June 3, Rhodes In Music & Art

On my last day in Rhodes I spent a looooong morning (until almost 3pm) puttering and reading an actual book (something I hardly ever do at home). By late afternoon the temperature had peaked and a few clouds provided some shade, so it was back to Old Town one more time.

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The day was bookended with music of two completely sorts. The first was from one of the 9-year-old Roma accordion players who seem to be everywhere in Old Town—indeed, you hear one before you’re half-way across the drawbridge over the castle moat. All those jokes about “play an accordion, go to jail” are particularly poignant in this case. The kids are dirty and street-wise, the miniature instruments are beat up, the playing so half-hearted (and awful) as to be unintentionally (I think) heart-breaking. I certainly don’t want to encourage them by tossing coins, but at the same time I imagine that if they get home with insufficient cash they get beaten. Either way, it’s not their fault that they’re in such a ghastly situation. So I’ve been conflicted about it each time I see them. And I sure hate the wheezing sounds they squeeze out of those boxes.

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Once inside Old Town I returned to the Grandmaster’s Palace. I climbed six dozen marble stairs to see the ancient life-size statue of Laocoon And His Sons (actually, it’s a copy of the one in the Vatican). Created by artists of Rhodes, it famously stood in the palace of Roman Emperor Titus, and was eventually excavated in 1506.

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From a story later retold in Virgil’s Aeneid, it depicts the Trojan priest and his sons attacked by sea serpents. The young men are dying. The father, muscles straining, face twisting, is in agony, both from his own fatal bites and from watching his sons die. I suddenly remember my own mother telling me, as a boy, that the worst experience a human can have is watching their own child die.

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Laocoon’s two-thousand-year-old face is the epitome of that agony. After this extraordinary artistic achievement, what more can an artist say or show about grief? Somehow Shakespeare managed to show us the feeling anew. Picasso did, too. If you’ve ever heard The Band sing “The night they drove old Dixie down,” you’ve experienced grief as if for the first time. That’s what successful art does—it shows us the familiar in new ways so we can think about and experience our own lives in richer and more nuanced fashion.

I studied Laocoon’s face in this reconstructed medieval castle. In the abstract, I hate the Crusaders for their religious fanaticism. Laocoon reminded me that they were all someone’s sons, too—every single one who didn’t return.

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It was time for some fresh air, and leaving the castle I was greeted by a gentle Mediterranean breeze. Although still early by Greek standards, I was hungry, so I returned to the Rustica Taverna, where I’d eaten two days ago. I was greeted like an old friend, and the same musicians were there from my last visit. An older man played guitar and sang, accompanied by a younger guy playing bouzouki. I stayed for 90 minutes, and they never took a break. All in Greek, the music seemed a combination of love songs, folk tunes, and observations about life. I imagined the usual stories: I Set Off On A Journey…; My Heart Is Broken…; I Never Expected…; and of course Life Is Difficult, But I’ll Manage.

That is, after all, the Greek way.

Tomorrow, off to Crete.

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