Outward Flourishes

Sing, Muse.

Assuming the degree

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To open the festivities (and prepare a series of upcoming posts designed to circumvent my garrulous inclinations), I leave you with an excerpt from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, that most seditious and intolerable of works in the English language, by Laurence Sterne. Come now, it’s occasionally hilarious as well.

The scene is simple and requires no great context. Corporal Trim is a servant to Tristram’s Uncle Toby, now a retired captain. If memory serves me right, and even though this description takes place well into the book, Tristram himself is yet to be born; his father, Uncle Toby and Trim spaciously await in a downstairs chamber for Doctor Slop and Susannah to deliver the baby Trismegistus.

II, XVII:

— But before the Corporal begins, I must first give you a description of his attitude; —otherwise he will naturally stand represented, by your imagination, in an uneasy posture,—stiff,—perpendicular,—dividing the weight of his body equally upon both legs;—his eye fix’d, as if on duty;—his look determined,—clinching the sermon in his left-hand, like his firelock:—In a word, you would be apt to paint Trim, as if he was standing in his platoon ready for action :— His attitude was as unlike all this as you can conceive.

He stood before them with his body swayed, and bent forwards just so far, as to make an angle of 85 degrees and a half upon the plain of the horizon ;— which sound orators, to whom I address this, know very well, to be the true persuasive angle of incidence ;—in any other angle you may talk and preach ;—’tis certain,—and it is done every day ;— but with what effect—I leave the world to judge!

The necessity of this precise angle of 85 degrees and a half to a mathematical exactness,—does it not shew us, by the way,—how the arts and sciences mutually befriend each other?

How the duce Corporal Trim, who knew not so much as an acute angle from an obtuse one, came to hit it so exactly ; —or whether it was chance or nature, or good sense, or imitation, &c. shall be commented upon in that part of this cyclopædia of arts and sciences, where the instrumental parts of the eloquence of the senate, the pulpit, the bar, the coffee-house, the bed-chamber, and fire-side, fall under consideration.

He stood,—for I repeat it, to take the picture of him in at one view, with his body sway’d, and somewhat bent forwards,—his right-leg firm under him, sustaining seven-eighths of his whole weight,—the foot of his left-leg, the defect of which was no disadvantage to his attitude, advanced a little,—not laterally, nor forwards, but in a line betwixt them;—his knee bent, but that not violently,—but so as to fall within the limits of the line of beauty ;—and I add, of the line of science too ;—for consider, it had one eighth part of his body to bear up ;—so that in this case the position of the leg is determined,—because the foot could be no further advanced, or the knee more bent, than what would allow him mechanically, to receive an eighth part of his whole weight under it,—and to carry it too.

This I recommend to painters ?— need I add,—to orators ?—I think not; for, unless they practise it,—they must fall upon their noses.

So much for Corporal Trim’s body and legs.—He held the sermon loosely,—not carelessly, in his left-hand, raised something above his stomach, and detach’d a little from his breast ;—his right-arm falling negligently by his side, as nature and the laws of gravity ordered it,—but with the palm of it open and turned towards his audience, ready to aid the sentiment, in case it stood in need.

Corporal Trim’s eyes and the muscles of his face were in full harmony with the other parts of him ;—he look’d frank,— unconstrained,—something assured,— but not bordering upon assurance.

Written by António

February 1, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Rabbis and Airplanes

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This brilliant trailer is from the latest Cohen brother’s film A Serious Man, a methodic and suffocating dissection of nothing and nothingness in late sixties’ Minnesota. Since the trailer seems to contain the general gist of the plot, I’m going to restrict myself to some general remarks on the relationship of the film’s characters to the cascade of unfortunate events unfolding around them.

Central to the film is the aptly explored absurdity that none of the characters is called to question their existence until removed from a passive, contained state of affairs most commonly associated with routine and stability. That is exactly what happens to Lawrence Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), your average likeable Jewish math teacher, who becomes entangled in a web of permanent confusion when confronted with a death in the family (of sorts), a harmless car crash, a rebellious teen, the shadow of an upcoming divorce and some problems at work.

