Making Ends Meet as a Visiting Professor in the Humanities

“The man-hunter and the job-hunter have succeeded the hunter and warfare and welfare merge in a way of life as completely as any Paleolithic or Stone Age society.”

–Marshall McLuhan, in his 1971 Convocation address at the University of Alberta.

26 December 2022

I had not previously been a radical job-seeker until April of 2020. Prior to this time, I had been active in seeking tenure-track jobs in Classics and Ancient History, but only rarely looked beyond these opportunities. (You can read about the present state of the job market in Humanities disciplines here and here.) It was in April 2020 that the university I was working for in Edmonton announced that they would not proceed with their scheduled courses for spring and summer, adapted to the pandemic-induced online mode of delivery.

This meant that my job for the summer, to teach Classical Mythology, had been canceled and I was out $7800 for July and August, on which my family of four was going to survive until my regular teaching resumed again in September 2020. We had our second child in September 2019 and my wife, a high school teacher, was just gearing up to return to work after her maternity leave. (Learn more about how maternity leave is punished in education and academia here.)

So, April arrived, and I had nothing lined up to carry us through beyond the first week of July. Luckily, the course I usually teach for a college in Cold Lake, AB, is set up as an online course, so that proceeded as usual, and I had a steady income from when teaching ended at my main employer in Edmonton until July.

At this time, I was working a three-year Sessional-Extended Contract, which includes guaranteed 3-3 teaching from September to April, compensated at 7800 CAD per course. Usually, I taught nine or ten courses per year between Edmonton and Cold Lake, bringing my income to what I would consider sustainable levels, between seventy and eighty thousand Canadian dollars.

The pandemic-related work stoppage was a big shock for me, as it came on the heels of two tenure-track searches for Classics faculty at my main employer, where they had passed me over. Now, I was laid off in the most sensitive time, when the Canadian Prime Minister was frequently on the news asking institutions to retain their employees as much as they could, and I realized I could not keep doing the same things and expecting different results.

I changed my academic job-search strategy to apply also for the short term, visiting positions. We had had a family agreement that we would only move if I got a permanent job, because my wife was happy with her work as a teacher. Now, because of the pandemic and hiring priorities, I could no longer rely on my main employer in Edmonton as a stable source of income. I needed to work at a different university, so I cast my net wide.

At the same time, I was idle and frustrated during the first pandemic restrictions, having only my online employment in Cold Lake as a connection to the outside world. I went looking for local jobs, and I started serving as a handyman for the condo corporation where we owned our home, and started delivering food for an organic food start-up in Edmonton.

This gave me renewed confidence. It felt OK that I had lost my ordinary work and picked up these odds and ends. But something else was about to change as my main employer, who had just laid me off, sent me a new contract for September, asking me to sign by a certain date, and Memorial University asked to discuss my application for the 8-month Visiting Assistant Professorship.

Long story short, I took the Memorial offer. I told my employer in Edmonton that I couldn’t teach for them in 2020-21, we sold our house, and moved from Edmonton, AB, to St. John’s, NL. The shock of moving from the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in Canada to the highest, at the same time as living apart from everyone in our new home because of the pandemic, took its toll on my family. My wife doubted whether this had been a reasonable choice for us.

This shock wore off in about nine months and we started to enjoy our time here very much; life and work returned to normal. Everything was about 30% more expensive than we were used to, but we adjusted. What we, and everyone else on earth, did not expect was the massive inflation of late 2021 and 2022. The shock of that put me back in my April 2020 mindset.

We did the math. Over the course of 2021, I lost $7000 dollars in purchasing power. That’s a big hit to a $56,000 annual income. (Yes, I am one of those who moved across the country for lower pay and more prestige.) In 2022, my salary lost another $7000 in value. Now, I am working my visiting professorship for $42,000 in 2020 dollars. This is very bad.

I had free time coming after I submitted grades in December, so I took a risk and worked as a mall Santa for two weeks. That was the very definition of an “odd job,” but it bought our family what we would consider an ordinary Christmas, which we otherwise would not have been able to afford.

The Santa job ended, and here I sit, working as a security guard in a hotel. I hope that working this job part-time alongside my full-time academic work will help us survive the global affordability crisis, and I hope the best for everyone struggling with these issues.

Picture of man with brown hair and glasses smiling from a hotel lobby

Kevin Solez, PhD

Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador St. John’s, NL, Canada (kevin_solez@hotmail.com)

 

 

I am in love with a third declension noun

OMNIA VINCIT AMOR / ΕΡΩΣ ΠΑΝΔΑΜΑΤΩΡ

Child: Mom and Dad, I’m in love!

Father: That’s great, dear. We’re so happy for you. Tell us all about it.

Child: I’ve never felt this way about another person. I’m giddy with joy at the idea that we can be together forever!

Mother: Who is it? Do we know the family?

Child: I can’t wait for you to meet. I know you’ll love each other so much.

Father: Go ahead; describe your new love.

