Friday, 23 April 2010

Discovering the Classics

I generally have a couple of books going at any one time and, as per the advice of C.S. Lewis, I try to ensure that at least one of them is something old. Recently, by some strange coincidence, I seem to have been delving into a lot of Greek stuff (both pagan and Christian; not an intentional choice- it's just turned out that way) and as it happens I just finished The Iliad (yes, I had not read it before) and thought I might share some thoughts and impressions.

One of the things that interests me particularly about such works as this, and I felt much the same wandering about the various temples and sites in Egypt last year as well, is the opportunity to try to get inside the mind of paganism. It would not be too inaccurate to say that the advent of Christianity spelled the end for paganism historically. Whereas throughout the entire history of human society before Christ, virtually every society had had some pantheon of gods, some practice of sacrifice, etc., after Christianity this has become less and less the norm. This is of course a very broad statement with exceptions (yes, Zoroastrianism never really fit into the category of paganism; yes, pagan religions and peoples were still here and there long after Christianity, and later Islam, started spreading) but there is a broad truth here as well. 2000 years ago the majority of societies were pagan. Now, the only major pagan religion left is Hinduism, and those few foolish and ignorant who want to resurrect paganism in some form instead create something entirely new that the ancients simply wouldn't recognise.

This last indicates something significant. Real paganism is a thing utterly foreign to the modern mind and thus, in a sense, irrevocably lost. Even neo-pagans and Wiccans can't escape their underlying Judaeo-Christian mindset. So to walk around the temples of Egypt, or to read Homer, is to step into a foreign and fascinating land. How did these people think? What were these rituals they practiced and how did they understand their significance? What and who did they really think the gods were?

In this connection, two things surprised me in reading the Iliad. One was just how involved the gods are in the poem. One imagines in a work like this that the gods will be distant entities, sitting atop Olympus looking down, occasionally invoked by the people. Not so. They get their hands dirty. They're constantly trying to influence battles and kill or save individuals (Aphrodite even gets physically injured by Diomedes when she rescues Aeneas from him). They also like disguising themselves as random minor characters whereby they seek to influence the minds of major characters.

In addition to their constant presence, though, is their pettiness. Virtually all of the gods have taken a side in the war and are keen to not only root for their side but actively sabotage the other side. To this end, for example, Hera seduces Zeus, knowing this will send him off to sleep (I found that pretty funny actually) so he won't notice her fellow gods turning the tide of battle behind his back. This trait sits alongside a certain arbitrariness, which comes across as cruel and heartless. Zeus has a masterplan for the whole thing. He has every intention of letting the Greeks win the war eventually. But he intends that Hector should die at the hands of Achilles. To do that, Achilles has to get over his disagreement with Agamemnon. For that to happen, Patroclus has to die. For Patroclus to die, he has to decide to go into battle. For Patroclus to go into battle, the Greeks have to believe that he is the only one who can save them from utter defeat. For them to believe that, the Trojans have to have pushed the Greeks back to the beaches and have fired at least one of their ships. For that to happen, all the Greek champions have to have been injured and incapacitated for the rest of the battle. So Zeus has it all worked out, and to hell with all those dying on both sides in the meantime. When Poseidon starts feeling sorry for the Greeks in their increasingly desperate situation and decides to go into battle himself disguised as one of them, Zeus is none too happy. "That wasn't part of the plan!"

As Christians we often take the steadfast love of God for granted. We're used to His benevolence. We accept that God is love, as St John says, and that mercy and goodwill is simply of His nature. The Greeks clearly didn't have that luxury. Their gods had their own agenda, and bad luck if your death or suffering was an essential ingredient in their grand scheme. We, for our part, know that if we suffer, God means it for our good, even if we cannot see it. For the Greek gods, the good of the individual did not exist. Men, even the greatest of men like Hector or Patroclus or Achilles, are simply pawns in a game which is not ultimately about them. Given the contrast, I find myself less surprised that the Greeks as a people converted and have never really looked back.

On the human side, one of the other things that intrigued me was, on the one hand, how graphically violent the whole poem is and, on the other, how personalised it is. The norm for much of the poem is something like this: "So Hector threw his spear at Arnokos, and it hit him on the left side and pierced him just below the shoulder-blade, emerging near the centre of his back slightly to the left of his spine and blood spurted out and stained his bronze armour which he had taken from his father at his home in the hill-country of Mt Ida, though his father had warned him repeatedly that no good would come of his going to war and had expressly forbidden him from seeking the field of Troy; but Arnokos had stolen away in the middle of the night, taking with him his father's spear and bronze shield and bronze greaves and gold-hilted sword and plumed helm, yearning for the god-bestowed glory and honour that comes in the heat and din of battle. Thus his father's warnings were proved and Arnokos saw his end by the thrusting spear of Hector." So one gets a full back-story, along with graphic details of the death, of a character who has never been mentioned in the narrative before that point and is never mentioned again. It's weird and takes getting used to. In some ways, I kind of liked it, because it married the excitement of your typical modern Hollywood battle scenes with their nameless hordes rushing forward en masse to be slain by our heroes in a grisly and gory manner with a more personal touch that recalled to my mind Victor Hugo's penchant for writing characters for their own sake even if they have no bearing on the plot whatsoever. On the other hand, after several chapters of almost nothing but this kind of thing, it got terribly, terribly boring.
So, the Iliad's done. I had vaguely intended to read it in Fitzgerald's translation and then read Pope's version, but I'm not really motivated as much now. The Iliad is, to be honest, not the most riveting thing I've ever read. Still, I'm pretty chuffed to have finished it, and eager to dive into the sequel.


