I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional imbalance lately as I try to work through mine; we all have them but I have been reaching some serious moments both good and bad.
One of my favorite books (next to the Bible, tied with the Once and Future King and King Lear) is the Iliad. So it stands to reason that I return time and again to history’s greatest literary asshole, Achilles. Think back to your favorite bad-ass friend-betraying, shit-not-giving characters. Think back to the (probably apocryphal) story of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Almost certainly based on the scene of Achilles playing the lyre in his tent while the Trojans lay siege to the Greek ships and menace them with fire.
If you don’t have the details of the Trojan war (as set down by Homer) fresh in mind, they are these: about a year before the end of the Trojan war, Agamemnon must return his latest conquest, the captive girl Chryseis, to her father in order to stop a plague visited by Apollo. In revenge on Achilles who championed the effort to make him return the girl, Agamemnon takes the insubordinate’s latest conquest, a girl named Briseis, who, according to really slender evidence in the text, may actually have liked Achilles and regretted the change of scenery. Dick move. Fine. But Achilles, his honor bruised, spends the next 15 books (out of a total 24) sitting in his ship, eating, drinking, feasting, crying, making love (once he gets his lady back) and just generally saying “Do you miss me now, assholes?” to Agamemnon and the rest while “Manslaughtering Hektor” takes the battle from the walls of Troy all the way back to the fortified trench surrounding the Greek ships. With death to all nearly certain, Achilles, by now completely aware he is in the wrong but unwilling still to relent, sends Patroklos in disguise to make Greek and Trojan alike think that the greatest fighter has returned and thus to turn the tide of the battle. The ploy works. For about ten minutes. Hektor (never one to shirk his duty, unlike some) engages Achilles in battle and kills him, only to find out that he has killed Patroklos. As a gesture of remorse, Hektor strips the armor of Achilles off Patroklos and presumes to wear it.
Achilles is now mad. We thought he was mad before but ho-lee fuck.
He gets a new set of armor beaten into shape by Hephaestus himself and, having put it on (here there is a lengthy digression where they describe the images worked into the front of the shield) Achilles goes to war. Boy does he. Despite the fact that he has sat out the last 15 or so books like Fantine in the Les Miserables musical, he still racks up a higher kill total than anyone else and comes damn near to murdering one of the rivers that flows by the city of Troy. Yes. He’s so pissed at the Trojans he fights their river. This mad dash for the walls of Troy culminates in a duel between Hektor and Achilles which Achilles wins, with some help from Athena.
Done, right? Anger sated?
Achilles then proceeds to run a hole through Hektor’s ankles (foreshadowing!) tie a rope through the hole, and drag Hektor around behind his chariot a lot. really a lot. He also halts fighting for a while to institute funeral games for Patroklos. There is a truly ironic moment where we see Achilles abstaining from participation in any of the races and contests (all of which he would win balanced on one foot while scratching his nose with one hand) and instead gives generous gifts to the winners of the contests. But after the contests are over, he still awakens in the middle of the night to drag the corpse of Hektor around Patroklos’ funeral pyre a few more times, tied behind his chariot.
Things get so bad that Priam, the aged king of Troy, under cover of darkness, makes his way into Achilles’ tent and pleads for the return of the corpse and for leave to take 12 days to ceremonialize the funeral. Achilles, his death almost upon him, has a moment of weakness that is really a moment of strength and allows himself to connect to Priam on a human level. The funeral games go on as planned; we know that the death of Achilles, followed by the return of Philoctetes, followed by the strategy of the Trojan horse, are all around the corner; but they are left that way as the poem ends abruptly with the funeral for Hektor which is really the funeral for Troy.
What I was struck by in rekindling my interest in this poem recently is how different are the emphases explored by some of the scholars responsible for writing introductions to these books. Take the example of two, Stanley Lombardo whose translation of the Iliad came out in the last decade, and Bernard Knox, whose introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation of the Iliad came out just under two decades ago.
Lombardo emphasizes the exceptional insights of Achilles. Achilles, he says, is able to see beyond the conflict between Greek and Trojan and is able to see his whole life in terms of the great dilemma introduced in book 9: because he is the son of the goddess Thetis, he is privy to the information that truly all humans must wrestle with on some level: he may either live a long life in anonymity or he may burn up in a blaze of glory at a very young age. Thetis calls him “Shortest lived of all men”– 17 or 18 when he signs up for the war, which puts him at 27 or 28 when he dies.
What hooey, Achilles, realizes (according to Lombardo). If he has chosen honor in exchange for longevity and Agamemnon slights him by taking away the possessions which are the mark of esteme from a superior officer, what does he have left? He may as well return to the original plan of trying to live for as long as possible. Or he might at any rate keep himself out of battle in order to show how great his glory and honor are that the rest of the Greek army would (and does) fall apart without him, even despite being guarded by a dozen well-known heroes–Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, the two Ajaxes, Idomeneus, Diomedes…
But his abstention from battle; his unwillingness to follow orders allows space for the question to be asked: why are we fighting? In a way, Achilles, the paragon of the warrior, is in fact the paragon also of the jester (a role normally reserved for wily Odysseus) in that he breaks rules and thus provokes his fellow man to a greater level of inquiry into and understanding of the nature and justice of those rules. Again: we know why Menelaus is fighting: bitch stepped out. And we know why his older brother Agamemnon is fighting: he gets the most toys and the most honor. But the rest? Their only hope is to receive a share of the spoils commensurate with the glory they win on the field of battle. Achilles, by abstaining from battle, is telling Agamemnon that the glory is more important than the tangible representative; that moreover his heart was just barely in the war to begin with. Lombardo’s take seems to be that our Achilles, the greatest warrior of his age (by a lot; like really a lot) is defined by his refusal to fight and by his ability to question why there should be a fight.
Seen this way, the story is national: Achilles, by his actions, is able to cast new light on broad political issues: the nature of war itself. Mind: this is the emphasis of Lombardo’s introduction. Obviously there are other factors at work in the poem and obviously Lombardo knows this.
Take Fagles, then. Fagles emphasizes the fact that, of the many epithets used to fill out a line– “Achilles of the swift feet,” “Odysseus of the many ideas/schemes/ways/twists-and-turns (it varies among translators),” “Menelaus/Idomeneus, etc of the Great War Cry,” “White armed Hera/Athena/Briseis”… there are a few that pertain only to a particular hero. And one of those is “godlike Achilles.” Helen, who abandons her home and her child to serve a whim, is also godlike. The designation isn’t really a compliment. Achilles, because he wants revenge on Agamemnon, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds, even thousands, of his fellow-soldiers. When Homer calls Achilles ‘godlike,’ he means that Achilles combines the power to do harm with the willingness to do it.
Achilles may be tough and powerful and vital to the war effort but he is also narcissistic and must have everything his way (cf. Ted Williams, Vladimir Horowitz, Alex Rodriguez, various Hollywood actors and actresses, most politicians, even the ones the war effort, any effort, would be better off without). As such, his defining moment is not when he walks out on his friends, dooming them to slaughter; nor when he allows Patroklos to enter battle and in doing so tacitly admits that his ennui is just not as deep as that of the gods and maybe he should change his behavior to reflect that discrepancy; nor when he flies into a rage and kills and desecrates Hektor. His defining moment comes when he is about to give Hektor’s body back to Priam and, deciding to wash the body before giving it back, resolves to do so in private rather than let Priam see the full damage done to the body.
Seem like a nice gesture?
He does it because he worries that Priam will lose control and start growing tiresome and that Achilles will be overcome by anger and kill Priam. Yes. Kill a seventy-some year old man because he is bothered by that man complaining about what a state of spoliation his dead son is in.
Not such a nice gesture.
And yet that is what Achilles has to work with. He cannot really curb his anger yet and he will not live long enough to learn to do so. But he can limit its chances for escape; he can know himself well enough to rein it in. Moreover, he can empathize with an enemy enough (as before he could not with a friend) to realize that Priam is having an emotional moment that trumps the one Achilles is having and Achilles needs to back off.
It’s not full-on sunshine–this modicum of enlightenment Achilles achieves before death. But it is the red glow of dawn. It is the first step.
Fagles emphasizes not the national implications but the personal.
Two views; two emphases. One quite sympathetic: a soldier saying: what does it all mean? One less sympathetic: a narcissist who takes weeks, even years, to realize: there are other people in this world. With feelings.
Both are true. The one who only looks out for himself; who wants more than anyone else can give; will nonetheless be able to find flaws in the rest of society that are legitimate and important. The thing about being a narcissist is that when you’re all alone in that way, you can see what everyone else is doing and you’re not shy about making suggestions–even good ones. Trouble is, nobody is listening. 2800 years after Homer; 3200 years after Achilles, war remains frustratingly popular. So does narcissism.