Child: I hope you will approve. Will you?

Mother: What do you mean? Of course we will approve.

Child: I mean… Well… I’ll just say it: It’s… a third declension.

Father: What?! I can’t believe it… our child falling in love with one of them?

Mother: Calm yourself, dear. I’m sure we can get our child to see reason.

Child: Reason? I’m in love!

Father: But see here, you know this is a shock to your mother and me. You must understand… Her family has been first declension for generations, and my own family has been second declension longer than anybody can remember.

Child: But we’re all NOUNS, right? Can’t we accept one another, no matter what declension we are?

Mother: Of course we’re all nouns, dear, but…

Child: And don’t we all have gender, number, and case?

Father: Yes, that all goes without saying, but the third declensions… Well…

They’re a DIFFERENT KIND of noun.

Child: But aren’t first and second declensions also different from one another in some ways?

Mother: Yes, of course we’re different in small ways, but we are compatible. It’s just… Well, you know what they say about third declensions… They’re… Well, they’re irregular.

Child: Are you prejudiced against the stem change? Is that it? Just because they have stems and endings a little bit different than yours doesn’t make them monsters.

Father: Yes, but a group that has all three genders is a bit tough for us traditionalists to handle.

Child: Don’t be hypocritical; what about some of my second declension uncles and aunts on your side who are masculine or feminine, depending on the context?

Father: Please, I told you not to mention them in polite company. Let’s not discuss that.

Child: And what about some of my first declension cousins who have what look like masculine endings, but are feminine? I won’t mention any names, but you know who they are. And now that I think about it, what about some of my cousins who are masculine first declensions (that’s your side Mom), who have what look like feminine plural endings? Do you call them irregular? Do you love them any less because of that little quirk?

Mother: Of course we love them, dear. They’re our family, bless their hearts. We accept them… But third declensions… I just don’t know. And what would our friends say?

Father: Now see here; we have known some third declensions, but never socialized with them, let alone become intimate with them. I just can’t imagine having them permanently in our lives. Would we invite them to the beach house? Imagine a bunch of them lying out there sunbathing – and

FULLY DECLINED – I don’t know if I could bear the sight. Sorry, I know that my saying this hurts you, but I’m only being honest.

Child: Well I love my third declension, and we’re going to marry and raise a family and be happy together for the rest of our lives, whether you like it or not.

Mother: You would have children with a third declension?

Child: I love my third declension, Momma! Don’t you remember what first love is like? Don’t you remember the thrill of first exploring all the cases of your beloved, both singular and plural? Remember when you first saw Daddy’s dative plural?

Mother: [sighs] You’re right. That gave me the shivers, in a wonderfully happy way. Yes, new love is a beautiful thing. And really, we all ARE nouns, aren’t we? And we should not let something like this break up our family.

Father: Yes, dear; you’re right, too. [sighs] I remember the thrill when your vocative first crossed my lips. What love! Our child is right; we must love everyone in our family, regardless of the status of their stems or endings. Love is love. Besides, our older children have already married within their own declensions, so I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the youngest brings in someone different. Dear child, I’m sure we will learn to love your spouse. You have our blessings.

And they all lived happily ever after.

THE END.

Nude winged man playing aulos on a dolphin. Red figure
Red-figure Lekythos: Eros Riding a Dolphin and Playing the Double Flutes (Auloi)

Daniel B. Levine (BA Minnesota 1975; PhD Cincinnati 1980) is University Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Arkansas, where he has taught Classical Studies, Humanities, Greek, and Latin since 1980. His publications include essays on Greek comedy, tragedy, and epic poetry, and modern literary receptions of ancient Greek and Roman literature, including works by Rita Mae Brown, V. T. Hamlin, and Michael Chabon. He has received teaching and service awards from the Society for Classical Studies, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, and the University of Arkansas. He has directed 19 study abroad programs.

Sententiae AI-ntiquae: Chat[GPT]ing Up the Classics

An image generated by DALL•E of an ancient mosaic of comic masks. There are three masks. The left and right are partially cut off. The background is red. The masks have pale skin, wide-open mouths, big noses, and piercing eyes.Twitter and the tech world have been abuzz recently about ChatGPT, an artificial-intelligence conversation bot that will respond to your questions and prompts, often with surprisingly cogent language. It’s made by the same outfit that created DALL•E, the image-generation AI — look to your right for an example of DALL•E’s handiwork.

I took it for a spin through some of Classics’ greatest hits, and then got weird with it.  Below are the best results, starting with a normcore but, again, surprisingly cogent bit of prep for comprehensive exams, and then progressing into glimpses of what the AI thinks about ancient Greek and Roman history, literature, and philosophy.  The text in bold is what I fed to ChatGPT as prompts, and everything else are its responses, unedited.


