“When virtue is cast off into leisure without action it is a shapeless and imperfect good.”
sic imperfectum ac languidum bonum est in otium sine actu proiecta virtus
Seneca, De Otio 6.3
Today is the release of the first column in a series called Pasts Imperfect, a partnership with the LA Review of Books, edited by Sarah E. Bond, Nandini Pandey, and Joel Christensen (and more to come, but see this thread). It is part of a network of publications that hat explore the literature, material culture, reception, art, and pop culture within a global antiquity. Sign up here for the newsletter and more information. Sarah, Nandini, and Joel collaborated on this post.
Appion in Ps.-Clement, Homilies, 6.3.4
“…the egg that Orpheus claims was created, projected from the boundless matter, was born like this: the quadruple matter is alive and all of the endless deep flows eternally but it moves in an unclear war, pouring forth here and there endless incomplete mixtures from one time to another. For this reason, it pulls them back too and then opens wide as if for the birth of a creature that cannot be bound.”
ὅπερ Ὀρφεὺς ᾠὸν λέγει γενητόν, ἐξ ἀπείρου τῆς ὕλης προβεβλημένον, γεγονὸς δὲ οὕτω· τῆς τετραγενοῦς ὕλης ἐμψύχου οὔσης, καὶ ὅλου ἀπείρου τινὸς βυθοῦ ἀεὶ ῥέοντος, καὶ ἀκρίτως φερομένου, καὶ μυρίας ἀτελεῖς κράσεις ἄλλοτε ἄλλως ἐπαναχέοντος, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο αὐτὰς ἀναλύοντος τῇ ἀταξίᾳ, καὶ κεχηνότος ὡς εἰς γένεσιν ζῴου δεθῆναι μὴ δυναμένου…
The poet and classicist Anne Carson has an essay that sticks like maple syrup to your subconscious, called “Essay on What I Think About Most.” She begins the poem by addressing the idea of the error and what we can learn from it by dissecting a bit of poetry from Alcman of Sparta, a Greek lyric poet from the 7th century BCE.
ὥρας δ᾿ ἔσηκε τρεῖς, θέρος
καὶ χεῖμα κὠπώραν τρίταν
καὶ τέτρατον τὸ ϝῆρ, ὅκα
σάλλει μέν, ἐσθίην δ᾿ ἄδαν
οὐκ ἔστι. Athenaeus 416d
[made?] three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not (trans. Carson)
Carson notes that the verb in Alcman’s laconic rumination on hunger seems to have no subject. She addresses whether this was a grammatical mistake caused by transmission and fragmentation; a way modern philologists can scrub away “errors” of the past. “But as you know, the chief aim of philology,” she says, “is to reduce all textual delight / to an accident of history. And I am uneasy with any claim to know exactly / what a poet means to say. So let’s leave the question mark there “
The lack of any punctuation is the kicker there. The absence does more work than any ellipsis or period ever could. Carson demonstrates how, for her, Alcman “sidesteps fear, anxiety, shame, remorse” connected to mistakes in order to engage with a truth:
“The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection.”
And that is in part what the first column of Pasts Imperfect argues for in addressing the construction, impact, and harm of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth: the need to embrace the mess and variants of the past. To do this, we must also situate the “classical” Mediterranean within a global antiquity.
What is Pasts Imperfect? It is a column and a space for commentary, reviews, essays, reflections, statements, and any other words needed to help us negotiate between the past and our present world. We talk about pasts because antiquity isn’t just one land, timeline, or narrative; it is multiple and multiplied by the perspectives we bring to bear on it. Our Pasts are not just Greek, Roman, and Mediterranean; they are not just elite, white, and male. The past includes these people and perspectives, but also those who were silenced or left behind: the people, the languages, and the histories in or beyond the margins.
Imperfect is about value and aspect. We acknowledge that the past is far from perfect and we study antiquity to help us understand ourselves and the causes of things, not to render fictive, to emulate, or to praise simply because something has been praised before. To be human is to be imperfect; to love as a human is to love imperfectly. Our studies of the past and ourselves must honor and inhabit such complexities.
Imperfect is also about incompletion. We see the study of the past as a process that is ongoing and never truly done: each generation, each embodied person, each new perspective contributes to challenging what we think we know about what has come before.
Pasts Imperfect seeks to bring critical and transparently progressive reflections and scholarship on antiquity to a wider audience. It is a column, a space, and a developing network for those who want to engage in challenging discussions about antiquity, its construction and reception in scholarship, and its impact on the modern world. As our editorial college and paid writer-network begins to expand and to take pitches, we hope to venture into a more global understanding of the past while also making space for imperfection.
Plutarch, On the Affection Offspring (Moralia 496b)
“There is nothing so imperfect, helpless, naked, formless, and unclean as a human being glimpsed at the moment of birth, someone to whom nature has not even given a clear path to the light.”
οὐδὲν γάρ ἐστιν οὕτως ἀτελὲς οὐδ᾿ ἄπορον οὐδὲ γυμνὸν οὐδ᾿ ἄμορφον οὐδὲ μιαρὸν ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐν γοναῖς ὁρώμενος· ᾧ μόνῳ σχεδὸν οὐδὲ καθαρὰν ἔδωκεν εἰς φῶς ὁδὸν ἡ φύσις…
Please reach out to anyone of the editors if you want to collaborate or pitch a story idea. We are working to help place essays in several different venues. See also the Public Books Antiquities Section, edited by Stephanie Wong and Sarah E. Bond and sign up for the newsletter to learn more.