δὲ καλοῦ παντὸς Ἰλιάς, id est Iliadem malorum prouerbium ait, at haec omnium bonorum llias. Synesius in epistola quadam ad fratrem: Καὶ ὅλως κακῶν ἂν Ἰλιάς περιέστη τὴν πόλιν ἡμῶν, id est In summa,  malorum Ilias circunstetit vrbem nostram. Plutarchus in Praeceptis coniugalibus: Ὁ δὲ ἐκείνων Ἰλιάδα κακῶν Ἕλλησι καὶ βαρβάροις ἐποίησεν, id est At illorum nuptiae Iliada malorum Graecis ac barbaris inuexerunt. Loquitur enim de coniugio Paridis et Helenae, quod inaestimabilium malorum fuit causa. Vtitur et M. Tullius in Epistolis ad Atticum: Tanta malorum impendet Ilias.

The Right To Criticize the King: The Iliad and Freedom of Speech

Homer, Iliad 9.32-34

“After a while, Diomedes good-at-the warcry, addressed them:
“I will fight with you first because you are being foolish, son of Atreus,
Which is right, Lord, in the assembly. So don’t get angry at all.”

ὀψὲ δὲ δὴ μετέειπε βοὴν ἀγαθὸς Διομήδης·
᾿Ατρεΐδη σοὶ πρῶτα μαχήσομαι ἀφραδέοντι,
ἣ θέμις ἐστὶν ἄναξ ἀγορῇ· σὺ δὲ μή τι χολωθῇς.

Schol. T ad Il. 9.32b ex

[“I will fight with you first”] “It is clear that he is also criticizing the rest of the Greeks because they are consenting to the retreat through their silence. For he says the fight in opposition to the speech.”

ex. σοὶ πρῶτα μαχήσομαι: δῆλον ὡς καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις μέμφεται ὡς συναινοῦσι τῇ φυγῇ διὰ τοῦ σιωπᾶν. μάχην δέ φησι τὴν ἐναντίωσιν τοῦ λόγου. T

Schol. A ad Il. 9.33b ex

[“which is right in the assembly, lord”] This is the custom, in a democracy. It is established in the agora because it is the custom to speak with freedom of speech [parrêsia] in the assembly.

D | Nic. ἣ θέμις <ἐστίν, ἄναξ, ἀγορῇ>: ὡς νόμος ἐστὶν—ἐν δημοκρατίᾳ. | ἐπὶ δὲ τὸ ἀγορῇ στικτέον, ὡς νόμος ἐστὶν ἐκκλησίας μετὰ παρρησίας λέγειν.

Schol. bT ad Il. 9.33 ex

[“don’t get angry at all”] this is an anticipatory warning, since he is about to criticize him more severely than he has been reproached at anytime, [alleging that it is right] to speak against kings during assemblies. He asks him to set anger aside because he believes it is right to accept advantageous truth and he is clarifying the purpose of what is said—that it is not to insult.

ex. ἣ θέμις ἐστίν, ἄναξ, <ἀγορῇ· σὺ δὲ μή τι χολωθῇς>: προδιόρθωσις, ἐπειδὴ σφοδρότερον αὐτοῦ μέλλει καθάπτεσθαι ὡς ἐφιεμένου μὴ ἄλλοτε, ἐν δὲ ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις ἀντιλέγειν τοῖς βασιλεῦσιν. προπαραιτεῖται δὲ τὴν ὀργήν, ἀξιῶν δέξασθαι τὴν πρὸς τὸ συμφέρον ἀλήθειαν καὶ δηλῶν ὡς τοῖς εἰρημένοις, οὐκ αὐτῷ ἀπέχθεται

Image result for ancient greek political assembly
Painting of Perikles by Philipp von Foltz

Fathers, Children, and a Story’s End

“To remember the past, you tell a story about it. And in recalling the memory, you tell the story again. It is not always the same story, as the person telling it does not always want the same things….As children become better storytellers, they become better rememberers. But their memory system also becomes more susceptible to distortion.”

Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, 98

He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα· Homer, Odyssey 19.203

When Odysseus returns to Ithaca in the second half of the Odyssey, he spends seven books in disguise. Part of the motivation for this is to give him the ability to test the loyalty of the people in Ithaca and justify the murder of the suitors and the slaughter of the handmaids at the end. But another part is that Odysseus explores who he is by reflecting on others’ stories. He uses his narratives in the second half of the epic to negotiate different parts of identity, to imagine different lives for himself, and to distance himself from the trauma of war and wandering.

In studying memory Martin Conway suggests that there are two forces in human recall: correspondence, which is about equivalence between details of ‘reality’ (or experience) and details of a story and coherence, which means that details make sense together in a narrative. When we tell stories about ourselves, we are not repeating a one-to-one correspondence between what happened and what we say about it. Instead we are engaging in the creation of autobiographical memory to create a coherent sense of ourselves.

The problem with seeing Odysseus as doing this in the second half of the Odyssey, of course, is that his stories are only obliquely about himself. They are mostly lies and they change depending on who he talks to: he shifts in narratives from Eumaios, to the suitors, and to his father at the epic’s end. His lies say something about him, certainly; but they also say something about how he views others.

The stories he tells lets him mirror and then use others. And he uses them to complete the hardest (and most violent) parts of his homecoming.

“I don’t know. No one ever knows his own father himself.”

οὐκ οἶδ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω. Homer, Odyssey 1.201

There are a series of days each year when my father’s memory presses upon me: father’s day, his birthday, the day(s) he died, and holidays. I miss him deeply; but I also spend the years pondering the questions I don’t have answers to, wondering how much of what he was shapes me still.

When my father died, it was a shock both for its suddenness and then for the series of minor mysteries that followed. The first was the uncertainty of what happened. He died at 61 after a sudden bout with pneumonia. The autopsy revealed his lungs were filled with sawdust from years of fiddling around with woodworking, mask-less in a garage with no circulation. He also had Lyme disease. And years of smoking and drug use had made his breathing weaker and his sense of his own health attenuated.

Image

We search out he causes of things but often find no clear answer. So, often, we choose a simple answer to help us get by. How and why he died suddenly gave way to a series of mundane, pressing questions: funeral arrangements, financial concerns. Packing up a life is never easy; the secrets left behind are entangled in ways the living didn’t imagine and the dead will never learn.

After my father’s death, I expected some trouble. He was a man who shifted easily between lives. He had a rich fantasy life—always dreaming that he would accomplish something great, that he would end up someone different. As the oldest of three, it fell to me to try to make sense of the mess: years of unpaid taxes; a maze of debt and collection bureaus; accounts tied to strange addresses; unopened summonses and bills.

At one point, I had to log in into my father’s email account, at first to contact some business associates who owed him money, and later to sift through his last few weeks of correspondence to try to figure out whether or not he knew how sick he was. (He did. Forty-eight hours before his death he sent an email to his older sister, writing “This is the sickest I have ever been.” He still waited another 36 hours to go to the doctor.)

There was a strange type of voyeurism in the process. I suspected some of what I would find, but not everything. Infidelity, I knew about. Debt and delinquency? This had been the story of our lives. But during the process of arranging for my father’s funeral, writing a eulogy, and trying to make an initial reckoning of his accounts, I started emailing with one of my father’s business associates, a man I will call Felix.

“There is one universal law among mortals
And one that is right to the gods, I believe truly—
And to all animals as well: to love the children we bear.
In everything else, we follow different laws.”

εἷς γάρ τις ἔστι κοινὸς ἀνθρώποις νόμος
καὶ θεοῖσι τοῦτο δόξαν, ὡς σαφῶς λέγω,
θηρσίν τε πᾶσι, τέκνα τίκτουσιν φιλεῖν·
τὰ δ’ ἄλλα χωρὶς χρώμεθ’ ἀλλήλων νόμοις. Euripides

Upon his return to Ithaca, Odysseus spends a significant amount of time enjoying hospitality of his enslaved swineherd, Eumaios. He tells Eumaios some terrific stories: he was a warrior from Crete who made the wrong decision to go to war and after years of suffering and betrayal he ended up enslaved and sold. Part of that story is true, of course; and the enslavement can function as a metaphor for his pains at sea and how he was subject to cruel fate. But the story also serves to endear Odysseus to Eumaios by anticipating Eumaios’ own story: how he was kidnapped as a child by a devious nurse and sold off to slavers who brought him to Ithaca.

