(This call may be monitored by the subconscious.)

In Tieck’s creepy tale from the late 18th Century, Der blonde Eckbert, a Knight tells a story of a magical bird and dog to a dear friend whom he kills immediately afterwards.  The friend keeps on showing up in different guises til Eckbert loses his mind.

The late Roberto Bolaño tells a strange story of a fascist skywriter, who doggedly appears in different places, etching his famous bad poetry across the tainted Latin American sky.

Aimee Bender writes about de-evolving boyfriends, mothers who give birth to grandmothers, and lemon cake that tastes of the psychic trouble of the baker.

All around us, the unreal spins its strange webs:  Game of Thrones, The Trueblood romances, Scott Pilgrim, and the hectic animated films of the Italian artist named Blu.  Tangled in these stories, we think we ignore magic, as we read the paper, or increasingly view the fraught truths of a complicated world on the internet.  But the unreal and its siblings — the fairy-tale as brought to us by the German Romantics, surrealism, expressionism, and magical realism, now supplemented/enhanced by the technologies of gaming and the aesthetics of anime — have never been more alive to us than now.

In the Surrealist Manifesto, Andre Breton rejects the “reign of logic” and announces the primacy, in life and in art, of dreams.

What would Breton think of today’s strange creative utterances?  Lady Gaga’s performative lies?  Pan’s Labyrinth?  Ghost Hunters? Santa Con?

He would smile.  The artist dreams, he would say.  And when s/he does, the artist works.

Magically Real interrogates this phenomenon.  And celebrates it.

Welcome and fruitful dreaming.

Once upon a time there was a girl who dreamed of bongos in basements. She’d seen a tv show about beatniks. They were strange people with sunglasses and berets and they beat on drums and they spoke weird sentences. The girls looked sharp in tight pants and long hair. They wore interesting jewelry.

The girl who was the dreamer thought “how different these people were from the people on American Bandstand!” The ABS people had great clothes – especially the girls. But they all looked so frozen. They seemed very unhappy. The people called the beatniks seemed – something – maybe not happy in a Leave it to Beaver kind of way. But not unhappy in a desperate Ben Casey sort of way. They seemed intent on something – on their music, on their speaking poem things that they were doing. They seemed intent on each other. There was this energy. And it made the dark basement they were in seem light.

In the girl’s dream, she was friends with the men who were smoking and the girls in their tight pants. She sat in the audience when they got up to sing their songs or say their pieces. She was a part of their gang.

She woke up thinking – “I wish I could do that. Whatever it is these people are doing.”

She went to a dance in a church basement a few years later. A boy she knew was in a rock band and he played the flute. He was better than the Jethro Tull guy. He could really play. She had that same feeling about basements. She wished she had a talent she could share.

Years went by. There was no money. So the girl became a teacher. And then finally, there was health insurance and enough money to live on and a place to live in and a man to live with in it and a child who lived in it too and who then grew up and moved away.

The girl who was by now a woman and an older woman at that heard about this basement near her house. It was a famous basement where rock musicians played and where important artistic people got their start. She went with a friend and sat in the dark and heard people say their pieces. Heard a young man play guitar and talk about his family. She looked at the light bulbs, glimmering in their shades on the sidelines of the room. She thought about the book she wrote with poems in it. She thought about the book she wrote with a big story in it. A man she knew well got up and read a scary funny story about a hit man killing a doctor. A beautiful girl came up and read a scary funny story about axe murderers. Another man told about how big cities can hurt you but that teaching who you are can help everybody.

The girl watched the people from her table. The friend that she brought was an artist. Siting on the other side of her was a famous poet wearing jeans and interesting jewelry.

All that was missing were the bongos.

Once upon a time there was a woman. Once upon a time there was a man.

They were old. Not Alzheimers old. Not Baucis and Philemon old. But old.

Wait a minute you say. That can’t be a story.

Why not?

Because only young people have adventures. Have sex. Make discoveries. Are beautiful.

Well, you have a point. But couldn’t these old people – given that they have all their marbles and all their limbs and are somewhat curious about existence – still have it in them to have adventures?

No! Well, maybe. I don’t want that story to talk down to us, or tell me what to think or be incredibly long winded or have anything in it that says “when I was your age.”

Fair enough.

Once upon a time there were two old people. They had done some things and seen some things. And they wondered “what can I do now?” They went back to school. One of them graduated. They wrote books, they volunteered, and yes they had sex.

Oh God!– just don’t describe it.

