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…

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