“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.”
“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. “
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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”
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.
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
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?
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
“Some people who know a lot about fishing claim that the stomach of a sea-horse—if someone dissolves it in wine after boiling it and gives it to someone to drink—is an extraordinary potion combined with wine, when compared to other medicines. For, at first, the most severe retching overcomes anyone who drinks it and then a dry coughing fit takes over even though he vomits nothing at all, and then: the upper part of his stomach grows and swells; warm spells roll over his head; and, finally, snot pours from his nose and releases a fishy smell. Then his eyes turn blood-red and heated while his eye-lids swell up.
They claim that a desire to vomit overwhelms him but that he can bring nothing up. If nature wins, then he evades death and slips away into forgetfulness and insanity. But if the wine permeates his lower stomach, there is nothing to be done, and the individual dies eventually. Those who do survive, once they have wandered into insanity, are gripped by a great desire for water: they thirst to see water and hear it splashing. And this, at least, soothes them and makes them sleep. Then they like to spend their time either by endlessly flowing rivers or near seashores or next to streams or some lakes. And even though they don’t want to drink, they love to swim, to put their feet in the water, and to wash their hands.”
“There is, therefore, a safe limit of medical treatment for one struggling admirably according to the practice of medicine against a sickness—and it is also the safeguard of ability for the one who is trying to soothe the pain. Beyond this is the work of a poor doctor, resulting in the end of the patient’s life with the sickness.
It is a flatterer’s act to try to please the patient, because this places pleasure not health as the primary aim. Practitioners descend into these kinds of extremes in many ways but especially in different types of treatments among which are chiefly the so-called anodyne medicines which are made from the poppy or seed of henbane, the root of mandrake, the storax or any other kind of thing.
Doctors who yield to the sick and use too much of these sorts of drugs destroy their patients with the pains as much as those who give them at the wrong time, in the wrong measure, or not at all.
Therefore, just as in everything else in life—in habits and actions—here the appropriate guideline to take is “nothing in excess”. The appropriate marker is the health of the sick…”
“Where is the ritual
And tell me where where is the taste
Where is the sacrifice
And tell me where where is the faith
Someday there’ll be a cure for pain
That’s the day I throw my drugs away…”
Homer, Odyssey 4.219–232
“But then Zeus’ daughter Helen had different plans.
She immediately cast into the wine they were drinking a drug,
A pain neutralizer and anger reducer, an eraser of all evils.
Whoever consumes this drug once it is mixed in the wine,
Could not let a single tear loose upon their cheeks for a whole day.
Not even if their mother or father died,
Nor again if they lost their brother and dear son,
Cut down by bronze right their in front of their own eyes.
These are the kinds of complex drugs, good ones, Zeus’s daughter
Possesses. Polydamna, the wife of Thôn, gave them to her
In Egypt where the fertile land grows the most drugs—
Many there are mixed fine; but many cause pain too.
Each man there is a doctor whose knowledge surpasses most men,
For they are the offspring of Paieon.”
“There are boars in the wild who are also not uninformed about the art of medicine. These animals, as it seems, whenever they forget themselves and eat henbane, they drag themselves backwards in their weakness. Even though they are experiencing spasms, they still make it to the water and there they grab crabs and eat them eagerly. These creatures are the antidote for their suffering and they make themselves healthy again.”
14“Phylarkhos writes in the eighth book of his Histories that there is a spring of water near the Gulf of Arabia from which if anyone ever anoints their feet what transpires miraculously is that their genitals extend pretty far. And for some they do not contract completely, and for others they are put back to shape with great suffering and medical attention.”
“Guardians who want the reproduction of their animals to increase when it is time to mate take handfuls of salt and sodium carbonate and rub them on the genitals of female sheep, and goats and horses. From these [animals] get more eager for sex. Others rub them down with pepper and honey; and others with sodium carbonate and nettle-seed. Some even rub them down with myrrh. From this kind of stimulation the females lose control and go crazy for the males.”
Solon: They [the Amphiktyones] selected this man to be their adviser for war against the Kirrhaians. When they were consulting the oracle about victory, the Pythia said: “you will not capture and raze the tower of this city before the wave of dark-eyed Amphitritê washes onto my precinct as it echoes over the wine-faced sea.”
Solon persuaded them to make Kirrhaia sacred to the god so that the sea would become a neighbor to Apollo’s precinct. And another strategy was devised by Solon against the Kirrhaians. For he turned a river’s water which used to flow in its channel into the city elsewhere.
The Kirrhaians withstood the besiegers by drinking water from wells and from rain. But [Solon] filled the river with hellebore roots and when he believed the water had enough of the drug, he returned it to its course. Then the Kirrhaians took a full portion of this water. And when they went AWOL because of diarrhea, the Amphiktyones who were stationed near the wall took it and then the city.”
I can remember almost exactly when I decided to stop pursuing a University job. It was sometime around 8am on a nondescript Thursday in February 2018 – and I was in the back of an ambulance. I didn’t know at the time, but the impact of a van driving into me while I was cycling to the station an hour earlier had broken my pelvis in several places, and was about to mean 10 days in hospital and another 3 months on crutches. It also made me realise that even thinking about turning down the full-time, well-paid, likely-to-go-permanent, school teaching job put on a plate in front of me just a few days earlier was sheer madness.
All this sounds very melodramatic – but it is absolutely true. For all the brilliant things about the still very new job which I was commuting to when the accident happened, I really did think it might have been in my best interests not to stick with it, but to take an enormous gamble on a lectureship coming up for the following September. How had it taken something as serious as hospitalisation to make me realise I’d had a genuinely very good deal already land in my lap, and that it was OK to stop pursuing the Elusive Permanent Academic Job which everyone kept telling me was within my grasp eight years after being awarded my PhD?
Don’t let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
Just one more application, one more term, one more year… I spent the next couple of days (it might have been more, or less – blame the morphine or oxycodone) idly following the UCU strike on Twitter and pondering my life choices. Maybe all this was a sign. I don’t want these reflections to be another sad tale of the woes of academia. There are enough of those, and many far sadder and more upsetting than mine. I’m not after pity in writing this. Instead this is a cathartic warts-and-all tale about my experiences of finding a life outside the Ivory Tower, a life that can be just as fulfilling intellectually – if you want it to be.
On paper I’d had a pretty good run: in 2010 from the September straight after the PhD three years at one place (actually a succession of three one-year jobs, because the Faceless Uni will commit as little long-term cash as possible), then a prestigious post-doc for three years, then a single semester job that then gave me another semester part time. This last job was actually in the city where I had been building a life with my partner for the previous 10 years or so: prior to this a lengthy weekly commute had been the norm.
Apart from getting a book out – that’s a whole other tale of woe, tardy reviewers, crying, and email-management ineptitude at an Unnamed Publisher – I felt like I’d done everything right. I was now getting shortlisted for the permanent posts I was applying for, but never quite making first choice. And by September 2017 I had had enough. I wasn’t about to apply for a(nother) temporary job 400 miles from home. I felt by this point I was worth more than this. As a former Head of School once said to me, ‘it’s a war of attrition’, before regaling me with tales of his back-to-back postdocs. And in this war my nameless enemies were starting to win.
