Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Starling from Segringen by Hebel

A starling may find it useful to have learnt something, but a man even more so.

The barber in a very reputable village – I shall call it Segringen, though it didn’t happen there, but hereabouts, and the one that it happened to (the man, not the starling) is perhaps reading this right now – the barber at Segringen had a starling, and his apprentice, who’s well-known in the district, taught him to speak. The starling not only learnt all the words set in these language lessons but also on his own accord copied what he had heard his master say, for example, ‘I’m the barber in Segringen.’ His owner had other expressions as well that he repeated on every occasion, for example, ‘So so, la la’, or ‘par compagnie’ (that means in company with others); or ‘God’s will be done!’ or ‘You fool!’ You see, that’s what he used to call the apprentice when he poured half the plaster on to the table instead of the cloth, or sharpened the back of the razor instead of the edge, or broke the medicine glass. In time the starling learnt all these phrases.

The barber also sold brandy, so there were many customers in his shop every day, and often there was much to laugh about when they were talking among themselves and the starling threw in a phrase and it fitted just as if he knew what it meant. And sometimes when the apprentice called to him, ‘What are you doing, Johnny?’ he answered, ‘You fool!’ and everyone in those parts could tell you about Johnny! Then one day when his clipped feathers had grown again and the window was open and the weather fine the starling thought: ‘I know enough by now to get by in the big world outside’, and he was out the window in a flash.

His first flight took him to the fields where he joined a flock of other birds, and when they flew up he went with them, for he thought, ‘They know the lie of the land better than I do.” But unfortunately they all flew together into a net. The starling said, ‘God’s will be done!’ When the birdcatcher came and saw what a big catch he had made he took the birds out carefully one by one, wrung their necks and threw them on the ground. But when all unsuspectingly he stretched his murdering hands towards one more catch, that catch cried, ‘I’m the barber of Segringen.’ Just as if he knew it would save his neck! The birdcatcher was scared at first, thinking something really weird was happening, but then when he recovered from his shock he laughed so much he nearly died. And when he said, ‘Johnny, I didn’t expect to find you here, how did you get into my net?’ Johnny replied, ‘Par compagnie.’

So the birdcatcher took the starling back to its owner and was well rewarded for his find. The barber’s business prospered, for everyone wanted to see the remarkable Johnny, and now everyone from miles around who wants to be bled goes to the barber at Segringen.

Remember: such things seldom happen to starlings. But many a young fellow who felt like spreading his wings and getting away from home has got into a mess ‘par compagnie’ and not got out of it.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Two Stories by Johann Peter Hebel

A Shave as an Act of Charity

A poor man with a black beard came into a barber’s shop and asked, for the love of God, not for a piece of bread, but a shave: would the barber kindly take off his beard so that he looked like a decent Christian again? The barber picked up his worst razor, thinking, ‘Why should I blunt a good one when he’s paying less than nothing?’ While he was scraping and hacking away at the poor wretch, who couldn’t complain since the bad job was being done for nothing, the dog started howling in the yard outside. ‘What’s up with Rover,’ said the barber. ‘to make whine and howl like that?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Mike. ‘Don’t ask me,’ sad Johnny. But the poor devil under the razor said, “ He must be being shaved for the love of God too, like me.’

Well Spoken, Badly Behaved

A farmer on a nobleman’s estate met the schoolmaster in the fields. ‘Schoolmaster, do you still stand by what you were telling the schoolchildren yesterday: “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”? The schoolmaster said, ‘I can’t change a word of it! It’s written in the gospel!’ So the farmer boxed his ears, both of them, for he had a long-standing grudge against him.

Meanwhile the nobleman was riding by a little way off with his gamekeeper. ‘Go and see what those two are up to over there, Joseph!’ And as Joseph came up, the schoolmaster, who was a sturdy fellow, boxed the farmer’s ears twice too, saying ‘It is also written: “With the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. Good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give unto your bosom”!’ And with that text he gave him another half dozen good blows to the side of his head. Joseph went back to his master and said, ‘There’s nothing to worry about, sir, they’re only discussing Holy Scripture among themselves!’

Remember: You must not try to argue about Holy Scripture if you don’t understand it, least of all the way they did. For that same night the nobleman had the farmer locked up for a week; and the schoolmaster, who should have had more sense and more respect for the Bible, was sent packing when school closed in the spring.

