Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma

“Alcidamas called the Odyssey a ‘fine mirror of human life’ ”

καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον

Aristotle, Rhetoric

Like many of the people I talk to, I find myself incapable of focusing on much these days as a I move mechanically from zoom ‘teaching’ to virtual meetings, all while doom scrolling on twitter. We joke about “the end of the world” even as it is in fact the end of an era. I often think of these repeated motions as a kind of paralysis: with no new goal, bereft of any way to change anything, just waiting for some report or action to show me the way. Then, at the end of each day, watching the news leaves me exhausted in the wake of intense, yet impotent, rage.

The image that comes to my mind too frequently is Odysseus on the shore of Kalypso’s island in the Odyssey’s fifth book. (5.151–159):

Kalypso found [Odysseus] sitting on the water’s edge. His eyes were never dry
of tears and his sweet life was draining away as he mourned
over his homecoming, since the goddess was no longer pleasing to him.
But it was true that he stretched out beside her at night by necessity
In her hollow caves, unwilling when she was willing.
By day, however, he sat on the rocks and sands
wracking his heart with tears, groans and grief,
Shedding tears as he gazed upon the barren sea.

τὸν δ’ ἄρ’ ἐπ’ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον· οὐδέ ποτ’ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ’ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ’ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ·
ἤματα δ’ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠϊόνεσσι καθίζων
[δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων]
πόντον ἐπ’ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων.

When we find Odysseus at the beginning of his epic he has been here on the shore of Ogygia, crying during the day for seven years (and, let’s not forget, having sex with a goddess each night, which has lost its charm). I think I go here because I have taught the Odyssey and I have spent the past five years writing a book about Homeric epic’s internal theory of the human mind, emphasizing how the Odyssey presents its characters responding to suffering and trauma in ways that correspond to modern psychological observations and interventions. I don’t know if this makes me any more capable of coping with what we are all facing, but it does remind me daily that the nothing we are experiencing  is something and that this drawn out, uncertain catastrophe is reshaping us.

What I have learned from these years of reading is that ancient poetry (and modern literature too) can come as close to anything else as offering a guide to our grief and providing a primer on how to stay human in inhumane times. And this makes it even clearer to me that not talking about these experiences while they happen is dangerous. I hear the trauma and fear in my own voice and in the words of my friends and colleagues, and I worry about who we will all be on the other side. Talking about this may make a difference. Acknowledging it might help us emerge a little stronger, if not faster, with fewer of us left behind.

 

Helplessness and Complex Loss

“The person who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”

Τῷ μὲν τὸ σῶμα † διατεθειμένῳ κακῶς
χρεία ‘στ’ ἰατροῦ, τῷ δὲ τὴν ψυχὴν φίλου·
λύπην γὰρ εὔνους οἶδε θεραπεύειν φίλος.

Menander (fr. 591 K.)

One of the things I think that gets overlooked when people focus on the Odyssey’s heroic narrative is the extent to which the epic features characters who are trapped and deprived of control over their life in some fundamental way. Odysseus, of course, is clearly marginalized from action right at the beginning of the epic. But when Athena—as Mentor—first finds Telemachus, he is caught in a daydream, thinking about his father:

“God-like Telemachus saw her much the first
For he was sitting among the suitors, pained in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts…”

τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής·
ἧστο γὰρ ἐν μνηστῆρσι φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
ὀσσόμενος πατέρ’ ἐσθλὸν ἐνὶ φρεσίν…

In his recent book about Telemachus, Charles Underwood sees this daydream as a type of fantasy where Telemachus explores possible futures (2018, 25–31). I like this formulation a lot, but what I also see here is that it is not until after several conversations with Athena that Telemachus can even conceive of acting himself. He is, essentially, a grammatical subject but not an agent, which makes him an object of the forces in his world and goes a great way to explain his lack of action.

Telemachus is, I think, in a kind of paralysis that issues from his experience of the world (rather than in it because he has done so little).  And he sets us up to see other figures in the epic from the perspective of agency and object, of limitations that our views of ourselves in the world impose on whether we think we can act in it. Penelope, Odysseus, and even minor figures like Eupeithes the father of a slaughtered suitor appear in frozen states. In each case, the epic invites its audiences to see how a character’s experiences and context shape or constrain their ability to act in the world.

And here’s a simplified explanation for what the epic is reflecting. When we cannot run from a threat or rise to fight it, we are shocked into a moment of inaction, frozen in time like proverbial deer in headlights. From modern perspectives, this paralysis is rooted in a deferred fight-or-flight response. We have all encountered such moments when we do not know how to act, but deferment prolonged over time can have psychological consequences, creating pathological anxiety responses and forming an essential part of our relationship with trauma. Chronic activation of this stress response can have serious consequences for mental and physical health. Digestive issues? Yes. Sleep? Yes. Immune response? Yes, unfortunately 

In his book The Evil Hours, David J. Morris talks about how people suffering from trauma exist in a “liminal state” between life and death (2015, 6-7). To what extent people get stuck in this state has little to do with who you are before—no one can predict the overlapping impact of emotional and somatic responses. But a sense of helplessness can enhance the impact of trauma considerably. As a category, psychologists have discussed “learned helplessness”—the process of becoming habituated to a lack of agency and control over life—and its maladaptations for over a century. A developed sense of helplessness can make it hard to learn new things or demonstrate what you have learned; it has been linked to depression and anxiety; and it can prevent us from making plans for the future because we believe or suspect our own agency does not matter at all (see Mikuluncer 1994 for a full study).

