Homer

Dear Richard,

I’ve been in London for several weeks where I picked up a copy of the Fagles translation of The Iliad. I can’t even remember if this is the translation you recommended to me, but I think it must have been because it’s splendid. Having made fitful and unsuccessful attempts years ago to grapple with Homer, I became immediately absorbed in this work and have done little else for the last seven days but read it and try to come to terms with it.

When we met we were discussing your own Homer project-that’s how this whole thing came about. So I have the perfect excuse for writing down my thoughts about The Iliad. I can pretend I’m being of use to you when really I’m doing it for myself. Reading The Iliad has re-invigorated a line of thought I’ve been pursuing for some time that starts off from the figure of the hero.

At least for a Westerner, and especially for a Western European like myself, Homer’s heroes are the first, the originals. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Ajax and the rest are our heroic archetypes.So who are they? What is their appeal? What does it mean to be a hero because make no mistake that’s what every kid, or perhaps just every male kid, still wants to be. Spend some time with a five-year-old and you’re spending time with Superman, a superhero, fighting to save the galaxy from the forces of evil, usually impersonated by yourself. It’s always good v. evil, it’s always a battle, it’s always a glorious victory. Homer’s heroes have a lot in common with our five-year-old. They’re capable of complete and total self-expression, uninhibited and undivided in any other way. Most of the time they’re unquestioning and outwardly directed. Will and desire are seamlessly united in them as they are in a five-year-old, only the heroes’ energy is an adult energy, so it gives them a tremendous drive. Bernard Knox in the introduction talks about their “passionate self-esteem.” In real life, the only people with their sort of character are psychopaths-it’s a psychopathic character. But Homer’s heroes are larger-than life, they’re intended to be a breed apart, a semi-magical race half way between the gods and ordinary men. The heroes literally are what the five-year-old can only fantasise about becoming. At the same time, they’re not just myths. Their characters are exaggerations of recognisable human traits.

And the most important, the central one of these traits is what I’ll call aggression though you could just as well call it “pride” or “ego” or “the will to power” depending on what angle you view it from. Whatever we call it, when the heroic character is stripped of all other attributes and elevated into a single controlling principle, as it is in The Iliad, it’s the character of a killer. Pure and simple. Put a bunch of heroes in a room or on a plain outside Troy and they’ll kill each other. That’s all they know how to do. More, that’s all they want to do because their sole aim is kind of mixture of glory, fame and virtue, not to be a dead weight on Homer’s “good green earth”, and the only way to achieve that aim is by fighting- by killing and being killed. It’s entirely appropriate the poem shows us the heroes in the middle of a war, their natural habitat. It’s also appropriate that the three rewards we’re told the heroes get out of war are treasure, women and glory in the widest sense of the word, a symbolic immortality which for the Greeks was the only real one since they believed death was final.

You could put it the other way around and say when everyone wants to be the one and only, the immortal, the godlike, then the practical result is a war of all against all. And that’s the Trojan War. Simone Weil thought The Iliad was really about force: “the true hero, the true subject of The Iliad is..force”. She went on to relate it to the politics of the 20th century which seems to me an overly politicised, or overly rationalised interpretation. But she was right about the force. If there’s a key line in The Iliad it’s the aside of Achilles to Patroclus when Achilles wishes that everybody else would die and “just we two” would be left to take Troy. Actually, the ultimate, usually unconscious aim of a hero is that “everybody else will die and I-and I alone-will be left to take Troy.” Since we’ve already established that victory in battle is the road to immortality, so taking Troy= immortality, the equation can be rewritten “everybody else will die and I-and I alone- will not. I alone will be immortal.” That’s the quintessential heroic position, what a psychaitrist friend of mine calls the “pseudo-immortality project.”

As for why Achilles says “just we two” rather than “just me” or “just I alone”, it’s an interesting point that I’ll come back to later.

