Monday, January 24, 2011

Caught On The Trojan Plain

What really captivates me about Homer's Iliad is not so much the story/myth itself, but, rather its sheer endurance in Western thought for nearly three thousand years. What is it about a long ago war on the Trojan Plain that continues to haunt the consciousness of Western Man? Since its inception,why have Homer's heroes become classic archetypes personified through the ages? Has this original Homeric signature informed, perhaps formed the proto model of the virtuous citizen, the warrior, the patriot?

I believe it has. I believe the Iliad was The Inception itself. I believe the Iliad marks the first significant point of departure where cultural evolution and reflective art begins to formulate a new kind of coherent and archivable consciousness in Western Culture. Removed from the harsh rigors of our hunter/ gathering roots with the advent of agriculture some seven thousand years before, Homer's epic poem begins to build the interior framework of ancient Greek thought. And it is from this initial early Greek epic that the diaspora of Western ethics finds its founding form. To the present day it is Homer to which we can attribute much of our belief that to be human is to war and that war is an essential state in human affairs. What I am postulating here is that it is not biology by which we are compelled naturally to war, but, rather, by artifice of reflective art in the form of the epic poem that established the romantic ethic surrounding war, thus instituting a code of behavior that survives and thrives to this day.

Since this inception, Homer's epic poem has countless permutations through all the succeeding western literary forms; from the more modern thinkers and playwrights of Classic Greece( both Plato and Aristotle lionized Homer) moving forward and transformed by Virgil into the Roman hero model in the Aeneid, through the highpoint of the Islamic Renaissance, Egypt and Byzantine culture, the Divine Comedy, Goethe, Pope, Joyce, etc., not to mention modern movies and drama.

Homer's pervasive legacy may have far more to do with the fact that the Iliad was the very first story (in the direct line of this Western Tradition anyway) ever put down on paper for "the record." It is Homer's soaring tragic pathos that, in eternal return, continues to arc like streaming hyperbolic arrows through time. The idea of reading, writing and archiving was new in 8'th century BC Greece. The great library at Alexandria, Egypt lay 500 years in the future. Breaking the spoken word down into units of sound through an alphabet that could then be rendered as symbols on parchment paper thus transferring information without it having to be spoken, was a profound revolution. This was brave new world stuff 800 years before Christ, and the first people who could read and write in this new form were regarded almost as gods. Books, which were also new, could transfer information from generation to generation relatively intact. His Iliad, being the first book, transformed the long tradition of the oral or singing bard into "hard copy-" - onto parchment or papyrus scrolls. It is hard for the modern mind to conceive of just how remarkable this was. We need to plumb deeper into this single facet of Homer's inception.

Other than archeology, myth, and pseudo historical interpretation, nothing goes any further back than Homer in the West. Nothing…..Who did Homer read? Did he read Dante or Aristotle, Sophocles, Virgil, Ptolemy, Plotinus, the Stoics, Cicero? No, he did not but all mentioned here read him, and some of them hail Homer as the greatest writer who ever lived. Did they know he was the first? Was there even a rough notion of the concept of Philosophy or History in 800 BC? If these disciplines were not yet invented, should we confer the wisdom of primal insight upon Homer?

This fact alone seems a powerful thing to consider. Homer was the "proto founder" of Western written Culture. Before him lay a ’clean slate” unblemished by prior written forms. From this beginning, his muse was pristine and unencumbered. Did this primal innocence create his unprejudiced genius? Were his insights on the core elements of human nature more accurate than ours today? With millions of books in the legacy these 3 thousand years later, are we contaminated with an opaque and biased taint of history? Are we less or more informed to come to conclusions as to our essential nature than Homer was? He read no one as there was no one to read before him.

It begs the question: Does the artist merely reflect and render his forms subjectively from observed surroundings or can the artists, especially the proto artists, actually shape, form, and affect the descendant forms revered in the collective conscious ever there after? Does Homer really capture the immutable truths of Human nature with all its frailties and superlatives, or did he aggrandize to the highest altar this homage to the hero with all his Kleos and Time. Did his sublime hexameter popularize, romanticize, and finally institutionalize the hero ethic into the Western canon?

