Tag Archives: Greece

An Accord Sown

The first thing [Alexander] did in Persia was pay the womenfolk their money, in accordance with the custom by which whenever Persian kings arrive in the country they give some gold to every woman there. This explains why some of them apparently did not go there very often.
Plutarch, Roman Lives (Alexander, 374)

DSC_0840I burst out laughing when I read the above quote. I was at work, but I couldn’t help myself. One of my jobs is the type in which I can read without getting in trouble.  I finished the, ironically, rather long “life” of Alexander and was a little depressed to discover that I hadn’t even done away with an hour of my five hour shift. A patron came in and asked me a question regarding the show that is currently being shown in the gallery and then he asked me what I was reading. I paused. “Plutarch,” I finally admitted. “Well, somebody should be,” he laughed and walked away. I tried to imagine poor Alexander’s reaction to the disinterest he (mostly) inspires, and I felt bad for him. He really tried very hard. A smart and honorable fellow, perhaps a slave to his ambition, but he wasn’t a scoundrel, and really, at a certain point isn’t that all that matters?

Darius was already on his way down from Susa, with his confidence boosted not just by the size of his army [..], but also by a dream which the Magi had interpreted in a manner designed to please him rather than to accord with probability (327).

I was planning to someday have a staff of Magi to interpret my dreams in a pleasing way, but even I can learn from history- accord with probability– I must remember that. It would make an excellent mantra, and as Darius would surely attest-  save a lot of pain. Plutarch would have been the man to do justice to the noble life of Darius had he a Persian section of Noble Lives, but even still, as he often does,  when he is ostensibly talking about one noble man, he can’t help but go on at length about that noble man’s most worthy foe. By Plutarch’s own measure, that sense of decency makes Plutarch himself something of a noble man.

And he used to say that there was nothing better than sleep and sex for reminding him that he was not a god (332).

Now I’ve never confused myself with a god, but I think I will agree with Alexander that there are not many better things than sleep and sex to remind you of your body. If perfectly sated both activities transport one away from their body, but in their unrealized incarnations there can be no mistaking of one’s mortal state whilst tired or pining. But besides such winning bon mots as that, the question of why anyone should read Plutarch is legitimate. After all, I have no reason other than fun and interest to slog through some of the many nobel lives of Plutarch’s opinion. But I suppose that is the very thing. Plutarch is fun. And he is interesting. Alexander is a fabulous character and the sheer storytelling virtuosity that Plutarch excels in makes it compelling reading. The passage in which Plutarch describes Alexander facing down the gossip of his friend’s supposed betrayal is so marvelous I had to stare out into space for a bit to revel in it. After receiving “news” that Philip (of Acarnania) is planning to poison him, Alexander says nothing; Philip comes to him with a potion to cure him of a minor illness, (but only after overcoming the fear of wrath and retribution should Alexander’s health worsen by his care)  Alexander hands Philip the incriminating letter of accusation:

The ensuing scene was wonderful and worthy of the stage: one of them was reading the letter and the other drinking the potion, and they both looked at each other, but not with the same significance” (328)

What faith in friendship. What wonderful stuff mankind can be made of. This is why one reads Plutarch. Aristotle’s rules of writing: discovery, peripety, and suffering are all on display in the lives of these mostly extraordinary men. The seeds of history: lessons can be learned, bon mots can be savored, models of nobility can be aspired to, and – good storytelling is good storytelling. Period.

*excerpts from Plutarch Greek Lives published by Oxford World’s Classics translated by Robin Waterfield

Plutarch part 1: Lives (Noble or Not)
Plutarch part 2: Argue As You Please
Plutarch segue: Blindfold Art

Dissimulate Days

IMG_0006Bitter Lemons

In an island of bitter lemons
Where the moon’s cool fevers burn
From the dark globes of the fruit,

And the dry grass underfoot
Tortures memory and revises
Habits half a lifetime dead

Better leave the rest unsaid,
Beauty, darkness, vehemence
Let the old sea-nurse keep

Their memorials of sleep
And the Greek sea’s curly head
Keep its calms like tears unshed

Keep its calms like tears unshed.

– Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell’s non-fiction book, of the same title as his poem, Bitter Lemons, describing his time spent living in Cyprus (1953-56), is a beautiful account of one man’s attempt to assimilate himself into a culture not his own, to understand and illustrate through words what traveling does to one’s interior as well as exterior being.

How sad it is that so many of our national characteristics are misinterpreted! Our timidity and lack of imagination seem to foreigners to be churlishness, taciturnity the deepest misanthropy. But are these choking suburbanizes with which we seem infused when we are abroad any worse than the tireless dissimulation and insincerity of the Mediterranean way of life? (35)

The joy with which he describes the landscape, the people, the mood, and the air of Cyprus is wonderful. The difference between his English humor and the humor of Greek island people is some sort of beautiful mathematical equation.

His name is Frangos,’ he said, with an air of a man who explains everything in a single word. (39)

If you have read Lawrence’s brother, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, then you might find, as I did, a revisiting of a similar spirit in the first half of this book. But this is not a book told (retrospectively) from the eyes of a ten year old. As events and relations between England and Cyprus deteriorate, it takes on a much more lugubrious tone. Fear and paranoia permeate the air, but as happens, people forget to remember their grudges, especially once they have got to know and like one another. The tension within each person to toe the national line and conjure up hostilities for former friends is sad and moving, if not predictable.

My one cavil is that if I hadn’t read Amateurs in Eden (biography about the marriage between Nancy and Lawrence written by Nancy, but not Lawrence’s daughter) I never would have known that Nancy was with Lawrence for the duration of this period. In fact, if I’m not mistaken it is her simple and lovely line drawings that end each chapter, although, again I could find no credit given in Bitter Lemons that confirms the identity of the illustrator. That is strange. And unsettling. I wish I didn’t even have that piece of information because the amount of extra energy such an omission in an autobiographical piece of literature requires is so great as to perversely focus my attention where Lawrence clearly did not want it to go.

She walked about the harbor at Kyrenia with a book and with the distracted air which betokened to my inexpert eye evidence of some terrible preoccupation- perhaps one of those love-affairs which mark one for life. (97)

Durrell’s eye for subtle details and succinct suggestions of what lies beneath a look, posture, or smile is powerful.  I found the above quote haunting. Is there such a thing? To be marked for life? The sensitivity of Durrell’s observations are arresting, entertaining, and at times, simply profound.