Spring 2006 CLAS-E116/W Exchanges
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This page shares e-mailed questions and conversations —
exchanges — bewteen students and GN and KM, as
well as additional student submissions, on topics related to class
On May 3, John Boyd wrote:
Hi, Greg and Kevin. First, regarding the relation of menstruation
and childbirth to hunting and war, it seems to me they're complimentary.
In the latter, the outcome is either coming into the world or
(war) leaving the world. And I think the onset of menstruation,
menarche, must have been to some degree frightening to a young
girl, signaling that she was now in some sense "hunted."
Is it correct that a girl would have left her home for her husband's
soon after menarche? Would Persephone have been 12, 13 years
old? I think Persephone's unhappiness (and her mother's)
must have been replicated in a lot of families and that menarche/being
"hunted" would be as frightening as, for a man, being
a hunter of boars, let's say. (A healthy woman at that time
due to pregnancies/nursing starting in early teen years would
have had many fewer menstruations over the course of her life
than would be true for a contemporary woman.)
Several times recently, I have thought about a problem (which
we have talked about in class) of how we experience the epics
and plays-- to wit, the lack of music. First, I was reading
a New Yorker piece on Pete Seeger from which the following: "As
a young man, he embraced the conviction that songs are a way of
binding people to a cause. A piece of writing may be read
once or twice... Every word in every song he ever sang was intelligible..."
He didn't like the amplification in a concert he gave with Bob
Dylan because he thought the words were lost. A few days
later, I'd been reading one of the "Oedipus" plays in
the afternoon and then Lita and I were walking to a performance
of "Lohengrin" later in the day. We talked about
how much would be missed if we could only read librettos.
(This becomes impossible less than 200 years after the "invention"
of opera. The music of the aria "Come scoglia"--
which Lita sang for me-- from Mozart's "Cosi" changes
the meaning of "I will be a rock" to "I will be
a feather." And in Wagner, without the music much of
the characters' thoughts and memories would be absent.)
But even with early opera, the music modifies the words and I
guess we can only wonder how much this matters as we read these
texts. (As you've said in class, the people who "invented"
opera at the end of the 16th century in Florence were trying to
emulate Greek dramas and Lita has a book with a little essay by
Jacopo Peri who maybe composed the first opera which is interesting
in this regard. This group, the Camerata, which included
Galileo's father, had the opinion that the Greek use of music
in drama had been very sophisticated.)
My third unrelated thought/question has to do with seasonality.
We think this was important to them due to being an agrarian society
and in a rocky place where cultivation was difficult? I
think people who could just pluck bananas or coconuts off trees
would not care so much about seasonality (and, of course, if equatorial,
may not even have the concept).
Fourth, how about cremation vs. burial of an intact body?
In the "Iliad" cremation seems to be the standard but
then we also learn that the buried body of a hero can be the talisman
of fertility. Were buried ashed considered the same as a buried
body? I think it was in Philostratus that Achilles and Patroklos
are described as being "mixed" at the Hellespont-- so
I guess that means ashes.
Another question I have has to do with katharsis and Aristotle.
I think I don't understand this. I looked back at the "Poetics"
and this seems to be mainly what he sees as being the salutary
outcome of witnessing tragedy. But if we think of it in
a medical sense, a cathartic ought to work once as a purgative
and that's it-- the problem is taken care of. But I can
have the emotions associated with witnessing the tragedy (for
me, especially if it's musical) on the way to the performance,
during it and minutes/hours afterward. (I think "closure"
that people sometimes now speak of is related to catharsis and
I really don't understand it either.)
And the emotional part is important, but isn't the noos (not that
you can separate the two) also important? I think of the
Achilles with Priam tragedy toward the end of the "Iliad."
