Monday, July 7, 2008

Can it Truly be Our Song is Lost at Sea?

I'm not entirely clear how this is happening, but I keep picking up awesome books these days. Honestly, between The Measure of All Things, After Tamerlane, and Xenophon's Retreat, I can't remember enjoying books more. It seemed apropos to take yet another pause before deconstructing the New Testament and conversion of Constantine from a historical perspective because one passage of Waterfield's Xenophon's Retreat just fit the flavor of my last post perfectly. Now that I've been (enigmatically, might I add) called a hater of salvation, it's even more fitting. My goal here is to let Waterfield speak as much as possible without interruption, but I need to bring you up to speed. See, Xenophon's Anabasis was the tale of ten thousand Greek hoplites and peltasts (heavy and light infantry, respectively) hired by Cyrus, the brother of the Persian king Artaxerxes. Cyrus was not Cyrus the Great, the leader who basically made the Persian Empire one of the greatest of the ancient world, but certainly thought he should be. He built an army, including the ten thousand Greek (well, 10,400, but who's counting?) mercenaries, and marched on Artaxerxes. In the Battle of Cunaxa, Cyrus was killed, his Persian forces scattered or bought off, and the Greeks were left alone and friendless in a hostile, unknown land far, far from home. Tissaphernes, one of Artaxerxes lieutenants, promised friendship and free passage to the Greeks before betraying them and killing off most of their leaders. At this juncture Xenophon, heretofore an observer of the festivities, had a dream. In his dream, Xenophon saw a bolt of lightning strike his father's house and set it ablaze. The pious Xenophon saw it as a portent, and optimistically took it as a sign that Zeus was going to elevate his house and that Xenophon was to provide illumination and the path home to the lost and listless Greek mercenaries. So began the march down country and the real centrality of one of the greatest adventure stories ever told. And here I would like to step back and let Robin Waterfield shed illumination on the Greeks' world. It was Xenophon's intention to lead his men 'home', or to rejoin 'the Greeks'. Under any circumstances, but especially theirs, the word 'home' carries a potent charge. But the army consisted of men from all over the Greek world: the majority were from the Peloponnese; others originated in central and northern Greece, in Crete and Cicily and the Aegean Islands, and in Asia Minor. Many had formed attachments with places or people in the east itself. Where, then, was 'home?' (We move here in to the Greek history of colonization, which I will leave out for the sake of brevity.) By the time this stream had slowed to a trickle, there were around 1500 Greek communities and the Greek world extended all over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; the traditional phrase was 'from the Phasis River to the Pillars of Heracles', the Phasis being in modern Georgia and the Pillars of Hercules being what we call the Straits of Gibraltar. In Plato's memorable image the Greeks were scattered around the coastlines of the known world 'like frogs or ants around a pond'. The Greek world had no clear centre: what stood duty for the centre was the sea. Through trade and colonization they had made the coastlines their own: everywhere they went, they could expect to be able to communicate with fellow Greeks, with only minor local variations in accent and dialect. They were always wary about travelling too far inland from the sea. Even on the Greek peninsula, the mountainous inland separated rather than united communities, and turned eyes away from the land and towards the sea. Every visitor to Greece recognizes the limpid beauty and emotional power of the sea: the jold of delight at the sight of turquoise shallows and purple depths, half-glimpsed rocks, and patches of weed. When Xenophon told his men that they were going, 'home', then, he meant that they were going to find the sea. That was where they would rejoin the Greek world. (Here we get a glimpse at the possibilities held out for colonization by the Ten Thousand, including the possibility of just settling down in the Persian heartland and daring Artaxerxes to kick them out. Then there was the idea of putting down a colony as soon as they reached the Black Sea and the idea of going home, then heading back out, all of which came for naught.) For all of Xenophon's rhetoric about getting 'home' to wives and children (or 'children and wives', to use the usual, telling Greek order), and for al the men's expressed desire to do just that, the irony is that in the end extremely few of them made it home...Within the time-fram covered by Xenophon in The Expedition of Cyrus, only a few hundred men trickled away from Byzantium and returned to their native lands. And this small group of men included none of the