“This is from filling the spirit/heart up to the top, from the word [river banks]. Or, it is from the word “burden”, the form “overburdened” which is a form of the aorist passive participle, as okhthêsas is.
There is, of course, at least one article about this:
Holoka, James P. “”Looking Darkly” (ϒΠΟΔΡΑΙΔΩ&# X039D;): Reflections on Status and Decorum in Homer.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 113 (1983): 1-16. doi:10.2307/283999.
Nandini: I was going to ask if you wanted to play a little game with me. I do this one midterm evaluation that asks every student to pick one thing they’d add to your course, one thing they’d drop, one thing they’d change, and one thing they’d keep the same. And I wondered if we could do that for “classics” as a field right now. What would we add that isn’t already happening?
Ethan: One thing that I would like to see is more courses that cover broader topics in antiquity, [like one we teach at UT-Austin] called “The Ancient Mediterranean World.” The first thing we talk about is how the idea of “the West” or “the Mediterranean” is extremely problematic because that spans multiple continents and multiple climates and multiple cultures … from Babylon, Sumer, Egypt, Israel, all the way up until Greece and Rome. And we end up forming links between all of those cultures. I think courses that help you see similarities and share experiences between cultures are super cool and underutilized in colleges in general.
Nandini: I love that. And I would add to your “add” that I would really love more training in grad school or at other levels to prepare us to do that kind of teaching [in keeping with recent interest in global antiquities]. I know it’s intimidating for any of us, after the depth of training we receive in a couple cultures, to branch out and feel like amateurs. I think it’s actually okay to be an amateur; I wish that we would embrace the fact that we’re always learning and we don’t need to stay forever within our dissertation fields. But I would love serious training on those cultural interactions really emphasized as part of the curriculum instead of [treated as] a throwaway option. [The same goes for interactions between antiquity and the present.] My students always love when we add some thought to the modern world — conversations about cultural interactions or appropriations or intersectionality with a classical twist. So I find that using Eidolon articles or bringing up modern angles is a great way to start or end discussion [that could also be better modelled in graduate school].
<We rave about Antigone in Fergusonand the brilliant discussions it’s generated in our classrooms, then move on to what we’d drop.>
Ethan: One thing I would drop is the idea that you need a fully complete resume to get into graduate school. And what I mean by that is a lot of professors, when a student comes to them with an interest in graduate school in classics, say, “Okay, you need four years of one language, three years of another. You need experience in this and this. … And it would also help to know either French or German or Italian.” And that can be severely limiting to students who didn’t have access to that sort of thing in high school. … If you put all of these qualifiers in, then it’s frankly impossible for a student who comes into college without any knowledge or practice in classics to go to graduate school … and become a professor or be a part of the field, right? And that can be severely limiting and it’s frankly not true. I mean, I was lucky to have a lot of high school experience in Latin, but I didn’t take any classics courses my freshman year … by the time I was doing advanced Greek, I was a second-semester junior. I didn’t have any German or French. And I got into a good program out of undergrad because I worked hard and I had a lot of confidence in myself and I had people tell me that I could do this — but I don’t think everyone has that. A lot of places, professors tend to gate-keep the field, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Nandini: And even your saying that you “only” had a certain amount of Greek by your junior year is already amazing, right? Many people, especially ones who fall in love with classics late in their college career, might not have access to even one Greek class — but they could have so much to bring to the field. So I fully endorse that and I want to add for the record that you may have more Latin right now than I did by the time I became a professor. <They laugh; Nandini attended a public high school with no Latin program and stumbled into classics as an undergraduate.> But there’s a kind of virtue in coming to the field from a background that wasn’t about rigorous language training from the very beginning. I think that actually you sometimes have more insights or you can be a little more creative in your outlook.
So I totally agree with you and I would add, as a corollary, that I’d love to change our ideas of what expertise looks like, but also drop the expectation of total comprehensive synthetic knowledge of everything ever written on a particular author. Which is something that [we faculty often] perpetuate with the way that we do grad school reading lists and design exams and [compose] footnotes that last pages. It creates so much fear and intimidation. I mean, if you’re a Vergil scholar like me and you feel you need to read every one of the hundred thousand things ever written about a particular passage, you would never write a word. So I think that we need to start modifying that culture for sure.
Ethan: Also, to add onto that, letting students know that it’s okay to skim articles. Because I think this is one of the dirty secrets of academia, especially when you first get into graduate school. You have a thousand lines of Latin to read for one class, plus five or six articles and you’re not going to be able to physically do that with two or three other classes. And I think a lot of professors try and keep the secret that people skim … and that’s okay. You don’t have to read every single word of an article. If you can understand what the author is doing, the logic they’re using, and at least some of the references they’re making or some of the source material they’re citing, that’s good. And that’s especially good for a college student.
Nandini: Absolutely. And there’s this old ethos, or maybe it’s more an aesthetic, where [professors] would cultivate the aura of somebody who has completely memorized the entire classical corpus. They would sit in the front at lectures and trot out verbatim citations in the original language. There is something incredibly cool and wonderful about that and I love many of those people who can do that. But for a long time, that was what I thought was the only way to be good at this field. And the truth is that in our information age, where we can instantly call up any article or look up any text, that kind of memorization expertise is getting not outdated but replicated. Because as you say, it’s more important to know how to read than to have fully memorized every single thing, because you can always [look them up if you need]. Or if you have the skill set of designing a good argument and understanding where it needs evidence, and understanding how to critique the scholarship — if you have all that, that’s actually much more important than having a bunch of bibliography at the tip of your tongue.
Ethan: One thing we would change — do you want to go first on this one?
