Fall 2006 LA C-14 Nov - Jan Exchanges
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This page shares e-mailed questions, conversations — exchanges
— bewteen students and Professor Nagy and the TFs on topics
related to class Dialogues. The e-mails are edited for format
On Jan 8 Kevin McGrath wrote in response to comments from Lekha
Greg forwarded me yr astute observations on the alignments between
MBh. and the Iliad. I see Karna as being akin to Achilles in his
heroic make-up. Also, the poem begins with Ugrasravas, not Samjaya
- he begins the Gita - who has heard the epic from Vaisampayana.
Yre right to note that S. 'sees' the song which he performs. The
other two poets 'hear' the poem from other poets. I find this
distinction in the nature of the epic poetry fascinating: perhaps
there is a diachronic implication at work here, as well as a relevant
quality about poetic knowledge and its source.
With best wishes, from,
Professor Nagy replied:
Dear Kevin and hi to Lekha and all
I totally agree with you that there is something very significant
about the distinction between *seeing* and *hearing* the song.
There is such a distinction between Stesichorus as a master
of lyric (who is blinded by Helen but whose sight is restored
after he recants what he sang about her) and Homer as a master
of epic (who is likewise blinded by Helen but whose sight is
never restored because he never recants). I have a write-up
of this distinction in ch. 14 of Pindar's Homer. May
we ask Mark to post this exchange on the Heroes website?
On December 28 Lekha Rani Tummalapalli wrote:
Dear Professor Nagy,
Hi! I’m writing with a question I’ve wanted to ask.
Recently, I was thinking about the participation of women in theater,
and I thought it was odd how in very different times and cultural
settings it was similarly thought that women should not perform
onstage—for instance, consider traditional kabuki theater
in Japan and theater in London during the English Renaissance.
In lecture, you mentioned when discussing “Hippolytus”
that the “female” voices of the chorus were in fact
performed by men, though you wrote in your “Notes on Athenian
Tragedy” that women sometimes performed as chorus-members
as well. I was wondering how common female participation was in
Greek tragedy; was it limited to a particular time period within
the history of Greek theater, or did it just happen at random
points in that history, on the whim of tragedians? Also, I was
hoping to hear your opinion on why female participation in theater
might have struck so many different societies in different time
periods as “improper”. Thanks for your time, and I
hope you are having a good winter break!
Best wishes for the New Year,
Professor Nagy replied:
What an important question! I'm so glad you asked it. My sense
is the best approach is an anthropological one. I will dig around
a bit to find some good reading for you. In the meantime, I
also cc the Heroes TFs, who will be as engaged as I am with
Warm regards and best wishes for the Holidays,
p.s.: B.t.w., I didn't mean to imply that women actually acted
in Athenian State Theater. Only in choral evens as in Alcman's
Partheneion. But I do think they could attend performances at
the Athenian State Theater. Others are more dubious, and the
jury is still out on that question.
On December 27 Lekha Rani Tummalapalli wrote:
I was reading the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text, yesterday, and
thought it was interesting that it opened in a very similar way
to the Iliad, with an invocation of Sanjaya, a mortal endowed
with vision of all things in the past, present, and future. The
epic begins, "Sanjaya, tell me what my sons and the sons
of Pandu did when they met, waiting to battle on the field of
Kuru, on the field of sacred duty?" I thought that this was
very similar to Homer's invocation of the Muses, as the story
is being told by another mortal, Dhritarashtra (who is blind incidentally),
but is able to *hear *an account of the battle from Sanjaya through
a boon that he was granted.
I also thought it was interesting that Sanjaya, a mortal but
also a bard and one who "...shall see all the events of the
battle directly. He shall have a divine inner eye...," was
used instead of a nonmortal as the Muses are, such as one of the
many all-seeing gods. But it is interesting that he is blessed
with a *divine* eye.
Anyway, just an observation I wanted to share. Hope you're enjoying
Stephanie Ann Frampton replied:
Thanks so much for these lovely observations - thanks for pointing
striking silimilarities. You see so clearly how interrelated
these traditions are. I'm forwarding this on to Prof. Nagy,
who I know will appreciate your remarks as well.
Happy holidays to you, too,
Professor Nagy replied:
Dear Lekha and hi to Stephanie and to other TF colleagues,
I was very taken with your acute observation. The beautiful
thing is, the traditions of the Mahâbhârata (including the Bhâgavad-Gîta)
and the Râmâyana are actually *cognate* with Greek epic and
lyric traditions. You might be interested in reading a wonderful
book that incorporates a comparative perspective: it's by my
friend Kevin McGrath, and it is called The Sanskrit Hero.
