Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ode to Belladonna, Chapter Fifteen

From the front door of the small white house I bought near the Eschecerion in Athens, where I lived for nearly ten years, I could look out onto The Agora and beyond into the city, broken into its myriad little boroughs – Thissio, Kolonaki, Piraeus, Psiri... Each with its own churches, markets, and squares, its own city leaders and important families, each a world unto itself. The house was quite near the apartments where we had lived as scholars, and the years in that house were idyllic. It was during that time of life when the world seemed small, partly because Athens itself was small after Alexandria, but more so because those who live to old age, like myself, pass through three distinct periods of life. In the first the world is colossal and to walk a quarter-of-a-mile from home is an odyssey, filled with innumerable mysteries and looming dangers. In the second phase, as our powers slowly grow and mature, the world undergoes a process of diminution. As we become accustomed to the illusion of the world we become capable of undertaking great journeys and weathering bitter ordeals with relative equanimity. In these middle years we may find ourselves amazed at the places we’ve been and the battles we’ve fought. The world seems small and we are given to the illusion that we are the masters of it ... while in the third phase of life (the phase I am in as I write this), the world begins to grow larger again day by day until we once again become daunted by its scope and dangers. During those years in Athens I was in my prime and the world was small.
Adara and I were married when I had been in Athens for three years – at first over the strong objections of Damasius, her father. Before he consented he even demanded that I be examined by his physician, and based on that alone you can imagine our personal relations were strained, but I was grateful that he never wavered in his effort to teach me, especially in Socratic dialogue, with the intention of making me his successor. He always had a wonderfully objective mind and was able to keep his personal feelings separate from his judgment. Eventually though we became more than friends, we became father and son.
At any rate, Adara and I spent seven years in that house now so luminous in memory. It was close also to the Temple of Hephaestus where I was initiated, yet mostly what one actually saw of the city from that house was trees, and that is one of the many things I love about Athens – that even in the heart of the city it seems more like a country village. Walking among cypress trees and olive groves, or along the ever-winding roads you never know what you might encounter: an ancient statue never seen before or a nasty black goat, for example. I happened upon the same goat many times in many unexpected places. Someone repeatedly allowed the damned thing pull up its stake and drag its chain everywhere, like some foul messenger from Hades, wearing that implacable, malevolent expression only goats are capable of wearing, and hunting for a victim of its goatly indignation. (It was a goat looking for a scapegoat) and any passerby was just as good a candidate as any other for it to try to sink its horns into!
I ran into it many times and had to grapple with it by the horns until I could chain it to a tree, and then I'd smelled like a goat for the rest of the day.
On other occasions I might come across a cartload of figs and buy a few for pennies, or stop to hear my fortune from a Gypsy for charity's sake, and the broken landscape of the city always rendered these encounters somehow intimate – like scenes on a stage; but of course my finest memories of those days were of Adara, flitting here and there about the walks and gardens, her soft voice the ever-present music of my life.
Most summers, when the heat of Athens became intolerable we sailed to The Cyclades. These trips and the house were the two luxuries I afforded myself from the gold Theodora had given me, donating the remainder to The Academy. We rented a little cottage on the Island of Andros owned by a fisherman, and this second little house of ours was a hundred feet above the water, beside a little cove accessible only from the sea. We always hired the same sailboat in Piraeus, skippered by a stout, red-haired, old salt – the spitting image of old Odysseus – and arrived on Andros after sailing for three days.
He would take us there in May and pick us up again in August for the return journey. The highlight of our lives was that first step off the boat into the emerald waters of Andros, and to first inspect the invariably clean, inviting cottage, well stocked with oil, flour, dried fish, figs, and many other things.
I paid an old widow whose husband had died many years before to watch over the place and prepare it for our arrival. There was a boat ramp on the beach – just two long logs running down to the water, and higher up a little covering for the rowboat we often took out in the evening. This little world we had completely to ourselves.
Surrounding the inlet were forested hills, and a stream ran down to the beach, not much more than a trickle of clear water in summer, but fresh and cold – except during the occasional downpour when it became a torrent, changing our little world from one of tranquility to tumult. Then, from its customary emerald green the sea would turn to ash, the blue sky suddenly darkened and riven by lightning in a headlong wind. And then, just as suddenly, it was over and we were restored to our tranquil paradise.
On the flank of one of the ridges, forming one side of the cove, this stream plashed down rocks into a little pool making a kind of ancient music, and we lingered there for days and nights, over the years coming to appreciate the various themes as the sound of the water mingled with the various winds that swept in from differing regions. The Zephyr, the Bora, the Maestro, the Sirocco, and sometimes even in summer, the Tramontana. The tempestuous winds of Greece made celestial variations on an Aeolian harp. It was there that I lost my disdain for ‘paganism,’ that crude worship of the earthly gods, for only there did I first truly hear the music of the earth as it must have been heard by hunters, shepherds, and fisherman, by all those intimately connected to the earth and learned that in that music there was an impulse to transcendence.