True to life, the film suggest it’s human nature to coast along one’s linear existence, using up its fractures as they come along to reexamine the course of events and gain a new outlook or even renewed resolve. Sadly for Larry, these fractures start piling up left and right, barely affording him the time to properly absorb their slings. Knee-deep into this onslaught of darkly humourous misfortunes, the spectator is left to wonder whether something so simple as Larry’s marriage could work at all: surely it would be hard t conceive that pair living in perfect harmony, even without all the adversities du jour.

Larry’s relationship with his brother Arthur — a sickly but portly fellow with a perpetually overflowing cyst and a penchant for drawing gibberish equations on a notebook – tends to reinforce this point. Introduced as a stoic figure of continuous ailments, he is portrayed as a man who rarely complains despite clearly having it much worse than poor old Larry.  For the latter can at least bask in the warm comfort of having raised a dysfunctional family and retaining a job. Eventually Arthur’s woes simply become too heavy to bear in silence; chased by the FBI for illegal gambling and soliciting, he sinks into riotous despair and gives voice to some of the bleakest moments on film. Unchanging, monochord happiness we can deal with. It’s always the overflowing cup that tends to wake people up to their misery.

At that point, the movie takes a remarkably asphyxiating turn as every character poses the same question that has been uttered down since Job. Why? Why must this happen to Larry, the upstanding citizen and father of two? Where are the answers? Larry then seeks the rabbis at his synagogue, going through their seniority as one trudges through several telephone layers of enraging customer support. The junior rabbis offer him platitudes. The elder, unfortunately, is just a mossy old man passing commendations on boys who have just gone through their bar mitzvah. He likes to quote Jefferson Airplane, too.

Who doesn’t? Except that this sense of dread and disorientation is superbly compounded by the Cohens’ construction of an oppressive physical space out of sheer open spaces, in a chiaroscuro of overtly vibrant surges of characteristic 60′s joie de vivre against the blandness of the real lives behind the myth modernly ascribed to the decade. Agoraphobia never worked so well in the silver screen; those tightly knit communities and suburbian houses all seem to scream that as humans need open spaces, they also need boundaries, and the film’s open-ended lawns and bright stretches of concrete end up creating an eerie aura of discomfort. Ultimately, the freedom they afford also fosters conflicts between their dwellers. When Larry climbs to the roof  to repair the TV antenna, he enacts an ascension which could be seen as an attempt to establish some sort of territorial superiority in his surroundings as well as a desperate and highly basic mechanism for regaining perspective. He sees nothing — and gains nothing — but in the meantime he buys himself another dilemma as he overlooks a milfy neighbour sunbathing au naturel behind a cubicle of closed fences who later turns out to be quite the predatory housewife.

In Larry’s view, at least. Interestingly enough, while his disorientation is real, some of the episodes are presented in a dreamlike sequence. Larry becomes a hazy and unreliable narrator to himself (which only adds to the confusion) and I have to admit being moved by some of the film’s intensely foreboding moments – when human despair is almost palpable and the best minds are reduced to bleating some pathetic camusian laments and clawing for a splinter of meaning.

The Cohens deserve great praise for encapsulating this sense of contained confusion in a considerably mature frame, on which they sprinkle a brand of humour that serves to enlighten it (and lighten it) rather than defraud it (and debase it). Atypical even by their standards, at once disarming and pithy in its bleak and structured look on this life, this is the kind of movie without a real ending or a real beginning (it seems to end with, in fact,  with what in any other instance would have been considered a mid-movie plot-twist). It won’t offer such vague commendation as the one ambiguously cast upon Job in the aftermath of his toils, nor will it even register as a film capable of delivering a traditional payoff. In more layers than one, the message is simply that… men must endure their going hence. So stop worrying and be miserable.

