sexta-feira, janeiro 15, 2010

The Gods are Infantile and Infinitely Wise: "Ransom" by David Malouf

(Original Review, 2010-01-15)

Someone else mentioned David Malouf's Ransom in a linked discussion. I highly recommend the book to others once they've been through Homer. What Mr. Malouf does with the relationship between Priam and Achilles manages - I think - to hold fast with the classic but simultaneously locate Homer's work in a contemporary context (2009 is barely yesterday in terms of the ages we're contemplating here). What Mr. Malouf does with Somax at the end is very clever, very satisfying to my modern inclination.

I've read E. V. Rieu’s and Robert Fagles’ translations of the Iliad. I prefer the latter. Mr. Fagles begins

Rage -- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,

I may be reading too much into subtle differences here - and I have never read Greek so others will have a sounder grasp. But the difference between 'rage' and 'wrath' carries some significance, does it not? Wrath denotes extreme, violent anger as does rage. But the latter also carries a sense of disorienting inner turmoil (I'm attempting to resist using the word madness here lest it be interpreted by others in some sort of contemporary, quasi-clinical sense). Fagles first word tells us not simply that Achilles is violently angry but that he is in the grasp, perhaps as the child of his mother must be, of an uncontrollable, inner distraction / demon / disruption, perhaps at the knowledge / fear that maybe the fates have already determined the manner of his death if not its hour. The idea of rage (anger / turmoil) helps us to understand better the sacrilegious treatment of Hectors body, does it not?

Last point - in Homer and Virgil I've often been struck by just how infantile the Gods seem to be? Is that a revision created by modern texts or was there always a hint there? Or - always more than likely - am I reading a juvenile disposition into the Olympians that isn't truly there?

I guess another aspect is that "wrath" is a lofty quality that we might associate with divine power, whereas "rage" is all too human. Maybe Achilles's status as a demigod makes both alternatives suitable? 'Rage' has the advantage of being also a verb ('the storm raged'), reflexive in voice (in English). But 'wrath', to me, has more of the tone of revenge (where, though 'flying into a rage' connotes provocation, rage itself can be unprovoked); Webster's New Collegiate has 1 : strong vengeful anger or indignation, and 2 : retributory punishment […] : divine chastisement. Achilles' rage, while gushing from a reservoir of entitled petulance, flows directly from Agamemnon's piercing hauteur—particularly goading, because Achilles would kill Agamemnon in single combat (as he would any warrior, apparently).

For this etymological reason, and also because it's—or feels—less common in everyday speech and idiom, I prefer 'wrath'. Also with respect to Achilles' degradation—desecration, in the light of Antigone—of Hector's body, his rages burst as scale-balancing — inappropriately wildly violent, but in my view, 'wrathful'.

As for the emotional incontinence of the Homeric gods, they were indeed known for this in Greek antiquity, as was Homer (and Hesiod) mocked for depicting them so.

Xenophanes (born about 575 BC (?); there's quite some divergence in ancient testimonial as to this) is maybe the best example: "Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all deeds that among men are a reproach and disgrace: thieving, adultery, and mutual deception." (fr. 11, translated by Guthrie, whose first volume of "a history of Greek philosophy", The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, I'm pillaging)

Guthrie quotes Euripides, whom he's convinced is influenced by Xenophanes here, in the Heracles: "That the gods enjoy illicit love I do not believe, nor have I ever thought it right nor have I counted it true that they should go in chains, nor that one god should lord it over another; for the god, if he be truly god, lacks for nothing. Those are the wretched tales of singers."

Now Xenophanes is no atheist; in Fr. 1, he writes:

First it is meet for righteous men to hymn,
With pious stories and pure words, the god.

But he's sarcastic about people taking seriously the bratty misbehavior of gods depicted in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod: if they're really gods, they're not obnoxious triflers. Xenophanes's religious criticism of Homer and Hesiod is a forerunner of Plato's momentous retailing of that sentiment in book 10 of The Republic: poetry is dangerous, and when one says wicked things, one does wicked things. Plato's Socrates's expulsion of the poets from the ideal community, though, is ironic; Xenophanes seems to have wished that only overtly and (I guess) officially pious poetry were on people's lips and in their ears. Boo.

(The gods are both infantile and infinitely wise... A terrifying combination...)

And all this because of “Ransom”. It’s a masterpiece. Maybe one day I’ll write one or two words about it. Right now I can’t. I’m bereft of words. It’s that good.