Sunday, September 24, 2017

Before The Iliad, Did Homer Write The World’s First Comedy?

Before The Iliad, Did Homer Write The World’s First Comedy?

"Before ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey,’ Homer’s very first work—if Homer actually existed—is named ‘Margites,’ after its main character who was nothing short of a bumbling idiot."

If you are really interested in my thoughts about Homer, my overview of the movie Troy follows the jump.

I've read several reviews of this film, and many of them really miss the point. "Hey, where are the gods?", they say. "This isn't Homer".

Yes, lads and lasses, that is why they didn't call it The Iliad. The absence of the gods is the very point of the film. It is not the ancient legend, but is an intellectual exercise - an attempt to ask "What story would Homer and the other ancients have told, if they had to tell the truth instead of spinning some complete bullshit?" We all know the preposterous legendary explanations for things, but those explanations are based (or so we assume) on real events that happened to real people. This film tries to tell the story as it really might have happened to real human beings with genuine, plausible human motivations. It tries to recreate the real events which could have inspired the legendary story we are all familiar with.

It is also important to recall that Homer's Iliad dealt with only a small portion of the story, starting with the feud between the mighty Achilles and King Agamemnon, and ending with Hector's funeral. It took place over something like 50 days, and does not even include the fall of Troy, which we have learned of mainly from the Aeneid, which was written many centuries later in a different language. The wooden horse is absent from the Iliad, and is mentioned only in a casual reference in Homer's Odyssey, the epic equivalent of "Oh, yeah, Odysseus. He's the wooden horse guy ... ". The rest of the familiar legend of Troy comes from other ancient poems and plays, and includes many other details not covered in The Iliad - the conception of Helen, the childhood of Paris as a shepherd, the kidnapping of Helen, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the death of Achilles, the murder of Agamemnon, the Trojan horse - all necessary to tell the full story. Director Wolfgang Peterson's version expanded a bit beyond the narrow borders of the Iliad, but did not spin the entire yarn. He added a little back-story about Helen's flight from Sparta, and instead of ending the saga with the funeral of Hector, he ended it with the funeral of Achilles. This was an artistic decision which enabled the film to end with less unresolved than the Iliad, while still retaining the essential structure of the literature and ending on a similar note.


Let me tell you how I think this all went down a few thousand years ago.

Around 1200 B.C., the Trojan War was fought, and the basic facts are probably about as recorded in The Iliad, The Aeneid, and The Cypria (another ancient document now lost, but summarized in other documents).

Between 1200 and 700, a bunch of people told and re-told these stories. Now you know how we embellish our stories in barrooms, so you can assume that these people did the same - except far worse, because they were ignorant people who genuinely believed one could get pregnant from goose-fucking, if the goose was Zeus in disguise.

It went something like this:

Story teller: And then Hector and Paris visited Menelaus, and while they were there on a peace mission, Paris seduced Menelaus's wife and took her back to Troy ...

Skeptical listener: Wait a minute. How could Helen and Paris get enough free time to conduct an affair under the eye of her husband the king. How could the queen be doing that without anyone noticing it? That means they must have spent a lot of time alone together while she was being attended to as a queen, and he was an honored foreign emissary. That doesn't make sense.

Story teller: Um ... well ... um ... Oh, yeah, it was the gods. That's the ticket. Aphrodite brought them together, and she watched over them to assure that Menelaus would not notice them. The whole war was part of her master plan from the beginning.

Skeptical listener: Hold on. How did Helen fall in love so fast, and to such an extent that she was willing to abandon her entire life to be with Paris?

Story teller: Um ... well ... um ... Oh, yeah, it was the "apple of discord" thing. Aphrodite had promised Helen to Paris some time earlier, so Aphrodite cast a spell on Helen so that she fell in love.

That was the great thing about being a story teller in ancient times. You could just make up whatever crap you needed in order to get people to believe your story. It was a lot like being a modern day politician. Yes, we still do that today, but the ancients had different approaches. Unlike a modern day work of literature, or a modern thriller movie, ancient stories were not bound by a need for the plot or the characters' motivations to be believable. In case anything didn't make sense, they just blamed it all on the intercession of the gods.