So in November 2017 I went for, and got, a temporary, part-time school teaching job a short commute from home. And after a very short time, this place really felt like home. Maybe part of it is down to size: there are some 100-ish teaching staff, and I know most of them by name. I know who Senior Leadership are, the people actually making the decisions which affect me and my life. They speak to the staff – their colleagues – at least once a week. I have even spoken to them socially. At all of my other institutions I wouldn’t have been able to pick those running the University out of a line up. There is also as much free tea and coffee as you can drink, in actual pottery mugs rather than immediate landfill, and in the halcyon pre-COVID days, free cake and cheese straws: this was all far better than a sad brew in a paper cup from a soulless, expensively-branded University outlet – and you didn’t have to pay £1.50 a pop for it out of your own pocket. This job made me realise how utterly expendable I had been to my employers for most of the last decade. This school made enormous efforts to get me back after the accident when I was ready, rather than simply replacing me to suit their own needs because it would have been easier. That is not to say that my immediate colleagues in Uni Land had never fought tooth and nail to keep me at the end of my six separate contracts – I’m certain some of them really did – but in the end there is only so much academic departments can do in the face of The System, and the Giant Balance Sheet which must exist in all Higher Education Establishments. I’d simply been a faceless figure in the expenditure column. Here, I was Dr Coker, valued and respected Teacher of Classics, the one who keeps introducing herself by accident to students with her first name because old habits die hard.
And it’s not that I hadn’t felt good at my job before, but I was good at this job, and I enjoyed it. I even started to dare to have fun at work, discovering that there is almost nothing 15 year olds won’t do for a Party Ring (= type of cheap UK biscuit), and that there can be immense joy in teaching younger students.Nothing gives you more instant feedback than a room of teenagers, and nothing also says appreciation like a hand-made card with a drawing of a pelvis on it with a pink heart, seven weeks after you start your new job. Weird, absolutely, but also peculiarly endearing. It’s not that students of 18+ are incapable of such displays of affection – nor indeed those University staff who teach them – but there is a genuine sense of community at my workplace which I had not realised I had been missing. I’m not in need of constant praise, but more positivity in the previous decade would have been nice. I think of myself as mostly pretty emotionally robust, but my experience of academia is that it is fundamentally set up to make you feel like a failure, regardless of your status. Got a PhD? Well done, but you need to publish it. Got a your first temp job? Great, but, you know, it finishes in 10 months so get writing that postdoc application, sort your publications out, and then get applying again. Finished that article and sent it off? Good news! If you are really lucky, you’ll get some feedback within a year, and Reviewer B won’t question the entirety of your knowledge base with his (and I think the pronoun is more likely correct there than not) anonymous acerbic vitriol.
Four years on and for all the positive things about the now not-new job, the truth is I’ve only recently stopped feeling like a failure because I’m not in The Club any more. This change in status has been the hardest part of the transition, such is the way in which academia wraps up your own personal identity with that of your intellectual achievements. I’m still invited to give papers or public talks from time to time, and do various kinds of reviewing for well-known journals which definitely helps me prove to myself I have what it would have taken. I submit the odd conference abstract, and am beavering away when time allows on various publications including The Thesis Book (a.k.a. The Millstone Round My Neck). I’m doing this now because I want to, because there is a reason I went back to Uni to do an MA, and then a PhD, which was because the Real Jobs I had in between my studies were boring and unfulfilling.
But what am I now, what label do I put on myself? I have an Honorary Research Fellowship at my nearest University, which keeps me an academic email, unfettered library access and perhaps some small amount of kudos. ‘Independent Scholar’ sounds like I am deliberately claiming some kind of maverick autonomy which I’m not sure I am. ‘Gentleman Scholar’ of course is even worse, not least because I don’t define myself as a man, gentle or otherwise. I take heart from the acknowledgements which fill the early pages of LSJ (the big lexicon of ancient Greek) to all the ‘non-professional Classicists’ in non-University settings whose own expertise was invaluable to this monolith of scholarship. I’ll just have to be me, and pick my own way through this identity crisis. We’re beyond labels now, right…?
Remember that to change your mind and to follow a new directionis not to sacrifice your independence. It’s your own action which brings this about, through your own impulse and judgement, and your own mind.
Most importantly, and this shouldn’t be unsurprising but somehow I feel I need to say it, loudly enough that those those who are thinking about jumping ship and doing something beyond academia can hear: I Am Ok. I haven’t lost all my intelligence and experience. I still have Dr in front of my name, which perhaps ironically is used far more now I’ve left HE than when I was in it. My publications still count – though just for me and some higher ideal of the search for knowledge, not for any bureaucratic exercise (UK-based folks will know all about REF) or because I need them for a promotion.
My friends and family still love me, and am proud of me, even my friends who still work in the sector (of course!). Some of them are actually more proud of me now for having had the confidence of my convictions to decide to follow a different route than one which is, let’s face it, not always what it is cracked up to be. What’s really empowering is that once you’ve escaped the Ivory Tower, you may well be invited back in from time time, but you don’t have to say yes unless you want to. Leaving academia teaches you that it’s ok to say no – and incidentally makes you realise how much of the academic discipline operates through good will and favours beyond formal contracts of employment.
Four years on, do I regret any of my time in academia? Absolutely not. Do I think it’s a ‘waste’ not having ended up in Uni-world? No, no education or experience is a waste. And, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t try my best. If it is a waste, then that’s not on me. At the very least, those jobs all paid the rent ,then the mortgage, and led me to see places I would never otherwise have been. I’ve also picked up some wonderful people along the way, whom with any luck I will keep by my side for the rest of my life.
But let’s not pretend academia is peopled entirely with the great and good, since we all know absolutely that it is not. There are plenty of low-level miscreants alongside the infamous headline cases. I’ve met some people who should never be in charge of anything, yet somehow are running the show, and regardless of this a few of these people will probably end up with buildings named after them. I’ve sat in front of interviewers who were on their phones under the table (I’m pretty sure this guy does now have a building named after him, or at least moved on with a massive promotion), and others who genuinely nodded off during interviews.
I’m sorry, I’m really not that boring: if you have so much work to do that you can’t stay awake in my interview – and by the way, I’m sure that work didn’t involve reading the course materials you requested I painstakingly prepare for this interview which you clearly haven’t even bothered to open – then the system really is broken. And also, by the way, as someone in charge of that system or at the very least complicit in it, maybe you should try leading from the top and enacting change? Earn your massive salary by thinking about those who might need you to represent them for once. Has academia has left me bitter? Yes, and disappointed that my experience of working in it was not what I had hoped it would be.