Ok – anyway – they took walks. And they realized that time was beginning to work differently for them. The world began to spin faster. This didn’t make them want to move faster. Quite the contrary – it made them want to slow down.

Now I’m bored.

The slowing down made every moment including this moment, luminous and effervescent. The way the wind rustles through leaves in the fall, how the tweed of the seat feels rough against your hand. The smell of winter – fresh, dry, tobacco-y—remains in your hair.

The old people had a tree that almost died. It got brown, but then the woman went and talked to it.

It can’t be time to die yet, she said to it.

The tree decided to get green again. The brown parts stayed brown, but the green grew.

I think we are like that, said the woman to the man. We can’t fix the brown parts, but we can still grow around them.

I’m going to get a Masters Degree, said the man.

I’m going to write another book, said the woman. She went outside and stroked the tree.

It was still growing – green needles soft to the touch, its death conquered for a time.

Are you done?

Yes. Can you smell the winter coming?

No. Wait – maybe. A little.

“I vowed I would never live in another city”, he said. “I vowed I was done with their grids and their money. With Wall Street and Christopher Street. With a city built on greed and graft and the pretensions of lineage.”

“Well,” she said.  “Then I know a city you can go to that is nothing like that.”

He sat with her in the swank coffee shop as the buses and the taxis roared by.

She said “finish your coffee and close your eyes.”

He thought this was strange but he was used to strange things, and he was used to strange things coming from her – the sister he had who was not a blood relation – or at least he didn’t think she was.

He put his espresso cup down. It was a good brew and it had been finely ground and the water had been extremely hot – the way it needs to be to make a really good espresso. He folded his eyelids down, and tried not to squint through them, which he did when he closed his eyes because he was always rather nervous. He just was. It was who he was and he would never change, probably.

“Imagine,” she said.

“Imagine a tangle of hair. A tangle of ribbons, a tangle of angel hair pasta. How the tangle is always a sort of circle, a wannabe spiral, but there are knots that keep the lines from going around and around there are sub-knots inside, and twists in the yarn or the ribbon or the hair, and spokes sticking out of the knots. Imagine those knots with small spaces and cracks, because that’s why it’s a knot in the first place. There is space for the untangling if you could just insert a needle or a fingernail and then you could make it all straight.”


He shifted in his seat.

“Stay still,” she said. “There’s a beauty to the tangle. An unexpected shape to it, a logic to it, and always a doorway, a garden, a courtyard where a child plays with a doll, and there are levels to it. Imagine there are steps going up and through the knots and the twists.”

Suddenly he saw a child – a little girl in an impossible doorway, a door curved and built into a wall that curved and the little girl was going up the stairs inside and calling Ama? Ama? and she looked at him, not afraid but penetrating, as if he were a well-known and expected visitor. And as he turned he saw a garden filled with roses – like the ones belonging to the woman he loved but whom he could not have – climbing over a wall, and he was going up and then down a – what was it? – a set of stairs and then a path, but it wasn’t a street like he knew streets to be – it was so crooked and winding. Shooting off to either side was a gate to a church – impossible enormous – hulking on the other end of yet another gate, and then steps going down to someplace.

“Imagine,” she said. “A city that is a tangle. A spiral caught in on itself.”

And the thing was: he could not only imagine it. He could smell it, taste it. there was a priest in a long black gown, kissing a woman. What religion was this? And he walked and suddenly he was in a long corridor filled with vendors. And he could smell food, perfume, saw old men sitting in chairs playing chess. And he walked past a tiny storefront selling wooden elephants, and another selling candy, while a boy with a wheelbarrow called out welcome welcome would you like some fruit? Melons, berries? The best the best.

And then again he turned a corner and the street – if you could call it a street – went up and up and up, winding and circling, till he came upon a metal door, and the door had letters on it, but he couldn’t read them, and across from that a jeweler placing necklaces and candlesticks in a window.

Where is the top and where it the bottom? He was breathless he was thirsty. Come in said a woman in a long white robe. Come and drink. He went through the door and walked through her tiny apartment, and ended up on a balcony overlooking countless other balconies and above them the sky – a brilliant pure blue.

Not all cities are based on the urge to conquer through finance. She told him, holding up a glass of tea.

He drank.

What city is that? he said.

And she said what city do you think?

And he said the name that people dismiss or hate or love.

“Remember your vision,” said his sister, as his espresso cup clattered to the floor. “Seek the city in the city. Seek the tangle. Seek the knots and the impasses. For there only is the real way out. And the real way in.”