I see that Achilles is regarding Priam and experiencing pity (Hector's
death) and fear (how Peleus, Achilles' father or Theits will feel
for him). But isn't the main thing that he (and we in turn)
gains here noos? The device of our watching Achilles watching
Priam (like a play within a play or I also think of looking at
Watteau's painting of a signboard, a picture of people looking
at pictures which I saw when it was at the MMA maybe 15 years
ago) enhances our self awareness and identification with the represented
persons. And aren't we also mostly "supposed to"
learn something here, gain noos?
Finally, since I don't have an editor and am experiencing logorrhea
today, here's something about seasonality and gardens from an
NYRB article about a painter of gardens, Palmer. St. Teresa
writes, "But now, let us go back to our Orchard or Garden
and see, how these trees begin to button... ...in my
beginnings it was of much delight to me to consider that my Soul
was a Garden and that our Lord walked it up and down."
And for the power of saints (another kind of hero), a Boston area
priest tells the story of his mother that when she would get ready
to hit a golf ball (agon), she would sometimes say (invoking a
different, homonymic St. Theresa), "Little Flower,
In this hour,
Give me power."
On Apr 7, Erin wrote:
I just wanted to ask about something I noticed in Athena's speech
at the end of the trial - she mentions Erekhtheus, and it was
brought up that he's a great cult hero of Athens. I wondered if
this was the same Erekhtheus from Euripides' play that was told
to sacrifice his youngest daughter to win a battle - something
which he does though her two sisters vow to be sacrificed along
with her - so I thought if that was the case it would be strange,
since he basically did what Agammemnon did, except his daughters
seemed to be resigned, if not willing, to aid their father. Perhaps
he was upset about this while Ag. was just anxious to set sail?
I know an Erekhtheus is also known as the first king of Athens
and I just wasn't sure which she is referring to. Erekhtheus the
king would seem to make more sense since Athena is saying what
a great person he was, but then again Erekhtheus the myth seems
to draw a better parallel to the story.
Just something I noticed!
Professor Nagy replied:
very interesting observation.
Yes, this Erekhtheus is the "same."
On Mar 17, Richard Douglas Abrams wrote:
You have ruined my life! Just as Virginia Bonito did - those
many years ago.
At that time, Virginia was teaching the Renaissance Art survey
course at Yale and we walked the Metropolitan Museum's old master
gallery one fine day. Right there in those hallowed halls was
my mind set upon. She showed me with great precision which portions
of an old master's work had been restored and which were original.
Since that fateful moment, I've never been able to look at old
masters' works, which I adore, with quite the same glee and innocence.
This morning, my sister asked me to read a letter from her daughter-in-law.
A screaming indictment of self preservation and self deceit it
is. After my initial take, I decided to apply close reading to
the letter and found that certain words consistently revealed
certain psychological flavors. Wow! And then I said, I wonder
if the ascending scale of affection could be at work here, since
the letter was organized around bullet points relating to a troubled
teenager. Sure enough, the scale was operative - there were the
things that reflected the author's psychology perfectly sequenced,
albeit camouflaged in the discussion of the child. Double Wow
Now the most innocent of notes written to me will be deconstructed.
In this world of emails---I'm ruined.
Warmest regards from a very grateful student. I will be back
with some questions.
Professor Nagy replied:
You can imagine my surprise - and delight - when I realized
that the ominous title was a compliment. May I share with the
On March 9, Lyn Montague wrote:
Dear Greg and Kevin:
After another dialogue for which I am grateful, I wish I were
able to offer something about noos and nostos in the Odyssey.
Instead, here is a short passage on lamentation.
In January, 1944, in a detention camp in Fossoli, Italy, Primo
Levi and 600 other Italian Jews learned that they were to be deported
on the following morning. “All the Jews, without exception.
Even the children, even the old, even the ill. Our destination?
Nobody knew. We should be prepared for a fortnight of travel.
For every person missing at roll-call, ten would be shot.”
After several paragraphs describing the preparations, Levi writes
“In hut 6A old Gattegno lived with his wife and numerous
children and grandchildren and his sons- and daughters-in-law.