I still occasionally look at adverts for positions when they come round, but with an odd mixture of masochistic voyeurism and relief. The job market has only got worse in the last four years, compounded now of course by the uncertainties of Brexit and COVID-19, which in all honesty makes me realise that my decision in the back of that ambulance four years ago was undeniably the right one. Never say never, but at the moment I’m glad to be out of it all.
As I sit here at my desk at home in my very comfortable study pondering the last decade or so, the story of the last decade doesn’t look like failure, even though from time to time the pangs of self-doubt whisper in my ear that it is. Carving your own path is hard, but untrodden ways can come with their own sometimes-unexpected rewards, and be absolutely worth it.
Amy Coker has a PhD in Classics from the University of Manchester, UK. She taught and held research positions in University-land for the best part of a decade after her PhD, before jumping ship to school teaching (11-18 year olds) in 2018. She still manages to find time to think and write about Ancient Greek offensive words, pragmatics, and historical linguistics, and to do what she can to make Classics a better place. She can be found on Twitter at @AECoker.
“Apollodorus the Athenian in his Summary of Beliefs, because he wants to demonstrate that the works of Epicurus were written with personal force and were prepared with far fewer quotations than the books of Chrysippos, says in this very wording: “if the books of [Chrysippos] were scrubbed of all the superfluous quotations, only empty paper would be left to him.”
So much for Apollodorus. The old women who used to sit next to [Chrysippos], according to Diocles, used to claim that he wrote 500 lines each day. Hekatôn reports that he turned to philosophy because the property left to him by his father was confiscated to the royal treasury.”
Tritonian Athena herself urged him to join the band of chiefs,
And he came among them a welcome comrade.
She herself too fashioned the swift ship;
And with her Argus, son of Arestor, wrought it by her counsels.
Wherefore it proved the most excellent of all ships,
That have made trial of the sea with oars.
Who invented the sky? The only way to answer this question would be like this — the first person who looked up and wondered. Socrates tells us in Plato’s Theaetetus (Plat. Theaet. 155d), μάλα γὰρ φιλοσόφου τοῦτο τὸ πάθος, τὸ θαυμάζειν: οὐ γὰρ ἄλλη ἀρχὴ φιλοσοφίας ἢ αὕτη, καὶ ἔοικεν ὁ τὴν Ἶριν Θαύμαντος ἔκγονον φήσας οὐ κακῶς γενεαλογεῖν, namely: “For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who said that Iris was the child of Thaumas made a good genealogy.” Iris was a messenger of the heavens, so the sky was never too far away for those who wonder. But philosophy arrives too late, and we’re looking at an earlier world, populated with gods, heroes and stars; a world that had already eclipsed in Plato’s time. Was it perhaps at the end of the Ice Age when the brain cortex of the first modern humans began articulating symbolic orders?
An answer is impossible to come by, but the stars in the sky have lived with us for a long time, and we could never unsee them. That is, paradoxically, until the modern age, when, after thousands of years of dreams and wonders, we launched ourselves into space, in an attempt to escape from the condition of being human. Out there we realized to our despair (and our newly discovered indifference too) that there was no such a thing as the sky; this was no transcendental space or a place at all, but rather, everything that is above the surface of the earth, a combination of atmospheric layers and the infinite void. The infinite is not even an adequate concept, for the physical concept of time has no relevance for the individual person, and no use except in space physics. With the conquest of heaven, a direct consequence of the space and arms race, the sky went dimmer, if not altogether silent. Yet the void remains.
But the history of the void, with its now missing stars and constellations, is not a history of physics, as much as a story of our puzzling earthly odyssey, as astronomer John C. Barentine tells us: “However old the constellations, it is safe to conclude that they have long journeyed with us on our path to becoming human.” Constellations are some of the oldest cultural inventions of humans, predating writing and social organization (what once was called civilization). Barentine continues: “The presumably oldest figures in existence, such as the Hunter and the Bull, refer to a time in human history before the emergence of settled agricultural communities. It is probably no coincidence that Orion and Taurus reflect themes in the oldest extant works of art: the human form and game animals.” Already at the time of the Neolithic revolution, 12,000 years ago, understanding cues in the sky about the seasonal calendar was crucial to the survival of early humans.
Our oldest accounts of constellations and stars date back to the Middle Bronze Age and the list of Sumerian names suggest they were drawn from an earlier source. In the Mesopotamian text “Prayer to the Gods of the Night” (1700 BC), we hear of the Arrow (the star Sirius), the Yoke (the star Arcturus), the Stars (the Pleiades star cluster), or the True Shepherd of Anu (Orion). Think about the long journey of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, known to Homer as the autumn star (Hom. Il. 5.1-5), and to Egyptians and Greeks as the “Dog star”. Its heliacal rise, connected with an extremely hot season at the end of summer, was known not only to Homer and Hesiod but to Aeschylus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Theognis, Eratosthenes, Nonnus and the folk tales about the star and its hot season survive as late as Anna Komnene’s Alexiad in the Byzantine period. Located in the constellation Canis Major, Sirius is still visible to the naked eye.
In the Shield of Achilles (Hom. Il. 18.478-608), provided by Hephaestus in the Iliad, and the first example of ekphrasis, Homer describes in its first layer, a number of constellations: Orion and the Bear, the star clusters of the Pleiades and the Hyades. A telling star-struck passage in the ekphrasis, ἥ τ᾽ αὐτοῦ στρέφεται καί τ᾽ Ὠρίωνα δοκεύει (Hom. Il. 18-488), “She turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion”, reappears in identical form in the Odyssey in a crucial moment, when the nymph Calypso is sending Odysseus from the island of Ogygia, and instructs him to keep on the left side the constellation of the Bear (Hom. Od. 5.270-277), without specifying whether he meant the Little Bear or the Great Bear, in what is the only passage in the epic that refers to stellar navigation. For seventeen days he sailed over the sea, and then on the eighteenth day the land of the Phaeacians appeared nearest to him.
Most of the constellations referred to in these passages have come down to us in Ptolemy’s Almagest, and survived unchallenged for some fourteen centuries, as the cosmological model underwent certain revisions (the geocentric model is of course completely debased, but the Homeric cosmology of the earth as a flat disk surrounded by an ocean and in between two layers of stars, is surprisingly similar to the current model of the Milky Way). The birth of the contemporary sky that begins with the Copernican revolution and ends with Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures” (the sky as a junkyard of dead satellites), arrived also with discoveries of new stars and constellations, adding up to the 48 Ptolemaic constellations. But constellations are not discovered, they’re imaginary bodies. Ptolemy missed an entire quarter of the sky, and this information could only be added during the colonial voyages in the 16th century.
