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March 2009

What the Sybil Knew

By Jonathan Wallace

The Cumaean Sybil, a prophetess, asked Apollo for eternal life and he granted the boon. In a classic “careful what you wish for” trope, Apollo did not give the Sybil eternal youth, however. (Zeus much earlier played the same trick on Tithonus, lover of Eos, the dawn.) The Sybil aged and became more decrepit and tinier until the disrespectful people of Cumae suspended her in a basket in a public place. At the end of a thousand years, there was nothing left but her voice.

In Chapter 48 of the “Satyricon” of Petronius Arbiter, a boastful freedman named Trimalchio reports having seen her hanging in her basket. When the local boys asked, “Sybil, what do you want?” she replied: “I want to die.”

The “Satyricon” was written during the reign of Emperor Nero (37- 68 AD) and was set contemporaneously. The Cumaean Sybil is also mentioned in Ovid and Virgil (Virgil, the earliest of the three writers, died in 19 BC). I first became aware of the Cumaean Sybil as a child, upon reading “The Waste Land”, to which Eliot affixed the Petronius quote as a lead-in.

Why did the Sybil want to die? The more traditional explanation seems to be that she found herself becoming more decrepit than she could bear; the continuing degradation of her body, projected across the unlimited bounds of time ahead of her, was a terrifying prospect.

Another reason—not inconsistent, she may of course have had two—may have been the burden of her limitless and despairing knowledge of human affairs, past, present and future. To have such knowledge, unredeemed by health or youth, would be a heavy burden.

She stands as a powerful metaphor for our own individual decline: the failing body coupled with the increased knowledge, the loss of illusions, the increasing despair engendered by a loss of faith in the human future, and one’s declining ability to do anything about it.

Eliot never again mentions the Sybil in the body of “The Waste Land” but justifies his choice of epigram by continually reverting to the themes of decrepitude, detachment, foresight and despair, from the invocation of “memory and desire” in the third line. The “dead land” and “stony rubbish” seem to echo the infirmity of the Sybil’s body; the “fear in a handful of dust” the life without comfort or illusions.

I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

To know everything is to know nothing, because data overwhelms information, which destroys knowledge. The Sybil’s knowledge may also seem as hubristic as Daedalus’ wings; “looking into the heart of light” may blind us (as the prophet Tiresias, referred to a few lines later, was blinded). Knowing too much may also render us silent, because nobody wants to hear the truth (Cassandra’s curse was always to know the truth, never to be believed), and because we ourselves find it too horrifying. The Druid said to Jurgen, “If Merlin had seen what you have seen, Merlin would have died, and Merlin would have died without regret, because Merlin receives facts reasonably.” Nietzsche said, “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” The heart of light may in fact change us as utterly as the heart of darkness into which Mr. Kurtz stared. His final revelation, based on too much knowledge, too little heart: “Exterminate all the brutes”. The question is how to confront great and despairing knowledge and yet remain human.

Eliot’s “withered stumps of time”, “rat’s alley/where the dead men lost their bones”, testify that we are in a declining world of detached horror. He then introduces Tiresias, the transsexual prophet/prophetess of whom Wikipedia says, “Tiresias is presented as a complexly liminal figure, with a foot in each of many oppositions, mediating between the gods and mankind, male and female, blind and seeing, present and future, and this world and the Underworld.” According to Eliot in the footnotes, Tiresias is “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.” He watches an apparently trivial scene, a woman seduced in her apartment, with great sadness and distance, as a spectacle which he himself has experienced, which has happened since the beginning of time and will continue without cease.

Tiresias’ section of the poem culminates in a quote from St. Augustine:

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest


In the “Waste Land” as in the quote from Petronius, we appear to be dealing with the joint dooms of foreknowledge and physical degradation. The poem continues to rack up images of extreme depletion, barrenness and thirst, “empty cisterns and exhausted wells”, “dry bones”. Then in an apparent reference back to the seduction witnessed by Tiresias:

The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms

“By this, and this only, we have existed”. Eliot suggests that we can break from the barren land only by an act of awful daring, which he presents as an act of surrender, the only way to stir “dull roots with spring rain” in the hopeful language of the first stanza. The Sybil, however, seeks the opposite way out of her plight, to die, as there is no way available to her to undergo the regeneration Eliot posits, to fight and reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics. For the Sybil, as for Marquez’ Buendia family, there will never be a second chance on Earth. The Sybil knows, with Stephen Hawking:

The explanation that is usually given as to why we don't see broken cups gathering themselves together off the floor and jumping back onto the table is that it is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics. This says that in any closed system disorder, or entropy, always increases with time.

