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Archive for January, 2010

when warriors refuse to fight

Now available thanks to bkmarcus at lowercase liberty:

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston, 1965In The War That Killed Achilles, author Caroline Alexander makes the same comparison I think of every time I read Book I of the Iliad.

First she quotes Achilles’s speech to Agamemnon. She quotes her favorite translation, by Richmond Lattimore. I will instead use my own favorite translation, by Stanley Lombardo:

Achilles looked [Agamemnon] up and down and said:

"You sorry, profiteering excuse for a commander!  
How are you going to get any Greek warrior
To follow you into battle again?
You know, I don’t have any quarrel with the Trojans,
They didn’t do anything to me to make me
Come over here and fight, didn’t run off my cattle or horses
Or ruin my farmland back home in Phthia, not with all
The shadowy mountains and moaning seas between.
It’s for you, dogface, for your precious pleasure —
And Menelaus’ honor — that we came here,
A fact you don’t have the decency even to mention!
And now you’re threatening to take away the prize
That I sweated for and the Greeks gave me.
I never get a prize equal to yours when the army
Captures one of the Trojan strongholds.
No, I do all the dirty work with my own hands,
And when the battle’s over and we divide the loot
You get the lion’s share and I go back to the ships
With some pitiful little thing, so worn out from fighting
I don’t have the strength left even to complain.
Well, I’m going back to Phthia now. Far better
To head home with my curved ships than stay here,
Unhonored myself and piling up a fortune for you."

Alexander comments:

It is a great gauntlet-throwing speech, particularly remarkable for occurring at the very outset of the epic. What Achilles is challenging is the bedrock assumption of military service — that the individual warrior submit his freedom, his destiny, his very life to a cause in which he may have no personal stake. In modern times, the speech finds its counterpart in Muhammad Ali’s famous refusal to fight in Vietnam:

I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong… No Viet Cong ever called me nigger… I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people.

Like Ali’s, Achilles’ words are particularly dangerous in that one can assume he is speaking aloud words that other, less charismatic men had long thought.

Read the whole thing at lowercase liberty.

Every age gets the Achilles it deserves.

Now available thanks to bkmarcus at lowercase liberty:

The War that Killed AchillesFrom The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War by Caroline Alexander:

When the Roman Empire split in the sixth century A.D., knowledge of Greek, which flourished in Byzantium, or the Eastern Empire, all but vanished in the West. The Iliad itself was forgotten, and in its stead stories about the war at Troy flourished, which, along with romantic sagas about Alexander the Great, formed the most popular "classical" material of the Middle Ages. The primary sources for these post-Homeric renderings of the matter of Troy, as the body of romance came to be called, were the Latin prose works of Dictys of Crete and Dares of Phrygia, dated to the third and fifth or sixth centuries A.D., respectively—both of whom were fancifully believed to have been eyewitnesses to the Great War at Troy. In these Latin renderings, Achilles, the complex hero of Homer’s Iliad, stripped of his defining speeches, devolved into a brutal, if heroically brave, action figure. In the hands of medieval writers, sentiment hardened further against him. The twelfth-century Roman de Troie takes pains, in thirty thousand lines of French verse, to ensure that Achilles is depicted as in all ways inferior, even in martial prowess, to the noble Trojan hero Hektor. Such interpretive touches would remain potent down the ages, arguably into the present time.…

But as knowledge of Homer was disseminated by English translations, as well as by knowledge of the original Greek, the perception of the Iliad’s central hero, Achilles, shifted, and so accordingly did the perceived meaning of the epic. Not only had Achilles been tarnished by the medieval lays, but from the time of Augustan England of the eighteenth century, he was further diminished by the ascendancy of another ancient epic: Virgil’s Aeneid, which related the deeds and fate of the Roman hero pius Aeneas—Aeneas the pious, the virtuous, dutiful, in thrall to the imperial destiny of his country. In contrast to this paragon of fascism, Achilles, who asserts his character in the Iliad’s opening action by publicly challenging his commander in chief’s competence and indeed the very purpose of the war, was deemed a highly undesirable heroic model. Thus, while the Iliad’s poetry and tragic vision were much extolled, the epic’s blunter message tended to be overlooked. Centuries earlier, tragedians and historians of the classical era had matter-of-factly understood the war at Troy to have been a catastrophe…

But now, later ages marshaled the Iliad’s heroic battles and heroes’ high words to instruct the nation’s young manhood on the desirability of dying well for their country. The dangerous example of Achilles’ contemptuous defiance of his inept commanding officer was defused by a tired witticism—that shining Achilles had been "sulking in his tent."  

Read the whole thing at lowercase liberty.

Over My Shoulder #48: from Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke”

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s sparely-written, chapterless skein of documentary vignettes retelling the events that led up to World War II.

Cyril Joad, a philosopher who was writing a book called Journey Through the War Mind, had a talk with his pacifist friend D. Joad asked D. whether D. thought Chamberlain should have negotiated with Hitler after Hitler’s peace offer. Yes, of course, said D.: Wars should never be begun, and as soon as they were begun, they should be stopped. D. then listed off many war evils: the physical and moral mutilation, the intolerance, the public lying, the enthronement of the mob. He quoted from the text of Chamberlain’s refusal—that by discussing peace with Hitler, Britain would forfeit her honor and abandon her claim that international disputes should be settled by discussion and not by force. Our claim is, you see, D. told Joad, that international disputes are not to be settled by force, and this claim we propose to make good by settling an international dispute by force. We are fighting to show that you cannot, or at least must not, impose your will upon other people by violence. Which made no sense.

Once a war has started, D. said, the only thing to do is to get it stopped as soon as possible. Consequently I should negotiate with Hitler.

Joad said: Ah, but you couldn’t negotiate with Hitler because you couldn’t trust him—Hitler would break any agreement as soon as it benefited him to do so.

Suppose you were right, D. said—suppose that Hitler violated the peace agreement and England had to go back to war. What had they lost? If the worst comes to the worst, we can always begin the killing again. Even a day of peace was a day of peace. Joad found he had no ready answer to that.

Cyril Joad talked about the war with another acquaintance, Mrs. C., a vigorous Tory. War was natural and unavoidable, said Mrs. C. The Germans weren’t human—they were brute blond perverted morons.

Joad asked C. what she would do with Germany, and a light came into her eyes.

I would make a real Carthaginian peace, she told Joad. Raze their cities to the ground, plough up the land and sow it afterwards with salt; and I would kill off one out of every five German women, so that they stopped breeding so many little Huns.

Mrs. C.’s ideas were shared by others, Joad had noticed; he’d recently read a letter to the editor about Germany in London’s News Chronicle: Quite frankly, said the letter, I would annihilate every living thing, man, woman, and child, beast, bird and insect; in fact, I would not leave a blade of grass growing even; Germany should be laid more desolate than the Sahara desert, if I could have my way.

The longer the war lasted, Joad believed, the more this kind of viciousness would multiply: Already Joad wrote, Mr. Churchill was reviving the appellation Huns.

— Nicholson Baker (2008), Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. ISBN 1-4165-7246-5. 154–155