Live Chat Log for Western Literature to Dante

Dr McM enters the room.
Edmund enters the room.
Peter enters the room.
Susan enters the room.
Lucy enters the room.
Lucy: hello
Susan: Hello:)
Lucy: so how did you like the ending? i thought it was very well-written.
Susan: Yes it was
Jill enters the room.
Helen enters the room.
Frank enters the room.
Letitia enters the room.
Dr McM: Okay.
Dr McM: We talked about how the poem reaches us last time, no?
Polly: Yes
Jill: Yes.
Lucy: Yes
Helen: yes.
Letitia: Yes.
Susan: yep
Dr McM: Did we talk about the layering of dialects there?
Jill: I don't think so….
Letitia: I don't think so...
Lucy: I'm not sure...
Helen: I thought we did.
Dr McM: Okay. We'll start there.
Dr McM: The earliest versions of the poem were composed (orally) sometime after that — probably somewhere between 900-700 BC. It’s hard to pin it down, since the oral tradition is not marked by such a clear starting point.
Dr McM: As the poem was passed on through time and throughout the Greek world (which has many dialects) it changed with the language as it went.
Dr McM: A dialect is more than just an accent, but less than a complete shift in language. Two ways of speaking are construed to be dialects of the same language if they are mutually comprehensible. In our case, therefore, as the language the people spoke was changed (and all languages do), the language in the poem tends to change too.
Dr McM: Here’s where the interesting layering effect comes in. Some changes in the language make the poetical rules behind the poem go haywire. That is, there are things you can do to a word (like dropping that initial W sound) that change how the word behaves in a poem.
Dr McM: Normally, in line 7 of the Iliad, for example, you might expect a different scansion (i.e., distribution of long and short syllables) in the words: Atreides te anax andron kai dios Achilleus.
Dr McM: But anax was originally spelled (or pronounced, at least) with an initial W sound — wanax. The poem is the way it is because of that earlier lost W. Without knowing that, you run into an anomaly of sorts in the poetics. This is just a small example — but the fact of the matter is that at each level, things change at about the point where they would mess up the poetry.
Dr McM: So you wind up with some things changing, therefore, as the language changes, but others not changing even though that’s the way people would normally say them. You find archaic forms preserved here, but not there, because the poem demands it here, but not there. The result is that you have a kind of Grand Canyon of language development — a slice through time, where you can read a long process of language evolution.
Dr McM: The result is that Homeric Greek as it reaches us today is a special poetic dialect that, in toto, was never actually spoken by anyone as a regular language.
Dr McM: That’s kind of odd, if you think about it. It’s considerably more modern than what Homer probably spoke (whoever he was) but with bits that go back to his time. It’s more like a later dialect of Greek with embedded fossil forms in it.
Dr McM: Does that make sense to you?
Dr McM looks around.
Lucy: makes sense
Dr McM: I'm not going to expect you to know the details of this either, unless you take a few years of Greek with me first.
Dr McM: :-)
Dr McM: In a similar way, you can track the use of certain figures of speech and terms in the poem. Homer is effectively an iron-age poet. That is to say, by his day, people knew how to work some form of iron. Iron is a much stronger metal than bronze, but it's much harder to work, since it requires higher temperatures.
Dr McM: Homer’s writing about bronze-age culture, though. So while the surface of the poem remembers the fact that everything is bronze, iron references creep in beneath the surface, when it’s a metaphorical usage.
Polly: Yess, I think I understand the basics
Dr McM: Those who did World Literature may remember how the old Mali epic Sundiata included references to things like electric shock. That's because it was composed in the 1400s, but was written down only in the 1950s. It got modified along the way.
Dr McM: So — that, by way of background. Let’s talk about the story again. You should now have finished the Iliad.
Lucy: Yep!
Jill: Yes.
Dr McM: What do you make of it, now that you've finished?
Dr McM: What did you think about it, and how it finished up?
Letitia: I really liked it, especially the last book.
Jill: I thought it was a little anti-climatic….
Jill: The last book, I mean.
Polly: I thought the ending was sad. But I liked the book.
Dr McM: (Against the weather, Jill?)
Helen: I don't think I would go to war ever... But it was a ggod action story to read.
Susan: It was quite sad
Helen: good*
Dr McM: (You mean anti-climactic?)
Jill: Oh, sorry.
Lucy: It was sad but very well-written.
Dr McM: It is a good action story, but in a lot of ways the most important parts are not in the action.
Dr McM: I think it really rises to a grand level. Each year’s class tends to be divided between those who are lamenting for the fall of Hector and those who were bowled over at Achilles’ final entry into battle and everything that follows that.
Frank: I loved the part between Achilles and Priam
Dr McM: As far as I'm concerned, though, the real pinnacle of the story is his final interview with Priam: it's this part that enables him to recover himself, and rediscover who he is.
