The Iliad, Book 9

Book 9 of “The Iliad” features an embassy to Achilles, sent by the Greek commander Agamemnon to convince Achilles to return to the battle against Troy. The embassy consists of three warriors — Odysseus, the Greeks’ most skilled orator, Phoenix, who raised Achilles and still looks on him like a son, ans Ajax, the greatest Greek warrior other than Achilles.

Odysseus relates a promise from Agamemnon of vast treasure should he return to battle. Achilles says no, what Agamemnon gives he caneasily take away, he refuses to accept the bribe and the rules of a game Agamemnon controls. Phoenix then pleads with him to honor their relationship, be the good and faithful son, but Achilles again says no, says Phoenix is more concerned about returning honor to Agamemnon than preserving Achilles’ honor. Finally Ajax expresses disgust, syas the embassy should leave because Achilles has forsaken the honor his fellow soldiers have given him. That speech, far shorter than the others, is the only one that gets close to a concession from Achilles, who says he now won’t go back home but will pnly fight if the Trojans reach his own ships.

Several times during the embassy, Achilles states that the same fate of Death awaits both the brave man and the coward. His words all but reject the code of honor on which his warrior society is built. He also speaks of two fates from which he can choose — either stay and fight to win everlasting glory while dying in battle, or go home and lead a long, uneventful life. He is one of few, if not the only, classical Greek figure to be given such a choice.

The Iliad

I wasn’t ready for “The Iliad” when I first read it as a freshman in college. My intellect was still very adolescent, too easily captivated by the exploits of gods and heroes (a certain Rick Riordan fan had I been born a few decades later) to appreciate the deeper significance of epic. I was stubborn as well, and my paper on fate — an embarassing screed about how the gods were the ones controlling all the action, a silly argument which only received a passing grade due to the dilligence of my research — was proof that the effort of reading Homer’s work was lost on me.

Many years later, after reading hundreds more books and sharpening my critical skills, I can appreciate “The Iliad” for the complex work that it is, a work that can’t be adequately analyzed in a blog post. But individual moments, of which there are so many, can and should be celebrated.

Book Eighteen contains a moving lament from Thetis, the sea-goddess mother of Achilles. Greece’s most powerful warrior Achilles had withdrawn from the assault on Troy back in Book One, and in his absence his dear friend Patrocolus is killed. Thetis knows her son will respond by rejoining the battle, an act that will lead to his violent death (unlike other Homeric heroes, Achilles is given the choice to go back home and live a long peaceful life without honor, or rejoin the battle and perish in glory in the land of Ilium). Achilles has called out to her from his sorrow, and as she prepares to leave her sisters Thetis cries (text below copied from the Richmond Lattimore translation):

Ah me, my sorrow, the bitterness in this best of child-bearing,
since I gave birth to a son who was without fault and powerful,
conspicuous among heroes; and he shot up like a young tree,
and I nurtured him, like a tree grown in the pride of the orchard.
I sent him away with the curved ships into the land of Ilion
to fight with the Trojans; but I shall never again receive him
won home again to his country and into the house of Peleus.
Yet while I see him live and he looks on the sunlight, he has
sorrows, and though I go to him I can do nothing to help him.
Yet I shall go, to look on my dear son, and to listen
to the sorrow that has come to him as he stays back from the fighting.

Perhaps I needed to have children of my own before I could appreciate passages like this, appreciate both the love and sorrow expressed, appeciate how one cannot live without the other. For whatever reason, I can now read “The Iliad” and see beyond the battle, recognize a part of myself in the thoughts and feelings expressed by the humans and the oh-so-human gods.

Swift-footed Achilles is Sitting

I’m listening to an audio lecture on the Iliad, and I’m intrigued by the Homeric use of epithets, such as “man-killing Hector” and “bright-eyed Athena.” Many characters have several epithets — Aphrodite is sometimes “laughter-loving,” other times “daughter of Zeus,” also “goddess of love.” Sometimes an epithet is used in a way that seems illogical, such as a reference to “swift-footed Achilles” while he’s sitting.

