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The Voice of the Melian: the City Begins where the City Ends, Part I

November 6, 2008

In the latest comments on “Remember Melos”, itself a comment on a dialogue to which comment can only be late, Finny tries to read the voices of Athens and Melos. This reading begs the question: where is it that these voices can be heard? In what forum, what agora, what city can Athens and Melos have anything to say to each other? What assembly, and what sort of speech begins with the recognition that the conversation has been closed? An assembly in which the voices of the haunted campaigner Thucydides, the wildered rainscape, the decapitated schoolmaster, the dread pirate Roberts, Wesley, John Donne, and the sad-smile call of Socrates are irresistably drawn to make their too late comment.

Finny: “The voice of the Melians is a little harder to read. You could read a sly, knowing smile and a sort of wild eye into their response (something like Wesley’s “We are men of action. Lies do not become us.” in the Princess Bride) . . . In any event, his response is exactly the kind that should’ve halted Athens in its tracks. You might read it once again in the voice of Wesley saying ‘Please’ to the Dread Pirate Roberts, the tone of which was enough to startle and intrigue Roberts. “Please…I need to live.” Maybe there is too much hope in that voice. Or maybe not- the tone of Wesley’s voice might be altered in the telling, since he knew how it would work out- he knew he would live. The Melian’s voice, as it appears in my head, is a little bit more sorrowfully resolute. The kind of voice you use when you’ve passed a point of no return and are therefore no longer hampered by protocol, and can simply speak the truth. It is not the voice of International Relations. It is the voice of one man speaking to another. It is a voice to which Athens is no longer accustomed. And it is a voice, like the voice of Socrates, that is calling them, simply to be Athenians.

What city begins where the city ends?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2008 3:12 am

    I don’t understand

  2. rainscape permalink*
    November 7, 2008 5:05 am

    Maybe I don’t either, but I was impressed by something, something I’ve been trying different ways to express, something that I’ve thought in the past was true about Athens, but I’m not sure in whether it really comes together . . . and this might be a misguided attempt to express, or the thought / impression itself might misguided. So be it.

    Is there something in this? The “voice you use when you’ve passed a point of no return, and therefore are no longer hampered by protocol, and can simply speak the truth.” You’ve played the your political hand to the end . . . and lost, the cause you’re defending is closed. And now that or (because that) you have no options within protocol, you have the freedom to open or enter another kind of discourse — one where your appeal aims beyond the city’s view, and yet somehow appeals to the heart of the city on a deeper level?

    The appeals to what is held in common failing, is there some uncommon appeal that could discover the beginnings of the association that has now failed — that is: whatever it is (daring, eros, insight, a combination of these and others, or something quite other) that reaches between the alienated and founds them a city? whatever it is that makes a common home where the stranger and the uncommon may be met?

    Such an uncommon appeal, though too late in its immediate context, might find a hearing, might draw together an assembly around the beginnings (or ends) of the city.

    All of this seems really at best embryonic, at worst abortive at the moment. Feel free to forget about it if its not interesting or not complete enough to ponder. Maybe I’ll take this post down.

  3. Tony permalink
    November 7, 2008 4:16 pm

    You shouldn’t take it down; it is, by itself, such an assembly. There’s no need to give in to the same sentiment that was critical of Sean’s “decontextualizing” post on the “Franciscan Habit of Modern Poetry.”

  4. Finny permalink
    November 7, 2008 8:07 pm

    Don’t take it down. I think what it’s aiming at is rather important.
    It’s funny, as I was writing those lines you quoted I began thinking of that meeting you had towards the end of this past year. You said of that something like ‘We spoke as well as two people can speak who have no hope of really hearing one another.” Maybe that sounds a little more negative then what you actually said.
    Anyway, perhaps we Morons, on top of being Southerners and Spartans, are Melians as well. Our losses are victories of a strange sort. In fact, it’s something like our patron.
    I will have to think more about your ‘ends and beginings’ a bit harder, but I think your getting at something here.

  5. rainscape permalink*
    November 8, 2008 7:34 am

    Ok, thank you everyone.
    Finny, I’m glad were thinking of that. Me too.
    I won’t remove the post. Instead I’ll try and write part II.

  6. Finny permalink
    November 8, 2008 3:00 pm

    Good call.

  7. November 9, 2008 6:50 am

    Isn’t Finny’s attempt to identify or at least “rhyme” this fateful confrontation with the present a way of making comment on this long-lost moment timely, rather than late, and if such an attempt is legitimate can it really be true that comment on this dialog must be late?

    Forgive me for commenting on your opening without acknowledging everything that comes after (somewhere in all that I suspect is already an answer to my question). This kind of attention to the beginning to the point of utter neglect of what follows is a habit of mine.

  8. rainscape permalink*
    November 9, 2008 8:38 pm

    If what is at question in “the melian dialog” is the survival of Melos, then our comments are too late. For Melos has been exterminated.

    If what is at question is the survival of Athens as the home of philosophy, poetry, and their courage to remain in suspended decision and deliberation about the city’s meaning and destiny, then our comments are too late. For such deliberation was manifestly irrelevant to the progress of the empire and was rejected in both Melos and Socrates.

    If the voices of Socrates and Melos can sound most clearly after their practicable aims within the city have been defeated, then their voices are characterized by that resolute too-lateness that Finny describes so well.

    If there is another question at stake, if there is some city in which their appeal sounds, then comment on their appeal is timely, particularly (I suggest) as an invitation to consider: what city begins where the city ends? what sort of comment becomes relevant by being beside the point? timely because it is too late?

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