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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, April 25, 2008

House of War, House of Death

Two days ago I finished reading the Iliad, as translated by Robert Fagles. Over all it was very good, and much more accessible than I was expecting.

Now I'm keying notes from the book's introduction by Bernard Knox and from its end-notes.

One thing that's striking about the Iliad is its unapologetic and graphic violence. Picking one example at random (there are many to choose from) from Book 17, "Menelaus' Finest Hour", the warrior Hippothous is trying to drag the corpse of Patroclus away from the battle-front:

Hippothous out for fame...Pelasgian Lethus' son,
lashing a shield-strap round the ankle tendons,
was hauling Patroclus footfirst through the melee,
hoping to please Prince Hector and all the Trojans,
Hippothous rushing on but death came just as fast.
No Trojans could save him now, strain as they might--
Ajax son of Telamon charging quickly into the carnage
speared him at close range through the bronze-cheeked helmet,
the horsehair crest cracked wide open around the point,
smashed by the massive spear and hand that drove it.
His brains burst from the wound in sprays of blood,
soaking the weapon's socket--
his strength dissolved on the spot, his grip loosed
and he dropped the foot of brave Patroclus' corpse.
There on the ground it lay--he rushed to join it,
pitching over the dead man's body face-to-face,
a world away from Larissa's dark rich soil...
Never would he repay his loving parents now
for the gift of rearing--his life cut short so soon,
brought down by the spear of lionhearted Ajax.

The poem contains much mayhem of this sort. I would not say that it particularly glorifies violence so much as looks it unflinchingly in the face. In Homer the warriors are mostly brave, but subject to fear and even terror. They fight and kill, but they don't want to die, and when they do they claw at the dirt and clutch their entrails, whimpering their last as the darkness swirls down over their eyes (a common image in the Iliad) and they descend unwillingly to the hated House of Death.

The killing in the Iliad is up close and personal: the result of arduous hand-to-hand combat. I think about another book I'm reading, House of War by James Carroll, a history of the Pentagon. The book's subtitle suggests Carroll's viewpoint: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. The 20th century saw great "advances" in the technology of killing. Weapons became more mechanized even as the institutions using them became more impersonal and bureaucratized, with the soldier becoming subsumed in the growing fungus of The Organization Man as described in William H. Whyte's 1956 classic. The result in World War II was the deliberate slaughter, especially of civilians, by aircraft flying far overhead, launched not so much by individuals as by committees and teams of bureaucrats.

The darkness swirling over the eyes of all those women and children, though, was just as real. When Dresden was fire-bombed people leaped into the rivers to escape the gigantic walls of flames, only to be boiled alive there. They descended reluctantly to the hated House of Death.

People who claimed the mystique of the warrior had in fact become functionaries of the slaughterhouse, not different from the illegal immigrants who work at meatpacking plants, killing animals in an efficient, high-volume process worked out by industrial engineers. What do you do with all that blood? All those intestines and brains? It's all been worked out. The math has been done, the drawings rendered on drafting-tables.

Yes, we live in a sniper's world: a place of killing the defenseless from positions of impregnable safety.

In Homer's world, violence was still dangerous to the perpetrators. But the mystery remains of its mystique, its fascination, the whirlpool-like attraction of it for us primates (for chimpanzees commit murder too). It's a somber puzzle.

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  • I see in that extract sort of solemness of treating the subject, poetic pathos in attitude to heros.
    My sister Irene read Celtic legends, myths and suchlike, there was something about warriors, wars.

    I'm learning something from your posts.

    It is Easter in the Orthodox Church calendar on April, 27.

    By Blogger Liza, at April 26, 2008 7:11 AM  

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