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.

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Words for Ursula K. Le Guin

This Monday, Ursula K. Le Guin died. The news broke yesterday. I don’t know what to say, but I’ve written so much about Le Guin since I started reading her work in 2009 that I thought I would just go through it and post whatever seemed appropriate here from my own notes and the quotations I’ve taken from her work. I hope that it can be taken in some way as being in honour of her. There was no one else quite like her.

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A Nobel Laureate of the Floating World

Last year, when Bob Dylan was named winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was surprised. I had never really noticed the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature before, although several of my friends had been involved in scientific or political projects that had been recognized by their respective committees. An even bigger surprise came last week, when Kazuo Ishiguro was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. It seemed that, in recognizing Dylan and then Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize committee had finally decided that instead of getting me to read the works of Laureate’s past they should just award the prize to whomever I happened to be reading or listening to in the mid-’00s.

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Hope and Despair: My Top Ten Books of 2016

I decided a couple of days ago to go back over the books that I read this year to try to establish, largely for myself, a kind of top ten that were books I would recommend to others. It was more difficult than I expected – I read very few novels that really stuck with me this past year, so it became mostly non-fiction, which is unusual for me. Some of the things on this list feel like filler because I could only get about five books I absolutely loved if I cut out books that I’d re-read (perhaps I should have included Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind, though). I originally planned to post this list to Twitter and Facebook, but as I reflected on them and what they meant to me, I found a lot more depth than I had expected. Thus it has become a blog post. The books are presented in roughly the order in which I read them, not in any way intended to be a ranking based on relative enjoyment or quality.

  1. Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

I think that, if I’d got around to reading Solnit’s Hope In the Dark (it’s primed on my kindle), it would have made this list rather than Men Explain Things to Me. That’s not to say that Men Explain Things to Me didn’t affect me, but the thing that has really been going through my head the past few weeks/months are Solnit’s reflections on despair and optimism (both, in her interpretation, forms of certainty cause for inaction) and hope, which promises the possibility of a good outcome if one works towards it, in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness”. I’ve see a lot of people since November talking about embracing despair, not giving in to hope, but I think they use ‘hope’ the way Solnit uses optimism. Reflecting on this alongside my (joint-)favourite film of the year, I came up with an example:

OPTIMISM: The Empire has built a Death Star, but let’s wait and see if they actually use it, it could be fine.

DESPAIR: The Empire has built a Death Star! We must disband the Rebellion and go back to living in fear!

HOPE: The Empire has built a Death Star. Let’s try to steal the plans and blow that shit up.

The last one is what we need right now. Perhaps not the ‘blowing shit up’ part, but definitely the resistance. We need hope, an aim, a motive, not to give in to the worst possible outcome and let the Empire destroy us.

  1. The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore

I don’t make much of a secret of the fact that I tend to prefer the history of comic books to the actual comic books themselves. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is concerned as much with the creator of Wonder Woman (and the women on whom she was based) than the actual history of the comic book character and her use and abuse over the past 75 years (which could have dovetailed nicely with Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminist Once, discussed below), but it’s still a fascinating history of a comic book icon. At the time of reading I found it paralleled Charlotte Gordon’s dual biography of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Romantic Outlaws, which I read in 2015, in that it chronicled the ways in which supposedly progressive men can be blind to the experiences of women. I think that this remains a significant barrier in progressive circles; I suspect that, if we looked at the Democratic Party and the support given to Barack Obama and Bernie Sandars but not to Hillary Clinton, we might find that it is one of the sources of the current problems in the world today.

  1. The Birthday of the World – Ursula Le Guin

Of course Ursula le Guin makes it onto a list of my favourite books from any year; and this year I read the last of her Hainish/Ekumen stories. This collection contains many stories that reflect on change over time, particularly “The Matter of Seggri”, and the idea that progress is gradual but happens. It is, I would say, optimistic more than hopeful. But that is perhaps doing it, and le Guin, a disservice. This year I also listened to the audiobook of The Dispossessed, which I originally read in 2012, and reflected on its message that progress, equality, and freedom are on-going projects, ones that require work and maintenance. The Dispossessed is subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and I thought about what undermines the utopianism of Anarres, the anarchist society of the novel. It is, perhaps, that the society was optimistic – “we have created an anarchist society, therefore we are free and equal” – rather than hopeful – “we have created an anarchist society, through which we can strive for freedom and equality”. “The Matter of Seggri” is far behind the utopias of The Dispossessed, but one might look on it as a hopeful tale, where the difficulties and struggles of Seggri past are overcome as it progresses towards a more equal society.

4 & 5. Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire/A Calculated Life – Anne Charnock

I didn’t read many novels this year, as a proportion of the books I read, and few of them really stuck with me in the way that a lot of the non-fiction did. Besides Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, these two novels were the most thought provoking.

Were I being completely honest, I would admit that the novel that most affected me this year was Way Down Dark by James Smythe; it doesn’t make the list because the effect was negative. Perhaps I had already been down because of the referendum bullshit but Way Down Dark is the first thing I can date this year that made me really despair. It was so hopeless and bleak that it put me off reading for a while afterwards, and may explain why I read so few novels after it. As I reflected in my Goodreads review of A Calculated Life, it is possible that I enjoyed it so much because I had not enjoyed the previous, overlong, stodgy book that I read. Looking back, perhaps it was also because I followed it up with Way Down Dark.

