Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Existential Iliad

I have an idiosyncratic take on Book 9 of the Iliad. The Iliad is the story of Achilles is the great warrior on the Greek side in the Trojan War. He gets mad at some slight, and he goes back to his tent to sulk, and the Greeks start losing.

So then they send emissaries to his tent to say, “Please come back.” And he says, “No.” Then, the Greeks start losing some more.

Eventually, he comes back, and he gets killed. That’s basically the story of the Iliad. Book 9 is where they send the emissaries to say, “Please come back,” and he says, “No.”

He gives this speech, this response that is weird, where he says, effectively, “The prophecy is that if I go back to fight here, I will die here. My name will be immortal. If I don’t go back to fight, I’ll go home and live a long life and will be forgotten.” He chooses to go back and be forgotten. Then, later, he changes his mind because his friend gets killed.

I think the existential examination of this Greek warrior and this heroic culture that clearly valorizes heroism and deathless fame and everything, and who is, canonically, the most famous heroic warrior and the one with the most deathless fame, he’s the one who says, “Nah, I’d rather go back and live a long life on my farm.”

The forcing of that choice is the central point of the highest work of Greek art, sort of prefigures a lot of existentialist thought in the future, I think.


G. Verloren said...

Ahh, the good ol' trope of Refusing The Call, followed by The Call refusing to be refused. It was an ancient tradition even in the time of the Greeks themselves.

Rincewind: I do not wish to volunteer for this mission.
Vetinari: I beg your pardon?
Rincewind: I do not wish to volunteer, sir.
Vetinari: No one was asking you to.
Rincewind: [wagging a weary finger] Oh, but they will, sir. they will. Someone will say: hey, that Rincewind fella, he's the adventurous sort, he knows the Horde, Cohen seems to like him, he knows all there is to know about cruel and unusual geography, he'd be just the job for something like this. [sigh] And then I'll run away, and probably hide in a crate somewhere that'll be loaded on to the flying machine in any case.
Vetinari: Will you?
Rincewind: Probably, sir. Or there'll be a whole string of accidents that end up causing the same thing. Trust me. sir, I know how my life works. So I thought I'd better cut through the whole tedious business and come along and tell you I don't wish to volunteer.
Vetinari: I think you've left out a logical step somewhere...
Rincewind: No, sir. It's very simple. I'm volunteering. I just don't wish to. But, after all, when did that ever have anything to do with anything?
Ridcully: He's got a point... He seems to come back from all sorts of things.
Rincewind: You see? [gives Lord Vetinari a jaded smile]

- The Last Hero, Terry Pratchet

Shadow said...

William James:

"History is a bath of blood. The Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes, and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism -- war for war's sake, all the citizens being warriors. It is horrible reading, because of the irrationality of it all -- save for the purpose of making "history" -- and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen."

The Iliad and the Odyssey are what the Greeks were expected to read if they could read, and what to listen to if they couldn't, because the stories embodied the ideas of nobility and arête (excellence).

JEL said...

Achilles is not killed in the Iliad. Feel free to evaluate the rest of the article on that basis.


Shadow said...

In his Iliad, Homer does not explain what happened to Achilles. According to later legends (and bits and pieces of Homer’s own Odyssey), the warrior returned to Troy after Hector’s funeral to exact further revenge for Patroclus’ death. However, the still-vengeful Apollo told Hector’s brother Paris that Achilles was coming. Paris, who was not a brave warrior, ambushed Achilles as he entered Troy. He shot his unsuspecting enemy with an arrow, which Apollo guided to the one place he knew Achilles was vulnerable: his heel, where his mother’s hand had kept the waters of the Styx from touching his skin. Achilles died on the spot, still undefeated in battle.

But it is a myth, so his death varies.