Nandini: I think this current digital age allows a lot more potential for conversations and collaborations across institutions. I’ve gotten so much during the pandemic from chatting with other BIPOC classicists or grad students at different programs than mine [often while] giving visiting talks from my living room. I really love the ability to move around so freely in terms of conversations and support networks. And so I guess I would just keep going in that direction. I think it’s really healthy [that WCC, AAACC, and other organizations] are building mentorship relationships that reach beyond your specific department. Because in some of my darkest times as an academic, when I felt bullied or harassed — and believe me, this happens in grad school, but it keeps happening; getting a job is not the end, getting tenure is not the end of microaggressions or gatekeeping — in those situations, it’s having friends outside of my institution that has really saved me. And I would wish that for anybody else in this field.
[Academia] can be very isolating, and there’s this false perception that everyone gets it except for you — that they all know what they’re doing and they’re all understanding that article or writing that paper perfectly on the first try. I think that we need to make [classics] a less lonely endeavor — we need to make it much more supportive, much more sociable. And we need to break those little monopolies on authority and power that are the academic department, and reward and compensate the time that people spend on [building relationships and support structures that cross institutional boundaries].
Ethan: Bouncing off of that … another thing I would change is broadening the requirements for the [undergraduate] major. So not necessarily saying, you need this many hours of Latin and this many hours of Greek, and this and that specific class. Because while it’s definitely helpful and while that could make you a potentially attractive candidate to graduate school, there are a lot of people who know [canonical authors] like Ovid and Vergil really well … People who are interested in something different like bioarchaeology or digital humanities are also super attractive to graduate school. … And that could be beneficial because it helps students develop skills to be competitive in and get jobs outside of academia too. Because if we’re trying to get students to come and get Ph.Ds in classics, then promise them all tenure-track jobs afterwards, then we’re kidding ourselves and them. So developing skills that can be attractive in other fields and other endeavors after the Ph.D is something that I would like to see.
Nandini: Absolutely — there’s no categorical difference between academic and “alt-ac” skills. There never has been nor is it healthy to act as though there is. We need to make sure that graduate school is always helping people develop skills for a [range of future job possibilities]. And we should start welcoming and rewarding different kinds of output … than just the standard dissertation. There’s this standard format that frankly is not even a book — [most dissertations] require years to become good books. We could encourage writing that’s a little less formulaic, a little less self-credentialing and boring, and start helping [grad students] make products that people [outside our narrow band of academia] actually want to read or use. We can reward more public-facing work, but also applied projects like digital humanities or commentaries or pedagogical projects or art installations or programs that are aimed at bringing more diverse students into classics. I think all of those things should count as end goals of your time in a Ph.D program … because obviously the model that we have is not working for all but a very few.
Last question — what would you keep the same?
Ethan: One thing I’d keep the same is the growth in discussions like this. Because as you said, for the longest time, [grad school was considered] this pipeline toward a job in academia … but that’s not realistic [for all]. That’s not saying that you shouldn’t pursue that goal, but you should also know about other options available to you. And I think this growing conversation has been super beneficial for graduates — it’s definitely been beneficial for me.
Nandini: I couldn’t agree more. And my answer for “what I would keep the same” is you. I just want to ring-structure back to the email that you sent me all those years ago [when you read my 2018 Eidolon piece about diversity in classics]. That really helped me at a time when I was feeling very isolated in a red state after the Trump election. I started writing publicly because I didn’t know what else to do with my time and frankly, digging deep into footnotes and spending time in the library on the commentaries started to feel less fulfilling intrinsically. I needed to figure out a way to reach out and reach more people. And so I started writing for Eidolon in a really dark place, but I had no anticipation of how much uplift I would get from people like you and how fulfilling it is now for me to watch you grow and change and do the great work you’re doing — and have this wonderful conversation with you. So thank you very much.
Ethan: When I encountered your article, I was also in a dark place. I was interning and we had just had a lecture where I had been singled out by someone. They had later asked me where I was from and when I told them Wisconsin, they did the classic, “Oh, well, where’s your family from?” It was a stressful time because I had been getting that a lot. And I read your article and feeling that someone understood what I was going through really helped me continue on in the field. So thank you for that.
Nandini: And turning back to ancient thought: to know that other people have dealt with [these questions of identity and belonging and path-finding] before, even if they didn’t look exactly like us — that gives me a sense of radical continuity and compassion across cultures and across generations and across space now too. So here’s to many more such conversations.
“…the egg that Orpheus claims was created, projected from the boundless matter, was born like this: the quadruple matter is alive and all of the endless deep flows eternally but it moves in an unclear war, pouring forth here and there endless incomplete mixtures from one time to another. For this reason, it pulls them back too and then opens wide as if for the birth of a creature that cannot be bound.”
The poet and classicist Anne Carson has an essay that sticks like maple syrup to your subconscious, called “Essay on What I Think About Most.” She begins the poem by addressing the idea of the error and what we can learn from it by dissecting a bit of poetry from Alcman of Sparta, a Greek lyric poet from the 7th century BCE.
[made?] three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not (trans. Carson)
Carson notes that the verb in Alcman’s laconic rumination on hunger seems to have no subject. She addresses whether this was a grammatical mistake caused by transmission and fragmentation; a way modern philologists can scrub away “errors” of the past. “But as you know, the chief aim of philology,” she says, “is to reduce all textual delight / to an accident of history. And I am uneasy with any claim to know exactly / what a poet means to say. So let’s leave the question mark there “
The lack of any punctuation is the kicker there. The absence does more work than any ellipsis or period ever could. Carson demonstrates how, for her, Alcman “sidesteps fear, anxiety, shame, remorse” connected to mistakes in order to engage with a truth:
“The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection.”
