That First Unpleasant and Magnificent Poem

The Iliad is an unpleasant poem. For much of its length one intent countenance hacks and jabs at another. Skulls, with a name and provenance casually attached, are split open like so many rockmelons. Spear and sword probe downward past collarbones to find hearts set beating by mothers whose lamentations are already shrugged into the scheme of things. The warrior attributes plume around the heads of the heroes, but where is there a man or god to do or say a surprising thing, an intellect to look at a phenomenon and find it curious?

Occasionally a shaft of pathos illumines a personal condition, as when the doting Thetis commissions Hephaestos to create for her son a new shield and recalls for the lame god how she had “endured a mortal warrior’s bed / many a time, without desire” (Book 18).

Indeed, if we watch this mother–son relationship in the light of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles in Book One, that breach can suggest the psychological depth and necessity of the confrontation between two natures, one hetero- and one homosexual. There is chieftain dignity at stake of course, but also, before that masculine assembly, the sub-text of Agamemnon’s confiscation from Achilles of the slave-concubine, Briseis, insinuates how we all know a comely girl is wasted on this fellow. In the manners here, and later in the extravagance of Achilles’ grieving for Patroclus, the text allows, but does not quite direct, such a reading.

For all that the portrayal will not clinch the evidence I favour this delineation of Achilles’ sexuality because his anger, so decisive to the movement of the poem, gains a psychological necessity and subtlety from such tensions. Furthermore, by giving his anger towards Agamemnon that extra edge, it creates a natural transfer of enmity towards Hector. In Book Twenty-Two does Achilles chase Hector (“forever unforgiven”) around the walls of Troy, or Agamemnon? Is the defiling and displaying of the Trojan champion’s body designed to humiliate his countrymen, or chill the Mycenean king?

Anger, we can see, impels the poem. But the war has been waged for nine years at the poem’s outset, and the initiating offence that sparked Greek anger—Helen’s abduction—makes the emotional charge of this original wrath stale. Indeed the staleness and edginess in the Greek camp in Book One give credible immediate context to the quarrel over Briseis. And yet Agamemnon’s goading petulance and Achilles’ corresponding sulks seem out of scale with the fact of the slaughter that dominates the four days of The Iliad’s action, or the longer politics motivating it.

Like the murderous fights which overtake chimp colonies in the Cameroon forest, the Greek–Trojan combats seem more momentary than motivated, more habitual than directed. There is a tonic in, indeed a cultivation of, the high adrenalin afforded by the puncturing of stomachs and the slashing of hamstrings.

Is Hector’s slaughter-lust credible? Certainly it stems from the fact that his homeland has been invaded by foreigners. A Chechen, or an East Timorese, is incipient in his cause, though not especially in his nature. Implacable Hector is, though he is more a duellist than a liberationist maybe, where one remarks in the manner of the modern freedom fighter the patience that accompanies the unremitting purpose, the watchful good cheer that is studied to outlast superpower rage. Hector lacks this tension between studied detachment and unappeasable purpose. Is it fair to ask from a millennially ancient poem some crisper life-drawing in one of its chief protagonists to enliven the more formulaic observances? Probably not, though the capacity for life-drawing (that fastidiousness to get distinct attitudes just-so rather than stylised) has taken residence in the human mind by this date, as the exquisite and far older figure depictions on the cave-walls of Lascaux and Altamira show.

Of course the poem’s epic superstructure is magnificent, with its intercourse of immortals, mortals and immortalised mortals, its embroidery of allusions to a geography and mythography of the entire eastern Mediterranean, its fabric of further stories hived within the mainstream of the battle narrative. But for all The Iliad’s grandeur I find something paltry being offered for our edification in its overweening record of killing and counter-killing. Slaughter-lust and the retrieval of spoiled bodies clamp the poem into a kind of smallness, a closed prospect that does not oppress, say, Homer’s grand romance, The Odyssey, or Virgil’s later epic, The Aeneid.

This is because life and the opportunities for life in The Iliad constrict around dispatching virtual dummies. It is battle-phantasmagoria, signalling too plainly towards the automaton world of PlayStations and computer-enhanced Hollywood this old poem has bequeathed our own epoch. Whenever I used to watch over my son’s shoulder as, reflexively, he clicked his PlayStation terminals in response to stimuli on the screen, I could register how phantasmagoria dispensed with the delicate particulars in an individual’s make-up, excluded the idea of an openness of prospects. The streets duplicated themselves greyly; the protagonist loped along with seeming purpose, dealt with the sudden but nonetheless routine ambushes, or was dealt with only to revive instantly. Here in my living room was a type of Cameroon forest. And the prospect at the end of The Iliad is a continuance of this same scantly motivated belligerence, making the poem seem more a sculptural frieze (and freeze) than an investigation into human distinctness.

