Classic Vandalism

Homer’s Brazen Vandalizers: How Female Academics are ruining the Classics

The Homeric epics are foundational to the Western canon as the beginning of the story that marked the rise of Western civilization. Both the Iliad and Odyssey present an alien sensibility to many values of the modern world yet the lessons they imparted were considered central to any well-educated young man of a century ago, who would have studied them in Greek. However those studying and translating such works today are not the class of academics we once had, as the recent treatments of these epics shows.

Take the Iliad. The standard translation used for teaching the epic in English is Richmond Lattimore’s from 1951. He is praised by many, including other classical translators like Robert Fitzgerald (1998) as capturing both the rhythm and spirit of Homer’s original Greek. Though the style takes a while to get used to, one is immediately enraptured by it. Even in sections where you have difficulty grasping the logistics of the events you can still see the images Homer was conjuring. The four-horsed chariots riding outside Troy’s walls, the shining bronze of helmets and corselets penetrated by sharp spears – and how the light went out from the eyes of each of these superhuman warriors, both Trojan and Greek, as they fell to the ground breathing their last.

Compare to the recent 2017 translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
Tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

This is Lattimore’s translation of those same verses:

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions,
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
Here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

The difference in style and the crushing of ambition is extraordinary. The Greek word that Wilson translates as “complicated” is polútropos, literally “turning many ways,” or “one who is turned much.” There are multiple meanings here in the context of Odysseus and the beginning of his journey. One supplies a portrait of the character of Odysseus – wily, skilled and adaptable, both warrior and adventurer. In Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, he goes with “skilled in many ways of contending.” This is what Lattimore partially went with in his translation, but there is still more to be accounted for. The other meaning foreshadows what is to come in his journey: how he is spun, wrecked, and struck every which way before he makes it back to Ithaca.

Odysseus is an archetype, the original “Renaissance Man” avant la lettre, gifted with wisdom, courage, vigor, and the lasting endurance of man through hell (in his case, literally). To the ancient Greeks, every hero (and to them, nearly all heroes had divine blood) had to possess these qualities to some degree. But Wilson chooses “complicated,” as if Odysseus was some ex-boyfriend, and not a foundational character by which countless heroes in the Western canon are inspired.

Emily Wilson, “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English” (The New York Times)

This kind of thing is indicative of a broader trend among the current class of academics studying Western classics today. It’s common today across academia and the media for such meaning in Homer’s epics to be called “fascist revisionism.” Many headlines of articles written predominantly by women have appeared since 2016 describing the phenomenon of “dangerous, young, right-wing men” having a renewed interest in classical literature, and how it is up to “classicists” (i.e. women like Emily Wilson) to fight back by, ironically, committing revisionism of their own.

A good example of this is the recent conception taken up by many in academia and progressive intellectual media that the Iliad is a criticism or lamentation of war. In 2010 the chief culture writer of The Guardian Charlotte Higgins, penned an article titled “The Iliad and what it can still tell us about war,” where she draws an allegory between the Iraq War and this interpretation of the Iliad: that warriors like Achilles actually thought that the whole war was pointless and not worth fighting, and kings like Agamemnon and Menelaus are comparable to the global military-industrial war machine.

That could not be further from the truth. Diomedes’ glory, Achilles’ sacrifice, the nobility of Hector, and the incredible feats of strength and courage performed for a decade on the beaches of Troy were not seen by Homer as pointless, but glorious. What was impressive to Homer was the fact these men had fought so hard for so long, and the spectrum of human emotion expresses in this struggle. A heroic death is not portrayed as a pointless event, but to demonstrate that falling in battle and beauty are one. As Yukio Mishima described in Sun and Steel, true beauty can only be participated in through the body, in risking its loss and the dissolution of being:

“Why should a man be associated with beauty only through a heroic, violent death? In ordinary life, society maintains a careful surveillance to ensure that men shall have no part in beauty; physical beauty in the male, when considered as an “object” in itself without any intermediate agent, is despised, and the profession of the male actor—which involves constantly being “seen”—is far from being accorded true respect. A strict rule is imposed where men are concerned. It is this: a man must under normal circumstances never permit his own objectivization; he can only be objectified through the supreme action—which is, I suppose, the moment of death, the moment when, even without being seen, the fiction of being seen and the beauty of the object are permitted.”

How can today’s academics be expected to understand such things? Classicists once saw themselves as embarked upon a quest for understanding and moral cultivation. Today, they see their task as social activism, and making sure the classics fit current ideological priorities. This program has been operating in the classics for a while. When Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey was published in 2017, a major media campaign was launched to push it to the forefront as the new “glass ceiling” that had broken in literature.

The same writer who seven years earlier had argued that the Iliad was actually about the pointlessness of war, now wants to convince you that translators like Wilson, by virtue of being a woman, has something “new” and “innovative” to offer when it comes to understanding them. No doubt she does, which is indeed why we ought to retain and preserve their original meaning, in our quest for the kind of greatness it once inspired.

Abdullah Yousef is an artist and novelist living in the US.

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