Adam Zagajewski, “Segesta” (from “En Route”)

Often, I try to disassociate “natural” from the “natural world.” 

Yes, there are plants, animals, forces, and plagues. They are a world unto themselves, apart from my anxieties and the processes—the rituals—which shape my reactions. The natural world contrasts with the conventional one, but that contrast can mislead.

It can lead away from the question of my own nature. What serves, what fulfills. What might be uncomfortable to admit or confront.

*

On the one hand, investigating nature is the furthest thing from tradition and religion. Questions shouldn’t be asked when one must humble oneself.

On the other hand, a specific culture—a certain time in human history—serves as shorthand for inquiring into nature. And so it happens that philosophy, religion, and even the natural world can be wrapped together in a few lines, and it feels perfectly intuitive:

Segesta (from “En Route”, in Poetry)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Clare Cavanagh)

On the meadow a vast temple—
a wild animal
open to the sky.

Trying to document new places doesn’t just result in big talk about ideas like “eternity.” Some of us hope for books to come to life. To see things we’ve only heard in part, imagined imperfectly, as revealed. Can a landscape and some ruins bring us a vision of the ancients?

Zagajewski reports “a vast temple” “on the meadow.” “Vast” and “meadow” carry significant weight. Immense architecture can be imagined in at least two ways. First, it could be that much more vast for those who built and used it. What stood as awe-inspiring, then. Second, there was more like it, even if not as powerful and lasting. What was the total effect upon a people? It’s difficult to imagine them as only profane, despite what we know about the sacred in our own lives.

The temple stands “on the meadow,” like it belongs there. “A wild animal / open to the sky.” It’s religion as confidence, a posture ready to act and be in this world. Unafraid of what it is. Naturally disposed. Alive, in confrontation with the heavens.

*

On the one hand, I know nothing about the Greeks. I’ve read all of Xenophon, quite a lot of Plato, some Aristotle, some drama, some poetry. Looked at some art.

On the other, I’m reminded of some lines from Antigone. Specifically, when Antigone is caught performing the burial ritual for her brother. The guard who catches her reports a large storm before she appears, one that nearly blinds him and his fellows. And then, after it passes, he describes this:

At last it ceased, and lo! there stood this girl. 
A piercing cry she uttered, sad and shrill,
As when the mother bird beholds her nest
Robbed of its nestlings; even so the girl
Wailed as she saw the body stripped and bare, 
And cursed the ruffians who had done this deed. (422-427, tr. E. E. Garvin)

Antigone, upon seeing her brother’s corpse defiled, cries like a “mother bird” whose “nest” has been “robbed of its nestlings.” Her bond, her emotions, are most natural. That she’s asked to forsake them is most unnatural.

The Thebans’ defiance of nature makes her larger than them. The guard sees her as if the storm brought her. It’s her nest which has been defiled. Her production, her home, her family is the natural order. The Thebans invite divine wrath—a wrath their orders cannot see or comprehend—because of where they trespass.

The tragedy might be thought unphilosophic. Religion, family, and politics brewing fatal conflict alone. I feel it trite to say recognition of the situation is philosophic when so much is at stake. When a girl, mourning her brother, stood before the open sky and wailed, filling the sky with what we can only imagine.

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