Living Together and Sharing Perception

Aristotle, Nicomachaean Ethics, 9, 1170

“It follows, then, that the most happy person will need to have friends, if he indeed chooses to gaze upon good and appropriate actions. This is what the activities of a good friend are. People also believe that a happy person’s life should be enjoyable. Life is hard for a solitary person. It is not easy to work constantly on your own. It is easier to do with with others and in partnership with them. Activity which is shared—already necessarily pleasant on its own—will be continuous, which is best for a happy person.

[…]

But since the perception of the fact that one is good is desirable and this perception is pleasing on its own, we need to share our friend’s perception that they exist. We achieve this by living together and sharing our words and thoughts. This is exactly what someone might call “living together” for human beings: it does not mean just grazing together like cattle.”

ὁ μακάριος δὴ φίλων τοιούτων δεήσεται, εἴπερ θεωρεῖν προαιρεῖται πράξεις ἐπιεικεῖς καὶ οἰκείας· τοιαῦται δ᾿ αἱ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ φίλου ὄντος.—οἴονταί τε δεῖν ἡδέως ζῆν τὸν εὐδαίμονα. μονώτῃ μὲν οὖν χαλεπὸς ὁ βίος· οὐ γὰρ ῥᾴδιον καθ᾿ αὑτὸν ἐνεργεῖν συνεχῶς, μεθ᾿ ἑτέρων δὲ καὶ πρὸς ἄλλους ῥᾷον. ἔσται οὖν ἡ ἐνέργεια συνεχεστέρα, ἡδεῖα οὖσα καθ᾿ αὑτήν, ὃ δεῖ περὶ τὸν μακάριον εἶναι.

[…]

τὸ δ᾿ εἶναι ἦν αἱρετὸν διὰ τὸ αἰσθάνεσθαι αὑτοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ὄντος, ἡ δὲ τοιαύτη αἴσθησις ἡδεῖα καθ᾿ ἑαυτήν· συναισθάνεσθαι ἄρα δεῖ καὶ τοῦ φίλου ὅτι ἔστιν, τοῦτο δὲ γίνοιτ᾿ ἂν ἐν τῷ συζῆν καὶ κοινωνεῖν λόγων καὶ διανοίας· οὕτω γὰρ ἂν δόξειε τὸ συζῆν ἐπὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων λέγεσθαι, καὶ οὐχ ὥσπερ ἐπὶ τῶν βοσκημάτων τὸ ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ νέμεσθαι.

 

1170

“Friendship with many is difficult. It is hard to share the joy and pain of people personally; we may have to grieve and celebrate at the same time.”
οῦτο δ᾿ ἐργῶδες ἐν πολλοῖς ὑπάρχειν. χαλεπὸν δὲ γίνεται καὶ τὸ συγχαίρειν καὶ τὸ συναλγεῖν οἰκείως πολλοῖς

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

Isolation and Self-Sufficiency

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1. 6-9

“We use ‘self-sufficient’ not to mean a person alone—someone living in isolation—but to include one’s parents, children, spouse, friends, and even fellow citizens, since a human being is a social creature by nature. Now, some limit needs to be observed in these ties—for it will go on endlessly if you extend it to someone’s ancestors and descendants.  But that’s a problem for another time.

We posit that self-sufficiency is something which in itself makes life attractive and lacks nothing and for this reason we think it is happiness, since we imagine that happiness is the most preferable of all things when it is not counted with others. It is clear that it is desirable even with the least of the goods—the addition of goods increases the total, since the greater good is always desirable.”

