Artemisia at war

War brings out the best and the worst in people. Or maybe it just brings out the worst, in many different shapes.

Construction and destruction of Troy, by Maître d'Orose [Public domain]

Construction and destruction of Troy, by Maître d’Orose [Public domain]

In the Ilias, Hector takes his leave from Andromache and their baby. If he doesn’t survive the war, his small son will be killed and his wife will become a slave.

“So speaking glorious Hector reached out to his child.

But the baby shrank back to the breast of his well-belted nurse

crying, panicking at the sight of his own father

frightened at both the bronze and the helmet with its crest of horse-hair,

thinking it was nodding dreadfully down from the crest of his helmet.

His dear father and mother laughed aloud.

Straightaway glorious Hector removed the helmet from his head

and laid it down, all shining, on the ground.

Then he kissed his beloved son and rocked him in his arms.

He spoke, praying to Zeus and the other gods:

“Zeus and the other gods, grant that this child of mine

may become, as I am, pre-eminent among the Trojans,

this powerful in strength, and rule over Ilion in strength.

And let someone say one day, “This fellow is much better than his father

when he returns from fighting. Let him kill an enemy,

bring back the bloody armour and delight the heart of his mother.””

(Iiad, book  VI)

Later, Hector is killed by Achilles, who triumphantly drags his dead body around the walls of Troy. Hector’s father is prepared to kiss Achilles’ hand just to be allowed to bury him. This is war, some 3000 years ago.

Hector brought back to Troy, Louvre Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Hector brought back to Troy, Louvre Museum via Wikimedia Commons

But surely today, war could also mean restoring law and order by dropping a few sophisticated bombs? No, it couldn’t. Our recent experiences in Somalia and Iraq show that this type of war will not lead to stability and democracy. War hasn’t really changed since ancient times. It still means atrocities on all sides, combined with huge doses of propaganda and misinformation. War means making horrible decisions.

In 480 BCE the Persians invaded Greece for the second time in a decade. After they ravaged the Acropolis in Athens King Xerxes and the Persians with their supporters met the Greeks for a showdown in a sea battle, in the narrow straits between the island of Salamis and the western coast of mainland Greece.

Bonnie MacLachlan, “Women in Ancient Greece, A sourcebook”, Bloomsbury

Queen Artemisia of Caria was a subject ally of Xerxes. When he asked his military leaders for advice, she spoke out against it:

“I am telling you this – spare your ships and make no battle at sea! For their men are as much stronger than yours at sea as men are stronger than women. Why should you put yourself at risk on all fronts in a naval battle? Don’t you have control of Athens for the sake of which you set out this campaign? And don’t you control the rest of Greece?”

Against all expectations, Xerxes did not have Artemisia killed for being disinclined to engage in battle. But he did decide to fight at sea and Artemisia found herself commanding a ship and being pursued by the Greeks, without room to manoeuvre because her way out was blocked by a Calyndian ship, fighting for Xerxes.

Tomb of Xerxes, Iran, by Roodiparse (Own work) [Public domain]

Tomb of Xerxes, Iran, by Roodiparse (Own work) [Public domain]

Artemisia did the only thing she could do to save her life: she rammed and sunk the friendly ship. The captain of the pursuing Attic trireme supposed that Artemisia was a Persian deserter fighting on the Greek side. He turned away. There were no survivors on the Calyndian ship to accuse her and Xerxes was so proud of her sinking what he thought was an enemy ship that he said:

“My men have become women, and the woman men!” (Herodotus, Histories 8.88 14-15)

Like Xerxes, I think war can change people profoundly. Maybe it’s wrong that we’ve now got professional armies, that we can bomb the enemy from navy vessels or from the air, guided by politicians who do not expect their wives to be violated and their children killed. But we shouldn’t forget that the percentage of civilians ending up dead has risen steeply since ancient times. And that the sorrows of war will last for generations.

The stories of Andromache and Artemisia were found in “Women in Ancient Greece, A sourcebook”, by Bonnie MacLachlan.

Plagiarism

This is my second blog. I used to blog under a different name until about six weeks ago. I had quite a few followers and some of them commented regularly. I followed their blogs in turn and we became friends, in a way. If you read this, you probably know what I’m talking about. This being the internet, I was aware that I didn’t see the whole picture. But as humans, we never do, so I decided to take things at face value.

Two women at a window, by  Murillo c.1655-1660 [public domain]

Two women at a window, by Murillo c.1655-1660
[public domain]

When a person from outside the WordPress community started to throw around accusations of plagiarism about one of the bloggers I knew, I didn’t know what to think. It was impossible to find out what was going on and within days, the blogger had disappeared. The abusive comments didn’t stop; I got three of them today.

Blogging has enchanted and inspired me. I love to read and write about philosophy and reading the comments of others is something I really enjoy. If I didn’t I’d probably have stopped blogging six weeks ago.

