Essay - Jenny Laplante

A veteran of Arete '93 and '95, Jenny attended the University of Chicago. She received her degree in 2000 in literature. With honors! Today she works in New York City as a literary scout (i.e., locates American books for foreign publishers). Jenny attends book fairs for her company in Frankfurt and London each year, and visits clients in cities like Berlin, Paris, "all over." She recently was named "rookie of the year" by the New York City bike racing association, having won first place in the Green Mountain Criterium in 2005. What makes this even more pronounced, is that a couple of years ago she broke her back in a bike crash in the Rockies. She is one of the wonders of Arete.

Bill Taylor, January 2006

"There is a tale that Arete dwells on un-climbable rocks and close to the gods tends a holy place; she may not be seen by the eyes of all mortals, but only by him on whom distressing sweat comes from within, the one who reaches the peak of manliness." — Greek Lyric III Simonides, Frag 579

The track felt different. It might have been because I was barefoot; or maybe because the last time anyone had competed on it was 2300 years before. Perhaps it was because I was preparing to run a 200-meter sprint and I was a 2-miler; or because the phrase “it’s all Greek to me” was not just a metaphor but a reality. It was 1993 and we were about to compete in the first Pan-Hellenic Games since the decline of Ancient Greece in order to test out the ancient starting blocks that had been discovered by Berkeley archeologist Steve Miller. I had the honor of being the first person in 2300 years to come in last place. An honor that allowed me, according to the poet Pindar, to “slink away through the back alleys.” Despite my back-alley slinking, I’ve convinced myself that, since the test of the ancient starting blocks was a success, my last place finish played a crucial role in the revival of the Nemean Games.

Two years later we returned to Nemea and this time Dr. Miller promised a 7-kilometer race from the ancient temple of Hercules (whose slaying of the Nemean Lion allegedly inaugurated the Nemean Games) to the track. Finally, a long distance race that would allow me to not be last! There was one turn on the entire course…I took the wrong one. The hot sun was beating down on me. I had no idea where I was, though it looked suspiciously like the road to Mycenae, where we had been the previous day to contemplate Aeschylus’ play of Agamemnon and his calamitous return from the Trojan War. I did not want to go to the cursed House of Atreus, I wanted to bask in the glory of the Olympians!—and not be last. My brilliant idea was to try to hitchhike but apparently the universal thumbs-up sign is not as universal as I thought. No one stopped. My next brilliant idea was to lie down in the middle of the road and feign heat exhaustion. Perhaps it was my stellar acting abilities or perhaps it was because I was blocking the road, but the next car that came along stopped and the driver graciously deposited me at the entrance to the Nemean track. All the other runners had crossed the finish line over an hour earlier. The laurel wreath had already been crowned on the victor’s head. I unlaced my shoes, shuffled across the line and, once again, came in last.

The following year Dr. Miller held an official Nemean Games, inviting athletes from all over the world to compete. Five hundred athletes ran barefoot across the ancient track vying for the laurel wreath and the Nemean Games were reborn. Last or not, the participants of Arête 93 and 95 played an integral role in that rebirth. And only I can claim to be the first person to be last in 2300 years.

When Mr. Taylor asked me to write an essay launching a series of essays to be written by Arête veterans, I felt both privileged (especially since my track record for firsts wasn’t exactly exemplary) and overwhelmed by the task. How could I embody the essence of Arête in five or six paragraphs? Especially when the loose definition of arête—excellence of the mind and body—is at best loosely-defined! Were I in a mathematical mood (I guess I am), I might argue that excellence of the mind + excellence of the body does not in fact equal arête. A crucial third ingredient is necessary—“arêteness,” a.k.a. the transcendence of the mind/body balance into an elusive byproduct of the 1+1-does-not-equal-2 philosophy of life. How else to explain that, even though I came in last, even though my mind and body did not conspire together towards excellence but in fact banded together to thwart it, “arêteness” was still in the air on that hot road to Mycenae. And I’m not trying to be mystical; “arêteness” is not a religious concept but a tangible byproduct of the months and months of studying that led up to that moment; the terrain steeped in antiquity; the cicadas rubbing their feet together in mocking applause; the reenactment of the ancient race taking place on an ancient track that was, with any luck, not as far away as it seemed.

I think that one way to approach the concept of arête would be to mention a political philosopher named Hannah Arendt, whose essays Mr. Taylor introduced me to in 1993. Arendt’s primary preoccupation was the problematic nature of the relation between thinking and acting. She believed that the vita activa was ultimately more important than the vita contemplativa but wanted to find a way to ameliorate the two, to find a way in which thinking could be acting and acting could be thinking. I might rephrase it “thinking viscerally” and argue that Mr. Taylor’s arête trips embody this concept—thinking about a particular time and place by actively placing oneself within the scene in which it occurred. If you want to think about Nietzsche, then hike through the Swiss Alps. If you want to interpret Freud’s Interpretation Of Dreams, sit on the red couch in his Viennese office. If you want to be one with Parmenides’ claim that being is a better than becoming, then a little contemplation à la sunbathing in the Italian coastal town of Elea is called for. If you want to understand what Kafka’s K failed to grasp on the maze-like path to the Castle, go to Prague and find the castle…if you can. If you want to escape being one of the cavemen in Plato’s allegorical cave, sit amongst the light-strewn rubble of the Athenian agora. If you want to have access to Husserl’s die Lebenswelt (world of life), join an arête trip…and come in last.

Understandably this leaves us Arête veterans with a formidable legacy to uphold. If, as Arendt claims, life is a narrative whose meaning calls for constant questioning, then life after arête demands that we continue to think viscerally, embracing her concept of natality as an active relation to the world through the process of bringing something new—whatever it turns out to be—into it. I want to thank Mr. Taylor for continuing (after already bringing so much into the world through his Arête trips) to answer Arendt’s plea by launching this website as an active place in which Arête veterans can remain engaged. And thank you, Mr. Taylor, for also letting me be the first!

Jenny LaPlante
February 2006