Three prompts for essays about Greek comedy

    1. “The role of satire in Ancient Greek comedy: How did playwrights use humor and mockery to critique society and political figures?”
    2. “The evolution of Greek comedy: How did the genre change and develop over time, and what were the key influences and innovations?”
    3. “Comparing and contrasting the works of Aristophanes and Menander: How did these two playwrights approach comedy, and what were the similarities and differences in their styles and themes?”

A Homeric Hymn to Beyoncé

Hear me, O goddess Beyoncé,
Daughter of the goddess Tina,
Born to greatness in the city of Houston,
Goddess of music and dance,
Your beauty is like the stars above,
Your voice a symphony of sweet sounds,
Your performance a sight to behold,
A vision of grace and poise,
You are the queen of all you survey,
A shining light in the music world,
Your talents and gifts known far and wide,
A source of inspiration and joy,
From your humble beginnings in Destiny’s Child,
To your rise as a solo artist,
You have conquered stages and hearts,
A true diva, the likes of which the world has never seen,
So sing a hymn to Beyoncé,
A goddess among mortals,
A shining star in the firmament,
A source of beauty, power, and majesty,
Hear us, O goddess Beyoncé,
And grant us a glimpse of your divine radiance,
A reminder of the greatness that lies within us all.

Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus go to a pizzeria. Who picks the toppings on their pizza, and what are the toppings?

with credit to my buddy from grad school, Derek Keyser, who liked asking versions of this question of visiting prospectives

It is difficult to say for certain who would pick the toppings on the pizza, as there is not enough information about the personalities and preferences of Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus. However, it is possible to speculate based on what we know about these historical figures.

Cicero was a Roman statesman and philosopher who was known for his eloquence and rhetorical skills. He was also a famous gourmet, and was known to enjoy good food and drink. Given his love of good food, it is likely that Cicero would have a strong opinion on the toppings for the pizza, and would likely choose something exotic and flavorful.

Caesar was a Roman general and statesman who was known for his military prowess and political ambition. He was also a well-known lover of luxury, and was known to indulge in rich food and drink. Given his taste for luxury, it is likely that Caesar would choose toppings that are expensive and high-quality, such as truffles or caviar.

Catullus was a Roman poet who was known for his passionate and emotional poetry. He was also known to enjoy good food and drink, and was known to be a bit of a hedonist. Given his love of pleasure, it is likely that Catullus would choose toppings that are rich and indulgent, such as cheese, bacon, and mushrooms.

Overall, it is difficult to say exactly what toppings Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus would choose for their pizza, as this would depend on their individual preferences and personalities. However, based on what we know about these historical figures, it is likely that their choices would reflect their love of good food and their enjoyment of luxury.


Who would have been a better drag queen, Plato or Aristotle?

It is difficult to say definitively who would have been a better drag queen between Plato and Aristotle. Both men were renowned philosophers and thinkers, and it is possible that they would have brought different strengths and talents to the world of drag. Plato was known for his emphasis on imagination and creativity, which could have made him a strong performer with a unique and imaginative style. Aristotle, on the other hand, was known for his logical and analytical mind, which could have made him a skilled and disciplined drag queen with a well-planned and polished performance. Ultimately, it is up to personal preference as to which of these philosophers would have been the better drag queen.

A dialogue in which Socrates asks Gorgias increasingly irritating questions about Seinfeld

Socrates: Greetings, Gorgias. I hear that you are a fan of the TV show Seinfeld.
Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, I am a fan of Seinfeld. It is a classic show that is still enjoyed by many people today.
Socrates: Tell me, Gorgias, what do you believe is the purpose of Seinfeld?
Gorgias: The purpose of Seinfeld, Socrates, is to entertain and to make people laugh. It is a comedy show that follows the everyday lives of a group of friends in New York City.
Socrates: I see. And do you believe that Seinfeld achieves this purpose?
Gorgias: Yes, I do believe that Seinfeld achieves its purpose. It is a funny and entertaining show that has been enjoyed by millions of people.
Socrates: But do you not find the characters in Seinfeld to be shallow and self-centered? Do they not constantly engage in petty squabbles and arguments?
Gorgias: Well, Socrates, I suppose that some of the characters in Seinfeld could be seen as shallow and self-centered. However, I still find the show to be funny and entertaining.
Socrates: And do you not find the humor in Seinfeld to be crass and tasteless at times? Do the characters not frequently engage in crude and vulgar behavior?
Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, I do believe that the humor in Seinfeld can be crass and tasteless at times. However, I still enjoy the show and find it to be funny.
Socrates: But do you not think that the constant emphasis on material possessions and shallow relationships in Seinfeld is harmful and unedifying? Do you not believe that it reinforces negative values and behaviors?
Gorgias: Well, Socrates, I can see how some people might view Seinfeld in that way. However, I still enjoy the show and find it to be entertaining.
Socrates: I see. It seems that you are willing to overlook the many flaws and negative aspects of Seinfeld in order to enjoy its shallow and vulgar humor. Perhaps you should reconsider your admiration for this show, Gorgias.

A story in the style of Herodotus about Solon’s experiences with speed-dating

Solon, the wise and noble Athenian lawgiver, was known for his wisdom and fair-mindedness. But even he had not yet encountered the strange and wondrous ritual known as speed-dating.

One day, a group of his friends convinced him to give it a try. He reluctantly agreed, and soon found himself seated at a small table with a group of other singletons. A bell rang, and the first potential partner approached him.

“Hello, I’m Daphne,” she said with a smile. “What do you do for a living?”

Solon was taken aback. “I am a lawgiver,” he replied, unsure of how to proceed.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” Daphne replied, before quickly moving on to the next person.

The bell rang again, and another potential partner approached Solon. This time it was a young man named Hector.

“Hi, I’m Hector,” he said, shaking Solon’s hand. “What do you enjoy doing in your free time?”

Solon was stumped. He had never been asked such a question before. “I enjoy contemplating the nature of justice and the laws that govern society,” he replied, trying to make conversation.

Hector looked confused, but before he could respond, the bell rang again, signaling the end of their time together. Solon watched as Hector moved on to the next person, feeling a sense of relief.

The rest of the speed-dating session passed in a blur of introductions and small talk, with Solon feeling increasingly out of his depth. By the end, he was grateful to return to his familiar world of philosophical contemplation and lawmaking.

As he left the speed-dating event, Solon shook his head in amazement. He had never before encountered such a strange and frenzied way of meeting potential partners. It was not for him, but he could not deny the ingenuity of those who had devised it.

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Associate Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Satire, Plautus: Curculio, and two more books under contract, and was recently co-organizer of Feminism & Classics 2022. Send him stories (but not pictures)  at thmgg@wfu.edu.

A Response to AP Latin: A Student Perspective

I’m obviously not the first one to say this, but the AP Latin curriculum isn’t good.

In several different ways, it seems like the content of the course is slowly deteriorating over time. I’m sure some here can recall the days of four different tests, each covering a different Roman author. That’s right, four. Nowadays, it seems as if the College Board has really limited the curriculum as a result of the lessening number of students taking the exam (4,899 in 2021).

The effect of this lack of students? A curriculum that awkwardly shoves together two authors in a way that isn’t conducive to educating modern high school students. It hops back and forth between Caesar and Vergil for each unit—in such a way that your average juniors and seniors can struggle to gain a truly strong footing in the material. It’s a little strange.

There’s also an absurd amount of vocabulary. Based on the research of other teachers, there are nearly 11,700 words that a student must understand over the course of the syllabus. This amount of new vocabulary is much more than what the beginner Latin reader is used to dealing with in their first few years of the subject. It’s not to say that it’s impossible, but it is difficult if you’re in your third or fourth year of the subject.

The other aspect of this current AP curriculum that doesn’t exactly appeal to your average teenage high school student is in the subject matter inherent to these pieces. Commentarii de Bello Gallico is dry and does a tremendous job detailing the frequently boring military exploits of the Roman army in Gaul. For every chapter explaining the specifics of a battle, there are five more examining how Caesar sent a dull letter to a commander that one time.

On the other hand, Vergil’s Aeneid is much more interesting. There are lots of references throughout the text and its narrative serves as a nice introduction to the wider world of literature for newer Latin students. In fact, it inspired me to read other works of Roman poetry that I enjoy.

(Personally, my passion for authors like Catullus and Ovid was directly inspired by my work with Vergil this last year. It was the first time I had been exposed to this kind of poetic literature in my education, and now it’s my main interest in the subject. My favorite genre of these works are the semi-autobiographical elegies.)

However, there is one massive flaw with both the Aeneid and Commentarii Bello Gallico that each AP Latin student has to contend with. There is a total lack of variety in the material provided.

I don’t think I’m asking for too much here. This last year, I completed the course with five of my peers, and we were all shocked by something as simple as the lack of a relatable female voice. I can’t remember a single named female character in De Bello Gallico and the non-male characters of the Aeneid don’t exactly get much, either.

You have Juno and Dido, who are both characterized as “crazy” in their opposition to Aeneas.  From the opening lines of the epic, it is established that Juno is defined in the story by her conflict against Aeneas’ journey to founding Rome. Similarly, Dido is at first portrayed as the strong female ruler of Carthage, but after Aeneas departs at the request of Mercury, she becomes a crazed lunatic who commits suicide in a famously elaborate fashion.

The other prominent female characters don’t exactly have much to offer. Venus exists entirely as a mother figure in respect to Aeneas, and Lavinia acts as nothing more than a prize to be won at the end of the narrative.

The response to this shouldn’t be “well that’s how it is,” because there are countless examples of prominent, more defined characters throughout Latin literature.

