Less Human Apart: Isolation and Civilization in Myth, Science Fiction and RL

I am reposting this entry from early in the pandemic in honor of the panel “The Powers and Perils of Solitude in Greek Literature” at the SCS Annual Meeting. My paper “Being Human, Being Alone: Isolation and Heroic Exceptionality in the Odyssey” draws on it.

Here’s the roster of talks

The Post

 

Iliad, 2.721–723

“Philoktetes lies there on the island suffering harsh pains
In holy Lemnos where the sons of the Achaeans left him
suffering with an evil wound from a murderous watersnake.”

ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖτο κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων
Λήμνῳ ἐν ἠγαθέῃ, ὅθι μιν λίπον υἷες ᾿Αχαιῶν
ἕλκεϊ μοχθίζοντα κακῷ ὀλοόφρονος ὕδρου

Odyssey 5.13–15

“He lies there on the island suffering harsh pains
In the halls of Calypso the nymph who holds him
under compulsion. He is not capable of returning to his paternal land.”

ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖται κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων
νύμφης ἐν μεγάροισι Καλυψοῦς, ἥ μιν ἀνάγκῃ
ἴσχει· ὁ δ’ οὐ δύναται ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι

Isolation. “Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos,” By Jean Germain Drouais

The figure of the isolated hero in ancient Greek myth and poetry is one who is set apart, on an island, separated from other humans and, by extension, from human culture. The impact of isolation is often communicated through the heroic body, even if it is offered in some way as a cause: Philoktetes’ dehumanization is reflected in the wound whose antisocial attributes cause him to be abandoned (described like a disease in Sophocles’ play). Odysseus seems arguably less human insofar as he is stripped of agency and, until Hermes comes to move him, clearly more an object of interest than a subject of his own.

Indeed, the Odyssey has deep ethnographic concerns, focusing on how people make their livings and how they live their lives. When Odysseus describes the island of the Cyclopes, he remarks on how it might be a good place to live, but the Cyclopes themselves are “arrogant and lawless” (ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων, 9.106). They aren’t human because of the  way they live (they do not cultivate the land, 108-111). And they are less than human because of how they organize their lives (Odyssey 9.112–115):

 “They don’t have council-bearing assemblies or laws,
But instead they inhabit homes on high hills
In hollow caves, and each one makes laws
For his children and wives—they do not have concern for one another.”

τοῖσιν δ’ οὔτ’ ἀγοραὶ βουληφόροι οὔτε θέμιστες,
ἀλλ’ οἵ γ’ ὑψηλῶν ὀρέων ναίουσι κάρηνα
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι, θεμιστεύει δὲ ἕκαστος
παίδων ἠδ’ ἀλόχων, οὐδ’ ἀλλήλων ἀλέγουσι.

In a way, Odysseus anticipates here the later Greek use of the term idiotês for the person who fails to understand that the commonwealth directly impacts individual possessions—indeed, it makes possible the existence of individual goods. The ancient idiot, in this political sense, is a kind of naïve libertarian who is incapable of conceiving of shared human society as the very thing that makes life possible and also worth living.

*          *          *          *

Current events are forcing us to explore some of the same tensions: inasmuch as some are aghast that we are not willing to die to preserve the economy, the rest of us remain horror stricken at how much our public health and collective good have been sacrificed to prop up the wealth of a very few. Even though my training directs my thoughts consistently to the past for parallels to cope with the present, my own reading history and proclivity for speculative fiction keep taking me to narrative futures. In my impatience to be done with the now, I am busy manufacturing anxieties about what will become of us later.

In Isaac Asimov’s Robot novel The Naked Sun (1957), the detective Elijah Bailey is dispatched to one of the “spacer” worlds to investigate a murder. In Asimov’s world, humankind lives in a mixed future where billions are crowded into cities on earth while a select elite escape to fifty “Spacer” worlds. Over time, the antagonism between Spacer and Earther expands as the former use their greater resources and technology to dominate the latter. And Earthers suffer from a fear of the outside, a reluctance to leave the comfort of their cities.

The Spacers, those libertarian techno-overlords, fear contagion and disease and contact with the human rabble left on earth. When Baily meets with the widow of the murdered scientist on her planet Solaria, Gladia, she will at first only see him through “viewing” (a video screen). Eventually she breaks Solarian taboo and comes to him in person and to help solve the crime. (No spoiler, but it wasn’t a robot.)

Many years later (in our world) Asimov returns to Solaria generations later in his Foundation and Earth (1986). In the intervening years, the Spacer planets were eclipsed by the rapid expansion of the population of Earth into the galaxy, fading quickly into obsolescence and obscurity. The Solaria found here is populated by a few human beings who intentionally developed hermaphroditic qualities so they would never have to encounter other human beings in person again. The Solarian world is expansive—each person lives on massive estates, engaging with others only through mediated viewing and using technology to ritualize isolation.

E. M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops” (1909, 1928) puts humankind in a sub-terrestrial, dystopic future. People must live in isolation, in basic rooms from which they engage in the world only through video conferencing. One of the main characters, Vashti, spends a great deal of her time broadcasting her ideas over this ersatz internet, recycling and repackaging ideas for consumption and replacing most human relationship with a distanced presentation of the ‘self’. The main plot of this tale, of course, is about the “machine” which supports all of this life collapsing, but the lingering sense it leaves is one of the panopticon in which the ability to broadcast, to send a message, is traded for being watched and people live separate from one another both out of fear and out of habit.

I have been thinking about both of these speculative narratives over the past few weeks as my work has converted online completely and my social life has blended into it. I “zoom” with colleagues, skype with friends, and merely text-message with my extended family. I watch as my children are habituated to the same kind of mediated existence. There is an hour each day when three of us are on zoom simultaneously, in the same house but in separate rooms, sometimes irked that the sound of another intrudes on our distanced engagement.

We have been living with some of the rapid consequences of these kinds of mediated communication networks for years. Is something as bizarre as pizza-gate possible without facebook or other online fora? Do these media ever produce anything but the strangest and saddest common denominator?

Modern science fiction is no stranger to this too. In his post-apocalpytic Seveneves, Neal Stephenson—an author a bit too libertarian and soft on techo-capitalists generally—puts a surviving remnant of humanity in space, isolated in a network of space capsules connected by a communication network dubbed “spacebook”. In order to survive, these clutches of life have to preserve resources and follow a very basic plan. But paranoia explodes in the social network: one week, a thought leader proposes that in space humans do not need legs, so they should cut them off and eat them to preserve the protein. Soon, a critical number of people depart with precious resources to try to make it to Mars because they convinced themselves in their echo chamber of madness that this was a good plan, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary.

Neal Stephenson's SEVENEVES — Dennis D. McDonald's Web Site

(they all die. A mere handful of people survive their stupidity.)

Of the many ways in which COVID-19 will change our lives, one is how it will accelerate our embrace of life online. Children are having playdates online: ours have had dance classes, piano lessons, and speech therapy in just the last week to go along with 2-3 ‘Montessori’ zoom lessons a day. Although I am deeply grateful to these teachers and instructors for bringing some sense of normalcy to our children’s days, I worry that this will be their baseline: no playgrounds, no playmates, but video-streamed encounters and mediated experiences. They will be open to the supercharged pathways of disinformation that propagate quack cures for plagues and easy arguments for denying collective action against global warming.

Asimov’s Solarians are independent-minded elitists whose fear of disease and love of long lives pushes them further and further apart; Forster’s subterraneans are addicted to the comfort of their regulated lives and distracted by the ability to be ‘experts’ and temporary celebrities in the global machine. Stephenson’s human race barely survives an apocalypse followed by human caused ruin thanks to individual heroics and fantastic evolutionary science. The Coronavirus won’t suddenly turn us into any of these groups, but it may make us just that much less human.

*          *          *          *

Modern studies in narrative emphasize how our identity develops from social relationships and studies in cognitive psychology show how isolation can have damaging effects on us emotionally and mentally. When separated from others we can experience an increase in fear and paranoia (See Andersen et al. 2000, 19.); studies in the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners demonstrate a marked increase in the development of psychopathology under the influence of isolation which can eventuate in neurobiological transformations. The brain of an isolated human being may demonstrate fewer neural connections and correlate with distortions in memory and a deterioration of language abilities. Isolation, to put it simply, can break down those very things that make people who they are. (see Ravindran 2014, Gilmore and Nanon 2014; Kaba et al. 2014)

Ancient Greek myth and poetry seems to communicate this through figures like Philoktetes—who languishes for a decade after being marooned on the island of Lemnos—and Odysseus, who suffers in quasi-isolation for seven years, weeping on the edge of the sea (but having sex with Calypso at night). Odysseus cannot return home directly from this. His journey home requires him to repeatedly tell stories about himself and to reaffirm his identity step-by-step through reunions with the important people in his life. It is Odysseus too who brings Philoktetes back into society in Sophocles’ play.

I think ancient audiences saw the sufferings of both figures as a result from their isolation, from their separation from communion with other human beings. Both Homer’s epic and Sophocles’ play emphasize political themes and social consequences: Odysseus and Philoktetes are at times calculating and full of rage, leaving characters in the poems (and audiences outside them) unsure of if or when they will lash out.

What each narrative emphasizes, however, is that the isolated figure needs fellowship and partnership to return to human society. Odysseus’ return home is not complete until he is recognized—and recognizes himself—in his son, spouse, and father. Philoktetes needs to be persuaded to return, to be cajoled and guided and distracted from the fact he is being used.

This is, perhaps, cold comfort for those of us isolated now. But it does remind us that having other people around us is important and that, when the time comes to reintegrate, it won’t be simple or easy. We will have to tell each other our stories and listen to who we confirm in each other we are.

And perhaps it will force us to think about the world we create for ourselves. The plot which drives Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is a choice about the future of life in the galaxy: whether it will continue on as it has, with everyone charting separate courses of self interest or it will change radically, adopting the life-form model of a planet called Gaia where all inhabitants shared consciousness and fate, yielding some sense of free will.

When I read this choice to its conclusion in the late 80s, I was horrified because it seemed (spoiler alert) that the protagonist was choosing communism! But it did not take many years for the wisdom of this choice to make a little more sense. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home and murders 108 suitors. The epic almost ends with a civil war but for the intervention of Athena and Zeus who declare an amnesty, insisting that the Ithakans and Odysseus need to live together (24.486, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω). In this, the individual leader is forced to change his ways; but the people have to submit to forgetting and forgetting the violence and malice which brought a generation to ruin.

What choices will we face? Which ones will we be able to make?

Some things to read

Andersen, H. S., Sestoft, D. D., Lillebæk, T. T., Gabrielsen, G. G., Hemmingsen, R. R., & Kramp, P. P. 2000. “A Longitudinal Study of Prisoners on Remand: Psychiatric Prevalence, Incidence and Psychopathology in Solitary vs. Non-Solitary Confinement.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102:19.

Foundation and Earth (Foundation #5) by Isaac Asimov

Barker, E.T.E. and Christensen J. P. Homer’s Thebes. Washington, D.C. 2019.

Gilmore, Betty and Williams, Nanon M. 2014. The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons. Dallas.

Kaba, Fatos et al. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442–447.

Ravindran, Shruti 2014. “Twilight in the Box.” Aeon 27.

Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.

Thiher, Allen. 1999. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor.

Underwood, Charles. 2018. Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning, and Agency in Odysseus’ World. Lanham: Lexington Books

Perseus and Andromeda in “The House of Mirth”

Looking at the Reception of a Greek Myth in Edith Wharton’s Novel

Edith Wharton’s second novel, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905 and portrays New York high society in America’s Gilded Age. It focuses on the beautiful Lily Bart, a woman of birth but no money, who has been brought up by her mother to value luxury and to believe that her looks will make her fortune.

The novel takes place in her 29th year, and it becomes clear early on that she has balked at the chances of great marriages that have come her way in the past and now needs to take the plunge or face sliding into a ‘dingy’ spinsterhood. She is thwarted – or perhaps saved – in this by a chance meeting with Lawrence Selden at Grand Central Station.

As the novel progresses, her slender grasp on high society fails and she ends up destitute and lonely, dying from an overdose of chloral, but with her personal integrity in tact. Through Lily Bart’s story, Wharton explores, amongst other things, themes of love and marriage, gender, the individual and society and class. It is a powerful and heartbreakingly tragic read.

Well – what had brought him there but the quest of her? It was her element, not his. But he would lift her out of it, take her beyond. That Beyond! on her letter was like a cry for rescue. He knew that Perseus’s task is not done when he has loosed Andromeda’s chains, for her limbs are numb with bondage, and she cannot rise and walk, but clings to him with dragging arms as he beats back to land with his burden. Well, he had the strength for both – it has her weakness which had put the strength in him. It was not, alas, a clean rush of waves they had to win through, but a clogging morass of old associations and habits, and for the moment its vapours were in his throat. But he would see clearer, breathe freer in her presence: she was at once the dead weight at his breast and the spar which should float them to safety.

As Lawrence Selden resolves to marry Lily Bart, he pictures himself as the classical hero, Perseus, on a ‘quest’ and Lily as Andromeda, chained to a rock in the sea. As he perceives Lily, she is chained, by her upbringing, to the fate of marrying the highest bidder and living high in the shallow and corrupt world of New York’s one hundred families. This undoubtedly speaks to his masculine ideas of heroism and female vulnerability, but it is revealing to consider why Wharton reached for Perseus and Andromeda at this point, rather than any other classical couple. In this, my primary source is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Andromeda plays of Sophocles and Euripides being lost.[1]

Still from “The House of Mirth” starring Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz

Wharton establishes the trope of Lily as damsel in distress and Selden as her heroic rescuer from the very start of The House of Mirth, albeit in a gently ironic way. As Lily hails Selden at the station she says, ‘How nice of you to come to my rescue’, although he was unsure ‘what form the rescue was to take’. At this stage, the gallant hero merely has to provide cooler air, tea and a distraction for a while as Lily waits for her next train, but as Selden looks at Lily’s bracelets during that first encounter, it seems that the idea of Andromeda is already in his mind. Just as Ovid’s Perseus (and Euripides’s before him, as the fragments suggest) first perceives Andromeda as a statue until he notices the breeze in her hair, so Selden watches Lily’s hand, ‘polished as a bit of old ivory’.

Alongside this, he sees ‘the links of her bracelet’ as ‘manacles chaining her to her fate’, so much ‘a victim of the civilization which had produced her’ is she. Here the novel bears out her similarity with Andromeda: Andromeda is chained to the rock as a sacrifice, necessary because of ‘her mother’s tongue’ (Illic inmeritam maternae penderae linguae…) in boasting that Andromeda’s beauty outshone the Nereids’. Lily too is the victim of her mother’s belief in her beauty. After Mr. Bart’s bankruptcy and death, Mrs. Bart fetishizes Lily’s beauty, studying it ‘with a passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance.’ She sees it as the means by which their fortunes would be rebuilt and inculcates Lily not only with her own horror of ‘dinginess’, but also with the belief that ‘only stupidity’ could induce anyone to marry for love, where there is no financial advantage. So, we might see Lily as ‘chained’ to this ambitious matrimonial path by her mother’s pride in her beauty.

As Lily and Selden’s relationship develops, Lily notices her chains to some degree. Though, when Selden arrives at Bellomont, Lily still means to marry Percy Gryce, Selden’s presence causes her to reevaluate the people around her and she becomes aware that this society represents a ‘great gilt cage… as she heard its door clang on her!’ Her stolen walk with Selden, on Sunday, is littered with the words ‘freedom’ and ‘emancipation’, as she rebels against the social expectations of ‘a jeune fille à marier’, and in Selden’s explanation of ‘the republic of the spirit’, she catches the glimpse of an alternate life which will change her view of the world forever.

It is when on this walk too that Lily starts to analyze her relationship with Selden and in this, her chains begin to be reconfigured. She says, ‘The peculiar charm of her feeling for Selden was that she understood it; she could put her finger on every link of the chain that was drawing them together.’ This comparison of the chains fettering the maiden, to the chains joining lovers, is one that again harks back to Ovid’s Perseus who exclaims on seeing Andromeda, ‘O fairest! whom these chains become not so, / But worthy are for links that lovers bind’ (Ut stetit, “o” dixit “non istis digna catenis / sed quibus inter se cupidi iunguntur amantes…”).

The power relationship implied by such chains is not one explored explicitly by either Ovid or Wharton although it is explored implicitly by both.[2] Though we hear that Perseus’s wings almost ‘forgot to wave’ (paene suas quatere est oblitus in aere pennas), so enamored was he of Andromeda’s beauty, we do not hear how Andromeda responded to him at all. Indeed, all she can do at this point is cry, and her marriage to Perseus is all fixed up with her parents before he goes on to fight the monster.[3] After the rescue, she is referred to, unnamed, as his pretium, meaning reward, with all of its financial connotations, a gesture which dehumanizes her.

Though Wharton’s treatment of the power relationship between Lily and Selden is more detailed and complex, Lily, as a single woman in late nineteenth-century high society, is also entirely vulnerable. Her beauty gives her a certain power over men, and over Selden specifically, but she quickly realizes its limits as her integrity begins to be questioned. Indeed, Selden himself cannot forgive her for what he is quick to perceive as her immoral relationship with Gus Trenor. As Mrs. Peniston’s free indirect narrative suggests, ‘however unfounded the charges’ against a young girl being ‘talked about’ by society, ‘she must be to blame for their having been made.’ This exemplifies women’s powerlessness and the need always for their behavior to be beyond reproach, particularly where there is no man, or no parent to defend their honor. Though Lily knows herself to have been compromised by her transaction with Trenor, and she is though innocent of the grosser charges, Wharton underlines the impossibly high and, simultaneously, morally corrupt standards governing women’s behavior in the scathing irony of such statements as Mrs. Peniston’s above, but also in the barefaced hypocrisy of married women like Bertha Dorset, whom society will not condemn for her ruinous affairs as long as her husband looks the other way. In this sense, Lily has almost as little power in her relationship with Selden, as Andromeda in hers with Perseus.

And so to Selden’s heroism. Both Ovid and Wharton portray their heroes with ambivalence. Although in the action of the rescue, Ovid’s description of Perseus slaying of the dragon is described in more conventionally heroic terms, there are suggestions elsewhere that he is less than heroic. When he first sees Andromeda and is captivated by her beauty, as she stands chained to the rock, he does not dive down immediately to rescue her, but first announces himself to her parents in boastful terms.

In the translation, Perseus repeats the word ‘I’, followed by the facts of his greatness, while in the Latin, he repeats his name: ‘I, who am the son of Regal Jove / And her whom he embraced in showers of gold … I, Perseus, who destroyed the Gorgon … I, who dared on waving wings / To cleave ethereal air’ (Hanc ego si peterem Perseus Iove natus … Gorgonis anguicomae Perseus superator et alis / aerias ausus iactatis ire per auras). This repetition together with the recital of his achievements, particularly at this time, augurs of something egotistical, even if it is done with the purpose of winning Andromeda’s hand in marriage. One might question, as Sarah Annes Brown does, why, when ‘Time waits / for tears, but flies the moment of our need’ (Lacrimarum longa manere / tempora vos poterunt), Perseus wastes it in ‘boasting of his manly prowess instead of getting on with the rescue’![4]

The Rock of Doom (The Perseus Cycle 6) (c. 1885-1888) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (from Wikipedia)

Similarly, in telling of his conquest of Medusa, Perseus seems oblivious to the tragedy of her story – details of which are thought to have been introduced by Ovid himself – her beauty which induced Poseidon to rape her in Athena’s temple, and Athena’s subsequent anger, not with Poseidon but with Medusa, which resulted in her metamorphosis to a gorgon. The ambiguity around Perseus’ heroism is something which has been portrayed in other depictions too, which might have influenced Wharton’s exploration of heroism. Burne-Jones’s The Rock of Doom, part of his Perseus series, was begun in 1875 and never finished, and while it is unknown whether Wharton saw the painting, it undoubtedly bears a resemblance to her representation of Lily and Selden.

In it, Perseus is an effeminate figure; though he is not as vulnerable and submissive as Andromeda, who is naked, his armor seems molded to his body, revealing every muscle of his androgynous body. Just as Andromeda’s head tilts bashfully in towards the rock, as she peers up at him, so Perseus peeks shyly around the side of the rock, looking at her out of the corners of his eyes. Though his hero’s sword is draped visibly at his front, his stance is scarcely one of strength: he is leaning on the rock with one hand while balanced on one leg, made buoyant by his winged feet, but in a position that denotes hesitancy or timidity. Similarly, when depicted fighting the monster in The Doom Fulfilled, he seems entangled in the monster’s serpentine tail. As I suggested in the last paragraph, about the power dynamic between the pair, it is complex, but Lily’s vulnerability, explored above, is mirrored in Andromeda’s nakedness. Chained and naked, her only power is in her beauty.

Selden, like Burne-Jones’s Perseus, is not domineeringly masculine or conventionally heroic. Early in the novel, the two of them teeter on the edge of commitment, one taking a step forward only for the other to draw back and vice versa, both afraid of the changes such a commitment would mean for the course of their lives, and each too proud to let the other see the depth of their feelings. At Bellomont, they accuse each other of cowardice in not wanting to go further and at the end of their walk, Selden judges Lily negatively when she reacts self-consciously to a passing car, knowing that she is worried her deception of Percy might be discovered, even though he has freely admitted that he has ‘nothing to give [her] instead.’ This is the pattern which continues throughout the novel: Selden pulls back from proposing to Lily after seeing her leaving the Trenors’, jumping to conclusions about her life without giving her the chance to explain; similarly, when he speaks with her after the crisis with the Dorsets, he knows that he has not supported her and that his ‘miserable silence’ speaks only of judgement but he feels the full weight of suspicion and cannot bring himself to speak.

