Chambers of the Sun Part 6

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September 8th 2008
Published: September 9th 2008
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Ars Gratia Vitae - Homer and Us

Taksiyarhis Pansiyon, Ayvalık - September 8th

Oh dear. I find myself among the scattered bones of Troy, and not really certain either what to think or what I'm doing here. As the sun beats down on Troia II - how these numbers make the city sound like Tracey Island! - I find what I take to be the nearest thing to the Scaean Gate, and play a kind of sortes Homericae to pass the time between now and the next thought. Somewhat inevitably, my eye is drawn to Book XXII and the last, bloody stand of Hector before the eyes of his parents, the prime mobile of the Iliad's plot. Yet these stately verses, describing as they do the flight of a hero who knows nothing but valour, and hallowed as they were when I read them in England, mean almost nothing here. It sounds - no, it feels - callous to say it, but, standing on the tower in the same dust as Priam and Hecuba, I just cannot see the whole world's pulse slowing to match the heartbeats of these two great men, one fleeing, the other pursuing. Armies, yes, I can see armies fighting and dying and grieving in this place, but not men. I could almost watch Leander's frantic frontcrawl as I sat on my stubble throne over Abydos, but at Ilium it is hard to believe that souls lived and loved. It is a problem of focus.

I had always relegated the issue of the literal truth in the Iliad to the backburner, being persuaded that it was a circular, though not uninteresting, question and largely irrelevant to the reading of the poem. I joined with Seneca in ridiculing Didymus the scholiast, who went on a six month journey to find the real birthplace of Homer and reputedly wrote over four thousand books in a similar vein over the course of his life: "had he even read half so many useless books, I should have pitied the man." When Byron wrote in his journal (his boyish italics) "we do care about 'the authenticity of the tale of Troy.' I have stood upon the plain daily, for more than a month...I still venerated the grand original as the truth of history, and of place. Otherwise it would have given me no delight," I was inclined to dismiss this as a banal affectation, like a scholar deciding to believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Now, however, I realise that Byron was both wrong and right, though mostly wrong. It does matter that the Iliad carries a core of historical truth; after all, history is a function of oral poetry. The poems of the Epic Cycle preserve events, genealogies and customs for future generations to weave into their own lives. From a historical perspective, Homer's characters make the history more comprehensible; faced with the problem of describing a battle involving thousands for an audience with a limited attention span, it is quite natural to crystallise events into the hatreds, rivalries, loves and funerals of actors.

However, from the reader's perspective - which is paramount - it is the actors, it is ugly, brazen Thersites, proud but pitiful Andromache, Priam rolling in the filth, Odysseus like a ram among ewes, and above all the instransigent, swift-footed Achilles, it is those glorious actors who draw forth tears as easily as blood who are the focus. The human drama seems to drive the war rather than vice-versa. This is because we are dealing with a primacy of truth over historical fact. Details fade, but truth does not. With the wind of Ilium ruffling my hair, I cannot believe that the world stood still for Hector to dandle his little son Astyanax for the last time in fact, but the truth and the pathos of the gesture still make me gasp two thousand miles away. History is more about truth than fact; innate in the writing of any historical work is a distortion, a selection of facts to present a certain picture. Even in writing this journal, I may distort details of time and place, or even by the presentation of some thoughts and events and not others at least imply such a distortion, because I believe that the underlying insight is far more valuable than the price of ice-cream.

One of the reasons why I love Herodotus and respect Strabo is this, that they are sometimes prepared to choose a Homeric account over the evidence of their own research. To give an example, there is a point in Iliad VI where the Greek hero Diomedes and the Trojan Glaucon meet in the fray, and the latter replies to an enquiry about his descent, "why ask you of my lineage? Even as are the generations of leaves, such also are those of men." Yet because of ancestral friendship, because two of these petty leaves met in the autumnal storm of the whirling centuries, they overcome the enmity of their allegiance and part as friends, because these paper-thin leaves are the most important thing on the face of the ageless earth. In Herodotus, Xerxes famously has the Hellespont lashed and branded after a storm, and advances up to Aeolia through the twin spliced halves of the son of one of his vassals. Yet this monster, who has brought every nation of the Orient against the faint beacon of Greek freedom, weeps on his chair over Abydos. Why, you might ask? "Because not one of these men will be alive after a hundred years have passed." Leaves. These tears have no place in an account of strict fact, or even in a Greek history, but because they underline the very Homeric idea that the very devil you are fighting is just as much a man as you are, they present a truth that has helped to keep Herodotus right up to the present day.