And so, my peers and I, inspired by this notion and a friend’s passion for typesetting, decided to pursue our own educational resources for newer Latin students that featured these uncommon figures. The process for us consists of taking texts from books like Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves and resources like Tufts’ Perseus Digital Library and Oxford Scholarly Editions and adapting them to lower reading levels. It’s tedious and not exactly entertaining, but it’s been insightful to go through all these different resources and pick certain texts to adapt. Hopefully, this can become a resource useful for high school and lower-level teachers. Based off of the formatting of other educational texts, here’s a section I adapted:

Luke is a rising high school senior from outside Philadelphia, PA. He was new to the subject entering his freshman year, but has since fallen in love with Classical languages and culture to the point where he hopes to study it in college. His personal interest is specific to Roman poetry, but he has experience with traditional Greek authors as well. Outside of his academics, Luke enjoys theatrical performance and filmmaking.

 

Skylla and Charybdis? An Easy Choice

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

This year, people did a bit better

 

I had imagined that Simonides made things clear:

Simonides, fr. 356

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

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

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

Michael Apostolios, Collectio Paroemiarum 16.49

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

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

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

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

Ok. Maybe that wasn’t clear.

Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 70

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

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

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

Philo, On Dreams, 70

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

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

Plutarch, with an assist

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

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

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

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

κρύψαντες γὰρ ἔχουσι θεοὶ βίον ἀνθρώποισι

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

So, to be clear:  Charybdis=death. 

 

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

 

Fathers, Children, and a Story’s End

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

Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, 98

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

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα· Homer, Odyssey 19.203

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Odysseus and his father

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

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

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

ψευδῶν δὲ καιρὸν ἔσθ’ ὅπου τιμᾷ θεός #Aeschylus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infant and Skull, Medieval, Louvre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovis Corinth “Odysseus Fighting the Beggar” 1903

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

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

“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”

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

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

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

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

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

Sirens and Odysseus by Fracesco Primaticcio, 1560

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

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

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

Many of the concepts in this entry come from this book

here is its dedication page

 

Forgetfulness, Cures, and Growing Concerns: Some Ancient Greek Drugs

From the Suda

“The oblivion of dogs”: [This is a proverb] for drugs that bring forgetfulness

Λήθην κυνῶν: λήθην ἐμποιούντων φαρμάκων.

Drug [Pharmakon]: this can mean persuasion, conversation: the etymology is said to be from bearing [pherein] the cure [akos]. Others claim that it comes from flowers.

Φάρμακον: παραμυθία, ὁμιλία, εἴρηται δὲ ἀπὸ τοῦ φέρειν τὴν ἄκεσιν: εἴρηται δὲ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀνθέων.

The Sea-horse, a natural high

Aelian, De Natura Animalium 14.20

“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.”

  1. Λέγουσι δὲ ἄνδρες ἁλιείας ἐπιστήμονες, τὴν τοῦ ἱπποκάμπου γαστέρα εἴ τις ἐν οἴνῳ κατατήξειενἕψων καὶ τοῦτον δοίη τινὶ πιεῖν, φάρμακον εἶναι τὸν οἶνον ἄηθες ὡς πρὸς τὰ ἄλλα φάρμακα ἀντικρινόμενον· τὸν γάρ τοι πιόντα αὐτοῦ πρῶτον μὲν καταλαμβάνεσθαι λυγγὶ σφοδροτάτῃ, εἶτα βήττειν ξηρὰν βῆχα, καὶ στρεβλοῦσθαι μέν, ἀναπλεῖν δὲ αὐτῷ οὐδὲ ἕν, διογκοῦσθαι δὲ καὶ διοιδάνειν τὴν ἄνω γαστέρα, θερμά τε τῇ κεφαλῇ ἐπιπολάζειν ῥεύματα, καὶ διὰ τῆς ῥινὸς κατιέναι φλέγμα καὶ ἰχθυηρᾶς ὀσμῆς προσβάλλειν· τοὺς δὲ ὀφθαλμοὺς ὑφαίμους αὐτῷ γίνεσθαι καὶ πυρώδεις, τὰ βλέφαρα δὲ διογκοῦσθαι. ἐμέτων δὲ ἐπιθυμίαι ἐξάπτονταί φασιν, ἀναπλεῖ δὲ οὐδὲ ἕν. εἰ δὲ ἐκνικήσειεν ἡ φύσις, τὸν μὲν <τὸ> ἐς θάνατον σφαλερὸν παριέναι, ἐς λήθην δὲ ὑπολισθαίνειν καὶ παράνοιαν. ἐὰν δὲ ἐς τὴν κάτω γαστέρα διολίσθῃ, μηδὲν ἔτι εἶναι, πάντως δὲ ἀποθνήσκειν τὸν ἑαλωκότα. οἱ δὲ περιγενόμενοι ἐς παράνοια ἐξοκείλαντες ὕδατος ἱμέρῳ πολλῷ καταλαμβάνονται, καὶ ὁρᾶν διψῶσιν ὕδωρ καὶ ἀκούειν λειβομένου· καὶ τοῦτό γε αὐτοὺς καταβαυκαλᾷ καὶ κατευνάζει. καὶ διατρίβειν φιλοῦσιν ἢ παρὰ τοῖς ἀενάοις ποταμοῖς ἢ αἰγιαλῶν πλησίον ἢ παρὰ κρήναις ἢ λίμναις τισί, καὶ πιεῖν μὲν οὐ πάνυ <τι>7 γλίχονται, ἐρῶσι δὲ νήχεσθαι καὶ τέγγειν τὼ πόδε ἢ ἀπονίπτειν τὼ χεῖρε.

