ILIAD : Caroline Alexander rewrites the Homeric canon - Book Review and Interview

Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s epic account of the Trojan War has sold over a million copies since 1991. Before him, Lattimer, Robert Fitzgerald, Alexander Pope and Thomas Hobbes translated this poem of heroes whose paternity, politics, authenticity and durable bellicosity continues to divide scholars and non-scholars more than 2000 years from its inception.

What is truly epic about this new translation is that it was undertaken by a woman, the first woman on record to have embarked on such a colossal task of joining verse, passion, heroes, anti-heroes, Nature and Culture in holy matrimony and, this, the renowned classicist Caroline Alexander has done commendably.

As the story goes, the Achaean army has congregated at Troy to reclaim Helen, King Menelaus’ mischievous wife who has followed the handsome Prince Paris to his father’s kingdom. Homer’s precision in describing Grecian aggression is unsurpassed. Formulaic principle happily unearths the most profound truths of the human psyche and the astonishing depths of poetic imagination. But what is it that still ignites our senses when confronted with this poem? I will argue that it is Homer's ability to tweak temporality for us. The weightiest reason for the Iliad’s durability through the millennia is our natural desire for the long lasting status of ‘kleos afthiton’, unwithered fame embodied by the handsome Achilles: a force beyond life’s putrescent fleetingness. Humans don't like limitations, much less temporal restrictions. We want to live forever, body or spirit, we don't really mind. The Iliad grants us this potentiality in its metric rhythm, it whispers to us an evocative caress of a promise to transcend restriction and attain its Achillean heights. The Achaean ships have seen ten long years of idleness and near defeat on Trojan shores. Homeric bodies exist within time, a time suggestively tied not to clock time but to our bodily, phenomenological and existential angst, the ships’ hulls, their rigging, their weakened structures, their joints where plank meets plank and plait meets plait. In turn, Homeric heroes and demi-gods alike are infected by the same sense of powerlessness and decay, our own sense of a-synchrony and subjection to the laws of organic nature. Only in this instance the Iliad offers an alternative: an Achillean feat of attaining kleon afthiton, unwithered fame, beyond the laws of materiality and into an imperishable and indeterminable continuum of narrated time.

The Iliad narrates the last couple of weeks of the Trojan War, a time felt and lived as a specific temporal event, one of pain and sorrow. Let's remember Edmund Husserl’s concept of the temporality of objects. For Husserl’s students of phenomenology there are two kinds of temporality: implicit and explicit. Implicit is the lived time we experience when engaged in a given task and disengaged with clock time. Explicit is the temporality of sorrow, of pain, an inability to engage because of an event dragging us back, where the body is a hindrance opened up to its potentiality. Pain is not an abstracted, atomic instant; it’s an endured, undivided process incommensurate with objective clock-time. We suffer as duration, as an intense temporal experience measured by its own retention of throbs and aches. The Iliad’s attachment to detailed violence is the poetics of endurance, the poetics of war, its throbs and pains and our own entanglements in caring, hurting and enduring, throbbing and aching as humans.

In a recent interview with Wall Street Journal, Caroline Alexander states that “It would be wrong to say, however, that (The Iliad) is “anti-war.” The epic is too wise to imagine a universe in which war will not happen”. And Homer, I would add, too astute a spirit to hope against hope that at any one point we would stop killing each other. And guess what! The Trojan War was not won by might alone. It was won by wit and rhetoric, by cunning Odysseus’ insistence that he is going to counteract the failure of no longer to the temporal conditional of not yet: he dissuades the Achaeans from leaving and return to Greece in shame and defeat; he trumps the past-ness of the past and reconstructs the future as actionable implicit time. Homer’s Odysseus is indifferent to chronology and temporal sequences. He rouses Achaean sentiment to a promise of glorious achievement, a victory of rhetoric and wit over mindless aggression.

Like its hero, Achilles, Iliad’s Homeric fame remains beautiful, fragile and unwithered, the object of our continued love and admiration.

I liaised with C.A Caroline Alexander and she very kindly granted us an interview - E.S. Effie Samara, for Female Arts

C. A. First of all, thank you for your close read, and for your kind comments—and for the provocative questions.

E S. In the course of the five years it took to translate this epic work did you ever sense the need to see the poem as a protest? As an account of the basic wrongs of human interaction, the violence of war, political oppression, and the enduring injustice of what man has done to man?

C A. By way of background, prior to tackling the translation I wrote a book about the Iliad (The War That Killed Achilles), in which I walked the reader through the epic, from Book One to Book Twenty-Four. Writing this book was a revelatory experience. Despite all the years I had spent as a student, and some as a teacher, I realized that I had never before confronted ‘war’ as the subject of the Iliad—or even a subject of the Iliad. This seems impossible but it’s the truth. I was taught about the tragedy of the human condition, about Achilles’s rediscovery of his humanity, about war being a kind of lofty metaphor for the human struggle, and so on. But I recall no discussion about the fact that the epic was tackling head-on war the concept of war, the devastation of war, the imperatives of war, the blight of war. So when I came to the translation I had already done my ground-truthing, and was very clear what this epic was about. That said, I can think of only one instance where my views about the Iliad’s ‘message’ directed my translation, and that pertained to my choice of the English word for a Greek word, which could mean ‘joy in battle’ or ‘fire for battle, fighting spirit’, and I chose the latter, as I found little evidence of any joy in battle in the Iliad. I believe that the Iliad is a deliberate evocation of war’s inevitable blighting devastation. It is not ‘anti-war’, meaning advocating against war as something that could be avoided, for the epic is informed by a terrible wisdom, which is that war is as inevitable part of the human condition as is mortality.

