Friday, July 18, 2014

When Gods Walked The Earth

Some humble thoughts and opinions …

I spent a remarkable fifteen days reading through the Great Books volume of Homer’s Iliad.  This version is Samuel Butler’s 1898 prose translation, and other than the use of Roman names (of deities, Ulysses instead of Odysseus, perhaps other heroes’ names), it worked for me.  Still, though, it enkindled within me an intense desire to read Alexander Pope’s much more lyrical and poetical 1715 translation.  It’s on my Acquisitions List.

The single thing that absolutely floored me was the complete alien-ness of these species of men.  These Greek and Trojan warriors are completely foreign – in every conceivable way – to 21st century homo sapiens.  The mindset, the beliefs, the actions, the culture, every single aspect of these homo homeri struck me like a twenty-five foot plunge into freezing icewater.

How different are they?  They know no fear.  Fear is not merely anathema to them, something to be overcome … it literally does not exist for them.  Instead, replacing a conception of fear is the concept of personal honor and personal courage.  Browse any self-help aisle in any American bookstore, and the titles are all about succeeding by overcoming limitations, most in the form of fear.  Homer’s warriors wouldn’t laugh at the concept; they would simply toss such a book into the fire.  No, more essential to them, the single metaphysical ingredient flowing through their veins and capillaries, is that intermeshwork of honor and courage.

Physical strength, skill, and stamina are important to a degree far beyond obese America’s ability to understand.  Indeed, a somewhat anticlimactic chapter towards the end of the Iliad involves the Greeks pausing between Hector’s death and the sacking of Troy (which, to be fair, does not occur until the “sequel,” the Odyssey) and holding chariot races, boxing matches, archery competitions, etc.  It’s like Patton stopping his forward motion after taking the Sicilian beaches to hold the President’s Fitness Award trials before beating Montgomery to Palermo.

With such men, such homo homeris, could one not conquer the entire modern globe with a thousand such men?  And just how long would that take – a decade?  Less?  Ah, there’s the subject for a novel.  After some thought, I think the answer would be Yes … and no, because you, as a homo sapien, would not be ruling for long – one of them would be, soon enough, if you catch my drift.

Nietzsche has a point, up to a point, in admiring such men.  Now, my knowledge of Nietzsche is amateurish (meaning non-professional as opposed to incompetent), and most of that knowledge is dependent on a Zarathustra reading and a whole bunch of secondary sources twelve or fourteen years ago.  So forgive a lack of further analysis here, but it seems to me Friedrich held the Greek standard as the standard of manliness as opposed to the Christian ideal.  And I can understand his point, up to a point, the whole “herd mentality” and “Christianity was a morality system designed by the weak to protect themselves from the strong” things.  I get it, though I don’t believe it ultimately holds.  Perhaps it’s my belief in an afterlife as opposed to an Eternal Recurrence, or perhaps it’s something more.

The most horrible aspect of homo homeris is that they do not have any conception of the quality of mercy.  Mercy is for the weak, and strength – in the manifested forms of personal honor, personal courage, and physical ability – strength demands no mercy be given.  Their system of justice is a complex network of socially and culturally enforced gestures and policies regarding “respect” that is ultimately based on an iron-clad might-makes-right standard.  (Gee, I hope I conveyed that idea without sounding like a tire-deflated soul-sucking post-modern literary post grad.)

And the violence!  I’m not hand-wringing here; though I have not experienced war first-hand and pray none of my family or friends do, I understand the blood and guts factor of war literature.  And the Iliad is perhaps the first and finest of “war literature.”  There are 281 deaths in Homer’s tale of the siege of Troy, and all contain some gritty gory aspect.  I’ve listened to a college professor say that it’s one of the factors that keep his young male students interested.  Beginning in Book IV with Pandarus’s death (Diomedes’ spear hits him dead center in the face, splitting his nose and severing his tongue), to the unfortunate warrior whose testicles get ripped out, to poor Corianus (Hector hit him on the jaw under the ear; the end of the spear drove out his teeth and cut his tongue in two pieces ...), the Iliad is, er, perhaps the grossest thing next to a Clive Barker book I’ve read.

Prior to reading the complete text I was convinced the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was completely and wholesomely platonic, that insinuations of anything more (meaning perverse) was just the poisonous deconstructions of post-modernism.  But reading the text first hand, uh, there does seem to be more than a drinking-buddies-rooting-for-the-same-football-team relationship there.  Achilles reaction to Patroclus’ death is very, very, very strong.  Or maybe that’s just me allowing pop culture more than the minimal amount of influence it deserves.  

Regardless of all that (nonsense or not), I truly believe every teen-aged boy should read this, for the martial aspect of the work.  Period.  I’d love to know their initial reactions to Butler’s heroic title for Apollo – “Far-Darter” – was the same as mine.  And every military cadet or prospective ROTC candidate should be required to write a thousand-word analysis of it.  I recently read, though I can’t seem to recall where, that nations based on Judeo-Christian values need governments based on Pagan values to successfully wage war.  If by “Pagan” one means “Homeric,” then how does one wrestle with the anguishing riddle of not failing to concur?

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