Herodotus Bringing It All Back Home

You know, I just had a thought that gave me a lot of pleasure: not this fall, but next fall, it’ll be ten years since I first read Herodotus. Ten years! Since reading Herodotus! Since getting to know that peculiarly idiosyncratic, lovable, spoudaios man. Maybe getting older is worth it; a decade of knowing Herodotus. Surely not being 19, or 21, or 24, or even 25 anymore is worth that.

Herodotus, the Naked Man Edition

This is my first copy. Bought seconds after Beth snatched up the last non-naked-man edition. I now own four versions:this one, the brokenness of which the picture doesn’t, of course, do justice to; the same translation in hard back sans naked man, bought used from Olsson’s downtown; the Landmark version (which you can see the edge of in the picture, on the left) which I just received from Gill and Ian for my January birthday–you know, I’m beyond excited about the maps, but the translation isn’t as good as Grene’s; and a well beloved audio version, with some random old translation and a equally random crackly old man reading it. (This last claims H. named each of his nine books after the nine Muses, which I still don’t know is true or not.)

I finished my paper on Aquinas and the passions today–it turns out that pleasure is the closest passion, ontologically speaking, to a habit, as it’s an energeia of its own, but whatever– and I couldn’t think of anything better to do to calm down and celebrate than to walk five blocks to Dr. Granville’s, a mussels-fries-and-Belgian beer place on H St., pictured above. (It’s the one with the tallest spire.)

Then, drinking, I had my thought, but then I had to think about why it was so peculiarly pleasing. It’ll also be, for instance, ten years since reading the Republic, the Iliad and the Odyssey; the anniversary of the plays will come a little earlier, since I read them the summer before school began. I had read, basically, genre novels, novels, and plays, and the Apology, and I knew I might do better reading similar things before than anything else. (I also read Middlemarch that summer, and understood not perhaps a word of it.)

As much as everything was profound, affecting, life-turning, life-messing-up that I read that year, back in 1999, why is it a decade of Herodotus that gives so much simple, easy, calming pleasure? Consider this: my dad and I share two beloved writers in common: Bob Dylan and Plato. Really, that’s us. Oedipus and his dad both get pretty angry at dishonor pretty quickly; me and my dad, we listen to Blood on the Tracks and dream about the Soul, and all the images one might well make about it. We like thinking ironic poetry and poetical ironic philosophy. So it’s not as though Herodotus were me, were simply a part of my soul. I don’t think I read him easily. Yet there was something striking about him: his voice was a voice I knew I could hear, in its characteristic self, more easily than other voices through the muddle of translation; he was a Character, like an Oxford don or something, a weirdo, but one you could love for the right reasons.

I even wrote my Freshman essay on the man. (It was not well received.) The title of my document in the computer, though not the official title of the essay, was the same as this post, a Bob Dylan album title. Herodotus does bring it all back home; tonight, I read how when the Persian fleet was wrecked, one man became rich from simply picking up gold cups from the shore, although he later came to grief from other reasons. I also read, that with the 5,283, 220 troops of Xerxes, there were numbered-less numbers of women, eunuchs, baggage animals, and dogs. And that, of these many ten thousands of men, for handsomeness and size there was none worthier than Xerxes to hold that power.

The New yorker notes H. was right about the etruscans.

(I like that one woman, third from the right. She knows what she’s doing.)

I guess it was at least obvious to me that Herodotus was telling important stories, stories like people I knew from the South told, and that it was vital to tell them, and that the telling brought it home to you–even if I didn’t know what any of them meant. Miss Brann used to ask me, I guess in seminar, and in my paper proposal, and also in my oral on the paper, whether there was some underlying unity, some reason why one story came willy-nilly after the next–or none, she said, at all. I guess, I imagine she was wondering whether he was another Plato, or Aristophanes, a poet with a clear, even harsh eye towards the ultimate meaning of his text. I think I can now say, his eye isn’t harsh; he has so many reservations about what real poetic unity would look like–think of his criticisms and re-tellings of Homer, for instance–and he wants to tell you what’s true about broken truth, about anecdotal truth. He’s not bringing it back home in a fully conscious, pointed, sharp, wordy way, but he does have a profound poetic sense of what stories are important and which aren’t, and as a serious reader, it’s your own human job, he thinks, to figure out why. Ms. B. pointed out my essay was really about what an anecdote is: now I know that’s not bad.

I have a year and four months before the ten years is up. When I finish reading, really reading, Books 7, 8, and 9, I’ll have read it all. And that will be something. Something better than me reading some book and instantly having a theory about it.

Again–ten years is a long time. But it is a light burden when I think of my long story of getting to know Herodotus–even a burden I would gladly make heavier, with further age to come.


The Dialectic of Sesame Street

You asked for it: Hegelian dialectic.

Sesame Street has deep poetic unity. Each character has a paradigmatic vice: Cookie Monster has, obviously, greed for cookies, Super Grover is vainly convinced of the efficacy of his powers, Oscar delights in the ugly, and Big Bird wrings his hands in emergencies. Yet each vice, or indeed, hubris, springs from an underlying unity which contains the vice’s negation: in each character, some strong particularity of soul is responsible both for their vices and virtues. Oscar’s desire for the ugly proves to contain a secret sense that beauty while difficult, is the most important thing; Super Grover’s overweening nervous vanity is responsible for his cowardice but also his bravado and love of the noble (Grover, noble hero of heroes!); Big Bird’s difficulty in action comes from perceptual sensitivity, for he has true kindness and pity for suffering; while Cookie Monster’s hunger–not mere epithumia, but something like eros for cookies–in its very expansiveness, proves to include a deep generosity of spirit and willingness to be refuted (No, Cookie Monster, it’s an “O”, not a cookie!—Yes, you right, me wrong).

Sesame Street’s ultimate teaching about democratic plurality has a basis in human nature that some democracies may try to ignore, or gloss over. The temptation is to ignore deep human differences so that the democracy can be more equal, but this is short-lived, because eros, hubris, all of it, will out. The better solution is to acknowledge difference: not difference in degree, as some oligarchists will claim, but difference in kind, real kind. When trying to categorize human error, there’s a modern sense that we all have the same basic inclinations, desires, and the same solution will be appropriate for us all. Ah, not so. Super Grover needs a different education from Cookie Monster: the problems that arise from the latter’s greed are Not the Same as those from the former’s vanity. Each’s vice is hardly understandable to the other. Yet presented to us, as characters who all have to live together in the same city, we can all find their trial and error truly funny.

Thus, in portraying the Hegelian comedy of human nature, Sesame Street educates children in the geometrically-moderate understanding of how life in a community is possible: one must not expel the vices of people, lest one expel their virtues as well. Instead, these vices–or more precisely, inclinations which have vicious and virtuous tendencies–must be educated, the very thing Sesame Street is explicitly trying to do. And comedically, we can’t expect that the vices–these true expressions of human striving–will ever disappear; rather, our best friends will continue to display them. But our knowledge of what they mean takes the sting out of them, and lets the friendship continue; our very sense of this comedy harmonizes our relation to the city, and to our own powers.

Watching Sesame Street is good for the soul.

Romantic Music and Wes Anderson

Yesterday, V. told us an amusing incident concerning his father, a certain young lady who appeared in The Darjeeling Limited, and no doubt fairly expensive underwear.

Fortunately, as V. related this to us, I realized my Ipod was at hand, and the anecdote had its natural end while Peter Sarstedt’s extremely obscure 1969 hit (only in Britain and Australia) Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) was played. Unfortunately, Vernon has not seen The Darjeeling Limited, so he didn’t realize the full felicity of this moment, but my husband, at least, was on hand to appreciate and applaud. The movie’s been on our minds since it came out, and it was all too Wes-Anderson-esque to have life imitate art in this way.But the reason I was reminded of this story, as you might wonder, was because the soundtrack continued to play, and I woke up with Debussy in my head, which does not happen often, I can tell you. I mainly have a sort of temperamental contempt for the very very Romantic, so I have avoided it ever since I realized it was all right not to like it. (In high school, I sang all sorts of Debussy and Faure and so forth for my voice teacher, and it was a relief beyond telling when I first heard the Dorian mode in college.)

It’s so… imposingly intimate? It’s like when someone you don’t know very well tells you all of their problems, in terrible detail. You have to be drawn to it, like your eyes are drawn to a car wreck, but there’s relief when you finally drive past it.

As the lady in T.S. Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” says,

‘So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among friends
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert-room.’

Fair enough. We accept Romanticism from our friends, appropriately, that would not do for strangers, and it is sort of a sad absurdity of history and people’s taste that this music is so very publicly popular, and that to like this music passes for a sort of sign of high appreciative culture.

But this morning ‘Claire de Lune,’ of all things, seemed appropriate. Why?

It is a double pleasure to listen to a soundtrack from one of Mr. Anderson’s movies, both because the individual pieces are so odd and interesting and generally representative, though unexpectedly, of some vital human character or thought, but also because I can never hear them without seeing images from the scenes they formed a part of. When I hear the songs, I re-tell the story to myself as they go along. The Kinks singing “Nothing in the World,” etc. in Rushmore puts me in mind of Bill Murray’s despair when he jumps into the pool. “Hey Jude” isn’t just a particularly pleasing rock song anymore, it’s about a family hurt by twenty years of betrayal, failure, and disaster.

When the youngest brother sets his Ipod to play Debussy in the middle of the wilderness of India, in front of a bonfire, after he and his brothers have been kicked off a train, and they are feeling pretty low and imagine that their spiritual journey has failed, although it has not, and they talk about their brotherly love and hate without reserve, and they hear the educated regret and sadness of the music, and its promise of grandeur and impossible achievement–there is some kind of deep imbalance which the unadorned music has that is put back into harmony, is set right by Story. What Debussy has no right to say to me on his own is now perfectly legitimate and full of meaning. Instead of being intrusive, it’s telling me about my friends, whose story I am full of, and it gives me a far richer picture of their character and the character of the moment. I could listen to that story for ever.

Of course those Greek men did not consider music apart from story. It’s frustrating to hear song after song, without connection, without muthos to pull it together. This is the strongest argument against rock music I’ve come up with, that it hasn’t really achieved plot. (Perhaps one day I’ll write about Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.) To praise the man, W.A. is using movies to give music a larger life, and we now have a larger life because of his poetry. What a powerful art, if he can make questionable music part of habits of excellence.

This morning, I woke up with Debussy, and let him be profound for me a little while, and help along what reflection I could make about the time of year and the end of semester. Pretty shocking, all told. I grow forgiving in my relative old age. Hell, at this rate, I might lose my 20-year bet with Trent and Aaron, recorded in my copy ofParadise Lost, to pay them a great deal of money as well as dinner if I essentially change my opinion of Montaigne which I related to them after seminar in 2002. Shit.