Friday, April 22, 2011


I don't really know why this itch
to listen to the dead, and speak to the unborn.
I could come up with reasons, but I think
they'd float away on the first stiff breeze.

Imagine our horror when Praxiteles
shows up one day with his studio crew
and sets them painting Adonis and Aphrodite
with floozy lips and baby blues.

I have been so long with the dead that the living
seem over-colored and fake: Marmaduke doggies
overturning end tables in the sickroom.
They're a breeding nuisance, and the unborn

don't promise better. Some professor,
inked all over with tattoos, will explain
the occult meaning of our poems.
“You're not to imagine,”

she'll say, “that they're really, like,
having crushes on each other.”
Nope. Not us. Hold still: I've got some lipstick
and a tube of cobalt somewhere in my coat.


Dale said...
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Dale said...

I pulled this photo from the July 2008 Smithsonian online: it was attributed (if I'm reading right) to "Stiftung Archäologie, Munich." The consensus of art historians is that ancient statues were in fact painted, painted brightly. The evidence had been clear for over a century, but the lions of the field just couldn't bear the idea.

Zhoen said...

They prefer their history very dry, with an olive.

John JMesserly said...
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Lucy said...

I love Z's comment too.

I struggle with it, most of all with the Cycladic heads and figures, perhaps. When we visited Chartres, they did an evening ligh show where they projected the colours they thought the porch carvings would have had - they were wonderful, and it was like two for the price of one, you had the austere and contemplative forms in the day, and the colour and excitement at night.

Someone on the radio today, quoting Nabakov I think, said it was dismal and footling to try to find yourself in someone else's poems, but everyone then confessed that they did it furtively anyway...

John JMesserly said...

It's easier to pay proper homage to the idols of antiquity if they do not offend our sensibilities. Aromatically speaking, it goes without saying that stuff that has been dead a long time is so much more pleasantly inoffensive than more recently dead stuff. What I want to know is why it is that in some parts of the world, the magical reduction to inoffensiveness is not the same as reduction to inexistence. There seems to be an odd correlation with climate.

I mean, have you ever wondered why it is that so much of the stuff that just never seems to go away comes from arid climates? Ardipithecus fossils, Egyptian columns, Egyptian statues. Greek columns, Greek statues, Roman columns Roman statues. Bleached bleached bleached. It's what happens with too much light. You lose the colour. Any artist will tell you that the advantage of desaturation is that stuff becomes more mercurial. Take a guy with gray hair- Viewed in the burnt sienna light of dawn, he's a redhead, but a blond in the yellow light of dusk. So maybe what you think I am saying is that the analogous desaturation of word meanings is convenient for unencumbered thought. Maybe you got a point there- after all, monochromatic surfaces are best for projections.

I suppose you could also point out that philologists babble incessantly about how Greek words meet the same fate as their painted statues. They claim that it is only bleached terms and concepts that we know of their thoughts. Sure anything other than these "purified" meanings seem irrelevant because it is only the pure stuff was used to erect our culture's monumental edifices that are in many respects alien to the original colorations. Original meanings may present awkward moments, but our inclination for simplicity is abetted by natural processes of embalming. Just as we do with food preservation, the simplest step is to desiccate thought. Nevermind the blood of the poet, we go for the dry bleached senses of the terms. As if the primary sense of these terms were identical with our own.. And we do it not just to collective but to private vocabularies. We don't have enough time for digging into the confusing variations in colour of the meanings of those hundreds of our acquaintances- we are fairly often reminded by our wife or husband that we have not taken sufficient time to do justice to their meaning. And as for those equally troublesome cultural giants? We must also afford them something more than a cursory treatment we give to the everyday. So we fix our gaze somewhat longer into the chasm. It doesn't take long to see the gulf between how the archaic Greek terms were actually used and the routine translations. It becomes clear that the common sense knowledge of the Greeks is no less bleached than those colourless statues and columns. Faced with the challenge of breaking through this barrier, our everyday practices take hold and we tell ourselves to be practical about meaning. How many hours are there in a day? How much time do we really have for the deep excavation required into the actual feeling, textures and associations of these archaic Greek words? We turn away, with a "let the dead bury the dead" attitude. Sure, the colouration of the original meanings has fallen away like the flesh. But so much the better we tell ourselves. It leaves bleached bones to stack in orderly piles in our mind's closet. It's all bleached Greek to me.

John JMesserly said...
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John JMesserly said...

Speaking of removing precious bodily fluids, maybe this style of consciousness goes deeper- beyond the Greeks to the Egyptians. That is, maybe this really is all about the eternal practice of mummification. There is a show where this archeologist goes around doing CSI routines on bodies thousands of years old. Yesterday I was looking at his show- he was looking at some Coptic Christian mummies from the 6th century AD, but the troublesome thing about these mummies was that they were not quaintly, cleanly ancient. To put it mildly, their reeked.. Sure, the priests knew the secret of packing the body in salt just like the pagan mummies to soak up the nurturing fluids of decomposition. But the Christians had to do a rush job, because the loved ones underground were on Jesus's 3 day burial timetable.

It's what we do with beloved thoughts we find suitable for retention. Beloved thoughts from those smelly poets who are even more aromatic after they have been dead these many years. Not yet bleached to their "essence" because the colourations they actually intended have not yet faded. There is a mounting backlog for the heavily outnumbered critics, and besides, it is not an especially efficient process- full removal of that which offends could take centuries.

In this age of do it yourself, we need not rely on a cultured elite to fully preserve our culture. We can all bleach the colour, dry up that juiciness swiftly so long as we have bright, arid thoughts about what others are saying.

Honest resurrection of the flesh of the speaker's original meaning presents a challenge for our everyday consciousness. It is an experience we instinctively avoid.

Happy Easter.