Today, I received another comment concerning plagiarism. This time it wasn’t a rant from an outsider, but a message from somebody who tried to warn me about a blog I referred to. I’ve since deleted the referral to what seemed to be a plagiarised article and I thought it was time to share my thoughts with you, the small group of people that reads this new blog.

I know the internet is not a safe, friendly bubble, but my experiences with blogging at WordPress have been great. To quit blogging just because there are people sending me silly comments and people who engage in plagiarism would mean to disregard all the positive experiences I’ve had up to now.

I’m not prepared to do that, yet.

PS: All comments on this blog are moderated in advance. Any comment that seems inappropriate will not appear in the comments section.

Kierkegaard on seduction

My online-bookstore had it tagged as Chick Lit, even though it was written in 1842. I think they just read the title, although I won’t give up hope that somebody takes it to the beach this summer and discovers a lasting passion for literature. The seducer’s diary is a disconcerting little book by Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. It’s part of his Either/Or but printed separately by Penguin.

Copenhagen, by Mariusz Paździora (Own work)  [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Copenhagen, by Mariusz Paździora (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0
(http://cc.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

The book starts by showing us some letters Cordelia has written after her fiancé has left her. Johannes has returned them unopened. Kierkegaard makes the multilayered story compelling by telling it in this order; the outcome is inevitable.

“It is grievous for her that he has deceived her; it is even more grievous, one could be tempted to say, that he has aroused in her this many-tongued reflection, that he has developed her aesthetically enough no longer to listen humbly to one voice, but to be able to hear the many points of view all at once.”

Unanswered letters play an important part in the book. Johannes takes a lot of trouble to get to know Cordelia, even before they meet. He becomes very friendly with her aunt, the person she lives with because her parents are dead, and he regularly visits her house in the company of Edvard, a shy young man who is completely besotted with Cordelia. Johannes uses Edvard, he uses the aunt and ultimately Cordelia. He sends her love letters that border on the burlesque and when they go out together, he’s cold, almost to the point of ignoring her. Cordelia doesn’t respond to the letters: that is to say, she doesn’t write back.

“She will believe in me, partly because I count on my art, partly because at the bottom of what I do there is truth. If it were not so, she wouldn’t believe me.”

Johannes is not playing games, even though he sends her a personal note that is delivered by messenger at a dinner party they are both attending. He wants to possess Cordelia and he works towards that end by carefully observing her and by manipulating her thoughts and her environment, almost as if she were a tiger. They don’t talk, they don’t develop mutual trust. Cordelia is enchanted and inexperienced: Johannes is neither.

“Nothing less erotic is imaginable than this talk of the future, the reason for which is basically that people have nothing with which to fill the present. When I’m there I have no fear of that … for I can make her forget both time and eternity.”

After the snowfall, by Cordelia Wilson (1876-1953) [Public domain]

After the snowfall, by Cordelia Wilson (1876-1953) [Public domain]

Johannes is inspired by aestheticism, not by love. His seduction of Cordelia is a work of art, a ritual. He loves her deeply, but he still adheres to his own rules: no relationship is to last for more than six months and after the apotheosis, they should never see each other again. Cordelia’s unanswered letters clearly show she’s wounded by the experience. Johannes feels no remorse:

“I have loved her, but from now on she can no longer engage my soul. If I were a god I would do for her what Neptune did for a nymph: change her into a man.”

The composition shows great care and has the feel of a classic. Love is portrayed like an unavoidable battle, but there’s no blood and gore to be found in Kierkegaard’s descriptions. Starting with the image of Johannes as a perfect aesthete, the philosophical questions constantly well up in the mind of the reader. I’d like to discuss them in the comments section, so please share your thoughts.

The shake

An artist discovered he could no longer make pointillistic work: instead of nice dots he drew strokes, like those violent, elongated raindrops that strike and hurt your face. When he found his hand trembling he’d used more and more force and the result was a neurological condition called a tremor. He went to see a neurologist and was told he had permanent nerve damage. That hurt. He only ever wanted to become an artist and now he couldn’t draw a straight line or a round dot.

An out-of-doors study, by John Singer Sargent [public domain]

An out-of-doors study, by John Singer Sargent [public domain]

What should he do? Try and learn to draw with his other hand? Get medication to numb the effect? Start all over again and study something different? The neurologist had some advice:

“Embrace the shake.”

You can find the whole story on TED, illustrated with drawings and other works of art. I’d like to look at the advice to embrace his condition. The neurologist started by calling a tremor, with the associated terms: neurological condition, incurable, effects can be dampened by brain surgery or anti-convulsive medication a shake, which could mean: to quiver, to tremble, to vibrate or to rock. He effectively told the artist he should decide on the name and the nature of his problem.

I think western culture often tells us to correct a problem or, if that proves impossible, to actively ignore it. Dull the pain by taking a pill. Surgically cut a nerve that causes us trouble. If we don’t look like the beautiful people: sculpt our bodies until we do.

Meditation by the Sea, Unknown artist ca 1860 [public domain]

Meditation by the Sea, Unknown artist ca 1860 [public domain]

Eastern culture tells us to look our problem squarely in the eye and accept it. To meditate and find compassion for our own imperfections and those of others. I know I’m using bold brush strokes here, but you get the idea.

Phil Hansen tried something different. He embraced his condition: he looked at his hand as if he was a newborn baby, to discover what he could do with it. He used his trembling hand to draw squiggly lines, he dipped it in paint and used it like a rubber stamp. And then he realised that art is all about thinking inside the box.

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art,” Orson Welles

Perhaps we shouldn’t stop at accepting our limitations. Perhaps we should find ways to make them rock.

To believe out of boredom

“People who find their daily lives too empty and monotonous easily become religious; this is understandable and excusable, only they have no right to demand religiousness from those whose daily lives do not pass in an empty and monotonous way.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (I) 115, translated by Gary Handwerk (SUP)

I must have heard it more than ten times this year: people saying their religion saved them from a life of mindless consumerism. Do modern people embrace these anachronistic answers simply because they’re bored? And if they are, how is that possible?

Naerøyfjorden, by Karamell  [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0

Naerøyfjorden, by Karamell [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0

Nietzsche’s aphorisms on religion are often cited; the most controversial ones can be found everywhere. But he did more than declare himself to be the Antichrist. According to Nietzsche, it was historically inevitable that Christianity would become obsolete. In “The religious life”, the third chapter of his book “Human, All Too Human”, he describes how, a long time ago, people regarded nature as inexplicable, lawless and extremely powerful. They reacted by inventing rules and customs for humans, hoping that these would serve to influence nature in a magical way. They were looking to make it rain at the right time, to compel the sun to rise in the morning and they had no sense of causality.

“If one rows, it is not the rowing that moves the boat, but the rowing is instead only a magical ceremony by means of which one forces a spirit to move the boat.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (I) 111, translation Gary Handwerk (SUP)

He describes how the ancient Greeks were the first to realise that moira (fate) reigned over both humans and immortal gods.  The interaction between the Greeks and their heroes and gods was quite natural, they [did] not need to be ashamed in each other’s presence. Compared to their way of life, the Christian vision can be seen as a step back. According to that, humans are not simply a lesser nobility when compared to those that live on Mount Olympus: instead they are awaiting a gleam of divine pity from a state of complete depravity.

So when Nietzsche hears the church bells on a Sunday morning, he asks himself rhetorically:

“Surely in our time the Christian religion is an anachronism projecting out of the distant past … ”

HH 113, translation Gary Handwerk (SUP)

Boats on a lake, by Hiroshige [Public domain]

Boats on a lake, by Hiroshige [Public domain]

Is religion a fitting answer to the ennui that stems from having it all (as long as it’s made of plastic, somewhere in China)? Nietzsche looked past Christianity and felt the threat of nihilism, a philosophy that would be hard to embrace and to eventually transcend. Those he saw around him were more confident; they trusted science to come up with all the answers and the army to bring them lasting victories. Nietzsche knew there would come a time when those answers would no longer be valid.

“Modern science has as its goal: as little pain as possible, as long a life as possible — hence, a sort of eternal bliss, admittedly a very modest one in comparison with the promises of religions.”

Human, All Too Human (I) translation Gary Handwerk

At the time he wrote Human, All Too Human he thought humanity was moving forward although it might take millennia to register any progress. I wonder how many of us are rowing our own boats today.

To know thyself by aphorism

“Philosophy triumphs easily over past evils and future evils; but present evils triumph over it.”

François de La Rochefoucauld, 1664

I’d like to know if that is just an observation, based on the French nobleman’s own experiences and those of the people he saw around him, or a timeless truth. What do you think?

La Rochefoulcauld, Inner Court, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

La Rochefoulcauld, Inner Court, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

An aphorism is a short, pithy statement of an evident truth concerned with life or nature. The word was first used by Hippocrates in 400 BCE in his collection that started with the words: “Life is short and Art long; the crisis fleeting…”

Everyone who thinks they’ve heard that before doesn’t need to be convinced of the usefulness of aphorisms: they stick in your mind, even though they are often remembered incorrectly or misappropriated. Such a short statement easily gets misinterpreted, of course, but I like to think that is part of its charm. I first encountered La Rochefoucauld’s collection because Nietzsche apparently read them, when he was in Sorrento working on Human, All Too Human in the company of Paul Rée. Nietzsche remarked that writing aphorisms in German is almost impossible, because one always ends up with a cumbersome load of auxiliary verbs at the end of an otherwise terse sentence. He also wondered if a person who had never tried to write one could appreciate the work involved.

