Books in Brief: THE LIFE OF BELISARIUS; I, SNIPER; THE WAR THAT KILLED ACHILLES

I ordered Lord Mahon’s The Life of Belisarius on a recommendation at NRO The Corner from Victor Davis Hanson.  For the amateur history buff, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, which was first published in 1829, is its depiction of a 6th Century Mediterranean world riven by competition and war, still under the shadow of Rome well after the conventional date for the eclipse of the Roman Empire.  Though the last Western Roman Emperor had long since given up the imperial purple, classic Roman institutions like the Senate, in Rome itself, and the Consulship, awarded in Byzantium, persisted up to this period.  The former fell victim to a war in Italy that might have restored the old imperial heartland, when the old Senatorial families were taken hostage and in large number executed.  The Consulship was by this time a merely honorific position, but had retained enough of its old aura to excite the jealousy of Emperor Justinian, who emerges in the tale as the very embodiment of vain and unwise leadership (he “imposed his name on no less than nineteen cities, and of these not a single one has served to prolong his memory”) – especially against the character of Belisarius, who is depicted as a great and good general, the very embodiment of loyalty and patriotism.  The book is filled with marvelous characters and great events largely forgotten to history (outside of specialist realms), but the chief pleasure of reading it may be in Lord Mahon’s aphoristic asides and wry turns of phrase, reminiscent of Gibbon:

The national altar and the national throne cannot be merely foreign and indifferent to each other; if not allied, they must be hostile.

…he was invested with Patrician dignity, and spent the remainder of his days loaded with honors and contempt.

It is rarely that men reject any tale, however fantastic or improbable, provided it tends to show that their own sect or country is the peculiar favorite of heaven.

I, Sniper: I wonder whether Stephen Hunter still believes in the genre – mystery/suspense thriller – that he has mastered as few others have.  His tone in this novel is so self-conscious, so knowing about his own authorial tricks and tactics, it reads almost as a set of gestures – love bouquets to the NRA and to veterans of foreign wars, dead flowers to the New York Times, poison bon-bons for the cultural-political left – rather than as a fictional world for a reader to inhabit.  I found myself wondering just how pissed off Hunter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic as well as one of our best genre writers, is about what Mark Wahlberg and company did to his work when they turned the first Bob Lee Swagger novel, Point of Impact, into the only slightly better than barely watchable movie Shooter.  Yet Hunter’s audacity – from an opening series of fictional assassinations of characters obviously based on well-known leftwing celebrities, to a climax built around the exposure and destruction of yet another such figure – makes up in large part for a lack of genre-level seriousness, and longtime fans will find more than enough Swaggering good-guy-ism propelled by mind-boggling detail work to read the story with apolitical satisfaction.  And anyway, most of ’em, I suspect, will feel more like standing up and cheering than giving up on the book when they encounter speeches like the one about the “all-powerful… narrative [that] rules us… rules Washington… rules everything”:

“The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them. It’s so powerful because it’s unconscious. It’s not like they get together every morning and decide ‘These are the lies we tell today.’ No, that would be too crude and honest. Rather, it’s a set of casual, nonrigorous assumptions about a reality they’ve never really experienced that’s arranged in such a way as to reinforce their best and most ideal presumptions about themselves and their importance to the system and the way they’ve chosen to live their lives. It’s a way of arranging things a certain way that they all believe in without ever really addressing carefully. It permeates their whole culture. They know, for example, that Bush is a moron and Obama a saint. They know communism was a phony threat cooked up by right-wing cranks as a way to leverage power to the executive. They know Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, the response to Katrina was fucked up, torture never works, and mad Vietnam sniper Carl Hitchcock killed the saintly peace demonstrators. Cheney’s a devil, Biden’s a genius. Soft power good, hard power bad. Forgiveness excellent, punishment counterproductive, capital punishment a sin.”

And so on.

Caroline Alexander, The War that Killed Achilles: If you ever find yourself tempted to pick up the Iliad, maybe for the first time since you studied it at school, you might want to consider reading this book first, or even instead. Seemingly fully in command of nearly 3,000 years-worth of prior criticism and related works, of recent archaeological research, of linguistic nuance, and of general history and popular culture, author Caroline Alexander reads the ur-epic of Western Civilization from the first lines to the last, generously excerpting and, where necessary, re-translating important passages, and revealing Homer not just as a great poet, but also as a subversive, a kind of ancient modern or modern ancient, a tragic realist whose material happens to depend on the actions of gods and superhuman heroes. The Iliad, she explains, doesn’t just seem different from other epics or other writings in the epic tradition:  It decisively challenges their main assumptions and typical purposes. Using words reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s famous statement against serving in Vietnam, its central figure declares his disinterest in the war he’s forced to fight, and stirringly urges others to sail home rather than sacrifice themselves for “glory.” The product of an extended epoch characterized by the sorrows of war, the Iliad may have been experienced in its own time, and for centuries seems to have been received, less as a celebration of martial virtues, patriotism, and pagan faith than as a moral indictment of heroic culture at its worst – as in battle scenes in which warrior-victims in their deaths are humanized in somewhat the way the New York Times, in a widely read and appreciated series of obituaries, once commemorated 9/11 victims. It’s no accident, in Alexander’s view, that Homer’s Trojan War so often appears worse than pointless to a modern sensibility, and that the story’s most sympathetic figures are the ones least invested in prosecuting it.

It would be too much to call the Iliad “anti-war”: The idea of a world without war almost seems nonsensical within the ancient worldview. (For one thing, peace would bore the gods to death.) As the maker of a certain contemporary epic described his work, the Iliad wouldn’t be “anti-war,” but “anti-bad war,” a work of social self-criticism more than self-glorification – and all the more justly a fundamental text of Western civilization for that reason.  It’s an eternal tale of war that ends with a last look at a moment of mournful peace, as experienced by a people on the verge of being wiped out:

They piled up the grave-barrow and went away, and thereafter
assembled in a fair gathering and held a glorious
feast within the house of Priam, king under God’s hand.
Such was their burial of Hektor, breaker of horses.

It’s one of the main accomplishments of Alexander’s work to bring the pathos and underlying moral intention of such lines fully alive, 2,700 years after they were written.


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18 comments on “Books in Brief: THE LIFE OF BELISARIUS; I, SNIPER; THE WAR THAT KILLED ACHILLES

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  1. Thanks for bringing up the subject of Epic Tragedy,which is not so very welcome here,as a subject of Conversation, in the land of pathetic optimism. Epic Tragedy,of course,evolved into Dramatic tragedy. The aftermath of the Trojan War is taken up in Agamemmnon and personalized. I recommend two books,Ted Hughes’ Translation of Aeschylus’s complete Oresteia,and Anne Carson’s(Translator), An Oresteia,which contains Agamemmnon by Aeschylus,Electra by Sophocles,and Orestes by Euripides,with commentary. AND Who will write the Ameriad or the Amerestia? A great task for a future tragedian. Our greatest Tragedy to date,O’Neil’s Long Days Journey Into Night,way too tough for most theatre goers.

  2. @ Rex Caruthers:
    May already have been written – possibly in turnaround – as a miniseries teleplay. Presuming you don’t accept MOBY DICK, which still gets my vote. Weren’t we talking about it a month or so ago? Was it you who had the peculiar theory about it?

  3. Presuming you don’t accept MOBY DICK

    I was referring to Tragic Drama,not Fiction. There is no miniseries for Long Days Journey Into Night. It was made into a movie long ago.

    I was speculating about Moby Dick because of the names of characters Ahab and Ishmael. I see Ahab as a terrorist,and the White Whale,as symbolizing Western Civ. Ismael is the failed peacemaker,who survives the cataclysym.

  4. @ Rex Caruthers:
    Thank you – your MOBY DICK analysis was on the tip of my brain.

