Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On death, control and reading the Iliad by Homer

This might turn into a series. I could have Iliad-withdrawal. I have so much to say about the epic that my mind seems to come up with fuzzy nothings about all other books lately. Maybe I should give up trying to write anything other than the delighted swooning ramblings brought on by my successful (yes, it still surprises me) reading of The Iliad. 

Disclaimer: In all honesty, I haven't even glanced at the thousands of literary analyses out there that would surely help me understand the poem better. I should perhaps do that, but I only want other opinions once I'm done processing mine - and God knows when that will be. For the first time in a long time, I find myself blogging for me, and not for the reader. I'm writing to feed the pressing need to express. So, of course, I will end up saying things that are in-your-face obvious and I hope this little disclaimer of mine will keep you from rolling your eyes and going, "geez, everyone knows that." 

For me, one of the biggest curiosities of The Iliad is the deaths. There are hundreds, but they all go about in this pattern. The character who is about to be killed advances towards the killer, the poet tells us all about his life - where he is from, how he was raised, how he ended up fighting for the Dardans (Trojans) or the Danaans (Greeks). And then, all of a sudden, he is hit, by a spear through his neck or an arrow through his chest, gut-dropping and blood-spillage follows and we are told simply that "darkness clouded his eyes." It's interesting how many stories we get to know as they come to an end. It's also mad, devilish to introduce lives just on the brink of the end. Has to mean something.

An English professor I became acquainted with this summer showed obvious indifference when I, with characteristic ineptitude, bragged to him about reading The Iliad. He compared it with the Mahabharata and provided insight into the latter which he considered more profound. I haven't read the Mahabharata, but in all fairness, it's about ten times the size of The Iliad; it has much more room to be more. He commented that The Iliad was little more than a gory massacre. Too sensationalized, he called it, and wrinkled his nose.  

I couldn't disagree more, but I get where he's coming from. If there's one thing The Iliad lets us know, it's that the gods have all the power. Destiny is already fixed. Hector must die, Troy will fall, but so will Achilles, who will be immortalized for his lion-hearted bravery. But this does not stop the Trojans from hitting back, the Achaeans from worrying and Achilles from simply refusing to fight. The gods don't just have favourites, they meddle. Athena in disguise tricks Hector, Aphrodite whisks away her son from the battleground and Hera with her ivory arms fights with Zeus about being partial. The gods have their whims and the war rages on. It's mindless. Men are puppets who pray, sacrifice and kill to please. There's no thought in it, really, no genius, no Krishna with his war strategies. The Iliad is essentially about a man and his big hurt ego, Achilles and his stubborn thoughtless rage and how it changed the lives of nations. But is it any less meaningful? 

I think The Iliad drives home the message that control is a myth, so you might as well believe in whatever you believe in, because all you can ever be sure of is faith. I know that seems like a given, but who did tell you that the truth had to be more than simple? What sounds like a fluttering resignation can be a gracious acceptance. The Achaeans attack and the Trojans fight back, their fates sealed, because the ending is inevitable and all there's left is shaping the middle - that is life. The deaths in The Iliad aren't meaningless precisely because the poet makes it a point to tell us, even if a little, about every life he takes away. The war-deaths in The Iliad are only as meaningless as all death. It's pointless, the poem has made me realize, to try and find that meaning in an ending which can be found in a life.

(Alice Oswald is the writer of a book called Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad about the minor-deaths which lead up to Hector's death. I haven't read the book. But I have seen this clip of her reading from it. The Amazon blurb says it is about the dead "each of whom lives and dies unforgettably - and unforgotten - in the copiousness of Homer's glance." Wow. Also, there's a nice Deaths of the Iliad tumblr for you trivia nerds.)

Spoilers (Edit: I earned much amusement for putting a spoiler alert for the Iliad; still, read at your own risk:) I have stuck to the professor-prompted musings on individual deaths here. In a larger sense, death is the main theme of the Iliad. For Achilles, as for Hector, death is inevitable. For Achilles, the very purpose of whose life is ensuring immortal recognition, death is glory. For Hector, death is significant because the time leading up to his provides a fighting chance for Troy. It is death that brings Achilles out of his silence. The death of Patroclus, his friend, unleashes the monster that we've only heard of since the beginning of the epic poem when Achilles leaves the fight. It is also death, Hector's, that eventually shows a glimmer of humanity in the cruellest of men. 

The Iliad ends on a sad, albeit almost hopeful note, chronicling the momentary, eleven-day, truce that Achilles agrees to upon seeing a broken King Priam beg for his son's corpse. A long chapter about the games after the long-awaited burial of Patroclus is followed by the most beautiful ending ever, the best part of the epic, for me. Achilles was meant to kill Hector, though he couldn't have known how or why. I think a part of him, the part that knows love and buries Patroclus in elaborate festivities, agrees that for all the passion and rigours of war, the dead and their survivors deserve respect. For trying. 


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