September 20, 2008

Weekend poetry fix: The Wound-Dresser

Walt Whitman, courtesy of wikipedia.

An ongoing theme at Goat Rope lately has been the costs of war on those who fight it. This is one of my favorite of Whitman's Civil War poems. I've taken the liberty of italicizing my favorite part.


An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resign'd myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass'd heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?


O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover'd with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the
rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur'd works--yet lo, like a swift-running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade--I dwell not on soldiers' perils or
soldiers' joys,
(Both I remember well--many the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)

But in silence, in dreams' projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof'd hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill'd again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes--poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that
would save you.


On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush'd head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life
struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv'd neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the
bloody stump,
And has not yet look'd on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening,
so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast
a fire, a burning flame.)


Thus in silence in dreams' projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)


September 19, 2008

Farewell to glory, plus stuff on the economy, fear, and whales

Statue of the death of Achilles, courtesy of wikipedia.

Goat Rope is all about the Odyssey of Homer these days, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. If you like this stuff, click back on earlier posts.

The visit Odysseus makes to the underworld is a turning point in the story. It can be seen as a kind of initiation, marking the end of Odysseus the warrior and the beginning of his return (although he ain't there yet).

He meets many people in the underworld. There's a sad encounter with the shade of his mother Anticlea, who died of grief after despairing of her son's return. There's a failed meeting with the ghost of Ajax, a mighty Greek warrior who went mad and committed suicide at Troy largely through the actions of Odysseus. Odysseus wants to make up but Ajax refuses to speak.

Lots of veterans--of war and peace--have lost people after having let them down in life and experience regret and survivor's guilt.

But one of the most important encounters is with the ghost of the warrior Achilles, who was given a choice between long life without fame and an early death but enduring fame. The Homeric term for fame or glory was kleos, which meant in part living on in song after one's death. Since the underworld was pretty grim, that was often regarded as the only meaningful form of immortality.

He did get fame--we're still talking about him today. But kleos turns out to have been an empty promise.

Odysseus, thinking him the most fortunate of men, greets him thus:

there's not a man in the world more blest than you--
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.

He's not buying it. In a shocking renunciation of the cult of glory, Achilles replies

No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man--
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive--
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

I think this farewell to and disparagement of glory--coming from someone who got more of it than anyone else--marks the key difference between the Iliad as a poem of kleos to the Odyssey as a poem of nostos or homecoming.

One last word: Achilles' renunciation of the "glory" of war calls to mind a saying of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman:

I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.

BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A JOB? Job seekers outnumber jobs about about three to one, according to the latest Economic Policy Institute snapshot. Here's a related issue brief on the subject.

SOCIALISM FOR THE RICH, FREE ENTERPRISE FOR THE POOR. That pretty well sums up Wall Street bailouts while millions of American families are feeling the squeeze. I can't claim originality on this one, but free enterprisers in a recession are kind of like the proverbial atheists in foxholes.

ON A RELATED NOTE, this item argues that gouging the poor lies at the root of the credit/housing meltdown.

WITHOUT A NET. As the economy tanks, millions of workers are watching the value of their 401(k)s evaporate. This McClatchy article suggests that the economic crisis may lead Americans to re-evaluate the current social contract.

THE FIX. Here's Paul Krugman on what the bailout might look like.

THE FEAR FACTOR. A new study finds some interesting connections between political views and the response to fear.

URGENT ANCIENT WHALE UPDATE. The early ones used their back legs to swim--a feature missing on more recent models. El Cabrero doesn't know about y'all but I find the evolution of aquatic mammals fascinating.


September 18, 2008

The blind seer, and an action alert, and more

The shade of Tiresias appears to Odysseus after the latter offers a sacrifice.

The theme here lately is the Odyssey of Homer, along with links and comments about current events. If this is your fist visit, please click on earlier posts. Right now were on his voyage to the land of the dead.

To recap, the goddess Circe tells Odysseus that if he wants to make it home after years of fighting at Troy and wandering the seas, he has to visit the underworld to consults with the shade of the seer Tiresias, who is one of the most fascinating figures of Greek mythology.

A prophet of the city of Thebes, he had the distinction of spending several years as a woman as punishment from Hera for whacking a pair of copulating snakes with a stick. Note: while El Cabrero is opposed to whacking snakes, let it be noted that it didn't take much to tick Hera off.

After changing back into a man, he was called upon by Zeus and Hera to settle an argument over whether males or females enjoyed sex the most. (Zeus said women did and Hera vice versa.) When he basically answered that women get 9/10s of the pleasure, Hera struck him blind as punishment. Zeus couldn't do anything about that but did give him foresight.

(Important safety tip: if you are ever called upon to resolve a dispute between Olympian gods, decline the honor.)

In the myth of Oedipus, Tiresias is summoned by that tyrant to explain the source of a mysterious plague ravaging Thebes, which was actually caused by the Oedipus himself who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother.

The confrontation between the two is the focal point of Sophocles' great tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus. The parallelism between the two is striking: Tiresias is blind but sees what is happening. Oedipus can see but is blind to what he did--and when he sees it he blinds himself.

At this point in the Odyssey, Tiresias will tell its hero what lies ahead and what he must do if he is to make it home. The news isn't good:

A sweet smooth journey home, renowned Odysseus,
that is what you seek,
but a god will make it hard for you--I know--
you will never escape the one who shakes the earth,
quaking with anger at you still, still enraged
because you blinded the Cyclops, his dear son...

Still they have a slim chance, provided that when they land on the island of Thrinacia he and his men don't eat the cattle of the sun god Helios. If they do that, his men will die

And even if you escape, you'll come home late
and come a broken man--all shipmates lost,
alone in a stranger's ship--
and you will find a world of pain at home,
crude, arrogant men devouring all your goods...

And even if he deals with that, he must make one more journey to appease Poseidon, by carrying his oar so far inland that people mistake it for a winnowing fan and there make appropriate sacrifices.

If, and it's a big if, he does all that, he can expect to die peacefully in old age in his home with his family.

We'll see how that works out.

ACTION ALERT. The American Friends Service Committee and allied groups are urging people to call their senators and representatives today toll free at 1-888-245-0215 to urge the passage of a second economic stimulus package targeted at those who need it most before Congress goes home.

The package should include extended unemployment benefits, an increase to food stamps and home heating assistance, aid to states for Medicaid, job creation through investments in infrastructure and youth employment programs. Obviously the $720 million we are spending each day in Iraq isn't helping either...

SUNDOWN ON THE GOLDEN CALF of market fundamentalism? Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz thinks so.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, here are two reports aimed at driving some nails in the coffin of supply side economics and related but contradictory bogus dogmas on tax cuts as the cure for all things.

DEPRESSION OR SADNESS? The tendency to medicalize emotions makes it hard to distinguish between the two.


September 17, 2008

The forgotten man

Hades, god of the dead, and pet.

The Goat Rope Odysseus odyssey continues. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

One of the tough things about the life of a soldier--and lots of other people too--is that they don't often get to pick who their bosses are. They could be good or they could be awful and often there's not a whole lot that can be done about it. It's luck of the draw.

No doubt the Gentle Reader has already figured that out...

Sadly for his men, the hero of the Odyssey is a terrible leader. In the Iliad, he fought well enough and was a good staff officer for Agamemnon and Menelaus and was capable of acting independently in raids and intelligence missions. But as a leader responsible for the well-being of the soldiers under him, he's a disaster.

If you've been following this series or are familiar with the story, he's been losing men by the score--since the Trojan War was over. Some died in a botched pirate raid, some were eaten by the cyclops, and hundreds died at the hands of the Laestrygonians, who were man-eating giants. He's down to one ship from an original twelve and the ship that's left is not at its full roster. One would think he'd try to do a little better at keeping up with the few who are left.

But when he makes his visit to the land of the dead and offers the appropriate sacrifices, he is surprised to find that the first ghost that speaks to him is someone he thought was alive. It is Elpenor who was just with him on Circe's island.

His death was about as unheroic as they come. He had been sleeping on the roof of the house and fell off, breaking his neck.

OK, so we can't blame Odysseus for that one, but after losing so many men you'd think he could at least be bothered to freakin' count the ones he has left before taking off.

In the Homeric world, the afterlife was a pretty bad place but it was even worse for those who were unburied. The ghost begs Odysseus to do what's right for once: lord, remember me, I beg you! Don't sail off
and desert me, left behind unwept, unburied, don't,
or my curse may draw god's fury on your head.
No, burn me in full armor, all my harness,
heap my mound by the churning gray surf--
a man whose luck ran out--
so even men will come to learn my story.
Perform my rites, and plant on my tomb that oar
I swung with mates when I rowed among the living.

That's one promise Odysseus will keep, but many more of his men died worse deaths and never received their rites.

So this one goes out in memory of all the forgotten people who have suffered in war and peace from the neglect or incompetence of their leaders.

THE CULT OF THE MARKET GOD is up for some criticism here.

ON A SIMILAR NOTE, here economist Dean Baker on the Wall Street meltdown.

THE FOG OF WAR... The war on drugs in this instance. Here are some interesting numbers on drug related arrests.

RATIONAL VOTERS.This item from Newsweek asks where they are.

MATH IN THE BELLY. This NY Times article looks at the latest research on human mathematical abilities. A lot of it is intuitive.



September 16, 2008

Getting in isn't the problem

Nice puppy! William Blake's version of Cerberus, the dog that guards the realm of the dead.

Goat Rope is trailing the journey of Odysseus these days and the next stop is the underworld. If you scroll down, there are also links and comments about current events.

One of the pivotal moments of Homer's Odyssey is the visit its hero paid to the land of the dead. Only a few others in Greek and related myths were able to get there and go back again.

One such was Theseus of Minotaur fame, who went there with a buddy as part of a hare-brained scheme to capture Persephone, wife of Hades, the lord of the dead. That didn't work out so well and he was stuck in a chair there until rescued by Heracles, who visited the land of the dead when stealing Cerberus as part of his 12 labors.