I started my research for this essay expecting to find Greek examples of a popular modern trope, the god, nymph, etc. who gives up immortality for the love of a human—but did not find any. This twist on the story, featured in films such as “Wings of Desire”, TV shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, etc. probably did not have much traction for Greeks for several reasons. Romantic love was a medieval invention; the Greek Gods knew only lust, and could take any mortal they desired without giving anything up. Also, if an immortal decided to keep a human around permanently as a plaything, he or she could either grant immortality, or ask Zeus, Apollo or someone else more powerful to give it as a favor. Incidentally, an excellent movie which is a realistic variation on the same story is “Queen Christina”, starring Greta Garbo as the queen who abdicated for the love of a commoner.

I found only one example of a Greek being who chose to give up immortality as a sacrifice to benefit someone else: the Centaur Chiron, who offered to trade his life for that of Prometheus, expiating the latter’s sin of stealing fire. However, even Chiron’s act is not entirely selfless, because he suffered from a painful, incurable wound and did not want to live any more. Updike’s wonderful novel “The Centaur” places this story in small town America, yet allows the characters to morph into their mythological avatars in several scenes; the myth also informs and in places bleeds into the otherwise hyper-realistic present day story. The novel is lovely and memorable because essentially a tribute to a dying father, cursed with too much knowledge of his own inadequacies, and desperate to sacrifice for his son, the Prometheus stand-in of the story.

A recurring trope in European folklore, beginning in the Middle Ages, is the sinner condemned to live forever without wanting to. The Wandering Jew was a man who had offended Jesus on his way to crucifixion; Wikipedia reports one 13th century version of the story as follows:

[ H]is name was Cartaphilus, a Jewish shoemaker, who, when Jesus stopped for a second to rest while carrying his cross, hit him, and told him "Go on quicker, Jesus! Go on quicker! Why dost Thou loiter?", to which Jesus, "with a stern countenance," is said to have replied: "I shall stand and rest, but thou shalt go on till the last day."

While “The Flying Dutchman” is usually understood to be a ship which eternally wanders the seas after being lost in a storm, and not the name of a man, its legend is associated with various captains such as Hendrik van der Dekken. He was asked by a mysterious interlocutor if he proposed to take shelter in a bay, rather than attempting to round the Cape of Good Hope in terrible weather. The good captain replied: “May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment.” The idea that the captain of the Flying Dutchman could be made mortal again by the love of a woman was added to the original legend much later.

Judeo-Christian accounts of immortals becoming mortal include Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit, and Jesus dying for our sins.

One can in fact imagine eternal life, or even great longevity, as becoming unbearable. The stakes are low, life light and irresponsible and always the same. One’s nerves would wear out, if not one’s sanity, reacting too intensely to every vicissitude over such a span of time, so it would be necessary not to feel too much about anything. Every meal, every movie, novel or play, even every sexual encounter would take on a dreary sameness. Even for an immortal who wanted to experience intense emotion, it would be hard to do so when life, health or fulfillment are not at stake, when it hardly matters if any individual initiative succeeds or fails because there will be time for thousands of others.

Stories of beings who choose to yield up immortality, remind me of the highly engaging titles of two works of E.M. Cioran, “The Temptation to Exist” and “The Fall Into Time”. Cioran, a Rumanian in exile and a former Nazi sympathizer, was an essayist and aphorist of extreme cynicism and despair. Living in Paris as a liminal person, he personally knew the exile’s sense of standing outside history, almost outside time, also the plight of all writers, exiles or not, who daydream rather than act. Zola said of one of his characters, “All of his virility drained away in dreams.”

In the free choice of a god to become mortal, we have Cioran’s temptation to exist, leading to a fall into time. It is the availability, in fact, the inevitability, of death, that makes life poignant, full, and ineffably sweet to us. As Lester Burnham of “American Beauty” said after being murdered:

I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time... For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars... And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined my street... Or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper... And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird... And Janie... And Janie... And... Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday.

The liminal man or woman, living outside time, not subject to the Second Law, feels less alive than we do, and is tempted to exist by falling into time, becoming mortal. Pre-scientific humans formulating myths and stories about mortality dimly sensed that there was a moment when the universe itself fell into time; as Hawking describes in “A Brief History of Time”, time and the universe began together, and the universe also became mortal and began to decay at that same instant.

There are lesser falls into time we may take, such as the decision to marry, or particularly to have a child, in which we are forced to confront our own inadequacy and ultimate mortality, across the spread of time to come. Kundera deals with this concept in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, in which he posits that the floating state of perfect childishness and irresponsibility forced upon us by a totalitarian state leaves us, in effect, outside of time, while the ability to suffer and die, by the taking on and carrying of heavy burdens across the years, is infinitely valuable.

