Jenny Odell on Cicero, Suzanne McConnell on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; tempora cum causis (9)

Ancient and Modern. In the De Fato (10-11), Cicero discusses whether it is possible for the individual to overcome their nature. Here comes the Loeb:

Stilponem, Megaricum philosophum, acutum sane hominem et probatum temporibus illis accepimus. Hunc scribunt ipsius familiares et ebriosum et mulierosum fuisse, neque haec scribunt vituperantes sed potius ad laudem, vitiosam enim naturam ab eo sic edomitam et compressam esse doctrina ut nemo umquam vinolentum illum, nemo in eo libidinis vestigium viderit. Quid? Socratem nonne legimus quemadmodum notarit Zopyrus physiognomon, qui se profitebatur hominum mores naturasque ex corpore oculis vultu fronte pernoscere? stupidum esse Socratem dixit et bardum quod iugula concava non haberet—obstructas eas partes et obturatas esse dicebat; addidit etiam mulierosum, in quo Alcibiades cachinnum dicitur sustulisse. [11] Sed haec ex naturalibus causis vitia nasci possunt, exstirpari autem et funditus tolli, ut is ipse qui ad ea propensus fuerit a tantis vitiis avocetur, non est positum in naturalibus causis, sed in voluntate studio disciplina; quae tollentur omnia si vis et natura fati…firmabitur.

“The Megarian philosopher Stilpo, we are informed, was undoubtedly a clever person and highly esteemed in his day. Stilpo is described in the writings of his own associates as having been fond of liquor and of women, and they do not record this as a reproach but rather to add to his reputation, for they say that he had so completely mastered and suppressed his vicious nature by study that no one ever saw him the worse for liquor or observed in him a single trace of licentiousness. Again, do we not read how Socrates was stigmatized by the ‘physiognomist’ Zopyrus, who professed to discover men’s entire characters and natures from their body, eyes, face and brow? He said that Socrates was stupid and thick-witted because he had not got hollows in the neck above the collarbone—he used to say that these portions of his anatomy were blocked and stopped up. He also added that he was addicted to women—at which Alcibiades is said to have given a loud guffaw! [11] But it is possible that these defects may be due to natural causes; but their eradication and entire removal, recalling the man himself from the serious vices to which he was inclined, does not rest with natural causes, but with will, effort, training; and if the potency and the existence of fate is proved…all of these will be done away with.”

In this passage, Cicero describes some of the quote-unquote defects which naturally arise in humans. Stilpo (4th c. BCE) reportedly had a natural proclivity for alcohol and sex with women; he was, according to friends, ebriosus (“addicted to drink”) and mulierosus* (“addicted to women”). But, Cicero says, Stilpo was able to master his nature with philosophical training (doctrina), and was never seen drunk again, and showed no outward sign of lust. Zopyrus (5th c. BCE), applied physiognomy, i.e. the theory that human character can be read in the condition of the body, to Socrates and concluded from the philosopher’s body that he could only be an idiot. Oh, and that he must also be “addicted to women” (mulierosus again). Cicero writes that nature may be responsible for giving us certain tendencies. But, he says, it is human agency that can overcome them: “will” (voluntas), “effort” (studium), and “training” (disciplina). This passage, of course, contains an oversimplistic attitude to addiction as well as an ablest assumption that bodily imperfection is a mirror of morality or intellect. It’s also quite clear that these anecdotes are designed to reflect male power in the context of elite competition: the detail that the notorious party animal, Alcibiades, laughed at Zopyrus calling Socrates names suggests a symposiastic setting (Phaedo’s dialogue, Zopyrus, dramatized a debate between the physiognomist and Socrates). Putting those things aside, what do we make of Cicero’s claim that we can overcome our nature?

In the recent (and superb), How to Do Nothing (2019)Jenny Odell cites this passage of Cicero’s De Fato (pp71-72) in the context of arguing for the creation of a “third space” of attention — one which reframes human interaction with reality as a kind of rejection of market forces and commercially-run social media. The book as a whole is a meditation on and a protreptic towards a modern kind of recusatio, i.e. the technique of saying “I would prefer not to.” Odell asks her reader to refuse to internalize the contemporary narrative of productivity, and to reclaim time and space to “do nothing.” (There are a lot of classical references throughout — Seneca, Epicurus, Diogenes. And Cicero’s cum dignitate otium is clearly a spiritual forebear.) Here’s what Odell says about this passage of Cicero (p72):

“If we believed that everything were merely a product of fate, or disposition, Cicero reasons, no one would be accountable for anything and therefore there could be no justice. In today’s terms, we’d all just be algorithms. Furthermore, we’d have no reason to try to make ourselves better or different from our natural inclinations. VOLUNTATE, STUDIO, DISCIPLINA — it is through these things that we find and inhabit the third space, and more important, how we stay there. In a situation that would have us answer yes or no (on its terms), it takes work, and will, to keep answering something else.”

