Friday, January 30, 2015

From Plato's Cave to Segal's Acrobats: A New Sculpture at Ohio State

While I am not there to see them for myself, I am proud to report that George Segal's sculpture Circus Acrobats (1988) have now been installed in the Ohio Union at Ohio State University.

Thanks to this generous gift to the university from The George and Helen Segal Foundation, generations of OSU students can now marvel at this dramatic duo swinging from the raters as they look up in the expansive main hall of the Union. In response to the sculpture's installation, I was asked by Noah Toumert, a student journalist for the OSU newspaper The Lantern to tell him about how the gift of the sculpture came about, the role of OSU alumnus and photographer Donald Lokuta and the impact of the work on OSU students.
You can read Noah's article here, which includes some student eye-witness accounts of seeing the acrobats in action. However, for obvious reasons, Noah was not able to include the full report I sent to him, so I wanted to share it for you here, with some links and pictures:

Noah Toumert The Lantern: I understand that the connection between the university and the George and Helen Segal Foundation came from Donald Lokuta’s art exhibition at Ohio State. Does Lokuta have any connection to the university and how did that relationship begin?

Richard Fletcher: The origins of the exhibition Donald Lokuta: Plato’s Cave, Segal’s Studio that I curated at the Urban Arts Space in August 6 – September 12, 2013 is an interesting story in itself.  

I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Classics at OSU and although my main area of research is in how the ancient Romans inherited, appropriated and transformed Greek philosophy, I also have a research and teaching interest in the connections between Classics and Contemporary Art. I stumbled across an advertisement for an exhibition called In Plato’s Cave redux: Photographs by DonaldLokuta, at the hpgrp gallery, New York in an issue of Aperture magazine. 

I contacted the gallery asking them about the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, then I received an email from Donald saying that he was delighted in my interest in the exhibition, not only as a professor who works on ancient philosophy, but also because he was actually an alumnus of OSU. In fact, after receiving his PhD in 1975, he taught in the old Department of Photography and Cinema in the now demolished Haskett Hall, before taking a job at Kean University in his native New Jersey, where he has taught ever since. The serendipity of our connection was not lost on me and I immediately invited Donald to come to Columbus to talk to a class I was teaching in the Fall of 2012 about the connections between Classical Mythology and Contemporary Art. He agreed and everything was planned, but then Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey the week he was due to come and so we had to postpone. 

In the conversations that followed, we talked about the possibility of the exhibition – one that would combine his work based on Plato’s Analogy of the Cave in his Republic with the series of photographs he took of his friend, the well-known sculptor George Segal, in his New Jersey studio. Lokuta’s photographs of Segal’s studio are all the more interesting for the fact that Lokuta used to model for Segal (you can see him in the FDR memorial Depression Bread Line - the tallest figure in the middle) and also help create the cast when Segal himself was the subject (he’s also in the breadline, behind Lokuta). 

Furthermore Segal was also a keen photographer and he and Donald would go to New York and take photos of the city together. All of these aspects of the Segal’s Studio series were important for me because they resonated with the key ideas of Plato’s Cave – levels of reality, figures inside and outside the cave and ideas of art and representation. So, with the support of the Urban Arts Space and the Arts Initiative, I put together the exhibition, which included his photographs of the Studio and projections of the Cave, as well as a generous loan of a Segal sculpture from the Columbus Museum of Art (I have Valarie Williams at the Arts Initiative to thank for engineering this loan).

 The opening of the exhibition included a series of talks with Lokuta, both at the UAS and the Wexner Center, and also an amazing dance called Out of Cast and Cave that I commissioned to be choreographed by OSU Dance Dept. alumna Leigh Lotocki, performed by Lotocki and Amanda Platt (also an OSU Dance alumna) and with music by OSU Music School DMA candidates Kevin Estes and Johnny Mendoza (Plato's Cave by Casey Cangelosi, originally commissioned by OSU graduate Maria Finkelmeier). In many ways the dance was one of the highlights of the exhibition – Donald felt so as well – and I think it is one of the reasons behind why the gift of the Circus Acrobats is so fitting! 

