What are you reading? Venality, pestilence, and joy edition

by chuckofish

Today we have a guest post from DN, on his birthday! Our at-home festivities will be low key, but I thought it would be appropriate if we celebrated him by hearing from him on the blog.

“What are you reading?” is a great question for these times of quarantine, of course. In my case, I am finally able to keep up with the New Yorker subscription for which I ambitiously signed up after completing my dissertation. DN, on the other hand, has been toggling between Infinite Jest and The Iliad. So let’s see what he has to say!

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…I was already reading Infinite Jest when the virus traveled here. My father had decided to tackle it, and I wanted to talk with him about it, but my memory of the novel was hazy—I had read it maybe 10 years ago or more. Also, there is simply a lot of it. I am currently about halfway through, and I might write about why I appreciate it (and why it is unfortunately misrepresented!) when I finish. Because—teaser—it really is the ultimate novel for our times.

However, some texts are timeless. What compelled me to pull Homer’s Iliad from the shelf I’m not entirely sure, but I think I felt drawn to something whose scope was commensurate to the (epic, historical) present. And I was rather delighted to find chaos.

Epics famously begin in medias res. I always took this truism to mean that epics throw the reader immediately into the middle of the action. They work to grab attention right away. And this is true: the first chapters of the Iliad are action-packed. They primarily concern disagreements between Agamemnon and Achilles, the highest leader and preeminent warrior respectively among the Greeks. Agamemnon and Achilles squabble, debating whether or not to approach Troy at all, and the gods likewise bicker among themselves. Everything gets described in long ablative clauses, and everyone’s actions and countermeasures unroll line by line by line. However, what I did not previously appreciate about in medias res is how it also denotes a tangle of motivations. Reading the opening chapters of the Iliad, it is nearly impossible to parse why Agamemnon and Achilles act as they do. Each will make a long pronouncement about what they propose to do, and then proceed to do the exact opposite. It. Is. Infuriating.

For me, this frustration about human motivation leads to the conclusion that the Trojan War begins for no good, earthly reason. Rather, the war begins on account of veniality and pestilence—specifically, because a bitter Apollo decides to shoot plague-laden arrows into the Greeks, sowing confusion.

   He came as night comes down and knelt then
apart and opposite the ships and let go an arrow.
Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.
First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go
a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.
The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning. (1.47-52)

To me, what is most affecting here is the spatial and temporal disorientation. Apollo is everywhere—“apart and opposite”—and all the time—“did not stop.” And I was only a handful of days into self-isolation when I read those lines! Were we ever so young.

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Eventually the Greeks do go to war. I guess this is a decision, but really it’s more an outcome of circumstance. And in the middle of a tumultuous windup to war comes the invocation of the muse, which made me laugh out loud. This is a moment when the text takes a very deep breath. I want to include the lines preceding this moment so that you get a sense of how surprising this interruption of rhythm is:

These, as men who are goatherds among the wide goatflocks
easily separate them in order as they take to the pasture,
thus the leaders separate them this way and that way
toward the encounter, and among them powerful Agamemnon,
with eyes and head like Zeus who delights in thunder,
like Ares for girth, and with the chest of Poseidon;
like some ox of the herd pre-eminent among the others,
a bull, who stands conspicuous in the huddling cattle;
such was the son of Atreus as Zeus made him that day,
conspicuous among men, and foremost among the fighters.
Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympos.
For you, who are goddesses, are there, and you know all things,
and we have heard only the rumor of it and know nothing. (2.474-486)

Among the rolling verse describing human action line after line, the muses, set apart by punctuation, simply are. While the men are boiling over, the muses just abide. It really took my breath away, this unity of substance and form.

The Iliad is not all venality and pestilence; it has many joys, too. For example, the way that Hera, who supports the Greeks, expresses her exasperation with Zeus—currently in support of the Trojans and their king Priam—reminds me of certain choice work interactions.

Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken?
How can you wish to make wasted and fruitless all this endeavor,
the sweat that I have sweated in toil, and my horses worn out
gathering my people, and bringing evil to Priam and his children.
Do it then; but not all the rest of us gods will approve you. (4.25-29)

Yeah look, Hera says, you obviously can create hardship for the Greeks. I can’t stop you. But don’t expect me to like it!

More often, the Iliad shows me a quiet truth that feels eternal in a small way. This is especially the case when it describes something about the natural world, for example, when, as an aside, it likens the Trojan elders to cicadas. Below, the elders are the substantive “these”:

Now through old age these fought no longer, yet they were excellent
speakers still, and clear, as cicadas who through the forest
settle on trees, to issue their delicate voice of singing.
Such were they who sat on the tower, chief men of the Trojans.
And these, as they saw Helen along the tower approaching,
murmuring softly to each other uttered their winged words… (3.150-155)

You know, now that I think about it, cicadas really are mysteriously old. And lofty. But subtle! I have just as much difficulty imagining old age.

Such joys are on nearly every page.