Phineus is a work by poet D. Kaufman, formerly a Jean-Jacques Rousseau fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude. The work amalgamates multiple renditions of the Phineus character from The Argonauts of Greek mythology. It is comprised of repetitive études in a fugue of various literary styles of the same story. The first part of D. Kaufman’s ongoing work, whose excerpt is presented here, will be published in Vienna this November at an exhibition curated by Marian Kaiser.
Etymological fallacy occurs when one confers a meaning to a word that is derived from its linguistic history, rather than from its semantic identity.
I am a fool for etymological fallacies.
Take for instance the word rendition. As Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary tells me, it entered the English language from Middle French and traces back to the Latin reddre, which means “to return.” The word rendition, the same dictionary tells me, has several meanings as well, most prominently of those are surrender, translation, and interpretation.
This work, titled Phineus, is made from different renditions, and like that etymological fallacy it has much to do with returning (reddre) as it does with surrendering, translating, and interpreting.
Consider the narrative arc in the abstract, whatever its premise and dénouement. Broadly speaking, we linearly pursue a dramatic unfolding of events. Though literary linearity, as expressed by the causal, temporal restrictions of time’s arrow may not be written as such (for instance, Homer only tells us of Odysseus’ raid of Cicones after narrating his Phaeacian escapades, disregarding event chronology.) Hence, one can infer that the nucleus of a story is not necessarily dependent upon the textual sequence of its words as they appear in line on a page.
Taking this inference to its logical conclusion, we may completely forego the assumption that a dramatic acts require a single narration in successive order to tell a tale. This is as there is nothing preventing us from telling the same story over and over again, but instead of progressing its plot, we progress its literary written form, as if swapping space with time. Phineus does just that. It amalgamates multiple renditions of the Phineus character from The Argonauts of Greek mythology. It is made out of repetitive études in a fugue of various literary techniques of the same story. It constantly returns to the same story and tells it through different themes. It surrenders entirely to a substantive interpretation of the plot rather than to a procedural one.
The conventional dimensions constructed by a series of descriptive compositions of fictional phenomena are hence told through multiple renditions, such as a soliloquy; first-, second-, or third-person narrative mode; syncope; ode; sonnet; polyphony; criticism; and so on.
Phineus, though, has precedents. Most notably Raymond Queneau and Oulipo’s work Exercices de style, first published in 1947, which is a collection of ninety-nine retellings of the same story told in different styles, itself recalling the thirty-third chapter of Erasmus’ De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia, first published in 1512, which demonstrates rhetorics through one hundred and ninety-five variations of the same sentence. Similarly, Phineus, tells the same story in many renditions, but it extends the aforementioned previous works to more than mere rhetorical or mathematical exercises. It does so by exploring larger thematic schemes through elaborate retellings of Phineus’ conceit as it is told in the various versions of The Argonauts. It’s not only different structures put upon the same story, but abstract expressions or complex plot forms that add one frame of reference after another as plot progression. It’s both literature and an examination of literature through literature.
The choice of Phineus, as he appears in different versions of The Argonauts gathered from the different authors of its surrounding Greek mythology, is not arbitrary. A rudimentary account of Phineus’ story is of a king turned blind prophet through some mortal act followed by godly interference. The details of his tale have specific relevancy to this work. To add, the variations of Phineus’ story differ, whether told by Hesiod, Apollonios, et al., which makes for yet another Phineus plot device. We learn the (possibly endless) details that make for the story through repeated examination rather than a single ordered log of fictional minutia.
The few variations here included are: Second, a second-person narration mode; Molly Bloom, the tale as Molly Bloom tells it in the final soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses; Metafiction, a metafictional retelling of the story; Jabberwocky, in the nonsensical gibberish made sense from as it does in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There; Prufrock, inspired by the Modernist poetic form of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; Verbal Analogies, the isomorphic symmetry seeking linguistic puzzle; Review, as a literary and comparative review of the book; and finally Villanelle, as the poetic structure of a Villanelle.
how a blind prophet can see, you must first imagine a future, any future, with your eyes closed. In darkness think ahead, as in what is yet to come – a future. you should attempt to fill the vision of this future with as many details, as many scents, as many sights, as many things, no matter how big or small.
the blind prophet Phineus, you must first imagine what it’s like to love with your eyes open. Phineus wasn’t always blind. Phineus loved Cleopatra while he could still use his eyes. Phineus loved the two sons she gave him with his sight intact.
Phineus you must imagine what it’s like to be king, to be blessed by the winds of Cleopatra’s godly patrimony. You should then try to imagine, still as king, how Phineus left Cleopatra for the corrupt Idaea, who hated Phineus’s sons so much that she blinded them. Imagine to be so blinded by love to feel it through an unforgivable veil of evil so mighty to ignore the blinding of a child.
second love was what stripped him of his kingdom. He was reciprocally blinded as punishment for his love to Idaea, which blinded his sons. With blindness came prophecy. Phineus can foresee the future he cannot see. Imagine seeing a future you cannot see. Close your eyes and see it. Now imagine never opening your eyes again.
was then banished and tortured by the Harpies, winged creatures who are half-women, half-birds. They steal Phineus’s food and leave him starving while covering him with their repulsive feces. Imagine his blindness with your eyes closed while imagining the awful odor of the Harpies’ excrement upon him. Still with eyes closed, imagine a future where the Argonauts, a group of noble journeymen on a quest, approach Phineus. The Argonauts save Phineus from the torturing winged creatures.
indebted to the Argonauts, then prophetically divines advice for their safe passage through the dangerous clashing rocks of the Symplegades. He tells them that they must release a white dove through the rocks, for if the dove passes they will pass as well. Imagine a blind man imagining a white dove. Imagine how hungry he must be. To understand how a once starving blind prophet may now eat in peace, imagine his meal with your eyes closed, imagine its taste.
Yes there’s nothing where theres usually eyes slapping futures of blindness madness doubly now at once he can see he doesnt see how thin he is with cheeks as hollow as the eyeless sockets of his eyes, he hears a tide thats very nice to fondle in deafless ears of sightless seers the stench another story that a thousand tides wont subside a feces only bird and man together can produce such excrement a stool fit for a former king formerly in form with Cleopatra and now with droppings waiting waiting as Zeus said and Zeus said a lot of things while he dozed and dying so pristine sons of Boreas not his sons not like him so pitiful I pity him I swear a sorry seer dethroned by winds of Thrace the winds of sea and all for kissing kissing loving leaving loving with the wrong person again and not the right person before leaving love for love raping sons into blindness onto blindness flesh and blood molested now unseeing now not unsighted sons are made of us of fathers his sons are made of him I was thinking all the time of their mother goddess mother nearly goddess mother humbled only humbled hes shamed the king deposed the queen a meek goddess toppled by a fickle heart capricious king unseated through annulment the conclusion is this cruelty only daughter of Dardanus can muster she so monstrous hes the savage whod brought a savage and such savagery has blinded him blinded by kissing and kissing and loving and leaving and loving repeat such blindness made his blindness now hes father to blind sons leading the blind leading the blind in stench of muck of blended bird excreta with stool of mortal men flying over him harassing him defiling him a hollow prophet undernourished cheekbones sunken ousted eyeless waiting for an anchor casted Yes.
I was trying to describe an account of what happened as result of thinking about what exactly transcribed upon the writing the first catalog of this amalgamation that makes for this collection of variations to the story of Phineus in The Argonautica.
I then realized the tragic parallel of the story of Phineus and that of me writing about a writer in the process of attempting to rewrite endless renditions of a writer writing about a writer who is writing about the story of Phineus.
Phineus was once king, and so was the writer of this text, that writer being me. I was king as I had an index to which I decided the course of the writing should to pursue in order. Soon the dissolution of that path occurred, much like Phineus’s first consort in marriage. I found myself writing about a writer who had a new index than the one that writer originally had, a writer, myself, now writing about a writer with an index that is leaning more toward verse. Again, and likewise Phineus, that has blinded the prose I had written to describe what the writer I had written about, and in turn it blinded me.
Take for instance this text, which renders the story of Phineus as a piece of metafiction. I increasingly find myself knowing its conclusion yet unable to see the story-within-the-story ad infinitum of its narrative, similarly to how Phineus may prophetically know of what is yet to come but unable to see anything at all, as he was made blind.
The more I describe the author of this text writing a text about the author that is writing this text about Phineus in many variations I find that I resemble Phineus, the character in a story that I here write of a writer writing about, more and more, not as metafiction but as infrafiction, meaning, the more I attempt to metafictionlize layer after layer the writing of this text and writer writing of this text and so on, I, the writer of this text in actuality, am more reduced to the lower hierarchy of abstraction as in the fictional character I am writing about, that is, to Phineus.
Oddly the opposite occurred when I attempted to describe in this metafictional text the lower abstraction in a narration entirely by Phineus as the writer of this text. And the more I wrote as the character of the lower hierarchy of abstraction making the story of Phineus, the more I added a writer writing a story-within-the-story ad infinitum that wrote as that character, that is, the writer in actuality, that is, whoever wrote me, a writer writing about a writer that is writing about Phineus.
At dawn pizé they chyord and rawned,
Bythina koes an Agenor:
Hwra Phineus brosh aye atoned
Zith hem from every pore.
The seer is sightless fagenz mock
A dilapidated madness,
The seer a fooping leafless schlock
A glome his tail in fowrness.
Argonauts lay loke a’sail
And hair of nutgly prophet prophe:
All along teetfesh their eyes avail
A killing healer strophe.
Vive a trome the red rade Harpy
Colossal kingdom few had held
He sat alone grebby and sappy
Divined with rones the bliss of teld.
Yours truly is a gentleman-Madame Sosostris
Who seals each prophetic word with a kiss
On the lips – such bliss
Coming straight from blind abyss
Had you dismiss
Poor fate I can’t see but predict
Or conceal the quondam that had me evict
(Or Zeus’s punishment was to inflict)
Divination I myself then contradict
Accomplished, I think, in having you then tricked
Yours, Phineus, once king, now derelict.
There’s nothing more I’d like to rid of
Notwithstanding preposition at that sentence-end
Idaea’s ill spite blinding sons ne’er will amend
Contemptible deeds one cannot defend
Neither her nor me transcend
But can I at least the outcome then contend?
Give destiny’s plot a little bend?
Can your disbelief then suspend?
If not, can you briefly then pretend?
Allow us the stupendous poetic finale to append?
Thank you, yours, Phineus, your oracle friend
(P.S. while feces of winged animals I fend).
Golden Fleece-seeking journeymen,
Fortunate fortune I’m to have them again
Their sword mightier than this pen
Such were the Argonauts then
Truly yours, Phineus, destiny’s ken,
Divining prophecy from the scent of a madeleine.
This is what I lack:
Stick so I could the Harpies whack
My kingdom back
A way out of fate’s cul-de-sac
Seeing more than pitch black
Yours, Phineus, blind maniac.
Rocks of the Symplegades:
I foresee so I tell as their memory fades
All the paths it cascades
In the Argonauts’ task;
Yours, Phineus, here fate to unmask
(So if you want to know something, just ask!).
Circe : Odysseus :: Phineus : ?
Prophet : Blind :: King : ?
Second sight : Future :: First sight : ?
Half woman half bird : Harpy :: Half-woman : ?
Prediction : Schizophrenia :: Extrapolation : ?
Epic : Mythology :: Farce : ?
Odyssey : Dramatization :: Cruise : ?
Prophecy : Destiny :: Statistics : ?
Golden Fleece : Throne :: Golden Calf : ?
Ejaculating : No man is an island :: Defecating : ?
Enola Gay : Nuclear :: Argo : ?
La petite mort : Idaea :: Le petite prince : ?
Symplegades : Dove :: Diffie–Hellman : ?
It is at best arguable that the proceedings of Phineus can be ever separated from their surrounding Argonauts. A grander question is, can the scores of characters that participate in Greek mythology ever stand without their surrounding context? For that matter, can any literary character stand without its surrounding context?
Let us consider this query from the bottom up starting with Phineus.
