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Thursday, 13 April 2017

Achilles Fights a River


Being in the midst of a Christian holiday, I feel it's incumbent upon me to talk about some pagan folks. First, I need to disclose that this post isn't really about the fight between Achilles and the Scamander. The episode's a bit comical, to my mind, and has already been very well analysed by all and sundry. For those who are interested in the full text, it can be found here in all its gory, chaotic glory.

The reason I chose it is because of the impact it had as a chapter heading, when first I undertook to read the Iliad. I'd basically been pummeled into a kind of trance by an endless succession of battle descriptions when I turned the page and saw:
"Book XXI: Achilles Fights a River"
This woke me with a start, as it was a present reminder of what had attracted me to the character of Achilles in the first place. It wasn't his glamour, or the (admittedly very cool) epithets, such as "killer of men", but rather the essential core of mindless, ungovernable hubris which animates his whole being. And the chapter title seemed, to me, to encapsulate the whole of that hubristic, driven aspect of humanity's general existence in the face of mortality.

For those familiar with the tragedic tradition (and all writers should be), hubris is always characterised as a fatal flaw. It is usually lamented, often criticised, and invariably penalised with the heaviest of divine punishments. As such, the word - the very idea - now has negative qualities in modern usage. Most often employed when discussing war and politics, hubris is frequently trotted out as the explanation for a politician's or regime's downfall. Tony Abbott and Muammar Gaddafi spring to mind as recent examples.

This ignores the fact, however, that our culture is saturated with paeans to hubris, by which I mean that it's not really possible to engage with creative endeavour in any form without coming across a protagonist who is riddled with it. The standard mythic construction of the western narrative tradition is, in fact, that of variously hubristic characters 'triumphing against all odds'. From John Wayne to Conan the Barbarian, Mr Chips to Erin Brockovich, we are presented again and again with the message that, far from being required to worship at the shrine of moderation, hubris is not a fatal, but an essential heroic quality. We are told, again and again, that in order to be a worthwhile hero we must unquestioningly stand against the established order, fate, and even the gods. This kind of hubris is at the very least analogous to Achilles' reflexive decision to fight even the gods of the landscape in his fury.

Is it any wonder, then, that our world is as cartoonish as it currently is? That we, collectively, seem incapable of seeing anything in any frame of reference besides as an epic battle between the forces of good and evil? And that so ingrained is this tendency that we are often unable to see the inherently ludicrous side of casting battles over language, terminology, political office, and ideology in those terms? Pop culture has taken the idea of hubris and run with it - natural enough given its obvious emotional appeal. But what seems to have been lost in translation is the very important truth of its price. In a world of infinite grey shades and mind-boggling complexity, heroes and monsters have little place or utility, and we would do very well to remember that if we insist on seeing the world in these ersatz 'mythical' terms, we are condemning ourselves to a state of perpetual ignorance and bewilderment.

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