09 June 2013


Here, from John Le Carré's first novel Call for the Dead (1961), is a description of the sickness of how states "think" about people.  The speaker is Elsa Fennan, a survivor of the Holocaust, whose Foreign Office husband Samuel has seemingly killed himself after being vetted by George Smiley as a possible security risk.

It's an old illness you suffer from, Mr. Smiley . . . and I have seen many victims of it.  The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims.  But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that's a terrible moment isn't it?  The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins . . .

It's like the State and the People.  The State is a dream too, a symbol of nothing at all, an emptiness, a mind without a body, a game played with clouds in the sky.  But States make war, don't they, and imprison people?  To dream in doctrines--how tidy! . . . 

You call yourself the State, Mr. Smiley; you have no place among real people.  You dropped a bomb from the sky: don't come down here and look at the blood . . .

However, we're meant to know that Smiley isn't really one of those bodiless bureaucrats.  Hopelessly in love with his compulsively faithless wife Ann, he's happiest in the world of seventeenth-century German poetry.  Told to abandon his investigation of Fennan's death when he presents his boss with an unwelcome hypothesis, he instead resigns his post, like an English Philip Marlowe (of course Raymond Chandler was English too).  He hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century.  Everything he admired or loved had been the product of intense individualism.  But Smiley then turns to consider his former student Dieter, fifteen years ago a heroic spy and saboteur against the Nazis, now an East German spymaster: That was why he hated Dieter now, hated what he stood for more strongly than ever before: it was the fabulous impertinence of renouncing the individual in favour of the mass. . . Dieter cared nothing for human life: dreamed only of armies of faceless men bound by their lowest common denominators; he wanted to shape the world as if it were a tree, cutting off what did not fit the regular image; for this he fashioned blank, soulless automatons . . .

Can John Le Carré really mean this to represent the inner voice of the Smiley we've come to know, the voice that spurs him to action?  It has the off-the-rack certainty of all ideological speech.  Those bombastic adjectives: intense, fabulous, faceless, soulless; those boilerplate abstractions: hate, individual, mass, lowest common denominators, armies of faceless men, automatons; nobody uses language like that unless he's trying to sell you something.  And what indeed was the Nazi program if not the mirror image of Dieter's, renouncing the good of the masses in favour of the [Nietzschean] individual?  Of course Le Carré isn't Joseph Conrad, nor even Graham Greene: he's writing spy stories, not political novels, and his writerly craft is better-suited to narrative than to serious fiction's other aims.  Even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, his finest novel, is written in the middlebrow vernacular of a thoughtful thriller, although its complex examination of the varieties of betrayal transcends the genre.  It's possible that Le Carré doesn't have quite enough subtlety as a writer for the fineness of his conception of the noir hero.  But it's possible too that he means us to infer that Smiley in using such language is trying to sell himself something--to find a "Deus volt" for himself-- as he prepares to go gunning for his old friend Dieter.

While Call for the Dead is less ambitious in scope than the later novels, its use of different styles of rhetoric is not untouched by irony.  For example, the widow Elsa Fennan is not quite so uncomplicated as she seems, and what she says oughtn't in the end to be taken unsalted.  Nevertheless, as Smiley's progress through Le Carré's later novels shows, his real tragedy is that she's telling the truth about him: he faithfully serves a State that is no less driven by abstractions than its enemy States and that freely offers individual people up as sacrifice for Its own inhuman purposes.  And perhaps it is impossible to work for a "dream" like a State without sometimes finding on one's own tongue that anti-specific rhetoric peculiar to dreams.  Speaking of Henry James's passionate respect for individuals rather than types, T. S. Eliot famously said that he had "a mind so fine no idea could violate it."  But men like that are rare indeed, and so are writers.

29 May 2013


While the Iliad has many female characters, it is not a poem about women.  Except for Andromache, Hector's wife, their main narrative function is to further the course of the war, whether as pawns, like Chryseis and Briseis, or more actively, like Helen, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.  Even Thetis, Achilles's mother, when she brings him maternal comfort, brings it in the form of a new shield and armor.  The poem's subject--war--is intricately bound up with the relations of men, as comrades, antagonists, soulmates, but perhaps even more deeply as sons with their fathers.  A man is rarely named whose father's name does not follow immediately after, and the grief of fathers bereft of their sons is evoked in many places:                                                                                             
                                                               [and] Merops...refused to let his two boys march to war,
                                                               this man-killing war, but the young ones fought him
                                                               all the way...and Diomedes...stripped them of life-breath...

