" We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time..."
Delusions, self-induced or otherwise, form the central" We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time..."
Delusions, self-induced or otherwise, form the central theme that runs through Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke, thirsting for knowledge and a meaningful occupation, deludes herself that she would gain those things by marrying Casaubon, a cold, obsessive scholar more than twice her age. Casaubon himself is mired in self-delusion about his life-long research, which Dorothea soon finds out to be obsolete. The idealistic Lydgate deludes himself that by marrying the pretty but high-maintenance Rosamond Vincy he would gain both beauty and love, without having to give up the ideals that he lives for. Rosamond's delusion is that by marrying Lydgate, whose fledgling medical profession she despises, but whose aristocratic connections she covets, she would gain status while being maintained at the high standards that she has gotten used to. Bulstrode, MIddlemarch's banker and pious benefactor, has successfully deluded the whole town of his decidedly unpious past before it came back with a vengeance in the form of a certain Mr. Raffles. Mr. Brooke, who champions the liberal spirit of the Reform Act, is under the delusion that by merely being idealistic, he has changed the world, while neglecting to reform his own estate. The main interest of the novel consists of seeing how these very human characters cope with the consequences of their delusions.
Dorothea soon realizes that Casaubon and his work are not what she thought they were, but she holds up her end of the bargain by being a loyal spouse to him, though her heart sinks when she imagines the loveless and futile years that stretch out before her. Casaubon's sudden death mercifully terminates the disastrous marriage, and Dorothea's integrity, after further trials and tribulations, is ultimately rewarded by her finding love with Will Ladislaw. Lydgate discovers how his love of a pretty face slowly compromises his ideals and ends up in mediocrity, very far from what he aims for as a young medical reformer. Rosamond selfishly persists in her delusions without any regard for what it costs her husband. She finally gets what she wants, but at what price? Bulstrode's past misdeeds eventually catch up with him and destroy the life that he has so painstakingly constructed in Middlemarch. Mr. Brooke's political dilletantism never change the world, but it successfully opens up a path to meaningful occupation for an otherwise aimless young man.
Meanwhile, all of these characters' struggles are contrasted with the Garths' earthy integrity. Mr. Garth is an estate manager who does his job capably and honorably, without any pretensions to status or unearned wealth. Fred Vincy and Mary Garth are the only couple that is not under any delusions of each other's characters and goes on to a long and happy union.
Eliot's writing is infused with penetrating insights into human nature without ever losing compassion and understanding for their frailties and errors, a quality that she shares with Tolstoy. She never sentimentalizes her characters, except perhaps for the idealized Garths. They are all believably human, and they drive the narrative instead of the other way around. Eliot also has a great eye for the ludicruous and her wicked sense of humor constantly enlivens what could have been a ponderous account of provincial English life. One may read Middlemarch for the portrait of a Midlands town on the cusp of industrial revolution in 19th century England, which Eliot admirably delivers, but ultimately it is Eliot's insight into the universal human condition that makes it eternally relevant.
Finally, this book is a profoundly wise, if rather melancholic, reflection on the loss of youthful hopes and ambitions, and their replacement by the more realistic (and inevitable) compromises of maturity. Which, Eliot says, is not a bad thing in itself, as " the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs".
Persuasion, Austen's last completed novel, has little in common with her earlier, more celebrated works. There is comparatively little in the way of sPersuasion, Austen's last completed novel, has little in common with her earlier, more celebrated works. There is comparatively little in the way of surprising plot twists, clever witticisms, or amusing comic moments. It even lacks a heroine that we could look up to, or even identify with. It is as if Austen had dispensed with nearly all conventional means that novelists use to hold the reader's interest. Shorn of literary ornamentations, Persuasion is instead a moving story of lost love and regrets, second chances and reconciliation, told with remarkable economy and precision. What is lost by the exclusion of the qualities that are usually present in her works, is amply compensated by a greater clarity of focus and depth of feeling. The mature Austen was no longer interested in amusing us with her cleverness, or with being a moralist, but instead chose to delve into the secret depths of men and women's inner lives, resulting in a deeply affecting contemplation of the limits of romantic love and devotion.
