Wednesday, 31 March 2010

ojibwe music #5

Another quotation from the 1902 Evening Post article on Ojibwe music. Once again, there's a reference to someone, no doubt Burton, investigating the Ojibwes' sense of music through an experimental process:
Such Ojibway music as the white visitor has heard divides easily into two general classes, lyric and ceremonial. The latter class subdivides into accompanied and unaccompanied songs. Inasmuch as the accompaniment consists always and only of drum beats, it might seem as if the subdivision were superfluous, but this is by no means the case. The unaccompanied songs are rhythmically free; that is, they may be in double or triple or indeterminate rhythm. The accompanied songs never fail to be in double rhythm. This may have all the gradations of tempo from andante to presto, but it is always double. The accompanied song, moreover, is always enhanced by dancing, and the plain double rhythm is the only one to which the Ojibway can direct his feet. It has been learned by patient experiment that any form of triple rhythm, or even 6-8, is hopeless confusion to the Ojibway mind, and a tangle to his limbs. This is rather perplexing in presence of the complicated rhythm of "My Bark Canoe" (described further on), in which 3-4 and 4-4 alternate, and the still more complex rhythm of some of their songs, one of which analyzes into the very unusual rhythmical structure of seven beats to the measure.
I wonder what the 'patient experiment' involved - playing tunes in 6-8 and shouting 'dance! dance!', perhaps?

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Mr Burton and the Ojibwe songs

I've been thinking a little about the story I posted earlier today and there's something about it that intrigues me. Perhaps I'm over-interpreting but, to me, there's a suggestion that Burton wanted the Ojibwe singers to like his harmonised version of the song. I suppose he might have viewed what he was doing as an experiment and nothing more - a piece of research on the attitudes of a 'primitive' people. But I sense just a hint of anxiety in the air as the second version of the song begins: it seems to matter to Burton at more than just an intellectual level how the 'owners' of the tune will react to what he has done.

ojibwe music #4

Back in August, I posted a number of times (here, here, and here) on the subject of Ojibwe music. The posts focused on material that Gilfillan either published himself or collected, and the third post included an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the the New York paper, The Evening Post. Gilfillan pasted it into his scrapbook, which is how I came to read it. I thought I'd post a bit more material from it. This is a section called 'appreciation of harmony'.
There is [...], in all their songs, a distinct tonality. It is not often one that will lend itself readily to harmony, for most of their songs are in a five-note scale, and the omission of the seventh, or leading note, of the European scale makes the employment of the dominant chord hazardous if not impossible.

Although Harmony does not enter into Ojibway music, the Indians are appreciative of it, and at times seek to utilize it in their own way. About midnight recently a party of them came from the village of Desbarats down the river to the camp in their canoes, and when opposite the hotel burst forth sonorously in one of their love songs; and the powerful voice of Kaboosa, the scholar of the band, was given forth in a series of thirds below the melody. I called his attention to it afterward, and asked if it were accidental. He replied that he gave the "undertones," as he called them, purposely, but he did not often venture to do so in the regular performance, because it disturbed the other singers and caused them to wander from the correct "tone." I asked if it was common for the Indians thus to attempt harmony, and he replied with smiling pride that he was the only Indian on the shores of Lake Huron or Lake Superior that could do so. Kaboosa, however, attended school in Marquette, Mich., and there got an idea of singing, and his accomplishment may not be wholly unrelated to his experiences in school. Kaboosa believes the Indians could readily be taught harmony, and says his own children pick up the melodies of the whites very readily. Lewis Tetebahbundung, another of the "Hiawatha band," gives forth a beautifully sweet tenor, and obviously could easily be trained in a more highly developed music than that of his tribe. Indeed, I am surprised to find that the Indians as a class have ordinarily good singing voices.