                                                               The son of Tydeus killed [Xanthus and Thoon] on the spot,
                                                               he ripped the dear life out of both and left their father
                                                               tears and wrenching grief...

Some of the heroes even bear their fathers' names as epithets: Telamonian Ajax; Tydides, for Diomedes son of Tydeus; the Atridae, Menelaus and Agamemnon, sons of Atreus; and of course Pelides, who is Achilles son of Peleus.  Since I've already raised the controversial idea that modern psychological phenomena may help us understand the ancients, not to mention the other controversial idea that literary characters may sometimes be interpretable as if they were alive, I shall go on to suggest that the way sons feel about fathers is at the heart of The Anger of Achilles.

What does Homer tell us about Achilles?  Son of Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis, he was raised in Phthia, in northern Greece; when sent to join the Achaean armada he was

                                                               ...a youngster still untrained for the great leveler, war,
                                                               still green at debate where men can make their mark.

Instructed in warfare on the way to Argos by "the old charioteer Phoenix," he is so naturally gifted at it that he joins the Argives as their youngest chief and best fighter.  While I shall not in general allude to non-Homeric legends about Achilles (such as the one about his heel), Apollodorus writes that he was fifteen when named admiral of the Greek forces.  When the poem begins, then, nine years later, he is in his mid-twenties, and has spent his entire young manhood on campaign, among men of war.  Impetuous, strutting, and prideful, Achilles is touchy about having his pre-eminence in battle acknowledged by his more seasoned fellow captains, and hungry for all the fame there is.  Also of vital importance: he has fallen in love with the maiden Briseis:

                                                               I loved that woman with all my heart,
                                                               though I won her like a trophy with my spear.

This is "the strong/ Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles,/ Who would not live long" (as Auden calls him), in the ninth year of the war against Troy, when

                                                               [the] gods knotted the rope of strife and leveling war,
                                                               strangling both sides at once by stretching the mighty cable,
                                                               never broken, never slipped, that snapped the knees
                                                                                                                                    of thousands...

The Greeks are suffering a plague sent by Apollo at the request of his priest Chryses, to whom Agamemnon has refused to return his daughter Chryseis, a trophy of war.  Once the cause of the sickness is known, the other captains insist that Agamemnon return her; angrily, he acquiesces, but only if they make up his loss from their own shares of the booty.  Outraged that Agamemnon should seek to take back spoil already shared out, Achilles challenges him.  Their exchange heats up until Agamemnon, himself outraged by Achilles's rebelliousness, claims his lover Briseis for himself to make up for losing Chryseis.  Staggered, Achilles reaches for his sword, but is restrained by Athena in the name of Zeus, "Father of the Gods;" he then retires to his own encampment, on strike, with his fifty ship-loads of Myrmidons.

In all his pride, Achilles still longs to be contained within the loving authority of a father.  While his position makes him equal to the other captains, he is too young to feel at ease as their peer.  On the other hand, "godlike Achilles" is the most fearsome fighter in this group of heroes, and too proud to seem to defer to anyone.  The only authority he could possibly bow to is that of Agamemnon, his commander and military "father," and the pride of his strength requires that his deference carry no hint of servility.  When Agamemnon replaces leadership with tyranny by taking Briseis back, Achilles nearly reverts to his own authority--that is, to force--to redeem his honor.

Agamemnon's insult is twofold.  First, his despotic claim deforms the structure of authority which allows the other Achaeans to follow his lead without sacrificing their sense of independence or their honor.  In stripping Achilles of Briseis, Agamemnon forces him to submit to his command, rather than to serve freely as his ally.  Second, by reclaiming the woman whom we later learn Achilles might have married--the woman who pointed Achilles towards a life as a husband and father, beyond the purely masculine world of warfare--Agamemnon thrusts him back into the status of an immature youth.

Thus, Achilles has been both outraged and belittled by the only father he has at hand.  Of course Agamemnon isn't a very good father to his actual children either: as we know from other sources, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis, in order to raise the wind so the Greeks could sail to Troy.  Indeed, his own father Atreus served his uncle with a stew made from his cousins, and his ancestor Tantalus prepared his own son as a banquet to the gods, and was damned for it.  At any rate, having lost respect for his commander and resigned his place in the Achaean army, Achilles has nothing to sustain him but the brittle honor of an overgrown stripling. Moreover, since he refuses to submit to Agamemnon as war leader, there is no honorable action open to him.  Stymied into the passivity of a leaf-spring under tension, he broods in his tent, waiting for Agamemnon's regret to blossom.

