My Oxford dictionary has no Lincoln or Churchill, but it does have Hector and Achilles.
I sensed, I felt, I knew a bit of song was profound—but I didn’t understand why my subconscious had dredged it up. It was a line in French, from an English rock song I barely knew. All morning, as I shaved with an old badger brush and then as I moved about collecting my gear for the day, the line kept recurring in my head: an angelic lady’s voice, echoing like a cathedral choir, with long notes rising up a scale, “…Les yeux sans visage…” Sometimes I’d hear Billy Idol singing down the next line, in translation, “Eyes without a face.” As I kept hearing the choir lady, I kept feeling like I was looking straight up at the stars out on the prairie. I didn’t understand—Why was that line in my head?
Driving past farms into the sunrise I thought about a movie on DVD I’d seen last night, Troy, “inspired by Homer’s Iliad,” starring Peter O’toole, Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Sean Bean and the heartthrob Orlando Bloom as young Paris. I had watched Troy because last weekend while on the road I’d finished an audio book, translated from Greek poem to English prose, of the Iliad. I still felt awe, and such a connection to the people of the ages… I parked at a lakeside café. As I sipped my first coffee, staring over the lake and musing, still I heard the angelic choir singer. As I sipped my second coffee I quietly thought, “Eureka.” I knew why I was so moved. And I knew why the film Troy, with all those famous actors, had missed the target.
Of course an epic like the Iliad can’t be fitted into a two-hour movie; still, at least the creators of Troy tried, not “fitting in” but being “inspired by.” But they tried too hard to be original which meant, unfortunately, they decided to be cynical.
“Les yeux sans visage…” In the Trojan War the Bronze Age warriors wear helmets with nose guards and cheek plates. All that shows is their chin and their eyes: Sons and husbands, hot blooded and afraid. The singing, then, is most appropriate: sorrow, pity and a hint of something transcendent.
Classics can teach us. In my youth, on TV shows in black and white, we watched as brave cops and robbers intently kept on firing away at each other. Today, on color TV, we see the “New York’s finest” shooting only briefly then ducking back as their nerve fails them. Why the change? I think some scriptwriters must have read the Iliad, for that is how the heroes of old met their fate: as fearful as they were glorious.
A favorite scene for me is where Hector is back in the city of Troy, briefly home visiting his wife and baby, not knowing how long he has left on earth. In the Iliad he lingers with his family, not huggable but fully armored, wearing his helmet. Too bad in Troy he’s sans helmet, sans armor. As Homer tell us, the baby looks up at the sight of his father’s unnatural horsehair crest and starts crying. There’s a war on: no time to make the baby laugh, or to make better memories of what may be the dad’s last visit. Hector returns to war. The field of battle is the plain between the walls of Troy and the wooden wall of the Greeks along the shore. Behind their great ditch and palisade the Greeks have planted their huts and worn footpaths while all this time their black ships, drawn up onto the sand, loom over their thoughts.
How could Hector and Ajax and Odysseus (Ulysses) and all the others bring themselves to fight? They surely knew war is not glorious: The Iliad is filled with detailed scenes of gore, scenes far too indecent to depict today: They knew. In Hollywood’s entertaining Troy the Greeks and Trojans say the walls of Troy are impregnable—not so in the Iliad. In Homer’s tragedy the Trojans tell each other, just as Hector tells his wife, they are almost surely doomed: the towers of Ilium will burn. Yet they still have a slight chance of not losing: They have to try—this is their fate. The Trojans and the Greeks, clashing on the field between the city and the sea, manage to do something no wild beast would ever do: stand in line for various battles, day after day, hour after hour as blood streams down darkening the sand. The Iliad doesn’t even begin until after the Greek ships have already been beached for seven years. How could they ever cope with returning again and again to the battlefield?
To me the answer is symbolized by their helmets. Like how we protect our horses from fear by having their eyes blinkered with black squares, like how the helmets might shelter the warriors from physically seeing things out the corners of their eyes, just so did the men protect themselves by not knowing what they knew… even as they struggled over straggly grass on darkened sand.
Both Greeks and Trojans spoke the same language, knew each other’s names, honored the same gods. Yet they would meet in battle. For them, perhaps it was for the best how the helmets obscured their enemy’s humanity, while hiding from their own brothers their fear-filled faces. "Les yeux sans visage."
We educated citizens of today, only because it’s peacetime, can safely know of war. In cities across our fair land our knowledgeable citizen-soldiers, at this time of year, in each city armory, have propped up on the counters of each battalion orderly room nice Christmas cards from fellow reservists in armories far away, reservists they may never meet in person. As John Donne put it: No man is an island …, all are part of the mainland; and if a clod be washed away by the sea, is not Europe the lesser? … Reservists understand why Hector will never abandon his dear city. At the same time his countrymen will not negotiate to give up fair Helen, now the wife of Paris—this is their tragic flaw.
People haven’t changed; I’m sure the sages of classical times agree with our modern experts: To have a life we need to transcend ourselves, to see some bigger picture beyond our own little lives. In the night of winter solstice atheists and devout alike will appreciate angelic choirs.
But men who live in a hard bubble will end up with hard hearts.
Just as we of today easily refer to intangibles that transcends us all, such as “democracy,” in order to rebuke and guide each other, without feeling self-conscious, so too would the people of Homer’s society easily refer to their intangible gods. “… Who can oppose the gods? ... My friends, it must have been madness from Zeus that made me so obstinate—I beg you all to forgive me.” A hero would not be surprised to meet a god.
There is a silent night scene in the Iliad where old King Priam sets out alone under the stars with a cart. He is hoping against hope, determined to somehow retrieve his son’s body from the tent of Achilles. He meets a cheerful respectful youth who offers to help. They talk. The lad says he can help the old man to cross the field, and can get the king through the gate at the ditch and palisade, and knows where the tent of Achilles is, and in fact he is a servant of Achilles and can get the old man in to see the warrior. Old King Priam isn’t fooled by the smiling lad: He knows full well he is talking to a god.
In Hollywood’s version Achilles looks up as the king simply enters his tent, asking, “How did you get here?” and Priam answers that as king he knows the land. They talk. Homer lingers over this scene, telling of a humbled old father, in mortal danger from young Achilles’s smoking volcanic temper, making eye contact and earnest conversation with the man who slew his son… Troy spends much less time.
In the world of Troy a prominent sorrowing choir would be out of place, for that world does not show us at our best—nothing is transcendent. With only two hours to tell the tale, Troy depicts a cold godless realm, a realm where the Greek royalty are ignoble and petty, cynical and selfish, caring nothing for the men they command. They might as well be corrupt generals in the army of South Vietnam. And therein lies the problem, for the classic definition of tragedy is a noble figure with a flaw. An ignoble person can’t be tragic, only small and sad. Like how when a mafia godfather dies, and at his funeral a long line of criminals walk past the casket, but good citizens are only dimly interested, their hearts untouched. To them nothing grand has happened, only something small.
I wonder what the rich Hollywood producers were thinking? The poor blind poet Homer would recite his poem in the marketplace amidst his Greek community. He cared for all, for Greek and Trojan alike, even for those characters who would, in Hollywood, be seen as “spear carriers” with anonymous walk-on parts. Homer nobly dignifies their deaths by taking his time, as he depicts each Greek and Trojan’s fall, telling us who they are, whence they came, who loves them, and what is their story. Only then does he describe a man’s soul rushing down to Hades. He shows noble citizen-soldiers, from many green valleys and islands, having volunteered to go fight to bring back fair Helen, she of “the face that launched a thousand ships,” just as other citizens have left their families and farms to gather at Troy to defend Helen and the towers of Ilium.
Helen, safe in the palace, sometimes says, “Bitch that I am.” Not quite of noble character, no, but by facing up to her responsibility for the war she too approaches tragedy.
The proud people of the Iliad have noble leaders worthy of them; everyone tries to be worthy of the gods who see all. Not so in the movie Troy: Citizens there are treated by their leaders as mere “soldiers,” as bodies to be piled up at the wall and wasted for their leader’s private gain.
This morning, as a free man, I drove my car to a lakeside to muse. With the cold fresh air of sunrise it was a nice day to be alive; I found I could not draw a cynical breath while I was touched with transcendence.
I feel for the men of both sides, those frightened yet brave fathers, sons and citizens, walking across the field to meet their fate. … "Les yeux sans visage."
On the fields of Alberta
Where once young men gathered from all over the Commonwealth,
Training to be airmen against fascism
~My Oxford dictionary has no Lincoln or Churchill, but it does have Hector and Achilles.
~While Hollywood uses the Trojan horse to have a tidy ending—Troy burns like Atlanta—Homer saw things differently. His Iliad begins with the war in progress, and ends with the war still going strong.
~As a young man, the only Hollywood war movie I ever found without “Yankee B.S.” was 12 O’clock High. (The book was written by two veterans after the war, the movie came out in 1949)
Because of this, you may imagine my excitement when as part of my college class in Outstanding Lives—(We studied three people: Simone Weil, Mahatma Gandhi and Thomas Merton)—I read Ms. Weil’s The Iliad, or The Poem of Force written during the Third Reich: She points out that, unless you know history, you cannot tell which side wrote the Iliad… so humble, so even handed, with no glory, and no hubris. We have yet to regain the clarity of the Greeks.
Here is the link to my textbook by Simone Weil, the slimmest textbook I ever bought, with translations of quotes from Homer by novelist and essayist Mary McCarthy. It might be easiest, for your first read, to go from quote to quote. I probably read the work all in one sitting myself, but I was a student then, and young.