We the Pears of the Wild Coyote Tree

This is a preliminary report on two recent films:

  • The Wild Pear Tree, by Nuri Bilge Ceylan;
  • We the Coyotes, by Marco La Via and Hanna Ladoul.

The report is preliminary, not because there is going to be another, but because I have seen each film only once, and I may see one of them again. I remember that François Truffaut liked to see films at least twice. I would guess that I read this in The Washington Post, in an appreciation published when Truffaut died; however, he died on October 21, 1984, during the first semester of my sophomore year in Santa Fe, when I would not have been reading the Post. While in college, I did enjoy seeing some films twice, or a second time; Truffaut’s own 400 Coups was an example, a French teacher having shown it to us in high school.

The two films that I am reviewing concern young adults trying to find their own way in the world, in defiance of their elders. We all have to do this. In every generation, some will do it more defiantly than others. Heraclitus can be defiant, he of Ephesus and thus one of the Ionian philosophers, whose spirit I imagine to haunt the Nesin Mathematics Village. A further reason to bring up Heraclitus will be—gold.

Eva Brann, The Logos of Heraclitus, on Marmara Island, July, 2012

The Wild Pear Tree is Ahlat Ağacı in Turkish; we watched it on what was probably an “unauthorized copy,” though Ayşe had bought this from one in a publisher’s chain of bookshops in Istanbul (there are outlets also in Ankara and Izmir). We had missed Ceylan’s film in the cinema; however, it was three hours long, and I would have had a hard time without English subtitles. We watched the DVD on three consecutive nights, pausing between sessions after long conversations in the film. In the first of these, young Sinan, who fancies himself a writer, has cornered an author in a bookstore and tagged along with him as he tries to walk home. In the second conversation, Sinan has met up with two young village imams, one of whom he knows from childhood. The imams take conservative and liberal approaches, respectively, to interpreting the Quran. The conservative imam is an authoritarian whose response to a challenge is to make excuses or drop the subject.

We the Coyotes we saw in a cinema during the Istanbul Film Festival, though probably again what we watched was an electronic version. The image was not very bright, perhaps because the projection required more than a strong lamp. Old-fashioned long-playing records are being marketed again, apparently because audiophiles have found that analogue reproductions are better than digital; surely then cinephiles are finding the same thing.

Whether We the Coyotes was seen in North American cinemas on actual film or not, apparently the movie has now been “retitled Anywhere With You for its digital release in the United States and Canada.” The “anywhere” of the new title is Los Angeles, to which two young lovers make a road-trip, hoping to start a new life.

I appreciate seeing what life is like for persons my students’ age. In Coyotes, Amanda’s parents think Jake is a loser. He is hours late to meet Amanda after the LA job she has been counting on falls through. He has good news though: his rapper homeboy has given him some primo medical marijuana. Unfortunately Amanda and Jake cannot stay with the friend, because he is living out of his car.

Back in Illinois, Amanda’s helicopter parents may have driven Amanda to seek freedom with Jake in the first place. We don’t actually see the parents, though we hear the mother over the phone, as Amanda watches Jake frolic in the Pacific Ocean. LA is still a shithole; but the youngsters see potential.

In the other film, there is a wild pear tree growing in a field, above a shithole of a provincial town, near ancient Troy along the Hellespont. Sinan comes home there from university, where he has studied to be a teacher like his father. He has no enthusiasm for teaching though. His friend who could not be a teacher went to the police academy instead; now he beats students when they are detained at demonstrations.

Sinan’s mother has had to take babysitting jobs. Her husband plays the horses and owes gold coins to his friends. Ayşe and I have given gold coins to brides in Turkey, but I had not been aware that people made loans in this form. It does make sense in a country where inflation is unpredictable and religion forbids usury.

Gold coins were invented here, more than a millenium before the religion. The relevant part of the country then was Lydia, where Croesus would reign; and by the account of Herodotus (I.94),

The customs of the Lydians are like those of the Greeks, except that they make prostitutes of their female children. They were the first men whom we know who coined and used gold and silver currency; and they were the first to sell by retail [that is, without having made the product]. And, according to what they themselves say, the games now in use among them and the Greeks were invented by the Lydians.

