on the immortals

When Eric Auerbach enquires about the notion of “figure” and its broader use in rhetoric and literature, he begins by going back to Varro and the adaptation of Hellenic thinking by Roman writers in the 1st century B.C. When I begin thinking about the notion of “mortal” and its use as a category term to denote human beings, I begin by going back to “Bewitched” and the cartoons featuring “Thor”, which I saw as a boy in (it seems to me, now) the living room in the house we lived in on Nielson Court in Clarkston, Georgia. I long for Auerbach’s scholarly depth, but depth must bow to the multitudinous experience that feeds it. Plankton, after all, sustains the whale.

It does seem to me, looking back, that the use of “mortal” for human being was a fact I accepted without thinking about it too much. It seemed that certain creatures – superheros, witches – would think that humans are mortals. But it didn’t seem to me that this meant humans were limited by death. Death, in those pj-ed, tv watching days, was not very clear to me. Certain people died. My mom’s father, for instance, died. But I had a foggy view of my grandfather, who I saw only when we went down to visit D.C., and in my mind, he shared more characteristics with the non-mortals than with the mortals – he seemed remote, powerful, a little scary at the dinner table.

Now I look back and wonder why the category of “mortal” crops up so naturally in American popular entertainment. “Mortal” has, in these shows, a sneer attached to it. Mortals are inferior to --- well, the other side is rarely called “immortal”. According to the Iliad, ““the breed of immortal gods and of men who walk the ground is in no way alike.” Classical scholars distinguish between deathless, athanatoi, and immortal, ambrotoi – the latter, according to Manu Leumann’s Homerische Wőrter (quoted in Seth Bernardete’s The Argument of Action), is related to the pair of words brotos, “gore”, and brotos, mortal. “The gods are called deathless (athanatoi) because they are bloodless (anaimones), for to be bloodless (ambrotoi) is to be immortal (ambrotoi).” Ambrosia is the English orphan born of these deep and forgotten currents. However, in the cartoon world there is a continuing fidelity to the tie between blood and mortality. We bleed, and thus we die. Whereas only ichor, a mysterious thing, flows in the arteries of the gods.

Of course, tv paganism is an odd thing, bursting out of the supposedly Puritan U.S. culture. TV paganism –and its Hollywood and comic book cohorts – does not come out of the addled brains of those who have been reading too much Pindar. So the problem of this cultural pattern, one that is entangled with literacy, is deeper than the toss off word, ‘influence” -  which also holds an effluent inside it – can explain.

If we can drain the blood from a chicken or a goat, we can drain it from a human being – such a thought surely crosses the mind of any pastoral people. Andrian Mihai, in an interesting article in Numen, crosses the notion of mortality and bloodlessness with the co-equal primitives of air and fire. Mihai quotes extensively from funeral monuments, plays and poems to show that the gulf between the immortals and the mortals is not the great abyss between the bloody and the bloodless. According to Mihai: “Etymologically, the root of aither is aithō, ‘to burn, blaze,’ suggesting the sense of ‘pure or clear air.’ It is not only a region of the skies that surrounds the world — the highest and the purest part of the atmosphere (as it was for the natural philosophers up to the nineteenth century), but it is also a certain condition of the sky, its brightness and translucence (Kahn 1994:145). Thus, aither is to be distinguished from aer, the misty or vaporous air, the lower part of the air extending from Earth and up to and including the clouds (Hesiod, Theogony 125).”

Here’s the thing: TV, following radio, is “on the air”. This phrase seems to accompany the earliest broadcasts, and has engrained itself into our imagery of audio/video technology. Nihai claims that the mortals imprison the radiance of the sky within the blood and flesh body. A familiar image. That the aether escapes, at death, is also a familiar image. Air wants to be free. And similarly, to be on the air speaks to another dreamlike escape. The immortals are naturally attracted to the ‘airwaves’.

Thus, a blind shoot of this old fourfold thematic, air/water/fire/earth, finds its way into our TV addled childhoods.