Thursday, April 10, 2014

Man, Earth, Scale

Perhaps the first striking thing in Sophocles' Ode to Man is the disconcerting scale. On one hand, nothing is so wondrously strange as man. On the other, our first glimpse of this wonder is something the size of a gnat shooting across wintry seas at terrible risk to itself. A blip on a radar. At least we see him, before giant Earth appears

θεῶν τε τὰν ὑπερτάτανΓᾶν 

Earth, too, the eldest of the gods, 
the immortal, the unwearied

Which the wondrous creature spends eons rubbing, wearing down, scratching.

That something this diminutive can do all it does is part of what's strange and wondrous about man. But in this play, the initial sense of the relatively infinitesimal scale of this gnat, is always present, though always forgotten. To be human, to dare great things, leads to trouble, according to the third ode:

                                      οὐδὲν ἕρπει 
θνατῶν βιότῳ πάμπολύ γ᾽ ἐκτὸς ἄτας.

                                                   no vast thing
steals upon the life of mortals without blind delusion.

Since Sophocles' chorus first sang those words, we have learned more about the cosmos. Its scale in relation to the human wonder has inflated by incomprehensible orders of magnitude. Still, we are surprised when something as large as an airliner goes missing. Why can't they find it, we wonder. 

A recent image in the Washington Post puts us in mind of the fact that the earth is not simply huge, it is deep. The image begins with the still missing Malaysian jetliner. Click on this image to get an artist's rendering of a sense of scale that could be called "Sophoclean."

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