Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Priam Head

The Priam Head, East Pediment, Temple to Asclepius, Epidaurus, perhaps by Hectoridas

This is a fragment from a representation of the sack of Troy, one of those earth-shattering myths for which Homer in the Iliad provides essential background, then going on in the Odyssey to trace some of the personal and political consequences for Odysseus, his family, his crew, his kingdom. This bust, then, portrays the immense and intense physical and mental pain and anguish of King Priam, whom we got to know pretty well in the Iliad through a few of his interactions with his wife Hecuba, his heroic but doomed son Hector, his beautiful, but remorseful, dangerous, daughter-in-law Helen.

Here he is dead, just as we knew he would be, as we know by now Achilles already is. But Priam has just died, and his death was sudden, violent, and very painful and shocking indeed. All of this comes out here, so that - as before - the Greek sculptor has chosen to portray a moment - whether occurring just before or just after - of a death. As in other works - the reach of the Artemision Zeus, the poised tension of the Discobolos, the step of the Doryphoros - a precise moment in consciousness is captured in a way deeply suggestive of both time and story. We see it, I think, and are taken aback. In part, this must result from everybody knowing Priam from their Homer; they would also recognize the human, their own father, perhaps, or even themselves.

To the extent that we see ourselves in a work such as this, we can think of it as (like) a mirror.

Generally, when we read Homer we don't need pictures - he's too accomplished a storyteller for that. Still, the dramatic characters and their overwhelming presence in the narrative will pose a challenge for some artists. This head is an absolutely brilliant success, Homeric in achievement.

It occurs to me - have I said this elsewhere? - that I am in the business here of oohing and ahhing about a few of the standard greatest hits of Greek art. I respond to so much of Greek art this way because that is the way I feel about them. My intention is to get students to look with me - when I'm not there in the classroom, for example - but just because I like something nobody else has to like it, because liking it isn't the point. I can't - and wouldn't - grade people on how much they like or dislike some text we are considering. I do wish them to know it better than they did when they started out; and that is because that somehow, like some other teachers in the humanities, I think that once you get a handle on the development of the arts in Ancient Greece, you can go just about anywhere - backwards, forwards, to the left or the right.

And the point is only peripherally to read me in any case. Read the experts, whom I try to quote liberally, and, above all, read the texts - the images - themselves. Best of all, go where you can find them and see them for yourself.

Here are two of my favorite students - I'm pretty sure I have said this before - responding to studying for one of my final exams on this material on Greek art:

1. "I dreamed about all of the characters."
2. "I slept with all of them."

Anyway... this head. Here is Pollitt:

In his final moment Priam’s eyes are dilated and asymmetrical, his brows are knit in undulating lines, his forehead wrinkled, his mouth apparently partly open, and his hair is expressionistically depicted in centrifugal radiating lines which convey a sense of hysteria. Pathos eclipses ethos in this face which projects a moment of unqualified pain and is the ancestor to a long line of agonized faces in fourth-century and Hellenistic art (Politt, 144-5)

Pathos and ethos, two good Greek words. The first refers to Priam's suffering, to what he has to endure - and, of course, to its representation by the artist; the second, ethos, refers to the character of the man, as we know him to be, and - which was suggested above - as Homer represented him to us in the Iliad.

In rhetorical studies stemming from the Aristotle - as most do - we are taught that in order to be persuasive we must employ something of our character - ethos - to move in some way the emotions of the audience - pathos - and to present an appeal to reason - logos - using deductive or inductive arguments. I don't want to take this too far, though I do think anyone who reacts to this head will find it rhetorical.

In fact, as Pollitt explains, ethos and pathos describe how the Greeks identified basic features of being human:

Ancient Greek psychology recognized two forces at the root of human emotional expression—ethos, a man’s ‘character’ as formed by inheritance, habit, and self-discipline, and pathos, his spontaneous reaction to experiences in the external world. (Pollitt, 43).

It is fitting, as Pollitt points out, that this superb expression of pain and suffering be found at the Temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

In Act 2 scene 2, Hamlet tries to remember a speech from a play he saw on this theme:

HAMLET: ... One speech in it I
chiefly loved: 'twas Aeneas' tale to Dido; and
thereabout of it especially, where he speaks of
Priam's slaughter: if it live in your memory, begin
at this line: let me see, let me see--
'The rugged Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast,'--
it is not so:--it begins with Pyrrhus:--
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars's armour forged for proof eterne
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod 'take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!'

LORD POLONIUS This is too long.