He got on a plane that afternoon. His passport was in order. He didn’t need shots.

Once upon a time there was a school.

I’m bored already. I don’t want to hear a story about a school. I’m sick of schools as places where stories happen. Muggles or non-muggles. I don’t care.

Once upon a time there was a high-school.

Worse! I don’t care about what goes on at some stupid suburban high-school or some stupid rich kids private school. And I for sure DON’T want a story about some inspirational white person who is middle class and who “changes the lives” of the poor underclass persons who are not like that inspirational white person. Freedom Writers! Argh!

Once upon a time there was a university.

Ugh. Nothing even happens there except – in the olden days professors and students used to hook up. But that was boring too. So no one does it any more.

Once upon a time there was a medical school.

Wait – are there dead bodies in it?

Once upon there was a laboratory at a research center.

Seriously? No way, not unless something blows up!

Once upon a time there was a shopping mall that was the only structure that survived an unnamed global disaster.

Now you’re talking.

I told her I wanted to write about Big Carl.

“Who the hell is Big Carl?” she said.

She was unimpressed when I told her that Big Carl was and is a giant tuba.

“Where is it?” she said

“In a storeroom above a music store,” I said. “I think.”

“Why would anyone want to make that?”

I couldn’t quite explain that sometimes people make things just to make them, and since the tuba is already quite an enormous instrument, making one that’s even bigger could be funny.

“I think it was a publicity stunt,” I said, but to be honest I couldn’t really remember the article. All I could think about was the picture. A giant tuba with a tiny man standing next to it, getting ready to blow into it.

“I think I’ll need a third lung,” said the man who was going to try to play it. That was the last line of the article.

The other thing I remember was that Big Carl is apparently NOT the world’s largest tuba. It’s like the 3rd biggest tuba and all these other giant tubas were made in Germany.

Which for some reason makes complete sense to me.

“Also—“ I said, as she raised an eyebrow at this whole ridiculous story. “It’s got different valves or something than a regular tuba making it more like a bugle.”

“Well then it’s a bugle for crying out loud,” she exclaimed. “It’s not a tuba at all!” She shook her head at me.

“But it’s SHAPED like a tuba,” I said. “It LOOKS a great deal LIKE a tuba.”

“Well, then it’s a bugluba or a tubugle or a Butugle or a Tugba but it’s not a tuba!

At this point we just started laughing.

“Why are those words so hard to say?????”

Some hysteria broke out.

But back to Big Carl. Whatever it is, isn’t it great that such a silly thing exists?

I hope it comes out of the store room and the man with the third lung plays it, and I hope the other German giant tubas come to the United states, and that they are displayed someplace prominent like Lincoln Square, Union Square or Times Square (the rectangle being a nice complement to the circular strangeness of the tuba), and that on New Year’s Eve, they all simultaneously BLOW.

Oh, and there’s also some connection between Big Carl and John Phillip Sousa. Which also somehow makes sense.




You can find out more about Big Carl here.




When I was 12, my dad took me to the fancy screening room at Seven Arts and the dads and kids watched the Walt Disney Mary Poppins movie. I was a bit too old to do this, and there I was in my plaid miniskirt and kneesocks and Carnaby Street hair trying to look cool and bored and ready to date (which I wasn’t). But I soon forgot about being too old for the movie, because — really — Mary Poppins was and is one of my favorites.

Of course I didn’t realize that my father closely resembled that soon to be out of work banker. He was about to lose his job, and we were about to go broke. I was about to spend high school in a kind of genteel downward slide, as I went to my extremely expensive private girls high school, came home, and ate canned spaghetti for dinner. We were going to do our best to keep up appearances. Sort of like that family. A nice gloss on the dysfunction within.

Perhaps because it’s what should have happened to my family and didn’t, or perhaps it’s for some other reason, but I have always loved the end of that movie. Everyone taking a literal bank holiday and going outside and flying kites. The family united (the mother having sacrificed her VOTES FOR WOMEN ribbon [a {somewhat reactionary} reference to contemporary feminism that I didn't understand at the time] to make the kite’s tail. And up the kite goes. Big song. THE END.

But you know what? It’s a crazy activity, kite flying is. It’s not a game. Unless you build your own kite, you haven’t created anything. It’s totally ephemeral. Without value and meaning.

It’s just pretty. It’s just fun.

I have flown a kite twice.

Once when I was 40 when we gave our daughter a Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtle kite for Easter (I had not yet converted). In Anaheim Hills. Leonardo (or was it Michelangelo?) up in the air over the playground near the library.  I can still see it going up.

