The Relevance of Reading the Classics: Then and Now

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Trojan War scene. Achilles dragging the dead body of Hector in front of the gates of Troy. Image: Collected

At the dawn of civilization, during the stone and bronze ages, agriculture was the mainstay of human survival. Women and men worked together to till the soil and produce crop. Indeed, women proved more useful in this simple and somewhat sedentary lifestyle as they had a greater role in the preparation of food. Consequently, women enjoyed a high status in human society. With the onset of the iron age, sturdier weapons began to be fashioned which could only be wielded by men. Men became the hunters and gatherer, and literally brought the bacon home. Also, these weapons began to be used for fighting wars which only men would wage. As a result of these developments, the weaker sex, the women, were relegated to lower status. They also became a booty of battles. The process of the decline of women’s societal role began. As to be expected, this also found reflection in literature.

This was among the phenomena deliberated upon in the Webinar of the Dhaka -based The Reading Circle towards the end of August. The main purpose was to discuss the novel “The Silence of the Girls” authored by the English Booker Prize -winning writer, Pat Barker. It was a reimagining of the Trojan Wars from Homer’s ancient classic The Iliad narrated from the perspective of women. The narrator is Briseis, a Queen taken captive in battle by the Greeks. Barker’s rendition has been described by the Guardian as “a brilliant novelistic retelling, moving, thought provoking”. Of course, as it was discerned in the discussions, it was not without flaws. Presentations were made by Razia Khan, Tazeen Murshid, Shirin Scheik Mainuddin, Nusrat Huq and me. The enthusiastic debate that followed was skillfully moderated by the Circle’s Chair, Professor Niaz Zaman. This essay is based on my interventions.

Homer’s The Iliad, together with The Odyssey, form the mother of Western literature. The siege of Troy, that is The Iliad, and the return journey to Greece of Odysseus or Ulyssis, the King of Ithaca, which is The Odyssey, are classics of Greek mythology. These tell the eternal tale of immortal characters, of love, of ferocity, intrigue, treachery, bravery, mercy, and violence.

I, like many others, have grown up with the Iliad and Odyssey. In my view each one of us lives through these two epics. The struggles that we go through is our Iliad and our journey through the vicissitudes of life’s fortune is our odyssey. Also, as the history of humanity evolves each generation should retell these in a revisionist reinterpretation. That is what Classics are about. Epic sagas had a major role in the efflorescence of western civilization. It was the rediscovery of the Classics that brought on the Italian Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries. That led to the Reformation, which in turn spurred scientific and geographical discoveries, and onwards to the Age of Enlightenment, and the Industrial and French Revolutions, the foundations of contemporary western societal ethos.

“The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker is such a retelling of the tale, not of the core saga though all key events figure in it. It mainly underscores one aspect of the trojan war, the fate and role of women who are captives of circumstances. It has been lucidly crafted by Barker in a fashion that has been described as a feminist rendition of the original. As with Homer’s, Barker’s version is equally soaked in blood and sweat of bellicose struggle. It is a chilling recreation of an ancient story in a modern idiom.

That “silence becomes a woman”, an expression which recurs on several occasions in the book, seems to have been a part of ancient Greek way of life. The great Athenian statesman and orator and demagogue, Pericles in the fifth century A.D., was supposed to have said: “Silence regarding women, silence regarding their virtues, silence regarding their misfortune”. The playwright Euripides was unpersuaded. He created his famous tragedies, including “The Trojan Women”, also transliterated as “The Troads”, for which he was derided. But it is possible that women did not occupy such a low esteem in Greek society that Barker’s novel would lead us to believe. True, in democratic Athens they might not have played an overtly active civic role. But old Greek literature has often painted women in the fairest of colours; such as Hecuba and Andromache in the Iliad, Penelope in the Odyssey, Antigone and Iphigenia in Euripides. The women goddesses were powerful. It would be a stretch to believe that the King of gods Zeus himself neglected to take very serious note of the reactions of his wife, the goddess Hera, in both his savoury and unsavoury conduct.

The Iliad in the original was a rhapsody:  part poem, part song, part drama. Contributions to it, were made, in the oral tradition, piece by piece, over years, by many, knit together in epic-form by Homer, or several Homers. Each narrator focused on an event or a character. As far as I am aware Briseis as a protagonist was never featured in any ancient rendition. In according her that kind of attention, Barker herself becomes a rhapsode of sorts, a contributor. However, I am positive literary puritans may not quite concur.

Of course, it would be unfair to compare Barker’s work to the classical rhapsodes. Her goal was creative literature. She simply piggy-backed on the classics. It would have been less of a challenge if her original was history. But Iliad is mythology. Now, mythology is deeper than history. Mythology goes into the wellsprings of human behavior. It scrapes the fundamentals of our psychology. The results of mythology become our companions forever.  Literary works are far more transient.

A critic could, with this novel, as with any literary work, point to some flaws. At the risk of appearing to be pedantic over technicalities, I would refer to the mention of “weekend market”’ at a time when no concept of weekend existed. More seriously, the author could be less explicit in the use of modern expletives. Also, there is excessive lust, and not enough love. Love was a powerful driver of the original epic. It was that passion between the unmartial Paris and the impossibly beautiful Helen that caused the war in the first place. But there is lack of any instance of same-sex romantic relationship among women (It was common enough among Greek men had been referenced in the main epic). With so many of them in the camps, was a noticeable void. These lead to an impression that the book flirts with seriousness but ends up in levity.  Otherwise, the style is refreshingly simple and delightfully   lyrical. It demonstrates that verbose grandiloquence is not essential to making the making a powerful point in a novel.

