Nike Who Hesitates

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Titanic Engineers’ Memorial, Southampton, featuring Goddess Nike

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Nike of Warsaw, monument to Polish war heroes

I love poetry because in a few verses it is able to condense more meaning than a long essay and usually does so more beautifully. I think that the poems that we have read have their own secret lives in our souls. Yesterday I was haunted by a line of a poem that came out of nowhere. At first I did not remember who wrote that the goddess Nike is most beautiful when she hesitates. The line came to me in my native Polish, and I quickly realized it was a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, because myth and ancient history was always his favourite subject. The whole poem, which is amazing, goes like this:

NIKE WHO HESITATES (trans. by Marek Lugowski)

Most beautiful is Nike at the instant
when she hesitates
the right hand beautiful like a command
leans against the air
but her wings are aquiver

because she sees
a lone youth
he is walking a long rut
of a war wagon
along a gray road in a gray landscape
of rocks and an occasional juniper bush

this youth will soon die
just now the scale with his fate
falls suddenly
to the ground

Nike has a tremendous desire
to walk up
and kiss him in the forehead
but she is afraid
that he who has not known yet
the sweetness of fondling
upon knowing it
might run away like the others
at the time of battle
and so Nike hesitates
and finally resolves to
remain in a position
which she was taught by the sculptors
very much ashamed of this moment of feeling moved

she understands well
that tomorrow at dawn
they must find the boy
with his chest open
eyes closed
and a tart obol of fatherland
under the stiff tongue

We do not value hesitation in the West. Our Nike says “Just Do It.” We value swift action and achievement; a pause or discontinuation of action are viewed as signs of weakness. Hesitation (remember Hamlet?) only multiplies questions and problems and complications. On the one hand, we hesitate because of anxiety, but on the other hand, we often hesitate because we ponder on all the possible consequences of our actions. The best Western literature is built on hesitation. I have always cherished Rilke, who wrote this in one of the Letters to a Young Poet:  “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. …live in the question.” Hesitation, uncertainty and doubt can be fruitful.

Another issue that the poem raises for me is connected to the consequences of our actions. I am thinking of karma – the law of cause and effect. If you prefer you can substitute the word karma with fate, destiny or even Heimarmene (the Greek goddess of fate understood as the succession of cause and effect). I believe the linguistic labels matter little here: what matters in essence is that our lives are not our own because we are ruled by patterns that we were born into. I have already written on Fate (https://symbolreader.net/2013/06/05/fate-a-jungian-perspective/), as it is one of my pet subjects, but I feel like revisiting it today by quoting from Five Stages of Greek Religion by Gilbert Murray. The book is available for free on Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30250/30250-h/30250-h.htm). I first heard of Murray via Liz Greene and her Astrology of Fate. In the first half of the twentieth century, there was no other scholar who surpassed him in the knowledge of ancient Greece. I am partial to him for many reasons: first and foremost because he was humanist, a liberal and he even refused knighthood.

220px-Gilbert_Murray

In the following passage he writes beautifully about Fate/Heimarmene:

It requires a certain amount of thoughtfulness to rise to the conception that nothing really happens without a cause. … Heimarmenê, in the striking simile of Zeno is like a fine thread running through the whole of existence—the world, we must remember, was to the Stoics a live thing—like that invisible thread of life which, in heredity, passes on from generation to generation of living species and keeps the type alive; it runs causing, causing for ever, both the infinitesimal and the infinite. It is the Reason of the World or the mind of Zeus, rather difficult to distinguish from the Pronoia or Providence which is the work of God and indeed the very essence of God. Thus it is not really an external and alien force. For the human soul itself is a fragment or effluence of the divine, and this Law of God is also the law of man’s own Phusis (Nature). As long as you act in accordance with your true self you are complying with that divine Pronoia, whose service is perfect freedom. Only when you are false to your own nature and become a rebel against the kingdom of God which is within you, are you dragged perforce behind the chariot-wheels.

The last sentences go beyond the scope of Herbert’s poem perhaps, but I could not help quoting them because to my mind they do explain a lot in regards to fate vs free will debate. The notion of heimarmene links with the goddess Nike because according to myth she always carried a bunch of woolen ties that she handed out to her chosen favourites. In a poem, a goddess she is, Nike resolves to assume her position and lay down the law. The boy’s fate had already been meted out to him. In ancient Greece, paradoxically, woolen strips were also tied to the horns of sacrificial animals. We may shrug our shoulders and say that the boy was caught in the wheels of collective karma. But we are no gods and we can choose to pity him. We can also choose to ponder on the value of individuation and consciousness as the only way to elude the grinding wheels of fate. We can ponder on “the momentary surfacing of a link in that invisible net which enfolds the world, which descends from heaven to earth, binding the two together and swaying in the breeze,” like the woolen tie handed out by the goddess Nike. (the quote comes from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso)

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27 Responses to Nike Who Hesitates

  1. Don says:

    “We do not value hesitation in the West. Our Nike says “Just Do It.” We value swift action and achievement; a pause or discontinuation of action are viewed as signs of weakness.” This is so true Monika. I love the way your words describe such a deep truth. Sometime ago I visited Rome and had the privilege of seeing some of Bernini’s work. He is a sheer master of the “hesitation” aspect of life. All his work is filled with it and it’s precisely that, that makes his work so profound. Great post – thank you.

  2. Soul Fields says:

    Your lovely point of view (one of them): “Hesitation, uncertainty and doubt can be fruitful” reminded me of one of my favorites: “Confusion is a high state of being.” – Duane Packer (Light Body teacher)

  3. renatembell says:

    “For the human soul itself is a fragment or effluence of the divine, and this Law of God is also the law of man’s own Phusis (Nature).”… When we are in the flow, there is less awareness of the consciousness of separation, less likelihood of hesitation. We know. We do. We become. Perhaps the beauty of hesitation is that it reminds us of our true selves by showing us the contrast of gnosis followed by pure action against worn-out past reactions we have experienced which may have caused suffering or unpleasant consequences, which may have sprung from impulsiveness and lack of discernment. Yet, according to the situation at hand, hesitation, like Soul Fields notes, may reflect the strongest spiritual impulse running through us in sync with the laws of cause and effect. Always so much to think about! Really enjoyed your post, Monika, and the poem is are wonderful. You’ve shed more light on Nike for me. Thank you.

  4. Marie Taylor says:

    Loved the poem and quote and am still mulling the power of hesitation – so poised and full of potential, standing outside of time.

  5. he who hesitates is lost… so they say…….. I think we will be required to think with our hearts more as the future unfolds… a very indepth read with such insight.. Thank you Sue xox

  6. dreamrly says:

    The poem you shared is absolutely amazing – I am thankful to have been exposed to a new poet, especially a poet who draws on mythology. Thank you so much for sharing that poem. As always, your post bristles with knowledge and insight. This question of fate is huge, of course, and time-honored – but the idea of a moment of hesitation before a necessary surrendering is new to me. To have the intuition of what fate requires and to hesitate nonetheless is beautiful as in Herbert’s poem. But, for us mere mortals, not privy to that insight, (at least in my experience) it can become a matter of confusion! I find great relief in the quotation Soul Fields shared about confusion. This question is very difficult!

    • Thank you very much for your thoughts. I really recommend this poet. I am really proud of Polish poetry – that is one thing we do really well. Herbert almost got the Nobel Prize, not that awards matter that much. Always happy to hear from you.

  7. ptero9 says:

    Ditto to all of the above comments Monika! I was especially struck by this: “As long as you act in accordance with your true self you are complying with that divine Pronoia, whose service is perfect freedom.” I love that you have connected the idea of slowness, hesitation with fate and restored Nike to finding a sense of our authenticity.
    At the Abbey where I work, our Development team has adopted for our motto this year a related idea, “Festina Lente,” latin for “Hasten slowly.”
    The idea of Fate has always interested me. James Hillman, borrowing from Heraclitus, often said, “Character is Fate,” which I think too ties in with the notion that we come into this world under an influence and continue to be called, but the trick is to discern that calling through recognizing the gods and their influence on us, and communing with them so as to both broaden our sense of ourselves and refine our response to that influence.
    Thanks so much for bringing the ideas to life and sharing that wonderful poem!

