Books All Day and Night

Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon (Sect. X)

“It is well that we should be alive to the price at which knowledge must be purchased. Day by day, night by night, from the age of twenty upwards, Casaubon is at his books. He realised Boeckh’s ideal, who has told us that in classical learning ‘dies diem docet, ut perdideris quam sine linea transmiseris.’ When he is not at his books, his mind is in them. Reading is not an amusement filling the languid pauses between the hours of action ; it is the one pursuit engrossing all the hours and the whole mind. ‘ The day, with part of the night added, is not long enough.

His life, regarded from the exterior, seems adapted to deter, rather than to invite imitation. A life of hardship, in circumstances humble, almost sordid, short of want, but pinched by poverty; Casaubon renounced action, pleasure, ease, society, health, life itself— killing himself at fifty-six. Shall we say that he did this for the sake of fame ? Fame there was, but it reached him in but faint echoes. Even what there was, was all dashed by the loud slander of the dominant ecclesiastical party, and the whispered suspicion of the vanquished. At best, the limits of such fame must always be circumscribed. To the great, the fashionable, the gay, and the busy, the grammarian is a poor pedant, and no famous man. The approbation of our fellows may be a powerful motive of conduct. It is powerful to generate devotion to their service. It is not powerful enough to sustain a life of research. No other extrinsic motive is so. The one only motive which can support the daily energy called for in the solitary student’s life, is the desire to know. Every intelligence, as such, contains a germ of curiosity. In some few this appetence is developed into a yearning, an eagerness, a passion, an exigency, an ‘inquietude poussante,’ to use an expression of Leibnitz, which dominates all others, and becomes the rule of life.”

Image result for isaac casaubon

Editing the Classics

J.E.B. Mayor, Preface to Thirteen Satires of Juvenal:

“I often think that much of the labour spent on editing the classics is wasted; at least the same amount of time might be invested to far greater profit. For example, if one of the recent editors of Persius had devoted but three weeks to the preparation of a Lexicon Persianum, he would have produced a κτῆμα ἐς ἀεί, a permanent addition to classical learning. We sorely need lexicons e.g. to Cicero (except his speeches), Varro, Livy, the two Senecas, Quintilian’s declamations, Valerius Flaccus, Silius, the Latin anthology, Macrobius, Tertullian, Augustine, Jerome; to technical authors in general, e.g. agricultural, grammatical, mathematical, medical, military, musical, rhetorical: in Greek to the early Christian literature, Diogenes Laertius, Josephus, Philo, Galen, Stobaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origon, Chrysostom, Cyril. If every editor would choose, in addition to his author and to the books commonly read in college, one ancient author and one modern critic, as his specialty, commentaries would be far more original than they are. The universities might issue variorum editions, not on the Dutch plan, not like Halm’s Latin editions of Cicero, or Dindorf’s of Greek authors, but more concise and more comprehensive at the same time. Two or three might combine, say, to edit the commentaries on an author, as Livy, Petronius, Suetonius, or Apuleius. A commentary which takes rank as ‘classical’, e.g. Casaubon’s on Suetonius, Persius, Athenaeus, Strabo, should be given almost entire, and form the nucleus, other notes being carefully sifted, and repetitions cleared away. One colleague might he responsible for all editions of the author; while two others ransacked periodical and occasional literature, variae lectiones, adversaria cet. Madvig says, one is ashamed to be called a philologer, when one looks at the obsolete medley brought together by Moser on the Tusculans; in far narrower compass all that is valuable there, and much that is omitted, might be stored for all time. By such a process books like Rader’s Martial, now no doubt, as Prof. Friedlander says, for most of us, ‘völlig veraltet,’ would once more yield their treasures to the ordinary student; Marcile too and Harault would no longer be mere names”

Ausonius Sucks?

Gore Vidal, Julian (Chp. 1):

Not long ago I sent round to the library to see what they had by Ausonius. The slave returned with a wheelbarrow full of books. Ausonius must be read to be believed! As poet, no subject is too trivial for him; as courtier, no flattery too excessive. He did write one passable nature poem on the Moselle, but I’m not keen on rivers. The rest of his work is quite marvellous in its tedium. Particularly those verses he wrote at Valentinian’s request. Among the subjects chosen by the Emperor were the source of the Danube (Ausonius did not locate it but he made a good try), Easter, and (best of all) four odes to the Emperor’s four favourite horses. I had one of these equine odes copied out and Hippia reads it to me whenever I am depressed. It begins “Oh raven steed, whose fortune it is to spread the golden thighs and Mars-like firm convexities of divine Augustus…” I don’t know when I have enjoyed a poem so much. I’ll enclose a copy. Anyway, I suggest you see Ausonius as soon as possible. And of course you will remember to express admiration for his work! In a good cause hypocrisy becomes virtue.