Dr McM: Same here, Frank.
Dr McM: I think that's the real core of the story. I guess Jill didn't see it that way, though.
Dr McM: Where did you think the climax of the story was, Jill?
Helen: I can see her point of view. Depends on how you read the story and which genre you were looking for.
Jill: I liked the part between Priam and Achilles. I suppose that was the climax, since it was the part where Achilles finally gave back Hektor's body, but I didn't feel that the story really ended.
Dr McM: As can I, Helen.
Jill: I mostly thought that the Iliad didn't end, since the war didn't end, I guess.
Dr McM: Certainly Bk. 24 is not the action pinnacle of the story. That would have to be in the fight between Achilles and Hector.
Dr McM: Aye.
Dr McM: Many people are disappointed when the come to the ending of the poem and find out that they've not yet seen the Trojan Horse.
Dr McM: This is because you've been told the the Iliad is the story of the Trojan War.
Dr McM: It's not.
Dr McM: It's the story of the wrath of Achilles, which happens IN the Trojan War.
Dr McM: But the Trojan War neither begins nor ends with the Iliad.
Dr McM: Does that help at all?
Dr McM: Jill?
Jill: Isn't the Aeneid about the Trojan horse?
Dr McM: Not primarily, no.
Jill: Oh, okay.
Dr McM: It does have the story in it, in Bk. II.
Dr McM: The Odyssey also makes fairly brief reference to it, in Bk. IV.
Dr McM: The scenes at the court of Menelaus and Helen.
Dr McM: But the Aeneid, you need to realize, is not part of the Greek epic cycle.
Dr McM: It's a completely different kind of work, written in a highly literate age, in an urban, complex, politically confusing society.
Frank: Written by Virgil, right?
Dr McM: How it means what it means is very interesting, I think, but it's not there to fill in the holes in the Greek epic cycle — it's something that exploits the holes that are there.
Frank: It's good though. It follows Aeneas. Will we read it in this course?
Dr McM: Yes, Frank...though the more authentic spelling is "Vergil".
Jill: Okay.
Dr McM: Yes.
Dr McM: (Take a look through the Parent's Guide or the will give you a sense of what's coming.)
Dr McM: In respect to his heroism — that is, the moral component of it —, Hector is at least the equivalent of Achilles.
Dr McM: As I think I pointed out in the notes, and maybe mentioned last time, as you go into the fight with Hector, all the vocabulary relating to Achilles becomes inhuman — he’s described either as an animal or as a god, but very little as a man. Only in the end does he rediscover who and what he is — and this is his real triumph.
Dr McM: Does everyone understand what I mean about the use of divine and beastly vocabulary?
Dr McM looks around.
Polly: Yes.
Lucy: Yes
Jill: Yes.
Frank: yes
Dr McM: I think Achilles' problem is effectively Hamlet's problem, too — if you've read or seen Hamlet. (I think it's one of the most widely misunderstood plays out there, but it's a great one.)
Digory: He is mostly characterized by inhuman rage.
Dr McM: Does anyone know Hamlet more than by reputation?
Dr McM looks around.
Dr McM: Exactly, Digory.
Polly: I've read it if that's what you mean.
Dr McM: Hamlet's great failing and error, I'm convinced, is not that he can't make up his mind (which is what Olivier claimed it was). That's a silly interpretation. He spends the first half of the play finding out whether the ghost's story is true or not — and then moves directly to act on it.
Lucy: I have not yet read Hamlet.
Dr McM: It's his legal right and responsibility to kill Claudius. IMMEDIATELY after the confirming play-within-a-play scene, he has a chance to kill him. But he doesn't. Why not?
Dr McM: He doesn't want to kill Claudius when he has the chance because he's praying at the time. He wants to make sure he doesn't send Claudius to heaven. He wants to make sure he sends him to hell. THAT is exceeding his legal and moral mandate.
Dr McM: It's his job to kill him. It's not his job to sort out his eternal fate. It's similar to what's going on with Achilles and Hector here.
Dr McM: Achilles withdrew from the fight because his honor was attacked by Agamemnon — and he re-entered to avenge Patroclus. When he does, he's really not nearly so concerned with his honor: he’s out for revenge. He's not described in human terms.
Frank: Which is funny
Dr McM: The poet calls him a lion, and compares him to the gods. But human comparison vocabulary is pretty well non-existent.
Frank: Considering that revenge is a uniquely human trait
Dr McM: (Which part is funny, Frank?)
Dr McM: Well, maybe.
Dr McM: If we believed in the Greek gods, certainly, we'd ascribe revenge to them too.
Eustace enters the room.
Digory: I don't think that's true the gods are always trying to get revenge.
Dr McM nods.
