1. The Odyssey and The Aeneid

    January 28, 2021 by Chris Motley

    The ancient world has fascinated me since my days as a student. How does culture emerge? How do stories endure? Why is there such commonality in beliefs and practices across time and space? In my adulthood, I am working on deconstructing for myself the belief that the ancient world was backwards and we have progressed by leaps and bounds. Even a naive understanding of the twentieth century and of recent history will reveal the extent to which we not only repeat the violence of the past, but perhaps accelerate it. Ours may be the most brutal generation. 

    But beyond questioning “progress,” is it possible that the ancients understood life, death, and violence in ways that are lost to us now, in ways that could benefit us somehow? In addition to the three questions on the syllabus, I am thinking about this idea: that Odysseus, Aeneas, and anyone who lived in their milieu, believed that they were part of a world. There was a unified, shared belief about what the world was and what was a given person’s place in it. Setting aside questions of social hierarchy, patriarchy, slavery, oppression, war, etc. (reminding ourselves as we do so that it is impossible to set aside such things for even a moment), there remains the idea that one’s life was a drama that played out in the eyes of the gods, that one’s small and seemingly insignificant being was nonetheless bolstered by the whole vastness of all being. 

    With this potentially problematic view in hand, I want to focus on a key moment from the text. When Odysseus travels to Hades to gain information about getting home, he runs into his old friend Achilles. Achilles seems to embody the idea I introduced in the paragraph above. He is the son of a goddess, and his place in the cosmos as the greatest of all warriors was solid. He proceeded with the gods behind him. Though he died in Troy (per his destiny), he nonetheless gained ultimate glory for himself. But when Odysseus encounters him in Hades, he says, “Say not a word…in death’s favour; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” Though Achilles does not fully denounce violence and war (he would later threaten violence to anyone who attacked his father, and he would sing the praises of his son’s many kills), we nonetheless see another instance in which Homer uses the greatest of all warriors to at least suggest that all that killing might not be worth it. At the conclusion of the Iliad (Mouse readers recall), Achilles weeps alongside his arch-enemy, sharing in a father’s lament for lost sons. Here, Achilles hints that he would forego his glory to gain even a few minutes of peace above ground. 

    In mythology, the supernatural firmament is whole and solid, because the cultural beliefs that raise the firmament are whole and solid. But in Greek mythology in particular, there are cracks in a firmament that may otherwise wish to validate war. Achilles regrets his excessive brutality and doubts his glory; Odysseus is punished by the gods for war crimes and foul play; women have prominent roles in denouncing violence, not only in the Homeric texts but also in tragedy (particularly in Euripides’ The Trojan Women). 

    If we were able to contact the dead today, what wisdom might they impart? What cracks might appear in the firmament, were we to really know what awaited us on the other side? What myths might we debunk once and for all?

  2. Inferno

    January 14, 2021 by Chris Motley

    In our selection from The Odyssey, Achilles asserts that he “would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” We examined this statement in our blog, but there is another item to add. Namely, Achilles suggests that there might be some kind of hierarchy of souls in Hades. In the underworld scenes of The Odyssey and The Aeneid, however, the souls of the departed are mingling and wandering as a collective. This device serves the plots of each poem, but in fact the Greek and Roman underworlds consisted of a series of zones, from darkness and punishment, to the dwellings of monsters, to the Elysium fields, to the Isles of the Blessed, each reserved for souls who lived certain kinds of lives. In fact a summary glance at the structure of the classical underworlds may prompt us to ponder the extent to which Dante draws his Judeo-Christian vision of Hell from the Hellenic and Roman ones. 

    I leave that work to scholars. For now, we should note that the key feature of Dante’s cosmos is the gradations of its hierarchical structure. Everyone has found a punishment that corresponds to his or her sins. I ask my students to conduct a similar thought experiment, whereby they “condemn” certain public figures to certain punishments according to certain sins. The result is not to point out how “bad” these figures are, but in fact to point out how merciless we can be in our judgment. In Inferno, Dante is exacting poetic revenge upon his rivals, who, by the time he was writing this poem, had banished him from Florence. That he can sustain such a dark vision, dwell in such an aggrieved mentality, is itself a feat. 

    For Dante, the vast majority of us will end up in Hell. But stepping back from the rigidly Medieval morality, we can see that those who experience torment in Inferno have manufactured their own misery before their arrival in Hell. This is the real definition of sin and perdition: the separation from divine love by the unconscious repetition of our dark patterns. It is not God who ultimately punishes us, but rather we ourselves. Here we can connect to our second main consideration of this series. While Dante imagines Hell as a world, a separate ontological space, he is always also writing about the Hell within, Hell as a state of being. The poet himself is the primary case-in-point throughout the Divine Comedy. His grief for Beatrice, presumably, has led him to wander and become lost in the dark wood, and to arrive at the infernal gates. But his longing for Beatrice will initiate the greater journey toward final and everlasting love. That Beatrice herself will greet him there is the gesture that binds the worlds of the living and the dead. One need not die in order to enter Hell, but one can experience Heaven in this life too.