τὸ δ᾿ αὔταρκες λέγομεν οὐκ αὐτῷ μόνῳ, τῷ ζῶντι βίον μονώτην, ἀλλὰ καὶ γονεῦσι καὶ τέκνοις καὶ γυναικὶ καὶ ὅλως τοῖς φίλοις καὶ πολίταις, ἐπειδὴ φύσει πολιτικὸν ὁ ἄνθρωπος. τούτων δὲ ληπτέος ὅρος τις· ἐπεκτείνοντι γὰρ ἐπὶ τοὺς γονεῖς καὶ τοὺς ἀπογόνους καὶ τῶν φίλων τοὺς φίλους εἰς ἄπειρον πρόεισιν. ἀλλὰ τοῦτο μὲν εἰσαῦθις ἐπισκεπτέον, τὸ δ᾿ αὔταρκες τίθεμεν ὃ μονούμενον αίπετὸν ποιεῖ τὸν βίον καὶ μηδενὸς ἐνδεᾶ· τοιοῦτον δὲ τὴν εὐδαιμονίαν οἰόμεθα εἶναι. ἔτι δὲ πάντων αἱρετωτάτην μὴ συναριθμουμένην—συναριθμουμένην γὰρ δῆλον ὡς αἱρετωτέραν μετὰ τοῦ ἐλαχίστου τῶν ἀγαθῶν, ὑπεροχὴ γὰρ ἀγαθῶν γίνεται τὸ προστιθέμενον, ἀγαθῶν δὲ τὸ μεῖζον αἱρετώτερον

John Donne, Meditation 17

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Wounded Philoctetes by Nicolai Abildgaard

Living Together and Sharing Perception

Aristotle, Nicomachaean Ethics, 9, 1170

“It follows, then, that the most happy person will need to have friends, if he indeed chooses to gaze upon good and appropriate actions. This is what the activities of a good friend are. People also believe that a happy person’s life should be enjoyable. Life is hard for a solitary person. It is not easy to work constantly on your own. It is easier to do with with others and in partnership with them. Activity which is shared—already necessarily pleasant on its own—will be continuous, which is best for a happy person.

[…]

But since the perception of the fact that one is good is desirable and this perception is pleasing on its own, we need to share our friend’s perception that they exist. We achieve this by living together and sharing our words and thoughts. This is exactly what someone might call “living together” for human beings: it does not mean just grazing together like cattle.”

ὁ μακάριος δὴ φίλων τοιούτων δεήσεται, εἴπερ θεωρεῖν προαιρεῖται πράξεις ἐπιεικεῖς καὶ οἰκείας· τοιαῦται δ᾿ αἱ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ φίλου ὄντος.—οἴονταί τε δεῖν ἡδέως ζῆν τὸν εὐδαίμονα. μονώτῃ μὲν οὖν χαλεπὸς ὁ βίος· οὐ γὰρ ῥᾴδιον καθ᾿ αὑτὸν ἐνεργεῖν συνεχῶς, μεθ᾿ ἑτέρων δὲ καὶ πρὸς ἄλλους ῥᾷον. ἔσται οὖν ἡ ἐνέργεια συνεχεστέρα, ἡδεῖα οὖσα καθ᾿ αὑτήν, ὃ δεῖ περὶ τὸν μακάριον εἶναι.

[…]

τὸ δ᾿ εἶναι ἦν αἱρετὸν διὰ τὸ αἰσθάνεσθαι αὑτοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ὄντος, ἡ δὲ τοιαύτη αἴσθησις ἡδεῖα καθ᾿ ἑαυτήν· συναισθάνεσθαι ἄρα δεῖ καὶ τοῦ φίλου ὅτι ἔστιν, τοῦτο δὲ γίνοιτ᾿ ἂν ἐν τῷ συζῆν καὶ κοινωνεῖν λόγων καὶ διανοίας· οὕτω γὰρ ἂν δόξειε τὸ συζῆν ἐπὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων λέγεσθαι, καὶ οὐχ ὥσπερ ἐπὶ τῶν βοσκημάτων τὸ ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ νέμεσθαι.

 

1170

“Friendship with many is difficult. It is hard to share the joy and pain of people personally; we may have to grieve and celebrate at the same time.”
οῦτο δ᾿ ἐργῶδες ἐν πολλοῖς ὑπάρχειν. χαλεπὸν δὲ γίνεται καὶ τὸ συγχαίρειν καὶ τὸ συναλγεῖν οἰκείως πολλοῖς

Since You’re Stuck At Home, You Can Read My Book!

