My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s not that books like this are universal, as if the universal were some solid, good-everywhere coin we were lucky enough to find in the road. And it’s not that they are monuments, either, marmoreal bulk frozen to a pediment. They possess, rather, a universalizing power, a current that runs through everything: they may be strange or difficult or boring when we first pick them up, but let them innervate our spirit and sensorium, and let us innervate theirs, for days at a time, and we find that, whoever we may be, we too have felt the rage and the exultation and the grief, the gore-coated triumph and dung-smeared defeat, in doomed colonnades or on stormy plains. Not because we are them: there is no identity in serious art. Most readers now living are almost entirely strangers to the world this poem depicts—except for the one fact that we, along with everyone we love and everything we’ve ever built or enjoyed on earth, must die. So, in the end, this story is our story too.
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.
Yes, it begins with a fight between rival chieftains over a woman taken as a prize of war, a war incited half by a mortal woman’s faithlessness and half by a petty quarrel among vain goddesses over who is the prettiest one. I don’t read the latest journals in ancient anthropology or whatever the relevant discipline would be, but my dim and perhaps mythical sense of human history tells me that this is a poem composed in the afterglow of triumphant manhood’s having subdued the chthonic forces of matriarchy and ascended to that sky where the engorged organ points. If it’s any consolation to the female reader, though, this is also a poem about the impossibility of any human triumph in a world governed by “the strong force of fate,” which appears at times even to subject Zeus, the father and king of all. It’s a poem about how war as such is a defeat for victor and vanquished alike. Maybe women, as they inherit the arsenals of what was once a man’s world, are this poem’s ideal readers today. Simone Weil, in her great essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” understood:
Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. The human race is not divided up, in the Iliad, into conquered persons, slaves, suppliants, on the one hand, and conquerors and chiefs on the other. In this poem there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force. […] Thus violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim. And from this springs the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress.
As the late classicist Bernard Knox recounts in the superb introduction to Robert Fagles’s translation, our idea of “Homer” has changed over time, especially since the recovery for western Europe of his texts in the late Middle Ages. Before the 19th century, he was assumed to have been a writer; the Romantics, though, seeking a chthonic exit of their own from the Enlightenment’s secularized sky-cult, were fond of bards, of utterances from a volk who might as well have emerged muddy and fresh from their native soil. Later academe, conscious of the distances among oral, written, and print cultures, put the finishing touches on this Bronze Age bard singing in the night of time with the voice of his people. Perhaps suspecting (as I do) the Romantic, fascist, and multiculturalist belief in “ethnic creativity,” Knox is more circumspect and judges Homer to have been a literate inheritor of an oral tradition he put down in words, in the borrowed Phoenician alphabet with which Greece launched their literature.
Epic-and-novel is an old topic in literary criticism. Is the novel the epic or at least the mock-epic of the modern age, the son that looks like the father? Or is the novel the epic’s rebel child, Zeus to the epic’s Cronus, opposite of everything the old genre stands for? We’ll consider the politics of the question shortly, but the novelistic perfection of the Iliad tells me that Knox may be right about its written composition. Every real novelist dreams of writing a book like this, with a strong grounding plotline that manageably circumscribes a limited time and space within which every variation and digression can nevertheless fit. Despite the few set-piece remnants of an oral culture’s memorized information-repertoire that could be stored no other way—Book 2’s catalogue of ships, most famously, which the common reader, if the scholars will forgive me, should just skip—the text is an admirably coherent oscillation of theme-and-variation. Homer tells, intermittently, the story of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector, but he sings the poem of everything else too. We all know about the battlefield descriptions—shortly I’ll quote them myself—but we also visit mountaintops and the underworld and soldiers’ distant homelands; we swim in spirals with sea-nymphs, far out and below the blood-soaked plain before the walls of Troy:
And immortal sea-nymphs
gathered round their sister, all the Nereids dwelling
down the sounding depths, they all came rushing now—
Glitter, blossoming Spray and the swells’ Embrace,
Fair-Isle and shadowy Cavern, Mist and Spindrift,
ocean nymphs of the glances pooling deep and dark,
Race-with-the-Waves and Headlands’ Hope and Safe Haven,
Glimmer of Honey, Suave-and-Soothing, Whirlpool, Brilliance,
Bounty and First Light and Speeder of Ships and buoyant Power,
Welcome Home and Bather of Meadows and Master’s Lovely Consort,
Gift of the Sea, Eyes of the World and the famous milk-white Calm
and Truth and Never-Wrong and the queen who rules the tides in beauty
and in rushed Glory and Healer of Men and the one who rescues kings
and Sparkler, Down-from-the-Cliffs, sleek-haired Strands of Sand
and all the rest of the Nereids dwelling down the depths.
The silver cave was shimmering full of sea-nymphs…
The passages of the Iliad that don’t get assigned in school because they seem to diverge from the main plot—most of the first half except Books 1 and 9—dwell on the gods’ machinations. Aphrodite and Apollo are loyal to Troy, the love-goddess because of Paris’s famous judgment and Apollo because he built Troy’s walls (and archetypally, as a god of reason and order, he might be expected to prefer a well-ordered city to the band of whooping brigands come over the sea to lay it siege). Hera, Athena, and Poseidon favor the Greeks, the first two because of the Judgment of Paris, while the sea-god, who slaved with Apollo in raising the Trojan battlements as punishment for defying Zeus, resents Troy and also might bless maritime forces over settled orders. Zeus himself watches from on high, his loyalties torn; he ultimately wills the fall of Troy, but he promises Achilles’s mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, that he will punish the Greeks for slighting their greatest warrior. The gods enter the action from time to time; they fight and are even wounded; they grieve as they lose their own half-mortal children; but they can neither die nor change. To be a god is to be immured in immortality. The gods spectate on the action and squabble over it and shape it, but they cannot finally be shaped by it; a forerunner of an inflamed and intrusive fandom, they might mischievously be taken as a model of how not to read the Iliad or any good book—by becoming over-identified with the characters or taking the narrative as a personal slight or harassing the author.
Knox powerfully argues in his introduction that the poem is about its human characters becoming human. They are bounded by the limit of death, which alone inspires them to self-transcendence and self-overcoming, and which liberates them from the gods’ immobilized, ultimately bathetic, and even worthless grandeur. The poem’s true hero, Hector, returns to the home front, visits his wife, laughs when his baby—doomed to be thrown over the battlement at the city’s fall—recoils from his frightful image in war gear. Hector says,
For in my heart and soul I also know this well:
the day will come when sacred Troy must die,
Priam must die and all his people with him.
Priam who hurls the strong ash spear…
Yet he marches out to meet his fate anyway, which raises him above this fate, above the gods, to become a permanent image of human sublimity. I call him the poem’s true hero because, as Knox again points out, he rises to martial greatness from necessity, to defend his city, to preserve its arts of peace, against the pirates from over the sea whose claim to their calamitous siege is a point of private honor and whose greatest warrior is a murder-machine difficult to imagine at peace.
The genius of the poem is to tell this founding Greek war story so substantially from the other side’s point of view. The supposedly troglodytic Homer, this voice from the Bronze Age whirlwind, is ethically in advance of most of our own pop culture and political discourse, which usually represents “the other side” as some hive of vermin to be brainwashed or exterminated, whereas Homer mostly allows that the Trojans are the superior civilization and a memento mori for all social orders—universally. Northrop Frye, in The Anatomy of Criticism, observes,
It is hardly possible to overstate the importance for Western literature of the Iliad’s demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic. With the Iliad, once and for all, an objective and disinterested element enters into the poet’s vision of human life. Without this element, poetry is merely instrumental to various social aims, to propaganda, to amusement, to devotion, to instruction: with it, it acquires the authority that since the Iliad it has never lost, an authority based, like the authority of science, on the vision of nature as an impersonal order.
