Reading Lucilian Satire in the Age of Twitter

Dealing with the fragmentary nature of the evidence for the ancient world is frustrating to say the least. Take for example the so-called inventor of satire Gaius Lucilius. Out of the thirty books of his satires we have a mere few hundred lines.

Most of these books are filled with seemingly random one-liners such as “et mercedimerae legiones,” which means “and wage-earning legions.” After reading several lines that were similar to this one, I struggled to appreciate Lucilius’ art. And even after digesting massive amounts of secondary scholarship on the satirist I found myself lost. I wrestled to figure out what was it that made reading Lucilius so frustrating. The answer was so obvious. He is in fragments. Perhaps if I understood the context of “ut iure peritus (like one skilled in law),” it would not have given me such a headache. And while not all of Lucilius’ satires are this obscure a large chunk of them are.

The frustration and puzzlement I felt reminded me of how I feel when I read a politician’s twitter. Like Lucilius, tweets can often be confusing. For example, on February 10th, 2013 Sean Spicer tweeted “whomever just unfollowed me- show yourself you coward.” I remember my high school teacher at the time sharing this in class and having more questions than I did answers. Besides the fact that I did not know who Sean Spicer was at the time. I was confused by the nature of the tweet itself.

Sean had over 400,000 followers on twitter and he could have been unfollowed by anyone of them. Apparently, Sean was not being sarcastic at the time and was legitimately upset by losing a follower. Similarly, Lucillius could have been referring to any number of wage-earning legions. Even scholars with an impressively dense breadth of knowledge on the context in which Lucilius wrote have scrambled trying to understand lines like this. In fact, it is unlikely that we will ever know Lucilius’ merry band of money-hungry legions. And poor Sean will probably never know who unfollowed him.

In Book 14 of his satires Lucilius writes that, “nemo est halicarius posterior te,” which means “No wheat-grinder is second to you.” There are a few things that frustrate the reader here. One, who is the worst miller of all time that Lucilius is referring to here? Two, it appears as though Lucilius disagrees with the common spelling of alicarius, which scholars debated over. However, the correct spelling is alicarius. So, was Lucilius just trying to be funny? Did he not know any better? The sad truth is, we will never know.

On May 31st, 2017 Donald J. Trump tweeted “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” He later claimed that this was an intentional mistake, but the truth was that he fell asleep while tweeting. It is obvious that he meant to say conference not covfefe. However, regardless of the spelling error there is still a problem with this tweet that puzzles the reader. Let us imagine that Trump had tweeted out “Despite the constant negative press conference.” There is still a lack of context that leaves the reader guessing. What happened as a result? Was he successful in some business deal? Did his approval rating go up? Did he pass a new bill? The questions that come to one’s mind are endless.

Another issue is the matter of invective. Twitter seems to be a great place for such things these days. If you scroll through Twitter at any time during the day, there is guaranteed to be some post where someone is putting someone else on blast. This is not unlike Roman satire. Lucilius for example makes a satire out of a legal despute between a certain Albicius and a man named Scaevola. In fact, this seems to be the longest fragment of Lucilius that we have recovered thus far. It reads (Lucilius 87-93). :

Graecum te, Albuci, quam Romanum atque Sabinum, municipem Ponti, Tritani,
centurionum, praeclarorum hominum ac primorum signiferumque, maluisti dici. Graece
ergo praetor Athenis, id quod maluisti, te, cum ad me accedis, saluto: ‘chaere’, inquam,
‘Tite’. lictores, turma omnis chorusque [cohorsque Manutius]: ‘chaere, Tite’. hinc hostis
mi Albucius, hinc inimicus (Lucilius 87-93).

Albucius, you wanted to be called a Greek instead of a Roman and a Sabine, a citizen of
Pontius and Tritanus, of centurions, of illustrious and first men and of standard-bearers.
Therefore, I as a praetor salute you at Athens in Greek, when you get to me, as you
wanted “Hey, Titus,” I said. The lictors, all of the squadron and the chorus, said “Hey
Titus.” (My translation).

