Books Are Oysters and Words Are Pearls: Some ‘Poetry’ from John Tzetzes

John Tzetzes, Chiliades (“Thousands”) 11.393-399

“I also know specialized pearls beyond the pearls.
They shatter and release small pearls in their craft
As they roll out other pearls. These things are about pearls.
I now call books oysters full of words.
You note, I suspect, that words are the pearls that come from them.”

Chiliades 11

If for some, inexplicable, reason, you would like to read the whole poem, it is available online.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 117v

Choosing a Captain on the Ship of Fools

Plato, Republic 6 488a7-89a2

[This was inspired by a”Ship of Fools” post at LitKicks]

Consider this how this could turn out on many ships or even just one: there is a captain of some size and strength beyond the rest of the men in the ship, but he is deaf and similarly limited at seeing, and he knows as much about sailing as these qualities might imply. So, the sailors are struggling with one another about steering the ship, because each one believes that he should be in charge, even though he has learned nothing of the craft nor can indicate who his teacher was nor when he had the time to learn. Some of them are even saying that it is not teachable, and that they are ready to cut down the man who says it can be taught.

They are always hanging all over the captain asking him and making a big deal of the fact that he should entrust the rudder to them. There are times when some of them do not persuade him, and some of them kill others or kick them off the ship, and once they have overcome the noble captain through a mandrake, or drugs, or something else and run the ship, using up its contents drinking, and partying, and sailing just as such sort of men might. In addition to this, they praise as a fit sailor, and call a captain and knowledgeable at shipcraft the man who is cunning at convincing or forcing the captain that they should be in charge. And they rebuke as useless anyone who is not like this.

Such men are unaware what a true helmsman is like, that he must be concerned about the time of year, the seasons, the sky, the stars, the wind and everything that is appropriate to the art, if he is going to be a leader of a ship in reality, how he might steer the ship even if some desire it or not, when they believe that it is not possible to obtain art or practice about how to do this, something like an art of ship-steering. When these types of conflicts are occurring on a ship, don’t you think the one who is a true helmsman would be called a star-gazer, a blabber, or useless to them by the sailors in the ships organized in this way?

 

νόησον γὰρ τοιουτονὶ γενόμενον εἴτε πολλῶν νεῶν πέρι εἴτε μιᾶς· ναύκληρον μεγέθει μὲν καὶ ῥώμῃ ὑπὲρ τοὺς ἐν τῇ νηὶ πάντας, ὑπόκωφον δὲ καὶ ὁρῶντα ὡσαύτως βραχύ τι καὶ γιγνώσκοντα περὶ ναυτικῶν ἕτερα τοιαῦτα, τοὺς δὲ ναύτας στασιάζοντας πρὸς ἀλλήλους περὶ τῆς κυβερνήσεως, ἕκαστον οἰόμενον δεῖν κυβερνᾶν, μήτε μαθόντα πώποτε τὴν τέχνην μέτε ἔχοντα ἀποδεῖξαι διδάσκαλον ἑαυτοῦ μηδὲ χρόνον ἐν ᾧ ἐμάνθανεν, πρὸς δὲ τούτοις φάσκοντας μηδὲ διδακτὸν εἶναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸν λέγοντα ὡς διδακτὸν ἑτοίμους κατατέμνειν, αὐτοὺς δὲ αὐτῷ ἀεὶ τῷ ναυκλήρῳ περικεχύσθαι δεομένους καὶ πάντα ποιοῦντας ὅπως ἂν σφίσι τὸ πηδάλιον ἐπιτρέψῃ, ἐνίοτε δ’ ἂν μὴ πείθωσιν ἀλλὰ ἄλλοι μᾶλλον, τοὺς μὲν ἄλλους ἢ ἀποκτεινύντας ἢ ἐκβάλλοντας ἐκ τῆς νεώς, τὸν δὲ γενναῖον ναύκληρον μανδραγόρᾳ ἢ μέθῃ ἤ τινι ἄλλῳ συμποδίσαντας τῆς νεὼς ἄρχειν χρωμένους τοῖς ἐνοῦσι, καὶ πίνοντάς τε καὶ εὐωχουμένους πλεῖν ὡς τὸ εἰκὸς τοὺς τοιούτους, πρὸς δὲ τούτοις ἐπαινοῦντας ναυτικὸν μὲν καλοῦντας καὶ κυβερνητικὸν καὶ ἐπιστάμενον τὰ κατὰ ναῦν, ὃς ἂν συλλαμβάνειν δεινὸς ᾖ ὅπως ἄρξουσιν ἢ πείθοντες ἢ βιαζόμενοι τὸν ναύκληρον, τὸν δὲ μὴ τοιοῦτον ψέγοντας ὡς ἄχρηστον, τοῦ δὲ ἀληθινοῦ κυβερνήτου πέρι μηδ’ ἐπαΐοντες, ὅτι ἀνάγκη αὐτῷ τὴν ἐπιμέλειαν ποιεῖσθαι ἐνιαυτοῦ καὶ ὡρῶν καὶ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἄστρων καὶ πνευμάτων καὶ πάντων τῶν τῇ τέχνῃ προσηκόντων, εἰ μέλλει τῷ ὄντι νεὼς ἀρχικὸς ἔσεσθαι, ὅπως δὲ κυβερνήσει ἐάντε τινες βούλωνται ἐάντε μή, μήτε τέχνην τούτου μήτε μελέτην οἰόμενοι δυνατὸν εἶναι λαβεῖν ἅμα καὶ τὴν κυβερνητικήν. τοιούτων δὴ περὶ τὰς ναῦς γιγνομένων τὸν ὡς ἀληθῶς κυβερνητικὸν οὐχ ἡγῇ ἂν τῷ ὄντι μετεωροσκόπον τε καὶ ἀδολέσχην καὶ ἄχρηστόν σφισι καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἐν ταῖς οὕτω κατεσκευασμέναις ναυσὶ πλωτήρων;