Written by António

January 26, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Power and domination in Cameron’s Pandora

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Broadly speaking, would it be safe to say that science fiction, as an artistic genre, is a mode of projection into the future of contemporary representations? While this has the juvenile flavour of a truism, the presence of a future time-frame is instrumental in setting apart this genre from (say) the realm of fantasy. By hurling a set of deviate realities into the future, the interpreter is automatically forced to evaluate such deviations as either progressive or regressive in relation to his perception of a contemporary state. This eminently logical assertion is absent from the pattern of deviations normally found in fantasy genres, which promote an allegorical mode of interpretation free from the strains of causality that a person of the present is compelled to unfold whenever confronted with the image and actions of an hypothetical descendant in the future.  

For example, it may suffice to look at Lord of the Rings and determine how its implicit racial tensions may relate to my own condition in the real world. But looking at Cameron’s vision of corporate colonialism in Aliens or the Butlerian Jihad in Dune, I am prompted to do something perhaps equivalent in nature but nonetheless different in procedure, and that is to conceive those realities as stems from my present condition. In other words, science fiction translates a futuristic vision based on contemporary perceptions or borders and only exists as a genre as long as this correlation remains; fantasy presents an alternate state of realities without any necessary correlation to any point in time and calls for a different set of analytical tools.  

Dispensing with the bromides, all that needs to be said is that James Cameron has attempted a synthesis of both genres in Avatar, which goes farther than any other of the filmmaker’s works in interlocking science-fiction elements within a fantasy playground. Naturally, since both film genres are privileged vehicles of social commentary, it should come as little surprise that Avatar insistently addresses themes of conflict between two civilised races of differing military power, deftly sprayed on a canvas of capitalist imperialism.  

In Pandora, a moon of planet Polyphemus, a heavily-armed human outpost seeks to dislodge the indigenous Na’vi in order to extract a ludicrously valuable mineral called unobtainium (not even going to comment on this one). For scientific and diplomatic purposes, humans have learned how to breed and embody empty Na’vi hybrids in laboratories. Such is the starting role of the protagonist Jake Sully, an ex-marine to whom is given the opportunity to step into one of these avatars and perform outer planetary espionage in exchange for an operation to his damaged spinal cord that the NHS did not cover on the grounds of a pre-existent condition (I may be reading too much into it). Eventually, a chain of incidents leads him to the Omaticaya tribe where Neytiri, the chieftain’s daughter, is charged with his sentimental education. The film culminates with Sully’s rousing galvanization of the Na’vi and the taking up of arms against the human aggressors pining for all that unobtainium.  

Much of the movie is devoted to the way the Na’avi interact with other species, humans included. And love, it seems, remains a property of human nature, as the rites of mating between Sully and Neytiri illustrate when they replicate in motion and essence our own patterns of breeding and implicitly present them as a novelty among the Na’avi. I use both these rigid words – mating and breeding – to underline the intended awkwardness in their transposition to the film’s ethos, even if they are never framed as a breach or taboo. Of course at that point in the film one would expect such tellurically attuned creatures to use their capillary rastafari-proboscides to conduct the deepest possible link between two sentient beings, but it seems such device is employed with the sole purpose of forming a bond (tseyhaku, if spelling serves me right) with other beastly creatures in a way that masks effective domination over those species.  

Love and redemption being the chief qualities mankind has to offer the Na’vi, most characters otherwise spend their time tseyakuing with anything that moves in order to get what they want. The same can be said of humans: Sully initially steps into an avatar so he can regain use of his motor functions and Sigourney Weaver takes possession of a Na’avi because it makes her feel pretty aga — I mean, because it allows her to take scientific samples of plants and bugs.  Sully’s rites of initiation are presented in the traditional “path to manhood” perspective, but they hide the fact that Jake’s acceptance as a man of the tribe depends on his contribution to the collective — a requisite which will culminate in his taming of Toruk (a huge, flying garish dinosaur)  in an effort to impress and convince the Na’avi that he can in fact aid them.  

