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The Argonaut Folly

Emily Ryan Lerner, Untitled, 2007, Pen and Ink on Paper, 5 × 7". Courtesy of the Artist.

I set out to commemorate the heroes of old who sailed the good ship Argo . . . in quest of the Golden Fleece. Muses, inspire my lay.

The Gentleman’s Name Is Gorgon!

Once upon a time, according to Apollonius of Rhodes (and before him Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, and countless forgotten mythopoets), a Greek prince named Jason was sent to parts unknown on a mission impossible: to fetch a magical golden ram’s fleece. Jason commissioned a fifty-oared galley, the Argo, and manned it with the noblest heroes of the era: mighty Heracles; the bard Orpheus, whose voice enchanted nature itself; bronco-busting Castor and his immortal brother, the boxer Polydeuces; Zetes and Calaïs, the winged sons of the North Wind; as well as the seer Idmon, the sign-reader Mopsus, fleet-footed Euphemus, eagle-eyed Lynceus, shape-shifting Periclymenus, even Aethalides the mnemonist. After adventures on one perilous island after another, and having safely navigated the Clashing Rocks guarding the entrance to the Black Sea, the surviving Argonauts arrived at Colchis (Georgia), acquired the fleece with the aid of the witch Medea, and made their way back home.

That is what we learn from the D’Aulaires’ and Edith Hamilton’s books of mythology. But a wised-up reading of the Argonautica of Apollonius suggests that Jason’s crew of ultratalented specialists was less a ship of heroes than a ship of fools. Or rather: a ship of heroes is always already a ship of fools.

Take Jason, for example. Except when under the influence of Medea’s pharmaceuticals, he’s more of a dandy and a cocksman than a warrior; and for someone generally considered an inspiring leader, he spends an inordinate amount of time “obsessed by fears and intolerable anxiety,” as he puts it in the Argonautica, and lamenting that all is lost. As for the rest of the crew, they are not only a fiercely competitive but a violently quarrelsome lot. Prone to fits of drunken rage, after which those close to him often turn up dead, Heracles is accidentally marooned by the helmsman, Tiphys; when Telamon accuses Tiphys of doing this on purpose, a cynical reader can’t help but agree with Telamon. And it’s not a little suspicious that overweening Idas, having threatened Jason’s loyal supporter Idmon, should be one of the only witnesses when Idmon is slain by a boar. Later, Idas will off Castor in a dispute over cattle, and Polydeuces will snuff Idas’s brother, Lynceus; later still, Heracles will massacre Zetes and Calaïs. To be an Argonaut, then, is to be a member of an outfit that is, to say the least, agonistic.

But in what sense can the Argonauts be called foolish? They are fools for the same reason they are heroes: because each one of them is superior to ordinary mortals in a specialized fashion. When they’re in their rightful element—council, banquet table, or boudoir, in Jason’s case; in Heracles’, the battlefield—there’s no stopping them. But in every other circumstance, the Argonauts are, as Apollonius frequently notes, amechanos: without resource. Jason is all talk, no action; Heracles is all brawn, no brain. When Tiphys dies (after a mysterious illness that, frankly, warrants investigation), Jason collapses on the beach, lamenting, “We are doomed to grow old here, inglorious and obscure”; and when Heracles breaks his oar, he sits speechless and glaring: “He was not used to idle hands.” It proves only too easy for these intrepid birds of passage to become as helpless as Baudelaire’s albatross, whose enormous wings make him monarch of the air but a cripple on earth. No wonder Heracles grumbles about how they seem more like exiled criminals than heroes: to be an Argonaut is to be simultaneously a superior type and a misfit, a loser, an outlaw.

It first occurred to me to read the golden-fleece myth against the grain half a dozen years ago, around the time that Hermenaut—an independent journal whose title was not uninfluenced by Greek myth, and which I’d spent the 1990s editing and publishing—was foundering. A journal published without the sponsorship of a foundation or university, and also without the benefit of a trust fund or a sugar daddy, is a ship plowing uncharted waters without compass or anchor: each issue is an uncharted island harboring exotic dangers and delights, while the twin hazards of distribution and ad sales typically appear as daunting as the Clashing Rocks. The editors of such journals can only console themselves that their masthead and contributor’s list will one day be regarded as rosters of genius. But in decades past, certain writers, thinkers, and artists have taken off on even more ambitious flights of fancy. For these dreamers, merely collaborating with admired peers isn’t enough. Like the Argonauts, they want nothing less than to live and strive together each and every day.

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