In his essay “The Task of the Translator,” Benjamin writes:
For a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life. The idea of life and afterlife in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity.
This notebook looks at the afterlife of the Iliad in three accounts which are somewhat free in how they approach translation or imitation, to use Dryden’s term for work that prizes fidelity to the spirit of the work of art over fidelity to the letter: War Music; All Day Permanent Red; and Cold Calls by Christopher Logue; The Iliad: Book XXII The Death of Hector by Lisa Jarnot; and Alice Oslwad’s Memorial.
“I want to make a dark mirror out of writing” says Bhanu Kapil in Humanimal, A Project for Future Children, and in that book she means this as a figure for the limited efficacy of the technologies of memory and storytelling, when faced with the difficulty, the incommensurability of any telling or “re-telling” of trauma:
A scar is a memory. Memory is wrong. The wrong face appears in the wrong memory.
Translation, too, is writing as a dark mirror.
Of all the differences and struggle with incommensurability a translator of the Iliad must overcome, perhaps the most difficult is the shift in the poem’s relationship to the collective social body; as John Henderson writes in Fighting for Rome:
Epic, the epic. As bearer of cultural messages the classical epic had a patriarchal prestige which no modern medium can suggest. It was the foundation of its cultures’ education, of their culture. It was charged with the telling, reinforcing and empowering of the city’s foundation or defence; the other city’s defeat or unmaking.
Within contemporary reading culture when we call a text “political,” we nearly always mean that the text resists, critiques or otherwise transgresses a political norm, subverts a dominant ideology—all the work the French mal does in Bataille’s La littérature et le mal.
However, with the Classical Epic, the martial epic, the epic of nation-building, the opposite is true: “The epic was the mark, norm and sanction of author/ity, literature, civilization. It was the decisive textual realization of cultural order” (Henderson 165.)
So when for example Achilles sacrifices two of his dogs, and murders “twelve noble sons of the greathearted Trojans,” for Patroclous’ funeral pyre, the poem would have us feel the ardor of his loyalty and love for Patroclous, and a righteous hatred toward Hector, and a longing (almost a hunger) for the ‘grim work’ Achilles has in mind for Hector to be completed—Achilles’ wrath is the first word of the poem, the subject of the song.
Even as Achilles (and each of the fighters) is fighting for kleos—glory or the public recognition of (martial) achievements, he is also fighting for us, the poem tells us. Through his wrath, the poem sings: Achilles is fighting for you, for the best idea of you he embodies, glorifies; the epic is always fighting for the tribe, city, the idea of Mycenae, the ideal of Rome. We call the poem the epic; the Greeks called it athanaton kleos, undying glory.
And yet within the epic tradition there is a counter-song, the anti-epic. Simone Weill’s essay “The Iliad, Or The Poem Of Force,” is an incisive articulation of the ways in which the poem itself incorporates an anti-epic ethos; and the essay (published in 1940) has been profoundly influential on the post-war reception of the Iliad—all the versions in this notebook are deeply indebted to Weil’s reading of the poem—both its formal and thematic elements.
In the essay she argues that the economy of violence and temporary victory reveals “force” itself to be the real hero of the poem rather than any of the fighters, Greek or Trojan; each and every mortal combatant is always only and merely its possession either as victim or proxy thru which force affects its violent epiphany:
Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. The human race is not divided up in the Iliad, into conquered persons, slaves, suppliants, on the one hand, and conquerors and chiefs on the other. In this poem there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force.
Force, in Weil’s conception, is a two-fold dynamic: crushing the victim, and intoxicating the victor; and blinding both to its larger economy of power and violence that both are subject to, thrown under by the simple fact of being human, mortal.
Towards the end, War Music depicts the Greek army about to rise (again) for another assault on Troy, and the poem turns to reader to say: “Now, I shall ask you to imagine how / Men under discipline of death prepare for war,” and describes how the experience of force, power, war deforms the psyches of the men who undergo it in a manner that in consonant with Weil’s, yet where Weil is condemnatory of the fighter’s blindness, their intoxication, Logue’s poem is sympathetic:
Moments like these absolve the needs dividing men.
Whatever caught and brought and kept them here
Under Troy’s Wall for ten burnt years
Is lost: and for a while they join a terrible equality,
Are virtuous, self-sacrificing, free:
And so insidious is this liberty
That surviving it will bear
An even greater servitude to its root:
Believing they were whole, while they were brave;
That they were rich, because their loot was great;
That war was meaningful, because they lost their friends.