The Treasure Chest ( Schatzkastlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes, 1811) by Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826); translated from the German by John Hibberd, Penguin Books, 1994.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Wretched Donkey by Elias Canetti

I liked to return from my evening strolls through the streets of Marrakesh by way of the Djema el Fna. It was strange, crossing the great square as it lay almost empty. There were no acrobats any more and no dancers; no snake-charmers and no fire-eaters. A little man squatted forlornly on the ground, a basket of very small eggs before him and nothing and no one else anywhere near him. Acetylene lamps burned here and there; the square smelled of them. In the cookshops one or two men still sat over their soup. They looked lonely, as if they had nowhere to go. Around the edges of the square people were settling down to sleep. Some lay, though most squatted, and they had all pulled their hoods of their cloaks over their heads. Their sleep was motionless; you would never have suspected anything breathing beneath those dark hoods.

One night I saw a large dense circle of people in the middle of the square, acetylene lamps illuminating them in the strangest way. They were all standing. The dark shadows on the faces and figures, edged by the harsh light thrown on them by the lamps, gave them a cruel, sinister look. I could hear two native instruments playing and a man’s voice addressing someone in vehement terms. I went up closer and found a gap through which I could see inside the circle. What I saw was a man, standing in the middle with a stick in his hand, urgently interrogating a donkey.

Of all the city’s miserable donkey’s, this was the most pitiful. His bones stuck out, he was completely starved, his coat was worn off, and he was clearly no longer capable of bearing the least burden. One wondered how his legs still held him up. The man was engaged in a comic dialogue with him. He was trying to cajole him into something. The donkey remained stubborn, he asked him questions; and when he refused to answer, the illuminated onlookers burst out laughing. Possibly it was a story in which a donkey played a part, because after a lengthy palaver the wretched animal began to turn very slowly to the music. The stick was still being brandished above him. The man was talking faster and faster, fairly ranting now in order to keep the donkey going, but it sounded to me from his words as if he too represented a figure of fun. The music played on and on and the men, who now never stopped laughing had the look of man-eating or donkey- eating savages.

I stayed only a short time and so cannot say what happened subsequently. My repulsion outweighed my curiosity. I had long before conceived an affection for the donkeys of the city. Every step offered me occasion to feel indignant at the way we were treated, though of course there was nothing I could do. But never had quite such a lamentable specimen as this crossed my path, and on my way home I sought to console myself with the thought that he would certainly not last the night.

The next day was a Saturday and I went to the Djema el Fna early in the morning. Saturday was one of its busiest days. Onlookers, performers, baskets, and booths thronged the square; it was a job to make one’s way through the crowd. I came to the place where the donkey had stood the evening before. I looked, and I could hardly believe my eyes: there he was again. He was standing all by himself. I examined him closely and there was no mistaking him; it was he. His master was nearby, chatting quietly with a few people. No circle had formed around him yet. The musicians were not there; the performance had not yet begun. The donkey was standing exactly as he had the night before. In the bright sunshine his coat looked even shabbier than at night. I found him older, more famished, and altogether more wretched.

Suddenly I became aware of someone behind me and of angry words in my ear, words I did not understand. Turning, I lost sight of the donkey for a moment. The man I had heard was pressed right up against me in the crowd, but it became apparent that he had been threatening someone else and not me. I turned back to the donkey.

He had not budged, but it was no longer the same donkey. Because between his back legs, slanting forwards and down, there hung all of a sudden a prodigious member. It was stouter than the stick the man had been threatening him with the night before. In the tiny space of time in which I had had my back turned an overwhelming change had come over him. I do not know what he had seen, heard or smelled. But that pitiful, aged, feeble creature, who was on the verge of collapse and quite useless for anything more except as the butt of a comic dialogue, who was ‘treated worse that a donkey in Marrakesh’, that being, less than nothing, with no meat on his bones, no strength, no proper coat, still had so much lust in him that the mere sight absolved me of the impression caused by his misery. I often think of him. I remind myself how much of him was still there when I saw nothing left. I wish all the tormented his concupiscence in misery.

The Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti; translated from the German by J.S. Underwood; Marion Boyars, London; 1982 (1967)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Our Leading Technician of Otherness by Terry Eagleton

Like the rough ground of language itself, cultures ‘work’ exactly because they are porous, fuzzy-edged, indeterminate, intrinsically inconsistent, never quite identical with themselves, their boundaries continually modulating into horizons. They are sometimes, to be sure, mutually opaque: but when they can be mutually intelligible it is not by virtue of some shared metalanguage into which both can be translated, any more than English can be translated into Serbo-Croat only by dint of some third discourse which encompasses them both. If the ‘other’ finally lies beyond my comprehension, it is not because of cultural difference but because he is finally unintelligible to himself as well.