A sense of lost agency—which contributes to depression on its own—is just not about helplessness: it has a recursive and reinforcing relationship with trauma. Prolonged helplessness changes the way we see the world and is itself traumatizing; helplessness in the face of prolonged suffering can be dehumanizing.

The Odyssey, I think, gives us a range of figures subject to helplessness and marginalization from different sources. Odysseus, of course, is the most obvious figure (followed by Telemachus, as I write about in a few places). But many major and minor figures are trapped in cycles of behavior from which they have little escape. Menelaos and Helen in book 4 are engaged in “off task coping” (drugs and alcohol), arguing about the past through the stories they tell, constrained by the decisions they made, the actions they committed, and the inability to imagine any different future.

The enslaved people of the epic have either completely internalized their worthlessness and commitment to their masters (Eumaios and Eurykleia) or they lash out with ‘misbehavior’ only to be murdered for it later (Melantho, Melanthios, the other enslaved women). Laertes has retreated to his gardens, repeatedly going over the same works again and again. Penelope reduces to tears amid her pacing from room to hall, expressing that most human of needs to feel something or give up. Her uncertainty is like the fragmentation David Morris describes in traumatized figures: their past and present seem disconnected and the future is hard to imagine at all. Trauma and helplessness undermine the internal assumptions of causality which makes it possible for us to act in the world.

The Odyssey also gives us a sense of trauma’s multiple sources: it is not just that people are marginalized by their sense of helplessness, but they are also undone by unresolved loss. Characters like Penelope, Menelaos, and Eupeithes (the father who lost his son and speaks in favor of killing Odysseus at the end of the epic) are shown undone by the grief that comes from not knowing if someone is dead or alive (in reference to Odysseus) or not being able to attend to their grief in a way they understand (as in Eupeithes’ desire for revenge). In recent years, researchers have called these types of emotion “ambiguous loss” or “complicated grief” and have explained how they create and perpetuate states of inaction (see Boss 1999) or paralytic returns to the topic of loss and uncertainty (see Hall et al. 2014).

So, if you feel paralyzed for events, stultified by your own response, or lost in trying to make some sense of each day, that’s your brain and body telling you something. The world is changing in ways we cannot fully understand, and it hurts. It is ok not to write a book during your isolation; it is normal to feel distracted and lost.  Overeating or drinking too much? Look at the suitors waiting for something to happen in their lives. Having trouble sleeping? Both Telemachus and Odysseus stay awake all night. Having trouble not sleeping? Penelope is overwhelmed with exhaustion (and weeping) by Athena.

File:Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the Island of Ithaca by Giuseppe Bottani.jpg
Athena and Odysseus by Giuseppe Bottani

Collective Trauma and Social Memory

Continue reading “Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma”

Utilitatis Aliquid: A Literary Syllabus for Eloquence and Erudition

Quintilian 1.8

“For comedy—which can provide a great deal to eloquence since it works through every character and feeling—I will explain soon what purpose I think it serves for students in its own place. For, once characters are safely formed, comedy is among the most important things to read. I am speaking of Menander, but I will not bar the others, for the Latin authors also provide some utility.

Students must first read texts which especially nourish the intelligence and strengthen the character. A long life will give them time for the rest of the works which are good mainly for intellectual reasons. The older Latin poets, moreover, who are mostly effective for their innate ability rather than their skill, can offer a lot—especially for building a great vocabulary. One can find a seriousness in their tragedies and in their comedies an elegance and a certain Attic nature. Their compositions are more considered, too, than modern authors who think that the only virtue of writing is its “quotability”. A high register and, if I may say, a kind of power must be found in these authors since we have now stumbled into the vices of pleasure in our manner of speaking too. And, finally, we should lean on the best orators who take from the poems of the ancients to strengthen their claims or decorate their speaking”

Comoediae, quae plurimum conferre ad eloquentiam potest, cum per omnis et personas et adfectus eat, quem usum in pueris putem paulo post suo loco dicam: nam cum mores in tuto fuerint, inter praecipua legenda erit. De Menandro loquor, nec tamen excluserim alios, nam Latini quoque auctores adferent utilitatis aliquid; sed pueris quae maxime ingenium alant atque animum augeant praelegenda: ceteris, quae ad eruditionem modo pertinent, longa aetas spatium dabit. Multum autem veteres etiam Latini conferunt, quamquam plerique plus ingenio quam arte valuerunt, in primis copiam verborum: quorum in tragoediis gravitas, in comoediis elegantia et quidam velut atticismos inveniri potest. Oeconomia quoque in iis diligentior quam in plerisque novorum erit, qui omnium operum solam virtutem sententias putaverunt. Sanctitas certe et, ut sic dicam, virilitas ab iis petenda est, quando nos in omnia deliciarum vitia dicendi quoque ratione defluximus. Denique credamus summis oratoribus, qui veterum poemata vel ad fidem causarum vel ad ornamentum eloquentiae adsumunt.

