Tag Archives: ideal

“Song of Saul Before His Last Battle” by Lord Byron

“Suicide of Saul” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Warriors and chiefs! should the shaft or the sword
Pierce me in leading the host of the Lord,
Heed not the corse, though a king’s in your path:
Bury your steel in the bosoms of Gath!

Thou who art bearing my buckler and bow,
Should the soldiers of Saul look away from the foe,
Stretch me that moment in blood at thy feet!
Mine be the doom which they dared not to meet.

Farewell to others, but never we part,
Heir to my royalty, son of my heart!
Bright is the diadem, boundless the sway,
Or kingly the death, which awaits us today!

To understand this poem, you should be familiar with the biblical story of the death of Saul, as told in I Samuel 31. Saul is leading a battle against the Philistines, and things do not go well for the Israelites. Saul’s sons are slain, and the warriors flee. So Saul decides to take his own life, rather than be abused and killed by the “uncircumcised.”

Byron sees this as the ultimate heroic act, to sacrifice yourself rather than compromise your ideals. There is nothing weak about Saul’s decision to take his own life. It is totally an act of courage and bravery.

So why would this be so important to Byron? There are a couple possibilities. He could be expressing his unwavering commitment to a romantic love, vowing to die rather than allow another to pierce his heart. But I think a more plausible interpretation is that Byron is asserting his staunch adherence to his artistic ideals. Byron has a clear vision of his poetry and what he wishes to convey through his works. He would rather die than compromise his artistic integrity and create baser works intended for the Philistine masses.

I confess I looked online to see what others thought about this poem, and really did not find any out there, so these are just my personal thoughts on the poem. Feel free to let me know if you have a different impression of what Byron was trying to express. I would love to hear your thoughts. Cheers!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVIII – Blows and a Queen’s Beauty

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

In this episode, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, fights with another beggar named Irus. The rowdy suitors cheer on the fight as entertainment, and Odysseus easily beats Irus. Then Penelope comes down to address the suitors and tricks them into bringing her gifts as a way of winning her. Penelope, like Odysseus, employs trickery and manipulation.

There are two things in this episode I want to point out. The first is the ideal of feminine beauty and the second is the symbol of fire.

Before going down to address the suitors, Penelope goes to sleep. While she is asleep, Athena heightens her feminine beauty. What struck me about this passage is how similar Penelope’s beauty is to Greek statuary. I have always thought of Greek sculpture as the ideal of physical beauty, so essentially, Athena is altering Penelope’s appearance so that she resembles a statue, or the ideal of what female beauty.

And while she slept the goddess
endowed her with immortal grace to hold
the eyes of the Akhaians. With ambrosia
she bathed her cheeks and throat and smoothed her brow—
ambrosia, used by flower-crowned Kythereia
when she would join the rose-lipped Graces dancing.
Grandeur she gave her, too, in height and form,
and made her whiter than carved ivory.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 342)

When Penelope appears before the suitors, she is praised for her beauty.

Penelope,
deep-minded queen, daughter of Ikarios,
if all the Akhaians in the land of Argos
only saw you now! What hundreds more
would join your suitors here to feast tomorrow!
Beauty like yours no woman had before,
or majesty, or mastery.

(ibid: p. 344)

What’s interesting about this passage is the claim that Penelope is more beautiful than any woman before. This would mean she is more beautiful than Helen, whose abduction started the Trojan War and led Odysseus from his home. So now, on a smaller scale, we have another battle ready to begin over a beautiful woman. It is almost as if the suitors symbolize the Trojans and Odysseus the Achaeans who went to fight in Troy.

So as I mentioned earlier, the symbol of fire was also significant to me as I read this episode. The first passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus takes his place beside the fire to tend to it while the suitors continue their revelry.

I stand here
ready to tend to these flares and offer light
to everyone. They cannot tire me out,
even if they wish to drink till Dawn.
I am a patient man.

(ibid: p. 346)

The first thing I thought of as I read this is that the fire represents illumination and that Odysseus is being likened to Prometheus. His adventures and tales serve as inspiration, lighting the way for generations of future poets and writers. But then as I thought about it some more, I found a second possible interpretation. The fire could also be a symbol of Odysseus’ wrath. If this is the case, then by standing and tending the flames, he is essentially feeding the rage that burns within him, and being “a patient man,” he will bide his time until he is ready to unleash his fury upon those who usurp his home.

There is another passage that supports the idea of fire as illumination. This is a quote by Eurymakhos as he observes Odysseus near the fire.

This man
comes with a certain aura of divinity
into Odysseus’ hall. He shines.

He shines
around the noggin, like a flashing light,
having no hair at all to dim his luster.

(ibid: p. 347)

As I read this, I had an image of Odysseus with an aura, almost like a halo. He shines with divine light, with an inner fire that makes him like a god.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. I found the symbolism to be intriguing and the flow of the tale to be brilliant. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XIX.

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“Euthyphro” by Plato

Euthyphro

This is a short dialog that takes place between Socrates and Euthyphro as Socrates is awaiting trial for corruption of Athenian youth. Euthyphro is a seer and an expert on religion who is about to bring manslaughter charges against his own father. This leads to the debate over what is piety, which may also be interpreted as holiness.