The case is put most suggestively by Slavoj Zizek, one of our leading technicians of otherness. What makes communication between different cultures possible, so Zizek argues, is the fact that the limit which prevents our full access to the Other is ontological, not merely epistemological. This sounds like making matters worse rather than better; but Zizek’s point is that what makes the Other difficult of access is the fact that he or she is never complete in the first place, never wholly determined by a context but always to some extent ‘open’ and ‘floating’. It would be like failing to grasp the meaning of a foreign word because of its inherent ambiguity, not because of our linguistic incompetence. Every culture, then, has an internal blindspot where it fails to grasp or be at one with itself, and to discern this, in Zizek’s view, is to understand that culture most fully.

It is at the point where the Other is dislocated in itself, not wholly bound by its context, that we can encounter it most deeply, since this self-opaqueness is also true of ourselves. I understand the Other when I become aware that what troubles me about it, its enigmatic nature, is a problem for it too. As Zizek puts it: “ The dimension of the Universal thus emerges when the two lacks – mine and that of the Other- overlap… What we and the inaccessible Other share is the empty signifier that stands for the X which eludes both positions.”*

The universal is that breach or fissure in my identity which opens it up from the inside to the Other, preventing me from fully identifying with any particular context. But this is our way of belonging to a context, not a way of lacking one. It belongs to the human situation to be ‘out of joint’ with any specific situation. And the violent disruption which follows from this connecting to the universal to a particular content is what we know as the human subject.

Human beings move at the conjuncture of the concrete and the universal, body and symbolic medium; but this is not a place where anyone can feel blissfully at home!

*Slavoj Zizek; The Abyss of Freedom/ Ages of the World (Ann Arbor, 1997) pp. 50 and 51
Terry Eagleton; The Idea of Culture; Blackwell Manifestos 2000

Monday, July 18, 2011

Friedrich Schiller by Frederick Unger

Don Carlos was first performed in Berlin in 1788. Schiller had reason to be satisfied with the initial success of his play. Yet, although he fully realized that he had produced a work immeasurably superior to his first three plays, he could not free himself from gnawing doubts about his qualifications as a dramatist or as a poet and creative writer in general. His habitual self-criticism did not allow him to overlook the fact that there were serious gaps in his education, both in knowledge and understanding.

A particularly impressive example of Schiller's thinking at this time is found in a letter addressed to his friend and early patron Gottfried Korner:

"It was with gentle shame - a feeling which does not depress but arouses a manly decision - that I looked back to a past I had abused in the most unfortunate dissipation. I sensed the bold inherent disposition of my talents, the failure of Nature's perhaps great intentions for me. One half was destroyed by the insane method of my education and the ugly mood of my fate, the other and greater one by myself. All that I felt most deeply, and in the general ferment and ardor of my feelings, my heart and my head were at one in the herculean vow- to make up for the past and star out anew in the noble race for the highest goal."

He did not feel that he was ready to satisfy the exacting requirements he expected every creative writer and poet to fulfill. Thus he reached a decision to dedicate the ensuing years to a rigorous discipline of self-training, accepting freely the implication that for a long time he would have to renounce all manner and form of poetic work. In fact, for fully a decade he wrote nothing for the stage and for several years not a single poem. The perseverance with which Schiller applied himself through-out the following years to his studies, first of history, then of the literature of the ancients, and finally of philosophy indicated the seriousness and severity of his self-criticism. It was not a passing mood.

Schiller’s subsequent historical writings, however, made such an impression on the public that many thought Schiller had only now found his true profession. The History of the Thirty Years’ War, published in three volumes between 1889-1791 had the greatest sales success ever enjoyed up to that time by a work of non-fiction in the German language! His historical work and other writings, combined with fee-per-student teaching responsibilities, were produced, however, by dint of fourteen hour workdays and with a complete disregard for his health. A consequence of this continuous exertion was physical collapse. Schiller developed a high fever, violent chest pains and pneumonia, for which the medical science of the day could offer nothing but palliatives.

Schiller’s recuperation progressed very slowly. The abdominal spasms and the pressure in his chest persisted with rare intervals of relief. On the basis of recent research, which is borne out by Schiller’s own precise statements, it is probable that suppuration from a pleurisy infection spread through his peritoneum and brought on a progressive paralysis of his abdominal organs. In the months and 14 years that followed he continued to suffer series of painful spells of dyspnea and came to realize that his days were numbered.

The pride and strength of a great soul rising triumphantly above toil and torment even while succumbing to it, the heroic greatness of mind and soul which he demanded as a thinker and depicted as a poet, he himself was now called upon to practice. It was a basic tenet of his philosophy that the true stature of a man is measured by the degree of his inner freedom, self-determination- his ability to flourish as an individual- for beyond the realm of matter there is a higher life which can only be won by the triumph of the spirit over the misery of the body and every form physical, social, economic and political misfortune, even in the face of death itself. He rose to the occasion. He lived his ideals

Friedrich Schiller; An Anthology For Our Time with an Account of His Life and Work by Frederick Unger; Unger Publishing; N.Y. 1959

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lenin in Zurich by Elias Canetti

I was twelve when I got passionately interested in the Greek wars of liberation, and that same year, 1917, was the year of the Russian Revolution. Even before his journey in the sealed freight car, people were talking about Lenin living in Zurich. Mother, who was filled with an insatiable hatred of the war, followed every event that might terminate it. She had no political ties, but Zurich had become a center for war opponents of the most diverse countries and sentiments. Once, when we were passing a coffeehouse, she pointed to the enormous skull of a man sitting near the window, a huge pile of newspapers lay next to him; he had seized one paper and held it close to his eyes. Suddenly he threw back his head, turned to a man sitting at his side and fiercely spoke away at him. Mother said: “Take a good look at him. That’s Lenin. You’ll be hearing about him.”

We had halted, she was slightly embarrassed about standing like that and staring (she would always reproach me for such impoliteness), but his sudden movement had struck into her, the energy of his jolting turn towards the other man had transmitted itself to her. I was amazed at the other man’s rich, black, curly hair, which so glaringly contradicted Lenin’s baldness right next to him; but I was even more astonished at Mother’s immobility. She said: “Come on, we can’t just stand here,” and she pulled me along.

A few short months later, she told me about Lenin’s arrival in Russia, and I began to understand that something important was happening. The Russians had had enough of the killing, and soon it would be finished, whether with or against the governments. She never called the war anything but “the killing.” Since our arrival in Zurich, she had talked about it very openly with me; in Vienna, she held back to prevent my having any conflicts in school. “You will never kill a person who hasn’t done anything to you,” she said beseechingly; and proud as she was of having three sons, I could sense how worried she was that we might too become such “killers” some day. Her hatred of war had something elemental to it: Once, when telling me the story of Faust, which she didn’t want me to read as yet, she disapproved of his pact with the devil. There was only one justification for such a pact: to put an end to war. You could even ally yourself with the devil for that, but not for anything else.

On some evenings, friends of Mother’s gathered in our home, Bulgarian and Turkish Sephardim, whom the war had driven to Zurich. Most of them were married couples, who were middle-aged but seemed old to me; I didn’t particularly like them, they were too Oriental for me and spoke only about uninteresting things.

One man came alone, widower, Herr Adjubel; he was different from the others. He carried himself erect and had opinions that he advocated with conviction, and he calmly and chivalrously let Mother’s vehemence, which afflicted him harshly, run off his back. He had fought in the Balkan war as a Bulgarian officer, had been seriously wounded, and left with an incurable ailment…

I preferred him to stay till the last. From his arguments with my mother, I learned a lot of things that were new to me. Herr Adjubel was in a very difficult situation. He was devoted to the Bulgarian army, perhaps even more than to Bulgaria. He was filled with the traditional pro-Russian sentiments of the Bulgarians, who owed Russia their independence from the Turks. And now he was having a rough time of it because the Bulgarians were on the side of Russia’s enemies. He would have certainly fought under these circumstances too, but with a tortured conscience, so perhaps it was good that he couldn’t fight. Yet now the situation had gotten more complicated through the new turn of events in Russia.

The fact that the Russians were leaving the war spelled, he thought, the destruction of of the Central Powers. The infection, as he called it, would spread, first the Austrian and next the German soldiers would want to stop fighting. But then what would become of Bulgaria? Not only would they have to bear the mark of Cain – ingratitude- towards their liberators forever, but all the powers would pounce on them as in the Second Balkan War and slice up the country among themselves. Finis Bulgariae!