Mr Burton used to wonder whether the Indians would welcome or resent the employment of harmony with their melodies, and he put the question to test one evening when they had assembled for social relaxation, after a performance of "Hiawatha." First he asked them to sing one of their own lyrics in their own way. They did so, in unison, repeating the melody three times. Then a quartet of whites sang the piece in English as Mr. Burton had previously arranged it. The Ojibways were greatly excited. They clapped their hands and split the air with their falsetto shrieks of pleasure, and when the quartet had sung the harmonized version again the Indians surrounded him, asking eagerly if he thought they "could learn to sing it that way." He told them they could, and they were delighted when he offered to teach them to sing by note, using their own songs as a basis for exercises.
I find the phrase 'using their own songs as a basis for exercises' particularly poignant, somehow.

Monday, 29 March 2010

more reflections (archive/exile)

Last Thursday I wrote (at length – sorry!) about the idea of exile-as-ideal and its uses as a way of reflecting upon the self. Looked at in this way, a project on exile can focus not only on other people’s experiences of exile – though these are important –but also on one’s own aspirations to see ‘like an exile’. Today I thought I would write something about where I am now with the concept of ‘archive’. In particular, I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to compile an archive with the notion of exile-as-ideal in mind.

I *think* an archive has to be something collected or curated, and, for me, the interest of the concept lies in exploring what is collected and who curates it. The phrase ‘archive of exile’ opens onto a wide variety of possible dynamics here:

At one end of the spectrum, an ‘archive of exile’ might simply be an archive made by exiles. So, the fragments of ‘home’ that are carried into exile might be labelled in this way, as might relics of the process of displacement itself (the train tickets, diaries, maps, etc) . Here the archive consists of the remains of a certain kind of experience and it is curated by those who underwent that experience. And this might lead us to think about what ‘they’ preserved and why.

But another – very different – way to read the terms is to see an ‘archive of exile’ as an archive (of anything) made with the idea of exile-as-ideal in mind. Making an archive of exile in this sense requires one to turn the act of curation into a process of unlearning or getting outside. I might curate the material of my own life (photographs, memorabilia, etc) in this way, in which case the challenge would be not to present it as evidence for some authentic self of which I have privileged knowledge but to view it as if from the outside. And, as I wrote in the earlier post, I don’t think it is literally possible to do this in a voluntary way – the point, rather, would be to make the aspiration a part of the project in whatever way one could.

Increasingly it has struck me that your journey down the Mississippi involves both of these dynamics. (Obviously the journey isn’t only about archives of exile but, to the extent that it is, both versions of the ‘archive of exile’ seem to be in play.) At one level, the journey provides plenty of opportunity to engage with archives of exile in the first sense – the present traces of histories of displacement are everywhere along the route – but it also seems to have had a decentring effect that is evident in some of your blog posts.

In this context, I was very struck by a couple of postings that you made back in November (here and here) and that I commented on at the time (here and here). In the first post you talk about attending a black church and finding that not everyone is 100% pleased to see you, an experience that leads you to make this comment:

If I were a child of slavery and sharecropping and lynchings and all that, I’m not sure how much loving-kindness and openheartedness I would be ready to muster for every white stranger who walks in the door.
And in the second you talk about your experience of hearing an elderly man who ‘has lived and worked side by side with black people all his life’ use a term that ‘wound[s] [your] sensibilities’, something that also leads to a moment of self-reflection:

Let’s be real here: his daily life is in certain ways more integrated than the new music scene in New York City, uptown, downtown, or midtown. That’s part of the reason I’m not in New York right now, I’m trying to get some perspective on my own provincialism.
Both of these comments seem to me to have something of the texture that I am talking about. Both suggest a moment of finding oneself no longer at the centre of things, of getting ‘outside’ one’s situation. And so what I *think* I see here is a kind of relay between the archives of exile that are preserved along the Mississippi itself and the emergence of a particular mode of seeing, and hence of curating what one collects, that has exile as an aspiration.

