Not At All Strange

If I’ve been relatively quiet over the past week or so, the main reason for this is that I’ve had my head down, seated here at my desk in Albi, France, and I’ve been editing like crazy, working on what I hope is the penultimate draft of my novel Goat Music. I’m here for two weeks, and so I’m more or less half way through; and it’s been a productive stay so far—I’m on track, I think, to have the draft done by the time I catch the train home next Saturday, which means that I can get an early copy to my publisher some time soon after.

I thought I’d say a bit more about the book here. The novel arose out of a fascination with the story of the musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas that began back when I was an art student. Set in mythological Greece, it plays on the story of the satyr’s competition with the god. The myth, in brief, goes like this: Marsyas challenges Apollo to a contest in music; Apollo wins by means of tactics that are not entirely fair; and then, having won, he flays the satyr alive for his presumption in challenging the gods.

My unease with this story lies in the fact that, for much of European history—although Apollo wins the contest by what could be called unfair means, and then exacts the most horrible punishment by flaying satyr alive—the tendency amongst commentators has been to side with Apollo, to see Marsyas as a fool who was justly defeated, and to proclaim Apollo’s brutality as a victory for all that is good.

Thus, as one Renaissance writer put it,

‘Marsyas means: a man who always lives in error. And it is the same to say Marsyas in Greek and Ironius in Latin, since both of them wish to argue with Apollo – that is, the wise one… Marsyas was defeated and Apollo flayed him: this means he stripped him of his errors and assigned to him the truth, and made it clear to people how little brains he had in him.’

That quote comes from the fifteenth century text, the Ovidio Volgare, and it does not stand alone. In fact, there’s a whole tradition behind this favouring of Apollo, the torturer, over Marsyas, the victim. After all, no less a thinker than Plato had the Socrates of the Republic saying, ‘The preferring of Apollo and his instruments to Marsyas and his instruments is not at all strange.’

But isn’t it strange to favour Apollo’s instruments—which include not only the lyre, but also the flaying-knife—to the pipes played by Marsyas? Isn’t there something profoundly unsettling in the tendency to turn this story of brutality and its justification into an allegory of wisdom (in the form of the god) ‘assigning to truth’ those who are in error?


Bartolomeo Manfredi (1616-20): Apollo and Marsyas

Bartolomeo Manfredi (1616-20): Apollo and Marsyas


One of the reasons this myth exerts a pull over me is that I cannot help but feel there are contemporary resonances not only of the myth itself, but also of the rhetoric that, since Plato, has surrounded it, a rhetoric that all too often translates naked brutality into the high-minded language of moral justification. I cannot help finding echoes of Plato’s ‘not at all strange’ when I hear government ministers announcing the latest cuts to services that are there to help those who need it most; and I cannot avoid seeing the same rhetoric at play as the gods of international monetary system sharpen their knives for austerity measures that strip away the livelihoods and hopes of ordinary people.

And it is the rhetoric that chills me most. It is one thing for Apollo to run rampant with his flaying-knife: but it is quite another drown this out with the sweet, reasonable music of the god’s lyre, to cover over the brutality and the horror that comes from assigning others to ‘truth’ with soothing justifications. Sometimes when I listen to the news, it occurs to me that in those calm and reasonable debates, everybody is playing Apollo’s tune, whilst meanwhile—somewhere out of earshot—Marsyas is screaming in terrible agony.

And with this dispiriting thought, I should stop blogging and get back to editing the manuscript; but let me leave you with this, taken from Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus.

Wherever the losers and the tortured scream
The lyres will be playing the Marsyas theme.
You’ll hear the lyres playing behind locked doors
Where men flay their fellows for some abstract cause.
The kithara cadenza,the Muse’s mezzo trill
Cover the skinning and the screaming still.
Wherever in the world there is torture and pain
The powerful are playing the Marsyas refrain.



Comments 4

  1. The painting makes one wonder if the artist was trying to say something about the church as personified by Apollo and the common man as personified by the crucified deity.

    1. Post

      An interesting thought Margaret. There may be political overtones here, although I’d need to know more about Manfredi (a follower of Caravaggio, apparently), and my art history days are long behind me…

  2. If Marsyas was viewed as justly punished for hubris and not being worthy of admiration, why do you think his statue stood outside the Roman forum for three hundred years?

  3. Post

    That’s absolutely true. It’s a bit more tangled than the angle that I am taking here suggests. And the myth is double-edged (or many-edged), like most myths. So, as you say, there were also strong associations with telling truth to power in Roman times. But Marsyas as a symbol of this is also a warning…

    Even in Plato, of course, there is the other side in which Socrates is Marsyas…

    But I”m always astonished by how very many voices have been raised throughout European history against Marsyas, given the context of the story as a whole. It would be interested to do a much broader study of the sources that are out there, but it would be a big job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.