Hearing Drums – NMP 1/20/17

The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. Thoreau, Reading, Walden.

For weeks, I’ve heard the pounding. Sometimes it’s the sudden pick-up of my heart, when a new vulgarity arrives from our president-(sort of)elect; other times, it’s the full-throated narcissism of another me-ist intent on unmooring us from any collective will to do good. Such drums have kept me awake at night, distracted me from the day’s work. Even when I walk to the woods, as I do daily, their thrumming sometimes insists.

When in search of larger wisdom, Henry Thoreau, it seems to me, turned often to the ancient Greeks, famously keeping, for example, a copy of The Iliad by his bed while at the pond. When it comes to apprehending the pulse of human behavior, they’ve not yet been surpassed. And in this loud run-up to Friday’s inauguration (I note the word “augur” embedded), I’ve found myself returned to the strangeness of a play I’ve read many times, Euripides’, The Bakkhai.

The_bakkhai-210

“No more drums,” cries Pentheus, the newly-crowned, 17-year-old king of Thebes, in this ancient play about madness. Here, the king (inexperienced and untested) gets a visit from Dionysos, himself a new god and intent on gaining followers, but one who already knows the power of impulse in human affairs. Dionysos assumes the disguise of a 17-year-old priest, and so joins Pentheus in a late-adolescent contest for control. It is an unequal match-up, young authoritarian versus god of impulse, and everyone but Pentheus can see that the priest is something else, something otherworldly. This, the people of Thebes can see, will not end well. For their king, and so, for them.

And it doesn’t, as Dionysos chooses the particularly cruel avenue of Pentheus’ desires – scarcely understood by the king – as a way to lure him into a trap, where he is torn limb from limb by a pack of women, led by his mother. Pentheus is such a hothead, so intent on being (becoming) “the man” that one has to work at finding sympathy for him. Still, to be shredded by mother…well, at least a tear or two there, if not a primary fear. And Dionysos is implacable force, intent on being worshipped; little else matters, including his own followers, who have left their homes for the promise of joy and a better life, and now find themselves stranded in a foreign land.

It has taken me some time to sort all these drums and drummings, but now I see that Euripides has fashioned a play – his last, some think – that cautions against ungoverned impulse (within and without), and it has returned to my mind because we seem to be entering an era where such impulse is the loudest of tweets, a form that is all impulse. The president-elect (sort of) seems a joining of both 17-year-olds in The Bakkhai, a colossal neediness for control and regard.

The play does not end well for Thebes either. Shorn of its governing force by Pentheus’s death, it is open to the rest of the world’s ill will and predation. And Dionysos, intent on himself, is ready to move on – where can I go next to spread the joy of me, and get worship in return?

Henry Thoreau used to listen to celebrations of independence and self in Concord village at a distance; from Walden, the volleys of expressive cannons sounded like “pop” guns, or toys. Thoreau also revered the Greeks, though I’ve not found indication that he read The Bakkhai, even as I suspect he must have. But I wonder if any metaphorical pond lies at enough distance from today’s distant tweets and the roar of self-worship? Or, if, unlike the Thebans, it’s time to plunge in and roar back at this odd amalgam, this president of impulse?

Reader’s Note: This play repays reading many times over, and Robert Bagg’s translation is very fine. When I checked a while ago, it was out of print, but I have found it in used bookstores. Also, new translations continue to appear; it is truly a timeless, or well timed play.

Leave a Comment

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

Snow in the Air

It is, despite its common nature, an enduring mystery. How does the air thicken with snow that, finally, seems never to land?

IMG_1522

I’m in the mountains, a long way from Henry Thoreau’s winter flatlands, and the temperature is an expressive 0, and the wind squeezes through this notch to offer some answer. These snowflakes, wrung by the hills enduring upthrust from a passing cold front, are whisper light and the coursing air chases them down and then up, spins them by me. Where it fronts a ridge, the wind goes up; so too the snow. This then isn’t snowfall, it’s snowhirl. And when I go in a few minutes to walk up for a few hours, it won’t be underfoot at all.

Still it flies; it furs over vision; it is everywhere alive. I feel like adamant stone, kin to these ridges beneath its passage.

IMG_1527

 

And now for a walk along them, following the snow up.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost

John Thoreau and the Rusted Edge

By Corinne H. Smith

It’s one of the tragic stories in Henry Thoreau’s life: the loss of his brother John to lockjaw on January 11, 1842. John had been sharpening a razor when he cut his finger. Tetanus quickly set in. And he died a painful death of lockjaw in his brother’s arms days later. Henry was devastated to lose his brother and best friend.

How can we not think of John Thoreau anytime the possibility of tetanus comes up? Here’s something that happened to me a few years ago. It hardly matches the horror of John Thoreau’s death. But it was no less real to me.

I like lighting candles, especially for creative inspiration. The only trouble is that the little glass globes I use end up with unmelted wax at the bottom. That’s when I get out my trusty flat-head screwdriver to dig the wax out. Soon the wax pops out and the container is ready for another candle.

Careful work

Deliberate work

A few years ago, I was digging out the last wax from one of these globes when I heard a crack and felt pain at the same time. The globe had broken and the screwdriver had dug right into the palm of my hand. Yikes!

This screwdriver is my all-purpose tool. I use it for everything. My father gave it to me when I was young, so that I could “help” him with light maintenance around the house. So yes, it’s old and, yes, it’s rusty. My immediate thought was that I hadn’t gotten a tetanus shot in a long time. My second thought was of the image of John Thoreau dying in Henry’s arms.

I picked as many pieces of glass out of my hand as I could. I cleaned up the blood — although with this puncture wound, there wasn’t too much of it. And I made a phone call to my general physician.

When I got into the doctor’s office, he asked the usual, “What brings you in today?” I told him about the candle and the screwdriver. I said I needed a tetanus shot. I lifted the bandage, and he looked at the wound. Then he walked over to the supply cabinet to get the shot ready.

“I have to tell you, whenever patients come in here, it’s not usually to get a tetanus shot,” he said.

That’s when I started blabbering. I told him the story of John and Henry Thoreau: the cut finger, the tetanus, the death by lockjaw. The doctor listened quietly to my rambling; then he dug the needle into my arm. I turned my head away so that I wouldn’t see it. The whole process took only a minute or two. Soon he was back at his counter, cleaning up.

“So, I’m not going to die of lockjaw?” I asked.

“You are not going to die of lockjaw,” he said.

“Does anyone die of lockjaw anymore?”

“In the United States? Probably not.” Good to know.

I thanked him and walked back out to the reception desk. I didn’t have health insurance at the time, so I started digging out my checkbook, expecting that the bill would be at least twenty or thirty dollars.

“That’ll be five dollars today,” the receptionist said.

“Really? That’s all?”

She looked down at the chart again. “That’s what he has written down,” she said.

I was amazed. Did the doctor cut me a break because I was seemingly traumatized by something that happened more than a century and a half ago? I half-think that he did. And I have a feeling that if I had had health insurance, the bill would have been a lot higher. I was grateful.

Eventually I had to have minor surgery to remove a leftover piece of glass from my hand, and I can still feel a tiny piece of wax that’s in there. Naturally, I think of John Thoreau every time I do. I feel sorry that John and Henry had to go through their tragedy. I welcome the medical advancements we’ve achieved since 1842.

But I’m a bit more careful these days, whenever I take my trusty (and still rusty) screwdriver to the remainders of my candles. In an odd sort of way, I have John Thoreau to thank for making me more cautious.

Leave a Comment

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, News and Events, The Roost