simonides

Simonides was a professional mark-maker, that is, poet. His marks comprised oral entertainments for banquets, public occasions, and the like. In this, the most famous instance in his career, the poet played the role of the classic Greek parasite, in former days no more than a gate crasher who kept from being thrown out of parties by being witty — a real fool who knew how to trade words for food. Simonides, the giver of marks, was therefore abject from the start, by being one of a clan of peripheral characters who lived at the margins and off of the margins. He took what he could get. His job this particular evening was a minor exception, payment being arranged by the host, Scopas, a local bully and amateur wrestler whose recent victory this banquet celebrated. Scopas this evening seemed anything but abject, although he was in fact only half of a pair.

As a part of normal poetic preliminaries, Simonides set about memorizing the names of the guests, employing the classical technique of associating names and other data with the guests' seat locations. Simonides is credited with inventing this technique of "memory places," but it was probably old by his time. Placing is a form of abjecting; in fact, it instantiates the literal meaning of abjection, which is to "throw aside." Of course, poets "fix" their audiences in other, more mundane ways. "Fascination," a phallic gaze, has the immediate effect of freezing its victims. And, during performance, the audience is implored to sit quietly, not to move — in short, to play dead. Scopas's audience did indeed learn this part.

This evening, Scopas had paid for marks — remarks — to be made in his honor, praising his recent victory in the ring. Getting a eulogy before your funeral was a bit of hubris on Scopas's part. Simonides sensed the danger. If the gods were alerted to Scopas's boasting, they would visit this bully with a cosmic correction in some back alley. In order to offer Scopas some protection against his own arrogance, Simonides included in his otherwise flawless offering a passage praising the twin gods, Castor and Pollux ("the Dioscuri"). The choice was apt. The twin gods were originally mortal brothers who had to share a prize of immortality between them. They took turns. One ruled the underworld while the other ruled the live world. Cosmically, they represented the relation between the halves of the sky. However, being dumb as well as arrogant, Scopas did not care for this unsolicited bit of religious devotion. Feeling that he had been cheated/abjected by this pious addition in Simonides' poem, Scopas stiffed Simonides in return, saying that if he wanted to collect his full fee, he could go to the gods for their share (i.e. "go to hell"). With only half the promised amount in his purse, Simonides looked for compensation on the banquet table. Halfway through the meal, however, word arrived that "two strangers" wished to see Simonides outside the hall. Leaving his couch, Simonides could find no one in the street and, thinking this a further joke of Scopas's started to go back in; but before he could reenter the banquet hall roof collapsed, crushing all occupants. The abject giver of marks, the parasite, was the only survivor; and the host and his guests, who had been imaginarily pinned to a spot by Simonides' art of memory and poetic performance were now permanently pinned by abject architecture.

a debt to the dead

After laboriously removing the overburden of stone, tile, and wood, relatives of the guests were horrified to find that they were unable to identify the bodies for proper burial. There could be no greater crisis in a family's relation to the ancestral dead than the loss of identity, committing a soul to perpetual wandering. Simonides was summoned back in (a mirror of his mysterious call out) to help, and help he did, turning his poetic trick into humanitarian aid, exchanging locations now for names, so that names could enable another, more cosmic exchange of living for dead, this world for another.

The story is "about" marks and the way conventional marks are solicited and given in society, but the usual function of marks, representation of some story or content, is thrown back onto itself. We see the backstage, the technics, of the poet's show. The clues given are about a system of exchanges that is never mentioned directly: Scopas, himself a "half" (one wrestler), withholds half a fee because half a poem was about twin gods. Simonides, a half-character (parasite), eats a half meal before being called outside (a site beside the original banquet hall, a "para-site") to meet two men, who have disappeared. The building itself demonstrates the reciprocity of architecture between full and abject states (ruin). When Simonides returns to identify the corpses, it is by the original halves of the mnemonic technique: the name that had been made into a place then yields a name. The method of abjecting information to a fixed point yielded its grim harvest, and the families are permitted the ritual exchange of the body for the soul, another figure of halves.

The most mysterious set of matched halves is the story itself, which splits exactly into two legs that meet at the collapse of the building. Simonides' call out is mirrored by his post-mortem forensic call back in. The living banquet is exchanged for the funeral one. The praise for the living Scopas finds its lost twin, the funeral panegyric. And, Scopas's jocular curse, sending Simonides to the gods, is ironically turned on the boastful host. Chiasmus, "mirror structure," gives us a blue-print for abjection, a diagrammatic 'V' or 'X' to follow in pursuit of the abject in the land of marks.

Few stories are as explicit about the exact amount paid for abjection, but we might have guessed: abjection is nowhere more economically expressed as by a lost glove. Also, we are rarely given is the precise "geometrical" relationship between abjection and the normal, "un-abject" representational function of marks.

Abjection moves into the realm of the artifact itself, into the pure mark as if into the taine or bezel of the mirror, disdaining the pleasure of illusion for the bareness of technique. To what was Scopas compared in Simonides' poem? We are not told. What is represented reflects the act of making itself, the construction-by-halves of artificial memory, the construction-by-halves of stories themselves: the monsters created by writer and the reader in their brief encounter, just as an ancient commonplace expression described copulating lovers as a monster with two backs. The particulars of this crude image are accurate. Readers and writers, no less than lovers, are all back. The act of poetic comprehension is inwardly constructed. It cannot be appreciated from the outside, that is to say, in terms of "extrinsic" properties, for there are no extrinsic properties proper to it. The story contaminates us who, in the act of reading it, form half of a whole. We are the latest residents of Simonides' system of mnemonic places. Like the first, "late" residents in the story, we are implored to be silent during the recitation of the poem, implored not to move by the poet's system of memory places, implored to play the role of the immortal deceased in our reception of poetry. We are abjected as part of a poetic pair, but made god-like in the process.