Cicero, Letters 12.17 (to Cornificius, September 46)

“I’ll have you know that in your absence I have taken the opportunity and the freedom, as it is, to write rather boldly and some of them are the kinds of things you might even accept! Now I have most recently written about the best style of speaking, a topic on which I imagine your judgment is often far from mine, as it often goes when a learned man differs a bit in opinion from one who is not unlearned.

I really hope you take the book to heart if only to make me happy. I will ask your servants to please copy it and send it to you. I truly think that even if you are less approving of the material, you will still find whatever I write welcome in your current isolation.”

Me <s>cito, dum tu absis, quasi occasionem quandam et licentiam nactum scribere audacius, et cetera quidem fortasse quae etiam tu concederes, sed proxime scripsi de optimo genere dicendi; in quo saepe suspicatus sum te a iudicio nostro, sic scilicet ut doctum hominem ab non indocto, paulum dissidere. huic tu libro maxime velim ex animo, si minus, gratiae causa suffragere. dicam tuis ut eum, si velint, describant ad teque mittant. puto enim, etiam si rem minus probabis, tamen in ista solitudine quicquid a me profectum sit iucundum tibi fore.

Fresco from Herculaneum

Isolation and Self-Sufficiency

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1. 6-9

“We use ‘self-sufficient’ not to mean a person alone—someone living in isolation—but to include one’s parents, children, spouse, friends, and even fellow citizens, since a human being is a social creature by nature. Now, some limit needs to be observed in these ties—for it will go on endlessly if you extend it to someone’s ancestors and descendants.  But that’s a problem for another time.

We posit that self-sufficiency is something which in itself makes life attractive and lacks nothing and for this reason we think it is happiness, since we imagine that happiness is the most preferable of all things when it is not counted with others. It is clear that it is desirable even with the least of the goods—the addition of goods increases the total, since the greater good is always desirable.”

τὸ δ᾿ αὔταρκες λέγομεν οὐκ αὐτῷ μόνῳ, τῷ ζῶντι βίον μονώτην, ἀλλὰ καὶ γονεῦσι καὶ τέκνοις καὶ γυναικὶ καὶ ὅλως τοῖς φίλοις καὶ πολίταις, ἐπειδὴ φύσει πολιτικὸν ὁ ἄνθρωπος. τούτων δὲ ληπτέος ὅρος τις· ἐπεκτείνοντι γὰρ ἐπὶ τοὺς γονεῖς καὶ τοὺς ἀπογόνους καὶ τῶν φίλων τοὺς φίλους εἰς ἄπειρον πρόεισιν. ἀλλὰ τοῦτο μὲν εἰσαῦθις ἐπισκεπτέον, τὸ δ᾿ αὔταρκες τίθεμεν ὃ μονούμενον αίπετὸν ποιεῖ τὸν βίον καὶ μηδενὸς ἐνδεᾶ· τοιοῦτον δὲ τὴν εὐδαιμονίαν οἰόμεθα εἶναι. ἔτι δὲ πάντων αἱρετωτάτην μὴ συναριθμουμένην—συναριθμουμένην γὰρ δῆλον ὡς αἱρετωτέραν μετὰ τοῦ ἐλαχίστου τῶν ἀγαθῶν, ὑπεροχὴ γὰρ ἀγαθῶν γίνεται τὸ προστιθέμενον, ἀγαθῶν δὲ τὸ μεῖζον αἱρετώτερον

John Donne, Meditation 17

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Wounded Philoctetes by Nicolai Abildgaard

Madness and Ecstasy: Reading the Bacchae

Reading Euripides’ Bacchae 

Over the past few weeks we have presented readings of Euripides’ Helen and Sophocles’ Philoktetes, Euripides’ Herakles (in partnership with the Center for Hellenic Studies and the Kosmos Society and Out of Chaos Theatre). Our basic approach is to have actors in isolation read parts with each other online, interspersed with commentary and discussion from ‘experts’ and the actors. This week, we turn to the Bacchae (text to be used here).

