Monday, April 22, 2019

What’s With the Blog Name?

When I was accepted to Columbia in the spring of 2002 we received, with our welcome packets, a copy of Homer’s Iliad. It’s a common practice at many universities for incoming students to have a shared piece of reading to frame their first-year experience and to provide a ready topics of conversation. At Columbia, this was also a part of the college’s Core Curriculum, a rigorous series of courses required of all undergrads that emphasize the value of humanistic study. (The classes are themed accordingly: Lit Hum, Art Hum, Music Hum, and Contemporary Civilization, to name a few.) 
I don’t know if the text of choice was always The Iliad or if they had chosen it specifically for us because we were the first post-9/11 class to enter Columbia but it certainly felt like a timely selection as we watched our country spin headlong into its own wars. Even those of us who weren't New Yorkers were shellshocked. (Though there were a lot of native New Yorkers among us, including the friend who would become my long-term boyfriend, who had witnessed the event, lost friends and family, and literally breathed the dust of 9/11 if they went to school below 14th street.) I'm not sure, then, if our hardness was a defensive response or not. Columbia has always had a bit of a reputation as an anti-social and lonely place. It is. (I generalize wildly, of course.) As students we were many things: nerdy, sincere, hardworking, intensely capable, hyper-articulate, ostentatiously witty. But we were not very empathetic. It was an environment (and, again, this was exacerbated by being in an immediately post-9/11 New York) where emotion and vulnerability seemed like weakness.
And yet, The Iliad all hinges on emotion. There is one of the most moving scenes of empathy in any piece of literature. I recall reading it–not for the first time, since I had taken a “Great Books” course at my high school–and sobbing freely, perched on my dorm single (lofted to create more space) and knowing that for me studying literature was never going to be about anything else but emotion. That’s not fashionable, in a discipline that so often adopts a defensive posture about its own rigor (often in response to institutional threats). But it was always true. I could analyze it and turn it to the ends of argument but I was there to feel.
The scene I’m talking about is when King Priam, following the death of his son Hector and Achilles’s mistreatment of the body, comes to Achilles’s tent to plead with him to return it. (For those who don’t know he pierced the feet and tied Hector to his chariot than dragged him around the walls of Troy b/c YIKES he mad about Patroclus.) Now, Priam is a king, he’s actually the king since he’s so old and venerable, so the things he does–kneeling, pleading, weeping–are simply not done by someone like him. He goes to Achilles as a wretched, simple human (what Shakespeare would later call "unaccommoated man"). And Achilles cannot help but respond as the same: 
So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving
for his own father. He took the old man’s hand and pushed him
gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled
at the feet of Achilleus and wept close for manslaughtering Hektor
and Achilleus wept now for his own father, now again
for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved in the house. Then
when great Achilleus had taken full satisfaction in sorrow
and the passion for it had gone from his mind and body, thereafter
he rose from his chair, and took the old man by the hand, and set him
on his feet again, in pity for the grey head and the grey beard,
and spoke to him and addressed him in winged words: “Ah, unlucky,
surely you have had much evil to endure in your spirit.” (24.508-518)
They speak the universal language of human beings here: grief. They weep as fathers and sons and lovers because that’s honestly the only constant in our small human lives.
So here I am, recording my grief, with the hope that at least, by being together, we can get through the evil I have to endure.
I actually thought that the blog title was a quotation–and a beautiful line of poetry–but nowhere can I find a translation that reads, “Pitiless Achilles wept.” But I still cannot think of a line that feels more appropriate to record the thoughts of someone who has to be both a warrior (brave, fierce, pitiless) and a frightened, vulnerable person. So that’s the blog. That, and probably rants and TV commentary. Thank you for being here with me.

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