Two Part Interview with Annabel Lyon (Part Two)

19 mins read

AV: Aristotle ponders the education of Alexander: “Such a needy little monster cub.  Shall I continue to pose him riddles to make him a brighter monster, or shall I make him human?”  Interesting introspection by Aristotle, but what was the right choice?

AL: As I mentioned earlier, I think the damage was done to Alexander very, very early indeed, and Aristotle probably came on the scene too late to really do anything about that.  That’s one of the tragedies of their relationship, for me.

AV: Aristotle states after the birth of their daughter: “I myself, though she’s only a girl, undertake to supervise her education, which must begin, I will tell anyone who will listen, as early as possible.  In the ideal state, the education of children will be the highest business of government”  (p. 185).  Comment on this passage which not only applies to little Pythias and to Alexander, but should be a maxim for every civilized country.

AL: The second part of that quote is Aristotle’s own words, and I think he’s absolutely right; education ought to be one of the highest businesses of government.  I was generous to him in the first part, though; in fact, Aristotle didn’t particularly believe in the education of girls outside of those skills she’d need in the domestic sphere.  He didn’t believe in the equality of the sexes.

AV: There is a beautiful description (pp. 184-85) by Aristotle of mother and child: “I understand that every household with a new baby goes as foolish fond, and I collect more quietly, and to keep myself, my own talismans: the spider’s thread of milk from wife’s breast to daughter’s lip when they draw apart after a feeding; the abrupt drop of the baby’s brows when something amuses her; the way, at times of great distress, she buries her entire face in her mother’s breast, as though seeking oblivion there.  Liberty and self-sufficiency: the house is like a ship.”  Can you add anything to this beautiful passage?

AL: This is a description of my own baby daughter, and one of my favourite passages in the book.  I remember writing it, on a day when I was so tired and just wanted to sleep, but I was forcing myself to write 200 words a day no matter what, so I wrote about the only thing on my brain at that time: my baby.  She was probably around two months old when I wrote that.  It’s a little gift to myself, that I left it in the book.

AV: Interpret the passage of Alexander and Hephaestion, upon completion of a wrestling match after an apparent quarrel, Aristotle ruminates: “I’m aware of Hephaestion, who is lingering in the colonnade, toweling the golden sweat off himself and laughing with two older pages who likewise have hung back from the lesson.  Extraordinary behavior, since lovely Hephaestion does not noticeably have a mind of his own.  When he sees me looking at him, something in his face falters.”  You portray Hephaestion as feeble-minded and perhaps flirting in front of Alexander.  What are you trying to convey in this passage?

AL: Not really feeble-minded; just very beautiful and sweet-natured and not as bright as his friend.  It’s not in his nature (as I imagine him, anyway) to be mean or manipulative, which is what he’s trying to do in this scene.

AV: In The Landmark Arrian (edited by James Romm) Hephaestion’s position is “not merited by his experience or military talents,” (p. 143,  #3.27.4b) and was “only a mediocre military officer.” (p. 354).  Nevertheless, Hephaestion was promoted by Alexander to head half of the prestigious Campanion calvary.  Then, in the later stages of their campaign, Alexander made Hepheastion “chiliarch” (i.e., commander of a thousand) and, upon his death, no one assumed this title.  What was Hephaestion really like in your opinion as a soldier and the extent of his relationship, possibly sexual at some time, with Alexander?

AL: I assumed (as historians and novelists have before me—for instance, the wonderful Mary Renault in Fire From Heaven)—that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers.  They certainly were intimate life-long companions, and died within months of one another.  I imagine he was stunning to look at, and competent but perhaps not brilliant as a soldier.  Brave and loyal and utterly devoted to Alexander.

AV: You present a sublime analogy with Aristotle trying to teach Alexander (pp. 192-95) about “the extremes as caricatures.”  (p. 194).  Alexander interprets this to mean himself and Arrhidaeus.  Please elucidate this subtle yet wonderful scene of tutor and student.

AL: In his Ethics, Aristotle presents the idea of the mean as the best form of human behavior.  “Mean” doesn’t mean “average” or “mediocre”; instead, Aristotle suggests we should strive to find a stable, rational middle ground between extreme behaviors (for example, cowardice on the one hand and rashness on the other; the mean would be bravery).  I imagined Aristotle extending this to an understanding of people, of personalities; that a young man like Alexander could look at the extremes in people and try to embody the mean in himself, as an ideal of what a man could be.

AV: Aristotle experiences his first battle as a medic for Philip at a place called Chaeronea: “The trumpet sounds again and the medics stop moving, like children playing a game of statues.  From far, far away, a shouted command, a long silence, another shout.  A sound like the surf, and the head says, ‘Stations.’  He doesn’t need to shout.  I look at the ground, have the leisure to observe the kinky walk of a beetle in the dust.  After a few minutes of listening to what sounds like a distant ocean, the young medic next to me pulls out a set of dice.  ‘Play?’”  (p. 210).  Please describe the genesis and meaning of this strange yet wonderful passage.

AL: I wanted to write a great ancient battle scene, but at the same time I was tickled by the idea of playing with the so-called “rules” for ancient tragedy, some of which Aristotle articulates in his Poetics, including keeping all the violence off-stage.  I decided I’d have Aristotle travel to the battle with the medics (since he’d have medical knowledge inherited from his own father, a physician), but then be stuck inside the tent treating the wounded rather than observing the battle itself.  I wanted to give the battle scene itself a kind of dreamy quality, where perspective is all off—the battle sounds like gentle surf, his world becomes a beetle in the dust—to heighten the brutal reality of what comes after.