E.S. My first impression of your work was the depth of your aesthetic in delivering the metric and the rhythmical in the Iliad. I’ll use as an example XXIV 504-505 where your choice of translation of these lines: (drawing to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son) The use of the gerund “drawing” is just one demonstration of aesthetic brilliance (as opposed to Fagles’ use of first person “I draw”). I am using this as one example to highlight how your work feels and sounds so much closer to the original text in all its tragedy, its sublimity and its playfulness. Do you think Homeric poetry has so far been impoverished by the absence of a female-authored translation?

C A I believe, or like to think, I had two assets, one being that I am a writer by trade, as opposed to a professional classicist or academic. In other words, I’ve earned my living over many years by working with the English language, and I think this is not the case with some of the other modern translators. The second asset is that because I do not teach, or read, or study Greek regularly as a professional classicist would, I took great pains for accuracy—I simply did not trust myself to rely on a sometimes rusty memory. So I agonized over particles, over nuances of grammar. By the time I had reached Book 9 I felt very confident, and yet the early habit had stuck and I continued to move carefully while also relying on what I would call informed instinct. So I’m not sure that being female was a factor. But that said, I do think the way I came to the Iliad in the first place was perhaps important. I was fourteen and picked up a copy of Lattimore’s translation. I did not encounter it in any set curriculum, or in a classroom setting. No one I knew had read or wanted to read the Iliad, so my reading was an entirely personal experience. I loved it, simply fell into it, and this was what led me to study classics—to learn Greek to read the Iliad. So I had the luxury of encountering this great work of literature as my own discovery, and without any of the background noise about what it meant or did not mean. And so I may have simply side-stepped the more conventional, boys-school approach.

E S Homer depicts the evolving conflict of the sexes on a cosmic scale. The Odyssey offers more matriarchal sites undisciplined by male dominated structures. On close examination, the Iliad is found wanting in his respect. Going back to Hesiod for just a moment, we a very aware that at one point the Greek mainland worshiped female divinities. In the Iliad, the rational monarchy of Olympian Zeus reigns supreme and Hera and Aphrodite must find other stratagems of competing within the system as do their earthly equivalents, Helen and Andromache. Do you see a space in the Iliad for these matristic figures to subvert repressive male authority and offer a woman’s view on the violent individualism of war?

C A First of all, I am struck by how interested the Iliad is in the female characters, whether they are divine or mortal. Helen and Andromache, Hecuba and Briseis are beautifully realized, believable, wonderfully sympathetic characters, for example—there is no ‘stock type’ among them. In terms of subverting Zeus’ very male power and authority, Hera must use her femininity, it’s true, as shown in the wonderful scene of her seduction of Zeus. But Zeus’s might is feared by all the gods, male and female, so one has the impression that Hera triumphed in finding a way around Zeus where her male counterparts—Ares, or Poseidon, or Hephaestus—could not. I am deeply interested in Athena, who of all the deities is the most respected by warriors and the one they most seek out as an ally. She is closest to Zeus; and her martial skill is presented straightforwardly—the Iliad never patronizes her by explaining how this maiden goddess came to out-perform even Ares god of war, nor to qualify her skill, nor poke fun at it. She loves warfare, is good at it, and everyone, mortal and divine, respects her for it. And yet, she is also master of such traditional feminine skills as weaving and needlework. So the attitude to violence, male violence, does not fall along tidy gender lines.

And interestingly, I feel Hera is depicted as being more relentlessly blood-thirsty than Zeus. Zeus attempts, feebly, to save a mortal hero here and there, and Hera always slaps that down. And it is she who keeps the war rolling forward when the opportunity arises, as Zeus point out early in the epic, to send both sides home in peace and friendship. I believe the fact that such actions and views do not conform to strict gender lines is a mark of the poem’s sophisticated view of women: they are not assigned to specific roles or functions in the poem, but are presented as fully-realized, very believable characters that can confound conventional views of what men or women should do.

Metric and technical observations aside, Caroline Alexander has delivered a gem.

The Iliad is Achilles’ story. It represents the affective core of political protest bound with anger, frustration, grief, compassion, and pity. Its greatest contribution is towards understanding the power of political behaviour. Poetry and theatre incite behaviour; behaviour that manifests in mass protest or political action. Achilles’ song, however, challenges us to consider more completely the ancient philosophical question: how does one live in the good? Achilles’ journey is our own search for existence and identity. The epic makes abundantly clear that the fatal choice of Achilles exists as a choice for us all: should we live a long life safely at home, or should we engage most fully in the world by challenging injustice and abuses of power, even if such a challenge is at our own peril?

What is epic about choice is that Homer leaves open a space, an interstice of actionable heroic ethos by glorifying the brutality and ultimately the humanness of Achilles. The masculinity of war is a Hegelian principle of leaving behind attachment to domesticity, ‘mere life’, private concerns: In leaving all that behind, Achilles makes his mark, becomes a man leaving the interstice open for any woman to do the same. He also emerges into the glories of selfhood, citizenship and ethical and universal concerns. This choice, hard as it may be to forgo comfort and ‘mere life’ can enlighten all our paths.

We need to see the Iliad as a necessity to come to grips with the savage time that we must live in, to try to raise ourselves to the highest human level possible on the flaming edge of our inescapable mortality, to choose to transcend and to find there man’s dignity. If we can.

(c) Effie Samara 2016

The Iliad
Translated by Caroline Alexander
25 February 2016 | £25 | Hardback and ebook
VINTAGE CLASSICS | 9781784870560

Author's review: