♫…for someone you adore,
It’s a pleasure to be sad ♫
(“Glad to Be Unhappy” Rogers and Hart,
as sung by The Mamas & The Papas)
As our little, brindle-dog spun under the leash I held at the foot of a tree, to poop, my eyes wandered to the long feathery crack between the heaved sidewalk slabs I realized was a deckle-edged train of tens of thousands of tiny ants. Then up the cracked trunk, you couldn’t help but follow as it narrowed and then thrust out into arms that twisted off into narrow limbs that it being spring were naked but jutting twigs pregnant with buds about to burst green longing over such a sky, and it was staggering. And when we crossed to go back our way, we stopped a second and down the street to where late-afternoon gathered a yellow that was nearly white, all along each side the trees that stood sparsely clustered together into an endless forest, from what had been a view of one. Then I thought how I might start an essay that asked what good poetry was, and what it might be for.
An asshole, or a precocious undergrad, would begin an essay “Thucydides said,” but I’ll imitate a pedant to write instead “Thoukydides.” It occurs to me after the fact I write it not out of pedantry but as a signpost to highlight the strangeness of things we’ve come to accept as facts without question that turn out to be just one layer of endless layers of transformation. Θουκυδίδης is how a Byzantine scribe may have scratched the name in ink onto parchment, writing in skin-books scraped of hair and stretched. And ΘΟΥΚΥΔΙΔΗΣ is closer to how the man himself may have seen his name as he wrote it, in Athens nearly 2,500 years ago, as the first word in his history of the Peloponnesian war, in which he’d served as a general.
Thucydides could hardly have imagined the transformation his words would undergo, in their translations of time and space, from text to scribe and word to eye, eye to mouth to mind (written without punctuation of any kind, ancient texts were most often read aloud for understanding), when he said he would write his history as a possession (κτῆμά) for all time (αἰεὶ – ever and ever), but he had already made a philosophical leap beyond the Great King who in Persia inscribed his own history in foot-high letters carved into a mountain. Thucydides hopefully acknowledged the permanence of what we’ve come to call literature.
While we’re still a hair’s breadth away from eternity, given his work’s impressive survival, I think we can say he succeeded on these terms. But in his intro, Thucydides seems to sanction the work of another historian, his predecessor Herodotus, whose monumental histories also survive, censuring (without naming him) romanticism against the dryness of his own history which he calls “supremely pleasureless” (ἀτερπέστερον). Thucydides account is grounded in the time and circumstance of the war, serving in some ways as a defense of his own conduct as a general on the losing side, gritty, dry, and full of facts, while Herodotus spins a tale that stretches back to myth and is filled with a wealth of ethnographic details of people and towns, bizarre animals from far-away realms, dreams, poets, naked barbarian queens, and ensigns falling from the skies.
Herodotus was the first historian, and his writing was born out of epic poetry. The poet, Greek for maker, produced an εἰκόνα, an icon, an image in a mirror, a likeness of reality. Plato cast poets and all practitioners of the plastic arts out of his perfect Republic as fabricators of shadows, but his philosophy is written in words, as shadows, so even Plato bowed to the necessity of communication as a bulwark against the passing of time. Herodotus announced his history as a way of glorifying the past, making a lasting, vibrant image, but also sought the αἰτίην, the cause of the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Poetry, for Herodotus, was a way to make an understanding. Thucydides too eyed his writing as a possession, an object humanity could hold, and what was made had a purpose, and that purpose was, in his words, to guide men in the future since what happened in the past was likely to happen αὖθις, again.
We have always been suspicious of things that give pleasure. Popular enjoyment smacks of over-frivolity. Much of what Herodotus wrote, that he collected as he traveled around the ancient world, was fantastic, even ridiculous. He talked of strange religious and cultural practices that seemed insane, of letting bodies be eaten by vultures, and deciding matters of state drunk, of pasts of Egypt stretching thousands of years back, of nearly man-sized ants in farthest India that burrowed into the mountains and gathered gold! He wove in stories only tangentially related to the war. Thucydides owed a lot to Herodotus’ concept of history and his example, and also had a much closer-to-home purpose, so it served him well to distance himself from suspect pleasure, from what Cicero called Herodotus’ lies.
Which is not to say Thucydides history is devoid of pleasure. In fact the action is exciting, the characterizations bold, the speeches glorious set-pieces that inspire, and certainly manufactured from whole cloth. Centuries of readers have found deep pleasure reading and contemplating his work, which despite the efforts of historians and philosophers to paint as a philosophy and an investigation of international politics remains a narrative of epic proportions, and suffused with and inspired by the arc and tropes of tragic drama.
Many, in early-Modern times, encountering Herodotus called him not the father of history, but the “father of lies,” led by Cicero, but it was a misreading. In fact, it was Cicero who called Herodotus the father of history, despite his “lies.” As time passes, and more of the world is understood, and Herodotus’ words are understood to be his best efforts of translation, information, impressions, stories from other languages and cultures translated into Greek, and now the Greek translated back to us, more of his lies are found to be shades of understanding. In fact, there even exists a large marmot in the Himalayas that digs burrows from which local tribes gather gold dust.
