April 23, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
The universal nature of our coursework at Harrison Middleton University is part of its appeal. Sometimes aligning two things that seem very distinct can actually illustrate interesting connections. This was the case with the readings for our most recent public discussion, the April Quarterly Discussion. The Quarterly Discussion series was created with the intention of looking at snapshot-sized readings and investigating the ideas presented. Furthermore, each discussion focuses on a different topic, ranging from natural science to philosophy and religion to literature, and finally, to social science. This April, we focused on imaginative literature, and more specifically on Hesiod’s Ages of Man and Ginsberg’s “America.”
Considering that Hesiod is often called the father of didactic poetry, and is also one of the earliest Greek poets, writing at about 700 BC, then a comparison with Ginsberg’s voice and narrative appeared, at first glance, as a bit jarring. There are likenesses however, even in writing which occurs thousands of years apart. For example, they each contain a strong sense of justice. Though they may not align in how they define justice, the two pieces work really well as a conversation starter about the idea of justice itself. In ancient Greece, Hesiod attempts to inspire his brother, Perses, to work, to treat his neighbor fairly, to find “true justice” and make “straight judgements.” Hesiod did not want to travel or to risk his wealth on ships or abroad. Rather, he advises his brother to tend his own gardens.
In a similar vein, though very different tone and style, Ginsberg’s poem addresses America, but also it addresses each American (including himself). He asks, “America why are your libraries full of tears?” He claims that he will write when he is in the right mind, but continues to write such distressed lines that one cannot tell what the “right” mind might be. At the heart of Ginsberg’s poem is the constant questioning of a disparity between America the ideal and America the reality. Throughout the poem, he notes a lack of justice. And so, while it seems an unlikely pairing, Hesiod and Ginsberg are both reacting to disparities visible in their lifetimes.
Furthermore, Hesiod draws distinction between profit and “god-given wealth.” Without defining it explicitly, he warns against “base gain.” Following this, he provides a list of things such as giving to those who also give, and not to take. Furthermore, wealth itself is tied to other laws. He writes, “Wealth should not be seized: god-given wealth is much better; for if a man take great wealth violently and perforce, or if he steal it through his tongue, as often happens when gain deceives men’s sense and dishonour tramples down honour, the gods soon blot him out and make that man’s house low, and wealth attends him only for a little time.” The distinction here implies that the measure of a man’s life may come late in life, or only at the end of it, but that material wealth will evaporate.
Ginsberg, too, seeks to understand the measure of a man’s life. “America” suggests that the wealth in America might already be of the sort of “base gain” that Hesiod warns against. He descries Time Magazine and the nonsense that is found there, while at the same time claiming an obsession with it. The poem lists a fear of the machination and hypocrisy in America that is potentially tied to ideas of capitalism. Ginsberg writes, “America how can I write a litany in your silly mood?/ I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his automobiles more so they’re all different sexes./ America I will sell you strophes of $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe.” Ginsberg’s ironic or sarcastic message warns the reader about America’s rising materialism.
Obviously the tone of each piece is quite different. But, they do share one final element: hope. Both authors seem somewhat disgusted with their time and place. They write disgruntled lines about the darkness of their respective ages. Yet, they both choose to write about it, and why else would they write these works, unless there was the hope of a reader? Or the hope of an audience? If someone listens, then the writing was effectual.
On a final note, Hesiod begins the piece with a mythological introduction to the Ages of Man in which various beings are created and then deceased. In the age of gold, for example, man is free from toil and free from sin. The silver age, however, is “less noble by far.” And after these generations, we land at the age of iron in which “men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night.” Hesiod laments the fact that he lives during the age of iron. So, either he sees hope for the age of iron in some form, or he wants to inspire the next generation of men to be better. Either way, I wonder if the idea of justice is innately attached to the age of iron. The further removed we are from the divine, Hesiod implies, the more man must understand ideas of justice.
Thanks to those who discussed Hesiod and Ginsberg with me. I look forward to our next discussion in July. For more information on the Quarterly Discussion series, please email as****@hm*.edu.
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