Essay, Writing


Pandora (Πανδώρα) means all-giving. She was the first woman on earth, crafted by Hephaestus (Hφαιστος), son of Zeus and Hera. Pandora was given all of the gifts of the gods, beauty, clothing, speech, and musical ability, with which to seduce man.

Prometheus (Προμηθεύς) was a titan, the old gods from whom the Olympians took the world. He sided with the Olympians in that battle, but is best known for having stolen fire from Olympus, and given it as a gift to man. In retribution, Zeus sent him Pandora, carrying with her a jar (πίθος), containing a gift from the gods. His brother accepted the gift, and Pandora opened the jar, releasing all of the evils of the world, and closing it only in time to prevent hope (ἐλπίς) or expectation, from escaping.

I most often hear Pandora’s retaining of hope, in mainstream U.S. culture, depicted as something wonderful, that was saved for mankind in the jar. I’m not a classical scholar. At best, I’m a hobbyist, and that’s still something of a reach. Nonetheless, I think we (purposefully?) misunderstand the story. The jar was not filled with all the evils of the world, and one wonderful gift from the gods. It was filled entirely with suffering. Hope was intended, like the other evils, to cause man pain and suffering. Its function, if ἐλπίς is interpreted as the expectation of good, is to entice him to endure endlessly, those other sufferings. Its function, if ἐλπίς is interpreted as the expectation of evil, is to induce fear. As Nietzsche argued, “Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”

I think about Pandora whenever I think about expectation or aspiration. Perhaps the reason I so often enjoy desire is that it is largely foreign to my family culture, and was discouraged in us as children. I sometimes wonder whether my parents ever had hopes, or dreams. If they did, I never saw them realized. On the rare occasion that my brother or I expressed want, my father would tell us to “piss in one hand and wish in the other, and see which hand fills up first.”

Until recent years, it rarely occurred to me to think about what I wanted. But after countless arguments with partners who wanted me to want something, for reasons I still don’t really understand, I started making lists. I find the exercise to be depressing. I still have the first list I made, about six years ago, entitled “What I Want”. There are two items on it: To walk daily to the market to buy each day’s food, and to live in the sun.

I performed this exercise again this week, and now there are twelve items on it. For various reasons, few of them are any more likely than the two I identified six years ago. I’m not inclined to share them; my failures belong to me. But this is not a sort of desire that I enjoy. It is the sort of wanting that Zeus intended, a punishment for defying the gods.

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