“…for even the subtlest mind is not capable of properly appreciating the art of polishing maxims if he has not himself been brought up for it and competed at it … Hence, the present-day readers of maxims get a relatively paltry satisfaction from them, hardly any pleasure in tasting them, so that they respond to them just like people generally do in looking at cameos: they praise them because they cannot love them, and are quick to admire and even quicker to run away.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, I: 35 SUP 1995

Cameo, by Bellezzedinapoli [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Cameo, by Bellezzedinapoli [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

On a French website, I read how La Rochefoucauld used the second half of his life to write about his experiences in the first half. And most of those were disappointing. He was married at fifteen and joined the army a year later. He fought in the aristocratic uprisings of his time and got seriously wounded, once by a bullet in the head. These experiences and his being a French nobleman made him a pessimist in a detached, elitist way.

“We are never so happy or so unhappy as we suppose.”

In the introduction to his “Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims” he makes such an effort to describe his own face to his readers that I wasn’t surprised to find quite a few thoughts on vanity and  amour-propre. He writes that self-love is the greatest of flatterers and that “Whatever discoveries have been made in the region of self-love, there remain many unexplored territories there.” This inspired the translator to say that La Rochefoucauld wished to find a motive for all our actions in pride, vanity and egotism.

La Rochefoucauld, salon, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

La Rochefoucauld, salon, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

La Rochefoucauld certainly identifies these as our driving forces, rather than nobility, morality and love:

“If there is a pure love, exempt from the mixture of our other passions, it is that which is concealed at the bottom of the heart and of which even ourselves are ignorant.”

Nietzsche writes about the pros and cons of these psychological observations and decides they are necessary, not from a need for witty coquettishness, but because they tell us how we are human. A good aphorism looks us in the eye and tells us an uncomfortable truth, which was certainly Nietzsche’s intention. To end on a suitably pessimist note:

“We have all sufficient strength to support the misfortunes of others.”

La Rochefoucauld

Petrarca’s cat

Francesco Petrarca lived from 1304 to 1374. His father wanted him to have a career in law, but he chose poetry, and was crowned poet laureate in Rome. His speech, commemorating the Classic poets who inspired him, was seen as the first Renaissance manifesto. Petrarch is often called the first tourist; he travelled for pleasure and was remembered for climbing the Mont Ventoux. He was a devout Catholic, but is called the father of humanism because he thought God wanted humans to use their intellectual and creative potential to the fullest.

During his life, the period he named the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance and in his personal life there is evidence of many conflicting wishes and thoughts: at first he was a priest and felt the attractions of a contemplative life but he also wanted a family. He spent a large part of his life travelling for pleasure but he also tried to find a place to settle down. He was a Catholic who voiced criticism of church leadership and a romantic who wanted to dedicate his life’s work to a woman he loved from a distance. All these influences can be found in Petrarca’s poetry, his letters and his often unfinished books. He considered his sonnets a work in progress and kept rewriting them all through his life.

In 1327 he saw a woman called Laura in a church at Avignon and fell in love with her. Since she was already married, Petrarca expressed his love and later his grief over her death in sonnets and in songs (canzoniere).

I find no peace, and yet I make no war:

and fear, and hope: and burn, and I am ice:

and fly above the sky, and fall to earth.

and clutch at nothing, and embrace the world.

Petrarca, Canzoniere, 134

He never married, but he had a son and daughter he later legitimised. At his former house near Padua the mummy of his cat can still be seen, with these epigrams in Latin written by Antonio Quarenghi in 1604.

The Tuscan bard of deathless fame

Nursed in his breast a double flame

Unequally divided;

And when I say I had his heart

While Laura play’d the second part

I must not be derided.

Oeil, by Guylaine Brunet (posted to Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Oeil, by Guylaine Brunet (posted to Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

For my fidelity was such,

It merited regard as much

As Laura’s grace and beauty;

She first inspired the poet’s lay,

But since I drove the mice away,

His love repaid my duty.

Manuscrito_de_Petrarca.jpg: Manu Matthaei [Public domain]

Manuscrito_de_Petrarca.jpg: Manu Matthaei [Public domain]

Through all my exemplary life,

So well did I in constant strife

Employ my claws and curses,

That even now, though I am dead,

Those nibbling wretches dare not tread

On one of Petrarch’s verses

Sadly, the website mentions that the embalmed cat was probably put there by a later owner of the house and that Petrarca has never mentioned a cat in his own writings. Scientists recently opened Petrarca’s tomb preparing to make a reconstruction of his face, but they discovered the skull fragments in there did not belong to him. As with many people who lived a long time before us, we’ll never know the whole story. But that is part of the attraction. As is the fact that poems prove more resistant to passing centuries than big, marble tombs. As Petrarca himself predicted.