protagonists, who died, disappeared, or re-enlisted in the east to fight against Tissaphernes again, back where they had started. Xenophon's dream of fire was after all about the loss of his family home, not about its glorification. I'll pause here, just to let that resonate. "Xenophon's dream of fire was after all about the loss of his family home, not about its glorification." See, Xenophon probably never returned home to Athens. It was the Greek world after the Peloponnesian War and he had famously colluded with Spartans, a crime worthy of an exile that was never lifted. Moreover, were he to return home to Athens, he would not have found it the same as when he'd left. Xenophon had been a follower of Socrates and had even asked the great philosopher's advice before heading out to join Cyrus. But the Athens to which he could not return was the Athens that had sentenced Socrates to drink hemlock. But, again, Waterfield says it better than I can. What went wrong? Was talk of 'home' mere rhetoric? Whatever happened on the expedition itself, by the time Xenophon wrote The Expedition of Cyrus, it was subtle rhetoric indeed. By making 'home' the Pole Star of the retreat from Cunaxa, he draws our attention to the fact that we cannot give a precise answer to the question of that home's whereabouts: it might have been the sea, but the communities on the Black Sea let him down; it might have been wherever the men came from, but they came from all over the Mediterranean. This openness turned the tale Xenophon wrote into an archetypical search: like Homer's Odyssey, it is the story of a journey "home" against terrifying obstacles; like the Odyssey it resonates with any journey home and with every reader's deep desire for security. As such it has been used as the basis for both fictional and non-fictional treatments of the theme, from Walter Hill's 1979 film The Warriors to accounts of similar treks in World War II and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I'm loathe to skip over the next couple paragraphs, but I feel I ought. It's an excellent look at the dichotomy of how the Ten Thousand needed the identity provided by home but could not find it due to the fact that they were constantly on the move. They needed most what they could not find because of their desperation to reach what they needed most. So instead we'll depart from Xenophon's Retreat with these words: To the west, east, and south, then, lay the certainties of civilization, indicated by proper roads -- but in those directions lay also the certainty of death. The Greeks chose uncertainty; they chose to enter the chasm of the mountains. They were already more or less lost, but they had to get more lost to stand a chance of finding themselves safe. And thus we find ourselves at that old, familiar place: the beginning of the Hero's Journey. This particular Hero's Journey, however, reads backwards from the end, so we already know how it goes. There is no home to which they can return after defeating the nonexistent dragon and plundering its treasure trove. Xenophon does not return to Athens, hailed as the mighty successor to Perseus and Theseus and Herakles. Instead he finds the gates of the city shut and familiar faces regarding him as a traitorous enemy. Where, then, is home? Where, then, is salvation? The questions often asked and left unanswered in Xenophon's tale resonate, even with those of use who never were and never will be lost and alone a thousand miles from home and pursued by a relentless enemy. So to answer the challenge laid before me and claimed as my own words, no, I do not hate salvation. I, like everyone on this terrestrial ball, seek salvation. But just as Xenophon realized too late that his own dreams of fire from heaven were not a promise of gain, but a portent of loss, I do not, can not dream of Revelation fulfilled. The dreams of fire so often called a wonderful promise in the world I once occupied I now take as a deep and grevious loss. I do not need to go on a Hero's Journey to know that somewhere out there is my home. I will not fight if I don't have to, but it is my right to defend my home from those who approach with torches and malicious intent. Meanwhile, I'm told that I put too much faith in people and not enough in god. This is delivered as an indictment and not for the first time, either. I don't think it's particularly surprising that the people who say that are the ones with the most disdain for people. Just know, I take your scorn as a compliment. In general, I like people )although I'm willing to make exceptions for individuals who want to set my home on fire). I think we're our only hope. So, in honor of Xenophon's star-crossed journey to the sea, I leave with this: Alone, adrift, together are we Slowly sinkin' in a deep blue sea But we smile and we wave And we say, "I'm afraid...and I love you...and here we go..." --RCPM, "Leaky Little Boat"


GailVortex said...

