Tag Archives: Homer

Palimpsest of History

“I’d three times sooner go to war than suffer childbirth once.” – Euripedes, Medea

Shield, at the ready

A woman that I work for loaned me the book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Mater by Thomas Cahill. I had read Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization which is wonderful. But that was not the only reason that I was excited to read it – it was just the thing I needed to propel me to finish The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. In  THotPW, after an early bout of what would be regular spates of protracted speechifying by various parties I read:

The long speech of the Athenians I do not pretend to understand. They said a good deal in praise of themselves, but nowhere denied that they are injuring our allies and Pelopannese.  – Thucydides

You said it brother! 21 years later…
I suppose the point is that we never change. And here poor Thucydides went to all the trouble of relating with exactitude and extreme tedium the method by which we justify and convince ourselves to what amounts to base butchery for what ever reason someone can make sound noble and “right.” And how do we show our respects? By completely ignoring the point. Our wars are always justified- no no, really, this time it’s true. Although, sad to say, today we even lack the fancy rhetoric and sophisticated sophist warping of our ancient forebears, our modern political discourse is blatantly fallacious and downright stupid.

And! Furthermore! After all that- the Spartans won. The Spartans?! Their lifestyle of choice was about as miserable a mode of living as one could possibly conceive of…boggles the mind.

But, according to Cahill, there is more that matters in the Greeks than their oh-so-mundane proclivity for war. He does, for instance,  a wonderful job of showing why we (by which I of course mean- me) love Hector so much. Cahill cites Homer’s passages concerning Hector: some of the first instances, in the history of literature, of romantic and familial love.

“Andromache, dear one, why so desperate? Why so much grief for me?”

Why? Because she loves, and she is loved. That’s why.

Cahill’s insights into Euripedes are also fascinating. As one of the first writers to depict some “real life,” outside of the purlieu of the capricious gods and interminable warfare, he was not exactly the ancient world’s winner of Athenian Idol but there are not many instances of men anywhere in ancient history showing even an interest in the lives of mere people or Zeus forbid – women.

At one point in Thucydides’ version of the world, I had to suffer through an advisory bit on how a woman should properly conduct herself. The message was something like – you can achieve excellence as a female by never being talk about for bad or good.  We are, sadly, not very far from that mindset today. Cahill too quotes at length this famous speech which was given by Pericles. Well, it is swell of Pericles to include the ladies, my goodness I think he gave us at least two sentences – why am I even complaining?

“…hers greatest of all whose praise or blame is least bruited on the lips of men.”

It’s an especially rich sentiment coming from a man who married a former courtesan- and they were a famously fabulous couple to boot.

Cahill’s praise of Odysseus left me a bit cold as well. I was not amused at the bloody vengeance brought down on the heads of the woman that consorted with the suitors. I thought it was gratuitous and shabby treatment of an underclass. Cahill suggests that I should have “enjoyed” the revenge as one would enjoy a modern-day violent cartoon.  It just seemed mean to me.

Never the less, Cahill gives real and fascinating insight into the Ancient Greek world- their influence as a whole. Our human history colors our experience, we may ignore it, but it cannot be erased. We only add to it – if we were clever we would learn from it. Maybe someday.

I love what is delicate,
luminous, brave –
what belongs to the sunlight.

That’s what I crave.

Sappho, from –  Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Fools

The Catskills (2011)

“Wine will make a wise man fall to singing”  Homer, The Odyssey

Well, that settles the debate.

I have multiple playlists on you tube. One of which I have titled Music To Think By. I mostly listen to it while doing my homework. My problem is that I cannot stop myself from singing, wine or no, which makes it hard to focus – not the wine, the singing. My Music To Think By is mostly lyric-less or at least not in English. But even this I have to be careful with as I will tend to sing along phonetically. Szamár*

I am presently enjoying; Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, the deaf percussionist Eveline Glennie (I first heard of her on a Ted Talk’s lecture called How To Listen), I love Mihály Vig (composer of all the soundtracks of Béla Tarr’s films), and have recently added Fotosputnik’s Sterominds and White Mountain Tunnel Romp from a recommendation by another great blog Anobium. The pianist Gonzales works well for long equations and deep philosophical thinking as well. For my personal favorite: classical guitar, Milos Karadaglic is very fine. Occasionally, while listening to music, the urge to weep overtakes me, but I have thrown in a little Anouk and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Mustt Mustt to help keep my heart from sliding over the falls into an abyss.

I am, as always, open to suggestions…

*That’s Hungarian for “silly”or “fool” which I now know from listen to Kész az egész , one of the best lounge songs ever sung on film (Damnation). I will probably have to remove it from my playlist as I…well – sing along. I may not know what she is saying, but – I’ve been there.

Dewey Delights


My 17 year old son and I went to a local art gallery, Artspace,  to see a show on libraries. I had been meaning to get to it for about a month. Every Sunday it would occur to me that it was a good day to go. And every Sunday I would look at the hours online and see that the gallery was closed on Sundays. Finally, on a weekday, I managed to get there; it was one day before the installation was closing. There were photographs by Nina Katchdourian of books from individual’s libraries that were arranged to say something of the owner (sorted books project). They were lovely to look at and funny as well.

Another artist  had blown up images of cards from the old card catalogue system. I got very excited and remarked to my son what a beautiful system Dewey Decimal is. I love the call numbers, there is something wonderful about those cards. He looked at me curiously. I rewound my mind, remembering his age. I breathlessly explained that before we all had computers, this is how you would look for a book: the cards, the drawers, see how it’s organized, the numbers….oh never mind. Personally, I miss the tactile pleasure of strumming through the cards in the long drawers one used to find at libraries. My children like to pretend I’m a nut, getting excited by trifling things such as card stock, but I caught my son marveling at the sculpture of lucite shelves sitting on a mirror creating a multidimensional effect. We all get excited.

I was recently looking for a copy of The Odyssey at the library in my College. I stood at the computer and found the book’s location, oh how ingenious, I thought when I saw that they used the old cards for scrap paper to write the call numbers. I wrote it down, checked it out,  and thought myself very clever: keeping the card to use as a bookmark. That night in bed,  I turned it over to see which card I had: Homerus, The Ilaid and the Odyssey.