One can imagine how Mother grabbed each point of his argument and tore it apart. Basically, she had everyone against her, for even though they welcomed a speedy end of the war, they regarded that end as a dangerous threat if brought by the activities of the Bolsheviks in Russia. They were all middle-class people, more or less well-to-do; those among them who came from Bulgaria feared the revolution would spread there; those who came from Turkey saw the old Russian foe, albeit wearing a new garb, in Constantinople. Mother didn’t care one way or the other. All that mattered to her was who truly wanted to end the war. She, who came from one of the wealthiest families in Bulgaria, defended Lenin. She couldn’t see the devil in him, as the others did, she saw a benefactor of mankind.

Herr Adjubel, with whom she actually fought, was the only one to understand her, for he had an opinion himself. He once asked her (it was the most dramatic moment of these get-togethers): “And if I were a Russian officer, Madame, and I were determined to keep fighting with my men against the Germans- would you have me shot?” She didn’t even hesitate: “I would have any man shot if he opposed the end of the war. He would be an enemy of mankind.”

She was not discouraged by the horror of the others –compromising businessmen and their sentimental wives. Everyone spoke at once: “What? You would have the heart to do that? You would have the heart to shoot Herr Adjubel?”

“He’s no coward. He knows how to die, he’s not like the rest of you – isn’t that so, Herr Adjubel?”

He was the one who agreed with her. “Yes, Madame, from your point of view, you would be right. You have the intransigence of a man. And are a true Arditti!”

These last words, which were a tribute (to her family, whom, in contrast to my father’s, I didn’t like at all), appealed less to me, but, I have to say, despite the vehemence of those exchanges, I was never jealous of Herr Adjubel, and when he succumbed to his illness a short time later, we both mourned him, and my Mother said; “It’s good that he didn’t live to see the collapse of Bulgaria.”

The Tongue Set Free, Part Four, ‘The Skull’ by Elias Canetti; translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Oracle at Claros by Robin Lane Fox

“Apollo at Colophon” is the god of the great oracular shrine at Claros, a major seat of the gods’ wisdom in the second and third centuries A.D. We have come to know it through excavation and finds of inscriptions. With their help, we can recapture the course of a consultation, for the ruins of the site support our best ancient description, a paragraph by Iamblichus, written in the early fourth century. He was not writing from personal experience, but he had found a good authority.

Visitors to the temple at Claros entered the sacred valley and approached through the big triple gate which stood before the shrine. Beyond it stretched the sacred grove, where there is now only dust, and a hundred yards or so to the north stood the alter and Doric temple of Apollo. The approaches were lined with statues on stone bases, many of which were statues of Romans from the late Republican age. The alter was enormous, as were the colossal statues of Apollo, Artemis and Leto, up to twenty feet high. On coins, we can see the particular type of Apollo, a huge half-naked divinity, seated at ease, whose right hand holds laurel and whose left rests on a lyre.

The god, we are told, was questioned by night, although not every night was fit for an inquiry. While visitors waited for a sacred night to fall, they prepared for the process which lay ahead. At the beginning of the second century A.D., we only know of a “prophet” in the inscriptions that have so far been published. This single spokesman fits the picture of the oracle which was drawn by the historian Tacitus, himself a governor of Asia Minor, and thus able, if he wished, to learn about the site. A priest, he said, was chosen from a fixed number of families and “generally summoned from Miletus.” This priest heard only the number and names of the consultants; then he went down into a “cave” and drank the sacred water. Although he was “generally ignorant of letters and poetry”, he gave responses on the “topics which each questioner had in mind.” Tacitus implies that the man’s method of answering was something of a miracle, and we must try to account for it. If the priest did not ask for his questioners’ questions, his verse responses can only have been general and rather stereotyped. Perhaps the god kept to certain familiar verses and “inspired” his priest to utter one or other set. One hostile visitor, Oenomaus the Cynic, called at the site, perhaps c. 120 A.D., and alleged that the same obscure verses were given out to different questioners.

By the mid-130s, however, the inscriptions reveal a change. The prophet is joined by a “thespode”, or “singer of oracles,” and unlike the prophet, this thespode serves for life. He brought a greater expertise, and the giving of the oracle was split between a priest, a prophet, the thespode and a secretary. How are they likely to have shared out the work?