Logue’s two great oxymorons: “terrible equality,” and “insidious liberty” succinctly represent the psychological experience of force and incorporate the Weilan critique of war. And yet Logue’s poem stays cognizant of the sublimity of Homeric violence, violence as it is often understood and represented as a literal enthusiasm—to have the god inside one’s being—and it is here that Weil’s spiritual rigor and (Christian) intensity, blinds here to some of the Homeric realities of the poem that cannot ever find accord with her view of violence per se; for Weil violence, war is a catastrophic dead-end. Truth be told in the Iliad, however, violence is both a dead-end and (transcendent) a gateway to
That unpremeditated joy as you
—The Uzi shuddering warm against your hip
Happy in danger in a dangerous place
Yourself another self you found at Troy—
Squeezing nickel through that rush of Greekoid scum!
Oh wonderful, most wonderful, and then more wonderful
A bond no word or lack of words can break,
Love above love!
Perhaps the most original aspect of Simone Weill’s reading of the Iliad, is her interpretation of the function and effect of the Homeric simile; she argues that the transformations that the men and armies undergo in the figurative economy of the simile mirrors the literal transformations that men undergo in war: from free man with soul and spirit to near soulless slave and victim, and ultimately from living man to corpse. “The art of war,” she writes “is simply the art of producing such transformations.”
It is not the planning man, the man of strategy, the man acting on the resolution taken, who wins or loses a battle; battles are fought and decided by men deprived of these faculties, men who have undergone a transformation, who have dropped either to the level of inert matter, which is pure passivity, or to the level of blind force which is pure momentum. Herein lies the last secret of war, a secret revealed by the Iliad in its similes, which liken the warriors either to fire, flood, wind, wild beasts of God knows what blind cause of disaster, or else to frightened animals, trees, water, sand, to anything in nature that is set in motion by the violence of external forces.
(Although she herself doesn’t make the connection, Weil’s reading of the Iliad almost as a Book of Changes, highlights an important connection between the Homeric epic tradition and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the larger body of mythos, from which both those poems draw, a body of story, knowledge, and image that holds to be human is to a be absolutely subject to the “violence of external forces,” and “God knows what blind cause of disaster,” and how encounters with these forces change us.)
Traditional accounts of the Homeric simile propose three basic functions for the figure of speech in the poem: by offering a familiar image, say a dog hunting a rabbit, the simile becomes a kind of translation, a “dark mirror” which provides for an audience (of farmers and townsfolk) unfamiliar with the realities bronze age melee combat, a technology for seeing and understanding the unknown, allows the poem to say this is what it was like; sometimes however the simile is employed to articulate the opposite, to emphasize the sublime strangeness and extremity of the experience of war, to say in effect: only at the very limits of the imagination can you begin to apprehend what the fighting was like, hence all the lions, the enormous, once in a century floods; the elaborate vehicles of the Homeric similes also act to create narrative suspension, for as the simile is developed, the literal action of the poem is delayed, and we don’t know what will happen.
(Some have read the similes that employ descriptions of ordinary life as being an implicit critique of the brutal combat; in the juxtaposition of ordinary life with the chaos of battle, the poem gives a vision of life as it should be, and rebukes the radical undoing of this life in the world turned to war. The Homeric simile may sometimes have this effect, yet readings of the poem which insist upon seeing all its elements participating in a critique of violence, war, and the martial ethos, distort the poem and its history. Such readings seem driven by a desire to see poetry always on the side of human accord, driven by a desire to see poetry always already set against reifying the other as the enemy.)
In the telling and re-telling of the epic, similes were also likely a place in the poem where individual singers could distinguish themselves as artists, where they might place an individual inflection on the traditional material; the similes were a place for a singer to innovate, to take a solo. Christopher Logue’s similes throughout War Music, All Day Permanent Red, and Cold Calls run the range of effects, and in their particular dynamism integrate Weil’s sense of the figurative economy of the poem without allowing for that critical sense to eclipse the more traditional understandings of the simile’s role in the poem.
Here is Logue using the simile to tame the experience of war for the audience, to make the experience of combat seem knowable, as the Trojans defend the body of Sarpedon to protect against the Greeks carrying it off as a trophy:
Try to recall the pause, thock, pause,
Made by axe blades as they pace
each other through a valuable wood.
