“Here is the mathematical formalism governing catapult ballistics. It arises in, for instance, the biophysics of an eighteen year old man throwing a baseball in Newark, or a hand grenade in Afghanistan.”
Professor Jane Doe walked straight on past her usual Friday afternoon classroom at The Brand Prestige University. Today she would deliver a 20-minute presentation not only to the 28 students of Bakelite Hall 210, but to the entire Formica Auditorium, if it filled up. Jane’s friend Emily, an adjunct in the Psych department (always in the mood for a vanilla milkshake, that one) said thousands of people had heard about it and wanted to go hear her for themselves. Townies would show up when they liked the topic. Since the start of the One Word Lecture Series, the Widgetville Township had become more and more curious about BPU and what went on within its walls.
After a BLT and a big Pellegrino, Professor Doe tick-tocked through the rotunda on her modest high heels looking at the murals. Brand Prestige had great murals. Here a line of Doughboys were roughing it “Over There,” and there a team of Soccer Women held a wall. The logos of the six major defense contractors in the United States were present as highly reflective hanging sculptures that seemed to conjure and control the light throughout the room. Each was a great shimmering 3D balloon of what was normally a flat device on a letterhead, thousands of pages of defense contractor letterhead moving through the shredders at Brand Prestige University. That was the beauty of the inflatable logo sculptures in the lobby – they made you want to use darts at them. In your private opposition to the weapon-makers and weapon-merchants, you caught yourself holding an imaginary dart that looked for all the world like a missile, lusting to throw it straight at each of the bloated emblems, and suddenly you’re no better than they are.
Jane had a head full of things to say about the topic; she was delighted with the prospect of an extemporaneous lecture on “throwing.” It was supposed to be an interdisciplinary lecture, its one-word title chosen from a hat with a hundred other lexical monads, each one written on a slug of paper folded into an amorphous wad that waited like an eager gamete to fertilize some lucky faculty member’s brain with a lecture’s worth of neural activity. This little tadpole said “THROWING.” She was a professor of English, and the institution of the campus-wide, lottery-driven lecture had been her idea. She formed a phalanx of allies in the Faculty Senate – people susceptible to her charisma – who successfully passed it. This would be around Thanksgiving, when old Michelson from the Math Department brought a fresh (still hot) dozen of his own clove honey sweet-potato pumpkin pies to the vote.
Once it passed, there began the tradition. Every Tuesday, lots would be cast; one ballot for who would give the next lecture; another for what the topic (it had to be one word) would be. Then came the delivery of the much anticipated lecture from the previous week’s winner, in a wicker gazebo seating eighty, with many a great chrome cylinder full of fair trade beans a-brewing, and real half-and-half. There was generally pie.
Jane walked up to the podium in a suit of burgundy corduroy. Her jet black hair was tied up in a bun. She began:
“My topic is “THROWING”; that’s what it said on the ballot that the Big Hat threw out. In biophysics I confess myself a barbarian, unversed in the barest rudiments of physiology, thusfar untouched by any knowledge of the calculus. Yet I can tell you a thing or two about the essence of this primal human gesture. Begin with me, then, in the Pliocene Epoch., 5.3 to 1.8 million years ago (M.Y.A.). Naked to their enemies, our ancestors had feeble teeth and a slow gait, no horns or venom, no whipping tails. We know that a moment came when hominid hands first took up external objects and used strength of arm to cast them at the dangerous animals before them. Stones first, then spears. Remarkably effective. Add a spear-launcher – one of those socketed sticks that holds the butt-end of the spear, so you can push on the launcher instead of the spear itself – and the force rises exponentially.”
Professor Doe explained the principles of torque and momentum, adding anecdotes about their origins in Archimedes and Descartes. She taught the simple lever; then the catapult; then she came to the part about the baseball and the hand-grenade, and how the arm movement isn’t so much different:
“Here is the mathematical formalism governing catapult ballistics. It arises in, for instance, the biophysics of an eighteen year old man throwing a baseball in Newark, or a hand grenade in Afghanistan. Nor are we the first generation to notice this strangely compelling versatility of the maneouver we call throwing."
