Tim Bray wrote:
> I have trouble with that. I find almost all of Homer to
> be facile and irritating (most of his lead characters are
> at the end of the day flaming assholes),
Strange. I'm on the maillist of another epic poet, Milton, and two years
ago some of the subscribers to that list came up with similar squawks
about Homer. I responded and it developed into quite thread. Here's my
original post on that thread:
Subject: In praise of Achilles, was Re: Hero of Paradise Lost
Date: Mon, 20 Dec 1999 23:15:26 -0600
From: Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
[log in to unmask] wrote:
> Stella Revard writes:
> > You are rather hard on Achilles, who is the victim of Agamemnon's
> > venom and abuse when he has done nothing more than to try to save
> > the Achaeans from the plague that Agamemnon brought down on them.
> > It is more than injured arete that keeps Achilles out of the
> > battle.Agamemnon has taken away his beloved Briseis.
> I think the argument turns on the nature of Achilles' "affection" for
> Briseis, Stella: she is a war-prize, a trophy, not a wife or a sweetheart, as
> much an object as an enemy's shield would be, and Agamemnon (as all generals
> will) pulls rank on him when he loses his own spoils. It amounts to a
> power-struggle only: having been put in his place by a superior, and
> powerless (according to army protocol) to raise an effective protest, the
> proud Achilles acts like a spoiled brat who has been forced to share his toys
> with the other kids, refusing to play at all, and sulking in his tent.
This treats the *Iliad* as a novel (or at least post-PL) and assumes
in it as in PL and the novel the reader is endlessly re-isolated and
re-individualized by the compulsion to judge freely the rightness or
wrongness of the character's action or the narrator's judgment. But
the *Iliad* predates the triumph of commodity production by some
millenia, and to make such moral judgments of Achilles is to impoverish
Achilles is perhaps the one character in all literature who knows he is
going to die -- an awareness underlined by contrast to Hector's pompous
self-deception on his own impending death. When Achilles achieves the
glory promised him by his mother -- that is when he kills Hector-- he
die. His mother has told him so and he accepts this. Without that
the poem is meaningless. And Briseis does not symbolize or represent or
reward that glory -- she constitutes it. He would not be Achilles were
to accept Agamemnon's denial of his purpose at even being at Troy.
(Complains re his whining or weeping are anachronistic.)
Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life
a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
death and the strong force of fate are waiting.
There will come a dawn oar sunset or high noon
when a man will take my life in battle too--
flinging a spear perhaps
or whipping a deadly bow off his bow.
(Fagel. I prefer Lattimore but have misplaced my copy of his
translation). This by itself is enough to make me mourn my
ignorance of Greek. Achilles is not boasting (boasting in our
sense did not exist in Homer's world) but simply stating reality,
as he always does. What point would there be to the *Iliad*
if Achilles were to conform to the Victorian conception of
maniliness and keep a stiff upper lip. Disgusting. This is not
James's Christopher Newman we are discussing.
> I see
> no indication in Homer that he is lovesick for loss of the girl: and I would
Of course not. Why would you expect him to be? That kind of love
doesn't exist in the Homeric epics. I bet you think Odysseus gives
up immortality for Penelope rather than for his *oikos*.
> have to agree with Derek that to that degree at least it is arete and not a
> broken heart that motivates him
Of course. And that is his proper motive. For him to give up Briseis
make nonsense of the whole Trojan War (and thus of the poem). His
a goddess, approves! He came knowing that his death is the price of that
and now Agamemnon denies him that. What would you die for? Give the
possession of Briseis that same moral weight. (About 80 years or so ago
some fool, I forget who, whined that Achilles was not patriotic!
> (the way the reverse is true after the loss
> of his much-beloved Patroclus). He is not grand enough to be a Satan -- more
> like Harapha, with half a brain.
Consider the episode of the Funeral Games? Is there any greater dignity
and self-command in literature than Achilles shows in his handling of
games? Or the even greater wonder of his reception of Priam. (Some
critic points out that it marks the human discovery that the death of an
enemy can be tragic.) And without his sulking in his tent and his
after the death of Patroclus would those games or his reception of Priam
have the force that they do? You seem contemptuous of everything
that gives the poem coherence?
That homeric ethos would be as destructive in the 20th century as are
the unfortunately still surviving world views of Milton and Austen,
but why should we tolerate their christianity and metaphysical
and not accept Homer's celebration of arete?
P.S. I consider sneers at Achilles' intellect particularly strange:
Then Achilles called the serving women out:
"Bathe and anoint the body --
bear it aside first. Priam must not see his son."
He feared that, overwhelmed by the sight of Hector,
wild with grief, Priam might let his anger flare
and Achilles might fly into fresh rage himself,
cut the old man down and break the laws of Zeus.
That is brainless?