The Romans would laugh their tits off to look at American executions. The Romans had no such paradoxes, no confusion or anxiety over the right to life or privacy or dignity. Dignity was a privilege afforded to the very, very few. Life was something you earned, mostly by being rich, useful, and a citizen who followed the rules. Those who didn’t manage those things deserved everything they got. A Roman would ask what the point of the state murdering someone was if no one got to see it. …
There is, of course, a problem with this. For the Romans, that is. There are about eight million problems for us as modern Western readers with an ingrained sense of individual self and inalienable personal human rights. The problems for the Romans was simpler: once you’ve seen one guy get stabbed or hung or burnt or eaten by a leopard, you’ve basically seen them all. One stabbing is the same as the next. Burnings are barely distinguishable from one another. Animals are a bit unpredictable, but eventually they’re gonna eat the guy’s face and, you know, I already saw that on a mosaic the other day at my mate’s house. …
Roman sources only show public executions as being either very boring or very spectacular. They were either mundane, everyday crucifixions and behadings or wildly exhilarating theatrical displays praised for their stagecraft. What a modern reader never sees is any writer wrestling with the extraordinarily cavalier approach to human life.
— Emma Southon, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome 280–81, 288 (2021)
On July 6, 1776, John Jay – future governor, ambassador, cabinet minister and chief justice – wrote a letter to his colleague Edward Rutledge. It began:
DEAR RUTLEDGE: Your friendly letter found me so engaged by plots, conspiracies, and chimeras dire, that, though I thanked you for it in my heart, I had not time to tell you so, either in person or by letter.
It’s a great opening, and a timeless sentiment. But it raised a question for me: where did the amazing phrase “chimeras dire” come from? After far too long digging into the question, I think I have an answer. As best I can tell, Jay’s most direct source was Milton:
… Thus roving on
In confus’d march forlorn, th’ adventrous Bands
With shuddring horror pale, and eyes agast
View’d first thir lamentable lot, and found
No rest: through many a dark and drearie Vaile
They pass’d, and many a Region dolorous,
O’er many a Frozen, many a fierie Alpe,
Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death,
A Universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable, and worse
Then Fables yet have feign’d, or fear conceiv’d,
Gorgons and Hydra’s, and Chimera’s dire. (Paradise Lost, book II, lines 614–28 (1667))
Jay’s “plots, conspiracies, and chimeras dire” is a playful reference to Milton. He is comparing the political intrigues around him to the monsters of Hell, emphasizing how much they have distracted him while also poking a little fun at them.
He wasn’t the only one to borrow the phrase from Milton. Here is Alexander Hamilton:
In reading many of the publications against the Constitution, a man is apt to imagine that he is perusing some ill-written tale or romance, which instead of natural and agreeable images, exhibits to the mind nothing but frightful and distorted shapes “Gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire’’; discoloring and disfiguring whatever it represents, and transforming everything it touches into a monster. (Federalist 29 (1788))
The quotation marks without a citation indicate that Hamilton trusts the reader to recognize the reference. And like his collaborator John Jay, Hamilton is using Milton for rhetorical contrast: his point here is that the Constitution will not breed monsters, and describing it in these exaggerated terms shows how silly such fears are. (Compare “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!,” from The Wizard of Oz.)
The English critic Charles Lamb used the phrase as well in his “Witches, and Other Night Fears”:
Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimæras – dire stories of Celæno and the Harpies – may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition – but they were there before. They are transcripts, types – the archetypes are in us, and eternal. How else should the recital of that, which we know in a waking sense to be false, come to affect us at all?
This too is straight out of Milton, this time without the quotation marks but with a sly repunctuation to make the “stories” dire, rather than the “Chimæras.” Again, not plagiarism, just the knowing use of a familiar phrase. So too in a New York Times headline from 1863 and a charming 1828 William Heath cartoon of the microorganisms in London’s water. And plenty of artists have found fruitful inspiration in Milton’s descriptions of Hell’s residents, from Gustave Doré’s woodcuts to Najeeb Tarzi’s 8-bit animated music video for White Flag’s “Delta Heavy.” More loosely, try this, from Rudolph Erich Raspe’s 1895 The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen:
Gigantic monster! leader of witches, crickets, and chimeras dire! know thou, that here before yon azure heaven the cause of truth, of valour, and of faith right pure shall ordeal counter try it!
