Buried under work, scrabbling for piecemeal work to get enough money in to ward off that slavering wolf at the door.Some marvellous projects amongst the bread-and-butter assignments and stonebreaking stuff, so I take heart. And on Sunday evening I finished the Iliad after six weeks of nightly reading. Celebrated with a Greek supper of lamb casseroled with olives, garlic, tomato and green beans, Arne me fassolakia. No retsina or throwing of plates as in Zorba the Greek but the housemate looked relieved to be spared any more updates on Achilles and chariot races.
So wonderful to be reading the classics like this, along with other enthusiastic students and the Harvard professor who has spent almost 50 years reading and interpreting ancient Greek texts and myths..
Note on Sunday night.
Working on empathy in lament, in the written-down song of grief that is also weeping aloud. In front of me a videotaped discussion between academics on the lament of Thetis in the Iliad, Thetis the sea goddess who sits on the beach cradling the head of her son who lies prone on the ground, unmoving, although he is not dead. He will die in battle and both mother and son know this. There are no secrets between them. Not all the love in the world can save the son, and all the mother can do is to be with him and wait for what must happen, to grieve her loss even while he lives
She is mourning him before he dies, the professor says, and his co-facilitator on the video begins to weep, pushing a bunched up tissue under her spectacles and getting up, apologising for ‘losing it’. Watching her weep for a mother mourning her son who is to die, an unbroken continuum of mourning, a deep heart-broken mourning that has gone on for perhaps five thousand years since this lament was first sung and wept aloud, I too feel my eyes filling with tears, shared grief spilling over, I reach for a tissue and pause the video as I dry my eyes.
Continuum, empathy that is echoed and re-experienced unbroken through civilizations, centuries, generations, the grief of a mother’s loss spilling out everywhere. Grief wild and bitter and unending as the ocean itself, but contained by song. Unending grief but also shared grief, the gift of empathy. Those who will weep with us and wipe our eyes.
And almost immediately I could begin The Odyssey that I last read when I was 19. Total immersion in this extraordinary story of homecoming. More specifically, the homecoming of a soldier from war. How hard it is for a warrior to leave behind the experience of war and return home, how few will manage that. Odysseus will lose all his comrades and fellow soldiers on the return journey, and even his ship. He will arrive home alone and dress as a beggar in order to begin integrating back into the world he left behind, to reclaim a life in a society where nobody recognises him. Where he is no longer a hero, where his anguish and madness is not understood, where he must fight again to prove himself among civilians.
This isn’t an old story, we all know that. It is happening here and now, in our midst and I found this terrible if illuminating story of a failed homecoming in the New Yorker, In looking at the tragedy of ‘heroic’ American sniper Chris Kyle and how hard it is to unlearn the lessons of war, Nicholas Schmidle draws on the insights of Jonathan Shay’s moving and powerful work Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.
The irony hidden in Homer’s Odyssey, as Odysseus and the reader have to discover, is that Odysseus isn’t a hero because of the war. He is a hero because of the long and painful homecoming. And his journey moves from the identity of being a soldier or warrior to becoming a sailor, crossing oceans and learning how to navigate wisely, how to read the stars and placate the angry god of the seas. And it is a wonderful soul journey despite all the terror and conflict.
From the poet known as the last of the ancient Greeks, Cavafy’s Ithaca.