A cataclysm sentence for classics?

Most of the time, I dread the ‘ping’ of an arriving email. I’m sorry. They are 99% work and they jangle my nerves. But when one of the 1% delightful arrives it’s enough to re-balance my whole mental equilibrium for a day or two. I had one of these from Nandini Pandey (Nandini is on twitter as @global_classics) asking me to consider contributing something brief to a piece the was working on on the theme of the ‘cataclysm sentence’ (Richard Feynman’s inspired idea to communicate physics in one long breath…; for the Feynman lectures, start with ‘Atoms in Motion‘…).

Of course I had much more to say that was needed…So this long piece expands on what became something of a (between the cracks in the working day) therapy project this week. The piece complete with other contributors can be viewed on the Society for Classical Studies blog,

I look back across more than two millennia and see striking similarities in the relationships between peoples and nature that transcend as well as challenge understanding of sentience, agency, and connectedness. Yet if I had to cast my fragment to the wind, I’m not sure that I would want to pin its meaning explicitly to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, or even directly to the Mediterranean world.

A sentence…

Instead, I offer to those audiences of a future post-cataclysmic world something that encapsulates the ‘why?’ of my ‘why study classics?

The literary expression of self-entwined-with-environment that courses through classical texts shows that every action seeds the possibility for perspectival change, and offers the opportunity radically to transform the universe, the group, and the individual, through myth making, and in the interrogation of where power (words, syntax, systems; fear, love, creation, destruction) is located — or locates itself.

Why this sentence?

To me, one of the most powerful ways that ‘classics’ speaks is in its tangled identities — the tangle rather than the ‘woven’ text is my ideal ancient literary metaphor.

Shyamal / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

My experience of classics is not always so happily chaotic. Sometimes, often, it’s more like a knot whose significance is vested in the ways that knots are at once one and multiple, string and loop, bi-directional and multivalent, and meaningless without something around and amidst which to be entwined — joining, stabilising, holding apart, giving structure, challenging whilst also delighting in linearity. This, too, is ok, and appeals to my control-freakery tendencies.

Prime knots with seven crossings or fewer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knot_(mathematics))

My lived ‘classics’ recalls me daily to a world in which, to borrow from physics, our inquisitive binary pulsars cede ground to dark matter. The ‘past’ is not ‘us’, any more than ‘we’ are exceptionally or verifiably ‘now’; but ‘the past’ roots humans as living organisms in a collectivising metonymic field.  ‘The past’ is a myth told by humans, but also produced by other actors, not necessarily sentient, in ways we cannot understand but should reflect upon. In its contemplation I find it possible to think myself into Other worlds and to imagine agency so remarkably different from my own sense of self that my perspective on the world I dwell in creaks, shifts, reforms, and ruptures. I know that I can never authentically inhabit these Other and non-sentient perspectives; to know them truly would be to lose myself. Yet in the study of classics I find strange porous media that allow me to leach into alternate universes, and in turn to be aware of the potential of the alterity of Others to seep into mine.

Is it possible to conceptualise life on other worlds without characterising it through earth-bound tropes? This looks to me a little like the 'problem' of classics: antiquity is perceived to be different but human possibilities for characterising alterity are inevitably that: human...
Artist’s conception of what plants might look like on other planets. Image credit: NASA/Caltech/T. Pyle. But is it possible to conceptualise life on other worlds without characterising it through earth-bound tropes? This looks to me a little like the ‘problem’ of classics: antiquity is perceived to be different but human possibilities for characterising alterity are inevitably that: human…

These senses of fracture and leakage as a promise of possibility are underpinned by Lucretius’ gaudy (e.g. 2.748-841, on colour and mutability and the dynamism of ‘stuff’), sombre, and inquisitive poem on the nature of the Universe (De rerum natura). Epic verse on a topic by turns micro- and macroscopically treated, Lucretius lines up cosmic forces and human urges and compels them into glorious conversations that make real the notion of an omniverse in which everything is possible and the probable dances to refreshingly inhuman tunes (e.g. 2.963-1022, on the shared ‘seeds’ which produce all matter, and all life) . 

         Nunc animum nobis adhibe ueram ad rationem.
Nam tibi uementer noua res molitur ad auris accidere
et noua se species ostendere rerum.
Sed neque tam facilis res ulla est quin ea primum
difficilis magis ad credendum constet, itemque
nil adeo magnum neque tam mirabile quicquam,
quod non paulatim minuant mirarier omnes
DRN 2.1023-1029

TRANSLATION ‘Now, pay attention to our solid logic. / For something wholly novel is about to hit your ears / and a new aspect to materiality to present itself before your eyes. / But there is nothing so easy that it does not at first prove difficult to believe; just as / nothing is so great or so marvellous / that little by little its wonder to all does not diminish’.

‘Pay attention now, and all times are now, and everything changes every time we pay it attention’, is what I take from this. 

These creative fractures between moments of (in)attention are also encouraged by Vergil’s famous (and vexed in translation) phrase ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’, there are sorrows in what exists here (Aeneid 1.462); in particular, I find value in the context of the opening phrase in that section: ‘hoc primum in luco noua res oblata timorem / leniit’, here first, in this grove, a novelty revealed calmed his fear’ (Aen. 1.450-451). In this disturbing, puzzling epiphany Aeneas must pay attention; again. Vergil is reflecting on the retelling of Troy’s destruction through an encounter between one of Troy’s refugees, the protagonist Aeneas, and a painted storyboard of that world’s most famous landscape of war, made new because made art, and decorating a temple to his people’s divine enemy Juno (Aen. 1.457).

The strangeness of the revelation in this grove displays an ancient uneasiness relating to woods that is at least in part a feature of their exclusion of light (lucuslux compare Aen. 1.441), shifting paths, and the inhuman agency they manifest – dynamic, alive, mysterious, mortal.

