STAY­ING AFLOAT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

any cul­tures have myths about a past era in which hu­mankind lived in har­mony with na­ture in­stead of de­spoil­ing it. He­siod, in Works and Days, evokes a Golden Age, fol­lowed by a steady de­cline from bronze to sil­ver to the Iron Age of in­jus­tice and vi­o­lence. No doubt the me­tal­lic as­so­ci­a­tion was ex­trap­o­lated from the real ex­pe­ri­ence of pass­ing from the rel­a­tively peace­ful Bronze Age to the bel­li­cose and un­sta­ble Iron Age.

In the Golden Age, there was nei­ther war nor pri­vate prop­erty; hu­mans found sus­te­nance freely avail­able in na­ture in the form of fruits and seeds, but did not kill an­i­mals; in­deed even an­i­mals did not kill each other, and in later paint­ings of the sub­ject, the wolf and the lamb and other an­i­mals that are nor­mally mu­tu­ally hos­tile lie down to­gether.

In­ter­est­ingly, even the first page of Ge­n­e­sis seems to im­ply an ad­mit­tedly im­prob­a­ble veg­e­tar­ian diet for all crea­tures, since God is said to make fruits for men to eat and grass for an­i­mals. Later, how­ever, the Cre­ator de­spises the sac­ri­fice of Cain, who grows grains, and ac­cepts that of Abel, con­sist­ing of a lamb or kid, driv­ing the en­raged agrar­ian to mur­der the pas­toral­ist.

The end of the Golden Age is sym­bol­ised in mythol­ogy by the story of Cad­mus, son of the Phoeni­cian king Agenor and brother of Europa, who is car­ried off by Zeus in the form of a bull and taken to Crete where she be­comes the mother of King Mi­nos. Cad­mus is sent to find her; he fails in his quest but founds the city of Thebes in Greece, bring­ing the Phoeni­cian in­ven­tion of the al­pha­bet to Greece in the process.

At the site of what will be Thebes, Cad­mus en­coun­ters a dragon guard­ing a spring. He kills it, ploughs the earth and sows its teeth. Armed men spring from the field; Cad­mus, as in­structed by Athena, casts a stone into the crowd and they be­gin to fight each other un­til only five are left. He mar­ries his daugh­ters to th­ese men and they be­come the first gen­er­a­tion of The­bans.

This mys­te­ri­ous an­cient story tells of the first plough­ing of the earth, the pri­mal trans­gres­sion by which man takes charge of na­ture in­stead of ac­cept­ing his orig­i­nal role as part of the nat­u­ral or­der. The plough­ing of the earth is a kind of rape of the mother, and the slay­ing of the ser­pent, her male con­sort, rep­re­sents man’s as­sump­tion of the mas­cu­line role in re­la­tion to na­ture.

It is not sur­pris­ing that trans­gres­sions so pro- found should im­me­di­ately lead to the vi­o­lence of war, pre­vi­ously un­known: it is as though as soon as we break free from our prim­i­tive place as a part of na­ture and at­tempt to take charge of its pro­cesses, the in­her­ent vi­o­lence of this act leads to more vi­o­lence among our­selves. And this myth kept evolv­ing in the retelling, and in the sto­ries of sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions: for the de­scen­dant of Cad­mus is Oedi­pus, who in­ad­ver­tently kills his fa­ther and mar­ries his mother.

But the first plough­ing of the earth was not the only pri­mal trans­gres­sion. A sec­ond one, also told in one of the most an­cient of myths, was the first cross­ing of the sea in a ship. In the Golden Age, no one sailed; the sea was an in­vi­o­late do­main. But when Jason set off on his voy­age — also the paradig­matic quest story — to re­cover the Golden Fleece, he had to build a ship, the Argo, a mag­i­cal ves­sel that in­cor­po­rated speak­ing tim­bers from the orac­u­lar oaks of Zeus at Dodona.

Once again, his quest was ac­com­plished with the help of the gods — in fact Jason also sows some of the The­ban dragon’s teeth re­served by Athena, which shows the affin­ity of the two sto­ries — for this rup­ture too was a nec­es­sary one. Man was not des­tined to live in the prim­i­tive state of the Golden Age, but to em­bark on a more am­bi­tious, if danger­ous, course.

The tragic du­al­ity of hu­man des­tiny is bril­liantly evoked in the sec­ond choral ode of Sopho­cles’ Antigone, the tragedy of Oedi­pus’s daugh­ter (lines 332 ff.), ex­ploit­ing the unique am­bi­gu­ity of the Greek word deinos, which means both clever and ter­ri­ble. There are many deinos things, but none more than man, who has in­vented lan­guage and cre­ated laws and found the se­crets of medicine. But the pri­mary rup­ture with the or­der of na­ture that makes th­ese achieve­ments pos­si­ble en­tails the po­ten­tial for evil as well as for good.

The cho­rus re­calls the orig­i­nary trans­gres­sions of plough­ing and sail­ing, but in­ter­est­ingly — es­pe­cially in a story with its roots specif­i­cally in the act of plough­ing — the ode be­gins with sail­ing: man “passes across the grey sea in stormy winds, mak­ing his way through the swell and troughs of the wa­ters”. Sail­ing was a re-

A scene frm Alan Sekula and Noel Burch’s The For­got­ten Space ( 2010), above, and a still from Peter Hut­ton’s At Sea (2007)

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