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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gods and drugs

This is how the story must go. This is how the story goes. There must be a god in the midst of the forest. There is a god in the midst of the forest. In the forest, too, the wisest of men is walking down a path. There is the wisest of men, and there is the path, and there is the forest around him. There there there. As if I had a finger to point to these things. As if you who read me saw the finger. Who must also be a simpleton. Who is a simpleton. Who must be hailed by the god, and shown a divine plant. Who is hailed by the god, and shown a divine plant.

Or – as the beginning is always a matter of bifurcation, paths of needles, paths of pins, other encounters, other forests - let us start this in another way:

“She’ll mix a potion for you: she’ll add drugs
Into that drink; but even with their force,
She can’t bewitch you; for the noble herb
I’ll give you now will baffle all her plots…

When that was said, he gave his herb to me;
He plucked it from the ground and showed what sort
Of plant it was. Its root was black; its flower
Was white as milk. Its moly for the gods;
For mortal men, the mandrake – very hard
To pluck; but nothing holds against the gods.”

This is Alan Mandelbaum’s translation of the passage in Book Ten of the Illiad. Circe, that nymph, makes a potion, a pharmaka, and feeds it to Odysseus’s men, turning them into swine. As so often, the animal is a kind of prison in the tale – just as later, Jesus will imprison demons in the Gandarene swine. One of Odysseus’ men escapes, however, and runs to tell him. Which is how our hero comes to be walking through the woods.

We note here, in passing, how clearly the human limit is expressed in Homer’s notion that the God’s names are not the names given by mortals. If I was to follow Nietzsche, I would camp at this boundaries, and I would cast an eye on the Cratylus, in which the divide is ever so stealthily overthrown and replaced by another, in which the God’s names become, suddenly, simply the clear definition of the things – they no longer hold any insurmountable difference.

Jenny Clay, in “The Planktai and Moly” (1972), claims that Planktai – the crashing rocks Odysseus has to go through - and moly are the only instance of Homeric doublenaming – dionumia - in which the mortal name for a thing isn’t given. This, for Clay, puts Hermes gesture of pulling up the plant in the linguistic position of the human name – because it is hard for the humans to pull up, they haven’t noticed it. If they had, they would have noticed its black roots. Mandelbaum’s decision that moly is mandrake is by no means the consensus among Homer’s exegetes. Theophrastus seems to indicate it is garlic.

As has often been noticed, this is the only time in Homer that the important word phusis is used – which Mandelbaum translates as “what sort of”. Gerard Naddaf, in The Greek Concept of Nature, closely reads this passage, with its contrast between the baneful drugs [pharmaka lugra] of Circe, and the effective drug [pharmakon esthlon] that Hermes hands Odysseus.

A question, then, in the woods, of two registers of names, and a register of drugs posing the good against the bad.

And yet, what we don’t have here is an explanation of the kind of thing a drug is. How moly goes from the sort of thing a plant is to the sort of thing a drug is – this is the wonder we are here in the woods to experience.

Shall I point out that nature, phusis, flashes into our range, here (and the term has miles to go before it sleeps) in an exchange of drugs?

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