11 April 2013

'The Fellowship of Suffering': More Comments on the Iliad

Despite the harsh conclusions of my last post on Homer (here), there are a couple of passages that point toward a kind of redemption. To begin with, the second long passage from C.S. Lewis contains an ellipsis. For reasons of space I omitted his quotation of another simile, this one from Odyssey 8.521-31: 

That was the song the famous harper sang
but great Odysseus melted into tears,
running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks...
as a woman weeps, her arms flung round her darling husband,
a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen,
trying to beat the day of doom from home and children.
Seeing the man go down, dying, gasping for breath,
she clings for dear life, screams and shrills—
but the victors, just behind her,
digging spear-butts into her back and shoulders,
drag her off in bondage, yoked to hard labor, pain,
and the most heartbreaking torment wastes her cheeks.
So from Odysseus’ eyes ran tears of heartbreak now. [1] 

Now Lewis calls this a ‘mere simile’, [2] and in an interesting paper devoted to the subject of similes, he seems to explain ‘mere similitude’ a bit by arguing that Homer’s ‘long-tailed similes’ typically have little to do, literally or poetically, with what they illustrate: 

I question whether the vignettes of early Greek life which it so often admits into homeric poetry are introduced on any very conscious principle of emotional echo or emotional contrast to the business in hand. It sounds much more as if a poet were interested in the vignette for its own sake. [3] 

But I can’t help but think that we would be remiss if we didn’t see the Odyssean simile above as something more than a vignette meant simply to give us a very vivid idea of what a ‘man of sorrows’ Odysseus really was. In a brilliant introduction to his edition and commentary on Book 24 of the Iliad, C.W. Macleod notes: 

The simile brings out the workings of pity in Odysseus’ mind: he weeps like a woman whose husband has died in defence of his city and who is taken into captivity—she is, in effect, Andromache—because it is as if her suffering has through the poet’s [Demodocus’s] art become his own....So the song which was to glorify the hero is felt by the hero himself as a moving record of the pain and sorrow he helped to cause. [4] 

The episode is thus a supreme illustration of what Macleod, quoting Gorgias’s Helen, tells us is one of the chief purposes if not the chief purpose of poetry—the arousal of pity: ‘A fearful frisson, a tearful pity, a longing for lamentation enter the hearers of poetry; and as words tell of the fortune and misfortune of other lives and other people, the heart feels a feeling of its own.’ [5] 

The Iliad is of course very largely devoid of pity. Macleod points out that several times throughout the poem, ‘a supplication is either made or attempted on the battle-field’, but it ‘is always rejected or cut short, and the suppliant despatched to his death’. [6] But ironically, another passage quoted by Lewis points us toward the ultimate display of pity in that poem, which is also, perhaps, the poem’s ultimate significance: 

‘And here I sit in Troy,’ says Achilles to Priam, ‘afflicting you and your children.’ [7] 

At the beginning of Book 24, the gods are angry at Achilles, for they have ‘in bliss [makares theoi] looked down and pitied [eleaireskon] Priam’s son’, but as Apollo says, ‘That man without a shred of decency in his heart.../his temper can never bend and change—.../.../Achilles has lost all pity [eleon]!’ [8] The slaughter that Achilles inflicts on the Trojan army in the wake of Patroclus’s death, his defeat of Hector, and his treatment of Hector’s corpse would all seem to support Apollo’s judgement. Indeed, Louis Markos recounts one of the events of Book 21 as follows: ‘Rejecting Lykaon’s right as a suppliant and loosing himself from any sense of shame or fear of nemesis, Achilles kills the Trojan in cold blood and tosses his body into the rivers.’ [9] This is par for the course. 

But Apollo, as it turns out, is wrong. Zeus has decreed that Hector’s body is to be returned, Thetis carries the message to her son, and Achilles replies, ‘The man who brings the ransom can take away the body, / if Olympian Zeus himself insists in all earnest.’ [10] Markos notes: 

It is significant, I believe, that when Thetis tells Achilles to stop [grieving and return the body], he immediately agrees. One feels that Achilles has wanted to stop, has yearned to put an end to his self-destructive grieving, but no one has had the courage—or the love—to risk the wrath that might be unleashed. [11] 

Is there a still a hint of reluctance here though? Is Achilles merely acquiescing because he has been commanded by Zeus? Markos wonders whether ‘wrath will seize him again and lead him to kill the defenseless Priam’. [12] If so, by the time he utters the line Lewis has quoted, there has been a real change. Priam himself has come to him, and ‘prayed his heart out to Achilles:’ 

