Posts Tagged 'plato'

Two literary eunuchs.

In this retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Gladiator, that film’s co-star Djimon Hounsou says something odd:

The initial script had me being the head of slaves during that time and I said, “I shouldn’t be the definition of slavery.” Slavery didn’t exist back then, so, what are we talking about, really? We’re talking about using humans to do that sort of fighting entertainment and all those people were considered slaves.

Now, English isn’t Hounsou’s first language, so he might have misspoken, or been misheard. Or perhaps he subscribes to some esoteric definition of “slavery” that somehow excludes the Roman variety. But on the surface it appears that one of the stars of Gladiator­­ – a movie about slavery in ancient times – came away from it believing that there was no slavery in ancient times.

Speaking of fictional depictions of slavery…

***

“Two literary eunuchs” would be a good title for a bitchy essay about a pair of insufficiently virile male authors. Tolkien and Lewis, maybe? Auden and Isherwood? These nerds? But I’m not sufficiently virile to write such an essay.

Instead I’ll be talking about two actual eunuchs from literature – and from history – the narrators of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy and Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.

mary renault the persian boy

Between 1969 and 1981 Mary Renault wrote a biography and a loose trilogy of historical novels about Alexander the Great. I can recommend them all, but especially the middle chapter of the trilogy, The Persian Boy, from 1972, which describes the most eventful period of Alexander’s career from the perspective of a eunuch slave boy who is taken into his personal service.

In Renault’s telling, Bagoas is the child of a Persian aristocrat who, during the dynastic manoeuvrings that brought King Darius to the throne, was killed on the orders of the previous king’s vizier (also named Bagoas, to the confusion of later students of history). Marked for death, the handsome ten year old is instead carried off by one of his father’s murderers:

He did not keep me long, being in need of money. In the dealer’s courtyard at Susa, city of lilies, I stood stripped naked, while they drank date wine out of little cups, and haggled over my price. […]

The dealer’s house was strong as a prison, with courtyard walls fifteen feet high. On one side was a shed, where they did the gelding. They had purged and starved me first, which is thought to make it safer; I was led in cold and empty, to see the table with the knives, and the frame with splayed-out legs to which they bind you, with old black blood on it and dirty straps. Then at last I threw myself at the dealer’s feet and clasped them crying. But they made no more of it than farmhands of the bawling bull-calf.

The newly-made eunuch spends two quiet years as a page-boy to the wife of a local merchant, but as he grows older and his good looks attract the eyes of the men in the bazaar, his owner decides to make a little extra cash pimping him out to his customers. The boy proves so popular that he comes to the attention of the agents of the royal household, and at age thirteen Bagoas is sold again, to begin his training in “the rites of the bedchamber”.

I wonder whether Renault’s book could be published in the current climate of hypersensitivity about depictions of underage sexuality. While Bagoas begins his royal service traumatized by his experiences as a child prostitute, he reluctantly finds himself enjoying his “training” at the hands of an older eunuch. He soon graduates to service in the royal bedchamber, where the ageing Darius handles him gently, kissing and dandling him “like a doll”, but:

In all the time I was with him, he gave no sign of knowing a eunuch can feel anything. One does not tell such things to the King of Kings, if he does not ask.

***

In an Author’s Note, Renault adds that while the real Bagoas’ backstory is unknown,

the conjecture that he was of good birth is not fanciful. Such boys, whose looks had been taken care of and not spoiled by malnutrition or hardship, once enslaved were always at the highest risk of prostitution. Sokrates’ disciple Phaidon (Phaedo) is the best-known case.

mary renault the last of the wine

Phaedo – the namesake of one of Plato’s best-known dialogues – appears in Renault’s earlier novel The Last of the Wine, set among the young followers of Socrates during the Peloponnesian War. She makes Phaedo a native of Melos, an island besieged in 416 BC after defying Athenian demands for tribute. Wounded in the defense of his city, the boy is recuperating in bed when starvation obliges the defenders to submit:

[T]he gates were opened and the Athenians marched in. Presently he heard a great shrieking of women, and the death-cries of men. Soldiers ran in, dragged him from his bed to the Agora, and threw him down among a crowd of young lads and children, who had been herded into the sheep-pound. Just across the square was a pile of corpses newly killed, and still being added to; sticking out of the midst of it was his father’s head. [1]

Purchased in the slave-market by the manager of an Athens bathhouse, Phaedo soon “learned the arts of his calling, and commanded a high price”.

The narrator attempts to befriend the shy, skittish boy who is accustomed to sit in silence at Socrates’ feet. (In the dialogue named for him, Phaedo describes himself sitting on a low stool while Socrates “stroked my head and pressed the hair on the back of my neck, for he was in the habit of playing with my hair at times”.) Phaedo’s new friends are unaware that he is a slave, a fact he conceals not only out of shame, but to protect others from the ignominy of being associated with a bathhouse boy. When he reveals his secret, he is careful to explain that he met Socrates not as a client, but while on an unauthorized break from his trade – he has learned the trick of locking the door so that his manager will think he has a customer, and going out through a window to roam the city.

Later some members of Socrates’ circle send one of their number to the bathhouse to invite Phaedo to a dinner party. This leads to an awkward moment:

“In due course I knocked, and Phaedo opened. All he had on was the paint on his face. I knew then I shouldn’t have come. The next moment he slammed-to the door. He was almost too quick for me, but being rather stronger I managed to hold it. ‘Next room,’ he said through the crack, ‘I’m engaged’ – ‘Wait, Phaedo,’ I began. Suddenly he flung open the door so that I nearly fell inside. He stood there laughing. He looked like something you might come upon in a dark wood. ‘Come in, Lysis,’ he said. ‘Honour the threshold. Who am I to turn away trade?'”

