"The Iliad" and other tales of war

My momentous monologue turns to dust under the scrutiny of a well-prepared student.

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In Hinduism, the god Shiva is often portrayed as a dancing figure, one foot planted on the body of a dwarf, who represents the ego. According to Huston Smith, author of the tome "The Religions of the World," ego must be subdued in order for the dance to transport Shiva into a state of bliss.

The same thing can be said about teaching. Last week, in one of my
classes, the dwarf wriggled out from under Shiva's foot, and the dance between teacher and student fell far short of joy and fulfillment.

I had asked students in the Old World Culture class to be moderators for
various topics, and Charlotte, a middle-aged woman of unusual ability and
sensitivity, had signed up for "The Iliad." But I completely forgot her in my desire to read to the class the scene in which Priam, the king of Troy, comes to the tent of Achilles begging for the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles has killed. Caught up in the passion of the scene and my own charisma, I poured forth the lines, hardly aware of the class at all and certainly unaware of Charlotte. I was feasting at the table of my own theatricality.

I stopped at the point where the old man entreats Achilles to remember his own
father, whom he has left unattended in Greece, and the two men weep together
for the fate of fathers and sons. It is a scene of compelling drama and compassion.

"Can we even imagine Gen. Westmoreland and Gen. Giap, commanders of
the U.S. and Vietnamese forces, engaging in such a scene?" I cried, and went
on with my stentorian reading, convinced that I was engaged in an act of complete

"You see, Achilles, having started out the play as a real s.o.b., refusing
to fight because another Greek general, Agamemnon, had slighted him, learns and grows
in this scene, becomes aware of his humanity and that of his adversary. The story
ceases to be a war story at this point and becomes a story about the growth of consciousness."

I was almost shouting, triumphant, exultant in my optimism about the human capacity for
change. Here was the reason I had chosen "The Iliad" in the first place, the justification
for the whole course. Wow, this was great stuff!

I could feel heat rising in my face as I glanced around the room.
Students were transfixed, as they always are in the presence of such commitment, such
mastery. But Charlotte wasn't buying it. She almost stood up as she gripped the front of
her desk.

"Wait a minute," she declared. The class shook itself out of its trance,
looked over at her and then back at me, mildly shocked at her effrontery.
She had interrupted the performance, broken the fourth wall, suspended belief.

"Isn't this a misreading of who Achilles is? You are ignoring the fact that
Agamemnon had confiscated the young woman Achilles was fond of, and you are
ignoring Achilles' capacity for love in his relation with Patrocles. Even at the
beginning of the book, Achilles demonstrates his inherent sensitivity. Do you really think
it would be believable for Achilles to demonstrate so much compassion for Priam in this
scene if Homer had portrayed him as so much of an 's.o.b.,' as you so indelicately
call him?"

Silence. All the magic drained right out of my face. She obviously had
read the whole book, preparing for today. Suddenly I remembered that she was
supposed to be in charge of the discussion, not me. I had only prepared this particular
scene. It had been years since I had re-read "The Iliad." Shit. I was caught. Everybody was watching very closely.

"Hmm," I muttered, stalling for time. "Hmm." All I had was a one-syllable tone.

"Look at the end of the scene," Charlotte continued. "Achilles prepares a
bed for Priam and then lies down with the girl. He cares for her; she is his
companion. Agamemnon didn't take just any old girl from him; Achilles had a good
reason for his refusal to fight. He is a complex character, not the one-dimensional figure
you have created in order to set it up for his supposed growth in this scene."

Ah. She went too far, left me an opening. I roared into it. "Wait a
minute back," I said, feeling my eyes grow hard and cold. "I'll concede your point about
his complexity, but that doesn't change my interpretation of this scene. I still contend
that Achilles, in the scene, develops his awareness as he confronts everything from his memory of
his father to the obvious pain in the old man." I was almost convinced of my own
argument, but was sadly aware of the lost dramatic moment in the classroom.
The class sided with me, of course, wanting to get back to the intensity of my storytelling and away from what they saw as an interruption.

I finished reading the scene, but I was crusted over with light dread.
I had been dramatizing Achilles' capacity to learn through self-awareness, and here I was resisting learning from Charlotte. First of all, I had completely forgotten her in my own self-importance, and then I had tried to cover over the fact that she knew the book better than I did. I was faking it and was refusing to admit it. Besides, she had exposed a hole in my entire method. Instead of taking these old classics on their own terms, I was forcing them into being mere vehicles for my own post-postmodern consciousness.

I decided to face the issue head on with the class. "Listen," I said.
"Charlotte has a point. I was ignoring the totality of 'The Iliad' in order to use this scene
to make 'The Iliad' relevant to modern life. You can see both perspectives here: hers, that 'The Iliad' has to be carefully read and interpreted in such a way that we are respectful of its
own 'world'; and mine, that we are entitled to yank pieces of historical literature out of
their context to address modern issues." Now, I was proud of myself. I had incorporated her criticism into the lesson and come out looking humble, conciliatory and still
professorial. Yay, team. Most of the class was smiling. "The Man" had done it again.

Only Charlotte didn't want to be assimilated into my synthesis. "Well,"
she said, I certainly don't object to your making literature relevant, but I still think
you misunderstand who Achilles was."

"Maybe so," I almost mumbled and then finally confessed what I had been withholding all along: "It's been a long time since I last read the whole book." I avoided looking at her, afraid that there would be either fear or hatred in my eyes. Inside, I felt my authority and joy oozing away as from a small, rather ornate wound, and I desperately wanted the class to end. How monstrous, I thought, that my overweening pleasure could so easily be diluted, the moral fervor I had teased out of canonical literature reduced to petty squabbling.

The dwarf at Shiva's feet is hard to subdue -- especially for some of us. How much more graceful it would have been for me to have recognized that there was someone else in the room who knew more than I did, or, even better, to have granted Charlotte the
responsibility she had volunteered for. I could have participated in a blissful waltz instead of staggering, like a drunk, heading for a fall.

By David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

MORE FROM David Alford

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Books College