Battling the Iliad

The Iliad is a feast of epic proportions, it introduces us to Agamemnon , Menelaus , Paris ,Helen ,  Hector , Ajax, Diomedes  and  hordes of fascinating characters including Odysseus who is the hero of the other great epic poem that Homer writes and Aeneas whom Virgil immortalizes in the Aeneid but if we had to pick one that is the driving force in this epic poem , it would be Achilles and by the same token if one was to identify one single emotion that drives the Iliad , it would be rage , a cleansing fury so pure that no other emotion dare even come close, so much so that the first word of Book 1 is the word Rage.

This is also our introduction to the pantheon of gods and interestingly they have a hierarchy with one supreme god , Zeus /Jove/Jupiter who has two brothers Poseidon/Neptune and Hades/Pluto . His wife Hera/Juno is also his sister !!!  Lovely !!

The book starts with the background of Achilles’s fury. Chryses , priest of Apollo comes to Agamemnon asking for his daughter back and willing to offer a ransom . While the Greeks are willing , Agamemnon refuses , Apollo is pissed and decides to bitch slap the Greeks . The Greeks suitably humbled and terrified of the anger of the gods, inform Agamemnon as one man with Achilles as the leading voice that he needs to return the daughter of the priest . Needless to say , Agamemnon’s fury is directed at Achilles and he deprives him of his own prize , Briseis . Achilles cannot endure this humiliation because he is the greatest of the Greek warriors and Agamemnon has no right to insult him in said manner. He promptly goes and sulks in his corner and also calls his momma , Thetis the water nymph .These water nymphs have connections , she promptly goes to Zeus/Jove/Jupiter , King of the gods and begs him for retribution . The poor Greeks just cannot win, first they invoke the ire of Apollo and then the wrath of Zeus. From this point on the book takes off ,Homer goes into great , gory and graphic detail about the spears being thrust into the back of necks and tongues being cut off at the root and teeth clamping down on cold brass as bloody and muddy oblivion seems to come to Greeks and Trojans alike. There is abundant slaughter , more elegant euphemisms of violent death than I could keep count of ; “Darkness veiling the eyes” , “Purple hue clouding the eyes”, “the spirit leaving the body” , “a veil of crimson fell over his eyes” , “He would never pay the debt he owed his parents for raising him” and many many more eloquent beautiful elegies . I was not sure if I was expected to be horrified at the brutal slaughter or marvel at the wonderful word smithing.

Time and again , one tends to see the capricious gods play humans against one another and intervene time and again, sometimes on the side of one and sometimes on the side of the other .  I could not help but wonder if this needs to be viewed through the lens of allegory. Athena is the goddess of wisdom so when they sing about her leading Odysseus to speak , do they mean that Odysseus came upon a wise decision and going to speak words of wisdom . But by book 4, I had learnt to abandon that line of reason . There is no doubt that Homer intends the gods to be present amongst humans and be intensely meddlesome and capricious  , he also intends us to know that no matter what we try to do , whatever is ordained shall come to pass , even Zeus at one point makes that clear that he is helpless to prevent whatever is to come . However at one section when his son Sarpedon is about to be killed and Zeus is aware of the fate that awaits Sarpedon, he wonders if he should save him and his wife/sister Hera counsels him against meddling in the affairs of fate and we watch the slaughter of Sarpedon.

One can trace the storyline of the Iliad by following the fury of Apollo at Agamemnon leading to the fury of  Achilles at Agamemnon for insulting Chryses and holding his daughter and in turn leading up to the fury of Agamemnon at Achilles for his foul words followed by the retaliatory fury of Achilles at Agamemnon for depriving Achilles of his prized Briseis and finally the grand finale , Achilles driven by fury at the death of Patrocles ,  kills Hector and mutilates his body .

The Iliad is an epic poem  studded with small verses that brim over with wisdom , my only regret is that in reading the poem and taking in the story , these small nuggets of wisdom can be easily looked over and one would have to wait to go back to discover these nuggets .