File:Robinet Testard32.jpg
Portrait of Matthaeus Platearius d.c.1161 writing “The Book of Simple Medicines”, c.1470 (Wikimedia Commons)

Send Me Something Good to Read

Marcus Antoninus to Fronto, 161 CE

“…I have read just a little bit from Coelius and from a speech of Cicero, but pretty much in secret and only in bits. One worry trips over another so much that meanwhile my sole respite is to take a book to hand. For our young daughters are staying in town with Matidia—therefore they cannot come to visit me in the evening because of the sharpness of the air….[ …]

Send me something which seems to you to be particularly well-written so I may read it, either your own or someone from Cato, Cicero, Salust, Gracchus, or from some other poet—for I need a rest—and especially that kind of reading which will raise my spirit and shake me from the worries which have fallen over me. Also, if you have any excerpts from Lucretius or Ennius—euphonious lines or those which give a good sense of character.”

…<legi ex Coe>|lio paululum et ex Ciceronis oratione, sed quasi furtim, certe quidem raptim: tantum instat aliud ex alio curarum, quom interim requies una librum in manus sumere. Nam parvolae nostrae nunc apud Matidiam in oppido hospitantur: igitur vespera ad me ventitare non possunt propter aurae rigorem…

Mitte mihi aliquid quod tibi disertissimum videatur, quod legam, vel tuum aut Catonis aut Ciceronis aut Sallustii aut Gracchi aut poetae alicuius, χρῄζω γὰρ ἀναπαύλης, et maxime hoc genus, quae me lectio extollat et diffundat ἐκ τῶν κατειληφυιῶν φροντίδων; etiam si qua Lucretii aut Ennii excerpta habes εὔφωνα <στίχι>α1et sicubi ἤθους ἐμϕάσεις.

Opening of the 1483 manuscript copy of De rerum natura by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris

Obsessed with Literature: Humanizing and Enlightening the Mind

Cicero, Pro Archia 13

“I confess indeed that I am obsessed with studying literature. Let this fact shame others who do not know how to make use of their books so that they can’t provide anything from their reading to common profit or to make their benefit clear in sight.

Why, moreover, should I be ashamed when I have lived so many years in such a way that my hobby never prevented me from being useful to anyone at any time and its pleasure or sleepiness never distracted me or slowed me down? In what way, then, can anyone criticize me or censure me if if I am discovered to have spent that very same amount of time in pursuing these studies as others do without blame in pursuing profit, or in celebrating festivals or games, in seeking the pleasure and rest of the body and mind, or dragging out hours in dining, gambling or ballgames?”

Ego vero fateor me his studiis esse deditum: ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt, ut nihil possint ex his neque ad communem adferre fructum neque in aspectum lucemque proferre: me autem quid pudeat, qui tot annos ita vivo, iudices, ut a nullius umquam me tempore aut commodo aut otium meum abstraxerit aut voluptas avocarit aut denique somnus retardarit? Qua re quis tandem me reprehendat aut quis mihi iure suscenseat, si, quantum ceteris ad suas res obeundas, quantum ad festos dies ludorum celebrandos, quantum ad alias voluptates et ad ipsam requiem animi et corporis conceditur temporum, quantum alii tribuunt tempestivis conviviis, quantum denique alveolo, quantum pilae, tantum mihi egomet ad haec studia recolenda sumpsero?

Cicero, Pro Archia 16

“But if this clear profit [of studying literature] is not clear and if entertainment alone should be sought from these pursuits, I still believe that you would judge them the most humanizing and enlightening exercise of the mind.

For other activities do not partake in all times, all ages, and all places—reading literature sharpens us in youth and comforts us in old age. It brings adornment to our successes and solace to our failures. It delights when we are at home and creates no obstacle for us out in the world. It is our companion through long nights, long journeys, and months in rural retreats.”

Quod si non hic tantus fructus ostenderetur et si ex his studiis delectatio sola peteretur, tamen, ut opinor, hanc animi adversionem humanissimam ac liberalissimam iudicaretis. Nam ceterae neque temporum sunt neque aetatum omnium neque locorum: haec studia adolescentiam acuunt,1 senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.

Image result for medieval manuscripts animals reading
BDLSS, MS 264, 14th c.

“Magnetic Inspiration”: My Favorite Passage (and Metaphor) from Plato

Plato’s Ion 533d-534e

“I also see, Ion, and I am about to show you what I think this means. For talking well about Homer is not some skill within you—as I was just saying—but it is a divine power that moves you, just as in that stone which Euripides calls a ‘Magnet” but which most people call Herakleian. For this stone not only moves iron rings but it also imbues the rings with the same power so that they can do the same thing as the stone in turn—they move other rings and as a result there is a great chain of iron and rings connected to each other. But the power from that stone runs through them all. In this way, the Muse herself makes people inspired, and a linked chain of inspired people extend from her.

All the good poets of epic utter those beautiful poems not because of skill but because they are inspired and possessed—the good lyric poets are the same, just as the Korybantes do not dance when they are in their right minds, so too the lyric poets do not compose their fine lines when they are sensible, but when they embark upon their harmony and rhythm, they are in revelry and possessed. They are just like the bacchants who draw honey and milk from rivers when they are possessed, not when they are in their normal state of mind. The soul of the lyric poets does this too, which they themselves admit: for they claim, as I see it, that they bring to us their songs by gathering from the honey-flowing springs from certain gardens and glades of the Muses like bees—and they fly too!

And they speak the truth. For a poet is an empty thing—winged, and sacred and not capable of composing before it is inspired and out of mind, when thought is no longer inside. Until one has gained this state, every person is incapable of composing or giving oracles. Because they compose not by skill—when they say many fine things about their subjects—but by divine dispensation, as you do about Homer, each is only capable of composing well in the arena where the Musa compels—one person composes dithyramb, one encomia, another dance songs, another epic and another iambic poetry. But each is useless in the other genres.”

