On Wars of All Time
We study wars one by one, analyzing their causes, seeing them in perspective, perhaps even comparing them to other wars and categorizing them as wars of necessity versus wars of choice.
Are there any other categories? Name them.
Perhaps human life on Earth is simply one war after the next, with furloughs to catch our breath. Perhaps it is true that violence has shaped all of our cultural values, as writers have asserted more than once.
Did Homer's Iliad give birth to Western civilization? Is that why we are so bellicose--the Iliad on war and the Odyssey on love, war's alter ego, everything good about our lives?
Yesterday at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, the last performance by "a" Homer of the hit play "An Iliad" was accomplished to a packed house of rapt listeners, from youngsters to seniors, motionless and breathless for 100 minutes. There was no intermission.
The immortal epic, composed of some sixteen thousand lines back in the eighth century BCE or thereabouts, was distilled into those minutes--and you can imagine their impact if the entire poem is so impactful.
The lines were taken from Robert Fagles's amazing and highly innovative translation and excerpted, stitched together, and interpreted by Lisa Peterson and Richard O'Hare. The performance recreated both the lines and setting, and the stringed music Homer played to accompany himself--in the form here of a consummate string bass virtuoso, Brian Ellingsen, who offered not only melody but drama and onomatopoesis. For me the most dramatic aspect of this prodigious accompaniment was the backdropping of Achilles' hardest battle of all--stripping himself of his anger as the pathetic Priam, who breaks all rules to come to his tent to ransom his son Hector's dead body, invokes the father, Peleus, in Phthia in mainland Greece, whom Achilles will never see again.
These events are so vital, I must remind you that we heard them from one performer, the gifted Stephen Spinella, with a single bass violin accompaniment.
Prodigious also was the actor's command of the lines. His description of the memorization process later, which involved a ridiculously short amount of time, portrayed an agony of repetition and self-discipline, as close as one can get, in the twenty-first century, to the countless repetitions of heroic sagas sung by bards not so much through memory of the verses and of the events, but by drawing from an infinite skein of epic formulae to retell the tales, no two performances the same, all plots and characters well known by the culture, redone again and again, never obsolete or boring, vibrantly evolving again and again even now, as "An Iliad" reminds us.
Homer's version survived, I'm convinced, because of its brilliance, to be set down in writing and thence to create what came after: us in all our epitomes of war and love, bad and good.
But today, still, in isolated areas of the world we might call primitive, other poets still draw from traditions and formulae to weave other songs--but according to the scholarship with which I am familiar, there will never be another Homer.
The Iliad sung yesterday, for the words and music were really of one cloth, raised new questions and might be seen as a strong argument for existence as one war after the next; the Iliad is filled with wars, not just the one with Troy. There are inner wars and outer wars. There are the amazing lists Homer recited from memory, akin to the biblical "begats," of places whence the warriors had traveled, along with statistics and battles fought, but here is where the epic becomes timeless in a new way: the points of origin are all modern ones, all over the twenty-first century world, as are the wars. Spinella recited a litany of wars fought throughout history, chronologically--what were the intervals between them? Just furloughs of varying lengths, peace nothing but the real myth, an abstraction?
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