He seems to me to be equal to the gods,
that man who sits across from you
and hears you near speaking
and laughing with that charm; this truly
makes my heart flutter in my breast.
For whenever I look at you even briefly, I can
no longer make even one sound,
my tongue has silently snapped into pieces, and
right away a delicate fire races beneath my skin,
and my eyes no longer see even one thing, and
my ears hum,
and a chilly sweat covers me all over, and trembling
seizes me completely, and paler than grass
I am, and I seem to myself to be
little short of dying.
But all must be endured, because †[…]† 1
So sang the Lesbian poet Sappho roughly two thousand six-hundred years ago. Scholars of classical antiquity call this masterpiece “Sappho 31,” a clinical designation that belies its urgent expression of desire by one woman for another, with a man taking up some of the space in between. Feminine subject and object are indicated in the Greek — though obscured in English — by gendered parts of speech: a participle here, an adjective and a pronoun there.
What we have preserved breaks off, enduringly incomplete. Just as for the poem’s narrator, proximity frustrates. Our full access is perpetually denied.
Some five-hundred years later, the Roman poet Catullus wrote,
He seems to me to be equal to a god,
he – if it’s allowed to say so – seems to surpass the gods,
who, as he sits across from you, looks at you again and again and hears
you laughing sweetly, which rips out
all my senses, wretched me; for just when I have looked at you,
Lesbia, there is nothing left for me,
but my tongue grows sluggish, beneath my limbs
a delicate flame glides, my ears ring
with internal sound, my twin-lit eyes are
covered by night.
Leisure, Catullus, is a problem for you:
leisure in which you exult and which you wield entirely too much;
leisure has previously destroyed both kings and
blessed cities. 2
Catullus’ Sapphic echoes are overt, his changes all the more so. Written replaces oral. Male narrator supplants female and same-sex desire is eclipsed. And Catullus concludes with a remonstration to himself about leisure, the Latin otium. The addendum is emphatic: three of the poem’s final four lines begin otium, otio, otium.
Ancient Roman otium was slippery. Sometimes it was the rightful purview of elite men, a space to cultivate the intellectual, philosophical, and artistic contributions that now comprise much of the Western canon. But it could devolve ignominiously, become a playground for degenerate sloth and torpor. Not for nothing, the Roman poet Ovid advised in his Cures for Love, “Leisure is the cause of, the sustenance of delightful evil. If you abolish it, Cupid’s bow breaks and his torches lie disregarded and flameless.” 3
The uneasy amorphousness of otium finds an attempted remedy in the binary Latin noun pair, otium (“leisure”) and negotium (“work”; “business”). Negotium is literally negated otium, neg-otium, and so for the Romans, work, the essential business of political, civic, and military life, was de facto “non-leisure.” Poetic play with this anxiety lies in fragments of the early Roman poet Ennius, who treats the theme for the first time. He contrasts otium negotiosum (“productive leisure”) with otium otiosum (“idle, wasteful leisure”) and warns: otioso in otio animus nescit quid velit, “in idle leisure the rational soul does not know what it wants.” 4
The other afternoon I was getting off the phone with my mother, the hardest working person I know.
“What will you do before Tai Chi class tonight, Mom?”
Decades of exertion, insomnia, and worry assemble to make her voice thin, worn:
“Oh, well, I think I’ll rest some.”
Pause of a beat and a half.
The voice strengthens, emboldened in righteousness: “I’d say I’ve earned it. I’ve worked really hard today, so I get to.”
“Mom, you don’t have to earn it. You can rest if you’re tired, even if you don’t think you’ve worked hard all day.”
Skeptically: “Hmm. Well, ok.”
My Greek friend Kostis would say this is quintessentially American, this grinding focus on work and its moral inflections. The 25% of me that is Greek comes from my father’s side. He is the other hardest working person I know.
When I was three years old, during the last year of my parents’ marriage, I spent an afternoon riding my tricycle up and down a swath of our interminable gravel homestead driveway. This is when I learned to stand up and pump the pedals in order to exert as much effort as possible. My goal is still clear to me now, thirty-seven years later: I wanted beads of sweat to form at my temples, course down the sides of my face and soak into the collar of my shirt. I wanted to be like my parents.
