Good Greeks

As I implied in my last post, when I found out that Ursula K. Le Guin had died, my instinct was to dive into her words and worlds to find solace for the surprising amount of sorrow I was feeling. Thus, I ordered the collection No Time to Spare from my local library, which collects several of Le Guin’s blog posts.

While at the library, I decided to pick up their copy of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, even though I had been listening to the audiobook. I was trying to write something about that novel for Ancient World Magazine (which has since been published), and I wanted to check certain references (easier to do with a physical copy).

These withdrawals turn out to be a little more thematic than I had intended. No Time to Spare includes Le Guin’s June 2013 essay on Homer, “Papa H”, in which she says (p. 53):

People keep going to him and discovering new things, or old things, or things for the first time, or things all over again, and saying them. This has been going on for two or three millennia. That is an amazingly long time to mean anything to anybody.

Much of what she goes on to say is more her area than mine – Homer as fantasy – and cannot be applied to the more historical approach to the texts I take in my work. But there is a point here about how mythological stories can have a meaning beyond that which they had in the ancient world (something I tried to apply to the Return of Hephaestos in an earlier AWM piece). As Le Guin wrote in her October 2011 blog post “Readers Questions” (p. 41):

Meaning – this is perhaps the common note, the bane I am seeking. What is the Meaning of this book, this event in the book, this story . . . ? Tell me what it Means.

But that’s not my job, honey. That’s your job.

In my piece on The Song of Achilles, I quoted one scholar, discussing the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, who thought that teasing out the subtext seemed “to concern more the reader-response than the explicit intentions of the texts.” (Marco Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love. Intertextual Studies (2012) p. 190-91). But when you can produce a story as good as Miller’s Song of Achilles, I wonder if reader-responses aren’t more interesting. This is especially true of ancient reader responses, if we can discern them at all.

It was with this in the back of my mind that I read an Aeon article by Catherine Nichols yesterday, “Why is pop culture obsessed with the battle between good and evil?” The article has several themes: nation building while the Brothers Grimm were collecting their fairy tales; the idea that nations have a particular ‘character’ , othering other nations. She points to the Iliad and the Mahabharata as examples of older tales that avoid this dichotomy. Le Guin, too, argues that the true tragedy of the Iliad is that Homer doesn’t take sides (No Time to Spare, pp. 53-54):

“The Trojan War is not and you cannot make it be the War of Good vs. Evil. It’s just a war, a wasteful, useless, needless, stupid, protracted, cruel mess full of individual acts of courage, cowardice, nobility, betrayal, limb-hacking-off, and disembowelment.”

After reading the article, I Tweeted about whether or not I thought this was true. In modern versions of the myth, it seems to me, the Trojans are increasingly becoming the ‘good’ side of this war. The creator of the forthcoming BBC/Netflix series Troy: Fall of a City claims to be telling the Trojan side of the story – but this is what Homer did, as well as the tragedians of fifth-century BCE Athens. I can’t think of a version of the story that presents the Greeks as blameless. Even Le Guin admits that the Trojans are her favourites (No Time to Spare, p. 56):

Hector is a good guy on any terms – kind husband, kind father, responsible on all counts – a mensch. But right does not make might. Achilles kills him.

Whether or not we agree with Le Guin’s assessment of Hector, we can admit that the actions of the Greeks take some work to fit with modern social values. In The Song of Achilles, Miller’s Patroclus cannot be taken as an ancient character, and even Chiron and Odysseus spout ideas that are thoroughly modern. In this setting, Achilles seems quite strange. His pursuit of fame, even at the cost of his life, is so alien to the modern world, as are the reactions to Agamemnon’s threat to it. Le Guin can’t stand him – “a sulky, self-pitying teenager” (ibid. pp. 55-56) – but does not mention the artistic skills, which Miller’s Patroclus thinks should be his true glory: “His skill with the lyre. His beautiful voice.” (Song of Achilles, p. 366)

But then there is Briseis, the most difficult obstacle for the modern rehabilitation of Achilles. Le Guin isn’t having it: “his big snit is over a girl he was given to rape but had to give back to his superior officer, which to me rather dims the love story.” (No Time to Spare, p. 56). In Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) the attempt to make the story true love is undermined by the fact that she is his war captive – it all feels very unsavory, as I suspect Le Guin would agree. (I go into more detail about this on a forthcoming AWM podcast, so look out for that!)

Miller avoids this difficulty in part because Achilles’ true love is Patroclus – he distrusts Briseis and is happy to see her taken by Agamemnon (the subtext being that he suspects Patroclus’ closeness to her). But Briseis in turn distrusts Achilles because he slaughtered her family and her people – his values cannot be modern, but at least he can avoid being a mass rapist. (Incidentally, Patroclus’ insistence that Achilles take the captured girls so that they would not suffer at the hands of another king feels like one of the more obviously modern parts of the story.)

If I have a concluding point, it’s that one of the values of Miller’s work is that she manages to maintain some of that ancient tragedy by not making the Trojan War ‘Good vs. Evil’, even as she gives the characters modern moral stances. For all that Le Guin and Nichols praise the Iliad for not being the war between good and evil, the actions of the Greeks mean that it is difficult for their side to easily elide with modern morality. Miller has to cut Achilles’ sacrifice of twelve Trojan captives on Partroclus’ funeral pyre, for example (but maintains the sacrifices of Iphigenia by Agamemnon and of Polyxena on Achilles’ tomb by Neoptolemus, comfortable immoral or amoral characters). The Iliad may not be the war of good versus evil, but the modern world appears to have chosen a side.


Return of the Jedi and The End of History

“Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.” – Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Return of the Jedi is my favourite Star Wars film. Kind of. Sort of. I know it has flaws, that it’s long been hated, that it doesn’t even include many of the aspects I myself think define what makes a Star Wars film great. And I stress that when I say “my favourite” I certainly don’t mean “the best”. But every single one of the original trilogy has been my favourite Star Wars film at some point and, since re-watching all six previous films after the release of The Force Awakens, it has been Return of the Jedi in my top spot. The thing is, it’s not the quality of the film that makes it my (current) favourite. It’s what it represents as part of the series as a whole.

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Three (and a half) Ways of Looking at Rey’s Lightsaber

In a move somewhat pre-empted by her using it in all of the promotional material, Lucasfilm have announced that as of The Last Jedi, the lightsaber formerly owned by Skywalkers Anakin and Luke officially belongs to Rey. [1] While I had assumed that this was the case as of The Force Awakens – Luke has the lightsaber he built himself, after all – I did start to wonder what this actually means. You see, since watching The Force Awakens and seeing that lightsaber I had been thinking about how it functioned as an entangled object. The term ‘entangled object’ originated with the “material culture turn” in anthropology around the turn of the millennium, but I know the term through its use by James Whitley as a concept in relating ideas in the Homeric epics to the archaeology of Early Iron Age Greece – that is, the way in which objects drive the plot through their entangled relationships with characters. [2] Whitley illustrates his argument with an example from a different epic, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

“Artefacts can exert a malignant force, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings […] It is the Ring itself (the object that links this tale with all the earlier tales, including the Hobbit [sic]) that, in many ways, drives the narrative, and has greater agency than many of the human (or hobbit, elven or dwarvish) characters.” [3]

How, then, does this lightsaber function as an entangled object? It exerts a Force (pun absolutely intended) in that for Rey touching it triggers a vision; it shows agency in choosing Rey over Kylo Ren. To a degree, it binds the three Star Wars film trilogies together (if not each individual film); but in doing so it passes between those we might consider the principal characters or the heroes of the films – Anakin, Luke, and Rey. If we think about the lightsaber itself as a character, we can look at the role it plays in the stories of Anakin and Luke to see what Lucasfilm might intend by announcing that they now consider the lightsaber to be Rey’s.

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Robot Uprising

In the aftermath of 2016 the world is coming to resemble a dystopia. Parallels with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are easy to come by, hence the book’s surge in sales over the past week. But aside from the more obvious rise of authoritarian governments there is a creeping apocalypse that has long been on the horizon: the rise of the robots. It first came to my attention in the morning email by New Statesman columnist Stephen Bush, who mentioned the ascent of Benoit Hamon as a presidential hopeful for the Socialist Party in France. Hamon’s campaign promise (as reported by Bush) is that the rise of robots will fundamentally change the world of work, necessitating a tax on robots and universal basic income.

The rise of robots is far from a new story. I first encountered it in the mid-1990s in the pages of Sonic the Comic. In an early storyline based heavily, I later realised, on the Terminator franchise, the Sonic-like robot Metallix travelled through time, changing history so that they ruled the planet Mobius without contest. But this storyline, those from which it was derived, and subsequent robot conquests such as The Matrix Trilogy are not quite the story that is playing out in the modern world. These stories posit that artificial intelligence will turn on its creators and overthrow humanity, either trying to wipe us out or using us as batteries. The robot uprising against which Hamon is fighting is the mechanization of the workforce. It is much more similar to the original robot story, Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots.

The 1920 play is not subtle. It begins with universal robots in use all over the globe as they dramatically reduce the cost of production. The robots were created by the elder Rossum in defiance of God; they were commercialised by his nephew to make money, though some allies dreamed to “shatter the servitude of labour”. But the robots, guided by the newly designed Radius, rise up against their creators. With the robot uprising underway, their creators lament the fact that they did not create “National Robots”, in different colours and speaking different languages, who would not have been able to unionize. The robots, having defeated the human race, continue to work without orders – it is, after all, their purpose.

Many of R.U.R.’s themes remain prescient. International solidarity has always been the stumbling block of labour movements, exploited by capitalists stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. It lies behind the U.S. and Canada’s celebration of Labor Day in September instead of International Workers’ Day in May with the rest of the world. More immediately, the ‘freedom from servitude’ offered by robots necessitates the universal basic income proposed by Hamon. But workers in the modern world are not only forced to compete with robots that can produce things at half the cost. The increased surveillance made possible by other advancements in technology mean that human workers must operate like robots and limit their human interactions – eating, resting, talking – as outlined in this article by John Harris. Again, only solidarity between workers and unionization can challenge these demands.

In R.U.R., the robots are workers, unionized, international, and thus threatening to their overlords. In the modern world, workers are forced to become robots or to be replaced by them, with their every action controlled by their employers. Like many other stark and horrifying visions of the future science fiction has to offer, this one is coming true. To challenge it, we must be universal, not national, robots.

A Postscript to We Were Rebels Once

I’m not certain that I got across what I was trying to say in my last blog, written as it was over several days when I had a lot going on. But I decided to listen to the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time podcast on Animal Farm and it made a few of the points I wanted to make clear to me. I listened to the audiobook of Animal Farm last September, and I think I also got it more then, too. The basis of this thought is that Orwell was a committed socialist – he fought on the side of socialism in the Spanish Civil War, he worked with the Labour Party and was friends with Nye Bevan; but his writing was generally critical of the Left – be it Stalin or socialism – and less obviously so of the Right. Therefore he was adopted, after his death, by the Right and you are as likely to find someone on the Right quoting Animal Farm (or Nineteen Eighty-Four) about the dangers of socialism or communism as you are someone who would have actually agreed with Orwell politically.

When I listened to Animal Farm last September one of the things that struck me the most was the way in which history was re-written, and how the animals of the farm (particularly Boxer) were taken in through their devotion to Napoleon so much so that he could re-write history that they themselves lived through. Yesterday, Meryl Streep’s comments about the PEOTUS at The Golden Globes were criticised by some on the basis that Hollywood celebrities were not to be listened to – by fans of Ronald Reagan who had just elected a reality television host as president. But the most interesting comment that I saw was journalist Glenn Greenwald’s observation that talk radio hosts are considered legitimate political commentators when they are just as wealthy and privileged (often more so) than Meryl Streep, just as distanced from the everyday lives of ordinary people. I can’t help thinking that between Nancy Isenberg’s history of class in the USA and Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men I should be able to put together an answer to this, but in many ways being aware of the problem is enough.

Animal Farm is very specific to Orwell’s contemporary Russia in many ways but there are also elements to Napoleon’s take-over that are general and relevant right now. One of the messages of Animal Farm and, now, Rogue One is that one of the most important aspects of progress is longevity, is continuing to make the future better than the present – donkeys live a long time. In Rogue One, the Rebels sacrifice their lives but are successful (for about a quarter of a century, at least); in Animal Farm, what initially looks like a utopia is ultimately destroyed by those in power.

But this is still not quite getting across what I was thinking. Animal Farm can be read in a number of very specific ways – against communism, against socialism, and against totalitarianism. Because I have read Homage to Catalonia and Down And Out in Paris and London and I studied Shooting an Elephant and I know a little about Orwell’s life beyond his fiction, I know (or believe) that he intended the latter reading; but history allowed those aspects to be downplayed in favour of a screed against the USSR during the Cold War. This is why I worry that, despite what the writers of Rogue One say, selling Death Star pyjama pants sends a very different message about how this film should be understood, one that could do lasting damage.

And finally, the way I believe that this damage can be countered is by progressive readings of these texts, by those of us on the Left (however broadly we define that) communicating our readings of these texts and the very important messages that they carry, by claiming these narratives for our cause. But reading these texts needs individual media literacy, literacy that governments like Napoleon’s and those in contemporary, real, human world want to discourage by telling us it’s just a story about animals, just a space fantasy, just entertainment. We can work to make things more than that.

When stories are in the public realm, their meanings change over time – in a way, this is precisely what Rogue One is doing to the original Star Wars trilogy. But how these changes happen is variable and difficult to control and not necessarily in the hands of the writers.