Friday, October 01, 2010

Defending the Iliad

Phil's weblog (link here) has been more active than usual the past couple weeks, and I've been enjoying reading it.

[By the way, I miss the days when everyone I know was blogging. Most of the gang now uses facebook instead, but I can never get absorbed into a facebook update the way I used to enjoy a good blog entry.--But that's another subject. Phil and a few others are holding out on blog form at least.]

Phil's got a nice smooth writing style that's really a joy to read. And when I'm just waking up in the morning, there's nothing I like more to sit down with a cup of coffee and read his latest musings. It's a great way to start my brain working.

Recently Phil had a post asking the question: What's so great about Homer?

Now, as an adolescent, I had been in love with the Iliad and - the - whole - Trojan - War - saga. Like many young boys before and after me, I found the Trojan War (and most of classical mythology) appealing because it was so bloody and action packed. How could you not like it?

[I also had the benefit of modern translations of the Iliad that were designed to read like a novel. And I was born far too late to be of the generation of schoolboys who were tormented by being forced to read through the whole thing in the original Greek.]

However when Phil raised the question point blank: "Really, what's so great about Homer's books that they've become the pillars of Western literary tradition?", I had difficulty answering it.

I read his post, I paused, I pondered, and then I typed down the first few things that came to my head. In doing so, I reached for perhaps the laziest comparison of an ancient work of similar age (The Old Testament, just because I couldn't think of anything else.) And from there, I got carried into comparing Classical Greek literature in general against Christian literature.
Most of what I wrote can be classified as thinking out loud. (Or "thinking while typing" in this case.)
However once I engaged on the subject, I started to become more and more interested in where this line of thought might take me if I developed it farther.

For a couple days I even toyed with writing a blog post that reworked all my half baked ideas into a coherent argument.
...And then reality set in, and I realized I had way too much on my plate right now to justify doing something like that. (Even though sometimes the more you have to do, the more you look for avenues to procrastinate--perhaps part of the reason I wrote so much in Phil's comment box to begin with.)

In the end, I decided to just post my comments on my own blog, and make blog entry out of that. (Begging Phil's indulgences of course.)
Maybe it's possible to see here the outlines of thoughts that would have been interesting if I took the time to develop them. And for now I'll just leave it at that.
I'm posting only my half of the conversation here. If you want to read Phil's original post and his follow up comments follow this link here.

[One last sidenote: It's been about 15 years plus since I read either the Iliad or the Old Testament cover to cover. (And yes, I did read the Bible cover to cover at one point. I took up one of those reading devotional challenges in middle school where you read a certain amount of the bible every night, and eventually get through the whole thing.) Both books have stuck in my memory fairly well, or at least their broad outlines, but I wonder if a fresher reading would have brought new perspectives?]

1st Comment
Yeah, I don’t know. As a kid, didn’t you ever just think the Iliad was cool because of all the really awesome fight scenes?

I first feel in love with the Iliad around 7th grade. Of course I had one of those translations that was meant to read more like a novel than a poem, so I neither was exposed to nor cared about the meter.
But I thought the story was really awesome. I mean the whole “Deeds of Diamedes” chapters, where he goes up against two different gods, and actually defeats one of them. And the part where the Greek ships almost got burnt down and all the Greek heroes were almost defeated really had me on the edge of my seat as well.

I always suspected that this was the biggest reason for the Iliad’s popularity. I mean when they say Alexander the Great brought the Iliad with him on his campaigns and slept with it under his pillow, I don’t think it was for it’s poetry. I just think he thought it was a really great war story.

Granted the ruthlessness of these characters alienates the modern reader a bit. But as a youngster I was somewhat trouble by it, but not overly troubled by it. I mean if you’re brought up on the old testament , the characters in the Iliad are not any more bloodthirsty than the old Israelites. In fact the Iliad as a whole is even less bloodthirsty than the old testament, because at least in the Iliad Homer encourages you to take a step back and be somewhat appalled by what these characters are doing. And encourages you to feel for the side of the Trojans, and see them as human beings. (Something the Old Testament never did for the Canaanites or the Philistines).

The whole reason for the Trojan War seems very stupid, but the more I read history the more it actually doesn’t seem that unlikely. After all, wasn’t all of World War I fought for reasons that made even less sense? If the Greeks wanted to do in a rival trading competitor anyway, I’m sure any excuse for war would have been good.

As for the Odyssey question, my understanding is that the ancient Greeks were familiar with the story anyway, so there was never any question of creating suspense.

That goes for the Iliad as well I think. Homer’s Iliad actually covers only a small portion of the Trojan War saga. (Of course if anyone knows that I’m sure you do, as a fellow nerd.) If you already read about these characters from other stories, you perhaps take more of an interest in the Iliad. I know I did. It helps to read a couple general Trojan War books before you get into the Iliad.

I don’t know, I’m rambling here, so I guess I’ll sign off and hope I’ve made some semblance of a point.

2nd Comment
Hey, thanks for engaging my thoughts.
I guess I’ve been somewhat thinking outloud as I defend the Iliad (no one’s ever asked me to defend one of the pillars of Western Literary tradition before.)

I do think that if women had run society, the Iliad probably wouldn’t have achieved it’s lasting fame. It is a distinctively martial book that perhaps appeals to the baser instincts in us men. (But then isn’t almost all of the literary canon based of sex and violence at some measure?)

That being said, I think it does what it does well. Given how boring most of classical literature is…
(maybe you’d disagree with that as an English major, but I sure felt it)
…the Iliad is one of the few books where you get right into the middle of the battlefield and feel every blow. As I said before, as a youngster some of those battle scenes described I thought were amazing. I still do upon re-reading actually.