It’s striking that this latter ‘mode of seeing’ comes in flashes – particular moments of experience – and I suspect that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to consolidate such moments of insight into a state in which one can live permanently, unless of course the catastrophe happens and one actually has to embrace exile as a literal reality. In an certain sense, it is a blessing not to have to see ‘like an exile’, whatever the clarity of that vision is. So how can that sense of momentary, exilic insight be built into the process of curation? In particular, how can it be built in in a way that reads neither as a form of posturing (look at me taking on the role of the exile) nor as an expression of liberal guilt (I feel so bad about all of this)?

I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about this since last summer and I’m beginning to develop some views about how it might be done through the medium I usually work in, i.e. writing. Would love to hear your thoughts…

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Clement's opponents

Just a short post to point to another interesting text - one that reveals Clement's comments on the Odyssey to be part of a struggle over the appropriate Christian response to classical learning and to the interpretation of the Homeric material itself. Once again, this is from Rahner:

Christians started off by seeing in the Sirens that "know all things", a symbol of the danger that threatened the faith from the allurements of pagan wisdom. In the very century in which Clement wrote we find in the Address to the Hellenes a sort of blustering rejection of all that was Greek; it was a rejection of their smooth-tongued fables, it was a rejection in toto of all Greek "Sirens", and Plato and Aristotle were accounted as being among the latter. As a protection against these dangers the Christian needs a prudent and virtuous perspicacity, agathē phronēsis. "No one who is capable of prudent discrimination will prefer the fine phrases of these two philosophers to the salvation of his soul. No, he will rather, like the mariners in the old story, stop his ears with wax and so escape from the sweet peril of the Sirens that threatens to ensnare him." [Cohortatio ad Gentiles, 36]

Entirely by coincidence, I've recently read a novel by Iain Pears called The Dream of Scipio, one of the three plot lines of which is concerned with a gallic aristocrat from the 5th Century AD who becomes a Christian bishop while still wedded to the Neoplatonist philosophy he has studied throughout his life. It touches upon very much the debates that are emerging here. You might like it!

Friday, 26 March 2010


I think I told you that back in September I visited the ghost town of Kayaköy in southern Turkey. It was once a Greek Christian community - its Greek name was Levissi - but it was completely abandoned during the 'population exchanges' of the 1920s. Well, I was looking at your photos on flickr and I was particuarly struck by this one, from another ghost town, Terlingua TX:

And that got me thinking about Mallard and ghost towns in general. So, I decided it was time to post some pictures of Kayaköy. Here they are!

Thursday, 25 March 2010

a few more thoughts (exile)

Last time we spoke you talked about the fact that your work has never really been 'confessional' - it's about things in the outside world and not primarily about you (although it does, of course, present your particular vision of those external things). And we also talked about the idea that this project actually seems to invite some reflection on the self - what it is to be a traveller - in a way that is complementary to the exploration of what is out there in the world.

In some ways, the concept of 'exile' works very well from that perspective precisely because the state of exile has been described, at various times and by different people, as a sort of ideal to which we should actively aspire, from the early Christian idea that life should be seen as an exile in the world up to a modern scholar like Erich Auerbach, who, driven into exile from Nazi Germany, wrote his masterwork, Mimesis, in Istanbul and claimed that it could have been written under no other conditions. In both cases, exile is viewed as an ideal position from which to view the world: one that makes the world more experientally immediate, perhaps, while also holding it at a distance, or, to put it another way, one that radically reorders one's investment in the world.

In this context, I've been thinking a lot about the word 'ideal'. It is self-dramatising and self-deluding, I think, to suggest that we will voluntarily 'go into exile'. Well, I suppose we could, potentially, but the fact is that we aren't going to burn all our bridges, give up the privileged status of being US or EU citizens, and trust ourselves to fortune in any very radical sense. So for me to figure the mild strangeness of my summer in the headwaters as an 'exile', for example, would be self-deluding and entirely lacking in moral integrity. However, if 'exile' is an ideal state which it is almost impossible to realise in a voluntary way and which, when it comes, usually comes as a catastrophe, then it acquires quite a different use in reflections on the self. It becomes that against which we measure the limitations of our perception and our moral awareness.

It was this idea that I was grasping at when I posted about James Alison back in November (here and here). Alison isn't writing directly about exile, but, in his interpretation of the story of the 'man blind from birth', he is pointing towards the importance and the extreme difficulty of 'getting outside' one's situation. The challenge of the story, as he has it, is to stop congratulating ourselves on how much we despise the Pharisees and come to understand that we are in a sense the Pharisees. It is almost impossible for us to live in this state of 'outsideness' - we keep finding ourselves 'back inside' - and this is why the term 'ideal' is so important. To figure onself as the blind man against the Pharisees is an act of self-delusion but to see the process of stepping outside as an ideal condition which we often (usually?) fail to achieve is quite a different proposition.

Also in November, I posted a few times on Raymond Williams (here and here) and his idea of 'unlearning'. I realise now that these points were also gesturing towards the idea I am trying to articulate here. The issue there was that both liberal (Williams actually says 'socialist') and conservative commentators often articulate ideas with the goal of 'laying hands on life and forcing it into our [yes 'our'] own image'. And, once again, this is an 'inside' position. To understand that there might be any wisdom elsewhere requires a kind of 'unlearning' which, like Alison's call to identify with the 'villains' of the gospel story, is very difficult to achieve.

Thought of in this way, the concept of exile-as-ideal might provide a way into the process of reflecting on the self. It has the advantage of focusing less on 'how I feel' and more on 'what I aspire to'. And it also has the advantage of not being a figure for 'how things are' but a sort of parable of 'how they should be'. Thought of in this way, the point of evoking images of exile (in the myth of Odysseus, the figure of the viator, and so forth) is not so much to say 'this is me' but rather 'this not me, alas'. Or it might be to ask 'could this be me?'

As I write this, I'm already beginning to find my articulation of the idea rather over-simple or reductive and this is exactly what I like about the Odysseus material. The image of exile-as-ideal developed there is so complex and open-ended that it invites a kind of inventive, imaginative, acrobatic interpretation that is richer than the literal 'spelling-out' that I'm doing here. It provides powerful, vexing, resistant material for thinking about these questions of being-inside/being-outside, learning/unlearning, settling/passing through, etc etc etc.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Biblical Sirens: Micah 1, 8

And the last of those Biblical passages is Micah 1, 8, which is obviously another prophetic text. Here it is the destruction of Samaria that is prefigured:

She will mourn and lament and go about naked and without a garment and making a howling like the jackals and a mourning like the daughters of the sirens.

The Greek phrase is:

Chavéz Ravine

This is a bit tangential but do you know Ry Cooder's 2005 album, Chavéz Ravine, Eve? I've been listening to it recently and enjoying it. I thought of it in this context because it's very much about place and more specifically about displacement (since it deals with the forcible removal of the Mexican-American community from Chavéz Ravine, Los Angeles, in the '50s). It has quite a political flavour but I think it's equally concerned with providing a kind of snapshot of a particular culture in a specific time and place. Here's the album cover:

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Biblical Sirens: Jeremiah 50, 39

For the sake of completeness, I'll post the last two passages of the Septuagint in which Sirens appear. The first is Jeremiah 50, 39, which is another prophecy of destruction, this time relating to the Chaldeans of Babylon:

False images shall appear upon these islands and the daughters of the sirens shall dwell there.