My Wordsworth edition contains an earlier draft of Chapter Eleven of Volume II, which omits Captain Wentworth's letter (surely the mother of all love letters!) and the fascinating discussion on the constancy of love among men and women between Anne and Captain Harville. Fortunately, Austen changed her mind and rewrote that part. The ending would have lost much of its impact without them.
The other surprising element in the novel for me is the 'feminist' (or perhaps proto-feminist?) depiction of Mrs. Croft and her marriage to her husband the Admiral. While criticism of society's treatment of women, particularly women who are either poor or low in rank, has always been implied in her previous novels, it has never been as explicit as in this one.
It is a tragedy that Austen passed away soon after completing Persuasion, and thus we are left with a mere glimpse of her mature style. It would have been fascinating to know what her subsequent novels would be like....more
Now I know why Charlotte Bronte said this of Jane Austen: "The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with thNow I know why Charlotte Bronte said this of Jane Austen: "The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood". I love Jane, but Charlotte REALLY knows how to write about passion, romantic or otherwise. If Jane’s books are stately minuets in which the smallest gesture has its meaning, Charlotte’s is a spirited, sweeping tango of duty and desire. A perfect blend of passionate romance, gothic mystery, romantic description of nature, social commentary and humor, all rendered in vivid, gorgeous prose. One cannot help to admire Jane Eyre, the little governess who could. She rises above her harsh upbringing to become a governess, poor but ever fiercely independent. Even the promise of love and comfort with the man that she worships is not enough to sway her from the path of integrity. One cannot help to admire Charlotte, who makes her intensely human; a woman of virtue, yet one who is not above jealousy and doubts, and who constantly struggles with the personal cost of her decisions. A deeply felt, and ultimately moving story of love and redemption that will linger long after the last page is turned.
"`You judge very properly,'' said Mr. Bennet, ``and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether the"`You judge very properly,'' said Mr. Bennet, ``and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?''
``They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.''
Mr. Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure."
Absurd cousins, hysterical mothers, giggly airhead sisters, aristocratic snobs --- Austen mercilessly skewers them all with her rapier-sharp wit and unerrant eye for the ridiculous. No one escapes her scrutiny, and everyone makes a fool of themselves at least once in the merry-go-round of the Regency mating game. Even her shrewd, feisty heroine almost fell for a charming cad, before she is finally rewarded with the ultimate prize in the matrimonial game.
If the plot seems banal or overtly familiar to 21st century readers -- boy meets girl, misunderstanding ensues, boy and girl overcome their issues and live happily ever after -- this is because Austen's novel is the original template for countless romantic comedies written over the last 200 years. Being the original prototype, however, does not diminish Austen's masterpiece. Beneath all the romance and comedy that make it such a delightful read we are constantly reminded of the darker undercurrents that animate the surface narration. Mrs. Bennet's hysteria stems from the necessity of securing husbands for her five daughters, who all would be condemned to penury should they fail to marry well before their father dies. The slightest deviation from society's prescribed mores results in the destruction of reputation and even ostracism. Any contact with one's social superior, at a time when birth and wealth trumped any other qualities, always comes with the possibility of insult or mortification. In Austen's world, dinner parties and balls are battlefields and romance is a deadly serious business.
For the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Macbeth vs The Complete Sherlock Holmes
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock HolmesFor the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Macbeth vs The Complete Sherlock Holmes
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ’82 and ’90, I happen to come upon a half-forgotten adventure that is probably the strangest of them all. My faithful readers, who are no stranger to odd going-ons involving my famous friend’s cases, would be reminded of stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Sussex Vampire. Yet, this particular case is particularly odd and as such I have never set it on writing, as its features are so fantastical that it is scarcely believable. Even after all these years, I am still not quite convinced that it really happened.
It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence. All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage. As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney. Sherlock Holmes sat moodily at one side of the fireplace cross-indexing his records of crime, while I at the other was deep in one of Clark Russell's fine sea-stories until the howl of the gale from without seemed to blend with the text, and the splash of the rain to lengthen out into the long swash of the sea waves. My wife was on a visit to her mother's, and for a few days I was a dweller once more in my old quarters at Baker Street.
"Why," said I, glancing up at my companion, "that was surely the bell. Who could come to-night? Some friend of yours, perhaps?"
"Except yourself I have none," he answered. "I do not encourage visitors."
