Sunday, June 3, 2012

Words and Things

Telethusa and Isis

The Iphis and Ianthe tale can been seen as a pendant to that of Byblis and Caunus. For Byblis, the central task was to use all the powers of naming and persuasion to overcome a cultural convention that was the obstacle to her desire -- the taboo of incest.

Iphis has avoided death because of the holy lie (pia mendacia) that she is a man. But at the moment that she is to espouse Ianthe, she confronts the reality that no amount of feigning, no sleight of hand, words or dress, can change the truth:

Even now, no part of my prayers has been denied. The gods have readily given whatever they were able, and my father, her father, and she herself, want what I want to happen. But Nature does not want it, the only one who harms me, more powerful than them all.

Iphis is looking at the realm of human conventions and realities from a perspective beyond them -- from that of nature. Between the realm of words, what we call or style things, and the nature of things, there's a substantial gap.

A comment from a conversation with a physicist reminded me of the plight of Iphis:

Ms. Levin: . . . I have a hard time becoming obsessed with internal, um, social norms, how you're supposed to dress or wear your tie or … 
Ms. Tippett: OK. 
Ms. Levin: … who's supposed to — you know, for me, it's so absurd, because it's so small and it's so — this funny thing that this one species is acting out on this tiny planet in this huge, vast cosmos. So I think it is sometimes hard for me to participate in certain values that I think other people have. So in that sense, yeah, I guess there is a shift of what I think is significant and what I think isn't. And if I try to look at that closely, I would say the split is, things that are totally constructed by human beings, I have a hard time taking seriously, and things that seem to be natural phenomenon, that happen universally, I seem to take more seriously or feel is more significant. 
Ms. Tippett: Well, give me an example. I mean, I think sometimes it's hard to draw the line. Give me an example of something for you that would be totally humanly constructed and then the other one. 
Ms. Levin: Actually, this is going to sound really dangerous, but even things like who we elect as an official in our government. Of course, I take very seriously our voting process and I'm, you know, very, try to be politically conscious. But sometimes, when I think about it, I have to laugh that we're all just agreeing to respect this agreement that this person has been elected for something. And that is really a totally human construct that we could turn around tomorrow and all choose to behave differently. We're animals that organize in a certain way. So it's not that I completely dismiss it or don't take it seriously, but I think a lot of the things we are acting out are these animalistic things that are consequences of our instincts. And they aren't, in some sense, as meaningful to me as the things that will live on after our species comes and goes. Does that make any sense? 
Theoretical Physicist Janna Levin from On Being

Bonus link: An animated version of the tale of Iphis and Ianthe.

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