The relevant phrase in Greek is:

Monday, 22 March 2010

Josephine the Singer

Here's a link to a translation of Kafka's last short story, 'Josephine the Singer', which Rebecca Comay mentions in her article, 'Adorno's Siren Song':

Kafka and the Sirens

Over the weekend, I looked up some of the literature on Kafka's story and I've particularly enjoyed reading an article by Rebecca Comay called 'Adorno's Siren Song', which appeared in New German Critique in autumn 2000. I'm writing in haste, so I'll just quote a couple of passages from it - ones that focus on Kafka rather than Adorno. Here's the first:
Kafka wonders whether the Sirens were not, indeed, quite silent; whether it was not Odysseus who seduced himself with his own drive to mastery; whether it was not indeed the cure itself which was in the end the real disease. Who could withstand the vertical exaltation [Überhebung] induced by the exerience of the upright stance?

"Against the feeling of having triumphed over them by one's own strength, and the subsequent exaltation [Überhebung] that bears down on everything before it, no earthly powers could have remained intact [widerstehen]."

And what would be the effect of such a binding? What if the binding which was homeopathically to counter the enchanting song - for in Greek, as in other languages, "binding" and "spellbinding" share a common semantic thread - was only to redouble its constricting power? If the Sirens themselves were stringing Odysseus along with promises as binding as they were untethered. According to at least one etymology, the word "Siren" relates to seira, the word for "cord" or "line" or "bandage": the enchanters would be, then, the enchainers. Suggesting, finally, that the binding power is from the outset split and doubled. A double bind.
The second passage that I'm going to quote is about Walter Benjamin's comments on Kafka's story. (I think this is interesting not least because Jess and Pam are focusing quite closely on Benjamin in their thread of work). Here it is:

Benjamin suggests that by Kafka's day, the Sirens have fallen silent because music as such - the last "token of hope" - has been permanently gagged. [Reference: Walter Benjamin, "Franz Kafka," Gesammelte Schriften 2.2 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1977) 416; In English, trans. Harry Zohn, Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969) 118.] This will not prevent them, perversely, from exerting a certain hypnotic spell. In "Josephine the Singer" (Kafka's final testament, written on his deathbead while his own voice, was, under the impact of tubercular laryngitis, disappearing) the mass mouse audience fails to appreciate the pathetic squeaking which nonetheless, they insist, "enchants" them. [Reference: Franz Kafka, "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk," The Complete Stories (New York: Schocken, 1971) 362.] Having missed out on proper childhood, these rodent exiles - "nearly always on the run" - are at once too "childish" and "too old for music," and hardly notice when the enchanting Josephine, on strike for better working conditions, stops singing.

In a footnote to this passage, Comay cites an essay by Laurence Rickel with the title 'MUSICPHANTOMS: "Uncanned" conceptions of Music from Josephine the Singer to Mickey Mouse'. It appeared in Sub-stance in 1989 and sounds as if it might be interesting! Comay goes on to talk about Adorno's views on the 'gagging' of music but perhaps this is enough for today...

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Biblical Sirens: Isaiah 43, 20

The fourth appearance of sirens in the Septuagint is particularly interesting for us, I think:

Behold I will do a new thing;
now it shall become visible:
I will even make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
Then shall the beasts of the field praise me
the sirens and the daughters of the ostriches,
because I give waters in the wilderness

It's the combination of the sirens and the river that struck me particularly! The river here is a blessing (as it is in Gilfillan's quotation from Isaiah - well, actually, it's used there to figure the peace that would have followed from obedience to God's commandments). And this river waters the wilderness which is home to the sirens.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

a few reflections

What I particularly like about this new material is that it is all about VOICES:
  • The Odyssey itself narrates a story in which the world contains voices so beautiful and so dangerous that one must fill one's ears with wax or tie oneself to the mast lest one be ruined by them.
  • Early Christian commentators reinterpret the story so these beautiful but dangerous voices become the voices of authors like Homer himself (so the voice of the siren becomes the voice of the poet).
  • In so doing, some (like Clement) are listening to another voice - that of Plato. And, for Plato, the voices of the sirens, while certainly ambiguous, are singing the very music of the spheres.
  • What is more, the Bible - while it does not, in its original form, mention the sirens at all - has been 'reuttered' by many other voices (in the sense that it exists in multiple translations) . And one of these voices - the Greek voice of the Septuagint - introduces the sweet voices of the sirens into the sacred text itself.

