Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Four: Absences

I am one of those who tends to believe that the World is going to Hell in a handbasket.  Some of you may share the same view.  But, as I have noted in this space in the past, we need to maintain perspective on our feelings: after all, the World has always been going to Hell in a handbasket.

I have no doubt that, if one had surveyed the denizens of, say, classical Athens in its Golden Age, Alexandria at the apex of Hellenistic civilization, China in the T'ang Dynasty, or Italy in the quattrocento, a sizable portion of the populace would have said:  "The World is going to Hell in a handbasket."  Or some variation thereof.

So, yes, the World is for ever in a state of decay when it comes to culture, morality, and basic human decency.  It has always been thus.  Still, certain human beings -- at every time and in every place -- will feel that the Good, the True, and the Beautiful have been submerged in a wave of decadence and thoughtlessness.  But, as it turns out, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful always survive by a slender margin.


The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths.
And it was their habit toward the festival's end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that only a few of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remembered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;
and how low they'd fallen now, what they'd become,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) in C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1992).

Poseidonia, which is also known as Paestum (its later Latin name), is located on the Italian coast, south of Salerno.  Three magnificent Greek temples remain on its site.

Cavafy includes the following epigraph to the poem:

"(We behave like) the Poseidonians in the Tyrrhenian Gulf, who although of Greek origin, became barbarized as Tyrrhenians or Romans and changed their speech and the customs of their ancestors.  But they observe one Greek festival even to this day; during this they gather together and call up from memory their ancient names and customs, and then, lamenting loudly to each other and weeping, they go away."

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), Ibid. Cavafy identifies the source of the passage as "Athenaios [Athenaeus], Deipnosophistai, Book 14, 31A (632)."

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Welsh Hills near Barmouth" (1918)

And yet, even if this going-to-Hell-in-a-handbasket feeling is timeless, I cannot escape the sense -- as suggested by "Poseidonians" -- that something is uniquely missing in the "modern" age.  There is an absence. There is a lack.  Matthew Arnold's lines come to mind:  "The Sea of Faith/Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore/Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled."  ("Dover Beach.")  Arnold no doubt had Christianity in mind, but we should not limit ourselves:  the gods have disappeared from the woods, the vales, the meadows, and the watery shores.

In his edition of Cavafy's Collected Poems, translator Daniel Mendelsohn suggests that it was Cavafy's reading of an essay by John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) which led him to his epigraph to "Poseidonians."   C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn) (Alfred A. Knopf 2009), pages 523-524.  Symonds includes the following translation of the passage in his essay:

"'We do the same,' said Aristoxenus in his Convivial Miscellanies, 'as the men of Poseidonia, who dwell on the Tyrrehenian Gulf.  It befell them, having been at first true Hellenes, to be utterly barbarised, changing to Tyrrhenes or Romans, and altering their language, together with their customs.  Yet they still observe one Hellenic festival, when they meet together and call to remembrance their old names and bygone institutions; and having lamented one to the other, and shed bitter tears, they afterwards depart to their own homes.  Even thus a few of us also, now that our theatres have been barbarised, and this art of music has gone to ruin and vulgarity, meet together and remember what once music was.'"

John Addington Symonds, "Amalfi, Paestum, Capri," in Sketches and Studies in Italy (1879), page 13.  Symonds cites "Athenaeus, xiv.632" as the source of his translation.

After quoting the passage, Symonds continues:

"This passage has a strange pathos, considering how it was penned, and how it has come down to us, tossed by the dark indifferent stream of time. The Aristoxenus, who wrote it, was a pupil of the Peripatetic School, born at Tarentum, and therefore familiar with the vicissitudes of Magna Graecia. The study of music was his chief preoccupation; and he used this episode in the agony of an enslaved Greek city, to point his own conservative disgust for innovations in an art of which we have no knowledge left.  The works of Aristoxenus have perished, and the fragment I have quoted is imbedded in the gossip of Egyptian Athenaeus.

