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Ancient Hearts on Fire

In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self

by Ruth Padel
Princeton University Press, 210 pp., $29.95

Classical and Modern Interactions: Postmodern Architecture, Multiculturism, Decline, and other Issues

by Karl Galinsky
University of Texas Press, 190 pp., $35.00

What do the classics still have to tell us? Classical literature has been on the syllabus of schools and colleges for more than two thousand years; intelligent and learned minds have put it through every imaginable process of interpretation and exegesis, of polemics and apologetics. What, to come closer to home, do professors of classics still have to tell us? Ruth Padel is not the holder of a full-time academic position, but she has taught at the universities of Oxford and London, and she has the expertise of a professional, and she is also a poet. She has written a subtle and haunting book about the mind and emotions as they appear in the plays of the Greek tragedians. Karl Galinsky is a pro, professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written a set of provocative and entertaining essays on the interplay of ancient and modern and the ways in which postmodern architecture, multiculturalism, the Aeneid of Virgil, and the fall of the Roman Empire can illuminate one another and the state of the modern world and of contemporary America. The bucket will go to the well a good many times yet before the ancient waters shall run dry.

Greek tragedy prefers to deal with extreme states of mental suffering. King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia; his son Orestes must kill his own murderous mother and be hounded across the world by the nightmare Furies who avenge her death. Medea kills her children in order to torture her husband. Oedipus puts out his own eyes and lives on to face his intolerable guilt and pain. Pentheus is torn to pieces by his own mother, who must then realize what she has done. As the Iliad of Homer concentrates on the physical pain of wounding and death in battle, the Greek tragedies home in upon the internal sufferings of guilt, passion, remorse, indecision, and despair. Greek tragedy is full of music, dancing, and singing; it is as close to opera as to the tragedies of Shakespeare. Characters and chorus alike speak and sing at great length of their terrors and their sufferings. In doing so they reveal, to the patient and perceptive eye, an entire picture of the self, and of human consciousness in its relations with the human body, with the outer world, and with the gods.

Ruth Padel’s closely written book is the product of years of reflection. It sets out to show that the Greeks’ picture of the mind is inextricably involved with their picture of the body, and also with their view of divine (“daemonological”) management of the world and intervention in human emotions. The heart is said to knock, to shake, to jump; it swells with rage, moves in the breast, cries aloud. The liver is gashed by love and slashed by fear. Heart and mind fill with anger, are drowned in the flow of bile. Dark liquids within the body seep or flood into the vital organs of perception, emotion, and reason; for thought, too, is associated with the heart and with the phrenes (midriff or solar plexus). “At the end of the fifth century, by the end of extant tragedy, most people assume that they think and feel with internal organs.”

Most writers on these topics have made two assumptions. First: all this is essentially metaphorical, and the Greek words for “heart” and liver” and the rest referred primarily to the physical organs, and only by extension to emotional events. Second: there was an intelligible chronological development, so that the words which at first referred to physical things came later on to be used for mental ones. Padel denies both these assumptions. We cannot find a time when Greek literature did not use these words in both ways, and with an intimacy and frequency that show their profound identification. Padel’s case, supported by careful examination of the text and implications of the Homeric poems as well as tragedy, is impressive. It has been all too easy to apply our own notions of the physical and the mental to the literature of a remote time and place, without asking how far the Greeks had their own, very different, pictures and assumptions. We try to distinguish metaphorical from literal, physical from abstract, with systematic sharpness; not so all other societies. Intellectual and emotional activity are in early Greek inseparable, and psychology was firmly attached to the inner organs of the body.

The interior of the human body is a dark and mysterious place. What is the function of all those organs, so disconcertingly similar to those of animals? It must be remembered that before our own time animals were much more familiar than they are now. Their behavior, including their sex lives, was everywhere going on; it was not something to be viewed on educational TV stations. Their anatomy, too, was brutally apparent and familiar, as oxen and sheep and chickens and fish were chopped up, and the bleeding joints cooked and eaten; it was not tastefully concealed by cellophane and clinical cleanliness, as we buy our separate and prewrapped joints at the supermarket. Speculation grappled with the perceptible facts of the body, so much less familiar to us, though we have X-rays and they had not. What was the liver for? How did the conception of offspring work?—a question typically discussed in the form, “Who is the real parent of the child: the father, or the mother?” Like other patriarchal peoples, the Greeks liked to say that it was the father, the mother providing only the receptacle in which his seed was nurtured: analogy—the sowing of seed into the passive earth. But there were always other views competing for attention, and Aristotle, for instance, maintained that women, too, had a kind of seed and so were truly parents.

