Songs Without Music Without Words
My progress through the Columbia College Lit. Hum. syllabus continues.
This weekend I knocked off Sappho’s Lyrics. This is about 340 pages of song fragments. The original Greek is included. The book is arranged so you see Greek on one page and the English translation on the other.
Here is my verdict: I don’t get it.
Take 340 pages and divide it by two. That gives you 170. Then jack up the margins so they take up half the page. Then lose maybe two thirds of the original material. You end up with a very short work. On top of that, many of the fragments are completely incomprehensible. Some lines contain only one word.
There isn’t a lot of meat here. There are some full paragraphs and pages, but they are separated by big gulfs of emptiness. You pretty much have to take it one line at a time.
Here is how page 15 reads, if you string the words together: “. . . so . . . Go . . . so we may see . . . lady . . . of golden arms . . . doom . . .”
This is not just literature; it’s archaeology. It’s like trying to guess what a pharaoh’s tomb looked like after 75% of the contents were removed.
There are some pleasant bits of poetry, and there is information that tells us a little bit about Greek culture. All in all, I would say it’s a lot like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You visit just so you can say you saw it, not so you can praise it as a coherent, useful work. Have I used that analogy before? I like it.
I think Mr. Cliff agrees with me. He never wrote notes for Lyrics. If Cliff don’t care, I don’t care.
I looked around for information, and I learned a few things about Sappho. It looks like she was the Madonna of her time, except without the tastelessness and lack of talent. She was a sort of rock star. She wrote songs that were so popular, they were disseminated around the Mediterranean during her lifetime.
In the ancient world, Sappho was a big deal. She was mentioned by many ancient authors. They thought she was swell.
That’s great, but her melodies are long gone, and most of her words have also disappeared. It’s as if we were trying to reconstruct the Beatles using LP’s with big wedges cut out of them. Actually, it’s worse. It’s like trying to reconstruct them by looking at old captures of Leo’s Lyrics (a webpage that contains popular song lyrics) with half of the words corrupted: “Rocky Raccoon . . . checked into . . . Gideon’s . . . legs.” To say that finding meaning in this stuff requires value added is a gross understatement. If a scholar isn’t careful, he will end up publishing his own thoughts and feelings instead of Sappho’s.
Not that a scholar would ever do a thing like that. Oh, no.
I have to wonder: are the scholars who seem excited about Sappho just overheated? Are they letting their emotions drive them to make more of the ruins than they should? Probably.
If someone found the feet of the Colossus of Rhodes and started giving tours in a glass-bottomed boat, I wouldn’t sit in the boat shrieking that it was the most beautiful statue I had ever seen. I would probably say, “Wow, it must have been neat before it was destroyed.” That seems like a realistic reaction to reading Sappho.
I can’t find the fierce lesbianism modern scholars impute to her. She was apparently married, and she makes references to children. It sure looks like she was a mom. There are lesbian moms, but they’re generally not homosexual icons.
Human beings used to have a thing called “platonic love,” which seems a little creepy by modern standards. It was okay for two men to hold hands and tell each other how beautiful they were; it didn’t mean they were sneaking around. The Iliad is full of this stuff. The men get excited and talk effusively about their love and admiration for each other, but there are no gay relationships.
The men of The Iliad are heterosexual to a fault. At worst, they’re on the down-low. They are enthusiastic about taking female sex slaves, and they seem to view rape as a healthy, liberating hobby. They are like goats on Viagra and bath salts. Their emotional behavior toward other men seems to stop at the bedroom door. Maybe it was the same with Sappho.
Platonic love is pretty much dead (whew) among modern American men, but it’s very much alive among women. Young women get together for sleepovers, do each other’s hair, lie in the same beds, and dance together in their underwear. Doesn’t make them lesbians.
So they claim.
Anyway, platonic love more than suffices to explain the things Sappho wrote.
Sappho says a number of clever things about human nature, but I don’t think that, by itself, makes her a genius. Human beings had been around for a very long time before she was born, and it doesn’t take a million years for us to size each other up. Being the first recorded person to say this or that doesn’t make you the first person to say it.
I will read up on her a little more, but I don’t think there’s that much to learn.
Currently, I’m reading The Odyssey, which is the story of Odysseus’ return from Troy. It was translated by Richmond Lattimore, the same guy who wrote the translation of The Iliad Columbia uses.
The Odyssey has two important virtues The Iliad lacks: 1) there is an actual story, and 2) it’s shorter.