One respected theory about these epithets is that they’re not intended so much as figurative descriptions, but rather serve principally as metrical aids. At a given point in the narrative, a certain epithet may seem more fitting — lion-hearted Achilles raised shield and sword — but if the particular verse has room for three syllables instead of four (Homeric poetry doesn’t quite work that way, but the general principle stil applies), then swift-footed Achilles stands, shield and sword raised. According to this theory, the oral poets who first recited Homeric verse, and above all else had to get the meter right, found the metrical aids that these epithets provided invaluable.

Words associated with a character but not serving as adjectives, rather functioning to integrate the character into the structure of verse. Interesting stuff.

The Sound and the Fury

This is the first William Faulkner novel I’ve read — I remember reading the short story “The Bear” as a high school assignment, and enjoying without being particularly inspired by it (a common experience for me at that time). I knew Faulkner experimented with stream of conscious writing, a genre that’s always given me difficulty (he writes with a growing awareness that he is incriminating himself as a lazy, passive reader), so I was surprised to find “The Sound and the Fury” to be a much easier read than “Ulysses” or “Mrs. Dalloway.” Perhaps Faulkner being an American writer using distinctly American idioms made the novel more accessible to me than the works of his Anglo-Irish contemporaries. It was a challenge at times to keep up with the frequent shifts in time and perspective at the novel’s beginning, but after each shift took place I found I could orient myself fairly quickly to the altered narrative environment. I rarely felt disoriented, hardly ever feeling I had just startled awake outside a noisy bar wondering where I was or how I had gotten there (a feeling that strikes me on just about every third page whenever I read Joyce). I feel it will take me a couple-few readings to get the full sense of the Compson family’s tragedy, but I can say that I found “The Sound and the Fury” far more enjoyable and inspiring than most other literary masterpieces I’ve read.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A recent visit to the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York inspired me to download this classic Washington Irving short story. I’m not a big fan of omniscient narrators, and this device is particularly bothersome in this story — the narrator is constantly interjecting his voice into the narrative, and seems to get in the way of a very intriguing tale. But in the end, the fictional world that emerges from this story is vibrant enough to overcome whatever narrative shortcomings I find in its delivery. The residents of Sleepy Hollow share brilliant tales with each other, tales that inspire the imagination of poor Ichabod Crane to believe that he is pursued by a Headless Horseman, an Old World spirit protecting the insular immigrant community against outside influences such as Crane.

Great Expectations

I’ve been remiss in writing my impressions of the books I’ve been reading, so time to start catching up. “Great Expectations” is a novel that I had trouble reading, but enjoyed having read. Think that has a lot to do with the fact that the characters are so memorable — Pip, Herbert Pocket, Jaggers, Wemmick, Magwitch, Estella, even Miss Havisham — they live in the memory as easily as a good dinner with someone whose company you enjoy. What makes it difficult to read is Dickens’ rambling prose style, those narrative progressions with dependent clauses piled onto each other with so many layers that you eventually lose memory of the primary clause. Maybe struggling through those passages are the obligation you have to accept in order to enjoy the richness of his characterizations.

On reading Dickens

This will sound very uncharitable, and I write it not to demean a master storyteller (a title I believe Dickens richly deserves), but as a matter of honesty. Reading Dickens is like listening to a story told by a beloved eldest relative. You feel obligated to give your attention yet your sense of duty is not always strong enough to maintain your focus. Too often I read without understanding the words, my mind registering what words i’ve read but not having any recognition of those words’ significance. Sometimes I even forget the basics of the plot or setting, or which characters are involved in the current action. You know the story is important and you do come away with an appreciation for what has been said, but the memory of those long empty passages remains.

A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens characters are notably one-dimensional — they’re more figures, representations of an idea than they are their own characters. How often does a character in Dickens surprise you, do something you wouldn’t expect? The character I really wanted to see break out on their own is Charles Darnay, who is particularly flat and uninteresting. Sydney Carton’s sacrifice at the end of the novel is certainly moving and shows a development of character far advanced than any other, yet his act is prefigured in so many ways that it really isn’t that surprising. The element of surprise is not a requirement for fiction, but humans are nothing if not unpredictable, and the lack of this quality makes Dickens characters, as memorable as they are for the detailed descriptions of their idiosyncrasies, unconvincing.