Simone Weil agrees (“One is barely aware that the poet is a Greek and not a Trojan”) and speculates that the poet wrote after the Greeks themselves were defeated in war and therefore able to see “their own image both in the conquerors, who had been their fathers, and in the conquered, whose misery was like their own.” To this spirit of Greek clarity about universal suffering, which she also sees in the Athenian tragedies and the Gospels, she contrasts Roman literature and the Hebrew Bible (save the Book of Job), because both Romans and Hebrews thought themselves a chosen people, and their works, consequently, “have yielded an appropriate quotation every time anybody had a crime he wanted to justify.”
Let these wise comprehensions of Homer’s universalizing poiesis answer the white lie in Edward Said’s Orientalism that the Iliad (in itself, not its later appropriations) initiates some proto-19th-century stereotype of “the east”—which shows, despite Said’s own best instincts, how the postmodern cultural left so often reprises their fascist forerunners’ politicized misprision of art. The real political distinction at the poem’s heart, as Adam Nicholson has recently argued in Why Homer Matters, is between a nomad society and a settled one, each observed disinterestedly for its merits and demerits. The northern warrior tribes of the Eurasian steppe break like waves over the cities and palaces of the Eastern Mediterranean, from which clash “Greece” was synthesized as tin alloyed to copper makes bronze. But nomad vs. metropolitan divides every human soul—the Iliad is, again, a poem of everything there is—and can only very tendentiously and simplistically be arrogated to some modern or postmodern “racial” conflict.
Where is the poet in the poem, the singer in the song, the writer at the center of the web of his text? Who is Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her? The blind bard’s surrogate in the text is the injured god Hephaestus, who fashions Achilles’s epic shield, itself an image of everything there is in war and peace. The poet must be like a god because the gods organize and watch and enjoy the action, as the poet does; but he must be injured because he must taste, must share, the vulnerability of his creatures (in Fagles’s translation, he addresses the characters: “O my rider,” he calls the doomed Patroclus, for example). As Eliot says in the Four Quartets, the wounded surgeon plies the steel and wields the “sharp compassion of the healer’s art.”
The 20th century was the first truly Homeric century after the Greeks’ archaic age. Plato, banning the poets in the name of the transcendent good, initiates the anti-Homeric millennia, but the post-Christian epoch of total war made this available again to the human imagination for what it is:
Patroclus rising beside him stabbed his right jawbone,
ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard
he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot-rail,
hoisted, dragged the Trojan out as an angler perched
on a jutting rock ledge drags some fish from the sea,
some noble catch, with line and glittering bronze hook.
So with the spear Patrodus gaffed him off his car,
his mouth gaping round the glittering point
and flipped him down facefirst,
dead as he fell, his life breath blown away.
Homer’s epic similes join everything to everything else: the arts of war and the arts of peace, the lives of men and the lives of animals, the work of subsistence and the work of slaughter, the labor of creation and the labor of destruction. There are no metaphysics in Homer, only “the strong force of fate” that winds impersonally through the heavens, through the earth, through the seas, and even through the underworld, subjecting the gods themselves to its power, a power manifesting itself to us in the poets’ world-weaving tropes. Everything is natural, immanent, including the works of deities and of mortals. The universalizing force of poetry is the force of war too. For both Weil and Knox, the Iliad, because it is a poem of everything, contains force’s counter in the heroism of Hector, in the penitence of Helen, above all in the climactic, unbearable scene where Achilles and Priam weep together for all they’ve lost and will lose. These moments show a human idealism whose vector, if we extend it beyond its truncated presence in the poem of “force,” probably does stretch all the way to God. Yet the truth of idealism’s truncation down here on earth is the problem the century of the trenches and the camps and the gulags and the mushroom cloud had to face, hence the re-visions from Ulysses to Omeros and the panoply of re-translations. Not to mention Homer’s literal worldview, his panoramic shots so far from ground level that the poet must not only be a god but also a camera: in the Iliad, with its temporal sequences ranged around the shield of Achilles, we find the birth of cinema (and another 20th-century art form too: the comic book).