Frank: Yes Digory
Frank: But
Polly: They do have a lot of petty values though.
Frank: The gods are simply glorified humans
Dr McM: He’s doing things no human should ever really do.
Susan: The gods also try to get revenge too though
Frank: It's because all of the greek gods are based on human principle
Dr McM: Well, we can see it that way, Frank, and I agree, but that's not how they saw it, at least at the start.
Frank: sprinciples*
Frank: Ok
Dr McM: In the long run he has to recover his balance of who and what he is before his story can come to a resting-place. When it does, however, the story is over. He makes his own kind of peace with Priam, with Hector, and with himself. The character dynamic of the story really rides on that transformation, I think.
Dr McM: What finally brings him around? What perception humanizes him?
Polly: Loss
Jill: Patroklos' death.
Eustace: The loss if his friend.
Susan: Patrocluses death
Lucy: The loss of Patroclus
Digory: That Priam is like his own father?
Lucy: Is it Patroclus or Patroklos?
Helen: Priam's desire to bury his son reminds Achilles that both sides are losing loved ones.
Eustace: *of
Dr McM: No, not the loss of Patroclus.
Dr McM: That makes him inhuman.
Dr McM: This is about identification, we might say. At some level, his final revelation — what makes him break down his resistance to Priam's entreaties — is his human sympathy. He reaches a point of identification with his enemy, and comes to understand something about himself. I think it's rather powerful stuff from that standpoint — don't you?
Jill: Oh, so it's Priam who comes to humbly beg for Hektor's body.
Dr McM: Right.
Dr McM: (Has anyone seen the movie Joyeux Noel? It's set in 1914, Christmas, in the trenches of World War I. Powerful story. And, interestingly, the same basic issue. You may have heard the tale — it's a true story — about how the combatants climbed out of their trenches and exchanged greetings and small gifts with their enemies for Christmas. Then the next day they went back to machine-gunning each other. The point, however, was that they identified however briefly with the humanity of their enemies, just as Achilles does here. The higher military brass was very alarmed that this had happened, and saw to it that it wouldn't happen again.)
Eustace: I see
Jill: I haven't seen that movie.
Frank: Yes
Letitia: I've seen it.
Dr McM: It is important that you grasp that essential core of the story, or the whole Achilles narrative goes off the rails.
Frank: Was a very good movie...
Lucy: I haven't seen that movie yet but I saw a similar situation in the movie The War Horse
Dr McM: It is, I think. Yes.
Dr McM nods.
Lucy: Where two men from enemy sides went to help the horse.
Dr McM: Okay. Let’s shift gears again. I’d like to look at some issues of technique.
Dr McM: I would like to start at an odd place: Bk. 18. Book 18 is mostly devoted to — it leads up to and then describes — the making of the shield of Achilles. It is one of the important easy-to-isolate bits in the Iliad. Did this strike anyone as odd or interesting? (You can find this on pp. 483-487 of the Fagles translation. The description goes on for several pages.)
Dr McM: What did you think of it? Why is it there?
Dr McM: There's no clearly right answer...
Dr McM looks around.
Jill: It describes the world as Homer knew it?
Jill: *described
Dr McM: Well, arguably, yes.
Polly: Oops, sorry, I was trying to hit shift
Dr McM: But what is that doing for the overall shape of the narrative?
Helen: Maybe it's to show Achilles' importance to the gods.
Dr McM: I.e., what's its place in the story?
Polly: I think it's the world as it was in the time period; it's setting the scene
Susan: ^
Dr McM: Doesn't Bk. 18 of a 24-book epic seem like an odd place to be setting a scene?
Dr McM: It's not a new scene.
Digory: It doesn't seem immediately relevant to the story.
Jill: Yes.
Dr McM: Right, Digory.
Jill: Usually, the setting is in the beginning of the story.
Dr McM nods.
Dr McM: Probably some of the motivation for putting all this in is just like the motivation that gives us the gizmos and gimmicks in a James Bond movie, or his Car That's Way Cooler Than Yours. Or when we see Batman getting suited up in all his cool stuff. It’s a way of building up a sense of anticipation. People like looking at Neat Stuff. So we get a description of The Shield That’s Way Cooler Than Yours.
Dr McM: But let's back off for just a moment — let me ask you: do you think even a really clever guy could have made such a shield? I mean, grant him virtually infinite craftsmanship. Still, would it work?
Dr McM: Let's assume that a divine craftsman is infinitely capable, just for the sake of argument. I'm just talking about whether, irrespective of manufacturing techniques, there could ever be a finished project like this one.
Edmund: It depends on how small he made all of the landscapes.
Dr McM: Is it really just about size?
Susan: It doesn't seem like it
Peter: The small time frame i the only thing I see potentially holding such a project back, but the gods didn't seem constrained the same way the heroes were.
