Eight and Ten

Ephesus: InscriptionOne personal goal this year has been to read more of what scholars and academics would call, “primary sources;” what laymen call “books that make up books.” Some can be fascinating for their own sake, like Herodotus (my all time favorite) or Thucydides (my bête noire). Portions of Lucian are worth reading today for sheer irony and humor and then there is the whole sprawling magnificence of the ancient Greek playwrights. Later writers sound fascinating but prove a touch on the disappointing side, like Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Genealogy of the Pagan Gods.” I’m still reading this and have hopes for it. The book is full of hard to find but thought provoking stories; I mean, where and when did the Greco-Roman gods really emerge? It’s a question not likely to stimulate many, unless they’ve read their Hesiod. Other primary sources this year have included “The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite,” which is a brief (mercifully so) history of the war between Byzantium and Persia from the perspective of an Edessene at the beginning of the 6th century. And most recently I’ve been quite taken by “Cyriac of Ancona, Later Travels.”

The volume in question is part of the i Tatti Renaissance Library published by Harvard University and covers his letters and diaries from 1443-49. As a 15th century Italian Cyriac was no doubt engaged in commerce. And he spent most of his life sailing around the tatterdemalion scraps of the Byzantine empire, setting up trade posts for the Genoese in the Black, Marmara and Aegean seas. It was with a certain relish and anticipation that I picked up his book. Some of it was good—like when he met the future Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in Adrianople during an audience with his father Sultan Murad II. If only Cyriac had taken a moment to look more closely at little Çelebi, as Mehmet was then called, one wonders what he looked like at ten? Was he brooding and intense like he seems in the later histories, or gentle and serene as depicted in the miniature by Nakkaş Sinan Bey?Harbor Road: Ephesus

There are other missed opportunities, like when Cyriac goes hunting with Constantine Dragases—the last Constantine, he who died on the Theodosian Walls like a proper Roman and last Emperor. What was he like, there in the wilds of the Peloponnese? Did he foresee his doom even then? The end of his empire and the end of his line? If only Cyriac’s letters told us more about these men than his trade arrangements. Alas, the recording of history is nothing if not grief over missed opportunities like these.

Cyriac is mostly remembered today, if he is remembered at all, because he urged the preservation of the antique remains that littered and illumined his world. Rare is he who sees the treasure that has always stared him in the face. At one point Cyriac sounds like a cantankerous citizen at a city hall meeting fulminating against the lack of preservation and decay all around him. “One needs a more expansive genre in which to cry out against, despise, condemn and thoroughly curse such great negligence, slothfulness and lack of human culture on the part of our contemporaries,” he writes near the beginning of his letters. We owe a lot, as a culture, to Cyriac’s imprecations. That we value the past as we do, and have preserved much of it, we learned during the Renaissance, and it remains Cyriac’s forgotten legacy.Priene

In July of 1444 Cyriac made his way from Constantinople to Perinthus (the modern Marmara Ereğlisi). Two thirds of the way there he stopped in Selymbria, now Silivri, to document the many inscriptions lying around. What must this have looked like? Cracked marble plinths, perhaps an architrave and columns lying higgledy-piggledy, used as a quarry for the more industrious of subjects and ignored by all the rest. The blue luciferase waters of the Marmara behind them. Here Cyriac found treasure.

Some inscriptions date back to the reign of Trajan—or at least this is my semi-educated guess, my Latin being rusty and my Greek practically oxidized out of existence. What struck me was the span of human existence  there—as I had seen when I visited the region in 2008-2009—and how much their desire to leave something behind is still so very alive. It’s one of those qualities that binds us as humans, even if we don’t realize it.

PrieneAnd yet, sometimes when I am back here in the suburban post-modernity of the New World, thinking about or reading history I feel I live in a facsimile of reality and it’s only when I am back over there, when I can touch a two thousand year old marble inscription that I know the past is real, not green lights tumbling down a black screen.

Such was my state of mind a few weeks ago when I sat down in my favorite chair and began reading the inscriptions Cyriac noted in his diary between the 25th of July and 12th of August 1444. Some were interesting and in Latin: 

Good fortune. Emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus,son of the divine Trajan, victor over the Parthians, grandson of the divine Nerva, consul for the third time. 

Others anodyne (and in Greek) in their attempt to honor a citizen ad aeternam:

Good fortune. The Council and the People honored Poplios Ailios Harpokration, also called Proklos who built the shrine of Tyche; the Alexandrians who do business in Perinthos set up a statue in his honor. 

But then I read this:

As I was leaving my eighteenth year and just beginning the study of rhetoric, a grievous illness overcame me in well-wooded Lesbos, and I had not yet reached the pleasant land of Ephesus. My brother, by a great deal of work, gave this sadness to be borne to my parents on a swift ship. I dwell in the holy houses of heroes, not in Acheron—for such is the end of life for the wise.

Seven lines carved on a marble plinth gut punched me. They shouted and smiled down at me while I lay on the floor collecting the questions after a knock-out blow.

When was it written? Where was it found? Where is it now?
Inscription On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Who composed the lines? What did he die of? Did it take him quickly? Or was it a wasting disease? And just how did a dying eighteen year-old find the composure to write with such simple and powerful elegance?

Slaver the Greek word that begins the inscription around on your tongue for a moment and listen to its alien beauty: ohkto-kai-deka-toy.