     ΣΩ. Καὶ ὁρῶ, ὦ ῎Ιων, καὶ ἔρχομαί γέ σοι ἀποφανούμενος ὅ μοι δοκεῖ τοῦτο εἶναι. ἔστι γὰρ τοῦτο τέχνη μὲν οὐκ ὂν παρὰ σοὶ περὶ ῾Ομήρου εὖ λέγειν, ὃ νυνδὴ ἔλεγον, θεία δὲ δύναμις ἥ σε κινεῖ, ὥσπερ ἐν τῇ λίθῳ ἣν Εὐριπίδης μὲν Μαγνῆτιν ὠνόμασεν, οἱ δὲ πολλοὶ ῾Ηρακλείαν. καὶ γὰρ αὕτη ἡ λίθος οὐ μόνον αὐτοὺς τοὺς δακτυλίους ἄγει τοὺς σιδηροῦς, ἀλλὰ καὶ δύναμιν ἐντίθησι τοῖς δακτυλίοις ὥστ’ αὖ δύνασθαι ταὐτὸν τοῦτο ποιεῖν ὅπερ ἡ λίθος, ἄλλους ἄγειν δακτυλίους, ὥστ’ ἐνίοτε ὁρμαθὸς μακρὸς πάνυ σιδηρίων καὶ δακτυλίων ἐξ ἀλλήλων ἤρτηται· πᾶσι δὲ τούτοις ἐξ ἐκείνης τῆς λίθου ἡ δύναμις ἀνήρτηται. οὕτω δὲ καὶ ἡ Μοῦσα ἐνθέους μὲν ποιεῖ αὐτή, διὰ δὲ τῶν ἐνθέων τούτων ἄλλων ἐνθουσιαζόντων ὁρμαθὸς ἐξαρτᾶται.

πάντες γὰρ οἵ  τε τῶν ἐπῶν ποιηταὶ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ οὐκ ἐκ τέχνης ἀλλ’ ἔνθεοι ὄντες καὶ κατεχόμενοι πάντα ταῦτα τὰ καλὰ λέγουσι ποιήματα, καὶ οἱ μελοποιοὶ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ ὡσαύτως, ὥσπερ οἱ κορυβαντιῶντες οὐκ ἔμφρονες ὄντες ὀρχοῦνται, οὕτω καὶ οἱ μελοποιοὶ οὐκ ἔμφρονες ὄντες τὰ καλὰ μέλη ταῦτα ποιοῦσιν, ἀλλ’ ἐπειδὰν ἐμβῶσιν εἰς τὴν ἁρμονίαν καὶ εἰς τὸν ῥυθμόν, βακχεύουσι καὶ κατεχόμενοι, ὥσπερ αἱ βάκχαι ἀρύονται ἐκ τῶν ποταμῶν μέλι καὶ γάλα κατεχόμεναι, ἔμφρονες δὲ οὖσαι οὔ, καὶ τῶν μελοποιῶν ἡ ψυχὴ τοῦτο ἐργάζεται, ὅπερ αὐτοὶ λέγουσι. λέγουσι γὰρ δήπουθεν πρὸς ἡμᾶς οἱ ποιηταὶ ὅτι ἀπὸ κρηνῶν μελιρρύτων ἐκ Μουσῶν κήπων τινῶν καὶ ναπῶν δρεπόμενοι τὰ μέλη ἡμῖν φέρουσιν ὥσπερ αἱ μέλιτται, καὶ αὐτοὶ οὕτω πετόμενοι· καὶ ἀληθῆ λέγουσι. κοῦφον γὰρ χρῆμα ποιητής ἐστιν καὶ πτηνὸν καὶ ἱερόν, καὶ οὐ πρότερον οἷός τε ποιεῖν πρὶν ἂν ἔνθεός τε γένηται καὶ ἔκφρων καὶ ὁ νοῦς μηκέτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐνῇ· ἕως δ’ ἂν τουτὶ ἔχῃ τὸ κτῆμα, ἀδύνατος πᾶς ποιεῖν ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν καὶ χρησμῳδεῖν. ἅτε οὖν οὐ τέχνῃ ποιοῦντες καὶ πολλὰ λέγοντες καὶ καλὰ περὶ τῶν πραγμάτων, ὥσπερ σὺ περὶ ῾Ομήρου, ἀλλὰ θείᾳ μοίρᾳ, τοῦτο μόνον οἷός τε ἕκαστος ποιεῖν καλῶς ἐφ’ ὃ ἡ Μοῦσα αὐτὸν ὥρμησεν, ὁ μὲν διθυράμβους, ὁ δὲ ἐγκώμια, ὁ δὲ ὑπορχήματα, ὁ δ’ ἔπη, ὁ δ’ ἰάμβους· τὰ δ’ ἄλλα φαῦλος αὐτῶν ἕκαστός ἐστιν.

535e-536a

“Do you understand that the audience is the last of the rings which I was describing as transmitting through one another the power from the Herakleian stone and that you are the middle as the rhapsode and interpreter—that the poet himself is the first ring? The god moves the soul of all of these people wherever he wants, stringing the power from one into another.”