Does Herodotus make that opening remark with irony? He may well not, but just tell things as he sees them. He says the Lydians invented games—dice, knuckle-bones, and ball, but not draughts—as a way to pass the time during a famine.

Three-hour films are another way to pass the time. When the film is by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the viewer must be given to quiet contemplation. She must be free of the corruption bemoaned by Pascal when he wrote,

all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.

One of Ceylan’s first films is called The Clouds of May in English, but in Turkish, Mayıs Sıkıntısı: “The Boredom of May.”

Passing the time is the subject of an essay called “Intentional Obscurity in Ancient Writings,” given as part of the Introduction to Volume IV of the ten Loeb volumes of Hippocrates. According to the words of W. H. S. Jones from 1931, which impressed me when I chanced on them in Santa Fe,

The modern man has perhaps too much to think about, but before books and other forms of mental recreation became common men were led into all sorts of abnormalities and extravagances. The unoccupied mind broods, often becoming fanciful, bizarre, or morbid. To quote but two instances out of many, the “tradition” condemned by Jesus in the Gospels, and the elaborate dogmas expounded at tedious length by the early Fathers, were to some extent at least caused by active brains being deprived of suitable material. It is a tribute to the genius of the Greeks that they found so much healthy occupation in applying thought to everyday things, thus escaping to a great extent the dangers that come when the mind is insufficiently fed.

The Gospel reference is presumably to such passages as in Mark 7, where the Pharisees, “except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition (παράδοσις) of the elders.” Jesus tells them,

8 For the laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.

9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

The commandment is to honor your father and mother; but Jesus accuses the Pharisees of denying material aid to their parents. The Pharisees keep their wealth to themselves, as long as they declare it consecrated to the deity. The Pharisees have missed the point of the Law, as Jesus tells it to those who have ears to hear, in the Antitheses. On the other hand, according to Mark 10,

29 And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s,

30 But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.

There is plenty here for young divinity students to debate. Meanwhile, Sinan has to debate with himself whether to share with his importunate father the money that his mother has given him for travelling to the teaching certification exam.

Is it true then, what W. H. S. Jones suggests, that we moderns have too much to think about? In my last post, “Piety,” I questioned a suggestion about modernity by another Loeb translator, Fowler: “Instruction in methods of thinking may perhaps seem needless to modern readers; … however … in Plato’s times it was undoubtedly necessary.” Whether born in 500 BCE or 2000 CE, we all need instruction in thinking, if we will take it. However, nothing in the world will make us think, unless we care to do it.

The Loeb volume of Hippocrates includes the fragments of Heraclitus. According to Jones,

The religious teaching of Heracleitus appears to have been directed against customs and ritual rather than against the immoral legends of Homer and Hesiod.

Such legends include the eating of his children by Cronus, discussed also in “Piety.” Jones extrapolates from words of Heraclitus as in Diels’s Fragment 5, or CXXX in the enumeration of Bywater, which Jones follows:

When defiled they purify themselves with blood, just as if one who had stepped in mud were to wash himself in mud.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan does not happen to show us any blood sacrifices, though they surely occur in the town and village that he depicts. He does show us how, when going to a wedding, the conservative young imam borrows a gold coin from the senile retired imam, who happens to be Sinan’s grandfather.

The Lydian invention of coinage inspired Heraclitus. In his own words, quoted by Plutarch, presented as Fragment 90 of Diels (and XXII of Bywater),

πυρὸς τε ἀνταμοιβὴ τὰ πάντα καὶ πῦρ ἁπάντων ὅκωσπερ χρυσοῦ χρήματα καὶ χρημάτων χρυσός.

For Fire everything is an exchange and Fire for everything, just as for gold, money and for money, gold.

