This post sort of contains spoilers.
I co-host a series of discussions on the Great Books on the Interintellect (with the incomparable David McDougall). We’re hosting two “sections” to accommodate demand, which is a nice thing to be able to say. The sections are staggered by a month, so you do Book A, and then a month later, redo Book A with a different group.
I imagine this is what actual teaching is like, on a semester-by-semester basis, but I’ve learned that it’s a lot of fun. We covered The Iliad a second time this morning, and the second run gave me clarity on a bunch of thoughts that I wanted to write up. (Hat-tip to Mortimer Adler and his point on how the best books are the ones that reward re-reading and synoptical reading.)
One of my big questions in reading The Iliad is wondering how it was received by contemporary audiences. I’m less interested in the questions around oral traditions and when, exactly, it was written down. I’m more curious about the modern-day parallels.
Specifically, I’m curious about the sorts of people sitting around listening to or reading the tales that make up The Iliad. Presumably, these characters are known to the audience beyond just Homer, right? Agamemnon’s various trials and tribulations show up in The Oresteia, we hear a lot about Achilles and the Trojan War in The Aeneid. (I only just started The Aeneid, so I’m not responsible for any silly things I say about it.)
Is it a little bit like how we love sequels so much today? Here’s David Cox in The Guardian, writing in 2019:
Disney’s latest release schedule also promises eight more Marvel comic-book adaptations by 2022. Meanwhile, this year will see the spawn of not just behemoths such as Avengers, X-Men, Frozen, Toy Story, Spider-Man, The Lego Movie and Star Wars, but also less obvious franchise-launchers such as Godzilla, Men in Black, Shaun the Sheep, Angry Birds, Kingsman, Zombieland, Shaft and even Rambo.
I’m not a film person, so there might be some nuance I might be missing, but it seems like there’s some comparison to be drawn to The Iliad, in the sense that there are several works that deal with the Trojan War. On the one hand, maybe there’s no difference between this ancient reuse of the same characters — on the other, I’m not convinced we’ll still be talking about Avengers: Age of Ultron in a few thousand years.
Another thing that struct me during this second Salon is how much Homer tries to deviate from the stated narrative that war is glorious. He isn’t giving us an unexamined glorification of battle, although it is striking to read just how many different ways a sword or a spear or an arrow can penetrate someone’s flesh.
In Book 9, Achilles rejects (in some of the most forceful language in the entire book) the premise that he has to forgive Agamemnon or come and fight and gain glory. “The fate is the same if a man hangs back, and if he battles greatly,” Achilles says, rejecting the glorious warrior narrative top to bottom. “In equal honor are both coward and warrior; and they die alike.”
Later, he goes on to question the entire war. Why even are the Greeks fighting the Trojans? Why did Agamemnon bring the Greeks here to die here on Trojan soil? Achilles is the only person to ask these questions, and the book doesn’t provide us with answers. The book, in fact, takes it for granted that the war is going on: the war has literally been raging for a decade by the time that the Iliad even starts.
The first time I finished The Iliad, I felt the immensity of the poem: the sweeping narratives, the human costs of fighting, the gore, the inequity. But I didn’t feel like the story had resolved itself. The questions Achilles asks don’t get answered because they can’t be answered. If Homer spends too much time trying to answer the question, the entire poem comes apart.