It’s clever to suggest that this mode of interfacing with a seemingly primitive society lessee of a scarce and technologically sought-after natural resource is, in the end, both functional and self-preserving as well as capable of bridging the gap between two antagonistic forces. One civilization (the Na’avi) selectively assimilates the qualities of another (the Humans), therefore validating its own hereditary social rites as functional, self-preserving filters: Sully apports them the lessons of affection and subjugation (not exclusive to any one race, but only practiced by the Na’avi at an unconscious — and innocent — level), and in so doing leads them to safety from the mercenary aggressors. It is significant that when Sully prays to Eywa, Neyriti points out that such divine, all-encompassing entity does not heed to mortal prayer. This certainly explains why no Na’avi is ever seen directly begging for something. Sully, however, is a human specimen, and therefore has little qualms in arrogantly requesting salvation from the gods. Even the strictest Na’avi training could not efface this very human trait.  

Again, there’s a notable degree of subtlety in all of this, so that the compulsion to draw contemporary parallels with our own reality is never quite heavy-handed (we go back to my opening thoughts, since Cameron ably balances science-fiction with fantasy and selects what components of the film we choose to apreciate in evolutionary or allegorical terms). Moreover, cause for Na’vi victory appears to have been a matter of simple temporal precedence. The Na’avi simply welcomed the redeeming traits of the human envoys before the corporate Americans could make use of their foes’ potential (a fact underlined by the spurious interjection by Weaver that the whole planet was, in fact, a giant network of organic knowledge waiting to be harnessed — the implication being that the tree-hugging, trance-chanting blue aliens were only scratching the surface of it, and that humans could do so much more if only they opted for diplomacy instead of bulldozers).  

Sully’s pascalian prayer to Eywa is also significant in the way it blatantly evokes one of the most distinctive stage of a classical aristeia (and the film, with its gross nomenclatures of Pandoras and Polyphemi, doesn’t exactly seem eager to keep these references close to its chest). The checklist is almost scrupulously followed with Sully, at the outset of battle, being presented as a hero arming himself (a visual effect achieved through the juxtaposition of the marines’ metal and explosive weaponry against the Na’avi’s humble spears and bows). Afterwards he steps into the fray and turns the tide of a battle which — at best – could only have been be stalled without his bravado.  

That’s two out of five. The traditional third step sees the hero break into the enemy’s host and basically wreaking all manners of savage havoc (you will probably recall this part). And the fourth stage (setback, prayer to a god, renewed energy) is orchestrated throughout the second half of the film and deployed just at the climatic moment when everything seems lost (in the form of Eywa’s unprecedented response to Sully’s prayers). The traditional closing stage of an aristeia is the battle around the defeated foe’s corpse but here the confrontation is played around Sully’s own unconscious human body still wired to his avatar (and thus utterly helpess). The intervention of a third entity (though not a god) effectively seals the chapter.

The choice of this structure for the impressive dénouement suggests that Sully is being likened to a hero passing through the hoops of his own mortality and coming to terms with his vulnerabilities (a solid counterpoint to the crescendo of legendary feats performed during the film). In one of closing chapters, Sully completes the circle and forgoes his human mortality in order to be reborn in a more humane finitude, one which, as the Na’vi put it, posits that all energy is lent and, by nature, ephemeral. In the grand scheme of things, the confrontation with Über Quaritch becomes a struggle for Sully’s own humanity.

Ultimately, Avatar’s greatest strength is the dexterity in fusing science-fiction, fantasy elements, and an exquisite narrative structure as a means to convey some themes that are after all very predictable in their poignancy. This doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as a simple a triumph of style and form. Maybe it’s just more productive to assume that its value partly resides not in the fact that it is a well-told story, but in the fact that it is a well-known story willing to explore the substance behind that universality. 

Written by António

January 18, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Posted in On Film

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Still on melancholy

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Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) was one of the most celebrated pianists of the twentieth century, yet to the general public his figure remains shrouded in a mysterious, almost brooding veil of inaccessibility. This is especially valid of his personality, which I am only now starting to encounter through a series of late documentaries (the video excerpt above belongs to the film Richter, L’Insoumis). Call it a vain consequence of taking up the piano at an incorrigibly late age, but the life of these pianists interests me ever more (especially considering most of them were forced to traverse and weather the extreme adversity of some events in the last century, a reality which we have been fortunately denied).

It is said of Vladimir Horowitz that he experienced stage fright throughout his entire career, apparently lacking faith in his prodigious capabilities and sometimes requiring a (very  much literal) push onto the stage. In a legendary performer such as Volodya (Horowitz’ widely-used term of endearment attests to his enduring popularity and likeable nature), this minor fact quickly becomes diluted in his biography as little more than a personal idiosyncrasy, a trifle, an eccentricity, comparable in nature to the boisterous vocal outbursts of genuine enthusiasm he lavished upon whatever lucky spectator witnessed him practice the fiendish transcription of Carmen Fantasie or the much sought-after piano rendition of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes.

And after all, we we can always sympathise with an insecure and modest artist, even we when we know he has no reason for such hesitations.

Richter’s sincere lamentations, however, are of a wholly different nature, and much more unsettling for that. A man who concedes that he does not like himself (and who enacts it through his interpretation of music) is the recipient of a much wider set of contradictory forces than a skilled artist with an occasional fear of failure or rejection. The visceral disappointment Richter displays in connection with his work and his own character is utterly disarming.

By all accounts, this man was invaluable. By all means, it should not be accepted that such people may go through life unhappy, not when the rest of us strive to attain their own level of clarity, expertise, or sensitivity. One is reminded of an observation by Jacques Derrida on the morose condition of Antonin Artaud to which I keep returning:

It would certainly be disingenuous to close our eyes, either because of some literary feeling or some absentminded politeness, to what Artaud himself describes as a neuropathological persecution.

Moreover, that kind of disingenuousness would be insulting. The man is sick.

Richter’s biography is available for all to examine. His sexual ambiguity and repression, his extended, voluntary permanence in the Soviet Union (along with the restrictions imposed upon him and his family during foreign tours), his respect and rigid deference to the musical scores he interpreted, all of these traits and many more are free for the the arm-chair psychologist to analyse. In the end, however, the reality was that the man was sick, and I would have preferred the beauty in his music did not stem from this very uncomfortable fact.

Written by António

January 15, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Harping on nonchalance

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Ajax and Achilles indulge in a game of dice. The latter is winning with a 4.

Still very much intrigued by some of the closing sections of the Odyssey.

Noble Odysseus’ readiness to check Eurycleia’s bursts of joy is apparently at odds with the execution of twelve servant girls deemed unfaithful, just a few verses below. To make matters worse, this Ulysses exacts their names from Eurycleia mere moments after he has checked her jubilous streak, as if establishing a puzzling double standard.

Let’s just say, of course, that the reference to the number twelve is no accident on its own, twelve being the young sons of Troy sacrificed by Achilles in Patroclus’ funeral pyre at the end of the Iliad. Formally, the presence of this number in the Odyssey calls attention to the prevalent circular or geometric mode of composition in Homeric poetry. In narrative terms, only the material deeds of the heroes move irrevocably forward; everything else is platonically locked away in a mortal coil of harmonious repetition.

At any rate, the passage in question is as follows:

When she saw the corpses and all the blood, she made as if to shout loud in triumph at the great deed she saw achieved. But Odysseus stopped her and checked her impulse. ‘Old nurse’, he said, ‘let all rejoicing rest in your heart; do not go too far; utter no cry of exultation. Vaunting over men slain is a monstrous thing. These men have perished because the gods willed it so and because their own deeds were evil. They had no regard for any man, good or bad, who might come their way; and so by their own presumptuous follies they brought on themselves this hideous end. But now you must tell me the whole truth about the women in my palace, which of them are disloyal to me and which are innocent.’