Are we always bound by our nature to war and to sacrifice our lives for the cause of nation, honor, glory, or the rights to kill other human beings because we are shamed, lose faith, or because our women are absconded with.? Does Homer make folly of all this or is he championing the integrity and warrior ship of Hector, the varied wraths of Achilles, the wisdom of Nestor, the sorrow of Priam- the ethic of glorious war for the fatherland? Has war always been? Is it an inextricable edict in human behavior? Will it always be? Was he trying to better the human condition of his time by noting the false conceits and pride, the ultimate tragedy of war, of which our essential nature, expressed in his heroes and in the gods, will never be able to escape?

Did he better the human condition by writing epics that would inspire and be carried, literally in book form by Alexander The Great on his conquests? (He would sleep at night in his tent, with the Iliad under his pillow). What did Alexander learn from The Iliad? If the Iliad is an anti -war morality lesson then why does Aristotle sing its praises and why does Alexander begin the biggest series of conquest wars of the known world? Did Alexander note and learn from the tragedy of Troy or was he compelled to dominate the world through the glory and honor and anger that Homer seems to place on so high an altar? Was the tragedy left only for the analyzers, the learned of literature and poetry, the intellectual class that can afford reflection through careful study?

Was the tragedy of Troy lost on Alexander, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Sherman, Patton, MacArthur, and so many geniuses of the military tradition? If the tragedy was taken to heart, fully understood, would these warriors have begun their great conquests? Should they have learned from the Iliad the ultimate futility of war, and if so, why does it continue today and why are the virtues of honor and glory still such compelling themes burning in the heart of the young patriot?
Will we ever learn and pay heed to the ultimate futility of war, even being the descendants of the victors, or are we condemned to continue its legacy for millennia to come? Is this our fate, a fate we can do nothing about? Is Homer the first seer and sage to recognize this fate or is he the initial glorifier and initiator of the tradition as it has been chronicled and retold in histories and literature and poetry ever since?

Heady rhetorical questions, I know, but somehow my deepest intuitions are that human nature is unique in its malleability, its imaginative power to transform itself through conscious evolutionary becoming, into a better more pragmatic thing; that it is perfectible though never perfect. I believe that in a universe that maybe reaches back 13 billion years, that there have been countless cosmic civilizations that have developed over millions of years then declined or became extinct and vanished into cosmic dust. Maybe even here on earth there were really ancient million year plus civilizations going back eons ago in time- long before the most ancient known asteroids struck the earth almost ½ billion years ago.

And if this is the case, then cultures that have million year traditions of self aware history, make our 4 thousand year or so of written/ myth history seem very fleeting and very infant and in this I see our conceited and anthropocentric error in calling ourselves “moderns.” We are still very, very ancient people seems me. And in this, there should be much room for improvement of our kind .We are largely still informed ethically and culturally by the first city states that necessarily formed around the new agricultural economy that began about 10,000 years ago, still very recent, in the sweep of time.

I think that Homer is crucial in so many ways, most important of which is that he is among the first cultural stone masons who laid the first foundation stones on a structure that may survive for a million years or more. We have scarcely begun the first course of stones in this foundation and it can only survive if we really begin to see what is best from Homer, and I’m not so sure that what is best from Homer was even evident to him, and learn from the ultimate futility and folly of war; that to be born, to struggle, to come to the revelation that we are mortal, that we will die, and that there can be a benign honor and glory conferred upon those who ennoble the struggle of life itself, especially when this struggle is life giving and life sustaining; that these tenets alone become things worthy of honor and glory and that someday- hopefully sooner rather than later- war itself will become an artifact, stripped of its honor and glory, found only as a relic in the human narrative.

posted by dave warren at 1:36 PM

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The long shadow of the Iliad and will Venus and Mars ever align in the Age of Aquarius.

Recently had an interesting fb discussion on the role of the poets and poetry in war.

I'd originally thought that all involved in the discussion were women. You see all participants, except me, hailed from the east, Bengladesh to be precise. Not having enough knowledge or experience in Bengali, I assumed that the names and the profile pics in the thread- which were not conclusive as to sex- were all women. Well, says alot for premature assumptions as all in the discussion were indeed men and only one women. So egg and my shirt goes well together. It was through this misinformed frisson of the man/ woman dynamic, however, that I drew some of my most inspired arguments, at least I thought so. The discussion got off to a poignant and sad start by noting the flag draped coffin of yet another soldier arriving home who died on foreign soil.

