I read Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad in its entirety ten years ago. I tried to read it thirty-three years ago, during my spring break as a freshman at St John’s College, in order to write my freshman essay about the epic; but Chapman’s language was too hard, and so I went back to Lattimore’s translation. I had read this for seminar the previous fall, and four years earlier in an ancient Greek history course in high school. (I recalled the teacher of that course in “Impressionism,” a couple of years ago.)
In “Homer for the Civilian,” I questioned the value of the distance put betweeen us and Homer by the challenging diction and syntax of Chapman. Now I want to question this distance itself by reading Chapman again.
In “Thinking & Feeling,“ with Homer as an example, I wrote of the incompressibility of art. There can be no executive summary of the Iliad, because you are not reading it in order to execute something. In a sense, I have just belied this claim, by recalling how I read the Iliad, thirty-three years ago, precisely for the sake of writing an essay about it. But then I was not simply reading, I was rereading.
Cathy O’Neil wrote with astonishment on the question, “What If We Could Upload Books to Our Brains?” Ray Kurzweil thinks we are going to be able to do this. I would say, something may well be possible that could be described as uploading a book to your brain. A more urgent task is downloading texts from the brain, when the brain belongs to a person with locked-in syndrome. This downloading may be possible, though the locked-in person cannot move a muscle. She can still move her brain. She can compose a text that might be downloaded, because in principle at least, composing is an act of thought alone. In practice, we may compose with pen in hand or keys under the fingers; but those tools are not strictly needed, or one may learn to do without them. In any case, nobody and nothing else can compose what we want to say. The bits and pieces of what we want to express are not lying around our brain, waiting to be picked up by an automated program.
Somebody or something else might be able to anticipate what we want to say. A good novel may do this; but we have to confirm it, by reading. To read a novel is to recompose it for ourselves, so to speak. Again, nobody and nothing else can do this work for us. Kurzweil’s imagined technology might make the novel available to us, without the need to move the focus of our eyeballs along lines of printed text. But this moving of the eyes is only an accidental feature of reading. O’Neil concludes therefore that Kurzweil must have something more in mind. He may think he does. O’Neil suggests two possibilities: that a book may be made a part of our memory, and that the very meaning of the book may be adjusted, according to who we are. She admits that she “would find the lack of active participation creepy.” It is more than creepy, I would say: it is proof that there is no alternative to reading a book. The real movement of reading is done with our thoughts. The brain can be moved, as by drugs; but reading is something one does, not something done to oneself.
As I said, I first read the Iliad for school. Could I have wished to be spared the trouble of reading? A year earlier, I had become friends with a new boy in school, a boy who, from growing up in Francophone Africa, happened to know French. He said he could do my French homework for me. I considered the possibility, but realized that it would be of no benefit. Homework was not an empty exercise, but it made me more knowledgeable or skilled. This would only happen if I did the work for myself.
What a sickening confession of being a responsible student! In a later year, a French teacher would assign vocabulary words, without bothering to tell us their genders. A classmate and I commiserated on having to look up the genders in our dictionaries, if we actually wanted to use the words. Apparently we didn’t think to make up genders. We were somehow too obedient. Then our obedience was not to the teacher as such, but to the truth. Maybe the teacher himself didn’t know the genders of the words he assigned, or didn’t care about them. He was French, a pied-noir. He was also abusive to the weaker students, and the unpleasantness of his classroom manner was a reason why I dropped French after fulfilling the three-and-a-half-year requirement.
In those adolescent years, in my neighborhood at home, I enjoyed playing the game called Twixt from a friend’s collection. The friend ultimately gave the game to me, and I have it here in Istanbul now. Back then one day, I was playing the game with another friend, and I was winning, and she wished she could thwart me with a certain illegal move. This made no sense. The whole point of playing the game was to learn what I would describe as its mathematics. Winning was desirable only as a sign of having learned. A win would be meaningless if achieved through a last-minute rule change, granted by some external power. Winning this way would be like—like having a book uploaded to your brain.
My first awareness of Ray Kurzweil came from a lecture by Edward Frenkel at Boğaziçi University on December 3, 2015. Frenkel reported Kurzweil’s fantasy of sending nanobots into the brains of people who knew his father, to recover memories that would allow the late Frederic Kurzweil to be brought back to life. This suggests to me, as I think it did to Frenkel, a person of desperate sadness. I don’t think technology will solve his problem.
What follows is my summary of, and notes about, Book I of the Iliad, downloaded from my brain to the keyboard, then uploaded again to the web.