While reading Lucilius is frustrating, because there is so much missing, it is also addicting. I kept reading line after line for the slim chance that I would better understand the poet and his satires. On the other hand, understanding tweets like the ones I mentioned above do not require nearly as much effort. One can simply google “why did Trump say the following?” or “why did Sean Spicer freak out on Twitter?” Even if at first these tweets leave the reader confused, they can quickly find an adequate answer. Unfortunately, Lucilius and many other authors that are left in fragments will most likely remain mysterious.

If someone were to google “why did Lucilius say the following?” or “why did Lucilius insult this miller?” There would probably be tons of suggested reading that would pop up which ask similar questions. Studying the ancient world can be frustrating. Especially when dealing with authors like Lucilius who are severely fragmented. If we want to know about what is going on in today’s world, we simply have to open a browser and ask away. Though, that in itself is a tricky process.

 

Javal A. Coleman was born and raised in Fort Worth Texas. After receiving his Bachelors in History with a minor in Latin and Classical Studies at the University of North Texas, he married his wife who he met at UNT and  moved to Austin to pursue a Phd in Classics at the University of Texas. Javal is primarily interested in the history of enslavement and more generally disenfranchised people and how law and gender contributed to their lived experience. In his free time he loves to read, play video games, and spend time with his wife and their beautiful daughter. 

Learning, Recollection, and Babies Laughing in their Sleep

Plutarch, Moralia: other Fragments 217

“A summary of different arguments by Plutarch of Charoneia showing that learning is recollection

    1. Do we think one thing because of another thing? Not unless it was known beforehand. This is a Platonic argument.
    2. Do we supplement ideas that are missing things? This is also Platonic
    3. Are children better at learning because they are nearer to the period before life when memory is preserved? This is an obvious approach.
    4. Are different people more capable for different kinds of learning?
    5. Have many people taught themselves entire art forms?
    6. Do babies laugh while they’re sleeping when they don’t while they are awake? Indeed, many speak when asleep even though they have not yet otherwise.
    7. Are some people frightened of silly things even though they are brave, like someone afraid of a weasel, or a rooster for no clear reason?
    8. Is discovery not attainable otherwise? For no one would seek what we know nor for what we never knew previously and we couldn’t find what we do not know.
    9. Is truth conversant with reality once forgetfulness has been removed? An argument based on diction.
    10. Is Memory the mother of the Muses, since unclear memory is the reason for our examinations.”

Ἐπιχειρημάτων διαφόρων συναγωγὴ δεικνύντων ἀναμνήσεις εἶναι τὰς μαθήσεις ἐκ τῶν τοῦ Χαιρωνέως Πλουτάρχου·

(a) Εἰ ἀφ᾿ ἑτέρου ἕτερον ἐννοοῦμεν. οὐκ ἂν εἰ μὴ προέγνωστο. τὸ ἐπιχείρημα Πλατωνικόν.

(b) Εἰ προστίθεμεν τὸ ἐλλεῖπον τοῖς αἰσθητοῖς· καὶ αὐτὸ Πλατωνικόν.

(c) Εἰ παῖδες εὐμαθέστεροι, ὡς ἐγγίους τῆς προβιοτῆς, ἐν  ἡ μνήμη ἐσῴζετο. ἐπιπόλαιος ὁ λόγος.

(d) Εἰ ἄλλοι πρὸς ἄλλο μάθημα ἐπιτηδειότεροι.

(e) Εἰ πολλοὶ αὐτοδίδακτοι ὅλων τεχνῶν.

(f) Εἰ πολλὰ παιδία ὑπνώττοντα γελᾷ, ὕπαρ δ᾿ οὔπω· πολλὰ δὲ καὶ ὄναρ2 ἐφθέγξατο, ἄλλως οὔπω φθεγγόμενα.

(g) Εἰ ἔνιοι καὶ ἀνδρεῖοι ὄντες ὅμως φοβοῦνται φαῦλ᾿ ἄττα, οἷον γαλῆν ἢ ἀλεκτρυόνα, ἀπ᾿ οὐδεμιᾶς φανερᾶς αἰτίας.

