Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Sybil at Cumae

"When you have landed and come to the city of Cumae and the sacred lakes of Avernus among their sounding forests, there, deep in a cave in the rock you will see a virgin priestess foretelling the future in a prophetic frenzy by writing signs and names on leaves … but the leaves are so light that when the door turns in its sockets the slightest breath of wind dislodges them. The draught from the door throws them into confusion and the priestess never makes it her concern to catch them as they flutter round her rocky cave and put them back in order, or join up the prophecies.”

The Aeneid – Book 3 – 440-450

A woman is haunted by a phantom as she sits at a table, or perhaps she is the phantom herself. Her face flickers like a silent film between the shapes of a human and a bird. Her hands move restlessly over piles of leaves, painting each one with a Greek letter; and even to an antiquarian, familiar with modes of Greek no longer used in the modern language, the sentences and words she is fashioning would make no literal sense. But there is somehow a weariness, a strange, tangible lassitude in the leaf-prose, as if there can be an exhausted quality to words, as if they can finally not even refer to themselves; to their own meaning.

The woman is immensely old, the bird older, an inhuman eye with intimations of pyramids, archaic astronomies, pre-human heroic ages. A long day has passed and night is coming in, vast tracts of irreclaimable time have been and gone, with only the day and the night, the sun and the moon rising and falling in rhythm. As an evening wind stirs the leaves through the open window, exhausted, half-seen sentences begin to creep across them, in fact it’s as if the letters and the numbers of the future flit lightly, kaleidoscopically, in and out of their order and recombine into nonsense.

And the strangest thing is this wind moving the leaves, it seems to carry some tang of lost memories, forgotten moments of clarity felt during childhood trips to the sea, an uncategorisable but intense yearning, as strong as thirst or dread. Animals yelp at doorways, deep sea fishermen returning to the cove cast their lines up into the sky in the gathering darkness, as if to snare birds, bats, unknown configurations of stars. Tourists dressing for dinner in nearby hotel rooms shiver and momentarily lose focus, seem to follow some invisible presence passing hugely under the waves.

Helenus, the son of Priam, warned Aeneas about this woman 2,800 years ago, how she writes her prophecies on leaves and then allows the wind to blow them into incomprehensibility.

For Aeneas it was an inconvenience, he needed a magic spell to unscramble the messages from his future. In our era, in the long track of years since Aeneas, all the magic spells have disappeared.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

pynchon meets borges! how long beofre the book deal happens?

Kali said...

you give me hope when i can find none elsewhere. you are a beautiful man. (that steppenwolf lady.)

Arcade Games said...

Wow, that's all I can say. You're so cool...

Arbiter said...

Sybil, what do you want?

Sybil said...

I want to die.