As you can tell, there is lots to say about the origins of the exhibition etc, but I think the most important thing is that it was a collaboration that included so many different generations of OSU students and teachers – a PhD student from 1975, who taught at OSU, a current Classics Professor, recent Dance students and (then) current Music students and one alumnus. I guess I would love it if some of this back-story made it into the account of the gift of the Circus Acrobats, as it puts them in context of this multifaceted exhibition.

Noah Toumert The Lantern: When did the residual contact between the foundation and the university take place? Did they offer the piece or was it asked for?

Richard Fletcher: Following the success of the exhibition, I received an email from Susan Kutliroff at The George and Helen Segal Foundation in November 2013, stating that she had 'recently been speaking with Donald Lokuta about the show he had at The Ohio State University.  He was very positive and in the course of the discussion the idea of gifting a Segal work to the University came up. We would like very much to do this.  Donald suggested I contact you to ask if you thought the University would be interested and, if so, how to facilitate this.  My thought was that you might be interested in The Acrobats.' 
As you can see from this, the gift of the Circus Acrobats was a direct result of Lokuta’s relationship with Segal and the Foundation and, as an alumnus of OSU, his suggestion that the Foundation consider gifting a sculpture to the museum. The idea of the Circus Acrobats came from the fact that it was a major work – a bronze – and one that really accentuated the dance performance at the opening that Donald so enjoyed.

Then, with the support and encouragement of my department chair Ben Acosta-Hughes, I went through the University’s Arts and Memorials Committee and, with the help, collaboration and guiding support of the co-chair of the committee at the time – Prof. Michael Mercil of the Dept. of Art – Deans Mark Shanda and Valarie Williams, the latter as Director of the Arts Initiative – the gift was accepted. I was especially appreciative of the help of Michael Mercil because of his expertise in the field of 20th century art helped when we wrote together a letter to the rest of the committee explaining the unique nature of the Segal sculpture.

Noah Toumert The Lantern: What meaning did Segal or the foundation put behind the piece? 

Richard Fletcher: The Circus Acrobats was a major work by Segal and one of the few large bronze sculptures left at the Foundation after several years of gifts. Among Segal’s sculptures, Circus Acrobats represented a very important aspect of his work, as an example of when he would cast figures and create environments that actively celebrate the dramatic potential of the human form. Art historian William Seitz has described these as ‘the arts of bodily expression - dancing, acrobats.’ And if, in fact, there is one subject that remained constant throughout Segal’s long career, it is the enduring and compelling figure of the circus performer. Segal first created Circus Girl in 1967, Girl on flying trapeze in 1969, Trapeze in 1971 and Tightrope walker in 1973. He returned to the theme with Circus Flyers in 1981 and Circus Acrobats in 1988, ending with Red Woman Acrobat in 1996. 

Donna Gustafson, who has also curated an exhibition of Lokuta's photographs at the Zimmerli Museum, Rutgers, writes that, ‘Segal’s circus performers bring the circus back from the outer limits of human experience and returns to the metaphor of circus activity as life’s activity.’ So, the Circus Acrobats belongs to an important and inspiring theme in Segal’s art in general and in Post-war Modern art in general. For all of Segal’s ‘realism’ it was his selective choice of subjects—combined with his uncanny use of abstract elements within the figurative form—that give his work its unique position in the development of the art of the 1960s and beyond. Writing about his work in 1965, Marcel Duchamp observed that: ‘with Segal it’s not a matter of the found object; it’s the chosen object.’ Duchamp’s telling appraisal not only situates Segal’s work within other art movements of the time (e.g. Mini­malism, Conceptual Art) but further suggests how choice is central to its significance.

Noah Toumert The Lantern: What was the university’s reasoning for placing it in the Union and so high up?

Richard Fletcher: There were several options for the placement of the sculpture on campus that the Arts and Memorials Committee discussed (I was not a member of the committee, so I only heard about their discussions 2nd hand through Michael Mercil). One of them, which in many ways was my personal preference, was the Oval-side foyer of the Thompson Library. I loved the idea of seeing the acrobats soaring above students as they studied, lifting them through their exams with a dramatic sight! However, the library administration were not convinced of the appropriateness of the sculpture in their space, and the committee had to look elsewhere. In many ways, given the humanist nature of Segal’s work, the most important thing was for students to encounter the sculpture in their daily lives and activities on campus, so the Union was a great choice. As for why it is so high (I have not seen it in person, only from photographs) this is a question for the installation team. However, one reason could be the cramped and limited space of the installation of the same sculpture series in the Princeton University Art Museum. Rather than restrain the acrobats, it is better to see them fly – and having them up high would have that effect. 