Framed by an enigmatic North African grove, the temple and its decorative scheme (‘noua res oblata’) hint at the tragedy of a migrant woman (Queen Dido), far herself from home, thrust into someone else’s story, newly powerful, yet also a pawn in the long and twisting game of the temple’s patron goddess Juno. Dido is also ‘new found’ in Carthage, and even purloined (a whispery inference in the semantics of oblata), and will be manipulated into carrying on the cosmic struggle that once weaponised the Achaeans and ruined Aeneas’ homeland.

Vergil plays this out in a cruelly sympathetic landscape and within a longue durée historicity that brutalises them all — human and non-human alike. The redemption, if it is to be found, is in the ambiguity of res oblata. Things once lost can be found; things destroyed can be remade and made new.  Singing along with Chrissie Hynde, I hear the (ab)use of Dido and other ‘classical’ heroines and tropes loud and clear —the creation and the pain are rarely far apart:

Let me inside you
Into your room.
I’ve heard it’s lined
With the things you don’t show…
Something is lost
But something is found
They will keep on speaking her name
Some things change
Some stay the same … The Pretenders, ‘Hymn to Her’ (1986)

Ancient object

The project to produce a ‘cataclysm sentence’ also challenged me to identify one object which might survive. My mind went blank then into panic mode: one object. But after talking it through with Gideon Nisbet I realised that for me there was in fact only one choice: the so-called ‘Statue of a Drunken Faun’ (Musei Capitolini, Roma)

'Statue of a Drunken Faun', Musei Capitolini Inv. Scu. 657
The Marble Faun? Found at the Tiburtine villa of the Emperor Hadrian, this 2nd century CE satyr is complexly Roman, deliciously merry, achingly sober, substantially restored from fragments; an artist, a consumer; selfish but caring; inhuman but inthralled; voluble but resistant… [Image: Capitoline Museums. Restoration of the Faun – CCA Roma]

I continue to find in Rome a trope for better understanding myself. The solipsism that I recognise in this position resonates through my engagement with this ‘Fauno Rosso’ (a satyr, but with his goat emphasising the conventional slippage) over 40+ years of visiting Rome, returning again and again to the kaleidoscopic historicity of the Musei Capitolini

The museological context (image from Following Hadrian — Sala del Fauno, Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini)

The moment when these points crystallised was on my first grown-up encounter with the Faun, in the mid-90s. As a child, meeting him brought with it the kind of epiphany only previously recognisable to me in that moment when Lucy met Mr. Tumnus in Narnia’s Lantern Waste.

Fifteen or so years later, the phrase that jangled into that almost overwhelming room with me was from Nathanial Hawthorne’s novella The Marble Faun: ‘Every crime destroys more Edens than our own!’ – Lewis’ Lantern Waste flickering behind me as I took stock of the ritual, cultural, religious, philosophical, and behavioural contradictions that converge in this one a-musing space.

Mr Tumnus and … (C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

‘Our’ red-marble ‘faun’ was discovered as a cluster of remains (torso, head; goat torso; bits of fruit, extremities…) in 1736 by Giuseppe Furietti. To make it fit to display in the new Capitoline Museum required extensive sculptural creativity by Clemente Bianchi and Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, two Roman sculptors. From the tangled mythic sensibilities of C. S. Lewis’ Narnian theology, to the intricate knottiness of what happens when the past is recognisably coterminous with the present, and perhaps also racing into its/our future(s), the words ‘node’, ‘splice’, ‘gnarl’, ‘twist’, keep catching my attention. Eventually, this brings me to the helicoidal connection between my sentence and my object, evoked in a passage from Hawthorne that accompanied that first grown-up visit to the Capitoline Hill:

They were picturesque in that sweetly impressive way where wildness, in a long lapse of years, has crept over scenes that have been once adorned with the careful art and toil of man; and when man could do no more for them, time and nature came, and wrought hand in hand to bring them to a soft and venerable perfection. There grew the fig-tree that had run wild and taken to wife the vine, which likewise had gone rampant out of all human control; so that the two wild things had tangled and knotted themselves into a wild marriage bond, and hung their various progeny—the luscious figs, the grapes, oozy with the Southern juice, and both endowed with a wild flavor that added the final charm—on the same bough together. Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, Chapter XXVII, ‘Myths’ (The Marble Faun, Volume II. by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Even when we don’t like the consequences – the perspectival challenges, the layers of alterity and ambiguity and dissonance – nonetheless the enthusiasm to re-boot and reframe and create from what we’ve got (‘our’ classics; classicus for Romans implied things that might be classified – it’s on ‘us’ that the implication ‘first class’ has emerged) bubbles up from the monuments of classical literary and historical and artistic practice. This gives me hope and keeps me (for now) a classicist. The challenge remains, however, that the human perspectives through which classics speaks powerfully are not always constructive, plural, open, or welcoming.


1. Capitoline Museums. Restoration of the Faun – CCA Roma https://ccaroma.org/project/capitoline-museums-restoration-of-the-faun/

2. Following Hadrian https://followinghadrian.com/2015/09/24/art-and-sculptures-from-hadrians-villa-statue-of-a-satyr-in-red-marble/

On my mind while writing this:

Citroni, Mario: “The Concept of the Classical,” in James I. Porter (ed.) Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome, Princeton, NJ (2006): 204-234.

Gabriel Gomez, L.: “Constraining light fermionic dark matter with binary pulsars,” Physics of the Dark Universe (2019).

Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Marble Faun, Boston, MA (1860)

Putnam, Michael C. J.: “Dido’s Murals and Virgilian Ekphrasis,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 98 (1998): 243-75.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s