Phaedo is eventually bought by one of Socrates’ friends and set free. He never discusses his past clients, but occasionally the narrator will notice him “watching with irony in his dark eye” as some citizen pontificates about morality.

Luckily for Phaedo, at this time it wasn’t the Greek custom to make eunuchs of their slaves, a practice they regarded with disgust – though as Bagoas states in The Persian Boy, set almost a century later,

[S]o long as they sold boys young into the brothels, I did not think the Greeks had so much to boast of.

***

To resume the narrative of The Persian Boy: After King Darius ignominiously flees Alexander’s army at Gaugamela, Bagoas joins his slow retreat northward through the mountains, faithfully serving his master while his generals and courtiers scheme to depose him. When the coup comes, and the remnants of Persian resistance scatter, the boy finds himself masterless and alone, with no choice but to offer his services in the camp of the pursuing Macedonians:

I waited by the fidgeting horses, while the Macedonians looked at me. Among Persians, the eunuch knows himself marked out at sight by his lack of beard; it was most strange to be in a crowd where no young man had one. Alexander had shaved from his youth, and liked his fashion followed. Persian soldiers would have had any man’s blood, who told them to make themselves like eunuchs; but I don’t think this had even occurred to the Macedonians. They had no eunuchs. I was the only one.

Accustomed to the formal rigours of the Persian court, Bagoas is at first repelled by the easy manners of the Macedonians – “uncouth westerners” who drink heavily, banter playfully with their king, and exercise shamelessly in the nude. They in turn detest him as a “spayed catamite” and resent his “fawning barbarians ways”.

The young king, whom Bagoas find surprisingly courteous “for someone reared in the wilds”, is more receptive to eastern customs. Appreciating his new servant’s elegant manners and remarkable beauty, he employs him as a personal attendant, and later as a Persian language instructor, but declines to invite him to his bedchambers. It is Bagoas who first falls in love with Alexander, and eventually succeeds in seducing him.

mary renault funeral games

Bagoas appears again in Renault’s Funeral Games, set amid the struggles for succession at the time of Alexander’s death. The general Ptolemy watches as Bagoas tenderly nurses the dying king:

At first Ptolemy had disliked this exotic presence haunting Alexander’s living-quarters, encouraging him to assume the trappings of Persian royalty and the manners of a Persian court, having his ear day and night. But he was a fixture one had grown used to.

In Renault’s telling Bagoas became not only Alexander’s lover but one of his nearest confidantes, inspiring his vision of his new empire as a synthesis of the best of eastern and western civilizations. In practice this meant that the relatively democratic norms of Macedonia were supplanted by the pomp and rigidity of Persia.

As word got back to Greece about Alexander’s eastern pretensions – like expecting visitors to prostrate themselves before him – his political enemies began to incorporate Bagoas, in the character of a conniving oriental courtier, into their “anti-Macedonian agitprop”. In her 1975 biography The Nature of Alexander, Renault compellingly refutes the story that Bagoas fabricated a charge of tomb-robbing against a satrap who had insulted him. As relayed by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius:

On one side Bagoas, on the other those whom he had suborned, filled the king’s ears with false charges. Before Orsines suspected that he was being accused he was delivered into bondage. Not content with the punishment of an innocent man, the eunuch laid his hand on him as he was about to be executed. Orsines with a glance at him said: “I had heard that women once reigned in Asia; this however is something new, for a eunuch to reign!”

In The Persian Boy Renault makes Orsines genuinely guilty of various crimes, including complicity in the murder of Bagoas’ family.

***

robert graves count belisarius

Unluckily for generations of boy slaves, Alexander’s policy of fusionism led to the adoption of many Persian practices in the west. In a 1937 poem Robert Graves imagined some soldiers of the Byzantine Empire, posted on the eastern frontier, sneering as Alexander’s uncouth Macedonians might have at the decadence of big city customs:

We can know little (as we care little)
Of the Metropolis: her candled churches,
Her white-gowned pederastic senators,
The cut-throat factions of her Hippodrome,
The eunuchs of her draped saloons.

By the time of the Emperor Justinian – we’re now in the 6th century AD – eunuchs were an integral part of Byzantine court life. Eugenius, the narrator of Graves’ 1938 novel Count Belisarius, though a slave himself, takes a certain pride in the influence of his fellow eunuchs:

It is a principle first learned by our Emperors from the Persian Court that eunuchs, since they are ineligible for sovereignty and incapable of founding dangerously powerful families, can safely be honoured with the royal confidence and used as a bulwark against the possible usurpation of the Throne by a conspiracy of powerful nobles. Eunuchs on the whole make milder and more loyal and more industrious officials than their unstoned colleagues, and their pettiness in routine matters – I do not deny the pettiness – is a strong conservative force. It has therefore long been the practice of rich middle-class families who have enough male children to carry on the line, deliberately to castrate one of the younger ones and dedicate him to a profitable career in the Civil Service. The bastard sons of Emperors too, or of their sons and daughters, are regularly castrated, in order to make useful citizens of them and prevent them from aspiring to the Throne. […]

Thus, to be a eunuch is, in the worldly sense at least, more of an advantage than a disadvantage, as may also be seen by a comparison of slave-market prices. A eunuch house-slave fetches three times the price of an unstoned one; he is worth only a little less than a trained house-physician or a skilled artisan. But a eunuch is seldom a happy man, because the operation has almost always been performed on him before the age of puberty, and he secretly imagines that to be a whole man is something very fine; if only because whole men are apt to jeer at eunuchs and to swear that they would rather be blind or dumb or deaf, or even all three of these things together, than debarred from the sweet and wholesome act of love. Naturally, the eunuch has a ready answer to such boasting: that sex is a madness and never brought anyone much luck. But secretly, as I confess, he is apt to envy the man who can take a woman to bed with him and do more than embrace her as a sister and chastely kiss her eyes.

