I say for sure
that the future
how once we were. [Sappho]
War tends to be men’s way of settling the quarrels between tribes and territories. Homer depicts the heroic, savage or mad acts of men in the Trojan War. The women come later with Odysseus’s wanderings. That raises a rarely asked question. Who spoke for the women of the Trojan War?
The Silence of the Girls, a new novel by Pat Barker, provides an interesting answer.
Euripides gave an answer to the question a long time ago with Helen and The Trojan Women. A man’s world it was, but the women were not entirely silent to the Greeks. Lysistrata of Aristophanes, one of the world’s great comedies, has lost none of its power to disturb and shock and insist even as it arouses laughter. So if you are seeking direct relevance to our times dig out the Classics. Pat Barker’s feminist take is at once engaged with our times and also with the mythic world out of time. Her respect for her sources is as evident as the urge to tell another side, her side, of the story.
Variations on Classical themes have been a constant in Western literature since antiquity.
Each generation has its own take. Pat Barker is writing not against the tide but from a tradition of approaching a familiar myth in ways appropriate to her age and to her vision of things within her age. The watchword has to be respect for the nature of the myth. The urge toward contemporary relevance must not take away the mystery and reverence of myth. Approached in an appropriate way, ancient myths may speak to us directly and urgently across the centuries.
A respect for the source is essential. Mere updates and modish gimmicks always fail. It takes serious engagement to play with the Classics without destroying them. Imposing contemporary thought onto ancient writing ignores the context of history. The way we see the world is not the last word in the long development of human consciousness. It requires imagination and sensitivity to interpret the past.
Jean Cocteau [that most Classical of Modernists] was a creative interpreter of unsurpassed ability. His film OrphÃ©e is very twentieth century, but no less strange and disconcerting. Pasolini’s Oepido Re intersperses his personal memories of childhood into the depiction of antiquity. Peter Brook and Christopher Logue can translate time without losing the thread. The challenge is to go down into the labyrinth without the familiar assurances of our age. It is a different, darker realm close to the heart of things.
The question is not whether the Classics are relevant to us. The questions is whether our transient personal concerns are of any concern to the great narrative of history. We have to understand how the important themes of a literature have a life beyond the here and now. There are questions without clear and evident answers.
‘Greek tragedy makes the undecidable bearable,’ George Steiner observes. In our presumed rationality we seek to answer all questions. Our secular world believes material plenty to be the source of all virtue. In this view only what can be touched and tasted is real. All else is secondary. Imaginative responses serve merely to embellish the essential, material world. Popular depictions of the Trojan War enact the physical reality of conflict. It is all so physical, a display of violent feeling and action. What is missing is the poetry informed by a sense of the mythic as a presence.
The poetry raises the action to a higher level. Parnassus is a mountain, not a valley. It was a surprise to see The Iliad with a lurid cover as a mass market paperback called Troy. How many devotees of a gutsy, gladiatorial spectacle on the screen will be bored readers of a demanding literary text? The abandoned copies make their way to charity shops.
Yet some readers might keep with the poem and learn from it the deeper meanings of life behind the spectacle. Inhumanity, especially in violence, persists because lessons are not learned even after so many depictions of brutality and eloquent pleas for peace. Nothing will be learned unless Homer is taken seriously. He has to be read to be understood.
Lawrence Durrell came across a Greek fisherman who thought The Odyssey was a story known only to a few islanders on his native Corfu. He was amazed to learn it was known widely and internationally. How could a tale of a Greek sailor be so widely known? The fisherman saw it as a folk-tale which, of course, he understood. That it had deeper meanings than a series of incidents perplexed him. He lived a simple life. At a simple level he received Homer as a sailor’s yarn. That is not a bad place from which to begin appreciating Homer, but there is more.
Homer is among the longest threads in all the passages and chambers of Western literature. To read your way into the Classical world is to enter a metaphysical space whose reality cannot be regarded lightly. It has the ability to transform your perceptions of life. It may be compared to the act of entering a ruined temple. You went in out of curiosity. You discover a lingering sacral influence that is almost visible. Something shimmers, something whispers within your consciousness. It is no fancy. You are in the presence of a world that even in ruins has the power to conquer your complacent certainties about what is real and what is possible.