Later, when Hector and the Trojans are pressing the Greeks hard, Agamemnon does send an embassy to Achilles, offering him riches and captive maidens and even the hand of his daughter, if he will take up arms again.  This refreshes his sense of insult: riches and women cannot repair the injury his trust has suffered.  As for "his daughter--I will marry no daughter of Agamemnon," he says, which is easily read as, "I shall never again think of him as a father."  Far from rejoining the fight, Achilles announces that he plans to sail back to Phthia the next morning:

                                                                                                      Mother tells me...
                                                              that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
                                                              If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
                                                              my journey home is gone but my glory never dies.
                                                              If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
                                                              my pride, my glory dies...
                                                              True, but the life that's left me will be long.

Then Telamonian Ajax speaks, first as if directing an aside to Odysseus, then directly to Achilles:

                                                               He's made his own proud spirit so wild in his chest,
                                                               so savage, not a thought for his comrades' love...

                                                               Why, any man will accept the blood-price paid
                                                               for a brother murdered, a child done to death...
                                                               The murderer has paid enough, and the injured kinsman
                                                               curbs his pride, his smoldering, vengeful spirit,
                                                               once he takes the price...

                                                                                             You--the gods have planted
                                                               a cruel, relentless fury in your chest!  All for a girl,
                                                               just one...
                                                               Put some human kindness in your heart--
                                                               ...we long to be your closest, dearest friends.

Achilles relents: he won't sail away, but he won't fight the Trojans either, unless they get as far as his own ships.  Why does he relent?  An older man whom everyone respects, one of Achaea's greatest warriors, having assured him that he's loved and honored, has scolded him--but not to his face--for putting his own sense of wounded entitlement ahead of the aims of their fellowship.  Ajax speaks with the moral authority which Agamemnon could not muster, the same moral authority which allows coaches to give orders to players twice their size and fathers to help their sons into responsible manhood: the fatherly guidance which Achilles yearns for as he yearns for his fatherland.  Nevertheless, however chastened, he still refuses to fight under Agamemnon's command.

When Patroclus dies, Achilles is finally free to go into battle on his own account, and his spring is released.  Focused by the guilt of sending Patroclus out in his place, all his wounded pride and the rage of honor long-thwarted launch him like a leaf-bladed javelin through the Trojan companies at Hector. The Trojan commander is the only fighter on either side who approaches his own quality, and the only man suitable to stand in for the two people whom Achilles hates most: Agamemnon and himself.  As I said in my earlier essay, however, Achilles returns to war not as a warrior but as an avenger, not as a human being but as a berserker.   The Auden poem "The Shield of Achilles," from which I quoted earlier, evokes the desolate inhumanity of Achilles's inner landscape unforgettably:

                                                                       A ragged urchin, aimless and alone
                                                                       Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
                                                                       Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone.
                                                                       That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
                                                                       Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
                                                                       Of any world where promises were kept,
                                                                       Or one could weep because another wept.

Hector is the anti-Achilles: a great warrior who doesn't glory in war, he is both strengthened and softened by being husband, father, and citizen.  In the end, great-hearted as he is--and with everything to lose--he cannot outfight or outrun a killer whose hate has left him no longer human, or as Homer depicts it, who fights with the gods at his side.  And of course, since the living Hector is not the cause of Achilles's psychic wound but merely a substitute, his actual death cannot sate the anger of Achilles, who wants to go on humiliating him: he drags Hector's body behind his chariot as a funeral-offering to Patroclus, and spends the next nine days furiously dragging it around the tomb while Apollo preserves it from damage and decay.

Finally Zeus has had enough of this impious disrespect. "In deathless wrath/ that [Achilles] in heartsick fury still holds Hector's body," he overrules Troy's enemies Hera and Athena and sends Thetis to order her son to surrender the body to Hector's grieving father Priam.  Of course Achilles bows to paternal authority, "if Olympian Zeus himself insists in earnest," and Hermes conducts Priam to his tent.  How does Priam approach him?  He kneels, saying

                                                               Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles--
                                                               as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
                                                               ...no one [is] there to defend him...
                                                               No one, but at least he hears you're still alive
                                                               and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising, day by day,
                                                               to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy...
                                                               Revere the gods, Achilles!  Pity me in my own right,
                                                               remember your own father!
                                                               I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.

