empty of future, renew the sign: lucent paradox, ineluctable trace ...


Unheard Melodies

I’ve always considered myself ill-educated, a feeling that’s survived thirteen years in the New Zealand state school system, two university degrees, and most of a Diploma in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language, as well as sundry and diverse experience in the school of hard knocks. In this, as in some other respects, I’m like my mother who, despite her worldly and artistic achievements, was always troubled by a feeling of inauthenticity arising perhaps from her own sense of being poorly educated. If this dim conviction of fraudulence can be said to come from anywhere, it may be from the lack of a classical education.

It was probably because of this perceived deficit that, in the summer of 1968-9, when we moved from Huntly to Upper Hutt, my mother advanced a serious proposal that I complete my secondary schooling at Hutt Valley High School because there, unusually, Greek and Latin were still taught. The scheme foundered, to my mingled regret and relief, for two main reasons: my father always wanted his children to attend the schools where he worked, and I had already shown, in French classes, a lack of ability in foreign languages which would certainly have turned the plan into a tedious mistake. I would remain one of the well-enough-educated, knowing just enough to know how much I do not know.

Greek myths fascinated me from an early age and by 1968 I had already souvenired from the Huntly College library H A Guerber’s The Myths of Greece and Rome (1907; 1963), a book I still have; for many years however it was on my mother’s shelves and when I retrieved it I found among its pages a note addressed to Chère Madame from a woman of Menton, suggesting she had taken it with her to France when she held the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship there in 1981. The note, inserted at the point in the tale of Perseus when the hero has killed the sea monster and is burying the Gorgon’s head face down in the sand so that he can marry Andromeda without turning the wedding guests to stone, is an invitation to attend, vendredi prochaine, a concert in the Ambassador’s Club.

I still sometimes consult Guerber, but only after I’ve already looked at what Robert Graves has to say in his two volume Penguin paperback The Greek Myths (1960), which I’ve owned for almost as long. Graves, who is extraordinarily knowledgeable and maddeningly perverse, first retells the tale and then, in the notes, says what it really means, in arcane terms that will be familiar to those who have read The White Goddess (1948; 1966) His retellings are as graceful and economical as his explanations are alternately luminous and bizarre. Then there is the rest of my paperback library, Homer and Herodotus, Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, Plato and Apollonius, Ovid … none of which I can, nor ever will, read in the originals.

On the other hand, ignorance has its advantages, one of which is that there is always more to learn. Another, more dubious, may be that you approach the material without the preconceptions your interlocutors and educators might otherwise have instilled in you. A (related) third could be an ability to think outside the limits of previous understandings, not because you are informed about them but because you are not. I’ve often thought that my unawareness of the proper way to do things, my lack of formal training as a writer, has its benefits, not least of which is that I’ve ended up working in the only way possible for me: a kind of autism which might on occasion attain lucidity.

A central curiosity of the Western tradition, rooted in Greek thought, is the habit of invoking the muse, or muses, at the inauguration of a work. Who were, or are, the muses? What do we know about them and how are we to understand them today? Homer speaks indiscriminately of the muse and the muses and doesn’t name them; Hesoid says they are nine, naming all, though without giving them the specific attributes common only since the Renaissance, and is explicit about just one, Calliope, whose name means beauty of voice. The nine, he says, are the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, or memory. The Greek word mousa may be related to the verb mimnesko, to remind, to bring to, or put in, mind; which, in turn, can be derived from Proto-Indo-European men-, think. The central act inspired by the muses would seem to be that of remembering.

If we leap a millennium and recall what historian and traveller Pausanias has to say, we find a different, perhaps older, tradition. Pausanias, a Lydian who wrote in the second century AD when Roman emperors ruled most of the known the world, recounts in his Description of Greece many versions of muse worship from different parts of the country. In his account of the rites at Helicon, he says that there were originally only three and that they were the children of Uranus (the sky) and Gaia (the earth). These three are: Mneme (memory), Aoide (voice) and Melete (occasion). He mentions that at Delphi also three muses were worshipped, but they had different names: Nete, Mesi and Hypate, which are what the three chords of that ancient instrument, the lyre, are called.

While mneme seems always to be memory, aoide may also be translated as song, while melete can mean both meditation and practice as well as occasion. Whichever way you look at them, the three attributes are essential to any musical, poetic or theatrical act: you memorise, you practice, you perform. It has been said that together they form the complete picture of the preconditions of poetic art. With this rider: in cult practice, which seems to take us far away from modernity into the mysteries of the ancient occasions for art. Or perhaps not—if you read Homer, it’s clear that minstrels played and sang at great feasts, when visitors were entertained or marriages made, or at funerals as the great dead were interred with games and songs.