(h) Εἰ μὴ ἔστιν ἄλλως εὑρίσκειν. οὔτε γὰρ ἃ ἴσμεν ζητήσειεν ἄν τις, οὔτε ἃ μηδαμῶς ἴσμεν πρότερον, ἀλλ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἂν εὕροιμεν ἃ μὴ ἴσμεν.

(i) Εἰ ἡ ἀλήθεια κατ᾿ ἀφαίρεσιν τῆς λήθης ἔντευξις τοῦ ὄντος ἐστί. λογικὴ ἡ ἐπιχείρησις.

(j) Εἰ ἡ μήτηρ τῶν Μουσῶν Μνημοσύνη, ὡς ἡ ἀδιάρθρωτος μνήμη τῶν ζητήσεων αἰτία.

New Mexico Recollections by Marsden Hartley (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_Mexico_Recollections_by_Marsden_Hartley,_Columbus_Museum_of_Art.jpg)

Maybe Music Can Stop the Plague?

Plutarch, On Music (Moralia 1146c-d)

“The degree to which the best governed states have dedicated themselves to fine music finds ample testimony, especially in the case of Terpander who brought an end to the civil strife that was ruining the Spartans.

There’s also Thaletas of Crete who people say listened to the Delphic oracle and went Sparta and returned people to health with music, saving Sparta from the Pandemic that was gripping the land, as Pratinas claims.

Homer too says that the Greeks stopped a plague with music, for he says that “sons of the Achaeans propitiated the god with song and dance all day long / singing the noble paean and praising the / far-shooter who took pleasure in hearing the song.”

I’ll leave those verses as the final words in my argument about music, good teacher, since you started this discussion by quoting them to us. In truth, music’s first and finest labor is to give thanks back to the gods, and after that comes a cleansing of the soul, sure tone, and sustained harmony.”

Ὅτι δὲ καὶ ταῖς εὐνομωτάταις τῶν πόλεων ἐπιμελὲς γεγένηται φροντίδα ποιεῖσθαι τῆς γενναίας μουσικῆς πολλὰ μὲν καὶ ἄλλα μαρτύρια παραθέσθαι ἐστίν, Τέρπανδρον δ᾿ ἄν τις παραλάβοι τὸν τὴν γενομένην ποτὲ παρὰ Λακεδαιμονίοις στάσιν καταλύσαντα, καὶ Θαλήταν6 τὸν Κρῆτα, ὅν φασι κατά τι πυθόχρηστον Λακεδαιμονίους παραγενόμενον διὰ μουσικῆς ἰάσασθαι ἀπαλλάξαι τε τοῦ κατασχόντος λοιμοῦ τὴν Σπάρτην, καθάπερ φησὶν Πρατίνας. ἀλλὰ γὰρ καὶ Ὅμηρος τὸν κατασχόντα λοιμὸν τοὺς Ἕλληνας παύσασθαι λέγει διὰ μουσικῆς· ἔφη γοῦν οἱ δὲ πανημέριοι μολπῇ θεὸν ἱλάσκοντο / καλὸν ἀείδοντες παιήονα, κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν / μέλποντες ἑκάεργον· ὁ δὲ φρένα τέρπετ᾿ ἀκούων.

τούτους τοὺς στίχους, ἀγαθὲ διδάσκαλε, κολοφῶνα τῶν περὶ τῆς μουσικῆς λόγων πεποίημαι, ἐπεὶ φθάσας σὺ τὴν μουσικὴν δύναμιν διὰ τούτων προαπέφηνας ἡμῖν· τῷ γὰρ ὄντι τὸ πρῶτον αὐτῆς καὶ κάλλιστον ἔργον ἡ εἰς τοὺς θεοὺς εὐχάριστός ἐστιν ἀμοιβή, ἑπόμενον δὲ τούτῳ καὶ δεύτερον τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καθάρσιον καὶ ἐμμελὲς καὶ ἐναρμόνιον σύστημα.”