For a space of twenty or thirty yards around this little pool grew wild herbs – among them mint, basil and rosemary – the ever present flavors of the Grecian world, and here combined with the sharpness of pine, and the scent of a dozen wildflowers I do not know the names of but will never forget.
Finally, it was there that I first became a true philosopher through my dialogues with Adara, for there we were able to speak totally unencumbered by social constraint, and we practiced Socratic dialogue in long sessions, with the sole objective of seeking the truth about everything, from our feelings for each other to our impressions of others, to our impressions of nature, our purpose in the world, of thought itself, and of transcendent being; and she was brilliant! Damascius would surely have passed on the mantle of successor on to her had she wanted it, but she did not.
“What can we really know?” Adara asked me once when we were on the beach. (It was, of course a question I had asked myself a thousand times – the essential question of any philosopher), but when she asked something made me answer immediately: “I know that you are real.”
She laughed and kissed me, then she said. “Yes, I am real and you are real, and we are alive at this moment. That's all we can really know. The only thing that's real is love and the things that are an offspring of love. Everything else is illusion.
I tell you, Simplicious," she told me another time, “there's something dreamy about you, something idle; don’t worry because I love you for it, it's part of your charm, but you must learn to appraise the world and the people in it more critically. Your nature's too trusting. The world can be a beautiful place, but that beauty masks a terrible reality. It's a battlefield, a fight for survival, and not one-in-a-hundred caught in that struggle will ever find their way to the truth. The truth that, as Socrates said, 'to harm your enemies is to do more harm to yourself than to your enemies, because the real question is the preservation of the soul, which alone is eternal,' and so they all go on tearing each other to pieces, like jackals. You see what Socrates saw, just naturally, and so you have a way of seeing the best in everyone around you, a quality admirable in its optimism, but you must also look deeper and see through the fa├žade of the world. This breezy nature of yours prevents you from fully seeing the dual nature of existence. We must struggle towards divinity, but we can’t reach it until we grasp the full nature, the full enormity of the struggle. We can’t ever fully reach it here, not in this life. "
When she said this I felt a little shiver, someone walking on my grave, and that could only be partly explained by the fact that Theodora had said words very similar to those, only from a wholly different perspective.
"Look into my eyes,” Adara said. “What do you see?”
“I see ... everything that matters.” I said.
She laughed again, and said, “You are like my father, Simplicious. What I see in yours is a pure-soul, a true-heart, and a naive little puppy. Lose the little puppy, Simplicious. Lose it without losing the soul or the heart, and you will find your way.”
Yes, she said those exact words years ago to me, and she was right! I was a still a puppy then, but it wouldn't last much longer. By the time of the fateful gathering at Damascius’ house years later, which I will describe in due course, with the house divided into warring factions of “Pagan” and "Christian," I was no longer a puppy, but my awakening came too late.
Ironically, it was this same characteristic in Damascius himself that was to cure me! It’s strange to think back now and realize that in this matter the daughter was wiser that the father, for Damascius was the wisest man I have ever known. Yet she had long observed this tendency in him to view mankind as essentially more noble and tolerant than they really were, to see the best in everything and everyone, even in times when that nobility was nowhere evident. And I know she had also seen the result – that her father was often wounded.
As his assistant I had to learn from his mistakes, and doing so gave me a window into myself, for temperamentally we were much alike. He was exceedingly idealistic, inflexible, and uncompromising in his spiritual vision and I have often wondered, in spite of the disasters that were to follow, whether he was right or wrong. Someone once asked the question, If over the course of thirty-years a carpenter replaces every plank and fitting in a ship, is it still the same ship? So the question then was how far Damascius could compromise the teachings to accommodate an increasingly powerful and repressive opposition before what he taught became so compromised that it was rendered meaningless. Yet I am getting ahead of myself and I will get back to Adara and our little island, for that is where I want to be, and where there I can rest a moment from the thoughts that haunt me.

Our wedding took place a year before the particular the day I was speaking of, in which we made love on the beach of Andros, and it was held in August, amid the ruins of the temple at Delphi. Damascius was from an old, patrician, Athenian family and yet it is a still a tribute to his love for his daughter that he afforded such an expensive ceremony where everything had to be ported up the mountain at great expense. Over three hundred guests attended – with an equal number of servants and porters – and the wedding took place in the early evening, in the heat amid the continuous ringing of cicadas, and I think everyone was relieved when it was concluded and tables were set-out for the reception.
There were flute players and singers, and as the evening wore on a beautiful sunset of deep gold and scarlet preceded a moonless night with a meteor shower that fired with dazzling intensity. Adara and I danced until dawn and I hardly remember stopping for a drink of water. It was a moment that was perfect and remains suspended in time for me – a moment when for whatever reason the stars aligned themselves in our favor – it is a moment that for me lasts in eternity.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2018 Brent Hightower