June 29 I enjoyed Nike in Katerini’s account of sleeping with an owl and a snake by her bed. In her culture, these are choices full of classical meaning. In my own more prosaic world, I do not instinctively turn to such mythical objects when in need of guidance or security.
I was raised in a Protestant denomination. Methodists focus on words, whether spoken, read, preached or sung. They do not employ three-dimensional symbols to embody spiritual verities or to keep us safe from Bunyan’s lions, dragons and darkness. I do, nonetheless, keep two objects on my desk to guard my endeavours, albeit of an altogether more humdrum nature.
The first of these is a small, carved, wooden tortoise whose provenance I have long forgotten. I explained the connection between this animal and the lot of the long-distance writer in the entry for April 29. I have an engagement with tortoises beyond the ownership of my pet Herodotus (Nike may note that I was stretching for a classical association). Ten years ago, whilst still a university manager, I was sent to give a keynote speech at the remarkable Loja University in central Ecuador. The organisers arranged for the speakers to visit the Galapagos Islands before the conference started. There I met Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island giant tortoise, just two years before his untimely death at the age of 102.* It is one thing encountering a tree that has survived over centuries, it is quite another gazing eye to eye with a creature that has moved so little and seen so much over so many years.
My second penates is quite different and much slighter. It is a mass-produced, 6.5cm high plastic model of a cowboy, six shooter in each hand. I don’t know where I found it, but it speaks to me at some unconscious level. I must have owned such a toy as a small child. Now it stands at the opposite pole to my other desk guardian. The tortoise represents the slow daily slog that all scholarly writing requires. But I have read book after article after manuscript where the routine has overwhelmed the inspiration. Each page represents a dutiful journey between evidence and interpretation, all true, all hard won, but lacking any spark in either the prose or the argument. It is far from easy to sit down day after day and attack the project, putting to flight mediocrity of thought or writing. My cowboy with his guns reminds me of that requirement.
So it has been during the pandemic. The tortoise element has not been so difficult. For those already living in semi-lockdown, surrounded by sufficient creature comforts, the prohibition on movement has not seemed a practical problem. The real threat is avoiding the descent into the Slough of Despond which faced Bunyan’s Christian. Deprived of the stimulus of events, travel and fresh company, it becomes a challenge to generate the spark of energy and creativity during a day that begins and ends in the same place as the one before.
I have to find the six-shooter in me, up for whatever drama and danger I can manufacture.
*In February of this year, naturalists claimed that after all they had found thirty near relatives. Too late for George.