Tuesday, October 25, 2005

War and humiliation

So why Homer? And why the Iliad? What could it possibly offer us today?

I mean, for those of us who might have cut our teeth on a steady diet of American entertainment and the buffooneries of the likes of Limbaugh, Moore, and reality TV. shows or the grotesqueries of the Jackass or Jerry Springer, the Iliad must seem so terribly quaint.

If it weren’t for some cultivated desire to imagine oneself some heir to the magnificent Greek civilization, and given all the phobia of that which might initially strike one as “different,” and the propensity to see everything in the lousiest light possible, why should we bother with the Iliad, really?

After all, I think an old scholar might have anticipated the immediate reaction of a lot of us today when he famously quipped that the genesis of Western literature was due mostly to the adventures of a cuckolded husband, an errant wife and an overgrown brat. Or something like that.

But, let’s see if we can get a feel for the universe of my favorite book as I see it. That’s what reading is all about to me. We read, close our eyes and then try to imagine ourselves feeling as the characters might. So I am going to do a lot of quoting. You should read the book in full if you haven’t done so already. Particularly my Iranian readers.

I guess the best place to start for today is with Book 22. So much of the tension of the entire epic is in the anticipation of the greatest battle between our Horse-taming Hector and the Swift-footed Achilles. And when the time of the actual combat does arrive…well, see for yourselves the unfolding of the memorable, original Grandmother of all Wars:

But Achilles was coming closer, like Enyalius,
the warrior god of battle with the shining helmet.
On his right shoulder he waved his dreadful spear
made of Pelian ash. The bronze around him glittered
like a blazing fire or rising sun. At that moment
as he watched, Hector began to shake in fear.
His courage gone, he could no longer stand there.
Terrified, he started running, leaving the gate.
Peleus' son went after him, sure of his speed on foot.
Just as a mountain falcon, the fastest creature
of all the ones which fly, swoops down easily
on a trembling pigeon as it darts off in fear,

the hawk speeding after it with piercing cries,
heart driving it to seize the prey—in just that way
Achilles in his fury raced ahead.
Hector ran
under the walls of Troy, limbs working feverishly.
They ran on past the lookout and the wind-swept fig tree,
some distance from the wall, along the wagon track.
They reached the two fair-flowing well springs,
which feed swirling Scamander's stream. From one of them
hot water flows, and out of it steam rises up,
as if there were a fire burning. From the other,
cold water comes, as cold as hail or freezing snow
or melting ice, even in summer. By these springs
stood wide tubs for washing, made of beautiful stone,
where, in peace time, before Achaea's sons arrived,
Trojan wives and lovely daughters used to wash
their brightly coloured clothing. The men raced past there,
one in full flight, the other one pursuing him.
The man running off in front was a brave warrior,
but the man going after him was greater. They ran fast,
for this was no contest over sacrificial beasts,
the usual prizes for a race.
They were competing
for horse-taming Hector's life. Just as some horses,
sure-footed, prize-winning creatures, make the turn
around the post and race quickly as they strive to win
some splendid prize—a tripod or a woman
honouring a man that's died—that's how these two men raced,
going three times round Priam's city on their sprinting feet.
All the gods looked on.

Note that Hector has already confided in Andromakhe as early as in the 6th book, that “I know this thing well in my heart… that there will come a day when sacred lion shall perish,” (6.447-48) and he still goes on to fight hoping for victory. Even though he is petrified and he knows it.

Who could possibly forget how dreadfully scary Achilles can be, really? Even his shouts are the equivalent of our modern day “shock and awe” campaigns. Observe what happens after Achilles hears of the death of his friend Patroclus:

black cloud of grief swallowed up Achilles.
With both hands he scooped up soot and dust and poured it
on his head, covering his handsome face with dirt,
covering his sweet-smelling tunic with black ash.
He lay sprawling
his mighty warrior's massive body
fell down and stretched out in the dust. With his own hands,
he tugged at his own hair, disfiguring himself…
…Achilles gave a huge cry of grief.
He strode from the wall, then stood there by the ditch.
But recalling what his mother said to him,
he didn't mingle with Achaeans.
As he stood there,
he cried out. From far away, Pallas Athena
added her voice, too, causing great consternation
among the Trojans. As thrilling as a trumpet's note
when it rings clearly, when rapacious enemies
besiege a city
that's how sharp and piercing
Achilles' voice was then. When the Trojans heard it,
that brazen shout Achilles gave, all their hearts
were shaken. Their horses with the lovely manes
turned back the chariots, anticipating trouble
in their hearts.
Charioteers were terrified, seeing
the fearful inextinguishable fire blazing
from the head of the great-hearted son of Peleus.
For Athena, goddess with the glittering eyes,
kept it burning. Three times godlike Achilles yelled
over that ditch. Three times Trojans and their allies
were thrown into confusion. At that moment,
twelve of their best men were killed by their own chariots
and their own spears

Some shout, no? There is fear and dread and that acute consciousness of death and yet, they still persist in fighting. In one sense, there is a love of glory and honor involved, yes, but at a more fundamental level, it is indeed the recognition of death itself as the “strong destiny,” and the awareness of the inevitable, inescapable future of men in the detested doorway to Hades which animate them in battle. This is centuries before Bataille gave us his celebrated Tears of Eros. Let’s look at Achilles some more.