    I wasn’t suggesting LONG DAY’S JOURNEY… had been re-conceived as a miniseries. I was suggesting that maybe someone somewhere had already written THE American Epic in a typically American, effectively American-originated form.

    I was thinking more about epic when you referred to an Ameriad or Ameresteia, since I identify epic as being the story of a people or nation, and your idea suggests a story of America.

    I don’t know that it serves us to be too classical about different genres or media. If Homer were alive today, maybe he’d be a blogger…

    There’ve been explicit attempts at epic tellings of the American story in film: BIRTH OF A NATION and HOW THE WEST WAS WON come to mind. Not very satisfactory. I think the scholarly understanding of what an epic is may have changed or maybe I was using the term too loosely – Homer’s ILIAD might be better understood as part of a much larger, multi-author epic or epic tradition.

  5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    Little Big Man
    Dances With Wolves

    Are all masterpieces. Arguably, film has been our transcendent art for some time now.

  6. Sully wrote: @ fuster:
    Shhh! There are serious scholars here. I’m not sure we should be in here

    Your poem yesterday got you a visitor’s pass.

  7. @ Rex Caruthers:

    Which reminds me that I have to put that poem over in my poetry spot. As always I’ve been messing with it, so probably when I post it I’ll have CK telling me he preferred the original version.

  8. @ Sully:
    I strongly prefer the original version. In fact, I probably prefer the versions two or three drafts prior to the ones you posted in the comments. I may even prefer the versions that you were thinking about before you actually began writing.

  9. I’m not sure American culture puts up the irony necessary to well-crafted tragedy. Americans are unironic as a people, and frankly, it’s more fun all around to live among the unironic. They tend to stop at stoplights and pay their bills.

    To me, Long Day’s Journey lacks the implications of irony, fate, and choice that attend the tragic idea in the West. It’s naturalistic, observational, blankly uncompromising. Honesty is an art form of its own, and I don’t see it as a lesser one than any other. Long Day’s Journey has the same beauty as the greatest of other drama and literature: you wouldn’t have to be briefed beforehand on the political situation of its time, or on the customs and mores, to understand what’s going on. The only prerequisite is humanity.

    Cinema probably is our premier art form, although I think there’s something to be said for the American novel too.

  10. J.E. Dyer wrote:

    I’m not sure American culture puts up the irony necessary to well-crafted tragedy.

    Well – we may be witnessing an American Icarus-like tragedy before all our eyes every day – and still in the early chapters. Fingers crossed it’s just a farcical episode, or maybe slightly better or not too much worse.

    We were supposed to be protected by our own reflexive cynicism and pragmatism against the likes of Barack Obama. He was the kind of guy we were supposed to applaud for a little while before getting on to more grown-up stuff.

    People will say that the financial crisis gave him the last boost just when perhaps we were on the verge of saving ourselves, but the future poet ought to be able to depict the financial crisis as the outward manifestation of a deeper and more pervasive infantilization of American culture.

    As for irony, if things go badly enough, Rex enough, maybe BO also would come to represent a stage in the attainment of cultural irony, the next step above the culture of snark and so-called “corporate irony,” and an adornment for a more or less extended epoch of decline and dissipation.

  11. Ah, but living irony isn’t the same thing as having an ironic perspective. It’s our lack of the latter that leads some among us to — irony of ironies — embrace absolutism in the pursuit of post-modern deconstructionist relativism.

    The Euros have by and large lived comfortably enough with irony that they don’t see any actionable disconnect in proclaiming all manner of utopian lunacies while actually behaving with all the self-interest, universalist piety, and state-of-nature demographic squabbling as any other set of humans that has ever inhabited the planet.

    Americans don’t tolerate irony that well. We don’t shrug easily, or with dispassion, over the tragic nature of human life, nor can we square in our minds declaiming one thing and acting out another. A lot of Americans are suspicious of politicians, but we’re amateurs at that compared to Europeans, who have in fact always accepted a more ironic, less accountable view of politics than Americans do. It’s not that the Europeans have moved past us — it’s that they’ve never actually been where we started, and in some keys ways, haven’t even been where we are today.