And yesterday. Shortly after turning 60.

My husband and I went to the Whidbey Island Kite Festival. It was a small time affair. It was local. And we ate hot dogs that were so salty and so fatty, we couldn’t eat anything for the rest of the day. Well, my husband couldn’t. I’m used to that kind of food so of course I had cocktails and a regular dinner afterwards.

But back to kites…

There were demonstrations and t-shirts and teddybears dropping from parachutes for little kids at the the festival.

Whidbey Kite Festival 09/20/14

Whidbey Kite Festival 09/20/14

There were alot of ex-military guys flying incredibly complex contraptions they made themselves. There were women flying kites with 4 strings, 2 for each hand, and those kites were like marionettes, dancing on the wind. There were kids flying kites and one elderly lady who sat in her portable camp chair and flew a huge box kite. The announcer seemed to know everybody.

This being America, of course there were various competition events. But the thing that everybody on the island practically came out for was something called a mass ascension.  This means that if you brought your kite with you and registered, you got to send it up there on the field of Camp Casey with everybody else — mindful not to cross the strings of someone else’s kites.

It looked like a bit like this:

Whidbey Kite Festival /09/2014

Whidbey Kite Festival /09/2014

“Don’t you just want to DO this?” my husband said to me as he attempted to digest that salty hotdog.

So we bought a kite. We drove to the bluff where I scattered my dad’s ashes 19 years ago.

And we flew it.

Flying a kite is pretty easy. Contrary to what the instructions say, you don’t need an assistant if the wind is right. You just put your back to the wind, let the kite string out as the wind catches it and then, the wind sends it up as you let out the string gradually.

There are a couple of crazy things about kite flying. First off, the kite string pulls on you hard, and you have to really hold on. The kite wants to go high and it wants to fly. You pull on the line when the wind dies down, and you let it out, when the wind picks up. Sort of like fishing. In the sky.

Finally when it’s time to bring your kite down, it fights you. It acts and it feels completely and utterly alive. And right before it falls into your hands, it looks at you, like some sort of pretend bird. Or some magical creature. You control it. But just barely. Really it’s a creature of plastic and air and string. It has a life that you just gave it.

Of course it’s true that you just had an experience that is without any utility or value or staying power.

I think sometimes — and now is certainly one of those times — that the word-art I make is without value. I don’t make money at it, it’s hard to get anyone to look at it, let alone help me put it out there, and I wonder sometimes if I’m even any good at it really. Consequently, what I do could really be considered a kind of dopey activity.

But then I think about that kite string pulling on me yesterday. How that kite went up — all 75 feet into the air and wanted to go higher. How the experiences we pursue for the love of them, do indeed elevate us, if only for a moment. And then there’s the joy of the thing that we love to do when we’re doing it.

That joy doesn’t stay. However it is waiting for you in that kite bundle. Or that word bundle. Or that dance bundle. Or that bake-a-cake bundle. Ready to be unfurled and tossed upward.



Once upon there was a taxi driver.


First there was a boy. The boy lived in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union. His dad flew fighter jets – the ones with the big bombs in them. Not big as in size. Big as in nuclear. Then the dad got a different job flying cargo planes because the fighter jets take a lot out of you when you fly them. Isn’t that interesting to know?

The boy grew up on military bases. He hung out with soldiers and military men because his mother worked in special services typing up secret documents and inputting secret case files.

So the boy grew up with great discipline, and he became a very disciplined taxi driver.

He tells me about life in Ukraine while he drives me to the airport in the United States. I ask about the current conflict and he says he has friends fighting each other. One friend wanting to be Russian, and the other friend wanting – fiercely – to be Ukrainian.

It breaks our hearts he said.

Once upon a time there was a millionaire.


First there was a boy. A boy who lived in New York. A boy who was the child of famously rich parents who were themselves the children of famously rich parents. A boy who had liberal sympathies, a boy who played the piano. His father was a banker and his mother was a lawyer and so servants raised the boy as well as nannies and then he went to a very important university. He became a doctor and then a philanthropist and after he healed his patients he would talk to them about their books and operas. And then he would fund raise so these important cultural things could happen.

The millionaire meets me for coffee because I am a friend of a friend of a cousin who likes Comparative Literature and who thinks we might get along. He tells me about life at this famous university where he has met and gotten to know so many famous people.

It’s thrilling he said.

Today I think about the differences between these two stories. If these boys could talk to each other what would they say? How could life in the Soviet Union connect with life in New York? What wisdoms could be collected? How could prompt taxi driving inform and connect with famous doctoring?