 

Judicious use of medicinal drugs

Galen, Method of Medicine 816k

“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…”

ὅρος οὖν ἐπὶ καμνόντων τῷ κατὰ τὸν λόγον τῆς τέχνης ἀγωνιζομένῳ γενναίως πρὸς τὸ νόσημα τὸ τῆς Kἰάσεως | ἀσφαλές· ὥσπερ γε καὶ τῷ πραΰνοντι τὰς ὀδύνας ἡ τῆς δυνάμεως φυλακή. τὸ δ᾿ ἐπέκεινα τῶνδε σκαιοῦ μὲν ἀνδρὸς ἔργον ἐστίν, ἅμα τῷ νοσήματι καὶ τὴν ζωὴν ἀφελέσθαι τὸν ἄνθρωπον· κόλακος δὲ τὸ χαρίζεσθαι τῷ νοσοῦντι, σκοπὸν ὧν πράττει θέμενον ἡδονήν, οὐχ ὑγείαν. ἐμπίπτουσι δ᾿ εἰς τὰς τοιαύτας ὑπερβολὰς ἐν πολλαῖς μὲν καὶ ἄλλαις ὕλαις βοηθημάτων οἱ ἰατροί, μάλιστα δ᾿ ἐν τοῖς καλουμένοις ἀνωδύνοις φαρμάκοις, ὅσα δι᾿ ὀποῦ μήκωνος, ἢ ὑοσκυάμουσπέρματος, ἢ μανδραγόρου ῥίζης, ἢ στύρακος, ἤ τινος τοιούτου συντιθέασιν. οἵ τε γὰρ χαριζόμενοι τοῖς νοσοῦσι πλεονάζουσιν ἐν τῇ χρήσει τῶν τοιούτων φαρμάκων, οἵ τ᾿ ἀκαίρως καὶ ἀμέτρως γενναῖοι μηδ᾿ ὅλως χρώμενοι διαφθείρουσιν ὀδύναις τοὺς κάμνοντας. ὥσπερ οὖν ἐν ἁπάσαις ταῖς καθ᾿ ὅλον τὸν βίον ἕξεσί τε καὶ πράξεσιν, οὕτω κἀνταῦθα τὸ μηδὲν ἄγαν αἱρετέον, ὅρον ἔχοντα τὴν ὠφέλειαν τοῦ κάμνοντος.

Drugs as therapy for pain

Morphine, “Cure for Pain” (1993)
“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.”

ἔνθ’ αὖτ’ ἄλλ’ ἐνόησ’ ῾Ελένη Διὸς ἐκγεγαυῖα·
αὐτίκ’ ἄρ’ εἰς οἶνον βάλε φάρμακον, ἔνθεν ἔπινον,
νηπενθές τ’ ἄχολόν τε, κακῶν ἐπίληθον ἁπάντων.
ὃς τὸ καταβρόξειεν, ἐπὴν κρητῆρι μιγείη,
οὔ κεν ἐφημέριός γε βάλοι κατὰ δάκρυ παρειῶν,
οὐδ’ εἴ οἱ κατατεθναίη μήτηρ τε πατήρ τε,
οὐδ’ εἴ οἱ προπάροιθεν ἀδελφεὸν ἢ φίλον υἱὸν
χαλκῷ δηϊόῳεν, ὁ δ’ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῷτο.
τοῖα Διὸς θυγάτηρ ἔχε φάρμακα μητιόεντα,
ἐσθλά, τά οἱ Πολύδαμνα πόρεν, Θῶνος παράκοιτις,
Αἰγυπτίη, τῇ πλεῖστα φέρει ζείδωρος ἄρουρα
φάρμακα, πολλὰ μὲν ἐσθλὰ μεμιγμένα, πολλὰ δὲ λυγρά,
ἰητρὸς δὲ ἕκαστος ἐπιστάμενος περὶ πάντων
ἀνθρώπων· ἦ γὰρ Παιήονός εἰσι γενέθλης.

rhyme

Drugs for and by Animals

Aelian, Varia Historia 1.7

“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.”