Jill: I'm not exactly sure, but isn't there vases and jars that have depicted this shield?
Dr McM: And if it were really small, would people run up to him and stop to view it through a magnifying glass?
Digory: I don't think so, because there seems to be events happening in succession on it.
Dr McM: I'm not even talking about time frame, Peter.
Dr McM: That's about how special the gods are.
Dr McM: Exactly, Digory.
Dr McM: Look, for example, at lines 580 ff.: “One declaimed in public, vowing payment...etc.”
Dr McM: It’s not clear to me how anyone could show this in any kind of static pictorial art, however competently done — even if it was a really huge shield. (Static = unchanging: i.e., you could do it in a movie, perhaps, but Achilles’ shield is not a flat-screen monitor.)
Digory: Unless it was some kind of TV screen.
Digory: Okay
Susan: That seems irrational
Dr McM: Right.
Dr McM: It does.
Dr McM: :-)
Dr McM: Even leaving aside the technical problems of making it — could you even imagine how such a thing would exist? Even with the finest instruments, could it come to be? Could you represent it visually in any way?
Dr McM: (Typical of the 19th Century...someone did try to do this up...take a look... CLICK HERE.
Dr McM: It's a grand effort, but...seriously...
Digory: I can't.
Jill: I can't really imagine how it would exist….
Dr McM: But I think that they took some liberties here. And this of course didn't actually have to be borne in battle.
Dr McM: How, for example, in a single frame of representational art, would you show someone making a promise to pay in full? (Someone in the past suggested cartoon balloons. But we ignored that suggestion. I think we should continue to do so... :-) )
Helen: That sheild is way to pretty to go to battle with.
Dr McM: So clearly we’re dealing with something other than a mere description of an artifact for its own sake. It’s not just a Terrific Gizmo such as you’d find in James Bond. I think we have to say that it strains credibility. I just don’t think you could even imagine a set of finite, unmoving pictures that could possibly convey the kind of information these pictures are conveying in a single picture, or even a sequence of pictures, unless you had dozens of them.
Dr McM: Probably so, Helen.
Dr McM: But their standard seem different from ours.
Dr McM: They wore their best stuff into battle.
Dr McM: However it’s done, though, it is an extended piece of visual imagination plopped right down in the middle of a narrative, at an odd point in the narrative — i.e., when things are really just starting to heat up. What’s the point of doing this?
Dr McM: Once we get inside the narrative frame of the shield, we are, in a sense, in a different layer of reality, aren’t we? Once there, and out of the primary flow of the Achilles narrative, the story can unfold on its own terms, and at its own pace: it is no longer constrained by the demands of the outer tale.
Dr McM: In other words, the outer narrative is effectively on hold till we’re finished with our leisurely look at the shield. No?
Dr McM looks around.
Eustace: Yes, for whatever reason.
Digory: It seems that way, yes.
Jill: I suppose.
Polly: Yes.
Dr McM: Leaving aside the question of whether the shield itself has any properties or effects as such, let’s just consider what it does to the poem. What does putting it here do for or to the enclosing narrative? Does it speed things up? Slow them down? Enhance tension? Diminish tension? What’s the point?
Dr McM looks around.
Edmund: It takes the mind off of all the fighting for a while.
Dr McM: It does.
Dr McM: Does that irk you when it's happening?
Polly: It decreases the tension a little bit and slows things down/
Jill: No, not really.
Eustace: I believe it enhances and refreshes the current story.
Polly: a little bit because I wanted to find out what was going on
Susan: A little bit
Dr McM: It almost seems like TV: we're just at the high point of the story, and advertisement for baby powder...
Dr McM: Right.
Helen: Yeah. That's what it hit me to be like.
Dr McM: I don't actually think that was necessarily the purpose of it...but you have to kind of wonder.
Jill: I wanted to get away from the fighting a little bit :)
Dr McM: It's not there as an ad, of course.
Dr McM nods.
Dr McM: Yeah, Jill, I can see that. It gets pretty wearying.
Dr McM: A related question: are these two different cities depicted on the shield, or two different states of the same idealized city?
Dr McM looks around again.
Susan: That would be hilarious if it was there as an ad
Helen: Heh.
Digory: I don't know.
Jill: I'm not really sure.
Eustace: I don't know.
Jill: I think it might be two different cities.
Dr McM: What do you think?
Dr McM: Could be.
Helen: i think it's two different cities myself.
Dr McM: Could be the same one.
Susan: I think it was just one city
Dr McM: I don't think there's any absolute principle on which to decide.
Dr McM: Is any one of these answers clearly right? Or are all of them possible interpretations, none of which really excludes the rest? But it’s symbolic, it’s abstract in some way, it’s physically almost unimagineable, and it’s removed in a pretty particular way from the overall flow of the outer story.
