Category Archives: Fragments of Frank Moretti

“Is your country your mother or your father?”


Two Kinds of Text

Please feel free to respond, but see if you can keep your commentary moored in the two things we read for today. At least initially. So that we don’t wind up talking about a text that we co-create in the class, as opposed to what your ancient professor has asked you to read.

Fromm and Virgil: Family

The assertion that family is important is the beginning of the conversation. Now we need to take that up in the context of these two texts. I don’t think the issue is the question of whether family is consequential or important, but rather a matter of “how” is family consequential. Just as a quick little example: where Fromm is talking about the process of coming of age, which means moving away from family, in a pretty significant way, what the Aeneid is talking about is a process of coming of age of Aeneas, which is also in some way about moving away from family. There’s a still a universe of things we need to talk about here. There’s tension: we need to understand how that tension functions and works in these texts.

Vietnam and Italy

(Student mentions a story about her brother.)

Frank: Was he [student’s brother] a soldier?

Student: He was a Vietnam vet, yeah.

F: Did that have anything to do with him being part of the family?

S: Well not really, it more to do with him being part of another family…

F: So why did he do that?

S: To be different than the rest of us…he had to establish his own self, and he couldn’t do that with us around.

F: So to establish himself he became a soldier and a part of a larger family, a different family?

S: Yes, and now he’s back with us…

F: The good fortune is that he came back. If he’d gone to Vietnam and was killed, maimed, or disabled for the rest of his life, maybe the choice of the other family would have been a mistake. Maybe if he were Pallas, it would have been a mistake. Whose father gave him to Aeneas in order to fight the war, and he tears himself from the embrace of the father and puts him into the embrace of Aeneas. And what is the nature of that embrace? Aeneas can’t really take care of him. So the new family doesn’t work.


Do you remember what Virgil actually says? It’s very poignant. Remember what Aeneas actually tries to do. “Oh father, let me hold your right hand fast. Do not withdraw from my embrace.” And what does he do? He tries to hug his father. Three or four times he tries to hug him, but his hands pass through him. Because he’s really not the father that he was. And then what does the father do? He shows him the future. He defines what responsibility and duty is. Because he’s like the link in the chain of that future. If he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do, the chain will be broken. That future can’t exist. So that somehow you become connected to fate, and you’re capacity to choose no longer exists. So that the personal father is no longer available to him. He no longer has a personal father in that particular context. And the only way he can please his father is by doing what? By going to Vietnam. Or in this case Italy.

A Question

Is your country your mother or your father?


Once you separate and the umbilical chord is cut and you’re in the world and you’ve given up what is literally a perfect existence in the mother’s womb, you then have a wound. You’re wounded. Just by the very fact of birth. And you need to then find a new rootedness. And that’s why we take such good care of babies. In some way they’re seriously deprived in the act of birth. And this is replicated in a lot of the mythology. So leaving the Garden of Eden, or so many different myths that depict the rupture into consciousness and individuality. This is a way of construing them.

Now the people that really understand the wounded nature of all people are in a very powerful position. If in fact they can create the cultural constructs, they are then more able to profoundly manipulate and direct those natural desires and energies in the direction of the set of goals that you as a person purse, given what you’re interested it. Fromm has not arbitrarily chosen this as a subject. He is a member of the Frankfurt School. He is a powerful psychologist. He was interested in the political effects of human psychology as they arose in Nazi Germany. His interest in the fatherland and motherland, and matriarchal or patriarchal potentialities that are, on the hand, he would argue are deeply part of individual psychology of any human being who is born, regardless frankly of the circumstance you find yourself. You in the end will find ways to define duty for yourself. You in the end will find ways to define rootedness for yourself. And then the question is: in a larger cultural-political context, how do those in power potentially manipulate you? The Aeneid is the story of a man moving away from family as we conventionally know it, represented by the image of him carrying his father, and walking with his child in his hand, out of the burning city of Troy, before he gets on the ship and takes them to Italy. From that position, all of a sudden his father represents this future, which is completely dependent on him. His son becomes the next link in the chain, to be trained, so he is oriented to that future. And in a way it’s most idealized version of what I just described, is in the funeral oration of Pericles in Thucydides. Where basically that oration is a eulogy of the city as a collective entity, far from reality, most people would argue. Then a plea to the people who actually lost loved ones in the first series of battles in the Peloponnesian Wars, to find value in that loss. Related to the fact that that loss was somehow in the interest of something very much like what Anchises basically wants Aeneas to understand as the reason for subordinating every personal and individual impulse he has in the interest of a future history…

The Aeneid is read in lots of different ways, and is a critical text. Probably of more crucial importance than the Iliad for more immediate history, because it begins to deal with representations that are much closer to the representations that we create for ourselves.


