Saturday, March 31, 2007

Geometric horses

Here are some small, bronze horses from, probably, the 8th century B.C.E. Actual horses were a Very Big Deal to the communities from which these pieces come, and it seems likely that their representation here is meant to capture or convey something about the extraordinary power and value of horses. That power is likely—I don’t know—to derive from a combination of the natural beauty and desirability of actual horses. To possess a horse was to possess status and, one assumes, power. The aesthetic sense here, however, is conveyed by means of abstraction and bare essentials.They look like horses--they are horses--yet they are hardly realistic. They are more about "horsiness" in a Platonic sense than about any particular horse. They are small--hand-size--and probably served as votive offerings

Look at them. Their thighs are immense, their withers robust, their tails elegantly yet absurdly long, their heads held in a characteristic quizzical manner conveying interest and personality, and their parts are fitted together with the most delicate articulation. They have no bodies to speak of. Yet I am sure they were the occasion of much reverent speech by their proud owners and dedicators. The gods, we can only assume, would have been grateful.

Monday, March 26, 2007


What is it that attracts the eyes of those who behold a beautiful object, and calls them lures them towards it, and fills them with joy at the sight? ... Almost everyone declares that the symmetry of parts towards one another and towards the whole, with, besides, a certain charm of colour, constitutes the beauty recognized by the eye, that in visible things, as indeed in all else, universally, the beautiful thing is essentially symmetrical, patterned. –Plotinus, Enneads, I, 6 1, Translation by S. MacKenna, with slight changes by Gisela Richter from her Handbook of Greek Art)

Plotinus, a 3rd Century CE philosopher who wrote in Greek and lived in Alexandria, is considered the founder of Neoplatonism, which was an important and influential approach to the Classical philosophy of Plato and others, eventually influencing both Christianity and the Renaissance, particularly Renaissance artists. We need not dwell on the isms here, but we should recall the idea that we are drawn to beauty by its patterns and symmetry, and in particular by the way parts relate to parts and to the whole. Even if we do not subscribe to this notion of beauty, and there is no particular reason why we should, the idea can help us to see, firstly, that works of art are composed of parts, that the parts relate in some fashion to each other, and that they relate also to the whole - even if the whole, in our experience of it, is fragmentary - and that something about the patterning and arranging of parts will involve how some elements or features are parallel with others, often in symmetry or balance (or, conversely, asymmetry and imbalance). Parts relate to other parts when they are juxtaposed, when they are similar for some reason, and when they contrast with each other.

It has to do, then, with the nature of the relationships that make up the composition, and also, significantly, with the nature of the relationships (in figurative art) between the work and the model represented - art and reality -and, of course, with the relationships we, ourselves, create with the work itself - art and us. We are not just looking, then, but exploring, and our exploration takes place both across the physical object and through the abstract nature of the its composition.

And so, or, hence, to the question of art generally. What is it? No answer here. Where does it come from? From us. Why? I expect that, like many things, there is an answer to be found in our evolutionary background - not that I can identify anything further than that. There is something about talent, skill, and ability as such that we admire and wish to preserve, to encourage, in ourselves and in others. As Oscar Wilde said, The only excuse for creating something useless is that one admires it intensely.Whether the talent is for mimicry, making food, running fast, telling stories, or anything else matters less, I think, than the fact of the talent itself, and how it makes people feel to indulge it, both as creators and as consumers or audiences. Also, a talent for creating something that makes another sort of world, a virtual reality, is likely to be adaptive because of its useful and pleasurable qualities.

How does this tie in with the patterns and symmetries of Plotinus? Our own bodies are patterned and (more or less) symmetrical. Works of art that skilfully recreate a sense of pattern and symmetry, whether it is based on our bodies, on our perception of our bodies, or on our perception of the world in which our bodies function, is likely to make more sense if it derives from a patterned and symmetrical sense which we can, in Wilde's words, admire intensely. The work, whatever it is, becomes patterned by our response to it, as we make it and as we engage it, and a sense of symmetry derives, if from no other place, than from the relationship between it and us, back and forth.

Greek Art

The Aphrodite of Knidos, to our left, ladies and gentlemen, is, of course, one of the glories of any age. It was well described by Kenneth Clark, concerning which, more later. For now, just note the cunning contrapposto, that weight shift that results from placing our weight on one leg and relaxing the other, identifiable here by the sweeping curves on her right side and the very gentle curves on her left.

I think that an encounter with Greek art, and with Classical architecture generally, makes eminent good sense. However brief the encounter, it is likely to be memorable, and is likely to help us to see things better, even things that are far removed from the Classical world.

