Platonic Degradation

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Chp. 5):

Indeed, the very first acknowledgment (as far as I am aware) of the attraction of mutilated bodies occurs in a founding description of mental conflict. It is a passage in The Republic, Book IV, where Plato’s Socrates describes how our reason may be overwhelmed by an unworthy desire, which drives the self to become angry with a part of its nature. Plato has been developing a tripartite theory of mental function, consisting of reason, anger or indignation, and appetite or desire – anticipating the Freudian scheme of superego, ego, and id (with the difference that Plato puts reason on top and conscience, represented by indignation, in the middle). In the course of this argument, to illustrate how one may yield, even if reluctantly, to repulsive attractions, Socrates relates a story he heard about Leontius, son of Aglaion:

On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go and look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, “There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on this lovely sight.”

Declining to choose the more common example of an inappropriate or unlawful sexual passion as his illustration of the struggle between reason and desire, Plato appears to take for granted that we also have an appetite for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation.

Surely the undertow of this despised impulse must also be taken into account when discussing the effect of atrocity in pictures.

The Envy and Spite of Intellectual Life

D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

“There was a gorgeous talk on Sunday evening, when the conversation drifted again to love.

‘Blest be the tie that binds Our hearts in kindred something-or-other’

— said Tommy Dukes. ‘I’d like to know what the tie is…The tie that binds us just now is mental friction on one another. And, apart from that, there’s damned little tie between us. We bust apart, and say spiteful things about one another, like all the other damned intellectuals in the world. Damned everybodies, as far as that goes, for they all do it. Else we bust apart, and cover up the spiteful things we feel against one another by saying false sugaries. It’s a curious thing that the mental life seems to flourish with its roots in spite, ineffable and fathomless spite. Always has been so! Look at Socrates, in Plato, and his bunch round him! The sheer spite of it all, just sheer joy in pulling somebody else to bits…Protagoras, or whoever it was! And Alcibiades, and all the other little disciple dogs joining in the fray! I must say it makes one prefer Buddha, quietly sitting under a bo-tree, or Jesus, telling his disciples little Sunday stories, peacefully, and without any mental fireworks. No, there’s something wrong with the mental life, radically. It’s rooted in spite and envy, envy and spite. Ye shall know the tree by its fruit.'”

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“You’re Too Keen On Dead Stuff”

Richard West to Thomas Gray, May 11, 1742:

Your fragment is in Aulus Gellius; and both it and your Greek delicious. But why are you thus melancholy? I am so sorry for it, that you see I cannot forbear writing again the very first opportunity; though I have little to say except to expostulate with you about it. I find you converse much with the dead, and I do not blame you for that; I converse with them too, though not indeed with the Greek. But I must condemn you for your longing to be with them. What, are there no joys among the living? I could almost cry out with Catullus, “Alphene immemor, atque unanimis false sodalibus!” But to turn an accusation thus upon another, is ungenerous; so I will take my leave of you for the present with a “Vale et vive paulisper cum vivis.”

Renaissance Stagecoach Verse

Coleridge, Biographia Literaria  (XVI):

Not otherwise is it with the more polished poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially those of Italy. The imagery is almost always general: sun, moon, flowers, breezes, murmuring streams, warbling songsters, delicious shades, lovely damsels cruel as fair, nymphs, naiads, and goddesses, are the materials which are common to all, and which each shaped and arranged according to his judgment or fancy, little solicitous to add or to particularize. If we make an honourable exception in favour of some English poets, the thoughts too are as little novel as the images; and the fable of their narrative poems, for the most part drawn from mythology, or sources of equal notoriety, derive their chief attractions from the manner of treating them; from impassioned flow, or picturesque arrangement.

In opposition to the present age, and perhaps in as faulty an extreme, they placed the essence of poetry in the art. The excellence, at which they aimed, consisted in the exquisite polish of the diction, combined with perfect simplicity. This their prime object they attained by the avoidance of every word, which a gentleman would not use in dignified conversation, and of every word and phrase, which none but a learned man would use; by the studied position of words and phrases, so that not only each part should be melodious in itself, but contribute to the harmony of the whole, each note referring and conducting to the melody of all the foregoing and following words of the same period or stanza; and lastly with equal labour, the greater because unbetrayed, by the variation and various harmonies of their metrical movement.

