“Theognis, the Megarian, from the Megarians in Sicily, lived around the time of the 59th Olympiad (544-541 BCE). He composed an elegy for those who were saved in the siege of the Syracusans and an additional collection of 2800 elegiac lines. Some were advice and traditional wisdom addressed to Kyrnos, his lover. All his work was in epic language. Note that Theognis composed useful advice, but mixed in with this are disgusting and pederastic love poems and other topics that a virtuous life turns away from.”
“Here is something from Xenophon’s work on Theognis. “These are the verses of Theognis of Megara. That poet composed about nothing other than human virtue and vice. His poetry is a theory about people, just as if some equestrian were to compose a work about horses. The first principle of his poetry is correct. For he begins by talking about good breeding, since he believed that no person nor any other creature could be good if its parents were not good.
It seemed best to him to use other animals as an example, not those who survive in nature, but those who are tended with skill by humans, to get a view of how creatures turn out best. He is very clear in his poems about this. His lines say that people don’t know how to breed properly with one another and because of this the human race is always deteriorating because the better lines are constantly mixed with the worse. But many other people think that in these verse, the poet is accusing and railing against people who use money to excuse low-breeding and bad behavior. He seems to me to be indicating their ignorance about their own lives.”
“We search for well-bred rams, horses, and donkeys, Kyrnos
And everyone wants to climb atop females from good stock
But an aristocrat doesn’t think twice about the wicked daughter
Of a bad man if her father gives him a load of cash,
Just as a woman won’t refuse a common man as a husband
If he’s rich—no, she wants wealth over nobility.
They worship money. A nobleman marries a commoner’s daughter
And a lowborn child comes from on high. Wealth has ruined class.
So don’t be amazed at how the stock of your citizens degrades
Polypaides—our finer things are all mixed up with the poor.”
“He said this and threw a cow’s hoof with his strong hand,
Once he took it up from where it was lying in a basket.
Odysseus moved while leaning on his head, but he grinned in his heart,
That kind of Sardonian smile. The hoof hit the well-made wall.”
“That kind of Sardonian smile”: A grin at ruin. They say that Hephaestus’ creation, Talon, was placed as a guard by Zeus for Europe to punish those trying to go to Crete. Leaping into the fire and warming them, he grabbed them around the chests. While they burned, he smiled. Some people say that a certain kind of parsley grows on the Island of Sardinia that makes foreigners die while grinning in a spasm. But Timaois claims that they take the elderly of their parents to a hole and throw them into it, and that they smile while dying as if they are happy. Different people claim other things about this. A better take is this: someone pretending a smile in mockery, like a grin, which is an opening of the lips.”
“The people who inhabit Sardinia who are actually from Carthage make use of certain foreign custom also taken up by many Greeks. For they sacrifice to Kronos on certain established nights, not only the best of their warriors, but also those of their elders who are over seventy years old. It seems to be shameful and cowardly for those who are being sacrificed to weep, instead it is noble and brave to welcome and laugh at the end. For this reason, when people force a grin when facing evil, it is called Sardonian. This is Dêmon’s account.”
“Sardinian Laugh”: A proverb used for people who laugh at their own death. According to Demôn it developed from the fact that the Sardinians used to sacrifice the best and the oldest of their captives each year to Cronus as they laughed to display their courage. Timaios, on the other hand, claims that men who had lived a long enough time were in the habit of laughing when they were pushed by their sons into the trenches in which they would bury them. But others claim the saying comes from smiling with devious intent.
Others say—and this includes Cleitarchus—that when they place a small child in Kronos’ hand in Carthage during their most important prayers (a bronze statue is set out with hands stretched out over a cooking pot) and after they light the fire, the boy seems to laugh as he is shriveled by the fire. But Simonides says that when the Sardinians were not willing to hand over Talos—the fabricated man—to Minos, that Talos leapt into the fire, because he was bronze, clutched them to his chest and killed them as they gasped for air.
Silenus argues in the fourth book of his On the Syracusans that there is a sweet plant similar celery which when people eat it they bite off segments of their own faces. There are also some who say that this is to laugh at danger. This is what happens when Homer says that “shining Odysseus grinned sardonically” and in other places,” she laughed with her lips, but she was not pleased under her dark brows”
Epopopoi popoi popopopoi popoi, here, here, quick, quick, quick, my comrades in the air; all you who pillage the fertile lands of the husbandmen, the numberless tribes who gather and devour the barley seeds, the swift flying race that sings so sweetly. And you whose gentle twitter resounds through the fields with the little cry of tiotiotiotiotiotiotiotio; and you who hop about the branches of the ivy in the gardens; the mountain birds, who feed on the wild olive-berries or the arbutus, hurry to come at my call, trioto, trioto, totobrix; you also, who snap up the sharp-stinging gnats in the marshy vales, and you who dwell in the fine plain of Marathon, all damp with dew, and you, the francolin with speckled wings; you too, the halcyons, who flit over the swelling waves of the sea, come hither to hear the tidings; let all the tribes of long-necked birds assemble here; know that a clever old man has come to us, bringing an entirely new idea and proposing great reforms. Let all come to the debate here, here, here, here. Torotorotorotorotix, kikkabau, kikkabau, torotorotorolililix.
The one-hundred-and-thirteen elaborate wooden panels that make up the Damascus Room at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology testify to the immense wealth of the era, at the beginning of the 19th century when wood and ceiling panels adorned the reception room of Damascene houses in Ottoman Syria. A detailed composition of city landscapes, bouquets of flowers, bowls of fruits and Arabic calligraphy was executed around a main framework in which vertical panels, niches, wall closets, doors and windows were integrated, often aggrandized by the use of mirrors in a sophisticated painting technique known as ‘ajamī (Persian). This pastiglia style involved preparation of the wood with a rough white ground layer, followed by more colorful paint layers, underdrawing, transfer of patterns, then followed by application of ornaments, metal leaf and dyed glazes.