  1. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America – Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian stands apart from many of the other things that I read in 2016. I didn’t – couldn’t – review it on Goodreads, I couldn’t think how to encapsulate what it made me think and feel. I still can’t. What I can say is that it has made me reflect on some of the other histories that I read, both for my research and for pleasure, and how they discuss Indians, and colonialism, and colonization. They do not often come across all that well. Perhaps the most important key theme of the book is that of betrayal – how Native and First Nations people have constantly be betrayed by the promises and treaties that colonial Canada and the United States of America make with them. It has made me notice how far in the background Native rights are in most discussions of progressive politics in both the USA and Canada, and how easily they can be discarded once a ‘progressive’ party wins an election, but also how progressive media consistently ignores or marginalises Native peoples – or depicts them with tropes and clichés, as a people that belong in and to the past (King’s ‘Dead Indians’).

The Inconvenient Indian was published in 2013, towards the end of the Harper era (although obviously that was unclear at the time). One might have thought that with Justin Trudeau’s election things were looking better and that now, when I think about The Inconvenient Indian, I am hopeful that the cycles of mistreatment have come to an end. But 2016 has not been that kind of year. In fact, when I jokingly commented in December 2015 that Trudeau’s flip-flopping regarding his statement that Return of the Jedi was the best Star Wars film was a poor indicator for his time as Prime Minister, I didn’t expect to be proven as right as I have been this past year. It’s difficult, because as a spousal immigrant in Canada the Liberal government has improved things for me, and for those who come after me, in the ways in which they have changed the application procedures and decreased the waiting times. But the government has still betrayed its promises to First Nations people, still allowed more pipelines to be built, still isn’t prioritising missing and murdered First Nations women. The Inconvenient Indian actually provides the best check to my hopeful side in what has happened since it was written and since I read it.

  1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?/Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling

I listened to a few audiobooks by comedians this year and Mindy Kaling’s were the best. It’s difficult to fit this into the narrative of hope, optimism, and despair that I’ve established throughout this account. I can reflect on the (optimistic) jokes in the first part of The Mindy Project season 5 that assume Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election. But I think that, mostly, I like to think that a funny, successful person wrote a couple of books that I really enjoyed.

  1. Death’s End – Cixin Liu

I have some reservations about recommending Death’s End, especially as it is the third part of a trilogy of exceptionally long novels. The first, The Three-Body Problem, was fantastic; the second, The Dark Forest, began terribly but ended well. The trilogy is certainly worth reading if you can cope with the misogyny. But, in a way, it is even bleaker than Way Down Dark. Throughout the trilogy humanity goes through stages of hope and despair, trying to find new ways to survive, sometimes just about holding on. Despair, it seems, is the best course of action. Indeed, it is clear at some points that hope and optimism – or at least, attempting to stifle despair – causes more problems for humanity than it solves.

  1. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era – Michael Kimmel

Like The Inconvenient Indian, Angry White Men was published in 2013 but remains a pretty solid explanation of how what happened in 2016 happened, three years before it actually, uh, happened. This book details the circumstances in which the anguish of white men is turned to anger, and how it is directed against those who are coming up from beneath them rather than against those above them who hold them down. It also provides the handy term ‘aggrieved entitlement’ to explain how men react to no longer being the centre of attention.

While I do not think that Kimmel is guilty of the blindness to women’s suffering that I attribute to William Moulton Marston or the men in the lives of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, I found that my interest in the failings of supposedly feminist men were not met by this book. It’s a topic that I find a lot of interest in because it is something that I feel myself and that I am trying to be self-reflective. It doesn’t really fall within Kimmel’s remit, which is to look at the angry masculinity of a certain kind of man, but I think that the entitlement of progressive men also needs to be considered, even though it is yet to be aggrieved.

As with The Inconvenient Indian, subsequent events have affected how I react to Angry White Men three years after its original publication. Kimmel is a little over-optimistic in his conclusions. His implication is that we don’t actually have to do anything; these men are in decline and will eventually be drowned out. That doesn’t seem to have actually happened; in fact, it seems like the harmful forces that take advantage of these men’s anguish have managed to do so to an extraordinary degree. But the book offers me hope, even if that hope is fragile: that those who have gained rights will not back down; that the lack of progress over the next few years will show these angry white men that their optimism has been misplaced; that left-wing movements can take over where right-wing ones have previously held sway. Ultimately, it shows me that there is a way through this darkness; it’s just that the way through needs to challenge the right, admit how neoliberal economics have failed, and to hold fast to the importance of the rights that have been gained over the past decades. It’s a sliver of hope, but it is there.