Eur. Bacchae 196

“We alone are right-minded; everyone else is wrong.”

μόνοι γὰρ εὖ φρονοῦμεν, οἱ δ᾽ ἄλλοι κακῶς.

Scenes to be Read

1-64
170-329
460-518
775-1024
1167-end

 

Euripides, Bacchae 386–401

The fate for unbridled mouths
And lawless foolishness
Is misfortune.
The life of peace
And prudence
Is unshaken and cements together
Human homes. For even though
They live far off in the sky
The gods gaze at human affairs.
Wisdom is not wit;
Nor is thinking thoughts which belong not to mortals.

Life is brief. And because of this
Whoever seeks out great accomplishments
May not grasp the things at hand.
These are the ways of madmen
And wicked fools, I think.

ἀχαλίνων στομάτων
ἀνόμου τ’ ἀφροσύνας
τὸ τέλος δυστυχία·
ὁ δὲ τᾶς ἡσυχίας
βίοτος καὶ τὸ φρονεῖν
ἀσάλευτόν τε μένει καὶ
ξυνέχει δώματα· πόρσω
γὰρ ὅμως αἰθέρα ναίον-
τες ὁρῶσιν τὰ βροτῶν οὐρανίδαι.
τὸ σοφὸν δ’ οὐ σοφία,
τό τε μὴ θνατὰ φρονεῖν
βραχὺς αἰών· ἐπὶ τούτωι
δὲ τίς ἂν μεγάλα διώκων
τὰ παρόντ’ οὐχὶ φέροι; μαι

νομένων οἵδε τρόποι καὶ
κακοβούλων παρ’ ἔμοιγε φωτῶν.

Actors
Dionysus – Tony Jayawardena
Agaue – Janet Spencer-Turner
Pentheus – Richard Neale
Kadmos – Vince Brimble
Tiresias – Paul O’Mahony
Chorus – Nichole Bird and Sarah Finigan

Euripides Bacchae, Fourth Chorus (862-912)

“Will I ever lift my white foot
As I dance along
In the all night chorus—
Shaking my head at the dewy sky
Like the fawn who plays
In a meadow’s pale pleasures
When she has fled the frightful hunt
Beyond the well-woven nets of the guard—
With a holler, the hunter
Recalls the rush of his hounds
And she leaps
With the swift-raced lust of the winds
Across the riverbounded plain,
Taking pleasure in the places free
Of mortals and in the tender shoots
Of the shadow grove?

What’s cleverness for? Is there any nobler prize
Mortals can receive from the gods
Than to hold your hand over the heads
Of your enemies?
Whatever is noble is always dear.

Scarcely, but still surely,
The divine moves its strength
It brings mortals low
When they honor foolishness
And do not worship the gods
Because of some insane belief
They skillfully hide
The long step of time
As they hunt down the irreverent.
For it is never right
To think or practice stronger
Than the laws.
For it is a light price
To believe that these have strength—
Whatever the divine force truly is
And whatever has been customary for so long,
This will always be, by nature.

What’s cleverness for? Is there any nobler prize
Mortals can receive from the gods
Than to hold your hand over the heads
Of your enemies?
Whatever is noble is always dear.

Fortunate is the one who flees
The swell of the sea and returns to harbor.
Fortunate is the one who survives through troubles
One is greater than another in different things,
He surpasses in fortune and power—
But in numberless hearts still
Are numberless hopes: some result
In good fortune, but other mortal dreams
Just disappear.

Whoever has a happy life to-day,
I consider fortunate.