οἶσθα οὖν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ θεατὴς τῶν δακτυλίων ὁ ἔσχατος, ὧν ἐγὼ ἔλεγον ὑπὸ τῆς Ἡρακλειώτιδος λίθου ἀπ᾽ ἀλλήλων τὴν δύναμιν λαμβάνειν; ὁ δὲ μέσος σὺ ὁ ῥαψῳδὸς καὶ ὑποκριτής, ὁ δὲ πρῶτος αὐτὸς ὁ ποιητής ὁ δὲ θεὸς διὰ πάντων τούτων ἕλκει τὴν ψυχὴν ὅποι ἂν βούληται τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἀνακρεμαννὺς ἐξ ἀλλήλων τὴν δύναμιν.

Fresco of women dancing in a line
Fresco, Museo Nationale, Naples. c. 400 BCE

Send Me Something Good to Read

Marcus Antoninus to Fronto, 161 CE

“…I have read just a little bit from Coelius and from a speech of Cicero, but pretty much in secret and only in bits. One worry trips over another so much that meanwhile my sole respite is to take a book to hand. For our young daughters are staying in town with Matidia—therefore they cannot come to visit me in the evening because of the sharpness of the air….[ …]

Send me something which seems to you to be particularly well-written so I may read it, either your own or someone from Cato, Cicero, Salust, Gracchus, or from some other poet—for I need a rest—and especially that kind of reading which will raise my spirit and shake me from the worries which have fallen over me. Also, if you have any excerpts from Lucretius or Ennius—euphonious lines or those which give a good sense of character.”

…<legi ex Coe>|lio paululum et ex Ciceronis oratione, sed quasi furtim, certe quidem raptim: tantum instat aliud ex alio curarum, quom interim requies una librum in manus sumere. Nam parvolae nostrae nunc apud Matidiam in oppido hospitantur: igitur vespera ad me ventitare non possunt propter aurae rigorem…

Mitte mihi aliquid quod tibi disertissimum videatur, quod legam, vel tuum aut Catonis aut Ciceronis aut Sallustii aut Gracchi aut poetae alicuius, χρῄζω γὰρ ἀναπαύλης, et maxime hoc genus, quae me lectio extollat et diffundat ἐκ τῶν κατειληφυιῶν φροντίδων; etiam si qua Lucretii aut Ennii excerpta habes εὔφωνα <στίχι>α1et sicubi ἤθους ἐμϕάσεις.

Opening of the 1483 manuscript copy of De rerum natura by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris

Tessered Latin and Greek: A Lexical “Wrinkle in Time”

There is a great story in the Daily Beast about Greek (and a little Latin) in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This blog has a little cameo…

Sometimes when I talk to students about my childhood I get the sense that it seems almost as distant and different from theirs as some of the texts from Ancient Greece I encourage them to read. I listened to the radio play of Empire Strikes Back on the radio. I remember getting cable installed. I never sent an email until I went to college. I used to check out vinyl records from the library to listen to Cinderella and the JungleBook!

Ah, the library. I grew up in rural Maine and the local free libraries were, in a way, the center of my childhood. My father was deaf from birth; reading was what we all did as a family. And it was the one realm in which I never felt limited. My parents never told me what to read, when to read or, more importantly, what not to read. We just went to the library every week and they set me free.

At some point in elementary school, I took it upon myself to read the entire collection of Newbery award books. There was a list prominently displayed in the kids’ room at a few different libraries we frequented. I am pretty sure I read Lloyd Alexander’s The High King first and soon after Robert Obrien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. I love both books and when I noticed the medal on the cover, connected it to the list and just started in on it.

I connected with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time almost immediately. That famous start: “IT was a dark and stormy night.” My father used these very words all the time before he would start telling us some ridiculous tale. The world in this book was also one like mine: it was dark (as often the case in rural Maine) and, with our long winters, it was also stormy.

It also deploys that initial scale that works so well–it starts small and simple: Margaret in her room or at the kitchen table, complaining of school, lovingly tolerating her precocious brother. But it was also a world that promised that the stark simplicity it presented was a mere facade over something much more complex–that behind the austere and disappointing world, there were other worlds. In short, the promise of a tale like L’Engle’s was the very promise of the libraries I so loved–that there are ways out of this world into countless others.

I have never reread this book as an adult, but every time I think of it: it is dark, I am in third grade, but there is a light dawning on the horizon. So, when the journalist Mimi Kramer (@nhmeems) contacted me over twitter to ask about the Greek and Latin in A Wrinkle in Time, my first reaction was shock. There is Greek and Latin in L’Engle’s novel? There is, and, as she tells in her fine story on it, it is messed up. And how it has stayed messed up itself is a story worth reading and telling. It is, a bit depressingly, a very adult and mundane mystery, but, for me at least, it provides a passage through time.

The author J.S. Bangs–to my knowledge–was the first to post online about the problems with the Greek. As you can read there or in Kramer’s article, whoever transcribed the quotation from Euripides (most likely from a quotation book cribbed poorly from Stobaeus) confused lamdas for etas and nus for upsilons, giving us the aesthetically displeasing fairly impossible: “Αεηπου οὐδὲν, πὰντα δ’ εηπἰζειυ χρωετ for the text printed as Euripides fr. 761 in Stobaeus: ἄελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρεών. The book’s translation, moreover, “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything” obscures what I see in the Greek which is a near koan, “nothing is unexpected, and one must expect everything.”

The story of trying to fix this has its own story. The Greek is off in the blog post (to be pedantic): the initial breathing and the vowel in the final participle need adjustment: ἄελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρεών, (not the displayed Ἅελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρηῶν). And even in a recent edition where the Greek has been mostly fixed, the rough breathing on that initial Alpha remains.

