Among the Tools of Survival

Every Latin student learns a fair bit of military history, translating ancient texts that describe Rome’s exploits. There’s Caesar and the Gallic Wars, fought against my ancestors, the Belgian Celts (“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”); the legendary Spartacus and the Servile Wars, those ancient slave uprisings that found their way into a wildly popular television series a few years ago; and the Punic Wars, with the mighty Hannibal and his legendary his Alps-crossing elephants.

Just about a week ago we marked the anniversary of the Battle of Cannae, which took place on August 2, 216 BC. At the end of a day of fierce fighting, the Carthaginians (led by Hannibal) lost fewer than 6,000 men while the Roman losses numbered greater than 60,000, thanks in large part to Hannibal’s famous double-envelopment ploy. The carnage was terrifying, even by Roman standards. One historian tells us that the Carthaginians slashed the thighs and tendons of the Roman fallen so they couldn’t flee. As Hannibal surveyed the site after the battle, Roman soldiers offered him their necks, hoping to be put out of their suffering. To this day, the Battle of Cannae and Hannibal’s tactics are studied in places like the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Back in those days, warriors suffered PTSD as surely as some do still today, even if there was no clinical diagnosis. The suicide of Ajax from the story of the Trojan War is undoubtedly a description of something resembling unbearable battle trauma, the effects of which linger in the bodies and minds of survivors.

I keep re-reading Anne Carson’s preface to her translation of Euripides:

“Grief and rage — you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in rage and grief is good for you — may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy of you with your own life. Within it you watch [yourself] act out the present or possible organization of your nature. You can be aware of your own awareness of this nature as you never are at the moment of experience. The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.” (Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides)

We seem to be rediscovering that — along with therapy and pharmacology — the stage, cinema, literature, music, dance, tattoo and other arts are indispensable tools of survival and healing for our brothers and sisters who wander the world bearing wounds you and I cannot even imagine.

~BT Waldbillig
August 9, 2016

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