October 11, 2008

What's updog? (And a poem)

Not much. How about you?

This weekend's poetry feature is the very last word of way too many on the ancient Greek bard Homer. El Cabrero promises the Gentle and Long-Suffering Reader that I will not write about him (or her) for a very long time. Probably.

Strange to say, Homer's epics the Iliad and the Odyssey were only known second hand in Europe from the decline of Rome until the "rediscovery" of Greek language and literature in the Renaissance. His works were indirectly known mostly through Roman writing. It took even longer for his works to be published in the common languages of Europe, but when it happened, the result was striking.

Here is a poem of John Keats (1795-1821) about how he felt when he first read an English translation. To us today, his reference to the conquistador/butcher Cortez is unfortunate but El Cabrero is not a literary Stalinist who censors old works that I don't entirely agree with. The butcher in question is mentioned here just in the context of his "discovery" of the Pacific Ocean, which for the poet is the only discovery he can imagine of a similar magnitude.

On first looking into Chapman’s Homer

MUCH have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


October 10, 2008

One more road trip for the road!

The last round is on Odysseus.

Welcome to the very last day of Goat Rope's long running series on the Odyssey of Homer. You'll also find links and comments about current events. If you are a classics geek like El Cabrero, check the blog archives. The series started Aug. 4 and has run on weekdays since then, hitting the major stops of his journey.

I've argued all along that this epic has a lot to say both about the difficulties veterans returning from combat have in coming home and the human condition in general. It has often been noted in this series that Odysseus was a deeply flawed character and a disastrous leader. Still, I have a soft spot for the old buzzard and can relate to many of his misadventures. Perhaps the Gentle Reader can too.

As mentioned before, writers long after Homer have been fascinated by the character of Ulysses/Odysseus. Some of them had trouble believing that the hero of the epic would be content to stay at home in Ithaca. That is the theme of Tennyson's poem Ulysses, which I'll quote in its entirety. I was going to highlight my favorite parts but I just discovered I like it all. Here goes:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So there you have it, folks. We may not be spring chickens anymore but we're not dead yet either. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield--let's roll!

CORRECTION DEPARTMENT. Email subscribers to Goat Rope may have accidentally gotten an earlier version of a post planned for the weekend yesterday afternoon. My bad.

AFTER THE BAILOUT, the work is just beginning. Here is an analysis from the American Friends Service Committee.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, here's economist Dean Baker on the latest developments and here's Paul Krugman on the same.

BULLYING. Why are some children targets? Here are some counter intuitive findings from current research.

JUST HANG ON TILL 2208. Physicist Stephen Hawking thinks that if the human race can hold on for another 200 years, we just might make it. Of course, this may involve leaving the planet.

GENTLEMEN PUPPIES. In a display of unparalleled gallantry and chivalry, young male puppies will often allow females to win when they play their puppy games. Now that's updog. (Could they have ulterior motives? Do they thing that far ahead?)


October 09, 2008

A hell of a trip

William Blake's rendition of Ulysses and Diomedes in hell.

Goat Rope is winding up on long series on the Odyssey of Homer. You'll also find links and comments about current events. At this point, we've covered the epic pretty well and are now looking at what other writers have done with the character of Odysseus, aka Ulysses.

As noted in yesterday's post, Plato imagined that he would choose a calm, non eventful life next time around. But other writers, such as Dante, just weren't buying it. They imagined that Ulysses wouldn't be able to give up the itch for more travel and more adventures.

In Dante's Inferno, he wound up (or down) in the Eighth Circle of hell, a place reserved for fraud for the whole Trojan horse thing. Dante, after all, was a fan of Rome and the mythical founder of that city was the Trojan prince Aeneas. But it sounds like the real reason for his punishment was an endless thirst for adventure which leads him to set out again.

From the horse's mouth:

"When I

From Circe had departed, who concealed me
More than a year there near unto Gaeta,
Or ever yet Aeneas named it so,

Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
For my old father, nor the due affection
Which joyous should have made Penelope,

Could overcome within me the desire
I had to be experienced of the world,
And of the vice and virtue of mankind;

But I put forth on the high open sea
With one sole ship, and that small company
By which I never had deserted been..."

(Dante, of course, never read Homer. In the medieval period, knowledge of Greek was mostly lost in the west and he didn't know the whole story--like the fact that Odysseus returned alone from his wanderings.)

In Dante's version, Ulysses/Odysseus made the blasphemous decision to push beyond the boundaries of the known world and sail out into the ocean where his ship met disaster:

I and my company were old and slow
When at that narrow passage we arrived
Where Hercules his landmarks set as signals,

That man no farther onward should adventure.
On the right hand behind me left I Seville,
And on the other already had left Ceuta.

'O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand
Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,
To this so inconsiderable vigil

Which is remaining of your senses still
Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge,
Following the sun, of the unpeopled world.

Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;
Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,
But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.'

So eager did I render my companions,
With this brief exhortation, for the voyage,
That then I hardly could have held them back.

And having turned our stern unto the morning,
We of the oars made wings for our mad flight,
Evermore gaining on the larboard side.

Already all the stars of the other pole
The night beheld, and ours so very low
It did not rise above the ocean floor.

Five times rekindled and as many quenched
Had been the splendour underneath the moon,
Since we had entered into the deep pass,

When there appeared to us a mountain, dim
From distance, and it seemed to me so high
As I had never any one beheld.

Joyful were we, and soon it turned to weeping;
For out of the new land a whirlwind rose,
And smote upon the fore part of the ship.

Three times it made her whirl with all the waters,
At the fourth time it made the stern uplift,
And the prow downward go, as pleased Another,

Until the sea above us closed again."

As we'll see tomorrow, Tennyson picked up on this theme as well.

UNGOOD NEWS. The economic meltdown has wiped out $2 trillion in retirement savings.

LOOKING ON THE BRIGHT SIDE. Some economists see the financial meltdown as a chance to promote a more sustainable economy that looks beyond short term profits.

WHEN FACTS DON'T MATTER. Here's more on a recent study of the lasting effects of misinformation.

I KNOW YOU'RE ASKING YOURSELF THIS QUESTION, to wit: what do fish that live five miles below the surface of the ocean do and what do they look like? Your answer awaits here.

THIS IS TOTALLY WEIRD, but El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia is actually leading the nation in economic growth.


October 08, 2008

The afterlife of an epic

Plato (left) and Aristotle in a detail from Raphael's The School of Athens. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

This is the very last week here of a long running series on the Odyssey of Homer and what it has to say to us today. You'll also find links and comments about (some) current events. If you like the classics, check the blog archives. The series started August 4 and has run on weekdays since then, hitting most of the stops of Odysseus on his 10 year journey home.

Given the popularity of this story over the ages, it's no surprise that people would have a hard time leaving it alone. The figure of Odysseus keeps showing up in works of literature over the ages.

One place where he showed up in classical Greece was in Plato's Republic. This is a little ironic since Plato didn't have a very high impression of Homer or at least of the moral value of his epics (probably because he didn't get it).

Toward the end of Plato's most famous dialogue comes a discussion of the afterlife commonly known as "the myth of Er." In the story, Er is a soldier who has what we would call a near death experience in which he gets to explore the afterlife and return to tell the tale.

In the afterlife, souls are rewarded or punished for their deeds on earth. For the very wicked, the punishment seems to last forever. Others, after a suitable interval, have a chance to choose their next life. Some humans choose to live as animals and vice versa. Many souls make grave mistakes at this point, choosing what seems to be a pleasant life even though it may lead to further punishment and sufferings.

After all his travels and sufferings, Odysseus has had his fill of adventure and the quest for glory. He chooses a dull life that others rejected. As Plato put it,

There came also the soul of Odysseus having yet to make a choice, and his lot happened to be the last of them all. Now the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it.

As we'll see tomorrow, Dante envisioned a whole different scenario for Odysseus...in hell.

WEIGHING IN ON THE MELTDOWN. Here are the views of five economists on where the economic mess is likely to go from, of all places, al Jazeera.

COAL STRUGGLE MAKES CNN. Some coalfield groups and residents are proposing wind energy as an alternative to mountaintop removal mining. The story is going national.

LATIN LIVES. Who said it was a dead language anyway?


October 07, 2008

Where will it end?

Athena, courtesy of wikipedia.

We're almost done with a long series on the Odyssey of Homer. You'll also find links and comments about current events. When I started writing about what this timeless classic had to say to us today, I never thought it would last this long. What can I say? Homer is the man (or maybe, as some have speculated, the woman).

For many readers, the least satisfying part of the book is the ending. Odysseus, Telemachus and some faithful servants finally wreak terrible vengeance on the 108 suitors and the unfaithful maids and servants. In a contest, Odysseus strings a bow as only he can do and a massacre ensues.

(The goat herder Melanthius comes to a particularly nasty end. El Cabrero's one complaint about the bard is that he was a little rough on a fellow goat herder. I'm not sure you can really blame the guy for being such a jerk: this is an occupational hazard of hanging out with goats. But I digress...)