When we meet new people, we eagerly find common ground through personal stories: we grew up in the same/similar place; we went to school in the same city; we worked in similar industries, etc. But as relationships deepen, we share those harder stories. Sometimes, to identify with people, or even to upstage them, we embellish or reshape our stories.

Even false tales can arise from real pain. Life leaves physical markers on us as literal as Odysseus’ scar. But the marks that define us are more often than not unseen. Just as the year’s calendar eventually becomes a catalog of days for the lost and gone, so too can our memories become a latticework of scars and open wounds. The facts of the stories we tell can be less meaningful than the truth they are trying to convey.

Odysseus and his father

My father’s colleague Felix confided in me that my dad had become a close friend, in part because of his empathy regarding Felix’s daughter. His daughter had suffered from an “unknown progressive neuro-muscular disorder causing severe dystonia” and the pain she endured alongside the uncertainty of her diagnosis (which seemed to indicate a shortened life) wracked him and his family with the kind of suffering that only parents can imagine.

Felix made it clear that my father changed his life because he was always there just to listen and because he inspired him with his love of his family and his expressions of religious faith. He also inspired him, he revealed, because he shared with him his own story of loss, the loss of his daughter Rachel.

“There is a good time for lies and god honors it”

ψευδῶν δὲ καιρὸν ἔσθ’ ὅπου τιμᾷ θεός #Aeschylus

I never had a sibling named Rachel. But I didn’t say this to Felix because he had forwarded me an email where my father wrote:

“Every day I wake up thinking of my daughter –Rachel – go to bed thinking of Rachel. We had 4 children – now 3 but the blessings and gifts they have brought blow my mind […] but always Rachel is the background- never goes away- but I have still have joy and overwhelmed with blessings.”

Felix assured me that he had never mentioned this email to anyone. Even as I type this now I can smell the stale smoke in my father’s office where I read this for the first time. I remember calling my wife in to read it. Under the pall of our grief, we couldn’t process this, we couldn’t make sense of what it meant or whether it was possible. Soon, like my father, I was waking up and thinking about Rachel.

“If I tell the truth, I won’t make you happy.
But if I am to make you happy, I will say nothing true.”

εἰς μὲν φράσω τἀληθές, οὐχί σ’ εὐφρανῶ·
εἰ δ’ εὐφρανῶ τί σ’, οὐχὶ τἀληθὲς φράσω. #Agathon

There’s a scholarly tradition of dismissing the end of the Odyssey. Ancient scholars complain that the Odyssey ended properly with the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, while the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Eustathius, observed that book 24 is full of really important things, like “the recognition scene between Odysseus and Laertes.” Odysseus’ reunions take him through the major roles he plays in life as part of re-establishing an Ithakan identity. In book 24, he must reconcile with his community and his dad.

Infant and Skull, Medieval, Louvre

When I talk about the Odyssey publicly and I get to its end, I explain that I never really understood the reunion scene until I became a father and lost my father in the same year. Odysseus tests and teases his father cruelly, only to panic and give up the ruse when he makes Laertes cry. Odysseus’ scar is a necessary but insufficient proof of his identity to his father. To confirm their relationship, they rehearse the stories of the groves and trees they used to tend together when Odysseus was young.

My father spent a good deal of the last few decades of his life clearing and planting in the woods of southern Maine. His primary engagement with my brother and me was this land: planting grass, mowing the lawn, developing gardens, planning for the future. The land my mother and brother still live on is also a map of memory: the places where we played games; the trees we climbed; where we fought; where we buried pets. In my father’s absence, there was one fewer person in the world who could attest to the truth of our stories.

So I was left with new stories for this landscape. Eventually, I tried to make ‘Rachel’ cohere with reality. My mother had miscarriages before me and after me and, as family lore goes, was told she wasn’t able to have children. When I was younger and the whole family was more religious, they told me (the oldest) that they hadn’t had a child until they joined a new church and started to pray. I was baptized and confirmed in that church. The minister was my godfather. I have a picture of him holding my daughter.

But when I asked my mother, in a probably less than sensitive way, if there were any other children or if they had planned on naming one of the miscarriages Rachel, she thought it was absurd. It didn’t seem to me likely that my father had spent years brooding in secret over a lost child when he had three healthy children.

But as a recent father, I could imagine the possibility at least. From the moment I knew my wife was pregnant, I would feel a deep, gut-wrenching fear at even imagining the death of a child. In this I have found the ultimate failure of Stoic prior contemplation: I cannot conceive of a world where I knit myself back together after losing a child. Is that what happened with my father?

As we approached his funeral, I daydreamed a future story where I interviewed distant relatives and friends about may father’s past, the type of people who might know about a lost child, or about a baby born out of wedlock whose brief existence had been hidden from my mother. As the long hours past, I thought that maybe this was Rachel: a brief alternative life in the past whose loss had festered in my father as a metonym for all of the other lives he could have lived. Or, as that fourth child, that extra helping of happiness that might have tipped the scales in a middling life.

“I once lived in a house among men, a blessed man in a
wealthy house, and I used to give much to a wanderer”

καὶ γὰρ ἐγώ ποτε οἶκον ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἔναιον
ὄλβιος ἀφνειὸν καὶ πολλάκι δόσκον ἀλήτῃ 17.419–20

There is a cold empathy in Odysseus’ stories—he is a kind of predating narrator in echoing Eumaios’ greatest sorrow, his kidnapping and enslavement as a child. When Odysseus tells his lies to manipulate Eumaios or test the suitors, he instrumentalizes narrative. He plays upon their suspicions and experiences to put himself in a better position. But that’s an oversimplification of the story too. He also can be seen tracing out he story of his own life, exploring different ways of thinking about what happened to him. As the fugitive Cretan, he tells Eumaios that his men forced him to go to the Trojan War (14.261), he laments that he cared too much for war, and laments how cruel fate has been to him.

Lovis Corinth “Odysseus Fighting the Beggar” 1903

In my own narrative quest, I emailed a woman my father had an affair with and asked her directly if she knew anything about ‘Rachel’. She, who had known my father quite well for years, said she would have been shocked if there were or had been another child, that my father loved his children so much that it would be inconceivable that he would have never mentioned Rachel. And, then, she added enigmatically, “He did say last summer that he would have named your [daughter] Rachel, if it was up to him.”

After my father’s funeral, things spiraled downhill for my family. We eventually got most of the finances under control by writing off credit debt and paying federal and state taxes; two new grandchildren were born over the next year. I left the issue of Rachel quiet to protect my mother and the rest of us from the uncertainty. But I never really stopped thinking about it

“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”

οὐ μὲν γάρ τοι ἔτ’ ἄλλος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς Homer, Odyssey 16.204

When Telemachus first sees Odysseus revealed in the Odyssey, he refuses to believe it his father. Odysseus appears suddenly and he looks too good. There’s a slight delay before Odysseus gets angry, but then Telemachus accepts him, even though he has no proof. Penelope, however, delays acknowledging her husband to the point that when she knows who he is remains an interpretive knot of the poem. I like to imagine her suspecting from the beginning, but resisting seeing in this old, broken beggar the man who left her so many years ago. Even after the slaughter of the suitors—or perhaps, especially after it—she makes him wait, testing him first to see how he reacts when she claims to have moved the bed around which their home was built.

I eventually concluded that there were three possibilities: (1) that my father had emotionally connected with a miscarriage, naming it Rachel and keeping the pain to himself; (2) that he had fathered another child who died (or was estranged); or (3) that he had made up the child drawing on his experiences to empathize with Felix. Given the absence of any evidence for the first two options, I decided that the last was most likely.