Anonymous said...

On pagnaism; as a note I've been told Buddhism comes from Hinduism in the same way Christianity is an offshoot from Judaism, so Buddhism might also be on the list. I take it with a grain of salt.

GAB said...

You're right about the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, the comparison is apt. However, one of the things Buddhism did not inherit from Hinduism is its pantheon. My understanding (which is not particularly well-informed either, to be honest) is that Buddhism finds the idea of deities largely irrelevant. The Buddha himself does seem to have been divinised to some extent though, judging from what Buddhist practice I've seen, but I don't think it's quite in the same category.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I think that's how it goes, wasn't quite sure if that was more along the lines of Buddhism or taoism (which I think has no dieties or God at all).

So many religions, so much to learn, but at least we're not completely ignorant :p

Anonymous said...

Firstly, let me put in a plea for the Iliad. The Iliad is the story of war, of all war. So, when we read Priam's lament for his son (and that he is spared Paris, Paris), or Hector's looking ahead to Troy's downfall, seen through the eyes of Andromache's grief, there is something there one reads through that the grief of all fathers and husbands. Here is Hector's speech to Andromache:

Yet come it will, the day decreed by fates!
(How my heart trembles while my tongue relates!)
The day when thou, imperial Troy! must bend,
And see thy warriors fall, thy glories end.
And yet no dire presage so wounds my mind,
My mother's death, the ruin of my kind,
Not Priam's hoary hairs defiled with gore,
Not all my brothers gasping on the shore;
As thine, Andromache! Thy griefs I dread:
I see thee trembling, weeping, captive led!
In Argive looms our battles to design,
And woes, of which so large a part was thine!
To bear the victor's hard commands, or bring
The weight of waters from Hyperia's spring.
There while you groan beneath the load of life,
They cry, 'Behold the mighty Hector's wife!'
Some haughty Greek, who lives thy tears to see,
Imbitters all thy woes, by naming me.
The thoughts of glory past, and present shame,
A thousand griefs shall waken at the name!
May I lie cold before that dreadful day,
Press'd with a load of monumental clay!
Thy Hector, wrapt in everlasting sleep,
Shall neither hear thee sigh, nor see thee weep."

One of my favourite episodes is the one where the scales fall from Helen's eyes and she sees Paris for what he is, but nonetheless is eventually persuaded to enter his bed. There is that lovely line in Pope's version:

She scorn'd the champion, but the man she loved.

I love too Achilles' lament for Patroclus:

Divine Patroclus! Death hath seal'd his eyes;
Unwept, unhonour'd, uninterr'd he lies!
Can his dear image from my soul depart,
Long as the vital spirit moves my heart?
If in the melancholy shades below,
The flames of friends and lovers cease to glow,
Yet mine shall sacred last; mine, undecay'd,
Burn on through death, and animate my shade.

You should read Maurice Baring's Have you anything to declare?, about the Iliad. There is nothing quite like it.

I think there is a sharp distinction also between the poetic, and the philosophical approaches to the Greek gods. What you read in the Iliad is human explanation of the changeable and changing fortunes of war. The mythology of the Iliad undergirds the explanation of war. So, it makes sense that the gods should be portrayed as completely immanent, which is not the point of view of the philosophers. One gets constant insights in Greek, and particularly Roman thought, into how profoundly embarrassed the philosophers were about such things. Macrobius is probably the best such example. He treated the myths as husks concealing deep truths beneath a covering of myth.

GAB said...

Haha. Pace, friend! I didn't say I didn't like it, simply that I found substantial chunks of it rather dull (not quite the same thing). This probably says more about me and my philistinism than about the text. Also, I should add that these are the first impressions of an amateur and newcomer.

Interestingly, now that I'm reading the Odyssey, I'm actually finding that it's making me appreciate the Iliad rather more. The Odyssey puts the whole thing perhaps in a bit more perspective, gives it a bit more context. The characteristics that struck me about the poem- the dullness, the chaos, the parade of personages who are interesting in themselves but get cut down before you know it, the seeming pettiness of the cosmic forces (the gods or Providence or whatever you want to call them)- on reflection, aren't these after all the characteristics of every war, and part of the experience of every soldier, as you said?

Even the gods in the Odyssey (at least some of them) seem slightly less petty this time around. On that count, I have read Plato and so was acquainted with Socrates/Plato's dislike of the myths, but I suppose it wasn't until reading the Iliad that I got a taste of exactly what he was reacting against.

So, yes, with a bit of perspective, I begin to see your point/s. I plan to write a bit more on the subject once I've finished the Odyssey (up to Book XVIII presently) and had a bit more time to digest it all. Thanks for your input.