Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 21 line 486 to Book 23 line 768
As I make my way through The Iliad, roughly 70 lines first thing each morning, I regularly encounter references to it in the rest of my day.
In my last progress report I quoted from Simone Weill’s 1939 essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force. Serendipity struck a couple of days later when, visiting the Queensland Art Gallery to see the wonderful Chiharu Shiota exhibition, I spotted a screen print waiting to be hung in a coming exhibition:
To save you the trouble of opening the image separately, the spiralling text is a quote from that same essay:
Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Force is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all, this is the Spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.
The image is ‘Poem of Force’, one of a series of silkscreens in the Simone Weill Project by artists Janet Burchill and Janet McCamley. You can see a clean image of it here.
There has been some ludicrous comedy among the gods this month. Hera boxes Athena’s ears, and the latter runs to curl up weeping in the lap of Zeus. I tell you, after seeing the arbitrary, petty, infantile behaviour of the gods in this book, I’ve completely changed my attitude towards them.
But the main action has been the death of Hector, speared in the throat by Achilles. Hector dies a true hero’s death. He realises that his own heroics earlier have led to the deaths of many Trojans, and decides that the honourable thing to do is engage Achilles in personal combat, knowing the likely outcome. As Achilles approaches, Hector’s nerve fails and he runs, and the two run around the walls of Troy ‘endlessly as in a dream’. Then he stands to face Achilles once again. He offers a bargain: ‘If I kill you, I’ll ensure that your body is treated with full respect, and I ask you to do the same for me.’ Achilles, the embodiment of Simone Weill’s Force, refuses, and promises to leave Hector’s corpse to be eaten by dogs. At one stage he says, ‘I’d eat you raw.’ The gods step in for one last bit of disgusting cheatery, and Hector is slain.
Huge grief is unleashed among the Trojans. While I find it hard to read some of the Iliad‘s action scenes without a Marvel Universe version playing in my head, the scene where Andromache is interrupted at her embroidery and gives way to full-bodied lamentation completely transcends any such association. In particular, she wails for the fate of her son, who we met as a baby in Book 6:
The day that orphans a youngster cuts him off from friends. And he hangs his head low, humiliated in every way ... his cheeks stained with tears, and pressed by hunger the boy goes up to his father's old companions, tugging at one man's cloak, another's tunic, and some will pity him, true, and one will give him a little cup to drink, enough to wet his lips, not quench his thirst. But then some bully with both his parents living beats him from the banquet, fists and abuses flying: 'You, get out – you've got no father feasting with us here!' And the boy, sobbing, trails home to his widowed mother ...
Book 22 ends with her lament, and Book 23 turns to the grandiose ceremonies for Patroclus down by the Greek ships. It’s good to be reminded how deeply loved Patroclus was, and not just by Achilles, but the chariot race (mercifully conducted without godly interference) and then the bickering over prizes is a bit of an anticlimax. Where I left off this morning, two men were preparing to box, their eyes on a donkey-prize. It’s hard to credit that this book is the work of one writer.