The oldest picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633)

The Art of Reading Slowly

 

I. Meaning in Literature: Saying Something Without Saying It

In Book Nine of the Iliad three ambassadors from the Greek army—Odysseus, Aias, and Phoinix—go to visit Achilles to appeal to him to rejoin the battle. He offers them hospitality in the proper manner:

αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ὤπτησε καὶ εἰν ἐλεοῖσιν ἔχευε,
Πάτροκλος μὲν σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς. (Il.9.215–17)

But when he had roasted [the meat] and put it on the platters,
Patroklos took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.

Patroklos, of course, is Achilles’ closest friend and companion. He and Achilles share the duties of hospitality, and no doubt Achilles, as the official host, has the more important task of serving the meat, while Patroklos has the less honorary task of serving the bread.

In Book Twenty-four of the Iliad, Priam comes to Achilles’ hut to ask for the body of his son, Hektor, who has been killed by Achilles because he killed Patroklos. Achilles offers him the same kind of hospitality he offered to the three ambassadors:

ὤπτηςάν τε περιφραδέως, ἐρύσαντο τε πάντα.
Αὐτομέδων δ᾽ἄρα σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς. (Il.24.624–26)

And he roasted [the meat] carefully, and pulled it all off [the spits]
And Automedon took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.

Lines 9.216–17 and lines 24.625–26 are identical, except for the name of the person serving the bread. Patroklos clearly can’t serve the bread because he has been killed by Hektor, whose father has come to ask for his body. The substitution of the name Automedon for the name Patroklos is a stark reminder of why Priam has come to Achilles, and a reminder of what Achilles has lost because of Hektor. The substitution carries with it all the grief and anger felt by Achilles and all the implicit threat of violence that Priam faces. The change of name signifies the absence of Patroklos and the reason for his absence. These lines, I would suggest, show the power of narrative to say something without explicitly saying it.

These lines are probably formulaic; that is, they probably belong to the stock of lines the poet has available to assist in the process of oral composition by improvisation. (I don’t mean to suggest that there was a complete set of fixed lines stored in the poet’s memory— formulaic composition was flexible and varied—but that’s another discussion.) Situations or actions which are likely to be happen with some frequency were likely to accumulate formulaic expressions—sacrifice, arming, preparing a ship for sailing, and so on. Offering hospitality no doubt occurred many times in oral epic, and it’s not surprising if there were formulas to express it. One might argue that this repetition of lines from Book Nine to Book Twenty-four is simply a consequence of the formulaic technique and therefore without any particular meaning. It is perhaps hard to imagine that the audience of oral epic performance would make the connection between these two passages. It is possible that the Homeric epics were usually performed in sections on different occasions; if so, it might seem even more unlikely that the audience would note the varied repetition of these two lines.

I am not persuaded by this argument. My reading of the epics tells me that Homer—the person or the tradition we call Homer, again that’s another discussion—was a skilled and subtle poet and psychologist. The epics are full of cross-references that come to their full meaning only if we allow ourselves to grant the poet the respect due to a great artist, a great composer of verse and narrative.

Most scholars, I believe, would agree that Books One and Twenty-four of the Iliad show a remarkable pattern of correspondences. We can identify a number of events in Book One which are then repeated in reverse order in Book Twenty-four; for instance, (A) Chryses’ appeal for the return of his daughter (1.10–42) corresponds to Priam’s appeal for the return of Hektor’s body (24.471–688); (B) the conversation between Thetis and Achilles (1.351–427) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Achilles (24.126–58); (C) the conversation between Thetis and Zeus (1.500–530) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Zeus (24.100–119); and (D) the gathering of the gods at the end of Book One (1.533–611) corresponds to the gathering of the gods at the beginning of Book Twenty-four ((24.32–76). Thus events ABCD in Book One are matched by events DCBA in Book Twenty-four. If Homer expected his audience to remember the events of Book One when they heard Book Twenty-four, he could have expected them to remember Book Nine as well.

