June 9, 2009

We All Share A Measure Of Wretchedness

In school, I rarely enjoyed being forced to read long, boring novels from the distant past. Even worse was being told what to think about them. Thus, I never did well in English class.

One of my few favorites was The Iliad. The character who always stood out the most was Achilles. Of course, the other name for The Iliad is "The Wrath of Achilles," which summarizes nicely what drew me to the story. The world's greatest hero, feeling wronged, refuses to fight and would rather bring doom down on everyone around him than to succumb to injustice. It spoke directly to my anti-authoritarian sentiments. I would rather fail than let someone force me to read something that did not appeal to me. How dare they waste my genius?

Of course, in the end, Achilles realizes the price for fighting his fate is too high. His best friend is slaughtered by Hector, Achilles laments his pride and vows revenge, and he rejoins the war knowing that he will die soon after Hector.

I just finished rereading The Iliad. I picked it up again after reading "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" by Keats:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

I wanted to see what Keats saw. I wanted to be dazzled, because how often are we really dazzled by a work of literature.

As it turns out, the 400 year old translation is a hard read. It uses so many archaic words, and the constraints of writing in meter make for convoluted sentences. It took me more than six months to get through the 400 pages. I wished I had picked up a more modern prose translation instead.

But for all the difficulties, it was worth it in the end. The narrative is just as fascinating and powerful as an adult as it was as a teenager. But this time, the aspect of the story I was most drawn too was not Achilles and his anger, but instead the final book, when Priam comes to beg Achilles to release his son Hector's corpse for a proper burial.

With the help of the God Hermes, Priam sneaks into Achilles tent at night, and reminds the young warrior of his own father. He says:
Achilles, fear the gods,
Pity an old man, like thy sire, different in only this,
That I am wretcheder, and bear that weight of miseries
That never man did, my curs'd lips enforc'd to kiss that hand
That slew my children.

Achilles relents, as he realizes an important truth. All men are destined to suffer a mix of fortune and misfortune. Both Priam and Peleus, the father of Achilles, enjoyed long fruitful lives, only to see their sons stricken down in their youth. He learns that the enemies he has been fighting for ten long years are no different from himself. His anger assuaged, Achilles finds respect for the king of the Trojans, and grants him 12 days to proffer the funeral rites for Hector, before resuming the war.

I find a measure of comfort and affirmation about humanity to find that a lesson taught 2500 years ago can still be so applicable in today's world.