I feel sad that they will probably never meet.

And THAT makes me think about a third story.

Once upon a time there was a theater company.

Hold on.

Once there were 7 actors.

They weren’t any one nationality, and they didn’t speak just one language. They formed a troupe and they did something called devise-theater (or perhaps its device-theater… I couldn’t understand what the theater expert meant when he told me about this kind of show and he’s not here so you’ll have to bear with me) and these actors went into the street and talked to people.

Whoever the actors met became part of their story. They filmed it and showed it in a little theater last week.

In my mind’s eye the theater company brings the millionaire and the taxi driver together on the streets of somewhere – Rio? Berlin? Los Angeles? Bucharest?

And together they solve it all – they solve all the world’s problems. Because they bring everyone else into it. Think about it: you need a taxi driver and a jet plane pilot and a special services operative and a comparative literature lover and a theater expert and a medical doctor and all the successful artists you can think of and the theater company to get the job done. As well as a lawyer and a banker. If you think about it – that’s a lot of useful expertises.

And everyone would applaud, because honestly – that would be a pretty good play wouldn’t it?


For a glimpse at what Gob Squad’s performances “might” look like in a city near you….


Once upon a time there was a photographer. He had lost his parents when he was eight, and he missed them as well as who he had been before they died, because you seen when someone you love dies, a part of you dies with them. You probably know this already, and are thinking to yourself “oh my god how horrible, I couldn’t stand that, so I guess I have to make sure NOONE dies so I don’t have to die in little bits and then rebirth myself in little bits for my whole life long because that is going to be very hard work and probably painful.”

Well, good luck with that.

The boy became a man and the man became a photographer, which is the perfect thing to become because photography is all about showing you what isn’t there any longer as a very smart man named Roland Barthes once noticed. But even with making photographs for money, and even with making those cutesy photographs of kids that one can do as a profession for money in the 1950’s, the man missed his family and he missed – he continued to miss his dead little self.

So he did what artists always do – he found a secret way to express this loss and to also restore it.

That’s when he started to make the dolls.

15 in all. 12 girls – like the 12 dancing princesses of legend – and 3 boys. Ranging in age from 8-18. And he dressed them up in different sorts of outfits. And he took photographs of them.

The girls look various. The boys all look like him.

You can see some of the photographs if you live in Los Angeles.

“Ew” said my friend, the filmmaker. “This is really gross.”
“Aren’t they fascinating?” said my friend the performance artist. “They love him in Germany.”

Which goes to show that people can react very differently to the same art work, and both people could be right. It also goes to show that sometimes you need to make a secret art form – one that you don’t show to anybody. And it’s fine to do that, as long as you don’t hurt anybody, including yourself. Finally, it goes to show that – to quote Barbe Hammer — “people are really pretty weird.”

They are. We are.

I looked at the photographs and I thought about the secret plays I put on as a child, and the time I did a whole dance routine to Royksopp alone in the bathroom in the metrolink going from Riverside to LA. Because I’d had a tough day at the office. Or the ways I used to play ALL the parts of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance because – I felt like it, and it made me feel better.

Sometimes secret art helps us.

I wonder how Mr. Bartlett would feel about his secret art being revealed in Los Angeles. I hope he’s ok with it. I for one am grateful, because the next time I feel the urge to sing Gilbert and Sullivan with myself in a closet, I don’t have to feel bad.

And when I sing I can think about Barbe Hammer, who is dead, and Leonard Hammer, who is dead and all the people I love who are dead too. And I will have to suffer that loss, and that little personal death that happens all the times bits of me have expired too. At the same moment, I will have to look for the small part that is new and that says in quiet voice “now it is my turn to be born.”

To see Bartlett’s dolls in Los Angeles, visit LACMA:Morton Bartlett’s Uncanny Playthings

The lover is sitting across from me in the train station, on a bed, with a green blanket pulled tight over it as though he were at summer camp. He has seen me, but he has not noticed the husband, who sits beside me and who is consulting timetables, long shiny pamphlets that fold out for miles.

You have time for a shower he says, and by “he” I mean the husband.

I look over surreptitiously at the lover, who has seen me but does not know I’ve seen him. He sighs loudly, apparently resigning himself to being ignored for the moment, and gets under the covers of the bed, preparing himself for what is sure to be a long journey.

I walk out of the train station, and jump the 3 barriers to my friend Edwina’s house, where the shower is. She is having a party. I slip into the bathroom but at least 3 women are in there talking about blow jobs and how drunk do you have to be to give one.