The people of Ithaca are not happy about this slaughter. Nor are they particularly pleased with a commander who loses every single one of his 600 men after the war was over.

A fresh conflict is about to ensue between Odysseus, son Telemachus, father Laertes, and servants and a mob of Ithacans when the gods intervened. Athena cries out

"in a piercing voice that stopped all fighters cold,
"Hold back, you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war!
Break off--shed no more blood--make peace at once!"

With that,

...Terror blanched their faces,
they went limp with fear, weapons slipped from their hands
and strewed the ground at the goddess' ringing voice...

At her command, they made a pact of peace.

It is kind of hard to believe (even in an epic with all kinds of gods and monsters and wonders). But it does raise this point: how does the spiral of violence come to an end, with one provocation being answered by yet another with no end in sight and with all sides feeling justified in doing what they do?

Homer seems to suggest that we do need some kind of divine intervention for that to happen. If it's on the menu, I'll take it. Another reading is to say that our only hope is in what the goddess Athena embodies: wisdom, craft and strategy.

Or maybe they're the same thing.


PAYBACK. Here's an interesting item on our innate sense sense of justice, the desire to punish cheaters, and capacity for forgiveness.

THE RECESSION AND YOUR HEALTH. Economic downturns can have some interesting effects.

GET THE PICTURE on climate change? If not, click here.

WARM BLOODED. Half of all mammal species are in decline and one fourth are headed for extinction, according to this report. Here's more on the topic.


October 06, 2008

The bed of Odysseus

Odysseus and Penelope by Francesco Primaticcio (1563), courtesy of wikipedia.

Along with links and comments about current events, the ongoing theme at Goat Rope for quite a while now has been the Odyssey of Homer. El Cabrero is striving mightily to wind it up but it takes a while to stop at train or turn a ship around. I'm trying though.

Whatever else you can say about Odysseus, as strange as it may seem he really did have a loving bond with his wife Penelope. This is true despite his 20 years of wandering and the occasional dalliance with a goddess or two. After all, he gave up Calypso's offer of immortality to go home to her.

One symbol of the power of that bond is the story of their bed. Toward the end of the epic, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, gradually reveals himself to his family and faithful servants. It's hard to tell when the recognition occurred since they are all operating under stress from the threat of more than 100 insolent suitors. It's sort of a game of classics geeks to speculate about what did Penelope know and when.

Penelope in particular is skeptical of anyone who claims to have knowledge of Odysseus after many years of lies and rumors. She also fears being deceived by someone who claims to be her husband. When at last they talk, she pretends to doubt him, which leads him to protest

"Strange woman! So hard--the gods of Olympus
made you harder than any other woman in the world!
What other wife could have a spirit so unbending?
Holding back from her husband, home at last for her
after bearing twenty years of brutal struggle."

As a way of giving him a final test (or of just messing with him), she asks the maid to move their bed so that the stranger can sleep on it--alone.

Now here's the thing about that bed. It is absolutely immovable by any mortal, have been built around the stump of an olive tree. He is devastated at the thought that anyone could have moved it:

"Woman--your words, they cut me to the core!
Who could move my bed? Impossible task,
even for some skilled craftsman--unless a god
came down in person, quick to lend a hand,
lifted out with ease and moved it elsewhere.
Not a man on earth, not even at peak strength,
would find it easy to prise it up and shift it, no,
a great sign, a hallmark lies in its construction."

With that, she knows she's got her man:

"...now, since you have revealed such overwhelming proof-
the secret sign of our bed, which no one's ever seen
but you and I and a single maid, Actoris,
the servant my father gave me when I came,
who kept the doors of our room you built so well...
you've conquered my heart, my hard heart, at last!"

The goddess Athena even gives the couple a special break:

She held back the night, and night lingered long
at the western edge of the earth, while in the east
she reined in Dawn of the golden throne at Ocean's banks.
commanding her not to yoke the windswift team that brings men light...

They had a lot of catching up to do. The lengthened night gave them time to love, talk and sleep.

There are some powerful images in the Odyssey, like Penelope's loom, and this is one of them. The image of this immovable bed symbolizes a deep bond between a couple that not even the ravages of the years can uproot. You don't see a whole lot of that these days.

OH GOOD. The US lost 159,000 jobs in September, the biggest loss since March 2003, according to this Jobs Byte from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

ON A SIMILAR NOTE, this snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute looks at trade deficit related job losses in 2007.

HOMO ECONOMICUS don't live around here.

WAKE UP. Here's an item on the medical utility of mindfulness meditation.