Lily’s pride also holds her back, for example, when Selden visits her at the Emporium to try to persuade her to leave Mrs Hatch, she admits to herself that ‘she would rather persist in darkness than owe her enlightenment to Selden’ even though she knows that he is right. However, Selden is too forgiving of himself and perhaps Wharton is too forgiving of him too. At the very ending, in what is perhaps Selden’s free indirect narrative, or perhaps the narrative voice of the novel, Wharton writes that

It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction; which, in her, had reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her surroundings, and in him, had kept alive the faith that now drew him penitent and reconciled to her side.

According to this romantic vision of this victory of their love, Lily’s attempts to be worthy of his love are one with his dormant and now awakened belief in her. And yet, that ‘dormant belief’ caused him to condemn her and shun her, along with the rest of society, while she lost everything and died a miserable, lonely death, in poverty! When I read that he is ‘too honest to disown his cowardice now’, I cannot help feeling that this is too little too late.

Finally, it remains to deal with the matter of rescue – rescue from what? and in what sense we might speak of ‘rescue’ at all. While in all the previous depictions of Perseus and Andromeda, Perseus has had to fight a sea monster, in the quotation at the start of this post, Selden merely imagines battling the sea, and not a ‘clean rush of waves’ but a ‘morass’, or swamp, of social ties and expectations. Lily is united with him in seeing the sea as her enemy, with images of turbulent water and rising tides used at every moment of distress. Early on, dinginess is the foe and she pictures herself ‘dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success’, while after meeting Trenor, the enemy becomes her own guilty conscience as ‘Over and over her the sea of humiliation broke – wave crashing on wave so close that the mortal shame was one with the physical dread’.

On her last evening too, Lily reflects on the feeling of ‘being rootless and ephemeral … without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them’, while after death, the tumult is pacified and Selden feels himself ‘drawn down into the strange mysterious depths of her tranquility.’ However, though Selden imagines himself as the active rescuer as he prepares to propose to Lily, removing her from the social ‘morass’ which is dragging her down, Lily looks to Selden for a more spiritual and less practical rescue. Even at the moment, when still reeling from the shame of her meeting with Trenor, she questions ‘Was there not a promise of rescue in his love?’ and brings herself to the brink of accepting his expected proposal, she also knows, ‘even in the full storm of her misery, that Selden’s love could not be her ultimate refuge’, and that she needs to find the means within herself to escape.

Like in The Age of Innocence, where Wharton makes it clear that the love between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer is a product of the romantic need in each of them and could never work in reality, so, in The House of Mirth, even though the tragedy rests on Lily and Selden’s failure to realize in time the extent of their love for each other, we are made to question whether such a union was ever a real possibility. What is clear, is that Selden’s love, even in the past tense, represents a way for Lily to retain her integrity until the last. In her final meeting she says to him that the things he said to her at Bellomont ‘kept [her] from really becoming what many people have thought [her].’ And though he replies that this ‘difference’ came from her and not from him, she insists that ‘[she] needed the help of [his] belief in [her]’. So it is that though Selden does not provide much tangible help in his rescue of Lily – he does not stab and plunge his sword into the monster’s back and entrails like Ovid’s Perseus – it is the idea of him, the idea of his love and of the way in which he once saw her, that gives Lily the freedom to stay true to herself in the face of society’s temptations, even when confronted by the prospect of a fortune as vast as Rosedale’s. In another version of the Andromeda myth, she sees herself ‘chained’ to another, ‘abhorrent’, version of herself, instead of a rock, and Selden’s love gives her the strength to stop this other self from dragging her under. As she walks away from his flat for the last time, she feels herself ‘buoyant’ again, the same word used as when she is drawn towards him (and away from Gryce and church) at Bellomont, at the start of the novel.

Wharton’s reception of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda and its various literary and pictorial depictions – only very few of which I have explored here – open doors to thinking about women’s agency and late nineteenth-century masculinity as represented in The House of Mirth. This particular myth seems to resonate more, perhaps, than others because of the equivocal portrayal of Perseus in other classical and Victorian versions, and because Andromeda’s chains allow Wharton to reflect on the variety of ways in which women were constrained in high society at that time. Finally, the fact that Selden casts himself as the classical hero and Lily as the submissive damsel in need of his rescue speaks volumes.

Primarily, The House of Mirth is centred around Lily, the narrative closely focused around her consciousness, but it begins and ends with Selden’s perceptions of her, perceptions which surface at various points in between. Such narrative construction reminds us that though Wharton is presenting us with a novel about a single woman in late nineteenth-century America, such a woman could not exist independently, without being ‘read’ and construed by the male gaze. And as we read Selden, reading Lily, betraying his own limitations, prejudices and vanities, so we might consider what our own construction of her may reveal.

As you can see from the above conclusion, this mode of using classical reception in literary analysis is revealing of much more than an author’s, or character’s, interest in mythology; indeed, Selden’s slightly self-congratulatory bookishness in the face of society’s resolute ignorance is something I have not even addressed here! In a longer piece, I would have liked also to have explored Ovid’s Perseus, as a hero, in the context of the epic tradition, alongside Aeneas or Achilles, and to think about Selden and Lily too in the context of nineteenth-century novelistic heroes and heroines. Even as it stands though, the study of Perseus and Andromeda, for me, opens up the themes of masculinity and femininity in the novel, and offers a means to understand the characters and their tangled relationship, in a way that I had not before. This piece actually stands as a companion piece to one on Lily’s relationship with the Furies, and the reception of the Oresteia in the novel (published in the English and Media Centre magazine, emag, in December 2020), which, similarly, opens up themes of fate and free will and a more nuanced and multi-dimensional understanding of these.

This kind of reading is important to my high school English teaching, in which the exam criteria for students requires them to use the contexts of their texts in order to add depth to their interpretations. Frequently, socio-historical detail, while important, can lead to socio-historical, rather than literary, essays but using literary context requires students to focus further into the details of the text, rather than around it. Reception was also central to my own PhD thesis on memory and ancient Greek literature, in which literary memory – which might otherwise be understood as intertextuality – formed an important strand, in terms of casting new light on old debates.

Sophie Raudnitz teaches English at Oundle School in the UK. She has a degree in English and a PhD in Classics. Her thesis used modern memory theory to explore ancient Greek epic, tragedy and philosophy. Twitter @seraudnitz


[1] I am using the Brookes More translation on The Perseus Project website.

[2] As an aside, it is explored in Connie Rosen’s poem, ‘Andromeda’, in which she invites the reader to ‘consider the problem of chains’, and imagines the chains binding the woman to the rock disintegrating as a new chain between Andromeda and Perseus is forged.

[3] This is an interesting contrast to Euripides’ play in which Andromeda’s father, Cepheus, is against her marriage to Perseus. There, her duty as a daughter is pitted against her will to marry the hero.

[4] Sarah Annes Brown, Ovid: Myth and Metamorphosis (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2005), p.34.

Four Years of Just the Best Memories: Warning! An Uneducated Leader Can Still Do What He Wants

 Another passage from Plutarch’s fragmentary “To an Educated Ruler…”

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“Among the weak, base and private citizens, ignorance when combined with a lack of power yields little wrongdoing, as in nightmares some trouble upsets the mind, making it incapable of responding to its desires. But when power has been combined with wickedness it adds energy to latent passions. And so that saying of Dionysus is true—for he used to say that he loved his power most when he could do what he wanted quickly. It is truly a great danger when one who wants what is wrong has the power to do what he wants to do.

As Homer puts it “When the plan was made, then the deed was done.” When wickedness has an open course because of its power, it compels every passion to emerge, producing rage, murder, lust, adultery, and greedy acquisition of public wealth.”

Ἐν μὲν γὰρ τοῖς ἀσθενέσι καὶ ταπεινοῖς καὶ ἰδιώταις τῷ ἀδυνάτῳ μιγνύμενον τὸ ἀνόητον εἰς τὸ ἀναμάρτητον τελευτᾷ, ὥσπερ ἐν ὀνείρασι φαύλοις τις ἀνία τὴν ψυχὴν διαταράττει συνεξαναστῆναι ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις μὴ δυναμένην· ἡ δ᾿ ἐξουσία παραλαβοῦσα τὴν κακίαν νεῦρα τοῖς πάθεσι προστίθησι· καὶ τὸ τοῦ Διονυσίου ἀληθές ἐστιν· ἔφη γὰρ ἀπολαύειν μάλιστα τῆς ἀρχῆς, ὅταν ταχέως ἃ βούλεται ποιῇ. μέγας οὖν ὁ κίνδυνος βούλεσθαι ἃ μὴ δεῖ τὸν ἃ βούλεται ποιεῖν δυνάμενον·

αὐτίκ᾿ ἔπειτά γε μῦθος ἔην, τετέλεστο δὲ ἔργον (Il. 19.242). ὀξὺν ἡ κακία διὰ τῆς ἐξουσίας δρόμον ἔχουσα πᾶν πάθος ἐξωθεῖ, ποιοῦσα τὴν ὀργὴν φόνον τὸν ἔρωτα μοιχείαν τὴν πλεονεξίαν δήμευσιν.

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Gazing from Within a Cyclops’ Cave

The Disturbing ‘Veil’ and “Double-Vision” of the Naïve White Liberal Anti-Racist Gaze

In the Odyssey, ancient Odysseus and his men accomplished yet another great feat of survival, blinding the one-eyed Cyclops to escape from his cave. One wonders today about the blinded single-eye of the good-natured, white liberal democrat: a view that sees itself as rabidly pro-justice, freedom, democracy, and the rest of the ideals that descend from the Western Enlightenment (made by and for white European men in the 18th century).

And, yet, this strange creature has a split double vision from its one eye.  It ‘feels’ the dual threat of both Trumpian, right-wing, anti-democratic authoritarianism and the diverse social movements and protests against anti-Black racism leading to the tearing down of statues and what the right and left alike calls ‘cancel culture’ or the right asserts as the ‘indoctrination of the left.’

A first century CE head of a Cyclops, part of the sculptures adorning the Roman Colosseum

 

Is it fated for someone in a position of power to feel threatened at all times? If we turn to W. E. B. Du Bois’s ingenious insights on the ‘veil’ and ‘double-consciousness’ of being Black in America, one can think of another, inverted ‘veil’ and ‘double-consciousness’ of this blinded white liberal view today. The blinding strike of our historical present has led to a split within a single vision that lies beneath a kind of veil.