Our current knowledge of astrophysics insists on the standardization of stars and constellations for the sake of the photographic process, but in fact, tells us that not only are constellations imaginary, but they also serve no purpose whatsoever in astronomy. Why do we insist then on the star map? Russian painter Alexandra Paperno turned to the star maps at the beginning of her career in the early 2000s, not necessarily out of an interest in the vast cosmic space and our perception of the structure of the universe, but from a vantage point that resembles more an architecture of first principles, with primary and secondary qualities: What are pictorial spaces? What is an empty space? What are spaces generally? Living as we are, in a moment largely defined by hyper-metaphors of time such as acceleration, apocalypse and the instant, our relationship to space is tawdry and unimaginative; space is a site of incarceration.
But our living spaces have little to do with the Aristotelian metaphors of place around the line and the point, or the fixed abode or point of origin in the myth: Our spaces are devoured by multiple overlapping temporalities, and are embedded in a percolation of spatiotemporal continuity, like a crumpled handkerchief, to use a metaphor of Michel Serres, out of which a viscous substance oozes out that contains the present as debris. In the Star Maps (2003-2005), Paperno captures what Petrus Schaesberg called the misty uncertainty of the sky, following two central interrelated ideas: First, the scant appearance of the starry sky in the history of representation of space in general as we have received it from Western painting, and secondly, the Kantian notion of the sublime, as an aesthetic category beyond the senses. The modern pictorial space resembles the stellar void: It’s unarticulated, ambiguous but never absent.
During Paperno’s research on star maps, the realization that different astronomical atlases and maps contained different constellations in the early modern period, and a curious art historical reference, the minor constellations Sculptor and Pictor (included in the Star Maps), discovered by French astronomer Abbé Nicholas Louis de Lacaille in the 1750s, and located in the southern hemisphere, led to an amazing revelation: As astronomical societies were being modernized throughout the Western world, in 1922, the modern map of 88 constellations was adopted (it was agreed that no more constellations would be added) and then more than 50 constellations, some dating back to antiquity, but for the most part coined by American and European astronomers mapping the southern skies, were abolished for a variety of reasons. Some of these were considered inaccurate, ambiguous, too faint, or too large. Looking at earlier star maps, the Russian painter carefully recomposed the fifty-one constellations as single wooden panels (also executed on paper in a different iteration).
Many of these constellations are unfamiliar to us, with their Latin names, such as “Gladii Electorales Saxonici” (Crossed swords of the Electorate of Saxony, d. 1684, by Gottfried Kirch), “Machina Electrica” or “Officina Typographica” (Electricity Generator and Printshop, d. 1800 and 1801, by Johann Elert Bode), but the style of christening the stars gives us a lot of information about the ambitions of the Enlightenment era and the scientific revolutions. At the heart of Paperno’s project, however, there’s no stars as an object of contemplation but a void of knowledge and consciousness: How would it be possible to abolish something that in fact never existed? An international bureaucracy of knowledge dethroned an imaginary which, however impractical for modern science, was richly embedded in the fabric of our historicity, and the beginning of wonder, from an era when we began to search our yet unfinished destiny on earth.
Although the sky, or rather, the void, is alive and not static (our galaxy is not necessarily too privileged a location for sighting stars, being too far away from the center of star formations, a place where life would be impossible), all the Ptolemaic constellations survived into the modern map, with the exception of one: “Argo Novis”, known since early antiquity under different names. It was considered unwieldy by science as De Lacaille explained in 1763, from his observation point in Cape Town, South Africa (there he asserted the position of nearly 10,000 stars), that there were more than a hundred and sixty stars in it, and it was initially broken into three different constellations Carina, Pupis, and Vela; Pyxis Nautica was added later. The Argo Novis was not abolished, but dismantled. Yet the history of the constellation and its accompanying myth (we are unable to ascertain which came first), dates back to the earliest era of transmissions and transformations in the Near East.
A discoverer of constellations himself, Johann Elert Bode tells us in 1801: “This figure commemorates the famous ship of antiquity, which was built according to legend at the command of Minerva and Neptune in Thessaly from Argo, and it is that which the Greek hero Jason and the Argonauts used to collect the Golden Fleece from the place of the eastern shore of the Black Sea known as Colchis.” Argo Navis as a constellation appears first in a list by Eudoxus of Cnidus in the 4th century BC, and the ship was known to the author of the Odyssey. In a passage concerning the witchlike goddess Circe (Hom. Od. 12.69-72), as she is giving Odysseus instructions for his return voyage, she explains that the Sirens are located between Scylla and Charbydis, adding that there is only one seafaring ship that has ever passed through, and that is the Argo, with the intervention of Hera, who loved the argonaut Jason.
The ship was thought to be a variety of galley, an oceangoing craft with a shallow draft, low profile and long narrow hull (Barentine), and according to Eratosthenes, the constellation represented the first ship to sail the ocean, long before Jason’s time. A myth of the construction of the ship was relayed by Apollonius Rhodius in his Argonautica, claiming that its builder was Argus, under the supervision of Athena (Apollon. 1.109-114). The Argonautica, composed in the 3rd century AD, is the only surviving epic poem of the Hellenistic era, incorporating Apollonius Rhodius’ research into geography, Homeric literature and Greek ethnography. Its most enduring innovation upon the Greek epic is the possibility of love between a hero and a heroine, exemplified in the vivacious story of Jason and Medea, but the story was well known in a much earlier period, and the myth of the Argonauts underlies the Homeric epic as a memory source.
Jason’s father Aeson was removed from the throne by his brother Pelias, and Jason was then entrusted to the centaur Chiron. After his upbringing with the centaur, and learning of his true story, Jason set for Iolcus, and upon confronting Pelias, the king devised for him the toil of an impossibly difficult voyage, in order that he might lose his home-return among strangers or at sea, with a mission to find the Golden Fleece. Jason visited Hera at Dodona, and with her help, Athena would have the ship built from pine trees grown on Mount Pelion, and he assembled a crew with as many heroes as he could find, known as the Argonauts. At last they reached Colchis and presented their demand to King Aetes, but unwilling to part with his most prized possession, the king declared Jason would have to catch and subdue two fire-breathing bulls dedicated to Hephaestus and use the bulls to plow a stony field sacred to Ares.
But there would be more: He would have to sow the field with dragon’s teeth and then slay the army of giants that would rise. Finally, after defeating the guardian dragon, the Fleece would be his. Jason was then enchanted with the king’s daughter Medea, and agreed to marry her in exchange for her help (she’s a skilled sorceress). With the fleece in hand, Jason, Medea and the Argonauts set off from Colchis, taking Absyrtus, the king’s only son, as a hostage. A Colchian vessel set off in pursuit of the Argo and easily overtook it, and sensing that the end was near, Medea killed Absyrtus, dropping pieces of the body overboard. As expected from an epic, the Argo was led off as a punishment and a number of storms were sent by Zeus, and then Jason is told they should seek ritual purification with Circe, the famous nymph living on the island of Aeaea, whom we know well from the Odyssey.
