When I’m Gone

This is the forty-second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLII: English Poetry 3 Tennyson to Whitman

A great deal of the action in the Iliad is driven by the desire to perform appropriate funeral rites. The Greeks and Trojans fight over corpses, to either recover and bury them or to strip them and leave them as carrion for birds and dogs.

Although this sort of conflict appears numerous times throughout the Iliad, the two most important corpses are those of Patroclus and Hector. The fate of each tells us something different about the motivations behind mourning.

The fight for the body of Patroclus is a back-and-forth affair featuring many of the main characters from each side. And when the Greeks finally recover the corpse, it is the spirit of Patroclus himself who explains the purpose of funereal rites: “Bury me with all speed, that I pass within the gates of Hades. Afar do the spirits keep me aloof, the phantoms of men that have done with toils, neither suffer they me to join myself to them beyond the River, but vainly I wander through the wide-gated house of Hades. And give me thy hand, I pitifully entreat thee, for never more again shall I come back from out of Hades, when once ye have given me my due of fire.”

A proper burial, according to Patroclus, is performed for the sake of the deceased’s soul. The soul survives after death and is aided on its way by the funeral. An entire book of the Iliad is then dedicated to Patroclus’s funeral and attendant games.

Perhaps Cicero had this scene in mind when he wrote, “I do not agree with those who have recently begun to discuss these things, when they say that minds die with bodies and that everything is destroyed by death; I am more swayed by the dictum of the ancients, both of our ancestors, who assigned such reverant laws to the dead, which they would not have done if they judged that nothing affected them.”

The treatment of Hector’s corpse is markedly different. Achilles defiles Hector’s body by dragging it around the city behind his chariot. Ultimately, he returns Hector’s corpse for burial, but not for the sake of Hector’s soul. Hector’s father, Priam, begs Achilles to return the body: “Have thou awe of the gods, Achilles, and take pity on me, remembering thine own father. Lo, I am more piteous far than he, and have endured what no other mortal on the face of earth hath yet endured, to reach forth my hand to the face of him that hath slain my sons.”

Achilles is moved by Priam’s plea, returns the corpse, and arranges a truce for the funeral. The funeral is brief compared to that of Patroclus, and the narrative is dominated by the mourning of Hector’s widow, mother, and sister-in-law. Hector’s funeral shows that the burial rites are for the sake of the living as well as – or rather than – for the sake of the dead. Hector’s family seemingly gets more from the funeral than Hector does himself.

Christina Georgina Rossetti explores the value of mourning in her poems Song and Remember. In Remember, she writes, “Better by far you should forget and smile / Than that you should remember and be sad.” She seems to mean that the dead do not need to be remembered or venerated; memory is only valuable to the extent that it is pleasant to the living person doing the remembering. This idea is taken further in Song, in which she says that she wants no songs or flowers when she is gone, because she will not be there to hear the music or see the flowers.

What she seems to miss in Song that seems so right about Remember is the value for the survivor. It may be true that the deceased cannot hear songs or see flowers, but perhaps singing and making wreaths has value for the person mourning. When Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen wept for Hector, they did not do it for his sake, they did it for their own.

Beer of the week: Agave Wheat – This is an unfiltered beer from Breckenridge Brewery. It pours pale orange and hazy with plenty of white foam. The aroma is a bit sweet, with hint of yeasty sourness. Agave Wheat has a light body with a bit of sweetness and hints of bread. This is a good warm weather brew.

Reading of the week: Song and Remember by Christina Georgina Rossetti – Rossetti does not go as far as those philosophers alluded to by Cicero, who do not believe in an immortal soul. She appears more agnostic on the point, writing that after death, “Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget.”

Question for the week: Would you mind if nobody attended your funeral?

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Mother of Mercy

This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Æneid

DISCLAIMER: This blog post treats Greek and Roman mythology as interchangeable. There are, of course, reasons to differentiate between the two traditions. However, at least part of Virgil’s project was to co-opt Greek mythology for Roman purposes. So for the present blog post there is no need to differentiate between the Roman gods of his Æneid and the Greek gods of Homer.

