Thursday, March 23, 2000

Herodotus and R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Lately, we at Classics Corner have been annoying our dwindling circle of friends with stories from Herodotus, the fifth century historian who first established digression as a serious art form.

For example, within his story of the rise and fall of King Apries, who ruled Egypt from 588-569 BC, our guide Herodotus informs us off-handedly that “In Egypt there are seven classes, which are called, respectively, priests, warriors, cowherds, swineherds, shopkeepers, interpreters, and pilots.”

Classes in Egypt were primarily, it seems, associated with occupational status, and only secondarily with economic position. This got me to thinking about our own class structure, which hopelessly confuses most of us, and how it might look if we took a similar approach.

Movie stars would clearly be our royalty, and not just because they are obscenely and unjustifiably rich. We admire the high moral tone of Susan Sarandon, the glibness of Billy Crystal, and the preternaturally huge mouth of Julia Roberts. We aspire to the beefcake sensitivity of Bruce Willis, the passionate intelligence of Denzel Washington, and the empty charm of Tom Cruise. We are all idolaters, basking in the aura of the unreal.

Next, perhaps, would come rich software geeks. Herodotus tells a story about Amasis, a warrior who challenges Apries for the throne. When the King summons Amasis, the warrior lifts himself from his horse, farts, and tells the messenger “take that back to the King.” If one substitutes Bill Gates and the Justice Department, the parallel is immediately clear.

Cowherds and swineherds were respected for their proximate relation to the sacred. These would now be known as “consultants,” that shadowy variety of “knowledge worker” that gets several hundred dollars an hour for having mastered the arcane ability to utter phrases that none of us understand.

Egyptians, like the Greeks after them, held shopkeeping in relatively low regard. That was more of a Phoenician thing. We, on the other hand, respect private initiative, although we actually shop at Costco, Borders, and Home Depot, thus ensuring our children a monolithic future of highly controlled labor at the hands of others.

And speaking of the future, while teachers are not at rock bottom, they must be close. My sister-in law is a grade school teacher. She gets to form young minds without the benefit of books, supplies, or a school system that gives a shit about children. She may as well be a prison guard. In fact, she’d get paid a lot more if she was.

Pilots, in Egypt, were on the bottom. These, I think, were the many. They were the people who dragged the stones for the pyramids. They dug the canals from the Nile, and built the massive walls that surrounded their cities.

In short, they were the people who did all the work.

I always laugh when I talk to professionals who say they work hard and deserve their pay. I think of landscapers, dishwashers, and factory workers. I think of seamstresses and childcare workers and hospital attendants, many of whom work several jobs to make ends meet. And then I think that if hard work and high pay had any correlation at all, things for most of us would be very different.

Sunday, March 12, 2000

Homer Flies Like Bird

To the dismay of some and probable relief of many, we’ve decided to take a short rest from the political diatribe you’ve come to expect from Classics Corner to briefly reflect on the obvious similarities between Homer and bop saxophonist Charlie the Birdman Parker.

Bird, one of the great jazz players of all time, knew thousands of songs and could drop bits of blues, tin pan alley, hillbilly or classical music into any tune at just the right place and time to create something perfectly of the moment. He played games with harmonics and rhythm and pitch to create a completely distinctive style that was either pure genius or pure crap, depending upon one’s taste.

Homer, another improviser of note, had a similar method. He took bits and pieces of a vast repertoire of styles and riffs and created a thing of amazing beauty, versatility and genius.

Centuries of bards had come before him, and their vowelly songs of Achilles and Briseus, Odysseus and Penelope, Helen and Paris were the Top 40 Hit Parade of Greece. They didn’t recite. Their audiences wouldn’t have stood for it. That was dead. They improvised on the spot, using formulas like rosy-fingered dawn and white-armed Hera and strong-greaved Achilles to mesmerize their audiences with perfectly metered poetry that riffed on familiar storylines like Parker blowing White Christmas.

Homer, in all probability, learned his licks within the brotherhood of bards, and, like Bird, transcended. While classicists agree on few things about Homer, most doubt he was a writer in the sense we would think. He was an oral poet, taking the pieces of his culture, and arranging them in ways we still recognize as perfect 2,800 years later.

Snobs that we are, Classics Corner is always amazed by how people can listen to, oh, say, Parker’s Ornithology, and all they hear is a bunch of annoying repetition which they will go great lengths to flee.

Repetition is where improvisation breathes. You hear the small differences. You focus on the rhythms. It’s a break from the intensity of creation where you relax for a moment and drift happily into the familiar.

Homer’s audience got this. When Agamemnon gives the delegation to Achilles his incredible list of gifts, ranging from golden tripods to daughters in marriage, many find it annoying that Odysseus, like some kind of ancient transcription device, repeats the list verbatim only pages later. Yet this was how poet and audience alike got a break from the concentration demanded by spontaneous performance. It was a welcome island of familiarity, like Parker riffing out on a phrase of Jingle bells when he’s off wandering God knows where.

No one really knows when Homer was frozen into the written word, and we’ll never know what it was to hear Homer sing. The bard was replaced by the rhapsodist, who, instead of creating in the moment, recited from memory. Imagine never being able to hear Bird do Ornithology, and the best we could do was to hear Kenny G play the notes. And then the rhapsodist over time became the hack. Imagine a muzak version of Kenny G ripping off Bird.

You can still hear him blow: “Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son …”

That Homer cat must really have been something.