Just delurking for a moment to say that I greatly enjoy your posts. And never seem to have anything specific to comment on or worth saying in response.

Carry on...

Fiat Lex said...

:D Greetings, Gail. Isn't this a lovely spot o' the blog?

More meditations spawned from the World Navel diagram, I see!

I never knew the historical story behind the genesis of David Weber's "March Upcountry" trilogy. Lovely stuff. Brat princeling of a galactic empire gets marooned, along with his faithful Marines, on a backward planet. On their cross-continental trek towards the planet's only spaceport, they manage to reprise most of the history of early firearms technology while having occasionally strained relationships with the natives.

Anyway. When I said World Navel I meant this post seems to be a further reflection on the topic of salvation, in the broader sense of the place in the universal story where we get everything back. And the problem you bring up here is the real icing on the calamity cake! Not only do we not, as living persons, know how to get home, we don't have a clear and explicable sense of where home is. Much like Xenophon and his diminishing army of Greeks. (Or Prince Roger and his Marines. But to speak of the uncertainty there would be spoilering.)

Now, going back to religion in the broader sense, as the stories we tell to ourselves to bring meaning to our lives. Do you think religion, narrative, etc is meant serve the function of helping people figure out where home is for them, where their salvation lies? Or does a person come first to an innate, inarticulate sense of the direction in which salvation is to be sought, and only then begins to construct a myth?

Geds said...


Even though I always link my comments on Slacktivist back here and occasionally blogwhore, it's always nice to see a fellow Slacktivist. Thanks for stopping by.


Do you think religion, narrative, etc is meant serve the function of helping people figure out where home is for them, where their salvation lies? Or does a person come first to an innate, inarticulate sense of the direction in which salvation is to be sought, and only then begins to construct a myth?

Seriously, ask me a hard one next time, like, "Can you calculate Pi out to eleven trillion digits in your head?"

However, I would hazard a guess that the making of the myth starts before the idea of salvation becomes a factor. Mythmaking began as an activity primarily concerned with looking at the activities of the gods to explain the state of the world. The earliest primal myths that we can track seem to mostly be creation stories. The idea of salvation didn't seem to come in until successive layerings of more sophisticated stories or even gods were added to the original story.

On a personal level, I think this idea makes sense. We (or at least I) do seem to have a tendency to first ask, "How did I get here?" and only then ask, "Now where am I going?"

I hope that's coherent and at least within spitting distance of an answer.

Also, I may well have to look in to this March Upcountry of which you speak...

Abelardus said...

OK, I remember that the Cyrus of Xenophon's Anabasis is actually Cyrus the Younger, but isn't the Cyrus of Xenophon's Cyropaedia Cyrus the Great?

Whatever the case, you're simply a pleasure to read. I need to review your archives so as to not miss anything.

Geds said...

Yeah, actually.

I haven't actually read the Cyropaedia, but it came up in Finley's notes in The Portable Greek Historians and, shockingly, Xenophon's Retreat. That book is interesting, as it's not really an autobiography, but Xenophon's attempts to project a particular set of ideals on to a historical figure in order to make a point. He did something similar with Cyrus the Younger in the Anabasis, but since that was an eyewitness account it's fairly easy to read between the lines and see the places where Cyrus might not actually be so great.

Xenophon as a historian is actually a perfect example of the primary purpose the study of history up until recently. He projects ideals and morals on to history in order to make a point and if that causes the narrative to drift away from fact, then so be it. It doesn't change the fact that I like Xenophon, but it means that I take his histories in the spirit they were told, not as an attempt to convey all the facts.

Such is the lot of the historian, I guess...