On the Necessity of the Iliad for Modern Polytheism
In this week’s New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn reviews a new, compressed translation of the Iliad by Stephen Mitchell. (The whole article is behind the paywall—the link is to an abstract.)
Discussing other recent translations, he describes Stanley Lombardo’s as having “a tight-lipped soldierly toughness.” I own that one — I saw its cover while walking through the book exhibits at the 2005 American Academy of Religion annual meeting and almost wept — it was such an emotionally powerful design.
Mendelsohn, meanwhile, strikes gold at the end of his review:
The Iliad doesn’t need to be modernized, because the question it raises is a modern — indeed, existentialist — one: how do we fill our short lives with meaning? The August 22nd issue of Time featured, on its “Briefing” page, a quote from a grieving mother about her dead son. The mother’s name is Jan Brown, and her son, Kevin Houston, a Navy SEAL, was one of thirty-seven soldiers killed in a rocket attack in Afghanistan this past summer. What she said about him might shock some people, but will sound oddly familiar to anyone who has read the Iliad:
He was born to do this job. If he could do it all over again and have a chance to have it happen the way it did or work at McDonald’s and live to be 104? He’d do it all over again.
Whoever Homer was and however he made his poem, the song that he sings still goes on.
That is the polytheistic view of life. The world is a mess. The world is beautiful. The gods are eternal (or as good as). The gods work at cross-purposes, and sometimes humans are caught between them.
If you try to change the world in the name of some grand, sweeping, utopian vision, you will just make it worse. The most you can do is to give Achilles and Kevin Houston a good cause.