A picture of my favorite city in the World (I took the picture from Central Park) and the draft of a song I was trying to work on until my computer collapsed. And Happy New Year, of course
Marble copy of 4th century BCE portrait of Alexander the Great. Or Alexander looking like Jim Morrison – Picture taken from here, by Mary Harrsch.
I thought this story is pretty cool to continue a previous post on Greeks and Persians. This is taken from The Histories by Herodotus. Xerxes, during the Battle of Thermopylae, wanted to know what the Greeks were doing, so he send a guy to spy on them:
“He saw some of the men exercising naked and others combing their hair. He marvelled at the sight and took note of their numbers. When he had observed it all carefully, he rode back in leisure, since no one pursued him or paid him any attention at all. So he returned and told Xerxes all that he had seen”
Ajax and Cassandra, by Solomon Joseph Solomon. Image taken from wikipedia
I have always had a soft spot for the Pre – Raphaelite Brotherhood; a group of English painters from the 19th century that combined a realistic representations of nature with an extensive use of symbols. The painting above is my favorite one by Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927), a portrayal of the famous rape of Cassandra by the Greek hero Ajax the lesser.
Riace bronzes – The Greek Warriors. Image taken from Wikipedia
How do you tell your troops you shouldn’t be scared of a super power everybody is terrified of? You show them naked. That is what the Spartan King Agesilaus did. At Ephesus, while Persian prisoners were being sold as slaves (another way to finance his army) he gave the order to have their clothes taken off. The Persians used a lot of mercenaries (even Greeks) to fight their wars, and they were not as keen as the Greeks (and especially the Spartans) on exercising and training all the time. Once the Persian prisoners were naked, Agesilaus told his troops “Look at these people, they look like pale nerds that play videogames all day, and these are the people you are afraid of!” For the Greeks that was a revelation, they were like “wow, no kidding, check out those weak lousy wimps!”*
To the Persians did was humiliating to the next level as they did not have a tradition of showing themselves naked. The Greeks on the other hand would compete in wrestling and running events naked, and they would strip off their clothes on any occasion they deemed suitable, even at a gravestone(!): According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great ran naked with his companions at the gravestone of Achilles, as it was customary to do.
*or in the words of Plutarch: “…but their naked bodies, which were utterly white and delicate, owing to their effeminate habits, were ridiculed useless and worthless”
Image taken from Wikipedia
This must be one of the first historical examples (if it isn’t it is still a great story) of why we men should listen to women.
This is the story of Queen Artemisia during the Battle of Salamis, of course. To put it very succinctly (more than I probably should): Xerxes, the King of Persia, had been successful at invading Athens (this happened after the battle of Thermopylae). The problem was that the Greek fleet was still alive, and Xerxes did not like this “unfinished” business. In a very clever move (typically Greek), Themistocles, an Athenian general, convinced his people not to go all the way back to Corinth, but to stay at the Island of Salamis. Here, he sent a message (through another guy) to Xerxes, letting him know that the Greeks were not united and that they were going to disband. Xerxes had a council meeting to decide whether they should go and get those Greeks before each parted on separate ways. Everybody said “let’s go crush them now that they are not united anymore!”. Everybody agreed except for Queen Artemisia, the only female commander in the whole Persian contingent. She told Xerxes “I don’t know man, this does not sound right… No offence but your fleet has not been that successful. Let’s call it a day!” Xerxes was happy that she had spoken her mind, but told her “None taken, but look pretty face, you worry too much, my fleet is humongous, so I will go with the guys on this one”.
She was right of course; the narrows of Salamis were perfect for the Greeks to hide and trap the Persian fleet, while preventing the other Persian ships to aid them (the Wikipedia image makes this clear). Xerxes was so confident he even had a throne placed on the top of a hill, expecting to watch from the “first row” how his fleet destroyed the Greeks. Herodotus recounts that at one point Artemisia crushed a Persian ship trying to escape from a Greek vessel, but Xerxes, thinking she had rammed a Greek ship, said “My men fight like women, and my women like men!”
Who knows, perhaps the myth of Cassandra – she can foresee the future (a gift given to her by Apollo) but then nobody believes her (Apollo also did this, after she rejected him) – is also about men not listening to women. That is just a cheesy interpretation I just made up; actually I prefer the Cassandra complex idea, where we prefer to disregard clear warnings of bad things to come so we can live in a much more comforting denial limbo. In any case, it is a sweet myth regardless of the interpretation!
One more thing, the phrase about women fighting like men brings to my mind a part of that fantastic play by Euripides, “Bacchae”: (This is said by Dionysus – or Bacchus-)
But if in anger the city of Thebes attempt to take the bacchants from the mountain with military force, I shall fight them, commanding my maenads.
The Maenads are the women that follow Dionysus. He would have been the coolest God ever, if it were not of course for Pallas Athena.
Add an Abbey in ruins, a misty day, the burial of a monk and what you get is the Gothic / Romantic sensibility at its peak:
The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), image taken from Wikipedia
Caspar David Friedrich was a 19th century German painter that had an inclination for vast landscapes, awe-inspiring but ominous at the same time. His paintings are not short of symbolism; death, religion and his concerns about the fate of Germany (probably depicted in the painting above) were among his recurrent topics.
You can see the place where the Abbey is located (in Google maps) here
The other day while reading Walter Benjamin I came across this phrase:
We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for. That we do know, or think we know, is nearly always the expression of our superficiality or inattention. Boredom is the threshold of great deeds –Now it would be important to know: What is the dialectical antithesis to boredom?
This made me think immediately on Tu m’ (1918), the last painting by Marcel Duchamp (French / American, 1918 – 1968), one of the biggest icons to emerge from the Dadaist / Surrealist movement:
Tu m’; image taken from the Yale art gallery
The title has been said to be a shortening of the French “tu m’ennuies” or the more vulgar “tu m’emmerdes”; usually translated as “you bore me” (though other possibilities have been suggested too). This title may well express his feelings towards painting; an idea strengthened by the fact that this was his last work.
Some of his “greatest hits” are depicted here, namely his “readymades” (everyday objects transformed into art), which makes you wonder if he was also bored of those. Besides the color swatches, a representation of a readymade in itself, the shadows of his famous bicycle wheel (Bicycle Wheel, 1913) and the coat rack (Trap, 1917) can be seen here. These are the original readymades found in the painting:
Bicycle Wheel, Image taken from the MOMA website (this is a newer version, as the original is now lost)
Trap, Image taken from toutfait.com, an excellent site on M. Duchamp
Even though there are plenty of paintings that depict boredom in many different ways, what I find interesting on this particular one is that it goes one step further: What bores the artist is that which has defined him for a long time. Granted, you could argue that painting was only one of the many facets of Duchamp’s work, but then again, the silhouettes of the readymades makes me think that he is expressing boredom in a broader sense. And this in turn reminds me of Oscar Wilde (from “The Picture of Dorian Gray”):
“The only horrible thing in the world is ennui, Dorian. That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness”
Salmon has to be one of my favorite foods, and this was my dinner for tonight:
sesame oil (couple of tablespoons)
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
green onions (chopped)
1/2 cup peanut oil
Salmon was cooked in the oven (400° F), and the rice was simply cooked adding it to boiling water. Added corn kernels, and that was it. Next time I should leave the salmon to marinate for some hours.
Random songs that played while I was eating: