On Classical Art, Classical Scholars and Alice Oswald’s “46 Minutes in the Life of Dawn”
To Clara Crepaldi
This was not exactly the conversation we had,
but I owed you a letter
I am seating in the steps that lead to one of the gates of the Bodleian Library, the one that faces the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, England. I am wearing a dark blue t-shirt with the words Rue Saint-Honoré stamped at the level of my chest when two students pass me by, one of them commenting that Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of Labour, well, not really. I listen to these words as they are uttered, the emphasis on the not really, and my attention flickers for a moment and they are gone, the two students dressed in their gowns. It’s hot. I am waiting for a phone call from Clara. There is a large cup of coffee by my left side, hanging at the edge of one of the steps. Clara is in Angra dos Reis, state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and during our phone call she tells me about Cláudio Manoel da Costa, a neoclassical Brazilian poet, who was arrested in the larger context of the Conjuração Mineira, a revolt against the tax system imposed by the Portuguese crown, swiftly crushed by said crown in the late eighteenth-century. The thing about Cláudio Manoel da Costa is that he may or may not have committed suicide in prison, after being interrogated only once. Clara tells me that he appears to have hanged himself and there seems to be reason to believe that he did so because he was the one who denounced the other literati involved in the revolt, thus betraying his friends. Cláudio Manoel da Costa may or may not have taken his own life, he may or may not have betrayed his friends.
Our conversation wanders off again. It’s warm. It’s April. For me, it’s only the second warm day of the year. The light and the heat are making me high and I can tell. I am a bit too chatty, I feel the sort of energy I haven’t felt for months. It is also the case that talking to Clara always gets me in high spirits. I tell her that it’s 26ºC out here. She mocks me. To my left, a tree has bloomed, there is a blind spot in the corner of my eye that has turned pink because, I think, of all the flowers in that tree, and my gaze is constantly pulled to that side. I am hallucinating a colour. That’s how lovely the sunlight feels. One usually says of trees that they are heavy with fruit, but this one is heavy with flowers. Our conversation wanders off but remains bound by considerations that are vaguely about ethics. I throw in a line that I read the day before in a book written by a woman classicist who signs as E. M. Butler. The book was published in 1935 and its chapters are devoted, in turn, to a few legendary German eighteenth-century intellectuals and writers. In that book, which is titled The Tyranny of Greece over Germany and is a study of the cultural influence of (what the Germans thought) Ancient Greece (was) over modern German culture, there is a chapter devoted to an art historian, philosopher and writer called Lessing.
Lessing was born in 1729. He lived in poverty for most of his life. Butler points out that in his study of the Laocoon, the famous Ancient sculpture, Lessing is answering to a far more influential reading of that piece than his would ever be—Winckelmann’s. Famously, Winckelmann read the statue found in Rome in 1506 as the chief example of the noble simplicity and serene greatness of the Ancients. Filtered through Goethe, this idea started an earthquake that changed the ways in which the Modern age related to Classics both as a discipline and as a source of creative and philosophical inspiration. The reason why Winckelmann sees in this statue (whose subject is the death of Laocoon and his two sons, killed by serpents) simplicity and greatness is because anguish is depicted, but not violent pain. Laocoon’s face is not shown in an open scream; as a matter of fact, it is not shown in the way it is described in the main literary source for this episode, Virgil’s Aeneid, but rather, so Winckelmann contends, Laocoon suffers much in the way of “Sophocles’ Philoctetes; his misery pierces us through the soul; but we should like to be able to bear anguish in the manner of this great man.” It’s the comparison with Philoctetes and the implicit critique of Virgil’s rendering of the scene that Lessing is not so convinced of. A statue frames a moment, the nature of poetry and drama; on the other hand, it is not static, it allows for movement across time. If this Laocoon could move, so Lessing would bet, he would scream. Lessing proceeds to compare the statue and Virgil’s episode, maintaining that the poem was a very probable source for the statue. Judging from an allusion Pliny makes in the Historia Naturalis (36. 37), the statue was sculpted by Greeks, a trio of men called Hagesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus. It was retrieved for the Modern age in the ruins of the baths of Titus in Rome, and in Rome it is stored to this day, in the Vatican Museums.
I wonder about the connection between Virgil and the chronology of the lives of these Greeks. Was the statue commissioned by the emperor? Probably so. But sculpted where? And why this specific statue for this specific building? In my wildest speculations, Pliny, who was in Pompeii and died there, could as well have come across the frescoes that show Laocoon there. Are these representations, the one in Rome and the ones in Pompeii, a symptom of the popularity of Virgil’s version of the episode? I wonder how much of this exercise in speculation is in itself a trip to the underworld, one of the ways in which, to quote from a lecture given by another German in Oxford, Wilamowitz (probably borrowing from Nietzsche), we make the Ancients drink our blood, in order to make them speak, or at least one of the ways in which the seductive grip of the things we cannot know for certain gets hold of our imagination. Three Greek sculptors set out to sculpture a trio of Trojans, father and two sons, whose most famous last words, as rendered by a Roman poet, were “beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
Speculation aside, in his Laocoon (1765), so E. M. Butler tells us, Lessing puts forth a passionate defense of the potential of poetry to express emotions in movement: for all of sculpture’s plastic beauty, words can reconstitute a movement that stone cannot quite render. Or can it? Staring at the sculpture, with Lessing in mind, I can no longer see the reading that I carried with me for a long time, Winckelmann’s, and I can no longer conceive of the tension in these bodies as a point to emphasize stoic virtues. My mind now reconstitutes their pain: Laocoon’s half-opened mouth makes me wait for the moment in which he will howl a line straight out of Virgil.
Major traits about the history of how we have related to classical art are at stake in this episode of the intellectual history of the Germans’ relationship to the Greeks. In a way, much of our connection to Ancient Greek culture, its art and its literature, has been informed by our close readings of it. Much of this exercise, of course, amounts to an attempt at restoration: to reconstitute what we do not know about the Ancients, to try and gage what was lost and fell through the cracks, what could otherwise have been the missing link in our understanding of cultures that have played a decisive role in shaping our own.
However, some of these close readings can come too close. For instance, in the chapter E. M. Butler dedicates to Winckelmann in the same book, we are told the story of how once, at the Ludovisi Villa, Winckelmann climbed to the base of a statue of Minerva to better inspect its head. As it turns out, however, the head was not fixed to the body, and so it came rolling down, and broke at the art historian’s feet, who then slowly stepped away not reporting the accident.
On the subject of things about the Ancient world that were not whole—or were not perceived as whole by us, students of Ancient culture—and were then restored to some kind of unity, I might as well highlight one of my favourite controversies of all time, one that is about how bodies are to be perceived in one of the most obscure periods in the history of the Ancient world, the so-called Archaic period, in which the first Greek cities start to emerge in a sketchy form. As far as we are aware, 800 BC is the time around which the first temples start to appear, 750 the first city walls. This historical period seems to be the decisive setting in the Homeric poems and, not unlike the intellectual back and forth involved in Lessing’s reading of Winckelmann, we have often tried to cross textual and visual evidence in order to try and reconstruct the picture of the ethical conceptions underlying this moment in the history of Ancient culture.
In a book first published in 1953, The Discovery of the Mind, Bruno Snell, rector of the University of Hamburg, undertook an evolutionary approach to the history of Greek thought. The thesis laid out in this book, that there was some kind of primitivism first expressed in Homer and from there Greek thought evolved to get to a model to which we were, no doubt, highly in debt, but still far less evolved when compared to our own conceptions of individuality and moral decision-making, was to prove highly influential in subsequent decades. The first intuitions about this idea are perhaps to be found in Hegel’s Aesthetics and were, therefore, around before Snell. A variation of it, which is highly pleasant to read, is to be found, for instance, in G. Lukács’ chapters about Ancient Epic in The Theory of the Novel.
In the chapter Snell dedicates to Homer he focuses on the way certain words work in the epics. He weaves a web around them, he notices that some other words are never mentioned or are missing. He counts them carefully. He gives examples. He points out, for instance, that Homer seems to make no distinction between thymos and psyche, words that are used to mean soul or vital force. It is, in a way, an archaeologist’s work, Snell’s; undoubtedly, an attempt at an archaeological reconstitution of a text. He sees, at work in Homer’s use of these words, the concept that a soul is not independent of the body in the Homeric period, and then he assumes that such evidence also applies to an early stage of Greek thought. If there is no awareness of the division of the spiritual and the corporeal, it follows that there cannot be a moral will independent of the forces that exert pressure over us, our bodies and our souls. That the concept of the soul is not exactly present in Homer in a sense closer to our own, i. e. in post-Kantian sense, is where Bruno Snell’s train of thought leads us, but not just the soul. In page 7 of his study, the German scholar crosses textual and visual evidence to contrast how the Greeks of an early period and modern children grasped the body. He observes that modern children “draw the body as the central and most important part of their design”, followed by head and limbs. Drawings of the earliest extant period in the history of Ancient art, what is called the geometric period, so Snell tells us, reveal that the bodies lack this central part, that they are drawn as an assembly of limbs, which is evidence that the body was not grasped as a unit by the early Greeks and therefore neither by the characters in Homer.