[The episode of Circe in the Odyssey is one of the main events in my parafiction, “The Charonion”]
In Book IV of the Argonautica, the Argonauts find Circe bathing in salt water, surrounded by wild animals. The goddess invites Jason, Medea and the Argonauts into her mansion, and without any further ado, they show her the bloody sword used to cut the body of Absyrtus, and Circe realizes quickly enough that they have come in order to be purified of murder. After the purification, Medea tells Circe of their toll in great details, but omits the murder of Absyrtus. Circe knows the truth and disapproves of their crime, but on account of her kinship with Medea, she promises to cause them no harm and orders them to depart from her island immediately. It seems as if after the visit to Aeaea, the Argonautica comes to a happy conclusion in Thessaly, but ambiguous accounts remain, telling of intrigues, murders, escapes and the rise of the ship to heaven as a constellation, or another version in which a beam from the Argo’s stern detaches and kills Jason instantly while he slept under a tree.
The long journey of the Argo Navis in the mythography, protracted, inconclusive, and ultimately unfinishable, always reminds me of the liminal space of Paperno’s Abolished Constellations. In its first argonautic expedition, the Argo Navis alongside the other fifty abolished constellations (let us name a few more: Keeper of Harvests, Pendulum Clock, Marble Sculpture, Tigris River), were displayed in 2016, at a derelict unconsecrated 8th century church linked to the now extinct Albanian-Scythian Christian community, in a scientific village home to the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Large Altazimuth Telescope (for several years the largest single primary optical reflecting telescope in the world, but now an anachronism) in Nizhny Arkhyz, perched on the mountains of the northern Caucasus. The panels were assembled as a grid construction that resembles an altarpiece, doubling up the sense of what is meant by heavenly. A heaven that has fallen, an abolished heaven.
It was an impenetrable site… A flight from Moscow to the resort town of Mineralnye Voda, followed by long bus journeys in the mountains, and an hour-long walk inside the terrain of Lower Arkhyz, in a frosty autumn, crossing small rivulets and mud passages, in order to arrive at an altarpiece to something that doesn’t exist anymore because in fact it was never real – the gods are dead. This speaks to Paperno’s notion of the ruin as a central notion in European civilization: The ruin is fresh because it was already ruined from the outset. Later on, the abolished constellations traveled to Berlin, where they were on show in a window storefront in a gallery space where it would be the last exhibition before its eventual folding up, or on the Danish island of Møn, a biosphere reserve in the Baltic sea, loosely connected to another island, Zealand, with irregular transportation.
In these precarious, remote, vanishing, half-real sites, the witness to the constellations, is forced to reflect on the irrational infinity of space as such, and in the words of Schaesberg discussing Paperno’s star maps: “Reflective moods inevitably set in when one contemplates the constellations, but Paperno’s overall concept of this series — including single stars, star maps, and constellations, not to mention still lifes with globes — conjures up the Thracian maid’s laughter when Thales of Miletus fell into the well, the epitome of disdain for astronomy’s endeavors, and hints at today’s amazing awareness that we human beings, in a remote corner of the boundless universe, are terribly alone.” These empty and half-empty interiors of the pictorial space, fragile and tense, make us dwell in a world of wonder: It is a world without nature, abandoned, and yet filled with our own specters.
In the spring of 2020, as the abolished constellations in their single individual panels, rested alone in a studio, in the center of Moscow, after their unlikely argonautic travels, still incomplete, the world closed down on us, and we became separated not only from each other, but also from our world, perhaps indefinitely. Unsure whether the purification of Circe would be enough to bring us from Aeaea to Thessaly, for the first time in our lifetimes, we wandered in the silent dark. And perhaps then we remembered the lives of those early humans, who spent long nights under the stars, around a bonfire, telling each other the stories of Jason and Odysseus, under different names, giving new names to Sirius and the Bear, as if they had never been named before. I then interrogated one of the abolished constellations, the “Machina Electrica” (d. 1800), hanging on my walls: Will the night sky still be there if we stopped looking? An answer came from the Odyssey, a year and a half later, on the shores of Seleucia Pieria, during a clear night: ἥ τ᾽ αὐτοῦ στρέφεται καί τ᾽ Ὠρίωνα δοκεύει / She turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion.
John C. Barentine, The Lost Constellations: A History of Obsolete, Extinct, or Forgotten Star Lore, Springer, Praxis Series, 2016
Margalit Finkelberg, “She turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion”: Ancient Criticism and Exegesis of Od. 5.274 = Il. 18.488”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 44 (2004), p. 231-244
Theodossiou, E., Manimanis, V. N., Mantarakis, P., & Dimitrijevic, M. S., “Astronomy and Constellations in the Iliad and Odyssey”, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 22 – 30 (2011)
Alexandra Paperno & Katya Inozemtseva, “Self-Love Among the Ruins: A Conversation between Katya Inozemtseva & Alexandra Paperno”, in Alexandra Paperno. Self Love Among the Ruins, Ad Marginem Press, 2019, p. 6-23
Petrus Schaesberg, “Alexandra Paperno: Star Maps”, in Alexandra Paperno: Star Maps, National Center for Contemporary Arts Moscow, 2007, p. 5-14
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. He’s the co-editor of Perambulation.
Nandini: I was going to ask if you wanted to play a little game with me. I do this one midterm evaluation that asks every student to pick one thing they’d add to your course, one thing they’d drop, one thing they’d change, and one thing they’d keep the same. And I wondered if we could do that for “classics” as a field right now. What would we add that isn’t already happening?
Ethan: One thing that I would like to see is more courses that cover broader topics in antiquity, [like one we teach at UT-Austin] called “The Ancient Mediterranean World.” The first thing we talk about is how the idea of “the West” or “the Mediterranean” is extremely problematic because that spans multiple continents and multiple climates and multiple cultures … from Babylon, Sumer, Egypt, Israel, all the way up until Greece and Rome. And we end up forming links between all of those cultures. I think courses that help you see similarities and share experiences between cultures are super cool and underutilized in colleges in general.
Nandini: I love that. And I would add to your “add” that I would really love more training in grad school or at other levels to prepare us to do that kind of teaching [in keeping with recent interest in global antiquities]. I know it’s intimidating for any of us, after the depth of training we receive in a couple cultures, to branch out and feel like amateurs. I think it’s actually okay to be an amateur; I wish that we would embrace the fact that we’re always learning and we don’t need to stay forever within our dissertation fields. But I would love serious training on those cultural interactions really emphasized as part of the curriculum instead of [treated as] a throwaway option. [The same goes for interactions between antiquity and the present.] My students always love when we add some thought to the modern world — conversations about cultural interactions or appropriations or intersectionality with a classical twist. So I find that using Eidolon articles or bringing up modern angles is a great way to start or end discussion [that could also be better modelled in graduate school].