“Achilles’s baneful wrath” is to be resounded by the Goddess, whom the poet invokes.
The story will be the strife between Achilles and Agamemnon. By Homer’s account, it begins not with the men themselves, but with Apollo, who has plagued the Greek army. There is no reason to suppose that Homer denies responsibility to the army or its leader. Apollo has plagued the army, because Agamemnon insists on keeping a man’s daughter as his slave. The woman’s father is a priest of Apollo called Chryses; we shall come to know the daughter’s name only as Chryseis. She has evidently been taken in a Greek raid on her home town, which will be called Chrysa. We shall hear more about the raid later in Book I, when Achilles tells the story to his mother. Thus Homer’s narrative is not sequential. In a technique that will become standard in literature, we start in medias res.
Chryses offers ransom for his daughter. He also utters the wish that the Greeks will conquer Troy. In Book XXIV, when Priam goes to ransom his son’s corpse from Achilles, we shall know how nervous Priam is. But now I see no clear indication of nerves on the part of Chryses, even though Chrysa has presumably been sacked because (or with the excuse that) it is allied with Troy:
…“Great Atreus’ sons,” said he,
“And all ye well-greaved Greeks, the gods, whose habitations be
In heavenly houses, grace your powers with Priam’s razed town,
And grant ye happy conduct home ! To win which wished renown
Of Jove, by honouring his son, far-shooting Phoebus, deign
For these fit presents to dissolve the ransomable chain
Of my loved daughter’s servitude.”…
Possibly Chryses has the confidence of one who knows he can summon up divine power. But then, if Chryses can really do such a thing, why did he not keep his daughter from being taken in the first place?
In their simple piety, if not greed for the ransom offered, the soldiers all agree to grant Chryses’s request; but we do not know whose prize Chryseis is, until Agamemnon declares that he will take her back to his court in Argos. He tells Chryses to get lost. Chryses obeys, and Homer (or Chapman) does allow that he “trod off with haste and fear.”
Chryses prays to Apollo, mentioning, as being within Apollo’s domain, Chrysa, Cilla, and Tenedos. The last is on, or is, the island today called Bozcaada: I visited it ten years ago. Probably Chrysa and Cilla were on the mainland, but I don’t suppose we have any idea just where.
Apollo hears Chryses and plagues the Greeks.
“The fires of death went never out ; nine days his shafts flew hot
About the army…
None of the dead are named. They wouldn’t be, at the beginning of a story. On the tenth day, Achilles calls a council. There is a vague suggestion that Hera is behind it. Achilles knows that Apollo has sent the plague, but does not admit to knowing why:
…Let us ask some Prophet, Priest, or prove
Some dream interpreter (for dreams are often sent from Jove)
Why Phoebus is so much incensed; if unperformed vows
He blames in us, or Hecatombs…
If Achilles can recognize the hand of Apollo in the plague, can he truly not know the cause? Or would it just not be politic to be the one to state it? The augur Calchas Thestorides offers to state it, provided he be given protection from the wrath of Agamemnon:
…When a king hath once markt for his hate
A man inferior, though that day his wrath seems to digest
Th’offence he takes, yet evermore he rakes up in his brest
Brands of quick anger till revenge hath quencht to his desire
The fire reserved…
Achilles offers protection, and then Calchas reveals that Chryseis must be returned to her father for no ransom, and with sacrifices to boot.
Is it all a set-up? Agamemnon accuses Calchas of delighting in making offensive auguries. He says he loves Chryseis more than he does his wife Clytemnestra. (As Aeschylus tells the story in the Oresteia, Clytemnestra will kill Agamemnon when he gets home.) Agamemnon will make the great sacrifice of returning her to her father, provided Agamemnon himself be supplied with another prize in her place.
Achilles tells Agamemnon to do what the god commands. As the Greeks themselves do not command it, so Agamemnon should take nothing from them. There is little in the “common treasury”: most of what was taken from “our razed town” has been distributed to the men, and to take this back “Were ignominious and base.” There is honor among thieves! Zeus has promised them all the prize of Troy:
“…all loss thou sufferst thus
Will treble, quadruple in gain when Jupiter bestows
the sack of well-wall’d Troy on us—which by his word he owes.”
Agamemnon points out that while Achilles may be fleeter of foot, he is not so smart. Agamemnon will not be convinced to harm himself. If the Greeks give him no recompense for Chryseis now, he will take it for himself, be it from Achilles, Odysseus, or Ajax. Meanwhile, any of these three, or Idomeneus, is invited to perform the service of actually returning the woman to Chrysa, with sacrifices, as the god requires; in fact it would be good for Achilles to perform the service.