In Shame and Necessity, a book originally published in 1993, the English philosopher Bernard Williams goes back to Snell’s theory and to a scene in the Iliad where the unity of a body, the idea that a body should remain whole in death as it did in life, is crucial. William’s interest in reassessing Bruno Snell’s theory appears within the wider frame of reassessing the ways in which we are similar and different from the Ancients, how much Ancient ethics informs our own in a way that does not necessarily involve evolution. Incidentally, Bernard Williams ends up providing the most straightforward refutation of Snell’s theory about the ability of the early Greeks to grasp their bodies as a whole. He goes back to the scene in Iliad 24 in which Priam begs Achilles to return Hector’s body to the Trojans. And so Bernard Williams comments: “In wanting Hector’s body to be whole, Priam wanted Hector to be as he was when he was alive. The wholeness of the corpse, the wholeness Priam wanted, was not something acquired only in death: it was the wholeness of Hector.”
I think these are some of my favourite lines in the entire history of controversies in classical scholarship. Scholars tend to doubt everything, even the most obvious things, in the most complicated ways. There’s a blunt straightforwardness in the idea of the unity of Hector’s body as described by Williams in his logical argument. It is somewhat the scholarly equivalent to the words Achilles tells Priam about the material the king’s heart was made of, which are also highlighted by Bernard Williams. Achilles says that old Priam has a heart of iron in his chest, because he endured what no man had to, to kiss the hands of the man who had murdered his son. Hector’s body is brought back to Troy. The Trojans give him a funeral. The poem comes to an end. Something is repaired in that scene which has to do with gestures that are carried out only because words have been exchanged. Reparation in this scene comes across as what can be salvaged from the wreck. What can be salvaged from the wreck, on the other hand, is also about restoration, the invisible reparation that is brought about by unlikely solace in the face of brutal loss.
In the world of Homer, where so many things are about disrepair, the gods often serve as a comical counterpart to the tragic humans exactly because they do not die, they do not share in that fault that cannot be repaired. But this disparity between gods and humans often strikes a tragical cord with the immortals. A scene featuring Achilles’ horses illustrates this point. The two animals, Xanthus and Balius, have what is possibly the strangest hierarchical status in the whole poem: they are immortal creatures serving a mortal. As such, they are affected by his mortality. Patroclus had borrowed Achilles’ horses to ride into battle. When he dies, the horses fall into mourning: tears run from their eyes and the narrator says that they remained in the plain like tombstones, refusing to move away from the battlefield. Zeus then regrets that he had given them to Achilles’ father, Peleus, because that had made them share in the miserable fate of mankind, and nothing on earth was more wretched than men. Zeus knows what he is talking about. A few hundreds of lines earlier it was his turn to mourn for a mortal, his son Sarpedon, who had been killed by Patroclus. Zeus ponders the possibility of snatching his son away from the battlefield, but Hera reminds him that if he saves his own son from his fate, other gods might do it and Zeus will not be able to stop them. For once, the father of the gods knows he cannot ignore his wife. He makes a bloody rain fall down to earth and, once Patroclus kills Sarpedon, Zeus sends Apollo off to carry the body to safety:
Go now, dear Phoibos, and wipe the dark clotted blood
from Sarpedon – first get him clear of the missiles – then take him
far off, find a river, wash him clean in its flowing waters,
spread ambrosia on him, have him clothed in immortal raiment,
then give him to fast moving escorts, to carry him away –
Sleep and Death, twin brothers, who’ll lose no time,
but speedily set him down in broad Lycia’s rich terrain…
If you walk down Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris you will get to the Louvre Museum where you can find one or two vases containing versions of the scene that happens in the aftermath of the death of Sarpedon in the Iliad. To be sure, the most famous depiction of a version of this scene in an Ancient vase is neither one of these but the one that belongs to the collection of the National Etruscan Museum in Villa Giulia in Rome. We know a great deal about that vase. It was probably crafted in the last quarter of the sixth century; a famous vase painter, Euphronios, made the drawing and the potter was a man called Euxitheos—both have inscribed their names on the vase. The names of each figure portrayed in the vase are also inscribed above each one of them in Greek. The vase was looted in 1971 in a tomb in Cerveteri, in the region of Lazio, and sold by over a million dollars to the New York Metropolitan Museum. It then became the object of a legal dispute, which ended with the vase being returned to Italy. Despite being incredibly well travelled for a piece that remained buried in the ground for the best part of two millennia, it remains intact. The drawing is magnificent. Sarpedon’s body is immense, Sleep and Death do not carry it at ease, they lift it with difficulty, their bodies hunched over it. Hermes presides over the scene and one can see two other armed attendants. The presence of Hermes in the composition suggests a source different from the Iliad.
