Maddeningly Fragmentary

Sappho

Sappho

One of the greatest poets of the ancient world was Sappho—the only woman, with a voice unmistakably feminine even though so little remains of her work. And everything that remains appears in Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2002).

I have read a number of Anne Carson’s translations from the Greek and love all of them, especially the four Euripidean tragedies collected in Grief Lessons. This is a very different book, four hundred pages of mostly white space. Only a single poem has come down to us in its entirety; as for the rest, we have nothing but fragments.

Yet even in those fragments, we have a soft feminine voice, one with occasionally lesbian nuances:

I would rather see her lovely step
and the motion of light on her face
than chariots of Lydians or ranks
of footsoldiers in arms.

In the following fragment, the lacunae are indicated by square brackets, yet the meaning still comes across:

]of desire
]
]for when I look at you
]such a Hermione
]and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you
]
]among mortal women, know this
]from every care
]you could release me
]
]dewy riverbanks
]to last all night long
]  [

And:

]
]you will remember
]for we in our youth
did these things

yes many and beautiful things
]
]
]

Sometimes, all that Anne Carson has to work with in a single word or two, yet even then something comes across.

If Not, Winter is a quick read, but it leaves a strong impression.

 

 

 

Euripides and Moderation in Love

The Greek Playwright Euripides (480-406 BC)

The Greek Playwright Euripides (480-406 BC)

On the Laudator Temporis Acti website, I ran into two quotes from Euripides which go a long way toward explaining the genius of the ancient Greeks.

From the David Kovacs translation of Medea, lines 627-641, comes these lines:

Loves that come to us in excess bring no good name or goodness to men. If Aphrodite comes in moderation, no other goddess brings such happiness. Never, O goddess, may you smear with desire one of your ineluctable arrows and let it fly against my heart from your golden bow!

May moderation attend me, fairest gift of the gods! May dread Aphrodite never cast contentious wrath and insatiate quarreling upon me and madden my heart with love for a stranger’s bed! But may she honor marriages that are peaceful and wisely determine whom we are to wed!

I am reminded of the truth of this observation from a birthday party I attended many years ago. An acquaintance whom I will not name, in the middle of all his friends, gave his bride thirty pounds of potatoes, one for each year of her life. Their love match had clearly turned sour, and the party broke up early after his shaming of his wife.

The next lines come from Euripides’s Iphigeneia in Aulis, also translated by Kovacs:

Blessed are they who with moderation
and self-control where the goddess is concerned
share in the couch of Aphrodite,
experiencing the calm absence
of mad passion’s sting. In love
twofold are the arrows of pleasure
golden-haired Eros sets on his bowstring,
the one to give us a blessed fate,
the other to confound our life.
I forbid him, O Cypris most lovely,
to come to my bedchamber!
May my joy be moderate,
my desires godly,
may I have a share in Aphrodite
but send her away when she is excessive!

I, too, could have been in this situation had the beautiful young pediatrician I was pursuing had turned around and acceded to my passion. But she didn’t, and I found someone better—though I did go through a few rocky years in the interval.

 

A Pot To Piss In

Greek Reveler Draining His Lizard

Just because they wore togas and spoke Classical Greek, that doesn’t mean that the ancient Greeks were all that high and mighty. One of the more amusing exhibits at the Getty Villa that Martine and I saw yesterday afternoon illustrated a different and more down to earth use for an amphora.

A bibulous reveler is shown urinating into the amphora (or, more technically, a chous) held up by his slave boy while continuing to declaim his sodden oration.

The closer one gets to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the more we see people very much like ourselves. The conditions of their lives were radically different, but they were recognizably human in he same way we are. Read the letters of Cicero or Pliny the Younger and you will enter a whole new world peopled with recognizable characters.

 

Feathered Glory

Roman Statue Depicting Leda and the Swan

Roman Statue at the Getty Villa Depicting Leda and the Swan

Today, Martine and I spent most of the day at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades visiting their collection of ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art. One of the pieces is a statue depicting the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan.

I cannot think of the subject without recalling William Butler Yeats’s poem, “Leda and the Swan”:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

According to Greek mythology, the children born of that rape were Polydeuces and Helen of Troy. The latter was responsible for the Trojan War when she was willingly abducted by Paris (no relation). Her half-sister was Clytemnestra, daughter of Leda’s legitimate husband Tyndareus. She was traumatized by the god’s rape of her mother. And Clytemnestra, of course, murdered her own husband Agamemnon when he returned from Troy. All this makes Yeats’s poem a wry comment on the inter-relatedness of history.