"A client, then?"
"If so, it is a serious case. Nothing less would bring a man out on such a day and at such an hour. But I take it that it is more likely to be some crony of the landlady's."
Sherlock Holmes was wrong in his conjecture, however, for there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door. He stretched out his long arm to turn the lamp away from himself and towards the vacant chair upon which a newcomer must sit.
"Come in!" said he.
The woman who entered was cloaked in black, her head covered with a peculiar conical hat. A heavy veil hid her countenance, which judging by the sinewy and leathery appearance of her hands was not a rosy-cheeked youthful one. A faint smell of something suggestive of sulphur accompanied her. She was silent for a while, and then she spoke with an eerie, quavering voice,
“Fair is foul and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
“I beg your pardon, madam”, Holmes said, “are you here for a consultation? I am afraid that you must speak more clearly so that I can hear you.”
“I shall kill thou like the swine thou art, But I’d rather send thou sailing on a sieve To the Thane’s abode shall thou depart Here I give thee a wind!”
At the end of the sinister incantation, our rooms were enveloped in a thick grayish mist, thicker even than the fog that habitually descended upon the streets of London. The room seemed to swirl before our eyes and when the mist finally cleared, it became apparent that we were not in our Baker Street den anymore. I was too stunned to speak, but my eyes gradually became used to our gloomy surroundings. Dimly, I perceived that we were in a stone room with a high vaulted ceiling.
“Holmes!”, I cried with mounting alarm. “Where are we?”
It took some time for him to answer. “ I believe that we are in a sort of a castle, my friend, though I have no idea how we got here. Or whether this whole thing is not an extremely elaborate, albeit an astonishingly convincing illusion.”
Before I had the chance to react to this astounding pronouncement, I heard a man shouting, “awake, awake! Ring the alarum bell, murder and treason!” We ran toward the source of the commotion, our steps clattering through the cold flagstones, only to find ourselves in a great hall, evidently of a great age, filled with a number of people. They were dressed strangely, not quite a few in what appear to be kilts. They were too noisily agitated to notice us. After a while, some of them rushed into another part of the castle, Holmes and I hard on their heels.
“Holmes”, said I in an aside, “how come that there are always murder and treason whenever you come into the picture?”
“Whoever --- or whatever brought us into this place probably desperately needs my expertise, Watson. So let us dispense with rational explanations now and follow the scent. The game is afoot!”
We came into a grand room furnished with rich tapestries, in the center of which stood a heavily carved, canopied bed. In the center of that bed laid an old man in a bloodstained nightgown. He was as dead as a doornail. On the foot of the bed sprawled two young men, utterly insensible, unmannerly breeched with gore. A pair of bloody daggers were strewn upon their pillows.
“There’s the victim!”, said I. “Obviously, these lads killed him while in a drunken stupor. How vile!”
“Tut-tut! Not so fast, Watson. I believe that these were merely scapegoats --- red herrings to distract us from the real murderers!”
“And pray tell me, who are they, Holmes?”
With a dramatic flourish, his face keen with excitement like a hound hard on the chase, he pointed to a couple standing next to the bed.
“These are the murderers! The Thane of Glamis and his lady, Whose hands are stained with royal blood, A stain that shall not be washed clean Until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.”
“What? Why are you speaking in such a peculiar way, Holmes?” I asked in amazement.
Because we are in the Bard’s play, Macbeth to be precise. Where everyone speak in verse, Unless they madmen or villains be.
I have not the faintest idea, Watson But anything that involves ruinous-butt Cannot be good for certain.
Thou meddling spur-galled vile worm! Thou tottering base-court bum-bailey!
There she goes again, Holmes!
[LADY MACBETH slowly brandishes a blood-stained dagger]
Let us escape while we can Here take this from my hand ---
[Throws an object at WATSON]
What is this?
‘Tis the eye of newt or toe of frog, Or perhaps wool of bat or tongue of dog. I cannot be certain of its substance I pilfered it from the witches when I had the chance, And shall it be the means of our return!
