On drips


Detail from Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christus am Kreutz (c. 1520-1522),  CC-BY 2.0.

Leaks have been in the news lately (and it might be interesting to think about why “leaks” became a term in English for improper disclosures of information in the 1950s, or how “blowing the whistle on” an activity used to imply also bringing the activity to a sharp conclusion), but, whereas leaks imply loss and injury, drips are more ambiguous.

Stanley Lombardo translates one of Sappho’s fragments (#37 in Campbell’s standard collection, but #64 in Lombardo’s version) as “in my dripping pain.”  Just that.  That’s the entirety of the fragment (although there may be a related piece).  “In my dripping pain.”  What might Sappho have meant?  Where was this verse leading?  Whose pain was being given a voice here?

Anne Carson, with more typographical license, and perhaps more focus on textuality generally, adds parentheses: “in my dripping (pain)” (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 75).  In a wonderful endnote, she points to three significant contexts for thinking about what Sappho might be doing here.  The first is its provenance: we have the fragment because an ancient etymologist was discussing words for pain.  The second is a line from the chorus in Agamemnon, describing their anxieties in the night: “And it drips in sleep before my heart / the grief-remembering pain” (Qtd. 365).  The noun Sappho uses for dripping is, Carson notes, cognate with the verb for dripping Aeschylus uses here.

Richard Lattimore translates the full strophe from which this line was taken as follows:

Zeus, who guided men to think,

who has laid it down that wisdom

comes alone through suffering.

Still there drips in sleep against the heart

grief of memory; against

our will temperance comes.

From the gods who sit in grandeur

grace is somehow violent.

(Aeschylus II, ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, 26-27)

And here is Peter Meineck’s version:

He set us mortals on the road to understanding,

and he has laid down his law:

“Man must learn by suffering!”

Not even sleep can relieve the painful memories

that fall upon the heart, drop by drop,

discretion comes even to the unwilling.

The grace is forced upon us

by sacred spirits who reign above.          (Oresteia, 9-10).

I can’t adjudicate the accuracy of any of the translations, but I can see that Meineck’s offers a much clearer line of interpretation than Lattimore’s.  The “road to understanding” is what is laid down in the quoted law.  Suffering is the path to understanding.  Painful experience engraves itself upon the heart in ways that sleep (and by implication even dreams) cannot stop.  In a wonderful inversion, grace is “forced upon us.” (Was Yeats thinking of these lines when he was writing “Leda and the Swan”?).  “Sacred spirits” is a bit distracting to my ignorant ear: even in the plural, it brings “grace” too close to later Christian meanings that any translator is already hard-pressed to avoid, or make strange.

Lattimore’s translation, by contrast, is harder to make sense of, but is much more rhythmically striking and — at least on a first reading — impressively undecided.  That is, it has the sound of the Chorus still thinking things through rather than presenting a report of their conclusions.  The exact relationship between “thinking” and “wisdom” and “suffering” is not at all clear, however tightly linked they become in the mesmerizing prosody of “alone through suffering.”  Whatever its accuracy as a translation of the Greek, beginning the next line with “still” is a masterstroke for performance.  It opens up the possibility that the Chorus is itself here doing what Zeus laid down: thinking, suffering, attempting to bring its concrete experience to painful consciousness.  Likewise, I’m struck by Lattimore’s registering the confused hesitation in the chorus’s realization that grace is violent “somehow,” and his having pain teach not “discretion,” but “temperance.”

The sense of a drip-dripping sequence of pains tempering a body, giving it a particular texture and character, returns us to Carson’s gloss on Sappho’s fragment.  The other significant context she offers for “dripping (pain)” comes from Hamm’s lines in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame:

There’s something dripping in my head.


A heart in my head.

In Aeschylus, a somatically engraved anxiety contorts dreams and brings before the heart — the seat of soul and mindedness for the ancient Greeks — “grief-remembered pain.”  There’s more than a hint in Hamm’s lines of this sense of long-weathered, ill-comprehended experience carving his destiny.