One can say the white liberal, democratic, maybe even progressive socialist and leftist view sees the world from within a veil that is not lifted.  On the one hand, they see themselves through the eyes of two other groups: they claim how horrifying and vile white nationalism, supremacy, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and mostly anti-Black and other anti-Indigenous and POC, for example hatred of Latinx and Asians, are. They say in a silent voice of rage and hatred, a mixture of shame, guilt, and revulsion, that ‘we cannot be one of them,’ and that ‘the legacy of slavery and colonialism is not ours,’ as the philosopher Shannon Sullivan noted in her trenchant critique of white liberalism. The good-natured ones call those evil barbarians who espouse biological racism today the abhorrent ‘other,’ while reserving for themselves some sense of decency in claiming ‘we are different.’

But then, on the other hand, they see the other group of BIPOC facing multi-generational and daily humiliation, violence, and death: torrents of waves where past, present, and future co-mingle, at once stemming from both systematic and systemic racism that derive from and transcend white nationalists, the KKK, and Neo-Nazis.  For this oppression permeates every institution and aspect of American society.  Why not?  Does it not come down to a fascination with ‘whiteness’ for those who live it and critique it?  To them, the white liberal says, ‘I cannot possibly understand what it’s like to endure that racial oppression of non-whites,’ and ‘I want to speak out from within my silence but words escape me, and I relapse back into the silence I inhabit within the veil.’  Therefore,  ‘I am in this world but not of it’ to quote the Gospel.

What can we learn from this split vision of positing and negating when it comes to two other groups that the white liberal tries to see and understand apart from itself?  White supremacy is decried but also distanced so far to the point of paralyzing inaction while BIPOC suffer and die everywhere. They suffer at the hands of everyday white civilians, the militarized police, the heartless state, and the avarice corporations and their environmentally damaging atrocities, the terror continues.  BIPOC, as the ‘other’, witness their suffering pornographically fetishized in white liberal discourse, but only to have this suffering doubled when  the old discourse of the ‘free exchange of ideas,’ ‘tolerance of differing perspectives in a civil manner’ kicks in again. That old stalwart thinking quickly returns to diagnose the evil disease of ‘cancellation culture’ and ‘indoctrination of dogmatic intolerance’ in the ‘new religion’ of anti-racism, for example BLM.

What are we to make of this twenty-first century wounded Cyclops?  The creature retains privilege as in the original myth since everything was provided for them, and they don’t have to work for what they have inherited. And that is called the utter, unfathomable, historical accident of either being born ‘white’ or ‘white enough to pass’ as such.  If Marx analyzed the commodity, no one to this day has comparably or sufficiently analyzed ‘whiteness’ or ‘white passing.’

The self-denying person who says they are not reduced to biological ‘whiteness’ is the ultimate white liberal, democrat anti-racist.  And this occurs across generations in our historical present, across the different generations who think they inhabit one single time-line.  Here we find white supremacy and white privilege in a blind coexistence as it relates to the problem of time and therefore historical time. No whiteness exists apart from white supremacy. Color-blindness is privilege. So the blinded, fractured Cyclops does not see that problem.

They must consume everything that crosses their path in this split, double-vision, not even a double consciousness that is forever ‘irreconcilable’ for Black people as Du Bois said nearly 120 years ago and one can attribute to other POC today, albeit in intersectional terms.  But this ruptured one-eyed giant called ‘white anti-racist liberalism’ doesn’t live in a cave, because there is no inside or outside distinction in the world of an eternal racism.

In some respect the veil – -as an illusion of real self-consciousness because one is always seeing oneself in relation to and different from the other — is itself the ultimate blind spot: the veil doesn’t exist at all.  Rather, white supremacy becomes the mirror’s taint called ‘white liberalism’ and the objects that appear in the mirror are dialectically exchanged in the stasis of a perpetual motion: the white liberal must say I am not a ‘white supremacist’ while also failing to see the impossibility of pure connection with BIPOC because white liberals have the privilege of whiteness, and hence an-other type of ‘supremacy’ we are trying to name here.

This schizophrenic four-fold vision of identity and difference in the self-consciousness of the white liberal needs a new name: to be the same and different from white supremacy and same and different from BIPOC oppressed groups means one is never fully synthesized in two different ways.  One can say that the ultimate giant, whose ideas shaped the white modern  world to an extent like no other of his time, namely the imperialist Hegel, knew this well and suffered from it in the phantasm of truth called his ‘system and philosophy of world history.’

The dead bodies and skeletons  slayed by systemic racism over colonialist centuries doom us to atrophy and entropy.  At some point, this wounded creature will also perish on the lands they neither built nor own, and hopefully leaving a new world created not by the privileged gods but by a diverse, more humble humanity.  We can call it the world after ‘Floyd.’

Rajesh Sampath is currently Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Justice, Rights, and Social Change at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He completed his PhD at the University of California, Irvine in the humanities with a concentration in modern continental European philosophies of history and critical theory at the Critical Theory Institute. He studied under the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction. His areas of specialization center on the philosophy of history, historical time, and epochal shifts.   

Plutarch has Erotic Stories: They’re Not What You’d Think

A terrible ‘love ‘story.

Plutarch, Erotic Stories, Moralia 771

“In Haliartos in Boiotia, there was a certain girl of surpassing beauty whose name was Aristokleia. She was the Daughter of Theophanes. Stratôn the Orkhomenian and Kallisthenes the Haliartian were both wooing her.

Stratôn was wealthier and was somewhat more taken with the virgin. For he happened to see her once when she was bathing in the fountain Herkunêin Lebadeia. For she was making reading to carry a basket for Zeus the king. But Kallisthenes was closer to winning her, for he was related to her.

Theophanes was at a loss in the matter—for he was fearing Stratôn he stood apart from nearly all the Boiotians because of his family and wealth. He was planning on getting advice about the choice from Trophonios. Stratôn, however, was convinced by the girl’s servants that she was leaning towards him, so he considered it best to have the girl to be married make the choice. But when Theophanes asked his daughter in front of everyone, she chose Kallisthenes. It was clear that Stratôn took the dishonor badly.

After a period of two days, he approached Theophanes and Kallisthenes, saying he wanted to preserve their friendship, even if he had been denied the marriage by some envious god. They praised what he said and asked him to come to the feast for the wedding. But he, once he had gathered a mob of his friends and no small a retinue of servants which were distributed among the attendees unnoticed, waited until the girl wen to the Spring Kissoessa to make the customary sacrifice to the local nymphs. There, all the men who were in ambush rushed out and grabbed her. Stratos had gained a hold of the virgin. Kallisthenes, as one might expect, grabbed her in turn and those with him were helping. They all pulled on her until she died without them knowing, stretched to death in their hands.

Kallisthenes was out of sight immediately, either because he killed himself or left Boiotia as an exile. No one is able to say what happened to him. But Stratôn killed himself openty over the maiden.”

Ἐν Ἁλιάρτῳ τῆς Βοιωτίας κόρη τις γίνεται κάλλει διαπρέπουσα ὄνομα Ἀριστόκλεια· θυγάτηρ δ᾿ ἦν Θεοφάνους. ταύτην μνῶνται Στράτων Ὀρχομένιος καὶ Καλλισθένης Ἁλιάρτιος. πλουσιώτερος δ᾿ ἦν Στράτων καὶ μᾶλλόν τι τῆς παρθένου ἡττημένος· ἐτύγχανε γὰρ ἰδὼν αὐτὴν ἐν Λεβαδείᾳ λουομένην ἐπὶ τῇ κρήνῃ τῇ Ἑρκύνῃ· ἔμελλε γὰρ τῷ Διὶ τῷ βασιλεῖ κανηφορεῖν. ἀλλ᾿ ὁ Καλλισθένης γε πλέον ἐφέρετο· ἦν γὰρ καὶ γένει προσήκων τῇ κόρῃ. ἀπορῶν δὲ τῷ πράγματι ὁ Θεοφάνης, ἐδεδίει γὰρ τὸν Στράτων πλούτῳ τε καὶ γένει σχεδὸν ἁπάντων διαφέροντα τῶν Βοιωτῶν, τὴν αἵρεσιν ἐβούλετο τῷ Τροφωνίῳ ἐπιτρέψαι· καὶ ὁ Στράτων, ἀνεπέπειστο γὰρ ὑπὸ τῶν τῆς παρθένου οἰκετῶν, ὡς πρὸς αὐτὸν μᾶλλον ἐκείνη ῥέποι, ἠξίου ἐπ᾿ αὐτῇ ποιεῖσθαι τῇ γαμουμένῃ τὴν ἐκλογήν. ὡς δὲ τῆς παιδὸς ὁ Θεοφάνης ἐπυνθάνετο ἐν ὄψει πάντων, ἡ δὲ τὸν Καλλισθένην προύκρινεν, εὐθὺς μὲν ὁ Στράτων δῆλος ἦν βαρέως φέρων τὴν ἀτιμίαν· ἡμέρας δὲ διαλιπὼν δύο προσῆλθε τῷ Θεοφάνει καὶ τῷ Καλλισθένει, ἀξιῶν τὴν φιλίαν αὐτῷ πρὸς αὐτοὺς διαφυλάττεσθαι, εἰ καὶ τοῦ γάμου ἐφθονήθη ὑπὸ δαιμονίου τινός. οἱ δ᾿ ἐπῄνουν τὰ λεγόμενα, ὥστε καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν ἑστίασιν τῶν γάμων παρεκάλουν αὐτόν. ὁ δὲ παρεσκευασμένος ἑταίρων ὄχλον, καὶ πλῆθος οὐκ ὀλίγον θεραπόντων, διεσπαρμένους παρὰ τούτοις καὶ λανθάνοντας, ἕως ἡ κόρη κατὰ τὰ πάτρια ἐπὶ τὴν Κισσόεσσαν καλουμένην κρήνην κατῄει ταῖς Νύμφαις τὰ προτέλειαCθύσουσα, τότε δὴ συνδραμόντες πάντες οἱ λοχῶντες ἐκείνῳ συνελάμβανον αὐτήν. καὶ ὁ Στράτων γ᾿ εἴχετο τῆς παρθένου· ἀντελαμβάνετο δ᾿ ὡς εἰκὸς ὁ Καλλισθένης ἐν μέρει καὶ οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ, ἕως ἔλαθεν ἡ παῖς ἐν χερσὶ τῶν ἀνθελκόντων διαφθαρεῖσα. ὁ Καλλισθένης μὲν οὖν παραχρῆμα ἀφανὴς ἐγένετο, εἴτε διαχρησάμενος ἑαυτὸν εἴτε φυγὰς ἀπελθὼν ἐκ τῆς Βοιωτίας· οὐκ εἶχε δ᾿ οὖν τις εἰπεῖν ὅ τι καὶ πεπόνθοι. ὁ δὲ Στράτων φανερῶς ἐπικατέσφαξεν ἑαυτὸν τῇ παρθένῳ.