Odyssey XXII 375-466 (in Walter Shewring’s formidable prose rendition).

Lovely, isn’t it? Since this execution effectively alludes to the closing books of the Iliad, let’s just look for a moment at the exact verses in which the sacrifice takes place:

Nine hunting-dogs had fed at the lord’s table;
upon the pyre he cut the throats of two,
but as for the noble sons of Troy, all twelve
he put to the sword, as he willed their evil hour.
Then in the midst he thrusts the pitiless might
of fire to feed upon them all, and cried
upon his dead companion: ‘Peace be with you
even in the dark where Death commands, Patroclus.
Everything has been finished as I promised.
Fire will devour twelve noble sons of Troy
along with you, but I will not restore
Hector to Priam; he shall not be eaten
by fire but by wild dogs.’
Iliad XXIII  139-213 (as translated by Robert Fitzgerald).

It seems the son of Peleus could have hardly been any more cruel in either actions or words. No other hero in the Iliad, especially one as great as Hector, is ever treated with such venomous contempt.

Comparing both speeches then, we reach the conclusion that Odysseus’ tone happens to be almost conciliatory in nature. He even risks faint irony in ascribing the death of the suitors to the design of the gods, even though those men were “evil“, “presumptuous” and had “no regard for any man“. Athene’s aid to Telemachus and Odysseus no more makes the massacre of the suitors a divine plan than Zeus’ passive support for Achille’s revenge throughout the Iliad. In both instances, the plans of the gods are truly the best laid plans of men (except one of them backfires in the end).

By contrast, the iliadic valediction impresses with its strong words (“pitiless might of fire“, “fire will devour twelve noble sons” and “[Hector eaten] by wild dogs“. ) The words used by Odysseus in his cursive judgement of the suitors now begin to bear upon Achilles, who has in fact performed extremely malignant deeds (outrageous ones, in fact, if you consider his seditious challenge of the river god Skamandros and the pitiless massacre of the Trojan hosts — even those begging for mercy in exchange for a ransom — not to mention the defiling of Hector’s corpse). In essence, Achilles has displayed frightening disregard for any living creature, the same inhumane fault that in Odysseus’ perspective came to justify the demise of the suitors in his palace.

So perhaps this is the difference between the two heroes. Until redemption is achieved with Priam, Achilles’ conduct is intently over the top, an expected extension of his savagery and disregard for humanity following the death of his beloved little Myrmidon (well beyond what would be necessary to achieve glory — kleos – or fulfill a simple flight of retribution). Also noteworthy is how Achille’s bloodlust is one of the few instances in the Iliad in which inhuman practices towards fellow heroes — however minor — explicitly appear. The vague allusion to the taboo of cannibalism is a good example: Achilles spitefully wishes he could eat Hector’s dead flesh raw, but he does not — and could not — perform such uncivilised gesture. Nevertheless, he utters itt.

Odysseus’ punishment of the traitorous servants can still be seen as belonging to the wider scope of his  revenge on the suitors. In fact, he seems to want to make sure that anyone listening to his reprimand is left with no doubt of such fatality of fate. Hence his open allusion to the will of the gods and the subordination of the death of the servants to the misdeeds of the suitors, an inexistent link between Hector’s putative crime and the twelve young Trojans Achilles so eagerly fought, captured, and then burned.

Written by António

January 15, 2010 at 1:09 am

Posted in Book Musings

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Verification

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This is a standard post containing a verification token for use with Technorati.

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Addendum: And of course it’s not working. I’ll just leave it here for a while and see whether the crackspiders find it.

Written by António

January 11, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Yonder

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Gnawed fresco of a Mycenaean lady with a necklace. A glimpse into the past and a memento on the passage of time.