Unlike Mary Renault, Graves evinces not the slightest interest in the sex life of his eunuch narrator. The passage above occurs during the introduction of the eunuch court chamberlain Narses – another real historical figure – who despite appearing in only a handful of scenes emerges as a more complete character than Eugenius.

When we meet him, Narses is already well advanced in years, a survivor of innumerable palace intrigues, a “dwarfish and repulsively ugly figure” acutely sensitive to slights, who harbours an unlikely aspiration to be taken seriously as a warrior. Antonina, wife to the celebrated general Belisarius, is one of the few to humour the ugly little man when he prattles about military tactics.

To widespread amusement, Narses later convinces the flighty Emperor Justinian to send him as general to Italy, to reinforce Belisarius in his war there against the Goths:

That he was dwarfish and big-buttocked and had a squint and a twisted lip had not seemed very ridiculous when he was gliding along the Palace corridors. … But to see Narses, who had already long passed the grand climacteric of his years, strutting about in the latest fashion of plate-armour … trailing a full-sized sword which was continually catching between his legs and tripping him up – that I assure you was a sight to raise a smile on the face of a man dying of the cholera.

The level-headed Antonina foresees that Narses might prove “a capable officer in spite of his age”, but warns her husband that his touchy personality will demand delicate handling. Her warning proves justified: the eunuch promptly quarrels with Belisarius and sows contention among the other generals, until Justinian is forced to recall him.

A dozen years later, after Belisarius has retired to Constantinople, Narses is again sent out by Justinian against the Goths, and by a series of brilliant victories reconquers Italy. Still later, annoyed once again over private slights, Narses intrigues with the Lombards, who go on to invade northern Italy, putting an end to Byzantine rule there.

***

Whereas Narses has plans and ambitions of his own, the narrator Eugenius is defined primarily by his utter devotion to Antonina, whose servant he has been since she was a child.

In creating his narrator, Graves had even less material to work with (or to constrain his imagination) than Renault did with Bagoas. In fact Eugenius appears only once in the historical record, in the lurid Secret History written by Procopius, who served as private secretary to Belisarius.

In that episode, Eugenius is enlisted in avenging an insult by some unfaithful slaves:

And they say that [Antonina] first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea, being assisted throughout in this impious business by one of the servants named Eugenius…

Note that Procopius never identifies Eugenius as a eunuch – that was Graves’ extrapolation. In fact, in the early stages of the writing of Count Belisarius, Antonina was intended as the narrator. Graves was convinced by his mistress and sometime collaborator Laura Riding to rewrite the early chapters in the slave’s voice, inspiring some prurient eyebrow-waggling over the parallels to the author’s own sex life:

It is often observed that Graves was in effect the devoted slave of Riding, which raises the possibility that he was Eugenius to her Antonina. … [I]t is known that Graves had embraced a life of celibacy for Riding. [2]

At any rate, Eugenius in Graves’ telling, like Bagoas in Mary Renault’s, is innocent of the atrocity attributed to him. Just as Alexander was libelled by jealous Greeks, so was Belisarius by his jealous secretary, Procopius:

Sometimes he told the truth, sometimes he distorted the facts, sometimes he lied – according to his vindictive purposes. (Even I, Eugenius, was introduced into this farrago: for example, I was supposed to have assisted my mistress in the murder of the maid Macedonia: whose tongue, he said, was cut in little pieces and cast into the sea.) [3]

However, Eugenius makes no bones about his involvement in another murder – that of a bishop, whose assassination he succesfully pins on an old rival of Antonina’s. In gratitude, Antonina offers to give him his freedom and a hefty reward besides. He humbly demurs:

“What is money but bodily comforts, which I already possess? What is ‘freedom’ but to be well considered, as I already am?”

Eugenius should have taken his freedom and retired somewhere far from the capital’s “cut-throat factions”; for not long afterward, the scandalous manuscript of Procopius comes to light, full of vile gossip not only about Belisarius and Antonina but about the Emperor Justinian. (In Graves’ interpretation, all the tales about his hero and heroine are malicious distortions, but all those about Justinian are true.)

To save his own skin, Procopius is induced to give false evidence against Belisarius, whom the emperor detests for his own petty reasons. Belisarius is charged with treason, and his household servants are seized and put to torture.

For a slave in such a situation, Eugenius knows, defiant silence is not a winning strategy:

Andreas died under the torture, but in order to vex [the public prosecutor] he did not utter a single cry. I yelled and screamed without ceasing. I knew that to do so would either satisfy the officer of the torture chamber or else disconcert him, so that he would say to the slave: “Enough for the moment, fellow: relax the cords, unscrew!” All my cries were: “Long life to his Gracious Majesty!” and “I know nothing, nothing.” So I escaped. Of the bodily injuries I received that day I shall not trouble you. I am a person of no importance.

M.

1. The real Phaedo, known as Phaedo of Elis, was – as you might suppose – from Elis, which fell to an alliance of Sparta and Athens a few years before Socrates’ death in 399 BC. In The Last of the Wine Renault moves Phaedo’s enslavement over a decade backward in time, to the middle of the Peloponnesian War, and makes him a victim of the most famous instance of Athenian ruthlessness in that conflict.

2. For more about Graves’ decision to make Eugenius and not Antonina his narrator, see “Count Belisarius – Genesis, Gender, and Truth” by Shaun Tougher. For Graves’ turbulent relationship with Laura Riding – “a woman of gargantuan and zany self-esteem who rivals the best of Dickens’ comic monsters in the splendor and variety of her awfulness” – this snappy book review by Thomas M. Disch covers the essentials.

3. Elsewhere in Count Belisarius, Eugenius denies his involvement in the murder of Antonina’s servant in slightly different words:

That my mistress with my help pulled out Macedonia’s tongue, cut her in pieces, and threw the pieces into the sea is a lie told many years later by the secretary Procopius to discredit her.

