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Thursday, November 01, 2001

Book Reviews

On Looking Into Cook’s Achilles

Achilles by Elizabeth Cook. Methuen, London, 116 pages, 2001, $16.00.

This is a short book, but a provocative one. It begins as a kind of biography of Achilles and enlarges into a meditation on him. Its author, Elizabeth Cook, the poet and scholar, has previously published a critical study of Renaissance poetry, and edited the text of the poems of John Keats, interests far removed, one might think, from our Bronze Age hero. But in the final chapter, which is almost an epilogue, Cook brings together quotations from Keats’s poems and letters that demonstrate, not only the poet’s fascination with Homer’s epics, but his belief in the transcendence and continuity of human experience, which makes the Trojan War, Achilles, and Odysseus as immediate as Keats’s own lived experience. Cook has taken up this idea and tried to set down for Achilles a life that would be a coherent whole, and, still more tantalizing, a psychological portrait, as though he were a flesh-and-blood historical figure, immediately available to us. Yet her style distances the material sufficiently to lodge it into that transcendent never-never land where all of classical antiquity and the classical tradition must now lie.

Achilles is the nominal hero of The Iliad, just as Odysseus is the central figure in The Odyssey. Whereas the latter poem is pretty much focused upon Odysseus’ travels and struggles to return home to his wife and save her from the suitors, however, Achilles must share the audience’s attention with Hector, his womenfolk, the fall of Troy, the machinations of Agamemnon, and a variety of battle scenes in which his fellow warriors hold center stage. The same is true when Achilles appears as a character in later literature; he has walk-on parts of varying degrees of importance. (The play written by Aeschylus about Achilles’ tragic love affair with Patroclus has not survived.) So, we in the twenty-first century can only find the known details of Achilles’ legendary life in the handbooks of Greek mythology, where the details of his story have been collected from sources that span two millennia, bits and pieces, like a puzzle, that, when put together, are no more than a flat, one-dimensional representation of a person.

True enough, the earlier Greek authors, from Homer to those writing during the period of the tragedians, did not develop detailed characterizations or offer idiosyncratic ones. The formulaic nature of the narrative and the stereotypical realization of the characters stood in for the psychological or sociological motivation to which moderns are accustomed – or at least were before the advent of post-modern fiction, which has many more complicated games to play. Thus, moderns who speculate endlessly upon Penelope’s motives for announcing to the suitors that she will hold the contest of stringing the bow, when it is plain to see that her hour of deliverance is at hand and that Odysseus will soon be home, fail to comprehend that the plot has moved to the point where the theme of “Husband Returning in the Nick of Time” is about to be played out, for which the bow contest is an indispensable ingredient. It is not about Penelope’s inner thinking, it is about traditional story devices.

Similarly, Achilles is just another version of Diomedes, Ajax, Idomeneus, and the rest, only more so. That very fact engenders some of the pathos and tragedy of his story; one always has the sense that Achilles so desperately would like to break out and go beyond that stereotype. Before Elizabeth Cook, there was Christopher Logue and Anne Carson. The former has translated portions of The Iliad (in what classical scholars would consider an incredibly loose and – to many – irresponsible way) into what is an absolutely true and in a paradoxical sense literal rendering of the text. Yet, of course, he is giving a reading of the ancient text, not the text. His War Music reads like a film script, filled with minute details that suggest visuals that capture human specificity and both deepen and complicate the Homeric characters. Like Logue, Cook sometimes uses elaborate spacing of the words on the page or sentences set in capitals or direct address to the audience to ask for special attention, all of which remind the reader of the interventions and directions of the film script. Carson, in her prose poem, The Autobiography of Red, has taken the legend of Hercules and Geryon, changing Hercules’ killing of the monster into the unrequited passion for Hercules in Geryon. The poet casts the range and depth of this passion in a dazzling array of images and allusions from antiquity to the present time.

Carson writes in a spare prose that seems distant, somehow disengaged from the emotion that fills the story. It is like the eyes in sculpted figures from antiquity (invoked again by Picasso in his so-called “classical” period), which see all and look at nothing. Cook’s prose is often much the same. The struggle to render the sensibility of Homeric epic has induced generation after generation of translators to try their hand at this task, and no sooner have we read extravagant critical praise for one translation than another is announced in the press. Perhaps the dead eyes are the clue; perhaps Cook and Carson have got it right, certainly for our generation. Neither is translating a text, but both have the sensibility that comes upon one when reading the Greek of Homer or Herodotus or Pindar. Cook’s Achilles is prose, but it is a poem.

Some of the set pieces, such as the arrival of Thetis to grieve over the death of her son, or Achilles’ fight with the River God, or Theseus’ rape of Helen, or Peleus’ bridal rape of Thetis, are brilliant imagistic writing. Homer’s poems are famous for the imagery that comes in the similes. In a sense, these verbal extravagances in an otherwise spare prose, often contained in paragraphs of one sentence, have the same force as those similes.

Cook does give a straight narrative line to the life of Achilles. She begins with him dead in a scene taken from The Odyssey. Odysseus goes to the underworld to seek Tiresias and while there speaks with Achilles and Agamemnon. In addition to the traditional events of this scene, there is an interesting portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus in love, interesting because their love has all the attributes of caring and feeling that one does not ordinarily associate with ancient male love (whether of males or females) in general and least of all in the narcissistic, self-obsessed breast of Achilles. (See page 31, where the twosome are described as dancing together, whereas Homer sets up their domestic moments with them taking turns playing the lyre.) Cook’s Achilles ends with a portrait of Chiron, the centaur who raised the boy Achilles, whose enduring wound gave him the gift of healing, whose sorrow and sense of emptiness at the death of Achilles is remedied by patience and endurance, continuing to do what he knows best.

Cook is not interested in story but rather in rendering the tradition into vivid set pieces. For instance, in the second section, she begins with a marvelous reconstruction of the courtship of Theseus by Peleus, which we know from allusions, and which Renaissance artists used as a chivalric theme. Here Cook has made it into a high-stakes rape scene in which the goddess Thetis fights off Peleus with frightening magical powers of transformation, testing her obstinate and frightened suitor to the very limits of human endurance.

The third section tells the story of Achilles being disguised as a girl by his mother, so that he won’t go to Troy to fight, and being discovered by Odysseus to be a man when he is offered a spear. Cook introduces a teen love interest, the king’s daughter who alone has discovered Achilles’ masculinity. This scene sets up the notion that, at this moment and later, Achilles will have a sexual interest in women but will love only men. Odysseus’ stratagem of the spear, which in the original telling suggests a fairy-tale identification scene, has been deepened and darkened by Cook. As Achilles in disguise takes up the spear, Odysseus arranges for one of his men to be stabbed to death “offstage,” with the accompanying cry of a man dying provoking the bloodlust in the boy Achilles and making him drop his disguise.

In the fourth section, Cook manages a virtuoso miniature narrative, collapsing the events of the sixteenth through the twenty-second book of The Iliad, the death of Patroclus in battle, the rescue of his body, and the return of Achilles to the fight and his killing of Hector. Like Christopher Logue, Cook manages to tell this long story largely through allusion because she counts on an audience that will know the Homeric version. The least likely character to appear in this account is Helen. As Cook acknowledges, Achilles never paid her any attention, the only one of the major Achaean heroes to be indifferent to her. She fancies herself to be the loneliest woman in the world. Cook has her remember more than once in this section the time when Theseus raped her as a ten-year-old child. She is what remains for the Greeks when they storm Troy, another kind of rape after all, the prize for which they came to fight.

Every line of this work contains an allusion to a mythological realm that is what we have inherited as our notion of the Greek Bronze Age. Much is suggested, little told. The style invokes the very idea of transcendence and immanence that is the message of the Keats epilogue. Cook is addressing a reality that her readers who are heirs to the Western literary and cultural tradition have made into more than a memory, rather a kind of alternative life history. How much longer that claim will hold true one cannot easily imagine, but for those endowed with the knowledge, Cook’s narrative is especially rich.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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