Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Three Homers Walk into a Bar

Three Homers Walk Into a Bar

First there was the blind visionary guy. Then the female myth-maker. And third was the chorus of assorted voices, the tellers of tales just as the Old Testament had many authors. Or maybe there was no Homer at all.

Does it matter? Yes and no. Were the Iliad and Odyssey history or fable? Both.

I went into all this ignorant. Now I am even more so. I am writing this to organize my smattering of ignorance and see if Homer’s stories have any relevance for me today.

The back-story of the Iliad is the abduction (or was it?) of Helen by Paris prince of Troy. Damn the Trojan, that trouble-maker. But who can blame him? She had the face that could launch a thousand ships. And she did.  Menelaus, he of a house accursed and ruler of the Greeks, had no choice but to recover his wife, avenge the act and send thousands to an early grave. But not so fast.

As much as it is a monument to war dwelling on the horrific violence, deception, treachery, inflated heroics and all those other manly acts it is also about the intervention of women who withhold their bodies, raise doubt, offer beauty as an alternative, interject intuition, and love. In the end both the Greeks and Trojans are losers though Troy is destroyed. There is much to say about Achilles and Agamemnon as well as Priam and his son, Hector but not today.

At every point the players are buffeted by forces within. Call them gods or fate which prescribes, taunts, anoints or shields them. The struggle is internal as much as on the killing field. Some of the characters are half-gods themselves. Just as we all are.

In the Odyssey, Ulysses (Odysseus) survives the war and sets out to return home to Ithaca.  Aren’t we all, weary and full of memories, on this same journey? Of course he has to earn it defeating Cyclops (the demon) and resisting the witch Circe and the Sirens, and other travails, descending even to the Underworld (PTSD) before he can win back the love of Penelope. Enter Telemachus, his son, to help kill off her suitors. Everything has its price.

Is the price worth the purchase? Is war part of our nature? If you question whether the Trojan War made any sense it was no less stupid than what we call World War I. It only took a gone-girl Helen or a bullet to an archduke to provoke man's call to arms. We seem to be barely-tamed beasts at times. Is war inevitable to attain justice? Each side is sure it is aligned with righteousness and will prevail. There are times when the suffering of war waged must be weighed against the certain oppression to come as a consequence of backing away. Homer held the tension between these two options.

If war has its certain allure the only alternative may be the release of our full creative spirit toward a more beautiful world of art and humanity with a reverence for life above all else.

Homer had a thousand faces interpreted or rewritten first by Virgil to please the Roman emperor, then by St. Augustine  and later by Dante to incorporate him into Christianity, followed by Shakespeare, Goethe and Nietzsche and famously by Joyce. Then there were Robert Graves, T. E. Lawrence, Kazantzakis, Borges, Virginia Woolf, with Freud and Jung also having their say. As did Italo Calvino and most recently, Derek Walcott. The issues Homer dealt with are immortal and his unanswered questions will continue being asked.

Now you know what I know and it that ain’t much. It might be enough to get you through a middle-brow cocktail party but I'm not so sure you'd be reinvited. For more light shed I recommend a tracing of Homer through the ages by Alberto Manguel in his book, "Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey."

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