But that isn't the half of it!

  • When one talks about 'the voice of Homer' one is really conflating many voices under a single name, since the Odyssey is itself the product of an oral tradition (and there was, of course, a German school of scholarship that was specifically concerned with uncovering the internal multiplicity of the Homeric texts).
  • Plato's philosophy is always communicated in the form of dialogues. Thus, the myth of Er is 'uttered' by Plato but speaking through a representation of a real person, Socrates.
  • And the Septuagint is itself the product of a collective project of translation. (The Letter of Aristeas (2nd century BC) says that the Greek King of Egypt (Ptolemy II Philadelphus) had 72 Jewish scholars translate the Torah for the library at Alexandria.)

So there is an extraordinary layering of voices here and what is at the centre of it is a text that can be a read as an account of the virtuous life as a life in exile.

Biblical Sirens: Isaiah 34, 13

The Sirens appear a third time in Isaiah 34, 13. Here, as usual, is Rahner's translation:

Thorns grow up in their cities
and in their strong places.
It will be a dwelling-place for sirens
and a fold for ostriches.

Like the last one, this text comes from a prophecy of destruction - in this case, the destruction of Edom. Again, the Vulgate does not mention Sirens at all:
et orientur in domibus eius spinae et urticae et paliurus in munitionibus eius et erit cubile draconum et pascua strutionum

And the King James version has this:

And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls.

And the Greek phrase is:

Personally, I'm finding these images of destroyed cities interesting - but wait till you see the next passage! :o)

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Biblical Sirens: Isaiah 13, 21-22

The second mention of Sirens in the Septuagint is in the book of Isaiah (13, 21-22) and Rahner translates it like this:

Now beasts make their homes there
and an empty echo is heard in the houses.
Sirens have their habitation there
and demons dance.
Ass-centaurs dwell there
and hedgehogs breed in the halls.

This comes from a passage of prophecy in which Isaiah describes the destruction of Babylon by the Medes - this is Babylon after its ruin. Again, other versions are interesting. The Vulgate has:
sed requiescent ibi bestiae et replebuntur domus eorum draconibus et habitabunt ibi strutiones et pilosi saltabunt ibi et respondebunt ibi ululae in aedibus eius et sirenae in delubris voluptatis
According to Rahner, this is the only passage in the Latin text that mentions Sirens (sirenae). He says: 'with one exception all these passages in Jerome avoid the Greek mistranslation, so that the Bible hardly brought the Roman Christian into direct contact with the Siren myth at all'. The King James version has:

But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there. And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces: and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged.

The relevant phrase in Greek is:

And, of course, we've talked about Isaiah before, again in connection with Gilfillan's visit to Itasca. (It was a passage from Isaiah that Gilfillan took as his text for the first sermon to be preached at the source of the Mississippi.)

Biblical Sirens: Job 30, 29-30

So, the first passage in the Septuagint to mention Sirens is in the book of Job (30, 29-30). This is Rahner's version of the text:

I am a brother to sirens
and a companion of ostriches.
My skin is black and falleth from me
and my bones are burned with heat.

Here Job is lamenting the afflictions he has suffered and the terms he uses suggest that his estrangement from God is a figurative exile in the desert. I notice that in the King James translation, we have 'a brother to owls', and in the Latin Vulgate, 'frater ... draconum'. The relevant phrase in Greek is:

I've mentioned Job on this blog before. It was when Gilfillan was writing about the shape of Lake Itasca and suggesting that it was an image of the Trinity, written into the heart of the North American continent. The quotation he uses comes from Job 19, 24 and my post is here.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Sirens in the Bible (oh yes!)