[HOLMES and WATSON escape through an opening in the wall while thick fog obscures the stage]
Did I imagine it all? Were I caught in a dream, induced by certain substances that I knew Holmes habitually indulged in during those days? We never spoke of the strange incident, and the vivid memories slowly faded, but whenever I sat in front of the fire with a volume of the Bard’s works in my lap, I habitually turned to the Scottish play. I fancy that I heard these immortal words from the doomed Thane of Glamis himself and shuddered in awe.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. ...more
North and South is a perfectly enjoyable Victorian novel. Which is to say that it is didactic, occasionally wordy, earnestly concerned with social issNorth and South is a perfectly enjoyable Victorian novel. Which is to say that it is didactic, occasionally wordy, earnestly concerned with social issues and not entirely free from sentimentality and melodrama.
The heroine, Margaret Hale, can be a tad Mary Sue-ish at times, but she is ultimately an admirable example of resilience and single-minded perseverance in the face of constantly changing, often difficult, circumstances. It is quite astounding, and at times frustrating, that such a young girl is expected to be a pillar of strength for so many others; for her father, a country parson who quits his comfortable living for conscientious reasons but is too chicken to tell his family about it; for her mother, a fragile invalid whose terminal illness must be concealed from everyone else; for her cousin, a shallow, dependent woman whose life revolves around dinner-parties; for her brother, a fugitive from justice; and even for a family of laborers who are oppressed by the harsh working conditions of the industrial north of England. From time to time, I feel the urge to smack the weak, vacillating adults around her for reserving the right to make all the life-changing decisions and then abdicating responsibility for the consequences. And yet, Margaret herself is not without flaws, for she could be proud and prejudiced against the newly rising class of Northern self-made men, mere “manufacturers” like Mr. Thornton, who due to their affluence, is able to employ her father, an Oxford-educated gentleman, as a tutor. It is interesting that she could look down on her suitor Thornton, a wealthy man who began his career as a draper’s assistant, and yet also forms an entirely sympathetic relationship with a factory hand’s daughter, someone who is several rung under him in the social pecking order. Apparently, the lower classes are perfectly fine as objects of Christian charity but are objectionable as potential spouses.
To his credit, the equally proud, taciturn Thornton himself is mercifully free from the more vulgar traits of the manufacturing class and is zealous in catching up on his education. Through his personal acquaintance with Higgins, the laborer that Margaret befriended, he even introduces reforms in his factory that is not solely inspired by utilitarian principles.
Gaskell’s writing about industrial Milton and contemporary social issues is credible and informative --- undoubtedly derived from her first-hand experience as a minister’s wife in Manchester --- but I expected it to be more detailed. I’d be interested to see the insides of the textile factory, for instance. Or to hear more about the working conditions that spark the violent riot. We get to see the interior of the on-site Thornton home, but never get into the factory itself. The workers’ arguments are mostly presented through Higgins’ monologues, and the bosses’ side through Thornton’s reasoning. This part of the story is pretty slow for me because of the way Gaskell chose to tell it, and also because of the laborer characters, who veer towards Dickensian sentimentality but are drawn without his knack for creating memorable traits for them.
Ultimately, the book’s strength lies on the vivid evocation of Margaret’s experiences and the sympathetic, yet not wholly uncritical portrayal of its characters. Aside from the main characters, the grumpy but kindly Mr. Bell and Dixon, the chronically class-prejudiced but utterly loyal maid, are particularly delightful. The prose itself is not that extraordinary --- you won’t find Eliot’s epigrammatic wit, Dickens’ intricate plotting, or Hardy’s descriptive power in it --- but it is perfectly enjoyable, very accessible and oddly soothing, considering the numerous tragedies in the story. The ending, with its last-minute romantic reconciliation is rather abrupt, but utterly believable, and the characters feel like old friends that you have known all your life. ...more
I have mixed feelings about this book. I like how Bronte used the narrative framework, with Lucy Snowe as the not always reliable narraSPOILER WARNING
I have mixed feelings about this book. I like how Bronte used the narrative framework, with Lucy Snowe as the not always reliable narrator, who alternately reveals her deepest feelings while deliberately concealing certain fact/plot point from the reader. We are both privy to her innermost thoughts --- at least those that she feels appropriate to share --- while at the same time being held at a distance by her sly opaqueness and secretive nature. Jane Eyre she ain't. How Bronte utilized this framework to both tell the story and illuminate Lucy’s complex psychological states is both subtle and brilliant, and surely ahead of her time. We get to learn firsthand what makes Lucy Snowe ticks; we see her being reticent about the tragic circumstances of her early life, pining over Dr. John --- while still making excuses for his shallowness, being amusingly sardonic about the goings-on in the pensionat (secret love letters! cross-dressing as a nun!), struggling with depression, and (in a plot development that is hard to swallow --- more on this later) learning to love a man whom she previously despised.
