Saturday, March 24, 2012

Must You Change Your Life?

In his essay, "The Greek Self," W.H. Auden points out that Homer
has no verb meaning simply "to see," but it has many verbs for specific ways of seeing.  Thus, derkesthai means "to have a particular look in one's eyes, to look with a specific expression."  The snake is called drakon, the seeing one, not because his sight functions particularly well, but because his stare commands attention.  Of the eagle it may be said that oxutato derktai - he looks very sharply.  But whereas in English the adjective would characterize the function and capacity of seeing, Homer has in mind the beams of the eagle's eye which are as penetrating as the rays of the sun.  Paptainein denotes another mode of looking, namely, a looking about carefully, inquisitively, or with fear.

Neither of these two verbs are found in the First Person.  A man would notice such attitudes in others rather than ascribe them to himself.

But the verb leusso behaves quite differently.  Etymologically related to leukos, "gleaming," "white," it means - to see something bright.  Feelings of joy and freedom are implied.  Leusso frequently is found in the first person but never in situations of care of anxiety.
It occurs to me that this passage illuminates Rilke's most famous poem, translated into English by Stephen Mitchell as "Archaic Torso of Apollo."  The Greek understanding of seeing, and of gleaming described here helps explain how the torso of a headless marble statue can be "suffused with brilliance from inside, / like a lamp," in which Apollo's "gaze, now turned to low, still "gleams in all its power."  It clarifies how, though damaged irreparably, the stone does not "seem defaced/ beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders"and can "glisten like a wild beast's fur," how it can "from all the borders of itself,burst like a star: for here there is no place/ that does not see you."

It's especially haunting that the radiance of the stone brings to mind that Greek word leukos ("gleaming," "white"), given the connection to the word for the disease that killed Rilke: leukemia.


Homer's famous similes, Auden reminds us, function to "convey the intensity and reality" of action: they allow Homer's audience to "see" the action.  As Bruno Snell explains (and Auden's essay review's Snell's work):
Human behavior is only made clear through reference to something else which in turn is explained by analogy with human behavior.  Man must listen to an echo of himself before he may hear or know himself.
The value of these echoes and images and analogies, Auden says, is that "they enable us to think indirectly about things of which we can have no direct cognition."  Things like the past.

What may surprise us is that Homer had no word for the body as a whole.  He could speak, Snell tells us, of the limbs, of the joints, of the frame, of the skin - but the body (and also the soul) were considered to be fragmentary, and the fragments, Auden says, "are conceived of as if they were as distinct and specific as physical organs."  Perhaps this mitigates, or amplifies, the headlessness of Apollo's torso in Rilke's poem.

Moreover, Auden writes -
It is difficult to know where, exactly, Homer draws the line between those actions which a man does on his own and those which he does as the result of inspiration by a god, but it seems to correspond to our equally inexact distinction between normal and abnormal.  When a man is surprised by a violent emotion or acts in a way which neither he nor others would have expected, Homer ascribes this to the intervention of a god.  In consequence, the significant personal decision is unknown to Homer for, whenever the decision ["You must change your life"?] is a crucial one, a god is responsible.
The "unique personal soul" first appears, it would seem, in the lyric poetry of Ionia.  Sappho, Auden explains, "recognizes clearly what Homer is only vaguely aware of, that different individuals have different values."  Those lyric poets were "concerned with personal feeling," but it was the Greek tragic dramatists who made the discovery of "personal action."  The tragic hero makes decisions for which only he, not any god, is responsible - and his choices have great consequences.  So begins the Western canon.


Auden was writing all this in 1959 from the perspective of what readers and writers of "modern poetry" would find interesting.  The cheap availability of books in modern times, he says, made even "the least intellectual modern poet a literary scholar by comparison with his predecessors."
Whether he like it or not, [the modern poet] cannot help being aware, when he writes, of what other writers in the past have written; he cannot separate the question "What do I want to write?" from the question "What can and needs to be written because no one has yet done it?"
(It was Apollo, we are reminded, who warned Callimachus at the outset of his writing career "not to take the broad, much-travelled roads, but to hew out his own path, however narrow.")

But we are not modern readers and poets.  We are postmodern, or even post-postmodern, so the canon of work "that writers in the past have written" comes to us, we perceive, by means of privileging certain kinds of writing, and certain kinds of writers, at the expense of others.  We need no longer imagine what would happen, to borrow a phrase from Pound, if the classics had a wide circulation.

So what can be made in our time of Rilke's almost Greek way of looking and seeing, and the ethos of learning to assume personal responsibility which culminated, in his now-canonical poem, in the famous phrase: You must change your life?

Maybe Rilke's poem is now as archaic as its nominal subject.


Anonymous said...

"We need no longer imagine what would happen, to borrow a phrase from Pound, if the classics had a wide circulation."

Of course. Therefore no need to distinguish (as Pound advised) roots from twigs, Shakespeare from Silliman, Miguel Hernández from Flo Hernandez, etc. We can cook up alternative lineages consisting almost entirely of the most minor writers imaginable, then blog blog blog until enough yahoos believe these minors are majors—a road that ends in tenure and endowed chairs for "post-avants" and an invitation for the uncreative Kenny Goldsmith to read real poetry (thank the gods not his own) at the White House in his psychedelic jacket. The prefix "post" applied to any literary condition means a con is in progress—a con that makes the "privileging certain kinds of writing ... and writers" con seem relatively harmless.

Don Share said...

You couldn't tell that I said that ruefully. At least, that's how I interpret your animosity.

מבול said...
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Don Share said...

In real life, moral approval or disapproval and personal liking or disliking are two different judgments; in art they are synonymous: the personally lovable stands for the good, the personally detestable stands for the bad. - Auden

מבול said...
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William A. Sigler said...

Fascinating the way you GPS locate Rilke’s interior light through the misty palimpsest of Blind Lemon Homer’s chords. Nothing seen except the seers (see’ers) - now that's about as post-post-modern as it gets! My humble rendition of this famously difficult gedicht stresses the inwardness of the seeing rather than the lucidity to observers – who can’t, it turns out, see at all. Ah, well, it’s not like Rilke’s German tolerates English and its endless quibbles anyway.

Just as you pull away the foundation of the body and eyes from the long, long tradition, you marvelously come back with “so begins the Western canon.” Quite lovely to think it resides in the spark of self-recognition, in the ability to choose and act, since this is the best way to explain it to our Eastern friends, who as far as I can tell are the only ones who still want to know.

Thank you, anyway, for the stimulating read, and thank you Google Reader for suggesting this keeper of a blog to follow. I’ll be back.