Noah Toumert The Lantern: In your opinion, what does this mean for the university? What does it show about us?

Richard Fletcher: This is a major gift to the university, not only because it is a key work of art by one of the greatest American sculptors of the twentieth century, but also because its story involves so many OSU people, especially that of alumnus Donald Lokuta. While less dramatic than the sculpture, Lokuta gifted photographs from the UAS exhibition to the OSU Libraries and is a major photographer in his own right. His story is an inspiration to students in Art and Photography and is testament to the nature of a friendship that lasted for 20 years between a photographer and sculptor. The gift shows that OSU can create personal connections between generations of students and teachers and it is this point that I want to emphasize. Yes, it is a beautiful, impressive work, soaring through the Union, but I think that the story behind it is equally uplifting and important for OSU students. I really hope that the University administration do something to acknowledge Lokuta’s role in all of this, whether a plaque or an event of some kind. It is ultimately thanks to him that this has happened. 
Noah Toumert The Lantern: Is there anything else you’d like to say or you’d like students from the university to know about the sculpture?

Richard Fletcher: I want students to know that this is a pivotal work in the career of a major artist and for twentieth century art in general. Furthermore, I think that its dramatic embodiment of two flying acrobats, grasping at each other through the air, is there to inspire the whole OSU community as an expression of a truly aspirational humanism. Finally, the modest story of this dramatic sculpture is one of intimate friendship, between Segal and Lokuta, and the developing friendship between an OSU Classics professor and an alumnus photographer. It is also a reminder of the exhibition that brought together current and former students across the arts and humanities to think about collaboration, creativity and the human power of art to inspire new generations of OSU students


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Amazons and Guerrilla Girls

Guerrilla Girls, Battle Of The Sexes, project for the New Yorker, 1996, 12 x 18 in. Pomona College Collection. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Estate of Walter and Elise Mosher.
I'm excited about visiting the new Guerilla Girls exhibition this weekend here in Madrid at the Matadero: Guerrilla Girls: 1985-2015

At the same time, at the Pomona College Museum of Art you can catch their exhibition Guerrilla Girls: Art in Action, which includes their brilliant remake of the Amazonomacy frieze from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. 

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus: Amazonomachy - detail of Greek and Amazon from E. frieze (attributed to Skopas?) - ca. 355-330 B.C.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Half-Assed Reviewers and Pearl-Plucking Authors: Chrysippus' Euripides, Virgil's Ennius and Gaddis' Green

 - I mean I just saw an advance review of your art book, some half-ass critic takes it apart.
Valentine paused, lighting a cigarette. He held the match before him, looking at the flame. then he blew it out. - How do you mean, takes it apart?
 - He takes your own words out of it, and quotes them to...
 - Yes, to condemn me, I see what you mean, Valentine said coldly. - He does sound rather...half-assed, as you so graphically describe him.

 - Not only that...
 - My dear Brown, nothing amuses me more than that, exactly that, Valentine interrupted. - Why do you suppose I put them there? To give your...half-assed reviewer opportunity to expose his own total lack of resources, in what he considers an exemplary demonstration of his own cleverness. Can you imagine the satisfaction that gives someone who has never done anything himself? Our great half-assed priesthood, so to speak, he finished with asperity, turning to Brown, or rather to the cloud of cigar smoke that rose between them.

 - Not only that, Brown went on with belligerent satisfaction as Valentine paced the floor away from his desk. - He says you plagiarized just about the whole thing, that you lifted...
 - Plaigarized! Valentine turned, and controlled his voice with a thin smile. - You make me feel like Vergil, when someone saw him carrying a copy of Ennius, and implied...
 - He says you lifted...
 - I'm simply plucking the pearls from Ennius' dunghill, was Vergil's answer.
 - If you think you can lift whole parts of somebody else's...