  1. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, The Buying and Selling of a Political Movement – Andi Zeisler

The last book that I read this year, and one on which I am still mulling. It will have been written with some awareness of what might happen in 2016, but was published before much of it happened; but there is still a tone of hope in the dark as Zeisler presents a difficulty in a modern progressive movement and reflects on how to make the best out of it. But the part which made me the most hopeful was a section in which Zeisler discusses the attacks on female bodily autonomy under the Bush administration in the early ‘00s, and the way in which 9/11 was used to prevent criticism of the government. Zeisler comments that subsequently, social media has created connections and support networks between women so that it is more difficult to feel as alone as one could in the early ‘00s. Here, again, is a shred of hope. As Kimmel concluded, women and minorities are not suddenly going to back down and forget that they are still treated unequally; under Bush, the spectre of terrorism and the lack of social media made it difficult to challenge attacks to past gains, but in the next few years such a defence might be possible. It’s not much, but it’s there. Again, it is why hope (understood to mean looking for solutions) is better than optimism or despair (assuming an outcome, positive or negative). The fight will get more difficult, but it will not become impossible.

In a way, I found Zeisler’s focus on the co-opting of ‘feminism’ as an identity among right wing and capitalist women such as Sarah Palin rather than on how some men use this identity as an excuse to get at women (to Explain Things to Them, as it were) more disappointing than Kimmel’s lack of discussion on the topic, as it perhaps fits better with the theme of her book. It connects We Were Feminists Once with The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Romantic Outlaws; men continue to use ‘feminist’ as an identity or gold star, especially young men, as a way of showing their ‘wokeness’, or how they are Good For Women. It is outlined well in this BuzzFeed article, which describes these men as ‘thirsty male feminist[s]’. It is worth a read, and a salient reminder that if one is a man who wishes to enact feminism then one must be careful of pitfalls, the most prominent one being dictating feminism to women and girls rather than using their position among men as a way of promoting feminism and respect for women and other genders among those of us who benefit from the patriarchal dividend. For me, next year will partially be about how to put one of Zeisler’s main points – that feminism is something that you do, not something that you are – into action in my own life. I’m still thinking about how I might do that. But I remain hopeful.

Retro Post: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I really enjoyed The Forever War when I read it in 2010; the version which I read had a fantastic cover which is the collection, Peace and War, which includes the other Haldeman books on the same theme, Forever Peace, a companion novel, and Forever Free, the sequel which I describe (accurately) later in this diary as “batshit fucking loco”. I’ve put together several entries from my diary about the novel, with the dates attached.

24th May 2010

In reading The Forever War I have become much, much more interested in proper sci-fi. The book, thus far, is brilliant, conveying a proper sense of isolation, of distance, and of the difficulty involved in long distance space travel, and especially war. There’s a lack of distinct otherness to the alien life-forms and world – although the cold, empty planet on which the Privates train is certainly well feeling. It’s mostly that the Taurons, as bi-pedal two-armed upright-walking creatures are just a bit too close to human for me. Insofar as interstellar travel is concerned this is certainly the best sci-fi I have ever read.

But I suspect that my interest grows for other reasons, too. A Scanner Darkly is probably the best Philip K. Dick book I’ve read [this remains true], and I have been reading a lot of Interzone too. But I am starting to believe that while fantasy can and perhaps should [be able to] get away with principally being a romp (as Retribution Falls and The Lies of Locke Lamora are) sci-fi needs to be more than that. The Forever War is a commentary on the Vietnam war (and by extension all wars) by a veteran; A Scanner Darkly by a veteran of the war on drugs, showing that the side on which he fought was the wrong one.

26th May 2010

Some initial thoughts upon finishing The Forever War: it is good, very good. One of the best books that I have read so far this year, and certainly the best that isn’t by Ursula Le Guin [which were The Earthsea Cycle, in its entirety by this point I think]. I’m not too certain about its attitude to homosexuality, but given the contexts of a) the time it was written and b) its use in the book [as an alienating factor for the veterans] I think that I can understand it. I’m not certain that it’s meant to be condemnatory, rather than just alienating.

I like the ending, even [obviously, edited for spoilers]. I think that works, as does most of the rest of it, especially the [spoilers deleted]. It was a satisfying conclusion.

The warfare, the technology, the extraterrestrial setting – I liked all of that. The sense of distance, isolation, and loneliness I thought were fantastic. My internal imagery was usually better [in my opinion] than, say, the comic book, and though Alien is probably the closest film adaptation and despite my love of Blade Runner, I’m not certain that even Ridley Scott should bring this to the screen. [As he was rumoured to be doing at the time; this was before Prometheus, so I didn’t complain about this film, despite the opportunity to do so. It’s rubbish!]

My criticism, ironically, is mostly to do with (so far as I can tell) the novella “You Can Never Go Back”, which wasn’t in the original publication of the book because it was too dark and negative. If it is the earthly part of Lieutenant Mandella the it’s mostly because of the treatment of homosexuality, but I wasn’t so keen. It did, however, provide the right sort of sense of isolation that I thought was necessary for the story. [The soldiers go home to a world that has moved beyond them and changed, which is now unrecognisable – they can’t stay, and re-enlist in the army, as I recall.]

Other than that, there were some minor inconsistencies which, frankly, I’m willing to ignore. Generally, I really liked it, and I’m looking forward to reading some more classic sci-fi this year.