The correspondence of events at the beginning and ending of the Iliad is an instance of what is called Ring Composition. This kind of ring can create an Invitation to Compare; here, for example, we are invited to compare Agamemnon’s rude dismissal of Chryses with Achilles’ gracious, if reluctant, acceptance of Priam.

Ring composition in various forms is very common in the Homeric epics and in classical literature generally. It is also common in modern literature, but less often noted by critics. Near the beginning of Orwell’s 1984, for instance, Winston Smith sees the three failed revolutionaries (Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford) sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café; at the very end of the novel, Smith himself, broken by interrogation, is sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café. A number of specific repetitions mark the ring: “It was the lonely hour of fifteen” (77 and 287); the song “Under the spreading chestnut tree (77 and 293); the chessboard (77 and 288). This ring is clearly an invitation to compare Smith to the earlier failed revolutionaries.

Rings can come in various lengths and have various functions. Flashbacks are often marked as rings. In the Odyssey, the famous passage which explains the scar of Odysseus is a ring, marked by the repetition of the words “scar” (οὐλήν at 19.393 and 19.464) and “recognized” (ἔγνω at 19.392 and γνῶ at 19.468). This flashback, like many others, is a folding back of time on itself, and a reminder that the past leaves its mark in the present. Each ring has to be interpreted in its own context.

All of these instances of Ring Composition, and the hundreds more that it would be easy to add to the list, are examples of Saying Something Without Saying It. These meanings typically don’t translate very well into explicit propositions. A joke loses its point if it has to be explained, and literary meanings are attenuated when they are stated as explicit themes.

Brygos Painter500 BC – 480 BC, ANSA IV 3710 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien

II. Philology: The Art of Reading Slowly

All my life I’ve been fascinated by words, by the way words form phrases and sentences, and the way sentences form poems and stories. The technical term for this fascination is philology—the love of language. Friedrich Nietzsche defined philology as the art of reading slowly. For about six months I’ve been publishing a blog titled “The Art of Reading Slowly: A Blog about Language and Literature”, in which I post little essays on philological topics that catch my fancy. Here’s the link: )https://the-art-of-reading-slowly.com.)

As I see it, philology has four major components, all of which work together. These components are (1) historical linguistics, (2) the editing of texts, (3) the interpretation of meaning in context, and (4) literary criticism with a particular attention to language. I’m interested in all of these, and I post on all of them, but my own work lies primarily in the third and fourth areas. I created this blog as an invitation for anyone who has a passion for language and literature—readers and writers of all sorts. I would like to think of it as one part of a conversation among people who share an interest in the way language works and the way it turns into art.

My own training is in classical philology, ancient Greek and Latin literature, but my blog is mostly about the English language and modern literature. Here are some titles of the blogs I’ve published: “Lost in a Book” (about the experience of reading); “Plangent, Ostiole, and Winze” (about the vocabulary of Malcolm Lowrey’s Under the Volcano); “A Heap of Words” (about the rhetorical figure called congeries); “Rhetorical Figures in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians”; “Philology in the Future” (about editing texts); “Etymology and Entomology” (one of several posts on historical linguistics and etymology); and most recently “Verbish Nouns and Nounish Verbs” (about the parts of speech in English).

I have no particular plan for what comes next, though I think I will continue the discussion of parts of speech for another post or two, and I’m sure I will continue to talk about rhetorical figures, but anything that catches my eye when I’m reading might start me going. Several readers have contributed fascinating comments to the blog, and I encourage conversation; I’m also open to guest columns, and I was very pleased to publish a column, “Trauma and Reading Homer”, by Joel Christensen, the author/editor of sententiae antiquae and the author of the recent book about Odysseus, The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic. If you think you might be interested in the blog, I invite you to take a look at it. Here’s the link again: https://the-art-of-reading-slowly.com.

Image result for priam and achilles vase ransom of hector
Athens, ca 510 BC, Sackler Museum (Harvard U.)

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.

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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.

Image result for Ancient Greek Statue leader

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