But even if Milton is the common inspiration for modern chimeras dire, the trail goes further back. There is a similar passage in Virgil:
Multaque praeterea variarum monstra ferarum:
Centauri in foribus stabulant, Scyllaeque biformes,
et centumgeminus Briareus, ac belua Lernae
horrendum stridens, flammisque armata Chimaera,
Gorgones Harpyiaeque et forma tricorporis umbrae. (Aeneid, book 6, lines 285–89 (19 BCE))
In A.S. Kline’s translation, this is:
And many other monstrous shapes of varied creatures, are stabled by the doors, Centaurs and bi-formed Scylla, and hundred-armed Briareus, and the Lernean Hydra, hissing fiercely, and the Chimaera armed with flame, Gorgons, and Harpies, and the triple bodied shade, Geryon.
Virgil’s Chimaera is not quite “dire,” but there are Milton’s “Gorgons and Hydra’s, and Chimera’s.”
But wait, there’s more! Here is a passage from Plato’s Phaedrus:
ἐγὼ δέ, ὦ Φαῖδρε, ἄλλως μὲν τὰ τοιαῦτα χαρίεντα ἡγοῦμαι, λίαν δὲ δεινοῦ καὶ ἐπιπόνου καὶ οὐ πάνυ εὐτυχοῦς ἀνδρός, κατ᾽ ἄλλο μὲν οὐδέν, ὅτι δ᾽ αὐτῷ ἀνάγκη μετὰ τοῦτο τὸ τῶν Ἱπποκενταύρων εἶδος ἐπανορθοῦσθαι, καὶ αὖθις τὸ τῆς Χιμαίρας, καὶ ἐπιρρεῖ δὲ ὄχλος τοιούτων Γοργόνων καὶ Πηγάσων καὶ ἄλλων ἀμηχάνων πλήθη τε καὶ ἀτοπίαι τερατολόγων τινῶν φύσεων. (Phaedrus 229d–e (~370 BCE))
In the fairly literal 1925 translation by Harold N. Fowler, this is:
But I, Phaedrus, think such explanations are very pretty in general, but are the inventions of a very clever and laborious and not altogether enviable man, for no other reason than because after this he must explain the forms of the Centaurs, and then that of the Chimaera, and there presses in upon him a whole crowd of such creatures, Gorgons and Pegas, and multitudes of strange, inconceivable, portentous natures.
So Virgil, too, is riffing on themes that were far older than him, and like Milton in his day, Virgil arranges the details for poetic effect.
But our tale is not yet done, because here is Benjamin Jowett ’s widely-reprinted 19th-century translation of this passage from the Phaedrus:
Now I quite acknowledge that these allegories are very nice, but he is not to be envied who has to invent them; much labour and ingenuity will be required of him; and when he has once begun, he must go on and rehabilitate Hippocentaurs and chimeras dire. Gorgons and winged steeds flow in apace, and numberless other inconceivable and portentous natures.
“Dire” is not in Fowler’s translation, for a very good reason: it’s not in the Greek original. No, I think it is more likely that Jowett got the phrase from Milton. Maybe it was a quotation meant to be recognized as such, maybe it was more of a wink, maybe it was not even conscious – but I doubt that it was a coincidence.
