Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Quote of the Day: Eco on "Intertextual Irony"

I'm still reading, when I can, some essays by Umberto Eco, and here's a passage that caught my eye in his essay, "Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading" in his collection, On Literature.
Intertextual irony provides an intertextual second sense for readers who have been secularized and who no longer have any spiritual senses to look for in the text. The biblical and poetic second senses stemming from the theory of the four meanings allowed the text to flower vertically, each sense allowing us to approach ever closer to some Afterlife. The intertextual second sense is horizontal, labyrinthine, convoluted, and infinite, running from text to text--with no other promise than the continual murmuring of intertextuality. Intertextual irony presupposes an absolute
immanentism. It provides revelations to theose who have lost the sense of

The four meanings, by the way, refers to the medieval strategies of reading the bible: literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical levels of reading. Perhaps part of the irony is that the spiritual / transcendent / vertical senses of reading, at least traditionally, are limited to four levels, while the secular / immanent / horizontal senses are never-ending, infinite.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Humans Always (Wrongly) Blame the Gods: Odyssey 1.32-35

I have been immersed in the Odyssey as of late and probably will be for another week or so. I am teaching it directly after the Epic of Gilgamesh. Fitting, in some ways, since both feature a man who goes on many journeys, is, perhaps, "polutropos" or a man of "many ways" or "many turns." Yet, there is something else that has struck me in this reading of the Odyssey: the way the gods are depicted in contrast to how they are depicted in the Iliad.

Take, for example, Odyssey 1.32-35:
Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us
gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather,
who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given,
as now lately, beyond what is given....

Zeus is the one speaking to the assembled gods on Olympos. He is actually discussing the nostos, or return, of Agamemnon, in which he will be murdered by his wife and her lover and then avenged by his son. Yet, it has an interesting placement in the narrative. It is right at the beginning. Only 30 some lines into the entire epic. Zeus, in fact, complains that humans always blame the gods for what happens to them, but it is actually humans' own fault. This is in striking contrast to the beginning of the Iliad, in which we see a balance. We see the events of the Iliad unfold due to both the wrath of Achilleus and the "will of Zeus." The will of Zeus looms large in the Iliad in a way it does not in the Odyssey. I do think that the poet in the Iliad plays with the concept of Zeus' will, turns it, inspects it, tries to see it from every angle, interrogating it with relentlessness in order to see beyond the will of Zeus, what Zeus cannot do, or, better yet, even if Zeus desires something, what Zeus will not do. I have been playing with the idea of the Odyssey as a counter-Iliad, rewriting many concepts in the Iliad with a different result. I was very happy to attend a talk today by a Classicist who sees the Odyssey as a rewriting or even a parody of the Iliad in many ways. Perhaps extending the critical examination of Zeus' will to the point that Zeus' will plays little to no role in the epic. In the Odyssey, it is human actions, inactions, false actions, deeds and misdeeds that propel the narrative. The gods are present to some extent (far less than the Iliad, in fact), but they are responding to humans. Ironically, in the subsequent narrative, almost immediately, we see Telemachos especially as well as others constantly saying that this or that is happening because of the gods, the will of the gods, or the whim of the gods, yet, right out, we have a statement from Zeus saying this is all hogwash (see 1.234, 244). Blame yourselves for your own actions: you, yourselves, hold ultimate responsibility for your own actions. It is not fate. It is not Zeus' will, nor is it the collective decision of the gods (although that is there at times; see 1.76). In many ways, I think both poems play with the varying degrees of human responsibility and the failure for humans to take responsibility for their own actions. In both poems people blame the gods, whether Zeus' will for the whole event or when Agamemnon blames "Delusion" for his misjudgments rather than taking direct responsibility, but ultimately the Iliad leaves things highly ambiguous, while the Odyssey finally chooses human responsibility in order to play with other, ambiguous, questions of the human realm.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Quote of the Day: Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 1, lines 199-203

So, I'm sick of seeing Sarah Palin at the top of my page, so here's something from the earliest epic tradition in world literature...well, the end product of that tradition at least. So, here, from the Standard Babylonian Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the quote of the day:
Enkidu had defiled his body so pure,
his legs stood still, though his herd was in motion.
Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before,
but now he had reason, adn wide understanding.
(Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 1, lines 199-203; trans. Andrew George)

Enkidu, created directly from clay, a replica of the original human, was a wild, animal-like man. At the same time, he was powerful, the only match in strength for the two-thirds divine Gilgamesh (how he's two-thirds divine, I have no clue...and no specialist's answer has been satisfying to my mind). This replica of the original man is also Gilgamesh's mirror, his alter-ego, a second self. In this scene, the wild animalistic man, who communes peacefully with the animals, and even protects them from hunters and trappers, loses his communion with animals because he discovered sexuality. Shamhat from Uruk, the city ruled by Gilgamesh, has come out and through sexuality has civilized Enkidu. Sex as a civilizing force rather than a naturalizing force is particularly interesting here. But, by doing so, she has weakened Enkidu. He no longer has his animalistic power. Yet at the same time he remains Gilgamesh's equal in the later bout they have in the city. Moreover, this sexual experience, which lasted six days and seven nights by the way, has awakened Enkidu's mind. He now has reason. He has understanding--wow, this sounds familiar (anyone for some Gen. 2-3?). Yet, as line 214 tells us, he has not completely lost his INSTINCT. Understanding, reason, and instinct (as well as a powerful physique) appears to be an unbeatable combination. Yet, unfortunately, Enkidu will die. His death, in a way, foreshadows Gilgamesh's. Or, more accurately, it creates an awareness in Gilgamesh of his own mortality that he never had before. It creates a fear of death in Gilgamesh that forces him to look to the ends of the cosmos to find the one man who had gained immortality Uta-nipishti (sometimes Utnapishtim and other times Atrahasis). He is the Babylonian Noah, the man who survived the Deluge and was granted immortality. But those were unrepeatable conditions. No one else will other achieve immortality. And Uta-nipishti gives Gilgamesh a lesson he needs to hear. It is a lesson about how to be a good king and about how to accept one's mortal limits. One of the lessons of the epic, if not the central lesson, is that all must die, and coming to terms with one's own mortality is the foundation of human wisdom. It allows one to make the best of one's time on this earth, in this short lifespan (in antiquity, a much shorter lifespan). Ecclesiastes has a similar overall message.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Quote of the Day: Homeric Hymn to Demeter