Whereas in the passage quoted above, it’s only Macedonia’s tongue that is chopped up. I can’t read the original Greek – which you can consult here – but I gather there’s some ambiguity in Procopius’ phrasing on this point. I can find three translations online:

It is said that she first cut out their tongues, and then ordered them to be hewn in pieces, put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Athenian Society, 1896

She first cruelly cut out their tongues, it is said, and then cut their bodies into little bits which were put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Richard Atwater, 1927

And they say that she first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea…
H.B. Dewing, 1935

In January I referred to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius in a discussion of Max Beerbohm and posterity. Years ago while reading The Last of the Wine I noticed that Mary Renault seemed to be the only person puzzled (like me) by the story of the Spartan boy and the fox. And speaking of “depictions of underage sexuality”, in 2018 I had some surprisingly deep thoughts about the Netflix cartoon series Big Mouth.

Dwarf descending.

I’ve been writing a lot lately, more than I have since wrapping up my novel a couple years back, but my blogging frequency hasn’t increased. I’m holding in reserve a dozen or so essays on contentious topics: immigration, electoral reform, Vancouver transit planning. A couple of them, I think, are pretty good; yet I hesitate to share them.

It’s not that I doubt whether my opinions matter: I know very well they don’t. I don’t keep up this blog in the hope of influencing anyone else’s opinions. The possibility that I might accidentally change someone’s mind about something makes me more reluctant to post, not less.

In an 1822 essay entitled “On Effeminacy of Character”, William Hazlitt scorned wishy-washy writers like me:

They alter what they write, not because it is, but because it may possibly be wrong; and in their tremulous solicitude to avoid imaginary blunders, run into real ones. What is curious enough is, that with all this caution and delicacy, they are continually liable to extraordinary oversights. They are, in fact, so full of all sorts of idle apprehensions, that they do not know how to distinguish real from imaginary grounds of apprehension[.]

By contrast, says Hazlitt,

There is nothing more to be esteemed than a manly firmness and decision of character. I like a person who knows his own mind and sticks to it; who sees at once what is to be done in given circumstances and does it.

But what about the well-meaning fool who sees at once what is to be done, does it, and discovers too late that his action was ten times more destructive than inaction would have been? What percentage of our gravest problems have been made graver still by the interventions of manly characters who insisted that the time for debate was over, that circumstances required a bold and immediate response?

Which isn’t to deny that inaction, too, has led to grave results. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that inaction is action: that the decision to forbear is as consequential as the decision to act.

Most people find such haverings contemptible. They’re certain that they can distinguish right action from wrong, truth from falsehood, wisdom from folly. In my youth, before I knew much of anything, I too had such confidence. The way forward was so obvious! How could these idiots not see it? How could they be taken in by such transparent nonsense?

I understand, therefore, the impulse to choose a side. What I don’t understand is why so many people, having made their choice, seem so much angrier at squishes like me than they are at their declared opponents.

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Granted, that’s stern, sword-in-his-mouth Revelation Jesus, not easy-going Sermon on the Mount Jesus. But you’d think even Revelation Jesus, while chastising the lukewarm, would still rank them higher than the downright cold.

No doubt my inability to grasp this paradox is connected with my lack of religious feeling. But speaking as a chilly-hearted atheist, wouldn’t Jesus rather have the spiritual-not-religious types sitting by neutrally, instead of actively working against him? Doesn’t his vituperation risk turning them from neutrals into hostiles?

In a somewhat less exalted vein:

monty jim meddick

Monty, by Jim Meddick.

In this case, Dehlia has correctly diagnosed Moondog as not so much undecided as apathetic. But why is she so confident that if she can get him into the voting booth, he’ll pull the right lever? [1] He has only the bleariest grasp of the issues. If he has a preference at all it’ll be due to something trivial, like a candidate’s gaffe, or more likely a campaign ad misrepresenting a decontextualized comment as a gaffe.

Suppose by some infinitesimal chance the election came down to Moondog’s single vote. Does Dehlia really want questions of life or death, war or peace, prosperity or ruin, to be determined by which memes happened to be in her lowbrow friend’s Facebook feed on election day? Is it fair to pile so much responsibility on his sloped shoulders?

Thankfully, there’s practically no chance of it being decided by one vote, so it’s safe to throw Moondog’s half-assed opinion into the mix. If Dehlia really feels so strongly about getting undecideds to vote, a better strategy may be to reassure them that their participation won’t make the slightest difference.

***

I used to make certain assumptions: that high intelligence correlated with good judgement; that I was highly intelligent; that therefore I could trust my judgement.

Where did those assumptions come from? Before I was old enough to reason, I absorbed from my elders, my friends, and the media certain preconceptions about what intelligence looked and sounded like. I accepted the arguments made by the people who looked and sounded that way, and sneered at the arguments of those that didn’t. I taught myself to act and talk and write like the people whose arguments I’d accepted. I knew I’d chosen the right side because, after all, wasn’t I highly intelligent? I must be, because the intelligent people all agreed with me.

One of the things intelligent people did, I gathered, was read books. So for a while I pretended I’d read a lot of books, even though I hadn’t. I knew this was fraudulent, but I figured I could scrape by on my natural intelligence, which as yet I’d seen no reason to doubt. But since my pretense occasionally exposed me to the danger of being shown up by people who actually had read the books, I thought I’d better start reading them for real.

Immediately I noticed two things. The first was that I forgot ninety-nine percent of what I read within a day or two of having read it. This made me question whether I was as intelligent as I’d previously thought. It also made me wonder whether all those other intelligent people, who made such a big show of having read so many books, had absorbed much more of them than I had.

The second thing I noticed was that the authors I read, particularly those from different cultures and eras than my own, had very different ideas about what constituted good judgement. In fact, many of the ideas they lampooned as transparently foolish were the very ideas that the intelligent people of my own time and place lauded as unquestionably correct.

Not that there was much uniformity of belief among the authors. Hazlitt and George Eliot and George Orwell and C.S. Lewis all started from different assumptions and arrived at different conclusions. Yet they were clearly as smart as any modern writer; in fact, judged solely by the quality of their prose, far smarter. As for the quality of their reasoning, it appeared to be at least equal to, probably superior to my own. Beyond that, how was I to say?

If any two thinkers who in my shaky estimation seemed equally intelligent could reason their way to opposite conclusions about the truth; if their opposite conclusions could appear equally plausible; then on what basis could I choose between them?

I began to suspect that my judgements were no better than a coin flip, and that I should probably refrain from taking any action where there might be a danger of negatively affecting other people.

If I this was as stupid a conclusion as it seemed, then my reasoning must have broken down somewhere – which meant that I was even less intelligent than I thought, and even less qualified to judge.

***

I can imagine how my intelligent peers, if confronted with such doubts, would reassure me. Yesterday’s geniuses, while enlightened by the standards of their times, simply couldn’t have known what we know now. Had Nietzsche seen the workings of a modern welfare state he would have chucked all that will-to-power stuff. Had H.G. Wells witnessed the condition of modern Venezuela he would have been more skeptical of centralized economic planning. Had Chesterton had access to the Sayings of Justin Trudeau he would have realized that all faith traditions contribute equally to our wonderful multicultural mosaic.

Though ignorant in their various ways, these authors all did their part to raise us to such intellectual heights. We are dwarfs standing on giants’ shoulders, standing in turn on other giants’ shoulders, stacked giant-atop-giant all the way back to the first groaning behemoth sunk nostril-deep in the ancestral mire. We honour those giants – who couldn’t possibly have dreamt how far and how clearly we’d someday see – by pulling their books off the shelf occasionally, revisiting their obsolete arguments, chuckling fondly at their innocent errors; but not by taking them too seriously. No doubt they’d find our current beliefs strange and disorienting. Well, wouldn’t we be disoriented if we were somehow raised to the dizzying level of some far-future dwarf poised a thousand giants above us? Wouldn’t the habits of that future dwarf seem to us foreign, inexplicable, even horrific? Our vision is as yet too narrow to take in such galaxy-spanning vistas!

Could be. But here’s how unintelligent I am: while struggling through, for example, The Republic, I never once found myself thinking, “Ah, Plato, poor simpleton. If only he could have lived to see how successfully we moderns had answered all his primitive fears.”

I thought instead: “Uh-oh. What if this old kook was right?”

What if democratic rule devolves inevitably into tyranny? What if certain stories, melodies, and rhythms breed effeminacy of character? What if common myths are essential to preserving social stability?

Our common myth is that all the above propositions are untrue; and maybe it’s irresponsible of me to dabble with them. As Plato’s hero Socrates modestly admits:

[T]o carry on an argument when you are yourself only a hesitating enquirer, which is my condition, is a dangerous and slippery thing; and the danger is not that I shall be laughed at (of which the fear would be childish), but that I shall miss the truth where I have most need to be sure of my footing, and drag my friends after me in my fall.

Suppose that in the dwarf-on-dwarf quarrel on the giant’s shoulder, the wrong dwarf prevailed? Suppose that rather than stretching up to the stars, that dwarf stepped blindly into the void, dragging the others after him? Suppose this has happened any number of times in our intellectual history, that it’s happening right now, and that instead of a triumphant climb heavenward, all we really have is a vast swamp littered with heaps of dead dwarfs?

M.

1. In a subsequent installment of Monty, Dehlia confronts the likelihood that Moondog’s vote will cancel hers out.

Fourteen years ago, when I was still full of whimsy, I wrote this short dialogue between Plato and his pupil Dion. Last year I described first encountering the famous line about standing on the shoulders of giants in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. In April I undertook a preliminary survey of the domain of epistemic muddle that is now my permanent home.

The Odyssey: Mostly non-odyssey.

It was with some embarrassment that last month, a few weeks shy of my forty-first birthday, I finally got around to reading the Odyssey.

homer the odyssey

I feel a little better after finding in the New Yorker this account of how Daniel Mendelsohn’s father encountered the poem at the age of eighty-one, sitting in on a fifteen-week undergraduate seminar taught by his son.

I’m sure the elder Mr. Mendelsohn, having been educated in a more rigorous age, was better acquainted than I was with the storyline going in. I recall learning about Odysseus’s adventures as part of an overview of Greek mythology lasting two weeks or so in in ninth grade English. Of those two weeks we spent maybe a day discussing the highlights of Homer’s epic – the lotus-eaters, Polyphemus, Circe, the Underworld, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis. Just enough to enable us to pick up the most common references pop culture might throw at us in later life.

I knew that, just as the Iliad consists of a fairly brief episode in the Trojan War, the Odyssey covers a few weeks at the end of the hero’s wanderings, with the most exciting incidents already behind him. But I didn’t realize how small a part of the big-O Odyssey – at most a third, maybe as little as 20% or so – is devoted to Odysseus’s little-O odyssey.

The poem consists of 24 books of generally equal length, most running between 400 and 500 lines. The titular hero doesn’t really appear in books 1-4, which concern the activities of his wife and son. Odysseus is introduced in book 5 and arrives home in Ithaca midway through book 13. Which means that the odyssey part of the Odyssey – that is, the part concerning Odysseus’s voyages – consists of just eight books, with most of the seafaring action compressed into books 9-12, where Odysseus recounts his misfortunes at the court of King Alcinous, the last stop on his homeward journey.