Their measures, however, were not indebted for their variety to the introduction of new metres, such as have been attempted of late in the Alonzo and Imogen, and others borrowed from the German, having in their very mechanism a specific overpowering tune, to which the generous reader humours his voice and emphasis, with more indulgence to the author than attention to the meaning or quantity of the words; but which, to an ear familiar with the numerous sounds of the Greek and Roman poets, has an effect not unlike that of galloping over a paved road in a German stage-waggon without springs. On the contrary, the elder bards both of Italy and England produced a far greater as well as more charming variety by countless modifications, and subtle balances of sound in the common metres of their country. A lasting and enviable reputation awaits that man of genius, who should attempt and realize a union;—who should recall the high finish, the appropriateness, the facility, the delicate proportion, and above all, the perfusive and omnipresent grace, which have preserved, as in a shrine of precious amber, the Sparrow of Catullus, the Swallow, the Grasshopper, and all the other little loves of Anacreon; and which, with bright, though diminished glories, revisited the youth and early manhood of Christian Europe, in the vales of Arno, and the groves of Isis and of Cam; and who with these should combine the keener interest, deeper pathos, manlier reflection, and the fresher and more various imagery, which give a value and a name that will not pass away to the poets who have done honour to our own times, and to those of our immediate predecessors.

Coleridge in 1795

Forget Latin and Get Some Greek!

Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son (122):

You cannot study much in the Academy; but you may study usefully there, if you are an economist of your time, and bestow only upon good books those quarters and halves of hours, which occur to everybody in the course of almost every day; and which, at the year’s end, amount to a very considerable sum of time. Let Greek, without fail, share some part of every day; I do not mean the Greek poets, the catches of Anacreon, or the tender complaints of Theocritus, or even the porter-like language of Homer’s heroes; of whom all smatterers in Greek know a little, quote often, and talk of always; but I mean Plato, Aristoteles, Demosthenes, and Thucydides, whom none but adepts know. It is Greek that must distinguish you in the learned world, Latin alone will not: and Greek must be sought to be retained, for it never occurs like Latin. When you read history or other books of amusement, let every language you are master of have its turn, so that you may not only retain, but improve in everyone.

The Effect of the Classics on Young and Old

John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent:

“Let us consider, too, how differently young and old are affected by the words of some classic author, such as Homer or Horace. Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical common-places, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine, and imitates, as he thinks, successfully, in his own flowing versification, at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never before known them, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness. Then he comes to understand how it is that lines, the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills, have lasted generation after generation, for thousands of years, with a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of his own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival.”

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“Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor”

A guest poem from Andrea Grenadier : “Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor”

The end came quietly somewhere in the middle.
It may have begun at a backyard party
with a backhand comment
whispered away so you wouldn’t hear.
Or maybe it was in the kitchen,
busy with another barbecue or crawfish boil,
that something was said.

Your life was filled with events that stirred
from one to the other in tidy steps,
but soon your songs were barren
of the lyric you believed in before tenderness turned.
You lost your desire for the knowing of it,
and it slipped out the back porch door.
During your casting off,
your eyes were fixed to some other horizon.
In your escape, you left everything.

We sat before your favorite painting
in which Catullus, like the artist,
pinned to an endless canvas his siren-call to sea.
Lowering your head over the sphere of your fists,
and whispering “please,”
you prayed for Catullus, for both of you,
to reach shores without shoals, amen.
You despaired, once through the narrow passage,
that coming upon all that’s seen isn’t knowledge of it.

Windstrong, headstrong, salt-stung, uncleansed,
My limbs tired from their labors coursing
the dotted lines of ancient sea maps.
A bag of wind rips open at Bithynia,
and carries me from west to east.
I sang odes at my brother’s tomb, and readied my return.
Through scalding waves I was raised aloft,
my sailors spoke of ports that lay beyond the brilliancies of skies, of seas,
and the earth that came to me in my dreams.

