The Odyssey famously begins with an exhortation, here translated by Robert Fagles:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
And sing Homer almost certainly did. The epic tradition was one of song, in which the poet would re-work the framework of each story with every telling, building up the lyric out of formulaic rhyming phrases to keep the meter while accompanying himself with a lyre. It is these rhyming phrases that give us the classic Homeric epithets (“swift-footed Achilles”, and so on).
Some years ago, a pair of fresh-made friends in Athens — one of them from Crete — took me to a Cretan restaurant for dinner. When we arrived, we were told that there would be a cover charge and we’d only be able to order from a reduced menu because there was a special performer that night. They inquired as to the name of the performer, and both went pale when they heard his name.
The man we saw that night is called Psarantonis, a cultural treasure and folk hero to Greeks, particularly Cretans. He is renowned for his lyrics, his voice, and most of all his ability with the lyra — a long lost descendant of the lyre Homer would have used.
Although he fills large halls and plays major festivals, that night he was performing to around twenty five of us with members of his family backing him on a lute and a sort of Greek bodhrán.
I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the most powerful concerts I’ve attended. His music rises from deep antiquity, his voice the growl of the Demiurge.
Between sets Psarantonis came to our table to drink shots of clear hot fire with us, and from that day forth the sight of him — eyes shut and singing his muse while playing that ancient instrument — has been my image of blind Homer entertaining kings in the Bronze Age.
A lifelong fascination with the Homeric epics combined with an interest in folk music may have over-prepared me to enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, itself a modern adaptation of The Odyssey.
In particular, the reoccurring theme song Man of Constant Sorrow is more deeply appropriate than most realize. One of the most common epithets used for Odysseus is πολύτλας (“polutas”), which is usually translated as “long-suffering”. He is, in the original, a man of constant sorrow who sees trouble all his days, bids farewell to the place where he was born and raised and is, indeed, bound to ramble.
I initially suspected that the song had been re-written or the lyrics doctored to be appropriate to Homer, but no. The song was first made popular in more or less the form presented in the film by the Stanley Brothers in 1951.
However, the song is much older than that — hundreds of years so in the opinion of the surviving Stanley Brother — and we can trace the modern version back as far as 1913, when it was published under the title Farewell Song by a blind fiddler called Richard Burnett:
Sing, O Muse.
I think one of the most common misperceptions about the Old Masters is to imagine them as solitary freelancers, on the order of Van Gogh, for example–the great Romantic myth of the artist as anguished and questing loner. Whereas, of course, it’s not for nothing that Van Eyck and Van Dyck and Rubens and Velasquez were all said to have studios. Their studios were like nothing so much as the Hollywood studios of the Golden Age. They had lighting people and lens assistants, costume people and make-up artists, accountants and apprentices, and I’m sure Rubens had two flaming queens in the back in charge of all the hats.David Hockney, from part 5 of this great piece of journalism.
My ship steamed out of Barcelona in the late afternoon. I had reserved a bunk in a four-person cabin aboard an overnight ferry to Genoa. The four-bunk cabin is the modern equivalent of steerage: the least expensive available passage that doesn’t involve sleeping on a deck chair under an open sky.
The ship was a monstrous hotel-floatant, a little bit Vegas, a little bit Pasadena. The decor was what one might expect from a cruise ship that catered to the elderly, all soft pastels and subtle knit patterns, but the passengers were mostly young and boisterous, especially the hundreds of tattooed Hell’s Angels who had driven their motorcycles onto the ship earlier that afternoon.
When I reached my shared cabin, which resembled a university dormitory bedroom without windows, I found a young man named Carlo lounging on one of the bunks, reading a Spanish translation of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. We exchanged pleasantries in Spanish, and, although his idiom was more like South American español than Spanish Castilian, I assumed he was a Spaniard.
We hastened to the cantina because Carlo was concerned that “Los Ángeles del Infierno” would bankrupt the ship’s supply of cerveza within fifteen minutes of departure. The ship’s porters had, luckily, taken appropriate measures: there was no shortage of cerveza.
The cantina, a chintz-festive chamber at the ship’s bow, was populated by the aforementioned international cast of Hell’s Angels, along with a smattering of bemused civilians. There was a small stage on which two ladies were singing to a pianist’s live accompaniment while reading lyrics from a teleprompter built into the floor. The ladies were the cantina’s MCs, tasked with dragooning passengers into performing this odd form of karaoke.
Carlo spoke neither English nor French, thus our conversation was squeezed through the narrow portal afforded by my villainous Spanish. Carlo, it turned out, was short for Giancarlo; he was an Italian who had learnt Spanish while working in South America, now on his way home to Turin after a short vacation in Barcelona.
I was hungry for Italian vocabulary — this was my first visit to Italy and I was completely innocent of the language — and I began to query Giancarlo about phrases and idioms. It was thus that he taught me the basics of Italian in Spanish as we steamed across the Mediterranean listening to a chorus of European Hell’s Angels singing selections from the Frank Sinatra songbook in broken English.
Sometimes the best thing is to spend an afternoon absorbing sunshine and art with good friends at Storm King.
I admire Mr Nabokov’s nationality.
It has been found that electronic calculators often require elaborate logic units to tell them what steps to follow in tackling certain problems. And in the new field of operations research, annoying situations are constantly arising for which techniques of symbolic logic are surprisingly appropriate.Logic Machines and Diagrams, Martin Gardner
What collegiality means in practice is: ‘He knows how to operate appropriately within an extremely hierarchical environment.’ You never see anyone accused of lack of collegiality for abusing their inferiors. It means ‘not playing the game in what we say is the proper way.’David Graeber
The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment — and by the amount of high-entropy effluent from an economy that the environment can sustainably absorb. Debt, being imaginary, has no such natural limit. It can grow infinitely, compounding at any rate we decide.Mr. Soddy’s Ecological Economy
From the wonderful Borges episode of BBC’s Arena:
INTERVIEWER: Borges, you speak of HG Wells. In what way did he influence you?
BORGES: I think he taught me that a fantastic story should — to be accepted by the imagination, he said that his stories used only one fantastic element. For example, he wrote Invisible Man, about a lone invisible man in London. Then another, The War of the Worlds, where the world is invaded by people from Mars, but he didn’t write a story about invisible inhabitants of Mars invading the Earth. That would have staggered belief.
In his stories he only had one fantastic thing, and all the rest was common place and believable. I have done the same thing.
And from this Scott Atran article on (among other things) the cognitive structure of religious beliefs:
Religious worlds with supernaturals who manage our existential anxieties — such as sudden catastrophe, loneliness, injustice and misery – are minimally counterintuitive worlds. An experimental setup for this idea is to consider a 3 x 4 matrix of core domains (folkphysics, folkbiology, folkpsychology) by ontological categories (person, animal, plant, substance). By changing one and only one intuitive relationship among the 12 cells you then generate what Pascal Boyer calls a “minimal counterintuition.” For example, switching the cell (− folkpsychology, substance) to (+ folkpsychology, substance) yields a thinking talisman, whereas switching (+ folkpsychology, person) to (− folkpsychology, person) yields an unthinking zombie. But changing two or more cells simultaneously usually leads only to confusion. Our experiments show that minimally counterintuitive beliefs are optimal for retaining stories in human memory (mains results have been replicated by teams of independent researchers, see for example articles in the most recent issue of the Journal of Cognition and Culture).