Having discussed the dual nature of the Sirens in Greek mythology, Hugo Rahner goes on to talk about the use of the word seirēnes in the Septuagint:

The reason why the symbolism developed around these figures continued for so long a period of time to be a living influence was that, when reading the Scriptures in his own tongue, the Greek Christian could find certain words there which acted as entry ports through which the imagery of profane mythology merged with the Christian interpretation of the Bible.

The Alexandrine translators who produced the Septuagint found six places in the ancient Hebrew books where there was a mention of mysterious beasts referred to as tannîm and benôt and ya'anâh, terms which mean literally "jackals" or "hen ostriches". They render these words by the
Greek Seirēnes (Sirens). What inspired this gross but most interesting mistranslation in the minds of these Hellenistic translators is a mystery which has hitherto remained unsolved. The result, however, is plain enough: for over a thousand years Greek Christians read the word "Sirens" in the passages concerned, and the association of ideas connected with these mystical beings, so universally familiar in the folk-lore of antiquity, was sufficiently strong to arouse in the Christian Greek much the same horror that these deadly creatures had inspired in pagan forerunners and contemporaries.
So, where do these mentions of Sirens appear? More on that later, but - by way of preview - we need to look at the books of Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Sirens in Plato

Some more on Odysseus and the Sirens. (Perhaps I should just send you a copy of Rahner’s article! Well, yes, but I’m quite enjoying digging the interesting bits out of it and, in fact, today’s post isn’t going to be a quotation from the article itself but a chunk of Plato’s Republic, which I looked up as a result of my reading.)

Rahner’s point is that, in pre-Christian mythology, the Sirens are sometimes seen as the guardians of divine wisdom. They are pretty much always dual in nature – destructive yet alluring – but the notion that their duality involves a combination of danger and something other than erotic allure is obviously very important for these more interesting Patristic interpretations. And one source of this idea is Plato. In the eschatological ‘Myth of Er’, which comes in the last book of the Republic, Plato describes the ‘spindle of necessity’ around which the eight circles of the universe turn:

The spindle turns on the knees of Necessity; and on the upper surface of each circle is a siren, who goes round with them, hymning a single tone or note. The eight together form one harmony; and round about, at equal intervals, there is another band, three in number, each sitting upon her throne: these are the Fates, daughters of Necessity, who are clothed in white robes and have chaplets upon their heads, Lachesis and Clotho and Atropos, who accompany with their voices the harmony of the sirens – Lachesis singing of the past, Clotho of the present, Atropos of the future; Clotho from time to time assisting with a touch of her right hand the revolution of the outer circle of the whorl or spindle, and Atropos with her left hand touching and guiding the inner ones, and Lachesis laying hold of either in turn, first with one hand and then with the other. (Republic 617 B)
As Rahner puts it: ‘The Sirens ultimately thus become angels who help the soul in its ascent to God. An eloquent fragment of Euripides has been preserved for us by Clement of Alexandria: “And now golden wings are laid upon my back and the sweet soles of the Sirens. I rise up into the heights of the aether to become the companion of Zeus” (Stromata IV, 26, 172, I). So, in Plato, the Sirens are both chthonic deities associated with the underworld and heavenly beings that sing the music of the spheres – strange, no?

Saturday, 13 March 2010


Hello there - I've been listening to Kaimos and I have to say that I like both versions. (It's a beautiful text, by the way! There's something about Halepas' reply that sounds rhetorical in a rather classical sense - echoes of a very long history! ) For me, though, I think that the text works best when it feels less 'performed'. I'm not sure I can articulate this very well but I guess I prefer the opening of the second version, where the words are spoken aloud rather than whispered, and that's something to do with the fact that there is already enough drama in the interaction of voice and music. And I also like the second half of the first version, where the repetition of the text happens at wider intervals because, again, it sounds less as if the voice is working towards a climax.