Here is a potent verse

“When Strife first appears , she is small but she keeps on growing till her forehead touches the sky while her feet walk the earth.  into the hearts of both sides, she spreads fierce hatred and swept on , multiplying the death groans of men. “

And another

Prayers and Repentance are daughters of mighty Zeus

they are lame and wrinkled , eyes always averted

and they make it their business to follow in the footsteps of madness

Now Madness is strong and fast and so she outruns them

and she damages men in every country on this earth

But Prayers comes hobbling behind and bring healing with them

When a man though offended shows the proper respect

to these daughters of Zeus when they draw near, they help him greatly

but when a man hardens his heart and turns them away

they go to their father and beg him to order madness

to follow the man and he pays for it with his sorrow

It is a tale of caution, it is a tale of bravery , honor , wisdom , it also gives us a close insight into the times. Rather than having to dive through some boring academic tome trying to find out how people lived , what they believed in, what drove them, we have a gripping story in the form of a poem.

Indeed it is a poem so gripping that I found myself in the thick of battle watching over Achilles shoulder as he rages like a madman amongst the Trojans and slaughters countless sons , husbands and fathers . I do not remember their names but the manner of their destruction is not something that can be easily forgotten .  I watched Hector goaded by Zeus , drive the Greeks to the sea . I watched Patrocles try to climb the walls of Troy , Diomedes wound the immortal Aphrodite and Ares , Achilles grieve over his dead friend , Priam mourn for his many children and they have left a deep impression on me .

I first read the Iliad 7 years ago , I was disappointed when it ended without the Trojan horse , no death of Achilles , no destruction of Troy  . But rereading now , I am glad that it ended when it ended , I had my fill of brutal savagery and welcome the sorely needed hiatus . At this point , we can hope that  Achilles will mourn Patrocles , Priam and Hecuba can mourn their beloved Hector , Andromache having lost her beloved Hector to the same Achilles who killed her father and seven brothers, will experience some solace and see her infant son grow up and will age safely within the walls of her beloved Troy and who knows , maybe the Greeks will just go away and leave Troy in peace  , Helen and justice not withstanding .

Initially the dichotomy of the treatment of women did not make any sense , on the one hand , the Greeks have launched this battle that has raged for 10 years to get back one woman and the Trojans by refusing to give back that one woman, have escalated and continued the war  and then on the other hand, we see the treatment of Briseis and several other women who are treated merely as property. But by book 4 , it is evident that the matter at hand is not of Helen but the dishonor that Paris has bought on Menelaus .

It raises the question of the entire destruction of a city and its people for one person , Helen . The fact that Helen is so beautiful is simply the catalyst for the conflict. But following the zeitgeist of the times , Paris abused his host, Menelaus by seducing his wife and eloping with her and for that insult , the punishment fits the crime (by the prevailing standards of the time).  Another insight is that the honor of a man is far greater than even his own life , as can be seen with Achilles . His fury has its root in his perceived dishonor , Agamemnon deprived him of his  prize because he was angry with Achilles for his harsh words where as Achilles took it to mean that he was not worthy of his prize , ditto with Hector as he is getting ready to fight Achilles , he realizes that he will die and debates retreating but the thought of social condemnation/dishonor keeps him steadfast on his path of destruction . Lastly the concept of preordained fate does not sit too well with me , are we to understand that humans are merely automatons following their preordained fates and playing some role in a script that has been determined long before our conception essentially negating the concept of free will. But regardless of the questions that it raises for me and the answers that it delivers , the Iliad is an amazing work , a mesmerizing saga of the times when Achilles and Hector walked among men.

Moby Dick by Melville

This is a book about hunting a big fish – The End .

Kidding!!!!

The book opens up with what is probably the most famous beginning of a book “Call me Ishmael” . The book starts off in first person . He opens up talking about how when he feels morose , he elects to go sailing . There is a philosophical case that he makes for water bodies . I feel as though it was a kindred soul calling out to me and I am thinking of bidding farewell to land and computers and WordPress  ,I bid adieu to all you land lubbers for the sea is my calling . Fortunately better sense prevailed in the form of my cats sinking their claws in the tender parts of my leg and a chagrined memory that I had gotten sea sick on a mere two hour cruise in the tranquil waters of Singapore . But the call of the unknown and the majestic is a powerful one and Melville waxes lyrically .

More study of human psychology is to come in the form of the savage harpooner , Queequeg whom Ishmael is leery of due to his strange looks but becomes bosom buddies as they communicate and learn to live together in close quarters. Some say familiarity breeds contempt but it is also true that the unknown is feared more often.

Melville transports us to  Nantucket and New Bedford around the middle of the 19th century so much so that one can expect to touch the strange fellows who walk around there without raising an eyebrow . There is also graphic descriptions of the dissections of the whale , extensive discussions of the entire taxonomy of the whale family so much so that I feel certified to call myself a whale physician . Well I cannot cure all whale ailments but Melville does inform us how to remove Ambergris from a whale , too much of the stuff probably makes a whale sick and removing the fragrant Ambergris is beneficial for both humans and whales . There does seem to be a tiny problem with having the cut open the sperm whale but I imagine that in this day and age , we could build an operating theater big enough with an anesthetic mask that would cover the enormous 8 feet head and a artificial lung that can oxygenate a 60 feet body weighing 40 tons, with an enormous pump.  The logistics ……we better go back to the discussion at hand.

Moby Dick is a white whale which has snacked on Captain Ahab’s leg while he was trying to get some spermaceti out of its head . Apparently in those days , the only light after dark was from lamps that were burnt using whale oil which is derived from Spermaceti . Sperm whales around  the world owe a big vote of thanks to Thomas Edison. Captain Ahab goes batshit and decides that Moby Dick deserves to die(which is what he was going to do anyway but now he is angry and vengeful) . The psychology of an individual who seeks vengeance on an animal is something that one has to wonder about .

There are more interesting tidbits of psychology where he shows us the contrast between the crazed emotional Ahab and his level headed logical first mate, Starbuck . In every contest between emotion and logic , emotion wins including near the end where Starbuck is given an opportunity to kill Ahab, an opportunity that will avail him to see his young wife and child once again , he is acutely aware that if Ahab lives , the Pequod will be lead to its watery grave but his level headed goodness prevents him from carrying out the deed.

There is an interesting anecdote that Melville humors us with regarding the law of possession where he talks about the principle of fast fish and loose fish . The adjective ‘fast’ refers to the concept of being fastened and the adjective loose refers to the non owned status of the noun in question. A whaling ship harpoons a whale and the enraged whale turns upon them which leads to them abandoning harpoons and said ship . Subsequently the whale is captured and killed and the ship takes over everything that is attached to the whale including the previous ship. In court , the defendants lawyer wins the case by citing a case where a woman is abandoned by her husband who is subsequently wedded to another man . The first husband regretting his mistake desires to get his wife back but the court decrees that she is ‘fast’ened to her current husband . When he had abandoned her , she was a loose fish and therefore could be acquired by anybody.

There is also some interesting facts about the distribution of the whale parts , the head is decreed to go to the King and the tail to the Queen for what he calls obvious reasons but which I cannot surmise . He points out the utilitarian reasons that the tail bone was used for the bodices of the dresses worn by the queen .

The descriptions of the whale slaughter is graphic and brutal and turns even the strongest of stomachs and there were times that I went queasy but I could not stop myself from continuing , perhaps that is the mesmerizing effect of horror .The senselessness of the slaughter is gut wrenching at times.   One wonders how is it that the whale population is not already extinct but Melville does offer an logical explanation as to why seafarers cannot kill as many animals out in the ocean as people on land do . It is based on the convenience of killing animals on land and he compares the disappearing bison herds of the Prairies with the great whales .

I had read Moby Dick as a picture book when I was barely 6 or 7 along with my mother who explained some of the more complicated terms to me . I revisited it several years ago in audio book form and loved it , this time I finally took the plunge and read it . It is a mesmerizing novel that invoked every possible emotion in me while I read it. The novel ends with the capsizing of the Pequod and a tragic end of Moby Dick along with Ahab and his crew. The sole survivor is Ishmael who survives by floating on his friend  Queequeg’s coffin.

The novel is not about Moby Dick the whale but it is a story of the maniacal obsession of one man and his willingness not only to pay the ultimate price for himself but mandate that his crew do the same for him . As I finished the book , I had to ask myself , we as a species admire endurance and determination so what is that fine line where admired determination becomes despised obsession  . Ahab displays the same grit and determination that we see in the charge of the British against the Russians and was immortalized in “Charge of the Light Brigade“, the same valor that was shown by Leonides and his 300 Spartans and 1000 allies at the battle of Thermopylae against the Persians , the same sentiment that Churchill would have invoked in his famous “fight them on the beaches” speech .In my case , I perceived myself a go-getter and doing everything possible to win her but she saw me as a stalker!!!!

Nobody would dispute that what Ahab did was madness but where that magical line exists , is a mystery and probably a worthwhile challenge for all of us .

Some might say that hallmark of a great book is not to provide answers but to provoke questions and Moby Dick does that . It is certainly a whale of a question !!!

Update – 9-25-2016 – Watched a movie called in the heart of the Sea which supposedly is in the inspiration for Moby Dick . While it provides the idea for the alabaster white whale which is remarkably intelligent and vengeful, the central theme of the book still seems to be obsession . In the movie , the first mate actually stops himself from throwing his harpoon at the whale thereby signalling a sort of peace , something that would be unthinkable for Ahab

On the shortness of life – Seneca

Life is short , art is long – Hippocrates

“Life is short ” is an all too familiar bemoan but it is not that our time on this earth is too short but rather we waste too much of it on useless activities, i.e needless luxury or spent on no good activity . We are not given a short life but we end up making it short through our own choices. Wasting life due to insatiable greed , a laborious dedication to useless tasks  , worn out by political ambition which is at the mercy of others whims , by dangers which are courted or self imposed servitude to thankless attendance of the great, complaining about others money or fortune or their own . Most pursue no fixed goal so death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly “It is a small part of life that we truly life”, vices surround and assail our every sense and if one is not able to overcome then one is in danger of losing their true self .

We do not allow anybody to seize our estates or our money and yet we are overly generous with our time , which is the scarcest resource of all . Call to mind when you had a fixed purpose , how few days passed as you had planned , when you are at your own disposal , when your face is wearing its natural expression, what work have you achieved in such a long life , who have plundered your life while you were unaware , how much time was lost in groundless sorrow , foolish joy, greedy desire , seductions of society, how little of your own was left to you. this is the reason we die prematurely . We live as we are destined to live forever , our own frailty never occurs to us. We squander time as though we have a ever flowing and abundant over supply of it We act like mortals in all that we fear and immortals in all that we desire . How often we hear that somebody is going to start doing such and such when they retire ? what guarantee do we have of long life . This essentially means that we are dedicating to ourselves only a paltry leftover .  Vices such as lust , drinking , envy and avarice will swallow up a life of even a thousand years  and leave nothing of value . Learning how to live takes up a whole life but so does learning how to die . We see people who have achieved what they want and are now tired of it , the politician who runs for office and is now tired and yearns for leisure , the man who has a mistress that seems to consume him and demand things . We use time lavishly as though it costs nothing and yet when afflicted by a life threatening disease , we will spend everything in our power to get every iota of time we can get . This inconstancy of feeling costs us a lot . It is easy to organize an amount however small which is assured , we have to be careful in preserving what will cease at some unknown point . No one can bring back the years , no one can restore you to yourself . life will follow the path it will take and will neither reverse nor check its course . No starter will fire a gun to remind you that the race has started , there are no reminders of its swiftness but glide on swiftly and silently nor will life lengthen itself for a kings command  .

According to him , worse are the folks who officiously preoccupy their own time to improve their own lives and thereby spend all time organizing for the unknown future . I am not sure what this means . I am guilty of buying an inordinate number of books that I plan to read in the future but one does need to organize their lives especially since unlike Seneca we do not have slaves . But putting things off for another day is a waste of life because it snatches away each day as it comes and denies us the present. The whole future lies in uncertainty , live for the immediate moment.

 

“Lifes’ finest day for wretched mortals here is always first to flee ” . Vices cannot be overcome by logic but need to be crushed by force . Seneca informs us that the past needs to be examined carefully and adjustments made accordingly  , but the preoccupied have to no time for that . Brings to mind “The unexamined life is not worth living” .

He also makes a point of informing us that useless knowledge is futile too. But other than offering general examples , he does not proceed to elaborate . According to him only people who make time for philosophy are truly at leisure . He wants us to argue with Socrates , express doubt with Carneades (Skeptics), cultivate retirement with Epicurus , overcome human nature with the Stoics and exceed its limits with the Cynics . He tells us to make friends with these great minds . We cannot choose our parents but we can choose whose children we would want to be  . Life is short and anxious for those who forget the past , neglect the present and fear the future .

He advocates that we understand the balance sheet of our own life than of mediocre and mundane day to day activities , he gives the example of the corn trade . Our vigorous mind , supremely capable of dealing with the greatest responsibilities when forced to deal with mundane activities is like a thoroughbred horse who has to subdue his speed to endure a heavy burden .

Takeaways – Dont waste time because that is the stuff that life is made of . The same message is delivered in Pink Floyd’s “Time” or Iron Maiden’s Wasted Years , the other important take away was make friend with the eminent dead , same advice that Charlie Munger offers in the Poor Charlie’s Almanac . This is a short penetrating read with useful insights .

 

A Classical Introduction

My father loved to recite  Shakespeare and Dryden and Milton . Perhaps that set the seeds of what I was to like in my life . In my early twenties , I encountered an article about “The Great Books of the Western Civilization” and what started as a trickle of interest in my early 20s has became a deluge that I have to address.  This post is an introduction to this category “Reviews on Literature”. This category is where I put in my two cents about ancient literature. I welcome comments , brickbats , bouquets , donations to my secret Swiss account (I am quite flexible in that regard, I can also accept donations via PayPal or bitcoin or wire transfers to my Cayman islands account) . I keep hearing that money is the root of all evil ,so I have decided to sacrifice myself for my human brethren and consign my immortal soul to perdition. I am working on considering myself a charitable institution , friendly to all religions , political parties and ideologies . The IRS seems to have other ideas on that matter but for now , donate away .

Coming back to the classics , I have had an incessant urge to read these books even though nothing in my background prepares me for it and if anything I have had the interesting experience of encountering naysayers who believe that it is impossible to read and understand Shakespeare or ancient Greek Literature without help. But nothing can be further from the truth , if anything most of these works pertain to the human condition and they speak to all of us , moreover I had once read that the hallmark of a great work is that you can read it after 10 years and discern another layer of meaning that was not evident on the first read . A Great work is like an onion  , hopefully we wont cry as we peel the layers   . The Iliad and Odyssey are epics in dactylic (heroic) hexameter verse . On another note ,personally speaking ‘heroic’ suits me fine ,    I have always liked the idea of doing something heroic but have been stumped for lack of a suitable objective but I finally found one in the sport of competitive couch lounging . Though the space on my couch would probably fit about half a dozen individuals comfortably , the moment I sit down , my cats decides to compete with that space , actually both of them sometimes decide to compete with me as well as with each other . Sometimes their enthusiasm gets quite contagious and one or both of them manage to bury their razor sharp claws into my legs which usually leads to me or them leaping up 3 feet in the air like the Chinese martial artists  from those old Kung Fu movies  . All of this seemed to have all the elements of an active athletic lifestyle and I decided that this was my calling in life so I started practicing for the (future Olympic) sport of competitive “Couch lounging” . But I am distinctly discouraged by what I see as the glacial pace of progress on that front.  In spite of incessant (and somewhat scathing) letters to the Olympic committee , there seems to be no interest in entering the sport of “couch lounging” into their list of athletic events and I will address the apathy of said individuals in a suitably titled blog in the future. Coming back to the classics  , the complexities of understanding hexameter skipped me completely , partly because theory bores me and partly because I come from a boring theoretical technical background so I focused instead on the story and the poetry when I could appreciate it and that is pretty much what I will focus on , for every book that is reviewed here

The books have been picked from the list provided by  How to Read a Book and the reading list used by St Johns College