2018.11.16 | By Gregory Nagy and Martha Cowan
§0. This essay is a kind of dialogue between Martha Cowan and me. Paragraph §2, subdivided into §2a §2b §2c… all the way through §2k, is by MC, while paragraphs §0 §1 §3 are by me, GN. Our dialogue centers on the two writers credited with the libretto for the music of Giacomo Puccini in his opera La Bohème, first performed in Torino, 1896. The librettists were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
2018.11.09 | By Gregory Nagy
§0. This essay is linked with a lengthy book I published in 2015, Masterpieces of Metonymy. There I argued that metonymy and metaphor, as they are known in verbal art, are analogous respectively to horizontal and vertical threading in the art of weaving. Taking a broader point of view here, I will argue that the art of fabric work in general can be represented as an interaction of metonymy and metaphor. Such a representation comes to life, I think, in the story of Puccini’s opera La Bohème. Here a woman named Mimì, a fabric worker, is pictured as the incarnation of poetry. This picturing, I further think, is expressed by way of metonymy and metaphor combined.
2018.11.01 | By Gregory Nagy
§0. On October 27, 2018, eleven men and women were killed, and more were injured, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the city of Pittsburgh. It was widely reported about the massacre that the man who had opened fire on his victims was at the same time shouting his hatred for Jews, and that this hate was fueled by anger over the help offered by members of Tree of Life to fellow humans—in this case, to those suffering from the misery of dispossession. It was also widely reported that the words disseminated on “social media platforms” by the indicted shooter showed his anger and hatred for immigrants and, by extension, for those who tried to help them. What troubles me deeply, and I am hardly alone, is that these words of anger and hatred match closely the words of politicians who incite anger and hatred. What troubles me even more deeply, however, is that some public thinkers will try to rationalize such incitement by claiming that all politicians, “on both sides,” incite anger and hatred. I simply cannot live with myself if I do not speak up, right now, against this kind of rationalization. In speaking up, however, I will use words that are not mine: instead, they come from the ancient world of Greek civilization. Resounding in my heart are words crafted by the Athenian poet Aeschylus in conveying the essence of Artemis, the goddess who helps the helpless.
2018.10.28 | By Gregory Nagy
§0. It is summer. A young woman and a young man are sitting side by side at a beachfront, looking out toward the vast sea that is facing them. They aim their gaze westward, viewing what seems like an infinite stretch of water that reaches all the way to the darkening horizon where the sea finally meets an infinite sky. As they watch the sun sink slowly into the sea, the young woman starts weeping. Then, suddenly, at the very moment when the glowing orb finally goes under, it gives off a subtle green flash. This is the green ray, which is a literal translation of the French words le rayon vert. The moment I am describing takes place in a film directed by Éric Rohmer, which actually bears the title Le Rayon Vert. It originally appeared in 1986. But Le Rayon Vert is also the title of a romantic novel by Jules Verne, which appeared over a century earlier, in 1882. The novel was in fact the original inspiration for the film, though the stories differ radically. In the film, the story ends on a seemingly happy note: once she sees the green ray, the young woman who was weeping a moment earlier is now smiling as she cries out: oui ! But the happiness of this moment marked by the outcry of ‘yes!’ is not what interests me the most in this film: rather, I will highlight the earlier moment of weeping.
2018.10.19 | By Miriam Kamil
§1. In the first part of this essay, I examined a passage from the Odyssey referred to in the text as an ainos. This was the improvised story told by Odysseus to the swineherd Eumaios in Odyssey 14, wherein Odysseus’ fictitious persona forgets and then obtains a cloak while out on ambush during the Trojan War. Eumaios intuits that he is hearing an ainos and correctly interprets its hidden message: his guest would like a cloak for the night. By examining this passage and considering Nagy’s definition of a Homeric ainos, we saw how Homeric ainoi are micro-narratives that parallel their macro-narrative both in characters and in plot. By means of this parallelism, the speaker of the ainos expresses a desire for a certain outcome in the macro-narrative by ending the micro-narrative with that desired outcome. This paralleling of characters and plot is present in other, non-Homeric ainoi as well. Non-Homeric ainoi, like those of Hesiod and Aesop, coincide with the modern concept of ‘fables’ and possess many of the same qualities as Homeric ainoi. The primary difference lies in the apparent truthfulness of Homeric ainoi. Hesiodic and Aesopic ainoi tend to be fantastical, which signals the presence of a deeper meaning to the listener. Homeric ainoi, on the other hand, are consistently presented by their speakers as truth. It is the listener’s task to detect a deeper meaning and thereby prove him- or herself mentally qualified to understand the ainos. We saw, for example, how Eumaios’ detection of an ainos has consequences for the plot of the Odyssey, when he becomes an ally to Odysseus against the suitors.
2018.10.19 | By Miriam Kamil
§1. I was a Teaching Fellow in the 2017 run of Greg Nagy’s annual course at Harvard, The Ancient Greek Hero. In this class, we examined the use of riddles in Homeric epic. The students learned about a sort of riddle called αἶνος, transliterated as ainos. Related to the verb αἰνέω (aineō) ‘to praise’, the word means, ‘praising speech’, or more basically, ‘speech act’. But not all ainoi appear as praise. They can also manifest as instruction, a warning, or a fable. What unites these as ainoi is their possession of an encoded message. Thus a speech act with an encoded message can be viewed as an ainos in the sense of ‘riddle’. In class, we also drew a distinction between ainos as a genre, under which heading we find, for example, the praise poetry of Pindar, and ainos as a literary device. The Ancient Greek Hero course and this essay are both concerned with the latter, with how speeches with hidden messages appear in a genre outside of praise poetry, Homeric epic.