Even more so than Carton, the character of Doctor Manette is what I will remember most from this novel. The depth of his recurring psychosis brought about by his imprisonment in the Bastille — his retreat into a mental incarceration, an escape from his physical torture which is an escape into further imprisonment — it is a nightmarish picture of the human psyche which rings horribly true.

The Catcher in the Rye

I’ve always had a reverse snob bias against this novel, with its private school setting and sensibility. I read lines like “it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs,” and the proud public schooler in me can’t get past the irony and wants to throw the book across the room. What struck me during this re-reading was how little I remembered about the novel, other than that the main character was named Holden Caufield, and that Holden’s a complete jackass. Given the novel’s enormous reputation among literary scholars, it’s intellectual suicide to fail to gush over the novel, unless you have a sufficiently erudite critique. But not having anything to lose, I’ll just keep it simple and go with my gut — Holden has a memorable if distasteful personality, but the novel itself is dull and lifeless.

Can’t let this pass without giving a shout out to one of the best Onion articles ever.

Ulysses

A couple years ago I finally read Ulysses, and posted this review on a blog I had started and would soon abandon.

Took advantage of several long flights over the past few months and accomplished an unfinished task from graduate school — I read all 642 unabridged pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

A customary thought upon completing any book is whether or not you’d recommend it to a friend. After finishing Ulysses, I’m left thinking that I’d only recommend it to someone who really wanted to read Ulysses. It’s not a “just give it a try” kind of book, or one you can put down in mid-chapter and easily pick up where you left off. Although it has an easily identifiable day-in-the-life plot, the author’s unconventional punctuation (quotation marks are rarely used, making it hard at times to see the line between character statements and narration) and imagistic use of language — Joyce tries not so much to describe a setting through his characters but to convey that character’s impression of that setting — make Ulysses a far different read than most of us are accustomed. It is a book that you don’t so much read but rather experience, and that experience is best captured by reading each of its eighteen chapters (or episodes, as they are often called) during one setting. The first several episodes can be completed in about an hour each, but latter episodes can take several hours — and, it bears repetition, each episode is best experienced in its entirety, without interruption, at one setting. It is a novel that you have to want to read, and while I couldn’t recommend it to anyone just looking for a good read, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed a literary challenge.

An aid I employed in reading Ulysses, one which I would highly recommend to anyone considering reading (or re-reading) the novel, is the Naxos Audiobooks recording of the novel. Combining some frequent buyer credits and a sale from Audible.com, I was able to download the complete unabridged recording (over 27 hours! As I said, this is a novel that takes a commitment) last year at a reasonable price. The purchase was inspired by a Shakespearean professor from college, who recommended listening to performances of the plays while reading. Our university had a very good listening library that contained each of Shakespeare’s plays, and I found that listening to professional actors brought nuances of meaning to the text that I had no hope of capturing on my own. Knowing that Joyce would present an even greater linguistic challenge, I decided that an audible aid was again appropriate. And I am happy for my decision, as the reading by Jim Norton (who provides a specially good performance at the end of episode 17) and Marcella Riordan (whose major task is reading the final episode, Molly Bloom’s eight-sentence, two-hour plus soliloquy) made the experience of this fantastic and overwhelming novel far more enjoyable and accessible.

One final observation, of which I am not entirely proud — my curiosity regarding the novel actually began in my childhood while listening to the gleefully drivelistic song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”. In his sorrowful letter to his parents, Alan Sherman’s unhappy summer camper lists among his many misfortunes that “the head coach wants no sissies, so he reads to us from something called Ulysses.” As children should, I asked my parents what was meant by this line, and while they did explain the novel had a reputation for being difficult and obscene (it was banned in the US between 1921 and 1933, though it is, not surprisingly, tame by today’s standards), the hesistance I heard in their answer made clear that they had said all they wanted to say on the subject and that now was a really good time for me to go watch “Batman.” Their explanation left me only slight less confused, and while I now imagine the reference was Sherman’s attempt to tweak the Puritanical literary attitudes of his audience in 1963, after finally having read Ulysses, the line seems even more out of place to me now than it did back then. 



(originally posted 2-15-2009)