Archive for November, 2007

Aubrey/Maturin IV

I finished The Mauritius Command, which was very satisfying.  I think his writing is improving with each book, which is always a desirable quality in an author if he or she can manage it (Michael Connolly comes to mind).  The personality of Dr. Maturin continues to deepen, the description of Jack as a married man is bittersweet and funny, and the personalities of the Admirals and other ship captains add to the intrigue (poor Clonfert!).  Now, I am listening to it on CD in the car, which is even more enjoyable, the language is delightful. I am looking forward to The Ionian Mission (probably by Summer).

Another reading connection struck me toward the end of this book when Maturin is describing “a patient” who has lost interest in life, in all the things that used to interest him, ‘who takes a disgust to the world.’  His fellow physician answers: “I believe he perceives the void that has always surrounded him, and in doing so he falls straight into a pit.”  This reminded me of the epic of Gilgamesh, from the Teaching Company course which I listened to while raking leaves.  Gilgamesh is a hero who “looks into the abyss,” the abyss being that each of us must die.  Prof. Fears quotes the American writer, William Saroyan (The Human Comedy) as saying something like, “I know, of course, that everyone must die, but I thought an exception would be made in  my case.”  Of course, Gilgamesh is a powerful, successful (in ancient Mesopotamian terms) King, he comes to terms with death by reflecting on all that he has accomplished and will accomplish; for others, like the ‘small, indefinably odd and even ill-looking man’ that is Dr. Maturin, it may not be so easy perhaps.


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I am really struggling to understand The Iliad, or piece together the bits I have gleaned into something comprehensive.  What I got out of it was that Homer was trying to point the way to wisdom, to help mortals understand a tiny bit of the ways of the gods—or at least to realize how subjective and narrow is the mortal viewpoint.  Each one operates from his or her own frame of reference, subject to the vagaries of emotion or circumstance (often created by the gods who infuse weary warriors with new energy and passion for war or incite others to foolish actions).  Homer seems to be trying to help mortals achieve some detachment from these forces, a way to rise above the moment.  But it would be a mere parable if not for the sweeping language, the actual viewpoint from Olympus that we are privileged to share, and conversely, the close-up view of the action on the ground, and, most important,  the agonizing, incremental gains in wisdom made by Achilles – it is a painful process and one of necessary suffering. 

To help with my struggle for comprehension,  I dug out the old New Yorker article by David Denby (9/6/93), which recounts his experience of returning to Columbia 30 years after attending the University to take a required course in Literature in which they read The Iliad (the Lattimore translation).  Denby focuses on Achilles, who “dominates the poem, even as he withdraws;” whose “moody self-preoccupation” fascinates.  Denby, a film critic, draws a parallel with “Marlon Brando’s glamorously sullen performances in his youth.”  He also points out that while Achilles may seem like a spoiled baby to us, Homer provides “a noble, rather than an ethical, concept of life.  You are not good or bad.  You are strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, conquering or vanquished, favored by the gods, or cursed.” All the battles, descriptions and seemingly minor characters serve to illustrate the heroic code, that, according to Denby’s professor, is violated by Achilles (by sulking in his tent, I guess).  

Denby finds the crux of the poem in Book IX, when emissaries come to Achilles’ tents to beg that he return to the fight.  His honor should be satisfied, given the fact that he is offered many rewards, including the girl that was taken from him in the beginning, all of which should end the matter; however, Achilles refuses the offer, refuses to be satisfied. According to Denby, his answer (lines 312-27, 405-09) is that of a man struggling to say what has never been said, or even imagined, within the confines of the warrior’s code.  In Denby’s words: 

The hero turns out to be a hero after all.  Achilles’ rage, which had seemed almost infantile….has had the remarkable effect of stunning this haughty young man into a new conception of war.  Suddenly he is groping toward a an idea of honor that doesn’t depend on the bartering of women and goods or on the opinion that men have of one another’s prowess (Fears stated that honor is not only what you think of yourself, but also what others think of you – your reputation). “We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.  A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.”  For the greatest warrior in the world (one who has already turned down the promise of a long, peaceful life in exchange for honor and glory), that is a devastating admission…Achilles has jumped forward to a private, or even spiritual sense of worth.”   

This takes the mere learning of moderation, as pointed out by Prof. Fears, a step forward, or else it is simply fleshing out what Fears was saying, for if Achilles is violating the heroic code, even speaking against it, as above, and thinking that all life, not just that of his friend (this is before the death of Patroclos), is precious, “that nothing is won for me…in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle” ….”not worth the value of my life are all the possesions they fable were won for Ilion….Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting, and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses, but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.”  (The teeth’s barrier! Think of it, the last breath being gasped out….that is how the immediate and precise the language is, like a punch in the stomach).  So, Achilles has learned that there are things more precious than honor, which opens up a whole line of thinking that could have been dangerous and self-destructive; in fact, he decides to go back on his bargain with his mother and return home and live a long life!  But his anger at the death of Patroclus pulls him away from this tentative path and back to that of the avenging warrior, and so his death and glory are assured.  

Denby states that Achilles has made an attempt toward a modern consciousness, which for the modern reader had been missing from the poem, but while his revolt fails, the “questions he raised, about war and death, remain unanswered, because they cannot be answered.  The Iliad, for all its vaunting glory, remains in tension with itself, questioning, and even subverting, its own ethos..” 