Image result for ship of fools
Hieronymus Bosch, “Ship of Fools”

Homeric Orchards and Trees: Metaphors for Origins and Reception

Simonides, fr. 6.3

“Simonides said that Hesiod is a gardener while Homer is a garland-weaver—the first planted the legends of the heroes and gods and then the second braided together them the garland of the Iliad and the Odyssey.”

Σιμωνίδης τὸν ῾Ησίοδον κηπουρὸν ἔλεγε, τὸν δὲ ῞Ομηρον στεφανηπλόκον, τὸν μὲν ὡς φυτεύσαντα τὰς περὶ θεῶν καὶ ἡρώων μυθολογίας, τὸν δὲ ὡς ἐξ αὐτῶν συμπλέξαντα τὸν᾿Ιλιάδος καὶ Οδυσσείας στέφανον.

MS M.644 fol. 252v
http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/98/110807

Take a minute and imagine a tree in a park or garden. Make it a really nice tree, one you’d notice and remember if you lingered on it a bit, one that has been well situated in its environment. Think about the tree’s imperfect symmetry, the way it occupies its space.

Now think about this: someone planted the tree; others tended to it and trimmed it; more people spent generations selecting this domesticated tree from its ancestral stock. Think about the uncountable hands that made this tree possible, the saplings transplanted, the varieties combined over time. What were their lives like? What stories did they tell? What were trees to them?

Then think about the tree’s beauty, its aesthetics. What makes us set this tree apart from others? What is essential about it? Our appreciation is based on other trees we might not remember as well as an entire ‘grammar’ of human beings and the environment. Like any other native language, you learned its basic syntax without trying. You have a sense of the way trees should be.

You probably judge a tree differently from a shrub for historical aesthetic reasons. You have expectations on what trees should do, how they should look, and what function they fulfill. You are mostly not cognizant of these assumptions. But you almost certainly have different notions about a shrub or a bush.

https://line.17qq.com/articles/wqsnnssky.html

Sure, the shrub comment may seem a bit of an aside, but it is really about genre. We have different sets of expectations for different categories of form based on explicit and implicit criteria.

Now, if someone asks you who is responsible for the tree, what do you say? Is it someone who designed the park? Is it a gardener? Is it the first person who imagined a tree in the garden?

Any single answer ignores those countless hands, minds, and environments that contributed to the treeness of this tree. It also ignores the salient fact that you are the one judging the tree and that your gaze is shaped by non-tree things.

For me, the Homeric epics are like that tree. They come out of a complex relationship between performance traditions, new technologies, and aesthetics that are both products and producers of the same song culture. The reception and transformation of this ancient song culture into something fixed and reanalyzed as a text with an author has shaped our own culture too.

How we respond to ‘arboreal’ questions is keyed into individual psychology and cultural discourse. We always simplify our interpretation of where the tree came from because our minds are too small to understand we are part of mind-networks and our lives are two abbreviated to trace time’s larger sweep. We impose simple origin stories on art and human products because it is hard to escape our own single experience of culture and see how it works in the aggregate.

(for more on Homer and psychology, see my recent book The Many-Minded Man)

These individual psychologies are shaped as well by a cultural system deeply interested in teleology and the import of design. Two aspects of this among many that interest me. First, our search for meaning in the empty universe encourages us to argue that design necessitates a designer. Second, our system of values and credit under capitalism emphasizes the metaphor of authorship as an opportunity for creating and maintaining value.

The two aspects are part of a shared problem: we assign meaning to the world we see based on patterns and human-mirroring things. We re-cast the pattern as a design and in that an intention we assign to authority and authors. So group activities that result in notable patterns are reanalyzed as communications of some type of an authorial intention.

And yet, we know that meaning is made from observation and reflection.

We impose a god/author model on complex things for cultural and psychological reasons. It is a fallacy to insist that design implies a designer when we recognize design as viewers conditioned to do so. The history of Homeric scholarship and its so-called ‘question’ (of which there are actually many) is dominated by the problem of design without an urgent exploration of what design may entail until the 20th century (in addition to work by Greg Nagy (recently Homer the Pre-Classic and Homer the Classic), see Casey Dué’s recent Achilles Unbound and Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer).

There’s no smoking gun about Homeric authorship. There will never be a clear answer to the issue. That we care so much about it is a problem. it is, dare I say, the rot at the core of ‘western’ liberalism and capitalism, this desperate search for ancient authority combined with a pathological need to extract profit from everything.

In searching for “Homer”, most people find what they want to find. (Something Casey Due makes the case for in looking at the invention of Ossian). My experience of teaching, reading, and writing about the epics for over two decades is that people cleave almost painfully to what they believe about authorship and art before they really listen to the Homeric poems.. That’s also why I keep returning to the bench and thinking as much about who is thinking about Homer and why.

