Once upon a time a great philosopher thought the city should be structured as is the soul: reason governing spirit governing appetite. I always imagined it like a pyramid of three parts, each section rotating at its own speed according to its own potency, all aligned on an axis that now I’d call virtue, but when first I began thinking these thoughts, a center for which I had no name at all. Back then the center was missing. Sometimes this philosopher loved poets, and thought their mantic souls inspired by the gods who gave them some vision like prophecy; at other times he distrusts poets, worries their mimetic nature encourages others to act out themselves the extremities the dramas portray—as of Ajax in his hurt pride flogging to death his fellow soldiers, tying them to the post of his tent and whipping them to death, so injured was he by the prize of Achilles’ armor being given to another, and waking after the massacre, the madness wiped clean from his eyes, not to find the Greek army dead and vengeance accomplished, but a herd of sheep slaughtered instead. So he walked to the beach, buried the hilt of his sword in the sand, and leapt on the blade.
Hubris. The word in Greek sounds the same: ὔβρις. Along with excessive pride, it means wanton violence. I guess one leads to the other, or they are simply the same. Is it that poems urge us, while warning us away, toward the violence they portray? That your hand clenches tight around the handle of the whip even when nothing is what is in your palm? That your heart thrills with power not your own, and your heart mimics Ajax’s, whose spirit infuses you, plays like a marching tune through you, and when you go home, and your children hide away and ask you to find them, when they play their favorite game, you enter the house as does an hero of old, a threat to all you love most?
Wittgenstein suggests our moral life could begin truly if I could feel the tooth ache in another mouth as my own. What is the device by which our urge to be in another’s suffering could be accomplished. What is to feel but not to act.
What is that makes sense. These are questions, but I don’t want to ask them.
I want to make sense. I want to write a poem that makes sense. I don’t mean it can be understood. I mean you can read it and learn to touch what it touches, what can be touched in no other way.
When the Athenians lost control of the island of Salamis, Solon feigned madness, wandering past his wits into the agora where all heard him recite a poem sent to him by the gods. So they thought: the poet spoke for the gods. So they went back to war, killed who they killed, and took back the island.
Then Solon became sane again. He had planned his madness out.
When I picture that pyramid-soul now, its point like a diamond-point points not up to the reasonable sun, but down into the dark earth, drilling down through the sand, a grave for kings making its own grave.
Something is trying to disappear.
One of the stylistic habits inherited from the Sophists is never to name the subject of your discourse. One should just know, I suppose. Mostly, I dislike the Sophists. But sometimes it makes sense to me to write down no names, save those who might deserve the danger being named opens them to. Like a philosopher I love whose name I’ve mentioned many times already, but today find myself hesitating. Sometimes it feels better, more true, for the name to stay underwater, there with the other made-things, the statues and the buildings, the temples in ruins, the armor and treasuries, weapons and coins, seed-vessels and wine-vessels, the burial grounds, the vases to collect tears, the pillar inscribed with the laws, all the drowned facts beneath the waters, this Atlantis of what all is lost, this Atlantis we share.
Solon wrote an epic poem about Atlantis, its ancient battle with Athens, but not a single line of the poem has survived. There’s just a rumor in other pages that once it existed. Those sentences, like fingers aghast at a shipwreck, point at the empty space where what had been no longer is, where the life of it all went down.
This philosopher I love—who loves and hates poets, but who ends his life writing poems—writes about what of Atlantis is remembered. He does so twice.
Long ago Solon visited Egypt, and there met a priest of Sais who mocked the Athenian, and all the Greeks, for being so new a culture. He said there are cycles of destruction, some by flood and some by fire, some by lesser calamities, but Egypt, whose Nile floods during fire, whose desert dries during flood, has survived these cycles of death and birth, and so know the fact of those tales we tell ourselves as flights of imagination. Some 9,000 years ago, off to the West, past the pillars of Hercules, where the ocean grows so wild none can sail there, existed a continent with a great city upon it, devoted to Poseidon, and far advanced beyond any other people in the world. Superior in might and knowledge, the confederation of kings that ruled Atlantis, controlling already many islands, ruling over Libya, Europe, all the way to Tuscany, decided to enslave the world entire. “And then it was, Solon, that the manhood of your State showed itself conspicuous for valor and might in the sight of all the world.” For the Athenians defeated the armies of Atlantis, and sent them home in shame. But the glory was short-lived. For later in time, that strange medium, “there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down.”
