Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bronze Fu: Thoughts Upon Re-Reading the Iliad

I read the Iliad during high school, of course, just like you. Of course, at the time, the tale of an epic clash between two great Aegean powers was not high on my list of priorities. I was far more concerned with the way Sandy Britton's butt looked in those super-tight hip-hugger jeans, whether I would be able to score some Thai stick for the party at Tom's house, and was my hair long enough or too long?

Alas, as they say, youth is wasted on the young. Many great books were spoon-fed to me during my high school years, often to no avail. Those that were administered to me by William Ferrell, the single greatest teacher of my life, were the best-digested and best-remembered, but the Iliad was not one of them. In any case, I have felt a need, for some time now, to embark upon a program of remedial reading, to refresh my appreciation of those classics that were in unfair competition with Sandy's butt, or which I never read at all.

To that end, I recently purchased Books That Made History; Books That Will Change Your Life from the The Teaching Company. This program is hosted by one Rufus Fears, who as it turns out is no Bill Ferrell. But at least the set gives me a program to follow in my remedial reading project, and, in Fears, somebody to yell at for being full of it (a nice bonus, that).

The series starts with Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, a worthy if overstuffed anthology which I have read and digested and upon which I may post eventually. Second is the Iliad, that great lay of war and folly and supernatural meddling. This book, books about the book, the Marvel comic (yeah, I'm not too proud), Julian Jayne's insane take on Homer, some supplementary materials about Mycenaean civilization, and a couple of relevant vids took up a fair amount of my scant free time over the holidays and month of January. Like all good books, the Iliad will consume as much of you as you will allow.

Fears, in his rambling, characteristically ostentatious discourse on the book, avers that the Iliad is about clear-cut right and clear-cut wrong, prescriptions for living, etc. I have noticed that Rufus sees in all great works the rejection of moral relativism, and the Iliad is no different for him. I think he misses the point entirely. For me, the Iliad is alive with the tension between civilization and barbarity, arrogance and duty, reason and rage. This tension is manifest in the stark contrast and conflict between Achilles and Hector, and also within Achilles himself, who in the Iliad makes a journey between these extremes, from rage and arrogance to duty and humanity. His "First Rage," instigated by Agammemnon's seizure of Briseis, precipitates his reckless withdrawl from the Greek host, and brings disaster upon his countrymen. Upon the death of Patroclos, Achilles' First Rage is resolved, and he rejoins the Argives, not to aid his countrymen, but to vent his Second Rage. This Second Rage is directed ultimately upon the slain corpse of Hector, who personifies civilization and duty. Achilles' treatment of Hector's body is beyond the pale, an affront even to the gods, who send Priam to Achilles' tent under Herme's guidance. There Achilles is moved to pity, and in that pity he rejoins the company of human beings and releases Hector to his father.

"Thus did they celebrate the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses," reads the last line of Homer's epic. As near as I can tell, it is the only time in the Iliad that Hector is called "tamer of horses." Achilles is the horse Hector has tamed, even in death.

There's much more here, of course. There's honor, murder, betrayal, sex, a midnight spy mission, Olympian slapstick, and crazy-outrageous battle scenes, rendered in clinical detail. Homer seems to have been a frustrated forensic pathologist, and is at pains to fill us in on exactly which organs and body cavities that spear went through before so-and-so fell to the ground, bereft of life.

Hanging over everything, mixing the pot, is the power of the gods, and their actions give the lie to Fears' take on Homer. The gods of the Iliad are not powers of absolute good or evil; they are not transcendental in any way, except their longevity and raw power. The gods of the Iliad are arbitrary, foolish, arrogant, selfish, petty, lusty, shockingly gullible, and in some ways more human than their subjects. They command human fealty only through their power, not as arbiters of justice or reason, and they are the prime movers of the all the bloodshed, destruction and cruel fuckery of the Trojan War.

Read the Iliad, and please take note that every single episode of import is catalyzed by Olympian meddling. The plague of arrows that ultimately precipitates Agamemmnon's seizure of Briseis, leading to the First Rage of Achilles, upon which all else follows. That rogue arrow which causes so much consternation among the Greeks. Agammemnon's dream-impulse to assault the walls of Troy. The exploits of Diomedes. The fall of Patroclos. The return of Hector's courage after the chase around the walls. Finally, the god Hermes guides Priam to the tent of Achilles, whereupon the Homeric world's greatest killer is moved to pity, and reclaims some small measure of humanity and civilization.

The most consequential decisions of the Iliad are literally not made by men, but by gods, who manifest themselves in very concrete ways to the Achaean and Trojan warriors, either in the guise of their fellows, or whispering into their minds to goad them on, fooling them with cheap tricks, vain promises or exhortations to honor.

Indeed, it is this strange hallucinatory tone that furnished the psychologist Julian Jaynes with much fodder for his 1970s tome, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In the Jaynesian model, Bronze Age humans were not truly conscious in the modern sense of the word, but instead possessed a "bicameral mind," the biological substrate of which was a right-hemisphere "God" and a left-hemisphere "Man." As is the case today, most of their cognitive machinations were subconscious, but when the right brain came out with a decision or an analysis, verbally presented via the corpus callosum to the left hemisphere, it was interpreted not as the result of one's own deliberations, but as the utterance of a god, demigod or god-king. In 1982, Charles Hampden-Turner summarized Jaynes' hypothesis nicely in his wonderful overview of neuropsychiatric and philosophical models, Maps of the Mind:

With consciousness so defined [as by Jaynes] we must recognize that in a book like the Iliad (shorn of its later accretions), human beings are not conscious at all! Words are not used metaphorically, but have only their original conrete referents from which consciousness later developed...Jaynes believes that the world of the Iliad, indeed the whole known world of theocratic god-kings prior to about 1500 BC was possessed of a bicameral mind, split in two.... For the most part such minds would operate, learn, think react and retain equilibrium as ours do, unconsciously. But when something unexpected and hence stressful happened, instead of a period of intense consciousness, with inner deliberation and argument, bicameral man would receive a god-like command from his right hemisphere instructing him to act, as Zeus ordered Agammemnon to attack before the walls of Troy. This is essentially similar to the reported auditory hallucinations in schizophrenia, which are frequently accurate comments on events, and which Jaynes regards as partial relapses to an earlier state of ancestral bicamerality....
You have to admit that an idea like this is, on the one hand, profoundly evocative and interesting, and on the other hand deeply loopy. Nevertheless, Jaynes has earned a certain degree of respectability over the last three decades, although I suspect that if there's anything to his hypothesis it has less to do with any material difference between Bronze Age and Silicon Age neurobiology. Rather, I suspect it has more to do with interim changes in consensus reality and the modern concept of identity and self, which may well be a post-Bronze Age innovation.

Once you're done reading Homer and Jaynes, you'll doubtless be horny for more ancillary reading. No need to jones, there's plenty to indulge you. Maybe you're one of those people who can't really appreciate a story until it's been told in comic form. For you there's Marvel's graphic novel adaptation of the Iliad, which you will find agreeably...visual, if a little stiff, and remarkably faithful to the original. Of course, it's been condensed to fit into graphic novel format, although that's not hard when you account for Homer's epic two-page metaphors, recitations of lineage, detailed recountings of eating and drinking and divers comings and goings--not to mention the frequent and discursive musings of Nestor.

Of course, no story can be digested by the non-bicameral, 21st-century mind until it's been committed to celluloid. Wolfgang Petersen did his part to correct this deficiency with his 2004 film Troy, which has the same title as Homer's epic (Iliad means "pertaining to Ilium," and Ilium means Troy), but not exactly the same story. The movie boasts admirable production values and performances--most especially Peter O'Toole's moving potrayal of Priam. But Homer's themes are muddied by a dumbed-down script, and the absence of the gods assures that Troy not only lacks the atmosphere of the original, but also the Olympian motivations that drive the characters. Without Zeus and Athena and Poseidon, who are Achilles and Menelaus and Agamemmnon? Just psycopathic whackos with spears.

All that being said, Peterson's depiction of the epic clash between Hector and Achilles, while significantly more drawn-out than the original, has got to be the best Bronze Fu on celluloid.

If its film you want to supplant your reading of Homer, I recommend that you instead spend some time with the 1970 adaptation of Eurypides' The Trojan Women, starring Katherin Hepburn, Brian Blessed, Genevieve Bujold, and Vanessa Redgrave. Well after the deaths of Hector and Achilles, after Odysseus has breached the walls of Troy with deception, the women and wains of Troy stand among the ruins to accept their fate. Homer has shown us spectacular deeds, honor and glory in the clash of great armies, the acts of heroes inspiring, and inspired by, the gods themselves. Eurypides turns the page on Homer, and shows us the eternal aftermath of war, the suffering and cruelty that reverberate long after Achilles' rage is spent.

1 comment:

Steve Eley said...

If you're still jonesing for more, you might really like Dan Simmon's science fiction novels Ilium and Olympos. It's...the Iliad. On Mars. With nanotech and robots and quantum teleportation, but also with the real, genuine, not-a-metaphor Greek heroes and Greek gods. It takes two books before the contradiction gets explained, but it does, and it's pretty interesting.

Oh, and Proust gets deconstructed on the way, too. Just for fun. I think you'd dig these books.