So Herodotus is more scientific, Thucydides more artistic than either claims, yet both claim the same purpose, information and understanding for the future, writing, the object, as a tonic, a potion. Where does pleasure fit in? About six-hundred years later, in the first few centuries of our era, in the Greek novel, a much maligned and much read genre, we find in the opening prologue of Daphnis and Chloe, an erotic story filled with pleasures, in the prologue we find a statement of purpose that echoes Thucydides and argues for literature as pleasure, and as useful tool. Longus, the author, describes a painting, a pastoral scene, depicting scenes, two naked lovers, pirates, nymphs, groves, springs, which he has found an interpreter for and will explain in four parts, writing in answer to the painting, a history of love. In fact, it will be a possession of pleasure (κτῆμα δὲ τερπνὸν) which will cure the lovesick, and instruct the young.
The learned author here joins the boasts of erotic poetry to salve the soul, with the towering edifices of the historian, into a literature which gives pleasure, and argues for the primacy of literature, and in some ways seeks to explain its purpose and its use. It’s not so hard to follow the strands of Herodotus to Longus, to see in the story of King Candaules who so loved his wife he desired that Gyges should see her beauty and conspired to have Gyges spy on her dressing, with that of young Chloe who upon seeing Daphnis stripped naked bathing feels the first sting of love. It’s harder to see in Thucydides, to whom Longus reaches back.
Is it in opposition, as some say? Putting a history of love against war? The statement of intention is too clear. Longus and Thucydides and Herodotus give pleasure, ultimately, in the same way, by information. Literature is fashioned for its purpose. The letters are marched together one after the other, rolling into our brain mediated by our senses. Reading comes through our eyes, and our ears, we hear and see the words, feel the parchment like skin. We smell the ink. Reading is conscious and unconscious thought. Sounds and sights assembled to words, which spark images, and send ideas scattering through our brain, activating feelings. An image of life, a repetition of life wherein we do just the same. Every experience is mediated by our senses, and the senses assembled by our brain. Nothing is experienced without thought and reflection. Pleasure is information. Pleasure is a conclusion that the collection of information scattered that is gathered here and there into a single idea is good.
Of course, ideas linger in our memories, and some thoughts hang around, waiting to join others, some pleasures are delayed. And pain. Pain is information, it is a teaching. And pain can sometimes, useful pain, can sometimes be a pleasure. It can be a pleasure to master pain. It can be a pleasure to understand it. In little movements through Daphnis and Chloe, our heroes vacillate between pains and pleasures, in an oscillation whose waves narrow as the entire band rises, toward knowledge. Daphnis and Chloe, through pleasure and pain, come to understand. In them, and in us, the words tease out, pleasingly, revelation.
What has survived in literature, and it is little, has survived because it was loved enough to copy. It was pleasing enough and rewarding enough to keep handy, and to do so through countless translations, as societies changed, as religions and ideologies sparked and faded, is a testament to the success of the work, and of course to dictates of fate. Many deserving things have perished, and some undeserving have stayed, but what is read and known and cherished to this day from the distant past is impressive, a possession not to be discarded. It was fashionable to begin works with a preamble, making grand predictions of everlasting fame, and modern criticism has torn the texts away from their authors, justly in that the author recedes behind the scrims of time and place, and the sure knowledge that the dark curves of ink are like Hansel’s breadcrumbs, not a fiber cable from mind to mind. Yet it’s important to listen to the words, and feel the light of the author burning behind them, and to grasp all the pleasure you can, and in the end, take this distant transmission, shot through with cosmic dust, the accumulated errors of a daunting space, for the bits of original information that will burn a human soul across all the time.
We hone our craft now, in MFA programs, and workshops, much as the Greeks and Romans studied rhetoric hard. But what makes writing survive is what allows it to expand in the mind. The sentences and paragraphs and stories in Herodotus’ histories, joined together make a greater whole. A drama with an act removed blows apart into nothing. Poems expand in pleasure like the universe, from little nothings that shiver with energy from an unseen force. But what is expanding is pleasure, is information. It’s no miracle to compress a string of zeros into nothing, and when you uncompress it, it remains empty, zeros, and ultimately pleasureless.
There are practitioners now, as literature struggles through the questions posed by modernity, of something called uncreative literature. It disregards craft, even writing, in favor of a kind of curation. It takes literature from writing to a plastic art, like the painting Longus’ narrator expands to make his novel. It either eschews purpose, or is only purpose, as if Thucydides had written only his justification. It is a conscious diminution of literature, with some idea of trying to save it, but it, like most art, is doomed to failure, but doubly doomed because it refuses to live.
What is great literature?
The Lydian king Croesus, in Herodotus’ histories, shows the Athenian lawgiver Solon through his vast chamber of treasures, the accumulated riches of a successful rule. “Aren’t I happy?” he asks.
“Call no man happy, until he dies,” says Solon.
After a monumental reverse of fortune destroys everything Croesus had, he admits Solon right.
Write what you want, give pleasure, but call nothing great literature until it’s lived!
Benjamin Harnett (@benharnett) is a senior digital-infrastructure engineer at The New York Times, and publishes the newsletter, “Don’t Read Me.” In 2005, he co-founded the fashion brand Hayden-Harnett. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Quarterly, Wag’s Revue, and the Columbia Review.