That said, the technique also exposes us to a lot of her internal monologues, which occasionally devolve into tedious ramblings composed of melodramatic, adjective-laden sentences that seem to breathlessly run forever. Perhaps Bronte used Lucy to explore her own dark night of the soul, but somehow my eyes tend to glaze over whenever they occur.
Another recurrent theme is Lucy’s vehement anti-Catholicism and strong belief in English superiority. I have no idea whether Bronte shared the same views, but they are an integral part of Lucy’s personality and perhaps are simply a reflection of the times that they were living in. The French are shown to be similarly afflicted with national and religious chauvinism.
Eventually, love between Lucy and her “little” Frenchman, M. Paul, conquers all --- which brings us to my major beef with the story. M. Paul is a misogynist (“A ‘woman of intellect’,… a luckless incident, a thing for which there was neither place nor use in creation, wanted neither as wife nor worker.”) and control freak (“Pink or scarlet, yellow or crimson, pea green or sky blue; it was all one: these were all flaunting, giddy colours…”) of the first order. He constantly harangues Lucy about her dress, her intellect, her manners etc. ad nauseam. Sure, the man is not entirely devoid of little gestures of kindness for the lonely English teacher, and there is that big reveal about the life-long sacrifice that he made for a bunch of ungrateful semi-relatives, but he never repents of his earlier unPC-ness, and Lucy seems to happily gloss over them once they become an item. Oh, and Lucy is supposed to be fiercely independent, but at the end it is M. Paul who sets her up financially by giving her the girls school to run. Perhaps it’s better that he never returns from that business trip to the West Indies --- we never know, because Lucy is just as reticent about the closure to her story as about her early life.
3 ½ stars (1/2 star deducted for the awkward romance and rambling monologues). ...more
Orwell's scathing denunciation of British colonialism won't win awards for subtlety, but still a powerful, unsparing account of colonial characters anOrwell's scathing denunciation of British colonialism won't win awards for subtlety, but still a powerful, unsparing account of colonial characters and their tragic foibles. The humor is of a dark variety, and as the story progresses, it feels like an agonizingly slow train wreck making its way through the fetid jungles of Burma. Virtually all the characters are unlikable --- perhaps some depth is sacrificed in the interest of illustrating the excesses of the system and the people who run it --- and it seems that there is also an element of self-loathing in the writing, as well as a certain attitude about the country and its people. At least it is an unflinchingly honest and presumably accurate account of the bleakness of life in a remote Burmese colonial station in the waning days of the British Empire. ...more
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest rWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest reasons.
2. From all forms of government known to man, democracy is the best. Tyrants and oligarchs suck.
3. The Persian Empire is a mighty barbarian nation, but being cowardly, effeminate and slavish, it is eventually defeated by the quarrelsome but brave and civilized Greeks.
4. Among the Greeks, the Spartans are the bravest. Gerard Butler with a six-pack King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans heroically perished in the battle of Thermopylae. They also have the particularly icky custom of marrying their own nieces.
5. The Delphic oracles are 100% accurate, except when someone manages to corrupt the Pythoness. The Gods are, however, a jealous sort and would strike any mortal who has the presumption of calling himself happiest on earth. Therefore, one should call no man happy until he is dead.
6. Egypt is a country of wonders, but its citizens’ customs and manners are exactly the reverse of the common practice of mankind elsewhere. For example, the women there urinate standing up, while the men sitting down. The country also abounds in strange fauna, among them the hippopotamus --- a quadruped, cloven-footed animal, with the mane and tail of a horse, huge tusks and a voice like a horse’s neigh.
7. The Scythians are a warlike nation that practices human sacrifice. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man that he kills in battle and cuts off all of his enemies’ heads, which he must show to the king to get his share of the war booty. They also like to saw off their enemies’ skulls, which they make into fancy gold-plated drinking cups.
