The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

<em>The Quest for a Moral Compass</em>: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

It was one of those books that sit in the pending pile for quite a while, but I finally got round to reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass this autumn. Subtitled ‘A Global History of Ethics’ his book proved to be a rewarding, accessible (and actually quite gripping) three thousand year history of moral thought, not just in the West but across the globe. Reading it in the closing months of this awful year in which cherished assumptions about how we govern ourselves and relate to one another have been cast asunder was nothing if not timely. Continue reading The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings”

The Mighty Dead: Adam Nicolson on Homer

<em>The Mighty Dead</em>: Adam Nicolson on Homer

I should make it clear at the outset that I have read neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey, so I came to Adam Nicolson’s latest book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, perhaps like many in the same boat: keen to understand why these mighty poems still exert such a powerful hold over the modern imagination. Continue reading The Mighty Dead: Adam Nicolson on Homer”

Voyage to Ithaca

Voyage to Ithaca

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not rush the voyage in the least.
Better it last for many years;
and once you’re old, cast anchor on the isle,
rich with all you’ve gained along the way,
expecting not that Ithaca will give you wealth.
from ‘Ithaca’ by CP Cavafy

On the beach at Skala we joined the queue waiting for the cruise to Ithaca. For Rita especially, this was the culmination of a lifetime’s imagining: Homer’s Ithaca not just an island but the ultimate, universal symbol of the longed-for destination. Continue reading “Voyage to Ithaca”

The Last Days of Troy: Homer by Armitage

<em>The Last Days of Troy</em>: Homer by Armitage

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus –
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds
– The Iliad,
Book One, opening lines

I’ve never been able to keep straight in my head the stories and characters of the Greek myths – who did what to whom, who was related to whom, and who was mortal, who of the gods.  So I was mightily appreciative of Simon Armitage’s Last Days of Troy which we saw performed at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester this week: the clarity of the language and narrative drive of his adaptation of the Iliad meant that I never once lost the plot.

Somehow, Armitage has managed to compress into a three and a quarter hour performance the essence of fifteen thousand lines of the Iliad, as well as throwing in episodes from The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. He has done this by paring the epic poem to the bone and focussing on the wrath of the maverick Greek warrior, Achilles. The production grips throughout – a combination of Armitage’s poetic prose, imaginative staging, and powerful performances by several members of the cast.

Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy
Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy

Homer’s Iliad written around 700 BC, begins at the end of the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greeks determined to revenge the abduction by the Trojan prince Paris of Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. But Armitage places another act of vengeance at centre stage in this adaptation – Achilles’s wrath when his ­commander-in-chief Agamemnon seizes Briseis, Achilles’s captive woman, as his own compensation. Achilles, his pride and honour outraged, withdraws from the fighting and persuades his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus to turn the tide of war against the Greeks, with appalling consequences. Simone Weil once remarked that ‘the true hero, the true ­subject at the centre of The Iliad is force, that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing’. Later on in this production, a powerful and terrifying scene in which Achilles howls and tears at a body he has butchered revealed the truth of Weil’s words in the most vivid terms. Stubbornly resisting appeals to return to battle, Achilles has ­eventually agreed to send his beloved comrade, Patroclus, into the fray.When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles embarks on a lengthy and pitiless slaughtering spree, finally killing Hector and dragging his mutilated triumphantly around the walls of Troy.

The play opens in present-day Hisarlik in north-west Turkey, the archaeological site where the remains of Troy have been excavated. The god Zeus is now reduced to being a pedlar to the tourists – selling little statues of the gods and replicating himself as a living statue performer. He relives his memories of the siege and the machinations of the gods that extended a wasteful and horrifying war.

Why do nations go to war? At whose orders? These are issues still as urgent today as they were some three millennia ago when Homer gathered echoes and whispers from events that took place in the Bronze Age, four- or five-hundred years before he was born.  You could interpret the clumsy interventions by bumbling gods as a comment on modern-day politicians who lead their nations to war, while other aspects of the narrative such as the factional struggles, the grandiose but hollow rhetoric of war, the delusion and growing despair might seem familiar. But Armitage and director Nick Bagnall resist the temptation to draw heavy-handed parallels with present-day conflicts.

