Saturday, May 29, 2004

Watching Troy again this weekend, a question kept coming to the front of my mind: "Why do I love this story so much?" It's bloody and violent and pointless, and everybody in it who's worth a shit dies, except Oddyseus, and he's hardly in it at all. But I have three different translations of the Iliad on my shelf, and have gone to see Troy twice now, tearing up at all the right moments. So. Why?

Maybe it's because this is where we came from. Achilles may have been descended from the gods (or may not, as both the Iliad and Troy are ambivalent at best about his divinity), but he thinks and feels as a man does. His role in life is to be a weapon of kings, and he acquiesces to his fate, but rails against it. Three thousand years later, our lives have less bloodshed, more freedom, and better hygiene, but at heart we are more or less the same.

There's plenty to dislike in Troy, even for a lover of the Iliad. The accents are a smorgasbord of the English speaking world, with no consistent rhyme or reason. Agamemnon is killed, leaving Clytemnestra's thirst for his blood unquenched, and some of the foundational dramas of classical literature untellable. Ajax dies in battle rather than by his own hand, an ending less tragic, but also less poetic than his traditional one. And most notably, Troy lasts at most a few weeks before falling to the Greeks, as opposed to ten years.

But they got the characters right, which is so much more than you can generally count on from Hollywood that I'm more than willing to forgive the movie-izing of the story. Besides, there's a millenia-long tradition of tweaking this story.

And then there's the honor. Right now, our young men and women are fighting and dying far across an ocean at the service of a civilian leadership who seem to have forsaken honor. It's therapeutic to hearken back to a time when the most powerful weapons available were the bodies and minds of skilled men, and when it was more important to fight with honor than to survive the battle.

Christie hated it by the way, and a big part of what I'm struggling with is how I can enjoy something that leaves her feeling beaten up. I generally think it's reductive to say "It's a guy thing", but I also think it's undeniable that there is something in men that hungers for violence. The Greeks certainly recognized this, and like most cultures, developed an elaborate ethos to keep it at bay.

It's tempting to think that we've grown past the savagery of our history, but the ancient Greeks will tell you that building a fence to protect your flock doesn't mean you've killed the wolves. Killing the wolves, even, just makes more room for lions. What's more, fences break down over time, and have to be kept in good repair.

I'm the optimistic sort at heart. I know violence is down in our culture, and we generally seem to be headed in the right direction. But one look at the prison crisis in Iraq tells us that our policy of denying the savagery in our hearts isn't working.

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