Thursday, April 5, 2007

War Music

One of the most interesting books I’ve read in the last year was Christopher Logue’s War Music. It’s an “account” of 8 of the sections of Homer’s Illiad. The reason it’s called an account is simple: it’s a modern, poetic re-telling of the blind master’s work. I loved War Music. I spent the better part of a week trying to track down a copy, then I tore through it. Meanwhile, my copy of the Robert Fagles translation of The Illiad sat on my bookcase and gathered dust. Why is this? I blame a man named Heinrich Schliemann. Back about a hundred and fifty years ago, Schliemann set out on a fool’s errand. His goal was to find ancient Troy. Yes, that Troy. The Troy of the Trojan Horse and the “face that launched a thousand ships” and deceptive Paris, proud Hector, eventual legendary foundation of Rome (see Virgil’s Aeneid, also recently helpfully translated by Robert Fagles). Schliemann’s friends probably sat him down one night and had a few fine German beers. They probably explained to him in exhausting detail why he was an idiot. “It’s poetry,” his friends would have told him, “Nothing more. You can’t follow a poem and find a real city any more than you could listen to a song and track down that beautiful girl for whom the stars hide their faces.” “Shut up,” said Schliemann, “Troy’s out there. I know it.” “Sure,” his friends nodded knowingly, “And so’s the island where Circe imprisoned Odysseus. Plato’s cave, I’ll bet you could find that, too. Oh, and try to take some pictures of Bigfoot looting El Dorado while you’re out there.” Schliemann’s friends, it seems, had no real sense of geography. Fortunately for Schliemann, he did not share that problem. Our plucky protagonist ignored his friends and headed out to find Troy. He followed the map recorded in The Illiad. Sure enough, right where he expected to find Troy, he found an ancient city that matched Homer’s account. Ever since then, The Illiad has been more than a poem. It’s been an actual historical document. And as such it’s been treated to modern translations and lost most of the majesty and lyricism it was supposed to have. Okay, it’s more complicated than that. There are many different schools of thought in how linguistics works and the importance of literal translation v. paraphrasing to maintain the purpose. Track down my friend Amy if you care, she knows more about this stuff than I do. The point of all of this is, in my mind, a question of Truth. Nobody had ever bothered to mount a serious search for Troy before Heinrich Schliemann did so. Why? It’s probably because everyone looked at Homer’s masterwork and saw the devices and the mythology and assumed it was nothing more than an ancient Greek TV show. Searching for Troy would be the equivalent of trying to find Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital by following the scripts of episodes of House. The devices in The Illiad are fairly obvious. Paris is tempted by the Goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. Achilles, the brooding half-god sulks his way thought the story. Clever Odysseus teaches the all-important Greek lesson of hubris to the Trojans, who accept the Trojan Horse and thus bring about their own demise. It’s entertainment. It’s mythology. It’s true. At least on some level. So the question brought to us by Homer’s Illiad is this: what constitutes truth? Did the characters and motivations in Homer’s tale have to be real in order for Troy to exist? Did Achilles or Agamemnon have to actually exist in order for us to learn lessons from them? Did Helen actually have to “launch a thousand ships” for the lessons about lust and greed and betrayal to stand up? What if the supposed ten-year war with Troy was actually, as historians believe, a series of trade squabbles between the burgeoning Greek navy and a city situated in prime real-estate on the Hellespont on to which Homer tacked on a few lessons about unity and greed and betrayal? Does the existence of Troy make Homer’s story any less valid? Does a war that had nothing to do with Paris kidnapping Helen mean that The Illiad has to be thrown out the window? If the lessons are true, does it matter whether or not the facts hold up? Edit: The poet's name is Logue, not Pogue. Thanks, Amy.

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