Here is a passage I enjoy for its exuberant listing qualities. Its approach both describes and is determined by the aesthetic qualities found in Greek art, so there seems to be something reflexive about it.

from Masterpieces of Greek Art by Raymond V. Schoder, S. J (New York Graphic Society Greenwich, CT) [Paragraph bullets added for emphasis]

“Throughout its long history and successive developments, Greek art retained an essential unity of character that kept it Greek. To a different degree and with varying emphasis in each period, Greek art was consistently marked by a special combination of qualities:

  • directness and objectivity;
  • a naturalness which makes it easy for all men of any era and culture to understand and enjoy it;
  • an unexaggerated realism which shuns the esoteric and restrains the elements of allegory and symbolism that occasionally tempt it;

  • a sure instinct for beauty, which is found in rational comprehension of intrinsic pattern, proportion, symmetry, the intelligible form radiant in its clarity and meaningfulness;

  • an honest delight in the beauty found, which is esteemed for itself and as an inspiration to noble use of the mind;

  • a love of clarity, simplicity, relevance, and an insistence on seeing the relationships of parts to the whole and of the art object to reality in the large;

  • a search for universal significance in things, their unchanging essence and nature beyond the limits and inadequacies of the particular—things as they should be, not just as they are;

  • a sane idealism, emphasizing what is most admirable, most true, most humanly uplifting in things, rather than their defective, sordid, or merely ordinary aspects;

  • a pervasive humanism of outlook which finds man and his nobler qualities the chief element of interest, with Nature and the animal world significant mainly in their relationship to man and his needs;

  • spontaneous, unforced motivation in producing art objects which are an authentic expression of the feelings and the vision personally experienced by the artist, and therefore without posing or sham;

  • and a remarkable agility of mind, alert to all human experiences and their significance, quick to learn, progressive, imaginative, always driving to perfection of technique, abhorring carelessness and stagnant conventionalism, always vital, energetic, creative, alive.

  • The result is an art which is eminently sane and constructive, of lasting human value, by nature ‘classic’ and of universal worth.

Such an art surely has claims on our attention today. As an historical fact, Greek art has been a major formative element of Western culture, and is still a vitalizing force within our intellectual life. It has to be known—extensively and accurately—if we are to understand ourselves as heirs of Western civilization. It is a major instrument of liberal education, which our technological age especially needs to cultivate if we are to keep our balance and our human pre-eminence over the machine. But more than all this, Greek art is a continuing potential source of refined esthetic delight” (Schoder, 12-13).

So. Schoder's approach is what you might call old-fashioned, or, even, fuddy duddy. I like it, as I say, because of its clarity, its good sense, its, well, classic features. It is not why I teach this stuff in classes, or just why I enjoy the art myself, but I do not, on the other hand, find myself in opposition.

I do want to recommend another approach, by another quite different sort of scholar. I will not quote from her, but here is the link:

Course lectures by Prof. Francesca Tronchin in her Greek Art & Archaeology course (HA522) at The Ohio State University, Winter 2007. Tronchin has done the amazingly useful service of putting her lectures on mp3 files we can listen to or download. She is a good and lively lecturer whose lectures are both scholarly and enjoyable. I do find it a tad annoying that every time you visit the page you get to listen to the latest lecture, but you can easily download these lectures and listen on your ipod or whatever. Not owning an ipod myself, for me its whatever.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Archilochus, c. 710 - c. 676 BCE

Yes, I serve the God of Battle.
But I also serve the Muses
And receive their lovely gifts.

Archilochus is recognized as the first lyric poet in the West. He seems to have invented a distinctively new style of poetry that is primarily concerned with the immediate here and now, presented in (by) the first person, and concerned with personal feelings. The two major figures who come before Archilochus in early Greek literature are Hesiod, who wrote about the gods, and, of course, Homer, who wrote in epic style of a society in which the myths heroic men, in the company of somewhat less heroic gods, perform important actions in war and pursue grand deeds for worthy and meaningful ends. Archilochus, by contrast, while he keeps the Homeric themes of war and battle, writes about contemporary people and events with the focus on things that are right before him rather than in some distant past, and with a genuine personality. It has been claimed that he invented, if not lyric poetry itself, the “I” of the lyric.