In this careless fashion has opened for us, as it were, a little window on a grief now buried in the oblivion of a hundred generations.  After reading his words one May morning, beneath the pediment of Paestum's noblest ruin, I could not refrain from thinking that if the spirits of those captive Hellenes were to revisit their old habitations, they would change their note of wailing into a thin ghostly paean, when they found that Romans and Lucanians had passed away, that Christians and Saracens had left alike no trace behind, while the houses of their own dawn-facing deities were still abiding in the pride of immemorial strength.

Who knows whether buffalo-driver or bandit may not ere now have seen processions of these Poseidonian phantoms, bearing laurels and chaunting hymns on the spot where once they fell each on the other's neck to weep?  Gathering his cloak around him and cowering closer to his fire of sticks, the night-watcher in those empty colonnades may have mistaken the Hellenic outlines of his shadowy visitants for fevered dreams, and the melody of their evanished music for the whistling of night winds or the cry of owls."

John Addington Symonds, Ibid, pages 13-14.

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Chateau Gaillard, Les Andelys" (1907)

At this juncture, a poem that has been posted here previously deserves a return visit.


That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), in C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems.

Cavafy does something lovely here:  it is the gods, not the humans, who are bereft; it is the gods who mourn the loss of their beloved Ionia (and, by extension, the loss of the Ionian people).

Think of it:  who would choose to disenchant their life and their world?  Let me introduce you to the so-called Age of Enlightenment (also known as, believe it or not, the Age of Reason).  And let me introduce you as well to your new gods:  "Science" and "Progress."

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "The Mill in the Valley" (1892)

A disenchanted world is a world without mystery.  What could be more mysterious than the human soul?  Will any of us go to the grave, or return to the dust, having solved that mystery?

An enchanted world is one in which the gods are every bit as mysterious as our souls.  When they visit us, they do not claim to be the bearers of Truth. But they are humanly truthful.


When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

Herbert Hughes-Stantion, "Villeneuve les Avignon" (1921)


Anonymous said...

There was an awful [awe inspiring] rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine--
Unweave a rainbow . . .
--John Keats, from "Lamia" part 2, lines 231-237

Who leached the sacred and mysterious from our lives? Does the great god Pan no longer play his lively horn and dance by the edge of the woods? Olympus closed up shop. Those who used to live there are now pallidly written down in the dull catalogue of common things.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the passage from Keats, as well as for your own thoughts, both of which are very apt. "Philosophy will clip an angel's wings" and "unweave a rainbow" are particularly lovely. Thanks again.

Tim Guirl said...

Mr. Pentz,

It has been several years since I first ran across your blog, and I continue to read it, much to my intense delight. Thank you for your generous gift to your readers.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: That's very thoughtful and kind of you to say. Thank you very much.

This thought does sometimes occur to me: "Is anybody reading this?" So it is gratifying and reassuring to receive your comment. On my part, I owe you (and others) sincere thanks for being long-time and loyal readers.

Thank you again.

Jeff said...

"Is anybody reading this?" Absolutely, yes. And I've even bought books based on poets you've introduced me to thanks to your blog...

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: Thank you very much for your kind words. And now I fear that, in my response to Mr. Guirl, I may have sounded like I am complaining or feeling sorry for myself -- which is definitely not the case, and was not my intention. I have been extremely fortunate to have thoughtful readers from around the world find their way here -- far beyond what I ever expected when I started. For that, I am honored and grateful. Inevitably, given the nature of blogging, ego is involved, but (without trying to sound too selfless) my sole goal has always been to provide a platform for the poetry and the paintings. Thus, for instance, the fact that you may have followed up on some things I've posted here means that I may be doing what I set out to do.

Again, I greatly appreciate your thoughts, as well as your long-time presence here. Thanks again.

Bruce Floyd said...


Is today's world going to hell? As you aptly note, men centuries ago mourned the hell-bent course of their world--the barbarians are always at the gate. But it's possible that our culture is undergoing some catastrophic metamorphosis. Some thinkers have noticed such a trend. The traitors of culture threw open the gate and let the barbaric hordes in.