  - And now what? Valentine brought out quickly. - Making me out another...Chrysippus? Seven hundred and five volumes, he went on, recovering the forced dilatory calm of his voice as he spoke. - But the work of others pleased him so, that one of his books contained a play of Euripides almost entire.

 - William Gaddis The Recognitions (1955) 351-2. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Art of the Classics Faculty Bookshelf: Lauren Dudley's Artemis and Paul Chan's Odysseus

Selection of Donald Judd's Loeb Classical Library in his library
The online Faculty Bookshelf is becoming a common feature of university department websites, and Classics is no exception. These virtual bookshelves vary in how they create (or should I say, curate) an image of the collective intellectual achievements of the Faculty, ranging from the glamorous display at Yale, to the more basic presentation of my own department at Ohio State, to the bare listed facts of names and titles of USC. However, the Faculty Bookshelf is not only a necessary cog in the self-promotion machine of a Classics department, but a phenomenon that has attracted contemporary artists as well.While we can have fun searching the brilliant website of Donald Judd's library for his collection of Loebs, there are more direct engagements between artists and the displayed fruits of Classical scholarship. The most explicit example is that of Lauren Dudley, a former Classics student at Washington University, Seattle, who used the physical Classics Faculty Bookshelf to create a wonderfully unique exploration of artist's books in the university's rare books collection (with the collaboration of the curator Sandra Kroupa).

Initially an exhibition, her project Under the Wings of Artemis: The Crossroads of Scholarship and Art - now a fascinating book, co-written by Dudley and Wendy Huntington, and including an essay by Kroupa, which you can either buy or read online here - uses the books of Classical scholarship published by the Washington Classics department as a starting point and framework for exploring themes that connect Classical antiquity to the artist book. These themes include:

Memory and History (Ch. 1) - inspired by Alan Gowling's Empire and Memory: the representation of the Roman Republic in imperial culture.

New and Old Stories (Ch. 2) - building on Catherine Connors' Petronius the Poet: Verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon. I must acknowledge here that I have Cathy to thank for telling me about Dudley's project in the first place and for sending me a copy of the book.

Dedication and the Book as Object (Ch. 5) - fittingly grounded in Sarah Culpepper Stroup's book Catullus, Cicero and a Society of Patrons:The Generation of the Text (cf. Catullus 1, cui dono lepidum novum libellum/arida modo pumice expolitum? - 'To whom do I give this pleasing new little book/just now smoothed with dry pumice?')

Beauty (Ch. 6) - with, who else but, Ruby Blondell's Helen of Troy: the Consequences of Perfect Beauty

Each chapter opens with an image of the Faculty book that was the basis for the theme, explored through the artist's book collection, which operates as a brilliantly creative substitute for the online Faculty Bookshelf - which, somewhat ironically, the Washington Classics Department doesn't seem to have on their website!

View of bookstore by Paul Chan, Kiria Koula, San Francisco, 2014.
In a less direct engagement with the Classics Faculty Bookshelf phenomenon, artist, activist, writer and publisher Paul Chan has recently presented an exhibition of books in the unique bookstore exhibition-space of Kiria Koula in San Francisco. Chan's selection not only includes his own books and those of his publishing house Badlands Unlimited, but also a whole bookshelf dedicated to his Classical reading (including, like Donald Judd, an iconic Green (=Greek) Loeb - but which one?). Many of these books are works of ancient literature and philosophy and scholarship connected to his lecture 'Odysseus as Artist' - delivered at the bookstore last November - but we can also appreciate his Classics reading more generally and how it connects to his past and future artistic practice. One way of doing this, is to compare the books displayed with a list of keywords included in the description of the project on the Kiria Koula website:

that moment, elation, “echo reconciles,” Adorno, form, “fatefulness,” Calypso, cave, contemporary art, homesickness, zones of engagement, Ithaca, luxury, alienation, the Iliad, force, gravity, cunning, polutropos, Athena, sophia, honor, themis, aristoi, Hesiod, aidos, glory, demos, bow and arrow, harbinger, reason, Athenian democracy, Sperber and Mercier, confirmation bias, credit card fraud, and art as cunning.