The translation here is by Eva Brann, venerable tutor of St John’s College, who points out that χρήματα is commonly translated as goods, rather than money. When minted coins were a new idea, one might well remark on the possibility of exchanging lumps of gold or silver for a standardized little disc, produced by means of fire, and containing those precious metals in a fixed λόγος or ratio, as the alloy called electrum. This is what I understand from Brann’s meditation called The Logos of Heraclitus (Paul Dry Books, 2011).

In Ceylan’s movie, Sinan has written a meditation on life in his region, though we are given no evidence that anybody else has advised him or read his work. He still tries to get somebody to fund publication. After he begs, borrows and steals the money to publish the book on his own, it is no surprise that he ends up like Thoreau, who said, referring to A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his own self-published first book, “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

The Wild Pear Tree portrays the sort of people I have been living among for almost twenty years. When I see Sinan’s younger sister, doing schoolwork as she sits with her mother watching TV, I think this is why some of my own students may not get much done. Other students will follow their own muse, like Sinan.

A hundred generations earlier in these lands (by Eva Brann’s reckoning in the Postscript of her book), Heraclitus followed his own muse.

Ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν

I searched myself

—thus reads Diels’s Fragment 101 (Bywater LXXX). The verb here, δίζημαι, is one that Herodotus uses (at VII.142) to describe how the Athenians sought the meaning of an oracle from Delphi concerning the impending Persian invasion. Earlier (at VII.103), not long after his army has crossed the Hellespont, around where Ceylan made his film, Xerxes uses the same verb to tell the exiled Spartan king Demaratus that, if an ordinary Spartan soldier would face ten Persians, he (Xerxes) would look for the king to face twenty.

Even man for man, Xerxes thinks, the Persian army must be stronger than the Spartan; for the Persians fight under compulsion, while the Spartans, being free, can flee.

Not so, says Demaratus. “Free they are,” he says of his compatriots,

yet not wholly free; for law (νόμος) is their master, whom they fear much more than your men fear you. This is my proof—what their law bids them, that they do; and its bidding is ever the same, that they must never flee from the battle before whatsoever odds, but abide at their post and there conquer or die.

Here is the paradox that confounds persons who confuse freedom with unpredictability. The greater the freedom with which the Spartans embrace their law, the greater the certainty that they will obey it.

Mathematics can be done only in freedom: freedom to pursue new thoughts. The thoughts may not be new to the world; they must fit the world, and they can never rest in contradiction with others’ thoughts. This is a discovery of Heraclitus, by Brann’s account:

I think Heraclitus is first, or if not first—for who can ever prove primacy in thought?—at least all on his own, in going within; indeed, derivativeness in this matter would be self-contravening. Moreover, he knows just why this introspection is not an invitation to that inward idiosyncrasy (literally “private temperament”) for which we have the euphemism “subjectivity.” The reason is that there is a two-fold commonality to our thinking: It is both a common capacity of humankind, and it is concerned with what is in its very nature common.

Brann does have to grant that, “in spite of the universality of the encounter and the common capacity, humankind does not listen often.” Amanda’s aunt does not listen: this is why Amanda decides, on the morning of her job interview, that she and Jake can stay no longer with the aunt in LA. As for Sinan, in the end only his father listens to what he has to say in his book.

What Heraclitus has to say is,

Thought is common (ξυνόν) to all. Men must speak with understanding (ξὺν νόῳ) and hold fast to that which is common (τῷ ξυνῷ) to all, as a city holds fast to its law, and much more strongly still. For all human laws are nourished by the one divine law. For it prevails as far as it wills, suffices for all, and there is something to spare.

This is Bywater’s XCI, as translated by Jones, or Diels’s 113 and 114 (from Stobaeus). I insert Greek as Brann does, to highlight the puns that she thinks are intended. In each of its three instances (one plural), “law” here is νόμος, as in the words that Herodotus attributes to Demaratus.

One Trackback

  1. By On Plato’s Republic, 5 « Polytropy on September 26, 2021 at 9:35 am

    […] between King Xerxes of Persia and the exiled King Demaratus of Sparta that I took up in “We the Pears of the Wild Coyote Tree.” Xerxes is invading Greece, and in the battles to come, he expects (according to Herodotus) that […]

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