Post-seminar, Mendelsohn and his dad took an educational cruise around the Mediterranean, visiting the purported sites of the events Homer describes. During their stop on the island of Gozo, site (per local legend) of Odysseus’s imprisonment by the nymph Calypso, the claustrophobic son elected not to descend into Calypso’s cave:

“What are you talking about?” my father exclaimed when I told him. “You have to go! Seven-tenths of the Odyssey takes place there!”

“Seven-tenths?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “The epic is twenty-four books long–”

“Math, Dan! Math. Odysseus spends ten years getting home, right?”

I nodded.

“And he spends seven years with Calypso, right?”

I nodded again.

“So, in theory, seven-tenths of the Odyssey actually takes place there! You can’t miss it!”

According to the unabridged Oxford Dictionary at my local library, the word “odyssey” in the figurative sense of “a long series of wanderings to and fro; a long adventurous journey” dates back only to the late 19th century in our language. The French “odyssée” goes back another hundred years, with a usage recorded in 1798.

Did the Greeks ever use “odyssey” to mean a long voyage? Not as far as I can tell (based on an hour of clumsily searching the Perseus Digital Library database). But my Oxford Companion to Classical Literature mentions that Odysseus’s tale in books 9-12 “became proverbial among later Greeks for a long story”. That seems to be how it’s used in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates introduces the lengthy fable of Er, which closes book 10, with the comment “Mind you, I’m not going to tell you an Alcinous’s tale…”

So it’s possible to imagine a world where “odyssey” came to mean “a long-winded story”. But I think any reader who came to the Odyssey without preconceptions, if asked to summarize what it was about, would say not “a voyage” but “a homecoming”.

***

A summary of the non-odyssey parts of the Odyssey:

Books 1-4. On Olympus, the gods are feeling sorry for Odysseus, stranded far from his wife and son. They decide that while Poseidon is away doing god-business on the far side of the world – Poseidon being the one who holds a particular grudge against the hero – they’ll take the opportunity to help Odysseus get home.

Although it’s unclear how this is at all relevant to the objective, Athena flies down to Ithaca and convinces Odysseus’s grown son Telemachus to go on a journey for news of his missing father. Telemachus sails to the Greek mainland to visit Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen, who reveal what they’ve been up to since the events of the Iliad. Meanwhile the suitors – the young rowdies who, believing Odysseus to be dead, have taken up residence in his palace to compete for the attentions of his wife, Penelope – devise a plot to intercept and murder Telemachus on his way home from the mainland.

Book 5. Back to Olympus. Athena frets that not only is Odysseus still stranded, now Telemachus’s life is in danger too. Zeus reminds her that they’re gods and they already know how this story is going to play out. But to get his daughter off his back he sends Hermes down to earth to order the nymph Calypso, who’s been holding Odysseus captive in her desert island sex cave, to let him go. Which Hermes does. Calypso grudgingly assents, and strolls out to give Odysseus the news.

Here we finally meet our hero, sitting on a rock, staring moodily out to sea. Calypso tells him he’s free to go and directs him to a grove of trees suitable for raft-building. Odysseus builds his raft and pushes off, but by bad luck Poseidon, happening that moment to return from his business trip, notices his impertinent escape and summons a storm to smash the raft. However, a passing sea-nymph takes a shine to the drowning hero and helps him get to shore.

Books 6-8. The daughter of the king of Phaeacia finds Odysseus naked on the beach. Attracted to the stranger – whose natural sex appeal Athena has magically enhanced – the princess gives him clothes and brings him home to her parents. King Alcinous takes in the unlucky traveller, tactfully declines to press him for his identity, and promises to help him on his way. At a festival thrown in his honour, the stranger out-discus-throws a local loudmouth, proving his superior quality. Afterward, during the feast, Alcinous notices his guest weeping into his cloak while his minstrel sings a song about the legendary Odysseus’s exploits in the Trojan War. The king stops the music and asks his guest outright – who are you?

Books 9-12. Odysseus announces himself and tells the tale of his wanderings – cyclops, sirens, and all the rest – concluding with the death of his crew and his arrival on Calypso’s island.

These four books contain practically everything the average person thinks of as “the Odyssey”.

Book 13. Alcinous arranges a ship to take Odysseus back to Ithaca. It arrives without incident, and Odysseus is deposited – in his sleep! – on his native shore, along with all the pricey gifts the Phaeacian nobles bestowed on their famous visitor. The ship heads back to Phaeacia. Poseidon wants to punish the kingdom for assisting Odysseus, but Zeus haggles him down to merely turning the ship and its crew to stone.

Odysseus wakes up on an unfamiliar beach and, prickly after years of mistreatment by the gods, assumes he’s been robbed and marooned on yet another desert island. Athena shows up and tells him he’s home on Ithaca, but he can’t return to his palace because the suitors might kill him. She disguises him as an old beggar and directs him to the hut belonging to his trusty swineherd.

Books 14-16. Odysseus is taken in by the swineherd, but once again elects not to reveal his true identity. He spins an elaborate fake story about how he’s definitely not Odysseus but he did run into Odysseus and knows he’s still alive. The swineherd assumes the old beggar is pulling his leg.

Athena visits Telemachus, who’s been dallying in Menelaus’s palace this whole time, and tells him to head home. Arriving safely at Ithaca, Telemachus stops by the hut to see what’s been going on since he left. He doesn’t recognize his father in his old beggar disguise, but Athena drops the enchantment temporarily and Odysseus reveals himself to his amazed son. They make plans to murder the suitors.

Books 17-21. Odysseus installs himself as a beggar in his own hall, where the suitors mock and abuse him. Penelope is kind to him, but he makes no attempt to confide in her, instead spinning another elaborate deception about how, no, he’s positively not Odysseus, although now that she mentions it people have told him they look alike, and by the way he happens to know Odysseus is alive and headed home at this very moment.

