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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

before the fall

My research has me ranging over ideas far and wide. I'm still searching for the core ideas that are most relevant to my work. I can't really afford to pass over any that I discover along the way. Any of these nuggets may turn out to be gold.

As an example of how the flow of my mind works, this morning I was typing notes from my newly acquired book The Greeks and the Irrational by E. R. Dodds, a famous work based on a series of lectures given by the Irish scholar in 1949. Chapter 1 is "Agamemnon's Apology", in which Dodds examines the psychological and spiritual factors at work in the Iliad when Agamemnon finally apologizes to Achilles for insulting him. In the course of the discussion Dodds talks about the Greek word ate, which he translates as "divine temptation or infatuation". Dodds sees this as a form of "psychic intervention": the sudden eruption into one's mind of a thought, idea, or impulse. If the thought, idea, or impulse is not in line with the thoughts, ideas, or impulses that one usually tends to have, then there is a strong sense that it is something alien to oneself, that it was "put there" by someone or something else--a god or a daemon.

But I recalled the term ate from another book, A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee. There he uses the term in his analysis of the phenomenon of militarism:

We may now go on to examine the active aberration described in the three Greek words koros, hubris, ate. Objectively koros means "surfeit," hubris "outrageous behavior," and ate "disaster." Subjectively koros means the psychological conditions of being spoilt by success; hubris means the consequent loss of mental and moral balance; and ate means the blind headstrong ungovernable impulse which sweeps an unbalanced soul into attempting the impossible. This active psychological catastrophe in three acts was the commonest theme in the 5th-century Athenian tragic drama. In Platonic language:

"If one sins against the laws of proportion and gives something too big to something too small to carry it--too big sails to too small a ship, too big meals to too small a body, too big powers to too small a soul--the result is bound to be a complete upset. In an outburst of hubris the overfed body will rush into sickness, while the jack-in-office will rush into the unrighteousness which hubris always breeds."


I felt a shudder as I read these words again, for they seem to be an apt description of our own times. Toynbee, writing in the 1940s, goes on to illustrate his point with the story of David and Goliath. The proud, overconfident Goliath complacently puts his trust in his past accomplishments and his reputation, as well as in his sheer size. A well-aimed stone takes him down.

The story is familiar to everyone, and yet we remain blind to the process by which we (some of us) personally morph from David into Goliath. Militarism is the path trodden by the Goliath of the U.S. Pentagon, and Canada is guilty of me-tooism with our adventure in Afghanistan. I'd like to think that the near-simultaneous federal elections in these two countries will make a difference, but alas, I fear not. It's not in Goliath's nature to see the error of his ways, until just a few seconds after it's too late.


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