The possibility of escaping (or mitigating) the frailties of human psychology and embodiment which Cicero suggests relies on the intentional application of the mind (or soul). Odell would have us apply ourselves in this way as an act of resistance against cynical structures of social influence. The concept of “will” (voluntas) invokes the notion of presence — or attention — the ability to be here in the moment, to have an appreciation for the moment in all its granularities. To “focus” (studium). As for the “training” (disciplina), this obviously could take a number of forms. But evidently self-awareness, and awareness of the churning forces around you, is at the core of this idea.

*Mulierosus is quite an unusual Latin word! It only appears in extant classical Latin three times. According to Aulus Gellius (4.9.2), quoting “mulierosus” as discussed by the Pythagorean magician, Nigidius Figulus, the Latin suffix –osus indicates an excess of the characteristic in question.

Internet.

Excerpt. Suzanne McConnell on Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 2019: 134-135: “By its nature, literary fiction ‘teaches’: it shows how people feel, think, respond, vary; how circumstances affect them; how their brains, personalities, surroundings and culture make them tick. How an experiences strikes a particular person a certain way, and another differently. How a person feels inside as opposed to how they act or are perceived. And so on. All writing teaches — communicates something about something. [p135] Even bad writing. So if you’re writing, you’re teaching. You can’t help it. But then there’s intentional teaching through writing.”*

*Austin came into the room to point to a passage written by Vonnegut (on teachers and teaching) which was quoted on this page. So I thank him for the excerpt this week.

Daily Life. Max helped me grade. 

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Temple of Dendur, Lindy West, Josephine Balmer; tempora cum causis (6)

Ancient. One of the interesting features of studying the past is that you can see patterns of change even in objects which claim to be unchanging. A famous passage of the Greek historian, Thucydides, expresses horror at the fact that political crisis changed the very meaning of words themselves: καὶ τὴν εἰωθυῖαν ἀξίωσιν τῶν ὀνομάτων ἐς τὰ ἔργα ἀντήλλαξαν τῇ δικαιώσει, “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them” (Histories 3.82). During the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE), this phenomenon is perceptible in a number of ways. Augustus, who claimed to restore the republic, changed the course of Roman political life forever, inaugurating a monarchy which did not name itself so. In the Metropolitan Museum in New York there is a famous Egyptian temple honouring the goddess, Isis, as well as Pedesi and Pihor, deified sons of the local Nubian chieftain. This temple is noteworthy in a number of respects, one of which is the fact that the ruler of Egypt depicted making sacrifices to divinities in its reliefs is the Roman princeps, Augustus himself. Augustus is there represented in the traditional regalia of the Egyptian pharaoh. An example of a deep difference consciously hidden underneath traditional forms. 

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The Temple of Dendur, completed by 10 BCE. Metropolitan Museum.
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The Roman princeps, Augustus (left), as Egyptian pharaoh, burning incense before deified figures of Pedesi and Pihor. Metropolitan Museum.

Incidentally, I can’t think about the Temple of Dendur without also thinking about this scene from When Harry Met Sally (1989), filmed right in front of it.

 

Modern. Last Friday, we made the trek to Cambridge (crossing the Charles is no joke) to hear Lindy West speak at an event organized by the Harvard Book Store as part of the book tour for her newly released The Witches are Coming. I heard West at the MFA last summer, giving a version of what would be the book’s first chapter; that lecture was deliberately arranged as a counterpoint to the narratives of sexual conquest on display in the MFA’s special exhibit at the time: “Casanova’s Europe.” West praised the curators of the exhibit for their explicit acknowledgement that, while Casanova’s memoirs provide a rich document of the 18th c., it also described “behaviors toward women that today would be criminal.” A praiseworthy effort to make visitors to the museum consider that the objects on display do not uncomplicatedly manifest beauty and wisdom of the past (there are other indications of this throughout the MFA). That our interaction with these artefacts is not simply one of aesthetic appreciation, but one which creates meaning by contextualizing the object within an understanding of the culture which produced it.

The reading from The Witches are Coming took place in a church, which I thought was somewhat fitting. The audience was 99% women. After her reading, audience members asked her questions which were heartbreakingly moving. Over the week that followed, one which was unusually busy, I found snatches of time here and there to read the book itself. Day-to-day life in modern America is filled with noise and fury and rhetoric, and bad faith arguments. West, with characteristic wit, manages to cut through that noise. 