Scholar Anke Scharrahs interviewed Damascene artists revealing that knowledge about this intricate painting technique of the 17th and 18th centuries (rich in organic pigments and animal resins) was subsequently lost to modern pigments and European influences. In fact the panels were often washed down, restored and repainted every few generations, therefore only a few original interiors remain in Syria itself, so that the preservation state of the Damascus Room is nothing short of astonishing (only four such interiors exist in the Western world).
But the journey of the Damascus Room to its present splendor took two centuries, and is as protracted as the history of the museum housing it. The Dresden Museum of Ethnology dates back to 1560 with the cabinet of curiosities established by Augustus, the elector of Saxony, and was subsequently transformed into different museums, under different names, as European ideas about culture were being shaped by both science and colonialism.
It was the year 1898 when a German art collector, Karl Ernst Osthaus, known primarily for his interest in the avant-garde movement, traveled throughout the Ottoman Empire, collecting artifacts from bazaars and workshops. But there was one treasure hunt that couldn’t be completed: The search for an Oriental interior. Although he traveled far and wide in all the major cities of the empire, it was to no avail, and at the end of his journey, he passed on the responsibility to the German consulate in Damascus. The consulate in turn assigned photographer Hermann Burchardt to the task, who had been living in Damascus since 1893. A suitable interior was found (dated 1810-11), purchased, disassembled and sent to Germany. Osthaus was then very involved in modern art, so when the pieces arrived at his estate in Hagen, they were kept in an attic and quickly forgotten.
After Osthaus’ death in 1921, the panels were discovered and donated to the Dresden Museum of Ethnology in 1930, and the collections of the museum were about to go on show at the Zwinger palatial complex (dating back to the 18th century Baroque), but the space provided for the Damascus Room proved too small – the surface area of the room is 4 x 5.5 m and 5.4 m high. This mismatch turned out to be a fortunate event, because the room would have been completely destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
Once again forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1997, but by then no one knew how to assemble it together. How do the one-hundred-and-thirteen pieces fit together? Two students from Dresden, Ulrike Siegel and Antje Werner, took up the challenge of putting the puzzle back together, measuring every single piece, meticulously documenting each item and following the number coding written onto the backsides.
But then it needed to be restored. 200 years hadn’t passed in vain, and many of the wooden pieces had been eaten by worms, damaged by dampness, large flakes of paint fell off and the entire thing was covered in dust and mold. A restoration began that wouldn’t be completed until the end of 2019. The following year, in the autumn of 2020, amidst the raging pandemic, as if continuing the trail of oblique historical journeys, it met a peculiar contemporary artistic intervention coming from the place where it all had begun, modern Syria and Turkey.
An installation consisting of colorful glass swallows with their heads tilted downwards, placed on the floor of the lavish room, would tell a story where the different pasts and presents of these interiors would meet: Improbable journeys and the (im)possibility of travel, exile, migration, uncertainty, memory and the feeling of having fallen out of the world, whilst living in the presence of all its traces.
2. Birds Without Wings
Three years earlier, in 2017, Turkish glass artist Felekşan Onar arrived in Berlin from Istanbul with the intention to work at a glass studio, and blow into plaster moulds closed winged birds for her project “Perched”, without knowing at the time its final destination. The wingless swallows with their heads tilted downwards, resembled for Onar, the millions of Syrian refugees stranded in Istanbul, not knowing where to go, or what is going to happen next. In Onar’s words, “Simply perched on sidewalks, like birds without wings”.
This reflection however, was interlocked with an earlier metaphor: She began thinking about the birds after a reading of Louis de Bernières’ novel “Birds Without Wings” (published in 2004); set in the era of population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, in the period following World War First; the novel chronicles an era of intolerance and forced migration, still consequential to this day for both countries.
The plot of de Bernières’ novel revolves around the tragic love story between Philothei, a beautiful Greek woman, and Ibrahim, her Muslim suitor, who loses his mind halfway through the novel after returning from the trenches of war, vividly recounted. The novel is set in the fictional village of Eskibahçe, based upon Kayaköy, a Greek village in the Turkish province of Fethiye, deserted after 1923, when a series of agreements that would define the present-day borders between Greece and Turkey meant the forced migration of all Christian Greeks from Anatolia to the Greek mainland, and Muslims in Greece to Anatolia.
These peoples left behind their homelands, becoming refugees in newly established countries, shattering an ancient multicultural geography. Kayaköy is today a derelict ghost town after many failed attempts of the Turkish government to lure Muslims from Greece to occupy the abandoned houses.
This story was familiar to Onar: Born in the Aegean region of Turkey, in the town of Söke–some hundred kilometers from Izmir, the ancient Greek Anaia, renamed Soka in the Byzantine era–it was impossible for her not to be immersed in the cultural world of the population exchanges: A housekeeper from her childhood, Nazmiye Hanım, had come from Crete to Söke as a result of this population exchange, and often told mesmerizing tales about her homeland in the heavily accented Turkish of a native Greek speaker. Therefore, years later Onar identified Nazmiye Hanım with many of the characters in de Bernières’ narrative.
At the height of the Syrian crisis, Onar saw in these birds without wings, part of “Perched” (there are ninety-nine birds in total), a slow meditation not only on the present circumstances but on the permanent waves of migration and spatial redistribution of peoples that form of the core of Mediterranean history since antiquity.
In the words of Nadania Idriss, the founder of Berlin Glassworks (herself of Syrian background) where Onar completed blowing the swallows, “The pigments and surface texture of each unique sculpture recall the multitude of hues that hold in Syrian daily life; and yet these swallows sit patiently, heads tilted downward as they try to understand the situation that has befallen them.”