A vase on the same theme can be found in the Louvre, if indeed you take the walk down Rue Saint-Honoré. This other vase was made a bit later, sometime in the first half of the fifth century, but it was also found in Cerveteri. The identity of the painter remains uncertain. One of the greatest specialists in Ancient Greek vases of all times, John Beazley, attributed it to a painter called Eucharides. The vase was found shattered and was then reassembled. You can still see the cracks when you look at it. Sarpedon’s body is also huge but the perspective is different. In the vase you can see in Rome, Euphronios drew the body entirely turned to us, the wounds in his torso and leg still gushing out blood. Students of Ancient pottery tend to note the dramatic contrast with the scene on the other side of this vase, Athenian youths arming themselves for battle. In the vase in the Louvre, Sleep and Death are not in battle gear and they are alone. Sarpedon is not turned to us, the perspective is more realistic as he is seen from the side. He looks younger not the least because his face is shaven. He looks, in fact, like a youth softly asleep.
Sarpedon and Hector have a number of things in common in the Iliad: they are both two major heroes fighting for Troy; they are both buried because their fathers intervene; the fact that they are given burial is crucial for a sense of reparation. In the world of Ancient epic, burial is the crucial ritual of atonement, the angle in which a gesture of reparation appears as closure. If one were to look at the scene in the two vases one might feel tempted to read in the serene face of Sarpedon something of the noble simplicity and serene greatness mentioned by Winckelmann. Except that there is nothing simple or serene about the scene that leads to the death of the Lycian king. That not even a son of Zeus can escape death is a most upsetting thought, even if the father of the gods is pained enough to entertain the possibility of going against fate and wreaking havoc on Olympus. One might also speculate about the extent to which the option for an image of Athenian youths arming themselves for battle as the reverse scene to that of the death of Sarpedon in Euphronios’ vase was or was not intended as a cautionary tale. What is certain here, however, is something that has been stated about myths many times: the key thing about them is that, for the Ancients as for ourselves, they are fluid, which means that for us, contemporary readers of Ancient texts, the perspective in which we interpret a given myth depends on a particular type of work of reconstitution, that at its best hinges on a need to arrive at a description of different possibilities of interpretation, rather than to a definite version of the truth. That perspectives on a given myth could differ was something well known to Ancient vase painters, as much as to legendary German art historians.
In the world of the Iliad, divine parents can’t spare their children and mortality is fate, not something that can be fixed. There is however, in one of the Homeric Hymns, an instance of a goddess who tries to repair the fault of mortality in a human. In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Aphrodite tells Anchises, somewhat as a cautionary tale, the myth of Tithonos and Dawn:
So, too, golden-throned Dawn snatched away Tithonos,
another of your race who was like the gods.
And she went to ask the Son of Kronos in his dark clouds
to make him immortal and let him live forever.
Zeus nodded and her wish was fulfilled.
Foolish one, Dawn, the queen, did not think
in her heart to ask for youth for him
and have deadly old age smoothed away.
Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, 219ff.
Dawn’s gift becomes a trap. Once Tithonos grows old, he cannot die and she locks him away in a chamber with shiny doors. One can hear him mumble from afar but all strength is gone from him. What can reparation be in face of such a broken myth? Myths have been told and retold endlessly through the ages. In Falling Awake, Alice Oswald’s latest collection of poems, there is a section titled “46 Minutes in the Life of Dawn,” in which the myth of Tithonos and Dawn is told in Tithonos’ voice as Dawn appears. The page is typeset with points and dashes. These remind us of the lines of a chronology or the trail a sewing machine inscribes on a piece of cloth (as indeed we are told at one point in the poem). Dawn is announced by sound, by the notion that everything repeats itself. We are told in Homer about Tithonos’ babbling away in a comfortable chamber. In the Greek text we learn that he turns into an old man through the description of his hair turning grey. It is gradual. In Alice Oswald’s poem he has been trapped in old age for a long time: “very nearly anonymous now / having recently turned five / thousand with the same wedge of / yearning lodged in my chest as ever.”