Iamblichus tells us that “many religious rites” were performed before the god was consulted. A sacrifice on the great alter was surely one of them, and a natural official for this rites was the priest. We know, too, from inscriptions that some of the visitors were initiated into a mystery rite, apparently as a preliminary to the consultation, As elsewhere, these rites would involve expense: one leader of a city’s delegation to the oracle assisted the initiation of all the young choirboys who he led, “out of love of honor and the god,” and presumably paid the bill himself. These secret rites greatly enhanced the occasion. Meanwhile, the envoys were waiting for the appointed night, and while they waited, they talked. No doubt they talked to the priest and the secretary and probably the thespode, too, telling them about their city and their problems, and starting the simple process by which a good counseling service works. They gave away enough to suggest and answer before they asked the question for which they had come. The temple staff listened innocently and so, therefore, did Apollo. There was no conscious fraud, no insincerity. Mortals could not bother gods without preparation, as god would rebuke a questioner who asked to abruptly for too much.

As the night approached, the prophet himself was absent. Iamblichus tells us that he fasted for a day and a night before the consultation began, and he also tells us of his withdrawal to “shrines untrodden by the crowds,” where he abstained from human business and prepared to receive the god “untarnished.”

When the sacred night fell and the lamps had been lit in the sanctuary, the staff and questioners met by torchlight before Apollo’s temple. Above them loomed the colossal statues of the gods. The prophet reappeared, and together they prepared for the journey to the inner shrine. “Entering” or ‘crossing of the threshold” was an extra ceremony which only a few of the clients chose, on the evidence, those who had been initiated into the mystery’s rites.

By the light of torches, the prophet, thespode and perhaps the secretary stooped into one of the two low tunnels which ran underground to Apollo’s sacred spring. They bent themselves for a journey through a low, narrow corridor which was roofed in marble of a deep shade of midnight blue. The corridor ran for some thirty yards and changed directions seven times before it stopped at the door of two underground chambers. Here was Tacitus’s “cavern”, vaulted suitably in stone. The sides of the first room were fitted with stone benches and housed an “omphalos,” or navel stone, of deep blue marble, like the famous omphalos at Delphi. It signified that they had reached the oracular center of the earth.

A narrow corridor led from the first chamber to the second room, where the god kept his sacred spring. The spring survived to reward its French excavators only thirty years ago, for the water table is high at Claros, and its rise hampers access to the tunnels. The prophet, we must assume, passed into this inner chamber. Iamblichus states clearly that the prophet, not the thespode, drank the water, and on this point, too, we must follow him. He helps us make sense of their relationship. The prophet has not eaten for a whole day, and was primed by his rites and his hours of isolation. Whenever he drinks the god’s water, says Iamblichus, he “is not in control of himself and does not follow what he is saying or where he is so that he finds it hard to recover himself even after uttering his oracle. Was this inspired utterance really cast immediately in neat iambic verse? Some of the surviving oracles are metrical tours de force and they make this notion impossible. There was, after all, a thespode. First came the incoherent sounds of inspiration, induced by the solemn occasion and the expectations which surrounded the sip of Apollo’s water. Then came the second, ordered voice, the voice of the thespode, or “singer of oracles,” who put into intricate verses the basic message which Apollo had inspired. The thespode had had a day and more in which to reflect and to listen to his questioner’s news. By divine insight, Apollo’s verses neatly matched the problem in hand.

Questioners who had stayed above ground heard these sounds at a distance as they echoed through the underground corridors of stone. If they were sitting in the antechamber, they had the thrill of closer proximity. Perhaps the secretary sat with them on the benches, taking down the thespode’s version in the recently developed skill of shorthand before the words had slipped from human memory. Together again, the temple staff and their clients branched off down a second tunnel and turned seven times through a similar maze of midnight blue. Then they emerged into the sacred night, the blaze of torches and the lingering smoke of incense.

Such was the consultation which lay behind the words inscribed on the walls of the city of Oenoanda. The “questioners,” surely, were people from that city who had gone to the oracle at Claros to ask “What is the nature of God?” The prophet muttered, the thespode took up the challenge in verses of the best oracular theology which was known to his age:

Self-born, untaught, motherless, unshakeable,
Giving place to no name, many-named, dwelling in fire,
Such is God: we are a portion of God, his angels.
This, then, to the questioners of God’s nature
The god replied, calling him all-seeing Ether: to him, then look
And pray at dawn, looking out to the east.