An essay upon the life, writings, and character of Dr. Jonathan Swift (pp. 235-7):
Among the admirers of Dr. Swift, many have compared him to Horace, making proper allowances for the respective ages in which they severally flourished. The resemblance however between them is not so exceedingly strong, as that a similitude and manner of writing could have excited the least degree of emulation between them, further than to be equally renowned for their peculiar excellencies. Each of them had, independent of what is generally called a fine taste, a thorough knowledge of the world, superadded to an abundance of learning. Both the one and the other of these great men held the numerous tribe of poets, as well as that motley generation of men called criticks, in the utmost contempt; and at the same time have manifested themselves to be incomparable judges of all that is truly excellent, whether in books or men. Neither of them had the least regard for the Stoicks and whatever may be said of their being of the Epicurean taste, which, if rightly understood, is far from being inconsistent with the highest virtue; neither of them was attached to any particular system of philosophy.
Homer was the darling author of both Horace and swift. Horace declares in his epistle to Lollius, that Homer had abundantly more good sense and wisdom than all the philosophers; and Swift’s opinion was, that Homer had more genius than all the rest of the world put together. Yet neither the one nor the other of them have attempted to imitate his manner; but, like heroes of a bold and true spirit, have industriously followed the bent of nature, and struck out originals of their own.
The names of Proteus and Eidothea are made up, as your main man Tzetzes has long thought. Look at what he has to say to you: Proteus is the water, the foremost of all the elements; thus he receives the titles of old man and of themighty. If he took human form, he would say that he was an old man, but wise or something else like that, but certainly not of the mighty. Thus old uncle Tzetzes thinks that Proteus is water, while Eidothea is a name fitting the most prophetic, such as astrologers and all of the other people in the prognosticating line. For Eidothea knows everything like a god or a knowing goddess; professor Tzetzes is telling you that she is the diviner. The daughter of Proteus is so called because she knows everything in advance from hydromancy. In the Homeric telling, she is said to have foretold everything to Menelaus, explaining how Proteus was her father, so that he could do a bit of prophecy for him. He says that this is just what happened. Tzetzes notes that she’s the one who saw Menelaus.
Schol. ad. Od. 8.17 (On why Odysseus is only responsible for the companions in his particular ship)
“According to the proverb “Common ship, common safety”
κατὰ τὴν παροιμίαν “κοινὴ ναῦς κοινὴ σωτηρία,”
Sophocles, Antigone 175–190 (Creon speaking)
“It is impossible to really learn a man’s
mind, thought and opinion before he’s been initiated
into the offices and laws of the state.
Indeed—whoever attempts to direct the country
but does not make use of the best advice
as he keeps his tongue frozen out of fear
Seems to me to be the worst kind of person now and long ago.
Anyone who thinks his friend is more important than the country,
I say that they live nowhere.
May Zeus who always sees everything witness this:
I could never be silent when I saw ruin
Overtaking my citizens instead of safety.
And I could never make my country’s enemy a friend
For myself, because I know this crucial thing: The state is the ship which saves us And we may make friends only if it remains afloat.”
Heraclitus the Commentator, in defending the application of allegorical readings to Homer, argues that allegory is of considerable antiquity—used clearly by Archilochus when he compares the troubles of a war (fr. 54) and by Alcaeus when he compares the troubles of a tyranny to a storm at sea. He writes that Alcaeus “compares the troubles of a tyranny to the turmoil of a stormy sea.” (τὰς γὰρ τυραννικὰς ταραχὰς ἐξ ἴσου χειμερίῳ προσεικάζει καταστήματι θαλάττης, Homeric Problems 5.8)
Alcaeus fr. 326
“I cannot make sense of the clash of the winds
One wave whirls from this side,
Another wave comes from the other, and we in the middle
Are borne in our dark ship
Toiling ever on in this great storm.
The swell has taken he mast
And the sail is completely transparent—
There are great tears through it
And the anchors have broken free…”
Alcaeus, fr. 6a [P. Oxy. 1789 1 i 15–19, ii 1–17, 3 i, 12 + 2166(e)4]
“Now this higher wave comes harder than the one before
And will bring us much toil to face
When it overcomes the ship
Let us strengthen the ship’s sides
As fast as we can and hurry into a safe harbor.
Let no weak hesitation take anyone.
For a great contest is clearly before us.
Recall your previous toil.
Today, let every man be dedicated.
And may we never cause shame
To our noble parents who lie beneath the earth”
Consider this how this could turn out on many ships or even just one: there is a captain of some size and strength beyond the rest of the men in the ship, but he is deaf and similarly limited at seeing, and he knows as much about sailing as these qualities might imply. So, the sailors are struggling with one another about steering the ship, because each one believes that he should be in charge, even though he has learned nothing of the craft nor can indicate who his teacher was nor when he had the time to learn. Some of them are even saying that it is not teachable, and that they are ready to cut down the man who says it can be taught.
They are always hanging all over the captain asking him and making a big deal of the fact that he should entrust the rudder to them. There are times when some of them do not persuade him, and some of them kill others or kick them off the ship, and once they have overcome the noble captain through a mandrake, or drugs, or something else and run the ship, using up its contents drinking, and partying, and sailing just as such sort of men might. In addition to this, they praise as a fit sailor, and call a captain and knowledgeable at shipcraft the man who is cunning at convincing or forcing the captain that they should be in charge. And they rebuke as useless anyone who is not like this.
Such men are unaware what a true helmsman is like, that he must be concerned about the time of year, the seasons, the sky, the stars, the wind and everything that is appropriate to the art, if he is going to be a leader of a ship in reality, how he might steer the ship even if some desire it or not, when they believe that it is not possible to obtain art or practice about how to do this, something like an art of ship-steering. When these types of conflicts are occurring on a ship, don’t you think the one who is a true helmsman would be called a star-gazer, a blabber, or useless to them by the sailors in the ships organized in this way?
The figure of the isolated hero in ancient Greek myth and poetry is one who is set apart, on an island, separated from other humans and, by extension, from human culture. The impact of isolation is often communicated through the heroic body, even if it is offered in some way as a cause: Philoktetes’ dehumanization is reflected in the wound whose antisocial attributes cause him to be abandoned (described like a disease in Sophocles’ play). Odysseus seems arguably less human insofar as he is stripped of agency and, until Hermes comes to move him, clearly more an object of interest than a subject of his own.
Indeed, the Odyssey has deep ethnographic concerns, focusing on how people make their livings and how they live their lives. When Odysseus describes the island of the Cyclopes, he remarks on how it might be a good place to live, but the Cyclopes themselves are “arrogant and lawless” (ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων, 9.106). They aren’t human because of the way they live (they do not cultivate the land, 108-111). And they are less than human because of how they organize their lives (Odyssey 9.112–115):
“They don’t have council-bearing assemblies or laws,
But instead they inhabit homes on high hills
In hollow caves, and each one makes laws
For his children and wives—they do not have concern for one another.”
In a way, Odysseus anticipates here the later Greek use of the term idiotês for the person who fails to understand that the commonwealth directly impacts individual possessions—indeed, it makes possible the existence of individual goods. The ancient idiot, in this political sense, is a kind of naïve libertarian who is incapable of conceiving of shared human society as the very thing that makes life possible and also worth living.
* * * *
Current events are forcing us to explore some of the same tensions: inasmuch as some are aghast that we are not willing to die to preserve the economy, the rest of us remain horror stricken at how much our public health and collective good have been sacrificed to prop up the wealth of a very few. Even though my training directs my thoughts consistently to the past for parallels to cope with the present, my own reading history and proclivity for speculative fiction keep taking me to narrative futures. In my impatience to be done with the now, I am busy manufacturing anxieties about what will become of us later.
In Isaac Asimov’s Robot novelThe Naked Sun(1957), the detective Elijah Bailey is dispatched to one of the “spacer” worlds to investigate a murder. In Asimov’s world, humankind lives in a mixed future where billions are crowded into cities on earth while a select elite escape to fifty “Spacer” worlds. Over time, the antagonism between Spacer and Earther expands as the former use their greater resources and technology to dominate the latter. And Earthers suffer from a fear of the outside, a reluctance to leave the comfort of their cities.
The Spacers, those libertarian techno-overlords, fear contagion and disease and contact with the human rabble left on earth. When Baily meets with the widow of the murdered scientist on her planet Solaria, Gladia, she will at first only see him through “viewing” (a video screen). Eventually she breaks Solarian taboo and comes to him in person and to help solve the crime. (No spoiler, but it wasn’t a robot.)
Many years later (in our world) Asimov returns to Solaria generations later in his Foundation and Earth(1986). In the intervening years, the Spacer planets were eclipsed by the rapid expansion of the population of Earth into the galaxy, fading quickly into obsolescence and obscurity. The Solaria found here is populated by a few human beings who intentionally developed hermaphroditic qualities so they would never have to encounter other human beings in person again. The Solarian world is expansive—each person lives on massive estates, engaging with others only through mediated viewing and using technology to ritualize isolation.
E. M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops” (1909, 1928) puts humankind in a sub-terrestrial, dystopic future. People must live in isolation, in basic rooms from which they engage in the world only through video conferencing. One of the main characters, Vashti, spends a great deal of her time broadcasting her ideas over this ersatz internet, recycling and repackaging ideas for consumption and replacing most human relationship with a distanced presentation of the ‘self’. The main plot of this tale, of course, is about the “machine” which supports all of this life collapsing, but the lingering sense it leaves is one of the panopticon in which the ability to broadcast, to send a message, is traded for being watched and people live separate from one another both out of fear and out of habit.
I have been thinking about both of these speculative narratives over the past few weeks as my work has converted online completely and my social life has blended into it. I “zoom” with colleagues, skype with friends, and merely text-message with my extended family. I watch as my children are habituated to the same kind of mediated existence. There is an hour each day when three of us are on zoom simultaneously, in the same house but in separate rooms, sometimes irked that the sound of another intrudes on our distanced engagement.
We have been living with some of the rapid consequences of these kinds of mediated communication networks for years. Is something as bizarre as pizza-gate possible without facebook or other online fora? Do these media ever produce anything but the strangest and saddest common denominator?
Modern science fiction is no stranger to this too. In his post-apocalpytic Seveneves, Neal Stephenson—an author a bit too libertarian and soft on techo-capitalists generally—puts a surviving remnant of humanity in space, isolated in a network of space capsules connected by a communication network dubbed “spacebook”. In order to survive, these clutches of life have to preserve resources and follow a very basic plan. But paranoia explodes in the social network: one week, a thought leader proposes that in space humans do not need legs, so they should cut them off and eat them to preserve the protein. Soon, a critical number of people depart with precious resources to try to make it to Mars because they convinced themselves in their echo chamber of madness that this was a good plan, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary.
(they all die. A mere handful of people survive their stupidity.)
Of the many ways in which COVID-19 will change our lives, one is how it will accelerate our embrace of life online. Children are having playdates online: ours have had dance classes, piano lessons, and speech therapy in just the last week to go along with 2-3 ‘Montessori’ zoom lessons a day. Although I am deeply grateful to these teachers and instructors for bringing some sense of normalcy to our children’s days, I worry that this will be their baseline: no playgrounds, no playmates, but video-streamed encounters and mediated experiences. They will be open to the supercharged pathways of disinformation that propagate quack cures for plagues and easy arguments for denying collective action against global warming.
Asimov’s Solarians are independent-minded elitists whose fear of disease and love of long lives pushes them further and further apart; Forster’s subterraneans are addicted to the comfort of their regulated lives and distracted by the ability to be ‘experts’ and temporary celebrities in the global machine. Stephenson’s human race barely survives an apocalypse followed by human caused ruin thanks to individual heroics and fantastic evolutionary science. The Coronavirus won’t suddenly turn us into any of these groups, but it may make us just that much less human.
* * * *
Modern studies in narrative emphasize how our identity develops from social relationships and studies in cognitive psychology show how isolation can have damaging effects on us emotionally and mentally. When separated from others we can experience an increase in fear and paranoia (See Andersen et al. 2000, 19.); studies in the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners demonstrate a marked increase in the development of psychopathology under the influence of isolation which can eventuate in neurobiological transformations. The brain of an isolated human being may demonstrate fewer neural connections and correlate with distortions in memory and a deterioration of language abilities. Isolation, to put it simply, can break down those very things that make people who they are. (see Ravindran 2014, Gilmore and Nanon 2014; Kaba et al. 2014)
Ancient Greek myth and poetry seems to communicate this through figures like Philoktetes—who languishes for a decade after being marooned on the island of Lemnos—and Odysseus, who suffers in quasi-isolation for seven years, weeping on the edge of the sea (but having sex with Calypso at night). Odysseus cannot return home directly from this. His journey home requires him to repeatedly tell stories about himself and to reaffirm his identity step-by-step through reunions with the important people in his life. It is Odysseus too who brings Philoktetes back into society in Sophocles’ play.
I think ancient audiences saw the sufferings of both figures as a result from their isolation, from their separation from communion with other human beings. Both Homer’s epic and Sophocles’ play emphasize political themes and social consequences: Odysseus and Philoktetes are at times calculating and full of rage, leaving characters in the poems (and audiences outside them) unsure of if or when they will lash out.
What each narrative emphasizes, however, is that the isolated figure needs fellowship and partnership to return to human society. Odysseus’ return home is not complete until he is recognized—and recognizes himself—in his son, spouse, and father. Philoktetes needs to be persuaded to return, to be cajoled and guided and distracted from the fact he is being used.
This is, perhaps, cold comfort for those of us isolated now. But it does remind us that having other people around us is important and that, when the time comes to reintegrate, it won’t be simple or easy. We will have to tell each other our stories and listen to who we confirm in each other we are.
And perhaps it will force us to think about the world we create for ourselves. The plot which drives Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is a choice about the future of life in the galaxy: whether it will continue on as it has, with everyone charting separate courses of self interest or it will change radically, adopting the life-form model of a planet called Gaia where all inhabitants shared consciousness and fate, yielding some sense of free will.
When I read this choice to its conclusion in the late 80s, I was horrified because it seemed (spoiler alert) that the protagonist was choosing communism! But it did not take many years for the wisdom of this choice to make a little more sense. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home and murders 108 suitors. The epic almost ends with a civil war but for the intervention of Athena and Zeus who declare an amnesty, insisting that the Ithakans and Odysseus need to live together (24.486, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω). In this, the individual leader is forced to change his ways; but the people have to submit to forgetting and forgetting the violence and malice which brought a generation to ruin.
What choices will we face? Which ones will we be able to make?
Some things to read
Andersen, H. S., Sestoft, D. D., Lillebæk, T. T., Gabrielsen, G. G., Hemmingsen, R. R., & Kramp, P. P. 2000. “A Longitudinal Study of Prisoners on Remand: Psychiatric Prevalence, Incidence and Psychopathology in Solitary vs. Non-Solitary Confinement.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102:19.
Barker, E.T.E. and Christensen J. P. Homer’s Thebes. Washington, D.C. 2019.
Gilmore, Betty and Williams, Nanon M. 2014. The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons. Dallas.
Kaba, Fatos et al. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442–447.
Ravindran, Shruti 2014. “Twilight in the Box.” Aeon 27.
Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.
Thiher, Allen. 1999. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor.
Underwood, Charles. 2018. Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning, and Agency in Odysseus’ World. Lanham: Lexington Books
“Our fated nature is identified by Empedocles as the force behind this remaking, “wrapping [us] in a tunic of strange flesh” and transferring souls to a new place. Homer has called this circular revolution and the return of rebirth by the name Kirke, a child of Helios, the one who unites every destruction with birth and destruction again, binding it endlessly.
The Island Aiaia is that place which revives the person who dies, a place where the souls first step when they are wandering and feel like strangers to themselves as they mourn and cannot figure out which direction is west nor where the “sun which brings life to people over the land / descends again into the earth.”
These souls long for their habits of pleasure and their life in the flesh and the way they lived with their flesh and they fall again into that mixture where birth swirls together and truly stirs into one the immortal and moral, the material of thought and experience, elements of heaven and earth. The souls are enchanted but also weakened by the pleasures that pull them to birth again. At that time, souls require a great amount of good luck and much wisdom to find some way to resist and depart from their worst characters and become bound to their most base parts or passions and take up a terrible and beastly life.”
Hint: Either because he likes people. Or, animals have a good sense of smell.
Schol. A ad Il. 1.50c ex.
“First he [attacked] the mules and the fast dogs”
“Because the god is well-disposed toward human beings, he kills mules, dogs, and the other irrational beasts first, so that, by inducing fear through these [deaths], he might nurture proper reverence in the Greeks.
Or, it is because the mules and dogs have a more powerful perception of smell. For, dogs are really good at tracking beasts because of their sense of smell, and mules, when they are left behind, often rediscover their paths thanks to their sense of smell.”
Additional note: On 1.50, Aristonicus denies the claims by by some rogues that “mules” here is a word for “guards”; the bT scholia make the quasi-scientific claim that these animals are more susceptible to diseases than humans. I like the idea of Apollo trying to teach people a lesson before just murdering them all.
“Homer was always telling things after this manner. And one might think there had been no effort in it: that here was but the almost mechanical transcript of a time, naturally, intrinsically, poetic, a time in which one could hardly have spoken at all without idealeffect, or, the sailors pulled down their boat without making a picture in ‘the great style,’ against a sky charged with marvels. Must not the mere prose of an age, itself thus ideal, have counted for more than half of Homer’s poetry? Or might the closer student discover even here, even in Homer, the really mediatorial function of the poet, as between the reader and the actual matter of his experience; the poet waiting, so to speak, in an age which had felt itself trite and commonplace enough, on his opportunity for the touch of ‘golden alchemy,’ or at least for the pleasantly lighted side of things themselves? Might not another, in one’s own prosaic and used-up time, so uneventful as it had been through the long reign of these quiet Antonines, in like manner, discover his ideal, by a due waiting upon it? Would not a future generation, looking back upon this, under the power of the enchanted-distance fallacy, find it ideal to view, in contrast with its own languor–the languor that for some reason (concerning which Augustine will one day have his view) seemed to haunt men always? Had Homer, even, appeared unreal and affected in his poetic flight, to some of the people of his own age, as seemed to happen with every new literature in turn? In any case, the intellectual conditions of early Greece had been–how different from these! And a true literary tact would accept that difference in forming the primary conception of the literary function at a later time. Perhaps the utmost one could get by conscious effort, in the way of a reaction or return to the conditions of an earlier and fresher age, would be but novitas, artificial artlessness, naïveté; and this quality too might have its measure of euphuistic charm, direct and sensible enough, though it must count, in comparison with that genuine early Greek newness at the beginning, not as the freshness of the open fields, but only of a bunch of field-flowers in a heated room.”
“Shining Klytemnestra was resisting the shameful deed
Previously, for she had use of some good advice for her mind.
See, a man was there beside her, a singer whom Agamemnon
Ordered much to safeguard his wife when he went to Troy.
But when the fate of the gods was bound to overcome him,
Then [he*] packed off the singer to some lonely island
And left him there as food and booty for the birds
And he, willingly, took her willing to his own home”
*note how carefully the Homeric text leaves the subject of the action in doubt until the final line.
Schol. EM ad Od. 3.267
“In olden days, singers used to hold the position of philosopher, everyone used to consider them wise and they entrusted their kind to them to be educated. When gathering in festivals and to rest for many days, they used to listen to them if any famous or noble deed had happened. So, the singer who was left with Klytemnestra was trying to hinder wicked thoughts from happening by narrating the virtues of men and women. And she was acting prudently as long as that singer was present. Some people say that the singer did not have genitals, wrongly. Some named him Khariades, others call him Demodokos, others Glaukos.”
“Demetrius of Phalerum has as follows: “Menelaos, when he went with Odysseus to Delphi asked about the expedition which was about to happen against Troy. At that time, in fact, Kreon was running the nine-year contest of the Pythian games. The Spartan Demodokos won, a student of Automedon of Mycenae who was the first who composted the Battle of Amphritryon against the Teleboans and the Conflict of Kithairon and Helikon for whom the mountains in Boiotia are named. He was also a student of Perimedes the Argive who taught the Mycenean Automedes himself along with Likymnios the Bouprasian and Sinis along with Dôrieus, the Laconian Pharides and the Spartan Probolos.
At that time, Menelaos dedicated the expedition for Helen to Athena thanks to forethought. Agamemnon led Demodokos to Mycenae and ordered him to watch over Klytemnestra.
People used to honor singers excessively as teachers of the gods and other ancient acts of good men and they used to delight in the lyre beyond the other instruments. Klytemnestra clearly honored him—she didn’t have him murdered but instead ordered him to be exiled. Timolaus suggest that he was the brother of Phemios who accompanied Penelope to Ithaca to keep a watch over her. He sang for the suitors under compulsion.”
“The music of rhapsodes applied so much to political matters that people report that the city of Sparta used it especially to encourage like-mindedness and preservation of the customs. They also say that once the Pythia, when a disturbance developed, told people to listen a Lesbian song and stop their rivalry.”
“He put a large meat block on a burning fire
And placed on top of it the back of a sheep and a fat goat
And a slab of succulent hog, rich with fat.
As Automedon held them, Achilles cut.
Then he sliced them well into pieces and put them on spits
While the son of Menoitios, a godlike man, built up the fire.
But when the fire had burned up and the flame was receding,
He spread out the coal and stretched the spits over it.
Once he put the meat on the fire he seasoned it with holy salt.
When he cooked the meat and distributed it on platters,
Patroclus retrieved bread and placed it on a table
In beautiful baskets. Then Achilles gave out the meat.”