But that is a quibble. I am surprised (but not overly so) that I remember nothing of this; but a little shock that this bad Greek has lasted over 60 years! (And that is the story Mimi Kramer tells, much better than I could do so. And she keys us into another mystery. In the same scene, but a little earlier, the mysterious Mrs. Who speaks Latin!

“Finxerunt animi, raro et perpauca loquentis,” Mrs. Who
intoned. “Horace. To action little, less to words inclined.”

The translation she quotes, however, does not match up well with the Latin provided. To be fair, Horace is a bit of a punk: I think he is virtually untranslatable–but, for those readers who know Latin well, can we bring any light to this dark night?

Here are the full lines from Loeb’s translation by Rushton Fairclough

Horace Sermones 1.4

“The gods be praised for fashioning me of meagre wit and lowly spirit, of rare and scanty speech.”

di bene fecerunt, inopis me quodque pusilli
finxerunt animi, raro et perpauca loquentis.

More literally (but with a much inferior rhythm, I would suggest “The gods have done well: they made me of a small and minor spirit, one who speaks rarely and little”. The proffered translation in A Wrinkle In Time is “To action little, less to words inclined”, which seems to be a combination of only the second halves of the couplet (…inopis me quodque pusilli…raro et perpauca loquentis).

So, a working theory Kramer and I discussed for this is simply that someone who didn’t know Latin picked this Horace out of a quote book where there were two lines each of Latin and English and, because only the second line of English was selected, selected only the second line of Latin too. The translation first appears in a 19th century anthology of Richard Steele’s essays for The Spectator and The Tattler, as a reprint of Spectator No. 19 (March 22, 1711). In the typical fashion of 18th-century literary essayists, Steele and Addison prefixed a Latin epigraph to each of their essays without translation. The English version, then, was provided by the compiler of the anthology as a service to those readers without Latin. The English rendering must have made an impression on someone, because it reappears at the beginning of the 20th century in a dictionary of phrases and classical quotations. The full English translation is;

Thank Heaven that made me of a humble mind;
to action little, less to words inclined.

Guess what else is in that very dictionary? You guessed it, the Euripides fragment on page 129 with the correct Greek with the very translation offered in A Wrinkle in Time.

So, we have a half couplet plucked from Horace and a line poorly transcribed from Euripides. Can any lovers of language (and L’Engle) propose something more generous? Is she reading the Latin differently? Am I reading it wrongly?

As someone who loves literature, I take perverse pleasure in not allowing there to be mistakes. So, for instance, where our Horace above has famously declares that even Homer nods (that is, loses track of stuff), many interpreters instead have declared, no, impossible! And we engage in mental acrobatics to show how even mistakes are actually signs of hidden deeper meaning.

So, maybe the ‘wrong’ Greek is not wrong at all. Perhaps it is really an invitation to contemplation of absurd erudition. Or, even more importantly, perhaps it is a secret message–an anagram or something, which, if decoded, will open up for us passages to universes unknown.

(Ok. I was a kid again there, still hoping to skip dimensions….)

Image result for a wrinkle in time cover
This is the over of the book I read.

Utilitatis Aliquid: A Literary Syllabus for Eloquence and Erudition

Quintilian 1.8

“For comedy—which can provide a great deal to eloquence since it works through every character and feeling—I will explain soon what purpose I think it serves for students in its own place. For, once characters are safely formed, comedy is among the most important things to read. I am speaking of Menander, but I will not bar the others, for the Latin authors also provide some utility.

Students must first read texts which especially nourish the intelligence and strengthen the character. A long life will give them time for the rest of the works which are good mainly for intellectual reasons. The older Latin poets, moreover, who are mostly effective for their innate ability rather than their skill, can offer a lot—especially for building a great vocabulary. One can find a seriousness in their tragedies and in their comedies an elegance and a certain Attic nature. Their compositions are more considered, too, than modern authors who think that the only virtue of writing is its “quotability”. A high register and, if I may say, a kind of power must be found in these authors since we have now stumbled into the vices of pleasure in our manner of speaking too. And, finally, we should lean on the best orators who take from the poems of the ancients to strengthen their claims or decorate their speaking”

Comoediae, quae plurimum conferre ad eloquentiam potest, cum per omnis et personas et adfectus eat, quem usum in pueris putem paulo post suo loco dicam: nam cum mores in tuto fuerint, inter praecipua legenda erit. De Menandro loquor, nec tamen excluserim alios, nam Latini quoque auctores adferent utilitatis aliquid; sed pueris quae maxime ingenium alant atque animum augeant praelegenda: ceteris, quae ad eruditionem modo pertinent, longa aetas spatium dabit. Multum autem veteres etiam Latini conferunt, quamquam plerique plus ingenio quam arte valuerunt, in primis copiam verborum: quorum in tragoediis gravitas, in comoediis elegantia et quidam velut atticismos inveniri potest. Oeconomia quoque in iis diligentior quam in plerisque novorum erit, qui omnium operum solam virtutem sententias putaverunt. Sanctitas certe et, ut sic dicam, virilitas ab iis petenda est, quando nos in omnia deliciarum vitia dicendi quoque ratione defluximus. Denique credamus summis oratoribus, qui veterum poemata vel ad fidem causarum vel ad ornamentum eloquentiae adsumunt.