And when I turn back I think less in terms of “who wrote the Iliad” than what the people were like who domesticated the epics and set them aside and why we still look at them today.

Plato, Ion

“For poets certainly tell us that they bring us songs by drawing from the honey-flowing springs or certain gardens and glades of the Muses just like bees. And because they too are winged, they also speak the truth.”

Λέγουσι γὰρ δήπουθεν πρὸς ἡμᾶς οἱ ποιηταί, ὅτι ἀπὸ κρηνῶν μελιρρύτων ἢ ἐκ Μουσῶν κήπων τινῶν καὶ ναπῶν δρεπόμενοι τὰ μέλη ἡμῖν φέρουσιν ὥσπερ αἱ μέλιτται. καὶ αὐτοὶ οὕτω πετόμενοι, καὶ ἀληθῆ λέγουσι.

Trees in Homer: Paris’ Ship, Odysseus’ Raft, and Laertes’ Orchards

My metaphor of a tree for seeing Homer as something organic and exhibiting aesthetic beauty without a designing authority may seem a bit whimsical, if not outlandish. But I am in part inspired by what we find in Homer. In Homeric poetry trees are objects of wealth, inheritance and memory. They appear at a crucial moment in Odysseus’ return to Ithaca when he meets his father. Odysseus follows the patterns established earlier in the book and attempts to deceive his father before they both weep and he tries to prove who he is, first by pointing to his scar, and then by pointing to the trees.

Odyssey 24. 336–339

“But, come, if I may tell you about the trees through the well-founded orchard
The ones which you gave to me—when I was a child I asked you about each
As I followed you through the garden. We traced a path through them
And you named and spoke about each one.”

εἰ δ’ ἄγε τοι καὶ δένδρε’ ἐϋκτιμένην κατ’ ἀλῳὴν
εἴπω, ἅ μοί ποτ’ ἔδωκας, ἐγὼ δ’ ᾔτευν σε ἕκαστα
παιδνὸς ἐών, κατὰ κῆπον ἐπισπόμενος· διὰ δ’ αὐτῶν
ἱκνεύμεσθα, σὺ δ’ ὠνόμασας καὶ ἔειπες ἕκαστα.

As Erich Auerbach famously observes, Odysseus’ scar is an entry-point into a universe of aesthetic thought. As I see it it, the scar is a metonym for identity and story traditions. It marks experiences and potential stories to be told. The trees are metonyms for stories themselves and they have are metapoetic as well. Alex Purves (2010:228) characterizes steps as Odysseus “taking an imaginary walk through the orchard in his mind just as [Elizabeth] Minchin has suggested that Homer takes a cognitive walk through the Peloponnese in order to recount the Catalogue of Ships (2001: 84-7).”

As Elton Barker and I explore in Homer’s Thebes (78) Whether or not Laertes’ trees mind the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, the trees are suggestive of the stories that are or could be told. [Cf. Henderson 1997:87 for the trees as “epic wood.” So too, “… the trees may stand metonymically for epic poems… the combined product of nature and nurture which have been shaped by the judgment (aesthetic and political) of countless constant gardeners” (628).

Of course, these assertions seem strange if we don’t look at other Homeric trees. For me, a signal moment in epic poetry comes when Odysseus is authorized to build a raft to escape from Ogygia and try to return home. The narrative pays special attention to enumerating the trees and specifying Odysseus’ skill in using them: 

Odyssey 5.238-262

“She gave him the smooth axe and then took him on the path
To the farthest part of the island where the tale trees were growing,
Alder, ash and fir trees reaching to the sky,
Dry for a long time, long-seasoned, perfect for sailing.
Once she showed him where the great trees were growing,
Kalypso, the beautiful goddess, returned to her home,
While he was cutting out planks. The work went quickly.
He picked out twenty altogether and cut them with bronze.
He skillfully planed them down and made them straight with a level.
At the same time, the shining goddess Kalypso was bringing him augers
And he drilled all the pieces and fit them together.
As wide as a man who is skilled in wood-working
Traces out the line of a merchant ship—that’s
How wide Odysseus made his skiff.
Once he set up the deck beams he attached them to the
Close-placed ribs. And then he finished out the raft with long gunwales.
He fashioned a mast and placed on it a yard-arm.
He also made a rudder to steer with and then
He fashioned willow-branches and brush into a wall
To stand against the waves around the vessel.
And then Kalypso brought him a bolt of cloth
To make into a sail. He crafted that too, skillfully.
He tied into the raft braces, and restraints, and sheets
And using levers moved it down toward the shining sea.
It was the fourth day and everything was complete.”