It's all about the hero Karna in the Mahâbhârata. Kevin is my
fellow teacher in a "night" version of the Heroes
Course, administered by the Division of Continuing Education.
I'm cc-ing Kevin as well as the "day" Heroes colleagues.
I'm also cc-ing our Heroes webmaster, Mark Tomasko, in hopes
that you will give permission for Mark to post this three-way
exchange of ours on the Heroes Website.
Lekha Rani Tummalapalli then replied:
Dear Professor Nagy,
I was first struck by the numerous similarities between Indic
and Greek epic and lyric when you talked about Arjuna and Achilles
in The Epic Hero. I believe you also mentioned that Arjuna is
worshiped in festivals similar to the cult hero rituals that
we have talked about.
I would definitely enjoy reading The Sanskrit Hero. I have
never read the Mahabharata, so I might be wrong on this, but
there might be a parallel between Karna, who fought on the Kaurava
side, and Hector fighting on the Trojan side. They are both
considered great heroes, arguably the best hero figures in their
epics, but they fight on the losing side, their death even more
tragic in its inevitability.
Thanks for your thoughts on this. This can certainly be put
on the website.
Enjoy your holidays.
On Dec 15 Anna Bonifazi wrote:
Dear Greg and hi to all,
Here are a few notes on the verbal text of the songs. Of course,
please feel free to edit and to add or drop whatever you want.
I have put into square brackets some major correspondences between
text and music, in the case the website will include a CD record
of these songs (there are many masterful recordings of all of
The Silver Swan: An outstanding feature of this very famous madrigal
(it seems that Gibbons is the author also of the text) is that
the self-referentiality of singing about a song is masterfully
shown 'on the spot' by the direct quotation of the swans' words
"Farewell o joys...": thus, we have a song about the
story of a swan song that includes the swan song itself. "More
geese than swans, more fools than wise": this theme reminds
us of the Socratic "but few are the bakkhoi" with reference
to the wisest philosophers.
Me me and none but me: the imagery concerning the dove connects
to other doves included in the video material of the dialogues
(for example, the end of Blade Runner; the last dream of Kurosawa).
[The idea of flying above is underscored by the upward direction
of the tune under these words]. Also in Dowland's text, death
("gentle death") is something to long for and to invoke
in the most passionate of the pleas (note the triadic climax "me,
me, and none but me" [reinforced by what the four voices
all do, which is to sing the same note]). "He never happy
lived, that cannot love to die": the double negation emphasizes
what should be living happy, but the line is so well constructed
that living happy is equated to die, and, most of all, loving
till the end of life becomes loving death itself, "love to
Il bianco e dolce cigno: this variation of the swan song contrasts
the swan that dies without any consolation with the singing 'I'
who dies happy and blessed, and the wished multiplication of deaths
[which results also in the multiplication of the underlying melodic
pattern "di mille mort’il dì" performed
several times ad imitationem by all the four voices] presumably
refers, in a euphemistic way, to an utmost pleasant experience
of the senses. Please note the eschatological hint behind the
double meaning of "fin(e)", “end”, which
also in Italian can be understood both as "conclusion"
and as "goal". Finally, "beato" in Italian
is the perfect semantic correspondent of ancient Greek "olbios".
["beato" is a most relevant word also according to the
unique melodic flourish that accompanies the central vowel "a"
of "beato" in the main melody].
Generally speaking, all the three songs were extremely famous
already at the time of their composition, and they were performed
over and over, in any kind of musical variation. A curious detail
about a British quirk we learned from a British friend of ours:
from the twelfth century to nowadays, any mute swan of any British
park is considered to belong to the Queen.
On Dec 12 Anna Bonifazi wrote:
Dear Greg and hi to all,
Just for fun, I am pasting here the texts of three Renaissance
beautiful songs related to swans, which Tommaso and I sung so
many times in the past (in our Italian a cappella vocal ensemble,
called 'Gaudeamus'). All of them are masterfully self-referential
(as songs about the power of singing and on the immortality of
music, as for Schubert's lied), and, according to the Renaissance
euphemistic style, they deal with more meanings of death (as an
extreme experience for the senses, so to say; cf. especially the
second and the third one). By the way, the dove imagery is included
as well (cf. n. 2).
I can tell you that the music of all of them is most solar and
1. The Silver Swan (madrigal), by Orlando Gibbons (English
The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approach'd, unlock'd her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.
Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.
2. Me, me and none but me (from the first book of songs,
1603), by John Dowland (Irish - English composer, 1563-1626)
I. Me me and none but me, dart home o gentle death
and quickly for I draw too long this idle breath:
O how I long till I may fly to heaven above,
unto my faithful, unto my faithful and beloved turtle dove.
II. Like to the silver swan, before my death I sing:
and yet alive my fatal knell I help to ring.
Still I desire from earth and earthly joys to fly,
He never happy liv'd, he never happy liv'd, that cannot love to
3. Il bianco e dolce cigno (madrigal), by Jacob Arcadelt
(Belgian composer, 1500-1568)
Il bianco e dolce cigno cantando more
ed io piangendo giung' al fin del viver mio,
ed io piangendo giung' al fin del viver mio.
Stran' e diversa sorte, ch'ei more sconsolato e io moro beato.
Morte che nel morire
mi empie di gioia tutto e di desire.
Se nel morir altro dolor non sento,
di mille volte il di' morir sarei contento.
(I am pasting here the ChoralWiki translation, which is not bad:
The white and sweet swan dies singing,
and I, weeping, reach the end [anna: but 'fine' in Italian is
also 'goal'] of my life.
Strange and different fate, that he dies disconsolate
and I die blessed,
which in dying fills me full of joy and desire.
If in dying, were I to feel no other pain,
I would be content to die a thousand deaths a day.)
Gratefully as ever,
Professor Nagy replied:
Dear wonderful Anna,
what treasures! Would you authorize Mark T. to publish this
on our Heroes website?
p.s.: would there be any that you and Tommaso could perform
for the whole class tomorrow?
On Nov 8 Ching Zhu wrote:
Dear Professor Nagy,
I'm in your Greek Heroes class, and I just wanted to thank you
for showing us Kurosawa's Dreams; I really enjoyed the film and
the class as a whole. As such, the weather today got me thinking
about Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude (one of my favorite
pieces), which was played in the segment "Crows" in
Dreams. I've been wondering why Kurosawa decided to use this as
the music for the Van Gogh segment; it seemed like such a sharp
contrast from the other episodes, which were relatively silent
in terms of non-diegetic music. It's an issue that's been pestering
me for quite some time now, and today, when I was at the piano,
it struck me that the ostinato (repeating notes in an unchanging
rhythm) in the bass of the Chopin Prelude in question, which earned
the piece its nickname "Raindrop", are really "mutant"
raindrops in the same way that Van Gogh's paintings show "mutant"
flowers, as you mentioned. I suppose it follows, then, that Chopin
and Van Gogh are really the same person in this dream of Kurosawa's;
they merely paint with different media.
Anyway, I was curious to hear your thoughts on this topic, and
I was wondering if you knew whether Kurosawa was aware of this
when selecting the music for the film. Thank you again for a fascinating
experience. I look forward to next week's dialogues.
Professor Nagy replied:
Dear Ching and hi to the Heroes teaching team,
I find your comments very perceptive and engaging. I too have
long admired Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude. And I find
that it fits well into Dream 5 of "Kurosawa's Dreams."
And I think that your point about the ostinato in the bass of
the Chopin Prelude is right on the mark. I would add that the
ostinato adds a *driving force* to the hurried "journey
of a soul" as painted by Van Gogh and imitated by Kurosawa's
sequencing of images. When I say "driving force" I
think of the metaphor of the locomotive. The montage of the
film juxtaposes that metaphor with the moment when Van Gogh
- as played by the similarly driven Martin Scorsese - expresses
his need to "move on."
On another note. I like your question: what exactly inspired
Kurosawa to use the Chopin piece? I don't have the answer.
I am hoping that you will allow our Heroes team to publish this
exchange of ours on the Heroes website. In fact, I would also
like to include it in the "clips" section of the Media
Resources page, if Mark (or webmaster) thinks that this is possible.
Dear Greg, Dear Ching,
I would like to share with you what I thought as I watched
the movie and I immediately recognized the Chopin's prelude
accompanying Dream 5 as well. Many years ago I played that prelude,
and I know very well its structure. I like very much the idea
of a driving force, especially because of the internal development
and transformation of the ostinato between section A ('light'
ostinato by the left hand, in the bass) and section B ('heavy'
ostinato - with the octave - by the right hand). I would add
that another possible link between Van Gogh and that prelude
is the idea of obsession. One of my piano teachers was used
to say that the music of romanticist composers is most obsessive,
and I find this is true.