Exactly how much in poetry – and classical heroic poetry in particular –  is indebted to the lofty evocation of  ancient ages and eroded human figures of glistening fame is something best left unquantified, but it is easy to see how such an element may serve to differentiate a poem such as the Aeneid or Iliad from even the most artful compositions of the AD era. This is even applicable to literary works as accomplished as Beowulf – more rooted in folklore (and therefore whose mode of transmission may be argued to be continuously angling for ways to remain contemporary, even as it is recounted down)  — or Paradise Lost, which seeks to reinterpret the contemplation of the past through one of the central religious myths of Western Civilization (in itself, a canonical report of a fall from grace where at least two temporal dimensions are irrevocably opposed).

Even The Lusiads (a work without parallel that continues to be overlooked by international academia) remains an epic poem written by someone who was very close in time to the protagonists of the maritime journeys which it sought to glorify. The juxtaposition of Vasco da Gama’s travels with the machinations and impulses of the traditional Olympian pantheon is ingenious in the way that it attempts to illuminate the heroes with that old Hellenic light – therefore removing them from the “normal” or “regular” world that was very much in place even at the time of its literary conception -  but it ultimately fails to vanquish the overwhelming proximity in years. The final result is that even today The Lusiads still reads like a powerful reminder of the dormant potential in a contemporary race rather than the Pan-Hellenic celebration of an extinct breed of sea-faring heroes.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 20th century that one of our poets composed a seminal work with the clear intention to evoke and reinterpret the golden age of Discoveries from afar, and this was no other than Fernando Pessoa himself, who took The Lusiads and the historical heritage of the nation as the stuff of true myth – with an adequately Portuguese component of deep longing and hopeful quiescence (Message).

The Homeric way of narrating the feats of an ancient age is not particularly subtle. Several combatants in the fields of Ilion, their lances exhausted, their swords ineffectual, sometimes turn to hurl the occasional giant boulder lying on the battleground, rocks the likes of which — the poet assures us — no man of today would be able to lift. But these men, these god-like (isotheos) beings such as Ajax the Telamonian or koruthaiolos Hektor, made short work of it.

These ancient figures are also not particularly god-fearing in any modern sense of the term. God-like creatures must only be aware of the existence of higher powers, more or less in the same way they are expected to endure their capricious interference without open revolt. Devotion is required even as dependency is abhorred (Apollo’s deference to Chryses’ pleas is more of an exception than a common occurrence), and at least one  scholar is quick to remark that there are no words directly corresponding to “god-fearing” or “god-loving” in either Homeric poem (and I, not knowing any Greek, am going to have to take his educated word for it).

So the lesson is clear: the impressively clad bronze Achaeans have no need for the gods in order to achieve their kleos (glory). Such dependence is reserved for the following generation of men who, as Hesiod beautifully put it:

“never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night”

(Works and Days, 176-8, also quoted in M. I. Finley’s World of Odysseus)

See, this is why the last parts of the Odyssey can be so fascinating. After the cheerful slaughtering of the suitors, Odysseus is found scolding his servant for her outward and public exultation regarding the massacre. It’s as if our hero is finally saying that though he was in his right to reassert his status as lord of the house, there must be no celebration of those horrendous actions. This is a weather-worn Odysseus speaking, a product of the Homecoming of Ilion, and though he is still capable of pulling his own weight like a true Homeric hero (one should not forget he still casually orders the execution of the twelve female servants with particular cruelty), he understands altogether too well that a new age of man is perhaps about to begin.

In this new age, the rhapsodos assumes a higher degree of importance. To date, the style and structure of the Homeric poems still have a powerful effect on both orator (now reader) and scholarly audiences alike. So it is easy to imagine how in the early days, Homer and other aedos were the foremost bridges between two ages, albeit essentially contemporary ones; men delighting in the privilege of being the vehicle of ancient glory, with the added right to count themselves comrades of those eagerly listening.

Written by António

January 8, 2010 at 1:37 am

Posted in Book Musings

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