The classicist Hermann Frankel writes:

Archilochus decisively seizes upon the first and nearest data of the individual: the here, the I. The glitter of the highest, the greatest, the most powerful, before which all the world stands in longing and admiration, means little to him in comparison with the relatively modest success of a man in Thasos who kindles his personal and as it were intimate hate. World history pales in the face of what goes on in our own street. At that time the rich Greek city of Magnesia in Asia Minor was overrun and plundered by the savage Cimmerians. The catastrophe must have made a deep impression in the Greek world; but Archilochus, who fought and suffered on Thasos, declared...: “I pity Thasos’ suffering, not Magnesia’s.” Archilochus falls back upon his own life and abandons all forward positions. He cares not what others may think of him...:

If, Aesimedes, you will attend to the gossip of others, then you will find in life not very much to enjoy.

It seems as if Archilochus did find much in life to enjoy, but it is also certain that much of what we think we know about him comes from the gossip of others and uncertain interpretations; we are never quite sure just who is speaking in his poems. Is it the voice of Archilochus the actual, historical man? How much can we infer about the man from what he says? Various different interpretations of Archolochus’ lyrics are possible, but since most are fragmentary, they are at the same time exceedingly difficult and, yet, quite open. We are free to get to know this guy without having to know a lot of stuff we just don’t, or can’t.

It is tempting, and it is easy, to listen to the voice of Archilochus speaking across the ages and ascribe it to Archilochus himself, the real person, and so glean from these fragments presumed aspects of his character and temperament. It is also enjoyable because he is a compelling character. It may or may not be a valid approach to his work, however. It is certainly possible to read a character into the voice that produces the aphorisms, fragments, and brief poems attributed to Archilochus. Since it is not possible to say for certain if the poet speaks in his own voice, we may regard it as a convenient fiction. Indeed, his sort of convenient fiction has been a source of much interpretive scrutiny throughout the history of lyric poetry. In fact, in some ways the sense that we are listening to an I who is another (a delightful observation from Rimbaud)

If Archilochus did indeed invent the “I” of lyric poetry, he stands at the head of a long and incredibly inventive line of poets--which includes Sappho, Catullus, Horace, and, from them through all, or mostly all, of first-person lyric poetry in the Western tradition, through Dante, Petrarch, Ronsard, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, These poets can all be found in something Archilochus gets started, the character speaking (performing, writing) his poems, or her poems--much as a dramatist creates characters, gives them names, and situates them within some action depicted on stage. Even when poets name themselves in this genre, as both Catullus and Sappho do, however, in writing poetry they write in a mode that is best defined as if. Personal revelations per se are rarely poetic; in fact, as we all know, they tend to be trite, often surprisingly dull (except to analysts, I suppose) and quite commonplace. Spilling your guts seems to be how--or why-- clich├ęs were invented--not poetry.

Poetry, on the other hand, takes that stuff—the kind of stuff we think and say about ourselves and others, and other things—and heightens the language, makes it far more expressive, more absorbing or penetrating, and more memorable than ordinary language. What we find in Archilochus, and what lyric poets since then have been especially good at, is the creation of a character through a voice written down and performed in poetry. These characters tend to be interesting--even compelling. They may remind us of ourselves, or others. The character begins not with flesh and blood, unless it would be our own, but with words. In the case of Archilochus the lyric poet, we can only speculate about how his songs were first heard, and used. The lyre, of course, is a stringed instrument, and so lyric poetry was sung or chanted with accompaniment. But much of what we call lyric poetry, even from this Archaic Age, was choral music, or accompanied by flutes and other instruments. We keep the term “lyric” to mean poetry in a personal voice that uses “deictics,” which those parts of language that situate the speaker and the audience in the here and now. This is a marvelous fiction—think of how a singer like Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra can make you feel they are for real.

Scholars are not entirely certain when Archilochus lived, but they can point to his poem about an eclipse and suggest that it may be used to help date the poem--presumably he was alive during an eclipse so we can guess when he flourished. It appears that the poem here under the rubric Eclipse might have referred to an actual eclipse either on March 14, 711, or April 6 of 648 B.C.E. There is some sixty years wiggle room here. Then again, it is conceivable that Archilochus never actually saw an eclipse but, like many writers, wrote of what he heard or read from others. He was born in Paros, an island in the Cyclades in the middle of the Aegean. His chronology, the books say, looks something like this: he was born possibly around 680, not long before Gyges invented the coinage of money in Lydia off on the mainland of Asia Minor; some twenty years later he could have joined the campaign to Thasos, where his father (or grandfather?) had been an early colonist; he may have died around 640 in battle against Naxians. Not much.

