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This article is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.

Animal Spirits Iain Bamforth

The melodrama of Friedrich Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin, when he supposedly embraced two maltreated drayhorses in the street, acts out in reverse the sequence in Book 17 of The Iliad when Xanthos and Balios, the two magnificent steeds that pulled Achilles’s war-car, stood motionless after the death of Patrocles and refused to budge in spite of cajolements and wheedlings and the lash of the whip. They stood under the yoke, and wept tears as hot as any charioteer’s. They were the offspring of Zephyr, god of the west wind, and the harpy Podarge.

Nietzsche would also have known the passage in The Republic where Plato proposed that the man whose nature moved as harmoniously and purposefully as a horse’s must be an excellent man. In an earlier era misunderstood children – especially girls – instinctively knew to defend horses from those who failed to recognise their nobility; such powerful and possibly headstrong beasts need a bold rider even as they promise something like adult freedom. And observing two graceful Indian ponies in a field near Rochester, Minnesota, the poet James Wright was moved by the sudden thought: ‘That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.’ (‘A Blessing’)


Ruffled by the spectacle of the griffin in Purgatorio XXIX, I was reminded that among the books that most impressed me as a very small boy featured just such a chimerical creature. I was afraid of it, but the composite beast was magnificent and compelling, and I read the ...

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