Ἦσαν ἄρα οἱ σῦς οἱ ἄγριοι καὶ θεραπείας ἅμα καὶ ἰατρικῆς οὐκ ἀπαίδευτοι. οὗτοι γοῦν ὅταν αὑτοὺς λαθόντες ὑοσκυάμου φάγωσι, τὰ ἐξόπισθεν ἐφέλκουσι, παρειμένως ἔχοντες [οὕτως] αὐτῶν. εἶτα σπώμενοι ὅμως ἐπὶ τὰ ὕδατα παραγίνονται, καὶ ἐνταῦθα τῶν καρκίνων ἀναλέγουσι καὶ ἐσθίουσι προθυμότατα. γίνονται δὲ αὐτοῖς οὗτοι τοῦ πάθους φάρμακον καὶ ἐργάζονται ὑγιεῖς αὐτοὺς αὖθις.

 

Drugs and Sex Magic

Magical Papyri, 7.185

“To be able to fuck a lot: mix fifty [pine nuts] with two measures of honey and seeds of pepper and drink it. To have an erection whenever you want: mix pepper with honey and rub it on your thing.”

Πολλὰ βι[ν]εῖν δύνασθαι· στροβίλια πεντήκοντα μετὰ δύο κυά[θ]ων γλυκέος καὶ κόκκους πεπέρεως τρίψας πίε. Στ[ύ]ειν, ὅτε θέλεις· πέπερι μετὰ μέλιτος τρίψας χρῖέ σου τὸ πρᾶ̣γ̣μ̣α.

Apollonios Paradoxographus, Historiae Mirabiles

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.”

14 Φύλαρχος ἐν τῇ η′ τῶν ἱστοριῶν [καὶ] κατὰ τὸν ᾿Αράβιόν φησι κόλπον πηγὴν εἶναι ὕδατος, ἐξ οὗ εἴ τις τοὺς πόδας χρίσειεν, συμβαίνειν εὐθέως ἐντείνεσθαι ἐπὶ πολὺ τὸ αἰδοῖον, καί τινων μὲν μηδ’ ὅλως συστέλλεσθαι, τινῶν δὲ μετὰ μεγάλης κακοπαθείας καὶ θεραπείας ἀποκαθίστασθαι.

Aelian, Nature of the Animals  9.48

“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.”

  1. ‘Υπὲρ τοῦ πλείονα τὴν ἐπιγονὴν τῶν ζῴων σφίσι γίνεσθαι οἱ τούτων μελεδωνοὶ τὰ ἄρθρα τῶν θηλειῶν καὶ οἰῶν καὶ αἰγῶν καὶ ἵππων ἀνατρίβουσι κατὰ τὸν τῆς ὀχείας καιρὸν ἁλῶν καὶ λίτρουτὰς χεῖρας ἀναπλήσαντες. ἐκ τούτων ὄρεξις αὐτοῖς γίνεται περὶ τὴν ἀφροδίτην μᾶλλον. ἕτεροι δὲ πεπέριδι καὶ μέλιτι τὰ αὐτὰ χρίουσι, λίτρῳ δὲ ἄλλοι καὶ κνίδης καρπῷ· σμυρνίῳ δὲ ἤδη τινὲς ἔχρισαν καὶ λίτρῳ. ἐκ δὴ τοῦδε τοῦ ὀδαξησμοῦ ἀκράτορες ἑαυτῶν γίνονται αἱ θήλειαι ποῖμναι, καὶ ἐπιμαίνονται τοῖς ἄρρεσιν.

 

Drugs in Warfare

Suda, sigma 777

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.”

Σόλων: τοῦτον εἵλοντο οἱ Κιρραίοις πολεμεῖν ᾑρημένοι σύμβουλον. χρωμένοις δὲ σφίσι περὶ νίκης ἀνεῖπεν ἡ Πυθώ: οὐ πρὶν τῆσδε πόληος ἐρείψετε πύργον ἑλόντες, πρίν κεν ἐμῷ τεμένει κυανώπιδος Ἀμφιτρίτης κῦμα ποτικλύζοι, κελαδοῦν ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον. ἔπεισεν οὖν ὁ Σόλων καθιερῶσαι τῷ θεῷ τὴν Κίρραιαν, ἵνα δὴ τῷ τεμένει τοῦ Ἀπόλλωνος γένηται γείτων ἡ θάλαττα. εὑρέθη δὲ καὶ ἕτερον τῷ Σόλωνι σόφισμα ἐς τοὺς Κιρραίους: τοῦ γὰρ ποταμοῦ τὸ ὕδωρ ῥέον δι’ ὀχετοῦ ἐς τὴν πόλιν ἀπέστρεψεν ἀλλαχόσε. καὶ οἱ μὲν πρὸς τοὺς πολιορκοῦντας ἔτι ἀντεῖχον ἔκ τε φρεάτων καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ τὸ ἐκ θεοῦ πίνοντες. ὁ δὲ τοῦ ἑλλεβόρου τὰς ῥίζας ἐμβαλὼν ἐς τὸν ποταμόν, ἐπειδὴ ἱκανῶς τοῦ φαρμάκου τὸ ὕδωρ ᾔσθετο ἔχον, ἀντέστρεψεν αὖθις ἐς τὸν ὀχετόν, καὶ ἐνεφορήσαντο ἀνέδην οἱ Κιρραῖοι τοῦ ὕδατος. καὶ οἱ μὲν ὑπὸ τῆς διαρροίας ἐξέλιπον, οἱ δὲ ἐπὶ τοῦ τείχους τῆς φρουρᾶς Ἀμφικτύονες εἷλον τὴν φρουρὰν καὶ τὴν πόλιν.