File:Pyxis01 pushkin.jpg
Wedding Preparation Vase, Wikimedia Commons

Less Human Apart: Isolation and Civilization in Myth, Science Fiction and RL

Iliad, 2.721–723

“Philoktetes lies there on the island suffering harsh pains
In holy Lemnos where the sons of the Achaeans left him
suffering with an evil wound from a murderous watersnake.”

ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖτο κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων
Λήμνῳ ἐν ἠγαθέῃ, ὅθι μιν λίπον υἷες ᾿Αχαιῶν
ἕλκεϊ μοχθίζοντα κακῷ ὀλοόφρονος ὕδρου

Odyssey 5.13–15

“He lies there on the island suffering harsh pains
In the halls of Calypso the nymph who holds him
under compulsion. He is not capable of returning to his paternal land.”

ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖται κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων
νύμφης ἐν μεγάροισι Καλυψοῦς, ἥ μιν ἀνάγκῃ
ἴσχει· ὁ δ’ οὐ δύναται ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι

Isolation. “Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos,” By Jean Germain Drouais

The figure of the isolated hero in ancient Greek myth and poetry is one who is set apart, on an island, separated from other humans and, by extension, from human culture. The impact of isolation is often communicated through the heroic body, even if it is offered in some way as a cause: Philoktetes’ dehumanization is reflected in the wound whose antisocial attributes cause him to be abandoned (described like a disease in Sophocles’ play). Odysseus seems arguably less human insofar as he is stripped of agency and, until Hermes comes to move him, clearly more an object of interest than a subject of his own.

Indeed, the Odyssey has deep ethnographic concerns, focusing on how people make their livings and how they live their lives. When Odysseus describes the island of the Cyclopes, he remarks on how it might be a good place to live, but the Cyclopes themselves are “arrogant and lawless” (ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων, 9.106). They aren’t human because of the  way they live (they do not cultivate the land, 108-111). And they are less than human because of how they organize their lives (Odyssey 9.112–115):

 “They don’t have council-bearing assemblies or laws,
But instead they inhabit homes on high hills
In hollow caves, and each one makes laws
For his children and wives—they do not have concern for one another.”

τοῖσιν δ’ οὔτ’ ἀγοραὶ βουληφόροι οὔτε θέμιστες,
ἀλλ’ οἵ γ’ ὑψηλῶν ὀρέων ναίουσι κάρηνα
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι, θεμιστεύει δὲ ἕκαστος
παίδων ἠδ’ ἀλόχων, οὐδ’ ἀλλήλων ἀλέγουσι.

In a way, Odysseus anticipates here the later Greek use of the term idiotês for the person who fails to understand that the commonwealth directly impacts individual possessions—indeed, it makes possible the existence of individual goods. The ancient idiot, in this political sense, is a kind of naïve libertarian who is incapable of conceiving of shared human society as the very thing that makes life possible and also worth living.

*          *          *          *

Current events are forcing us to explore some of the same tensions: inasmuch as some are aghast that we are not willing to die to preserve the economy, the rest of us remain horror stricken at how much our public health and collective good have been sacrificed to prop up the wealth of a very few. Even though my training directs my thoughts consistently to the past for parallels to cope with the present, my own reading history and proclivity for speculative fiction keep taking me to narrative futures. In my impatience to be done with the now, I am busy manufacturing anxieties about what will become of us later.

In Isaac Asimov’s Robot novel The Naked Sun (1957), the detective Elijah Bailey is dispatched to one of the “spacer” worlds to investigate a murder. In Asimov’s world, humankind lives in a mixed future where billions are crowded into cities on earth while a select elite escape to fifty “Spacer” worlds. Over time, the antagonism between Spacer and Earther expands as the former use their greater resources and technology to dominate the latter. And Earthers suffer from a fear of the outside, a reluctance to leave the comfort of their cities.

The Spacers, those libertarian techno-overlords, fear contagion and disease and contact with the human rabble left on earth. When Baily meets with the widow of the murdered scientist on her planet Solaria, Gladia, she will at first only see him through “viewing” (a video screen). Eventually she breaks Solarian taboo and comes to him in person and to help solve the crime. (No spoiler, but it wasn’t a robot.)

Many years later (in our world) Asimov returns to Solaria generations later in his Foundation and Earth (1986). In the intervening years, the Spacer planets were eclipsed by the rapid expansion of the population of Earth into the galaxy, fading quickly into obsolescence and obscurity. The Solaria found here is populated by a few human beings who intentionally developed hermaphroditic qualities so they would never have to encounter other human beings in person again. The Solarian world is expansive—each person lives on massive estates, engaging with others only through mediated viewing and using technology to ritualize isolation.

E. M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops” (1909, 1928) puts humankind in a sub-terrestrial, dystopic future. People must live in isolation, in basic rooms from which they engage in the world only through video conferencing. One of the main characters, Vashti, spends a great deal of her time broadcasting her ideas over this ersatz internet, recycling and repackaging ideas for consumption and replacing most human relationship with a distanced presentation of the ‘self’. The main plot of this tale, of course, is about the “machine” which supports all of this life collapsing, but the lingering sense it leaves is one of the panopticon in which the ability to broadcast, to send a message, is traded for being watched and people live separate from one another both out of fear and out of habit.

I have been thinking about both of these speculative narratives over the past few weeks as my work has converted online completely and my social life has blended into it. I “zoom” with colleagues, skype with friends, and merely text-message with my extended family. I watch as my children are habituated to the same kind of mediated existence. There is an hour each day when three of us are on zoom simultaneously, in the same house but in separate rooms, sometimes irked that the sound of another intrudes on our distanced engagement.

We have been living with some of the rapid consequences of these kinds of mediated communication networks for years. Is something as bizarre as pizza-gate possible without facebook or other online fora? Do these media ever produce anything but the strangest and saddest common denominator?

Modern science fiction is no stranger to this too. In his post-apocalpytic Seveneves, Neal Stephenson—an author a bit too libertarian and soft on techo-capitalists generally—puts a surviving remnant of humanity in space, isolated in a network of space capsules connected by a communication network dubbed “spacebook”. In order to survive, these clutches of life have to preserve resources and follow a very basic plan. But paranoia explodes in the social network: one week, a thought leader proposes that in space humans do not need legs, so they should cut them off and eat them to preserve the protein. Soon, a critical number of people depart with precious resources to try to make it to Mars because they convinced themselves in their echo chamber of madness that this was a good plan, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary.

Neal Stephenson's SEVENEVES — Dennis D. McDonald's Web Site

(they all die. A mere handful of people survive their stupidity.)

Of the many ways in which COVID-19 will change our lives, one is how it will accelerate our embrace of life online. Children are having playdates online: ours have had dance classes, piano lessons, and speech therapy in just the last week to go along with 2-3 ‘Montessori’ zoom lessons a day. Although I am deeply grateful to these teachers and instructors for bringing some sense of normalcy to our children’s days, I worry that this will be their baseline: no playgrounds, no playmates, but video-streamed encounters and mediated experiences. They will be open to the supercharged pathways of disinformation that propagate quack cures for plagues and easy arguments for denying collective action against global warming.

Asimov’s Solarians are independent-minded elitists whose fear of disease and love of long lives pushes them further and further apart; Forster’s subterraneans are addicted to the comfort of their regulated lives and distracted by the ability to be ‘experts’ and temporary celebrities in the global machine. Stephenson’s human race barely survives an apocalypse followed by human caused ruin thanks to individual heroics and fantastic evolutionary science. The Coronavirus won’t suddenly turn us into any of these groups, but it may make us just that much less human.

*          *          *          *

Modern studies in narrative emphasize how our identity develops from social relationships and studies in cognitive psychology show how isolation can have damaging effects on us emotionally and mentally. When separated from others we can experience an increase in fear and paranoia (See Andersen et al. 2000, 19.); studies in the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners demonstrate a marked increase in the development of psychopathology under the influence of isolation which can eventuate in neurobiological transformations. The brain of an isolated human being may demonstrate fewer neural connections and correlate with distortions in memory and a deterioration of language abilities. Isolation, to put it simply, can break down those very things that make people who they are. (see Ravindran 2014, Gilmore and Nanon 2014; Kaba et al. 2014)

Ancient Greek myth and poetry seems to communicate this through figures like Philoktetes—who languishes for a decade after being marooned on the island of Lemnos—and Odysseus, who suffers in quasi-isolation for seven years, weeping on the edge of the sea (but having sex with Calypso at night). Odysseus cannot return home directly from this. His journey home requires him to repeatedly tell stories about himself and to reaffirm his identity step-by-step through reunions with the important people in his life. It is Odysseus too who brings Philoktetes back into society in Sophocles’ play.

I think ancient audiences saw the sufferings of both figures as a result from their isolation, from their separation from communion with other human beings. Both Homer’s epic and Sophocles’ play emphasize political themes and social consequences: Odysseus and Philoktetes are at times calculating and full of rage, leaving characters in the poems (and audiences outside them) unsure of if or when they will lash out.

What each narrative emphasizes, however, is that the isolated figure needs fellowship and partnership to return to human society. Odysseus’ return home is not complete until he is recognized—and recognizes himself—in his son, spouse, and father. Philoktetes needs to be persuaded to return, to be cajoled and guided and distracted from the fact he is being used.

This is, perhaps, cold comfort for those of us isolated now. But it does remind us that having other people around us is important and that, when the time comes to reintegrate, it won’t be simple or easy. We will have to tell each other our stories and listen to who we confirm in each other we are.

And perhaps it will force us to think about the world we create for ourselves. The plot which drives Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is a choice about the future of life in the galaxy: whether it will continue on as it has, with everyone charting separate courses of self interest or it will change radically, adopting the life-form model of a planet called Gaia where all inhabitants shared consciousness and fate, yielding some sense of free will.

When I read this choice to its conclusion in the late 80s, I was horrified because it seemed (spoiler alert) that the protagonist was choosing communism! But it did not take many years for the wisdom of this choice to make a little more sense. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home and murders 108 suitors. The epic almost ends with a civil war but for the intervention of Athena and Zeus who declare an amnesty, insisting that the Ithakans and Odysseus need to live together (24.486, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω). In this, the individual leader is forced to change his ways; but the people have to submit to forgetting and forgetting the violence and malice which brought a generation to ruin.

What choices will we face? Which ones will we be able to make?

Some things to read

Andersen, H. S., Sestoft, D. D., Lillebæk, T. T., Gabrielsen, G. G., Hemmingsen, R. R., & Kramp, P. P. 2000. “A Longitudinal Study of Prisoners on Remand: Psychiatric Prevalence, Incidence and Psychopathology in Solitary vs. Non-Solitary Confinement.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102:19.