The theorists worried, as theorists must. Following the insights of some of the first novelists and Romantic poets who dismissed Homer—Defoe, Richardson, and Blake thought the epic barbarous, superstitious, and inhumane—Adorno and Horkheimer locate the origins of bourgeois, western, male dominance in Homer’s objectification of myth; Auerbach indicts Homer because he presents a society more static and hierarchal than that imagined in the Hebrew Bible; Bakhtin contrasts the epic as monologic myth with the novel as ludic dialogue; Said levels his aforementioned postcolonial censure; and Benjamin links the aestheticism of the Homeric gods to the fascist exaltation in war for its own sake. Their points can’t be dismissed, nor can we ignore the context of a largely German-Jewish revolt against a Greek pantheon annexed by self-described Aryan fascists; but Benjamin’s communist “politicization of art”—in continuity with the English puritans’ anti-Homeric iconoclasm—leads to hecatombs of its own. It’s not as if communist politicizers never burned any books or committed any massacres. Like Simone Weil, the artists—Joyce, Pound, Auden, Ellison, Morrison, Godard, Carson, Walcott—saw more in Homer than war and domination. In the shield of Achilles’s “artificial wilderness,” they saw the universalizing force, the force of poetry, too.
Today’s politicization of art is less persuasive. Homer’s recent attackers, in whom the left-Hegelian critical theory of Adorno and Benjamin is garbled into the babytalk bromides of American meliorism, would replace his ethically “problematic” work with more suitable contemporary reading and viewing for young people—as if anyone past childhood ought to read for “role models,” as if it’s a surprise to anyone over 12 that a society some 30 centuries old doesn’t share our opinions, as if we consumers have any right at all to praise ourselves for living in such moral purity when we exist on the inside of a technological apparatus built by serfs at the direction of technocrats, and as if our world were not consequently much more akin to Homer’s than we want to admit. Here is how the hero of the Iliad replies when an enemy soldier pitiably and legitimately begs for his life:
“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 or sunset or high noon
when a man will take my life in battle too—
flinging a spear perhaps
or whipping a deadly arrow off his bow.”
After which his victim resignedly spreads his arms to receive the killing blow. Homer puts this horror in his poem of everything for the only reason the poet of everything ever needs: not because we are to supposed to side with or against the hero or to identify with him or model ourselves on him, but because life also contains this.
If we want to encounter the texture of an alien civilization through an intricately composed and infinitely complex text that has survived almost three millennia, we shouldn’t need to defend ourselves against passing moralisms that can’t compete with Homer’s comprehensive vision. His poems have outlasted harsher challenges than that. As long as the texts are available—I vehemently recommend physical media, or, as they used to say, “books,” which are safer from the arbitrary bans of our new technocrat-gods than are digital copies—his proscription by deadeningly moralistic schoolteachers will only attract imaginative students. They may even discover—as I haven’t yet—the moral Weil found in the Iliad: “Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.”
 A note on translation from a reader who, like Joyce and Woolf, does not know Greek. From my sampling of Iliads and Odysseys over the years, the stereotype of the major 20th-century translators seems basically correct: Lattimore is the most literal (sometimes off-puttingly), Fitzgerald the most poetic in both rhythm and diction, and Fagles the most readable for sensibilities reared on narrative fiction. I enjoy Fagles, but am sometimes startled by his lapses into cliché and anachronism—for example, he has Ajax “backpedaling” a thousand years before anyone thought of pedal-powered transport, both a cliché and an anachronism—and I don’t even see what his translations, with their very free rhythms, would lose by being set as prose. The Fagles version is invaluable, as I’ve hinted already, for Knox’s introduction. Finally, Christopher Logue’s War Music, not a translation but an adaption of selections from the epic, is a postmodern hallucination of the Homeric sensibility (“A giant child rests her chin on the horizon / And blows a city down”) and an extraordinary contemporary classic.
 And it is an alien civilization no matter how much the right and the left wings of the current culture war trip over themselves in their haste to agree with each other that it has something to do with “Europe” or “whiteness” just because some Germans once said so—this poem set in what is now Turkey (the traditionally-held homeland of the poet himself), recorded in a Semitic language, disseminated in oral and written forms across the entire expanse of the Mediterranean world, its final text established by scholars in Egypt, and preserved in Islamic and Byzantine centers of learning until the end of the European Middle Ages. The joint product of Asia, Europe, and Africa, it is an epic not only of everything but of everybody too.