I recall here two bits of popular culture:
- “The President Is a Lot Smarter Than You Think!”, the second Doonesbury collection, from 1972: the President is Nixon, and according to B.D., he will be smart enough to keep the Vietnam War going. (I read this book countless times as a child, because it was lying around the house in West Virginia where I had many holidays.)
- The “Anniversary” episode of Fawlty Towers, in which Basil continues to refuse to decide whether to give Polly the advance she has asked for, even as he demands her help for a surprise party for his wife Sybil. (At present writing this little vignette has not been considered worthy of the summary in the Wikipedia article on the episode. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” Polly mutters ironically.)
Achilles observes that the Trojans never did him any harm. He and the rest of the Greeks offer their lives for the vengeance of Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus. Achilles does the most work, and what recompense the Greeks have given him is little compared to what Agamemnon gets; and now even that little does Agamemnon propose to take from him. He will go home to Phthia, rather than lose here his treasure and his honor.
Go ahead, says Agamemnon. He himself trusts in Zeus. He observes that Achilles’s strength comes from the god and is therefore nothing to be proud about. This is a fine teaching, when one offers it to oneself. Agamemnon, however, will make like Apollo:
“Since Phoebus needs will force from me Chryseis, she shall go;
My ships and friends shall waft her home. But I will imitate so
His pleasure that mine own shall take, in person, from thy tent
Bright-cheekt Briseis, and so tell thy strength how eminent
My power is, being compar’d with thine—all other making fear
To vaunt equality with me, or in this proud kind bear
Their beards against me.” Thetis’ son at this stood vext.
Achilles does not know whether to restrain himself or kill Agamemnon now. Here is one of the moments that are important for Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Achilles on his own is drawn in two directions; but then Athena comes, making herself visible to Achilles alone, and tells him to use not sword, but words. What Agamemnon now will take, he will later offer back threefold. So says Athena—or so says Achilles to himself, by Jaynes’s account, though Achilles cannot recognize the speaker as himself.
Achilles agrees with Athena (or with himself): “my soul must conquer th’angry part.” But when Athena goes back to heaven, Achilles cannot hold his tongue. How often do we have this experience? Achilles’s vow now is not to go home, but to refuse to help the Greeks. He makes his vow on a scepter, which was once a tree trunk, but which will no longer grow and bear branches or green leaves: it has been stripped of its natural ornaments with iron (it now has “golden studs”), and judges use it to defend “their laws, received from Jove.”
Thus speaks Achilles, and “Atrides’ breast was drowned / In rising choler.” Nestor steps up as peacemaker. He declares his credentials. He is older than Achilles and Agamemnon put together, and has counselled better men than they are. Agamemnon should not take Achilles’s prize, and Achilles should not oppose the king.
King of men,
Command thou then thyself ; and I with my prayers will obtain
Grace of Achilles to subdue his fury ; whose parts are
Worth our entreaty, being chief check to all our ill in war.”
Agamemnon responds first, saying Nestor is right, but Achilles is too hot-tempered.
Achilles threatens Agamemnon. Agamemnon can take Briseis, since Achilles will not draw blood for a woman; but he will draw blood, if Agamemnon takes anything else. Does Achilles speak from principle, or calculation? Would Achilles really be more willing to fight over a piece of bronze or gold than over a woman? Or does he say the most threatening thing that will not actually lead to a fight? Achilles can beat Agamemnon one-on-one, but Agamemnon does presumably have the support that he boasts of. In Turkey today, I frequently see men try to fight, but other men always hold them back: I imagine this is may be the only reason why the principals were willing to try to fight in the first place.
Achilles returns to his tent, while Agamemnon outfits the ship that will return Chryseis to her father. The ship is loaded with a hecatomb. The men who will stay behind at the camp also make sacrifice.
To heaven the thick fumes bore
Enwrapped savours. Thus, though all the politic king made show
Respects to heaven, yet he himself all that time did pursue
His own affections ; the late jar, in which he thundered threats
Against Achilles, still he fed…
It sounds as if Calchas was right about how kings respond to offence.
