Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eros is a floor wax AND a dessert topping

In a nutshell: An old Saturday Night Live sketch helps me teach my classical mythology students about the double life of Eros as mythological god and philosophical concept in Plato's Symposium.

Part of my approach to classical mythology involves creating awareness of Greek gods and goddesses as personifications of nature and humanity. When mythology moves into philosophy, as in Plato's Symposium, the double life of Eros as both god of desire and concept of desire is one of the richest aspects of the text, but also the most subtle and complex to teach. As so often, I leverage a page from popular culture for a metaphor that will help my students wrap their head around an idea: like new Shimmer, Eros is both a floor wax AND a dessert topping.

I'm not sure how much explanation this really needs, but I can go into a little more detail. My take on mythology is really less about gods, goddesses, heroes, monsters, heroic quests, and underground journeys than it is about mythology as a type of knowledge of the past and what happens to mythology after the Greeks invent history. History is another type of knowledge of the past. To some extent, mythology and history are at odds. But, as I tell my students, Greek history cannot escape its mythological past. So Herodotus explains the Persian Wars in terms of mythological stories of abducted maidens like Io, Medea, and Helen, and Thucydides, for all his vaunted rationalism, nevertheless treats Minos and Agamemnon as historical rather than mythological figures.

I like to say things like "Greek history cannot escape its mythological past." I also tell my students that, after the Greeks invent history, "mythology takes refuge in Greek tragedy." Thus, we see mythological figures walking, talking, doing and being in a historical world. For Aeschylus and Sophocles, this historicizing of myth / mythologizing of history is done in fairly good faith. Myth becomes a medium for exploring political and ethical dilemmas, or perhaps more accurately, the ethical dilemmas of political life (political in its Greek sense of life in cities). For Euripides, I believe, it becomes a slug fest. In his Orestes, for example, Apollo blithely rewrites the Odyssey, marrying Hermione off to Orestes even though he knows that's not how the story goes. "I know she's supposed to marry somebody else (Neoptolemos I think)" Apollo says (in Anne Carson's brilliant translation), "but I'll see to it he dies." And when Herakles in Euripides' Herakles contemplates suicide after realizing that he has killed his wife and children in a fit of divinely inspired madness, Theseus chides (again in Anne Carson's translation), "Threats are no use, the gods don't care."

Then along comes philosophical dialogue, à la Plato. Philosophy likewise competes with mythology, not as a type of knowledge about the past, but rather as a type of knowledge about nature and humanity. But philosophy, like historiography, is an activity that takes place with the invention of history as a backdrop. And again, the mythological past is inescapable. Thus, we come to Plato's Symposium, a series of speeches in honor of Eros, the god of love and (sexual) desire. These speeches, however, are plagued with constant slippage between Eros with a capital "E," meaning the god of desire, and eros with a small "e," meaning the concept of desire: a floor wax AND a dessert topping.

This slippage reaches its farthest limit when Socrates asks Agathon (in Seth Benardete's flawless translation), "is Eros the sort that is love of something or of nothing?" In English, we say/write "Eros" for the god of desire, and "love" for the concept of desire; but in the original Greek, both words are the same: E-R-O-S. Even the use of capital letters and lower case letters in the Greek text is a modern invention; so for Plato and his contemporary readers, there would be no visible or audible difference between the two words, and one can only guess what sensible difference there would be. Can we even really imagine how freaky that is? Makes me think of the old optics experiment where you draw a bird on one side of a card, a cage on the other, tape the card to the top of a pencil, and rotate the pencil fast between the palms of your hands, so that, due to the inability of your brain to differentiate the rapidly alternating images, the bird AND a cage becomes a bird IN a cage.

Of course, it's probably due to ideas like these that I don't have a tenure-track job as a classics professor right now! But I won't let that stop me. I'll continue to teach my students the really interesting stuff that they didn't even know existed, rather than the merely fun stuff they can just as easily find on the Internet.

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