by Caroline Arnold
“I sing the Wrath of Achilles” … proclaims the opening verse of the Iliad.Scholars generally agree that the Iliad originated in orally generated and transmitted stories, scenes and characters during the 500 years after the Trojan War (c. 1250 BC) until the “blind poet” Homer, (who some believe was a woman) wrote them down around 650 BC.
Though many think the Iliad is about the Greeks’ war on Troy – battles, maneuvers, wife-stealing, the Trojan Horse – it isn’t. It’s about the Wrath of Achilles: “… that fatal wrath which, in fulfillment of the will of Zeus, brought the Achaeans [Greeks] so much suffering and sent the souls of many noble men to Hades ….”
Achilles spent most of the Trojan War sitting in his tent sulking over a slave-girl Agamemnon stole. Eventually, after his friend Patroclus was killed by Hector, Achilles got really mad, went after Hector, and with the intervention of the gods, killed him.
Yet what strikes most modern readers is the formulaic language: “the fair Helen,” “the swift-footed Achilles,” “Hector of the shining helm,” “the horse-taming Trojans”, “the well-greaved Achaeans.” Such repetitive epithets and stock phrases are apparently what made it possible for epic tales to be remembered and reconstructed improvisationally by generations of singers/performers in pre-literate oral societies.
Some 30-odd centuries after the fall of Troy we seem to be in a new age of orality I see it in letters- to-editors, blogs and on-line comments where common oral phrases are spelled in ways that change meaning: “tow the line,” “feint of heart,” “waived a handful of documents,” “take the reigns,” “in cynic with” (for: toe the line, faint of heart, waved documents, take the reins, in synch with)
Where’s the sense, the meaning, the reality? in the sound of the words or in the spelling? And where are facts or truth when we are swamped with sloppy orthography, or the oral bravado of thousands of blind bards – PR people, newscasters, pundits, preachers, patriots, protestors and politicians who repeat the sound bites and urban legends they think portray reality?
Three thousand years – a hundred human generations – have passed since the Trojan War. Human population worldwide has grown from perhaps 50 million in 1000 BC to over 6 billion today. Human communication has gone from ephemeral oral/aural exchanges to semi-permanent visual modes of writing and printing; it has spread into broadcasting, computing, Internet, and cellphones, and been largely taken over by a corporatized “mainstream media” and professional spin-doctors.
Are we better off? The Greeks and Trojans had a pantheon of gods just barely nobler than the imaginations that produced them, and a body of oral, malleable myths to explain the world. We have imagined one great God who speaks directly, but orally, to selected prophets, (and latterly, presidents) and we justify our unimaginably destructive ideologies and technologies with oral, malleable myths.
“Fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here” is recited as the all-purpose justification of a cruel war. Cindy Sheehan is labeled an “Attention whore;” anti-war protestors are called “whiny, anti-US morons,” or “idiot liberals.” “All options are on the table for Iran” means “we can nuke Iran if we want to,” and “support the troops” means giving Bush our money to pay Haliburton and Blackwater. Or does it mean “Bring the troops home now”?
I have been writing these columns for almost 10 years. I like to play with words and meanings, and explore ways to understand the natural world and our human place in it. I like to think I have done this in service to a less violent, more humane world.
I confess I’m running out of steam. The sheer quantity of information needed to understand what is going on in the world has become unmanageably large; the amount of noise in the system drowns out all sense. Even with good google-skills and a fast computer I can’t keep up with issues like corporate crime, drug smuggling, health care, global economics and a myriad of other things that matter. Among other things, I suspect it is not a good idea to tell pension funds what they can’t invest in, but how do I know?
Worse: it’s getting too hard to offer hope to people. The illusions we have created out of sound bites and formulaic phrases are taking us all to hell. The Middle East is aflame with civil wars, the U.S. President is hated world-wide, global warming and proliferating nuclear weapons threaten all of us.
We the people aren’t in control of our own government any more – nor of our our lives. We’re trying to stop the use of torture and illegal detentions, to end a cruel war, or turn back the march of global warming, and it’s not working.
We’re mostly contributing to the construction of an epic we might as well call Oiliad (”I sing the Fixation of Dubya, that fatal fixation which, in fulfillment of the will of God, brought [the world] so much suffering and sent the souls of many noble ones to Hell ….”)
We need an epic about “The Wrath of the American People” against the abuses of the Bush administration. Regrettably, six years of protests, speeches, op-ed essays, online blogs, and MoveOn.org haven’t accomplished much.
And we need an epic that glorifies the worth and dignity of every human being and ends the use of deadly weapons, nuclear bombs, torture, and war.