As Dawn moves forth and light settles in on all things, Tithonos’ voice starts to fade. They never speak to one another. Allusions to her sense of guilt crop up here and there. What Alice Oswald’s retelling restores is the uncomfortable side of this myth: Dawn’s tragedy, which is not the same as Tithonos’, is due to a clumsy mistake, a fault in logic; her request is incomplete, imprecise. In the repetitive nature of day breaking, nevertheless, Tithonos reconstitutes with impeccable precision the spectacle of Dawn settling in, turning into day. Her voice is never heard and his fades (literally, the last poem of the sequence fades from black to grey as if the printer had run out of ink), but at the height of Dawn moving forth what is described is life on the move, even if Tithonos describes his voice as follows: “you should see the beetle’s fingers / feeling forwards for the levers of the earth / they begin to chafe they begin to / click they begin to / click they begin to blur they begin to braille / and my voice then speaks with / spaces much as a sewing machine / might write with no thread a line / of small holes.”
You see, Clara, the problem is not how to repair what can be repaired by glue and thread and needle. The problem is not, either, if the rough floor under our windows is paved with grass or concrete ground. That dawn in Amsterdam, as I sped to the airport in a cab you paid for, rolling down a window to smoke a cigarette, as light came breaking down the horizon, I didn’t find myself thinking what could be new to Tithonos, so old in his palace, when Dawn kept returning every day. In our routines, we often forget about what is new in repetition and, I think, we tend to be less aware of what escapes the script at all. I try to imagine if that is how the idea for Tithonos’s speech in Alice Oswald’s poem came about. It is certainly there at work in the itinerary he painstakingly describes for Dawn. It comes across at once as a path well known and a nostalgia of uncertainty. There is also the faint undertone of Dawn’s guilt, the matter of the responsibility of the powerful over those they can crush, even if unintendedly so. As we go over the job of trying to reconstitute certain moments in our minds, the restoration work which is the playground of both memory and imagination, it never occurred to me to count the things we have in common, if the ways in which friends are alike is somewhat akin to the similar things that brought Hector and Sarpedon closer together in a plot devised by an anonymous imagination from Archaic Greece. But, for what it’s worth, we are both classicists, we both tied our lives to Greece and tried to make a profession out of it, we both have Athens in common, if not Amsterdam, and we both like Dutch beer.
And, so, I leave you this riddle. In the second decade of the twenty-first century an English poet looked back on a Hymn set into writing perhaps more than twenty-six or twenty-seven centuries earlier. She stripped it out of the original perspective of a detached omniscient narrator. She gave voice instead to a character that, through many other versions over the centuries, remained speechless or whose speech was, more or less consistently, described as “incoherent babbling.”
At one point in that sequence Tithonos describes himself as “very nearly anonymous now / having recently turned five / thousand with the same wedge of / yearning lodged in my chest as ever.” Alice Oswald also states in the beginning of this part of her book that: “The performance will begin in darkness.”
I would like to think the long thread of the classical tradition ties her lines to the lines a Brazilian poet of the eighteenth century, who cared about Virgil and bucolic poetry and the nymphs of the sea, and who may or may not have taken his own life, wrote in Minas Gerais. That it is certainly true that reinventing the classics is an operation that begins in darkness and can turn to light. You see, Clara, it doesn’t matter if Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of Labour, well not really. Arguably, what matters is that Winckelmann’s madness is so much more appealing than the lines he wrote about Laocoon’s calm, which was not there, as it was not there perhaps for our doomed mineiro poet in his very last moment. What matters, is that a moment of pause, a moment of insane intellectual freedom, our dubious taste for hipster t-shirts, the trees bursting into life around us, can allow us to see that the problem is not how to repair what can be mended, the broken things to which we have a solution for. The problem is the repair work that must be carried out about things that are going to remain broken, no matter what. The most interesting question, the only one that in the end is worth asking, is how can we go about the work of turning catastrophe into Dawn. Whatever we can say about the Ancients, they did seem to know a thing or two about that.
Oxford/ Milton/ London
9-14 May 2018