Prisoners in the museum

The classical Greek conception of the afterlife was not a particularly attractive one.

In Homer’s universe, the vast majority of the dead — those not singled out by the gods for special treatment — did not wake up in some bright city of jasper and chalcedony; there were no beautiful houris, no songs, no drinking with old comrades, no dancing in fields of asphodel. Death meant a transition from the daylight world to a gray twilight, a cavern of ashes and dust, populated by muttering shadows. The Homeric dead retained their identities only through the living, sustained in the memories of those left behind. As those memories faded, or the people who had known them in life themselves died off, the dead reflected that loss, becoming more and more vague, insubstantial, losing all individual selfhood. The one thing that could provide a moment’s respite in this slide into oblivion was blood. The blood of the living, freely given, would restore a shade’s identity and memory, at least for a short time.

Pretty grim, right? We are talking about death, after all: the big D, the final darkness, the end of life, so to expect sunshine and roses and platoons of beautiful virgins does seem a bit naive.

If you’re one of those folks who believes that you will, upon the death of your body, rise up to enjoy dancing and singing and partying for all eternity with your ancestors back to Adam and Eve, I’m not here to rain on your parade. We all look for consolation where we can. What I really want you to think about, looking out at those gray multitudes in the Greek afterlife vibrating to the last fading echoes of selfhood, is the concept of identity.

* * *

What got me started on this track was the singing of the cicadas in my yard. (Bear with me: This’ll make sense in a bit.)

It’s August here in northwest Arkansas, and the cicadas are in full frenzy up in the trees, advertising their brief passions with a chorus of shrilling, chittering, and buzzing. The different groups punctuate their declarations of love and territory with occasional silences: these lacunae are usually easy to overlook, since one instrument dropping out doesn’t always have that much impact on the overall symphony.

Every now and then, however, everybody goes silent at the same moment. It’s a surreal feeling, that sudden jerking away of the curtain of sound, as if the pounding and hissing of the surf stopped without warning, or the ticking of the grandfather’s clock in the hall ceased in the middle of lunch. There’s a sensation of vertigo, of missing a step on the way down the stairs. A silence you can almost touch.

* * *

In 1946, Greek poet and diplomat George Seferis wrote a poem he titled “Thrush”, about a Greek sailing vessel sunk by the Germans during WWII in Athens’ harbor. Seferis, awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963, is widely considered to have defined Hellenic culture in the post-World-War era. For me, his contribution is less specific: I find that Seferis’ writings speak to me, about as non-Greek as a man can get, about identity; about who and what we are in the time and place we occupy.

I don’t have to be Greek to share Seferis’ questions about what defines us: I’m a Southerner, born into a military family in Montgomery, Alabama, during the opening years of the Civil Rights movement, raised in a small, white, conservative farm town in the Appalachian foothills. I’m also a gay man, politically and socially liberal, a xenophile, bilingual, somewhat of an intellectual. How do I reconcile those two sides of my life? Who I am and how I got here seem mutually exclusive; how can I bring the past and the present together without destroying them both?

This, I feel, is the true central theme of Seferis’ poetry. The poet, a Greek, was heir to a culture that reached back to Homer and Herodotus, Pericles and Plato, and yet he lived in a time when his fellow Greeks were roiled in a bloody civil war between two opposing ideological views of what the country should look like in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation, a conflict which petered out in the early 1960s, and then ended once and for all when Greece fell under the control of a brutal military dictatorship. Seferis, a career diplomat, lived every day immersed in the petty squabbling, the violence, the slavish adherence to irrational beliefs; yet, for all that, he was an educated man, a man who knew that his people had once been so much more.

Past and present? Past or present? Where was the middle ground between the Parthenon and Odysseus and the funeral oration of Pericles on the one hand, and the tortures, disappearances, petty internal power struggles and political dirty tricks of Seferis’ own lifetime? This was the poet’s dilemma, and one that informed and energized much of his writing.

One aspect of my personality that I neglected to mention a couple of paragraphs back is that I’m a coward. Faced with the contradictions of my existence early on, I fled my home town at the age of nineteen, and have returned during the last four and half decades only when absolutely necessary. To preserve my present, I repudiate my past. A stronger, braver man would have found a way to reconcile the two without sacrificing personal integrity: unfortunately, I’m not that stronger, braver man. I did what I had to do with the character and resources I had at my disposal, meager though they might have been.

As Americans, we face this issue more than most. George Seferis belonged to a cultural tradition that could be traced back over millennia; as an American, the descendant of immigrants, born in a country less than two centuries old, I don’t have that foundation to build upon. Quite often, we deal with this by creating fictional “heritage”, based less on historical fact than on wishful thinking, sanitizing our history and our ancestors to justify an exaggerated view of our own stature. (This is, of course, not unique to us: After all, the Greece of the Iliad and the Odyssey was hardly an accurate reflection of reality.)

Reinventing ourselves as what Seferis once referred to as “men without ancestors” is one solution, allowing us to start fresh, to set the past aside and focus on the future. A nice idea, but as I know from my own experience, it’s never that easy: the ghosts are always with us, muttering and begging, pleading for a few drops of blood now and then, demanding to be remembered. The opposite approach, living in the glorified past, is also a non-starter: an identity built on moonshine and fairy dust won’t hold up for long against the very real vicissitudes of day-to-day life in a world created from the dirt and blood and bones of a very real history.

What to do?

