Homer “The Iliad” (1 of 2)
Western literature begins with The Iliad and, until recently, it was assumed that no educated person in the west could have skipped it. Set during a few days in the tenth year of the Greek assault on the Trojan city of Ilion, the epic perhaps refers to an actual war, but remembered dimly and filtered through a storyline of gods interacting with men, and men being undone by pride, anger, arrogance, and lust. Kierkegaard wrote that the Iliad was the perfect epic because it combined a great poet with a great subject matter. The Greeks saw it as their foundational text: all of Greek literature afterward is, to some extent, a gloss on Homer. Robin Lane Fox: “(The epics) were admired from their author’s own era… to the end of antiquity without interruption.” Even today, it stands up as a nearly flawless story abounding in heroics, psychological drama, and ironic commentary on the lives of men.
The epic in fact begins with an irony: we’re told it’s the story of the devastation caused by Achilles’ uncontrolled anger, and yet it’s clear from the start that it’s the arrogance of his commander, Agamemnon, that is causing all the trouble. Agamemnon, as head of the Greek fleet besieging Ilion, has taken for his concubine the daughter of the local priest of Apollo in nearby Thebes, and this arrogance has moved the god to afflict the Greeks with plague. Finally agreeing to return the girl, Agamemnon decides instead to take Achilles’ own slave girl, a slap in the face of his greatest warrior in front the entire Greek army. In a sense, the Iliad begins with a question we can all relate to: What to do when your boss is a jerk?
In the larger sense, Achilles faces the dilemma of how the individual subsumes their needs to the collective good. It’s hard enough for any of us to live in society; but Achilles really is the greatest Greek warrior and the son of a goddess, Thetis. Even as a demigod, he has to stifle his will in order to live embedded within an order of his inferiors. Agamemnon is an arrogant old fool, and nobody would fault Achilles if he killed him. This is a warrior culture in which the “chain of command” is not set in stone, but negotiated at every moment. Agamemnon is the ruler because he asserts his authority and argues down anyone who challenges him. He is getting older and irrational. But, in order to win glory, Achilles will eventually have to fall in line under this old fool.
The Iliad is the tale of how Achilles finally overcomes his own anger and follows his destiny; for most of the story, though, he sits out the fighting and lets the Greeks get slaughtered. The gods, meanwhile, have their own favorites and fight as angrily among themselves as the men do. Reading the Iliad, it finally became clear to me that, in Homer, the Greek gods are present in the world. They are often invisible, communicating through dreams, portents, and speaking directly to chosen men. But this is not akin to grace; these gods are not radically separated from the mundane world; they’re primarily immanent. They’re more powerful than us, so the soldiers often make burnt offerings and perform rituals to please the gods. They walk among us and often toy with us; Agamemnon will rush back to battle because of a lying dream Zeus sends him. But the gods offer nothing like a correct form of existence or religious precepts. The idea of men making a covenant with these gods is ridiculous. And there is nothing like a transcendent divine realm in the sense we find in the religions of Abraham.
The story of Achilles and Agamemnon is driven by their quarrel over a woman; and the Trojan War was also fought over a woman: Helen. The wife of the Mycenaean king Menelaus, Helen was seduced by the young Paris (again with divine help) and taken to Troy, triggering the Greek kings to band together and send a fleet of 1,186 ships to attack the city. In one of the great scenes in the epic, the old men of Troy, when first seeing this woman who will launch one of the great wars of history against their city, agree that she was worth it. Helen’s is, quite literally, the face that launched a thousand ships.
Amazingly, we will discover in the Odyssey that, after the war, Helen and Menelaus patched things up! Note the similar theme: in the Iliad, the greatest war of prehistory is launched by a cuckolded husband and an unfaithful wife; in the Odyssey, Ulysses goes through hell in order to return home and prevent his wife Penelope from being seduced by her many suitors. In the Babylonian Gilgamesh, the wild man is civilized by a harlot. Western literature, instead, begins with unrestrained female sexuality as a force of destruction. It’s complicated though. As much as we moderns tend to see the Iliad as a patriarchal story in which men are warriors and women are property (and it is that too); it has to be remembered that one woman’s sexual sovereignty is powerful enough to annihilate Troy and nearly wreck the Greek fleet. In other words, the flipside of ‘patriarchy’ is the nearly supernatural power it assigns to the same female sexuality that it exists in order to channel into marriage. Imagine Michelle Obama shacks up with the son of Nicolas Sarkozy tomorrow and the United States, as a result, goes to war with France! The strangeness of this is unquestioned in the epic. This is also the story of booty call that sent thousands of men rushing to their deaths. I’m guessing high school teachers don’t discuss that.