Though the work takes place on the far
Side of a valley, and the axe strokes are
Muted by depths of warm, still standing air,
they throb, throb, closely in your ear;
And now and then you catch a phrase
Exchanged between the men who work
More than a mile away, with perfect clarity.
Likewise the sound of spear on spear,
Shield against shield, shield against spear
Around Sarpedon’s body.
And here is Logue using the simile to insist on the radical sublimity of warfare, as he figures the Greek army on the move:
Think of those fields of light that sometimes sheet
Low-tide sands, and of the panes of such a tide
When carrying the sky, they start to flow
Everywhere, and then across themselves:
Likewise the Greek bronze streaming out at speed,
Glinting among the orchards and the groves,
And then across the plain—dust, grass, no grass,
Its long low swells and falls—all warwear pearl,
Blue Heaven above, Mount Ida’s snow behind, Troy inbetween.
And what a pleasure it was to be there! To be one of that host!
Greek and naked as a God, naked as bride and groom,
Exulting for battle! lords shouting the beat out
Keen for a kill
As our glittering width and our masks that glittered
Came over that low rise of the plain and
(As your heart skips a beat)
“See the Wall.”
And you do
This passage showing the Greek army advancing towards Troy is pure Logue, and many of his characteristic move are on display here: “all warwear pearl” (The poem has an unmatched eye for color; there’s a poem to be made just from listing them all out.) Logue’s version of the poem is a case study in the aesthetic potential of epic metastasis—the rapid shift from one figure of speech or rhetorical technique to another—for representing the welter of feeling and action of being in Homer’s war; here we see the poem move from simile to description (of the army itself moving through a landscape) to the narrator’s gloss on the ecstasy of being there (“Greek and naked as a God”) to present action, and the direct second person address which at first seems to be addressing one of the soldiers in the Greek army, and finally comes to seem as a direct address to the reader.
At the level of formal innovation, Logue makes a synthesis of epic metastasis and the simile, and thereby adds a new kind of simile to the epic repertoire; rather than a single elaborated vehicle, Logue instead will employ—in rapid succession— multiple figurative vehicles all for the same tenor. Here he compares the Greek army to seven discrete vehicles:
The rise!—the Greeks with smiling iron mouths.
They are like Nature; like a mass of flame;
Great lengths of water struck by changing winds;
A forest of innumerable trees;
Boundless sand; snowfall across broad steppes at dusk;
As a huge beast stands and turns around itself,
The well-fed, glittering army, stands and turns.
The effect is sublime, and “as you heart skips a beat” you realize you’re glorying in the battle or its prospect, and this is double-bind of thinking and feeling that Logue’s epic/anti-epic continually reveals; it’s at once a poetics and an ethics.
In Jarnot’s version of Book XXII The Death of Hector, the verse line is often equal to the grammatical phrase, which creates a (more or less) regular measure; and through this measure the poem creates a real clarity of action—a kind of epic mimesis between the unfolding of speech/action and the verse line—that keeps the narrative pace up. The story carries you, the reader, along, and narrative absorption is a crucial structural element and substantial pleasure of the Iliad, and difficult to bring over into another language.
Only a few times while reading Homeric Greek was I ever able to continue without recourse to a dictionary or a deep pause to think through or decipher a passage, but when in those moments the Homeric Greek was immediately clear in my reading the poem did unfold its action in a crystalline economy between the verse line and that which it represents.
‘I will not die quietly
and I will still die well
that my great deeds
will be known to men,
to those still not yet born.’
So spoke he,
and his sharp sword
he drew forth,
the metal weapon mighty
that had rested on his thigh,
and he held his breath
and darted down
as if an eagle
that was high up
and came down upon a field
through black clouds
taking up a little lamb or hare
and Hector charged like this,
in front of him his sharp sword
and Achilles came at him
filled with rage and savageness,
and pulling up his shiny welded shield
to guard his chest,
and flashing back his helmet
with four horns, golden-plumed,
as Hephaestus had worked it—
thick around the crest
and as a star that comes up
in the darkness of the evening,
best in all the field
of all the stars,
so went the light from the spear
Achilles held out in his hand,
with plans to murder Hector,
scanning his skin for a place
clean and tender
to deliver the blow,
the surface of his flesh bronze-hid
inside the armour Hector stole
from strong Patroclous
when he cut him down,
Jarnot’s lines move us through a mix of action, simile, ekphrasis, the shift in focalization from Hector’s being the main actor to Achilles being the focus of the poem’s narration with great economy and ease. So it’s all the more striking then when Jarnot overturns her own highly fluent poetic economy, for only the barest prose paraphrase, as she does in Hector’s speech before the gates, when he thinks for a moment about offering Achilles a truce and Helen and “half of everything the city ever held,” but then reconsiders:
—but why is all this in my heart to talk to me and then is it not true that if I go to him and move in closer that he might have no respect and he might have no pity and then he’ll murder me even though I have no armor like a girl is what I’ll look like when I am out there facing him but now it is not for me from an oak tree or from a rock to go toward him to talk to him to have discourse like a young man and a maiden like the way they talk the young man and the maiden face to face and better yet to go at all this strife with speed so that we can find out which of us the gods will parcel out glory.