Certainly the epic is venerable, illuminating the art of poetry in its formative state, still rough, still stiff, with the conventions of oral improvising. It glitters, one supposes, with the anthropological clues as to what could be calculated to engage the imagination of Greek listeners some two and a half millennia back in our common past. Nonetheless, in comparison to its nearest poetic rivals, I find it a demoralising literary adventure upon which to begin the shared life of imagination that is supposed to civilise us.

One aspect of the work intrigues me. In a world so determined, so insistently foretold, how in this originating poem does the idea of hope come to have presence in the human outlook? Or rather, how do the determinist and the open attitudes to fortune co-exist in the one mind? Like the Cameroon chimps, the Homeric figures can see a thing coming. Unlike the chimps (one assumes) they can, just now and then in The Iliad’s storytelling, see how the thing coming might turn out otherwise.

The ground for that “otherwise” is admittedly pinched. The knowledge that their favourites will be killed sits like a Drang in the minds of Thetis, Priam, Hecuba and Andromache, and that anxiety is communicated effectively to the audience. For all that the doomed warriors occupy centre-stage, it is worth observing that The Iliad is also a poem about parents and spouses.

These include, not only the four mentioned above, but also those sires and occasionally mothers cited whenever a warrior’s name is introduced in the narrative, usually in the moment before his extinction. The common parental plight has their children placed in dire circumstances. It is the plight of the modern parent whose child has been dealt a life-threatening diagnosis, leukaemia, early onset diabetes, or whatever, where a forecast from the blue proceeds, through blood tests, x-rays and DNA profiles, to reveal its grim necessity in the scheme of things.

In The Iliad there isintermittent divine sorcery to postpone an individual’s fate but never to alter a life-course. Aphrodite may spirit Paris away in a mist just as Menelaus’ spear is about to skewer him, but this inconclusive end to what was designed as a decisive duel serves merely to bring on the foretold catastrophe, shuts out that prospect of “otherwise” in human life even more oppressively. The Fatalist presides over human imagining almost entirely. Almost.

“Honour the gods’ will; they may honour ours,” declares Achilles in Book One. The arrangement is delicate, but allows a squeak of light. The warrior is talking to a god, Athena, so his declaration is not counsel to his fellows but propitiation to the higher being. I know what is due, is the gist of what he avows, and I recognise the aspirations in my own head must be reconciled with this. Here my fellows reckon me to be a power, but I also accept I have no power within the larger scheme of things other than the power to accept that things happen. This is just.

It is also a negotiation. The mortal is manoeuvring himself before the gods’ scrutiny in order that he might not be disfavoured. In this he expresses the ancient attitude of amor fati, where aspiration is allowable if it accords with how necessity works in time, but where redemption from time is unthinkable. It is an attitude more easily espoused by a single person than it is by a parent.

By contrast, in Book Six we hear Hector (unlike Achilles, a family man) voice hope for the future of his son, Astyanax, while in the same breath he embraces his own fate. Here is an opening onto the prospect of The Otherwise even though we know, as Hector does not, that the hope is forlorn and that his baby son will be hurled from the battlements of Troy in one of the aftershock poems Homer’s epic set in train.

Homer visualises and animates the gods with particularity. His characters parley with them. For all that he may have been blind, the faces of Homer’s godhead are precisely seen. That mortals can describe the immortals implies The Fatalist mindset. This claims a share in the god-like view that conceives time as an entity. We may tell the whole of an individual destiny even as it is unfolding because our experience of time hitherto allows us a glimpse of the shape of eternity. This view is sad but rich, conferring a texture beyond the linear on our experience of passing time. Thomas Hardy’s later novels enact this same inexorable viewpoint, poignantly of course, because the doomed Tess and Jude are protagonists whose lives we witness in the everyday and who therefore have an intimate fullness in their humanity that the Homeric heroes in their armed camps lack.

By contrast, the extraordinary uplift to imagining entailed in the storytelling of the four New Testament Gospels holds that the reverse claim is true. Outcomes can, not always, but consistently, arrive improbably, in the everyday, arising often from the very heart of hope or bafflement.

So, improbably, the multitude are fed, the living walk on water and the dead rise from their biers. The Otherwise, that unlikely prospect, is brought to bear on historical necessity and the idea of fate thereby becomes enriched by a provision that it must, ever after, contain the improbable. One does not need to be a Christian believer to see the liberating aspect of this historically on the human mind. If the unlikely can occur, hope has its ground. One such hope, overlooked with much else by Richard Dawkins in his recent television documentary, Root of All Evil, is the practical one that the bread and the wine can be a sufficient substitute for live human sacrifice. One notes, of course, that the actual face of the godhead, unlike the Homeric pantheon, is unseeable.

And contrary perhaps to the bunker defences the evangelical Professor Dawkins wishes to stake between Scientific Method and what he has called the Bible’s “bronze-age scribblings”, the storytelling that science has espoused in recent centuries has enriched this very ground of The Otherwise immeasurably, may owe as much to the leaps of faith entailed in the multiplying of loaves and fishes as it does to the rational enquiries of Aristotle.

How so? Whether it is astrophysics disclosing dark matter and string theory, Heisenberg demonstrating the ambiguity of electrons, or microbiology illumining in the genome project the finesse of the DNA double helix, the impetus of scientific enquiry has been to elicit the wonderful from the everyday, then account for its necessity in a manner that neither disarms its wonder nor closes the prospect for unlikelihood in the everyday. That is to say, in the evolution of human storytelling, science places Homer and the Gospels, The Fatalist and The Otherwise, around the same conference table. The unlikely happens, observes Science (the Odysseus in this account maybe). It is subject to explanation within the scheme of things. But the health of science lies at that edge of the improbable where the prospect tilts forever towards the open ending. As with Achilles’ propitiation to Athena, goddess not only of warriors, but of justice, the arrangement is delicate.

When it comes to those presences in my own imagination, The Fatalist and The Otherwise, it seems I am of two minds.

For instance, I am a parent of two sons. My eldest, whose PlayStation antics I used to watch, was diagnosed with type-one diabetes just before his fifteenth birthday. A tall, laconic boy with the strong constitution of his New Zealand grandfather, he came unscathed through the routine ailments of childhood and with the exception of his unforeseen insulin dependence (that Achilles heel), he remains in fair health for all that his wellbeing is hedged with the vulnerability attending the life of a diabetic.

Now, had the human impulse towards improbable storytelling not been a part of the heritage of those insulin scientists of the 1920s (Banting, Best, Collip and others) my son’s fate would have been as inexorable as that of Achilles, and my own attendance upon this fate the same essentially encompassing, though demoralised, outlook of the Homeric parents. But the possibilities for life proved to be an open prospect. There were varieties of insulin, practical technology for its injection, an infrastructure of intelligent support. More vitally there was, and is, the open prospect, dispensers that allow insulin to be inhaled or swallowed rather than injected, the practical, intelligent sorcery of stem-cell therapy. I can hope for my laconic son a life in which he finds the full scope of the powers within himself as the years release them in his nature and as Thetis and Hecuba could not hope for their own.

And yet The Fatalist makes his claim on me. I am attracted to that sad, rich texture of time considered outside its relentless linear progress. I once wrote a poem called “Year”. It took the viewpoint of the doomed Harold Godwinsson, last Saxon king of England, where his shade retells for posterity the events of 1066 framed within their fatefulness. Having looked at all the events in his life from the year that killed him, he concludes,

…The year
I took to be my own enwound me, broke me
In that which will not end and is complete.

Will not end and is complete. In stating time’s paradox here, I was making my attempt, one of several, to fix in poetry my sense of the amor fati attitude. I admire its courage, its quietism in what might otherwise be a dynamic personality.

However, in its emotional construction, there is more to this attitude than I quite caught in the poem. There is the élan, for instance, the buoyancy conferred on morale by the contemplation of lifetimes on a scale greater than a lifetime, in a context more whole than a life. That élan must commingle with the above-mentioned sadness to create a new, not quite articulable emotion. It is to do with reaching towards a self-sufficiency of understanding within the scheme of things. Equally, it illumines the space between ourselves and the creatures, the chimps of that Cameroon forest. But we see it imperfectly, like the networks of coral below shifting water, like the landscape glimpsed through cloud from an airliner’s window.

Nor does this quite clinch the tension between The Fatalist and The Otherwise who preside and argue in my imagination. My persistence as a writer might well end if these two resolved that clinch.

But that tension does point to how, for all the morbid preoccupation with slaughter that The Iliad sustains, the ultimate paltriness of that carnage, the poetic ambition in these twenty-four books is magnificent. We are here on the plains under Troy, the poem tells us. These events are one with all that is visible and invisible, all that is now, back then, and still to come. The faces of these gods will vanish, along with the Greek and Trojan mortals they toyed with. But the idea of the human mind taking, as by right, the attitude that its viewpoint should encompass the concept of time as an entity, this persists into our own time, draws out the distance between ourselves and the creatures, and confers on the poem its cold magnificence.

And with this I might be happy if The Fatalist and The Otherwise could reconcile their views on the open prospect, on how, if you place someone wisely within a nimbus of fate, there will be those who must deal with a loss.

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