What is Pasts Imperfect? It is a column and a space for commentary, reviews, essays, reflections, statements, and any other words needed to help us negotiate between the past and our present world. We talk about pasts because antiquity isn’t just one land, timeline, or narrative; it is multiple and multiplied by the perspectives we bring to bear on it. Our Pasts are not just Greek, Roman, and Mediterranean; they are not just elite, white, and male. The past includes these people and perspectives, but also those who were silenced or left behind: the people, the languages, and the histories in or beyond the margins.
Imperfect is about value and aspect. We acknowledge that the past is far from perfect and we study antiquity to help us understand ourselves and the causes of things, not to render fictive, to emulate, or to praise simply because something has been praised before. To be human is to be imperfect; to love as a human is to love imperfectly. Our studies of the past and ourselves must honor and inhabit such complexities.
Imperfect is also about incompletion. We see the study of the past as a process that is ongoing and never truly done: each generation, each embodied person, each new perspective contributes to challenging what we think we know about what has come before.
Pasts Imperfect seeks to bring critical and transparently progressive reflections and scholarship on antiquity to a wider audience. It is a column, a space, and a developing network for those who want to engage in challenging discussions about antiquity, its construction and reception in scholarship, and its impact on the modern world. As our editorial college and paid writer-network begins to expand and to take pitches, we hope to venture into a more global understanding of the past while also making space for imperfection.
Plutarch, On the Affection Offspring (Moralia 496b)
“There is nothing so imperfect, helpless, naked, formless, and unclean as a human being glimpsed at the moment of birth, someone to whom nature has not even given a clear path to the light.”
J.E. Sandys, Harvard Lectures on the Revival of Learning:
“Cicero and Virgil became the principal text-books of the Revival of Learning. Petrarch describes them in one of his poems as the ‘two eyes’ of his discourse. In his very boyhood he had been smitten with the charm of Virgil, and, even in his old age, he was still haunted by the mediaeval tradition of the allegorical significance of the Aeneid. But, unlike the mediaeval admirers of Virgil, he does not regard the Latin poet as a mysteriously distant and supernatural being; he finds in him a friend, and he is even candid enough to criticise him. Under his influence the Aeneid was accepted as the sole model that was worthy of imitation by the epic poets of the succeeding age. A German critic regards this result with regret, a regret that few, if any, will share; nor is it easy to believe that any scholar would really have preferred seeing Petrarch throw the weight of his example on to the side of any other Latin epic poet, such as Lucan.”
Some time ago I was privileged to be seated during a social function next to a cabinet minister. Naturally I did not want to spare him my worries, but I cut no ice. He did not see, was his curt response, why the universities should not make sacrifices when everybody else was asked to do so. I gave up. I knew I would not be able to make him see that he was talking nonsense. It is not the universities which are asked to make a sacrifice but those who would have benefited from attending them.
We all know the name of the Moloch on whose altar they must be immolated; he is called ‘Society.’ During one of our periodic student troubles an attractive and eager girl came to interview me for a student paper; when I mentioned the danger – luckily averted – of a post in papyrology* being frozen in my university she replied earnestly, ‘But what if society does not want papyrology?’ What indeed? Admittedly it is hard to imagine how society can make its will in such matters known. Through a referendum? Through rallies in Trafalgar Square or through party manifestos? But how can the voter be made to see that this arcane subject may at any moment transform the picture of our cultural heritage as it has transformed it in the past? A book on political science which fails to take cognizance of Aristotle’s treatise on the Constitution of Athens found in a papyrus is as incomplete as is an account of European comedy that fails to discuss the recently deciphered fragments from Menander, the great playwright who stands at the fountainhead of this tradition.
*Note: To underscore Gombrich’s point, WordPress doesn’t even recognize papyrology as a word.
John William Donaldson, The New Cratylus (Preface):
Many people entertain strong prejudices against every thing in the shape of etymology, prejudices which would be not only just but inevitable, if etymology or the doctrine of words were such a thing as they suppose it to be. They consider it as amounting to nothing more than the derivation of words from one another; and as this process is generally confined to a perception of some prima facie resemblance of two words, it seldom rises beyond the dignity of an ingenious pun, and, though amusing enough at times, is certainly neither an instructive nor an elevated employment for a rational being.
The only real etymology is that which attempts a resolution of the words of a language into their ultimate elements by a comparison of the greatest possible number of languages of the same family. Derivation is, strictly speaking, inapplicable, farther than as pointing out the manner in which certain constant syllables, belonging to the pronominal or formative element of inflected languages, may be prefixed or subjoined to a given form for the expression of some secondary or dependent relation. In order to arrive at the primary origin of a word or a form, we must get beyond the narrow limits of a single idiom. Indeed, in many cases the source can only be traced by a conjectural reproduction based on the most extended comparison of all the cognate languages, for when we take some given variety of human speech, we find in it systems and series of words running almost parallel to one another, but presenting such resemblances in form and signification as convince us that, though apparently asymptotes, they must have converged in the form which we know would potentially contain them all. This reproduction of the common mother of our family of languages, by a comparison of the features of all her children, is the great general object to which the efforts of the philologer should be directed, and this, and not a mere derivation of words in the same language from one another, constitutes the etymology that is alone worthy of the name.
My question was this, can we imagine that the Odyssey is depicting someone who has been broken down by life, who doesn’t believe that he can succeed anymore, and needs something radical to happen to shift him out of it? And how would this shape our reading of the epic, and help us understand what ancient audiences were doing with it?
CUP’s fabulous editor, Dr. Bethany Wasik ,was kind enough to edit a pull quote that works on twitter:
"What makes the epic therapeutic? …You learn to ask questions about your own life, right? You learn to think about causality and agency differently, you learn to accept that there are some things you can’t control." – @sentantiq via the @CornellPress #1869 podcast https://t.co/I0qPkjOYUi
The podcast is not too long. It covers a good deal of the book and only features me saying “the ways in which” a few times, like here:
So, the real sort of key moment for me, happened in around 2011—my dad died suddenly. And I found myself returning to the Odyssey in class and thinking about the ways in which it forces us to think about the way that other people in your life create your identity for you.