AV: There is also your description of Aristotle treating the wounded at Chaeronia, where Aristotle daydreams: “There is, too, the matter of purpose; can one say the soul is the purpose of the body?  I feel a woolliness there, a gap in the teeth of my logic.  Pythias has such a comb, of tortoiseshell, which she tries to use despite a gap the width of two fingers where the teeth have broken off.” (p.213).  Can you comment on this metaphorical scene where Aristotle temporarily loses touch with reality as he works as a medic with the wounded soldiers?

AL: I imagined Aristotle suffering the psychological effects of battle, as so many have, and distancing or detaching himself and losing himself in memory as a way of coping with the extreme violence around him.  I really believe that PTSD is as old as soldiering itself; just because these were ancient men doesn’t make them any less men, any less prone to suffering and compassion and revulsion and guilt, all those complex emotions that soldiers experience in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

AV: You write like a man.  I mean this as a compliment as you are basically narrating Aristotle’s perspective.  For example, you mention Aristotle, after talking to Plato, spends the evening with a young prostitute, before going to the Academy: “My hands still smelled of the girl, or I imagined they did.  I plucked a large flower from an arrangement and shoved finger after finger down its white throat, reaming for scent.” ( pp. 238-39).  This is something D. H. Lawrence might have written.  What do you recall about writing this beautiful passage and how did you develop this style of writing?

AL: Thank you!  In fact I never really gave it much thought; partly because I don’t think there are significant intellectual differences between men and women, and partly because I think the experience of sex (for instance, looking at this passage as an example) is pretty universal, and transcends gender.  Also I have a husband to proofread for me!

AV: There is a passage, at the end of Chapter Four, where Aristotle has just left Plato who has given him a plate of food.  Aristotle is thinking about the prostitute he has seen for months and earlier this day: “The girl had licked and bitten, licked and bitten, until I didn’t know myself.  I knew I had seen her for the last time.  Giddy, I gave the plate away.” (p. 241).  Essentially, Aristotle has given up pleasure to pursue knowledge.  Please elucidate on this scene.

AL: I think of it as moving on to another love: he moves from a very physical, carnal need for love of the girl to a more ambitious, more intellectual, and more risky love for his new teacher.  Not a sexual love, this time, but risky because he stands both to gain and to lose much more: respect, fulfillment, admiration, a sense of purpose in the intellectual life.  All these things will eventually become a greater solace to him than erotic love.

AV: At the beginning of Chapter Five, Pythias is dying: “I can’t help thinking of her pain, also, as a rational being, one with whom she must argue to rescue herself, but as a poor reasoner she cannot.  I see the perplexity in her face, the lines in the brow, as pain’s logic bests her again and again.”  (p. 242).  This speaks volumes about people facing death and not totally understanding their own mortality as well as Aristotle’s compassion.

AL: You’ve chosen one of the passages I’m most proud of in the book.  His sense of women as something less than men is here, but it’s tangled up with his love for his wife and his desperate unhappiness at the prospect of losing her.  And that idea that pain is relentless; he knows this himself, without ever really being able to articulate it, from his own depression.  The relentlessness of pain, and our helpless compassion for others in pain: two sides of a coin, an essential part of the human experience.

AV: One wonders if Aristotle has his head in the clouds.  For example, he never notices his servant Herpyllis until Pythias is dying.  All of a sudden he begins to notice how this woman has always made the rooms and cooked the meals so perfectly: “I’m noticing everything now.” (p. 246).  Shortly thereafter, Herpyllis raises her dress while working in the kitchen and smiles at him, but he is basically flummoxed by her flirtation.  Later on she will become his companion.  What does this say about Aristotle who has previously been oblivious to this woman, yet with whom he will spend the rest of his life?

AL: It speaks to an essential selfishness in him, certainly, and his views on women, again: he has animal needs that need to be met, and when his mate is gone he doesn’t waste time finding another.  But the flip side of that is the idea that his love for his wife blinded him to other women around him: while she was alive, he literally couldn’t see other women.  He could only see her.

AV: You describe Philip’s court at Aegeae in the last chapter.  For your research, did you travel to Greece?  And, finally, what can readers look forward to in your next book?

AL: I wasn’t able to travel to Greece during the research because I was busy having babies and couldn’t leave them (they’re five and three now), so this is all book research.  I did travel to Greece after the book was published to research the sequel, which will take place at the end of Aristotle’s life and feature his teenage daughter, also named Pythias, who is only four in The Golden Mean.  She’ll be 16 in the new book.  I went to Athens, Sounion, Delphi, Chaeronea, and Chalcis, where Aristotle died.  The novel will open with Aristotle’s death and follow the first few months of Pythias’s life alone, as she must make her own way in the world without men around to protect her.  She’ll try on a number of different roles—priestess, midwife, hetaira—before settling into the role the historical Aristotle imagined for her, as articulated in his will (a real historical document, included as an appendix to The Golden Mean): wife and mother.  I’m interested in whether the same eerie links between past and present will appear in this novel as they did in The Golden Mean, or whether the life of a woman 2300 years ago will prove infinitely more foreign.  Certainly my life as a 21st century Canadian woman much more closely resembles a male life back then, and I’m finding imagining myself in a woman’s body at that time, with all that entails—marriage in early teens, illiteracy, lack of a political voice, high likelihood of dying in childbirth, desperately needing male protection—a really interesting challenge.

The Golden Mean was published by Random House in 2009