I am terribly sorry that I have to interrupt this message now;
I have an appointment.
If I may, I would like to continue after 2:30, when I come back.
Dear Greg and Ching (and hi all),
I am back, now.
I was saying that obsession could be a link (the centrality
of obsession in Van Gogh is well known). Actually, what I found
striking is Kurosawa's cut-and-paste of Chopin's piece: only
some 'chunks' are played (and more times than in the real version),
whereas the entire last section is missing. The actual structure
of the prelude is a classical A-B-A: section A (the sweet and
clear part with the 'light' ostinato) - section B (the 'tragic'
and 'dark' part with the 'heavy' ostinato and the sad melody
in the bass) - section A again (the sweet and clear part with
the 'light' ostinato). Dropping the final clear part has the
purpose, I guess, of emphasizing the dark side of the vision
of crows (and, of course, it changes the sense of the musical
Back to obsession: the deep existential feelings behind Chopin's
prelude go much beyond what the nickname "Raindrop"
suggests. In fact, what generally speaking is not so much known
is that every label-nickname to Chopin' pieces has been put
after Chopin's death. He actually would have *never accepted
any nickname, especially for those preludes, which he deliberately
simply numbered without putting any title at all. Chopin (as
every other genial artist) was actually much more 'modern' than
his contemporaries were thinking: his pieces are much more abstract,
more double-face and more deeply unquiet than any misleading
nickname would convey. So, to conclude: Kurosawa arguably had
in mind Chopin's prelude op. 28 n. 15, not Chopin's "Raindrop";
he had in mind non-diegetic music also for Dream 5.
Dear Professor Nagy and Anna,
Thank you so much for your comments. They really clarified
for me the meaning of the dream and of the Chopin prelude. I
really like the idea of the music as representative of the obsession
that links Chopin and Scorsese and as a driving force. I also
feel that the piece has the effect of engulfing and drawing
the viewer into the dream, as the dreamer was drawn into Van
Gogh's painting. The ostinato, especially in the heavier and
darker middle section, has an almost hypnotic and enveloping
quality that reminds me of the prickling sensation when one's
leg falls asleep - it definitely raised the hair on the back
of my neck as I was watching the film. So, kudos to Kurosawa
for his choice of music and to you both for an engaging discussion!
November 7: A student’s
e-mail (excerpted below) and discussions in Stephanie's sections
led to the following exchange:
Hi Stephanie and Prof. Nagy,
Section today really brought to a head something I've been thinking
about for a while: the origins of myths and cults, as discussed
in the class, and the framework through which we might analyze
Specifically, in "The Epic Hero," the types of variation
(and thus our comparative methodologies) are parsed into: 1) Typological,
2) Genealogical, & 3) Historical… In biological terms,
the methodologies as represented can be couched in distinct evolutionary
interpretative mechanisms: 1., typological distinction, finds
its parallel in theories of convergent evolution. 2., genealogical
distinction, is paralleled in vicariance, in which a mother species
A has its range split by a geological event, say, thereby allowing
for divergent evolution of species B and C. 3., historical distinction,
is thus loosely given to dispersal events, in which movement is
less geological and more ecological, incumbent on the idea of
Some students struggled with why [point A] couldn't be interpreted
as a "real event," as in the case of flood narratives,
in which A might represent the physical flood itself, from which
myths of causality B and C arose…
- Henry Cowles
The TFs and Professor Nagy replied:
It seems that the main question is why do we study myths and
not the "real
events" behind them. But isn't it the nature of our field,
linguistics, which is the study of language and therefore necessarily
study of stories and not of events?
I would also like to add that I find the evolutionary model
extended version - as described by Henry – to be highly
applicable to the
study of myth. There are:
- unrelated myths arising in similar societies (our "typological
comparisons"). We can compare this phenomenon to the existence
ways of coping with the environment in unrelated species.
- myths which originally were created by one social group,
then split into parts and started to develop separately in far
localities (for example, Greek, Celtic and Indian traditions,
a common ancestor). We can compare this to a species whose range
by a geological event allowing for new divergent species to
- different variants of the same myth in one society (reflecting
social differences, for example). This can be compared to "niche
a process in which subparts of one species living in different
habitats start to diverge.
- Natasha Bershadsky
This point is interesting. It seems several avenues of approach
are possible: certainly one could adopt a Jungian idea where
we could then suggest some archetype behind everything. But,
with Natasha, I think it should be stressed that we cannot get
at the "real" events, that is, we cannot with any
certainty know about a Flood as event, although we can look
at other correspondences and suggest whether a common Flood
story, etc., occurred.