When his mother Thetis reminds him that all his wishes have been fulfilled, here is his answer:

"Yes, Mother,
Olympian Zeus has indeed accomplished
what I asked. But what pleasure's there for me,
when Patroclus, my beloved companion,
has been destroyed, the man I honoured
as my equal, above all my comrades.
I've lost him and the armour, which Hector took,
once he'd killed him,
My own heart has no desire to live on,
to continue living among men,
unless Hector is hit by my spear first,
losing his life and paying me compensation
for killing Menoetius' son, Patroclus."

And when Thetis tearfully reminds him that there are consequences:

My son, from what you've just been saying,
you're fated to an early death, for your doom
comes quickly as soon as Hector dies."

Our Achilles answers without hesitation

Then let me die, since I could not prevent
the death of my companion…
So now I'll go
to meet Hector, killer of the man I loved.
As for my own fate, let it come to me
…[f]or not even strong Hercules,
the man Lord Zeus, son of Cronos, loved the most,
escaped his death.

So even when there are taunts and heartless refusal to heed a supplicant’s cries for pity, there is beauty in anger, melancholy, and grandeur

"You fool,
don't offer me a ransom or some plea
… now not one of them escapes his death,
no one whom god delivers to my hands,
here in front of Ilion, not one

not a single Trojan, especially none
of Priam's children.
So now, my friend,
you too must die. Why be sad about it?
Patroclus died, a better man than you.
And look at me. You see how fine I am,
how tall, how handsome? My father's a fine man,
the mother who gave birth to me a goddess
Yet over me, as well, hangs fate
my death.

Contrast against our own modern day dread and anxiety or the denials and the silly delusions of immortality and those preposterous demands for unprecedented security and, of course, all the ensuing pettiness and the obnoxious babble.

So there is that recognition of the central place hope occupies in our universe along with death or the transience of all things which together engender an enchantingly erotic universe centred on fidelity, friendship, and community. And above all, there is a dazzling sense of responsibility rooted in reciprocity given positions of authority.

Contrast the grandeur of spirit manifest in this speech of Sarpedon against the attitude of our leading modern day citizens or politicians and the progressive weakening of our sense of civic responsibilities:

why are we two awarded special honours
with pride of place, the finest cuts of meat,
our wine cups always full in Lycia,
where all our people look on us as gods?
Why do we possess so much fine property,
by the river Xanthus, beside its banks,
rich vineyards and wheat-bearing ploughland?
It's so we'll stand in the Lycian front ranks
and meet head on the blazing fires of battle,
so then some well-armed Lycian will say,
'They're not unworthy, those men who rule Lycia,
those kings of ours. It's true they eat plump sheep
and drink the best sweet wines
but they are strong,
fine men, who fight in the Lycians' front ranks.'
Ah my friend, if we could escape this war,
and live forever, without growing old,
if we were ageless, then I'd not fight on
in the foremost ranks, nor would I send you
to those wars where men win glory. But now,
a thousand shapes of fatal death confront us,
which no mortal man can flee from or avoid.
So let's go forward, to give the glory
to another man or win it for ourselves."

This is too long a post and I know not many of us are patient readers these days. So I’ll cut this short. And do forgive this exercise in butchery. But I wanted to provide you with a glimpse of the Spirit of the Ancient Greeks that I so love and adore. We can argue about how I am misreading the text or about the features that I should look at more carefully. And then there is enemies and there are barbarian enemies, no!

Having said that, also note how there is no inkling of shame in losing here. There is no humiliation in being beaten, however badly. One fights. One wins or loses. In losing, one supplicates and gets to live and fight another day. Or one’s pleas are rejected and one dies that very day. Death is inevitable. We all die, sooner or later. And from hundreds of different causes!

So look at the book and tell me honestly that in all the babble which passes as commentary these days about our collective predicaments, and in all our prattle about our competing visions of future and those relentless demonization of the enemies (of day) we have gotten so accustomed to, is it possible to hear even the faintest echoes of this spirit from those loudest in staking claim to the heritage of the Greeks?

Now, is there any wonder that he doesn’t stand a chance? How could he? Who do you think is responsible for the premature murder of Homer, really?

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