File:Robinet Testard32.jpg
Portrait of Matthaeus Platearius d.c.1161 writing “The Book of Simple Medicines”, c.1470 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Magnetic Inspiration”: My Favorite Passage (and Metaphor) from Plato

Plato’s Ion 533d-534e

“I also see, Ion, and I am about to show you what I think this means. For talking well about Homer is not some skill within you—as I was just saying—but it is a divine power that moves you, just as in that stone which Euripides calls a ‘Magnet” but which most people call Herakleian. For this stone not only moves iron rings but it also imbues the rings with the same power so that they can do the same thing as the stone in turn—they move other rings and as a result there is a great chain of iron and rings connected to each other. But the power from that stone runs through them all. In this way, the Muse herself makes people inspired, and a linked chain of inspired people extend from her.

All the good poets of epic utter those beautiful poems not because of skill but because they are inspired and possessed—the good lyric poets are the same, just as the Korybantes do not dance when they are in their right minds, so too the lyric poets do not compose their fine lines when they are sensible, but when they embark upon their harmony and rhythm, they are in revelry and possessed. They are just like the bacchants who draw honey and milk from rivers when they are possessed, not when they are in their normal state of mind. The soul of the lyric poets does this too, which they themselves admit: for they claim, as I see it, that they bring to us their songs by gathering from the honey-flowing springs from certain gardens and glades of the Muses like bees—and they fly too!

And they speak the truth. For a poet is an empty thing—winged, and sacred and not capable of composing before it is inspired and out of mind, when thought is no longer inside. Until one has gained this state, every person is incapable of composing or giving oracles. Because they compose not by skill—when they say many fine things about their subjects—but by divine dispensation, as you do about Homer, each is only capable of composing well in the arena where the Musa compels—one person composes dithyramb, one encomia, another dance songs, another epic and another iambic poetry. But each is useless in the other genres.”

     ΣΩ. Καὶ ὁρῶ, ὦ ῎Ιων, καὶ ἔρχομαί γέ σοι ἀποφανούμενος ὅ μοι δοκεῖ τοῦτο εἶναι. ἔστι γὰρ τοῦτο τέχνη μὲν οὐκ ὂν παρὰ σοὶ περὶ ῾Ομήρου εὖ λέγειν, ὃ νυνδὴ ἔλεγον, θεία δὲ δύναμις ἥ σε κινεῖ, ὥσπερ ἐν τῇ λίθῳ ἣν Εὐριπίδης μὲν Μαγνῆτιν ὠνόμασεν, οἱ δὲ πολλοὶ ῾Ηρακλείαν. καὶ γὰρ αὕτη ἡ λίθος οὐ μόνον αὐτοὺς τοὺς δακτυλίους ἄγει τοὺς σιδηροῦς, ἀλλὰ καὶ δύναμιν ἐντίθησι τοῖς δακτυλίοις ὥστ’ αὖ δύνασθαι ταὐτὸν τοῦτο ποιεῖν ὅπερ ἡ λίθος, ἄλλους ἄγειν δακτυλίους, ὥστ’ ἐνίοτε ὁρμαθὸς μακρὸς πάνυ σιδηρίων καὶ δακτυλίων ἐξ ἀλλήλων ἤρτηται· πᾶσι δὲ τούτοις ἐξ ἐκείνης τῆς λίθου ἡ δύναμις ἀνήρτηται. οὕτω δὲ καὶ ἡ Μοῦσα ἐνθέους μὲν ποιεῖ αὐτή, διὰ δὲ τῶν ἐνθέων τούτων ἄλλων ἐνθουσιαζόντων ὁρμαθὸς ἐξαρτᾶται.

πάντες γὰρ οἵ  τε τῶν ἐπῶν ποιηταὶ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ οὐκ ἐκ τέχνης ἀλλ’ ἔνθεοι ὄντες καὶ κατεχόμενοι πάντα ταῦτα τὰ καλὰ λέγουσι ποιήματα, καὶ οἱ μελοποιοὶ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ ὡσαύτως, ὥσπερ οἱ κορυβαντιῶντες οὐκ ἔμφρονες ὄντες ὀρχοῦνται, οὕτω καὶ οἱ μελοποιοὶ οὐκ ἔμφρονες ὄντες τὰ καλὰ μέλη ταῦτα ποιοῦσιν, ἀλλ’ ἐπειδὰν ἐμβῶσιν εἰς τὴν ἁρμονίαν καὶ εἰς τὸν ῥυθμόν, βακχεύουσι καὶ κατεχόμενοι, ὥσπερ αἱ βάκχαι ἀρύονται ἐκ τῶν ποταμῶν μέλι καὶ γάλα κατεχόμεναι, ἔμφρονες δὲ οὖσαι οὔ, καὶ τῶν μελοποιῶν ἡ ψυχὴ τοῦτο ἐργάζεται, ὅπερ αὐτοὶ λέγουσι. λέγουσι γὰρ δήπουθεν πρὸς ἡμᾶς οἱ ποιηταὶ ὅτι ἀπὸ κρηνῶν μελιρρύτων ἐκ Μουσῶν κήπων τινῶν καὶ ναπῶν δρεπόμενοι τὰ μέλη ἡμῖν φέρουσιν ὥσπερ αἱ μέλιτται, καὶ αὐτοὶ οὕτω πετόμενοι· καὶ ἀληθῆ λέγουσι. κοῦφον γὰρ χρῆμα ποιητής ἐστιν καὶ πτηνὸν καὶ ἱερόν, καὶ οὐ πρότερον οἷός τε ποιεῖν πρὶν ἂν ἔνθεός τε γένηται καὶ ἔκφρων καὶ ὁ νοῦς μηκέτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐνῇ· ἕως δ’ ἂν τουτὶ ἔχῃ τὸ κτῆμα, ἀδύνατος πᾶς ποιεῖν ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν καὶ χρησμῳδεῖν. ἅτε οὖν οὐ τέχνῃ ποιοῦντες καὶ πολλὰ λέγοντες καὶ καλὰ περὶ τῶν πραγμάτων, ὥσπερ σὺ περὶ ῾Ομήρου, ἀλλὰ θείᾳ μοίρᾳ, τοῦτο μόνον οἷός τε ἕκαστος ποιεῖν καλῶς ἐφ’ ὃ ἡ Μοῦσα αὐτὸν ὥρμησεν, ὁ μὲν διθυράμβους, ὁ δὲ ἐγκώμια, ὁ δὲ ὑπορχήματα, ὁ δ’ ἔπη, ὁ δ’ ἰάμβους· τὰ δ’ ἄλλα φαῦλος αὐτῶν ἕκαστός ἐστιν.