Foundation and Earth (Foundation #5) by Isaac Asimov

Barker, E.T.E. and Christensen J. P. Homer’s Thebes. Washington, D.C. 2019.

Gilmore, Betty and Williams, Nanon M. 2014. The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons. Dallas.

Kaba, Fatos et al. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442–447.

Ravindran, Shruti 2014. “Twilight in the Box.” Aeon 27.

Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.

Thiher, Allen. 1999. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor.

Underwood, Charles. 2018. Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning, and Agency in Odysseus’ World. Lanham: Lexington Books

The Proverb Behind Silenus’ Wisdom

According to Plutarch, this conversation is taken from a lost dialogue ascribed to Aristotle, entitled, On the Soul. This passage also shows up in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy chapter 3.

Plutarch Consolation to Apollonius [Moralia, 115a-c]

“There is also the saying you know has been passed around the mouth of many humans over the years.” “what is that?” he asked. The other one, interrupted, “that it is best of all not to exist and then second it is better to die than to live. This has been demonstrated by many examples from the divine.

For certainly they say this concerning Midas after the hunt when he caught Silenus and was asking him and finding out from him what is best for mortals and what should be most preferred. But Silenus was willing to say nothing, but remained stubbornly silent.

After he tried nearly every kind of approach, he persuaded him to provide some answer—so compelled, he said, “brief-lived offspring of a laboring god and harsh fate, why do you force me to tell you what it is better not to know? A life lived in ignorance of your most intimate griefs is the least painful.

But for humans it is not at all possible to have the best thing of all or to have any share of the best nature—since the best thing for all men and women is not to be born. But the second best thing after this and the first available to mortals, is to die as soon as possible after being born.” It is clear that he said this because the way that exists in death is better than the one in life.”

τὸ διὰ στόματος ὂν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ὁρᾷς ὡς ἐκ πολλῶν ἐτῶν περιφέρεται θρυλούμενον.” “τί τοῦτ᾿;” ἔφη. κἀκεῖνος ὑπολαβών “ὡς ἄρα μὴ γενέσθαι μέν,” ἔφη, “ἄριστον πάντων, τὸ δὲ τεθνάναι τοῦ ζῆν ἐστι κρεῖττον. καὶ πολλοῖς οὕτω παρὰ τοῦ δαιμονίου μεμαρτύρηται. τοῦτο μὲν ἐκείνῳ τῷ Μίδᾳ λέγουσι δήπου μετὰ τὴν θήραν ὡς ἔλαβε τὸν Σειληνὸν διερωτῶντι καὶ πυνθανομένῳ τί ποτ᾿ ἐστὶ τὸ βέλτιστοντοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ τί τὸ πάντων αἱρετώτατον, τὸ μὲν πρῶτον οὐδὲν ἐθέλειν εἰπεῖν ἀλλὰ σιωπᾶν ἀρρήτως· ἐπειδὴ δέ ποτε μόγις πᾶσαν μηχανὴν μηχανώμενος προσηγάγετο φθέγξασθαί τι πρὸς αὐτόν, οὕτως ἀναγκαζόμενον εἰπεῖν, ‘δαίμονος ἐπιπόνου καὶ τύχης χαλεπῆς ἐφήμερον σπέρμα, τί με βιάζεσθε λέγειν ἃ ὑμῖν ἄρειον μὴ γνῶναι; μετ᾿ ἀγνοίας γὰρ τῶν οἰκείων κακῶν ἀλυπότατος ὁ βίος. ἀνθρώποις δὲ πάμπαν οὐκ ἔστι γενέσθαι τὸ πάντων ἄριστον οὐδὲ μετασχεῖν τῆς τοῦ βελτίστου φύσεως (ἄριστον γὰρ πᾶσι καὶ πάσαις τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι)· τὸ μέντοι μετὰ τοῦτο καὶ πρῶτον τῶν ἀνθρώπῳ ἀνυστῶν, δεύτερον δέ, τὸ γενομένους ἀποθανεῖν ὡς τάχιστα.’ δῆλον οὖν ὡς οὔσης κρείττονος τῆς ἐν τῷ τεθνάναι διαγωγῆς ἢ τῆς ἐν τῷ ζῆν, οὕτως ἀπεφήνατο.”

This comment seems proverbial–split in similar attributions in hexameter and elegiac poetry.

In the Contest of Homer and Hesiod

“Son of Meles, Homer who knows the mysteries of the gods,
Tell me foremost what is best for mortals?”
Homer answered:

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.”

ἀρ υἱὲ Μέλητος ῞Ομηρε θεῶν ἄπο μήδεα εἰδὼς
εἴπ’ ἄγε μοι πάμπρωτα τί φέρτατόν ἐστι βροτοῖσιν;
῞Ομηρος·
ἀρχὴν μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
φύντα δ’ ὅμως ὤκιστα πύλας ᾿Αίδαο περῆσαι.

The passage floats around some. Stobaeus (4.52.22) attributes it to Alcidamas’ Mousaion but the most widely cited source is Theognis. It is listed without attribution by the paroemiographer Michael Apostolos, with the explanation that this is a proverb “[attributed] to people living in misfortune”  (ἐπὶ τῶν δυστυχῶς βιούντων, 3.85.3)

Theognis, 425-428

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
Not to see the rays of the piercing sun
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.
And to lie with a great pile of earth heaped above you.

πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
μηδ᾿ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου,
φύντα δ᾿ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

The Loeb note to this passage suggest that Theognis is merely adding to the hexameter lines, since the pentameter lines add nothing. But I think this is problematic. Consider the similar doublet to the first 2 lines above in Bacchylides.

Bacchylides 5.159–161

“And answering him, he said:
“It is best for mortals not to be born
Nor to see the sun.”

καί νιν ἀμειβόμενος
τᾶδ᾿ ἔφα· ‘θνατοῖσι μὴ φῦναι φέριστον
μηδ᾿ ἀελίου προσιδεῖν

Note how Bacchylides acknowledges the proverbial–or at least ‘other’–status of these lines by putting it into the mouths of one of his characters. Notice the stability of the infinitive construction μὴ φῦναι with the mobility of the dative θνατοῖσι and the lexical variations of θνατοῖσι instead of ἐπιχθονίοισιν and φέριστον instead of ἄριστον.

Sophocles, Oedipus Colonos 1225–1227

“Not being born conquers
every argument. But, then, if someone does emerge,
to return where you came from as fast as possible
is second best by far.”

Μὴ φῦναι τὸν ἅπαντα νι-
κᾷ λόγον· τὸ δ’, ἐπεὶ φανῇ,
βῆναι κεῖθεν ὅθεν περ ἥ-
κει, πολὺ δεύτερον, ὡς τάχιστα.

Sextus Empiricus (Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3.230–231) compares the Theognis passage to this fragment from Euripides (fr. 449)

“We should have a gathering to mourn
Someone when they are born, when they come to so many evils
And when someone has died and found a break from evils,
We should be happy and bless them as we carry them from their homes.”

ἐχρῆν γὰρ ἡμᾶς σύλλογον ποιουμένους
τὸν φύντα θρηνεῖν, εἰς ὅσ᾿ ἔρχεται κακά,
τὸν δ᾿ αὖ θανόντα καὶ κακῶν πεπαυμένον
χαίροντας εὐφημοῦντας ἐκπέμπειν δόμων.

Valerius Maximus claimed that Thracians actually did mourn births and celebrate funerals.

A clearer reflection on the proverb is Euripides fr. 235 (from Bellerophon):

“I agree with the thing reported everywhere,
That it is best for a mortal not to be born.”

ἐγὼ τὸ μὲν δὴ πανταχοῦ θρυλούμενον
κράτιστον εἶναι φημὶ μὴ φῦναι βροτῷ·

Note the different superlative at the beginning of the phrase and the singular βροτῷ. Based on the flexibility of the expression and the riffing on it, I would suggest that this is a broadly dispersed cultural idea that has proverbial status at a very early period. Note how Euripides, in another fragment, toys with the more broadly used phrase:

Euripides, fr. 908

“Not existing is better for mortals than being born.”

Τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι κρεῖσσον ἢ φῦναι βροτοῖς.

Epicurus (Diogenes Laertius, 10.127) thinks that anyone who believes this and says it is a fool since “if he says it because he believes it, how is it he does not just stop living? For this is ready for him to do, if it is completely believed by him.” (εἰ μὲν γὰρ πεποιθὼς τοῦτό φησι, πῶς οὐκ ἀπέρχεται τοῦ ζῆν; ἐν ἑτοίμῳ γὰρ αὐτῷ τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν, εἴπερ ἦν βεβουλευμένον αὐτῷ βεβαίως).

And there is, of course, the Ancient Near Eastern context to consider!

Statue of Silenus

Scarcity, Precarity, and Simile: Reading the Iliad

Homer, Iliad 12.421-426

“But, just as two men strive over boundary stones,
As they hold their yardsticks in hand in a shared field
and they struggle over a fair share of the limited earth,
So did the fortifications separate them.
But over them still they struck one another
On their oxhide circles and winged shields.”

ἀλλ’ ὥς τ’ ἀμφ’ οὔροισι δύ’ ἀνέρε δηριάασθον
μέτρ’ ἐν χερσὶν ἔχοντες ἐπιξύνῳ ἐν ἀρούρῃ,
ὥ τ’ ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ ἐρίζητον περὶ ἴσης,
ὣς ἄρα τοὺς διέεργον ἐπάλξιες· οἳ δ’ ὑπὲρ αὐτέων
δῄουν ἀλλήλων ἀμφὶ στήθεσσι βοείας
ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους λαισήϊά τε πτερόεντα.

Schol. T ad Il. 12.423b

“This is about the intensity. For those who possess more might look down on [fighting like this?”

ex. ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ: εἰς ἐπίτασιν· οἱ γὰρ πλείονα κεκτημένοι ἴσως καταφρονοῦσιν. T

As some already know, I am a Homerist by practice and training, which means I have spent the better part of the past 20 years, reading, thinking, and writing about the Homeric epics. After all this, I am still regularly surprised by how much I don’t understand and often shocked by the fact that I have spent so many years doing just this, re-reading, being surprised, and then trying to learn something new.

The truth is, there was a time when I had little regard for the Homeric epics. I started reading them because I wanted to understand the ‘literature’ that followed them. About the same time I started reading Homer in the original, which was transformative on its own, I read both epics again in translation. The oceanic gap between the experience of the Greek and the translations rattled my confidence in my own aesthetic judgments (and in the act of translation).

But the difference between Homeric phraseology and Vergil (the Latin author with whom I had the most familiarity at the time) was striking: nearly every line of Homer is a self-contained unit of sense. Rather than being hypotactic (subordinating and delaying meaning), Homeric poetry is paratactic, building by adding. It is useful to know the language and stories of the Iliad before you start reading; but it is not necessary for enjoyment: the epic constructs itself in front of you as it tells its tale.

