There be dragons!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The timelessness of the Iliad

While researching ideas for my students who are reading the Iliad I came across this new book cover for Stanley Lombardo's translation of the Iliad published by Hackett publishing company.

I haven't yet read the translation but the cover alone is remarkable. Students frequently ask, though perhaps not so eloquently as did Hamlet, "what is he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him?" In other words, why ought we be concerned with a work that was written in a foreign language over 2000 years ago (with a war that was 3000) years ago?

I think that this cover reflects that question. It's a fantastic choice for the cover of this masterpiece. Whereas most publishers have chosen stark pictures of Greek helms, or hoploi, or a panoply of empty, ghostlike armor, or others have chosen that famous statue of the spartan king, Leonidas, or still others have perhaps shown a painting or fresco of the legend of Achilles, the publisher here has chosen Robert Sargent's famous photo of the landing at Omaha beach, June 6, 1944, thus connecting the tumultous event of D-day in our modern era to the timeless themes embodied in Homer's great work.

Like the work of the Iliad, the stark black and white photo conveys a sense of fatedness and oppression from divine necessity. What is is and what will be will be. The gods themselves are merely slaves to the destructive fatedness of character in the Iliad and man is even more fated to endure "the will of Zeus moving toward its end." Events begun in wrath on Achilles' part work themselves out to the inevitable destruction of "so many sturdy souls hurled down to the house of death" such as Hector and Patroklus. Nor is there any justice in the slaughter of these men for they were "great fighters' souls" not cowards or evil men. Fate seems to grind down the good, the noble, the virtuous and the pure and there seems to be no escape from such horrible ruin. Hector himself acknowledges to Andromache that "one day mighty Ilium will fall" and Achilles states that "the same fate waits the coward and the brave." Courage, nobility and honor do not save a man from suffering the horrid ruin of being "hurled down to the house of death."

Similarly, Sargent's photo is framed by the steely cage of the Higgins boat, tomblike, funneling men onto the killing field of the sands of France. The colorless world of smoke and horror seems oppressive, fated, lifeless and terrifying. Nor does one have any assurance of surviving the hail of bullets from German pillboxes once he emerges from the relative security of the womb of the boat into the bloody world of war's reality. The young men who fought on that day undoubtedly had a sense of their own fate and the cruel jesting unfairness of it all.

Yet what more could they have done then their duty? They saw this moment as the beginning of the "Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months" as Eisenhower urged them. "The eyes of the world are upon you," Ike wrote, "The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you." No more could the young men butchered in those first few moments of terror shirk their duty then could Hector have remained behind the walls of the city. Hector claims that he cannot follow Andromache's command and remain in Troy for shame at facing "the women of Troy with their long robes trailing behind them" or the men who would mock him for his cowardice. The necessity of Honor drives Hector as it later would drive the young men on Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno & Gold beach to give their own lives rather than shirk duty.

But more even than duty or honor what drives both Hector and the men at Normandy is the sense of love. Hector claims that he would sooner die than see Andromache "led off in chains, servant to some Greek woman" or see his little boy, Astyanax, thrown from the walls of the city (as later he would be). Love ultimately drives Hector to do the impossible task of defending a failing cause against overwhelming odds. Similarly the men at Normandy beach may have had different motives for joining the army, but in those moments before the gate dropped and the first waves dissolved in an hazy smear of blood, love must have been a motivating factor. Each man loved country, freedom, family, mothers, sisters, wives, children and each other. Driven by a love for the world and desire to stop the marauding hordes of darkness that threatened to engulf the fragility of human life and human civilization in a wave of Fascist nihilism, each man somehow found the courage to inch up that beach and reach the shingle. In a primordial way they struggled merely to survive; but beyond that animalian impulse they also wished to "bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for (themselves) in a free world," just as Hector sought to preserve some vestige of human civilization and beauty for himself and those whom he loved.

Saint Paul once wrote to the Corinthians, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." Love seems to be the distinguishing mark of the free man. It is a deep seated power that transcends the acrid putridity of Treblinka and Auschwitz, the violent superfluity of Krystalnacht, and the tragic ruin of Hissarlik. Consequently it speaks of man's greatness who alone can, in the face of overwhelming odds, look beyond his world to a greater light and endure unimaginable pain for the "little low heavens" he sees around him. Ultimately, as in Sargent's photo, man seems to be heading toward a grey dismal land, only dimly seen through terrified eyes. But love, even in that last test of our heroism, allows us to stand against the barbarism that seeks to beat us down and say

My time has come!
At last the gods have called me down to death.
Well let me die -
not without struggle, not without glory, no,
but in some great clash of arms that even men to come
will hear of down the years!

1 comment:

  1. A moving analogy, gee it must be wonderful to have an education. John 15:13