Socrates seeks to grasp the ideal of piety, but all Euthyphro is able to provide are examples of pious acts. For Socrates, this fails to get at the essence of what piousness truly is.

Socrates: Well, then, do you recollect that what I urged you to do was not tell me about one or two of these many pious actions, but to describe the actual feature that makes all pious actions pious? – because you said, I believe, that impious actions are impious, and similarly pious ones pious, in virtue of a single characteristic. Or don’t you remember?

Euthyphro: Yes, I do.

Socrates: Then explain to me what this characteristic is in itself, so that by fixing my eyes upon it and using it as a pattern I may be able to describe any action, yours or anyone else’s, as pious if it corresponds to the pattern and impious if it doesn’t.

As the dialog continues, Euthyphro attempts to argue that what is pious is that which is loved by the gods. Socrates disproves this based upon the assertion that being loved by the gods is an attribute of piousness, but not the essence.

Socrates: But if what is god-beloved were identical with what is pious, my dear Euthyphro, what is god-beloved would be loved because it is god-beloved; and if what is god-beloved were god-beloved because it is loved by the gods, then what is pious would be pious because it is loved by them. As it is, you can see that the relation between them is just the opposite; which shows that they are entirely different from each other. The one is loveable because it is loved, and the other is loved because it is loveable. I rather think, Euthyphro, that when I asked you what piety is you were unwilling to disclose its essence to me, and merely stated one of its attributes, saying that piety is the attribute of being loved by all the gods; but you have not yet told me what it is that has this attribute. So, if you have no objection, please don’t conceal the truth from me, but make a fresh start and tell me what piety is that it is loved by the gods or has any other attribute – we shan’t quarrel about that –; tell me without reserve what piety and impiety are.

After the discussion goes around several times, Euthyphro gives up and takes his leave. There is no resolution and the essence of piety is never uncovered. I suspect that the reason is that it is ineffable, as are other ideals. The true essence of an ideal, just like a form or an archetype, exists beyond the grasp of our comprehension. We can only see manifestations of the ideal or the form, but not the thing itself. I personally would venture to assert that these ideals are also subjective, just as beauty and ugliness are subjective. We can claim that something has the attribute of being beautiful, but that does not tell us what beauty is.

OK, that’s enough mental gymnastics for one day.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 9

Raphael's "School of Athens" (detail)

Raphael’s “School of Athens” (detail)

This episode corresponds with Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus has to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. It symbolizes being stuck between two powerful forces, both of which are destructive. The episode takes place in the National Library, where Stephen Dedalus is presenting his theory on Hamlet, asserting that Hamlet’s father in the play is representative of Shakespeare the individual. He tries to navigate between the two extreme views, one that posits that knowing the history of an artist’s life is important in understanding that artist’s works, and the other that art should be appreciated for art’s sake, without focus on the artist’s life. The argument incorporates the conflicting views of Aristotle and Plato on the value of art, whether it is an imitation of life or whether art is an ideal to which humans should strive.

Reading this episode, I felt like I was personally navigating between the two extremes. At times it felt very difficult to stay centered in the flow of the text and not get sucked into the whirlpool or chewed up by the multi-headed beast. I suspect that this was intentional on Joyce’s part and that he made this section difficult in order to instill the feeling of being torn and trying desperately to remain on course.

For this episode, rather than attempting to summarize everything that is addressed in this very dense text, I decided to pick a single paragraph and analyze it closely.

—All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracle out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions on the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.

(p. 185)

In this passage, George Russell (A.E.) expresses the Platonic ideal that art should be an expression of the ineffable ideal which is formless and cannot be fully grasped by the conscious mind. He criticizes Stephen, who leans toward the Aristotelian. Stephen bases his theory on analysis and criticism and tries to avoid getting pulled into the formless whirlpool of ideals that is the basis of Plato’s philosophy. But I can’t help feeling that Stephen has a little bit of the Platonic in him. He is, after all, a poet, and though he strives to be an academic, he still has an artistic side.

When Joyce writes that A.E. speaks from “his shadow,” he is alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic. Art, according to A.E., is what allows people to view the flame of divine consciousness as opposed to the mere shadows cast upon the cave wall.

The last sentence of A.E.’s quote appears to be a direct jab at Stephen. Stephen is young, essentially a student in Russell’s eyes, just as Aristotle was a student of Plato’s and therefore not as qualified, in A.E.’s opinion. Stephen is also teaching schoolboys. Essentially, he is saying that Stephen is just not experienced enough to fully comprehend the true nature of art, the purpose of which is to communicate directly with the psyche and provide a glimpse of the part of us which cannot be grasped by our normal state of awareness.

While I concede the value of analytical thought, I am a romantic at heart and tend to lean toward the Platonic ideal. Still, I relate to Stephen, trying to navigate between these two opposing ideologies. I suppose that personally, I run the risk of being drawn into the whirlpool and losing myself in the mystic, which is why it’s important to try to stay grounded.

Next week, I’ll cover Episode 10 which ends on page 255 with the phrase “…sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section9.rhtml

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/530331/Scylla-and-Charybdis

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