Agamemnon sends his heralds to fetch Briseis from Achilles’s tent. They go, but can say nothing to Achilles. He tells them he has nothing against them. He has Patroclus hand over Briseis, while he reminds the heralds that his refusal to fight for the Greeks henceforth is a matter of honor. Agamemnon is raving mad:
“…Nor sees at once by present things the future ; how like waves
Ills follow ills ; injustices being never so secure
In present times, but after-plagues even then are seen as sure ;
Which yet he sees not, and so soothes his present lust, which checked
Would check plagues future ; and he might, in succouring right, protect
Such as fight for his right at fleet. They still in safety fight
That fight still justly.”…
It sounds as if Achilles believes in karma. Briseis weeps. So does Achilles, when he goes to the shore to call to his mother. Thetis comes from the sea and asks what is wrong. Achilles says she already knows, but—conveniently for us—tells her anyway. He gives her an executive summary of what we know, but adds the detail that Chryseis was taken in the sacking of “Thebes, the sacred town of King Eetion.” Perhaps Chrysa should be understood as a village attached to Thebes, which is in turn attached to, or allied with, Troy.
Achilles asks Thetis to have Zeus allow the Trojans to drive the Greeks home. Zeus should listen to Thetis, since he owes her: when he had been bound by his sister-wife Hera and his daughter Athena, Thetis brought Briareus to the rescue. Achilles knows this, since Thetis would boast of it in the court of Peleus his father.
Thetis boasts now that she will achieve Achilles’s wish. She does grieve to have given birth to a man fated to die young, when in that short life he is given such woe. She also tells Achilles he must be patient, since Zeus and his court are off visiting the Ethiopians. Here seems as good a time as any to recall the words of Robert Graves in the Introduction of a little book called Greek Gods and Heroes (1960):
These myths are not solemn, like Bible stories. The notion that there could be only one God and no goddesses did not please the Greeks, who were a gifted, quarrelsome, humorous race. They thought of Heaven as ruled by a divine family rather like any rich human family on earth, but immortal and all-powerful; and used to poke fun at them at the same time as offering them sacrifices. In remote European villages even today, where a rich man owns most of the land and houses, much the same thing happens. Every villager is polite to the landlord and pays rent regularly. But behind his back he will often say, ‘What a proud, violent, hasty-tempered fellow! How he ill-treats his wife, and how she nags at him! As for their children: they are a bad bunch! That pretty daughter is crazy about men and doesn’t care how she behaves; that son in the Army is a bully and a coward; and the one who acts as his father’s agent and looks after the cattle is far too smooth-tongued to be trusted…Why, the other day I heard a story…’
That was just how the Greeks spoke of their god Zeus, his wife Hera, his son Ares the War-god, his daughter Aphrodite, his other son Hermes, and the rest of the quarrelsome family.
I used to go to school in Washington in a car pool with a few other Virginians. There was an older girl in the group named Emily Graves, and one day she had holes in the cover her French dictionary. Her brother Robert had gone crazy with a hole punch. He had even punched holes in Emily’s book of Greek myths. “I bet you don’t know who wrote that book,” Emily said.
“Whoever he is, he’s an idiot,” said Robert Graves of Robert Graves.
This is what I happen to associate with the poet. I gather he has a controversial theory of the origin of the myths. The words that I quoted do not necessarily describe the origin of the myths. They do seem to describe the gods themselves.
While Achilles waits for the gods to come home from Ethiopia, Odysseus returns Chryseis to her father. The sacrifices are made, and Chryses prays for the plague to be removed. The Greeks feast on meat and wine. The sun is pleased to hear their paeans. The soldiers sleep till dawn, then sail back to their camp at Troy.
When he will have been fed and put to bed by Achilles in Book XXIV, Priam will definitely not sleep till dawn, but will return to the city within the walls.
When Zeus is back in his throne, Thetis appeals to him. When he is silent, Thetis demands to know for sure that she is the one goddess whom he will dishonor.
Zeus is only thinking of what Hera will say when she learns what he will do to satisfy Thetis. He tells Thetis to leave before Hera sees her. Hera does see her though, and “and straight her tongue had teeth in it.”
Zeus tries to explain: Look, Honey, you will always be the first to know of anything that others can know!
Zeus may however have plans that he can reveal to nobody. Even if Hera learns them, she can do nothing about them, and she had better not try.
Hephaestus speaks up. Dad is right, Mom: remember how he threw me out of heaven, and I fell all day till I hit the ground?
Now Hephaestus serves nectar to the gods. They laugh at his ability to do so ably, even while lame. I imagine lameness was common for the Greeks. It is common Turkey today. I am not aware that disability is ridiculed there, though it is hardly accommodated. Turks are surprised to visit Europe and see how many people in wheelchairs there are; the Turks don’t realize that there are just as many disabled folks in Turkey, only they can hardly leave the house.
Apollo plays the harp, the Muses sing along, and the gods go to bed.
(I edited this article on April 17, 2017, a day after initial publication, expanding the initial part on reading as an activity.)