12.29.2013

e calavas-te («nam tu semper aderas misericorditer sæviens»)

ibam longius a te et sinebas, et jactabar et effundebar et diffluebam et ebulliebam per fornicationes meas, et tacebas. o tardum gaudium meum! tacebas tunc, et ego ibam porro longe a te in plura et plura sterilia semina dolorum superba dejectione et inquieta lassitudine.

Aurelii Augustini Confessionum 2.2.2

12.13.2013

the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent


Philology has been dethroned from the high place it once had in this court of inquiry. Max Müller's view of mythology as a 'disease of language' can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power — upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such 'fantasy', as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

J. R. R. Tolkien. On Fairy-Stories in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Harper Collins (2006)

12.12.2013

Amanheceu em mim

Κ

mete-me medo pensar que um dia
ninguém se lembrará que houve deuses.
não digo acreditar
já ninguém acredita em Hermes,
o Corredor,
mas lembrar ao menos que houve um dia
formas brilhantes nas trevas
cavalos no céu do verão
e que os homens e as mulheres desafiavam
a Lua e o Sol e por vezes ganhavam.
não é pena que sinto, é aquela
tristeza que dizem que os deuses sentiam,
quando existiam,
a tristeza com sabor a maresia
que nascia de não saberem o que fazer com tanta
felicidade. os deuses
viam as gerações dos homens passar
como as folhas das árvores
e foram-se esquecendo de como é bom amar-nos.
nós vemos as gerações dos deuses passar
como as folhas dos livros
e vamos desaprendendo também os gestos das libações,
da prece, e da luz. um dia alguém chegará a uma coluna dum templo
e sentar-se-á nela, e comerá a merenda,
e isso será bonito
mas será também triste.

12.09.2013

All ripens and rots

After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndeȝ
Quen Ȝeferus syfleȝ hymself on sedeȝ and erbeȝ,
Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes þeroute,
When þe donkande dewe dropeȝ of þe leueȝ,
To bide a blysful blusch of þe bryȝt sunne.
Bot þen hyȝes heruest, and hardenes hym sone,
Warneȝ hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype;
He dryues wyth droȝt þe dust for to ryse,
Fro þe face of þe folde to flyȝe ful hyȝe;
Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrasteleȝ with þe sunne,
Þe leueȝ lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde,
And al grayes þe gres þat grene watȝ ere;
Þenne al rypeȝ and roteȝ þat ros vpon fyrst,
And þus ȝirneȝ þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony,
And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askeȝ,
no fage,
Til Meȝelmas mone
Watȝ cumen wyth wynter wage;
Þen þenkkeȝ Gawan ful sone
Of his anious uyage.

The ‘Pearl’ Poet. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. II 516-535

12.04.2013

Notes on a Greek poem

To the Dioskouroi
Alkæos 109 LGS

leave starry Olympus and come,
powerful children of Leda and Zeus -
appear with propitious might, Kastor
and Polydeukes,

you who ride across the entire land
and sea on your quick steeds,
save us from the cold
of death,

for when you jump to the height of the ships,
and shine on the mast from afar,
to the dark ship you bring forth a light
in dangerous night

(My translation)

Above we have a poem attributed with much certainty to the Greek poet Alcæus of Mytilene, contemporary and possibly friend of Sappho, the greatest of Greek lyric poets. This poem has survived until our times not through the usual venues of copying and scribal transmission; like many of Sappho's fragments it was found in the Egyptian waste-deposit centre of Oxyrhynchus, from which large amounts of papyrus fragments have been selectively gathered and published since the end of the nineteenth century until now. Among other problems, this means that what we have before us is a fragment of what in all likelihood was a larger text — though just how large we will never know.

We will not be discouraged. Just like Gombrich comments at one point* apropos the notion of organic whole, criticizing its validity and urging us to recompose works by prescinding from globalizing tendencies, so too the rhetorical function of poetry may oft be better ascertained when it the poem is broken apart and when from its broken unity we extract the crackled light that shines through the fragments. At any rate that is the compromise conviction which I will somewhat cynically espouse, given how unlikely it is that we will ever find the remaining poem.

The poem addresses the Sons of God — the Dios Kouroi — the Zeus- and Leda- born twins Castor and Polydeuces, winners of battles and saviours of humankind in its hours of hardship. Since they are the true addressees of the poem, we could be tempted to call this poem a hymn. However, hymns tend to praise a god, and Greek hymns tend to narrate the god's powers, usually in connection with his or her deeds. Here we'll have none of that. Instead we read “leave starred Olympus and come here!” [δεῦτ' Όλυμπον αστέροπον λίποντες] and “appear!” [προφάνητε] even with “propitious courage” [ιλλάῳ θύμῳ]. It seems therefore more likely that we would better be entitled to call this a prayer — a request.

But what sort of a request? Straight after asking for the theophany, the speaker seems to proceed to a not very subtle sort of captatio benevolentiæ in which the gods’ potency is seen to be so inextricably bound to their character that they are presented as a simple relative clause (“you who” [οὶ]). Their domain is seen to be both “the wide earth” [εύρηαν χθόνα] and the “all the sea” [θάλασσαν παῖσαν] — in the last surviving strophe we will go back to how important it is that they hold domain over the waters. Right afterwards we read that it is up to the gods to keep death away from mortals, more specifically that sort of death which would require “swift” [ρῆα] action on their part — and so we’re speaking about death by catastrophes or combat, as opposed to illness and old age. Even further, we could say that “be ready to save us” — ρυέσθε, which syntatically* as well as semantically* can only be an imperative, and never a middle-voice indicative — turns the captatio benevolentiæ of the two previous lines on its head; description turns into indictment, praise and poetry turn into prayer that the gods will once again fulfill their duty and the task that beseems them.

The haunting image that follows of the “light in dangerous night” refers to the physical phenomenon that is known to be observed whenever a ship with a tall mast sails at high sea and an approaching storm fills the air with electricity. The tall mast becomes a focus point for static energy and produces what have been called orbs of light. Far from ominous, however, it has traditionally been interpreted as a benign portent: Ancient Greek nautical terminology refers to these events simply as DioskuroiKastor and Polydeuces —, and even the survival of Antiquity into Christian thought has consisted of nothing more but a rebranding of the divinities encharged with the safety of sailors with the name of their new Christian patron saint, St. Elmo, whence St. Elmo’s Fire.

Why is it being mentioned, though? We have already seen how these deities are particularly apt to be invoked in moments of dire need. We have also seen that the poem opens in a suppliant tone, with the calling forth of nothing short of an epiphany. Does one hold such a faith in the salvific power of poetry as to consider the writing of a poem the appropriate course of action when a ship is about to sink? Not very probable. What, then, is the function of of a poem like this? When could it have been written? This is no rite of spring, no request of fertility for the fields in the seasons to come. Though in a grand scale not more important than those, it is nonetheless much more urgent. Its metrical and stylistic perfection clashes with the demands that are made during the extreme and perilous situations which alone would give the poem a ground and reason for existing in the first place.

Even if we go back to our first tentative answer, that it could be an hymn and not a prayer, we realize that we are also very distant from the hymn-form that we find, for example, in the Homeric Hymns (of which the 33rd is to the Dioskuroi) and elsewhere; and it says nothing hymnlike apart from verses 5-6 (though more could have perished).

No, all indicates that it must be a prayer. Unfortunately, what this means is that the poem will continue to elude us: we still don't know what could ever have grounded its writing. More interestingly, its impalpabability doesn’t seem to spring, as in the beginning we thought it could, from its fragmented state of transmission: it would be very difficult to give an appropriate answer to the enigmas herein raised even should the poem have survived intact; in reality it is its fragmented state that allows us to pose these questions, for by truncating the poem we are forced to guess, to formulate conjectures, ultimately even to prophesy the poem's range by taking its cultic and mystical dimension as an irresoluble issue and therefore not as a puzzle but as an existential riddle. 

This of course unless we prefer to turn to the dead end of considering that its issues are to be disposed of by describing them as the lack of internal construction proper to a failed poem (which ultimately it may very well be, but that’s simply dodging the issue: our task as a readers and hearers compels us to go further and be both more responsible and cautious).

Instead, I am ready to propose that the difficulty, instead of lying in an absence of poetic skill, is rather to be found in its very rhetorical core, and that the difficulties and failings upon which we stumble are those that accrue to her or him who would would use the conventions of human art to address not humans but the gods. Rhetoric is a human device and instrument. To speak with gods one uses other means. Mixing them seldom brings success.


δεῦτ' Όλυμπον αστέροπον λίποντες
παῖδες ίφθιμοι Δίος ηδὲ Λήδας
ιλλάῳ θύμῳ προφάνητε Κάστορ
καὶ Πολύδευκες

οὶ κὰτ εύρηαν χθόνα καὶ θάλασσαν
παῖσαν έρχεσθ' ωκυπόδων επ' ίππων
ρῆα δ' ανθρώποις θανάτω ρύεσθε
ζακρυόεντος

ευεδρῶν θρῴσκοντες ὸν' άκρα νάων
τήλοθεν λάμπροι πρότον' αμφιβάντες
αργαλέᾳ δ' εν νύκτι φάος φέροντες
νᾶῑ μελαίνᾳ

12.01.2013

We are the children of the Revolution

Yes, Machiavelli was right: we cannot doubt it now that we have the experience of three and a half centuries added to his own experience. Yes, History tells us that while small States are virtuous because of their feebleness, powerful States sustain themselves only through crime. But our conclusion will differ radically from that of Machiavelli, and the reason thereof is quite simple: we are the children of the Revolution and we have inherited from it the Religion of Humanity which we have to found upon the ruins of the Religion of Divinity. We believe in human rights, in the dignity and necessary emancipation of the human species. We believe in human liberty and human fraternity based upon human justice.

Mikhail Bakunin. The Immorality of the State.