Although Simon Armitage has made these connections in interview, his play seems to be primarily concerned – just as in Homer’s original telling, or in Alice Oswald’s stunning Memorial – with presenting us with a clear-eyed view of the carnage of war.  A couple of years ago, in the London Review of Books, Edward Luttwak wrote of how, in Homer’s poem:

Spears cut through temples, foreheads, navels, chests both below and above the nipple. Even despised bows kill, and heavy stones appear as weapons. Joyful victors strip their victims of their armour and gain extra delight from imagining their weeping mothers and wives. Yet the Iliad is a million miles away from the pornography of violence offered by many lesser war books, battle paintings, martial sculptures and most obviously films, in which the enemy bad guys are triumphantly trampled or gleefully mown down, because the humanity of the victims, their terror and their atrocious pain, are fully expressed. The powerful affirmation of the warrior’s creed – we are all mortal anyway so let us fight valiantly – coexists with the unfailingly negative depiction of war as horrible carnage.

Sneaking a look at Adam Nicolson’s  new book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, which Rita has just begun reading, I see that he asserts that:

The siege of Troy, often seen as a kind of war, as if these were two states battling with each other’, is in fact more like a gang from the ghetto confronting the urban rich … the hero-complex of the Greek warriors is simply gang mentality writ large.

‘Iliadic behaviour’, he writes, ‘echoes through modern urban America.  gang members ‘talk about themselves, their lives, their ambitions, their idea of fate, the role of violence and revenge, in ways that are strangely like the Greeks in the Iliad.’  As I read that sentence, I thought of The Wire, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad.

So, revenge is one strand here in Simon Armitage’s stage dramatization; another is his implication that Helen’s abduction was really just an excuse. The final scene seems to suggest that the real motivation of the Greeks was plunder and annihilation of a rival state, rather than justice for Helen’s seizure. In this production, we are drawn inexorably into a forcefield of consequential violence. Armitage has explained how he excised minor characters, parallel narratives and self-contained episodes, and rolled some principal characters into one in order to maintain the narrative thrust. Odysseus, for example, is an amalgamation of several high-ranking nobles in the Greek encampment, though Armitage has expressed the hope that he has preserved the personal traits associated with him.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s stage design includes some striking visual effects: the Trojan warriors emerge from a smoke-filled tunnel as if from the mists of time, while the arrival of the wooden horse, which lies beyond the scope of the Iliad, is done with great effect. There are powerful performances from Jake Fairbrother as Achilles and Simon Harrison as Hector. Richard Bremmer is a rather comedic Zeus, Colin Tierney makes an impression as wily Odysseus,  while David Birrell gives a good performance as Agamemnon.

Lily Cole as Helen of Troy Photo-Jonathan-Keenan
Lily Cole as Helen of Troy (photo by Jonathan-Keenan for the Royal Exchange)

Talking about it afterwards (appropriately enough, over meze at Dimitri’s at the bottom of Deansgate), we did feel that were weaknesses in respect of the presentation of the women and the gods – failings that were apparent in both the writing and the performances.  None of the women in the play really shone  – Lily Cole, in particular, gave a performance that was as inexpressive and wooden as the ships her face reputedly launched. She has one haunting moment, however, when she sings a lament to seduce the Greeks inside the wooden horse with dreams of home. (In the programme, the words are in English, but I could not identify in which language Cole was singing).