They were raised not to talk about it,
but your daughters whispered prayers
to some god other than ours for your safe return.
They came back to you with the knowing of the unknown,
never having replaced you. They were drawn back
with grace enough to forgive whatever it was, but never say.
In their eyes, you never grew old.
You were as the day you left,
the day you slipped out the back door:
lithe, handsome, brave
before everything fell.

“Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor” is a remarkable painting by the American artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011). His biography says: “Inspired by ancient Mediterranean history and geography, Greek and Roman mythology, and epic poetry, Twombly created—sometimes on a grade scale, in multi-panel works—a sometimes-inscrutable world of iconography, metaphor, and myth.”

Catullus, Carmen 101

“Drawn across many nations and seas
I come to your pitiful resting place, brother
To present you with a final gift at death
And to try to pointlessly comfort mute ash–
because chance has stolen you away from me.
My sad brother, unfairly taken from me.
For now, accept this, the ancient custom of our ancestors
Handed down as the sad gift for the grave,
Given with a flowing flood of fraternal tears
And forever, my brother, hail and farewell.”

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

By day, Andrea Grenadier is a communications and marketing specialist and editor for a national public health organization based in Washington, D.C. She began writing poems in 2005, and has been published in Pennsylvania English, the literary journal of Penn State University, and Poems of War and Peace, published in Canada, as well as in other journals. She is currently preparing her first chapbook of poems, What Brings Me Here, for e-publication. Andrea lives in Alexandria, VA.

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.

Announcing New Season of Movies We Dig: A Podcast about Film, Antiquity and Everything In-Between

About a year ago, I asked my friend and colleague, Elijah Fleming, what she thought about hosting a movie review podcast. I had just defended my dissertation, the pandemic was in full swing and the year ahead promised mostly solitary work punctuated by the occasional zoom meeting. I needed something new, something engaging, something fun. So, I asked Eli, a fellow grad student at UT Austin, if she’d be interested in talking about movies, a frequent hobby of ours, but into a microphone and (hopefully) for an audience. Thus, Movies We Dig was born. You can listen to our first season on our website or on multiple streaming platforms.

Now, as the school year enters full swing, we’re excited to announce we’re returning for another season. We recently released a short episode laying out some teasers and plans, but I wanted to reflect a little more about our past and future plans, for both current and potential listeners.

From its first conception, we wanted MWD to go beyond nitpicking what movies get right or wrong, though shedding our pedantic tendencies remains a struggle (2004’s Troy has llamas!). Instead, we wanted to review movies as both works of art and of reception; how perceptions of the past intersect with contemporary media and culture. Moreover, we wanted to approach our material without the formal trappings of academic presentations or lectures, to get earnest and humorous reactions from experts but also movie-lovers. If it wasn’t fun, then what’s the point?

Looking ahead, our initial goal of a lighthearted but (somewhat) informed show remains largely unchanged. If anything, we’re expanding. In addition to tackling some big titles we’ve kept in reserve (looking at you, Gladiator), we’re also branching out into other media. The ancient world has been a popular setting for many television programs, from the foundational I, Claudius to several current historical dramas like Barbarians and Britannia. Additionally, the last few years have seen a small blossoming of Classical myth and history in video games just begging for attention from our field, including two Assassin’s Creed titles and the indie smash hit Hades. It’s all on our radar.

Concerning expansion, our other goal for S2 is to bring in more voices to our hot-take-centric approach to ancient film criticism. Our first season was graced by a wonderful array of guests from public-facing classicists and archaeologists, including SA’s own Joel Christensen, and we’ve already got several exciting guests booked already. Still, we’re constantly seeking new guests, especially non-professors. Last year, we were joined by a fantastic group of first-year students from Adam Rabinowtiz’s class on the Trojan War to discuss Troy: Fall of a City.

This brings us to our final vocatio. Classicists near and far, if you, your colleagues or your students know a film, show or game that needs discussion, reach us at movieswedig@gmail.com or on Twitter at @dig_movies. Please listen, like, review, subscribe and get ready to dig some more movies, not-movies and all the hot takes.

You can learn more about us the hosts on our website, where you can also find links on where to listen.

Oedipus Tyrannosaurus Rex For Tuesday

1455a

“The best kind of recognition of all comes from the plot events themselves when the surprise comes out of probable events. This is the case in Sophokles’ Oedipus or in Iphigenia. For only these kinds of recognitions can happen without manufactured signs and necklaces. The second best kinds are from logical reasoning.”

πασῶν δὲ βελτίστη ἀναγνώρισις ἡ ἐξ αὐτῶν τῶν πραγμάτων, τῆς ἐκπλήξεως γιγνομένης δι᾿ εἰκότων, οἷον ἐν τῷ Σοφοκλέους Οἰδίποδι καὶ τῇ Ἰφιγενείᾳ· εἰκὸς γὰρ βούλεσθαι ἐπιθεῖναι γράμματα. αἱ γὰρ τοιαῦται μόναι ἄνευ τῶν πεποιημένων σημείων καὶ περιδεραίων. δεύτεραι δὲ αἱ ἐκ συλλογισμοῦ.

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos 4-8

“The city is simultaneously full of burning incense
Songs of prayer and lamentations.
Children: rather than unjustly hear this from someone else
I have come here to learn it my self,
The man named Oedipus, known to everyone.”

πόλις δ᾿ ὁμοῦ μὲν θυμιαμάτων γέμει,
ὁμοῦ δὲ παιάνων τε καὶ στεναγμάτων·
ἁγὼ δικαιῶν μὴ παρ᾿ ἀγγέλων, τέκνα,
ἄλλων ἀκούειν αὐτὸς ὧδ᾿ ἐλήλυθα,
ὁ πᾶσι κλεινὸς Οἰδίπους καλούμενος.

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos, 59-61

“…I know this well
That you all are sick, and even though you’re sick
Not a one of you is as sick as I am.
For each of you must face up to a single share of pain
As it comes to you and not another.
But my soul groans for the city, for me, and you, at once.”

εὖ γὰρ οἶδ᾿ ὅτι
νοσεῖτε πάντες· καὶ νοσοῦντες, ὡς ἐγὼ
οὐκ ἔστιν ὑμῶν ὅστις ἐξ ἴσου νοσεῖ.
τὸ μὲν γὰρ ὑμῶν ἄλγος εἰς ἕν᾿ ἔρχεται
μόνον καθ᾿ αὑτόν, κοὐδέν᾿ ἄλλον, ἡ δ᾿ ἐμὴ
ψυχὴ πόλιν τε κἀμὲ καὶ σ᾿ ὁμοῦ στένει.

Oedipus Tyrannos, 634-638

“Blockheads, why are you stirring up this civil war
of tongue-wagging? Aren’t you ashamed to be kicking up
personal beefs when the land is diseased?”

τί τὴν ἄβουλον, ὦ ταλαίπωροι, στάσιν
γλώσσης ἐπήρασθ᾿; οὐδ᾿ ἐπαισχύνεσθε γῆς
οὕτω νοσούσης ἴδια κινοῦντες κακά;

One of the most iconic images of Oedipus in the 5th century BCE depicts the moment of his interview with the Sphinx. Here is a representative example (Beazley Archive 205372; Gregorian Etruscan Museum, Vatican City, Vat. 16541):

oedipussphinxv

This is the moment when the Sphinx asks Oedipus her famous question. The iconic nature of this also makes it ripe for parody.

oedipus-parody-3

This is the best picture I could manage of the scene (if you are interested, see J. Boardman’s article in JHS 90 (1970) 194-195. This vase features the beast masturbating and ejaculating while the hero looks on and holds his sword. It is dated to the mid-fifth century BCE. (I found it in the LIMC, number 69).

There is a much more tame version of the later, which maintains the phallus, but skimps on the erections and ejaculations. This vase is in the Boston MFA, 01.8036.

oedipus-parody-2