Jarnot uses the stumbling inelegance of this paraphrase to represent Hector’s crisis before the gates; a crisis which is emphasized by Hector’s figuring himself as “girl” a greater undoing of his identity even than death will be. The shock of Hector’s simile—of how he has no chance to negotiate with Achilles, no chance to go and talk to Achilles like a young man and girl flirting by a rock or under some tree—is muted in Jarnot’s rough paraphrase. The disfluency works as a kind of mimesis of Hector debating heart: “but why is all this in my heart to talk to me.” The disfluency, moreover, works to emphasize how alienated most readers are from the economy of violence Hector faces, how unfamiliar war is for many or us. The inarticulateness of the paraphrase becomes a “faithful realism.” An American realism, as Edmund says in Long Day’s Journey Into Night:
I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do, I mean, if I live. Well, it will be faithful realism, at least. Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.
The disfluency of Hector’s stammering speech before the gates communicates both his debating heart, and our status as civilians, a “fog people” unfamiliar with the lived realities of war.
Of all the purposes the epic possibly served for its original singers and audiences, storytelling as near sacrament and collective imaginative transport is one of the most certain, and Jarnot’s version of “The Death of Hector” translates that fluently. This is true of Jarnot’s translation, even as her poem is dedicated “In memory of all the people out there who just keep killing each other.” Yet there’s a kind of (ethical) exhaustion carried by the vernacular phrasing of Jarnot’s dedication that recalls Simone Weill’s argument that “true subject” of the Iliad is force itself.
Jarnot’s Andromache laments not simply the defeat of Troy, but a larger defeat at the heart of war, the defeat, humiliation, and universal misery of being human and thrown under the force of war; this is the lament she sings, the lament the women of Troy join:
So spoke she and she wept she
and all the women
they did weep as well.
Alice Oswald’s Memorial is perhaps the most conceptually radical of the poems under discussion. In her brief introduction she says her poem is a “translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere not its story.” Oswald focuses on reckoning the lives and deaths of all those slain in the Iliad and interspersed with these memorial biographies, she presents her version of the Homeric simile. The presentation of the two discrete elements (the deaths of the fighters and the similes) recalls how in The Waves, Woolf distills the novel into the rendering of the exterior world (the seascapes) and the representation of the dynamics of human interiority (the consciousnesses of Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis.) The book begins with a list of names in all caps and the (American) reader encounters them as one encounters Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall—not exactly since the names of are strange, so maybe the encounter is more akin to seeing Chris Burden’s sculpture The Other Vietnam Memorial, which he made by etching (on the 13 feet tall copper plates that make up the sculpture) three million variations on ordinary names taken from Vietnamese phone books.
Names of soldiers, of the previously anonymous dead. Oswald’s poem is not just a continuation of the epic’s insistence that we remember and honor only the glorious few, but rather, by offering an account of each individual death, she sings of individual dignity, rather than the traditional understanding of athanaton kleos, undying glory; her Memorial rejects glory, rejects the epic for a song more revealing of a war-exhausted pity. Here is her account of the death of DOLON:
Like fire with its loose hair flying rushes through a city
The look of unmasked light shocks everything to rubble
And flames howl through the gaps
What was the shrill sound
Five sisters at the grove
Calling the ghost of DOLON
They remember an ugly man but quick
In a crack of light in the sweet smelling glimmer before dawn
He was caught creeping to the ships
He wore a weasel cap he was soft
Dishonest scared stooped they remember
How under a spear’s eyes he offered everything
All his father’s money all his own
Every Trojan weakness every hope of their allies
Even the exact position of the Thracians
And the colour and size and price of the horses of Rhesus
They keep asking him why why
He gave away groaning every secret in his body
And was still pleading for his head
When his head rolled onto the mud
Like the fly the daredevil fly
Being brushed back
But busying back
The lunatic fly who loves licking
And will follow a man all day
For a nip of his blood
Where Oswald’s poem is limpid, its rhythm is not exactly calm, but measures the deaths happening in a mode that resembles narrative summary, Logue’s is all frenetic action and metastasis, the rhetoric acting as a kind of mimesis for chaos of battle itself, marshaling all possible resources into the dynamic narrative present action; both poet’s have clearly been influenced by the classical notion of “enargeia,” which as Oswald says in her introduction, means a “bright unbearable reality,” for Oswlad this is rendered as clarity, for Logue a frenzy.
Oswald ends her “excavation” of the Iliad with succession of similes, which start off as a kind of figurative postscript to the last death in Memorial, that of Hector:
Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new life into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matter no more than leaves
But in the succession of vehicle after vehicle—each one give its own page—a different feeling takes hold, a stripping away, a back-to-the earth simplicity, the natural world as a corrective to litany of war-deaths that have come before:
Like locusts lifted rippling over fields on fire
Fleeing to the river
A hanging banner of insects trying to outfly flame
They hide by drowning
Like a restless wolves never run out of hunger
Can eat a whole stag
Can drink the whole surface off a pool
Lapping away its blackness with thin tongues
And belching it back as blood
And still go on killing
With their stomach rubbing their sides
Haunted by hunger
Like when water hits a rocky dam
Its long strong arms can’t break those stones
And all its pouring rush curls back on itself
And bleeds sideways into the marshes
And yet the poem doesn’t seem to be appealing to the facile Mt Olympian nihilism that thinks how better off the earth will be once humans go extinct. The poem closes with the following similes:
Like when a god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone
Like when a god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone
At least there are yet people to witness “the whip of sparks.” As in the way science fiction narratives imply a real hope that there is still a habitable future, a future of the human person to narrate; as in the utopian hope that underwrites the possibility of that futures story—the skater’s blades gliding along the icy lake. As in a way for the ancient poem, we are that future—yet alive to witness “the whip of sparks.” As in how the poem is both a memorial, honoring the dead and a charge to fulfill, to survive—like Janus; like January, the month I closed this notebook.
I’ve been keeping this notebook for what has also been the duration of the siege of the Kurdish city of Kobanê; for 134 days the men and women fighters of the YPG/YPJ and the Peshmerga defended the city against the forces of the Islamic State. Sometime in late fall after watching some of the propaganda videos from the Islamic State I wrote:
“They’ve no more disease in the heart / because they love to die / haya! / hayaalal jihad!” triumphs the video: clips of severed rivers, severed cities, severed persons,
streaming on the vibe and technics of a violent chic, and the fuck of it all is, Achilles would recognize their jihad—its song-drenched propaganda—as the epic.
I still think those lines are true; in the terms of the epic the Islamic State’s jihad is just another striving for kelos, for athanaton kleos, undying glory, which is why I’ve tried to keep the anti-epic in view throughout this notebook. But who could choose Weil’s terms of universal condemnation and critique of violence; who could say to the fighters making their stand in Kobanê, that their war for their city is just another day for force itself, which will move on and through other bodies, and perhaps tomorrow will put their city to fire.
Rachel Bespaloff, who herself was a French contemporary of Weil’s, also wrote an essay on the Iliad in the war-torn forties, and in that essay she argues that true center of the poem is neither the wrath of Achilles, nor what Weil called “force,” but rather “the duel between Achilles and Hector, the tragic confrontation of the revenge-hero and the resistance-hero, is what forms the Iliad’s true center and governs its unity and its development.”
This notebook is dedicated to resistance-heroes—sing, o, muse.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Selected Writings Vol. 1 1913-1926. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, eds. Harvard University Press, 2002.
Jarnot, Lisa. The Iliad: Book XXII: The Death of Hector. Bookthug, 2007.
Kapil, Bhanu. Humanimal, A Project for Future Humans. Kelsey Street Press, 2009.
Logue, Christopher. War Music. Noonday, 1997.
---. All Day Permanent Red. FSG, 2003.
---. Cold Calls. Faber, 2005.
Oswald, Alice. Memorial. Faber, 2011.
Weil, Simone and Rachel Bespaloff. War and the Iliad. NYRB, 2005.