535e-536a

“Do you understand that the audience is the last of the rings which I was describing as transmitting through one another the power from the Herakleian stone and that you are the middle as the rhapsode and interpreter—that the poet himself is the first ring? The god moves the soul of all of these people wherever he wants, stringing the power from one into another.”

οἶσθα οὖν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ θεατὴς τῶν δακτυλίων ὁ ἔσχατος, ὧν ἐγὼ ἔλεγον ὑπὸ τῆς Ἡρακλειώτιδος λίθου ἀπ᾽ ἀλλήλων τὴν δύναμιν λαμβάνειν; ὁ δὲ μέσος σὺ ὁ ῥαψῳδὸς καὶ ὑποκριτής, ὁ δὲ πρῶτος αὐτὸς ὁ ποιητής ὁ δὲ θεὸς διὰ πάντων τούτων ἕλκει τὴν ψυχὴν ὅποι ἂν βούληται τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἀνακρεμαννὺς ἐξ ἀλλήλων τὴν δύναμιν.

Fresco of women dancing in a line
Fresco, Museo Nationale, Naples. c. 400 BCE

The Design of Penelope’s Web

In the Iliad, Helen appears weaving a pharos that depicts “The many struggles of the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-girded Achaeans / All the things they had suffered for her at Ares’ hands.” Τρώων θ’ ἱπποδάμων καὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν χαλκοχιτώνων, οὕς ἑθεν εἵνεκ’ ἔπασχον ὑπ’ ῎Αρηος παλαμάων, 3.121-128). And elsewhere she seems keenly aware that her story will be the subject of future songs (ὡς καὶ ὀπίσσω / ἀνθρώποισι πελώμεθ’ ἀοίδιμοι ἐσσομένοισι, 6.537-538).

Andromache, too, in the Iliad, weaves a garment whose imagery is described, even if briefly (22.437-441):

“So she spoke in mourning—but Hektor’s wife did not yet know anything.
For no one had come to her as a trusty messenger
To announce that her husband remained outside of the gates.
But she was weaving in the innermost part of her high-roofed home,
A double-folded raiment, on which she embroidered delicate flowers.”

῝Ως ἔφατο κλαίουσ’, ἄλοχος δ’ οὔ πώ τι πέπυστο
῞Εκτορος· οὐ γάρ οἵ τις ἐτήτυμος ἄγγελος ἐλθὼν
ἤγγειλ’ ὅττί ῥά οἱ πόσις ἔκτοθι μίμνε πυλάων,
ἀλλ’ ἥ γ’ ἱστὸν ὕφαινε μυχῷ δόμου ὑψηλοῖο
δίπλακα πορφυρέην, ἐν δὲ θρόνα ποικίλ’ ἔπασσε.

There is weaving throughout the Odyssey. Helen gives Telemachus a garment to give to his future wife (Od. 15.123-130). Calypso (5.62) and Circe (10.222) also weave while singing (what songs might they sing?). Nausicaa leaves a robe for Odysseus (6.214) which Arete recognizes because she made it (7.234-235). We even hear that the Naiads who live on the shore in Ithaca weave “sea-purple garments, wondrous to see” (φάρε’ ὑφαίνουσιν ἁλιπόρφυρα, θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι, 13.108).

But nowhere in the Odyssey is the imagery on any of these garments described. This might be less confounding if the works were not so prized, if those in the Iliad were not clearly described as bearing decoration and if an ancient scholar had not recognized in Helen’s weaving an embedded metaphor for Homer’s own art, which he calls “a worthy archetype for his own poetry” (ἀξιόχρεων ἀρχέτυπον ἀνέπλασεν ὁ ποιητὴς τῆς ἰδίας ποιήσεως, Schol. bT ad Il. 3.126-127)

The most famous woven garment in the Odyssey is Penelope’s delaying trick which she weaves and unweaves over nearly four years to avoid committing to a marriage. The famous stratagem is mentioned three times. At no time is any image on the cloth mentioned—in its final appearance, it is described as “shining like the sun or the moon”, but that is likely because it has just been cleaned. Here are the three passages:

Continue reading “The Design of Penelope’s Web”