It is not just in his characters that Homer makes the Trojan war more accessible for his audience, but in the archaeological anachronisms that have so vexed the Texts and Contexts brigade, and above all in his similes. Almost without exception, Homer's masterful similes are in the language not of the battlefield but of Average Aristophanes, the lowest common denominator in his audience. They are so vivid and simple even as to cross the cultural divide between us and the 8th century BC Greek. Hector awaits Achilles "as a mountain snake awaits a man at his lair, having been eating poisonous herbs, and dread wrath enters him." With the shadow of death already blackening over his head, he muses, "there is no way that I can start some cock-and-bull story with him, some lovers' chat as though we were youth and maiden." Even as he runs away, he runs past the hot springs where in time of peace the women of Troy would go to wash their clothes. The constant presence of real Greek life does not only serve to heighten the pathos of the tragedies of loss, it also draws them right into the circle of firelight with the rhapsode and his audience. Homer's history is always relevant to his listener, because he realises that history is only useful as it touches upon our own lives.

How much of a sense of history do we "moderns" really have? We know that it is there, in unprecedented quantity and detail, we even know more facts than any prior generation, but what, in this coldest of cultures, do we take from our history? The classics, and our roots with them, are neglected precisely because we know they are there, but until we make them speak to us our own history is as far away as Zanzibar. Henry VIII and his six wives, Julius Caesar and his "et tu, Brute?", the immaturity of Hamlet, our own great-grandparents - known names, known dates, but no part of our sense of self. We have little notion of why things are the way that they are, just that they are. It is so easy to forget that history is primariy about stories, and that the stories we tell are primarily about ourselves.

This is why I love - and I do not use the word lightly, I say, I love - the Iliad, because it is so litte constrained by time or place that it could easily slip its moorings and find its way into the French Revolution, the Indian mutiny, even the present. So long as honour, compassion, piety and manly acquiescence before Fate are lessons worth learning, the Iliad will be recent history.

For now, I am content to leave Troy and believe rather in the topless towers of Ilium. I did find a spot where I felt the presence of truth: a wild fig tree spreads its splayed leaves like lilypads over a little brook full of shy frogs and quiet dreams, where I could almost picture Hector and Aeneas drawing up the host at Helenus' bidding, prepared to stand to the last sinew of muscle to protect this little splash of shade. Still, it is better left in the mind.

And that's quite enough hyperbole for a day.

- - -

I took the bus out from Çanakkale with a little tinge of regret that vanished swiftly. With the driver manoeuvring his vehicle like a hunter after a quarry, we lurched down into the borderlands of Lydia blasting out Turkish pop. The land grows increasingly corrugated the further south you go, until with a rush of joy you find yourself in the foothills of Ida, mother Ida,

"Dear mother Ida, harken 'ere I die!
It was the deep midnoon: one silvery cloud
Had lost his way between the piney sides
Of this long glen. Then to the bower they came,
Naked they came to that smooth-swarded bower,
And at their feet the crocus brake like fire,
Violet, amaracus and asphodel,
Lotus and lilies..." (from Tennyson's Oenone)

Winding around the valleys, I could only approximate the landscape to the Amalfi coast for outrageous splendour. With a burst like a cork from a bottle, we plunged out of a scrubby woodland, and suddenly there was sea on three sides of us, sea of such a perfect blue that you could well believe a second sky had been gouged into the nether depths of the earth.

We finally arrived at Ayvalık, a pretty little fishing town a little like Bologna built on a very small scale, all red-tiled rooves and vines. I am staying in a house-pension of the most exquisite eccentricity; as I came in the grandmother was cooing a Turkish folksong to two children sat cross-legged on their kilims with their eyes closed. A sign on the wall said, in English, "Please! Take your shoes off and touch the floor with your naked feet. It puts you in a circuit with the earth, it is more like home and it is easier for us to clean." I didn't dare to break the silence for a full couple of minutes.


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