The simile above is one of the first things that I carried around with me everyday once I started reading Homeric Greek (I eventually made investigating it into a senior thesis). It is such a small, nearly forgettable moment. But its simplicity belies a compact and complex representation of the way Homeric poetry works and why it still matters.

In the middle of the battle over the walls the Greek have constructed against the resurgent Trojan defenders, the warring sides are compared to two men fighting over measuring their share of a common field. Even to this day, this comparison seems so disarmingly true as it reduces the grand themes of the struggles between Trojans and Greek, Agamemnon and Achilles, to that of two men over shared resources. The Iliad, at one level, is all about scarcity: scarcity of goods, of women, of honor, of life-time, and, ultimately, the scarcity of fame.

This simile works through metonymy to represent not just the action on the field of battle at this moment, but the conditions that prompt the greater conflict and those that constrain human life. It leaps through time and space and indicates how this poem differs from simple myths. The normal mortals who love this poem aren’t kings or demigods; we live small, sometimes desperate lives, the conditions of which are improved or exacerbated by how well we work together to make fair shares of our public goods.

The scholiast’s comments above, then, are doubly laughable. If I am reading them right (and the verb καταφρονοῦσιν without an object can be annoying), the commentator is imagining that these men in the simile are struggling over this small bit of land because they are poor and that wealthier men would not bother. Not only is this a tragic misunderstanding of human nature (wait tables or tend bar for only a few weeks and you will discover that the good tippers are not the wealthiest ones), but it is a poor reading of the epic, where the wealthiest and most powerful men alive are more than happy to keep fighting and ensuring that their people die.

The point of the simile is that it provides a meeting point between the actors of the poem and the worlds of the audiences; the line that separates imaginative story in the audience’s minds from the lives they live becomes permeable and the hero meets the mortal in the shared experience. This is how the world becomes a part of the story and how it also  shapes the poem.

Right after this, there’s another simile.

Iliad 12.427-438

“Many were struck across their flesh by pitiless bronze
Whenever they turned and bared their backs
As they struggled, although many were also struck through their shields.
The towers and walls were decorated everywhere with the blood
Of men from both sides, from Trojans and Achaeans.

Yet, they still could not force the Achaians to flee—
No, it held as when an honest weaving woman holds
The balance and draws out the weight and the wool on both sides
to make them equal so she might earn some wretched wage for her children.
So the battle and the war was stretched even on each side
Until Zeus gave the glory over to Hektor
Priam’s son, who first broke through the wall of the Achaeans.”

πολλοὶ δ’ οὐτάζοντο κατὰ χρόα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ,
ἠμὲν ὅτεῳ στρεφθέντι μετάφρενα γυμνωθείη
μαρναμένων, πολλοὶ δὲ διαμπερὲς ἀσπίδος αὐτῆς.
πάντῃ δὴ πύργοι καὶ ἐπάλξιες αἵματι φωτῶν
ἐρράδατ’ ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἀπὸ Τρώων καὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν.
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἐδύναντο φόβον ποιῆσαι ᾿Αχαιῶν,
ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα γυνὴ χερνῆτις ἀληθής,
ἥ τε σταθμὸν ἔχουσα καὶ εἴριον ἀμφὶς ἀνέλκει
ἰσάζουσ’, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα μισθὸν ἄρηται·
ὣς μὲν τῶν ἐπὶ ἶσα μάχη τέτατο πτόλεμός τε,
πρίν γ’ ὅτε δὴ Ζεὺς κῦδος ὑπέρτερον ῞Εκτορι δῶκε
Πριαμίδῃ, ὃς πρῶτος ἐσήλατο τεῖχος ᾿Αχαιῶν.

Schol D + bT ad Il. 12.433-435 ex.

“The equal balance of those fighting, [Homer] compared to the beam of a loom, again. For nothing is so precisely similar to an even balance. And the one weighing this out is not the mistress of the household—for she does not often trouble this much for so small an equal bit—nor is it one of the household maids—for they would not seek to make so precise a measure since they are fed by the household’s master and do not risk their nourishment if they mess up on the loom weights—but it is a woman for hire who must provide what is needed for living by the effort of her hands.”

ex. | D ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα<—μισθὸν ἄρη-ται>: πάλιν τὸ ἰσοπαλὲς τῶν μαχομένων παρέβαλε ζυγῷ· οὐδὲν γὰρ οὕτως ἀκριβὲς πρὸς ἰσότητα. καὶ ἡ ταλαντεύουσα οὐκ ἔστι δέσποινα οἰκίας (ταύτην γὰρ οὐ λυπεῖ πολλάκις τὸ παρὰ βραχὺ ἴσον), ἀλλ’ οὐδὲ θεραπαινίς (οὐ γὰρ αὗται ζητοῦσι τὸ ἀκριβὲς εἰς τοσοῦτον, ἅτε δὴ ὑπὸ τοῦ δεσπότου τρεφόμεναι b [BCE3E4] T καὶ οὐκ ἐν τῷ διαμαρτεῖν περὶ τὸν σταθμὸν κινδυνεύουσαι περὶ τροφήν), T χερνῆτις (433) δέ, ἡ χειρὶ τὰ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν πορίζουσα, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα (435) φησίν.

This passage has long  moved me too because, as with the earlier simile, the great ‘epic’ themes and images of war were reduced to something simple, daily, and completely understandable. Even in the ancient world where many members of the audiences probably had considerably more experience of violence than we do and where most aristocratic audience members would certainly have nothing but contempt for working for a living, many probably heard a crucial echo of their own lives in this surprising comparison.

I also appreciate the way that the scholiasts here home in on how dire this woman’s position is, making the dubious but nonetheless striking claim that the household servants led less precarious lives than the woman of the simile who draws the weight so precisely because her pay—and the lives of her children—depend upon it. In a crucial way, this simile evokes the same sense of scarcity as that of the men on the field—but it adds that an all too familiar anxiety from the precarity that emerges when one lives constantly with the sense of how scarce those things we value are.

It may seem a stretch, but the image of the weaving woman evokes for me the creative power of women presented elsewhere in Homer–Helen weaves the story of her own kleos, Penelope weaves shroud whose images are never revealed. In a way, the tension prepared by the woman’s hands within the simile is a comparison for the balance of war and a metaphor for an act of creation. The epic’s plot and the audience’s experience are similarly drawn out in the narrator’s hands.

Indeed, the scarcity and precarity evoked by this simile and the one that precedes it extends the transitional moment begun with the image of the farmers to create anticipatory tension in the audience. At the epic’s middle, before we move from book 12 to 13 and to the slaughter of the Achaeans at the ships, the balance hangs ever briefly before it breaks. Hektor surges through the Achaean fortification: the balance of action fails just as the balance of the plot will too—the story of Achilles’ withdrawal will now translate into the slaughter he asked Zeus to precipitate leading to the death of Patroklos, Hektor and, ultimately, Achilles too.

These similes stand at the middle of the poem and convey the sense of tension at the passing of this moment and the spinning of the tale itself. The nameless men and the nameless woman stand in contrast to the named heroes who will suffer and die in the following books. But they are also vehicles moving between the lives of the audiences and the heroes’ deeds marking off the small stakes for which all are struggling and the limited life by which we are all constrained.

 

 

Venetus A Book 12
Iliad 12, from the Venetus A Manuscript (via the Homer Multitext Project)

The Proverb Behind Silenus’ Wisdom

According to Plutarch, this conversation is taken from a lost dialogue ascribed to Aristotle, entitled, On the Soul. This passage also shows up in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy chapter 3.

Plutarch Consolation to Apollonius [Moralia, 115a-c]

“There is also the saying you know has been passed around the mouth of many humans over the years.” “what is that?” he asked. The other one, interrupted, “that it is best of all not to exist and then second it is better to die than to live. This has been demonstrated by many examples from the divine.

For certainly they say this concerning Midas after the hunt when he caught Silenus and was asking him and finding out from him what is best for mortals and what should be most preferred. But Silenus was willing to say nothing, but remained stubbornly silent.

After he tried nearly every kind of approach, he persuaded him to provide some answer—so compelled, he said, “brief-lived offspring of a laboring god and harsh fate, why do you force me to tell you what it is better not to know? A life lived in ignorance of your most intimate griefs is the least painful.

But for humans it is not at all possible to have the best thing of all or to have any share of the best nature—since the best thing for all men and women is not to be born. But the second best thing after this and the first available to mortals, is to die as soon as possible after being born.” It is clear that he said this because the way that exists in death is better than the one in life.”

τὸ διὰ στόματος ὂν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ὁρᾷς ὡς ἐκ πολλῶν ἐτῶν περιφέρεται θρυλούμενον.” “τί τοῦτ᾿;” ἔφη. κἀκεῖνος ὑπολαβών “ὡς ἄρα μὴ γενέσθαι μέν,” ἔφη, “ἄριστον πάντων, τὸ δὲ τεθνάναι τοῦ ζῆν ἐστι κρεῖττον. καὶ πολλοῖς οὕτω παρὰ τοῦ δαιμονίου μεμαρτύρηται. τοῦτο μὲν ἐκείνῳ τῷ Μίδᾳ λέγουσι δήπου μετὰ τὴν θήραν ὡς ἔλαβε τὸν Σειληνὸν διερωτῶντι καὶ πυνθανομένῳ τί ποτ᾿ ἐστὶ τὸ βέλτιστοντοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ τί τὸ πάντων αἱρετώτατον, τὸ μὲν πρῶτον οὐδὲν ἐθέλειν εἰπεῖν ἀλλὰ σιωπᾶν ἀρρήτως· ἐπειδὴ δέ ποτε μόγις πᾶσαν μηχανὴν μηχανώμενος προσηγάγετο φθέγξασθαί τι πρὸς αὐτόν, οὕτως ἀναγκαζόμενον εἰπεῖν, ‘δαίμονος ἐπιπόνου καὶ τύχης χαλεπῆς ἐφήμερον σπέρμα, τί με βιάζεσθε λέγειν ἃ ὑμῖν ἄρειον μὴ γνῶναι; μετ᾿ ἀγνοίας γὰρ τῶν οἰκείων κακῶν ἀλυπότατος ὁ βίος. ἀνθρώποις δὲ πάμπαν οὐκ ἔστι γενέσθαι τὸ πάντων ἄριστον οὐδὲ μετασχεῖν τῆς τοῦ βελτίστου φύσεως (ἄριστον γὰρ πᾶσι καὶ πάσαις τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι)· τὸ μέντοι μετὰ τοῦτο καὶ πρῶτον τῶν ἀνθρώπῳ ἀνυστῶν, δεύτερον δέ, τὸ γενομένους ἀποθανεῖν ὡς τάχιστα.’ δῆλον οὖν ὡς οὔσης κρείττονος τῆς ἐν τῷ τεθνάναι διαγωγῆς ἢ τῆς ἐν τῷ ζῆν, οὕτως ἀπεφήνατο.”

This comment seems proverbial–split in similar attributions in hexameter and elegiac poetry.

In the Contest of Homer and Hesiod

“Son of Meles, Homer who knows the mysteries of the gods,
Tell me foremost what is best for mortals?”
Homer answered:

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.”

ἀρ υἱὲ Μέλητος ῞Ομηρε θεῶν ἄπο μήδεα εἰδὼς
εἴπ’ ἄγε μοι πάμπρωτα τί φέρτατόν ἐστι βροτοῖσιν;
῞Ομηρος·
ἀρχὴν μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
φύντα δ’ ὅμως ὤκιστα πύλας ᾿Αίδαο περῆσαι.

The passage floats around some. Stobaeus (4.52.22) attributes it to Alcidamas’ Mousaion but the most widely cited source is Theognis. It is listed without attribution by the paroemiographer Michael Apostolos, with the explanation that this is a proverb “[attributed] to people living in misfortune”  (ἐπὶ τῶν δυστυχῶς βιούντων, 3.85.3)

Theognis, 425-428

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
Not to see the rays of the piercing sun
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.
And to lie with a great pile of earth heaped above you.

πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
μηδ᾿ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου,
φύντα δ᾿ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

The Loeb note to this passage suggest that Theognis is merely adding to the hexameter lines, since the pentameter lines add nothing. But I think this is problematic. Consider the similar doublet to the first 2 lines above in Bacchylides.

Bacchylides 5.159–161

“And answering him, he said:
“It is best for mortals not to be born
Nor to see the sun.”

καί νιν ἀμειβόμενος
τᾶδ᾿ ἔφα· ‘θνατοῖσι μὴ φῦναι φέριστον
μηδ᾿ ἀελίου προσιδεῖν

Note how Bacchylides acknowledges the proverbial–or at least ‘other’–status of these lines by putting it into the mouths of one of his characters. Notice the stability of the infinitive construction μὴ φῦναι with the mobility of the dative θνατοῖσι and the lexical variations of θνατοῖσι instead of ἐπιχθονίοισιν and φέριστον instead of ἄριστον.

Sophocles, Oedipus Colonos 1225–1227

“Not being born conquers
every argument. But, then, if someone does emerge,
to return where you came from as fast as possible
is second best by far.”

Μὴ φῦναι τὸν ἅπαντα νι-
κᾷ λόγον· τὸ δ’, ἐπεὶ φανῇ,
βῆναι κεῖθεν ὅθεν περ ἥ-
κει, πολὺ δεύτερον, ὡς τάχιστα.

Sextus Empiricus (Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3.230–231) compares the Theognis passage to this fragment from Euripides (fr. 449)

“We should have a gathering to mourn
Someone when they are born, when they come to so many evils
And when someone has died and found a break from evils,
We should be happy and bless them as we carry them from their homes.”

ἐχρῆν γὰρ ἡμᾶς σύλλογον ποιουμένους
τὸν φύντα θρηνεῖν, εἰς ὅσ᾿ ἔρχεται κακά,
τὸν δ᾿ αὖ θανόντα καὶ κακῶν πεπαυμένον
χαίροντας εὐφημοῦντας ἐκπέμπειν δόμων.

Valerius Maximus claimed that Thracians actually did mourn births and celebrate funerals.

A clearer reflection on the proverb is Euripides fr. 235 (from Bellerophon):

“I agree with the thing reported everywhere,
That it is best for a mortal not to be born.”

ἐγὼ τὸ μὲν δὴ πανταχοῦ θρυλούμενον
κράτιστον εἶναι φημὶ μὴ φῦναι βροτῷ·

Note the different superlative at the beginning of the phrase and the singular βροτῷ. Based on the flexibility of the expression and the riffing on it, I would suggest that this is a broadly dispersed cultural idea that has proverbial status at a very early period. Note how Euripides, in another fragment, toys with the more broadly used phrase:

Euripides, fr. 908

“Not existing is better for mortals than being born.”

Τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι κρεῖσσον ἢ φῦναι βροτοῖς.

Epicurus (Diogenes Laertius, 10.127) thinks that anyone who believes this and says it is a fool since “if he says it because he believes it, how is it he does not just stop living? For this is ready for him to do, if it is completely believed by him.” (εἰ μὲν γὰρ πεποιθὼς τοῦτό φησι, πῶς οὐκ ἀπέρχεται τοῦ ζῆν; ἐν ἑτοίμῳ γὰρ αὐτῷ τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν, εἴπερ ἦν βεβουλευμένον αὐτῷ βεβαίως).

And there is, of course, the Ancient Near Eastern context to consider!

Statue of Silenus

Plutarch has Erotic Stories: They’re Not What You’d Think

A terrible love story for Women’s History Month

Plutarch, Erotic Stories, Moralia 771

“In Haliartos in Boiotia, there was a certain girl of surpassing beauty whose name was Aristokleia. She was the Daughter of Theophanes. Stratôn the Orkhomenian and Kallisthenes the Haliartian were both wooing her.

Stratôn was wealthier and was somewhat more taken with the virgin. For he happened to see her once when she was bathing in the fountain Herkunêin Lebadeia. For she was making reading to carry a basket for Zeus the king. But Kallisthenes was closer to winning her, for he was related to her.

Theophanes was at a loss in the matter—for he was fearing Stratôn he stood apart from nearly all the Boiotians because of his family and wealth. He was planning on getting advice about the choice from Trophonios. Stratôn, however, was convinced by the girl’s servants that she was leaning towards him, so he considered it best to have the girl to be married make the choice. But when Theophanes asked his daughter in front of everyone, she chose Kallisthenes. It was clear that Stratôn took the dishonor badly.

After a period of two days, he approached Theophanes and Kallisthenes, saying he wanted to preserve their friendship, even if he had been denied the marriage by some envious god. They praised what he said and asked him to come to the feast for the wedding. But he, once he had gathered a mob of his friends and no small a retinue of servants which were distributed among the attendees unnoticed, waited until the girl wen to the Spring Kissoessa to make the customary sacrifice to the local nymphs. There, all the men who were in ambush rushed out and grabbed her. Stratos had gained a hold of the virgin. Kallisthenes, as one might expect, grabbed her in turn and those with him were helping. They all pulled on her until she died without them knowing, stretched to death in their hands.

Kallisthenes was out of sight immediately, either because he killed himself or left Boiotia as an exile. No one is able to say what happened to him. But Stratôn killed himself openty over the maiden.”

Ἐν Ἁλιάρτῳ τῆς Βοιωτίας κόρη τις γίνεται κάλλει διαπρέπουσα ὄνομα Ἀριστόκλεια· θυγάτηρ δ᾿ ἦν Θεοφάνους. ταύτην μνῶνται Στράτων Ὀρχομένιος καὶ Καλλισθένης Ἁλιάρτιος. πλουσιώτερος δ᾿ ἦν Στράτων καὶ μᾶλλόν τι τῆς παρθένου ἡττημένος· ἐτύγχανε γὰρ ἰδὼν αὐτὴν ἐν Λεβαδείᾳ λουομένην ἐπὶ τῇ κρήνῃ τῇ Ἑρκύνῃ· ἔμελλε γὰρ τῷ Διὶ τῷ βασιλεῖ κανηφορεῖν. ἀλλ᾿ ὁ Καλλισθένης γε πλέον ἐφέρετο· ἦν γὰρ καὶ γένει προσήκων τῇ κόρῃ. ἀπορῶν δὲ τῷ πράγματι ὁ Θεοφάνης, ἐδεδίει γὰρ τὸν Στράτων πλούτῳ τε καὶ γένει σχεδὸν ἁπάντων διαφέροντα τῶν Βοιωτῶν, τὴν αἵρεσιν ἐβούλετο τῷ Τροφωνίῳ ἐπιτρέψαι· καὶ ὁ Στράτων, ἀνεπέπειστο γὰρ ὑπὸ τῶν τῆς παρθένου οἰκετῶν, ὡς πρὸς αὐτὸν μᾶλλον ἐκείνη ῥέποι, ἠξίου ἐπ᾿ αὐτῇ ποιεῖσθαι τῇ γαμουμένῃ τὴν ἐκλογήν. ὡς δὲ τῆς παιδὸς ὁ Θεοφάνης ἐπυνθάνετο ἐν ὄψει πάντων, ἡ δὲ τὸν Καλλισθένην προύκρινεν, εὐθὺς μὲν ὁ Στράτων δῆλος ἦν βαρέως φέρων τὴν ἀτιμίαν· ἡμέρας δὲ διαλιπὼν δύο προσῆλθε τῷ Θεοφάνει καὶ τῷ Καλλισθένει, ἀξιῶν τὴν φιλίαν αὐτῷ πρὸς αὐτοὺς διαφυλάττεσθαι, εἰ καὶ τοῦ γάμου ἐφθονήθη ὑπὸ δαιμονίου τινός. οἱ δ᾿ ἐπῄνουν τὰ λεγόμενα, ὥστε καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν ἑστίασιν τῶν γάμων παρεκάλουν αὐτόν. ὁ δὲ παρεσκευασμένος ἑταίρων ὄχλον, καὶ πλῆθος οὐκ ὀλίγον θεραπόντων, διεσπαρμένους παρὰ τούτοις καὶ λανθάνοντας, ἕως ἡ κόρη κατὰ τὰ πάτρια ἐπὶ τὴν Κισσόεσσαν καλουμένην κρήνην κατῄει ταῖς Νύμφαις τὰ προτέλειαCθύσουσα, τότε δὴ συνδραμόντες πάντες οἱ λοχῶντες ἐκείνῳ συνελάμβανον αὐτήν. καὶ ὁ Στράτων γ᾿ εἴχετο τῆς παρθένου· ἀντελαμβάνετο δ᾿ ὡς εἰκὸς ὁ Καλλισθένης ἐν μέρει καὶ οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ, ἕως ἔλαθεν ἡ παῖς ἐν χερσὶ τῶν ἀνθελκόντων διαφθαρεῖσα. ὁ Καλλισθένης μὲν οὖν παραχρῆμα ἀφανὴς ἐγένετο, εἴτε διαχρησάμενος ἑαυτὸν εἴτε φυγὰς ἀπελθὼν ἐκ τῆς Βοιωτίας· οὐκ εἶχε δ᾿ οὖν τις εἰπεῖν ὅ τι καὶ πεπόνθοι. ὁ δὲ Στράτων φανερῶς ἐπικατέσφαξεν ἑαυτὸν τῇ παρθένῳ.

File:Pyxis01 pushkin.jpg
Wedding Preparation Vase, Wikimedia Commons