But, even as I'm writing this, I'm imagining a version in which the whispering from version 1 is followed by the three closely placed utterances of version 2 - it would be a more 'theatrical' presentation of the text but that might cohere with the rhetorical quality I mentioned before. And, actually, that might have an interesting effect on how the music is heard, framing it rather than drifting over it. Yes, actually I'm erring a little on this side!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Clement on Odysseus

Following on from yesterday's post, this is a passage (quoted by Rahner) in which Clement of Alexandria develops his interpretation of the story of the Sirens. It is from Stromata, II, 89, I. (Where Rahner cites a Greek term, I've transliterated it because I can't get my Greek font to work in Blogger.)
It seems to me, that most of those who subscribe to the name of Christian are like the companions of Odysseus; for they approach our doctrine (logos) without any sense for a high culture. It is not so much the Sirens that they sail past and put behind them as the rhythms and melodies (of the genius of Greece). They stop their ears by their rejection of learning (amathia) because they would never find their way home again once they had opened those ears to the wisdom of Greece (hellenikois mathemasin). Yet he who seeks to choose what is serviceable in all that for the instruction of catechumens - especially since many of these are Greeks (for the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof) - should in no wise turn aside from the love of wisdom (philomathia) like a beast without reason. On the contrary he should make a kind of beggar's collection (eranisteon) - and that on as liberal a scale as he can - of helpful thoughts (from the wisdom of the Greeks). All that we must guard against is that we should dally there and go no further instead of returning home again to the true philosophy.
Rahner helpfully provides a gloss of the term eranisteon, which - he says - 'suggests the practice according to which a group of friends would arrange a feast, each friend making a contribution'.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Odyssey XII 53-60

This is the section of Odyssey XII where Circe tells Odysseus how to protect himself from the Sirens:

And this is Robert Fagles' translation of the passage:

Race straight past that coast! Soften some beeswax
and stop your shipmates' ears so none can hear,
none of the crew, but if you are bent on hearing,
have them tie you hand and foot in the swift ship,
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast
so you can hear the Sirens' song to your heart's content.
But if you plead, commanding your men to set you free,
then they must lash you faster, rope on rope.

Odysseus and the Sirens

When I was writing about the notion of exile as a kind of ideal, I posted here about Christian appropriations of the story of Odysseus/Ulysses and I mentioned an essay by Hugo Rahner on this topic. I've recently been looking at Rahner's book, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery and, as a result, I'm becoming more and more interested in the Odyssey and its interpreters. It seems that the legend of Odysseus' encounter with the sirens is particularly important in this context. This did emerge in the paragraph from Gerhart Ladner's article that I quoted in the earlier post:

[T]he Christian stranger on earth, the peregrinus, could be said to travel through strange and awesome seas in a ship, which is the Church, affixed to the mast of the Cross, absorbing the sweet and far from meaningless Siren songs of the world, without being deflected from the right course.

But Ladner's comment misses out one very significant aspect of the story: the fact that Odysseus had his men fill their ears with wax so that they couldn't hear the voices of the sirens, whereas he himself chose to experience their voices while having himself tied to the mast so that he could not act upon his desire to succumb to them. Rahner cites Clement of Alexandria as an example of someone who places importance on this aspect of the myth:

There is a passage in the writings of Clement that has considerable relevance here and is indeed of the utmost importance for the whole history of Christian humanism. In it the writer seeks to defend his own breadth and generosity of mind against the more narrow-minded Christians of the day and his conviction that Greek culture should in no wise be denied a place within the Christian scheme. The incident of Odysseus and the Sirens proves an apt text for his discourse. Certain kinds of petty and hypercritical Christians, he avers, are like the companions of Odysseus who stop their ears with wax in order not to succumb to the sweet peril of the Sirens. Odysseus had been a different kind of man. Knowingly and with his ears open, he had approached the Siren's isle without yielding to its temptation.
There is something about this that I like. Indeed, from our perspective, I really LOVE the fact that this is a myth about VOICES and how we might respond to them.