The ancients even had a term for this clumsy way to explain inexplicable plot points: Deus Ex Machina. In some ancient Greek plays, a crisis with no possible solution was resolved by the intervention of a god, who would be dropped from the rafters by wires and pulleys and machinery. (Our modern word for machine comes from the device by which gods were suspended above the stage in the Greek theatre - machina.) In those days, a deus ex machina was literally a "god from the machine". In modern literary criticism, the term is still used, albeit no longer literally. It now describes cases where an author uses some improbable or clumsy plot device which suddenly intercedes to extricate our hero from an impossible predicament.

Of course, the story would be repeated many more times after that time I re-created above, and when the ancient story-teller told the story the next time, he would have covered his tracks by closing the loopholes with the new details, thus silencing future hecklers. When his listeners repeated the story, they added the new elements as well. As more and more generations passed, people came to believe that the story really happened that way. The improbability of quasi-divine intervention was no problem for the listeners in ancient times, because they actually believed in those gods and goddesses, as deeply as we believe in ours.

About 700 BC, "Homer" (if a single such person existed) took the most important portion of the story, the internecine Greek feud between Agamemnon and Achilles, as the basis for an epic poem using a complex meter which acted as a mnenomic device, so that the tale could be told precisely the same way in each subsequent re-telling for another two hundred years, until somebody finally wrote it down around 500 BC, or thereabouts. The first written version was created at the command of the Athenian ruler Pisastratus, who decreed that any singer or bard who came to Athens had to recite all he knew of Homeric poetry for the Athenian scholars, who diligently recorded each version and eventually collated them into what we now call the Iliad and Odyssey. We do not know how much inconsistency, if any, was resolved by the Athenian editors.

Now what do we know about the underlying truth of the legendary epics, or the identity of their author(s)?

Very little.

Scholars have an ongoing debate about whether an actual person named Homer even existed; some contend that the name Homer is actually a collective name for a group of poets (the Homeridae) who simply edited an existing cycle of oral epics. Others believe, based on textual evidence, that one person, or possibly two, did create or edit the two (or three, counting the missing comedy) major Homeric compositions. In order to avoid using constant disclaimers, I will refer to Homer hereinafter as a single person entitled to a singular pronoun, having acknowledged that "he" may be two separate authors (one for the Iliad, one for the Odyssey), or "he" may be a society of poets. Assuming Homer did exist, we are not sure whether he merely formalized existing versions of the tale, or whether he added his own literary embellishments. We don't know whether Homer believed in his version and his gods, or whether he simply used those characters to paint himself out of corners. Although archeologists now think that there was a Troy as described in the tale, and that it fell around 1200 BC, we are not sure if any of Homer's version is true. Perhaps Achilles is as fictional as Apollo. For all we know, every single character could be fictional. On the other hand - and this is finally my point after all these words - we do know for sure that a lot of Homer's story is false. Maybe he knew that Apollo and Mercury didn't exist. Maybe not. But we know. Therefore, we know that some of the legend - in fact a big chunk of it - is utter bullshit.

But to the best of our knowledge and guesswork, it appears to be bullshit not in the sense of complete fabrication, but in the sense that it is a mythical retelling of presumed real events.

Well ... maybe.

Part of the credibility problem of The Iliad is that The Odyssey, which is said to have been written by the same man, is obviously complete bullshit - a fantasy/science-fiction work, leading us to suspect that the entire Homeric cycle is a similarly contrived work of fiction. If the Iliad is as true as The Odyssey - well, to be charitable in wording if not in sentiment, it may include no truth at all.

The Troy movie is a hypothetical recreation of some actual events that MIGHT have inspired the famous myth, including some portions of that myth not taken directly from the Iliad. Given that premise, therefore, the film is bound to portray everything happening according to natural law and human psychology. The prophets make their predictions, and people believe them, because that's what happened. But the actual predictions prove to be no more accurate than the predictions of modern day psychics. The characters worship the gods, because that's what they really did. But the gods did not actually exist, and therefore all events transpire without divine intercession.

And so forth.

Think for a minute about what all that means to this film. Except for the whole dactyllic hexameter thing, the authors of this script have taken on a more difficult job than Homer himself. Whenever Homer got caught in an improbable or fanciful point of incredible plotting or unrealistic character motivation, he would just attribute it all to a god, and he would escape scot-free from his predicament. The authors of Troy did not retain that option when they decided to have the story take place between psychologically realistic humans.

That is a great burden.

The first problem appears immediately. I discussed it earlier. How do Helen and Paris get the time to conduct a passionate affair under the nose of her husband the king? Can't be done, can it? In the movie they show them exchanging glances and then meeting in Helen's boudoir. Yeah, that has a prayer of being true. Obviously, the legend got the original details all screwed up somewhere, and Aphrodite was the designated dea ex machina. The movie, however, lacking Aphrodite, has no credible explanation. The scriptwriters needed to invent a different way for Helen and Paris to fall in love.

