Sunday, May 26, 2013

tumbling from a towery height

But the setting isn't essential and nothing occurs in a void no matter how ardently void is wanted, universe not transformed by willpower rolled up in human bone and you can't be where you want to be as John McCarthy of Port Adelaide discovered when he tried to climb off the roof of the Flamingo Hotel-Casino onto a palm tree thence to the ground and died, the consciousness erased from its residence, no more football for him, no more running onto the ground through walls of crêpe paper, the beard maybe getting longer however, as hair is supposed to do after death, though this is only the flesh receding due to dehydration and not the zombie existence of the many follicles, eating brains and fleeing into the world.

Thinking of this as Ian McKellen is reading Richard Fagles' translation of the Odyssey on audiobook and Elpenor on the roof, drunk and rolling, falls and perishes, same description applicable to the fictional man as to the fleshy one: he was under the influence of something, he was on a roof, he fell to the ground and broke his bones. In Book Ten Elpenor falls, in Book Eleven Odysseus meets him again as he is visiting the underworld. "What happened to you?" asks Odysseus, weeping, who didn't know until this moment that the other man had died.

I did not tend
My way well down, but forwards made a proof
To tread the rounds, and from the very roof
Fell on my neck, and brake it; and this made
My soul thus visit this infernal shade.


My feet, through wine unfaithful to their weight,
Betray'd me tumbling from a towery height:
Staggering I reel'd, and as I reel'd I fell,
Lux'd the neck-joint -- my soul descends to hell.


Fool’d by some dæmon and the intemp’rate bowl,
I perish’d in the house of Circe; there
The deep-descending steps heedless I miss’d,
And fell precipitated from the roof.
With neck-bone broken from the vertebræ
Outstretch’d I lay; my spirit sought the shades.


God's doom and wine unstinted on me the bane hath brought.
I lay on the house of Circe, and waking had no thought
To get me aback and adown by the way of the ladders tall:
But downright from the roof I tumbled, and brake my neck withal
From the backbone, and unto Hades and his house my soul must fare.

(William Morris)

... it was all bad luck, and my own unspeakable drunkenness. I was lying asleep on the top of Circe's house, and never thought of coming down again by the great staircase but fell right off the roof and broke my neck, so my soul down to the house of Hades.

(Samuel Butler)

... an evil doom of some god was my undoing, and measureless wine. When I had lain down to sleep in the house of Circe I did not think to go to the long ladder that I might come down again, but fell headlong from the roof, and my neck was broken away from the spine and my spirit went down to the house of Hades.

(A.T. Murry)

Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe's ingle
Going down the long ladder unguarded
I fell against the buttress,
Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus

(Ezra Pound in the Cantos, book one)

... an evil doom of some god was my bane and wine out of measure. When I laid me down on the house-top of Circe I minded me not to descend again by the way of the tall ladder, but fell right down from the roof, and my neck was broken off from the bones of the spine, and my spirit went down to the house of Hades.

(S. Butcher and A. Lang)

... some god’s hostile decree was my undoing, and too much wine. I lay down to sleep in Circe’s house, and forgetting the way down by the long ladder fell headlong from the roof. My neck was shattered where it joins the spine: and my ghost descended, to the House of Hades.

(A.S. Kline)

utters startled John McCarthy on the shores of a dark river.

Elpenor making me jump when he appeared in Ian McKellen's reading because the other second-tier characters in the poem had been given names only because they were in conference with one of the characters in the tier above them, one minor suitor disagreeing with the major suitor -- and suddenly named -- or one of Ulysses' followers saying to the big boss-man, O Ulysses, we should do this -- and suddenly named. Names sprout upon their heads, they have gained heads, the tumor of the character has been generated, the bit of disagreeing sand has produced this monicker'd oyster.

But Elpenor arrived in the way that a stranger arrives in the first paragraph of a news article, not much context, no reason for it to be that name and not another, not "John McCarthy, the well-known football player, has fallen off the roof," which shatters a display of athleticism that you might have thought was going to go on for another ten years at least -- but a name that nobody knows, interrupting nothing continuous, Jill Edwards, let's say, whoever she is, hit by a tree and died, well, or the teenage boy in the Las Vegas newspaper, run over and killed when a robber tried to drag the iPad out of his hands into the van, the owner of a name I'd never heard and never would have heard if not for that.

I don't think any of the other characters in the Odyssey appeared again in that lonely way. Elpenor dies and then his life in the poem begins, now he can talk to Odysseus, he mentions his family, he forms that attachment to the first-tier character, he fleshes himself out, but only because the self that he was not (having no life outside words) has died. You realise that if he hadn't died he would never have existed. The teenage boy too, words, only words, surfacing and then collapsing, no further activity from him, the ideas surging up, the ideas collapsing and becoming nothing, waves and waves, Homer attaching motifs to some ideas and then repeating them, trying to stave off the collapse of that wave, the hiss, the shape of a thought collapsing into the sand, sinking into the dry sand, and vanishing, nothing present for long, all sucked back, all sucked down.

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