Image result for medieval manuscript opium

On Leaving

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? 

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.8

Τὰ μέλλοντα μὴ ταρασσέτω· ἥξεις γὰρ ἐπ᾿ αὐτά, ἐὰν δεήσῃ, φέρων τὸν αὐτὸν λόγον, ᾧ νῦν πρὸς τὰ παρόντα χρᾷ.

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…?

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations  8.16

Μέμνησο, ὅτι καὶ τὸ μετατίθεσθαι καὶ ἕπεσθαι τῷ διορθοῦντι ὁμοίως ἐλεύθερόν ἐστιν. σὴ γὰρ ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν σὴν ὁρμὴν καὶ κρίσιν καὶ δὴ καὶ κατὰ νοῦν τὸν σὸν περαινομένη.

Remember that to change your mind and to follow a new direction is 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.

What’s Your Writing Like Without Quotations?

Diogenes Laertius, Chrysippos  7.7.180

“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.”

Καὶ Ἀπολλόδωρος δ᾿ ὁ Ἀθηναῖος ἐν τῇ Συναγωγῇ τῶν δογμάτων, βουλόμενος παριστάνειν ὅτι τὰ Ἐπικούρου οἰκείᾳ δυνάμει γεγραμμένα καὶ ἀπαράθετα ὄντα μυρίῳ πλείω ἐστὶ τῶν Χρυσίππου βιβλίων, φησὶν οὕτως αὐτῇ τῇ λέξει· “εἰ γάρ τις ἀφέλοι τῶν Χρυσίππου βιβλίων ὅσ᾿ ἀλλότρια παρατέθειται, κενὸς αὐτῷ ὁ χάρτης καταλελείψεται.” καὶ ταῦτα μὲν Ἀπολλόδωρος. ἡ δὲ παρεδρεύουσα πρεσβῦτις αὐτῷ, ὥς φησι Διοκλῆς, ἔλεγεν ὡς πεντακοσίους γράφοι στίχους ἡμερησίους. Ἑκάτων δέ φησιν ἐλθεῖν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ φιλοσοφίαν, τῆς οὐσίας αὐτοῦ τῆς πατρῴας εἰς τὸ βασιλικὸν ἀναληφθείσης.

25909_2[1]
Hedgehog number 2,  British Library, MS Egerton 1121, f. 44v.

Argo Navis & the Abolished Constellations

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Møenlight Sonata’, curated by René Block. Kunsthal 44Møen, Møen, Denmark, 2018. Courtesy Galerie Volker Diehl.

For B.Y. & A.Y., the star hunters.

Homer, Odyssey, XII, 69-72

οἴη δὴ κείνη γε παρέπλω ποντοπόρος νηῦς,
Ἀργὼ πᾶσι μέλουσα, παρ᾽ Αἰήταο πλέουσα.
καὶ νύ κε τὴν ἔνθ᾽ ὦκα βάλεν μεγάλας ποτὶ πέτρας,
ἀλλ᾽ Ἥρη παρέπεμψεν, ἐπεὶ φίλος ἦεν Ἰήσων.

Only the famous Argo sailed through there
Returning from the visit with Aeetes.
The current hurdled the ship towards the rocks,
But Hera, who loved Jason, led them safe.

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica I, 109-114

αὐτή μιν Τριτωνὶς ἀριστήων ἐς ὅμιλον
ὦρσεν Ἀθηναίη, μετὰ δ᾽ ἤλυθεν ἐλδομένοισιν.
αὐτὴ γὰρ καὶ νῆα θοὴν κάμε: σὺν δέ οἱ Ἄργος
τεῦξεν Ἀρεστορίδης κείνης ὑποθημοσύνῃσιν.
τῶ καὶ πασάων προφερεστάτη ἔπλετο νηῶν,
ὅσσαι ὑπ᾽ εἰρεσίῃσιν ἐπειρήσαντο θαλάσσης.

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.

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

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. 

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

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.

Alexandra Paperno. Argo Navis (from ‘Abolished Constellations’ series), 2016. Ink on paper, 76×56 cm

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.  

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

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.

[For further details on the episode of the Sirens, see my “Archipelagos of Time: On the Song of the Sirens”

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. 

Alexandra Paperno, Pictor, (from the Star Maps Series), 2003, mixed media on canvas, 150×120 cm

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.  

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

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.

Alexandra Paperno. Grey Sun, 2003. ‘Self-Love Among the Ruins’ exhibition view, curated by Ekaterina Inozemtseva. Schusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow, 2018. Courtesy Smart Art.

Bibliography

  • 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.