It was Idriss who facilitated a conversation with the Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, and as a result the first stop in the journey of the wingless birds was the famous Aleppo Room at Pergamon in 2018. In fact, this might be the most spectacular of all Syrian interiors in the world, dated as far back as the early 17th century, and acquired in 1912 by German orientalist and archaeologist Friedrich Sarre in Aleppo. A conservator at the museum, Anke Scharrachs, then encouraged Onar to connect with other museums in possession of Damascene interiors (Scharrachs was involved in the restoration of the Dresden panels).
And that’s how “Perched” traveled then to the Damascus Room in Dresden, and the year prior, to the Islamic Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A double metaphor grew out of the Aleppo Room at Pergamon with its spectacular colorful panels, laden with rich ornamental fauna, according to Stefan Weber, director of the Islamic Museum: “The lively, colorful peacocks, ducks and pigeons on the wall panels stand in almost oppressive contrast to the small, fragile birds with clipped wings seated on the ground. Not only does the installation resonate with the sad fate of a once flourishing metropolis – now destroyed by the civil war – but it also picks on the reality of Syrian refugees in modern Turkey.”
From ambers, to amethysts and greys and blues, greens and pinks, the iridescent colored glass swallows hint at the archetypal role of birds in the ancient Mediterranean as both messengers and mediators, rather than silent spectators in the drama of mankind.
3. The Debt to the Birds
When “Perched” opened at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology (part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, one of the largest and oldest art and artifacts collections in the world), it was already September 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and it was no longer possible for anyone in Turkey, and not only refugees, to fly anywhere in Europe, so that the metaphor came home to roost: The artist Felekşan Onar was unable to travel for the exhibition.
At the time a monograph about the entire journey of “Perched” was in preparation, which saw the light in December, and was supposed to be launched at the museum, but with the closure of cultural institutions in Germany due to the pandemic this wasn’t possible either. For this monograph, de Bernières contributed a short story, “The Debt to the Birds” (Onar and de Bernières met for a public conversation at the Victoria & Albert), that sets the story and trajectory of Onar’s birds, on a different, much more complex itinerary.
“The Debt to the Birds” is a deceptively simple tale about a boy that was given a gun by his father on a promise: “You must promise me never to shoot a bird that you do not intend to eat, nor ever shoot a man unless you’re at war. Do you promise?” The young boy, like his father before him, was tempted by his father’s words and shot a sparrow, watching it die in the grass. Three years later, he found a young jackdaw with a broken wing, and brought it home to cure it, in order to repay his debt to the birds. The bird healed quickly and became his loyal companion, perched on his shoulder, and then he was instructed by his father to teach it how to fly, at the risk that it might fly away. When it flew off with a posse of jackdaws, never to return, both father and boy thought that they had finally repaid their debt to the birds. The boy became a father and passed on the gun to his son, but yet he did not tempt him by telling him not to shoot the birds.
Distant from the historical world of de Bernières’ “Birds Without Wings”, there happen to be a number of uncanny parallels between “The Debt to the Birds” and Aristophanes’ play “The Birds”, performed in 414 BC at the Dionysia festival in Athens.
These parallels ground the spatiotemporal framework of Onar’s “Perched” in a larger, aporetic logic, allowing the viewer (as if the audience of a live, theatrical performance) to move in between different temporalities, depending not only on the context. The Oriental interiors function here also as a springboard that releases the audience away from the historical context onto a nondescript area, free of allegory and actually also free of debt (I will return to this at the end). They are both are interrogative texts, set specifically against interpretation, by taking place outside any context whatsoever. One couldn’t name a specific timeframe in which the events unfold.
This is in fact an anomaly in Aristophanes’ surviving plays, and by all means an innovation, although it is written in the conventional style of old comedy. “The Birds” contains no direct reference to the Peloponnesian War, and hardly any references to Athenian politics (although much has been theorized about political allegory in the play), and in the manner of Aesop’s Greek tales, it is set in remote, but undefined times.
In “The Debt to the Birds”, there are two oblique references to war, ‘never shoot another man unless at war’ in the promise, and the father having been a soldier himself. But we know nothing about when or where the events take place. There seems to be a search for redemption in both texts which ultimately fails, by means of different strategies: In Aristophanes, the conclusion of the play is the instauration of a human-led tyranny after the defeat of the gods, and in de Bernières a potential cycle of return to debt with the birds.
In the larger scheme of Aristophanes’ play we know that it is a narrative about the foundation of a political community, but in such terms, so fantastic (two elderly Athenians convince the birds to create a walled city in the air, to prevent the aromas of sacrificial offerings from reaching the Olympian gods), that the cloud-cuckoo-land becomes less than a metaphor, offering something alien to the pattern of problem-and-solution of the comic universe, namely, a suspension.
For de Bernières, on the other hand, the smoothed out but always latent cycle of repetition between violence, debt and settlement, indicates a species of non-linear time, more akin to myth than to history. This time out of joint that cannot be put back together, resembles simultaneously the chaotic temporality of the ancients, marked only by events and decay, and the timelessness of Onar’s swallows, head tilted down, waiting and waiting, still at the Damascus Room.
4. Unfamiliar Futures
The resemblances between the ancient comedy and the contemporary tale do not end with the site of temporality. There’s a crucial passage in de Bernières: “The essence of man is to be a prisoner, but the essence of a bird is to be free. A bird shows no passport at the borders. It pays no taxes. A bird has no pockets and when it dies it has no shroud.”
Not only is this passage immediately connected to a key fragment in his novel “Birds Without Wings” (“Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows”) but also to Aristophanes’ play, when the starring humans, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, ask the Hoopoe, formerly King Tereus who metamorphosed into a bird, what is it like to live with the birds? The idea of a utopian, moneyless, political community, resonates strongly in both authors, and the impossibility to realize this fantasy reveals in its aporias a tension that remains without offering resolution.
