Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sir Thomas Browne

Achilles among the women

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“What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture,” Sir Thomas Browne writes in Urn Burial, which was first published in 1658. I’ve been intrigued by this sentence for as long as I can remember, but it took me a long time to understand why. Most readers are likely to encounter it as the epigraph to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first modern detective story, which means that it can seen as a benediction, or a declaration of purpose, for the entire mystery genre. I initially saw it on the back cover of a paperback edition of The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which advertised that the book contained “practical solutions to many of the apparently insoluble riddles of antiquity.” Graves expands on this in the introduction:

The book does read very queerly: but then of course a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth has never previously been attempted, and to write it conscientiously I have had to face such “puzzling questions, though not beyond all conjecture,” as Sir Thomas Browne instances in his Hydriotaphia: “what songs the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he held himself among the women.” I found practical and unevasive answers to these and many other questions of the same sort.

And while Graves might not seem to have much in common with C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s fictional detective, both men take what seem to be impossible puzzles and solve them through an exercise of pure reason, which is what Browne’s enigmatic questions—which he borrows from the historian Suetonius—have symbolized ever since.

Of course, it isn’t that straightforward. Poe’s mystery, like most of its successors, is obviously constructed to lead Dupin to the solution, and most modern readers would be unlikely to forgive its use of a murderous orangutan. (The best part of the story is the mysterious voice overheard by multiple witnesses, which I love so much that I mention it in “The Spires,” my upcoming story in Analog.) And Graves’s method of “proleptic reasoning,” although it yields ideas of great beauty and originality, exposes his arguments to serious doubts. Here’s how he solves the mystery of Achilles:

According to Suetonius the guesses made by various scholars whom the Emperor Tiberius consulted on this point were “Cercysera” on account of the distaff (kerkis) that Achilles wielded; “Issa,” on account of his swiftness (aisso, I dart); “Pyrrha,” on account of his red hair. Hyginus gives his vote for Pyrrha. My conjecture is that Achilles called himself Dacryoessa (“the tearful one”) or, better, Drosoessa, (“the dewy one”), drosos being a poetic synonym for tears. According to Apollonius his original name Liguron (“wailing”) was changed to Achilles by his tutor Cheiron. This is to suggest that the Achilles-cult came to Thessaly from Liguria. Homer punningly derives Achilles from achos (“distress”), but Apollodorus from a “not” and cheile “lips,” a derivation which Sir James Frazer calls absurd; though “Lipless” is quite a likely name for an oracular hero.

This is all very interesting, but far from conclusive, and the reader is left to choose between several equally plausible alternatives. (In the first chapter of my novel City of Exiles, I mention this question as part of a minor plot point, and I arbitrarily settle on Pyrrha.) But the most revealing discussion of the problem doesn’t appear in The White Goddess at all, but in The Greek Myths, which Graves published several years later. Here’s how he discusses it there:

Now, Thetis knew that her son would never return from Troy if he joined the expedition, since he was fated either to gain glory there and die early, or to live a long but inglorious life at home. She disguised him a a girl, and entrusted him to Lycomedes, king of Scyros, in whose palace he lived under the name of Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha; and he had an intrigue with Lycomedes’s daughter Deidameia, by whom he became the father of Pyrrhus, later called Neoptolemus.

So what happened to Dacryoessa or Drosoessa? Graves evidently concluded that his suggestion, which was acceptable within the more speculative framework of The White Goddess, would be out of place in a more scholarly work—although the notes to The Greek Myths are filled with wild leaps of their own. He simply writes “Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha,” which are guesses in themselves, and moves on. A casual reader might never know that it was a matter of dispute, or even that the problem of Achilles’s assumed name was of any interest at all.

And this offers an elegant example of a pitfall that affects scholarship of all kinds, particularly when directed toward a general audience. Writing a nonfiction book of my own has reminded me that history or biography is full of apparently objective facts that are really open to interpretation. A single date can be the result of a long process of investigation, speculation, and elimination, but the underlying judgments go more or less unseen. Very occasionally, the search itself becomes the point of the work, but it’s more common for scholars to present us with the end result and leave out all the intermediate steps. And if we knew how much guesswork goes into the books that we read, we might well view them with a justifiable skepticism. (Elsewhere, I’ve called this the Bob Hope rule, which is that scholars get to use intuition as long as they can prove that they don’t need it.) In The White Goddess, Graves, to his credit, goes into considerable detail about his methods, and he acknowledges that it undermines his own case:

The proleptic or analeptic method of thought, though necessary to poets, physicians, historians and the rest, is so easily confused with mere guessing, or deduction from insufficient data, that few of them own to using it. However securely I buttress the argument of this book with quotations, citations, and footnotes, the admission that I have made here of how it first came to me will debar it from consideration by orthodox scholars: though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.

But he isn’t alone here. Other scholars just take greater pains to disguise it—unless we can trick them, like Achilles, into revealing themselves.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2018 at 8:43 am

“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker…”

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"The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker..."

Note: This post is the second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 1. You can read the earlier installments here.)

No matter how broad a writer’s range of interests might be, he or she naturally tends to return to the same handful of themes and metaphors. In my case, one of the threads that recurs frequently in my work is a fascination with photography and its connection to violence. Years ago, I thought about writing a screenplay with a lead character based loosely on the young Diane Arbus, and elements of her personality were eventually incorporated—with much transformation—into Maddy Blume in The Icon Thief. I also became fascinated with the work of Cindy Sherman and the argument that Susan Sontag makes, sometimes a bit too insistently, in On Photography:

There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture…Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

As a result, The Icon Thief was originally titled Camera, and later Kamera, both in homage to the R.E.M. song and as a reference to the poison laboratory of the Russian secret services. And although these elements were less obvious in the final version, it’s no accident that I returned to the same inspirations when it came to plotting the sequel.

In particular, one of the turning points in cracking the story was the decision that Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish killer, would work as a photographer. I’d originally conceived City of Exiles as a sort of duel of assassins, with Ilya and a new villain facing off in a game of cat and mouse across Europe, and although the initial conception changed a lot along the way, I still needed a suitably sinister antagonist. In making Karvonen a photographer, I was partially inspired by the observation in The Sword and the Shield, Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s definitive history of intelligence in the Soviet era, that illegal agents in foreign countries would often pose as members of artistic communities, since it was easier to establish a false identity there than in a more conventionally structured profession. The photography angle would also allow me to preserve the art world element from the first novel, and, perhaps best of all, it offered me an excuse to dig into a lot of fascinating material. In the finished draft, it only takes up a few chapters, but it was fun to write, and it helps set the stage for a story that will be deeply concerned with issues of deception, subterfuge, and the enigma of a few mysterious photographs.

"What name did Achilles use when he hid among the women?"

The bulk of this material makes its first appearance in Chapter 1, which introduces Karvonen and his neurotic employer, the photographer Renata Russell. It’s no secret that the character of Renata is somewhat inspired by Annie Leibovitz, at least on a superficial level, although in most respects the two women have little in common. The documentary Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens was a valuable resource here, with its detailed portrait of the artist at work, and I also found inspiration—and ideas for dialogue and bits of business—in the films The September Issue and Picture Me: A Model’s Diary. The other major influence in these scenes is Blow Up, if only because it’s impossible to tell a story about a London fashion photographer without including a nod to Antonioni. In fact, a careful reader might recognize that Renata’s studio in Holland Park is the very same building where David Hemmings works in the movie, which I briefly visited as part of my research on location, and Renata, like Hemmings, lives on Pottery Lane. (The pub where Karvonen meets his contact in the intelligence services is also real, and it’s located only a short walk from the cemetery in Highgate where Karl Marx is buried.)

Otherwise, this chapter is devoted both to setting the plot in motion—as Karvonen obtains a gun, a phone, and a list of targets from his handler—and to establishing motifs that will pay off later. The song playing during Renata’s photo shoot is “Rave On, John Donne” by Van Morrison, which hints at the role in the story of Donne and his poetry. The chalk mark that notifies Karvonen of his appointment is in the form of a crosshairs, but it’s also meant to evoke a wheel with four spokes. The exchange between Karvonen and his handler when they meet (“What name did Achilles use when he hid among the women?”) is one of the poetic questions, first proposed by Sir Thomas Browne, that Robert Graves attempts to answer in The White Goddess, which is another important element in the novel’s web of references. And although we won’t see Karvonen’s handler again, we should give him a good, long look. In the first draft, I didn’t describe him in much detail, but I had a feeling that he’d play an important role later on, so I decided to give him a small identifying tag—something memorable, but vague enough that I could put it to whatever use I needed. In the end, I only noted that part of the first two fingers on his right hand were missing. And it’s not until the third book that we—or I—learn what happened to those fingers…

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2013 at 9:16 am

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