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Thanksgiving Salad

I don’t know about you, but I like something green on the table at Thanksgiving; this salad has a light, citrusy dressing to balance a heavy meal.

Pear Salad:  I use a mixture of arugula, spinach, red-leaf lettuce with sliced red onion.  Chop up 1 or 2 firm-ripe bosc pears and add to the greens.  For the dressing, combine 1 T raspberry vinegar, 1 T honey, 1/2 T fresh lemon juice, 3 T extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt and freshly-ground black pepper.  Toss salad, then add crumbled gorgonzola and toasted walnuts. 

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In the first literature class I took at community college (where I was an accounting major), we read Oedipus Rex and were introduced to the concept of hubris — “overweening pride against the gods,” in the words of my professor.  Naturally, hubris comes up in The Iliad, with a much more thorough definition.  According to Prof. Fears, hubris is an act of ‘outrageous arrogance by which power is used to inflict pain upon the innocent’, caused by moral blindness (ate).   Agamemnon could have refused the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, but he chose to follow what he thought was his duty – to lead an army against Troy – and so aquiesced in the murder. (Fears again goes back to Bonhoeffer, citing the example of the Judge who ordered Bonhoeffer’s execution, because he was following orders and thought it was his duty. )  Since mortals cannot understand the ways of the gods, they usually don’t realize their folly until it is too late.  The Iliad attempts to explain the ways of God to man and thus is an attempt to impart wisdom, the wisdom of how to live one’s life. Phew!  

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I’ve listened to the Iliad lectures at least five times now and am still trying to grasp the enormity of it all.  Fears lays out many, often overlapping, lessons and themes from the book.  For instance, the great lesson is that learned by Achilles, that one should be moderate in the pursuit of one’s values.  For Achilles, honor was the most important thing, yet even that was not worth the death of his dearest friend; but Achilles, like all mortals, can only learn wisdom through suffering.   Fears refers back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was most immoderate in his dedication to the truth and the fight against evil, who in fact died for his beliefs.  And Fears adds that the person who has truly learned wisdom knows when to act immoderately and when not to.  I am starting to see the absolute genius of starting this course with Bonhoeffer!    

The other lesson for me is the realization that we are limited creatures.   Throughout the book, people make decisions for the wrong reasons, because they don’t see far enough ahead, or they can’t control their immediate wants and desires, or because they are too proud or arrogant or self-satisfied; it is the fate of humans to make bad decisions and suffer for them.  In addition, the poem is well grounded in physical details, not just of killing, but of eating and drinking, and harnessing chariots and putting on armor, and weaving, all the details of living.  This realism and close-up view of the action makes the switch to the godly heights of Olympus and the gods’ views of man even more compelling, it seems to stretch the reader’s mind.   We see the mind of Zeus and his intentions and it is over-arching and all-knowing, and we quail before it (But overpowering is the mind of Zeus forever, matched with man’s).  Back into the mind of Hector or Patroclos, and we see their limited, their puny efforts, and feel compassion for them and for ourselves. 

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I finished the Iliad; and I’m quite glad that after some false starts over the past decade I finally did it, and I enjoyed it.  More than that, it changed my life (more to follow on this).  First of all, two things helped me finally conquer this classic:  1) the motivation and context provided by my course, and (2) finding a translation that was more accessible to me (Fitzgerald).  It’s true that there are some tedious passages, most notably at the end of Book II, when the reader is first subjected to the long lists of ships and fighting men that made up the Greek  (or Akhaian  as they are called by Fitzgerald) and in less detail, the Trojan forces.  This type of cataloguing occurs many times throughout the poem, especially in the thick of battle, when each man slain receives his due, a synopsis of his background, where he was from and, usually horrible, the manner of his death.  This becomes less difficult and more forgivable as the action increases and it forms a pattern that seems right for what was an oral history, a way to write about the fighting and give honor to the dead.  The long lists of fighting men and their origins and past adventures gives a context for the action, so when someone we know gets killed, we understand the loss and reflect upon it.  Despite the gory nature of the killings, it seems important to know how each one who died, to list their names and honor their lives.  As part of an oral tradition, I guess this was a way of remembering and for the living to feel that in time they too would be remembered.    The repetitiveness of the poem also grows less objectionable as one continues reading; it, too, starts to seem natural, and finally, an essential part of the fabric of the great vision that Homer presents.

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Reading connections

I love the game of literary references, how one thing leads to another, for instance, I had never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer before my TeachCo course.  I read the New Yorker cover-to-cover (well, almost) every week.  So, in a recent issue (in October?), there was a reference to Bonhoeffer in a letter from a reader.  That’s the kind of thing that gives me a thrill!  Here’s another example:  I am listening to a Rumpole book on CD, in a low moment, Rumpole turns to the Oxford Book of English Verse that is always by his bedside, “the old Quiller-Couch edition,” to recite lines of his favorite poem (…Great God!  I’d rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.)

Then, when I finished The Iliad last night, closing the book on the burial of Hector, I wanted to read once again the poem by Keats, “On Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” Finding it easily on www.bartleby.com, I have copied it below,

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          5
  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;   10
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes  
  He stared at the Pacific—and all his men  
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—  
  Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Here is the reference for the poem:  Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900. So, life for the dedicated reader can become a series of branching paths of endless fascination!

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