The fictional C.S. Lewis of “Shadowlands”, after losing his beloved wife to cancer, had a related insight: he spoke of "the hammer blows of the almighty chiseling us to perfection"—a perfection not achievable by immortal beings incapable of suffering and death. (I have not found this quote yet in the actual writings of Lewis; it is not where one would expect to find it, in “A Grief Observed”.)

Marvell of course used the inevitability of decay and death as an inducement to his mistress to deliver the goods immediately:

Had we but world enough, and time...

The themes of decay, sterility and potential rebirth which Eliot expresses in the fragments shored against his ruin, W.B. Yeats deals with more lyrically. The concept of lives lived above time, and within it, runs through his work, which is preoccupied with the decline and death of the Irish gods, of Ireland, and of the poet’s own body.

In an early poem, “He Bids His Beloved Be At Peace”, he turns his eyes from the knowledge of life’s vanity and doom (“vanity of hope, sleep, dream, endless desire”) , and the foresight that “the horses of disaster plunge in the heavy clay,” and looks to seek solace in holding the body and hearing the heartbeat of his lover, the most complete existence available to ordinary men.

In two of his most famous works,”Byzantium” and “Sailing to Byzantium”, he contrasts Byzantium as a cerebral, art-centered eternal city outside time, a “holy fire” which burns forever but does not consume, with the carnality of the world, represented in these and other poems by dolphins, which Yeats sees as carnal and riotous:

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea…

He speaks of the soul of the man who has fallen into time:

Fastened to a dying animal, it knows not what it is…

In a poem interestingly titled “News for the Delphic Oracle” he speaks of the sex-obsessed “brutal” dolphins again, and likens them to satyrs and nymphs “copulating in the foam”. In “The Rook-Delighting Heaven”, he sketches the sickness which comes with too much knowledge and too little heart:

When the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, and stricken,
With the injustice of the skies for punishment?

In “The Circus Animals Desertion,” written late in his life, he mourns for himself, having fallen so completely into time he has lost his connection to the immortality of youth:

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Unlike Eliot, who seems to have lived outside time and wished he were in it, Yeats by the end of his life appears to have felt trapped in the mud and garbage of human life and mourned the loss of “a heavenly mansion raging in the dark”.

Proust’s four thousand page novel ends with a literal fall into time, as the protagonist, Marcel, staggers off the pavement into the street, and has another epiphany which book-ends the novel with the first one about the madeleines. He suddenly understands his own infirmity and coming death and the depredations of time upon all of the people he has tracked, and who in his subjective thought, had not changed, any more than he had. Some of the most impressive writing in “A La Recherche” is in the descriptions unexpectedly given in full narrative swing of the unexpected changes in people Marcel had known quite well—or thought he knew—an unspecified number of years (at least 20 or 30) before. Until Marcel alerts us, we see them as the same hale, strong, young folk described to us at the beginning; now we are told they are grey, feeble, quite mad, or even, in one devastating reveal, a completely different wife bearing the same title as the one with whom we and Marcel fell in love so many volumes earlier.

The instant Faust falls into time, he is doomed; when he at last breaks free from his anomie, and wishes to stay the fleeting moment, the Devil comes for him.

At age 54, I too have the sense that the tide of my life is going out; I have a more complete understanding of the elasticity of time, when I can remember the names of people I met for an hour forty years ago, but not people to whom I was introduced last week; like Marcel, I progressed through most of the last thirty years without believing I had changed. When I worked briefly for New York’s Fire Department a few years ago, as an emergency medical technician, I sat with a human resources administrator and answered questions about my weight, height, eye and hair color. On this last, I said “black”. She laughed and said, “I’m gonna write gray”. Yet in my mind, I am still 35 at most.

Like Zola’s character, I have the impression of having daydreamed and procrastinated my life away; like all dreamers who do not feel the weight of time, the press of urgent responsibility, I often feel like I live outside of time. Yet, and this is no contradiction, I am grateful for my own mortality. As I confront the span of years behind, the unknown span ahead, in contrast with the understandings I have formed by accretion of experience about human vanity, cruelty, and incompetence, I believe that sixty or seventy years is a sufficient amount of time to watch this spectacle. I really wouldn’t want to be here longer than that. And as someone who has spent so many years living in his own head, I can confirm that I have lived most when I hugged my wife, or a child, or cooked a meal, or simply and silently enjoyed the sensation of my body walking or running, with my brain switched off for a few minutes. I think I have been tempted to exist, more than I actually have existed; but I agree with Lester Burnham, I would not swap away one single moment of my obscure and inconsequential life.