At any rate, the fact that Jowett’s translation became the standard and most widely-available English translation of the Phaedrus has had another, surprising consequence. It sometimes lures the unwary reader into thinking that “chimeras dire” is a classical quotation that Jay and Hamilton would have been familiar with because they were familiar with the ancients. So here we have economist William F. Campbell of the conservative Philadelphia Society confidently but wrongly claiming that Hamilton in Federalist 29 is referring to the Phaedrus:
No reference is given for the quote about gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire. The most likely reference is Plato’s Phaedrus. Here Plato is discussing the story of Boreas and Orithyria and points out that both the allegorization of fables and their rationalistic debunking by scientific methods of criticism are a waste of time. (William F. Campbell, The Spirit of the Founding Fathers, 23 Modern Age 250 (1979))
It is true that this is what Plato is discussing. But this is not what Hamilton is discussing, because Hamilton is quoting Milton, not Plato. To be sure, Milton is referencing Virgil, who may have been echoing Plato. But the context in which these chimeras and their fellow monsters make their appearance is so radically different from Plato to Milton that Socrates’s argument about myth and philosophy has entirely dropped away. It seems like there is a connection because you will see “chimeras dire” if you open your Jowett translation of Plato. But Jowett was born thirteen years after Hamilton died, and he is the one who put the phrase in the Phaedrus.
We carry the past with us like a traveler’s phrasebook. However unfamiliar the streets we walk may seem to us, it serves as a reminder that others have been here before. They may not have had any better idea what they were doing than we do, but at least they left us something to say.
A big hat tip to historian Emily Sneff, whose toot on Jay’s letter sent me down this rabbit hole.
We had the telegraph and the Court decided that was commerce … then the telephone came and that’s been declared commerce …. now if I’m to write a decision on this thing called radio, I’m afraid I’ll have to get in touch with the occult.
—Chief Justice William Howard Taft (in conversation with and as quoted by Senator Clarence Dill, see Erik Barnouw, A Tower in Babel 258 (1966))
“How can it be permitted,” the pro-Jacobin Journal des Hommes libres has asked, that even though terror is the order of the day, “–… large amounts of false news circulate from the centre of Paris … and carry uncertainty into the minds of patriots and serenity into the souls of aristocrats?”
–Colin Jones, The Fall of Robespierre 146 (2021)
For example, I think that references to patents, so ancient and pervasive in sales literature, are just such a move. It may be in part that the word “patent” is used to stand in for “clever” or “cunning,” and it certainly is true that “patented” is often central to that classic and powerful product-differentiation technique, “Kill-All’s Patented Rat Trap.” But it is also the case that having a patent means that one has a governmentally approved right coercively (through legal action) to exclude competitors from particular cost-cutting processes for a very long time (specifically seventeen years). The power of “our patented process” may inhere in this triple reference power, but the most important of the three may be to indicate this commercial rara avis, sole licit durability of a competitive advantage.
—Arthur Leff, Swindling and Selling 127–28 (1976)
One evening, about the time when bananas were first being imported in Britain, Lord Leconfield was dining in his stately home with a friend. His guest observed that nobody really knew how good a banana could be unless he had tasted one straight off the tree.
Lord Leconfield said nothing at the time, but next morning he sent for his head gardener. “Go,” he told him tersely, “to Kew. Find out how to grow a banana. Come back here and grow one.”
Off went the head gardener. A special greenhouse was constructed. The banana tree was splendid. Lord Leconfield took a lively interest in in its progress until it fructified. “I will have the banana for dinner tonight,” he said as soon as the banana was ripe. And so he did – amid a deadly hush. The head gardener himself was there, concealed behind a screen.
The banana was brought in on a splendid dish. Lord Leconfield peeled it with a golden knife. He then cut a sliver off and, with a golden fork, put it in his mouth and carefully tasted it. Whereupon he flung dish, plate, knife, fork and banana on to the floor and shouted ‘Oh God, it tastes like any other damn banana!“ Banana tree and all were ordered to be destroyed.
