Forms of focus; tempora cum causis (17)

In The Content of the Form (1987), Hayden White discusses the Annals of Saint Gall’s chronicle of events from the 7th-10th centuries CE. White focuses upon entries for the 8th century CE (pp-6-7):

Saturday.jpg

This year-by-year list of events is interestingly selective. Many years have no entries despite the fact that, presumably, things did happen during that time. But not ones considered necessary to include. The criterion for inclusion also embraces different kinds of event, particularly moments of destruction: bad crops (but also…”great crops”), flood, death of elites, battles. In 732 CE, there was a battle “on Saturday” but no other information is given — not date, not month. The significance of these events is indeed emphasized by such selectivity — the act of omission puts these particular moments in sharper focus. But it’s hard to look at this and not see anything other than a partial record.

In Allusion and Intertext (1998), Stephen Hinds described how focusing upon an aspect of a whole has a “fragmentizing” effect (p103):

“A reading of Virgil which ‘fragments’ the Homeric model into discrete events ‘alluded to’ may reflect nothing more (and nothing less) than a basic interpretative imperative felt by the Virgilian reader to ‘freeze‘ Homer, to hold him still for a moment so that he can be contemplated from a Virgilian point of view.”

Here we have the idea that discussing, or in any way narrativizing, a point of reference is to freeze and hold that referent from a particular point of view, but also to break it off from its original context. An equivalent might be: pressing pause on a video shot from one person’s perspective. So despite the fact that we might be longing for wholeness — indeed, might even be subjected to a kind of wholeness on a daily basis — our perceptive and intellectual faculties create a kind of fragmentation even when we simply try to engage with the reality which surrounds us.

This week, I read (or rather, inhaled) Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020), which has just come out. (A few weeks ago I read about it in the New York Times review by Parul Sehgal.) This novel captures the dread of living in the present moment as an individual facing a future fragmented by climate change. The book itself proceeds in fragmented form, each entry a small paragraph:

These paragraphs might remind you of a number of things. Diary entries. Tweets. Words scribbled on the back on an envelope, or into the notes app. Offill’s novel, proceeding fragmentarily, argues like Hayden White: there is reality, it is happening, but our telling of it is distinct from that reality, and can only ever capture something partial. All narratives, White would argue, have to reckon with this. But Offill’s novel dramatizes this narrative problem, using it as a tool to bring to the foreground the movements of a internal human psychology as it responds to a variety of threats, from the banal of the everyday to the threat of climate destruction.

In my ancient women class this week, we were discussing the fragments of Sappho. Sappho (7th c. BCE) is an interesting figure, of course, because she has loomed so large and for so long in the imaginations of so many, despite the fact that, historically, her readers have only been able to access her work in partial forms. On twitter, there is a bot (@sapphobot) which periodically sends out verses of Sappho as translated by Anne Carson; these tweets are fragments in a number of senses — fragmented by textual transmission (via quotation or shattered papyri), by translation from Greek to English, by twitter’s character limit. In class, the students argued that fragments are more alluring than surviving wholes, and they are right. One student noted that people like “bite-sized” things now, miniatures of culture which can be easily consumed, and easily shared. The combination of ephemerality and immortality is potent. A fragment of Sappho can contain an expression of desire so profoundly human (it can also be a banal list of things). A tweet, an instagram story, captures something real (or something insignificant), and then it’s gone. Text and technology reflect the inherent process of fragmentation via focalization.

 

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A newly made piece of papyrus in the foreground; fragmentary papyrus from the 2nd c. CE (P. Oxy. 2288) containing Sappho poem 1.

Vergil enamels, liking what you like, Adrienne Maree Brown; tempora cum causis (5)

Ancient. Vergil’s Aeneid has inspired no shortage of visual representations in antiquity and modernity. In the 16th century, an unknown enameler made a series of plaques (82 are recorded) illustrating episodes from the Aeneid. These images are based on woodcut illustrations in the complete works of Vergil, edited by Sebastian Brandt, and published by Johann Grüninger in Strasburg in 1502. Here’s a small selection: Aeneas leaves Dido in Book 4 (Met Museum); Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld in Book 6 (Fitzwilliam Museum); Nisus and Euryalus in the enemy camp in Book 9 (Met Museum). 

 

Modern. This week I’ve been thinking about how difficult it can be to be open about what you really like. I was listening to Monday’s episode of What a Cartoon, which is done by the Talking Simpsons hosts, Henry Gilbert and Bob Mackey (I’ve written about them before, and surely will again). This week they were talking about the Pokémon anime (Japan 1997; US 1998). Both of the hosts spoke with their guest, Kat Bailey, about the fact that they felt pressure to hide their interest in it, despite the fact that it was deeply attractive to them and deeply resonant. There are a number of reasons why you might feel the need to hide your interest in something benign. We do want to connect, of course, but openness of this kind is a vulnerable thing. And it’s not just about the popularity contest. When I think back to times when I kept my interests to myself, I can pinpoint a dread which stems from middle class anxiety. For a long time, part of me truly could not embrace pop culture publicly, as much as I wanted to, because I felt that I was supposed to be interested, or appear to be interested, in something else. It’s certainly connected to my profession; in some of the academic environments I’ve found myself in, there has been a performative preference for the high brow. But it didn’t originate there for me. Education more broadly has historically expressed itself as the individual’s ability to make the correct series of references to correct audiences. The peer pressure which arises from a common consciousness can be enough to make you want to hide the parts of your interest that do not fit into the contemporary cultural lexicon.

In this context, I find myself, again, having some praise for the internet, despite its current and growing toxicity. Early on, it gave me an outlet and a community for my (probably bad) creative writing on message boards. The mainstream acceptance of quote unquote nerd culture could be explained by the fact that those who developed secret ways to find their people back in the nascent years of the internet over time set the stage for the embrace of once niche interests by the general public. (The cynical commodification of our desires and childhood nostalgia also has a role to play here.) While my twitter account is primarily geared towards an audience expecting Classics content, these days I tweet almost as much about the “bad” tv I watch, Adam Driver, or video games.

I’m beginning very slowly to operate by the principle that even if I know the thing I like is not actually that good, it’s okay for me to like it, and to admit that that’s the case. I’m beginning to regret not giving some things a chance just because I thought I was supposed not to like them. If some cultural artefact resonates with you, the draw is magnetic. The feeling of being pulled in a certain direction without knowing exactly why is the same divining rod that I use for my scholarly life. I’m drawn to certain texts for my research because something about them resonates with me; I read some ancient authors instead of others because I’m more interested in how they do what they do. Resisting that magnetic pull based on the expectation of imagined rejection is an extra mental block which none of us needs. 

Internet.

Excerpt. Adrienne Maree Brown 2019: 11: “I believe in transformative justice — that rather than punishing people for surface-level behaviour, or restoring conditions to where they were before the harm happened, we need to find the roots of the harm, together, and make the harm impossible in the future. I believe that the roots of most harm are systemic, and we must be willing to disrupt vicious systems that have been normalized. I believe that we are at the beginning of learning how to really practice transformative justice in this iteration of species and society. There is ancient practice, and there will need to be future practices we can’t yet foresee. But I believe that with time it must be an incredible pleasure to be able to be honest, expect to be whole, and to know that we are in a community that will hold us accountable and change with us.”

Daily Life. I received two sets of flowers for the first time in my life!