The Iliad runs around 900 pages, and almost nothing happens. There is no structure whatsoever. Scholars pretend there is, but there isn’t. The Achaians do well against the Trojans. The Trojans get discouraged. The god start helping the Trojans. The Trojans do well against the Achaians. The Achaians get discouraged. The gods start helping the Achaians. Repeat this about fifty times, and you have The Iliad.
the Trojans lose. But the action stops abruptly before Brad Pitt gets shot in the foot.
The Odyssey is different in that things occasionally happen. It’s not an endless cycle of alternating favor. Odysseus gets captured by a nymph. He gets freed. He has adventures on the way home. When you read The Odyssey, you feel like you’re making progress.
In the end , Odysseus wins. You have closure. Real closure, not the crappy kind you get in The Iliad, which ends with Hektor’s pincushiony, not-so-godlike body going home in a wagon. Even the coke-sniffers in Hollywood knew The Iliad needed punching up. That’s why they added the stuff about sacking Troy. If they had pulled the plug when Peter O’Toole got on the wagon, there would have been riots.
Here’s a theory which I would like to contribute to Iliad scholarship: The Iliad ends abruptly because the people who were subjected to Homer’s seemingly endless droning chose Hektor’s return as a good excuse to get up and leave. Or maybe they hit Homer in the head with a club at that point, to shut him up.
If anyone wants to offer me a university chair, I am open to negotiation. A chair may not be enough. I may hold out for an ottoman.
It will be hard to choose among the offers. Universities are clamoring to get conservative Christian professors who carry loaded pistols.
The next book in the syllabus is Genesis. I plan to skip that. I feel like I have that one under control. I’ve even read supplementary materials, such as Jubilees, Enoch, and The Modern Fundamentalist Fascist’s Guide to Homophobia, which I co-authored.
After that comes The Histories, by Herodotus. This book bears the distinction of having been not read by me in two different courses. I took an ancient history course in high school, and I’m pretty sure I avoided reading Herodotus, and then I almost certainly skipped it at Columbia.
Herodotus contains the story of the battle of Thermopylae, better known to Beyonce fans as 300. I watched 300 the other day, and I was highly annoyed to see bare breasts pop out for no good reason. You never know when nudity will reach out and grab you. I watched a movie about Beethoven the other day, and Ed Harris mooned the camera.
I think that was harmless. My feelings for Ed Harris aren’t even platonic.
As I so often do, I will go out on a limb and speculate. Because it’s easier than finding out the truth. I speculate that Xerxes was not an eight-foot-tall circus morphodite whose palace was actually a body modification parlor, and I further speculate that he wore actual pants. I doubt he had a ten-foot-tall giant that could fight even after you shoved a spearhead six inches into his skull (via the eyeball). I doubt the Spartan army dressed like a dance team from La Bare, and that they went on long journeys equipped only with spears, velvet cloaks, and dark red Speedos.
I don’t think the Spartans built a mountaintop temple on a crag so steep a fit man could barely climb it. How would you get the construction materials up there? How about food and water? What about wifi?
Anyway, that’s next.
I’ve learned one nice thing about the ancient Greeks. They treated their gods better than we do. They didn’t just hop in boats and sail off to kill people. They prayed and sacrificed beforehand. They were constantly asking the gods what they were doing wrong, so they could fix it. Imagine how much easier our lives would be if we treated the actual, real-life God that way.
I also noticed a major problem with the Greek religion. Well, two problems. First, the official name of the religion appears to be “mythology.” When you’re a Greek, that has to be bad for your faith. But also, the Greek gods do not get along.
Imagine that. Imagine you pray to Jehovah, and he gives you the okay, and then Jesus says, “Yeah, right, we’ll see about that,” and then he sneaks around behind the scenes, shipwrecking you on islands populated by one-eyed giant cannibals. That’s not how Christianity works. Christianity says, “God is one,” meaning, “God is unified.” The Spirit-led are unified. If we disagree about anything, it means someone is doing it wrong.
In mythology, you can’t make all the gods happy. Please one, and another one is on your case. That’s no way to run a godhead.
Another major problem: the Greek gods are a bit thick. None of them ever says anything intelligent or mature. Dealing with them is like placating huge, armed children. It’s like the segment of the old Twilight Zone movie, where adults had to kiss the rear end of an omnipotent little kid in order to keep him from projecting them into the violent horror of “Cartoon World.”
If stupid, immature gods are your thing, mythology is for you. And don’t believe the lies. It’s not the national religion of Mexico, no matter how many times you think you hear them say, “Yay, Zeus.”
That’s all I have for now. I am officially in charge of doing my elderly father’s taxes now, so I have to go and immerse myself in the new level of Tartarus known as Quickbooks. Odd name for the program, since “quick” means “alive,” which is the opposite how how I expect it to make me feel.
They say only death and taxes are inevitable. If only death came first.