Megalai Ehoiai, Hesiod’s rendition of The Argonauts, has Phineus blinded for revealing to Phrixos the way to Kolchis, while in the Catalogue it is told as preference longevity over sight, engaging Helios, Apollonius Rhodius does the same. Istros adds Phrixos, and tells that Aietes, king of Kolchis, blinded Phineus after he assisted the sons of Phrixos. Another tells he chose his blindness with prophecy or a sighted short life.
Variations are too numerous to count. Their disparate and contradicting details are too vast, too fragmentary, to obtain a single continuous literary thread. Instead we seem to only have discrete events amalgamated from the various arcs.
One can argue, prematurely, that when evaluating Ivan from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov the different fragments of Phineus’ case will not apply, as there is only one definitive account of Ivan, and that is the one given by Dostoyevsky himself. This argument is incorrect. The different readings of Ivan’s character could also be taken from any text that is inclusive of him. This is, of course, as we assess Phineus with such inclusiveness, and the literary merit of both characters should be judged on literary grounds, and not through a hierarchy of mythology versus literature. Put another way, there is no such thing as mythological merit, at least not one that is different than literary merit.
Aesthetic considerations aside, the “roundness” of Phineus the character can easily be argued to be lesser than literary quality dictates. The constraints put upon by the genre that makes for most of the Greek mythological world make any serious character dimension difficult to substantiate. Moreover, their exaggerated features and fantastical abilities dumb the encompassing plot enough to make them mere toys. Though, and yet again, such arguments are incorrect. One can pick many literary characters, particularly those similarly minor as Phineus, and realize how little we really know about them. Horatio, as depicted in Hamlet, bears to us very little of the inner workings of his soul. Neither Horatio nor Phineus, though, prevent us from making an assumption as to what transpired in their subconscious. Both contain sufficient material to a reader, if a reader so desires, to substantiate them with anima, with internal content, one that could emerge entirely as projection, the same one animating all literary characters, big or small.
Another exception of Phineus’ arc can possibly be made, however, as he does not seem hold any receiving end to his surrounding narrative. The result of his role is the alleviation of his penalty; allowing him to eat and not harassed by the harpies. Phineus, it should be noted, is still blind and banished as his part in the arc completes. What, and why, should a reader care about Phineus at all, with all that sensational fireworks that ensue after his departure? This question leads us back to our premise. Can we separate Phineus from The Argonauts? If we try, do we possess enough matter to determine an aesthetic value for his arc to obtain a passing grade of literary merit?
Perhaps we should disconnect Phineus from The Argonauts, and consider The Argonauts without him entirely, first. One can say that either the sub-arcs of the characters in The Argonauts are thrusted by their quest, or that their quest thrusts the sub-arcs of its characters. All the characters are necessary, without one, there would be a challenge not met that would block the progress of the quest (remove Phineus and never pass through the Symplegades).
Vice versa, remove The Argonauts from Phineus, and Phineus may, at worse, die of starvation. Though that assumption we cannot confidently presume. Notwithstanding, Phineus’ key role provides him with enough gravity to be considered for his story, and not merely for his utility in the greater narrative.
There should be room, therefore, for us to divorce any character and expand on it. We may spin, recount, and weave characters as we may when silently observing strangers walking by when sitting on a public bench. The addition to our imagination, and to the depth of any story, could only benefit from constructs formed through considerations of what at first appears as minor elements. Our creativity thrives on it. The fabrication of further stories depends on it.
In five tercets then one quatrain misuse
A trimeter, or a tetrameter,
Or a pentameter as for scheme use.
Rhyme (refrain with superscript marked to fuse)
Is A1bA2abA1abA2abA1abA2abA1A2 (cheater!)
Unfold Phineus’s myth: love’s misuse.
Was kingdom, queen, two sons, worth sight to lose?
Is prophecy deserved by a cheater?
Will ever he put it into good use?
Approaching shores the Argonauts with news
As winged creatures cruelly have him teeter
Defecating upon him, theirs to misuse.
Godly punishment appears a mere ruse
Surely he now, through pain, does miss her
Divination told with a dove as use.
Circling-encircling as their cues
Destiny an unknown to this past-repeater
Clashing rocks his wisdom is now in use
Sightless obstacle’s a penalty misuse.