Saturday 14 March 2020

Illness as Simile

(on Coronavirus, Homeric simile, time, Jerome Robbins' ballet  'Glass Pieces', and Félix González-Torres' AIDS installations)

We all first didn't get sick; really, we mostly watched each other get quarantined and thought about the idea of sickness again. My copies of Illness as Metaphor and AIDS And Its Metaphors are somewhere else, and I don’t have them here inside with me, but I’m thinking about Sontag’s model of disease. Cancer became a metaphor for an individual’s personality and also for a “war” to be waged on illness, just as AIDS became one for the mainstream Reagan-era perception of plague as punishment for the "deviant behaviour" of homosexuals.

I don’t think we’re living in the frame of Illness as Metaphor anymore. I think we’re living in ‘Illness as Simile,’ perhaps a kind of Homeric simile. Let me explain: ‘Homeric simile’ is a loose term for the Homeric verse does when it compares, say, a battle to a bucolic scene. It takes you out of the grisly now and into the indefinite, and often pastoral, as in this, my favourite example to raise, this verse about a young charioteer dying in Book VIII, lines 349-353 of the English,* and roughly 302-308 of the Greek:

As a garden poppy, burst into red blooms, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion's head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet.

καὶ τοῦ μέν ῥ᾽ ἀφάμαρθ᾽, ὃ δ᾽ ἀμύμονα Γοργυθίωνα
υἱὸν ἐῢν Πριάμοιο κατὰ στῆθος βάλεν ἰῷ,
τόν ῥ᾽ ἐξ Αἰσύμηθεν ὀπυιομένη τέκε μήτηρ
καλὴ Καστιάνειρα δέμας ἐϊκυῖα θεῇσι.
μήκων δ᾽ ὡς ἑτέρωσε κάρη βάλεν, ἥ τ᾽ ἐνὶ κήπῳ
καρπῷ βριθομένη νοτίῃσί τε εἰαρινῇσιν,
ὣς ἑτέρωσ᾽ ἤμυσε κάρη πήληκι βαρυνθέν.

It’s like time on the plain at Troy stops, and we go to a kind of shepherd’s almanac, and sit in a field tending goats, and watching heavy poppies snap under their own weight in a downpour, even as the horses are rearing in Iliad’s now, and arrows are loosed, and people die. With COVID-19, around the world right now, we’re all stopping, locked up by ourselves online, our minds wandering away from the battle that Sontag flags as metaphor; the illness war waged in masks and bunny suits on our screen. We step aside into similes that we make to live on in. Yo-Yo Ma livestreams Dvořák, we drown ourselves in past seasons of Netflix. My Sims, in their eponymous computer game, live on in a digital suburban utopia of perfectly placed Eames chairs near sunny, faintly minimalist windows. The go out for coffee. They kiss. I pair the Eames rocker in white with an au courant kelim rug, in a living room I right click to floor with what I am pretending are reclaimed Portuguese azulejo tiles.

I did it just then, I slipped into an acutely present memory placed in another stream of time, as we slip into the time of the spring rains on fields dotted with wildflowers in Homer. In the rest of Book VIII, Hector goes back to battle. The gods bicker. Blood spills. I read the Guardian liveblog for the Coronavirus. A newborn infant in London now has the disease, transmitted from the mother. I watch a rare, perhaps illicitly capture full length film of Jerome Robbins’ choreography to Philip Glass. In the first movement of ‘Glass Pieces’, when the dancers in nylon pink and then white bodysuits pause the moving crowd walking across the stage, their legs turned out in an extended forth position, the ballon of their jumps hanging in the air for seemingly forever. This, too, is a moment of Homeric simile, when the narrative of the disease breaks for a turn outside the self. At the end of the first movement the crowd of walking dancers in warmups re-emerges and the stage just goes dark when they freeze. We slip in and out of simile, wonder if we should stock up on toilet paper, watch the pause of the relevé.

Relevé just means raised, the heel up in the air inside the ballet shoe as you balance on your foot’s ball and front toe, or inside the pointe shoe, over a box of horse glue and tape and sweat, the impossible arc of the foot over the metatarsal. Are the similes, the things we compare our Coronavirus lives to-- just raised points, pauses in the air in the ballet, that goes on and on anyway? What does it mean to stop, to shift your weight?

I think too now of the artist Félix González-Torres’ piles of candy, of “Untitled (Portrait of Ross In LA)” 1991, now in the Art Institute of Chicago. The supply of candy is endless. Visitors can take some. There are 175 pieces of candy in the pile because when the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, died, he weighed 175 pounds—or he did before he wasted away, before he truly began to die. We each take a candy like AIDS taking a piece of Ross’ body, but in the moment most visitors don’t read the white slip of card affixed to the wall. They seem the bright wrapper and enjoy the sweet taste. It is as if they too are whisked away to a moment in which time runs in parallel, in which Ross Laycock has not already died of AIDS, in which the candy is the sweetness of love and not a memorial.

González-Torres’ candy pieces are often representative of bodies, or pieces of bodies. They are like plague piles of corpses, like pits and mass graves we still dug up from the 14th century, like the one in Oxford when they went to build the new shopping mall. When you walk by a González-Torres in a museum you don’t think “plague pit” but you should. The simile of the body being like the candy, like the caress of the mouth on the sugar drop, both takes you away from it and makes it more present. Like Homeric similes, González-Torres’ work, too, cuts both ways. Plague pits go down. Candy piles up.

I check the Guardian Coronavirus liveblog again.

“France has announced the closure of all public places “non essential” to public life including restaurants, cafes, cinemas and discos from midnight Saturday.”

Is ‘Glass Pieces’ essential? Is “Untitled(Portrait of Ross In LA)”? Is the life of Gorgythion, the poppy-headed charioteer, who barely gets mentioned except when he dies beautifully in comparison to a flower? It’s not the illness that’s simile here, but the pause, the quarantine, where we stand in relevé, look out on the world, and liken things to this moment, the moment before the dying starts in earnest.


*classicists will note, probably with disapproval, that I’ve used Fagles’ translation here rather than Lattimore. Sorry. This is the splurge of plague living. I’ve always secretly preferred Fagles anyhow, whether or not you can claim it is “closer to [or further from] the Greek” I have the Loebs and I have Fagles on my shelves, and I want Fagles!


  1. Love this. Couldn't help but think of Homeric simile as cottagecore: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/style/cottagecore.html

  2. OMG I've been thinking a lot about Cottagecore (but more in a creepy Kinkade Volk nostalgia way)-- but this is fascinating. Actually I'd love to read a cottagecore for plague times piece if you're up for it...