Translation Nation

Samuel Johnson, The Idler No. 68:

The Greeks for a time travelled into Egypt, but they translated no books from the Egyptian language; and when the Macedonians had overthrown the empire of Persia, the countries that became subject to Grecian dominion studied only the Grecian literature. The books of the conquered nations, if they had any among them, sunk into oblivion; Greece considered herself as the mistress, if not as the parent of arts, her language contained all that was supposed to be known, and, except the sacred writings of the Old Testament, I know not that the library of Alexandria adopted any thing from a foreign tongue.

The Romans confessed themselves the scholars of the Greeks, and do not appear to have expected, what has since happened, that the ignorance of succeeding ages would prefer them to their teachers. Every man, who in Rome aspired to the praise of literature, thought it necessary to learn Greek, and had no need of versions when they could study the originals. Translation, however, was not wholly neglected. Dramatick poems could be understood by the people in no language but their own, and the Romans were sometimes entertained with the tragedies of Euripides and the comedies of Menander. Other works were sometimes attempted; in an old scholiast there is mention of a Latin Iliad; and we have not wholly lost Tully’s version of the poem of Aratus; but it does not appear that any man grew eminent by interpreting another, and perhaps it was more frequent to translate for exercise or amusement, than for fame.

Dismal Despite Democritus

Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey:

The town of Abdera, notwithstanding Democritus lived there, trying all the powers of irony and laughter to reclaim it, was the vilest and most profligate town in all Thrace. What for poisons, conspiracies, and assassinations,—libels, pasquinades, and tumults, there was no going there by day—’twas worse by night.

Now, when things were at the worst, it came to pass that the Andromeda of Euripides being represented at Abdera, the whole orchestra was delighted with it: but of all the passages which delighted them, nothing operated more upon their imaginations than the tender strokes of nature which the poet had wrought up in that pathetic speech of Perseus, O Cupid, prince of gods and men! &c. Every man almost spoke pure iambics the next day, and talked of nothing but Perseus his pathetic address,—“O Cupid! prince of gods and men!”—in every street of Abdera, in every house, “O Cupid! Cupid!”—in every mouth, like the natural notes of some sweet melody which drop from it, whether it will or no,—nothing but “Cupid! Cupid! prince of gods and men!”—The fire caught—and the whole city, like the heart of one man, open’d itself to Love.

No pharmacopolist could sell one grain of hellebore,—not a single armourer had a heart to forge one instrument of death;—Friendship and Virtue met together, and kiss’d each other in the street; the golden age returned, and hung over the town of Abdera—every Abderite took his eaten pipe, and every Abderitish woman left her purple web, and chastely sat her down and listened to the song.

’Twas only in the power, says the Fragment, of the God whose empire extendeth from heaven to earth, and even to the depths of the sea, to have done this.

Always Relevant: An Iliad of Troubles

Erasmus, Adagia 226:

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

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

Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, by Nikolay Ge

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

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

Envy, Regard, Desolation

Chateaubriand, Voyage from Paris to Jerusalem (1):

It had been one hour since nightfall when we began to consider returning to Athens. The sky shone with stars, the air with a sweetness, a clearness, and a purity which were incomparable. Our horses went with small steps, and we fell to silence. The path which we were going along was likely the ancient path of the Academy, bordered by the tombs of the citizens who died for their country and the greatest men of Greece. There lay Thrasybulus, Pericles, Chabrias, Timotheus, Harmodius, and Aristogeiton. It was a noble idea to gather in one field the ash of those famous people who lived in different ages and who, as members of one illustrious family long disperses, came finally to rest in the bosom of their communal mother. What variety of genius, of greatness, of courage! What diversity of habits and virtues one could perceive there with one glance of the eye! And these virtues tempered by death, like those noble wines which one mixes, as Plato says, with a sober divinity, do not offend the sensibilities of the living. The passerby who read on one funeral column these simple words:

Pericles, from the tribe of Acamantis, from the deme of Cholargos

felt nothing more than admiration without envy. Cicero represents to us Atticus wandering among these tombs, seized by a holy regard for these august ashes. It is no longer possible for us to make the same scene. The tombs are destroyed. The illustrious dead whom the Athenians placed by their city like outposts were not raised to defend them. They suffered the Tartars trampling them underfoot. ‘The times, violence, and the plough,’ says Chandler, ‘have leveled it all.’ The plough is too much there. And this remark which I make paints a better picture of Greece’s desolation than do the reflections which I could yield myself to.

Il y avait déjà une heure qu’il faisait nuit quand nous songeâmes à retourner à Athènes : le ciel était brillant d’étoiles, et l’air d’une douceur, d’une transparence et d’une pureté incomparables ; nos chevaux allaient au petit pas, et nous étions tombés dans le silence. Le chemin que nous parcourions était vraisemblablement l’ancien chemin de l’Académie, que bordaient les tombeaux des citoyens morts pour la patrie et ceux des plus grands hommes de la Grèce : là reposaient Thrasybule, Périclès, Chabrias, Timothée, Harmodius et Aristogiton. Ce fut une noble idée de rassembler dans un même champ la cendre de ces personnages fameux qui vécurent dans différents siècles, et qui, comme les membres d’une famille illustre longtemps dispersée, étaient venus se reposer au giron de leur mère commune. Quelle variété de génie, de grandeur et de courage ! Quelle diversité de mœurs et de vertus on apercevait là d’un coup d’œil ! Et ces vertus tempérées par la mort, comme ces vins généreux que l’on mêle, dit Platon, avec une divinité sobre, n’offusquaient plus les regards des vivants. Le passant qui lisait sur une colonne funèbre ces simples mots :