Eight and ten. Eighteen.
Ornament, Ephesus
If the rest of Cyriac is dull, uninteresting and lifeless like the two former inscriptions, so be it, I thought in that moment, this inscription makes the entire book worth reading. It’s why I love the study of history and why I have disciplined myself to read primary sources this year instead of wasting time on Facebook or Twitter. The sources are like mines of gold or silver, but the veins of metal are rare and hard to find. And to mix metaphors a little, sometimes the poetry of the past, as in these seven lines of Greek, cuts me down to size.

I’m forty two years-old now. What’s forty two minus eighteen? It’s twenty four. I’ve had twenty four more years of living than this eloquent young man who, but for a loving brother, would have vanished, would have been wiped clean by the forgetful waters of River Lethe, and instead found himself in Elysium.

What have I done with my extra twenty four years? I’m human and wasted much of the time whining and groaning about lost opportunities (I really don’t have any to be honest, because I took most of them, wisely or unwisely) and pissing and moaning about stupid mistakes (we all have those, me included, but most aren’t that stupid, although there have been a lot).
Ornament On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Let us add more to the scales. He was eighteen years-old and died. And here am I with a (thus far) well-lead life: fifty five countries visited, one great love and two ex-wives, a career in finance (long), a career in software sales (short), a career as a writer (even shorter), and a stint as a stay-at-home step-father (the shortest). I’ve had more huge chunks of plain old-fashioned obscene good luck than 99.9 percent of humanity and I have the gall to complain?

And then I read what this young man—no, this boy—composed while dying and I know any story I tell will never have the impact of his seven lines of poetry.

Homer Explains How We Ended Up With Kim Kardashian

The Homeric texts–the Iliad and the Odyssey–are foundational texts regardless of how Westerners feel about them. They are much like the Ramayana or the Mahabharata in that they are troubling reminders of a past when violence was glorified. (The present, for argument’s sake, has amazingly subtle ways of justifying violence while simultaneously condemning it.)

So, let’s think for a moment what the larger, meta issues, of the Homeric texts are?

It’s okay to be a colossal douche bag so long as you’re good at killing (Achilles)?

But, if you’re an Asian, even if you’re a dutiful son, honorable husband and loyal brother, you’re going to die a horrible death and have your body dishonored after death (Hector).

Of course it’s also okay to while your way across the world for years and abandon your wife and son. Moreover, it’s okay to murder your wife’s maids as a way of torturing them to make sure she has remained chaste while you were gallivanting across the globe screwing just about any witch, woman or whore in your path (Odysseus)?

No wonder Western Civilization is fucked.

We took a wrong turn at the very beginning and now we’re stuck with Kim Kardashian.

Mr. Homer Meet Señor Borges

‘”Such a long trip,” he thinks, “and so many places I could have stayed along the way.”‘ Odysseus is clearly a man after my own heart. And in this sterling new retelling of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason, I feel, more than ever that I know Odysseus. He’s new, fresh, post-modern and so very real in all his complications.

The book doesn’t so much as read well, as it breezes by like the images that float in our mind’s-eye when we toss in those fitful moments before sleep overcomes us. The images aren’t logical, but they aren’t yet fantastic, either.

This is also the kind of book that makes me want to write, if I could overcome being green with envy. Sentences like this haunt the pages, jumping out like errant grasshoppers:

“He could be immersed in molten iron and wrought into an ingot to be dropped into the sea, there to spend eternity listing in the deep ocean currents.”

Or this:

“The gloaming had deepened and the orchard shook in a gusting wind that made his footsteps inaudible.”

What writer would not give a small portion of her life to write one sentence so rich and so laden with the power of verbal necromancy?

Mason’s novel is divided into 44 books, or short chapters. (It’s only 230 pages long.) Some are no longer than 600 words, others of several pages. I got the sense at times that Mason was single-handedly trying to conjure up allegory and symbolism as well. But none get bogged down. Effortless artistry carries the tales rushing ahead to their inevitable, crashing conclusion.

Each is a compact of narrative prowess. None uninteresting.

And if the language succeeds, the stories, the plot, the narrative are almost rashomon-esque. None of the stories contradict each other–Mason leaves the contradictions to Odysseus and others in the tale–while Odysseus remains, almost impossibly so, a unified character. It’s life that is contradictory, and in life, other people.

Odysseus always plays his part: but it’s the expansive imaginativeness of Mason’s devious story-telling that one finds laughter, smiles and cringes on several occasions. And perhaps, a few well-timed horripilations: Odysseus the assassin? Achilles the Buddhist? The quiet concatenations of Agamemnon’s heart? Penelope’s elegy?

Mason is all too aware of the post-modern predilection to get lost in the confusing and complicated, to overwhelm the reader with all sorts of nutty plot devices. But Mason’s language and stories are a throwback to a more ancient viewpoint. His book is fruitful with entanglements but never descends to the cheap trick of irony. And, unlike Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, we can all relate to Odysseus’ predicaments; we’re all everymen, without the novel being an esoteric exercise in the mundane.

This book is amazing. I bought the damn thing last night and already read it all. Homer meets Borges, all post-modern, poignant and telling, almost sweet and rueful at the same time and never stuffy. It’s the sum of a thousand tiny complications all rolled into one.

If you have even a passing interest in the ancients, I cannot recommend this book highly enough: a really brilliant retelling of an ancient but timeless tale. And brilliant is a word I seldom, if ever use, in a book review.