Another ancient tradition regards leisure more seriously yet, as certain spiritual death. Effort, exertion, energy, vigor – expressed as viriya in the ancient native Indian Pāli language – are essential to progress on the path of enlightenment.
And so, the Buddha is said to have said:
“One day’s life of a person who is vigorous and resolute is better than a life of a hundred years of him who is weak and indolent.” 5
“If one is torpid, gluttonous, slumberous, rolling around in bed like a huge hog – that sluggard is born again and again.” 6
As it is told, a monk in training at the time of the Buddha became frustrated: “I am one of the Blessed One’s most energetic disciples, yet my mind has not been liberated… Let me then give up the training and return to the lower life.” The Buddha in turn instructs: “In the past, when you lived at home, weren’t you skilled at the lute? When its strings were too tight, was your lute well-tuned and easy to play? When its strings were too loose, was your lute well-tuned and easy to play? So, too, if energy is aroused too forcefully this leads to restlessness, and if energy is too lax this leads to laziness. Therefore, resolve on a balance of energy, achieve evenness…” 7
In a 5th-century CE commentary on the Buddha’s teachings, viriya is non-collapse, non-wandering, non-distraction. It is manifested as peace, as steadiness of the mind like the steadiness of a lamp’s flame when there is no draught. It is non-fogginess. It is non-wobbling. It is like a pillar because it is firmly grounded. With viriya attending, “there is no fatigue or heaviness or rigidity or unwieldiness or sickness or crookedness in the body and mind, but rather body and mind are tranquillized, light, malleable, wieldy, quite sharp, and straight.” 8 (Aren’t these the very things we seek to cultivate in our leisure time now, here?) Again, the Buddha: “If anything is to be done, let one do it with sustained vigor.” 9
Effort is slippery, too, its unskilled application a deadly trap. We can work ourselves “to the bone.” I have said to an officemate: “I am killing myself with work.” And for a period of time I actually was. So said several doctors, but I couldn’t hear the message then. Not even when one reported my hormone levels to be like those of women tested on release from Nazi concentration camps. But such compulsive self-abuse is a luxury, and the comparison distasteful. Those entering Auschwitz with Arbeit Macht Frei looming in inscription above could not turn around and leave.
Where there is interest, there is energy. 10
The goddess Persephone was once called Kore, “Maiden,” but the name no longer applies. She tells her mother Demeter what happened:
We were playing, and we were plucking up in our hands lovely blooms
all bunched together: mild crocus and irises and hyacinth
and rosebuds and lilies, incredible to see,
and narcissus, which, like the crocus, the broad earth bore.
And so I was picking away with delight, and the ground underneath me
gave way, and then and there he leapt forth, the forceful lord, he who gets a
And he took off carrying me underground in a golden chariot,
me utterly unwilling, and I shrieked with a shrill voice. 11
If you do a Google Image search for “leisure,” you get the marketed, commercial impression that 1., really only white people have to do with leisure (and wear leisure suits, for that matter), and that 2., leisure is doing things, usually in a tropical setting: climbing mountains, golfing, scuba diving, water skiing, running on the beach, yoga.
This is not the sustained vigorous effort of investigative attention advocated by the Buddha; had he been an ancient Roman, he would have deemed this a leisure of mentally idle and destructive distraction: otium otiosum.
Mountain climbing or scuba diving or horseback riding on a beach are enjoyed by the resourced elite, just as ancient Roman men who knew otium were the privileged few. In the earlier ancient Greek tradition, too, those with downtime were those not tethered to work in the fields or other labor-heavy industries. They were those who could counter their productive civic and political engagements with equally productive breaks from those engagements. They were aristocratic men who had the time and energy to gather regularly in the symposium, a literal “drinking together,” an in-home party held by citizen males for citizen males. Lounging on their left sides on dining couches called klinai (echoing in our re-cline), these men swilled wine, talked politics, recited poetry, and had all kinds of sex with adolescent boys and hired flute girls provided for their consumption — in the name of social bonding and didactic exchange.