Périclès de la tribu acamantide,
du bourg de Cholargue,

n’éprouvait plus que de l’admiration sans envie. Cicéron nous représente Atticus errant au milieu de ces tombeaux et saisi d’un saint respect à la vue de ces augustes cendres. Il ne pourrait plus aujourd’hui nous faire la même peinture : les tombeaux sont détruits. Les illustres morts que les Athéniens avaient placés hors de leur ville, comme aux avant-postes, ne se sont point levés pour la défendre ; ils ont souffert que des Tartares la foulassent aux pieds. ” Le temps, la violence et la charrue, dit Chandler, ont tout nivelé. ” La charrue est de trop ici ; et cette remarque que je fais peint mieux la désolation de la Grèce que les réflexions auxquelles je pourrais me livrer.

Going Ancient

Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Emmanuel Vasse (June 4, 1846):

For me, despite my sorrows, my worries, the troubles of a heap of affairs, I work reasonably enough, that is to say, around eight hours a day. I do some Greek, some history; I read some Latin, I cover myself in these heroic ancients for whom I end up having a sense of artistic worship. I strive to live in the ancient world. I will arrive there, with God’s help.

Pour moi, malgré les chagrins, les soucis, les embarras d’un tas d’affaires, je travaille assez raisonnablement, c’est-à-dire environ huit heures par jour. Je fais du grec, de l’histoire ; je lis du latin, je me culotte un peu de ces braves anciens pour lesquels je finis par avoir un culte artistique ; je m’efforce de vivre dans le monde antique ; j’y arriverai, Dieu aidant.

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.


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


Vergil, Seduced by Imitation

From Samuel Johnson’s, The Rambler No. 121:

Yet, whatever Hope may persuade, or Reason evince, Experience can boast of very few Additions to ancient Fable. The Wars of Troy and the Travels of Ulysses have furnished almost all succeeding Poets with Incidents, Characters, and Sentiments. The Romans are confessed to have attempted little more than to display in their own Tongue the Fictions of the Greeks. There is in all their Writings such a perpetual Recurrence of Allusions to the Tales of the fabulous Age, that they must be confessed often to want that Power of giving Pleasure which Novelty supplies; nor can we wonder that they excelled so much in the Graces of Diction, when we consider how little they were employed in Search of new Thoughts.

The warmest Admirers of the great Mantuan Poet can extol him for little more than the Skill with which he has, by making his Hero both a Traveller and a Warrior, united the Beauties of the Iliad and Odyssey in one Composition; yet his Judgment was perhaps sometimes overborn by his Avarice of the Homeric Treasures, and for fear of suffering a sparkling Ornament to be lost, has inserted it where it cannot shine with its original Splendor. When Ulysses visited the infernal Regions, he found among the Heroes who died at Troy, his Competitor Ajax, who, when the Arms of Achilles were adjudged to Ulysses, died by his own Hand in the Madness of Disappointment. He still appeared to resent, as on Earth, his Loss and Disgrace. Ulysses endeavoured to pacify him with Praises and Submission; but Ajax walked away without Reply. This Passage has always been considered as eminently beautiful, because Ajax the haughty Chief, the unlettered Soldier, of unshaken Courage, of immoveable Constancy, but without the Power of recommending his own Virtues by Eloquence, or enforcing his Assertions by any other Argument than the Sword, had no way of making his Resentment known but by gloomy Sullenness and dumb Ferocity. He therefore naturally showed his Hatred of a Man whom he conceived to have defeated him only by Volubility of Tongue, by Silence more contemptuous and affecting than any Words that so rude an Orator could have found, and which gave his Enemy no Opportunity of exerting the only Power in which he was superior. When Aeneas is sent by Virgil into the Regions below, he meets with Dido the Queen of Carthage, whom his Perfidy had hurried to the Grave; he accosts her with Tenderness and Excuses, but the Lady turns away like Ajax in mute Anger. She turns away like Ajax, but she resembles him in none of those Qualities which give either Dignity or Propriety to Silence. She might, without any Departure from the Tenour of her Conduct, have burst out like other injured Ladies into Clamour, Reproach, and Denunciation; but Virgil had his Imagination full of Ajax, and therefore could not prevail on himself to teach Dido any other Mode of Resentment.

If Virgil could be thus seduced by Imitation there will be little Hope that common Wits should escape; and accordingly we find, that besides the universal and acknowledged Practice of copying the Ancients, there has prevailed in every Age a particular Species of Fiction. At one Time all Truth was conveyed in Allegory; at another nothing was seen but in a Vision; at one Period all the Poets followed Sheep, and every Event produced a Pastoral; at another they busied themselves wholly in giving Directions to a Painter.