It’s hard to defend the Iliad in modern terms, which is why I reached for the easiest example of another text of a comparable age–The Old Testament. (I don’t know if you can think of others?)
As literature, I think the Iliad is superior. You get more detailed accounts, you get to know the characters in depth, you get exposed to their feelings and conflicts, et cetera.

Of course that’s an unfair comparison, because the Old Testament (or at least the history books I’m thinking of) were meant to record a history. Homer was riffing off an already established tradition (albeit an oral tradition) so he was free to try and make literature, not just try and record everything as efficiently as possible for future generations.

Perhaps a fairer comparison would be to compare the old Testament against Herodotus, and compare Homer against the Medieval Christain literary traditions.

But even here a few thoughts emerge: There is nothing in the Christian tradition…
(to the best of my knowledge–maybe you could correct me)
…equivalent to “The Trojan Women”.
(I know this is broadening the scope briefly from Homer’s own work.)

In “The Trojan Woman” (and other similar works) the Greeks attempt to sympathize with and humanize the people they have conquered.
There is no attempt either in the Bible or in subsequent Christian literature to humanize the philistines, Canaanites, or other enemies of Israel. In fact it’s almost a taboo subject. Christian theology almost begins to fall apart the moment we try and pity these people or humanize them in anyway, because these are people whose extermination God specifically ordered.

Going back to the Iliad–the interesting thing about the Iliad is that we as readers know it’s a pointless war, and the characters themselves also know it’s a pointless war. There are several passages where the Greeks ask themselves why they’ve spent 10 years fighting just for one woman, and the Trojans ask why they’ve risked so much for one woman. There’s even an attempt to call the war off and just make it a duel between two people, but of course the gods foil this.
There is certainly no such self-reflection in the Old Testament. Fighting against the enemies of Israel is always justified. And (again, correct me if I’m wrong) during the whole Christain period up until the modern era there are no stories that question the whole purpose of any historical wars. Whatever God or the king ordered was considered right. The only stories that depicted characters trapped in pointless wars were the ones that riffed off Homer (like Trolius and Cressida).

This brings me to the central flaw within the Iliad. On one hand, we’re supposed to be appalled by the pointless war and loss of life. On the other hand, we’re supposed to glorify in the martial virtues and bravery of the characters. As a youngster, I appreciated the awesome battle scenes, but I could never quite square the conflicting messages of the book. I’d be interested to know what you’re research into Homeric criticism has turned up. Maybe it’s just a contradiction we have to accept.

There are perhaps modern parallels though. Some American movies, for example, will essentially say to the viewer, “Look, we know this whole war was pointless, but forget about the broader political picture for a moment and just watch this story about brave young men doing brave young things.”

The Vietnam story, “When we were soldiers” comes to mind. (Although in the interest of full disclosure I haven’t actually watched that movie, just read critical reviews of it–but there are many more examples.)

Of course in Homer, you can’t forget that the war is pointless, because Homer himself is constantly reminding you that the war is pointless. But you can at least forget about it for chapters at a time while you watch Diomedes go up against Ares, or something.

Also, Homer does kind of dodge the whole question of the larger war by setting up the conflict within the Greek camp, and letting the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles provide the central tension. Regardless of what you think of the whole war, you can still have feelings about Agamemnon’s arrogance or Achilles’s selfishness.
(Parallels to the movie “Platoon” come to mind.)

But all this being said I don’t think Homer ever completely makes sense of the contradictions in his book. For me as a reader at least. So there are limits as to how much I can defend it, but (as mentioned above) it is interesting to compare it with other works.

The Old Testament (or the Bible as a whole, since you’re now including Jesus) is so full of self-contradictions it’s difficult to make sense of. Even just within the Old Testament prophet sections there are prophets who speak against war, but also ones who gleefully anticipate the destruction of all of Israel’s neighbors. If we assume it’s all the inspired work of God with a consistent message going through it, I think we’re setting ourselves up for a huge headache. Of course volumes of books and mass mental energy has been spent doing just that. But of course it’s important to remember that each book of the bible originated as a separate book and then they were later all canonized into one tradition.

In this respect, I agree, Joshua and Judges are the bloodiest. The books of Kings and Chronicles are kind of mixed, because in some cases God encourages them to show mercy to their enemies (the soldiers who are all fed and sent back home instead of being killed, for example), in some cases God encourages them to slaughter their enemies. The prophets taken as a whole are a mixed bag.
Much is appealing about Jesus, of course, except for the hellfire and damnation aspect.

If we look at books like Joshua and Judges as stand alone works, the Iliad is much superior in it’s vision of a morally complex world.

But yes, the message of the gospels is much more appealing than the ethos of the Iliad. But then, the Iliad is a work of literature, not a moral code. As readers we’re supposed to be appalled by what much of the characters in the Iliad do.
For that matter, the Iliad is a world in which we’re supposed to be appalled by what much of the gods do. Theologically this may be unsettling, but as literature it’s almost refreshing to have a world in which you’re allowed to second guess the decisions of the gods.

But again, of course, I’m comparing apples and oranges. Homer was intending to write literature, much of the bible was intended to read more as history.
Well, I’m starting to write in circles, so this is probably as good a time as any to just call it good and hit the post button.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on the imperialists mindset


Whisky Prajer said...

"Like" -- oh, wait: that's Facebook.

Joel Swagman said...

Yeah, it might not be a bad idea for blogger to steal that little gadget from Facebook. Many-a-time I myself have felt that I had nothing to add to someone's post, but just wanted to let them know I enjoyed reading it.

At any rate, thanks for the show of support