Although I talk about my father a bit at the beginning of the book, I think this podcast is the first time I talk about seeing him in Homer’s Laertes:
So for people who may not remember the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home after 20 years, and he’s not fully home until after a series of reunions—first with a son who never really knew, his wife, and then this problematic part in book 24 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus shows up in disguise still, and he tricks his father Laertes and father cries. And then he immediately relents, and says, “No, no, I’m your son Odysseus, I’m here.” And his father doesn’t believe him. And he has to prove it to him by showing him his scar that he got from when he was a young man on a hunting trip.
And then they go through this orchard, and name the trees that their fathers and grandfathers planted, and they took care of when Odysseus was young. And one day I was teaching that and just completely undone by it because it made me remember my father. And the way he bought five acres of land in the middle of the woods in Maine, when I was in third grade, and we spent the rest of his life trying to turn that into like lawn and gardens. Right. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had to stop the lawn mower and refuel in the process of mowing this ridiculous lawn.
Check out the podcast to support Cornell University Press, and the book. Remember that all of the author’s proceeds go to supporting open access publishing.
Epopopoi popoi popopopoi popoi, here, here, quick, quick, quick, my comrades in the air; all you who pillage the fertile lands of the husbandmen, the numberless tribes who gather and devour the barley seeds, the swift flying race that sings so sweetly. And you whose gentle twitter resounds through the fields with the little cry of tiotiotiotiotiotiotiotio; and you who hop about the branches of the ivy in the gardens; the mountain birds, who feed on the wild olive-berries or the arbutus, hurry to come at my call, trioto, trioto, totobrix; you also, who snap up the sharp-stinging gnats in the marshy vales, and you who dwell in the fine plain of Marathon, all damp with dew, and you, the francolin with speckled wings; you too, the halcyons, who flit over the swelling waves of the sea, come hither to hear the tidings; let all the tribes of long-necked birds assemble here; know that a clever old man has come to us, bringing an entirely new idea and proposing great reforms. Let all come to the debate here, here, here, here. Torotorotorotorotix, kikkabau, kikkabau, torotorotorolililix.
The one-hundred-and-thirteen elaborate wooden panels that make up the Damascus Room at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology testify to the immense wealth of the era, at the beginning of the 19th century when wood and ceiling panels adorned the reception room of Damascene houses in Ottoman Syria. A detailed composition of city landscapes, bouquets of flowers, bowls of fruits and Arabic calligraphy was executed around a main framework in which vertical panels, niches, wall closets, doors and windows were integrated, often aggrandized by the use of mirrors in a sophisticated painting technique known as ‘ajamī (Persian). This pastiglia style involved preparation of the wood with a rough white ground layer, followed by more colorful paint layers, underdrawing, transfer of patterns, then followed by application of ornaments, metal leaf and dyed glazes.
Scholar Anke Scharrahs interviewed Damascene artists revealing that knowledge about this intricate painting technique of the 17th and 18th centuries (rich in organic pigments and animal resins) was subsequently lost to modern pigments and European influences. In fact the panels were often washed down, restored and repainted every few generations, therefore only a few original interiors remain in Syria itself, so that the preservation state of the Damascus Room is nothing short of astonishing (only four such interiors exist in the Western world).
But the journey of the Damascus Room to its present splendor took two centuries, and is as protracted as the history of the museum housing it. The Dresden Museum of Ethnology dates back to 1560 with the cabinet of curiosities established by Augustus, the elector of Saxony, and was subsequently transformed into different museums, under different names, as European ideas about culture were being shaped by both science and colonialism.
It was the year 1898 when a German art collector, Karl Ernst Osthaus, known primarily for his interest in the avant-garde movement, traveled throughout the Ottoman Empire, collecting artifacts from bazaars and workshops. But there was one treasure hunt that couldn’t be completed: The search for an Oriental interior. Although he traveled far and wide in all the major cities of the empire, it was to no avail, and at the end of his journey, he passed on the responsibility to the German consulate in Damascus. The consulate in turn assigned photographer Hermann Burchardt to the task, who had been living in Damascus since 1893. A suitable interior was found (dated 1810-11), purchased, disassembled and sent to Germany. Osthaus was then very involved in modern art, so when the pieces arrived at his estate in Hagen, they were kept in an attic and quickly forgotten.
After Osthaus’ death in 1921, the panels were discovered and donated to the Dresden Museum of Ethnology in 1930, and the collections of the museum were about to go on show at the Zwinger palatial complex (dating back to the 18th century Baroque), but the space provided for the Damascus Room proved too small – the surface area of the room is 4 x 5.5 m and 5.4 m high. This mismatch turned out to be a fortunate event, because the room would have been completely destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
Once again forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1997, but by then no one knew how to assemble it together. How do the one-hundred-and-thirteen pieces fit together? Two students from Dresden, Ulrike Siegel and Antje Werner, took up the challenge of putting the puzzle back together, measuring every single piece, meticulously documenting each item and following the number coding written onto the backsides.
But then it needed to be restored. 200 years hadn’t passed in vain, and many of the wooden pieces had been eaten by worms, damaged by dampness, large flakes of paint fell off and the entire thing was covered in dust and mold. A restoration began that wouldn’t be completed until the end of 2019. The following year, in the autumn of 2020, amidst the raging pandemic, as if continuing the trail of oblique historical journeys, it met a peculiar contemporary artistic intervention coming from the place where it all had begun, modern Syria and Turkey.