Passing the wine cup to his friend, a 6th-century BCE symposiast would re-sing Anacreon’s verses:
Hitting me once again with a purple ball,
invites me to play with
the girl with fancy sandals.
But she, for she is from well-built
Lesbos, finds fault with my hair
because it’s white;
she gapes instead after another — 12
Another what? The Greek is carefully ambiguous, only making clear that she gapes after an implied feminine noun. Because the gaper is from well-built Lesbos, is her object another woman, which fits the grammar? Or, is this a loftier nod to Lesbian Sappho? The poet had already called Eros’ mother “purple Aphrodite,” and had performed the possibility of being a lesbian woman as well as a Lesbian woman, who could choose her desired object, female or male, autonomously and with discernment. If so, the sandaled girl may instead be after another head of hair — a feminine noun in Greek — choosing the full, dark growth of a younger man over Anacreon’s aging grey. Scholars can’t agree on the punchline. (There’s hardly a better tool for undoing witty humor than the interpretive microscope.) Consensus probably eludes precisely because Anacreon wanted to keep us weighing the options.
Business, the work of an office — ascholia in ancient Greek — was not to be found at the symposium. Its attendants were men at their leisure, their schole. Ancient Greek language, like later Latin, linguistically cemented a relationship between work related to business and relief from such work. If schole is “leisure,” “respite,” or “rest,” its absence is located in an occupation; in a-scholia, negated leisure. It is schole that invites Anacreon, and otium that invites Catullus to complicate Sappho (to appropriate her genius in the very act of celebrating it) and helps us see what they’re up to in doing so. And it is the leisure of schole, with its space for social critique, political debate, and investigations of art and philosophy that gives us the English “school.”
Could the framers of No Child Left Behind have had any idea?
And the Achaeans’ wall was broken down.
Just as when the great sea with a deep purple mute wave
forebodes the nimble paths of the shrill winds…
Homer, Iliad 13
A handful of years ago a woman in her eighties who had known me since I was a few months old asked me to choose one of her homemade cards to take home as a gift. I leafed through 4X6 paintings of native flowers and landscapes of my early childhood until I came to one with flowing script unfolding in multi-color crayon:
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
I was arrested; I knew about this viscerally. It had something to do with holding up a mirror to the rawest edges of pain.
Asked why I picked this over the others, I said something inarticulate about its depth. My mother was also there, and followed up:
“But, what does it mean?”
So personal, I couldn’t explain. And at the time I was flirting boldly with the protasis, but the apodosis remained remote. I had to stop and reread.
“I don’t know, actually. Maybe I’m not sure.” 14
The card keeps making the cut whenever I liquidate for the next move. I don’t come across it often now, but when I do there is the rehearsed rush of recognition. There is also a newer, less familiar veneer, one of clarity, apodosis realized. Striving without strain: the method and the cure.
As my sister used to say, “If everybody tells you you’re drunk, you better sit down.” Everybody, I am mindful, is also the self.
- All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.
- Catullus 51.
- Ovid, Remedia Amoris 138-140.
- Ennius, Iphigenia 245; apud Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 19.10.12.
- Dhammapada 112; translation, Harischandra Kaviratna.
- Dhammapada 325; translation adapted from Harischandra Kaviratna and from Buddharakkhita Thera.
- Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.374-6; translation, Bhikkhu Bodhi.
- Visuddhimagga XIV.137, 139, 140, 141, XX.16; translation, Bhikkhu Ñãņamoli.
- Dhammapada 313; translation, Buddharakkhita Thera.
- My father.
- Homeric Hymn to Demeter 425-432.
- Anacreon 358.
- Homer, Iliad 14.15-17.
- I later learned it’s a William Blake quote. Conditioned by the academy, I thought this grounding in fact and attribution might make its meaning more concrete. But this was no help. It couldn’t be. It had nothing to do with how the words latched onto certain fragments of my lived experience.
Alex this really resonates for me, and I love the interweaving of photos and words, of ancient voices and modern ones. Thank you.
Wonderful article – and fabulous photos! I love that you are branching out. Ingrid
I love this. Thanks Alex.