I have just begun to read Mario's Vargas Llosa's "Notes on the Death of Culture." I am, I understand, being egregiously premature since I have read only the introductory chapter. But in the introduction Llosa reveals what he will examine in his book: the death of high culture. In today's world it is common to hear others aver that all cultures are equal, that's there's no difference between "Hamlet" and the latest beach book. Some would say that to read "Hamlet" is an example of attacking the masses, a vile example of elitism.

Llosa says, right at the beginning, that he will first explore the essays in recent decades that have dealt with the word "Culture." Then, he adds, he will offer his own view of the state of Culture. He says that all the essays, though they differ, "share a common denominator: They all agree that culture is in deep crisis and is in decline."

He quotes Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serrov from their book "La Cultura-mundo: Respuesta a una sociedad desorientada:

"Diametrically opposed to hermetic and elitist vanguard movements, this mass culture seeks to offer innovation that are accessible to the widest possible audience, which will entertain the greatest number of consumers. Its intention is to amuse and offer pleasure, to provide an easy and accessible escapism for everyone without the need for any specific educational background, without concrete and erudite references. What culture industries invent is a culture transformed into articles of mass consumption."

Llosa says that the biggest difference between the culture of the past and that of today is that today's culture has no interest in creating products of transcendence, something to endure time, "to stay alive for generations. Today's culture makes products to be consumed rapidly and then disappear. Culture, says Llosa, "is entertainment and what is not entertaining is not culture." (I wonder how many people can quote lines from a contemporary poem.)

Llosa closes his introduction by stating that "the idea of culture has witnessed much more than a gradual evolution: instead it has seen a traumatic change, in which a new reality has appeared that contains only scant traces of what it has replaced."

As long as blogs like yours exist, the battle is not lost. Your words and the wise words of those who comment on your blog give me some comfort. Perhaps all is not lost--not yet.

Bruce Floyd

Unknown said...

A wonderful site in a world of madness. A quiet corner of reflection. Please keep up with this valuable work.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for your kind words about this blog, which I greatly appreciate.

As for Vargas Llosa's book (which I haven't read), I cannot say that what is said in the passages you quote (by him and by others) changes my feelings about the timelessness of this complaint. For instance, I'm sure you read Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, which caused such a sensation back in 1987. It made it seem that the cultural world was coming to an end. Such tomes have been periodically issued for centuries.

But my favorite example (and one which long ago greatly influenced me in my view on the timelessness of "cultural decline" as perceived by each succeeding generation) is this passage from Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads (a passage which I first quoted here back on September 20, 2010): "[A] multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies."

Published in 1800. But doesn't it precisely describe 2015? "A multitude of causes, unknown to former times." Check. "Blunt the discriminating powers of the mind." Check. "A state of almost savage torpor." Check. "Great national events which are daily taking place." Check. "The increasing accumulation of men in cities." Check. "A craving for extraordinary incident." Check. "Which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies." Check.

Please be assured that I am not being critical of your views, or of those of Vargas Llosa, Bloom, and others. I am entirely sympathetic. But (at the risk of sounding "elitist," which is actually a perfectly acceptable word) the Good, the True, and the Beautiful have been, and will always be, a minority taste. Those of us who are in that minority will always be in the figurative position of monks in the Dark Ages, sitting in the gloom beside a guttering candle, trying to preserve what remains.

Again, I am in general agreement with what you say, but I'm afraid I don't see our current time as being unique with respect to this particular phenomenon. Which is not to say that I am not constantly discouraged, disgusted, and alarmed. Believe me, I am.

As always, thank you for sharing your thought-provoking comments.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Nkomo: That's very thoughtful and kind of you. Thank you very much. I can only hope that I am able to occasionally create "a quiet corner of reflection." I know that that is what I am always looking for myself!

I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope that you will keep returning. Again, thank you very much.

Deb said...

Small voice chiming in - I'm reading too :-) Only discovered your blog yesterday, so much beauty and richness! I look forward to many happy hours browsing through old posts, as well as receiving notifications of newer entries. Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog, which I greatly appreciate. I'm delighted that you found your way here, and I hope that you will continue to return.

Thanks again.