…· ἦρχε δ’ ὁδοῖο
νήσου ἐπ’ ἐσχατιήν, ὅθι δένδρεα μακρὰ πεφύκει,
κλήθρη τ’ αἴγειρός τ’, ἐλάτη τ’ ἦν οὐρανομήκης,
αὖα πάλαι, περίκηλα, τά οἱ πλώοιεν ἐλαφρῶς.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ δεῖξ’ ὅθι δένδρεα μακρὰ πεφύκει,
ἡ μὲν ἔβη πρὸς δῶμα Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων,
αὐτὰρ ὁ τάμνετο δοῦρα· θοῶς δέ οἱ ἤνυτο ἔργον.
εἴκοσι δ’ ἔκβαλε πάντα, πελέκκησεν δ’ ἄρα χαλκῷ,
ξέσσε δ’ ἐπισταμένως καὶ ἐπὶ στάθμην ἴθυνε.
τόφρα δ’ ἔνεικε τέρετρα Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων·
τέτρηνεν δ’ ἄρα πάντα καὶ ἥρμοσεν ἀλλήλοισι,
γόμφοισιν δ’ ἄρα τήν γε καὶ ἁρμονίῃσιν ἄρασσεν.
ὅσσον τίς τ’ ἔδαφος νηὸς τορνώσεται ἀνὴρ
φορτίδος εὐρείης, εὖ εἰδὼς τεκτοσυνάων,
τόσσον ἐπ’ εὐρεῖαν σχεδίην ποιήσατ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς.
ἴκρια δὲ στήσας, ἀραρὼν θαμέσι σταμίνεσσι,
ποίει· ἀτὰρ μακρῇσιν ἐπηγκενίδεσσι τελεύτα.
ἐν δ’ ἱστὸν ποίει καὶ ἐπίκριον ἄρμενον αὐτῷ·
πρὸς δ’ ἄρα πηδάλιον ποιήσατο, ὄφρ’ ἰθύνοι.
φράξε δέ μιν ῥίπεσσι διαμπερὲς οἰσυΐνῃσι,
κύματος εἶλαρ ἔμεν· πολλὴν δ’ ἐπεχεύατο ὕλην.
τόφρα δὲ φάρε’ ἔνεικε Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων,
ἱστία ποιήσασθαι· ὁ δ’ εὖ τεχνήσατο καὶ τά.
ἐν δ’ ὑπέρας τε κάλους τε πόδας τ’ ἐνέδησεν ἐν αὐτῇ,
μοχλοῖσιν δ’ ἄρα τήν γε κατείρυσεν εἰς ἅλα δῖαν.
τέτρατον ἦμαρ ἔην, καὶ τῷ τετέλεστο ἅπαντα·

Here we find a balance between nature and skill, between the material found and offered and the creative power of a maker authorized by a god. If the trees at the end of the Odyssey are symbols of tales that might be told, these Ogygian planks are echoes of stories that were told and lost. They also tell us about the relationship between narrative agent and story. As I write in my recent Many-Minded Man: “In this passage’s detail and the dramatization of Odysseus’s labors, the epic offers an anticipatory metaphor for the rebuilding of the hero’s identity. The material available has been there for years—it is not of Odysseus’s own making, but his skill and agency are critical for forming it into something new, something that can make a path or journey of its own. The selection of the trees stands in for the selection of stories and aspects of the self that will be reassembled as Odysseus journeys home.” ( 2020, 11).

But in this analysis, I might focus overmuch on the epic’s hero and not enough on the epic stuff itself. There is a relationship between the basic matter (the wood, the trees) and the stuff matter makes: ships, homes, vessels of meaning and vessels for meaning. It may be too cute to juxtapose, but there may be more to the Greek word for “matter” hule, which can also mean wood, than meets the eye.

Epic is deeply concerned with what comes after and some of its figures, like Hektor, imagine singular monuments, tombs that can be seen and act as reminders for men to come. In a way, the grave is a kind of scar left on the earth conveying its own story. But groves of trees and the ships they provide can carry on meaning and life in different ways. I am reminded here of a brief aside from the Iliad.

Iliad 5.59-68 

“Mêrionês then killed Phereklos, the son of the carpenter,
Son of Joiner, who knew who to fashion all sorts of intricate tings
With his hands. Pallas Athena loved him especially.
He is the one who designed Alexander’s fantastic ships,
Those kindlers of evil which brought evil on all the Trojans
And on him especially, since he understood nothing of the divine prophecies.
Well, Mêrionês, once he overtook him in pursuit,
Struck him through the right buttock. The sharp point
Went straight through his bladder under the bone.
He fell to his knee and groaned. Then death overtook him.

Μηριόνης δὲ Φέρεκλον ἐνήρατο, τέκτονος υἱὸν
῾Αρμονίδεω, ὃς χερσὶν ἐπίστατο δαίδαλα πάντα
τεύχειν· ἔξοχα γάρ μιν ἐφίλατο Παλλὰς ᾿Αθήνη·
ὃς καὶ ᾿Αλεξάνδρῳ τεκτήνατο νῆας ἐΐσας
ἀρχεκάκους, αἳ πᾶσι κακὸν Τρώεσσι γένοντο
οἷ τ’ αὐτῷ, ἐπεὶ οὔ τι θεῶν ἐκ θέσφατα ᾔδη.
τὸν μὲν Μηριόνης ὅτε δὴ κατέμαρπτε διώκων
βεβλήκει γλουτὸν κατὰ δεξιόν· ἣ δὲ διαπρὸ
ἀντικρὺ κατὰ κύστιν ὑπ’ ὀστέον ἤλυθ’ ἀκωκή·
γνὺξ δ’ ἔριπ’ οἰμώξας, θάνατος δέ μιν ἀμφεκάλυψε.