8. The manners of the Androphagi, being cannibals, are more savage than those of any other race. Darius the Persian smote them.
9. The Atarantians, alone of all known nations, are destitute of names. The title of Atarantians is borne by the whole race in common, but the men have no particular names of their own. They also like to curse the sun because he burns and wastes both their country and themselves.
10. In the Indian desert live ants that are larger than a fox. They like to throw up sand-heaps as they burrow, which are full of gold. This is why India is so rich in gold. In Arabia, there are sheep that have long tails, so long that the shepherds have to make little trucks for their tails. Really.
Herodotus is a consummate storyteller who had a fine eye for the fantastical, although to his credit, he always qualified his more improbable assertions by stating that they are based on hearsay or other sources that he could not wholly verify. Much of the pleasure of reading his book is found in the lush descriptions of long lost nations and their exotic customs. His 'Histories' does not concern itself solely with history in the modern sense, but it is also a book of travelogue, ethnography, zoology, geography and botany. He is an excellent raconteur, almost always entertaining, except when he drones about speculative geography. We can easily imagine him, a man of seemingly inexhaustible curiosity, interviewing Marathon veterans for firsthand battle accounts, or interrogating Egyptian temple priests about their country’s history and religion. History for him is not a dry recitation of facts and dates, but an intensely human story acted by a vast cast of monarchs, queens, warriors, tyrants, gods and ordinary citizens. Regicides and rebellions are caused by personal passions, such as in the stories of Caudales and Gyges, and Xerxes and Masistes. Dreams compel Xerxes to invade Greece. Divine intervention decides the course of epic battles.
A skein of tragedy runs through the historical drama that he narrates. The gods are so capricious and jealous that “one should not call a man happy until he is dead.” Xerxes, on beholding his massive force on the Hellespont, laments that “not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.” Yet while man lives his short existence he is capable of epic deeds, and Herodotus chronicled them all. ...more
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Victory or defeat in ancient Greek wars is primarily the result of marital spats and/or pettWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Victory or defeat in ancient Greek wars is primarily the result of marital spats and/or petty sibling rivalry in Zeus and Hera’s dysfunctional divine household.
2. Zeus “the father of gods and men” is a henpecked husband who is also partial to domestic abuse.
3. If you take a pretty girl who is the daughter of a priest of Apollo as war booty and refuse to have her ransomed, Apollo will rain plague on your troops. And he won’t be appeased until you return the girl and throw him a ginormous BBQ party involving hundreds of cattle at his temple.
4. If an arrow or a spear were thrown at you in battle, more often than not, it would land on your nipple or thereabout. Or alternatively, it would pierce your helmet and splatter your brain.
5. Paris is a proper guy’s name, not just a name for capital cities or bratty heiresses.
6. Brad Pitt in man skirt* Achilles is the badassest warrior there ever was.
7. Real men eat red meat, specifically: a. sheep chines; b. fat goats; and c. the long back cuts of a full-grown pig, marbled with lard.
8. The most valuable booty are (in no particular order):
a. bronze tripods (each worth 12 oxens) and armors; b. swift war stallions; and c. pretty women (each worth 4 oxens, if also skilled in crafts). Lesbians are particularly prized.
9. There is nothing more glorious for a warrior than to sack enemy cities, plunder their wealth, kill all their men, bed their pretty women and enslave their children.
10. The only men who matter are warriors, but if you are a woman, the range of roles that you could play is rather more diverse. You could be:
a. a runaway wife who sparks a cosmic battle between your thuggish hubby’s city-state and your cowardly boyfriend’s (1); b. a war booty with a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome (2); c. a manipulative uber bitch (who also happens to be a goddess) (3); d. a long-suffering wife and mother (4).
(1) Helen (2) Briseis (3) Hera (4) Andromache
But whatever role you choose to play, you will still be the bone of contention between men and the armies that they lead. All the major conflicts in the story are triggered by women, or specifically by their sexuality: Helen’s elopement with Paris launched a thousand Argive ships against Troy; Agamemnon’s desire to bed Briseis, Achilles’ lawful prize, caused a nearly unhealable rift between them; and Hector’s desire to protect his wife from the dismal fate of being an Argive sex slave inspired him to fight Achilles to the death. Homer’s mortal women might be meek and mild, but his goddesses can kick ass with the best of them, and even occasionally best their male counterparts: Zeus is not above being manipulated by Hera, and Ares the God of War actually got whacked on the head by Athena.
