Sunday, August 07, 2011

`Held in Homer's Mind'

Shelby Foote, author of the three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, tells an interviewer in 1987:

“I believed very much that the American Civil War is an experience central to our lives—all Americans but especially Southerners. The Civil War, for us, was very much similar to the Trojan War for Greeks; the Civil War is our Iliad. And I think it could be written any number of times by any number of writers, in part or as a whole, the way the Greeks did.”
The interviewer, William C. Clark, asks Foote if, when he started his twenty-year project, Homer was his model:
“I was aware of The Iliad as a model when I began, but it became even more a model as I went along and became fonder and fonder of it. I think The Iliad is our greatest narrative poem. To me, it’s an absolute model for anybody wanting to write anything, most especially history.”
Since reading in the Civil War again, and learning that Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve carried his “pocket Homer” into battle, I’ve kept in mind the commonplace that the conflict was our Trojan War. Looked at too closely, of course, the metaphor falls apart. The Greeks weren’t fighting a civil war, and it wasn’t waged on their soil. Brother seldom fought brother, and the scale was hardly comparable. The siege of Troy was a prolonged skirmish compared to Antietam and Gettysburg, but in both wars a nation was at stake and the national myth was under construction. As Foote says, the Civil War remains “central to our lives,” as the Trojan War remained vital for the Greeks, the Romans, the grand flourishing of Western Civilization, and for literate people today.
R.L. Barth, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, puts “Reading The Iliad” at the front of his collected poems, Deeply Dug In (2003, University of New Mexico Press). It hints at the French colonial past of Southeast Asia, and leaves the dead and those who killed them unidentified. It suggests a sense of solidarity among soldiers separated by millennia:

“Volume and desk, coffee and cigarette
Forgotten, the reader, held in Homer's mind,
Looks upon Greeks and Trojans fighting yet,
The heroes and foot soldiers, thin and blind,

“Forced-marching for the Styx. But suddenly
Stunned by the clamor under smoky skies,
Boastings and tauntings, he looks up to see —
Not the god-harried plain where Hector tries
His destiny, not the room; instead, a mountain
Covered with jungle; on one slope, a chateau

With garden, courtyard, a rococo fountain,
And, faces down, hands tied, six bodies in a row.” 

Thirty Americans and seven Afghan commandos were killed Saturday in a rocket attack on a helicopter in eastern Afghanistan. Melville, the great poet of the Civil War, has Ishmael say in “Loomings,” the first chapter of Moby-Dick:      

“And doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

“`Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States’
`Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael’


Richie Freeman said...


Shelby Foote's idealization of the Confederate cause and implicit plea that we respect it, coupled with an invocation of the Trojan War, offends on two fronts--the obviously moral and the historically factual. The rebels fought to preserve the morally obscene institution of slavery, an
institution that your (and my) beloved Dr. Johnson decried incessantly and vigorously. To honor the Confederacy, I think is to resurrect the "badge of slavery" that our Constitution in those words enjoins. Further, a reading of M.I. Finley's excellent "The World of Odysseus" will convince you that the Trojan War never happened outside the poetry of Homer, who imagined the whole thing. There is no other reference to this event in any ancient texts. Sorry, Shelby.

Richie FreemB

Helen Pinkerton said...

As a teacher of the "Iliad" to college English students, I used to point out that the Trojan war was a kind of "civil war." Although by no means forming one polity, the Achaeans and the Trojans shared an over-arching ethical principle of the heroic age--hospitality to strangers and reciprocal courtesy. (This moral code was, incidentally, effective also in Anglo-Saxon heroic times.) The war was occasioned by the Trojan violation, in the person of Priam's son Paris, of the hospitality--the friendship--of Menelaus, in his home in Achaea. The main issue was not, as sometimes it seems, adultery, although that was culpable enough. Rather it was Paris's betrayal of the hospitality of Menelaus by carrying off his wife.
In Book III, Menelaus, as he rushes upon Paris in single combat, prays to Zeus: "Grant that I may avenge me on him that was first to do me wrong . . . and subdue thou him beneath my hands; that many a one, even of men, yet to be may shudder to work evil to his host, that hath shown him friendship." (Loeb trans., A. T. Murray). Or as Pope has Menelaus cry: "Avenge the breach of hospitable laws! . . . And guard from wrong fair friendship's holy name." The root of the insult to Menelaus is that Paris violated the host-guest moral obligation. In a sense Paris was a "traitor" to an agreed upon code.
More legally intricate, the American Civil War was between two parties within one comity--the American Union, founded on the written laws of the Constitution. When the Southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy and then fired on Fort Sumter, they were construed as "rebels" and traitors to the written law that established a "more perfect Union." There were, of course, other ethical issues in the Civil War of far more complexity than those in the Trojan War. For example, issues of state loyalty preceding national loyalty, various differing interpretations of the text of the Constitution, etc. In any case, there is, I think, a basis for calling our war the "American Iliad" mainly because of the analogous relationship of the ethical principle of the host-guest reciprocal obligation in heroic times to the ethical principle of loyalty to the Union.