In an essay published in Oral Tradition (21/1; 2006: 210-228) Penelope Skarsouli quotes this passage from the Proem to Hesoid’s Theogony:

Happy is he whom the Muses love: speech flows sweetly from his mouth. For though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul and lives in dread because his heart is distressed, yet when a singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.

and then points out the conjunction of memory and forgetting: whoever hears the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, no longer remembers his own ills. There is perhaps an ambiguity here: is it the singer who forgets his miseries or is it his singing that allows the audience to forget? Or both?

Skarsouli also mentions that in some parts of Greece the muses were known as the Memories, and it was often said that their closest companion was Hypnos or Sleep, whose three sons by Nyx or Night, Phobetor, Phantasos and Morpheus, are the bringer of dreams. Phobetor conjured animals and nightmares and gives us our word phobia; Phantasos, whose visions were delusive and made out of inanimate things, is the origin of our word fantasy; and from Morpheus, who gives human shape to our dreams, we have derived, among other things, morphine, a drug that eases pain.

In her paper Skarsouli is teasing out a particular strain in Greek thought, that which identifies Calliope as the chief of the nine muses and puts her in a particular relation with worshipful princes. Her thesis is that those in power, dispensing justice, need both the true thought and the eloquent voice granted by the muse in order to act righteously: that is, to arrive at a just solution and then to persuade the people of its rightness. This venerable dimension to inspiration is still sometimes evoked when we recall the phrase, speaking truth to power.

Our legal system is based on precedent and this appears to have been so in Greece in pre-literate times as well, where memory was understood as an aid to dispensing justice; there were in some Greek cities judicial officials called mnemones or rememberers whose precise function was to recall and cite precedents. There was another class, the hieromnemones or sacred rememberers with a particular duty to recall sarcedotal history. An analogous function perhaps is that of the servant required to stand next to a king or emperor and remind him that he is, after all, a mortal man. This role too has persisted, it is probably the source of the character of the Jester or Fool who is allowed to speak a truth that others might face execution for uttering.

Calliope is not simply first among the muses, she is also the mother, by the Thracian King Oeagrus, of Orpheus. I don’t wish to rehearse the entirety of the Orpheus story here, only its later, less well known, component. After losing Eurydice forever, Orpheus wandered mourning over the earth; Ovid says he refused the love of women and makes him the father of pederasty; it is for this, he writes, and for condemning their promiscuity, that the Maenads tore his body limb from limb. In another version they destroy him because he can’t or won’t sing joyful songs for their dances. A third reason given is that Orpheus insisted on worshiping one god only, the sun, Apollo.

His decapitated head, still singing, floated down the Hebrus to the Mediterranean, later coming ashore at Lesbos, where it continued to prophesy from a cave sacred to Dionysus until the oracle was silenced by a jealous Apollo. Lesbos was considered the home of lyric poetry and Sappho, whose island it was, is sometimes called the tenth muse. Meanwhile the other nine muses gathered up the rest of Orpheus’ dismembered body and buried it at Helicon, at the foot of Olympus, where the nightingales still sing more sweetly than anywhere else. As for his golden lyre, that too drifted to Lesbos, where it was placed in a shrine dedicated to Apollo, before being set up among the stars as the constellation Lyra.

There are curious contradictions here: the great exemplar of romantic love become a spurner of women; the supreme poet of nature turned monotheist; the bequeathing of his prophetic head to Dionysus while his lyre returns to Apollo, the god who gave it to him in the first place. However, it is certainly a mistake to think that among the many extant versions of this story, there is one that is definitive. Over a thousand years of antiquity, and two thousand years since, it has been told and retold in what amounts to a practical infinity of versions … and yet, we persist in our belief that across all versions there is something incontrovertible, a substratum of truth; just as, when we look at the many accounts of who the muses were, we continue to think that they are, or could be, one.

This may be because, in both stories, we find a narrative that encloses a mystery. It may even be the case that it is this mystery, precisely, that gives us the notion of the incontrovertible, which would then be something that both is and is not; or rather, something that is but is not to be spoken. No-one who reads, hears, or sees enacted the story of Orpheus is immune from the desire that he not look back to see his beloved walking out of hell behind him; equally, no-one can fail to imagine that he will not just want to look back, but that he will do so.

In somewhat the same way, the irrationality of supposing that, when we write or paint or compose or otherwise make art—and even perhaps dispense justice—we do so by entertaining within us a spirit that is somehow both other to, and kin with, our deepest selves, alien and yet not alien, at once us and not us, has survived all attempts to banish or ridicule it. There are too many testimonies by people who say they have felt taken over, possessed or made into a vessel by some power, for us entirely to dismiss either the experience or the possibility. This does not mean that it is not a human capacity we are speaking of—just that it is one that is peculiarly resistant to rational explanation.

In voodoo dancing, a god, as the Greeks would say, enters the dancer; which god—or loa—will be known by the steps the dancer takes. Whether it be Damballah, Ezili, Ogu, Agwe, Legba or another can be recognised by others and has significance both for them and for the individual dancer. This is not the only example of a dance tradition where there is a definite relationship between the steps a dancer takes and the spirit, loa or god who has entered them. Even on today’s dance floors you can see how a different beat will call forth a different step and how some steps seem perfectly to express some beats. Every riddim seems to have its own dance, its own set of moves.

