Words from Fennel

It has been a holiday season of spices, I even perused the market looking for a better mortar and pestle; among the brass handiwork was a stall of postcards, some from the 1920's, carefully arranged beneath a magnificent cigar box, causing me to wonder at the vendor. Those travellers' words, in such neat little stacks at such an inconspicuous stall, for whom?
I remember long ago seeking out the shell of a 19th century spice store in Ravenna; there it was, it, Dante's grave, and the flooded church crypt, the Basilica di San Francesco, tied together in my imagination, for it was the waters that brought the spices across such long distances, navigated by the pattern of the Galla Placidian sky. Who would not also think, in connection with sea and the trading of spices, also of Elizabeth I, the gathering together of aromas like so many tesserae.
I have been making masala chai and harissa, as if these spices could calm the sea in the bones. I think back to Gloriana's explorers, looking for passages around continents in all that darkness of the unknown. Perhaps there is no need for the symbol of our shared horizon when, as Rebecca West once wrote, today the laziest person has but to recline into the already established grooves of transport. Other types of travellers, though, may take the line of Io in Prometheus Bound: "My far-roaming wanderings have taught me enough." (PB575)
She, as Prometheus, is εσμώτης - chained, fettered, considering herself to be bound to misery. In fact the play could be seen as commentary on how man's dreams and imagined futures blind him to the present and bodily restraint: the characters are bound despite their machinations. The Chorus says to Prometheus: "Sweet it is to pass all the length of life amid confident hopes, feeding the heart in glad festivities. But I shudder [540] as I look on you, racked by infinite tortures. ... Did you not see the helpless infirmity, no better than a dream, in which the blind [550] generation of men is shackled?" They reprimand him for his lack of humility - and he, he is not allowed to die, having transgressed normal bodily constraint (PB742).
Io's misery, too, was beset by visions, dreams, and aggravated by the oracle: ἧκον δ᾽ ἀναγγέλλοντες αἰολοστόμους χρησμοὺς ἀσήμους δυσκρίτως τ᾽ εἰρημένους (661-2) "oracles, riddling, obscure, darkly worded" (literally: an oracle that is unintelligible, hard to interpret, shifting in words).
The answer of an oracle, χρησμός, is related to the proclamation of the gods in the oracle, χράω, a word with many other meanings, including to furnish to the senses. Gadamer writes that the oracle proclaims a multiplicity of meanings to be interpreted (RB69). As opposed to this is the emphasis on speech that is truthful and telling plainly in simple language without riddles (PB640,609).




But even a μῦθος is a saying: a saying that possesses reality only through its being said (RB70). We are also wont to remember the opening to the Theogony: the Muses tell as much truth as they do lies.
Io is seeking the truth. Alone, she "cannot discern how to escape" her sufferings (PB575). She begs Prometheus to tell him her future but he declines, not wanting to crush her spirit. (PB609) So she implores him again after telling her tale and revealing how much of it was riddled (see above). "Do not, from pity, seek [685] to soothe me with untrue words; for I consider false words to be the foulest sickness." The Chorus replies: "never, did I dream that words so strange would greet my ears; [690] or that sufferings so grievous to look upon, yes, and so grievous to endure, a tale of outrage, would strike my soul". (PB697)
It is at this point (PB 696) that Prometheus begins to talk like a guidebook. But as he talks, he does not tell the simple truth Io wishes to hear, but a "prophecy," that is "not easy to understand" - i.e., οὐκέτ᾽ εὐξύμβλητος ἡ χρησμῳδία (literally: no longer easy to divine/a good omen [is your] answer of an oracle). He calls his words "tales" λόγοιν. He then continues to speak in riddles, offering her an account that may be hers or that of his deliverer.
Gadamer writes that something may be intimated but not intended. "Interpretation seems to be a genuine determination of existence rather than an activity or an intention ... The meaning of the oracle in this sort of tragedy lies in the fact that the hero provides an exemplary illustration of the ambiguities of fate that hang over ever one of us. As human beings, we are essentially caught up in the attempt to interpret the meaning of this ambiguity." (RB71)
Io cries that she has learned enough from her travels, and wishes for them to end. But such was not her fate, caught between the simple speech she longs for and the words of others. Perhaps a life is made up of as many such tesserae: some of our own making, and some of context.
But what of the spices, you ask? Maybe you know. Prometheus used a stalk from a fennel plant to steal fire from the gods. Fennel is used in 五香粉 which came to the West via the diaspora. There are many sorts of travellers, not all just following grooves. Perhaps the danger is not in the travelling but the will of the traveller. As the Chorus says, may Zeus' power never be set in conflict with one's will (PB 526). If one could but go with the flow, or live as the guest-friend.



Magazine. Font: Deftone Stylus.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License