For centuries Archilochus seems to have been almost as popular and as admired a poet as Homer, but today we can only see glimpses of his poetic talents. His work exists in fragments; these are principally from quotations found in the work of later authors, or scraps of papyrus found during archaeological digs and subsequently (and with great skill and patience) reconstructed. He was both a soldier (engaged in colonial wars in Thasos, his name means “First Sergeant” and may be a nom de plume, as it were) and a poet. At some point, perhaps after his death, he acquired the reputation of a belligerent antagonist who used his iambs (a verse meter associated with invective) to attack others. In one legend (true? untrue? who can say?) his intended marriage to Neoboule was denied by her father (perhaps because his parents were unmarried? Or were they?) but his stinging attacks on them subsequently led the entire family to commit suicide. Wasps were reported to nest by his tomb.

Here is an example of how we come to know a poem of his. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric we read:

With regard to the “character” in which a thing is said, since there are some things which if you said them of yourself would be invidious or tedious or provocative of contradiction, and if you said them of another would be slanderous or impolite, such things should be put into another’s mouth, as is done by Isocrates in the Philip and in the Exchange, and by Archilochus, who in his censure makes the father speak of the daughter in the iambic poem:

There is nothing in the world unexpected, nothing to be sworn impossible nor yet marvelous, now that Zeus the Father of the Olympians hath made night of noon by hiding the light of the shining Sun so that sore fear came upon mankind. Henceforth is anything whatsoever to be believed or expected. Let not one of you marvel, nay, though he see the beasts of the field exchange pasture with the dolphins of the deep, and the roaring waves of the sea become dearer than the land to such as loved the hill.

and makes Charon the carpenter speak in the Iambic poem which begins

I care not for the wealth of golden Gyges, nor ever have envied him; I am not jealous of the works of Gods, and I have no desire for lofty despotism; for such things are far beyond my ken.

This is how we get much of the work we have, when some learned person--though not usually as distinguished a commentator as Aristotle--needs to make a point and calls upon some well-known author to help him make it. The point Aristotle is making should not be lost, however: Archilochus uses the voices of others, even when you hear him say “I.”

We may know almost nothing of his life, but his poems--some of the short ones may not be fragments at all but, rather, aphorisms--make excellent reading and give strong hints of dramatic character. Even from reading these fragmentary forms--and in translation--a personality, temperament, and voice do emerge, and they create in our minds a distinctive, recognizable individual. Whether they conform to the real person who wrote the poems or not is of course irrelevant and unknowable. Poetry is, after all, a fiction. What matters is what we think matters. As with other lyric poets, about whom we know more, one may perhaps ultimately read through the fiction to some understanding of the author as a human being--like me.

Hugh Kenner in the preface to Guy Davenport’s translations published in Poetry calls Archilochus

a contemporary poet...He has been made possible by our ability to engage the imagination with the pragmatic, by our renewed pleasure in the laconic and the expletive functions of language, and by our present willingness to assimilate those pleasures into our notion of Hellenism.

The idea of flux in human affairs is important in Archilochus, who portrays humans as living in a rhythmic world, with ups and downs, all immediately available to the senses. It is raw, energetic stuff, and out of it emerges much of our notion of masculinity itself. It is a masculinity that takes much from aggressive, military, and erotic maneuvers. If Archilochus presents an archaic view of women as, one might say, sex objects, he is actually quite frank--in the modern sense--about sex and sexual relationships generally. What seems to be his general penchant for cowardice and womanizing which, if not Homeric, is immediately recognizable in (for example) the Maverick of television or the Flashman of MacDonald Fraser’s comic historical novels.

In one of the few books devoted mostly to Archilochus, Frederick Will says:

We don’t know what his poetry sounded like. We don’t really know to what kind of background his lyric pieces were performed. We don’t know how religious he was being when he made his various allusions to the cruelty of the world; they could have sprung from a god-filled or from a godless mind. We don’t even know when he was being funny. (p. 1)

But as we read we make a lot of it up. If scholars wish to read poems as clues or indices to the times and the thought of an era, it is also possible for mere readers of poetry to read for simple enjoyment. And reading Archilochus can be immensely enjoyable. We find here a poet with an attitude. Much has been made of his anti-heroic discarding of his shield during one of his battles.

I left my poor shield--
What a good shield that was!--
Behind some shrub.
A Saian exults with it now.
But, I did save myself.
So, why should I grieve
For that particular shield?
It's gone, and good riddance!
I'll get me another.
It's just as well.

No one in Homer’s epics would have done such a thing, or certainly would have never boasted of it later. It is said that when the stern Spartans heard of the poem they issued a decree banning Archilochus from entering their state. (We have no word how he took this news.) But it is a striking image, a mini-narrative, that catches the imagination. Other poets in the Greek and Roman tradition, including Horace, claim also to have left their shields behind in battle. It may be coincidence--shields were heavy--it may also be a topos, or traditional turn of phrase, which became a way of paying homage to this marvelously self-revealing--and self-deprecatory--poet.