For one thing, don’t look to me for answers. All I have is questions. And yet … Seferis offers us a glimpse of something: he doesn’t propose a return to a glorious past that never existed, nor does he suggest leaving the ancestors to wither and fade, forgotten in the dark. He promises anxiety, and fear, and the possibility of hope and change; and maybe, a moment of silence in which to draw the line between past and future.

I leave you with the last few lines of Seferis’ “Thrush”:

“… I’m not speaking to you about things past, I’m speaking about love;
adorn your hair with the sun’s thorns,
dark girl;
the heart of the Scorpion has set,
the tyrant in man has fled,
and all the daughters of the sea, Nereids, Graeae,
hurry toward the shimmering of the rising goddess:
whoever has never loved will love,
in the light;

in a large house with many windows open
running from room to room, not knowing from where to look out first,
because the pine trees will vanish, and the mirrored mountains, and the chirping of birds
the sea will empty, shattered glass, from north and south
your eyes will empty of the light of day
the way the cicadas all together suddenly fall silent.”

George Seferis, “Thrush” from Collected Poems (George Seferis). Translated, edited, and introduced by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Copyright © 1995 by George Seferis. The entire poem can be found at the Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51358/thrush.

In the Mood

Way back during my turbulent twenties – about the time Nancy Reagan was tossing out Rosalynn’s White House china, and Mount St Helens was tossing its summit into low earth orbit – I had a friend.

We’re going to call this friend “Carl” – mainly because that’s his name, and when I try to use pseudonyms I lose track of who’s who from one paragraph to the next. Carl was a director of theatrical productions, and possessed a wealth of interesting – if occasionally impenetrable – epigrams with which he informed and edified his actors. In the course of a friendship that lasted many years (and continues to this day, thanks to the internet) I managed to retain two important and enduring lessons from Carl’s store of wisdom: A) that cultural sophistication is something you evolve over time, not something you can pick up by watching a lot of public television, and B) that “mood” spelled backwards is “doom”.

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A Likely Story

“It was a likely story. But then, all of his stories were likely.”

– Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

In a somewhat pointless exchange on Facebook recently (but aren’t they all, usually?) a friend-of-a-friend, struggling to defend against a criticism of current US President Donald Trump, trotted out the “birther” trope: the assertion that Barack Obama was actually born in Africa.

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Tire Tracks on the Putting Green

I’m not what you would call a fan of Donald Trump.

To be honest, I doubt if I would waste a good cup of coffee to extinguish a brushfire in his comb-over. At the same time, watching the video clips of our President lurching along in front of the 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth II at the inspection of the Queen’s Guard during his recent visit to the UK, my principal response was not disgust, or embarrassment, or outrage, or any of the other sentiments that seemed appropriate, but — strangely enough — sympathy.

Wait! Don’t hit me again: I can explain.

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Paddling Point Nemo

I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going sort of person.

I have strong opinions about a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my being able to talk to just about anybody, about just about anything, and I try to be courteous to, and considerate of, the people I deal with in my day-to-day life – regardless of who they are, and who I am. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I think it’s important to give it my best shot.

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Really and truly.

Many years ago, during a visit to my family in my hometown of Boaz, Alabama, I got the notion to prepare a really fabulous meal for everybody.

On the face of it, this would seem like a nice gesture, but don’t fool yourself. I was thirty years old, and my snobbery knew no limits. I was from Boaz, but not of Boaz; I had gone away and become part of a wider world, and a fancy meal was just another way to prove my superiority. (I suppose all escapees from small towns go through that phase somewhere down the line. We’re Truman Capote or Andy Warhol: We go away for a few years, then come back to visit, proudly bearing suitcases full of Robert Rauschenberg and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden and chicken recipes in Italian.)

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Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.

I don’t like country music. The yodeling vocals, the whining guitars, the relentlessly predictable lyrics about faithless babes, abusive bubbas, pickup trucks, disreputable nightspots in the middle of nowhere … An hour of this, and a visitor from another planet would marvel that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line had not long since slid off into the Gulf of Mexico, crushed into slurry under the weight of all that drama and all those tears.

“Wait just a gosh-darned minute!” I hear someone shouting from the back row. “Yes, a lot of country music is like that, but it’s not all the same. You’re being unfair.”

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Calculating the value of pie.

Of all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.

Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy.

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Bonfire of the Vanities

During my survey of the art news this week I happened upon a provocative headline from the Daily Beast: Why Artist Gerhard Richter Destroys His Own Art. The title of the article is a bit misleading: the writer asks the question but she does not actually attempt to answer it; instead she merely elaborates on the fact that Mr Richter has destroyed a considerable number of his own paintings over the years. She did, however, get me thinking about artists and their emotional relationship to the products of their craft — because I, too, often feel the desire to haul a big load of my artwork out into the yard and set it on fire.

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Seeing it all in black and white.

For much of my childhood (up through, I believe, about 1970) all of my family’s television viewing was on an RCA portable of late 1950s vintage, a clunky plastic thing with an extensible antenna on top and a wood-grain panel on the front decorated with dials and knobs that read “On/Off”, “VHF”, “UHF”, and “Fine Tune”. Inside the unit’s scorched yellowy-beige backside brooded a clutch of humming, glowing vacuum tubes, and its strangely convex twelve-inch screen delivered the Kennedy funeral and I Love Lucy reruns alike in a palette consisting entirely of gentle, hazy grays.

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