An installation consisting of colorful glass swallows with their heads tilted downwards, placed on the floor of the lavish room, would tell a story where the different pasts and presents of these interiors would meet: Improbable journeys and the (im)possibility of travel, exile, migration, uncertainty, memory and the feeling of having fallen out of the world, whilst living in the presence of all its traces.
2. Birds Without Wings
Three years earlier, in 2017, Turkish glass artist Felekşan Onar arrived in Berlin from Istanbul with the intention to work at a glass studio, and blow into plaster moulds closed winged birds for her project “Perched”, without knowing at the time its final destination. The wingless swallows with their heads tilted downwards, resembled for Onar, the millions of Syrian refugees stranded in Istanbul, not knowing where to go, or what is going to happen next. In Onar’s words, “Simply perched on sidewalks, like birds without wings”.
This reflection however, was interlocked with an earlier metaphor: She began thinking about the birds after a reading of Louis de Bernières’ novel “Birds Without Wings” (published in 2004); set in the era of population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, in the period following World War First; the novel chronicles an era of intolerance and forced migration, still consequential to this day for both countries.
The plot of de Bernières’ novel revolves around the tragic love story between Philothei, a beautiful Greek woman, and Ibrahim, her Muslim suitor, who loses his mind halfway through the novel after returning from the trenches of war, vividly recounted. The novel is set in the fictional village of Eskibahçe, based upon Kayaköy, a Greek village in the Turkish province of Fethiye, deserted after 1923, when a series of agreements that would define the present-day borders between Greece and Turkey meant the forced migration of all Christian Greeks from Anatolia to the Greek mainland, and Muslims in Greece to Anatolia.
These peoples left behind their homelands, becoming refugees in newly established countries, shattering an ancient multicultural geography. Kayaköy is today a derelict ghost town after many failed attempts of the Turkish government to lure Muslims from Greece to occupy the abandoned houses.
This story was familiar to Onar: Born in the Aegean region of Turkey, in the town of Söke–some hundred kilometers from Izmir, the ancient Greek Anaia, renamed Soka in the Byzantine era–it was impossible for her not to be immersed in the cultural world of the population exchanges: A housekeeper from her childhood, Nazmiye Hanım, had come from Crete to Söke as a result of this population exchange, and often told mesmerizing tales about her homeland in the heavily accented Turkish of a native Greek speaker. Therefore, years later Onar identified Nazmiye Hanım with many of the characters in de Bernières’ narrative.
At the height of the Syrian crisis, Onar saw in these birds without wings, part of “Perched” (there are ninety-nine birds in total), a slow meditation not only on the present circumstances but on the permanent waves of migration and spatial redistribution of peoples that form of the core of Mediterranean history since antiquity.
In the words of Nadania Idriss, the founder of Berlin Glassworks (herself of Syrian background) where Onar completed blowing the swallows, “The pigments and surface texture of each unique sculpture recall the multitude of hues that hold in Syrian daily life; and yet these swallows sit patiently, heads tilted downward as they try to understand the situation that has befallen them.”
It was Idriss who facilitated a conversation with the Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, and as a result the first stop in the journey of the wingless birds was the famous Aleppo Room at Pergamon in 2018. In fact, this might be the most spectacular of all Syrian interiors in the world, dated as far back as the early 17th century, and acquired in 1912 by German orientalist and archaeologist Friedrich Sarre in Aleppo. A conservator at the museum, Anke Scharrachs, then encouraged Onar to connect with other museums in possession of Damascene interiors (Scharrachs was involved in the restoration of the Dresden panels).
And that’s how “Perched” traveled then to the Damascus Room in Dresden, and the year prior, to the Islamic Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A double metaphor grew out of the Aleppo Room at Pergamon with its spectacular colorful panels, laden with rich ornamental fauna, according to Stefan Weber, director of the Islamic Museum: “The lively, colorful peacocks, ducks and pigeons on the wall panels stand in almost oppressive contrast to the small, fragile birds with clipped wings seated on the ground. Not only does the installation resonate with the sad fate of a once flourishing metropolis – now destroyed by the civil war – but it also picks on the reality of Syrian refugees in modern Turkey.”
From ambers, to amethysts and greys and blues, greens and pinks, the iridescent colored glass swallows hint at the archetypal role of birds in the ancient Mediterranean as both messengers and mediators, rather than silent spectators in the drama of mankind.
3. The Debt to the Birds
When “Perched” opened at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology (part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, one of the largest and oldest art and artifacts collections in the world), it was already September 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and it was no longer possible for anyone in Turkey, and not only refugees, to fly anywhere in Europe, so that the metaphor came home to roost: The artist Felekşan Onar was unable to travel for the exhibition.
At the time a monograph about the entire journey of “Perched” was in preparation, which saw the light in December, and was supposed to be launched at the museum, but with the closure of cultural institutions in Germany due to the pandemic this wasn’t possible either. For this monograph, de Bernières contributed a short story, “The Debt to the Birds” (Onar and de Bernières met for a public conversation at the Victoria & Albert), that sets the story and trajectory of Onar’s birds, on a different, much more complex itinerary.
“The Debt to the Birds” is a deceptively simple tale about a boy that was given a gun by his father on a promise: “You must promise me never to shoot a bird that you do not intend to eat, nor ever shoot a man unless you’re at war. Do you promise?” The young boy, like his father before him, was tempted by his father’s words and shot a sparrow, watching it die in the grass. Three years later, he found a young jackdaw with a broken wing, and brought it home to cure it, in order to repay his debt to the birds. The bird healed quickly and became his loyal companion, perched on his shoulder, and then he was instructed by his father to teach it how to fly, at the risk that it might fly away. When it flew off with a posse of jackdaws, never to return, both father and boy thought that they had finally repaid their debt to the birds. The boy became a father and passed on the gun to his son, but yet he did not tempt him by telling him not to shoot the birds.
