27 October 2009

Rage, sing, goddess

It's no secret that the Iliad is important to me; in what was once referred to as "the most pretentious tramp stamp ever," I've got the first three words (menin aeide thea, the beginnings of the invocation of the Muse) tattooed at the base of my spine. It's a fitting place for these founding words of Western poetry, at the root of the spinal cord, the walled-in fortress of the nervous system (and, to switch traditions, the location of the kundalini chakra). In many ways, the Iliad is Western culture, violent and tender, pulled in opposite directions by the forces of war and domesticity.

Caroline Alexander's The War That Killed Achilles is a lovely, well-written exegesis of the Iliad's chronicle of the devastation and pity of war--a peculiarly human notion, but rarely so well put. For me, as for millennia of readers, the characters of Homer's epic are immediate and familiar, such that I still tear up when I read about Hektor taking leave of Andromache and Astyanax--still more so when Alexander points out that in light of this scene, where Hektor's infant son is terrified by his imposing helmet (whereupon the warrior laughs and takes it off, de-heroizing himself for the sake of his doomed posterity), Hektor's common epithet "of the shimmering helm" is less honorific than poignant detail of his martial duties' cutting him off from his family.

One still encounters people who claim the Iliad glorifies war. I can only surmise they haven't read it. The Iliad begins with rage and ends with two funerals; even Achilles would give up his glory to die quietly in old age, at home.

1 comment:

  1. Word. I'll think of you the next time I bitch-slap someone for claiming that the Iliad glorifies war.


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