The other reason these men rush to their deaths, and a subject teachers love to discuss, is kleos: the glory that survives after one’s death. It is known, from the start that Achilles will not return from this war. Thetis tells him in the beginning, apparently repeating something he’s heard often, that his life will be very short and filled with bitter combat. (Thanks, Mom!) Death is nothing to look forward to; it’s a place of darkness and forgetting, almost akin to suspended animation. These men jockey and clash with each other because all they really have to accomplish is being remembered as heroes after death. Their lives are short and intense, but highly competitive. Achilles finds being insulted unbearable, but also struggles with giving meaning to his brief life. Another question posed by the epic is how mortal men go about having a meaningful life.
Camille Paglia compares the clashes of The Iliad to consumer capitalism in which products vie for our attention. It’s a bit of an odd image, but indeed, the Iliad does portray battle as a sort of stock exchange in which dynamic individual personalities rise and fall in reference to each other, to make the final sale of lasting fame. The idea that war is not the destruction, but the perfection of the individual starts here. Maybe the cliché about becoming part of “something greater than the self” is true of combat; but for Achilles, battle transfigures the soldier into a Persona greater than the self. We know that Achilles will be remembered as a great hero. But, in the end, he will become a hero by losing everything and sacrificing himself. He is the first self-sacrificing hero, of a great many, in Western literature. Christ will be the utmost.
His greatest loss, however, and his reason for finally returning to battle and to his death, is of his “beloved companion”, Patroclus, due to his own anger and shortsightedness. Those high school classes likely take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Achilles’s devotion to Patroclus, a theme that Greek listeners would have understood. These are men who live together and fight together; they satisfy their lusts with captive women, but they are emotionally devoted to one another. It’s probably a mistake to too-easily equate the relationship with homosexuality, which overlooks the fact that the story is driven by a fight over a concubine. Our conflation of love and sex (and that to sexual identity) likely confuses us; Achilles and Patroclus probably did not ‘get it on’. Nevertheless, Achilles is merely outraged over the loss of the girl Briseis; but is utterly heartbroken over the loss of Patroclus. And our squeamishness about the subject might also cause us to overlook the fact that the love between the two men is purer and more elevating than any heterosexual love in the story, the majority of which lead to ruin. In the Iliad, men can be trusted in a way women cannot. I’m not sure that we still have the right words for this relationship. In the Odyssey, Homer will write the story of a great love between a man and a woman; but here the story is of the great love between men.
There is much more to the Iliad than sexual desire and male bonding, however, and Homer is cinematic in the way he blends the history of a decade-long war, epic battles, and the emotional lives and loves of individuals. There is enough, in fact, that the Iliad will have to occupy two posts!
1. Again, I’m going with the Penguin Classics edition. However, the translation by Richmond Lattimore is really outstanding. Also, believe it or not, the Marvel Classics Illustrated graphic novel of The Iliad is quite good. At all costs, avoid the recent film adaptation Troy, which removes all of the gods and shrinks Achilles to the stature of Brad Pitt!
2. I started this project over at Grad Student Madness, not too long ago. So, this post is an expanded and rewritten version of one there.
3. In the second part, I hope to get to the poetic style, the great scenes, and why this story still resonates, at least with me. I’ll also expand on the summary a bit. One issue with doing compressed posts is that nearly every line here is a wee bit inaccurate, so please be patient.
4. I’d like to return to the Iliad next week. On Friday or Saturday, I plan to jump forward quite a bit to post about Bach’s Cantata 82, also known as Ich habe genug.