I don’t answer and I can’t shower. I go out. What are you doing? says, Edwina, can’t you stay for the party? No, I say. I have to deal with the lover and the husband sitting alone waiting for trains. Who knows what they’ll get in to?  Then you’d better hurry, she says because the barriers have grown and as she speaks I can hear them groaning into ever greater heights. I slide down slippery cuttings of rocks like you see in a rock store. Blue and quartz and igneous, and then I am at the barriers. There are three:  a wired fence, with batteries at intervals, hanging like the curls of an orthodox Jewish man, and a high brick wall, and after that a barrier I cannot see but know is there. I fly but fly backwards, ending up on the lawn.

Mind the tulips says Edwina. So I have to leap over the fences. I manage but my feet and legs get all muddy.

Thank God I didn’t shower.

I come back just as my husband is leaving. The lover is playing pool with some other young travellers. His eyes are hooded. I wish he could be acknowledged, but he has an 8 ball in the side pocket and this is as well as he’s ever done.




Once upon a time she tried to tell a story. But she couldn’t. There were too many wars, and then there was an earthquake, and the murder of a boy in the street in a city where she lived. Then, she walked outside to get the mail and 2 birds lay motionless on the deck in front of the windows. They had smashed themselves against the glass. She fell asleep thinking of those birds whispering i’m sorry i’m sorry i’m sorry.

Friends — Prose- stories are wondrous things, but sometimes we just need poems.

Poems are amazing because they tell the story of a civilization as well as of an instant, outline the epic of dynastic rulers or of one British guy looking at a ruined monastery, racount the history of the feelings of hundreds of people or of hundreds of emotions in one single person.

Poems delve razor sharp into the small, jump up into the big and come back down again to remind us of ourselves.

And always they ask the big, basic questions.

Who are you? What do you value? What matters? Why?

Like in  the Iliad. Did you know that it’s a great anti-war poem?  Yup. Simone Weil argues as much, because in her opinion the Iliad shows – without any question – the seductiveness and horror of force:

Here’s a famous moment in the poem:

Priam finished. His words roused in Achilles
a desire to weep for his own father. Taking Priam’s hand,
he gently moved him back. So the two men there
both remembered warriors who’d been slaughtered.
Priam, lying at Achilles’ feet, wept aloud                                                             [510]
for man-killing Hector, and Achilles also wept                                       630
for his own father and once more for Patroclus.
The sound of their lamenting filled the house.

Book 24, The Iliad 

Isn’t it interesting that in this most famous of heroic narratives, one that seemingly celebrates war, this scene — the enemies who weep together and who eventually break bread together — finds a place?

And isn’t it something that on Achilles’ shield there is a depiction of 2 cities?:

Here’s the first city:

Strife and Confusion joined the fight,
along with cruel Death, who seized one wounded man                         660
while still alive and then another man without a wound,
while pulling the feet of one more corpse from the fight.
The clothes Death wore around her shoulders were dyed red
with human blood. They even joined the slaughter
as living mortals, fighting there and hauling off
the bodies of dead men which each of them had killed.


To the city of war, the Homeric poets compare this city:

Then the people gathered
in the assembly, for a dispute had taken place.
Two men were arguing about blood-money owed
for a murdered man. One claimed he’d paid in full,
setting out his case before the people, but the other                                         [500]
was refusing any compensation. Both were keen
to receive the judgment from an arbitration.                                          620
The crowd there cheered them on, some supporting one,
some the other, while heralds kept the throng controlled.
Meanwhile, elders were sitting there on polished stones
in the sacred circle, holding in their hands
the staffs they’d taken from the clear-voiced heralds.
With those they’d stand up there and render judgment,
each in his turn. In the centre lay two golden talents,
to be awarded to the one among them all
who would deliver the most righteous verdict.

Book 18 The Iliad

What always gets me about the above description is how unidealized the “good” city is. The Homeric poets don’t show us a utopia. It’s not that war/peace binary that we’re used to thinking about. The city at “peace” isn’t perfectly peaceful – that’s for sure. But it’s a city were weddings are held and not funerals, and as the above lines show it’s a place where justice – a radically social event – is deemed so crucial that it finds its place on Achilles’ shield.

Simone Weil believed that the ethical questions raised in the Iliad look forward to those of the Gospels.

But really, you can see these sorts of questions raised by poems in lots of places:


Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.


When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.


From Essential Rumi

by Coleman Bark