A father kneels in supplication to Achilles: a father who loves his son, a father who asks Achilles to revive the pity he has repudiated, a father who reminds him that he too has a father who loves him.  Reunited in thought with his real father, whom he knows he will never see again,

                                                               Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire
                                                               to grieve for his own father.  Taking the old man's hand
                                                               he gently moved him back.  And overpowered by memory
                                                               both men gave way to grief.  Priam wept freely
                                                               for man-killing Hector... as Achilles wept himself,
                                                               now for his father, now for Patroclus once again...

At last, "one could weep because another wept."

                                                               Then, when brilliant Achilles had had his fill of tears
                                                               and the longing for it had left his mind and body,
                                                               he rose from his seat, raised the old man by the hand
                                                               and filled with pity now for his gray head and gray beard,
                                                               he spoke out winging words, flying straight to the heart:
                                                               "Poor man, how much you've borne--pain to break the spirit!
                                                               what daring brought you down to the ships, all alone,
                                                               to face the glance of the man who killed your sons,
                                                               so many fine, brave boys?..."

Fated never himself to flower into husband, father, citizen, but reminded that he too is a son beloved by his father, Achilles has renounced the berserker and recovered his generosity and tenderness, a man once again like other men.  So ends The Anger of Achilles.

26 May 2013


Recently, almost by accident, I was lucky enough to see Denis O'Hare's one-man production "An Iliad," adapted by himself and Lisa Peterson from Robert Fagles's Homer.  I left the theater staggered and awed by the brutal beauty of warfare.  For me, the climax of the piece was when O'Hare acted out the transport of bloodlust which impels Patroclus through the Trojan lines towards the walls of Troy, seemingly invulnerable in the armor of Achilles.  I found myself pushing back into my seat in appalled fascination, while at the same time unspeakably swept up in that warriors' fury, Eliot's "trilling wire in the blood," a passion so arousing, so overmastering, so immediate, that it seems as if only blood could calm it.  That murderous ecstasy is central to the Iliad, which depicts over and over again the moment when a young man named Scamandrius or Iphidamas or Phereclus--a hunter, shepherd, shipwright, beloved by his folk but far from home--has his lifeline broken by bronze into a name in a song and a muddy tangle of meat.

Those moments are horribly vivid.  In Book Five, Diomedes catches up to Pandarus, Troy's star archer, who had just broken a truce by trying to kill Menelaus at the mischievous prompting of Athena.  But Athena is really on the side of the Achaeans:

                                                                               ...Athena drove the [spear] shaft
                                                            and it split the archer's nose between the eyes--                                                                           it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
                                                            cut off his tongue at the root, smashed his jaw
                                                            and the point came ripping out beneath his chin...
                                                            his life and power slipped away on the wind.

Diomedes then wounds Aeneas, who a year after taking such damage has to flee the ruin of Troy carrying his father Anchises on his back:

                                                                             ...he raised [a boulder] high with ease,
                                                            flung it and struck Aeneas' thigh where the hipbone
                                                            turns inside the pelvis, the joint they call the cup--
                                                            it smashed the socket, snapped both tendons too
                                                            and the jagged rock tore back the skin in shreds.

There are hundreds of these savagely anatomical vignettes.  They punctuate the furious progress of a Diomedes or an Agamemnon, whose onslaught carries our consciousness along with it, as did Denis O'Hare's Patroclus.  As we are borne along, however, these abrupt slow-motion close-ups suddenly unhorse us.  The slaughter of Pandarus made me intensely aware of my own teeth and tongue, even while my hand was still getting its feeling back from clutching Diomedes's spear.  This may seem like no more than an unexpectedly modern kind of realism, dramatizing the physical violence of warfare at arms' length between spearmen in cowhide and bronze, but I think there's more to it than that.  Why would Homer choose to risk distracting his listeners from the sweep of the battle scenes, which is anchored in their identification with the victorious hero?  Were the ancient Greeks so different from us that such gruesome episodes could fail to remind them of their own bodies' softness, could fail to impose on their imagination, willy-nilly, the unstringing of the vanquished?