Mothers are remarkable beings. Not least because even those who regard motherhood as primary to their identity are never merely mothers. Mothering requires a wide range of skills and tasks. Keeping a child alive (to say nothing of keeping it happy, healthy, well-fed, safe, etc.) is a tremendous feat which deserves special recognition.

The idea of mothers as multi-taskers is nothing new. Consider the goddess Venus. Venus is primarily thought of as a lover. But, like any mother who’s ever kissed a boo-boo, comforted a crying babe, or taken marriage vows, Venus is also a healer, a nurturer, and a wife. (And, like every mortal wife, she has not always been a perfect helpmate. But that is another post for another time.)

The Romans regarded the goddess as Venus Genetrix, “Venus the Mother.” Her son was the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas escaped the fall of Ilium and led the remnants of his people to Italy. When the Trojans established themselves in that new land, the groundwork was laid for the eventual rise of Rome.

This great project, however, would not have succeeded without the love and attention of Aeneas’ mother. In his final battle against the native Italians, Aeneas is badly wounded. Although he has an arrowhead lodged deep in his flesh, Venus will not let his injury prevent him from fulfilling his destiny:

“But now the goddess mother, mov’d with grief,
And pierc’d with pity, hastens her relief.”

She goes to work healing him with herbal medicine and divine skill.

“Stanch’d is the blood, and in the bottom stands:
The steel, but scarcely touch’d with tender hands,
Moves up, and follows of its own accord,
And health and vigor are at once restor’d.”

Aeneas’ recovery allows him to return to the fray, slay the Italian foe, and establish the colony that is to become Rome.

And this is not the first time that Venus came to the aid of her beloved son. During the battle for Troy, Aeneas was nearly killed by Diomedes, son of Tydeus. Again the goddess came to his rescue.

“Aeneas sprang from his chariot armed with shield and spear, fearing lest the Achaeans should carry off the body. He bestrode it as a lion in the pride of strength, with shield and on spear before him and a cry of battle on his lips resolute to kill the first that should dare face him. But the son of Tydeus caught up a mighty stone, so huge and great that as men now are it would take two to lift it; nevertheless he bore it aloft with ease unaided, and with this he struck Aeneas on the groin where the hip turns in the joint that is called the “cup-bone.” The stone crushed this joint, and broke both the sinews, while its jagged edges tore away all the flesh. The hero fell on his knees, and propped himself with his hand resting on the ground till the darkness of night fell upon his eyes. And now Aeneas, king of men, would have perished then and there, had not his mother, Jove’s daughter Venus, who had conceived him by Anchises when he was herding cattle, been quick to mark, and thrown her two white arms about the body of her dear son. She protected him by covering him with a fold of her own fair garment, lest some Danaan should drive a spear into his breast and kill him.”

Although Venus is not a warrior like Minerva or Mars, she descended to the field of battle and was even wounded by Diomedes for the sake of her child. So great is the goddess’s love for her son. And to whom did Venus turn to heal her own wound? Her mother, of course.

“Venus flung herself on to the lap of her mother Dione, who threw her arms about her and caressed her.”

So cheers to the comforters, healers, lovers, and heroes whom we call “mother” for short.

Beer of the week: Two Hats Pineapple – To trot out a tired metaphor, mothers wear many hats. And so, this reading is paired with the new Two Hats beer. This is advertised as a “crisp light beer with natural pineapple flavor.” The marketing for Two Hats is aimed at young drinkers. The tag-line is “Good, cheap beer. Wait, what?” Advertising copy also includes “Quit wine-ing!” and “Beer for people who are ‘meh’ about beer.” Clearly, they are trying to recapture early twenty-somethings who have turned to wine and spirits over beer. And, although the name “Miller” does not appear on the can, this is a product of the MillerCoors family, brewed by the Plank Road Brewery division of Miller.

As much as I hate the advertising and transparent attempt to appeal to “millennials,” I think it is actually a decent alternative to flavored seltzer. Two Hats is very, very pale in color and smells of pineapple. The amount of pineapple flavor is actually about right, but the beer itself is too light. This tastes more like a flavored seltzer than a beer. There is a bit of malt in the finish, but not quite enough to balance out the pineapple. Basically, this comes across as an alcoholic La Croix, which is fine if you want alcoholic flavored seltzer rather than a beer.

