September 23, 2008

Strapped to the mast, the siren song of the Wall Street bailout, and more

"Ulysses and the Sirens" by John William Waterhouse, courtesy of wikipedia.

"Siren" is a word that entered the English language from the Odyssey although the contrast between the real ones and the mythological ones is pretty stark. Sirens on emergency vehicles and loud and aversive, nothing that most people would like to listen to day in and day out.

The mythological sirens are mysterious female beings whose beautiful singing lures sailors to certain death. Their song is irresistible.

Odysseus, forewarned by the goddess Circe, puts beeswax in the ears of his men but is--of course--too driven by curiosity to miss out. He has his men tie him to the mast with strict orders to ignore his entreaties to let him go.

This is a great image. I've always found it compelling and have been in situations where I hear things that are tempting and distracting but have to focus on the task at hand or the journey home. It's a kind of universal thing. But, as with many places in the Odyssey, the danger of the sirens has a special meaning for a combat veteran like Odysseus trying to get home.

What did they sing? Here goes:

"Come closer, famous Odysseus--Achaea's pride and glory--
moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song!
Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft
until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips,
and once he hears to his heart's content sails on, a wiser man."

Of course they are lying. But what makes them so dangerous is their subject:

"...We know all the pains that Achaeans and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so--
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!"

The danger they represent is the danger of getting stuck in the past, of going over the scenes of war over and over again, of obsessing over what "really" happened, of missing out on the present. As Jonathan Shay puts it

The "voice" of the Sirens, scholars tell us, is the "voice" of the Iliad, the voice of a wartime past experienced as more real and meaningful than the present.

If Odysseus is going to make it home, he as to put the drive for kleos or glory behind him. (Note: kleos specifically means living in such a way as to be remembered in song after one dies.) This was also the theme of his encounter with the ghost of Achilles in the underworld in last Friday's post. Part of what he has to put behind him is the romantization of death and war as something romantic and glorious.

Next time: Scylla and Charybdis.

SPEAKING OF SIRENS--the US Congress would do well not to listen to the Bush Wall Street bailout plan/siren song. Short version:

*No blank-check bailout for Wall Street. Any plan to save the economy must put Main Street first.

*Congress should not blindly rush to pass bad legislation. They should take their time and get it right – even if it means a delay in adjournment.

*Putting Main Street first means, at a minimum: a) much more oversight, control over and regulation of financial institutions; b) limitations on CEO compensation; c) an economic recovery package to get the economy moving again; d) provisions to protect people facing foreclosures.

By the way,here's Dean Baker on the elements of a progressive response.

THIS WOULD NOT BE COOL. LITERALLY. Abrupt climate change is a distinct possibility.

MISMEASUREMENT. This Boston Globe commentary highlights the obsolete official federal poverty measure. This might be good to update since it looks like lots of us are going to get poorer unless things change.

ON A DIFFERENT NOTE, pleasant smells can make for pleasant dreams.



Donutbuzz said...

Let's all hope Congress does the right thing to remedy the financial crisis.

El Cabrero said...

True that. I think we need to help them feel the noise. Thanks!