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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Book Reviews

A Tomb in Verse

The Mourner’s Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam by James Tatum. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003, 215 pages, $32.




For James Tatum, the reception of The Iliad in time and the act of mourning are inseparable. The poetry of the epic is, and he quotes Simone Weil here, “the purest and loveliest of mirrors.” For Tatum, the Homeric poem is a “tomb in verse” in which vitality and loss are combined. The author opens The Mourner’s Song by demonstrating, in his initial chapter, how The Iliad and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial perform similar functions for their audience and viewers.

From Maya Lin’s perspective, “The rites of mourning which in more primitive [sic] and older cultures were very much part of life, have been suppressed in our modern times,” partly because our culture is so extremely “youth oriented.” “What then would bring back the memory of a person?” she asks. This is one of the questions of Tatum’s book, insofar as in contemporary Western society, memory — social and individual — is not given the value it was granted in earlier, preliterate cultures. Modernity gives priority to the immediate — the sound bite, hyper-narrative, or video clip — and the depth and complexity that tradition once supplied have been marginalized. For Lin, the inscribed names of the deceased upon her design are key signifiers in this process of recollection; and to these, she engages a particular architectural form.

It is intrinsic to Tatum’s argument that The Iliad “gives monumental expression to death.” The author takes exception, however, to the modern preoccupation with the objects of Memory and her physical records, rather than with her daughters, the Muses: “When we make Memory our theme rather than her daughters, more than divine dignity is lost.” It is the epic poet’s capacity for metaphor that fascinates Tatum, in contrast to the inability of contemporary war memorials to call upon this means of representing death. Analyzing the Trojan war as an event similar to the First World War or the Vietnam war leads Tatum away from the poetry of the epic, however, as when he focuses on the nature of generalship, for instance, and what it means to lead, or on the emotional experience of a foot-soldier.

Certainly, the hypothetical origins of preliterate Bronze-Age epic poetry would seem to find their source in the laments sung by women for a deceased hero who is part of their kinship group: putatively, this is the source of Indo-European epic poetry that is of martial substance. However, it is The Odyssey rather than The Iliad that could be said to deal more perfectly with the question of memory and identity in a postwar context: Odysseus has to reconstruct his persona, and accept the brutality that he has not only experienced but also committed, if he is to successfully achieve nostos, homecoming. It is Odysseus’ attempts to remember former social patterns and livelihoods that force him into serious recollection of his own history, and agency therein. Absence is never empty, and it requires discrimination if we are to traverse its aporia.

Unfortunately, Tatum is unable to go beyond his own conception of death as a universal experience to an understanding that different cultures deal with this fact of life in various and differing ways. Tatum writes of Greek epic heroes as if they were simply exceptional humans, rather than as a distinct category of being in the kosmos, far removed in time and space from our contemporary and globalizing world. I suppose that it is for this reason that he ignores the question or occasion of funeral games and the necessary connection between athletics and death: the athlete’s recapitulation or imitation of the hero’s aristeia, or ordeal, the athlos. Beside the formal lament for a dead hero, sung by a woman, the funeral games were a highly organized system for dealing with the crisis of a warrior’s extinction during action.

The experience of martial death in the eastern Mediterranean culture of the Bronze Age is completely different from its conception and dramatization in Western nineteenth- and twentieth-century societies. This is the problem of what used to be called Eurocentrism: it is a fallacy that the existence of death is identical across cultures and eons, just as it is a fallacy that third-millennium heroes are similar creatures to military figures of recent centuries. Homeric heroes are figures of myth and ritual, and they were elements of complex religious systems in classical culture. Their idealized being in archaic times was a construct of classical society, a retrospective fabrication, much as the Arthurian legends were in medieval Western Europe. There is an artificiality at play in the forms of this poetry, a formulation that Tatum overlooks.

Equally, Tatum ignores Athenian state theater and the works of the tragedians. These dramas were far more concerned with public grief and lamentation — with civic mourning — than was the The Iliad; the work of Nicole Loraux has demonstrated this. The shift from private bereavement to a more public expression of grief was very much the function of Athenian drama, operating simultaneously with the political and highly civil institution of the funeral oration, as typified by the speech of Pericles recomposed for us by Thucydides.

To write that, “Tears are the most visible and expressive sign of human feeling,” is typical of the tone of much of this book. The author is predisposed toward the literal, and there is a lack of any close reading of what occurs in The Iliad. To comment upon Agamemnon’s actions from the same perspective as one views those of Ulysses Grant is to reduce this great poem to something that it never was. Certainly, one can and might do this, there is method at work here, but the results are not always fruitful. It is somewhat like comparing television to Byzantine frescoes: the narratives are so different, structurally and substantially, that analogy soon collapses. For instance, “Commanders in war count on such bonding in their soldiers,” writes Tatum, commenting on Patroclus’ devotion. Analysis of The Iliad at such a level is reductive and jejune.

There is something uninspired about this book, and the reader waits for some analysis or close reading that will justify the work. The chapter, “The Words of the Sea,” for instance, discusses the wall that the Greeks built outside of their camp at Troy in Scroll 7 of the poem, juxtaposed with a discussion of Battery Wagner (the Saint-Gaudens memorial in Boston to Colonel Shaw and his black regiment) and Robert Lowell’s poem, For The Union Dead, which touches upon the monument. This chapter, typical of the book in general, simply lists the material gathered by the author, while the reader is left to be inspired by the montage effected. Perhaps this would prove a rich lode for some non-specialist readers, but the lack of any analysis in favor of mere emphatic description ultimately impoverishes what is in potential a fine book, with well-organized and unusual data. The reader is seduced but in the end left unsatisfied.

