It’s been awhile since my last post! Things at school this quarter have been quite busy. Now that winter break has come, here’s an update about what’s been happening as far as my academic work is concerned.
As some of you may know, I am currently working on my Classics senior thesis project, focusing on Homer’s Odyssey. Over the summer, I re-read the entire epic to get ready for the project. I also began working through some articles and books recommended to me by my thesis advisor, Prof. Daniel Turkeltaub, based on my preliminary topic: the role of food and feasting in the Odyssey. That was where things stood as of my last post. Since then, an entire quarter of research has passed, so here’s what been going on.
The role of food in the Odyssey is a huge topic, so the first step as I began my research was to narrow the focus of my project. I decided to discuss the specific intersection between food and another area, so I wouldn’t need to discuss every aspect of food.
As I was reading the Odyssey again, I noticed many scenes in which eating or drinking affects memory. Most famously, eating the Lotus-Flower makes Odysseus’ companions forget their need to go home. I began to wonder what the connection was between acts of consumption and remembering. I went to the original Greek to figure out what memory meant to the ancient Greeks, and I found that memory is tied to life, energy, and action. So the connection with food probably has to do with the biological energy we’re putting into our bodies and minds.
After doing some more reading, I discovered that there is also a social component. Eating and drinking together provide an occasion for the telling of stories, the recollection of the “good old days,” and the swapping of memories. In the Odyssey, this connection between food, drink, and memory occurs in the context of ancient Greek hospitality, or xenia, as hosts seek to give their guests a nice meal and good entertainment.
From there, I will say that the tie between memory and items of sustenance occurs within social structures, and that when Odysseus travels outside of civilization, these structures are broken, and as a result, the relationship between food, drink, and memory fails to function properly, with disastrous consequences.
There are a few more ideas that will follow this, including the importance of this connection in sustaining human life and society, and what happens to those who are denied these essential social ties. But those ideas are still unclear, so we’ll see what comes up as I continue my research. In the next quarter, I am supposed to create an outline and begin writing, so wish me luck!
Latin – Seneca
In addition to my senior thesis, I also took a regular load of language classes.
For my advanced Latin course, I read Phaedra, a tragedy by the Roman author Seneca, in which Phaedra, wife of Theseus, falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, and accuses him of rape when he refuses her advances. After her husband curses his own son, leading to his death, Phaedra kills herself in guilt. The main issue of the play is the danger of uncontrolled love and passion.
Although Seneca was a major player in Roman drama, he’s more well-known as a Stoic, part of a school of philosophy (Stoicism), which emphasized rational decision-making and following one’s given role in the order of the universe. For years, scholars have struggled to reconcile his philosophical views on reason and control of the self with the destructiveness of emotion and passion and revenge portrayed in his plays. But Seneca seems to be suggesting that it’s not easy to be a Stoic, and that, unfortunately and tragically, passions tend to win out in the end, meaning that we should actually work that much harder to become the ideal, rational Stoic.
As a tutor and advisor to Nero, Seneca tried to keep a lid on the violent and power-hungry tendencies of the emperor. His life ended when he was accused of conspiring against Nero and forced to commit suicide–an ending that mirrored the tragic world of his plays.
Later dramatists in the Renaissance would be influenced by Seneca’s work. Shakespeare would pick up on the following elements of Senecan drama and adapt them in new ways:
- the dark power of spirits and ghosts from the underworld
- powerful, manipulative figures intent on revenge
- gruesome depictions of death and dismemberment
- huge moral transgressions with cosmic consequences
Greek – Aristophanes
For advanced Greek, I read Aristophanes’ Acharnians, a comedy in which Dikaiopolis, a citizen of Athens tired of war, makes his own private peace with Sparta. The play depicts the huge and absurd benefits he earns–food, wine, sex, power, etc.–as he creates his new world of peace, in order to argue against the destructive horrors of war.
We covered many topics in this class, but here are two aspects that interested me:
- Digestion mirrors the political power dynamics of this comedic world. I wrote my paper for this class about this idea. Those who eat and drink have power, while those who lack food and drink or are themselves “eaten” have no power. This occurs literally with actual food items or wine, as well as with metaphoric language concerning digestion.
- Politics is portrayed as a form of theatre, with politicians “performing” for their “audience members,” the citizens of Athens. The point is to unmask the falsehoods inherent in politics, to reveal politicians as fools participating in the farce of political theatre, and also to show us, the citizens of a democracy, as idiots for actually believing what politicians tell us.
During the next quarter, I will continue with my thesis work, but I will also be taking a couple of additional classes. I’ve exhausted my elective units on “fun” classes (i.e. language classes, my idea of fun), so I now need to move on to courses applicable to major and core requirements.
I will taking a fascinating course on public art in democracies, featuring a comparison between ancient Athens and modern America. I can’t say for sure what will come out of this comparison, but I suspect that the ancient Athenians with their publicly-funded tragedies and comedies and their massive Parthenon saw a lot more civic importance in public art than we currently do. Americans used to emphasize public art a lot more (just look at Washington, D.C.’s famous monuments!) but that has disappeared in recent years.
To complete a requirement unrelated to my Classics major, I will take an art history class about Native American cultures, which will include the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incans. It will be interesting to move away from ancient Greece and Rome for a bit and to approach cultures that I don’t know so much about. I have always been fascinated by the Mayans and their ability to bring science and astronomy into their religious rituals, so it this will be a great opportunity to learn about them.
So, that’s what’s been going on with my academic work. In my next post, I will tell you about what to expect from this blog as we wrap up this year and head into 2016. Stay tuned!