Oblivion adds tragedy to death
'A wine jug, big-bellied and narrow-necked... is the oldest representation of such a tragedy that I have seen'
“There are three kinds of men: the living, the dead and those who sail the seas.” Anacharsis, a wanderer from the northern shores of the Black Sea said to have been the first foreigner awarded Athenian citizenship around 600BCE, is credited with first formulating the thought. This version in English was on a panel at the very start of an exhibition this summer celebrating Homer’s hero Ulysses and his vast poem, the Odyssey.
Ulysse is the first show put on in a fine new public gallery in the town of Draguignan, the Hôtel départemental des Expositions du Var, the Var being the French department of which Draguignan was once the capital. That honour is now given to Europe’s biggest naval base, Toulon down on the Mediterranean, the sea where Ulysses had his adventures.
Excuse the “men” in the English offered by the gallery, the word “homme” in French is one of those traps in the language that block any simple removal of its patriarchal heritage. It does for both man, men and for people in general. Human rights becomes droits de l’homme much to the disappointment of many in the Ligue de droits de l’homme, the country’s main civil rights organisation, who would prefer it to speak of droits humains.
It is in the name of those rights that the league has been protesting loud and clear over the role French military vessels, based in Toulon, have been playing in enforcing the murderous Fortress Europe policy, the way successive French governments have tried to sabotage the “law of the sea”, that moral rule by which those afloat should always try to save their fellow human beings in danger on the waves.
Ulysse covers, step by step, the escapades and escapes of Homer’s hero as he sought to return to his home in Ithaca in the wake of the Trojan Wars. His companions died at the hands of monsters, were killed in different battles or just drowned in shipwrecks, sharing the fate of many thousands of migrants from Africa over the last two decades. In the first half of this year, the recorded number of those drowned has gone up, according to the International Organisation for Migration, to 741 on the main route between Libya and Italy.
The total may be just a fraction of the real number, the agency said. “Hundreds of cases of invisible shipwrecks have been reported by NGOs in direct contact with those on board or with their families.”
And there, in Draguignan, was a witness to such events. A potter, somewhere in the Greek world of the Mediterranean of 740 to 720 BCE, crafted a wine jug, big-bellied and narrow-necked like those used to this day. Around its body, they painted, black against the light brown clay, flamingos and racing dogs. But around its neck, they portrayed a galley up-turned, its crew drowning amid the fishes. It is the oldest representation of such a tragedy that I have seen.
As the potter caressed the clay with their brush, they were acting out of known experience, recording not a mythical happening, not something that ended the lives of others of whom they knew nothing and cared less, but a lived reality that, at the time, formed a core part of the life of the far-flung, Greek-speaking Mediterranean population.
When they listened to the verses, many in Homer’s audiences knew that they, too, would taste the dangers as well as the salt along the routes Ulysses had taken. It is that participation in a shared peril that made the fiction of this poetry so powerful. The form it took may have been that of mythical invention, but the content was of human tragedy, too real then and still so today.
Regrettably, the creators of this exhibition did not take the plunge and explore this relationship. It would have given the art, ancient and contemporary, they have collected from museums and galleries around the world a poignancy and impact, a cutting modernity, way beyond the repetition in the catalogue of the stale claim that Ulysses and his story “are the very source of our contemporary culture”[i].
This remains the paradigm by which the show is constructed and the Odyssey is explained. At a time when the government in Paris is taking Priti Patel’s blood money to maintain its blockade of migrants at Calais, when it is calling on Frontex to patrol the Channel as its does the Med, when volunteer rescue ships saving the lives of those setting out from Libya face French official bureaucratic obstruction if not worse, this seems in complete contradiction to the moral core of Homer’s tale.
The authors of the catalogue see Ulysses’ return home as a “victory over death and oblivion.” So it was. So too will be the moment when Europe chooses to take Anacharsis at his word and share its life and future with those out on the seas that lap its southern shores.
[i] Voyage dans une Méditerranée de légendes : Catalogue de l’exposition Ulysse, edited by Milan Garcin, Hôtel départemental des Expositions du Var, Draguignan, 2021.
This piece was originally published in the August, 2021 edition of Splinters.
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