According to Robert Calasso in his book The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, the world of the heroes must pass away and this is the real purpose of the Trojan War and therefore the hidden agenda of the gods who preside over, and on occasions, take an active part in it. The heroes must kill each other off. They’re glorious figures, it’s true, but they’re also monsters. Their race must be wiped from the earth so that a new kind of man can be born. The unity of the heroic world is a false unity, a brief, shining moment that is fundamentally unstable since it exists only by virtue of killing itself- and its inhabitants-off. Nevertheless, it does exist and a great part of the poem’s attraction to me, which is to say a major part of Homer’s greatness as opposed to the greatness of the heroes, is the way he reveals that unity. Similes and metaphors drawn from peace and nature are interwoven with and united with the business of war and violent death. The motives and actions of the gods and the motives and actions of the heroes are likewise interwoven so that they become, as the introduction puts it, “the same thing viewed from two different angles”. There will be other times when the natural and the human, the divine and the temporal worlds, mirror and reflect each other, for example in Shakespeare, but never again will they be united so closely, so unselfconsciously, so indivisibly that they are “the same thing viewed from two different angles.”

And that’s something we all want. We want to be heroes and we also want the world to be whole, to be a paradise, but ‘The Iliad’ reveals the two desires are contradictory. The one destroys the other. Homer shows us that process of destruction. It’s a loss of Paradise story seen at the very interesting moment when Paradise is already lost, when it’s been turned into a killing field, but many Paradisal elements remain so that, for example, even a description of a spear rammed through somebody’s jaw into his brain isn’t the squalid disgusting police jotter business it would be today but has a freshness, a vivacity, even a beauty in the same way that a modern nature documentary finds the beauty in the kill-and-be-killed world of the animals. But men are not animals. We get turned out of Paradise and, in our Christian mythology, the way back is guarded by a flaming sword that points in all directions at once. (I can’t remember if an angel holds the sword or not. In any case, the supernatural sword isn’t quite right for The Iliad but would fit perfectly into the sequel, The Odyssey.)

A story with Paradisal elements is a myth or a legend and it usually includes the gods. The gods in The Iliad are the usual Olympian suspects, but they’re as unstable in their own field as the heroes are in theirs. In fact, the heroes are very much made in the image of the gods, and not only the heroes with explicitly divine parentage like Achilles. A divinely bred hero like Achilles is just the pattern or model for the other heroes. It’s a hierarchy: gods-divine heroes-heroes. There’s more than a hint that the gods too must pass away, at least in this version of themselves, and for the same reasons that the heroes must pass away. Both gods and heroes have the same “furious self-absorption”. Both act out of what we have come to see a couple of thousand years later as base and selfish motives, though they’re still the motives which move most of us most of the time. It’s wonderfully right that, on the divine level, the whole Trojan War, this tremendous slaughter and destruction, is caused by the Judgement of Paris at a goddesses’ beauty contest and the jealousies and rivalries that result from it because that’s what happens when you expose ordinary everyday human motives to the reagent of immortality: they’re shown up as totally frivolous and meretricious. We can’t believe anyone would take them seriously. Only the fact that life is finite and we die lends those same motives a spurious gravity and weight among human beings.

Because the Greeks have such a clear-eyed view of human motivation, starting with Homer, concepts like hubris and nemesis, moderation, and justice become central and crucial to them as time goes on. They’re the counterweight, the antidote that can prevent life being dragged back into an endless Trojan War. But they have to be developed. Those concepts have to be dragged up out of the unconscious mind and elaborated and made real. No one had ever done it before. It was a long struggle and in the meantime the Trojan War had all the glamour and the power on it side, just as our desires have all the glamour and the power when they come up.

Another way to put this: the same motives which appear frivolous and ridiculous when the gods act on them appear to be life-and-death matters when we human beings feel them-and the reason is life-and-death. The fact that we die gives our selfishness weight.Our petty motives all have a hidden agenda, they all carry a little extra package of freight in the form of immortality. At bottom they all include a desire for more life, endless life, more life for me meaning less life for you. Have you noticed how many of the heroes begin their heroic careers with a murder? It’s usually the murder of a “kinsman” or somebody in their home town or family circle and they fly somewhere else and settle in the court of a rival king or in a rival city where, so Priam tells Achilles, they are viewed with “a sense of marvel” by their hosts because of what they’ve done.