    • Festina Lente is kind of my motto as well, having my Moon in Taurus. But seriously, thank you for a wonderful comment. I am still pondering on the wonderful book I have read recently and have been referring to constantly on my blog – “The Astrology of Fate” by Liz Greene. She quotes Hillman a lot, naturally. I am also almost done with the Hillman lectures I got from you (thank you again). This poem is beautiful but also makes me feel very helpless at the same time. I wanted to find some hope in the concept of character, Pronoia, etc.

      • ptero9 says:

        I downloaded Liz Greene’s book that you mention and look forward to reading it after finishing Jung’s Red Book (a very bizarre reading, yes?).
        I think hope may lie in the discernment and communion with the gods (as in the practice of astrology, prayer, meditation, active imagination or anything that leads us into an other(s) beyond ourselves). I hope so anyway 🙂

      • I hope so too. 🙂

  8. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words says:

    “We do not value hesitation in the West. Our Nike says “Just Do It.”

    I was told today I was too blunt and my words pierce deeply, though true but not everyone wants to hear the truth, especially if its about their own self…
    I like this quote, well I liked the poem and all the thoughts in between too, this one stood out
    for me…I don’t hesitate…too much is lost when one does…
    Thank you Monika…good read this evening…
    take care…
    )0(
    maryrose

    • Thank you very much for your relections. I think there are moments in life when hesitation can cost us everything. But maybe if we are one-sided and always decisive and direct, the shadow side can suddenly emerge…
      My best,
      Monika

  9. shreejacob says:

    Great post…again, Monika! I still stand by the feeling I get that you seem like a teacher, a scholastic one (?) sharing your thoughts on subjects with us…that is what I feel when I read your posts 🙂
    Hesitation or doubt can be seen as a “bad” thing when we generalize it but that isn’t fully true. I agree that there are good doubts. When we hesitate it can be a sign for us to stand back and wait or listen, to maybe think if what we are doing is right for us, whether it is true to us, if it feels right or are we doing something because our society says it is the way it is done, or our family, or our friends…just not us.
    Which leads very nicely as you posted with the question of Karma and free will. When we finally choose to learn our lessons and to live our lives by being true to ourselves, then we reshape our destiny, then the effect of karma changes into something with grace.
    It seems simple, but it isn’t. I feel that as long as we try and we are aware that we make choices everyday which either take us further or nearer to remembering who we truly are, that is indeed a great step forward!

    • Thanks, Shree! So sweet of you to call me scholastic. I am not academic, I think – I rejected this path twice and did not pursue PhD studies. I like the freedom of choosing my own subjects.
      I like how you mention grace in connection with karma. And I agree with you it is sooo hard to get there.

  10. Insight-full, Monika. Haste and rush reinforce self-referencing and self-importance. It is a proverbial unsatisfying state. Hesitation is reflection, a moment to look into our own waters, like Narcissus. May we truly see. Nike sees. Her sword is the eternal sword of insight that cleaves our dull duality. We wage wars for self-centered reasons. Nike merely observes our wars, keeping track of the karmic edge we keep sharpening.

    Thank you for the Murray link. Priceless!

    • Thank you for this comment – truly priceless! You often manage to explain clearly why I wrote something – with the proverbial sword of your intellect. It is as if you were able to place full stops at the end of my sentences; this is really appreciated. I am glad you also find Murray interesting.

      • Glad we have “chanced upon” each other, Monika!🌸🌸🌸

        You and your writing bring many gifts to us. For me one that is most appreciated is the combination of poetry and myth. As you said, poetry says almost anything well, conveying layers of meaning and inquiry with few words. That is done imagery as invocation. Myth does similar. Combine them and we could, at any moment, be in full opportunity of Awareness. Your explorations use materials not well explored by this traveler of the human psyche. For that I am deeply grateful for that.

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