Aristophanes, Birds, 154-161
I would not be Opuntian for a talent. But come, what is it like to live with the birds? You should know pretty well.
Why, it’s not a disagreeable life. In the first place, one has no purse.
That does away with a lot of roguery.
For food the gardens yield us white sesame, myrtle-berries, poppies and mint.
Why, ‘tis the life of the newly-wed indeed.
Yet, the most interesting parallel between them, concerns the antiquity of birds, thus, once again, the question of the origins and new beginnings (and therefore of foundations) returns. In “The Debt to the Birds”, the father explains to the boy, “Did you know that dinosaurs are not extinct after all? We were all completely wrong. They’re beginning to think that the little dinosaurs survived, so now we have lizards and amphibians, and birds […] We look out of our windows and see the trees full of little dinosaurs!”
The story continues later, with a moving passage on the boy: “That evening the boy sat his jackdaw on its perch and looked into its face. He recognized the extreme antiquity of its being, and said to it ‘Your soul is millions of years more ancient than mine. My soul is young compared to yours.’ The bird looked back into his eyes and shook its wings a little, just as fledging does when hoping to be fed.” And furthermore: “That evening the boy repeated to the bird on its perch in his bedroom ‘Your soul is more ancient than mine.'”
In these apparently innocuous passages, de Bernières is enlarging the historical space of Onar’s birds, breaking down the repetitive cycle of timelessness: Trapped inside an infinitely expanding present, these refugees moving across the world, but particularly visible in both Turkey and Germany, cannot articulate stories that narrate either past or future; they’re rooted in the presentism of despair that quickly devours the future as a temporal index, while at the same time not being entirely free from the immediate past. All recollection is fragmented. These birds, caged by traumatic events, acquiesce to a type of memory-work, structured by repetition and transitoriness, rather than a series of checkpoints in reality to orient yourself in the world.
The introduction of a primeval consciousness of time, a time before time, of unquantifiable properties, preceding the uniformity of historical experience, opens up a dialogue between de Bernières and Aristophanes, on a crucial passage from “The Birds”. In the one-sided agon of the play (there’s no antagonist, and the formal argument is constructed around convincing an already eager audience) a political cosmogony is laid out, by means of which the realization of a utopian city in the sky acquires legitimacy. The birds are now endowed with a new, previously unknown, master narrative. Enlarging the past works here in two directions: At first it provides a lasting consciousness of duration by probing the depth of origin, and then, it brings out an invented, alternative future, on which the past itself can be re-inscribed back, without the horizon of continuity losing its template.
Aristophanes, Birds 465-485
By Zeus, no! But I am hunting for fine, tasty words to break down the hardness of their hearts. To the Chorus. I grieve so much for you, who at one time were kings…
Leader of the Chorus
We kings? Over whom?
…of all that exists, firstly of me and of this man, even of Zeus himself. Your race is older than Saturn, the Titans and the Earth.
Leader of the Chorus
What, older than the Earth!
By Phoebus, yes.
Leader of the Chorus
By Zeus,but I never knew that before!
That’s because you are ignorant and heedless, and have never read your Aesop. He is the one who tell us that the lark was born before all other creatures, indeed before the Earth; his father died of sickness, but the Earth did not exist then; he remained unburied for five days, when the bird in its dilemma decided, for want of a better place, to entomb his father in its own head.
So that the lark’s father is buried at Cephalae.
Hence, if they existed before the Earth, before the gods, the kingship belongs to them by right of priority.
Undoubtedly, but sharpen your beak well; Zeus won’t in a hurry to hand over his scepter to the woodpecker.
It was not the gods, but the birds, who were formerly the masters and kings over men; of this I have a thousand proofs. First of all, I will point you to the cock, who governed the Persians, before all other monarchs, before Darius and Megabazus. It’s in memory of his reign that he is called the Persian bird.
Aristophanes, of course, was aware of a double-bind that we have carried over into the modernist imaginary: Cosmogonies are also structures of power and the pendulum can swing in any direction. Narratives can be manipulated as well, as the conclusion of “The Birds” exemplifies, under the new tyranny of Pisthetaerus. But as a mythology of origins, this cosmogony throws the body politic (of the birds) back to a future that is assumed to exist, as if the past had shed light on it (and yet fails).
When Euelpides and Pisthetaerus turned to the birds for help, and yet with a masterplan to create a new city in the sky, what they longed for was more than a political community itself; it was about an impossible political community where utopia and law could coexist. De Bernières subtly touches on this sentiment from the father’s viewpoint: “For us the birds represent all the freedom that we can never have. They give us something to aspire that we cannot reach. And sometimes when you aspire to what you cannot reach, one day after all, you will reach it.”
The long duration translates in de Bernières’ story into a multi-temporality, projected back on the journey of “Perched”: The journey of migrants towards Turkey and Europe contains many other journeys from the past, articulated here through the accumulation of cultural meanings embedded in the glass birds across time, and of which the current predicament is only one among the possible worlds. What emerges here is the possibility of an unfamiliar, yet un-created future, not necessarily the direct consequence of the past.
New foundations and master narratives can be anchored anywhere in the temporal index: It is not only the history of Syrian refugees perched on the streets of Istanbul juxtaposed to the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, but also the arrival of Byzas of Megara in the 6th century BC to found the city that three political orders later would become Istanbul, and the permanent condition of migration that shaped the Mediterranean cultural space since times before time (no less than the modern world) or the long journey of glass since the 4th millennium BC, appearing simultaneously in Syria, Eastern Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, long before it adorned the Ottoman palaces of Istanbul, challenging constantly our ideas about archaeological contexts and mobility networks.