She went to the kings who administer law,
Triptolemos and Diokles, driver of horses, mighty
Eumolpos and Keleos, leader of the people, and revealed
the conduct of her rites and taught her Mysteries to all of them,
holy rites that are not to be transgressed, nor pried into,
nor divulged. For a great awe of the gods stops the voice.
Blessed is the mortal on earth who has seen these rites,
but the uninitiate who has no share in them never
has the same lot once dead in the dreary darkness.
(Hymn to Demeter 473-82; trans. Foley)

I would tell you what this means, but "a great awe of the gods stops the voice."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Bracing for Hanna

As I sit here, looking out the window, drinking my morning coffee (as distinguished from my noon coffee, my afternoon coffee, my evening coffee, and my nightly coffee), I have also been checking the weather. Tropical Storm Hanna appears to be moving well up the Atlantic Coast and, at this moment, is ripping through Pennsylvania and has an arm swinging at the western side of New Jersey. And what I'm wondering is if I have enough time to get to brunch and back before the heavy rain hits.

I am also very glad that I don't drive...since the flash flooding is going to be very dangerous this weekend.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Quote of the Day: Umberto Eco's "On Style"

Ok...I love Umberto Eco. He has fantastic verve in his verbage. He can present some extraordinarily complex ideas in beautiful language that is, at the same time, succinct. He has this to say about some rather loquacious critics:
...those who are so orgasmic in words are in fact very unlibertine in reality, and abhor alterity, since in every one of their critical embraces they are simply making love to themselves. ("On Style" in On Literature, 173).
I'll remember that one, Umberto, when reviews of my work start rolling in! ;)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Quote of the Day: Iliad 3.172-80

One thing that I thought about bringing up with my students, but ended up not looking at due to time constraints, is the famous "teichoskopia" or "view from the wall" scene in Iliad 3. There is a particular section here to which I keep returning in lines 172-80:
Always to me, beloved father, you are feared and respected;
and I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither
following your son, forsaking my chamber, my kinsmen,
my grown child, and the loveliness of girls my own age.
It did not happen that way: and now I am worn with weeping.
This now I will tell you in answer to the question you asked me.
That man is Atreus' son Agamemnon, widely powerful,
at the same time a good king and a strong spearfighter,
once my kinsman, slut that I am. Did this ever happen?
The primary actors in this scene are Priam and Helen. Priam picks more outstanding figures from the Achaians and asks Helen who they are. Firstly, the Lord of Men, the Shepherd, the great king, Agamemnon. He also points out the "ram" Odysseus and Aias (Ajax), the human wall. It is a strange scene. It feels out of place in the year 9 or 10 of the war. It seems like it should have happened in the first year!

Many people will fix upon the phrase "slut that I am," a self-disparaging remark. Her wish that she had died (or wish that she had wished for death) reminds me also of how Helen, later in the same book, wishes (and then takes it back) that Menelaos had killed Paris / Alexandros in their one-on-one combat (and that Aphrodite had not interfered) (see lines 428-36). Or, in Book 7, when the Trojan envoy to the Achaians, Idaios, says that he wished that Paris had perished before he committed his breach of proper guest-host relations with Menelaos. Throughout book 3, Helen seems to show regret for her past actions, but also that she cannot change them. She longs for her lost, previous life (lines 139-40). But that was long ago. Nonetheless, Helen's self-effacement, sorrow, and weeping is not what stops me in my tracks. What stops me are the haunting words, "Did this ever happen?" The past is a phantom memory. It has been so long ago, so much suffering has happened since then that a previous life is almost unfathomable. Memory, it is a tricky thing. So is time. There is a certain unreality about the past. It slips away from us. It is as difficult to grasp as the mist that pervades the imagery throughout the Iliad. "Did this ever happen?" I don't know.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Quotes of the Day : Iliad 20

As I continually reread and think through the Iliad as I teach it, I find myself continually stopped by a phrase, a word, or a paragraph here and there. Here are a few phrases that stopped me in my reading of the Iliad, Book 20, when Achilles (Achilleus) and Aineias are fighting (or giving speeches before they fight).

First is Achilles to Aineias, telling him to step back for fighting Achilles in his godlike rage is not a clear-sighted moment for Aineias:
"Once a thing has been done, the fool sees it." (20.198; trans. Lattimore)
Achilles, who does seem to have a good grasp of future events (he knows his own death, for example), claims that even a fool can see in retrospect. The wise can see at least the immediate consequences of their actions.

Then, Aineias, in response to all of the verbal exchange going back and forth before they begin to fight says something interesting:
"The tongue of man is a twisty thing, there are plenty of words there
of every kind, the range of words is wide, and their variance." (20.248-9)
Is this a way of telling the reader that throughout the poet has been playing with words, toying with us, twisting the story? Is the poet as manipulative as Zeus (and Agamemnon, for that matter) in Book 2?