    Anyway, it’s certainly possible that Americans will develop a national sense of irony, as an intellectual way of being, in the coming years. But that would be a transformation, and not for the better.

  12. JED, I liked your comments on Irony,Tragedy etc,but I want to remind you that some of MODERN American poetry are among the most ironic verse ever written. Example,The Road Less Taken by Frost is an extreme case.

  13. Do you know, RCAR, I have a sense that poetry is less emblematic of national modes of thought than dramatic storytelling. There’s an artifice to poetry — and poetry is a good thing, and artifice too — that almost demands contrapuntal thought and ironic patterns. You can, if you want to, write poetry with a heavy hand and infuse it with blank singlemindedness and turgidity, but the medium can’t handle that and still be its best self in the way the novel can.

    Of course, that’s one woman’s opinion. I’m not even sure I agree with you about modern American poetry; I think I might call overly intellectualized preciousness what you detect as irony. But there’s a quality to poetry that transcends culture anyway, by introducing a conscious device between the author and his reader. Every literate culture has written poetry, but only some have felt the need to elevate narrative, self-expository fiction to an art form.

    Try this. In my view, it would have been possible to write the story in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a novella. It’s a wonderful, haunting poem, but it could be equally powerful in a different way as narrative fiction. Moby Dick, on the other hand, could only have been written in the form of a novel, and in particular, a self-expository narrative. Trying to put it into poetry would turn what is complete and coherent in novel form into a cacophony of unresolved chords, and overly portentous notes held too long.

    It’s an American thing, as it’s a Russian thing and, to a lesser extent, an English and French and Spanish thing, to favor modes of thinking and storytelling that produce what is too grimly realistic and morally inclusive to be put into verse (even blank verse). War and Peace and Long Day’s Journey into Night are equally “unversifiable” — and I’ve long thought of Whitman as a would-be poet who was trying, unsuccessfully, to cram a load of unironic American narrative into the wrong form.

  14. Thanks for referring me to this piece of yours. I was inspired by your reading Lord Mahon’s Life of Belisarius. I read my fair share of old books, but they tend to be classics of literature and philosophy (or translations of uber-classic histories like Thucydides or Livy) and I’ve long been meaning to delve into the less well remembered texts of now-obscure historians.

    I’m afraid I don’t find Ms. Alexander’s interpretation, as you’ve summarized it, convincing. In her telling, Achilles was a kind of proto-John Kerry (recalling his leading involvement as a veteran in the anti-war movement). Tempted though I am, I’ll refrain from characterizing it as “projection”–I fear I may have lost all credibility on that line.

    Present-day moderns find war to be uniformly awful, for the reason, I think, that war is the negation of the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain which they reckon is the meaning of life, and so war is not only horrid but meaningless. Except, of course, when war is necessary to suppress even worse iterations of anti-hedonistic tendencies than war as such–the atrocities of the Third Reich, for example. War threatens political hedonism, but resolutely ant-hedonist regimes like Sparta or the Third Reich or the Soviet Union threaten it (or can threaten it) even more. It goes without saying that war is horrifying in any of its iterations–ancient, medieval, modern–but regimes and polities that don’t orient themselves by the cynosure of pleasure and pain can find a virtuousness in war-fighting that transcends the horror of it.

    I won’t synopsize Udwin’s rival interpretation of the Iliad, except to point out that Achilles doesn’t withdraw from the fight out of new-found regret at the horror of war, but rather because of Agamemnon’s failure to glorify him as the Achaeans’ pre-eminent warrior. It is a traitorous act, whereby he seeks his own vindication precisely by consigning so many of his countrymen to their deaths by his absence. And the responsibility is principally Agamemnon’s, who ought to have begun as he needs must end–appeasing his foremost champion.

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  1. […] Vlahos seeks to turn to his own purposes, with the Trojan War to be understood already as “The War that Killed Achilles,” the title of Caroline Alexander’s re-reading and re-consideration of the Iliad […]

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