Penelope gives directions for her guest to be bathed by an old slavewoman who, by chance, recognizes her master by a scar on his thigh. The old woman turns to shout the good news but Odysseus roughly warns her to put a sock in it before she blows his whole operation. The old woman agrees to keep quiet, and to rat out any servant girls who’ve been consorting with the suitors.

Penelope, resigning herself to marrying one of these jerks, brings out her husband’s old bow and challenges the suitors to an archery contest with herself as prize – but not one of the soft-living suitors can so much as string the bow. The old beggar proposes to take a crack at the challenge himself. The suitors make nervous wisecracks but Penelope is willing to indulge him. Telemachus tells her to pipe down, he’s the man of the house and he’ll decide who gets to take part in the contest to marry her. His mother trots obediently off to her chambers, where Athena puts her to sleep until the massacre is over. Telemachus orders that the bow be given to the beggar.

Odysseus strings the bow and, to the amazement of all, nails the trick shot. Bow in hand, he turns to confront the suitors.

Books 22-24. With the backing of Telemachus, the swineherd, and one other trusty servant – and with Athena providing magical protection – Odysseus butchers everyone. The slavegirls that have been fingered as untrustworthy are forced to haul out the corpses and mop up the gore before being killed by Telemachus. Penelope and Odysseus are tearfully reunited.

Down in the Underworld, Achilles and Agamemnon are swapping tales about their Trojan War days. Seeing a crowd of healthy young souls come shuffling in, Agamemnon asks the newcomers what happened, was there a shipwreck or something? The suitors moan about how badly they were treated first by Penelope, who kept them dangling for years, and then by Odysseus, who was entirely uncool about them crashing at his place while he was away. Remembering his own less-than-warm welcome home, Agamemnon says Odysseus is lucky to have such a faithful wife.

Back in Ithaca, Odysseus goes to see his aged father, where for no reason at all – he just can’t help himself! – he launches into yet another lie about being Odysseus’s friend visiting from overseas. He feels guilty and drops the lie quickly enough though.

Odysseus and his father, son, and allies fend off an attack by the suitors’ aggrieved relatives, before Athena appears to put a stop to the fighting. Abruptly, The End.

M.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added book cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Crossing over: Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Recently, over breakfast, my girlfriend and I chatted about some of the TV programs that she, having come to consciousness only in the mid-’90s, never had a chance to experience. She’s seen enough Cheers reruns to get the gist, but Family Ties, Night Court, and Newhart, among others, she knows only by reputation.

I told her how, in the final scene of the final episode of Newhart, it was revealed that the whole series had been dreamed by Bob Newhart’s character from his earlier The Bob Newhart Show. This reminded me of St. Elsewhere, and I summarized for her the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis: In outline, since all the events of St. Elsewhere were revealed in that show’s final episode to be the daydreams of a snowglobe-clutching autistic child named Tommy Westphall, and since characters from St. Elsewhere crossed over to a number of other TV shows, including Mash, Cheers, and Homicide: Life on the Street, implying that those shows took place in the same fictional reality, and since characters from those overcrossing shows in turn crossed over to a whole bunch of other shows, it can be argued that the events of all these other shows were also daydreamed by Tommy Westphall. The Tommy Westphall Universe turns out to encompass everything from Mission: Impossible to Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.

Somehow this got me thinking of the connections among some of the books I’ve been reading lately. For instance, Christopher Hitchens in his memoir Hitch-22 crosses over with his old friend Martin Amis in his memoir Experience, providing complementary versions of the evening when Hitchens was introduced to Amis’s “literary father” Saul Bellow. [1]

christopher hitchens hitch 22

As Hitch tells it:

Martin offers a slightly oblique and esoteric account of a trip on which he took me in 1989, to visit Saul Bellow in Vermont. On our buddy-movie drive up there from Cape Cod – he’s almost word-perfect about this bit – he made it clear that I wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel. (“No sinister balls,” which was our colloquialism for a certain kind of too-easy leftism.) I knew I was being greatly honored by the invitation, not just because it was a huge distinction to meet Bellow but because, second only to an introduction to his father, it was the highest such gift that Martin could bestow. I needed no telling that I should seize the opportunity to do more listening than talking.

And yet it’s true, as he reports, that by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and his own foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.

We learn that Bellow had provoked Hitchens by calumniating his friend, the erudite Palestinian radical and literary critic Edward Said (who was later to fall out with Hitchens as they drifted to ever more irreconcilable positions on the morality of Western intervention in the Arab world, and violent Arab reactions thereto). Hitchens’s defense of his friend had inevitably veered into a lengthy diatribe – “a blue streak of sinister balls”, Amis says – about the misdeeds of Bellow’s beloved Israel. Afterward, Hitchens regretted embarrassing his friend, but:

[Amis] suffered more agony than he needed to, because Bellow as an old former Trotskyist and Chicago streetfighter was used to much warmer work and hardly took offense at all. He later sent me a warm letter about my introduction to a new edition of Augie March.

martin amis experience

Bellow makes several other appearances, besides that awkward dinner party, in Amis’s memoir. We hear for instance how Bellow nearly died of a rare neurological infection he picked up dining on a red snapper on a visit to the Caribbean, a story that appears in slightly fictionalized form in Bellow’s Ravelstein.

That novel is about the death of Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom, the professor, philosopher, and author of The Closing of the American Mind. As Amis says,

I know Bellow’s novel far, far better than I ever knew Bellow’s friend. Yet Ravelstein comes close to persuading me otherwise. This book is numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation, and in its pages Bloom lives.

saul bellow ravelstein

In the novel, Bloom-as-Ravelstein importunes the narrator, the Bellow stand-in, to write about him after his death.

“I’m laying this on you as an obligation. Do it in your after-supper-reminiscence manner, when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and you’re laid back and making remarks. I love listening when you are freewheeling about Edmund Wilson or John Berryman or Whittaker Chambers when you were hired at Time in the morning and fired by him before lunch.”

