Monday, August 12, 2013

Wine-Dark Sea: Homer, Physics and Metaphor

Certainty, accuracy, nailing down meaning and fact - we might understand the concept of such an idea, but achieving such may well be an impossibility.

This train of thought was launched by an Internet discussion I found today via MetaFilter, as folks wondered just what the heck Homer meant by the phrase in The Iliad "wine-dark sea".

I confess that as a reader, the meaning of the phrase wasn't literal but figurative - the poet evoked a mood, a feeling with the phrase. Little did I know scholars debated the phrase, with questions like "were the Greeks color blind? The sea is blue not red!"

But debate rages. Can we distill fact from fiction? Is metaphor reality?

In truth, the story of The Iliad was shared by speech and by book and was translated from one language to another and no reporter/investigator contacted Homer to press the question: "What did you mean by that?"

So, debate remains - at least for some. For me, the phrase is more than enough. I have no doubts to its meaning, as I have no doubts about the phrase "rosy fingered dawn", also found in Homer's work. It is what it is.

Yet should you decide to question it too, then the notion of color itself becomes a puzzle and then becomes an immense maze. What is color? Is it light? What is light? Is it a wave? Is it a particle? Is it both?

No question that humans place vast meanings on color and light - Red state vs Blue state swamps American politics today. In certain parts of the world, a lack of color brings life and death struggle, such as the danger an Albino person finds in Tanzania, where such folks are murdered and dismembered as myths of the "magical" qualities of their skin hold great power.

Working in the Arts, as I do, I fully embrace the idea that colors evoke emotional responses, just as music does, just as shape and even time itself does.

Metaphors load meanings into almost all that we do - is there any way to turn metaphor into fact or vice versa? 

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