September 19, 2008

Farewell to glory, plus stuff on the economy, fear, and whales

Statue of the death of Achilles, courtesy of wikipedia.

Goat Rope is all about the Odyssey of Homer these days, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. If you like this stuff, click back on earlier posts.

The visit Odysseus makes to the underworld is a turning point in the story. It can be seen as a kind of initiation, marking the end of Odysseus the warrior and the beginning of his return (although he ain't there yet).

He meets many people in the underworld. There's a sad encounter with the shade of his mother Anticlea, who died of grief after despairing of her son's return. There's a failed meeting with the ghost of Ajax, a mighty Greek warrior who went mad and committed suicide at Troy largely through the actions of Odysseus. Odysseus wants to make up but Ajax refuses to speak.

Lots of veterans--of war and peace--have lost people after having let them down in life and experience regret and survivor's guilt.

But one of the most important encounters is with the ghost of the warrior Achilles, who was given a choice between long life without fame and an early death but enduring fame. The Homeric term for fame or glory was kleos, which meant in part living on in song after one's death. Since the underworld was pretty grim, that was often regarded as the only meaningful form of immortality.

He did get fame--we're still talking about him today. But kleos turns out to have been an empty promise.

Odysseus, thinking him the most fortunate of men, greets him thus:

there's not a man in the world more blest than you--
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.

He's not buying it. In a shocking renunciation of the cult of glory, Achilles replies

No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man--
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive--
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

I think this farewell to and disparagement of glory--coming from someone who got more of it than anyone else--marks the key difference between the Iliad as a poem of kleos to the Odyssey as a poem of nostos or homecoming.

One last word: Achilles' renunciation of the "glory" of war calls to mind a saying of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman:

I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.

BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A JOB? Job seekers outnumber jobs about about three to one, according to the latest Economic Policy Institute snapshot. Here's a related issue brief on the subject.

SOCIALISM FOR THE RICH, FREE ENTERPRISE FOR THE POOR. That pretty well sums up Wall Street bailouts while millions of American families are feeling the squeeze. I can't claim originality on this one, but free enterprisers in a recession are kind of like the proverbial atheists in foxholes.

ON A RELATED NOTE, this item argues that gouging the poor lies at the root of the credit/housing meltdown.

WITHOUT A NET. As the economy tanks, millions of workers are watching the value of their 401(k)s evaporate. This McClatchy article suggests that the economic crisis may lead Americans to re-evaluate the current social contract.

THE FIX. Here's Paul Krugman on what the bailout might look like.

THE FEAR FACTOR. A new study finds some interesting connections between political views and the response to fear.

URGENT ANCIENT WHALE UPDATE. The early ones used their back legs to swim--a feature missing on more recent models. El Cabrero doesn't know about y'all but I find the evolution of aquatic mammals fascinating.


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