Critias the Sophist, a politician during the Peloponnesian wars (centuries after Archilochus lived) refers to this self-deprecatory quality:

Critias raises the objection, against Archilochus, that he was his own worst slanderer. “If,” as he says, “Archilochus had not spread this opinion of himself among the Greeks, we would never have known that he was the son of Enipo, a slave woman, nor that he left Paros from poverty and indigence, and so went to Thasos, nor that upon arrival there he alienated himself from those people, making light of friend and foe.” “Furthermore,” he says, “we wouldn’t even know that he was an adulterer, if we didn’t have it from him, nor that he was unbridledly, even indecently, sensuous, and, worst of all, that he threw his shield away. Archilochus was no good testimony to himself, leaving that sort of slander and scuttlebutt behind him.” Reproaches raised not by me, notice, but by Critias. Critias fr. 44 in Aelian, Varia Historia, X 13.

But then, maybe he never did throw his shield away. Maybe he just made it up, for convenience, or a joke, or because he had some character in one of his stories tell the tale. We just don’t know.

Thetis Rising from the Sea

This marble bas-relief is called Thetis Rising from the Sea, by Thomas Banks (1735-1805) in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. My students like this one a lot. It is pretty easy to see what is going on here, and is pretty easy to describe.
Then Achilles gave a loud cry and his mother heard him as she was sitting in the depths of the sea by the old man her father, whereon she screamed, and all the goddesses daughters of Nereus that dwelt at the bottom of the sea, came gathering round her. There were Glauce, Thalia and Cymodoce, Nesaia, Speo, Thoe and dark-eyed Halie, Cymothoe, Actaea and Limnorea, Melite, Iaera, Amphithoe and Agave, Doto and Proto, Pherusa and Dynamene, Dexamene, Amphinome and Callianeira, Doris, Panope, and the famous sea-nymph Galatea, Nemertes, Apseudes and Callianassa. There were also Clymene, Ianeira and Ianassa, Maera, Oreithuia and Amatheia of the lovely locks, with other Nereids who dwell in the depths of the sea. The crystal cave was filled with their multitude and they all beat their breasts while Thetis led them in their lament. (Iliad, 18, Butler)

In class I'm always calling attention to the visual qualities of Homer's poetry, but its compelling aural poetry is effective even in English prose. Here Homer prefigures Thetis leading the lament for her son, who hasn't actually died yet. It's like a rehearsal.

Balius and Xanthus

These horses on the Francois vase are doubtless not the celebrated Balius and Xanthus, those proud horses given to Peleus at his wedding by the Earthshaker, Poseidon. But they recall them, in some fashion.
This time we will save you, mighty Achilles,
This time--but your hour is near. We
Are not to blame, but a great god and strong Fate. (Iliad, 20, Lombardo)
Immortal horses. Its a great idea, and the fact that one of them talks makes them even more compelling. In this scene (from the poem, not the vase) Achilles has scolded the horses:
Xanthus and Balius, Podarge's famous colts,
See that you bring your charioteer back
Safe this time when we have had enough of war
And not leave him for dead, as you left Patroclus. (Iliad, 20, Lombardo)

I have to think Achilles is being grimly ironic here, teasing his horses as he might any companions as they head out to battle. Their sudden response (actually, only Xanthus can speak) has a very different tone, which I think must always be the case when immortal horses speak to us. Achilles is not happy with their answer. I think it is a great exchange in showing the gulf between Achilles and these immortal beasts. And I think Kleitias knew from horses.


Down in the water his mother heard him,
Sitting in the sea-depths, beside her old father,
And she began to wail.
(Iliad, 18, Lombardo)

Just as Helen, at every appearance she has, finds a way to talk about herself, Thetis is always mourning the eventual death of her son. She has long since left her mortal husband, and soon will lose her mortal son. But Thetis is best known in art, probably, in representations of her wedding to Peleus, that wonderful feast disrupted by Eris with her golden apple. Since her son is destined to be stronger than his father, Zeus has taken precautions by giving her a mortal husband, the fine, upstanding Peleus. It probably wasn't much of a marriage--he wins her by holding on as she shape shifts aggressively before finally giving in. I like to speculate about their marriage, but not here...

The image above is from the so-called Francois Vase, a volute krater by Kleitias, from around 370 BCE, which depicts the wedding procession at hand. It is characteristic that the Greeks would foreground the splendid physical qualities of their horses. Both horses and chariots were beastly expensive and difficult to maintain, but they were also both useful and attractive. The deliberate and forceful equine rhythms here are most pleasing to the eye.


I should probably have a purpose to this blog, yet I am not sure I can say what it is at the moment. I was going to write about the somewhat odd notion, I think, that I don't care if anyone responds to this blog or not in the comments section. I like to hear from people about things, but that is not why I am doing this. In fact, I am doing it for myself and, I hope, for my students. This blog allows me to speculate about some of the stuff I have taught, or might teach, or am teaching at the moment, share it with students and anyone else who is interested, without getting too invested in procedure.

For example, I'm moving in most of my humanities classes into the final section, on art. I tend to leave things quite open by this point in the course, so I can switch gears if need be, but I will stick to the original plan and go for Greek and Roman art mostly, at least here in the blog.

The plate above is one of my favorites, and Thetis is one of my favorite gods. In the Iliad she is always grieving, but here she is dancing with the fishes, and what wonderful fishes they are! The combination of dance, maritime life, and geometry seems characteristically Greek.

Archilochus' spear

I don't read Greek, so I read translations. I'd like to learn Greek but probably won't. I CAN get enormous pleasure sometimes from comparing differing translations, especially of the lyric poets; you can get so many different versions all on a single page.
To wit, some Archilochus:

By spear is kneaded the bread I eat, by spear my Ismaric
wine is won, which I drink, leaning upon my spear.RICHMOND LATTIMORE

My spear wins bread, my spear wins Thracian wine:
To drink it, on my spear-head I recline. C. M. BOWRA

My ash spear is my barley bread,
My ash spear is my Ismarian wine.
I lean on my spear and drink. GUY DAVENPORT

By the spear my bread is kneaded. With the spear I win
my Ismarian wine, which I drink while I lean on my spear. BARBARA HUGHES FOWLER

I owe my bread to my spear and this Ismaric wine,
which I drink leaning on my spear. DAVID MULROY

In the spear is my kneaded bread, in the spear my Ismarian wine, when I drink I recline on the spear. M. EDMONDS

The many ways this poem can be presented in English--and there are many more, you can compose your own by now even without the Greek--all contribute to our understanding of this terrific work. It has been said--it is easy to say, at least, and I do say it--that Archilochus invents the lyric. If not him, who? Here he is identifying himself, painting his own character portrait in words, using the spear, the bread, and the wine to tell us who he is and what he is like. By his language he becomes a real character. This is a totally different feeling than we get from Homer.

What am I doing here?

I started this blog the other day when my friend Paul asked me if I ever write about things we were talking about. Here is a brief of the topics:
Evan Parker's (sax) Conic Sections
Yoshikazu Iwamoto, the shakuhachi flute--L'Esprit du Silence & L'Esprit du Vent on Musique du Monde
The Long March, 2-cd set by Archie Shepp and Max Roach.
John Cage, Music for Marcel Duchamp, the Freeman Etudes, & the Etudes Australes
Charles Ives' Second Piano Sonata: Concord, Mass. 1840-1860
Lester Young's tenor solo on When You're Smiling with the Teddy Wilson group, vocal by Billie Holiday
Charlie Parker's alto solo on Embraceable You
Coleman Hawkins tenor solo on Body and Soul, 1939
Ben Webster solo on Cottontail, with the Ellington orchestra
Sidney Bechet soprano solo on Shag
Johnny Dodds clarinet solo on Wolverine Blues with Jelly Roll Morton & Baby Dodds
The Armstrong-Hines duet on Weather Bird
The Bix-Tram duet on You Took Advantage of Me, with the Whiteman orchestra

And the ensemble work of the following:
Jelly Roll Morton et al on Black Bottom Stomp
The Eddie Condon gang on Love is Just Around the Corner, in particular the cl solo by Pee Wee Russell,
The Lang-Venuti group on Someday Sweetheart, Beale Street Blues, Farewell Blues, & After You've Gone with Bennie Goodman and Jack Teagarden
To which, Paul: Have you ever written about any of these?

Me: This blog. But I start with Aeschylus since I am just now addressing him in a class. The blog is what it is, a little writing about stuff. So, what do I know...? Not much, as they say, but I do have a fair number of handout texts I have prepared for classes, and some art I can bring up, andits likely to be both a disorganized and an unorganized look at things I am now teaching, have taught, might teach, and that I happen to be looking at when I post to the blog.