‘Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles—
as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
Revere the gods, Achilles! Pity me in my own right,
remember your own father! I deserve more pity...
I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before—
I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.’ [13] 

These words, of course, do their work. Immediately, we read: 

Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire
to grieve for his own father. Taking the old man’s hand
he gently moved him back. And overpowered by memory
both men gave way to grief. Priam wept freely
for man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching
before Achilles’ feet as Achilles wept himself,
now for his father, now for Patroclus once again,
and their sobbing rose and feel throughout the house.
Then, when brilliant Achilles had had his fill of tears
and the longing for it had left his mind and body,
he rose from his seat, raised the old man by the hand
and filled with pity now for his gray head and gray beard,
he spoke out winging words, flying straight to the heart:
‘Poor man, how much you’ve borne—pain to break the spirit!
Come, please, sit down on this chair here...
Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts,
rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.
What good’s to be won from tears that chill the spirit?’ [14] 

As Macleod observes, ‘Priam’s speech makes Achilles think of his own father and so enables him to feel pity for the Trojan father too.’ [15] Indeed, the line that Lewis quotes above—24.542, a line which taken out of context might suggest a particularly unfeeling Achilles—is uttered as the captain of the Myrmidons is reproaching himself for not being a more devoted to son to his own father: ‘...I give the man no care as he grows old / since here I sit in Troy....’ [16] Elaborating on this in a series of comparisons between the new Achilles and his character and actions earlier in the poem, Macleod notes that Peleus’s son now ‘associates the suffering he causes Priam and his sons with his failure to care for his father’s old age’, and ‘he is moved by the harm he does to his enemies’. ‘In short, ambition, vindictiveness and resentment all give way to pity.’ [17] 

What this pity means is revealed by the whole of Achilles’ speech. It is not only an emotion, but an insight: because he sees that suffering is unavoidable and common to all men, he can keep back, not without a struggle, his own pride, rage and grief. [18] 

Macleod notes that in Book 23, Priam actually ‘becomes a new kind of kero who shows endurance (24.505-6) and evokes wonder (480-4) not merely by facing death but by humbling himself and curbing his hatred before his greatest enemy.’ [19] By refusing to perpetuate the cycle of violence, he is able to end it and bring about reconciliation in what Markos calls ‘the fellowship of suffering’: 

What makes it so difficult to be a human being, so difficult to be a mortal in a world of mortals, is not so much that we will die ourselves but that we will lose the ones we love. In their shared mourning, the two men weep for different people, yet ultimately it is the same grief: the grief of the survivor who must continue to live in a world that has lost much of its light and hope. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, sharing with his good friends Mary and Martha in the fellowship of suffering. ‘For we have not,’ the author of Hebrews tells us, ‘an high priest [Christ] which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). [20] 

Thus, the war poem par excellence, the epic whose lesson is ‘that on this earth we must enact hell’, ends on an unexpected note of pity and redemption. Witnessing the mutual grief of Priam and Achilles, the spectacle of the old man embracing the killer of his son, the killer recognising the likeness of his enemy’s father to his own father, the reader’s heart feels acutely that ‘feeling of its own’, that ‘fearful frisson’ of which Gorgias spoke. Surely in the experience of compassion, in the thrill of something very close to forgiveness, we have a glimpse as in a dream of the coming of the compassionate One who will forgive us all. 

[1] Robert Fagles, tr., The Iliad, by Homer (NY: Penguin, 1990), p. 208. 

[2] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (NY: Galaxy, 1965), p. 30. 

[3] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1998), p. 65. 

[4] C.W. Macleod, ed., Iliad Book XXIV (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1995), pp. 4-5. 

[5] Qtd. in ibid., p. 5. 

[6] Ibid., pp. 15-6. 

[7] Qtd. in Lewis, Preface, p. 31; the line is Iliad 24.542, and is found on p. 606 of Fagles’s translation (who renders it ‘since here I sit in Troy, far from my fatherland, / a grief to you, a grief to all your children...’) and p. 77 of Macleod’s edition. 

[8] Fagles, p. 589; translating lines 23, 40-1, 44. 

[9] Louis Markos, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), p. 72. 

[10] Fagles, p. 593; ll. 139-40. 

[11] Markos, p. 76. 

[12] Ibid., p. 76. 

[13] Fagles, pp. 604-5. 

[14] Ibid., p. 605. 

[15] Macleod, p. 26. 

[16] Fagles, p. 606. 

[17] Ibid., pp. 26, 27. 

[18] Ibid., p. 27. 

[19] Ibid., 22. 

[20] Markos, p. 77.

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