But, as you know, the best part of being in a bookshop - whether in person or online - is the browsing, so I'll leave end this post now. But if you want more information about Chan's Classical reading, either click here or on any of the title's below, or look out for future posts.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Poverty of Language in 3D: Lucretius, Atomism and Jean-Luc Godard's Adieu au langage

Here in Madrid, although it is possible to watch the Jean-Luc Godard's new film Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language) at a cinema (the same cannot be said for many countries!), sadly it is not being shown in 3D, as the director intended (see this article Godard en 3D sin 3D). So, in the end, I chose to bypass the 2D cinema completely and embrace reduction of the effect completely by watching the French release of the film on DVD via the tiny screen of my laptop. To aid with my limited abilities with the French language, I chose the option SOUS-TITRES SOURDS & MALENTENDANTS, which, to my surprise, utilized a complex colour-coded system of subtitles as follows:

White: A character on the screen 
Yellow: A person out of shot 
Green: A foreign languaged (translated) 
Green Italics: A foreign language (untranslated) 
Red: Noises (e.g. sirens, gunshots) 
Magenta: Music in general (with titles of the pieces)
Magenta Italics: Music with singing
Cyan: A person reciting, commentary
Cyan Italics: Inner thoughts

According to reports, my experience with the multicoloured, multidimensional subtitles on the DVD, differs considerably from the experience of watching the film - subtitled - in 3D, where 'the title’s bold red letters and white English subtitles jump out at you'. 

With my experience, however, I was reminded of Lucretius' famous description of the 'poverty' of language (egestatem linguae, 1. 139; patrii sermonis egestas, 1. 832, 3. 260), not least because such poverty was directly referenced in the film.

Still from trailer for Jean-Luc Godard Adieu au langage, 2014
Although Godard is actually reworking a passage from Maurice Blanchot's  L'attente l'oubli (Awaiting Oblivion) - see Ted Fendt’s list of texts and films quoted or alluded to in Goodbye to Language - the Lucretian echo still resonated for me, especially as mediated by a scene in the 1994 film: JLG/JLG - autoportrait de décembre (JLG/JLG – Self-Portrait in December). 

Still from Jean-Luc Godard JLG/JLG - autoportrait de décembre,1994
In this wonderful film-essay, Godard is reading the following passage from The World of Null-A, by Science Fiction writer A. E. van Vogt (a shot of a French translation of his book La Fin du A (Null A Three) appears towards the end of Goodbye to Language)  while the camera moves to focus on a chair in his office. 

What you say a thing is, it is not...It is much more. It is a compound in the largest sense. A chair is not just a chair. It is a structure of inconceivable complexity, chemically, atomically, electronically, etc. 

At this moment I missed the colour-coded subtitles of the recent film as the audio changes from Godard speaking to an inner voice (so from Cyan to Cyan Italics), as he continues the quotation. I found the complexity of the chair in JLG/JLG – Self-Portrait in December and the poverty of language in Goodby to Language coming together in Lucretius' use of a range of terms for atoms in DRN. The same 'things' are denoted as rerum primordia, as materies, as corpa prima, as corpuscula as as elementa. (See James Warrren in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, p, 22)

Understood with this Lucretian reference, I guess Godard's 'farewell' to language, when experienced with the multiplicity of the DVD's subtitles could be seen as engaging language in an equally compelling way to the materialized theatrics of 3D subtitles. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Mediterranean: everything was sleeping as if the universe were a mistake

You are the Weather, 1994-1996.
speaks of the process of consciousness, of the physical dimension and its transcendence, which goes beyond concrete things.

Else 11, 2010
feature a succession of twists and turns, stops, changes and contacts that do not follow a pre-established pattern.

Her, Her, Her and Her, 2002.
 she finds an ideal space in which to develop her work

You are the Weather, Part 2 (partial view), 2010-2011.
close inspection reveals tiny numbers, which refer to footnotes containing musings
White Dickinson
grave poetry acquires corporeal consistency, a disturbing presence, closed in upon itself. At the same time, the position of the sculptures, leaning against the wall, transmits a sense of precarious balance.