Serendipity: The More Things Change …

Greek Ruins at Agrigentum in Sicily

Greek Ruins at Agrigentum in Sicily

It was the Sixth Century BC, and Phalaris, the Greek Tyrant of Agrigentum, described a voting public not so different from our own:

The people, as a whole, are undisciplined, senseless, unmanageable, very ready to be turned in any direction whatsoever, faithless, fickle, passionate, treacherous, mistaken, a mere useless noise, and easily swayed toward praise and toward anger.

δῆμος ἄπας ἄτακτος, ἄνους, ἄπρακτος, ἑτοιμότατος ἐφ’ ὅ τι ἂν τύχῃ μεταχθῆναι, ἄπιστος, ἀβέβαιος, ὀξύς, προδοτιχός, ἐψευσμένος, φωνὴ μόνον ἀνωφελής, καὶ πρὸς ἔπαινον καὶ πρός ὀργὴν εὐχερής.

The odd thing was that Phalaris is remembered primarily for his cruelty. He built a hollow brass bull in which he roasted his enemies alive. No less a poet than Pindar described his atrocities a hundred years later.

I owe this quote to my favorite source of the thinkers of past times, especially the Greek and Roman classics, namely: Laudator Temporis Acti.

“It’s Just Catastrophe”

Canadian-Born Poet Anne Carson

Canadian-Born Poet Anne Carson

Some day, if you feel like reading some great ancient Greek tragedies, I recommend you try to find a copy of Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons. She takes four relatively little-known plays by Euripides and turns them into wonderful poems in English, such as the following:

Come here, let me share a bit of wisdom with you.
Have you given much thought to our mortal condition?
Probably not. Why would you? Well, listen.
All mortals owe a debt to death.
There’s no one alive
who can say if he will be tomorrow.
Our fate moves invisibly! A mystery.
No one can teach it, no one can grasp it.
Accept this! Cheer up! Have a drink!
But don’t forget Aphrodite–that’s one sweet goddess.
You can let the rest go. Am I making sense?
I think so. How about a drink.
Put on a garland. I’m sure
the happy splash of wine will cure your mood.
We’re all mortal you know. Think mortal.
Because my theory is, there’s no such thing as life,
it’s just catastrophe.

And here is a kind of prose poem from the February 25, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books entitled “What To Say of the Entirety”:

What to say of the entirety. The entirety should be smaller. Small enough to say something about. Humans. What if the guy you’re hanging up by this thumbs already has a razorplague of painapples roaming his chest inside. Do you regard that as his own fault? Do you really need to make it worse? Do you think of yourself as a well-loved person? Of course these are separate questions. Like dead salmon and coppermine tailings, separate. So these separations, this anesthesia, we should ponder a bit. Humans. What can you control? Wrong question. Can you treat everything as an emergency without losing the reality of time, which continues to drip, laughtear by laughtear? Where to start? Start in the middle (and why?) so as not to end up there, where for example the torture report ended up after all those years of work. You have to know what you want, know what you think, know where to go. New York City actually. Here we are. Trucks crash by. Or was that another row of doors slammed by gods? They’re soaked, the gods, they’ve tucked their toes up on their thrones as if they don’t know why this is happening. Poor old coxcombs.

I’m still trying to get my head around Anne Carson’s poetry … but then, that’s how I know it’s really good!

At the Greek Tailor’s

It’s Greek to Them

It’s Greek to Them

It’s a stupid little joke, but it highlights an important lack in our education. I saw it as a cartoon in a magazine when I was a child. I understood it at once, but only because I had a good classical education.

A man wearing a toga walks into a Greek tailor shop:

Tailor: Euripides? (“You rip these?”)
Customer: Eumenides! (“You mend these!”)

Euripides was, of course, a great Greek tragedian (ca. 480-406 B.C.), author of Medea and eighteen other surviving plays.

But who was or were the Eumenides? Eumenides was the name of a play by Aeschylus in the Oresteia trilogy, which also consisted of Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers.

Another name for the Eumenides is the Erinyes, probably better known as the Furies, Greek goddesses of vengeance, mostly invoked by the gods when someone has sworn a false oath. I believe the Eumenides gave George W. Bush a hard time over “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, from which he is still suffering.

By the time I was in high school, I had read Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way and The Echo of Greece, as well as a number of the Greek tragedies, so I was fairly conversant with classical literature. Now virtually no one reads the works of ancient Greece and Rome, let alone books about them. But that’s where it all began.

If you don’t know your origins, you won’t know where you’re headed.