I would suggest – for fun – looking at some secondary
literature. After all, it has been quite a while that philosophers,
anthropologists, linguists and other intellectuals have been
reflecting on the relationship between real events and myths...
Lévi Strauss? Whorf? Freud? Jung? Kerenyi?
What wonderful colleagues I have! Thanks so much for your input.
I think these questions hinge on two key issues, so my comments
are in two parts:
The content of the section which spurred this was a review of
the three models of comparison from the first pages of 'Epic
Hero.' (I thought the model of typological comparison might
help students think through Kurosawa's Dreams and why we're
watching it.) This sparked a lively conversation in which the
students themselves came up with several pertinent comparisons,
Lion King and Hamlet
Odysseus and St. Elias
The question Henry seems to be returning to is "Why is
the relationship between
Hamlet and the Lion King not genealogical and why is the relationship
between Odysseus and St. Elias not historical?"
My response is that these comparative models are not mutually
exclusive, that there may be overlaps. Because establishing
genealogical and historical relationships comes from real-world
evidence (which our non-specialist undergrads can’t be
responsible for) and fall under the purview of academic debate
and specialist research, we are not asking the students to make
either historical or genealogical connections in this course.
Typological parallels, on the other hand, are exactly what we
want them to be noticing!
Although I offer, as examples, Freud and Campbell as ways of
thinking about universal genealogies, I also voiced my own concern
about the efficacy of using such universal generalizations without
As Natasha said, the other major issue here is that we study
literature and not events (real or otherwise). One problem with
the formulation offered above is to make "point A"
an event and "B" a story and to call the movement
from the one to the other a "genealogy." This is just
not how "genealogical" is being used in this context.
Any more ideas?
Thanks so much for you thoughts.
I would like to pick up where Stephanie leaves off and talk
a little about history. There is a wonderful little book that
was published years ago by the British historian E.H. Carr,
entitled "What is History?" In it, he suggests that
if we take any day in history, for our purposes, yesterday,
and then try to get at some "objective" idea of what
happened, that there is simply too much going on to be able
to do that. Instead, one chooses to remember, or record, only
those things that s/he finds important. So what we know as history
is really the past seen through the somewhat clouded lenses
of the writer. I would add to this that as we go farther back
into history, when there was no PBS or CNN or email or newpapers,
that is, places in which people can collectivize their memory,
there is even less of an agreement about what really happened.
Herodotus will be a good experience for the students to see
what a very fine line there is between history and literature.
- Sally Livingston
Dear Stephanie and Natasha and Janling and Anna and Sally and
I love your responses.
The reality of a myth is not what it says is the truth. What
is real about the myth is that it expresses the thinking of
real people at real times and real places.
On Nov 2 Feargus Denman wrote:
Dear Professor Nagy -
I mentioned Simon Armitage's new translation/retelling of the
Odyssey after class today. It's a version he did for bbc radio
drama that consists mostly in dialogue. it's very much a reworking
of the epic, but nonetheless interesting for that. I only picked
it up yesterday, so I haven't any strong critical reaction so
far, but armitage is a poet i'm quite keen on. (Homer's Odyssey,
faber and faber)
As i say, it was Ross Halbert that first introduced his work
to me; i was chatting to ross online yesterday morning and mentioned
this new 'odyssey' and my participation in LAC-14, which he thinks
a Good thing!
I'm sure you've become familiar with a myriad of such works over
the years - and here I trust in your continuing enthusiasm for
them - but your mentioning the story of Persephone being abducted
by Hades brought another irish poet's piece to mind.
This is much more an appropriation than anything else I've remarked
upon, but not improper, I think... Anyway, it's probably naive
to imagine that Longley's somewhat more direct translation made
Homer 'his own' any less than Boland's retelling of this myth
- here, at least - makes it hers.
perhaps you've encountered it before, Eavan Boland, "The
I hope you like it, too!
Do you hold any office-hours, Professor? If you do and happen
to have a free slot, I should like to stop by and say hello. I
would also like to ask about the possibilities for non-classics
concentrators to avail of opportunities at the CHS office in Nafplion.
Professor Nagy replied:
1) Is it OK if I ask our Heroes webmaster, Mark T. to publish
the part of our exchange that deals with the poetry? I like
very much "The Pomegranate."
2) I'm cc-ing my Executive Assistant, Robin Olson, to help us
find a good time to meet.
3) I'm cc-ing Jenny and Chris at Nafplion. You are just the
kind of student we are looking for.