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.

[…] 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 […]

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Yes, we finally have the great American novel, a film named FOREST GUMP.

@ 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.

@ 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.

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.

@ fuster:

Shhh! There are serious scholars here. I'm not sure we should be in here.

Seven words Forrest
Gump-the movie not the book
Palme d'Or garlanded

Seven words - Forrest Gump, the movie not the book.

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.

@ 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.

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.

@ 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?

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.