*Troy, Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Warner Bros. 2004.
What I find most surprising about the Iliad is the amount of graphic, X-rated violence that it contains. The violence is not the biblical slaying and smiting, but something much more voyeuristically gory:
“…the one Peneleos lanced beneath the brows, down to the eyes' roots and scooped an eyeball out --- the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword, hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all. But the big spear's point still stuck in the eye socket ---."
I imagine that this kind of anatomically precise, brain-splattering, gut-spilling action scenes made the Iliad popular with the Romans, who routinely went to the Colosseum to watch gladiators hack each other to death, but there is only so much of it that I could take in one sitting, which is why it took me almost three months to finish it. It is not that I’m particularly sensitive to fictional death and dismemberment --- and after all, this book is a war book --- but the sheer amount of such scenes, as well as their mind-numbing repetitiveness made for tedious reading. It doesn’t help that many of these deaths happened to seemingly throwaway characters, barely introduced in three or four lines, merely to be summarily (and gorily) dispatched in another half a dozen lines on the same page. The Iliad is assumed to be the written version of a much older oral poem, and such characters might represent collective memories of real Bronze Age warriors, but by Zeus, hundreds of pages of them being hacked, cleaved and skewered to death almost did me in.
Now, what is the purpose of such meticulously catalogued carnage? Was Homer trying to present War with all its attendant horrors to shock his audience into pacifism? Or was the old guy just trying to write an 8th century BCE equivalent of a blockbuster action-adventure movie with enough gore to satisfy his young male demographic? The Iliad both celebrates and laments the warrior spirit: the haughty pride and terrible thirst for vengeance and plunder that set men to distant shores, intent on razing cities and putting its inhabitants to slaughter, but also the stark, tragic consequences of such acts.
I actually find the gods’ politicking and manipulations more interesting than the actual war. The Greek gods are blissfully free of any human notion of morality --- which makes the problem of theodicy much more simpler to solve than in the Judeo-Christian model. The Olympian gods do not move in mysterious ways: they are moved by caprice and petty grievances. Why did we suffer such an ignominious defeat, despite all that we had done to win Zeus’ favor? Well, it happened that just before the battle was about to begin, Hera seduced him and subsequently put him to sleep with the help of Hypnos, whom she bribed with one of the Graces. A perfectly logical and very human explanation.
The story gets much more interesting in the last five books. The Olympian gods entered into the fray and the effect is sometimes like watching WWE SmackDown:
“Bloody Ares lunged at it now with giant lance and Athena backed away, her powerful hand hefting a boulder off the plain, black, jagged, a ton weight that men in the old days planted there to make off plowland --- Pallas hurled that boundary-stone at Ares, struck his neck, loosed his limbs, and down he crashed and out over seven acres sprawled the enormous god and his mane dragged in the dust.”
Or maybe an episode of Super Friends :
“How do you have the gall, you shameless bitch, to stand and fight me here? …. But since you’d like a lesson in warfare, Artemis, just to learn, to savor how much stronger I am when you engage my power ---“
The gods are “deathless”, so you know that there won’t be any lasting harm from their catfight, but the cost of battle to all too mortal men is heavy indeed. This was a time when war was as elemental as they come: no mercy was shown to the enemy on the battlefield, save one that pertained to a warrior’s honor, which was to be buried with full honors by his family and comrades. When mighty, “stallion-breaking” Hector finally succumbed to Achilles in a strangely anticlimactic duel, his father Priam went to Achilles’ camp and
“kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees and kissed his hands, those terrible, man-killing hands that had slaughtered Priam’s many sons in battle.”
Troy’s old king begged for his son’s body, and in the magnificent, poignant last book, Homer showed us the real cost of war, both on the vanquished and the triumphant. By the will of the gods, Achilles’ death would soon follow: his destiny was ultimately no different from the rest of tragic humanity, fated to suffer and die by callous, immoral gods for causes that were entirely beyond their ken.
“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men live on to bear such torments ---“ ...more