As far as the gods were concerned – they were presented as figures of fun, bickering among themselves, rather than cosmic forces feared by men.  I know there is an element of this in Homer, but the humour did deflate the tragic intensity. The immortals may have squabbled, and their bickering may have worsened the conflict, but in Homer’s time they were perceived as divine beings; here they appeared to be no more than a bunch of petulant, squabbling relatives.

fresco depicting lyre player with a bird, palace of Nestor, Pylos
A fresco depicting a poet with a lyre and a bird, Myccenaean palace of Nestor, Pylos

 Apart from those reservations, though, this was a gripping production.  As always, the question is why, in Edward Luttwak’s words, ‘people keep buying and presumably reading an interminably long, frequently repetitive and intermittently gruesome Iron Age rendition of Bronze Age combat’.  In his new book, Adam Nicolson reckons it’s all to do with ‘Homer’s embrace of wrongness, his depiction of a world that stands at a certain angle to virtue.’

He does not give us a set of exemplars.  These poems are not sermons. We do not want Achilles or even Odysseus to be our model as men.  Nor Penelope or Helen as women.  Nor do we want to worship at the shrine of Bronze Age thuggery.  What we want is Homeric wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death.

In the Royal Exchange programme, Simon Armitage puts it this way:

Ancient fables endure for all kinds of reasons, but their continued relevance to the way we live now plays a major part in their survival. At the time when this play will be premièred many countries will be marking and commemorating the centenary of the First World War, with images of atrocities and questions of military morality high in people’s minds, just as they were for Homer. Moreover, the channel or strait that runs from the Bosphorus to the Dardanelles or Hellespont continues to symbolise a political, economic, cultural, philosophical and religious fault line between east and west. In that context, the story of Troy is a blueprint for a conflict that rages to this day.

See also

Alice Oswald’s Memorial

Alice Oswald’s <em>Memorial</em>

I have never read The Iliad and unfamiliarity with the Classics leaves me confused as to names, relations and stories.  But none of that matters when you pick up Alice Oswald’s stunning new poem which is, as the author says, a lament, ‘a kind of oral cemetery’.  This powerful anti-war poem is a memorial to the dead soldiers of The Iliad.  It begins with a list of the soldiers who died during the ten-year siege of the city of Troy, Greeks and Trojans, their names written in capital letters:

PROTESILAUS
ECHEPOLUS
ELEPHENOR
SIMOSIOS
LEUKOS
DEMOCOON

– the names continue, echoing across thirty-one centuries, for another eight pages.

The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington

The poem is, Alice Oswald states in an introduction,  ‘a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story’. She calls it a ‘reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem’.  The way that Oswald goes about this is to draw upon Homer’s stories, briefly eulogising each soldier with a concise description of his death, followed by a simile that is repeated twice as a refrain.

Oswald is a classicist – she read classics at Oxford – and in her introduction she notes that just about every critic since Matthew Arnold has tended to praise the Iliad for its nobility.  She prefers the ancient critics, who praised Homer’s enargeia, his ‘bright unbearable reality’.

Alice Owald and the cover of Memorial

Alice Owald and the cover of ‘Memorial’

The words are as clear as everyday conversation; the twice-repeated similes, each of which begins with ‘like…’ have the force of a blues.  Here are three passages that give a sense of the whole:

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower‐lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus     Iton      Pteleus     Antron
He died in mid‐air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half‐built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years

Like a wind‐murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land‐ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn‐stalks shake their green heads

Like a wind‐murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land‐ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn‐stalks shake their green heads

*****

IPHIDAMAS a big ambitious boy
At the age of eighteen at the age of restlessness
His family crippled him with love
They gave him a flute and told him to amuse himself
In his grandfather’s sheep‐nibbled fields
That didn’t work they gave him a bride
Poor woman lying in her new name alone
She said even on his wedding night
He seemed to be wearing armour
He kept yawning and looking far away
And by the next morning he’d vanished
Arrogant farmhand fresh from the fields
He went straight for Agamemnon
Aiming for the soft bit under the breastplate
And leaning in pushing all his violence
All his crazy impatience into the thrust
But he couldn’t quite break through the belt‐metal
Against all that silver the spear‐tip
Simply bent like lead and he lost
Poor Iphidamas now he is only iron
Sleeping its iron sleep poor boy
Who fought for Helen for his parents’ town
Far from his wife all that money wasted
A hundred cattle he gave her
A thousand sheep and goats
All that hard work feeding them wasted
Grief is black it is made of earth
It gets into the cracks in the eyes
It lodges its lump in the throat
When a man sees his brother on the ground
He goes mad he comes running out of nowhere
Lashing without looking and that was how COON died
First he wounded Agamemnon
Then he grabbed his brother’s stiffened foot
And tried to drag him home shouting
Help for god’s sake this is Iphidamas
Someone please help but Agamemnon
Cut off his head and that was that
Two brothers killed on the same morning by the same man
That was their daylight here finished
And their long nightshift in the underworld just beginning

Like when two winds want a wood
The south wind and the east wind
Both pull at the trees’ arms
And the sound of smooth‐skinned cornel whipping to and fro
And oak and ash batting long sticks together
Is a word from another world

Like when two winds want a wood
The south wind and the east wind
Both pull at the trees’ arms
And the sound of smooth‐skinned cornel whipping to and fro
And oak and ash batting long sticks together
Is a word from another world

****

And HECTOR died like everyone else
He was in charge of the Trojans
But a spear found out the little patch of white
Between his collarbone and his throat
Just exactly where a man’s soul sits
Waiting for the mouth to open
He always knew it would happen
He who was so boastful and anxious
And used to nip home deafened by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running
All women loved him
His wife was Andromache
One day he looked at her quietly
He said I know what will happen
And an image stared at him of himself dead
And her in Argos weaving for some foreign woman
He blinked and went back to his work
Hector loved Andromache
But in the end he let her face slide from his mind
He came back to her sightless
Strengthless expressionless
Asking only to be washed and burned
And his bones wrapped in soft cloths
And returned to the ground

Memorial is a lament for the dead of all wars: the friends who die side by side,

In a daze of loneliness
Their conversation unfinished

or the boy who was a famous hunter but dies

Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

But a spear stuck through his eye
He sat down backwards
Trying to snatch back the light
With stretched out hands

On the Gists and Piths blog, Simon Turner in Notes on Alice Oswald’s Memorial writes that:

Memorial … doesn’t feel like a reduction of the Iliad, but rather a concentration.  Oswald is forcing the poem to speak across centuries: the numbering and naming of the war-dead is as vital an act of public memorial and mourning now as it was 100, 500, 3000 years ago.

Memorial differs from previous poems that have used Homer’s poetry as a jumping off point – Logue’s War Music and Simon Armitage’s version of the Odyssey spring to mind – because its act of reduction is formal rather than narrative.  Logue strips the Iliad down to brass tacks to tell the story of Achilles’ rage more readily, whilst Armitage recasts Homer in his own blokey idiom, chopping two thirds of the tale in the process.

Oswald is as ruthless in her editing, but her interests lie elsewhere: her intention, it seems to me, is to make the poem more contemporary by, paradoxically, stripping it of all but the aspects of Homer’s work that precede Homer.  Writes Oswald in her preface: “This version . . . takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping.  What’s left is a bipolar poem made of similes and short biographies of soldiers”.  Oswald sees these two poles of the poem as deriving from distinct sources: the pastoral lyric and the formal lament, both with their roots in the oral tradition. […]

The poem itself is startling, relentless in its close focus on violence and death, like the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan spread across 80 pages.  With the narrative gone, the function of the Homeric simile – where the action pauses momentarily and we are whisked away from the combat zone into the realm of the natural world – becomes doubly important: there’d otherwise be no breathing room at all.  Oswald seems to have been aware of this, with the similes in many instances being repeated, like the chorus of a song.  The reader is literally being forced to slow down for just a moment before rushing back headlong into the fray.  It’s very effective, no more so than at the poem’s conclusion, which provides an epilogue of disembodied similes that might be read as collective elegies for the war dead…

As Simon Turner notes, the poem ends with a series of similes of multitudes – leaves blowing in the wind, chaff at threshing time, thousands of water birds massing in the air:

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matters no more than the leaves

And then:

Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone.

The view from Troy across the plain of Ilium to the Aegean Sea

See also