We learn in Hitch-22 that Hitchens, in real life, heard the Whittaker Chambers story from Bellow, on the evening of the awkwardness over Edward Said:

Offered a job as book critic for Time magazine as a young man, Bellow had been interviewed by Chambers and asked to give his opinion about William Wordsworth. Replying perhaps too quickly that Wordsworth had been a Romantic poet, he had been brusquely informed by Chambers that there was no place for him at the magazine. Bellow had often wondered, he told us, what he ought to have said. I suggested that he might have got the job if he’d replied that Wordsworth was a once-revolutionary poet who later became a conservative and was denounced by Browning and others as a turncoat. This seemed to Bellow to be probably right.

Speaking of the “after-supper-reminiscence manner”: both Ravelstein in Ravelstein and his model Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind refer to Plato’s Symposium, that famous gathering of Athenian intellects where Socrates, Alcibiades, and Aristophanes and their friends got drunk and declaimed on the nature of love. Taking a poke at modern critical theory, Bloom writes (paraphrasing Nietzche):

[A]fter the ministrations of modern scholarship the Symposium is so far away that it can no longer seduce us; its immediate charm has utterly vanished.

But for non-scholars, the Symposium will always be seductive because it shows us our heroes just as we want to imagine them – hanging out forever in a Valhalla of the intellect, joshing and quipping and making each other spray wine through their noses.

Which brings us to the Friday lunch. Hitch-22 devotes a few pages (and Experience a passing mention) to the boisterous weekly get-together that Hitchens and Amis shared through the 1970s and ’80s with Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Clive James, and illustrious others. Hitchens identifies James as the “chief whip” of the gatherings: “He needed an audience and damn well deserved one.”

clive james north face of soho

It’s James who gives us the vividest picture of the Friday lunch, in his memoir North Face of Soho, showing us how Amis could improvise a tall story, sustaining the massed laughter with “the economical stroke of the whip that did just enough to keep the top spinning”, while Hitchens’s specialty was the interjection of sarcastic asides:

[I]f someone was being straightforward, he could make them funny, and if someone was being funny, he could make them funnier.

The actual content of the proceedings, as repeated by James and Hitchens, isn’t quite the stuff of a modern Symposium­. Hitchens gives a few examples of the wordplay and concedes that there were “long interludes of puerility”; James credits, or blames, the illustrator Mark Boxer for “discouraging the anecdote as form – he wanted the flash of wit. … Nobody was allowed to take his time …” It sounds like a riot, in the sense that it must have been obnoxious and nerve-jangling, each man contending to make the biggest smash. [2]

Speaking of that lunch, which Hitchens says has “become the potential stuff of a new ‘Bloomsbury’ legend” – the legend would gain momentum more quickly if it had a catchier name than “the Friday lunch”, which is what Clive James also calls it in his memoir. James reports that when he kickstarted the gathering, he liked to refer to it mock-conspiratorially as the “Modish London Literary World”, a dig at the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, who apparently believed such a conspiracy explained why his favoured authors kept getting bad reviews. Unfortunately the Modish brand never caught on. Before they all shuffle off to trade zingers with Aristophanes and Allan Bloom, can we agree on a name for this cohort of legendary British wits? (As with Bloomsbury, MacSpaunday, and the Algonquin Round Table, it’ll help future generations to keep them sorted.) In its heyday the group convened at the Bursa Kebab House; occasionally James calls it the Kebab House lunch. How about the Kebab House Group?

allan bloom the closing of the american mind

In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom mentions a student who fretted to him, after reading the Symposium, that “it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced” in his own place and time. Bloom disputes this: “such experiences are always accessible”; his student “had brains, friends, and a country happily free enough to let them gather and speak as they will”. Most of us will never enjoy after-dinner discussions quite as stirring as the Symposium, or as riotous as the Kebab House lunches. But as Bloom consolingly reflects,

This student did not have Socrates, but he had Plato’s book about him, which might even be better.

M.

1. Amis says of Bellow, “I am not his son, of course. What I am is his ideal reader. I am not my father [Kingsley]’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.”

James mentions in passing, in his essay collection Cultural Amnesia,

On the whole, writers find other writers hard to be enthusiastic about, even when the other writers are safely dead. It takes security in one’s talent on top of generosity of soul. … Martin Amis’s praise of Saul Bellow is especially valuable because the younger writer is continually faced, when reading the older one, with things he himself would like to have said.

2. Hitchens and James both note the absence of a restraining female presence at the Friday lunch: “It was a very competitive scene, though,” James writes, “and therefore very male.” This naturally brings to mind Hitchens’s famously shit-stirring Vanity Fair article on why women aren’t funny. His argument boils down to: because they don’t have to be.

M.

In previous entries I’ve discussed Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and Martin Amis’s relationship with his father.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Herodotus, Plato, and Plutarch in the Archive.

This is a landing page for archived posts about Herodotus, Plato, and Plutarch.

Some very belated thoughts on 300.
June 26, 2008

After reading a scathing review of 300 I tried to imagine how Herodotus’ account of the siege of Thermopylae could be rendered more flattering to leftist sensibilities in the George W. Bush era.

Plato and Dion: A play.
November 18, 2004

Plato doesn’t want to be Secretary of Education in this goofy 2004 playlet inspired by Plutarch’s “Life of Dion”.

Birds falling from the sky: Iraq and the ’04 election.
November 1, 2004

I crammed in an anecdote from Plutarch’s “Life of Flamininus” to give the appearance of erudition to these deep thoughts about the occupation of Iraq.

Plato’s Republic.
April 13, 2004

“Plato is alright when he’s talking about concrete things, like countries and wars and women, but I haven’t got much patience for the abstract discussions of Justice and Truth and how the Four Virtues correspond, in some elaborate way, with the different aspects of the human spirit.” …


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