–T.W. Körner, An Unofficial Guide to Part III, retelling a story from the autobiography of John Wyndham, the 6th Baron Leconfield, about his grandfather, Henry Wyndham, the 2nd Baron Leconfield
The road to Zork began in late May of 1977, when Dave Lebling put together a very simple parser and game engine quite similar to Adventure’s, from which Marc Blank and Tim Anderson built their first four-room game as a sort of proof of concept. … The name itself was a nonsense word floating around MIT that one might use in place of something, shall we say, stronger in stressful situation: “Zork the bloody thing!” when a piece of code just wouldn’t work correctly, etc. The file holding the game-in-progress got named “Zork” as a sort of placeholder until someone came up with something better. In the case of Zork, though, a proper name was slow in coming. And so Zork the game remained for the first six months of its existence. …
At some point around the fall of 1977, the DMG hackers had decided that their creation really, really needed a “proper” name. Lebling suggested Dungeon, which excited no one (Lebling included), but no one could come up with anything better. And so Dungeon it was. … Shortly after that, MIT heard legal rumblings from, of all places, TSR, publishers of Dungeons and Dragons – and of a dungeon-crawling board game called simply Dungeon! TSR was always overzealous with lawsuits, and the consensus amongst the MIT lawyers that the DMG hackers consulted was that they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. However, rather than get sucked into a lengthy squabble over a name none of them much liked in the first place, they decided to just revert to the much more memorable Zork. And so by the beginning of 1978 Dungeon became Zork once more, and retained that name forevermore.
–Jimmy Maher, Zork on the PDP-10
In 1995 an engineer named William Dilworth, who had published a refutation of Cantor’s argument in the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, sued for libel a mathematician named Underwood Dudley who had called him a crank. The case was dismissed. For myself I am more scared of the copyright law than the law of libel. After taking legal advice I decided not to quote any of the authors directly. The alternative was to write some letters saying in effect: ‘I’m sorry we couldn’t publish your paper as a contribution to logic. Can I please publish parts of it as examples of garbage?’
–Wilfrid Hodges, An Editor Recalls Some Hopeless Papers, 4 Bulletin of Symbolic Logic 1, 1 (1998)
The present author is by no means a philosopher. He has not understood the system, whether there is one, whether it is completed; it is enough for his weak head to ponder what a prodigious head everyone must have these days when everyone has such a prodigious idea. … He writes because to him it is a luxury that is all the more pleasant and apparent the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes. … I throw myself down in deepest submission before every systematic ransacker: “This is not the system; it has not the least thing to do with the system. I invoke everything good for the system and for the Danish shareholders in this omnibus, for it will hardly become a tower. I wish them all, each and every one, success and good fortune.”
–Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong trans.)
However, much of the effect of an impressive and expensive window is lost if it has to be inserted into a tunnel-like opening in a thick wall. Inevitably, attempts to provide bigger windows set in thinner walls ran into trouble with thrust lines. Norman architecture was basically Roman architecture and cannot be made to do this sort of thing, because it depends for its stability and safety on the use of thick walls. But this did not stop builders from trying, and it has been said of late Romanesque architecture that the question to ask of any particular building is ‘not whether, but when, the Great Tower fell’.
J.E. Gordon, Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down
Have I mentioned that I expect death around every turn, that every blue sky has a safe sailing out of it, that every bus runs me over, that every low, mean syllable uttered in my direction seems to intimate the violence of murder, that every family seems like an opportunity for ruin and every marriage a ceremony into which calamity will fall and hearts will be broken and lives destroyed and people branded by the mortifications of love?
–Rick Moody, Demonology
Young people have curled around their economic situation “like vines on a trellis,” as [Malcolm] Harris puts it. And, when humans learn to think of themselves as assets competing in an unpredictable and punishing market, then millennials–in all their anxious, twitchy, phone-addicted glory–are exactly what you should expect. The disdain that so many people feel for Harris’s and my generation reflects an unease about the forces of deregulation, globalization, and technological acceleration that are transforming everyone’s lives. (It does not seem coincidental that young people would be criticized for being entitled at a time when people are being stripped of their entitlements.) Millennials, in other words, have adjusted too well to the world they grew up in; their perfect synchronization with economic and cultural disruption has been mistaken for the source of the disruption itself.
–Jia Tolentino, Where Millennials Come From
But hold up for a minute: Who is this “we” that’s always turning up in critical writing anyway? We is an escape hatch. We is cheap. We is a way of simultaneously sloughing off personal responsibility and taking on the mantle of easy authority. It’s the voice of the middle-brow male critic, the one who truly believes he knows how everyone else should think. We is corrupt. We is make-believe.
–Claire Dederer, What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?