Tatum’s chapter on homoerotic relations between men, typified by the model of Achilles and Patroclus fails, again, to really investigate either the language or behavior or metaphors of such amour. The chapter concludes with the statement, “There are many ways to discover love’s importance to us. Few are as efficient as war.” True, but the reader craves more than a comment, and anticipates a more subtle and profound inquiry. Certainly, death is more intimate than sexuality, but it is not enough simply to imply this.

The strength of The Mourner’s Song lies in its assemblage of different types of information and in the contrast that their concurrence provides. Tatum’s deployment of writing from Vietnam and the American Civil War, or the work of Christa Wolf, or various architectural records of battle, underpins the book with a rich and intellectually satisfying fabric. The weakness of the work lies in its lack of conceptual penetration of this tapestry. It is a pity that the author has not considered the writing of Gregory Nagy or Gail Holst-Warhaft, or even Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, to name but a few analysts of death in literature and human history.

Tatum catalogues various scenes from recent wars: the blitz of London, reports of sorties by Flying Fortresses over Nazi Germany, accounts from the invasion of Sicily, and the details of Hiroshima. In all these scenes, there is an iteration of destruction and violent death; the counterpoint always being The Iliad — the death of Patroclus, for example, or the struggle between Achilles and the river Xanthus in Scroll 21. This is the book’s equipoise: comparing martial violence in Bronze-Age antiquity on the western edge of Asia to modern images of destruction. For Tatum, there is much coincidence of experience here.

Of all the authors whom Tatum calls upon, perhaps the writer whose access to metaphor is the greatest is Jean Genet. Tatum quotes from two scenes in Genet’s book, Pompes funèbres: one depicts a firing squad executing prisoners and the other describes a collaborator and Nazi soldier making love a tergo, as Paris falls to the Allies. The poetry is intensely powerful and charged with beauty, even though Genet writes in prose.

Similarly, Christopher Logue’s rendering of The Iliad into English is beautifully accomplished and possesses an extraordinary brio, his verse being wonderfully poetic in a minimal and modernist fashion, deeply informed by the poet’s gift for metaphor. The admirable excess that metaphor provides to human realization is the core toward which Tatum directs his inquiry, but there is a lack of fulfillment in his intellectual trajectory.

Death is so invisible, on the one hand, and yet so brutally vivid and repulsive in its consequences and dehumanization, on the other, that poets and writers and those who sing laments are only able to express its grief and horror by the defamiliarizing or distancing process of metaphor, which simultaneously makes the scene more sensibly potent. The ethical questions raised by this contiguity of forces were made current by Sade in various scenarios, depicting possible economies or topographies of pleasure. The question of sadism as a literary trope is avoided by this book. What did happen at My Lai, for instance? One of the plates in this study is a photograph of the ditch where many executions occurred in My Lai.

It is a fact that the thanatic and the erotic are mutually charged and possessed by a similar drive at their most fundamental level: human destruction and human affection are the obverse and reverse of our most profound being. It is this conjunction that informs archaic heroic poetry with its great power and beauty: the fertility that death brings to the song’s audience, the emotional order that it presents. The word, hero, is cognate with the word hour, hora: timeliness and seasonality. This is ideally what heroes, creatures of poetry and song, bring to their audience, through the inspired voices of poets. In classical Athens, the tragic heroes — figures appropriated from the world of epic — whose crises and pathos were performed by actors, effected a katharsis in the emotions of the spectator, often through narratives that dealt with the killing of children: metonyms for the mourning of which the spectators were frequently possessed in their own private worlds. For war preoccupied Athens then, especially the war with the Peloponnesians.

“What is striking about…mourning is its range. The Iliad inspires us to ask of those who survive…Who mourns? For whom? Why?” With this query, Tatum brings closure to his study, and quotes from a Japanese poem by Oguma Hideo. In it, old women in Korea, whose clothing has been defiled by men — Japan was then the imperial occupying power in Korea — are washing their garments clean in a river. “They beat the defiled robes with their mallets/The mallets that beat weep/The clothing that is beaten weeps/The old women who beat weep/The stones that are struck weep.”

For readers beyond the field of classics, The Mourner’s Song is a successful book. The great range of sources that James Tatum draws upon and the elegant manner in which he displays his material supplies the work with an agreeable intellectual poise. The way in which The Iliad offers a fundamental stratum for the text, and the subtle use of different translations — including Logue’s modernist work — endows the book with a strong and harmonious foundation. Readers will be satisfied by the refinement and tempo of the prose.

“Our curiosity about war’s mystery is pervasive,” Tatum writes; and it is this curiosity concerning inhumanity, and his delineation of its mystery, which gives the work its value. As the author observes, in the end and more truthfully, it is only our own death that we are trying to approach, via the imagination.

Kevin McGrath is an associate of the Sanskrit department and poet in residence at Lowell House, Harvard University. His books include Fame, Lioness, and Maleas; The Sanskrit Hero will be published next year.
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