Christopher Messer MFA ‘13:
Graduate Student Speaker

Christopher Messer

There is a word first recorded in The Iliad around three thousand years ago. ἐντροπαλιζομένη (En-trop-a-lids-oh-me-nay). It describes the way Andromache "went" as she moved away from Hector for the last time. She went ἐντροπαλιζομένη. Often turning to look back.

It's a very human reaction, the backwards glace. It's something we're all experiencing now, sitting in the chairs we'll graduate in. But know that we're not alone. It's been a common motif in storytelling since the beginning. Since Orpheus exited Hades questioning if Eurydice was really behind him. Since Lot's Wife in a state of confusion and fear crooked her head back towards the fiery sky.

In these early stories passed down before written language the backwards glance was a disastrous move. To try and understand was a damning act.

But then here we have Andromache moving ἐντροπαλιζομένη from Hector, whose name means "he who holds fast." She leaves behind his protection, his stalwartness, but she cannot do it without committing the folly, like us today. She glances backwards. She goes ἐντροπαλιζομένη. But unlike Lot and Orpheus she goes unpunished, after grieving she moves on with her life.

What changed? Where's the punishment?

In Anne Carson's book Eros the Bittersweet she surmises that written language, especially the easily conveyed, consonant creating Ancient Greek, helped develop the concept of longing. Before the written word all stimuli was external, your parents taught you, trees shaded you, birds sang at you. Everything we experienced was an external force.

But once we could be quiet with ourselves and a text, everything changed. All of a sudden we were seemingly learning things for ourselves. We recognized the internal worlds inside of all of us and first felt the need to search out for other things to compliment these worlds: other people, other places. It's why you came to Sarah Lawrence, and made all your wonderful friends.

There is no moral in Andromache's backwards glance because in the simple act of reading it, ἐντροπαλιζομένη, in the easily perceived Ancient Greek the reader is directly experiencing the act itself, the act of longing, the true punishment. A moral would be redundant. We realize what is happening. We feel its tinge. 

As Andromache went away she couldn't help herself, she did what we'll be doing as we leave here today, she turned around, she turned around often, she turned around to look back. The future is an abstraction. It is cold until we warm it with our presence. It is the unknown narrative in our story-obsessed lives. It is helpful to know there were always people fearful of leaving the past, desperately looking over their shoulders for one last sight of it, longing, loving. It is helpful to know that this is not a damning act, that it is a human act, an act that exists to bring us together.

Don't be afraid of the longing, and there will be longing. It will not envelop you, it will not send your lover to hell, it won't turn you into a pillar of salt. Reminisce and remember what you have learned here. Move on proudly, confidently and don't be afraid to look back and rediscover what you've already found. Go like Andromache, who eventually became a queen. Go: ἐντροπαλιζομένη.