“A reason, regardless of the mayhem, to live.”

Fragments of Frank, 10.6.10 (con)

Maybe the problem is that we’ve never studied history.

Just before you leave I wanted to recommend something to everybody. I’ve spent just as much time as you reading this for this class. But last night, at 9 o’clock, I watched a two-hour documentary on Daniel Ellsberg. I recommend that you watch this documentary. It was put on PBS. It’s probably on the web. It was amazing to have Herodotus and Thucydides in your mind when you’re listening to Daniel Ellsberg. He was the guy who released the pentagon papers. Basically: the Pentagon papers were 7,000 pages of research done by the Rand Corporation, historically, about Vietnam. From World War II to that present moment. They describe how every president from Harry Truman on dealt with it, and what the realities were. What Ellsberg reveals, and this is common knowledge now, is that every president lied through their teeth in an effort to characterize that situation and mobilize more people to become the heroes of their families. You can see the amazing continuities between it and the Thucydidean analysis, particularly when he begins to talk about the hypocrisy, and the way that, if a thing is one thing, it’s described as its opposite. Remember that riff that Thucydides does in Book III, 81-83, about how everything is “reversed.” I challenge you to read that and watch this documentary and tell me that anything is different. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no reason to study history. I mean, maybe that is the reason to study history. Maybe the problem is that we’ve never studied history.

A reason, regardless of the mayhem, to live

…Remember when we talked about Prometheus Bound, that little passage about blind hope? And how the difference between humanity—somehow at the time before—and somehow that time on, or some more recent time passed on—the difference was that we no longer could see the future, but because we can no longer see the future what we have now is blind hope? The way we decide to instrument our hope, whether it’s through religion or whatever it happens to be, one of the ways the Greeks thought they could realize the possibilities of that hope was through the use of reason. So whether you are a Sophist or a philosopher or a historian or a dramatist, the motivation to create these powerful lenses on their own worlds, to look at themselves, implies that belief that there still is a reason, regardless of the mayhem, to live. And that humanity still has possibilities. We don’t need to live with the vision of that earlier time when all we could imagine was our own demise. Probably because we had absolutely no control over the physical environment in the years before we have history qua history, even archeological history. So I would think no matter how compelling the depravity in Thucydides, in the description, still: the fact that he chose to write this, it talks about a kind of essential faith that he has in something that is quintessentially Ancient Greek. It has to do with rationality against power. Even though he talks about all its twisted manifestations.

Idyllic Democracy and Imperial Endeavor

One of the questions we want don’t want to bag, and we’re not going to answer it tonight, is: Was Athens a democracy in the ideal sense that we tend to use it, as a way of creating an ideal type of democracy, or was it a local reflection of the way in which they functioned externally? Remember: they put Socrates to death. Remember: Aristocrats created revolutions in the fifth century. Remember: did you read the Orestes? When the Orestes was performed, Euripides was already ostracized from Athens. He was living on some island someplace. He wasn’t allowed back into the city. This was very common. Themistocles was ostracized. And many other people within that community. So the idyllic nature of democracy in comparison with their imperial endeavor may be a constant. You could create a contrast between those two things, but if you do a closer study of the history there’s less of a contrast there but more of an extension externally of what’s going on internally. And maybe that’s the same thing that’s happening in the United States. So you watch that documentary about Daniel Ellsberg. If there’s anyone that represents moral activity it’s him. His attourney was a friend of mine. He really is what he seems to be, if you’re willing to listen to the story.

Fragments of Frank: “The Argument…”

10.6.10 (con.)