After the death of Patroclus, the rage Achilles had been feeling towards Agamemnon and his guilt about letting Patroclus wear his armor out into battle combine to drive him berserk:

                                                             A sound of grinding came from the fighter's teeth,
                                                             his eyes blazed forth in searing points of fire, 
                                                             unbearable grief came surging through his heart
                                                             and now, bursting with rage against the men of Troy,
                                                             he donned Hephaestus' gifts...
                                                             Here was a man not sweet at heart, not kind, no,
                                                             he was raging, wild--as Tros grasped his knees,
                                                             desperate, begging, Achilles slit open his liver,
                                                             the liver spurted loose, gushing with dark blood...
                                                             So as the great Achilles rampaged on, his 
                                                                                                                         sharp-hoofed stallions      
                                                             trampled shields and corpses, axle under his chariot splashed
                                                             with blood, blood on the handrails sweeping around the car,
                                                             sprays of blood shooting up from the stallions' hoofs
                                                             and churning, whirling rims--and the son of Peleus
                                                             charioteering on to seize his glory, bloody filth
                                                             spattering both strong arms, Achilles' invincible arms--

Early in this slaughter, he lunges at Demoleon, son of Antenor:

                                                            he stabbed his temple and cleft his helmet's cheek piece.
                                                            None of the bronze plate could hold it--boring through
                                                            the metal and skull the bronze spear point pounded,
                                                            Demoleon's brains splattered all inside his casque.

That last telling detail must have been familiar to anyone who had stripped the dead after a battle.  However, the splattering of "brains...inside his casque" could neither have been observed by Achilles, nor registered by Demoleon.  That line--which is to be found in several other translations, as well as elsewhere in the poem--is hyper-real, impossible to mistake for realism.  To me the line clarifies that all those other snuff-film close-ups (while described in accordance with the world of appearances--as perceived by an independent and freely mobile observer who can stop time at will) are also hyper-real.  In other words, these images are both accurate and imaginary.  Of course that imagination is the poet's, refined by hundreds of retellings, and of course it is risky to attribute our own psychological experience to the ancients, but exactly what was Homer conveying through this apparent dissociation from both Achilles's consciousness and from realism?

I think we are being taught something about the imagination of the warrior, especially the warrior gone berserk. When Achilles becomes a berserker, he has "forgotten himself:" he has put on the "bear-sark," the bear-shirt, and acquired the bear's strength and invulnerability.  The metaphor suggests that something has been added to him, that he is now super-human, but of course something has actually been subtracted: in repudiating fear and pity, in repudiating his antagonists' likeness to him, he has repudiated his own humanity, bound up as it is with the terrible knowledge of how easily bronze shears flesh.  At this point Achilles--who knows he won't live through this war--imagines himself invincible, a different order of being than "the Trojans."  How is this illusion sustained?

My eight-year-old son often rehearses "long-forgotten wars" in play.  Whether his agon is derived from Star Wars or some other context, the scenario is the same: two sides are killing and being killed, accompanied by terse comic-book battlefield jargon (along with grunts and other manly vocalizations) and explosive sound effects.  The good guys, to whom he stands as Athena to the Greeks, are preserved by their skill in battle (and also because like Zeus he holds the scales), and the losing bad guys are apparently bloodless, and sometimes 'actually' robots.  Unsurprisingly, externally-derived images which suggest threat or violence, especially as movies rather than stills, give him nightmares, so we try to limit and modulate his exposure to them.  I don't ask him what he pictures while playing, for fear of making him self-conscious and literal-minded about it, but I'd guess it's something like the Iliad--a long-drawn-out series of individual combats--without the blood.  A skirmish won, his camera cuts away and the action moves on.

I think that what allows a berserk Achilles to deny his share in human mortality involves rehearsing his war as my son does, entraining visions of the mutilation he imagines visiting on "the Trojans" as he falls upon them.  Although such visions arise from the same internal source as my son's playing and my own queasy excitement during Denis O'Hare's enactment of Patroclus, they are no longer innocent of reality: they are enhanced and reified by actual horrors seen in the heightened state of battle, horrors commensurate with the strength of men and metal, suffered alike by enemies and by friends.  Such circumstantial images exact ever more repetitious and forceful splitting-off from the involuntary quailing of the body, until they take on the kind of hallucinatory intensity Homer depicts.  Memories of traumatic events are often pictured as if from outside oneself--since they were lived through in a state in which consciousness was actively relocated outside the body for safety--and certain details seem sharper and more saturated with meaning than in typical memories.  I think Homer may be presenting his listeners with the psychological truth that Demoleon's savaging is imagined by Achilles--both beforehand and during the act--and that what he imagines is rendered hyper-real by his concentrated refusal to picture himself in Demoleon's helmet.  Were the archaic Greeks readier to slip into that split-off state--that berserker's grace--than we moderns are?  Probably not.