A few hundred years after Homer, Herodotus will invent history in order that “human achievements may not be forgotten in time and great and marvellous deeds-some displayed by the Greeks, some by barbarians-may not be without their glory.” The second half of that formula, the part about the marvellous deeds and the glory, is explicitly Homeric. But already with Homer himself we’ve seen what “marvellous deeds” actually depend on, or begin with, and they begin with murder. It’s a crucial clue, I think. It brings together desire-murder-the glamour of murder-isolation or exile-and heroism all in one package. There’s still a glamour about murder today isn’t there? There’s the second-hand glamour most of us enjoy from reading about murder or following murder trials. And there’s also the close-up glamour some groups or communities find in the act of murder. Nowadays we tend to think of such communities, where murder is generally tied in with revenge and the blood feud, as atavistic. But there are plenty of them left and new ones are still bring created, for example among teenage gangs in US cities.

Such a world of murder leading to, and resulting from, blood feuds which become, or are tied in with, political feuds that in turn develop into wars is the real Greek world that lies behind The Iliad. A world of city-states in constant turmoil with members of their ruling families jockeying for power, murdering each other, escaping into exile in a rival city-state which then leads to war between the two cities and the whole thing becomes a long historical chain of remembered wrongs, old hatreds, demands for revenge and so on. Later, by the time we get to Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, the internal strife is more between political parties and the external wars are conducted more out of realpolitik and imperialism than as a semi-private cycle of revenge killings. Power has become more collective and institutional, in other words, but political science never entirely loses its personal origins with the Greeks and, according to Homer and Herodotus, that means it begins with the act of murder.

I don’t want to make too much of this. I don’t want to ignore or devalue the redemptive passages in the poem, the places where Homer suggests that certain heroes- Helen, if you call her a hero(ine) and Achilles, above all- can learn, can evolve, can begin to dismantle their godlike isolation, their immortality projects and begin to see other men’s (and women’s) interests as their own, generally as a result of suffering- and thereby point the way towards a new world. But they do only get to point the way, don’t they? It’s very much an unfulfilled promise. The heroes can’t change the system they’ve created for and around themselves. They still have to die. The war is still the main thing. Their new insight is partial: they attain it but then they go back to their “old behaviour” as the therapists say. Helen still goes to bed with Paris. Achilles still goes out to destroy Hector in revenge for Patroclus.

Incidentally, why Helen goes to bed with Paris at this stage is interesting and marks her out as the female equivalent of a hero. She has a choice, after all. But the goddess Aphrodite threatens to turn her back on her if she, Helen, doesn’t fulfil her nature as a woman who gives and receives love- a love object, as it were. And Helen can’t conceive of that. For her to lose her position as the human embodiment of “love” in the sense of supreme attraction, enthralling all men, ruling the world from the “love” perspective would be to lose her very identity. Just as the heroes are completely subsumed by their aggression, desire for martial glory and honour etc. so Helen is by incarnating “love”. None of them, whatever their misgivings or tentative awakenings, can change their characters or move them on to a new basis, they only exist in the terms of their original identities. And in this respect too they’re wonderfully lifelike. An exaggerated case, but lifelike. We know how difficult it is for human beings to change. We know that change is a symbolic death for us, that it feels like dying.

So you’d expect any development, meaning spiritual or moral development, to be slow, and it is. It takes around 350 years after Homer for Aeschylus to announce the change from doing murder to enduring something that feels like death for oneself, and to connect that psychological change with a political change- replacing the feud and revenge and justice as a form of retribution with the law and justice as reconciliation. And it’s suffering that enables you to move, or forces you to move, from one position to another. “By suffering man learns” is Aeschylus’ phrase for how the process works.

But the development is still far from complete. The Iliad’s heroes are heroes because they act and cause suffering to others. Rage and battle-fury are their key emotions. If you’re isolated, godlike, furiously self-absorbed and the would-be sole immortal there are only two emotions open to you in that position: anger or rage on the one hand and fear on the other hand. Fear leads to self-destruction and rage to the destruction of others. Psychologically speaking, the meaning is the same either way. By the time we get to Aeschylus, the tragic hero-since the change we’re talking about announces itself in literary terms as the invention of tragedy- has started to endure some suffering for himself but he’s still likely to be a murderer and inflictor of suffering on others first and foremost. It’s another two thousand years, including the astonishing advance represented by Christianity, before Shakespeare comes up with heroes whose suffering is their point, who are interesting because they suffer. Their actions, which in our terms means their bids for immortality, are neither heroic nor compelling. Some squalid murders for Macbeth. Othello’s crazed jealousy. Lear’s ridiculous division of his kingdom. I went to see Macbeth at the National here last week and the contrast with the Achaean heroes was striking. The whole interest in Macbeth for most of the play is in his divided mind, the fact that he’s doing something he knows he shouldn’t do, but half wants to do, and he does it anyway with devastating psychological effects e.g. Banquo’s ghost. You can’t imagine anyone more different from the single-minded Hellenes. It’s as if the doubts expressed by Achilles with Priam have moved centre-stage and infected the hero’s project, his whole ability to act. Suddenly this project is revealed as nothing but naked ambition and squalid murder, and not glorious or heroic at all.

The new world is still waiting to be born because it still requires a suffering voluntarily endured, taken on without being created by your own mis-deeds as it is for Macbeth or Othello though only just for Lear. There’s another level to go, there are changes that haven’t happened yet by Shakespeare’s time. But there are changes that have happened by Shakespeare’s time too. For example, the gods shrink, don’t they? They shrink from Olympian gods into witches, into the hags on the blasted heath whose instructions and exhortations are seen as double-edged-as half-truths. Instead of dispensing Olympian fate, they’re now accused of luring men to their destruction. In fact, magic has replaced fate and magic is only half to be believed. It’s not to be trusted.

But I’m getting too far afield. I’ve long thought that the contrasting and opposing power to Homer and co, namely the power of Greek philosophy organized around the figure of Socrates, is impossible for us to recapture. It’s even more difficult to bring alive imaginatively than the world of The Iliad or The Odyssey where, after all, the job of imagining has been done for us. The problem with Greek philosophy is that reason-rational thought-meant something to the Greeks it doesn’t meant to us. Moreover, it was something to the Greeks it isn’t to us and can never be again. It was not just a tool, it was a power, a brand-new power that could dismantle or explode the heroic project. Reason provided a way to experience suffering and learn from suffering without actually having to murder/be murdered/have your loved ones murdered and so on. The same lesson can still be learned by a process of confronting the world as you wish it would be with the world as it is- one’s own claims with the claims of others; desire with reason-and with that last pair one sees the new power of rational thought losing its force and turning into modern-day moralising. But in its origins, reason was a powerful critical weapon that undermined the poetic world of The Iliad as well as the very real world of Athenian power, for which Homer provided the national anthem. It’s only in this context that the death of Socrates makes sense. Reason was dangerous.

Which reminds me-why did Achilles wish “we two” would be left alive to take Troy when the authentic position of the hero is that he, and he alone, be left alive to take Troy etc.?

Achilles says “we two” because at some deep level the hero knows that if he were to succeed in his project, it would be intolerable. To be immortal when everyone else is dead? To be the only person left in the world? Intolerable. Even God , in the various versions of His story, ends up having to create Creation to give Himself some company-he can’t stand it on His own. No, there has to be at least one other person, and how marvellously right and astute of Homer that the other person isn’t a stranger, or even a wife- someone who has a separate identity-but a friend. And moreover a friend Achilles treats, for all his professed love for Patroclus, as a reflection of himself and an extension of his own (Achilles’) glory. Isn’t that how we still treat the psychological Other with whom we fight our own Trojan dream Wars until suffering teaches us the need to sacrifice and share, those being the definition of mortality as opposed to the hero’s would-be immortality? For on this pale and rather half-baked recognition that at least one other person must be present the entire heroic project crumbles, revealing itself as a contradiction in terms.

Forgive this lengthy outpouring. I ought to be writing something else but I have to get this Iliad material out of my head and your interest makes you the unlucky recipient. May your own Homeric project prosper and bring you glory of the right kind! London is dull. Joan is in New York. I am trying to stop smoking and failing, not the stuff of which heroes are made. Love to everyone-mike

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014