The Argument We’ve Been Presenting

Remember how we described one of the characteristics of Homeric poetry? Something that is related to the way they make the poems? The poems are “retarded” in the sense that the dramatic action doesn’t determine what is said or what the words are? So a person could say…The best example is in Book I when Achilles picks up the staff and is going to swear on the basis of his crook, which is a sign of his authority as a prince. As he picks it up the poet describes the crook in six or seven lines: “the wood came from Mount Pelion! It was carved carefully!” And there he his, he’s holding the damn thing still while the poet describes it. The action: the way we would experience that in real life, is “retarded,” that is, slowed down. [A chuckle from the group.] Yes, slowed down. The only reason I use the word “retarded” is because the person who wrote most about this called it “Homeric retardation,” not that there was something wrong with it, but that it just holds back the dramatic action. Now if you read Herodotus he does the same thing. He stops to describe things. And significantly–at length. It isn’t as dramatic as the Homeric poems where people are giving speech after speech and you’re following the action of the characters in a much more focused and deliberate way, but it still holds back this story. It still seems like—and the examples which I picked out, the foreshadowing of Thermopylae, for instance—you see lots of places where there are huge catalogs, like, for instance, where he describes where all the people come from. That’s a big giant ethnography. If you read Book 2 of Homer, it’s the catalog of warriors. It’s almost the exact same thing as what you read in Herodotus. So you have these elements which are not directly part of mytho-poetic tradition. But the point of the mytho-poetic methodology…Herodotus is doing something very similar to the poet. You have to juxtapose that, the ethnographic piece. And remember: don’t trash the poets so much that when they do their own ethnography, they’re not doing real ethnography. Just for the sake of discussion, remember that Havelock’s argument is that it was the cultural encyclopedia. It’s what people understood about the world. That’s what they found in Homer. His understanding doesn’t have so much to do with the content, it has to do with the state of mind that everyone’s in as they learn the content or provide the content. But they don’t have that capacity to move into that objective position as knowers. That’s the argument we’ve been presenting.

Reading Thucydides

The word that Thucydides uses at the beginning, he says “I want to write.” The Greek word is “sun graphe.” First of all, let me tell you something. We haven’t talked about this yet. If you were to read Thucydides in Greek it is staggeringly difficult. It is staggeringly difficult. This is self-reported. You could be studying Greek for 4-5 years and when you get to Thucydides it’s a different universe. It’s a very complex and difficult…the process of rendering it into English is a challenge. Most of the people who really know how to read Thucydides really will never know whether they really know how to read Thucydides. Because they’ve already read Thucydides, and it took such pain to read it, that they could never know whether they’ve read Thucydides or not. There’s nothing else written by Thucydides and there’s nothing else that’s as hard to read. The word “sun graphe” is a word that’s made up. You can’t understand it by looking at the other uses of it. You can’t figure out what the semantic field was for that word. You have to figure it out. The word “sun” in Greek means “with” or “together.” It’s like our “communicate” or “compose”: it’s the “com” part. Which always means “together” or “bringing together.” So somehow he created a word which means “bringing everything together” and “writing.” “Graphe” means writing. So he really saw himself as a writer. Even though later he’ll talk about people listening to his work, because he knows that despite the fact that he wrote it, that it will be read and listened to more probably than any other way, just simply because of the basic logistics of being able to reproduce something at that time, which was so difficult. We’ll talk about that more when we get to the printing press. So “sun graphe” is his word. That seems to imply that he’s doing to do something that some people would describe as giving you a “complete view.” Based on his analysis. He talks about his analytic efforts: in that first passage, after he does his little review of the history for which there are no sources. He basically trashes his own history with no sources, and he says he’s going to do everything looking forward despite that, and how careful he’s going to be.

The First, Most Powerful Statement of Something That Never Made Any Sense To Me

Herodotus he uses a different word, which I haven’t studied as closely in preparation for today, but it’s “apodeixis,” which means “display.” So he’s going to lay out in front of you something you can see. The word is often used in the context of the rhetorical tradition. People who are learning to be great artists, who are practicing speeches, where they’re learning to display themselves. Or if they were doing something like…If I were to use the adjective in English, “apodeictic”: for Thucydides it would be the funeral oration of Pericles. Which is an effort to create in your mind two distinct images. One of them is a powerful state and the other image is of an ideal citizen, all directed at convincing people that it’s okay to die for your country. That’s the first, most powerful of statement of something that never made any sense to me.