This relationship is best expressed for me by a silent thing, a photograph:

It is called Dancers, New York, 1956 and was taken by jazz photographer Roy DeCarava at the Manor Social Club, now demolished, that stood at 110th Street and Madison Avenue in Harlem. In dim light, on the wide, otherwise empty wooden floor, two men, seen only in silhouette, are dancing with each other. The one closest to the camera has his back to us. He is a big bald head with a single highlight on the right of the dome; an oblong jacket tilted by the movement of his shoulders to a trapezoid; one arm so hung down it almost drags its knuckles along the floor, the other raised up, with the fingers extended and flexed; two shapeless almost bulbous legs disappearing into the shadowy floor.

The other, facing us, is his echo or mirror. A slighter man, perhaps shorter, he too is elegantly poised about the oblong of his jacket, his knees bent, together, one foot, the right, raised from the floor; his right arm, like his partner’s left, hanging down with all the fingers spread, his left bent ninety degrees at the elbow, the hand flat, held out, the fingers arched. A waiter in a white shirt with a tray of drinks moves up the left hand edge of the dance floor and, at either side, we see the shapes of people sitting on chairs at tables. Behind, through a mosque or pyramid shaped arch, perhaps the entrance to the hall, a bright flare of light comes in along the floor but does not quite reach the second dancer, while in the roof seven white lamps glow but do not illuminate the vast, dark space.

No faces can be seen in the dimness, nor much other detail and certainly no musicians or any source of recorded music; they are probably dancing to a gramophone record. Nevertheless, and here is the paradox, the photograph sings. Somehow, despite or because of the stillness of the silhouettes, those bodies frozen in motion, you feel yourself to be inside the actual moment of the music to which they are making these particular moves. This paradox, which I cannot give any better account of, is perfectly expressed in the title of the book in which the photograph appears: The Sound I Saw.

You don’t have to subscribe to any particular religion, or other form of spirituality, to dance to music, even though music and dance do have an long history of entanglement with the sacred. What’s interesting is that we can still act as if possessed, we can still actually become possessed, even when we don’t believe in possession as such. There is some intrinsic human relation to beats, to music, to song and we best express that relation in movement, in dance. This seems to be true across all ages, all cultures, all times. Even very small children will move to music; even the aged and infirm; even the clod-hopping or tone deaf will try or want to try.

To dance we need those three original muses: memory, voice, occasion, however paradoxical or hidden their expression may be. Memory, when it comes to dance, may not inhere in the mind at all, but in the body or perhaps somewhere else entirely, like the soul; voice will be there in the song or the music to which we dance, even if that be, as it sometimes is, an unheard melody … which Keats reminds us are sweeter, piping to the spirit ditties of no tone. He was remembering dancers on a Grecian urn when he wrote that. Occasion, too, is various, you can as easily dance to a song on the radio in your car, to the stereo in your sitting room, at a vast outdoor concert or in a club or pub or bar somewhere. You can even dance in your mind.

And, it appears, just as you must remember in order to dance, the dance itself will help you to forget. This central paradox—memory (mneme) and forgetting (lethe) entwined together—is there from the beginning, right back in Hesoid where it is said that the muses make us forget our sorrows by remembering, not joy as such, but the great deeds of heroes and the gods. Those are not our subject any more, we who write, but it is still the case that writing is intimately involved with memory and forgetting. I formulated this once as follows: We remember in order to write but we write to forget. How this might be expressed with respect to reading I’m not entirely sure, but it could be said that reading, too, is an act of remembrance that allows one to forget … the quotidian. To become, in other words, lost in story, enchanted, possessed, perhaps even changed.

But there is an even more obvious sense in which the muses are present in the act of writing, even, say, the writing of this essay, which I began by going back briefly to memories of childhood and adolescence, and continued by searching in those great repositories of cultural memory, books; then I wrote down my thoughts on these matters in a manner as coherent, indeed eloquent as I was able, trying to find my own voice, speaking my sentences to myself or aloud into the air. Finally, the occasion for this meditation is surely, like Janus, two-faced: one is that of my own perplexity, in my ignorance attempting understanding of a very old tradition of which I am, howsoever insignificant, still a part; while the other is your face, looking perhaps with a similar perplexity, perhaps with something more like illumination, at the trail of words I’ve left here.

And if there is an illumination to be had amidst the perplexity, this may be what it is: I’m not possessed by a god or goddess or any other alien or familiar spirit, I’m not speaking in the precinct of a temple, I’m not intoxicated or deranged, my words are not prophetic or otherwise revelatory of the sacred; and yet, mysteriously, even here, even now, in this most prosaic of circumstances, a man sitting at a computer in a small flat in a modern city, the ancient conditions of vatic speech continue to manifest: memory, voice, occasion.

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