When Odysseus lies to his father, crafting a tale that echoes the pain they have both gone through, it is a step too far. As his father cries, Odysseus breaks in and says, “I myself, I am the one about whom who you ask / I have come home in this twentieth year to my paternal land” (κεῖνος μὲν δὴ ὅδ’ αὐτὸς ἐγώ, πάτερ, ὃν σὺ μεταλλᾷς, / ἤλυθον εἰκοστῷ ἔτεϊ ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν, 24.321–22). But this is not enough for Laertes after so many lies: he asks for a clear sign (σῆμά τί μοι νῦν εἰπὲ ἀριφραδές, 329) and Odysseus shows him his scar and tells him the story of the trees his father described to him when he was a child (333–45). Laertes’ limbs give away as he “recognizes the signs” (σήματ’ ἀναγνόντος … ).

What does it mean to believe that your father was the kind of man who would fabricate a dead child in order to make a connection with someone? Is this even possible? What was the name Rachel to him and why did it recur in different contexts?

Sirens and Odysseus by Fracesco Primaticcio, 1560

My father was a man cut off from many people by his deafness and his aloofness (interconnected). He was also capable of long-term deceit (for self-defense) and short-term confabulation (to try to keep others happy). If he did manufacture the memory of a child, I am almost certain he did it with a full range of emotions drawn from the rest of his life and that part of him wanted to believe it. We make up stories all the time. We all bend the truth and introduce new details into old stories. If he invented a Rachel to console Felix, he did it because he wanted to feel with him, to be his friend, and through grief to be more fully human.

But perhaps this conclusion is still just more evidence of me creating the father I wanted to have rather than acknowledging the man he really was. To some, inventing a dead child might sound diabolical. But, given the other options, it speaks to me of someone who wanted to feel, of a man who into his last days was trying to be something real.

And this in turn is a lesson on the complexity of what makes each one of us who we are.

Many of the concepts in this entry come from this book

here is its dedication page

 

Shitting on Pope’s Homer

Adam Gopnik writes in a New Yorker piece, “Pope’s Homer read like Homer when it was published…” Pope’s Homer was undoubtedly a commercial success, but certainly it failed to impress those who were qualified to judge its merits relative to the Greek original. Pope’s translation is a testament to his thorough saturation in the spirit of the English Augustan spirit, but revealed to his contemporaries a failure to steep himself in the classical springs.

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life:

“Before I left Kingston school I was well acquainted with Pope’s Homer and the Arabian Nights Entertainments, two books which will always please by the moving picture of human manners and specious miracles: nor was I then capable of discerning that Pope’s translation is a portrait endowed with every merit, excepting that of likeness to the original.”

Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer:

“Yet it is strictly true that, for want of duly penetrating themselves with the first named quality of Homer, his rapidity, Cowper and Mr. Wright have failed in rendering him; that, for want of duly appreciating the second named quality, his plainness and directness of style and diction, Pope and Mr. Sotheby have failed in rendering him

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson:

“I remember also distinctly, (though I have not for this the authority of my journal,) that the conversation going on concerning Mr. Pope, I took notice of a report which had been sometimes propagated that he did not understand Greek. Lord Bathurst said to me, that he knew that to be false; for that part of the Iliad was translated by Mr. Pope in his house in the country; and that in the mornings when they assembled at breakfast, Mr. Pope used frequently to repeat, with great rapture, the Greek lines which he had been translating, and then to give them his version of them, and to compare them together.”

Sir Leslie Stephen, Alexander Pope:

“It is needless to say that he never became a scholar in the strict sense of the term. Voltaire declared that he could hardly read or speak a word of French; and his knowledge of Greek would have satisfied Bentley as little as his French satisfied Voltaire.”

[…]

“But he could say with perfect truth that, ‘thanks to Homer,’ he ‘could live and thrive, indebted to no prince or peer alive.’ The money success is, however, of less interest to us than the literary. Pope put his best work into the translation of the Iliad. His responsibility, he said, weighed upon him terribly on starting. He used to dream of being on a long journey, uncertain which way to go, and doubting whether he would ever get to the end. Gradually he fell into the habit of translating thirty or forty verses before getting up, and then “piddling with it” for the rest of the morning; and the regular performance of his task made it tolerable. He used, he said at another time, to take advantage of the “first heat,” then correct by the original and other translations; and finally to “give it a reading for the versification only.” The statement must be partly modified by the suggestion that the translations were probably consulted before the original. Pope’s ignorance of Greek—an awkward qualification for a translator of Homer—is undeniable. Gilbert Wakefield, who was, I believe, a fair scholar and certainly a great admirer of Pope, declares his conviction to be, after a more careful examination of the Homer than any one is now likely to give, that Pope ‘collected the general purport of every passage from some of his predecessors—Dryden’ (who only translated the first Iliad), ‘Dacier, Chapman, or Ogilby.’ He thinks that Pope would have been puzzled to catch at once the meaning even of the Latin translation, and points out proofs of his ignorance of both languages and of ‘ignominious and puerile mistakes.’”

Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, January 27th 1800:

“To read the Latin and Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science to be at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts. I enjoy Homer in his own language infinitely beyond Pope’s translation of him, and both beyond the dull narrative of the same events by Dares Phrygius; and it is an innocent enjoyment. I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, and have not since acquired.”

Finally, a note on Pope’s theology:

Sir Leslie Stephen, Alexander Pope:

“The old gods, then, were made into stiff mechanical figures, as dreary as Justice with her scales, or Fame blowing a trumpet on a monument. They belonged to that family of dismal personifications which it was customary to mark with the help of capital letters. Certainly they are a dismal and frigid set of beings, though they still lead a shivering existence on the tops of public monuments, and hold an occasional wreath over the head of a British grenadier. To identify the Homeric gods with these wearisome constructions was to have a more serious disqualification for fully entering into Homer’s spirit than even an imperfect acquaintance with Greek, and Pope is greatly exercised in his mind by their eating and drinking and fighting, and uncompromising anthropomorphism. He apologizes for his author, and tries to excuse him for unwilling compliance with popular prejudices. The Homeric theology he urges was still substantially sound, and Homer had always a distinct moral and political purpose. The Iliad, for example, was meant to show the wickedness of quarrelling, and the evil results of an insatiable thirst for glory, though shallow persons have thought that Homer only thought to please.”

Image result for homer
“What sort of speech has escaped the bulwark of your teeth!?”

The Haters of Odysseus

Sophocles, fr. 965

“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly:
For many who have been my enemy hate me.”

ὀρθῶς δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς εἰμ’ ἐπώνυμος κακῶν•
πολλοὶ γὰρ ὠδύσαντο δυσμενεῖς ἐμοί

Pausanias, Description of Greece Phocis 31

“If you look again to the higher part of the painting, you will see Ajax from Salamis right next to Actaeon and near to him, Palamedes and Thersites playing a game with dice, something Palamedes invented. The other Ajax is watching as they play. This Ajax’s skin is the color of a shipwrecked sailor with salt still raised on his skin.

Polygnotos has put together all of the enemies of Odysseus into one place. Ajax, son of Oileus, started to hate Odysseus because he encouraged the Greeks to stone Ajax for the rape of Kassandra. I learned from the epic verses of the Kypria that Palamedes was drowned when he went after a catch of fish—Diomedes and Odysseus killed him.”

Εἰ δὲ ἀπίδοις πάλιν ἐς τὸ ἄνω τῆς γραφῆς, ἔστιν ἐφεξῆς τῷ Ἀκταίωνι Αἴας ὁ ἐκ Σαλαμῖνος, καὶ Παλαμήδης τε καὶ Θερσίτης κύβοις χρώμενοι παιδιᾷ, τοῦ Παλαμήδους τῷ εὑρήματι· Αἴας δὲ ὁ ἕτερος ἐς αὐτοὺς ὁρᾷ παίζοντας. τούτῳ τῷ Αἴαντι τὸ χρῶμά ἐστιν οἷον ἂν ἀνδρὶ ναυαγῷ γένοιτο ἐπανθούσης τῷ χρωτὶ 2ἔτι τῆς ἅλμης· ἐς δὲ τὸ αὐτὸ ἐπίτηδες τοῦ Ὀδυσσέως τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ἤγαγεν ὁ Πολύγνωτος· ἀφίκετο δὲ ἐς Ὀδυσσέως δυσμένειαν ὁ τοῦ Ὀιλέως Αἴας, ὅτι τοῖς Ἕλλησιν Ὀδυσσεὺς παρῄνει καταλιθῶσαι τὸν Αἴαντα ἐπὶ τῷ ἐς Κασσάνδραν τολμήματι· Παλαμήδην δὲ ἀποπνιγῆναι προελθόντα ἐπὶ ἰχθύων θήραν, Διομήδην δὲ τὸν ἀποκτείναντα εἶναι καὶ Ὀδυσσέα ἐπιλεξάμενος ἐν ἔπεσιν οἶδα τοῖς Κυπρίοις