Distant from the historical world of de Bernières’ “Birds Without Wings”, there happen to be a number of uncanny parallels between “The Debt to the Birds” and Aristophanes’ play “The Birds”, performed in 414 BC at the Dionysia festival in Athens.
These parallels ground the spatiotemporal framework of Onar’s “Perched” in a larger, aporetic logic, allowing the viewer (as if the audience of a live, theatrical performance) to move in between different temporalities, depending not only on the context. The Oriental interiors function here also as a springboard that releases the audience away from the historical context onto a nondescript area, free of allegory and actually also free of debt (I will return to this at the end). They are both are interrogative texts, set specifically against interpretation, by taking place outside any context whatsoever. One couldn’t name a specific timeframe in which the events unfold.
This is in fact an anomaly in Aristophanes’ surviving plays, and by all means an innovation, although it is written in the conventional style of old comedy. “The Birds” contains no direct reference to the Peloponnesian War, and hardly any references to Athenian politics (although much has been theorized about political allegory in the play), and in the manner of Aesop’s Greek tales, it is set in remote, but undefined times.
In “The Debt to the Birds”, there are two oblique references to war, ‘never shoot another man unless at war’ in the promise, and the father having been a soldier himself. But we know nothing about when or where the events take place. There seems to be a search for redemption in both texts which ultimately fails, by means of different strategies: In Aristophanes, the conclusion of the play is the instauration of a human-led tyranny after the defeat of the gods, and in de Bernières a potential cycle of return to debt with the birds.
In the larger scheme of Aristophanes’ play we know that it is a narrative about the foundation of a political community, but in such terms, so fantastic (two elderly Athenians convince the birds to create a walled city in the air, to prevent the aromas of sacrificial offerings from reaching the Olympian gods), that the cloud-cuckoo-land becomes less than a metaphor, offering something alien to the pattern of problem-and-solution of the comic universe, namely, a suspension.
For de Bernières, on the other hand, the smoothed out but always latent cycle of repetition between violence, debt and settlement, indicates a species of non-linear time, more akin to myth than to history. This time out of joint that cannot be put back together, resembles simultaneously the chaotic temporality of the ancients, marked only by events and decay, and the timelessness of Onar’s swallows, head tilted down, waiting and waiting, still at the Damascus Room.
4. Unfamiliar Futures
The resemblances between the ancient comedy and the contemporary tale do not end with the site of temporality. There’s a crucial passage in de Bernières: “The essence of man is to be a prisoner, but the essence of a bird is to be free. A bird shows no passport at the borders. It pays no taxes. A bird has no pockets and when it dies it has no shroud.”
Not only is this passage immediately connected to a key fragment in his novel “Birds Without Wings” (“Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows”) but also to Aristophanes’ play, when the starring humans, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, ask the Hoopoe, formerly King Tereus who metamorphosed into a bird, what is it like to live with the birds? The idea of a utopian, moneyless, political community, resonates strongly in both authors, and the impossibility to realize this fantasy reveals in its aporias a tension that remains without offering resolution.
Aristophanes, Birds, 154-161
I would not be Opuntian for a talent. But come, what is it like to live with the birds? You should know pretty well.
Why, it’s not a disagreeable life. In the first place, one has no purse.
That does away with a lot of roguery.
For food the gardens yield us white sesame, myrtle-berries, poppies and mint.
Why, ‘tis the life of the newly-wed indeed.
Yet, the most interesting parallel between them, concerns the antiquity of birds, thus, once again, the question of the origins and new beginnings (and therefore of foundations) returns. In “The Debt to the Birds”, the father explains to the boy, “Did you know that dinosaurs are not extinct after all? We were all completely wrong. They’re beginning to think that the little dinosaurs survived, so now we have lizards and amphibians, and birds […] We look out of our windows and see the trees full of little dinosaurs!”
The story continues later, with a moving passage on the boy: “That evening the boy sat his jackdaw on its perch and looked into its face. He recognized the extreme antiquity of its being, and said to it ‘Your soul is millions of years more ancient than mine. My soul is young compared to yours.’ The bird looked back into his eyes and shook its wings a little, just as fledging does when hoping to be fed.” And furthermore: “That evening the boy repeated to the bird on its perch in his bedroom ‘Your soul is more ancient than mine.'”
In these apparently innocuous passages, de Bernières is enlarging the historical space of Onar’s birds, breaking down the repetitive cycle of timelessness: Trapped inside an infinitely expanding present, these refugees moving across the world, but particularly visible in both Turkey and Germany, cannot articulate stories that narrate either past or future; they’re rooted in the presentism of despair that quickly devours the future as a temporal index, while at the same time not being entirely free from the immediate past. All recollection is fragmented. These birds, caged by traumatic events, acquiesce to a type of memory-work, structured by repetition and transitoriness, rather than a series of checkpoints in reality to orient yourself in the world.
The introduction of a primeval consciousness of time, a time before time, of unquantifiable properties, preceding the uniformity of historical experience, opens up a dialogue between de Bernières and Aristophanes, on a crucial passage from “The Birds”. In the one-sided agon of the play (there’s no antagonist, and the formal argument is constructed around convincing an already eager audience) a political cosmogony is laid out, by means of which the realization of a utopian city in the sky acquires legitimacy. The birds are now endowed with a new, previously unknown, master narrative. Enlarging the past works here in two directions: At first it provides a lasting consciousness of duration by probing the depth of origin, and then, it brings out an invented, alternative future, on which the past itself can be re-inscribed back, without the horizon of continuity losing its template.
Aristophanes, Birds 465-485
By Zeus, no! But I am hunting for fine, tasty words to break down the hardness of their hearts. To the Chorus. I grieve so much for you, who at one time were kings…
Leader of the Chorus
We kings? Over whom?