All the men were carpenters; they had come from Tripoli after
many long journeys, and had always carried with them the tools
of their trade, their kitchen utensils and their accordions and
violins to play and dance to after the day’s work. They
were happy and pious folk. Their women were the first to silently
and rapidly finish the preparations for the journey in order to
have time for mourning. When all was ready, the food cooked, the
bundles tied together, they unloosened their hair, took off their
shoes, placed the Yahrzeit candles on the ground and lit them
acording to the customs of their fathers, and sat on the bare
soil in a circle for the lamentations, praying and weeping all
the night. We collected in a group in front of their door, and
we experienced within ourselves a grief that was new for us, the
ancient grief of the people that has no land, the grief without
hope of the exodus which is renewed every century.”
Survival in Auschwitz, Simon and Schuster Touchstone,
1996. Pages 14, 15.
Professor Nagy replied:
My dear Lyn (and hi to Amy, plus hi to Kevin and Mark),
I treasure this beautiful observation. Would you allow Mark
Tomasko to publish this exchange on our Heroes website?
On February 24, Penelope wrote:
Please click here
for Penelope's analysis of Roberta Flack and Sappho.
On February 8, Lyn Montague wrote:
1. A question about what I have seen in the epic so far: With
last week’s dialogue in mind, and having now studied the
notes, introductions, and minutes, it seems to me that I can see
something of the following in the first eight scrolls, the first
two days of battle:
a. That Achilles resembles Herakles in finding that he (the superior
man) is the subject of an inferior man.
b. That Agamemnon resembles Euystheus: by returning to battle
before reconciling with Achilles, the inferior man is taking the
place (in battle) of the superior man.
c. That the result of losing his place resembles the result of
Euystheus’ kingship on Herakles, in that the near defeat
of the Greeks, and the consequent death of Patroklos, provoke
from the superior Achilles (or at least provide the motive and
the occasion for) his heroic labor.
Am I wandering too far afield?
2. A topic for a close reading: Because I must submit the first
paper a week early, which means next week at the third meeting,
and because I don’t feel fully confident about writing a
close reading, I’m wondering now if the following sounds
like the germ of an essay? VIII.16, “Zeus is minded to grant
victory and great glory to myself, while he will deal destruction
to the Danaans.” If glory accompanies victory, perhaps its
opposite accompanies destruction. Of the many forms of destruction
in the book, many appear in small details, even on the first page,
reminding the audience or reader of that major preoccupation of
the epic, glory. Examples include the prey of dogs, gnawing one’s
resentment, and the fawn in the claws of the eagle.
3. An apology for a garbled question: Having prepared for the
first meeting by studying the introductions to your Heroes and
Pindar, and having often discussed Homer, Milman Parry, and many
related topics with my friend and your student from 30 years ago,
Robert Mitchell, I was somewhat embarrassed last week that I garbled
the question, “If it were true that the Iliad had been written
by an individual . . . ?” by which I meant to suggest an
idea that had just occurred to me during Dialogue 1b, that the
conferring of kleos by the epic would be a monumentally egocentric
boast from the (modern-sounding) individual, rather that the understandable
monument that it is, arising from a monumentally large tradition
. . . or something to that effect. Perhaps my disequilibrated
question provided you with the occasion for laboring over an answer
that you were glad to give at that time. If not, I apologize.
Professor Nagy replied:
Dear Lyn (if I may, and please call me Greg),
I very much enjoyed reading your message. Your abc summary
at the beginning is superb. It's so lucid that I will ask you
for a favor.
I find your gracious apology very endearing. No apology needed.
It is I who should apologize to you for pouncing on your question
in order to make a point as a teacher. I knew you knew better,
but it was such a great teaching opportunity for me to harp
on the subject of oral vs. written.
p.s.: as for the paper, I am consulting my colleague, Kevin,
who is here cc-d. I personally find the thesis too general.
Remember, you need to say in the first paragraph what you will
argue. And what you are arguing here could take a book to argue,