With the aid of a beige 1977 overhead projector she cast on the great white south wall of the classroom these two lines of Homer:
σφαῖραν ἔπειτ᾽ ἔρριψε μετ᾽ ἀμφίπολον βασίλεια:
ἀμφιπόλου μὲν ἅμαρτε, βαθείῃ δ᾽ ἔμβαλε δίνῃ:
“This is Odyssey Book Six, lines 115-6, and it describes the ball thrown by Nausicaa, the teenage princess of the Phaiakians: Then the princess threw the sphere to one of her handmaids / But she missed the handmaid, and cast it into a deep whirlpool. It’s the same rhetorical arrangement we hear over and over in the Iliad, where the thrower is a man and not a princess; the thrown object is a spear and not a ball; the missed object is a soldier and not a girl; the hit object is some other soldier, not a deep eddy in a brook. Here’s a passage from near the end of Iliad IV:
τοῖον ἄρ᾽ Ἀνθεμίδην Σιμοείσιον ἐξενάριξεν
Αἴας διογενής: τοῦ δ᾽ Ἄντιφος αἰολοθώρηξ
Πριαμίδης καθ᾽ ὅμιλον ἀκόντισεν ὀξέϊ δουρί. 490
τοῦ μὲν ἅμαρθ᾽, ὃ δὲ Λεῦκον Ὀδυσσέος ἐσθλὸν ἑταῖρον
βεβλήκει βουβῶνα, νέκυν ἑτέρως᾽ ἐρύοντα:
ἤριπε δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ αὐτῷ, νεκρὸς δέ οἱ ἔκπεσε χειρός.
“Thereon Antiphos of the gleaming corselet, son of Priam, hurled a spear at Ajax from amid the crowd and missed him, but he hit Leukos, the brave comrade of Odysseus, in the groin, as he was dragging the body of Simoeisios over to the other side; so he fell upon the body and loosed his hold upon it.’ (tr. Samuel Butler). Both the play-passage and the war-passage use the same verb for the foul shot: hamartanein, ‘to miss the mark.’ and then more broadly hamartia [ἁμαρτία], a mistake. The term originates in spear warfare, not ethics. Sophocles seems to have brought the term into the ethical arena by having Oedipus say, ‘I hit the mark, by my own mind!’ when he boasts of having answered the Riddle of the Sphinx. In the Antigone (lines 1024-5), Teiresias the Prophet uses the word twice in two lines, each in a clearly ethical sense:
τοῖς πᾶσι κοινόν ἐστι τοὐξαμαρτάνειν:
ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ἁμάρτῃ, κεῖνος οὐκέτ᾽ ἔστ᾽ ἀνὴρ
“For every human being does make deep mistakes, / but when a man has missed his mark, he is still not unmanned….” Aristotle extended the metaphorical use of military lingo to describe ethical phenomena when he put hamartia at the center of his Poetics, describing the cause of the tragic hero’s downfall as a kind of ‘missing the mark.’ Four centuries later, in the early Christian period, the Greek word hamartia had come to refer not so much to missed shots in archery, nor to career-breaking errors in statecraft, but to a vast new personal and cosmic and rather magical category called ‘Sin’.
“Now, quick: back to Iliad IV: Thereon Antiphos of the gleaming corselet, son of Priam, hurled a spear at Ajax from amid the crowd and missed him, but he hit Leukos, the brave comrade of Odysseus, in the groin, as he was dragging the body of Simoeisios over to the other side; so he fell upon the body and loosed his hold upon it. What was the biomechanics of that, dear students? Let’s work out the kinematics here. Note that it happens as he was dragging the body of Simoeisios over to the other side, meaning the Greek side rather than the Trojan side of the line of no-man’s land. Leukos was bringing the body of Simoesios over the battle-line, but the body of Simoesios brought Leukos over the line between life and death.”
Heidegger’s most tasty descriptor for the human condition was Geworfenheit, “having-been-thrown-ness.” It designates our lack of a role in the determination of the facticities we inherit on our arrival in the world: gender, body-type, native language, historical moment, and so on. We have nothing to do with determining those boundary conditions, within whose constraints we find ourselves tossed (this is one of the reasons bigotry is so absurd). Our freedom arises in the work we do within these “givens,” so our knowledge of ourselves requires them as vines require a trellis. I needed this little white slip of paper that bounced out of the hat I was shaking—it gave me my topic: “THROWING.”
(“I’m going to close with a shout-out to the fellows at Boeing.”)