The men and women most worthy in Athens all died by the same shaking of the earth that sunk Atlantis beneath the waves, and those “that survived on each occasion was a remnant of unlettered mountaineers which had heard the names only of the rulers, and but little besides of their works.” What laws sprang from the minds of the ancients as wheat from the field, what virtues arose as if native to the soil itself, the inscriptions in temples and statues of the gods, fell in upon themselves, leaving no trace, save the names of those who made them. These names the survivors remembered, whispered among themselves, gave to their own children, who bore as guardians over their lives names uprooted from the soil of their deeds. Not once, but repeatedly, these cataclysms occurred. Each time the people altering their ignorance back into virtue, and each time—by fire or flood, by lightning or blight, by the fickleness of a god, by leviathan’s might—every made thing came to ruin. Only the names survived. And like having the torn-out title page of a book and nothing else, every other page having gone missing, one has to hope, absurd as it may be, that the whole story exists within the name alone, caught in the inner circuits of those syllables, and to simply say the name, to repeat it over the ages, is still to tell the whole story, even if not another word of it is known.
In another book, the same group of men continue their discussion, returning not to the nature of the universe and how the world was made—words which require us who supposedly serve the gods to make those gods ourselves—but to Atlantis, whose geography, agriculture, government, cities, division of populace, military structure, and much more, are all described. Most of it I forget, which isn’t to say I didn’t find it interesting. Something shook in my head, maybe in a dream, maybe from walking about running errands, leaving only the names of the subjects and not their content.
One memory remains. The ten princes who ruled the island of Atlantis, when someone had transgressed, and judgment must be made, would go among the free-roaming bulls sacred to Poseidon and using nothing more then staves and nooses would capture one pleasing to them, take it back to the temple where, placing its throat over the holy pillar, they cut it so that the blood rained down and filled the words inscribed on the stone. As of the heroes in the underworld demanding again the blood in others’ veins to fill again their own, so even words wish blood to run through them to make them living, whole. Those heroes who otherwise live on crumbs.
The book in which this description of Atlantis occurred—not a book properly seen, but a conversation—has no end. I mean, it was abandoned. In my edition, an ellipsis . . . As of Solon’s epic, so of this philosopher’s desire to compare that Athens even more ancient than ancient Athens to Atlantis—like the cities of its concerns, it has itself fallen back into the blankness from which it briefly emerged. It is to me as if those men stood up and walked away from their words, but the words stayed behind, some of them, in the room left empty, uttering themselves for lack of any other mouth to do so. Or that some Gorgon came in among them, staring each in the eye one by one, turning them into stone, and they are there even now, in that room, mouths open with the last word said, and some electric itch of response, buried like a crack in the center of a rock, waiting to shatter the head into rubble.
Strabo, the ancient geographer, commenting on the work of Poseidonius, “master of demonstration and philosopher,” says: “On the other hand, he correctly sets down in his work the fact that the earth sometimes rises and undergoes changes that result from earthquakes and other similar agencies, all of which I too have enumerated above. And on this point he does well to cite the statement of Plato that it is possible that the story about the island of Atlantis is not a fiction.”
In 1882, Ignatius Donnelly, a politician in Minnesota, writes a long essay to prove the existence of Atlantis, whose history he considers not only factual, but whose advanced civilization seeded the entire world with its ancient cultures. He writes, in prologue: “That it became, in the course of ages, a populous and mighty nation, from whose overflowings the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, the Amazon, the Pacific coast of South America, the Mediterranean, the west coast of Europe and Africa, the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Caspian were populated by civilized nations.” Further, the island of Atlantis, in the antediluvian world, was the very place of every paradise: “the Garden of Eden; the Gardens of the Hesperides; the Elysian Fields; the Gardens of Alcinous; the Mesomphalos; the Olympos,” and the gods the people worshipped, from Thor and Loki to Zeus and Hermes, were but the kings and queens of this ancient land whose names survived the disappearance of their paradise.
No doubt, he says, any mean measure of geological upheaval proves that such a devastation could take place, that even a land mass large as a continent, could be sunk into the sea by deluge or earthquake, just as long before, the same forces heaved it up into the air. He believes the Azore Isalnds are the peaks of Atlantean mountains, and writes of the Canary Islands, they “were probably a part of the original empire of Atlantis. On the 1st of September, 1730, the earth split open near Yaiza, in the island of Lancerota. In one night a considerable hill of ejected matter was thrown up; in a few days another vent opened and gave out a lava stream which overran several villages. It flowed at first rapidly, like water, but became afterward heavy and slow, like honey. On the 11th of September more lava flowed out, covering up a village, and precipitating itself with a horrible roar into the sea. Dead fish floated on the waters in indescribable multitudes, or were thrown dying on the shore; the cattle throughout the country dropped lifeless to the ground, suffocated by putrid vapors, which condensed and fell down in drops. These manifestations were accompanied by a storm such as the people of the country had never known before. These dreadful commotions lasted for five years. The lavas thrown out covered one-third of the whole island of Lancerota.”