Ok, this passage may seem unconnected and offering it may seem indulgent even for me, but consider the way Phereklos is marked out as a carpenter’s son and how the ships that carried Paris to war are positioned as the vehicles of evil for them all.  While as scholiast (Schol. bT ad Il.5.59) glosses the name Phereklos as “one who brings the turmoil of war through the ships” (Φέρεκλος ὁ φέρων κλόνον διὰ τῶν νέων), I would also like to believe that name Phere-klos, might make someone think of ‘fame-bringer’. And the connection between poetic fame and the activity of the war arises elsewhere in this passage two.

Note that the this Phere-klos is the son of Harmonidês, a man who, according to the passage, is the one who build the ships “the bringers of evil” (ἀρχεκάκους) for Paris (those ships which carried him from Troy to Sparta…). The name Harmonidês is not insignificant: Gregory Nagy has etymologized Homer as “one who fits the song together”. Phereklos’ father is a “craftsman” (“tektôn”) who built the very ships that allowed his son (and Paris) to bring the conflict to Troy and generate the fame of the songs it generated. Here, the ships are positioned as the first steps in evil, but I would suggest, that as the means by which the songs themselves travel across the sea, the ships are, as products of specialized craftsmen, both metonymns for the stories themselves and necessary vehicles for their transmission.

And here, even if asymmetrical, I find myself considering a life-cycle of Homeric trees: the way one set were cut down to fan the flames of war that launched myriad ships; that others fell to bring Odysseus home to gaze upon his ancestral orchards, potentials tales to be told or curtailed…once Odysseus journeys to a land where no one remembers the sea.

Strength Imposed on Song: The Nightingale and the Hawk

Warning: Any resemblance to current events is not accidental.

Hesiod, Works & Days, 202-212

now I will tell a fable to rulers;
they can think it through for themselves:

this is how Hawk addressed mottled-throat Nightingale,
carrying her high up into the clouds
gored on his talons,
as she, in the grips of two hooked claws,
plaintively wept.

he spoke to her like one who holds all the cards:

“dearie, why the hollering?
one much stronger
has you now.
you’ll go here, there . . .
wherever I take you,
even with your talent for song.
if it pleases me, I’ll make a meal of you.
or, I’ll let you go.
silly, she who thinks to say no to her superior in strength.
she won’t win.
and along with disgrace,
there’s the pain she’ll suffer.”

thus spoke Hawk,
fast flyer–
a bird stretching its wings.

νῦν δ᾽ αἶνον βασιλεῦσιν ἐρέω φρονέουσι καὶ αὐτοῖς:
ὧδ᾽ ἴρηξ προσέειπεν ἀηδόνα ποικιλόδειρον
ὕψι μάλ᾽ ἐν νεφέεσσι φέρων ὀνύχεσσι μεμαρπώς:
ἣ δ᾽ ἐλεόν, γναμπτοῖσι πεπαρμένη ἀμφ᾽ ὀνύχεσσι,
μύρετο: τὴν ὅγ᾽ ἐπικρατέως πρὸς μῦθον ἔειπεν:
δαιμονίη, τί λέληκας; ἔχει νύ σε πολλὸν ἀρείων:
τῇ δ᾽ εἶς, ᾗ σ᾽ ἂν ἐγώ περ ἄγω καὶ ἀοιδὸν ἐοῦσαν:
δεῖπνον δ᾽, αἴ κ᾽ ἐθέλω, ποιήσομαι ἠὲ μεθήσω.
ἄφρων δ᾽, ὅς κ᾽ ἐθέλῃ πρὸς κρείσσονας ἀντιφερίζειν:
νίκης τε στέρεται πρός τ᾽ αἴσχεσιν ἄλγεα πάσχει.
ὣς ἔφατ᾽ ὠκυπέτης ἴρηξ, τανυσίπτερος ὄρνις.

Four Years of Presidential Memories: Skatokhasm, Another Word You Know You Need

How does one say “shithole” in Ancient Greek? As with other such esoteric considerations, this takes us into the depths of metaphor and meaning. Is a “shithole” a place whence shit emerges or one in which shit properly settles to age? To be more pointed, when we say “shithole”, do we mean the rectum (so is it a synonym for “asshole”) or do we mean a receptacle too primitive and unformed to be graced with the designation ‘toilet’?

I think when the leader of what was once the free world uses the term , he probably means the second meaning–that the countries designated so are “primitive”, bereft of proper sanitation, and, as such, both filled with excrement (in his excitable mind) and a worthy place for excrement to stay. Thanks to the magic of the conceptual metaphor, of course, the “shithole” can simultaneously indicate both origin and receptacle. One reason it is terribly racist is that the people who move from one to the other or inhabit them are, by extension, excrement.

Because I process trauma and horror through ancient Greek and lexicography, I need to ‘own’ this word by putting it in Greek. I think the stronger force of this metaphor is the location of discarded shit not the organ of excretion. Ancient Greek does not have a clear parallel (and believe me, gentle reader, I looked). I would love to hear some other suggestions. I put the call on Twitter.

The best suggestion, I think, is σκατοχάσμα (skatokhasma, see below). I like it because it has clear parallels (e.g. skatophage). Also, it sounds like “shit-gasm” which is what I think happens every time a certain chief executive speaks. Weaknesses: khasma is not very productive in ancient Greek compounds and is also rather ‘epic’ in scope. In English, “hole” is dimunitive a small. Shitholes are thus additionally awful because of their insignificance.

Honorable Mentions: τὸ σκατώρυγμον (skatorugmon). this has the sense of something hastily and poorly made by people. Also, κοπροβάραθρον is, as one correspondent declared, totally “metal” and, really epic. (Also, coprophilia is something the captain of our ship might cop to). The Lexicographer Zonaras treats all three of these nouns as synonyms (“Barathron: A ditch. A depth. The maw of the earth.” Βάραθρον. ὄρυγμα· βάθος· χάσμα γῆς). For me, barathron is mythical; orugmon is man-made, and khasma is more generic and ‘natural’. I prefer it, in sum, because of its huuugeness. It is really big. And the speaker mentioned above doesn’t do anything small.

https://twitter.com/diyclassics/status/951866406844469249

Some Instructive Compounds

κοπρόνους: “manure-minded”
κοπράγωγεω: “to collect crap”
κόπρειος: “full of crap”
κοπρολογεῖν: “to gather crap”
κοπροφαγεῖν: “to eat crap”
κοπροστόμος: “foul-mouthed”
σκατοφάγος: “shit-eater”
κόπρανα: “excrements”
κοπραγωγός: “shit-bearer”
κοπρία: “dung-heap”
κοπρίζω: “to make dung”
κοπρικός: “full of it”
κοπροθέσιον: “a place where dung is put”. ‘Shit-bucket”
κοπροδοχεῖον: “cess pool”
κοπροποιός: “dung-making”
σκατοφάγος: “shit eater”
σκαταιβάτης: “shit-walker”
σκωραμὶς: “shit pot”; cf. Ar.Lys. 371: σκωραμὶς κωμῳδική: “comedic shitpot”

Image result for medieval manuscript toilet

From Beekes:

chasm

Four Years of Cautionary Memories: Choosing a Captain on the Ship of Fools

Plato, Republic 6 488a7-89a2

[This was inspired by the “Ship of Fools” post at LitKicks]

Consider this how this could turn out on many ships or even just one: there is a captain of some size and strength beyond the rest of the men in the ship, but he is deaf and similarly limited at seeing, and he knows as much about sailing as these qualities might imply. So, the sailors are struggling with one another about steering the ship, because each one believes that he should be in charge, even though he has learned nothing of the craft nor can indicate who his teacher was nor when he had the time to learn. Some of them are even saying that it is not teachable, and that they are ready to cut down the man who says it can be taught.

They are always hanging all over the captain asking him and making a big deal of the fact that he should entrust the rudder to them. There are times when some of them do not persuade him, and some of them kill others or kick them off the ship, and once they have overcome the noble captain through a mandrake, or drugs, or something else and run the ship, using up its contents drinking, and partying, and sailing just as such sort of men might. In addition to this, they praise as a fit sailor, and call a captain and knowledgeable at shipcraft the man who is cunning at convincing or forcing the captain that they should be in charge. And they rebuke as useless anyone who is not like this.

Such men are unaware what a true helmsman is like, that he must be concerned about the time of year, the seasons, the sky, the stars, the wind and everything that is appropriate to the art, if he is going to be a leader of a ship in reality, how he might steer the ship even if some desire it or not, when they believe that it is not possible to obtain art or practice about how to do this, something like an art of ship-steering. When these types of conflicts are occurring on a ship, don’t you think the one who is a true helmsman would be called a star-gazer, a blabber, or useless to them by the sailors in the ships organized in this way?

νόησον γὰρ τοιουτονὶ γενόμενον εἴτε πολλῶν νεῶν πέρι εἴτε μιᾶς· ναύκληρον μεγέθει μὲν καὶ ῥώμῃ ὑπὲρ τοὺς ἐν τῇ νηὶ πάντας, ὑπόκωφον δὲ καὶ ὁρῶντα ὡσαύτως βραχύ τι καὶ γιγνώσκοντα περὶ ναυτικῶν ἕτερα τοιαῦτα, τοὺς δὲ ναύτας στασιάζοντας πρὸς ἀλλήλους περὶ τῆς κυβερνήσεως, ἕκαστον οἰόμενον δεῖν κυβερνᾶν, μήτε μαθόντα πώποτε τὴν τέχνην μέτε ἔχοντα ἀποδεῖξαι διδάσκαλον ἑαυτοῦ μηδὲ χρόνον ἐν ᾧ ἐμάνθανεν, πρὸς δὲ τούτοις φάσκοντας μηδὲ διδακτὸν εἶναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸν λέγοντα ὡς διδακτὸν ἑτοίμους κατατέμνειν, αὐτοὺς δὲ αὐτῷ ἀεὶ τῷ ναυκλήρῳ περικεχύσθαι δεομένους καὶ πάντα ποιοῦντας ὅπως ἂν σφίσι τὸ πηδάλιον ἐπιτρέψῃ, ἐνίοτε δ’ ἂν μὴ πείθωσιν ἀλλὰ ἄλλοι μᾶλλον, τοὺς μὲν ἄλλους ἢ ἀποκτεινύντας ἢ ἐκβάλλοντας ἐκ τῆς νεώς, τὸν δὲ γενναῖον ναύκληρον μανδραγόρᾳ ἢ μέθῃ ἤ τινι ἄλλῳ συμποδίσαντας τῆς νεὼς ἄρχειν χρωμένους τοῖς ἐνοῦσι, καὶ πίνοντάς τε καὶ εὐωχουμένους πλεῖν ὡς τὸ εἰκὸς τοὺς τοιούτους, πρὸς δὲ τούτοις ἐπαινοῦντας ναυτικὸν μὲν καλοῦντας καὶ κυβερνητικὸν καὶ ἐπιστάμενον τὰ κατὰ ναῦν, ὃς ἂν συλλαμβάνειν δεινὸς ᾖ ὅπως ἄρξουσιν ἢ πείθοντες ἢ βιαζόμενοι τὸν ναύκληρον, τὸν δὲ μὴ τοιοῦτον ψέγοντας ὡς ἄχρηστον, τοῦ δὲ ἀληθινοῦ κυβερνήτου πέρι μηδ’ ἐπαΐοντες, ὅτι ἀνάγκη αὐτῷ τὴν ἐπιμέλειαν ποιεῖσθαι ἐνιαυτοῦ καὶ ὡρῶν καὶ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἄστρων καὶ πνευμάτων καὶ πάντων τῶν τῇ τέχνῃ προσηκόντων, εἰ μέλλει τῷ ὄντι νεὼς ἀρχικὸς ἔσεσθαι, ὅπως δὲ κυβερνήσει ἐάντε τινες βούλωνται ἐάντε μή, μήτε τέχνην τούτου μήτε μελέτην οἰόμενοι δυνατὸν εἶναι λαβεῖν ἅμα καὶ τὴν κυβερνητικήν. τοιούτων δὴ περὶ τὰς ναῦς γιγνομένων τὸν ὡς ἀληθῶς κυβερνητικὸν οὐχ ἡγῇ ἂν τῷ ὄντι μετεωροσκόπον τε καὶ ἀδολέσχην καὶ ἄχρηστόν σφισι καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἐν ταῖς οὕτω κατεσκευασμέναις ναυσὶ πλωτήρων;

The Ship of Fools by Hieronymous Bosch

Choosing a Captain on the Ship of Fools

Plato, Republic 6 488a7-89a2

[This was inspired by a”Ship of Fools” post at LitKicks]

Consider this how this could turn out on many ships or even just one: there is a captain of some size and strength beyond the rest of the men in the ship, but he is deaf and similarly limited at seeing, and he knows as much about sailing as these qualities might imply. So, the sailors are struggling with one another about steering the ship, because each one believes that he should be in charge, even though he has learned nothing of the craft nor can indicate who his teacher was nor when he had the time to learn. Some of them are even saying that it is not teachable, and that they are ready to cut down the man who says it can be taught.

They are always hanging all over the captain asking him and making a big deal of the fact that he should entrust the rudder to them. There are times when some of them do not persuade him, and some of them kill others or kick them off the ship, and once they have overcome the noble captain through a mandrake, or drugs, or something else and run the ship, using up its contents drinking, and partying, and sailing just as such sort of men might. In addition to this, they praise as a fit sailor, and call a captain and knowledgeable at shipcraft the man who is cunning at convincing or forcing the captain that they should be in charge. And they rebuke as useless anyone who is not like this.

Such men are unaware what a true helmsman is like, that he must be concerned about the time of year, the seasons, the sky, the stars, the wind and everything that is appropriate to the art, if he is going to be a leader of a ship in reality, how he might steer the ship even if some desire it or not, when they believe that it is not possible to obtain art or practice about how to do this, something like an art of ship-steering. When these types of conflicts are occurring on a ship, don’t you think the one who is a true helmsman would be called a star-gazer, a blabber, or useless to them by the sailors in the ships organized in this way?

 

νόησον γὰρ τοιουτονὶ γενόμενον εἴτε πολλῶν νεῶν πέρι εἴτε μιᾶς· ναύκληρον μεγέθει μὲν καὶ ῥώμῃ ὑπὲρ τοὺς ἐν τῇ νηὶ πάντας, ὑπόκωφον δὲ καὶ ὁρῶντα ὡσαύτως βραχύ τι καὶ γιγνώσκοντα περὶ ναυτικῶν ἕτερα τοιαῦτα, τοὺς δὲ ναύτας στασιάζοντας πρὸς ἀλλήλους περὶ τῆς κυβερνήσεως, ἕκαστον οἰόμενον δεῖν κυβερνᾶν, μήτε μαθόντα πώποτε τὴν τέχνην μέτε ἔχοντα ἀποδεῖξαι διδάσκαλον ἑαυτοῦ μηδὲ χρόνον ἐν ᾧ ἐμάνθανεν, πρὸς δὲ τούτοις φάσκοντας μηδὲ διδακτὸν εἶναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸν λέγοντα ὡς διδακτὸν ἑτοίμους κατατέμνειν, αὐτοὺς δὲ αὐτῷ ἀεὶ τῷ ναυκλήρῳ περικεχύσθαι δεομένους καὶ πάντα ποιοῦντας ὅπως ἂν σφίσι τὸ πηδάλιον ἐπιτρέψῃ, ἐνίοτε δ’ ἂν μὴ πείθωσιν ἀλλὰ ἄλλοι μᾶλλον, τοὺς μὲν ἄλλους ἢ ἀποκτεινύντας ἢ ἐκβάλλοντας ἐκ τῆς νεώς, τὸν δὲ γενναῖον ναύκληρον μανδραγόρᾳ ἢ μέθῃ ἤ τινι ἄλλῳ συμποδίσαντας τῆς νεὼς ἄρχειν χρωμένους τοῖς ἐνοῦσι, καὶ πίνοντάς τε καὶ εὐωχουμένους πλεῖν ὡς τὸ εἰκὸς τοὺς τοιούτους, πρὸς δὲ τούτοις ἐπαινοῦντας ναυτικὸν μὲν καλοῦντας καὶ κυβερνητικὸν καὶ ἐπιστάμενον τὰ κατὰ ναῦν, ὃς ἂν συλλαμβάνειν δεινὸς ᾖ ὅπως ἄρξουσιν ἢ πείθοντες ἢ βιαζόμενοι τὸν ναύκληρον, τὸν δὲ μὴ τοιοῦτον ψέγοντας ὡς ἄχρηστον, τοῦ δὲ ἀληθινοῦ κυβερνήτου πέρι μηδ’ ἐπαΐοντες, ὅτι ἀνάγκη αὐτῷ τὴν ἐπιμέλειαν ποιεῖσθαι ἐνιαυτοῦ καὶ ὡρῶν καὶ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἄστρων καὶ πνευμάτων καὶ πάντων τῶν τῇ τέχνῃ προσηκόντων, εἰ μέλλει τῷ ὄντι νεὼς ἀρχικὸς ἔσεσθαι, ὅπως δὲ κυβερνήσει ἐάντε τινες βούλωνται ἐάντε μή, μήτε τέχνην τούτου μήτε μελέτην οἰόμενοι δυνατὸν εἶναι λαβεῖν ἅμα καὶ τὴν κυβερνητικήν. τοιούτων δὴ περὶ τὰς ναῦς γιγνομένων τὸν ὡς ἀληθῶς κυβερνητικὸν οὐχ ἡγῇ ἂν τῷ ὄντι μετεωροσκόπον τε καὶ ἀδολέσχην καὶ ἄχρηστόν σφισι καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἐν ταῖς οὕτω κατεσκευασμέναις ναυσὶ πλωτήρων;

Image result for ship of fools
Hieronymus Bosch, “Ship of Fools”

Books Are Oysters and Words Are Pearls: Some ‘Poetry’ from John Tzetzes

John Tzetzes, Chiliades (“Thousands”) 11.393-399

“I also know specialized pearls beyond the pearls.
They shatter and release small pearls in their craft
As they roll out other pearls. These things are about pearls.
I now call books oysters full of words.
You note, I suspect, that words are the pearls that come from them.”

Chiliades 11

If for some, inexplicable, reason, you would like to read the whole poem, it is available online.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 117v

“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

Poets, Fishmongers and Memes

Are memes “viruses of the mind?”

Luke, 5.37

“No one puts new wine into old containers…”

 καὶ οὐδεὶς βάλλει οἶνον νέον εἰς ἀσκοὺς παλαιούς

Xenarchus’ Porphyra fr. 7 (preserved in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, 6. 224-225)

“Poets are ridiculous. They never invent
anything new—each one of them simply
remixes the same things again and again.
But there is no race more creative or profane
than the fish-sellers!
Since it is no longer permitted to them to dampen
Their fish, a practice forbidden by the law,
When some man completely hateful to the gods
Saw that his fish were drying, well,
He started a brawl among them quite intentionally
There were punches; he acted as if he were hit hard,
Fell to the ground pretending to pass out lying
Among his fish. Someone shouted “water, water”!
And a different guy grabbed a pitcher and poured it out—
A little on the man, but the rest on the fish!
You would have claimed they’d just been caught!”

Fish Vase
Google “Ancient Greek Fish Vase”

οἱ μὲν ποιηταὶ (φησὶ) λῆρός εἰσιν· οὐδὲ ἓν
καινὸν γὰρ εὑρίσκουσιν, ἀλλὰ μεταφέρει
ἕκαστος αὐτῶν ταὔτ’ ἄνω τε καὶ κάτω.
τῶν δ’ ἰχθυοπωλῶν φιλοσοφώτερον γένος
οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδὲν οὐδὲ μᾶλλον ἀνόσιον.
ἐπεὶ γὰρ αὐτοῖς οὐκέτ’ ἔστ’ ἐξουσία
ῥαίνειν, ἀπείρηται δὲ τοῦτο τῷ νόμῳ,
εἷς τις θεοῖσιν ἐχθρὸς ἄνθρωπος πάνυ
ξηραινομένους ὡς εἶδε τοὺς ἰχθῦς, μάχην
ἐποίησ’ ἐν αὐτοῖς ἐξεπίτηδες εὖ πάνυ.
ἦσαν δὲ πληγαί, καιρίαν δ’ εἰληφέναι
δόξας καταπίπτει καὶ λιποψυχεῖν δοκῶν
ἔκειτο μετὰ τῶν ἰχθύων. βοᾷ δέ τις
‘ὕδωρ <ὕδωρ.>’ ὃ δ’ εὐθὺς ἐξάρας πρόχουν
τῶν ὁμοτέχνων τις τοῦ μὲν ἀκαρῆ παντελῶς
κατέχει, κατὰ δὲ τῶν ἰχθύων ἁπαξάπαν.
εἴποις γ’ ἂν αὐτοὺς ἀρτίως ἡλωκέναι.

 

From Twitter today:

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