5. Whose Cultural Property?
Yet it is significant that the journey of “Perched” has begun in European encyclopedic museums, and has been decidedly defined by their interiors and galleries. The encyclopedic museum, we recognize today, is deeply rooted in the experience of colonialism and the concept of universal history. This all-encompassing history, with Western mankind at the center, is a politically heliocentric universe, largely flawed, but at the same time, manufacturer of the colonial world-system, which has inflicted infinite violence on large swaths of the Earth.
As large collections of artifacts from all over the world, the Western museums perform what archaeologists Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet, have called in their work, the weaponization of time: The dispossession of both cultural property (in museums) and peoples (at the borders of nation states) is not simply circumstantial or situational, but ontological. Controlling time, by placing objects outside of everyday historical experience, often destroying complex systems and contexts along the way, suspends the temporality of objects under the unfulfillable promise of permanence. But isn’t the most fundamental reflection underlying “Perched”, the struggle of memory against the destruction of richly layered, pluriversal, complex contexts? An answer is difficult to arrive at.
And thinking about birds, is for us, always thinking also about the museum. Most of our knowledge about birds comes from the collections of encyclopedic natural museums, often mediated by the utilitarian beliefs of 19th century social science. Commenting on the 33,000 years old Water Bird in Flight from the Hohle Fels Cave in south-west Germany, carved in stone during the Upper Paleolithic, John Berger made an important remark for our context: “The supposition that animals entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.” Is there an intrinsic relationship between promises and debts?
If we have a debt with the birds, what does this debt consist of? And if de Bernières is correct, and birds do in fact represent freedom, shouldn’t we be free also from debt? Hannah Arendt was one of the first modern thinkers to treat the faculty of making promises with philosophical seriousness, arguing that they help stabilize the world by making it predictable to the extent that it is humanly possible and that the reality of the space of appearances, where concerted power could arise, is guaranteed only by mutual promise or contract.
But it was David Graeber in his monumental anthropology of debt, who made the connection between debts and promises: “A debt is the perversion of a promise.” All human economies have been heretofore based on a system of debt and credit that boils down to trust between peoples, and not to barter as economic historians have chosen to believe. All revolutionary movements in the ancient world were defined by a single program: The cancellation of all debt.
If the crucial question here is the settlement of a debt, could we try perhaps to free ourselves (this was a fundamental argument in Graeber’s work: we can only be free with each other, not from each other) and cancel our debt through a promise? The promise of time, of giving time, of giving time back, another idea I’m borrowing from Hicks and Mallet. What would it mean to give time back in the context of the birds in the Damascus Room?
All of the Oriental interiors in Germany were legally acquired as per extant documentation, and there’s no restitution claim for them as in the case of say the Benin Bronzes or the Parthenon Marbles (Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, recently staged an intervention in Dresden through ‘missing’ posters in the city over one of the Benin Bronzes at the museum) but the question remains whether the grand tour of collecting antiquities in the Near East during the era of the great archaeological discoveries wasn’t embedded in terrible imbalances of power that remain to this day and account for many violent conflicts in the region.
Archaeology has been the main factory of universal history, and as decolonization struggles all over the world inform us, there’s in fact no such a thing as universal heritage, because heritage isn’t a concrete set of parameters for the preservation of a common past, but instead, a notion and symptom of time crises, in order to (re)produce pasts as touristic sites, with the present tense as the boundary event of our world.
Yet there’s something perplexing happening in the journey of Felekşan Onar’s swallows through these stately rooms in Berlin, London and Dresden: The birds, both as metaphor and artifact, imbued with so many blueprints of time, recent and distant, have begun accumulating contexts rather than merely reflecting them. With an eventual journey back from Germany to Istanbul in the horizon (a number of birds have been accessioned to the collection of the V&A Glass Gallery, and the permanent home of “Perched” will be in due course of time at the Dresden collection), they are now also pregnant with unfamiliar, open-ended, contingent futures.
Giving back time to cultural artifacts and peoples means essentially to re-insert them into temporality not only in absolute terms but through the relative durability of institutions and political agency. One can’t help but wonder after a reading of “Perched” through de Bernières and Aristophanes, whether it wouldn’t be possible to create new future-oriented cosmogonies for these artifacts and stories, beyond and outside closed museological systems.
A striking passage in Aristophanes, during the first formal argument between the two elderly Athenians and the hoopoe, brings to mind a poetic spatial metaphor: When Pisthetaerus asks the hoopoe to look up and down and what he has seen, the sky (οὐρανός) the bird says to have seen and the pole (πόλος) of the birds that Pisthetaerus refers to, do not carry identical meaning. The sky is a region of the atmosphere and outer space, a kind of unbounded expanse, whereas a pole, is a vaulted dome, the firmament, that in ancient cosmologies divided the primal sea from the dry land.
This firmament as David Konstan argues, is a bounded space, ‘not everywhere’, which necessarily grounds the utopian city in the sky within the framework of the polis, a community. Pisthetaerus goes on to add that this pole is a place (τόπος), expression which Seferis identifies with a country or fatherland in Mythistorima X. There’s a circumscribed place to stand on, even in the sky.
Aristophanes, Birds, 178-196
What have you seen?
The clouds and the sky.
Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
How their pole?
Or, if you like it, their place. And since it turns and passes through the whole universe, it is called ‘pole.’ If you build and fortify it, you will turn your pole into a city. In this way you will reign over mankind as you do over the grasshoppers and you will cause the gods to die of rabid hunger.
The air is between earth and heaven. When we want to go to Delphi, we ask the Boeotians for leave of passage; in the same way, when men sacrifice to the gods, unless the latter pay you tribute, you exercise the right of every nation towards strangers and don’t allow the smoke of the sacrifices to pass through your city and territory.Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
By earth! by snares! by network! by cages! I never heard of anything more cleverly conceived; and, if the other birds approve, I am going to build the city along with you.