So, why did I start out with Aeschylus? Simply because I am thinking about it now.
Here, for example:
Aeschylus' use of language in the Oresteia can be described only as extraordinary. Dense, ambiguous, and experimental, especially in the choral odes, it poses exceptional difficulties for audience and translator alike. His style is rich with striking and often mixed metaphors, vivid imagery, and complex periphrases that sometimes make ordinary events strange and almost inaccessible. The poet invents new words (especially compound adjectives), borrows obscure ones, and fractures ordinary syntax. Long sentences of loosly linked clauses alternate with occasional pithy nuggets of traditional wisdom. Sentence fragments or sentences that shift construction midway abound in the choral odes. (Helene P. Foley, Introduction to Peter Meineck's 1998 translation of the Oresteia from Hackett Publishing Co.)

Foley continues by quoting Anne Lebeck's The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure (Harvard U Press, 1971):
It should be a basic principle in interpreting Aeschylus that when language and syntax are most difficult, the poet has compressed the greatest number of meanings into the smallest possible space. Pursuing the customary methods of classical scholarship one is sometimes tempted to treat ambiguity as if the author were at fault, as if the clarity of normal diction were beyond his grasp. Yet that ambiguity characteristic of Aeschylus is not easy to achieve: it comes about neither by accident or inability, but by design.
Commentaries on the Oresteia sometimes degenerate into arguments about the "right" meaning of passages where wording is enigmatic and meaning multiple. The following approach is here pursued: when argument arises over meaning, the statement that claims to be exclusively right is categorically wrong. The philologist should not restrict himself to a single interpretation of such passages but should give free rein to all possibilities and associations, ultimately selecting as many as form part of a larger pattern and contribute to the meaning of the total work. The linguistic devices by which ambiguity is effected should be analyzed and the significance of the passage then interpreted in light of its obscurity (p. 3).
Ambiguity, I tell my students, is where interpretation begins. If you don't understand something, that's a good place to start--especially if you want to learn more. I would never have them start with Aeschylus--some of what I have been writing about here addresses my decision to teach it or not to teach it. It is just too terrific, too terrible, for most of them in an introductory course. Stick to Homer, the lyric poets, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, that sort of thing.

Which somehow brings me back to why this blog. Those last two sentences of Lebeck's are inspiring.

More on the Oresteia

When I teach the "long, boring stuff with all those funny names," from Homer to Ovid, my students ask me if there is a movie they can watch to help them through. Regrettably, my answer is generally, "No, sorry." And I am sorry. I wish, for example, that Troy had been a better movie, which I could then recommend as an introduction to the Trojan War. Of course, if students substitute the film for the reading, they are likely to be surprised, and disappointed.
I am sorry that the Oresteia has not been filmed--I always find it easier to teach drama with a film so that we can get some sense of how the words and actions are embodied. However, I do not think my students would enjoy it, and I might not even enjoy it myself, as much as I thrill when I read. The imagery itself is so rich and dense, so deep and penetrating, and so vivid, that in this case the language must substitute for most of the visual qualities which might enhance a film of the trilogy. You really do have to listen, or read substantively, for that strange interplay of sense and nonsense to, er, make sense.
If we can imagine the trilogy's first audience, they would have been stunned to locate the watchman on top of the scene building (which itself may have made its dramatic debut with this play). As with da Ponte's Don Giovanni, we open with the impatience of someone waiting through the night--only in this case it has been much longer. Anticipation is built into the scene. The audience would have arrived before the sun, which would be rising as the story commences. I expect the signal fire--lit by a far-off stagehand on one of the Athenian hills in the distance--would have appeared before the sunlight to make best use of the dramatic qualities of light and dark.
Where did that light come from? In pitch darkness
That point--that's new.
Down there, near what must be the skyline,
In the right place! It just appeared!
A flickering point. And getting bigger. A fire! (Hughes)
That might work in a movie, but it is hard to see how much else would be very cinematic. For the most part, the cinematic parts of this trilogy really take place in our minds.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Iphigenia and Artemis

Having brought out the Oresteia, I thought of ways I might illustrate my lecture. Images of Agamemnon, however, are generally, in my experience, uninteresting. An image of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, on the other hand, ought to be a stunner. I am not all that familiar with the standard paintings-Torrelli, Fontebasso, Steen, Houbraken, Testa, Tiepolo -but they don't seem to leap off the canvas. This group, however, does capture something of the scene. This, found in Rome in the Gardens of Sallust and dating to 250-160 BCE (Hellenistic), depicts the version of the myth in which Artemis, who is after all the god of young girls--substitutes a stag for the body of the young girl at the last minute. There is nothing last-minutish about this group; time appears slowed down, and cooled off. The Artemis is a very good bodily portrait of the goddess, collected and virginal, and the graceful diagonal of the exposed Iphigenia is a worthy subject of her attentions.
They hold her over the improvised altar
Like a struggling calf.
The wind presses her long dress to her body
And flutters the skirt, and tugs at her tangled hair-- (Hughes)
The story of the sacrifice is so brazen, it seems to have acquired ambiguities along the way. What makes Artemis so angry? Why would she condone the sacrifice of one of her own? Aeschylus apparently originates the story that Agamemnon himself interprets the signs in such a way as to mean he sacrifice his daughter. I recall as a kid I much preferred the version of the stag substitute, though Aeschylus, clearly, knows better.