That XV, 1993-1994
a work in which the spectator completes a triangle by standing before two images that are identical, yet, at the same time, subtly different

But 1, 2013
transform into sculpture some lines written by

Enough 10, 2005
subtle creations invite spectators to sharpen their senses, to become immersed in silence, and to begin to grasp the tiny differences that

Dead Owl, 1997
lead us to question preconceived ideas

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lost in Translation: Alberto Manguel 'Ulysses questions the Sibyl'
Ulysses turned his back on the harbour and followed a rough track leading through the woods and up to the hills towards the place where Athena had told him. A group of men were idling around an oil barrel in which a fire was burning. He muttered a greeting and stood for a moment with them, trying to warm his hands. Then he entered the town through a crumbling stone gate.
          Athena had wanted to be paid in full before leading him onto the ship, and then the captain had asked for further payment before allowing him and the other four men to crawl into the wooden crate and cover themselves with the raw hides meant for export. The customs people, Athena had told him, hardly ever bothered inspecting a cargo of hides. Afterwards, he'd tried to wash himself off in salt water, but the smell of dead animals still clung to him like a wet cloth.
          All the years he'd been away, he'd remembered the way home in snapshots: the house of the Englishwoman, the oak tree inside a ring of stones, the sloping wall which he and his friends used to climb, pretending it was a mountain. Now he let his legs carry him, like mules that knew the way. Straight on, then left, then right, then left again. He looked about in wonder.
          Was this the place? Were these the houses he knew, built this way and that? Were the shutters painted that colour? From the many places he had seen he carried images that were not his own, and now they overlapped and stuck to the half-remembered sites in a confusion of impressions. As a child, it was all clear-cut: a word for everything around him, a tag for every event, for every person. Not now. Already the harbour looked different: loads of fruit from the Caribbean, tractors from the United States, blond men from Norway and Iceland. Places he knew faraway. Not here.
          A scent of benzine filled his nostrils, and a purple-coloured dust blew in the air as it never had blown in his childhood. A pale, young, helmeted man stood in a doorway, gently caressing a gun. A 4-x-4 roared past him and then turned towards the old cemetery. A black man with salt-white hair, blind in one eye, opened and closed a high window. A woman with snakes in her hair sat on a stone bench, shouting curses to the passers-by. A group of children dressed in smocks were throwing stones at a pack of dogs. Even the dogs looked strange. Who were they, these people who'd never belonged here, whose stories were told elsewhere, in languages he never learned to speak, in places where he'd been a foreigner? He stopped by the fountain where his mother and aunts used to fetch the water before the aid workers built the neighbourhood pump.
          The Sibyl of Cumae, two thousand years old, was coming up the street with her shopping basket. He recognized her immediately. Huffing and drooling, gobs of spittle forming at the corners of her mouth like foam on an ancient sea, her face, shrivelled and bristly, framed by her kerchief, as he remembered it from Cumae, where he had gone to ask her a question, her body bent over like one of the small old trees that grew in the harbour. She struggled up the street clutching the folds of her black dress.
          "Sibyl! Sibyl!" called the children, and laughed. One of the boys threw a stone at her, not meaning to hit her, as if he just wanted her to say something, to answer back.
          He then ran to his friends, laughing but also frightened. Ulysses remembered that his mother had told him that the Sibyl lived far across the water and that, once a year, she caught a little child and drained its blood. This kept her young. Ulysses didn't believe his mother, but when he'd approached her in Cumae he'd still been afraid.
          "Sibyl! Sibyl!" Ulysses heard a girl call, taller and older than the other children. She had a mane of curly black hair and firm breasts that showed under her shirt. "Sibyl, tell me, can you teach me how to do it?" And she laughed louder than the others.
          "Shameless!" a woman shouted out at the girl. "How can you say such things?" And she turned to Ulysses as if to seek his support. The children laughed again, proud of their leader. But the girl had nothing more to say and ran off, and the children followed.
          Instead of turning down the street that almost certainly led to his house, Ulysses followed the Sibyl until she reached the marketplace. This too was not as he remembered it. Now, next to the food stalls, there were sellers of polyester dresses and jeans, radios and electric clocks, Russian shoes, German cutlery and Rumanian china. There was a stall that sold tapes and played music: Aldo Freni, Ben Trent, Valentino. The Sibyl stopped to buy grapes which she would swallow whole because her teethless gums couldn't burst the skin, and bread whose crust she'd first cut off with a knife she'd brought to be sharpened. In Cumae, Ulysses had seen her throw the crusts to the ravens outside her door before she'd turned back in and not come out again. He'd left without asking his question.