Χο. ἆρ’ ἐν παννυχίοις χοροῖς
θήσω ποτὲ λευκὸν
πόδ’ ἀναβακχεύουσα, δέραν
αἰθέρ’ ἐς δροσερὸν ῥίπτουσ’,
ὡς νεβρὸς χλοεραῖς ἐμπαί-
ζουσα λείμακος ἡδοναῖς,
ἁνίκ’ ἂν φοβερὰν φύγηι
θήραν ἔξω φυλακᾶς
εὐπλέκτων ὑπὲρ ἀρκύων,
θωύσσων δὲ κυναγέτας
συντείνηι δράμημα κυνῶν,
μόχθοις δ’ ὠκυδρόμοις ἀελ-
λὰς θρώισκηι πεδίον
παραποτάμιον, ἡδομένα
βροτῶν ἐρημίαις σκιαρο-
κόμοιό τ’ ἔρνεσιν ὕλας;
†τί τὸ σοφόν, ἢ τί τὸ κάλλιον†
παρὰ θεῶν γέρας ἐν βροτοῖς
ἢ χεῖρ’ ὑπὲρ κορυφᾶς
τῶν ἐχθρῶν κρείσσω κατέχειν;
ὅτι καλὸν φίλον αἰεί.
ὁρμᾶται μόλις, ἀλλ’ ὅμως
πιστόν <τι> τὸ θεῖον
σθένος· ἀπευθύνει δὲ βροτῶν
τούς τ’ ἀγνωμοσύναν τιμῶν-
τας καὶ μὴ τὰ θεῶν αὔξον-
τας σὺν μαινομέναι δόξαι.
κρυπτεύουσι δὲ ποικίλως
δαρὸν χρόνου πόδα καὶ
θηρῶσιν τὸν ἄσεπτον· οὐ
γὰρ κρεῖσσόν ποτε τῶν νόμων
γιγνώσκειν χρὴ καὶ μελετᾶν.
κούφα γὰρ δαπάνα νομί-
ζειν ἰσχὺν τόδ’ ἔχειν,
ὅτι ποτ’ ἄρα τὸ δαιμόνιον,
τό τ’ ἐν χρόνωι μακρῶι νόμιμον
ἀεὶ φύσει τε πεφυκός.
†τί τὸ σοφόν, ἢ τί τὸ κάλλιον†
παρὰ θεῶν γέρας ἐν βροτοῖς
ἢ χεῖρ’ ὑπὲρ κορυφᾶς
τῶν ἐχθρῶν κρείσσω κατέχειν;
ὅτι καλὸν φίλον αἰεί.
εὐδαίμων μὲν ὃς ἐκ θαλάσσας
ἔφυγε χεῖμα, λιμένα δ’ ἔκιχεν·
εὐδαίμων δ’ ὃς ὕπερθε μόχθων
ἐγένεθ’· ἕτερα δ’ ἕτερος ἕτερον
ὄλβωι καὶ δυνάμει παρῆλθεν.
μυρίαι δ’ ἔτι μυρίοις
εἰσὶν ἐλπίδες· αἱ μὲν
τελευτῶσιν ἐν ὄλβωι
βροτοῖς, αἱ δ’ ἀπέβασαν·
τὸ δὲ κατ’ ἦμαρ ὅτωι βίοτος
εὐδαίμων, μακαρίζω.

Euripides, Bacchae 1388-1392

Many are the forms of divine powers
Many are the acts the gods unexpectedly make.
The very things which seemed likely did not happen
but for the unlikely, some god found a way.
This turned out to be that kind of story.

πολλαὶ μορφαὶ τῶν δαιμονίων,
πολλὰ δ᾿ ἀέλπτως κραίνουσι θεοί·
καὶ τὰ δοκηθέντ᾿ οὐκ ἐτελέσθη,
τῶν δ᾿ ἀδοκήτων πόρον ηὗρε θεός.
τοιόνδ᾿ ἀπέβη τόδε πρᾶγμα.

Image result for agave pentheus vase

Videos of Earlier Sessions
Euripides’ Helen, March 25th
Sophocles Philoktetes, April 1st
Euripides’ Herakles, April 8th 
Upcoming Readings

 

Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis, April 22nd

Sophocles, Women of Trachis, April 29th

Euripides, Orestes, May 6th

Aeschylus, The Persians May 13th

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