…of all that exists, firstly of me and of this man, even of Zeus himself. Your race is older than Saturn, the Titans and the Earth.
Leader of the Chorus
What, older than the Earth!
By Phoebus, yes.
Leader of the Chorus
By Zeus,but I never knew that before!
That’s because you are ignorant and heedless, and have never read your Aesop. He is the one who tell us that the lark was born before all other creatures, indeed before the Earth; his father died of sickness, but the Earth did not exist then; he remained unburied for five days, when the bird in its dilemma decided, for want of a better place, to entomb his father in its own head.
So that the lark’s father is buried at Cephalae.
Hence, if they existed before the Earth, before the gods, the kingship belongs to them by right of priority.
Undoubtedly, but sharpen your beak well; Zeus won’t in a hurry to hand over his scepter to the woodpecker.
It was not the gods, but the birds, who were formerly the masters and kings over men; of this I have a thousand proofs. First of all, I will point you to the cock, who governed the Persians, before all other monarchs, before Darius and Megabazus. It’s in memory of his reign that he is called the Persian bird.
Aristophanes, of course, was aware of a double-bind that we have carried over into the modernist imaginary: Cosmogonies are also structures of power and the pendulum can swing in any direction. Narratives can be manipulated as well, as the conclusion of “The Birds” exemplifies, under the new tyranny of Pisthetaerus. But as a mythology of origins, this cosmogony throws the body politic (of the birds) back to a future that is assumed to exist, as if the past had shed light on it (and yet fails).
When Euelpides and Pisthetaerus turned to the birds for help, and yet with a masterplan to create a new city in the sky, what they longed for was more than a political community itself; it was about an impossible political community where utopia and law could coexist. De Bernières subtly touches on this sentiment from the father’s viewpoint: “For us the birds represent all the freedom that we can never have. They give us something to aspire that we cannot reach. And sometimes when you aspire to what you cannot reach, one day after all, you will reach it.”
The long duration translates in de Bernières’ story into a multi-temporality, projected back on the journey of “Perched”: The journey of migrants towards Turkey and Europe contains many other journeys from the past, articulated here through the accumulation of cultural meanings embedded in the glass birds across time, and of which the current predicament is only one among the possible worlds. What emerges here is the possibility of an unfamiliar, yet un-created future, not necessarily the direct consequence of the past.
New foundations and master narratives can be anchored anywhere in the temporal index: It is not only the history of Syrian refugees perched on the streets of Istanbul juxtaposed to the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, but also the arrival of Byzas of Megara in the 6th century BC to found the city that three political orders later would become Istanbul, and the permanent condition of migration that shaped the Mediterranean cultural space since times before time (no less than the modern world) or the long journey of glass since the 4th millennium BC, appearing simultaneously in Syria, Eastern Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, long before it adorned the Ottoman palaces of Istanbul, challenging constantly our ideas about archaeological contexts and mobility networks.
5. Whose Cultural Property?
Yet it is significant that the journey of “Perched” has begun in European encyclopedic museums, and has been decidedly defined by their interiors and galleries. The encyclopedic museum, we recognize today, is deeply rooted in the experience of colonialism and the concept of universal history. This all-encompassing history, with Western mankind at the center, is a politically heliocentric universe, largely flawed, but at the same time, manufacturer of the colonial world-system, which has inflicted infinite violence on large swaths of the Earth.
As large collections of artifacts from all over the world, the Western museums perform what archaeologists Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet, have called in their work, the weaponization of time: The dispossession of both cultural property (in museums) and peoples (at the borders of nation states) is not simply circumstantial or situational, but ontological. Controlling time, by placing objects outside of everyday historical experience, often destroying complex systems and contexts along the way, suspends the temporality of objects under the unfulfillable promise of permanence. But isn’t the most fundamental reflection underlying “Perched”, the struggle of memory against the destruction of richly layered, pluriversal, complex contexts? An answer is difficult to arrive at.
And thinking about birds, is for us, always thinking also about the museum. Most of our knowledge about birds comes from the collections of encyclopedic natural museums, often mediated by the utilitarian beliefs of 19th century social science. Commenting on the 33,000 years old Water Bird in Flight from the Hohle Fels Cave in south-west Germany, carved in stone during the Upper Paleolithic, John Berger made an important remark for our context: “The supposition that animals entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.” Is there an intrinsic relationship between promises and debts?
If we have a debt with the birds, what does this debt consist of? And if de Bernières is correct, and birds do in fact represent freedom, shouldn’t we be free also from debt? Hannah Arendt was one of the first modern thinkers to treat the faculty of making promises with philosophical seriousness, arguing that they help stabilize the world by making it predictable to the extent that it is humanly possible and that the reality of the space of appearances, where concerted power could arise, is guaranteed only by mutual promise or contract.
But it was David Graeber in his monumental anthropology of debt, who made the connection between debts and promises: “A debt is the perversion of a promise.” All human economies have been heretofore based on a system of debt and credit that boils down to trust between peoples, and not to barter as economic historians have chosen to believe. All revolutionary movements in the ancient world were defined by a single program: The cancellation of all debt.
If the crucial question here is the settlement of a debt, could we try perhaps to free ourselves (this was a fundamental argument in Graeber’s work: we can only be free with each other, not from each other) and cancel our debt through a promise? The promise of time, of giving time, of giving time back, another idea I’m borrowing from Hicks and Mallet. What would it mean to give time back in the context of the birds in the Damascus Room?
