Ibycus and Keaton


NB: The following is the introduction to a paper I’m in the process of writing, “Keaton’s Yoke.”

Love, looking at me meltingly

under dark-lidded eyes,

by all manner of charms throws me

into the limitless fishing-net of Cupridian [Aphrodite].

And I tremble as he approaches,

just as an aged, yoke-carrying horse that has carried off victory

unwillingly walks into contest with swift chariots. (Ibycus fr. 287)*

The resurgence of love in his old age prompts a fearful reflection in the aged Ibycus. Love sets a trap he must escape, but cannot for all its infinitude, just as an old racehorse’s prior victory lightens his yoke no less. Over and against his love, Ibycus experiences a fear borne of his reflection on the paradox of his situation. As death looms over him in his old age, he senses his mortal limits, returns to a race he has already won, and discovers that what he longs for is greater than what a finite victory could ever provide. The competition of rival lovers for the beautiful beloved is but an immediate contrivance for a distant object. Even a great champion’s victories are merely mortal, even the retired Ali never ceased speaking of his greatness as he shadowboxed for the cameras. As Ibycus discovers, human finitude cannot answer the question it itself raises.

But despite his fear, Ibycus’ reflection seems more comic than tragic, his bestial image of Love’s effects subverting all pretense to participation in the divine. That love’s object is spurious may engender fear, but fear takes us outside ourselves and so prepares us for laughter. For Ibycus, then, the tension between love and reflection is the cause of both fear and laughter, with the lover’s striving a sort of determined, risky stumbling. So if I had to imagine Ibycus’ face, it would be Buster Keaton’s, at once solemn, inquisitive, and confused. And if I had to connect these tatters of papyrus using celluloid film, again I’d turn to the unpredictable force of nature in Keaton’s acting and the reflective depth of his directing. As both actor and director, Keaton is both striving body and disembodied thought, both trapped in finitude and reflecting thereupon. Keaton may bear love’s yoke, but he knows the yoke’s on him.

*For the text, see David Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1982), 66. The translation is my own.