          The Sibyl filled her basket and began the long walk back to her house, a small house on the edge of town. The door was very low, barely high enough for a child; the three small windows were shuttered. Outside there was a wooden bench, weathered and warped, set against the wall. There the Sibyl sat, her basket by her side. A canary sang through the shutters. "Poor innocent little bird!" said a young couple, passing by. "Locked up in that darkness of hell!"
          In Cumae too, the Sibyl had a house very much like this one. Every evening, except in the depth of winter, the Sibyl would sit on the wooden bench and wait. On the Sibyl's street, no boys played soccer in the evenings, no girls played hopscotch. When she's walking, Ulysses thought, she looks alive, funny with age, an ugly doll. But now that she's sitting, she's as if made of wood, like the bench, or of stone, like the grey house.
          Ulysses waited. From the Sibyl's house he could see the whole town stretching out from wall to crumbled wall and beyond, to the harbour from which he'd come, far in the distance, to his house hidden behind a new grey building crowned with a billboard advertising a supermarket. Athena had led him back, but was this the town he'd left? Again he felt lost. The many years of wandering dragged behind him like the wake of a ship, and were now wearily familiar in the suffering they'd brought; he'd grown accustomed to them as one might grow accustomed to the pain of an old wound. Every new port, every new encounter had made him feel alien in a different way and his senses were now attuned to certain expected sights and sounds and smells: the crash of a door slamming in his face, the raised eyebrow of the bureaucrat fingering his passport, the brackish odour of a meal offered by a kind soul through the bars of an detention camp. A man he'd met on one of his attempts had said to him: "Once an exile, always an exile."
          He had tried to redo his life in many places. In one, he had been kept imprisoned in a cave-like room, like sheep to be fattened and devoured. In another, he had worked and slept in an underground factory, among clattering machinery, surrounded by men and women who had forgotten even their names. In a third, he had been allowed to stay only if he swore to leave again after a certain time and not claim any of the benefits of an ordinary labourer. In a fourth, he had been forced to hide night and day from the immigration police, and if anyone asked he said his name was Nobody. Twice he had become a whore. In the most dreadful place of all, ghost-like souls past all hope whirled about him in howling droves and told him of the terrible things that had happened to them. Officials with bored faces went around taking down their stories and collecting them in cardboard files.
          After Cumae, he'd seen the Sibyl in several of those places, staring blankly among those who had lost all memory, huddled among the sans-papiers, wandering among the ghostly asylum-seekers. She had appeared in the midst of them all, or had sat to one side, brooding, or had shuffled with the crowd waiting endlessly in queues to fill in forms, furnish documentation, explain, cajole, plead. He'd seen her once, with two other old women, dragged handcuffed onto a plane between armed gendarmes: she had said nothing, but the women were sobbing and screaming, and the other passengers had been very upset. Another time, she had stood among the neighbours watching a small African boy being taken from his school to a waiting car, his teacher shouting curses at the abductors. Then too, the Sibyl had remained silent.
          The Sibyl now sat on her bench, her basket by her side, as if she had been sitting there since the beginning of the world. Ulysses looked at her and, for the first time, she looked back at him. He imagined what the old woman saw: an old man, in dirty rags, possessing nothing, belonging nowhere. A question had been shaping itself since he'd left home, in the early years of the war, and after his first death, and then after the second, and later towards the end of the fighting and the city's fall, and all throughout the cursed voyage back, after every new marvel and every new terror. His tongue now mouthed it, mumbling. Then he spoke it again, more clearly.
          On her bench, the Sibyl lifted her ancient head. Her breast heaved with an asthmatic wheeze, strands of grey hair which had escaped from under her kerchief blew now against her face and stuck to her wet jaw. She lifted a hand to her mouth but didn't touch her lips. She uttered a low moaning sound, between a grunt and a cackle, let out a whistling sigh, and then a shriek so shrill that the people, coming now up her street in an every-increasing crowd, failed to hear it.