Doppelganger Magazine >> Issue Five | March 2006
LETTERS FROM THE SYMPOSION
No sun rises to cast aside love of an idea or a new form of misery. These wait patiently for sunset, dear luminous twilight, at which time in a kitchen that has become Portland Oregon's egalitarian andron (see note 4), through conversation, food, music, text and the jostling of bodies, we convene to explore somatic and intellectual conviviality. For almost a year now, lead with measured recklessness by our symposiast Matthew Stadler and feuled by Michael and Naomi Hebberoy, whose tiny culinary empire, so appropriately named ripe, forms the habitus of this experiment, we have eaten, disagreed, listened, and kissed. This practice is called the back room, and it has roots as ancient as digestion.
1. To engage well as a symposiast was to embrace the aesthetic responsibilities, dangers, and pleasures of Greek citizenship. The Attic symposion flowered and died as Greek society changed, but before all things, it was aristocratic...conducted by and for the most privileged men of the culture. So know that first. But Aaron, know that your kind invitation to write an essay about the ancient Greek symposion has resulted in a lengthy translation of the sort that I have not completed since living in Athens. It is good and feels somehow redeeming to flex these particular muscles right now, during these depressing political times. There is so much I want to tell you about the astonishing institution of the symposion...a space of intimacy, art, and violent political agency. The texts in this essay are loose translations of several groups of fragments: one from a collection of fourth-century B.C.E. letters later recounted by Alciphron in 200 C.E. Alciphron's "letters" contain our most reliable personal descriptions of sympotic space...the letters often appear to be from the perspective of a prostitute, about whose sex scholars do not agree. The second primary texts are fragments of legal proceedings from the deme (political area) of Athens from approximately 590 to 370 B.C.E.
2. Distinct from public religious rites, or larger, more inclusive civic feasts, the sensual intimacy of the symposion followed a larger meal, though breads, meats, fruits, and other delicacies were served along with wine, which the Greeks considered to be their most significant cultural accomplishment. In this case, wine was mixed with the freshest of rainwater–the proportions of which were determined by the symposiast–the host, or patron of the feast. Wine and water were mixed together in large standing vessels–kraters–often by a slave but often by the household servants brought to the feast by guests. These citizen men who died together by the thousands during each warring invasion and who kept their wives under the strictest prohibitions–these men were the government, the military, the cultural fabric...The symposion formed their most intimate discursive space–a civic yet private arena, reserved for the performance of contemporary and archaic poetry, lovemaking, fucking, and the raucous bruise of violence. The symposion served a pedagogical function in the education of younger aristocratic men–morally, intellectually, sexually. Scholars argue that the nature of the latter Attic symposion–the symposion primarily witnessed in these texts–evidences the decline of the aristocracy as the center of political power (its role as the warrior class slowly eroded by the implementation of the professional Hoplite army).
3. The connotation of this passage is definitely the castration or the violation of the father by the son. A strigil is a curved implement–often silver, copper, or wood–for scraping excess anointments from the skins. The scraping action also acts as an exfoliant. Many existing examples have handles in the shape of penises, presumably for sexual use.
4. The symposion was conducted in the confines of the andron–the private men's room standard in a privileged Greek home. Either square or rectangular and always with easy access on the ground floor, the andron was constructed to house no more than twelve klinai, standing wooden couches, on and around which the symposion flowed. A standard klinai held two people comfortably, each party resting in the opposite direction (foot to dick, they called it)...the second place reserved for intimates and hired entertainment. The andron's size ensured that the participants could hear one another without shouting. Each guest was meant to be no more than three couches distance from any other...It was critical that each symposiast be able to discern the aural nuances of poetry and debate while reclining comfortably on his pillows and hides. Because poetic recitation was one of the centerpieces of sympotic activity, the subtlety of this aural embrace was legally protected.
5. The sympotic banquet lasted beyond night into dawn, and often symposiasts roamed between households. We know from textual sources that symposia often ended violently. The komos–the rowdy, drunken group of symposiasts (visible naked on vessels of the period and usually accompanied by musicians or attendants)–spilled out of the andron and into the streets, destroying ritual and civic property, accosting homes and people.
6. Ironically, it was Solon himself who decried that Greece's political agency was being eroded by the citizen's inability to conduct restrained and measured feasts. In the Eunomia (c. 580 B.C.E.), Solon writes:
7. Hermai are large standing stone statues–erected in front of homes, in public thresholds, at geographic crossroads–the tops of which contained carved portraits of the god Hermes (god of travelers), the squared bottom of which contained large erect genitals. In 415 B.C.E., the night before the Greek navy was set to sail into and conquer Sicily, Athenians awoke to find widespread mutilation of these sacred statues. A great public crisis ensued. Many people, like the author of this political invective, believed that the mutilation was conducted by a komos led by Alcibiades, pupil of Socrates, raised by Pericles after his father was killed in battle. Alcibiades was sentenced to death, but escaped to Sparta and found his way back into Athens's graces. Socrates himself initiated Alcibiades sexually at just such a symposion.
8. This fragment, from Alciphron's letters, recounts an ancient story of fidelity, familial piety, and the gods' passion for thwarting the hopes of mortals. Standing carved figures of the twins, created between 610 and 580 B.C.E., are housed in the archaeological museum of Delphi.
Carson, Anne. Eros the Bittersweet. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Frazer, Ian. "Beasts and Beauty." In the New Yorker, December 12, 2005.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters on Cezanne. Translated by Joel Agee. San Francisco: North Point Press, 2002.
Robertson, Lisa. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture.
Astoria, OR: Clear Cut Press, 2003.
Schmitt-Pantel, Pauline. "Les repas au prytane et à la Tholos dans l'Athènes classique: sitèsis, trophè, misthos, réflexions sur le mode de nourriture démocratique." In AION 11, 1980.
Stadler, Matthew. Allan Stein. New York: Grove Press, 1999.
Klinai from scenes on Attic Geometric vases. From: Laser, S. (1968) Hausrat
This essay is one in a series commissioned and published by the back room, Portland, Oregon, curated and edited by Matthew Stadler. The essays are published in modest well-made chapbook editions and will later be compiled as a bound anthology.
The back room is an occasional series of presentations/symposia/bacchanals that take place in the family supper room of ripe, a restaurant in Portland, Oregon, replete with food, drink, music, and general boisterousness garlanding the central pleasure of bright intellects voicing their excellent texts, winging it in conversation, and screening or presenting various textual and visual delights.
Copies of "Letters from the Symposion," in a chapbook edition from the back room, Portland, Oregon, are also available for sale at Reading Frenzy, Motel, and Powell's, Portland, Oregon, and Modern Times, San Francisco.
Stephanie Snyder is the Anne and John Hauberg director and curator of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College, Portland, Oregon.