As follows starting the thread:

Bakhtiar Shahjahan Hafeez

Why do innocent lives have to be extinguished on a politicians whim? Such loss.

•Charmane Rashid Ahmed

• It goes back to the myths of male strength that must be tried and tested. The epic poets are partially to blame, Illiad, Mahabharata, etc. and partially it is because human beings have egos.

•Venkat Patla

•Some things never change. Why is it that the lives of so many are in the hands of so few? Don't blame the poets though. They merely mirror the state of the society. If not, all we'll need to fix the world would be a few good women poets!!!

•Charmane Rashid Ahmed

Ram, while I agree in part, I also do feel that poets romanticize war as honorable and glorious and the Victor gets the spoils, etc. There's Alexander 'the Great'--why great? Conquering countries that were doing fine on their own before the... Greeks came along shouldn't make him a great conqueror or strategist just because he won over weaker rulers. Of course, history might have been written very differently if invaders didn't exist, but as they say, history repeats itself and, unfortunately, it is oft repeated by the spilling of innocent blood....

•Venkat Patla

• Agree with all you say. Except the part about the poets. The prevailing mood in the society is what they reflect. If a bunch of people show up ranting with pitchforks, the poets join in. As along as there is life on earth there will be wars. Too morbid for a Friday! Lighten me up! I love seeing all those old pictures of your family. Very nostalgic.

•Bakhtiar Shahjahan Hafeez

• I've always maintained that religion, politics & governance should be headed by the fairer sex. Not because I'm surrounded by them at home. Goes directly to the ego/testosterone issue.

•Charmane Rashid Ahmed

• Ha! Ha! Alright, enough said. God bless the poets..

•Charmane Rashid Ahmed

• Bakhtiar, you're going from one extreme to the other. We need a balanced approach here. Go read some poetry. :-)

•Venkat Patla Mr. Bakhtiar,

• I wouldn't go that far. Left to the "fairer" sex, we'll go the praying mantis route!

■And now the long wind starting with the penchant for female praying mantids to devour their male consorts...

"Don't wanna get caught between the flaying mandibles of fairer sex mantids here, but I see both sides of the discussion between C A and V P (above) on the role of poets and poetry. Just so happens that poetry can cover the whole spectrum from the passive and reflective to the active sowing of seeds setting the grand stage for such virtues as honor and glory in battle. The Iliad, as CA notes above, surely does capture, for the first time in the Western literary tradition, the virtues of war’s honor and glory for all succeeding generations to come - not in preserving and protecting human life, but in destroying it.

It is the romance that is attached to war, seems to me, that is the most telling flaw some of the poets have helped to perpetuate in seductive, stirring hexameters and rhyme. Kipling comes to mind, but there are so many others in this tradition.

It is a sad testament really that the very first "story" in all of the western literary tradition is the story of a war written by a poet. Not a story about how we learned to grow crops, develop cooperative systems of commerce and government, establish laws, or utilize developing technologies--essentially, how we built sustainable societies--but of how we killed each other long ago on the Trojan Plain.

The very first story-teller (Homer), the very first poet that we become aware of- in western tradition anyway- is Homer; Homer who chronicles a “history” (perhaps myth) about the gratuitous ways that men killed men, thus earning their just rewards with the supposed glory, honor, and sacrifice conferred upon them by the “Gods” and by their fellow men.

I go along w/ what BS says about the fairer sex: Just imagine, cannibalizing mantids aside, and on a utopic tangent, if the very first epic poem, for example, had been written by the great woman poet, Sappho, who might have made grand in sublime hexameter the glory and honor and goodness there was in learning how to cure sickness, grow crops, read the stars, enrich language, raise children--essentially how to sustain life, not destroy it… one might hope that one day, long after these "ancient times," in which we still live as far as I'm concerned, that wars will be no more and the stirring romantic ethos of some of the poets will be seen only as social artifacts along the road of human becoming..

...some light reading for a Friday afternoon, eh?