Reading of the week: The Æneid by Virgil – At the end of this excerpt, Aeneas has a moment with his own son Ascanius. “Thou, when thy riper years shall send thee forth / To toils of war, be mindful of my worth;” / he tells him, “Assert thy birthright, and in arms be known, / For Hector’s nephew, and Æneas’ son.” Aeneas doesn’t bother to mention Ascanius’ mother or grandmother. Typical.

Question for the week: What have you done for your mother lately?


List Your Blessings

A popular Thanksgiving tradition is to go around the table, listing the things for which those present are thankful. It can be a very powerful exercise to actually compose such a list. Lists create a sense of scale and the cumulative effect of each item listed tends to compound the others.

Take, for example, the catalog of ships in The Iliad. Several pages of that text are dedicated to listing all of the ships, along with the numbers of their fighting men, that came to the Trojan shores. The seemingly ceaseless recital of the Greeks emphasizes the scale of the conflict. During the battles, the narrative follows individuals as they engage in one-on-one combat. And this is why the catalogue of ships is so important. Without that list to establish the scale of the armies, one could be mislead into thinking of the war as a series of encounters between a handful of individuals rather than between mighty hosts. The knowledge that the Greek and Trojan armies are quite large gives a sense of scale to the dramatic face-offs between the individual heroes.

So this Thanksgiving, give some thought to the vast number of the world’s blessings and how that great list gives context to each individual blessing.

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Beer of the week: Saranac Pale Ale – Saranac, New York is about 300 miles from the site of the fabled first Thanksgiving. In American terms, that’s rather close enough to count as local. This beer has a solid malt body with just a bit of hops bitterness to back it up. Saranac Pale Ale makes for a really good beer for a casual drink.

Reading for the week: The Fourth Book by François Rabelais, Chapter 4.LIX – Some would argue that there is virtually no way to stay awake through the entire catalogue of ships, especially in the drowsy afterglow a large meal. This list is probably more appropriate for Thanksgiving. Rabelais was a master of writing lists, and this particular excerpt is the menu of the Gastrolaters, a people whose god is the stomach and whose religion is eating.

Question for the holiday: In certain cases, shorter lists arguably indicate greater importance. A short list of experts in a field may indicate a higher level of expertise. A short list of friends may indicate more intense or close friendship than a longer list. Are there certain sorts of blessings for which this is also true?


Body Shaker

It is easy, though incredibly naive, to reduce the effects of alcohol to the intellectual plane. It is clear as day that drinking affects the way that we think. Our inhibitions are lowered; our capacity for reason is retarded; all at the same time, our ideas become unreasonably clear and inextricably confused. Alcohol’s greatest virtue and greatest danger is its ability to affect our mental processes.

But we recognize the effects of alcohol most markedly in their physical manifestations. Our cheeks flush. We stagger. We slur our words. Our physical coordination fails us. Even as alcohol robs the mind of its greatest power (reason), it robs the body of it’s purely animal capabilities.

Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am.” But by reducing existence to the intellectual plane, he initiated an entire line of thought dedicated to the idea that physical existence is completely ancillary to “real” existence. Humans, however, are both corporeal and spiritual. Recognition of this essential duality is evident in Plato’s scheme to educate leaders both physically and intellectually in The Republic. It is also evident in Homer’s casting of Odysseus as both athletic and cunning.

Because man’s greatness stems from both intellect and physique, the “beer gut” is all the greater shame. Moderate consumption of alcohol may have beneficial effects, both physical and psychological. But excess is dangerous in both directions.

Bone Shaker

Beer of the week: Bone Shaker Brown Ale – This New Hampshire brew from Moat Mountain is orange-brown with a quickly fading head. The aroma is somewhat musty and is a bit reminiscent of Triscuit crackers. The flavor carries on with the cracker notes from the smell. The body of this ale is fairly thin. I don’t think that this is a great beer, but I will certainly drink it again.

Reading of the week: Iliad by Homer, Book XXIII, 653-749 – At the funeral games for Patroclus, “Odysseus of many wiles, he of guileful mind” wrestled to a draw with Ajax, the strongest of the Greeks (except for Achilles.)

Question of the week: To what extent is alcohol consumed for its physical, rather than its psychological effects? Can the two even be distinguished?