All of the Oriental interiors in Germany were legally acquired as per extant documentation, and there’s no restitution claim for them as in the case of say the Benin Bronzes or the Parthenon Marbles (Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, recently staged an intervention in Dresden through ‘missing’ posters in the city over one of the Benin Bronzes at the museum) but the question remains whether the grand tour of collecting antiquities in the Near East during the era of the great archaeological discoveries wasn’t embedded in terrible imbalances of power that remain to this day and account for many violent conflicts in the region.
Archaeology has been the main factory of universal history, and as decolonization struggles all over the world inform us, there’s in fact no such a thing as universal heritage, because heritage isn’t a concrete set of parameters for the preservation of a common past, but instead, a notion and symptom of time crises, in order to (re)produce pasts as touristic sites, with the present tense as the boundary event of our world.
Yet there’s something perplexing happening in the journey of Felekşan Onar’s swallows through these stately rooms in Berlin, London and Dresden: The birds, both as metaphor and artifact, imbued with so many blueprints of time, recent and distant, have begun accumulating contexts rather than merely reflecting them. With an eventual journey back from Germany to Istanbul in the horizon (a number of birds have been accessioned to the collection of the V&A Glass Gallery, and the permanent home of “Perched” will be in due course of time at the Dresden collection), they are now also pregnant with unfamiliar, open-ended, contingent futures.
Giving back time to cultural artifacts and peoples means essentially to re-insert them into temporality not only in absolute terms but through the relative durability of institutions and political agency. One can’t help but wonder after a reading of “Perched” through de Bernières and Aristophanes, whether it wouldn’t be possible to create new future-oriented cosmogonies for these artifacts and stories, beyond and outside closed museological systems.
A striking passage in Aristophanes, during the first formal argument between the two elderly Athenians and the hoopoe, brings to mind a poetic spatial metaphor: When Pisthetaerus asks the hoopoe to look up and down and what he has seen, the sky (οὐρανός) the bird says to have seen and the pole (πόλος) of the birds that Pisthetaerus refers to, do not carry identical meaning. The sky is a region of the atmosphere and outer space, a kind of unbounded expanse, whereas a pole, is a vaulted dome, the firmament, that in ancient cosmologies divided the primal sea from the dry land.
This firmament as David Konstan argues, is a bounded space, ‘not everywhere’, which necessarily grounds the utopian city in the sky within the framework of the polis, a community. Pisthetaerus goes on to add that this pole is a place (τόπος), expression which Seferis identifies with a country or fatherland in Mythistorima X. There’s a circumscribed place to stand on, even in the sky.
Aristophanes, Birds, 178-196
What have you seen?
The clouds and the sky.
Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
How their pole?
Or, if you like it, their place. And since it turns and passes through the whole universe, it is called ‘pole.’ If you build and fortify it, you will turn your pole into a city. In this way you will reign over mankind as you do over the grasshoppers and you will cause the gods to die of rabid hunger.
The air is between earth and heaven. When we want to go to Delphi, we ask the Boeotians for leave of passage; in the same way, when men sacrifice to the gods, unless the latter pay you tribute, you exercise the right of every nation towards strangers and don’t allow the smoke of the sacrifices to pass through your city and territory.Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
By earth! by snares! by network! by cages! I never heard of anything more cleverly conceived; and, if the other birds approve, I am going to build the city along with you.
The gift of time that cancels debt, at the heart of “Perched”, is a with-world, beyond the space of appearances and the realm of objects, which according to Sophie Loidolt, in her study of Arendt’s political intersubjectivity, “emerges through our intersubjective relations and which holds all these dimensions of meaning together in one world where we can exist as humans.” The gift is a promise, the promise of multiple meanings embedded in concrete, actual experienced time, looking backwards and forwards, without the grip of the instant. Where’s eternity then?
“Perched” by Felekşan Onar is on view at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology, September 5, 2020 through February 21, 2021 (the museum is currently closed due to pandemic regulations), the monograph “Perched: Felekşan Onar”, published by Paul Holberton Publishing, with contributions by Felekşan Onar, Nadania Idriss, Stefanie Bach, Louis de Bernières, Stefan Weber, Mariam Rosser-Owen and Glenn Adamson, is currently available, in English and German.
Detail from Felekşan Onar’s “Perched”, V&A Museum, Islamic Galleries, 2019. Photo Credit: Daniel Oduntan.
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.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
Gregory Dobrov, “Aristophanes’ Birds and the Metaphor of Deferral”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall 1990)
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, 2012
Francois Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time”, Columbia University Press, 2016
Dan Hicks & Sarah Mallet, Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond, Bristol University Press, 2019, open access
David Konstan, “A City in the Air: Aristophanes’ Birds”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 1990)
Sophie Loidolt, Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity, Routledge Research in Phenomenology, 2019
Annegret Nippa & Anke Scharrahs, The Damascus Room in Dresden – A Treasure of Ottoman Interior Design in Germany, 2003, online
Anke Scharrahs, “Insight into a Sophisticated Painting Technique: Three Polychrome Wooden Interiors from Ottoman Syria in German Collections and Field Research in Damascus”, in Studies in Conservation, Volume 55, 2010
Hint: Either because he likes people. Or, animals have a good sense of smell.
Schol. A ad Il. 1.50c ex.
“First he [attacked] the mules and the fast dogs”
“Because the god is well-disposed toward human beings, he kills mules, dogs, and the other irrational beasts first, so that, by inducing fear through these [deaths], he might nurture proper reverence in the Greeks.
Or, it is because the mules and dogs have a more powerful perception of smell. For, dogs are really good at tracking beasts because of their sense of smell, and mules, when they are left behind, often rediscover their paths thanks to their sense of smell.”
Additional note: On 1.50, Aristonicus denies the claims by by some rogues that “mules” here is a word for “guards”; the bT scholia make the quasi-scientific claim that these animals are more susceptible to diseases than humans. I like the idea of Apollo trying to teach people a lesson before just murdering them all.