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.

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