The gift of time that cancels debt, at the heart of “Perched”, is a with-world, beyond the space of appearances and the realm of objects, which according to Sophie Loidolt, in her study of Arendt’s political intersubjectivity, “emerges through our intersubjective relations and which holds all these dimensions of meaning together in one world where we can exist as humans.” The gift is a promise, the promise of multiple meanings embedded in concrete, actual experienced time, looking backwards and forwards, without the grip of the instant. Where’s eternity then?
“Perched” by Felekşan Onar is on view at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology, September 5, 2020 through February 21, 2021 (the museum is currently closed due to pandemic regulations), the monograph “Perched: Felekşan Onar”, published by Paul Holberton Publishing, with contributions by Felekşan Onar, Nadania Idriss, Stefanie Bach, Louis de Bernières, Stefan Weber, Mariam Rosser-Owen and Glenn Adamson, is currently available, in English and German.
Detail from Felekşan Onar’s “Perched”, V&A Museum, Islamic Galleries, 2019. Photo Credit: Daniel Oduntan.
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
Gregory Dobrov, “Aristophanes’ Birds and the Metaphor of Deferral”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall 1990)
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, 2012
Francois Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time”, Columbia University Press, 2016
Dan Hicks & Sarah Mallet, Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond, Bristol University Press, 2019, open access
David Konstan, “A City in the Air: Aristophanes’ Birds”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 1990)
Sophie Loidolt, Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity, Routledge Research in Phenomenology, 2019
Annegret Nippa & Anke Scharrahs, The Damascus Room in Dresden – A Treasure of Ottoman Interior Design in Germany, 2003, online
Anke Scharrahs, “Insight into a Sophisticated Painting Technique: Three Polychrome Wooden Interiors from Ottoman Syria in German Collections and Field Research in Damascus”, in Studies in Conservation, Volume 55, 2010
A guest poem from Andrea Grenadier : “Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor”
The end came quietly somewhere in the middle.
It may have begun at a backyard party
with a backhand comment
whispered away so you wouldn’t hear.
Or maybe it was in the kitchen,
busy with another barbecue or crawfish boil,
that something was said.
Your life was filled with events that stirred
from one to the other in tidy steps,
but soon your songs were barren
of the lyric you believed in before tenderness turned.
You lost your desire for the knowing of it,
and it slipped out the back porch door.
During your casting off,
your eyes were fixed to some other horizon.
In your escape, you left everything.
We sat before your favorite painting
in which Catullus, like the artist,
pinned to an endless canvas his siren-call to sea.
Lowering your head over the sphere of your fists,
and whispering “please,”
you prayed for Catullus, for both of you,
to reach shores without shoals, amen.
You despaired, once through the narrow passage,
that coming upon all that’s seen isn’t knowledge of it.
Windstrong, headstrong, salt-stung, uncleansed, My limbs tired from their labors coursing the dotted lines of ancient sea maps. A bag of wind rips open at Bithynia, and carries me from west to east. I sang odes at my brother’s tomb, and readied my return. Through scalding waves I was raised aloft, my sailors spoke of ports that lay beyond the brilliancies of skies, of seas, and the earth that came to me in my dreams.
They were raised not to talk about it,
but your daughters whispered prayers
to some god other than ours for your safe return.
They came back to you with the knowing of the unknown,
never having replaced you. They were drawn back
with grace enough to forgive whatever it was, but never say.
In their eyes, you never grew old.
You were as the day you left,
the day you slipped out the back door:
lithe, handsome, brave
before everything fell.
Catullus, Carmen 101
“Drawn across many nations and seas
I come to your pitiful resting place, brother
To present you with a final gift at death
And to try to pointlessly comfort mute ash–
because chance has stolen you away from me.
My sad brother, unfairly taken from me.
For now, accept this, the ancient custom of our ancestors
Handed down as the sad gift for the grave,
Given with a flowing flood of fraternal tears
And forever, my brother, hail and farewell.”
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.
By day, Andrea Grenadier is a communications and marketing specialist and editor for a national public health organization based in Washington, D.C. She began writing poems in 2005, and has been published in Pennsylvania English, the literary journal of Penn State University, and Poems of War and Peace, published in Canada, as well as in other journals. She is currently preparing her first chapbook of poems, What Brings Me Here, for e-publication. Andrea lives in Alexandria, VA.
“The building of temples relies on symmetry and architects need to most carefully understand the reason for this. It comes from proposition, which was called “analogy” in Greek. Proportion derives from fixed segments of the parts of the building and the whole—and the balance of symmetry is achieved through this. For no building can have an order in its design without symmetry and proportion, unless it has something like the precise design of a well-figured human body. For nature has so composed the human body that the face from the chin to the top of the brow and the roots of the hair is one tenth of the whole and the palm of the hand from the wrist to the end of the middle finger is the same.
The head from the chin to the top is one eighth and the top of the chest where it meets the neck to the hair’s roots is a sixth. From the middle of the chest to the crown is one quarter of the whole. The third part of the length of the face extends from the bottom of the chin to the base of the nostrils. The nose from the nostril base to the space between the brows is the same. From that line to hair forms the forehead, a third part. The foot comprises a sixth of the body’s height and the chest is a quarter. The other limbs all have appropriate measures too. And ancient painters earned great praise by observing all these measures.
In the same way, the limbs of temples should have proportions of their various parts responding appropriately to the general size of the whole construction. Consider that the navel is the natural center of the body. For, if a person should lie on the ground with hands and feet spread wide and a circle has the navel as the center, fingers and toes will touch the line of the circumference. In addition, a square can be traced within the figure in the same way. For, if we take the measure from the sole to the top of the head and compare to measure to the distance from one hand to another, the lengths will be found equal, just like foundations squared with a rule. For this reason, if nature designed the body so that the parts correspond in their dimension to the whole design, then ancient people seem to have decided with good reason that they should keep in their works the exact proportions of the separate components to the design of the whole. Therefore, they have handed down orders in all of their works, especially in temples to the gods, the kinds of accomplishments whose excellence and weakness persist for generations.”