Internet.

Excerpt. Josephine Balmer, Papyrus Trace (Papyrological Institute, Florence, 1953) in The Paths of Survival (2017): 

“trapped in the scent of lavender, musk;
letters from a lost world, seeping back

to black, etched in breath-blown dust:
speak out… …dissent… …enough…:

a few precious words of Aeschylus
we’d all believed had gone forever —

the fragment found at Oxyrhynchus
then lost again in an Allied raid

by this second miracle returned to us,
late violets trembling above a grave.”

Daily Life. This week, we had a Greece vs. Rome debate at BU. My colleague, Sasha Nikolaev, made us some ostraka for the vote — I heard him hammering the pot through the wall. It ended in a tie! 

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Martha Graham, essays on the internet, Sarah Ahmed; tempora cum causis (3)

Ancient. This week at BU we had an incredible visit from the Martha Graham Dance company. Artistic director, Janet Eilber, lectured on Martha Graham‘s innovations in dance, showing clips of past productions, as well as bringing on stage two dancers, Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Mayor, who performed parts of works by Graham which draw from Greek mythology, Night Journey and Errand Into the MazeNight Journey dramatizes Jocasta in the moment of devastating self-knowledge, Errand Into the Maze has Ariadne encounter the Minotaur. Eilber vividly described the Graham dance technique as one focused on the effortful physicality of contraction and release, coiling; how the body behaves when it experiences intense pleasure or pain. This effortful physicality was brought before our eyes by the dancers themselves in their demonstration. It was an incredible thing to witness. Up close, in an intimate environment. 

This week I also took a trip to the University of Toronto Mississauga to speak in the UTM-JHI annual seminar series, this year on Fragments. I spoke about the fragments of Latin verse in the Ciceronian corpus (the topic of my book), as well as on the theory of the “fragment” more abstractly; here’s the handout and the slides.

 

Modern. I find myself with a large appetite for personal essays about the internet. A lot of them are ultimately negative. Famously, there’s Lindy West’s account of the troll who pretended to be her dead father to harass her online; also told in Shrill (2016) and on This American Life. West eventually quit twitter, though not because of that; plus, she has a happy life on instagram. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror (2019) starts with an essay — “The I in the Internet” — describing how the performative construction of the self is pushed to the limits when faced with an ever present, internalized, and usually hostile audience. Not to mention, as Tolentino notes, the fact that internet hostility is deliberately manufactured to make money; we seem not to be drawn so much “to the puddles and blossoms of other people’s curiosity and expertise” (pp4-5) but choose instead to engage in an economy designed to thrive on the heightened emotional state of its users.

Maeve Higgins is more optimistic. In the final essay — “The Golden Record” — of her most recent book, Maeve in America (2018), she describes the phonograph records carried by the Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. These 12-inch gold-plated copper disks hold sights and sounds carefully chosen to represent life on earth at that moment by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. Voyager 1 and 2 have reached interstellar space; the images and sounds on the Golden Record can be played, as Sagan said, “only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space.” For Higgens, instagram stories, which show videos and images on a feed that disappears after 24h, have something in common with the golden record. Hope, for one thing. Hope that someone will encounter the message and understand it: the golden records are inscribed with instructions on how to play the media contained within. Higgens writes (p239): “Today, with these images I get to share with anyone who cares to look, I am asking the question: Do you understand me now? Here is what I’m trying to tell you.

An optimistic view of the internet is hard for many reasons. In classics, we have to reckon with the ways toxic online communities use ancient material for malicious ends, as Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (2018) so vividly describes. We also seem unable to escape the idea so often repeated that social media is inherently superficial, vain, vapid; and that it is these qualities in particular which harm us. The first episode of Broad City season 5 (“Stories”) presents itself as an instagram story, documenting a day in the life of Abbi and Ilana, coopting the forms of the medium to undercut and satirize it. In the last scene, Abbi says: “because we were filming it, it’s not even our ‘story’ anymore.” With these final words (of the premier of the final season), Abbi and Ilana ask their audience to contemplate how a comedy act between two friends, developed out of the sparkling chemistry of their private intimacy, has grown beyond itself into a stage play for a massive audience. Real life performativity is amplified when we make ourselves public: via “publication,” art no longer belongs just to you, and on the internet your image takes part in more than just your own selfhood. 

Internet.

Excerpt. Sarah Ahmed 2017: 15-16: “My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our [p16] way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow.”

Daily Life. In Toronto the autumn leaves were just nuts! 

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