Friday, June 29, 2012


I've just finished reading the Iliad, in Richmond Lattimore's sinewy and sparse verse. It's a surprising read, as I've been telling some people. When one finally approaches a cultural artefact that's been so widely and pervasively disseminated in numerous forms -- the 2004 film Troy comes to mind -- I suspect there are always bound to be surprises. But even compared to the Odyssey, which is a much more straightforward narrative, the Iliad does come across as difficult, even mysterious. The name is the easiest of the mysteries: Ilion is another name for Troy, and so the Iliad is a song about Troy. There is no Trojan horse (and hence the city of Troy does not fall in the actual text, though its impending fall is always referred to) and Achilles is not shot in the heel (he does not die in the Iliad, though his impending death is constantly referenced -- like the fall of Troy). The story of Paris and Helen is referred to, and is the very cause of the Trojan war, but is never set out in detail. The tale begins in media res,  after nine years of failed fighting by the Greeks against the Trojans. Nearly all of the twenty-four books of the Iliad take place in the battlefield between the Greek ships and Troy itself.  It's claustrophobic: we're all hemmed in, along with the Greeks and Trojans. The action itself has none of the grand scope and vision that we've come to expect from epics, though references to a much larger story are made throughout.

The characters too are unexpected -- take the example of Achilles. His character gives shape to the story. He is the supreme hero of the Greeks. Yet weighed down by his inevitable doom and his own irrational resentment against his king, Agamemmnon, he is unable to control his own spiralling, almost demonic, fury. Anachronistically, we can even view Achilles as an anti-hero, because he is, by the end of the Iliad, an incomprehensible, menacing and inhumane force. His withdrawal from battle is matched by an outburst of scepticism, pointedly directed towards the very foundations of the Iliad itself:
 'Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard.
We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.
A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.
Nothing is won for me, now that my heart has gone through its afflictions
in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle.' (9.318-322, Lattimore translation) 
When he later does return to battle, he does so in a manner unforgiving and hateful, defiling bodies, sacrificing men ritually and in a manner that one can, anachronistically again, call fey.

That's probably enough from me. I don't want to give away too much, but I wish to encourage all my readers to tackle the Iliad. But a final thought. Like that other masterpiece seen as the beginning of an entire tradition -- Cervantes' Don Quixote -- the Iliad is, in fact, the end of a tradition, radically questioning, and even satirising, the values of a society.*

*I am obviously not a scholar of the classics, so don't take my word for anything at all. Entirely a personal reflection which is, as I've already noted, littered with anachronisms. But perhaps that is the only way when we engage with a work so far removed from our own time and culture. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tennis: Some Ill-Formed Thoughts

Tennis is by far the English sport I enjoy watching the most. It celebrates much that is great about England: civilised spectatorship, Pimm's, the English summer (if and when it does make its appearance) and the individual efforts of great men and women. One is, as a rule, not drawn into pointless, entirely meaningless rivalries (as in football): Wimbledon audiences recognise the potency and beauty of each moment, and are willing to celebrate spectacular achievement and heroic effort, regardless of nationality. There is, on the part of the spectator, more of an attempt at objectivity. Of course, it is not free from the ugliness and defects of sports in general. One can still deplore the commercialisation of sport -- as the Olympics show, to a level truly sickening. (But that is another rant.) And they (tennis players), like many other sportspersons, certainly earn far too much. But in a fallen world, tennis isn't too bad at all, and I for one prefer watching it -- in the gym, you understand -- to watching that pointless display of savagery, racism and jingoistic chest-thumping (held in a country that has imprisoned its former prime minister)  that we call Euro 2012.  

But I might be viewing this through glasses irretrievably tinted. My first English summer, back in 2009, was suffused with memories of sun, Wimbledon, barbecues, Pimm's and finally, a wonderful holiday in rural France. It was part of a unitary experience, one so subjective that it is worthless to say much more.  It should feel like part of another life, since I've now (kind of) left Oxford. But things aren't quite settled at the moment: results aren't out, graduation hasn't yet happened, and I am still in Oxford, haunting its streets, libraries and cafes. 

I apologise -- I started off with tennis, and now I am ruminating, like those magnificent cows in Christ Church meadow, upon my particular existence. A sign to stop. My promised continuation of the food post to follow, soon. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Nostalgia, Mark Twain cautioned, is mental and moral masturbation. Harsh but warranted; as Oxford comes to an end, I find it painfully difficult to say anything meaningful. (This post, short as it is, was the product of many deletions and emendations.) Many of my reflections seem to come in shades of the unbearably sentimental and sappy -- those are perhaps best kept unsaid. Saying anything at all seems to violate the sense of ineffable mystery -- one approaching a certain mysticism -- that comes with departing and leaving. It's very much like finally leaving the company (and in particular, ecstatic conversation) of a good friend in the small hours: one wishes for a bond of eternal companionship, an everlasting sympathy that transcends the merciless march of the hours. But one settles for a mutual understanding: the understanding that one's departure of another is a negotiated surrender, a temporary retreat, a stopgap measure and with luck, simply a promise of further meetings.

So I am tempted to think of our scattering to the ends of the earth in this light. This thought cheers me up, as silence in college infects every nook and cranny. It will soon be all-pervasive, leaving me enveloped in a quietude quite unique. I've put the kettle on the boil, and soon I will be sipping Earl Grey from an Oscar Wilde mug, thinking fondly* of you all.

LEAR: Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.