Atlantis, according to priests of Sais, devoted itself to Poseidon, god of the sea, pictured most often, oddly enough, behind a chariot pulled by horses. But to Donnelly, this oddity makes perfect sense, for the horse was first tamed on Atlantis, and on its fertile plains, the old god rode. Many animals found in variations in many continents derive from Atlantis, proof that millennia ago passage from land to land was possible: the Norway elk and the American Moose, the cave bear of Europe and the Rocky Mountain Grizzly, and the sheep and cattle whose domestication allows us to live, came from Atlantis, a gift from the missing ancestors whose verdant fields are now located, according to Donnelly, in the Atlantic Ocean, where “deep-sea soundings have been made by ships of different nations; the United States ship Dolphin, the German frigate Gazelle, and the British ships Hydra, Porcupine, and Challenger have mapped out the bottom of the Atlantic, and the result is the revelation of a great elevation, reaching from a point on the coast of the British Islands southwardly to the coast of South America, at Cape Orange, thence south-eastwardly to the coast of Africa, and thence southwardly to Tristan d’Acunha.” And that the plant which produces a fleece softer and finer than any llama or lamb is found in India and Mexico and Peru is but another proof that the commerce of the ancient ones sowed into the furrows of the world entire the means by which we continue to live our lives.
He considers the biblical deluge a fact, as he does the reasons for its occurrence, the sinfulness of all men and women then, and the giants, too, that took the most fair for their wives, and spawned vicious children. The Chaldeans too have a parallel myth, eerie in its similarity, down to sending out birds to see if land had yet re-emerged, and when they didn’t come back, Xisuthros knew land existed again; but it doesn’t say if these birds are doves or crows, just “birds.” Here the doves give a startling cry when lifting off the ground to fly, and again when they land in a tree; it sounds fearful, to me, as if the ring-necked dove—so new to these parts—would rather be always on the ground or forever in the air, as moving from one to the other contains some terror. And so of Babylon, of Iran, and perhaps most remarkably, of the Aztecs, who “claimed originally Aztlan. Their very name,” he writes, “Aztecs, was derived from Aztlan. They were Atlanteans.”
He quotes Lord Bacon: “The mythology of the Greeks, which their oldest writers do not pretend to have invented, was no more than a light air, which had passed from a more ancient people into the flutes of the Greeks . . .” And while not flutes, Donnelly notes the similarity between the great numbers of pipes found in the “raths and tumuli of Ireland” to those Paleolithic pipes found in what now is New Jersey, implying not only that Sir Walter Raleigh did not bring over tobacco to the Old World, but the tools by which to use it we inherited from Atlantis.
I could go on, but the point would be the same, whatever the point might be. Donnelly’s is obvious: Atlantis is real and is the source of all that civilization holds most dear, from the alphabet of the Phoenicians which serves as the seeds of our own, to the seeds we plant in the earth that feed and clothe us.
I’m less sure of my own point, of these days spent thumbing through Donnelly’s work plucking out phrases here and there as one might pluck the still ripe grapes from an otherwise wilted bunch; or why I search images of Atlantis, that range from a gaudy casino in Dubai complete with a replica of an Aztec temple which, where the steps of the ziggurat should be, has instead a water slide; and this image taken by satellite for Google Earth which many take to be proof of the lost world to which I find myself returning again and again while procrastinating my years long study of Ancient Greek.
Mostly, what I’ve learned is that we all long for the destruction we fear, and are as afraid that the deluge won’t come as we are that it will, as the Romans felt when opening the city to surrender to the Barbarians who found no one at their gate. Some answer had gone away. When we watch the birds row away through the sky something in us knows we might be drowning and says, finally, it is here, and there is no more waiting. One learns, slowly over time, that we are ourselves the Atlanteans gone missing, survivors of a tragedy too old to be remembered save by the priests of Sais, and that pang of nostalgia we feel even as we sit in the comfort of our own homes, this sense that even here, by the hearth, I don’t belong, is but the old wound working memory again deep within us, far below the mind, where the heart says Atlantis, though the blood to which it speaks is half-deaf. We find we have upon our foreheads not exactly the mark of Cain, but some similar mark, not a scar, not a smudge of cinder, but an asterisk there where the third eye should be, that mark the old linguists use to note that the earliest form of the word is still missing, and marks what little meaning we’ve come to as motherless.
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet and essayist, author most recently of gentlessness (Tupelo, 2015). The book from which this essay is drawn, Of Silence and Song, will be published by Milkweed Editions in December 2017. He teaches in the MFA Program at Colorado State University, and his work has been supported by the Lannan and Guggenheim Foundations.