The Conflicting Sounds of Life

The reading by David Rothenberg focuses on the songs of the nightingale in the third chapter of Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound. Rothenberg touches briefly on the Greek myth pertaining to the origin of the nightingale: the myth of Philomela, Queen Procne, and King Tereus. To recap, Tereus raped Philomela, and when she went to tell Procne, his wife and her sister, Tereus cut Philomela’s tongue out. Philomela was able to communicate to her sister what happened through a tapestry Philomela wove. In vengeance, Procne murdered her son, Itys, and served his head to Tereus. The gods ended up transforming each of them into birds; Philomela a nightingale, Tereus a hoopoe, and Procne a swallow. Philomela’s story is one of tragedy, especially when considering that her name means “lover of song”, and is doubly tragic when one learns that the female nightingale also typically does not sing; the male usually is the musician. It was interesting that Rothenberg decided to include such a story in a chapter about the beauty of the nightingale’s song, but now more than ever, the songs of the nightingale, and by extension, of nature have been suppressed. As a consequence of the Anthropocene, multiple large cities have sprung up, and with them, a cacophony of sounds to drown out nature’s natural “song”. The sounds of humanity permeate almost every corner of the globe, either they are directly built by humanity, such as the cities, or indirectly caused, such as the sounds of cracking ice in the Arctic. I believe Rothenberg intended this connection to be drawn between the silencing of Philomela and the silencing of nature’s song, with us, as humankind, playing the part of the tyrannical king Tereus. Instead of playing the single character of Tereus, we will play both Tereus and his son Itys; both the offender, and the one who takes the punishment for it, while nature will continue on, past the demise of our species.

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