  3. Paradise Lost

    January 3, 2021 by Chris Motley

    It should be said plainly, right away, that Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most influential works of literature in the history of the English language. If I am being honest, I use the word “influential” as a substitute for “great,” greatness being a problematic concept in general, especially in literature. That being said, if there was ever an occasion to ponder “greatness” in terms of literature, this is it. For me, as someone who wishes to write, I marvel at the pure achievement that is this poem. Few works cause me to say, “How did he do that?” 

    All this being said, I understand if this feeling does not emerge upon your first encounter with the text. Your initial question might in fact be, “What is this guy even saying?” That is actually a great place to begin. The difficulty of the text, for any audience at any time in history (we are not alone in our consternation), is a large part of what I love about it. My main piece of advice, which helped me tremendously when I first was assigned the poem in graduate school, is to gravitate towards the moments of clarity, grace, force, wit, etc. In fact I wager that the moments that do stick out to you are the most important and poignant anyway.

    We wanted to offer some of those moments in our selection. Namely, we wanted to showcase the poem’s “hero,” who is the most dreaded and hated mythological figure in the history of Western thought. This is another key to the poem’s “greatness,” its ability to present Satan not only sympathetically, but charismatically. If you get nothing out of this reading, get this: 


    Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,

    Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat

    That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom

    For that celestial light? Be it so, since he

    Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid

    What shall be right: fardest [sic] from him is best

    Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream

    Above his equals. Farewel [sic] happy Fields

    Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail

    Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell

    Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings

    A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.

    The mind is its own place, and in it self

    Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

    What matter where, if I be still the same,

    And what I should be, all but less then hee

    Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least

    We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built

    Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

    Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce

    To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

    Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

    But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,

    Th’ associates and copartners of our loss

    Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,

    And call them not to share with us their part

    In this unhappy Mansion, or once more

    With rallied Arms to try what may be yet

    Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell?


    The two main considerations of this series come full circle in this one soliloquy. Satan and his crew have arrived in Hell, which is indeed full of “horrours,” a place so bad that God would never pay them any mind down there. But, says Satan, in one of the most human moments in literature, 


    The mind is its own place, and in it self

    Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.


    What a declaration! What defiance! In the mind, “Here at least we shall be free.” Who can not identify with this kind of a statement, born in turn by having been rejected by a being who would not share power? 

    But do we believe him? The remainder of our selection, from Book IV, depicts a Satan who is still thoroughly resentful of his rejection from Heaven, not quite “free” of the wound he has been dealt. We see the plan take shape to spoil his rival’s grand plan and cause humanity’s fall. He becomes the villain we know him as. 

    I opened the blog with the word “influential.” This is where Milton’s influence takes shape: in depicting events from the perspective of the one we should hate. To boldly court the dark side. This is what literature can do. 

  4. On Hell

    December 28, 2020 by Chris Motley

    In the general syllabus for this series, I discussed two aspects of the title “Hell.” On the one hand, I wanted to nod to the frequency with which we tend to invoke the idea of hell, often to refer even to mild inconveniences. On the other hand, I wished to check that cultural phenomenon by reminding us that many around the world already live in conditions and situations that one might describe as hell, and that “hell on Earth” may well be the destiny for all people who will come after us. 

    In either case, the language and imagery of hell are very much with us.  Indeed, from Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton (much more so than even the Bible) we derive our imagery and language of hell. This idea alone speaks to the power of literature to shape consciousness.

    In the general syllabus I introduced two key concerns for our reading. On the one hand, there is the idea that hell is an actual place, somewhere “away” from Earth (or, often, deep beneath its surface). Through this lens, we see how the authors in question express cultural beliefs about what comes after death. They are both creating and expressing a mythology. In contemplating this idea we can ponder another idea: that it is quite possible that we are the first culture in human history not to believe in some kind of world of the dead, not to believe therefore that contact with the dead is possible. What does the dominant culture gain from having us believe that this short, precious life is ultimately all there is? What does the dominant culture gain by cutting us off from our ancestors, by rejecting the idea that it is our destiny to join them? What would it mean to regain contact with the world beyond, which, these texts remind us, may not be “beyond” at all, but rather very close indeed? 

    If the first question on the syllabus points to hell as an actual place, the second question points to hell as a condition, an internal state. And in fact, each text in this series addresses one aspect or another of the “hell within,” whether it is Odysseus’ and Aeneas’ longing for a home, Dante’s bereavement and terror, or Satan’s jealousy and ambition. As you read, keep track of how various characters express the particular hell that they are going through, whether they live in hell or not.

    I can conclude by offering a connection between these questions. Namely, by cutting ourselves off from ancestors, from myth, from ritual, from belief, we exacerbate the “hell within.” I am by no means advocating a return to superstition or religion as we know it. Rather, I continue to ponder vastness and wholeness, which these texts attempt to address. The idea that there is a cosmos of which we are an integral part, alongside anyone who has gone before us. I also continue to ponder the extent to which we, in an age dominated by scientific and capitalistic thinking, banish such ways of being, uprooting ourselves from our place in the vastness and wholeness. To be adrift in this world we have created is to end up like the characters in these stories, who have been severed from their roots in one way or another.