Above all, then as now, there was the great question: What was consciousness, and how did it relate to the organs of the body? That it was the function of the brain was only ever a minority, highbrow view; partly, no doubt, because what was taken as the most obvious example of mental activity was not reasoning but emotion. If I spend the day writing at my desk, it is my head that feels tired in the evening; but if I am hunting, or being hunted, or fighting, or playing football, what I feel is much more like sudden tightenings of the innards, spasms in the guts, poundings of the heart, in response to danger, opportunity, exultation.

The body is vulnerable to penetration from outside. Greek society was warlike, and fighting meant stabbing with the spear, not long-distance and almost abstract slaughter with rockets and bombs. Wounds were visible and comprehensible. But since thought and emotion were conceived of as the work of physical organs, it was natural to think that emotions and even ideas were also invaders from the outside, which attacked and shook. When the chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon expresses its dark forebodings, it sings (a very hard passage to translate) in these terms:

My thumos (spirit) within me is singing a dirge of the Fury…my innards are prophetic, my kear (heart) wheeling in circles of meaning against my truthful phrenes (mind: diaphragm)…my heart would utter all this, outrunning tongue, but instead it is muttering in the dark, paining my thumos in despair of ever unravelling a remedy, though my phren is on fire. (Agamemnon 991ff.)

What are we to make of this? The Greek words are systematically impossible to render adequately into English because, as Padel says

I suspect that all fifth-century uses of these words have some somatic tinge, more or less strong in different contexts, but always available, in direct relationship (here the contrast with us is very strong) with what Greeks believed was inside people.

By the “contrast with us” Padel means that we can still speak of hearts on fire or piercing sorrows, but that such language is for us purely metaphorical, without connection with what we believe to go on within the body—rather as we speak of “good humor” without awareness of the ancient doctrine of the four humors in the body, or of “influenza” without supposing that the illness is caused by the influence of the stars, or of “hysteria” without implying that the condition is connected with displacement of the womb (compare “hysterectomy”). These are simply fragments of old explanatory systems, surviving in our speech. For the Greeks—the suggestion is a seductive one—the position was very different, and metaphorical language went hand in hand with attempted diagnosis of what was really happening.

The body could be invaded by disease, which was seen as an intrusion from outside; and the dark inner organs were vulnerable to flooding, whether with fluids or with the blasts of air. A word like thumos behaves at times like an abstract: “anger,” “spirit”; at times it is like a liquid which boils and swells in the innards; again, it can be like a breath, which fills the lungs. The lungs can also be flooded with wine. Nous, “mind,” a word at the intellectual end of the scale, sometimes purely rational, can be described as having desires, and also as “swelling with bile.” Even the word which we regularly have to translate as “soul,” psyche, can be “moist” (which is bad) or “dry” (which is good), according to pre-Socratic philosophers.

The outside can invade the inside by direct divine interference, as when a god may put a thought into a human mind; such language may mean anything from “God knows where that thought came from” to “It was a real God-send.” It is interesting that we, who no longer believe in Muses or in gods who pop thoughts into our heads, not only say vaguely, “Something must have come over me,” but also cannot manage without the idea of inspiration, for great artists and thinkers. The outside can invade also by more apparently rational means, as air or wind enters the body through “pores.” Externally, climate and weather can change the health of the body; air can also get in and set up a storm inside, stirring the dark bodily fluids, which are physically perceptible, as blood, bile, etc., and also form and control the emotions. Such surges of breath and fluid together can impel men to extreme actions, and that is how Aeschylus describes King Agamemnon at Aulis, making his fearful decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia. It was hostile winds, here called “breaths,” which prevented the ships from sailing to Troy and so forced the king to an extreme act of expiation; and, faced with his terrible choice, Agamemnon was

breathing a wicked, veering, godless, impious wind (breath) in his mind—and so he became reckless enough to dare anything.

As Padel observes, it is not made explicit whether the mind is inhaling a wind of wickedness, or exhaling wicked thoughts, or both at once; that ambiguity is at the heart of the interplay of personal guilt and external impulsion which runs through the whole of the Oresteia.

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