 

look at the clues again

The clues given are about a system of exchanges that is never mentioned directly: Scopas,himself a "half" (one wrestler), withholds half a fee because half a poem was about twin gods. Simonides,a half-character (parasite), eats a half meal before being called outside (a site beside the original banquet hall, a "para-site") to meet two men, who have disappeared.The building itself demonstrates the reciprocity of architecture between full and abject states (ruin). When Simonides returns to identify the corpses, it is by the original halves of the mnemonic technique: the name that had been made into a place then yields a name. The method of abjecting information to a fixed point yielded its grim harvest, and the families are permittedthe ritual exchange of the body for the soul, another figure ofhalves.

The most mysterious set of matched halves is the story itself, which splits exactly into two legs that meet at the collapse of the building. Simonides'call out is mirrored by his post-mortem forensic call back in.The living banquet is exchanged for the funeral one. The praise for the living Scopas finds its lost twin, the funeral panegyric.And, Scopas's jocular curse, sending Simonides to the gods, is ironically turned on the boastful host. Chiasmus, "mirror structure," gives us a blue-print for abjection, a diagrammatic'V' or 'X' to follow in pursuit of the abject in the land of marks.

the events diagramed

The Simonides anecdote's structure is revealed by seeing how pairs of elements ("B/B-crossstructures") share, split, or reverse some value.

The pairs (first terms constitutethe first set of events, second terms mark the second set, inreverse order):

 

B/B-cross structures define two lines of action

 

a flip event creates a "non-parallelism"

 

the resulting structure can be traversed in a variety of orders; Simonides uses the V-order

 

The multiplicity of B/B-cross structures creates a flexible set of narrative possibilities. Terms can been countered along the line of B's, B-crosses, or B/B-cross pairs.Switches can be made to create a "hybrid" motion. Simonides'chiasmus is "strong" because he presents all of the B elements in sequence, cueing the audience by referring to "missing halves" or missing portions: the halved poem, a wrestler as half of a pair, half fee unpaid, half a meal, the twin gods,etc. When the story itself is divided in two by the collapse ofthe banquet hall, the audience is prepared to meet "the missing halves." The conclusion has Scopas celebrated not as a living athlete but as a dead hero. The curious dynamics of the pangyric(speech of praise) is hinted: one praises in order to put at a distance. The dead are sealed off from the living by funeral speeches that speak no ill. Scopas in life courted disaster by paying for a pangyric. Modern heroes know better: they prefer to be "roasted" (insulted) by friends as the highest form of honor. The roast follows the theology of the evil eye: praise attracts a correctiveaction that will re-set all accomplishment to zero.

Not only is the bolagram fundamentally "chiastic," but the themes of motility, scale, and semblance are given vividforms when connected to the action of artificial memory. The story seems to say that memory itself is chaistic, a dialectic between places formed and contents located within those places. "Motility"activates this memory, as the poet/rhetorician "walks through" the memory place to store or retrieve images. The theme of scale introduces, however, the theological/magical use of memory in the sense that Camillo would later develop in his "MemoryTheater" – a capacity to use memory as imagination,and imagination as memory, particular a memory of origins. Scale,the element that "flips" inside to outside, is Lacanianin its use of external objects to retain and order mental ideas.The final theme of semblance, the goal of mnemonics, is ultimately theological and monstrous, not just in this anecdote but in the tradition of memory places as well. The renowned memory theorist Ramon Llull connected memory arts with meditation and spiritual ascendance; and was condemned by those who agreed precisely that the memory arts were related to magic rather than mechanics. Camillo connected the art of memory places to Cabalistic meditation and made the final act played in his memory theater a literal union with God.

Simonides' story emphasizes the importance and versatility of the B/B-cross structures. Because they lead to any number of narrative strategies, they can set up a resilient structure of motility, scale, and semblance, ABC/C'/B-cross inalmost any circumstances. In a curious way, they remind us ofthe sorites of Lewis Carroll and return us to the intrinsic self-referential nature of anyand every cross.

 

footnote

Not accidentally, most "myths of origins" involve some petitio principii –"begging the question," or, presuming or requiring to be presumed the existence of the very thing that the story of origins originates. Thus, Simonides' invention of memory places presumes the existence and already-expert use of the art of memory places. This "recursion of origins" can also be found in Vico's theory of the origin of mankind. Proto-humans are frightened by the thunder into obeying the signs of the sky; following the example of thunder, they develop articulate language. But, of course, these first humans would, in hearing thunder, already have known what words were. The thunder, in effect, raised the significance level of something they already practiced.

A parallel story provides some insight. The blind and deaf Helen Keller, in her famous autobiography,recounted the story of her first awareness of language. Her teacher signed the word for water while holding Keller's hand to the water coming from a pump. Rapidly switching between the signed wordand the feel of the cold water "shocked" Keller intorealizing the full possibilities of language. But, of course,she already knew how to sign words and used them daily. In her previous use, however, she lived in a world where sign and objector sign and need existed in a 1:1 relationship. The water rushing from the pump, like the Vichian thunder, raised the level of an already existent phenomenon.

Simonides "raises the level" of the already common practice of memory places by showing its chiasmatic quality. Like the Vichian thunder, this mirror structure has cosmic and theological implications. The chi transforms a linear narrative into a double monster with real and shadowed parts that communicate to each other through omission and lack (the theme of halves) – i.e. "negatively." The bolagram models chiasmus directly and follows the same logicof petitio principii. It presumes that what it will accomplishhas already been accomplished, in a logic of "retrospect." The present "is already" the future and the past. Simonides' elevation of the common practice of memory places is a chi, and the art is a chi. Recursion is the key to the mystery of origins.