I think you can go through the movie and find many such instances. Old King Priam wanders past 40,000 Greeks one night, and strolls into Achilles's tent. "How did you get here?", asks the mighty warrior. "I think I know my country better than the Greeks", says Priam. Complete crap. How well did he need to know his country? As seen in the film, Achilles was on the beach, and his tent could be seen from the battlements of Troy. It didn't require an advanced geography class to walk a few hundred yards. Not only that, but it was all pictured as open country, mostly sand, with nothing covering the route except a whole bunch of smelly Greek guys just out of the range of the Trojan archers. To make the trip from the walls to the beach, knowledge of the Greek language would have been more valuable than knowledge of Trojan geography. Not only was Priam guilty of a silly explanation, but it was so silly that the scene's credibility was further undermined because Achilles did not remark on how silly it was. The blunt Achilles pictured here would have said, "If you want something from me, old man, answer my questions candidly, and proceed quickly to your reason for being here." Homer originally explained the unexplainable in the usual way - by saying that the god Mercury guided Priam safely to Achilles's tent. What a guy. What a god. No wonder they named a car after him.

As I mentioned, many critics objected to the script's having demythologized the epic. Frankly, that is a foolish critique. That demythologizing - that humanizing, if you will - was the whole point of making the movie in the first place. But I didn't like the film much more than some of those misguided reviewers. I just had different reasons. I applaud the idea of demythologizing the story in search of human truth, but I don't applaud the execution of that conceit throughout this film. I made the point in reviewing Shakespeare in Love that if you are going to place your words alongside Shakespeare's, you better be pretty damned confident you know what you are doing, because you're going to look like a complete dickhead if you fail. A similar point holds the floor here. If you are going to re-write the oldest, most important, and most treasured story in the history of Western civilization, you need to do a damned good job at it, or seem an arrogant fool. There was some foolish arrogance on display in this script. The scriptwriters needed to go after that quintessential truth more diligently, to dig deeper into human behavior in order to replace the myth with credible human actions and dialogue. That did happen occasionally, but I did not see it happening consistently throughout the film. Oh, yeah, the look is impressive, the fights are great, but those things do not a fine cake create. They merely ice it. It is intrinsic humanity or its lack that determines whether a story is resonant.

1 comment:

  1. This may or may not interest you, but there's an extremely disreputable minority opinion that says the date of the Fall of Troy has been artificially inflated by careless Egyptologists.

    The short version is that the Mycenaean period is dated as synchronous with the Egyptian New Kingdom in the 18th and 19th dynasties by virtue of Mycenaean pottery being found in New Kingdom contexts. That's uncontroversial enough.

    The problem is that the dates for the New Kingdom were arrived at by counting backwards on the reign lengths of each successive pharaoh. This became a bit of a problem in what was called the Third Intermediary Period of Egypt, during which there was a breakdown in central authority. There's a lot of synchronisms with the Biblical text that have since been abandoned as untenable, a few rather tenuous dates extrapolated from interpretations of astrological records, but the bottom line is that the majority think Egypt's 20th, 21st and 22nd Dynasties were sequential while the (small) minority claim they went on mostly at the same time. Add into history a few dozen more pharaoh reign lengths than actually represent pharaohs ruling the whole of Egypt, and you end up with Bronze Age Collapse 250-350 years before it actually happened, putting the Trojan war at 950-850 BCE and turning the "Greek Dark Age" into a phantom of bad archaeology.

    The major (contradictory) authors on the minority view are Peter James et al. and David Rohl. I think they're snubbed mostly because it makes archaeologists look rather dumb.

    FWIW, Thucydides, who was nobody's fool, seems unaware that the Greek Dark Age ever happened, Herodotus' genealogy of Leonidas has nowhere near enough generations (21) between Hercules and Leonidas to make up the difference between c. 1300-1250 BCE and 480 BCE, and Eratosthenes' calculation of the date of the Trojan war relies on earlier genealogies such as Herodotus' and multiplying the number of generations times an unreasonably high average age for fatherhood (30s or 40s, IIRC).

    A fall of Troy closer to 900 BCE means that there'll be less time for BS to seep into the story between the events and "Homer", but the modern Internet has pretty well proven that BS needs almost no time to seep into stories.