1Aedium compositio constat ex symmetria, cuius rationem diligentissime architecti tenere debent. Ea autem paritur a proportione, quae graece analogia dicitur. Proportio est ratae partis membrorum in omni opere totiusque commodulatio, ex qua ratio efficitur symmetriarum. Namque non potest aedis ulla sine symmetria atque proportione rationem habere compositionis, nisi uti ad hominis bene figurati membrorum habuerit exactam rationem. 2Corpus enim hominis ita natura composuit, uti os capitis a mento ad frontem summam et radices imas capilli esset decimae partis, item manus palma ab articulo ad extremum medium digitum tantundem, caput a mento ad summum verticem octavae, cum cervicibus imis ab summo pectore ad imas radices capillorum sextae, <a medio pectore ad summum verticem quartae. Ipsius autem oris altitudinis tertia est pars ab imo mento ad imas nares, nasum ab imis naribus ad finem medium superciliorum tantundem, ab ea fine ad imas radices capilli frons efficitur item tertiae partis. Pes vero altitudinis corporis sextae, cubitum quartae, pectus item quartae. Reliqua quoque membra suas habent commensus proportiones, quibus etiam antiqui laudes sunt adsecuti.
Similiter vero sacrarum aedium membra ad universam totius magnitudinis summam ex partibus singulis convenientissimum debent habere commensus responsum. Item corporis centrum medium naturaliter est umbilicus. Namque si homo conlocatus fuerit supinus manibus et pedibus pansis circinique conlocatum centrum in umbilico eius, circumagendo rotundationem utrarumque manuum et pedum digiti linea tangentur. Non minus quemadmodum schema rotundationis in corpore efficitur, item quadrata designatio in eo invenietur. Nam si a pedibus imis ad summum caput mensum erit eaque mensura relata fuerit ad manus pansas, invenietur eadem latitudo uti altitudo, quemadmodum areae quae ad normam sunt quadratae. 4Ergo si ita natura conposuit corpus hominis, uti proportionibus membra ad summam figurationem eius respondeant, cum causa constituisse videntur antiqui, ut etiam in operum perfectionibus singulorum membrorum ad universam figurae speciem habeant commensus exactionem. Igitur cum in omnibus operibus ordines traderent, maxime in aedibus deorum, operum et laudes et culpae aeternae solent permanere.
Archilochus told us, long before Pat Benatar in 1983 AD, that love is a battlefield.
His martial metaphor for love–or rather, for the lover struck down by Eros–is possibly the earliest such which survives. He sketched, for posterity as it were, the battlefield consequences of losing to Eros: inability to stand, lifelessness, wound, and pain:
Archilochus Fragment (193 West)
I lie here wretched with longing,
Pierced through my bones
With bitter pains.
The gods’ doings, this.
By the Hellenstic period, what might have been fresh in Archilochus’ hand was now a well-worn trope.
Here is Rufinus employing the martial metaphor. In his light and clever epigram the lover contemplates resisting Eros, but with defeat a foregone conclusion (and Archilochus having articulated what defeat entails) he simply surrenders:
Rufinus (Greek Anthology 5.93)
I’ve strapped reason around my chest,
Armor against Eros.
He won’t defeat me: it’s one against one,
Mortal engaging immortal.
But, if he’s got Bacchus as his helpmate,
What can I, a man alone, do against two?
<Lemma> his beauty in reputation was not of a kind with his family; Achilles, however, was adorned in both ways. Because [the poet] was a philhellene, he was trying to make everyone worthy of memory and used to praise everyone as far as he might be believed and so that we might imagine the Greeks to be differentiated in their manliness, or their body, or their beauty.”
“Diplai have been applied to question these three lines because Zenodotus athetized two of them, although he did not mark the middle one, (674) because Homer always strove to have Achilles stand out far in front of the rest.”
“And because of that, Homer mentioned [Nireus] only once and in the Catalog Of Ships, as it seems to me, to make a demonstration of the uselessness of the most beautiful men, when they have none of the other things that are useful for life.”
Many-minded immortal Aphrodite,
Child of Zeus, plot weaver, I implore you:
Don’t with vexations and frustrations break
My heart, O queen.
Instead, come here, if ever in past times
From far off you heard, and heeded, my calls;
And quitting your father’s golden palace,
After yoking the chariot. Small birds,
Handsome, swift, bore you across the black earth.
Their fast wings whirred from the upper heavens
down through the middle air.
Quick, their arrival. Then you, blessed one,
A smile on your immortal countenance,
Asked: what is it, this time, that’s happened to me;
Why, this time, do I call;
And what does my crazed heart most desire:
“Whom, this time, must I persuade—
Go out, that is, and bring into your arms?
O Sappho, who wrongs you?
Even if she’s fleeing, soon she’ll pursue.
If she’s refusing gifts, she’ll give them.
If she’s not in love, soon she’ll be in love—
Even if against her will.”
Come this time too. Release me from hard cares.
Whatever my heart wishes to see done,
Bring about. And you yourself, be my ally
In this fight.
In Archaic song, Aphrodite is perhaps most commonly represented as a goddess who sports with mortal hearts, disturbing their peace with amorous suffering. And so it should be something of a surprise when Sappho presents the “many-minded” (ποικιλόφρον’) “plot-weaver” (δολόπλοκε) goddess as genial and helpful.
The unusual picture begs the question, is the judgment of love-mad Sappho reliable?
I say that it is not, and suggest looking at the Sappho-Aphrodite relationship through the lens of the Ajax-Athena relationship in Sophocles’ tragedy, “Ajax.”
For our purposes, what matters in the tragedy is this: Ajax believes the goddess is helping him when in fact she is harming him. She distorts his thinking such that he mistakes heads of cattle for Achaeans who have slighted him, and he proceeds to abuse and kill the animals.
The word most strongly linking Sappho-Aphrodite with Ajax-Athena is “ally” (σύμμαχος). The final words of Sappho’s song is the plea to the goddess to “be an ally” (σύμμαχος ἔσσο) in the fight for love. Ajax himself, blind to the goddess’s deception, exhorts her to “always stand by me as an ally” (ἀεί μοι σύμμαχον παρεστάναι [Soph. Aj. 117]). Athena picks up the word: she tongue-in-cheek describes herself as his σύμμαχος (Soph. Aj.190) while working his ruin.
Ajax does not know that he’s suffered “a god-sent sickness” (θεία νόσος [Soph. Aj. 185]) until he’s humiliated himself. His mad actions, while he was engaged in them, appeared to him the god-assisted fulfilment of his wishes. Athena says, “That man, when he was subject to his sickness / Delighted in his troubles” (ἁνὴρ ἐκεῖνος, ἡνίκ᾽ ἦν ἐν τῇ νόσῳ / αὐτὸς μὲν ἥδεθ᾽ οἷσιν εἴχετ᾽ ἐν κακοῖς ([Soph. Aj. 271-272]). And she encouraged him in this: “I egged him on; cast him into my wicked trap” (ὤτρυνον, εἰσέβαλλον εἰς ἕρκη κακά [Soph Aj. 59-60]).
Sappho is trapped in an amorous cycle whose stations are desire, frustration, and satisfaction. And as the song emphasizes, the cycle repeats. Sappho pursues new loves, always with Aphrodite’s intervention. Sappho supposes the goddess helps her to satisfaction, but the traditions of Archaic song would have it that Aphrodite’s hand is in the animating desire and subsequent frustration too. Tellingly, Sappho does not pray for release from what Hegel might call “the bad infinite” of love. Rather, she prays for Aphrodite to keep her running on the track. Like Ajax, she delights in her troubles.
“I pity him his unfortunate condition” (ἐποικτίρω δέ νιν δύστηνον [Soph Aj. 121-122]), Odysseus says of Ajax. Perhaps that should be our emotional response to the speaker of Sappho 1.
“The best kind of recognition of all comes from the plot events themselves when the surprise comes out of probable events. This is the case in Sophokles’ Oedipus or in Iphigenia. For only these kinds of recognitions can happen without manufactured signs and necklaces. The second best kinds are from logical reasoning.”
So baby Oedisaurus Rex hatches in some alien land. Parents aren’t worried because they’re dinosaurs and they have lots of eggs. Shit, parents might not even know each other any way #DinoMythpic.twitter.com/IJytIKOnCW
“The city is simultaneously full of burning incense
Songs of prayer and lamentations.
Children: rather than unjustly hear this from someone else
I have come here to learn it my self,
The man named Oedipus, known to everyone.”
So we get back to home territory and it is T.Reges mating season, whatever that’s like. Is it more or less likely for a T-Rex to unknowingly know his mother biblically than a human?#Dinomythpic.twitter.com/sZIRM8Ekhk
“…I know this well
That you all are sick, and even though you’re sick
Not a one of you is as sick as I am.
For each of you must face up to a single share of pain
As it comes to you and not another.
But my soul groans for the city, for me, and you, at once.”
Aristotle writes in the poetics "“Narratives ought to prefer likely events, even if impossible, to improbable possible ones. Stories should not be made from illogical parts: in the best case, they should contain nothing illogical"https://t.co/8oA32gBEZypic.twitter.com/GXMzCsfqVi
One of the most iconic images of Oedipus in the 5th century BCE depicts the moment of his interview with the Sphinx. Here is a representative example (Beazley Archive 205372; Gregorian Etruscan Museum, Vatican City, Vat. 16541):
This is the best picture I could manage of the scene (if you are interested, see J. Boardman’s article in JHS 90 (1970) 194-195. This vase features the beast masturbating and ejaculating while the hero looks on and holds his sword. It is dated to the mid-fifth century BCE. (I found it in the LIMC, number 69).
There is a much more tame version of the later, which maintains the phallus, but skimps on the erections and ejaculations. This vase is in the Boston MFA, 01.8036.
Inspired by the essay “Just a Girl: Being Briseis“, I have been reading through more passages about Briseis. In the Iliad, she performs a memorable lament for Patroklos. The much later Posthomerica similarly instrumentalizes her grief and uses her character as a way to amplify the loss of Achilles. Note, however, the really terrible observation of this passage that for a woman in war it can always get worse.
Quintus, Posthomerica 3.551-573
“Of all the women, Briseis felt the most terrible grief
in her heart within, the companion of warring Achilles.
She turned over his corpse and tore at her fine skin
With both hands and from her delicate chest
Bloody bruises rose up from the force of her blows—
You might even say it was like blood poured over milk.
Yet she still shined even as she mourned in pain
And her whole form exuded grace.
This is the kind of speech she made while mourning:
“Oh what endless horror I have suffered.
Nothing that happened to me before this was so great
Not the death of my brothers nor the loss of my country,
Nothing exceeds your death. You were my sacred day
And the light of the sun and the gentle life,
My hope for good and tireless defense against pain—
You were better by far than any gift, than my parents even—
You were everything alone for me even though I was enslaved.
You took me as your bedmate and seized me from a slave’s labor.
But now? Some other Achaean will take me away in his ships
To fertile Sparta or dry and thirsty Argos
Where I will again suffer terrible things working away,
Apart from you and miserable. I only wish that
The earth had covered over me before I saw your death.”