Briseis, allotted to Achilles by the Army, becomes a silent pawn between him and the leader of the Greeks, King Agamemnon. ‘Silence becomes a woman”, is the rule by which Briseis conducts herself. She is powerless, except in one way; her ability to observe, as she does every detail in the Greek camps. And knowledge is power, then and now. Also, to stretch the imagination somewhat, her power comes to full fruition, when three thousand years down the line, we the readers of her narration, albeit vide the author, learn of human behaviour in pain, and pleasure, at all times.

There are touching human points amidst all the violence. Early in the novel, when her own city is about to fall, Briseis takes a great risk to locate her aged and ailing mother-in-law, whom she likes not at all(the feeling was mutual), just to give her a last drop of water. This incident will resonate with everywoman, everywhere, in every-age.

The story is, largely not just about women, but about men as well, their loves, lust, ego, and unreason. Take Achilles costly conflict with Agamemnon over Briseis and thirst for revenge against Hector, the killer of his friend and lover Patroclus. Achilles is a cold-hearted killer, and yet, as Briseis was being led away from him to Agamemnon, a tinge of softness of character was betrayed when, as contemporary song goes, a little bit of tear let him down! Yet he would not acknowledge the tear by trying to wipe it away. How different was noble Patroclus; it was his kindness to Briseis that infected her with what we today call the Stockholm Syndrome, a captive’s affection for the captor.

Greek heroes are often offspring of union of humans with gods and goddesses. Such mating happened quite freely and often, without the raising of eyebrows. When Zeus coveted Leda, the mother of Helen, he came to her as a swan. Leda and the Swan have been the subject not just of Renaissance art, but also the famous sonnet of WB Yeats, who renders the incident sensually beautiful. The mother of Achilles was the goddess Thetis.  Her statue, one will recall, was erected in the Dhaka Supreme Court premises some years ago. So Greek heroes and heroines have qualities both divine and human. But it is their human failings that render them more appealing, whether in Homer’s epic or Barker’s book.

Achilles the Greek and Hector the Trojan are the main heroes of the Trojan war. Yet they are portrayed as distinctly different. The contrast between their temperaments can be said to represent two stages of man’s evolution. Achilles represents the world of warfare and pillage. For such people an intense life is better than a long one. Hector’s world is about the defense of his land and community, of the wisdom of pacts, and family affections reflecting a wider community of mankind. The contradiction is a part of humankind’s historical evolution and is still relevant today.

As someone coming from the diplomatic profession, one episode in The Iliad (also in this book) has always been indelibly etched in my mind. It is when the old and frail King of Troy Priam, goes deep into the enemy camp to Achilles’ tent and kneeling before the Greek general begs for the return of the body of his son, Hector. He had disguised himself as a beggar. But Achilles recognized him when he was addressed by the old man, without any honorific, only as “Achilles”. After a debate that has gone into annals of negotiations, Achilles agrees to the request, He invites the enemy King to dinner at which he opts to wear a ragged attire so as not to outdress his royal enemy -guest!

Recently I published in article on peacetime use of protocol as a weapon. I wrote about how, stung by the lack of hospitality to Chinese Ministers in Alaska by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Beijing deepened the US -China rivalry to dangerous levels.  The Iliad had lessons for the US hosts that they would have done well to heed!

There are other important things that the Classics teach us. The various phenomena of nature were represented as gods and goddesses. In other words, nature symbolized divinity. Excessive pride and defiance of nature brought on what was known as “hubris”. At that point in the mathematical equilibrium, the goddess “nemesis” unleashed her punishment. For instance, when Icarus wanted to fly against the law of nature and took off with wings that he had made, the blaze of the sun melted the wax that attached the wings to his arms. Consequently, he fell to his death.  Some political analysts have likened contemporary great -power behaviour in that light. They might point to Suez, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Classics also teach us about the perishability of human civilizations. When in Homer’s Iliad Troy was destroyed, Virgil in his Aeneid traced the travels of the Trojan survivor Aeneas to the Mediterranean, where he founded Rome. Eventually there was a paradigm shift in powerplay when the Roman civilization supplanted the Greek, which appeared to be in consonance with the thesis of the philosopher Heraclitus who had argued that the world was in a constant state of flux, with everything constantly changing. Shall we see a repeat of the same phenomenon in today’s world? Will America be supplanted by China, as life goes on?

The Reading Circle is basically a fun club. We read books for pleasure, and meet to exchange notes. Some are scholars and students of literature. There are others like me who bring to the tale experience collated in public and civic life, in governance, diplomacy or academia. The cauldron into which flow the mix of views, opinions and analyses often churns out interesting and, indeed, stimulating thoughts and ideas. Even if they are unintended consequences, they can be worth sharing with a wider audience. This essay attempts at that.

I will end on a sad note about the land from where these mighty Classics had emerged: Greece! Where does it stand in our mind’s eye today? The poet George Byron says it all, when about the isles of Greece, he writes “eternal summer gilds them yet, but all except their sun is set”, concluding with, perhaps with a silent sigh, yet audible to this day, “for the Greeks a blush, for Greece a tear!”

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg

  • Pat Barker
  • Homer
  • Greek Mythology
  • Trojan War
  • Civilization

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