I do not speak metaphorically. ‘Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder: the discovery of yourself.’ [Lawrence Durrell.] This is not an imaginative conceit, but an observation drawn from experience. Anyone who has witnessed hubris, and anyone who has sensed the workings of fate will know the metaphysical truth of Classical myth. It cannot be spoken of casually. In that sense the gods are real to us. Search the sacred sites at your peril. There are mysteries that must be approached with respect for the truths that they contain.
These truths are as vital as living beings. Words are not neutral objects, mere signs of practical use only. Words are organisms that combine with others of their kind to produce something true. It is possible to seek the historical facts, but the testimony of creative power is as evidential as material reality. There are the stones of the temple, and the words inscribed on the stones. They complement each other.
A misreading of the Classics seeks interest wholly in the themes, as if it were only a matter of plots. The more penetrating interest lies in the depth of emotion expressed, and in the means of expression that authors these depths. What makes the myths of antiquity is not the subject matter. Desire, jealousy and the ravages of violence are recurring themes, but they alone create only melodrama. A contemporary gloss can give sensationalism a powerful but ephemeral interest. It soon dates and fades into yesterday’s kitsch, whereas the Classic crosses the bounds to speak to us as once they did to Arcadian shepherds. The crumbling stones of an ancient theatre continue to sound with the agonised cries of a blinded king or a ravished queen.
These sounds are not digitally-enhanced. They do not seek to appeal. They have no social or moral agenda. They emerge from within the most troubled of human experiences, the most raw of human emotions. They are not calculated steps in a power game. Classical mythology emanates from the origins of humanity. So much of our cultural identity is founded on our need to understand these things.
The discovery of self is the strongest thread we can follow. The oracular prescription ‘Know thyself” gains rather than loses through the many centuries of familiarity. The wisdom contained within is the surest way through the labyrinth.
The self that may be discovered is contained with the range of human emotions from the heroic to the vile. Human nature may have the capacity to change if only because something is learned by experience and example. If only Oedipus had read Freud. The tragic fate is also human destiny. The interesting point is that Freud, a man of Twentieth Century science, reached into the culture of Classical Greece. James Joyce described the Dublin of his times in Homeric terms. His depiction of the wandering man and the yearning woman sought to translate life’s commonplace and raw realities into the heroic. If only Odysseus had read Ulysses.
Mythic characters, of course, cannot read the future. They have no future. Theirs is a continuing present. We in our times can learn from antiquity because the old myths speak to us as surely as if they were being told for the first time. In eternity it is always the first time. Myth does not live in historical time. The stone that Sisyphus pushes up the hill always rolls back down again. It never changes. Every age learns something from the story. The readings are as various as the readers. Every reading is the first reading, like a footprint on virgin soil.
There is a moment in the Ulysses of James Joyce when Homer himself enters the scene. [It is, of course, Dublin, in the early Twentieth Century.] ‘Tap. Tap. A stripling, blind, with a tapping came taptaptaping by Daly’s window”
Some time before I knew that passage, before I had read much of the book in question, I saw a blind young man with a cane outside the Abbey Theatre [that locus of the Irish Literary Renaissance in Joyce’s youth]. The blind man walked up and down the street several times, searching for something he could not find. Joyce’s Homer could not see the mermaid whose voice he heard. The blind man might have heard what I could not see. Such questions do not seem trivial in the shadow of Homer.
These speculations arise when we find ourselves glimpsing, if not actually seeking, the ghosts of antiquity. Sappho’s certainty that the future will remember comes from seeing how the present remembers. The mythic tales that became Classical literature were themselves of some antiquity. The heroic age had passed by the time the Classical authors transcribed as poetry what they heard of old. Homer was not an eyewitness to the Trojan War. What he wrote was fashioned from hearsay. Several centuries had gone by.
Yet the Trojan War continues. Because war is the recurring nightmare of history testaments to its horror transcend their time and place. An optimist may hope an era will come when armed conflict is confined to the chronicles of history.
Until that ideal is achieved
agencies of power will resort to barbaric methods to sustain and extend their power. The occasion changes according to circumstance. Paris abducting Helen is a variant on the age-old excuses for going to war.
Who speaks for the victims of war? Pat Barker is right to imagine the testimonies of the silent and the silenced. Redressing the balance is what an authentic literature does. It speaks on behalf of those who cannot speak as they would wish. Redressing the balance makes for a human world. Literature is that world.
In the courtly alexandrines of Racine or in the colloquial voice of Pat Barker the Classical values are upheld for another generation to learn the lessons of inhuman folly and human virtue.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall