“And all the caverns smoked with streaming blood.
When lo! appear’d along the dusky coasts,
Thin, airy shoals of visionary ghosts:
Fair, pensive youths, and soft enamour’d maids;
And wither’d elders, pale and wrinkled shades;
Ghastly with wounds the forms of warriors slain”
–The Odyssey, Book XI, Homer/Pope
That is where Odysseus visits Hades’ house (the past?) to find out about his future. He talks to Achilles and he doesn’t like what he hears. Says the late hero, “Rather I’d choose laboriously to bear / A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air, / A slave to some poor hind that toils for bread, / Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead.” Odysseus now knows what he, not called wily for nothing, has suspected all along: Kleos (prestige and power) is not worth the suffering it requires.
The inspiration for the new drawing posted above is another drawing, from 35 years ago. Look it up if you like, it’s on the “juvenilia” page. It’s titled “his fantasy, having escaped, attacked.” It’s a cross-hatchy ink drawing of a student apartment with a small cage, its door open, on the right and a dragon lurching off on the left.
That drawing is kinda based on the traditional dragon/hero/maiden fantasy or myth which requires the dragon to capture the maiden and the hero to free her, usually slaying the dragon in the process. This drawing goes a bit further, allowing a pair of alternative endings by showing no maiden or hero. In one, the dragon has freed, and is escaping with the maiden, in the other, there was never a maiden, the dragon escapes alone after freeing itself.
The new insight, built on those alternate endings but decades later, is that, we were all—boys and girls alike—wannabe heroes, there were never any damsels in distress. We were all desirous of dragon-like prestige and power, and we didn’t want to slay dragons but become or be like them, to have their spectacular power. Some of us would succeed; a lot of us would not, try, wish or pretend as we may.
Guy Debord wrote in 1967 there was “an evident degradation of being into having.” And that there was also “a general shift from having to appearing” (“The Society of the Spectacle,” aphorism 17) Dragons, of course, don’t exist except in myths, so “being” one is impossible, likewise “having” dragon-like powers. “Appearing” to be one is now good enough. The drawing posted above ironically accepts and metaphorically chronicles this.
The scene is thus a domesticated spectacle as well as a Homeric Asphodel, and where neither of Achilles’ options are available. This worldly, but unspectacular place is still a spectacle, in that it re-presents itself to society. It’s the fantasy scene of 1980, revisited, and now the mythical dragon and/or maiden are reunited. But it shows, as Debord warned, that a spectacle “reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.” (Debord, aphorism 29) Here’s aphorism 30 in its entirety:
“The alienation of the spectator, which reinforces the contemplated objects that result from his own unconscious activity, works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires. The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.”
Now I know there were never any damsels in distress, maids soft enamour’d or otherwise, then or now. Now I know us youthful but rarely pensive, would-be heroes were really wannabe dragons waiting for the spectacle where our fates were decided. Now, as much in retrospect as the earlier time was in anticipation, I still can’t quite get over missing—a wistful nostalgia mixed with embarrassing regret—all that grasping after all that kleos. So I sit, draw myself-sitting, here whether as “visionary ghost” or “wither’d elder” I can’t decide, nor does it matter.
Sources and inspirations: