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

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