But, of course, in Hamm, any such sense of his own fate is bathetically shrunk.  His line has the sound of the comically literal.  Maybe that’s all consciousness is: something dripping in the head.  All the lyricism of existential confrontation seems to be leached out of Hamm’s statement: it seems to be a bare attempt to describe the phenomenological sensation.  Of course, he doesn’t say it feels as if something’s dripping in his head.  Nor does he declaim it in a way that might give “dripping” a melodramatic, lurid cast, i.e. having the actor leap up onto the battlements, etc.  (In fact, as ever, Beckett’s scenic imagination — including here Hamm’s blindness and restriction to his chair — seems designed to prevent or dismantle such earnest declamations.)  What would it mean to have a heart in your head — and does Hamm mean something like a yearning soul or something like a mere pumping muscle?


What does a life reveal?

holbein The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb_Detail

Detail from Hans Holbein, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1520-22)

Reviewing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Rowan Williams suggests it’s time to revisit the saint’s status as a “patriarchal villain.”  Augustine, Williams says, can be more to us than the source of the West’s deep structures of self-punishment.  Like Paul, Augustine created new ways of imagining another world, a better realm, beyond, somehow elsewhere but nearby, governed by other forms and practices of justice.

Garry Wills likewise points out what we would today call Augustine’s contributions to psychology and philosophy of mind, both of which Lane Fox tends to downplay in favor of a broad-stroke picture of late Roman culture.  From a modern point of view, it’s easy to read about Augustine or Augustinian ideas of original sin and see holdovers from late antiquity, but it’s much harder to read the Confessions without being struck by the entanglement of self and writing.  It’s a cliché to say that this entanglement feels “modern,” but I think this is a case where the cliché results from unthinking repetition rather than untruth.

William Franke argues that what the text of the Confessions has revealed to generations of readers is the process of “reading as revelation”:

[…] Augustine’s way of addressing God personally and questioningly provides what he is seeking by his very asking: for he asks that he be given to converse with God, to invoke and so to know him.  This self-validating conjuring of divinity by an apparently autistic linguistic act is tantamount to a discovery of God immanent within the self-reflexive faculty of self-consciousness in language. (The Revelation of Imagination, 239)

Brian Stock has also argued for Augustine’s invention of reading as a form of life.  Our acts of reading involve much more than passive reception or linear scanning.  We take signs as significant while also trying to keep open their potential for continuing (or changing) significance.  We want to pin down a meaning even as we want to keep open our experience of that meaning as something we could, sometime down the road, change our mind about.  There’s a creative integration at work in every act of reading we undertake, imagining the world of the words before us and testing the words we’ve learned by the measure of that new world.

But what happens if we compare the subject of the paradigmatic Confessions and shaping force on almost every subsequent would-be autobiographer in the West, with another, very different, sort of life?   With, for example, an anonymous anchoress who lived in a small cell adjoining St. Julian and Edward Church in Norwich for perhaps thirty years in the late fourteenth century?  (I happen to be teaching Julian this week, so she’s on my mind…)

The faithful from Norwich came to ask advice, but mostly they seem to have been seeking the comfort of knowing that someone could perfect a life devoted entirely to God.  Called “Julian of Norwich,” this anchoress’s Revelations of Divine Love are famous for suggesting that sins are somehow “behovely” (befitting, appropriate, or advantageous).  Like many strains of the Augustinian tradition, Julian regards vices as modeled on virtues: out of proportion or misdirected, but basically revealing important structures of our nature.

At the same time, like many later medieval responses to the Black Plague, Julian further regarded suffering from diseases and illnesses as a valuable source of knowledge as well.  Before she received her revelations, she had prayed seriously for serious, life-threatening illness.  Bodily dissolution and pain offered a way of imitating and understanding the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.

What happens to reading–and to the meaning of a life in writing–under these more (pardon the pun) excruciating conditions?