Pindar, Nemean 7.20-21

“I think that the story of Odysseus’ suffering was exaggerated by sweet-worded Homer”

ἐγὼ δὲ πλέον’ ἔλπομαι
λόγον ᾿Οδυσσέος ἢ πάθαν
διὰ τὸν ἁδυεπῆ γενέσθ’ ῞Ομηρον·

The Quarrel of Odysseus and Ajax

What’s the Odyssey About?

Cicero, Brutus 72

“For the Latin Odyssey is just like some creation of Daedalus and the plays of Livius are not worth reading twice.”

nam et Odyssia Latina est sic1 tamquam opus aliquod Daedali et Livianae fabulae non satis dignae quae iterum legantur.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 6.27

[Diogenes] was amazed that scholars were studying Odysseus’ sufferings but
remained ignorant of their own.

τούς τε γραμματικοὺς ἐθαύμαζε τὰ μὲν τοῦ Ὀδυσσέως κακὰ ἀναζητοῦντας, τὰ δ᾽ ἴδια ἀγνοοῦντας.

Ovid, Tristia 2.375-6

“What is the Odyssey about except about love,
A woman alone, pursued by many suitors while her husband’s gone.”

aut quid Odyssea est nisi femina propter amorem,
dum vir abest, multis una petita procis?

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1406b

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

καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον

Michael Apostolios, Proverbia 14.56

“I will make your house a wooden horse”: this means I will make it disappear. Themistokles’ groom said this. It comes from the Wooden Horse at Troy, the one Odysseus used to take the city.”

Ποιήσω τὴν οἰκίαν σου Δούρειον ἵππον: ἤτοι ἀφανίσω αὐτήν· ἱπποκόμος εἴρηκε τουτὶ Θεμιστοκλέους· εἴληπται δὲ ἀπὸ τοῦ ἐν τῇ Τροίᾳ Δουρείου ἵππου, ᾧ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς τὴν Τροίαν ἐπόρθησεν.

Plato, Laws 658d

“But I think that we old men might listen happily to someone reciting the Iliad and the Odyssey well and quickly declare that they were completely victorious! Who, then, would rightly be the winner—that’s the next issue, right?”

Ῥαψῳδὸν δέ, καλῶς Ἰλιάδα καὶ Ὀδύσσειαν ἤ τι τῶν Ἡσιοδείων διατιθέντα, τάχ᾿ ἂν ἡμεῖς οἱ γέροντες ἥδιστα ἀκούσαντες νικᾷν ἂν φαῖμεν πάμπολυ. τίς οὖν ὀρθῶς ἂν νενικηκὼς εἴη, τοῦτο μετὰ τοῦτο· ἦ γάρ;

Dio Chrysostom, 55 On Homer and Socrates 8

“Homer didn’t think it right to tell where he came from, who his parents were, no even what he should be called. Nope—instead, he’s happy if we don’t know the name of whoever composed the Iliad and the Odyssey.”

Ὅμηρος μὲν γὰρ οὐδὲ ὁπόθεν ἦν εἰπεῖν ἠξίωσεν οὐδὲ ὧντινων γονέων οὐδὲ ὅστις αὐτὸς ἐκαλεῖτο. ἀλλὰ ὅσον ἐπ᾿ ἐκείνῳ καὶ τὸ ὄνομα ἠγνοοῦμεν ἂν τοῦ γράψαντος τὴν Ἰλιάδα καὶ τὴν Ὀδύσσειαν.

Here’s a post On Not Reading Homer. And, conversely, one on Reading Homer.

“L’Odyssée” by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1850