Aristotle defends persuasion and poetry

The Rhetoric & The Poetics of AristotleThe Rhetoric & The Poetics of Aristotle by Aristotle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I decided to incorporate rhetorical analysis in the courses that I teach, I figured that I needed to read the classic work on rhetoric. I picked up this edition a number of years ago at a rummage sale, and it had the Poetics as well. Reading these works and the introductory material helped me to see how integrated Aristotle’s ideas were across his works, since the Rhetoric related not only to the the Poetics but to his works on logic, ethics, and politics as well (I have not read these). The introductory material also pointed out Aristotle’s differences with his teacher Plato on rhetoric and imitative poetry.

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Over the summer, I have been and plan to read more about the discipline of rhetoric, and I hope to post my course materials on my blog toward the end of the summer.

The poetry of Hesiod

Theogony And Works And DaysTheogony And Works And Days by Hesiod
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had heard many references to Hesiod but never read him. The two poems (translated mostly as prose) are just about 30 pages and 25 pages respectively, but have a lot packed in: the history of gods and human beings and Hesiod’s comments on how to be a successful farmer. It was interesting to see Hesiod using some of the same or similar epithets for the gods and goddesses that Homer uses in the Iliad.

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Weil, Bespaloff, and the Iliad

War and the IliadWar and the Iliad by Simone Weil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this book mostly because of Simone Weil’s essay, and this ended up being the best part. Bespaloff’s and Hermann Broch’s essays were interesting too, but Weil’s single-minded focus on the importance of force — “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3) — in the Iliadmade for a compelling read. For Weil, the Iliad offers the wisdom that we cannot have complete mastery of force. We see this in the poem as “those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed” (15). The introduction offers some helpful commentary and shows that Weil massaged her quotations a bit to support her interpretation.

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Briseis and force

When I first read The Iliad, I was struck by Briseis’ mourning of Patroclus (Book 19, starting with line 300 in Lombardo’s translation for Hackett). Briseis was captured after Achilles killed her husband and laid waste to her home city. Her three brothers also died in the battle. Yet Briseis praises Patroclus for assuring her that she would become Achilles’ wife. Not a very well-developed character, I thought; she’s just there to fall for the action hero even after he killed her husband.

Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” had a much more interesting reading of this scene. Weil begins her essay by saying that “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away” (3). For Weil, force “is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3). Thus, Briseis is turned into a thing when she is enslaved by Achilles.

And what does it take to make the slave weep? The misfortune of his master, his oppressor, despoiler, pillager, of the man who laid waste his town and killed his dear ones under his very eyes. This man suffers or dies; then the slave’s tears come. And really why not? This is for him the only occasion on which tears are permitted, are, indeed, required. A slave will always cry whenever he can do so with impunity — his situation keeps tears on tap for him.

She spoke, weeping, and the women groaned,

Using the pretext of Patroclus to bewail their own torments.*

Since the slave has no license to express anything except what is pleasing to his master, it follows that the only emotion that can touch or enliven him a little, that can reach him in the desolation of his life, is the emotion of love for his master. There is no place else to send the gift of love; all other outlets are barred, just as, with the horse in harness, bit, shafts, reins bar every way but one. And if, by some miracle, in the slave’s breast a hope is born, the hope of becoming, some day, through somebody’s influence, someone once again, how far won’t these captives go to show love and thankfulness, even though these emotions are addressed to the very men who should, considering the very recent past, still reek with horror for them: [she then quotes the passage that I summarized above in which Briseis mourns Patroclus]…

To lose more than the slave does is impossible, for her loses his whole inner life. A fragment of it he may get back if he sees the possibility of changing his fate, but this is his only hope. Such is the empire of force, as extensive as the empire of nature. (9-10)

I think I would say that slaves tend to find ways to preserve their inner lives in creative ways, though not on entirely their own terms, of course. So while there may be some oversimplification by Weil, I appreciated her interpretation.

* Lombardo’s rendering of the Iliad passage in Weil’s essay is “Thus Briseis, and the women mourned with her,/ For Patroclus, yes, but each woman also/ For her own private sorrows” (Book 19, lines 320-322).

Update (12/5/16): Weil also says in the essay that the wielder of violence is also transforms the soldier into a thing as he cuts himself off from his own humanness.

Comparing translations of the Iliad

Several years ago, Daniel Mendelsohn looked at how four different translators rendered lines 795-800 of Book 13. After giving a phonetic rendering of the original Greek poetry, he writes:

Note, first of all, how the last words of the first, third, fifth, and sixth lines of this passage all end with the same sound combination, loaded with liquid “l”s (aellêi, “maelstrom”; polla, “many”: ep’ alla, “others hard behind,” ep’alloi, “others hard behind”): these liquid “l” sounds (with some explosive “p”s thrown in in the third, fifth, and sixth lines) beautifully evoke the sounds of the roiling waters, even as the insistent repetition of the “p-ll” sound cluster from line to line gives a sense of whitecaps breaking on the beach, one after another. (In other words, the near-rhyming words do what the waves do.) And, as if to make the analogy concrete, the sixth line—which reconnects the imagined world of the sea to the narrated world of the Trojans at war—repeats the “some before … others hard behind” language of the fifth: the waves are all’ … ep alla; the Trojans are alloi … ep’ alloi. So the sixth line is packed behind the fifth, imitating its sound cluster precisely the way in which the Trojan ranks, packed together in battle formation, are massed one behind the other.

Also of note is the way that the two adjectives in the fourth line—paphladzonta, the “roiling” waves, and polyphloisboio, the “greatly-roaring” sea—replicate each other’s consonants: the “p”s, the “ph”s, the “l”s, the soft “s”s and “z” sounds. If you repeat those languidly unspooling words, you’re making the noises of the surf.

My favorite passage from the Iliad

Book XIII, lines 341-356 (Lombardo translation):

When the Trojans saw Idomeneus

And his lieutenant in their buffed armor

It was as if they had spotted a fire.

Howling winds with gusts up to fifty

On a day when the gravel roadbeds are dry

Will raise up indiscriminate clouds of dust.

That was how they closed with each other,

And all their blind desire was to shred flesh

With stropped bronze, eyes squinting against the glare

Of helmets and corselets—just polished that morning—

And the confusion of shields, like so many suns

Shining through a bristling forest of spears.

It was glorious to see—if your heart were iron,

And you could keep from grieving at all the pain.

It brings together Homer’s portrayal of the glory and horror of war (and you get a taste of Lombardo’s colloquial translation and the way that he treats Homer’s metaphors).

The Trojan War’s place in history

The Trojan War: A Very Short IntroductionThe Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction by Eric H. Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The debates about the Trojan War’s place in history is something that I had only vague ideas about, but Cline’s book helped me to get a much better sense of the scholarship about the Trojan War. The Iliad and the Odyssey are the only fully surviving work of a number of poems (referred to as the Epic Cycle) about the Trojan War’s causes, course, and aftermath. These are the works that contain some of the famous stories of Trojan War: the death of Achilles, the Trojan Horse, and the sack of Troy. Cline also looks at evidence from Greek and Hittite history to see how the war connects with what is known about the history of the ancient Mediterranean, and also gives an overview of the history of archaeological digs at the site of Troy from Schliemann to the early 21st century. Like the other Oxford Very Short Introductions that I have read, this book is a nice overview of its topic.

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