Autodidact: self-taught


The Iliad

by V. L. Craven

The Iliad Fagles translation The Iliad by Homer Translation by Robert Fagles and Bernard Knox
-001- xii [Translator’s Preface by Robert Fagles] ‘For is it is true,’ as Maynard Mack proposes, ‘that what we translate from a given work is what, wearing the spectacles of our time, we see in it, it is also true that we see in it what we have the power to translate.’
-002- p5. Early printers tried to make their books look like handwritten manuscripts because in scholarly circles printed books were regarded as vulgar and inferior products–cheap paperbacks, so to speak.
-003- p5. Dante, though he put Homer in his limbo of non-Christian poets, had never read him, and could not have read him even if he had seen a text.
-004- pp5-6. For the best part of a thousand years, since the end of the Roman Empire, the knowledge of Greek had been lost in Western Europe. In the fourteenth century it was reintroduced into Italy from Byzantium, where a Greek-speaking Christian empire had maintained itself ever since Constantine made the city capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire.
-005- p6. In the ancient world the  Iliad consisted of a number of papyrus rolls, the text written in columns on the inside surface. The rolls could not be too big (or they would break when opened for reading); a long poem like the  Iliad might require as many as twenty-four–in fact it is possible the so-called books of our text represent an original division into papyrus rolls.
-006- p11. The language of Homer is of course a problem in itself. One thing is certain: it is not a language that anyone ever spoke. It is an artificial, poetic language–as the German scholar Witte puts it: ‘The language of the Homeric poems is a creation of epic verse.’ It was also a difficult language. For the Greeks of the great age, that fifth century we inevitably think of when we say ‘the Greeks,’ the idiom of Homer was far from limpid (they had to learn the meaning of long lists of obscure words at school), and it was brimful of archaisms–of vocabulary, syntax and grammar–and of incongruities: words and forms drawn from different dialects and different stages of the growth of the language. In fact, the language of Homer was one nobody, except epic bards, oracular priests or literary parodists would dream of using.
-007- p29. This classic (and prophetic) statement– L’Iliade ou le Poeme de la Force –presented [Simone Weil’s] vision of Homer’s poem as an image of the modern world.

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the  Iliad , is force. Force as man’s instrument, force as man’s master, force before which human flesh shrinks back. The human soul, in this poem, is always in its relation to force: swept away, blinded by the force it thinks it can direct, bent under the pressure of the force to which it is subjected. Those who had dreamed that force, thanks to progress, now belonged to the past, have seen the poem as a historic document; those who can see that force, today as in the past, is at the center of all human history, find in the  Iliad its most beautiful, its purest mirror.

She goes on to define what she means by force: ‘force is what makes the person subjected to it into a thing.’ She wrote these words in 1939: the article was scheduled for publication in the  Nouvelle Revue Francaise , but before it could be printed Paris was in the hands of the Nazis and her compatriots, like all Europe, were subjected to force and turned into things–corpses or slaves.
-008- p35. The  Iliad  is a poem that lives and moves and has its being in war, in that world of organized violence in which a man justifies his existence most clearly by killing others.
-009- pp37-8. But Homer’s view of the war is more somber still. From the point of view of the powers that rule his universe, the gods, all the human struggles, the death of heroes, the fall of cities, are only of passing interest, to be forgotten as they are replaced by similar events played out by different actors. Troy will fall now, but so someday will the cities of its conquerors. And the great wars that brought glory and death to the heroes will not even be allowed to leave a mark on the landscape.
-010- pp40-1. ‘Against the will of fate…’ These lines so upset some ancient editors, men schooled in philosophy and especially the Stoic and Epicurean quarrels about fate and freedom that, in the interests of logical consistency, they tried to suppress the offending lines and substitute the following passage: ‘But it is not fated that the well-built city of Troy should be sacked in Achilles’ lifetime. It was be taken by the wooden horse…’
-011- p44. [About the gods] As personalities (and that is how Homer and the Greeks always saw them), they are very different from one another, but they have, besides immortality, one other thing in common–a furious self-absorption. Each one is a separate force which, never questioning or examining the nature of its own existence, moves blindly, ferociously, to the affirmation of its will in action. The Homeric god recognizes no authority outside itself–except superior force.
-012- p45. To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism.
-013- p46. When Zeus and Hera settle their quarrel about the fate of Troy, Zeus gives way but claims her acquiescence whenever he in his turn may wish to destroy a city. Not only does she accept, she actually offers him three cities, those she loves best: Argos, Sparta and Mycenae. That is how the fate of nations is decided. Human suffering counts for nothing in the settlement of divine differences. The gods feel no responsibility for the human victims of their private wars.
-014- p47. Homer, like the god Apollo at Delphi in Heraclitus’ famous phrase, does not say, nor does he conceal, he indicates.
-015- pp57-8. ‘The man,’ says Aristotle in the  Politics, ‘who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god.’

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