<We rave about Antigone in Fergusonand the brilliant discussions it’s generated in our classrooms, then move on to what we’d drop.>
Ethan: One thing I would drop is the idea that you need a fully complete resume to get into graduate school. And what I mean by that is a lot of professors, when a student comes to them with an interest in graduate school in classics, say, “Okay, you need four years of one language, three years of another. You need experience in this and this. … And it would also help to know either French or German or Italian.” And that can be severely limiting to students who didn’t have access to that sort of thing in high school. … If you put all of these qualifiers in, then it’s frankly impossible for a student who comes into college without any knowledge or practice in classics to go to graduate school … and become a professor or be a part of the field, right? And that can be severely limiting and it’s frankly not true. I mean, I was lucky to have a lot of high school experience in Latin, but I didn’t take any classics courses my freshman year … by the time I was doing advanced Greek, I was a second-semester junior. I didn’t have any German or French. And I got into a good program out of undergrad because I worked hard and I had a lot of confidence in myself and I had people tell me that I could do this — but I don’t think everyone has that. A lot of places, professors tend to gate-keep the field, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Nandini: And even your saying that you “only” had a certain amount of Greek by your junior year is already amazing, right? Many people, especially ones who fall in love with classics late in their college career, might not have access to even one Greek class — but they could have so much to bring to the field. So I fully endorse that and I want to add for the record that you may have more Latin right now than I did by the time I became a professor. <They laugh; Nandini attended a public high school with no Latin program and stumbled into classics as an undergraduate.> But there’s a kind of virtue in coming to the field from a background that wasn’t about rigorous language training from the very beginning. I think that actually you sometimes have more insights or you can be a little more creative in your outlook.
So I totally agree with you and I would add, as a corollary, that I’d love to change our ideas of what expertise looks like, but also drop the expectation of total comprehensive synthetic knowledge of everything ever written on a particular author. Which is something that [we faculty often] perpetuate with the way that we do grad school reading lists and design exams and [compose] footnotes that last pages. It creates so much fear and intimidation. I mean, if you’re a Vergil scholar like me and you feel you need to read every one of the hundred thousand things ever written about a particular passage, you would never write a word. So I think that we need to start modifying that culture for sure.
Ethan: Also, to add onto that, letting students know that it’s okay to skim articles. Because I think this is one of the dirty secrets of academia, especially when you first get into graduate school. You have a thousand lines of Latin to read for one class, plus five or six articles and you’re not going to be able to physically do that with two or three other classes. And I think a lot of professors try and keep the secret that people skim … and that’s okay. You don’t have to read every single word of an article. If you can understand what the author is doing, the logic they’re using, and at least some of the references they’re making or some of the source material they’re citing, that’s good. And that’s especially good for a college student.
Nandini: Absolutely. And there’s this old ethos, or maybe it’s more an aesthetic, where [professors] would cultivate the aura of somebody who has completely memorized the entire classical corpus. They would sit in the front at lectures and trot out verbatim citations in the original language. There is something incredibly cool and wonderful about that and I love many of those people who can do that. But for a long time, that was what I thought was the only way to be good at this field. And the truth is that in our information age, where we can instantly call up any article or look up any text, that kind of memorization expertise is getting not outdated but replicated. Because as you say, it’s more important to know how to read than to have fully memorized every single thing, because you can always [look them up if you need]. Or if you have the skill set of designing a good argument and understanding where it needs evidence, and understanding how to critique the scholarship — if you have all that, that’s actually much more important than having a bunch of bibliography at the tip of your tongue.
Ethan: One thing we would change — do you want to go first on this one?
Nandini: I think this current digital age allows a lot more potential for conversations and collaborations across institutions. I’ve gotten so much during the pandemic from chatting with other BIPOC classicists or grad students at different programs than mine [often while] giving visiting talks from my living room. I really love the ability to move around so freely in terms of conversations and support networks. And so I guess I would just keep going in that direction. I think it’s really healthy [that WCC, AAACC, and other organizations] are building mentorship relationships that reach beyond your specific department. Because in some of my darkest times as an academic, when I felt bullied or harassed — and believe me, this happens in grad school, but it keeps happening; getting a job is not the end, getting tenure is not the end of microaggressions or gatekeeping — in those situations, it’s having friends outside of my institution that has really saved me. And I would wish that for anybody else in this field.
[Academia] can be very isolating, and there’s this false perception that everyone gets it except for you — that they all know what they’re doing and they’re all understanding that article or writing that paper perfectly on the first try. I think that we need to make [classics] a less lonely endeavor — we need to make it much more supportive, much more sociable. And we need to break those little monopolies on authority and power that are the academic department, and reward and compensate the time that people spend on [building relationships and support structures that cross institutional boundaries].
Ethan: Bouncing off of that … another thing I would change is broadening the requirements for the [undergraduate] major. So not necessarily saying, you need this many hours of Latin and this many hours of Greek, and this and that specific class. Because while it’s definitely helpful and while that could make you a potentially attractive candidate to graduate school, there are a lot of people who know [canonical authors] like Ovid and Vergil really well … People who are interested in something different like bioarchaeology or digital humanities are also super attractive to graduate school. … And that could be beneficial because it helps students develop skills to be competitive in and get jobs outside of academia too. Because if we’re trying to get students to come and get Ph.Ds in classics, then promise them all tenure-track jobs afterwards, then we’re kidding ourselves and them. So developing skills that can be attractive in other fields and other endeavors after the Ph.D is something that I would like to see.
Nandini: Absolutely — there’s no categorical difference between academic and “alt-ac” skills. There never has been nor is it healthy to act as though there is. We need to make sure that graduate school is always helping people develop skills for a [range of future job possibilities]. And we should start welcoming and rewarding different kinds of output … than just the standard dissertation. There’s this standard format that frankly is not even a book — [most dissertations] require years to become good books. We could encourage writing that’s a little less formulaic, a little less self-credentialing and boring, and start helping [grad students] make products that people [outside our narrow band of academia] actually want to read or use. We can reward more public-facing work, but also applied projects like digital humanities or commentaries or pedagogical projects or art installations or programs that are aimed at bringing more diverse students into classics. I think all of those things should count as end goals of your time in a Ph.D program … because obviously the model that we have is not working for all but a very few.
Last question — what would you keep the same?
Ethan: One thing I’d keep the same is the growth in discussions like this. Because as you said, for the longest time, [grad school was considered] this pipeline toward a job in academia … but that’s not realistic [for all]. That’s not saying that you shouldn’t pursue that goal, but you should also know about other options available to you. And I think this growing conversation has been super beneficial for graduates — it’s definitely been beneficial for me.
Nandini: I couldn’t agree more. And my answer for “what I would keep the same” is you. I just want to ring-structure back to the email that you sent me all those years ago [when you read my 2018 Eidolon piece about diversity in classics]. That really helped me at a time when I was feeling very isolated in a red state after the Trump election. I started writing publicly because I didn’t know what else to do with my time and frankly, digging deep into footnotes and spending time in the library on the commentaries started to feel less fulfilling intrinsically. I needed to figure out a way to reach out and reach more people. And so I started writing for Eidolon in a really dark place, but I had no anticipation of how much uplift I would get from people like you and how fulfilling it is now for me to watch you grow and change and do the great work you’re doing — and have this wonderful conversation with you. So thank you very much.