More on Aeschylus in class

Just finished reading again the Agamemnon and the Libation Bearers (Choephori)I used Meineck's version since it is the one my students have, and took a few notes in the pages, but will consult the Hughes before I meet class. Boy! These plays fairly shimmer with a deeply resonant elegance. The metaphors--the famous metaphors, celebrated, ubiquitous, commanding--tie it together, drench it in blood, so that each one of them seems to emerge from the depths into a bright sunshine and then drift back to the ooze.
Standard assignments: Describe how the imagery of light and dark functions in the play. Although I think I would know where to begin, finding a way to conclude would tax my energies. Another: Describe how the animal imagery functions in the play. Uhh. I am not sure I like these sorts of study questions, though I might well ask them anyway if I was teaching the whole play, since they do help assure student compliance in the reading assignment. The problem is that you can make the findings, mark them in your text, link them up so that the pattern becomes more visible, but then what do you have? Imagery is likely to be, first, an exciting, thrilling component of our experience in the theater. We aren't (necessarily) searching them out, but rather being shown these vivid glimpses of things that reach deep down--Then the blood belched from him with a strange barking sound (Hughes)--so that they become something like the opposite of decoration.
How can I not teach this next year? Well, I gotta remember, my students will find it pretty challenging, and I may have to spend too much time on the plot itself.

Aeschylus in class

The Oresteia is a tough one. I've assigned it to some of my humanities classes, but after taking the students through two Homers, now that it's time for the Aeschylus I am having second thoughts. I think they may have had enough Greek myth. Instead of having them read the whole thing, I plan to skim gingerly with them over some of the work and then turn to art to finish out the semester.
I chose the Meineck translation, because I like Hackett publishing and because I've enjoyed listening to some of his lectures on Greek myth and Greek drama in the car. But its a tough one, like I 'splain above. I would prefer to teach from the Ted Hughes translation--a poet I am getting to know better and enjoy more after his death. It is, like the Tales from Ovid, done in short lines with good, expressive clarity and poetic power. The Helene Foley introduction to the Meineck translation, though, is good--for my purposes; most of my students look askance at such things; there are no helps or notes with the Hughes work. Here is how Meineck's watchman opens the play:
Gods! Free me from these labors!
I've spent a whole year up here, watching,
propped up on my elbows, on the roof
of this house of Atreus, like some dog.
How well I've come to know night's congregation of stars,
the blazing monarchs of the sky, those that bring winter
and those that bring summer to us mortals.
I know just when they rise and when they set.
So I watch, watch for the signal pyre,
the burning flame that will tell us, Troy is taken.

Meineck always has the theater directly and importantly in mind; he is artistic director of the Aquila Theater, and I am grateful for that. Here is the Hughes version:
You Gods in heaven--
You have watched me here on this tower
All night, every night for twelve months,
Thirteen moons--
Tethered on the roof of this palace
Like a dog.
It is time to release me.
I've stared long enough into this darkness
For what never emerges.
I'm tired of the constellations--
That glittering parade of lofty rulers
Night after night a little bit earlier
withholding the thing I wait for--
Slow as torture.
And the moon, coming and going--
Wearisome, like watching the sea
From a deathbed. Like watching the tide
In its prison yard, and its two turns
In and out.
I'm sick of the heavens, sick of the darkness.
The one light I wait for never comes.
Maybe it never will come--
A beacon-flare that leaps from peak to peak
Bringing the news from Troy--
Victory! After ten years, Victory!

I prefer Hughes' version, with its sharp beacon flare that leaps from peak to peak, and the cries of victory after ten years waiting. Maybe if I was using that text I would be assigning more of reading this time. Doesn't matter. They will get a good introduction to this powerful, astringent work and I am not sorry I added it to the list. Though I will remove it next year. I think students prefer the Gilgamesh, particularly in Stephen Mitchell's translation.

I wonder about how each version opens, with Meinek's having the watchman speak of his own watching--which is, after all, what he does--while Hughes seems to take that for granted and has him turn to indicate that he himself is being watched by the gods.