The musician Orpheus visited the underworld after the death of his beloved Eurydice. His musical talents were such that Persephone allowed him to bring her back to the land of the living if he didn't look back on the way out. He did and she didn't. Another mystery cult (see yesterday's post) developed around Orpheus which also promised to provide advantages after death and seemed to include ideas of reincarnation.

Toward the end of his Republic, Plato tells the tall of Er, a soldier who dies and tours the underworld before returning to life. He saw various kinds of rewards and punishments being dispensed as well and learned about the process of reincarnation

In the Roman epic the Aeneid of Virgil, the hero Aeneas has to visit the underworld to consult the shade of his father and learn about the destiny of Rome which he is fated to found. As with Plato, souls destined for rebirth on earth had first to drink from the river of Lethe or forgetfulness so they wouldn't remember their previous lives.

Early Christian converts from paganism were fascinated with what happened to Jesus between his death and resurrection and developed charming traditions about "the harrowing of hell," in which the victorious Christ liberated the souls of Adam, Eve and other figures from the Hebrew Bible before rising on Sunday morning. According to 1 Peter 4:6,

For unto this end was the gospel preached even to the dead, that they might be judged indeed according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

One line from the Apostle's Creed states of him that "he descended into hell," which helped to inspire speculation. The harrowing of hell was the subject of some apocryphal gospels.

Last but not least, the Italian poet Dante's Divine Comedy tells of that poets tour through Hell, Heaven and Purgatory (check Goat Rope archives for an earlier series on that).

The consensus of the ages seems to be that getting there isn't the problem for most folks--getting out again is.

ON A RELATED NOTE, a report from the World Health Organization calls social justice a matter of life and death.

WORST DAY ON WALL STREET since 2001. Let's hope tomorrow's headlines don't say 1929. Thought for the day: isn't it a good thing we didn't let President Bush privatize Social Security?

THE RIPPLE EFFECT. From the Sept. 22 print edition of Business Week:

Losing a job isn't just a career setback, it can be a permanent blow to the community, a recent study finds. Using data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which tracked 4,000 high school graduates over 45 years, researchers at UCLA and the University of Michigan studied the community involvement of workers aged 35 to 53. Their finding: After being laid off, employees were 35% less likely than before to participate in community or church groups, charitable organizations--even bowling teams. And few returned once they got new jobs. Instead, they focused their energies on professional and political groups--in the belief, hypothesizes UCLA sociology professor Jennie Brand, that both could have an impact on finding and keeping work

HOLY KARMA, BATMAN! After years of lobbying--to the tune of $40 million--for tougher bankruptcy laws, lenders are now starting to feel the pain of getting what they asked for. My heart breaketh...

THIS CAN'T BE TRUE because it would be inconvenient for the coal industry. QED.


September 15, 2008


Persephone and Hades in the underworld, courtesy of wikipedia.

If this is your first visit to Goat Rope, the current theme is the Odyssey of Homer and what it has to say to us today. There are also links and comments about current events. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts. Right now we're about to visit the land of the dead.

According to Greek myths, Zeus divided up dominion over the cosmos with his two divine brothers. He got the sky, Poseidon got the sea, and Hades got the underworld, or land of the dead--not exactly prime real estate.

Hades was also known as Pluto, a word associated with wealth as in plutocracy. That was probably because valuable minerals were buried under the earth and because he was kind of greedy for souls; once you go there, you're probably not getting out. Over time, Hades became the name of the place.

Hades doesn't show up in a whole lot of myths, but the best known one is of his abduction of the beautiful Persephone or Kore (meaning "young girl"), daughter of the earth and grain goddess Demeter. When her daughter was taken, Demeter was so bereaved that she wouldn't allow the crops to grow, thus threatening the whole order of things. Eventually a deal was worked out whereby Persephone divided her time between the underworld (the winter) and Olympus (spring and summer).

There's a whole lot more to the story. One good primary source is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

The whole story of Hades, Persephone and Demeter gave rise to one of the earliest and most long-lived mystery cults of antiquity, the Eleusinian Mysteries, which endured for well over 1000 years in the ancient world before being suppressed by imperial Christianity late in the 4th century.

Those initiated were sworn to secrecy about the ritual, an oath that they pretty much kept over all those years. Scholars are still debating the secrets of the cult, but they included a procession, sacrifice, fasting, drinking a special brew, and being shown some sacred symbols. It was believed that being initiated among other things improved one's lot after death.

In general, though, the underworld was a place you didn't particularly want to visit if you could help it, although a few heroes did and got out again. More on them tomorrow.

SPEAKING OF HADES, the US financial system may be going there.

HUNGRY COUNTRY. Here's more from AARP's coverage of hunger in America today.

HUNGRY STATE. This item from yesterday's Charleston WV Gazette-Mail looks not just at the demand for food from charities but its quality.

THEM BELLY FULL BUT WE HUNGRY to quote the immortal Bob Marley. This item looks at CEO pay and other corporate skullduggery.

DINOSAURS. Were they fitter than the competition or just lucky?