Dr McM: Let's put it a little differently. We can't really know Homer's intentions. But say you were the writer. If you were working up to the climax of a great poem or novel, would your first instinct be to sidestep the main narrative — whether to increase or diminish tension — just as you were getting to the point? And if so, does it do that? Or is its effect something else?
Dr McM looks around yet again.
Dr McM: Personally, I find that this book does actually enhance the tension somewhat, by suspending things at a critical point. For me, there’s always that nagging awareness that the outside story is poised at a critical moment. But that’s a purely subjective evaluation: my opinion is not particularly any better than anyone else’s.
Dr McM: There is possibly some point to delaying things — even in modern terms — as a way of heightening tension. I think you will find that the Homeric poems may do this with amazing frequency.
Dr McM: When you get to Auerbach in a few weeks, you will get a different suggestion for what the delays are doing. But it is one of those puzzles in the composition of Homeric poetry.
Eustace: Like I said, I think it brings back to the point why all of this is happening.
Dr McM: Let’s take a further step back from the substance of this for just a second, and talk about the mechanics of Homer’s technique.
Dr McM: Yes, Eustace. I think that's at least somewhat correct.
Dr McM: Tiro, take down a word, would you?
Tiro, standing outside the window, gets out the List of Vocabulary Likely to Be On Tests.
Dr McM: There’s a 75-cent word for this: this kind of extended description of a physical object in the middle of something else is called an ecphrasis (sometimes spelled ekphrasis). That’s a Greek term meaning a “telling-out” or “out-telling.”
Dr McM: Perhaps it’s best simply translated as “description”, but that’s too broad a term. It’s a high-rent literary term you probably won’t even find in most normal English dictionaries. Learn to use it correctly and folks will think you are really well-educated. And I will think you deserve credit for passing the course. Such a deal, eh? :-)
Dr McM: Has anyone ever encountered such a thing before? (I just mean the phenomenon — I didn’t expect anyone to have heard the term before.) If you think about it, and look for it, you might be surprised at some of the places it pops up. Certainly you can find examples in ancient and modern work.
Dr McM looks around.
Helen: I haven't seen that word before. Could you give us an example how to use it?
Dr McM: I'll be using it in several sentences soon, Helen.
Helen: Oh ok.
Frank: I think I have seen the word, only I wasn't sure of it's meaning
Dr McM: Jill and Susan, where else have you seen the phenomenon?
Jill: I've actually heard it in some pieces of music.
Susan: In books
Jill: Like Pictures at an Exhibition.
Dr McM: How would you do an extended description of something in a piece of music, Jill?
Dr McM: Ah. I see what you mean.
Dr McM: A bit stretch in point of definition, but analogically true, yes.
Susan: They just focus on something that seems irrevelant before going on with the main story.
Dr McM: Or perhaps the cadenza in a classic or romantic violin concerto.
Dr McM nods.
Dr McM: Okay.
Dr McM: I bring this to your attention not just to provide you with a big word (even though big words are kind of fun). In fact, ecphrasis is a common feature of epic and later narrative. We’ll keep our eye on this, since it is (I think) a rather interesting technique, and because later authors in particular tend to load their ecphraseis or ecphrases(plural, Greek and Latin, respectively) with all kinds of symbolic freight.
Dr McM: “Ecphrasis” is a Greek term, and the people who talk about them are mostly classicists, but the device itself survives to this day. To narrow it down a bit: in literary terms, an ecphrasis tends to be specifically a narrative description of a physical object. Usually, it’s some kind of artifact that has the capacity to convey some kind of story-content on its own.
Dr McM: As the term is used, an ecphrasis is generally an extended description with the particular task of bringing something on another level of reality (here, the abstract study of the two idealized cities) into contrast with the current narrative level (here, i.e., the story of Achilles and his need for a shield).
Dr McM: There is, right down to the modern day, a tradition of ecphrasis in narrative. I think some of it is unconscious, and some of it is very deliberately referring to the previous models — most of which seem to go back to Homer.
Dr McM: If you broaden the definition of ecphrasis too much, of course, any description at all of any physical object becomes such a thing — which kind of defeats the point. You will see that the inset narrative-within-a-narrative, as focused through a physical object, tends to be its own kind of topic — a special thing, at least in classical usage.
Dr McM: Does this all still make sense?
Dr McM looks around.
Jill: I think so, yes.
Helen: Yes.
Eustace: Yes.
Lucy: yes
Dr McM: Excellent.
Dr McM: Okay. In this particular ecphrasis, we have a lot to consider. What I find interesting about it is that Hephaestus put a whole vision of the universe onto the shield. It shows the city at peace, the city at war, and almost every other kind of human activity.
Dr McM: It does have as its central element a duality or a dichotomy — an exhaustive disjunction, we might even say: that is, a two-way split that takes in (between the two parts) everything there is. All the other things around are just around the edges.
Dr McM: Does putting it here have something to say about the external situation? Does it reflect on the outer narrative? Is the distinction of the city at war and the city at peace important to us? Does it reflect on the story of Achilles and Hector, etc.?
Dr McM looks around.
Tiro suggests, “Well, if the shield is really brightly polished, it will reflect things.”
Dr McM: Oh, no, Tiro. Not like that.
Dr McM: In the external situation, obviously there’s a war. Is there any real choice here between war and peace? In some ways I think Homer is poking at the war and peace problem, trying to figure out for himself just how they are related. The problem of war and peace is not a question one can figure out easily. Tolstoy comes around to it as recently as the 19th C., and winds up with more questions than answers. His War and Peace is one of the great books of all time, but it’s not simple.
Dr McM: Susan?
Susan: Who is Tiro?
Dr McM: Tiro is my occasional sidekick.
Dr McM: A virtual person.
Susan: Ok:)
Dr McM: Sometimes it's useful to have someone to ask questions.
Dr McM: ;-)
Dr McM: Or to have arguments with.
Helen: Heh.
Lucy: Is Tiro your alter ego?
Letitia: :)
Dr McM: There seems almost always to be some curious comradeship even between opposing sides in war, as if the situation is somehow bigger than the participants, and out of their control. But only those who are in on it — irrespective of side — can quite grasp what’s going on.
Susan: Haha
Dr McM: That would be telling, Lucy.
Dr McM: ;-)
Dr McM: He grew out of an eggdrop bot on an IRC channel.
Dr McM: He's named after Tiro, who was the scribe/slave of Cicero.
Helen: I guess if you really wanted to you could see hector as the city of peace and Achilles as the city of war.
Jill: The shield depicts a time period, and it seems like wars were a large part of that time periods daily life….
Dr McM: Interesting, Helen.
Dr McM: I hadn't thought of that option before.
Dr McM: I suppose it could work that way.
Digory: It is certainly an interesting option.
Dr McM: Hector is certainly only fighting to defend his home.
Dr McM nods.
Dr McM: I think in some respects war and peace were considered simply alternate states, or ways of being for a city.
Dr McM: Either was about as likely as the other in this period.
Dr McM: The massive ten-year war was something to write epics about...but war was pretty common.
Dr McM: Homer seems to have been attuned to this peculiar irony of war. At UCLA, where I did my graduate work, there was a prof. in the Classics dept. (where such things get done) who believed — and had written a dissertation arguing — that the Iliad was an anti-war piece. Personally, it never made any sense to me to consider the Iliad a straight anti-war work in the 1960s sense of the term, and it still doesn’t. But it’s not pro-war either. It’s just taking war as the given situation.
Digory: It seems to contain both the pros and the cons of war.
Dr McM: (I would argue that war and peace are related and obviously opposed, but not symmetrically. When one is in the midst of peace, one does not perennially, constantly think about war. In war, I think, one does typically think about peace. Peoples and nations at war seem to be striving to achieve a kind of peace. People at peace are seldom striving to achieve war. I mean that war and peace are, though opposites in one way of looking at things, are mostly opposites from the side of war, rather than from the side of peace.)
Dr McM: Yes, Digory.
Susan: It just seems to accept the fact that its at war and deal with it.
Dr McM: War is good, from the Homeric point of view, at least in the fact that it's where one can win kleos, no?
Susan: deals*
Dr McM: You can't win kleos by sitting around comfortably.
Jill: War was an opportunity for glory and honor.
Susan: But you won't be dead either
Dr McM: Right. We don't hear that the greatest hero of all time was John Smith, who spent his entire life in delirious happiness, and never did much other than being happy.
Lucy: That's a lot of time to be happy
Dr McM: In virtually any culture, heroes are those who strive and risk happiness for some greater good.
Dr McM: Right.
Dr McM: On a peaceful day in some city or other, if you were to ask, "What's the opposite of our situation right now?" you might get a bunch of answers. You might hear "war" but you might hear "hot" or "cold" or "wet" or "dry" depending on the weather. Or any number of other things. That is, during a war, everyone is thinking about peace. During peace, people aren't thinking about war all the time.
Dr McM: In any case, I think it’s worth noting that the vision of the city at peace is not free from strife. There is still the conflict over the murdered kinsman. But such strife is resolved in an orderly and contained way.
Dr McM: The distinction between the city at peace and the city at war is that in the first instance, any strife is internal; and the city has process for resolving it. The city at war is out of control — it’s unbounded, in more ways than one.
Dr McM: Does that make sense?
Dr McM looks around.
Helen: Yes.
Jill: Yes.
Lucy: Yep!
Eustace: Yes.