Ethan: When I encountered your article, I was also in a dark place. I was interning and we had just had a lecture where I had been singled out by someone. They had later asked me where I was from and when I told them Wisconsin, they did the classic, “Oh, well, where’s your family from?” It was a stressful time because I had been getting that a lot. And I read your article and feeling that someone understood what I was going through really helped me continue on in the field. So thank you for that.
Nandini: And turning back to ancient thought: to know that other people have dealt with [these questions of identity and belonging and path-finding] before, even if they didn’t look exactly like us — that gives me a sense of radical continuity and compassion across cultures and across generations and across space now too. So here’s to many more such conversations.
“…the egg that Orpheus claims was created, projected from the boundless matter, was born like this: the quadruple matter is alive and all of the endless deep flows eternally but it moves in an unclear war, pouring forth here and there endless incomplete mixtures from one time to another. For this reason, it pulls them back too and then opens wide as if for the birth of a creature that cannot be bound.”
The poet and classicist Anne Carson has an essay that sticks like maple syrup to your subconscious, called “Essay on What I Think About Most.” She begins the poem by addressing the idea of the error and what we can learn from it by dissecting a bit of poetry from Alcman of Sparta, a Greek lyric poet from the 7th century BCE.
[made?] three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not (trans. Carson)
Carson notes that the verb in Alcman’s laconic rumination on hunger seems to have no subject. She addresses whether this was a grammatical mistake caused by transmission and fragmentation; a way modern philologists can scrub away “errors” of the past. “But as you know, the chief aim of philology,” she says, “is to reduce all textual delight / to an accident of history. And I am uneasy with any claim to know exactly / what a poet means to say. So let’s leave the question mark there “
The lack of any punctuation is the kicker there. The absence does more work than any ellipsis or period ever could. Carson demonstrates how, for her, Alcman “sidesteps fear, anxiety, shame, remorse” connected to mistakes in order to engage with a truth:
“The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection.”
What is Pasts Imperfect? It is a column and a space for commentary, reviews, essays, reflections, statements, and any other words needed to help us negotiate between the past and our present world. We talk about pasts because antiquity isn’t just one land, timeline, or narrative; it is multiple and multiplied by the perspectives we bring to bear on it. Our Pasts are not just Greek, Roman, and Mediterranean; they are not just elite, white, and male. The past includes these people and perspectives, but also those who were silenced or left behind: the people, the languages, and the histories in or beyond the margins.
Imperfect is about value and aspect. We acknowledge that the past is far from perfect and we study antiquity to help us understand ourselves and the causes of things, not to render fictive, to emulate, or to praise simply because something has been praised before. To be human is to be imperfect; to love as a human is to love imperfectly. Our studies of the past and ourselves must honor and inhabit such complexities.
Imperfect is also about incompletion. We see the study of the past as a process that is ongoing and never truly done: each generation, each embodied person, each new perspective contributes to challenging what we think we know about what has come before.
Pasts Imperfect seeks to bring critical and transparently progressive reflections and scholarship on antiquity to a wider audience. It is a column, a space, and a developing network for those who want to engage in challenging discussions about antiquity, its construction and reception in scholarship, and its impact on the modern world. As our editorial college and paid writer-network begins to expand and to take pitches, we hope to venture into a more global understanding of the past while also making space for imperfection.
Plutarch, On the Affection Offspring (Moralia 496b)
“There is nothing so imperfect, helpless, naked, formless, and unclean as a human being glimpsed at the moment of birth, someone to whom nature has not even given a clear path to the light.”
Note: This essay was sent to me to be published anonymously. It is a powerful reminder that who you are fundamentally changes what the Iliad means and that the loudest voices are often the abusive ones.
CW: Sexual Assault
You hadn’t heard of Agamemnon when you started college. You didn’t know about the embassy to Achilles or Briseis or the wrath of the gods. You did know that you really liked this guy, let’s call him Carl, and you’d been hanging out with him for a while and you were excited to go to a party at his frat house.
If you had read the Iliad, you might have noticed that Briseis and Chryseis play an awfully big role for people who barely even speak. You might have thought it was weird that Agamemnon insists that he prefers Chryseis to Clytemnestra, but he would part with her if it’s for the best (εἰ τό γ᾽ ἄμεινον), because he’s so worried about the λαός—the people, but really the men. Turns out that sometimes men are only concerned about the well-being of men. But you didn’t see that on a first read anyway, and Homer couldn’t have really helped you navigate the men or the lions.
There’s a lot you don’t know about that party, but you do know that you had a lot to drink, and he took you down to his room and left you there. You might have fallen asleep, you may as well have. When you woke up, there was a stranger on top of you. “Stranger” is a bit strong – it was his ‘big brother,’ a relationship that apparently means quite a lot in a fraternity.
Agamemnon doesn’t want to part with Chryseis, but he will for a price. Or, more precisely, he will if he’s given a prize, a γέρας. Achilles and Agamemnon mention this all-important γέρας thirteen times in Book 1, and Agamemnon makes it very clear that he will not be prize-less (ἀγέραστος). We get another fourteen mentions of honor or dishonor (ἀτιμάω, τιμή, etc.), all of which have to do with the men involved. That’s a lot more than we hear about the women, the girls, whose feelings are inconsequential when men have their honor to worry about. The only feelings we hear anything about are the men—men cry, while women are bartered by men whose feelings are hurt.
Years later, you’d start to realize that words like assault and rape fit what happened to you that night, but that was after years of your pain being used as a punch line and a bargaining token among the brothers at this fraternity. Years of this being a story about how you were a slut and you shouldn’t have gotten so drunk. Years of ‘jokes’ about how you were ‘given’ to that man as a present, from little brother to big brother.
And really, the important thing is that Briseis doesn’t end up ruining the Greek army’s chance to win the war. Eventually, the men realize that it’s not worth getting upset over something as meaningless as a girl. As Achilles spits out the words ‘I will not fight with you for the sake of a girl’ (1.298), you feel it in your gut. Ajax says this to Achilles later too – you’re doing this over only a girl (9.637). What a senseless reason to disrupt the unity of the men. Bros before hoes has a longer history than you realized.
Over the next several years, you would remain friends with everyone at the fraternity. You were a liberated college student and not someone who would make a big deal about whatever happened to you. You’re not that kind of girl, and what did it matter that something happened to you that night, that something was taken from you, but you would never – still don’t – know what?
If you look through the Iliad to see what we actually hear about Briseis, you see that she mostly shows up in Book 1 and Book 9, which makes sense. But she gets mentioned in Book 24 in passing. Or, it would be in passing until you start to look for her, and you see that Briseis is sleeping near Achilles, after Priam’s visit. Until you read Silence of the Girls, you didn’t really give this much thought. You fell into the same trap that the Greek men do, you only thought that the men mattered. You don’t like that women are seen as objects, but it is what it is and, anyway, it was a long time ago. But what must it have been like for Briseis to sleep next to this man every night? The man who gave her to Agamemnon – did it matter that Achilles was mad about it? He still handed her over –and now possessed her again. What must it be like to lay next to him every night?
