Negotiation of the Detour: The Pervert’s Guide to the Origin of Rhetoric

Accompanied by a black and white dog, a huntress, not young, steps from a blue grove into the dawn light. It’s spring; we are outside of Athens in 508 BC. Pericles will not be born for another 13 years.

The light and loose-fitting dress that the huntress wears catches each soft gust of the morning’s wind, revealing her strong and impressive knees. Though older, she’s still a catch if you can catch her (which you probably can’t).

Here comes the young man. He’s walking with an arrow in his hand. Unlike the matronly huntress, neither hound nor bow accompany him. The sheep on the hill are his. He’s a shepherd, not a hunter. He found the stray arrow while tending his sheep.

The huntress is heading his way; the sight of her stops him in his tracks. His bowels quiver. Those robust knees bring her quick upon him. No introduction is forthcoming, only a demand: “Give me your arrow,” she says, holding open her hand to him. He surrenders it to her immediately.

Why did he do that?

He can’t explain it to himself. He didn’t just slap the arrow into her palm, he saw himself slap the arrow into her palm. At that moment, he was beside himself, unable to think rationally. And this satisfied her.

“Good, very good,” the huntress says to the shepherd. “And now that you have surrendered to me your single arrow, you are left with only words.”

“Words?” asks the shepherd, bewildered. “For what?”

“For persuasion.”

“Persuasion?”

“To love.”

He understands—and trembles. Like the huntress enticing the shepherd to leave off everything to follow her, so Jesus will one day make a similar appeal to Peter and Andrew, to drop their nets and follow him. Jesus won’t use force either. He’ll simply call them, and they’ll come (or not). Words, not swords. Slavery too can be a choice. But that’s still hundreds of years in the future. This is now.

The shepherd drops to his knees.

The huntress places the shepherd’s arrow into her quiver and rests her hands firmly upon his shoulders. “Your shoulders are my scale,” she says. “If your speech pleases me, I’ll bring myself down upon your left shoulder, weighing heavy on the side where your heart is. But if your words displease me, you will feel my weight move to your right shoulder, away from your heart. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“Now speak to me of this glorious dawn!”

“I do not see it,” replies the shepherd. “My eyes are upon your knees, where they are wholly content.”

The huntress leans into his left shoulder. “But surely,” she says, “you must feel the dawn’s warmth caressing your back, and long to turn to it. If you did so, what do you suppose you would see?”

The shepherd closes his eyes and pauses for a moment, gathering his thoughts, then speaks: “I would see that Apollo’s wheel, the sun, is rising, bearing the god in his chariot. I’d see him whipping his four horses into a gallop against their reins, swirling the clouds of gray into gold. And I would see Aurora, the goddess of dawn, in the lead, bearing her torch, bringing the dark night deeds of all mushrooms into the light. The flowers, opening their eyes, would be bidding her welcome.”

“Will you turn from me to her, then?”

“No,” replies the shepherd. “I will be happy as the blind mushrooms that linger upon their mounds, if I can but cup your knees beneath my naked hands. I’ll want for nothing else.”

The huntress leans into his left side some more.

“Beauty is truth, then?”

“Your beauty is my truth; your beauty alone. And if your beauty is not the truth, I choose your beauty over truth.”

On this, the sheep on the hill and the dog behind the huntress turn their eyes, disapprovingly, upon the spell-cast shepherd submissive before his governess. Is it wise to linger on night when it is day? Is beauty preferable to the truth? They are not pleased. The moon is far into its waning. It is wrong, they think, not to rise and let it go.

“You may bring your hands to my knees,” says the huntress, and the shepherd does so.

“What,” she asks, “are my knees to you?”

“The strong guardians of your loins,” he says. She leans heavier upon the heart side of him.

“And my loins—what are they?”

“Two curtains held together by sturdy limbs.” She leans still more deeply into his left side. The sheep conclude they will soon be in want of a shepherd; the dog concludes that he is not man’s best friend after all.

“And how will you draw them open?”

“With great force!”

The huntress bears down upon his right side, but with fingernails, not her palms. She repeats the question, sternly: “How will you draw them open?”

“With words,” says the shepherd, correcting his error. “With words!”

The huntress leans to his left.

_____

Santi Tafarella, March 2012

(For the curious, “negotiation of the detour” is a phrase I liked from a Slavoj Zizek essay in which he reflects on the masochistic nature of courtly love. Zizek also stars in a film titled The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. I put the two together for a hybrid story title. And yes, I’m taking an excess of liberties with the myth of Endymion.)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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