Dr McM: The Greeks definitely had a notion of boundedness — of containment. The city is a contained thing. It has its walls. The shield is bounded, too. It has a finite shape and limit — and all reality is arranged within it. In the same way, the universe is finite to the Greek mind. But this is also convergent with Achilles' own problem too, isn't it? His internal conflict is between his boundless rage, exceeding all possible terms of human decorum, and his proper finite place as a human being, no?
Dr McM: Do you see what I'm driving at here?
Helen: Yup.
Dr McM: This is difficult stuff, so if you don’t, that’s okay — I’ll try to clarify.
Dr McM looks around.
Polly: Im pretty sure I understand
Jill: Yes, I understand.
Dr McM: As another student mentioned in this class a few years ago, “the shield sort of mirrors Achilles himself, as well as Troy and the war going on.”
Dr McM: It represents his own dual nature, and his own divided loyalties. It even represents his choices between kleos and nostos.
Dr McM: Homer does not seem to have believed that one could achieve an idealized perfected state of existence on this earth any more than I do, though his reasons were doubtless different from mine (which are largely derived from the terms of my faith).
Dr McM: The best practical thing that could be achieved was a sense of due proportion and internal tranquility. It was more a matter of enlightened self-interest. Social order does not eliminate conflict or even violence — but it constrains it within certain boundaries.
Dr McM: Achieving or regaining his own internal balance is part of what the whole process is about. And in some ways I think the shield itself suggests that, even before Achilles goes back into the battle.
Dr McM: The shield is about that dichotomy.
Dr McM: So...any more to say about that?
Dr McM looks around.
Helen: Nothing here.
Dr McM: Very well, then. On another related wavelength — what about the gods? Are they morally on higher ground?
Edmund: Not morally.
Letitia: I don't think they are.
Jill: No, not really.
Frank: Pft.. no
Helen: Nope.
Dr McM: What do you think? Some have already made comments about this...
Lucy: Not really. They seem pretty faulted themselves
Dr McM: Heh.
Dr McM: Okay.
Helen: They don't really care about morals.
Dr McM: Personally, I’d say that most of the gods are not particularly morally better in these stories — though you get different versions of that, too. There’s not one unified set of stories. In Homer, they’re pretty grubby.
Susan: They remind me of little kids
Dr McM nods.
Dr McM: Keep your eye on this question, though. By the time we get to Aeschylus (an early Athenian playwright), Zeus will have become something of a transcendent being, with absolute powers and a kind of claim to moral superiority we don’t find anywhere in Homer.
Digory: Homer here seems to be appealing to them at every point where he can't explain something.
Dr McM: True, Digory...
Dr McM: though sometimes also when he can.
Helen: I think that's why the gods were originally created.
Dr McM: It's weirdly lacking in a uniform focus on that score.
Digory: That's true.
Dr McM: Perhaps, Helen.
Dr McM: There are many explanations, no one of which may be entirely true.
Dr McM: The kind of language people use in describing the gods is really rather telling, though. We tend to produce gods and ideas of gods based on our own needs and desires to explain things.
Dr McM: And while I would personally say that I believe in a real God, but I also have to admit that I (and other Christians) tend to ascribe to God characteristics based on our own needs and desires.
Frank: True...
Polly: It almost makes them human in a way
Dr McM nods.
Dr McM: Well, it does.
Dr McM: We're limited people, and we think very imperfectly about God. I think that's part of the point of Job.
Dr McM shrugs.
Dr McM: When you're making up the gods entirely, it's even easier to tack things on.
Dr McM: Meanwhile, though — is everyone tracking what I mean when I talk about Achilles losing and then finally regaining his humanity?
Polly: Yes
Dr McM: That's probably the core thing I want you to take away with you from this poem.
Jill: Yes.
Dr McM: This is really the central thrust of the whole poem, I would say. It’s the person of Priam, more than any of the exhortations of the gods, that brings him back around, I think.
Dr McM: Even in the Odyssey, though, he’s somewhat more abstract, and that’s one of the things I’d like you to consider as you read it this coming week.
Dr McM looks at the clock.
Dr McM: Well — we’re nearly out of time.
Lucy: :(
Dr McM: The next thing we get to read is the Odyssey — and here’s how we’re going to cover that. The version we have is in a prose, rather than a poetic, translation; and though it’s also divided into twenty-four books, it is also a shorter work overall. Not only is it shorter, but it’s a faster work to read, too — more entertaining, I think.
Dr McM: It’s definitely lighter than the Iliad, except for a few bits toward the end. Therefore — my plan is to give it three weeks in discussion, but to have you actually read it in two.
Helen: I always liked the odessey.
Dr McM: At the end of that process, in the third week, I want you to read a chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. It is hard going — just one chapter, but you are probably going to want to call on your parents for help with bits of it. I’ll prime you more for that as we get toward it.
Helen: odyssey*
Dr McM nods.
Dr McM: You should all have Mimesis by now. Mimesis is fairly stiff going — at least from the point of view of someone who hasn’t done literary criticism before — but it’s very clear if you take it carefully. It may stretch your minds in some ways they haven’t stretched before. There are also probably parts that will make at least some of you angry. That’s okay. Don’t get too ruffled up by it.
Frank: OK
Helen: Alright.
Susan: Ok
Jill: Okay.
Lucy: Alright!
Eustace: Okay.
Dr McM: I don't expect you to agree with him about everything. I certainly don't.
Dr McM: At the same time, I think he was one of the finest literary critics in the modern era, and that covers some considerable ground.
Dr McM: Anyway — all that lies before you. If you haven’t read the Odyssey before, you have a treat. It’s fun. A lot more eventful than the Iliad, and with a delightful subtlety of characterization that’s almost completely missing from the Iliad.
Dr McM: I also think it has a lot more internal continuity and thematic unity than it’s often credited with having.
Dr McM: (Of course, as I said, if you really want to read Homer right, you need to learn some Greek. If you last till Greek IV with me, you will get to read a good chunk of the Odyssey in Greek.)
Dr McM: Many people consider it completely episodic and incoherent. I think they’re missing the point.
Dr McM: The Iliad may be the greater poem in some ways, but they’re both pretty fabulous.
Dr McM: Do read the notes linked to the website. My daughter Mary wrote the comments on the Odyssey just after completing a college seminar on the subject. I think they’re pretty good.
Dr McM: So...anything else?
Dr McM looks around.
Eustace: No.
Lucy: No.
Polly: No
Digory: At one point in the story, a spear grazes Achilles’ arm and causes him to bleed. I thought that Achilles’ skin was impenetrable, except at the back of his heel. Did I misunderstand that, or was it a later invention?
Dr McM: That's a good question, Digory.
Dr McM: It's not clear how far back the tradition of A's vulnerability goes.
Dr McM: I don't think it goes all the way back to Homer.
Dr McM: But the problem is that if we don't see it in Homer, we don't really hear about it again one way or the other till the positive tradition appears...
Dr McM: which may be up to a thousand years later.
Dr McM: Er, the tradition of his invulnerability, I should say.
Dr McM: There are a lot of things where these sources are much murkier than your myth books might suggest.
Dr McM: The whole tradition of the Apple of Discord...
Dr McM: remember that?
Helen: Yup.
Letitia: Yes.
Digory: I think so.
Jill: Yes
Dr McM: Eris (Discord) throws the apple into the feast, which gets the strife started between the goddesses.
Dr McM: In fact that's probably based on a misreading.
Dr McM: The word that it probably came from looks like the word for apple — but it probably just meant that Eris aroused a controversy about the subject.
Digory: A misreading of what?
Frank: NO! I loved that story
Frank: Don't tell me the apple wasn't real
Dr McM: No apple appears, really. The appearance of the apple story for sure doesn't happen till well into Christian times.
Frank: Rights for the apple xD
Jill: Oh.
Dr McM: And there it may actually be a reference to the Eden apple.
Dr McM: A Christian retro-fitting of the myth, so to speak.
Dr McM: μῆλον, I think, is the word.
Frank: Hey Dr McM? I need to get going..
Dr McM: Yes. You may go.
Dr McM: We're done here.
Frank: Thanks.
Susan: Thank you for class Dr.McM!:)
Polly: I have a question; is class over? I'm sorry; I know I am being rude it's just I have couple midterms I need to take....
Frank: And thanks for class (:
Eustace: Bye.
Edmund: Thank you for class.
Dr McM: No problem. GA.
Susan: Bye!
Dr McM: See you next week!
Jill: Thank you for class, Dr. Mcm!
Lucy: Thank you for class!!!
Eustace has left the room.
Dr McM: Bye!
Edmund: Goodbye.
Edmund has left the room.
Jill: Bye, everyone!
Helen: Aww please continue what you were saying though Dr. McM.
Dr McM: I pretty much said it, Helen.
Peter: Bye!
Helen: Oh...
Peter has left the room.
Letitia: Thanks for class! Bye!
Letitia has left the room.
Dr McM: I heard a presentation on the apple subject by Stephen Trzaskoma at the University of New Hampshire.
Dr McM: It was pretty interesting.
Dr McM: ACL summer institute a few years ago.
Dr McM: Bye for now!
Dr McM: See you next week.
Jill: Bye!
Helen: Wow so they have talks and conferences on this sort of thing. That's interesting.
Jill has left the room.
Dr McM has left the room.
Digory: Goodbye!
Digory has left the room.
Helen: Well goodbye then.
Helen has left the room.