As it happens, you were such a cool girl who would never get hung up on silly things that happen at parties – honestly, what a funny mistake it all was! You were so cool about it that you kept coming back to Carl over the following years. Agonized over how he just wasn’t sure you two could date, because seeing you being assaulted was hard for him. You see, he felt like you’d betrayed him, and you were so sorry that you’d caused so much trouble. You kept seeing him, sleeping with him, understanding why he couldn’t date you, because this was really your fault anyway, and maybe you could show him that you could be trusted.
Now you teach students, and while you’ve always warned students about triggering content, you never really knew what that experience was actually like, to have old trauma wash over you with no warning. Not until Christine Blasey Ford testified about Brett Kavanaugh, and women in your life started holding each other tight to withstand the onslaught of stories about sexual assault and how boys will be boys. Something about the volume of women who were reliving their abuse at the same time was too much, and your body couldn’t hold it. A decade of grief poured out in gasping, shuddering tears that you didn’t know were being held in.
Briseis and the other enslaved women mourn for Patroclus, but Homer tells us that they’re also mourning their own pain. Like they needed something else to center their grief on, and once Patroclus was a vessel from grief, their own unexpressed grief poured out. You know that your students can’t prop you up if all this grief comes out in class, and you make it through the end of the class session, but your distance from this text is gone. You’ve fallen out of your own story and into this one. It’s safer not to talk about Briseis’ trauma in class anymore.
There’s no amount of philological rigor that can talk a body down that’s feeling dredged up trauma. You know that you aren’t enslaved and your family hasn’t been killed. You know that almost nothing about the Iliad is a particularly good fit for that night, but it’s not clear if you can separate the two stories anymore. You haven’t taught the Iliad since that day, but presumably you will have to again one day, and the thought is terrifying. Your body still holds the grief and the rage that you like to think your brain has processed, and what kind of a classicist can’t teach Homer anymore?
The academic part of your brain knows that no text is about one thing. The Iliad is about a million things, but for you, right now, it’s really just a story about how women have to pay terrible prices for what men want. How women have to suffer physical and psychological violence because men don’t want to be told no. For gold or glory or honor or because the gods were mad – what does it actually matter why? In the end, every woman in (or even just near) Troy is going to suffer because Paris and Agamemnon and Achilles want to take things that aren’t theirs. And how do you pull yourself out of that story enough to actually teach it?
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault and would like to talk to someone, there are a range of resources available from RAINN.org. (or call 1-800-656-HOPE) or NSVRC.
“No! The ones we’ve cut off, I’ll chop up and throw away”
Immo quos scicidimus conscindam atque abiciam.
Xenophon, Cyropaedia 7.5.62
“There is evidence from other animals too: out of control horses stop biting and bucking when they are neutered but they are no less useful in combat. When bulls are castrated they stop being so haughty and difficult but they aren’t deprived of their strength and ability to work. Similarly, when dogs are neutered they stop running away from their owners, but they are no worse at shepherding and hunting.”
“If a swelling develops in the testicles when they haven’t been struck, blood should be let from the ankle; the patient should fast; and the swelling should be treated with bean meal cooked in honeyed-wine or rubbed with cumin with boiled honey; or ground cumin with rose oil, or wheat flour with honey wine and cypress roots; or the root of a lily, pounded.
In testiculis vero si qua inflammatio sine ictu orta est, sanguis a talo mittendus est; a cibo abstinendum; inponenda ex faba farina eo ex mulso cocta cum cumino contrito et ex melle cocto; aut contritum cuminum cum cerato ex rosa facto; aut lini semen frictum, contritum et in mulso coctum; aut tritici farina ex mulso cocta cum cupresso; aut lilii radix contrita.
Aristotle, Historia Animalium 7.50.20
“All animals who have testicles can be castrated.”
“By chance he told some country bumpkin
To chop off the goat’s testicles quickly with a sharp scythe
And get rid of that annoying stink of unclean meat.”
dixerat agresti forte rudique viro
ut cito testiculos †et acuta† falce secaret,
taeter ut immundae carnis abiret odor.
Hippocrates, Epidemics 2.12
Pliny the Elder, Natural History 26.81
“Ebulum, when ground up with its tender leaves and drunk with wine, takes care of stones; when applied as a salve, it helps testicles. Erigeron, as well, when mixed with frankincense and sweet wine, relieves swollen testicles.”
ebulum teneris cum foliis tritum ex vino potum calculos pellit, inpositum testes sanat. erigeron quoque cum farina turis et vino dulci testium inflammationes sanat.
Sumerians did it!
Kazuya Maekawa 1979 covers castration in Pre-Sargonic Lagaš (~2550-2350 BCE): they were often castrated in the spring just around the second year of birth. The term for this is amar.kud (amar = young; kud = to cut).
“They say that a goat’s dung is good for you with honey or vinegar, or just butter by itself. Testicular swelling can be treated with veal suet mixed with soda, or by the calf’s dung reduced in vinegar.”
fimum etiam prodesse cum melle dicunt aut cum aceto et per se butyrum. testium tumor sebo vituli addito nitro cohibetur vel fimo eiusdem ex aceto decocto.
“Below the penis there are two testicles. There is skin around them called a scrotum. The testicles are not the same as flesh nor are they far from it. Later, will will speak more precisely about what their nature is and generally about all these kinds of parts.”
“They become calmer once their testicles are removed because they no longer have seed.”
Demptis enim testiculis fiunt quietiores, ideo quod semine carent
Plutarch, Natural Phenomena 917D
“Or is Aristotle’s claim true too, that Homer calls khlounês the boar who only has one testicle? For he claims that the testicles of most of the boars get crushed when they scratch themselves on trees.”
“I hope Jupiter destroys you, soldier! Live without your testicles!”
Iuppiter te, miles, perdat, intestatus uiuito
Aristotle, Problems 879a-b
4.23 “Why does rigidity and increase happen to the penis? Is it for two reasons? First, is it because that weight develops on the bottom of the testicles, raising it—for the testicles are like a fulcrum? And is it because the veins become full of breath [pneuma]? Or does the mass become bigger because of an increase in moisture or some change in position or from the development of moisture itself? Extremely large things are raised less when the weight of the fulcrum is far away.”
“Attis traveled over the deep seas and reached Phrygian forest
To touch the grove with a swift foot and then
Enter the goddess’ unknown places.
Then, driven mad in a fierce rage, lost in himself
he cut off his groin’s weights with a flint’s edge.”
Super alta vectus Attis celeri rate maria
Phrygium ut nemus citato cupide pede tetigit
adiitque opaca silvis redimita loca deae,
stimulatus ibi furenti rabie, vagus animi,
devolsit ili acuto sibi pondera silice