Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector
A Companion to the Iliad (Based on the Translation by Richmond Lattimore)
It is a remarkable testimony to the fierce vitality of the literature which has survived from ancient Greece that no interpretation of it, however magisterial, goes unchallenged for very long; each new generation sees its own problems reflected in the ancient mirror and brings to the formulation of that vision the insights and terminology of new sciences, new critical vocabularies. Sometimes these reevaluations are attempted from the inside, by Greek scholars whose fresh, understanding of the material in the light of modern psychological or anthropological insights is based on mastery of the Greek language and control of the vast scholarly literature which has increased in volume year by year since the Renaissance. E.R. Dodds’s epoch-making The Greeks and the Irrational is such a book, and G.S. Kirk’s work in the field of Greek mythology presents the same stimulating combination of professional expertise and new perspectives.
But often, too, the attempt is made from the outside, by social scientists whose knowledge of Greek is minimal or nonexistent and whose erratic maneuvers in the wilds of classical bibliography resemble the frantic struggles of a June bug trapped behind a window. Some malignant daimon always seems to guide these unfortunates to the most incompetent translations and the most diluted and vulgar popularizations of the subject. The results are all too like the familiar volume produced by the anthropologist or social scientist who has spent his sabbatical year with an African tribe or in a modern Greek village and, totally ignorant of the language, comes back to present to the world a series of pompous generalizations based on information supplied by the local English speaker, who is, by that very fact, a tainted source. Rhetorical balance demands, at this point, some names, but charity forbids; any Greek scholar can think of at least one recent production of this kind which, imposing itself on the unsuspecting public by the arrogance which cloaks its ignorance, proves once again that P.T. Barnum was a profound student of human nature.
James M. Redfield, who describes his book as “an essay which stands between the humanities and the social sciences,” is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago. He is not, in the professional sense, a Greek scholar, but one who comes to Homer from the outside; in fact he uses the image of the social scientist in the field: “I have lived with these Homeric heroes so long that I have come to think of them the way an ethnographer thinks of his tribe: as ‘my people’ and”—he adds disarmingly—“I find much wisdom in them.”
His claim to have lived long with them is fully vindicated by his performance. He knows Greek; the literal translations (sometimes of long excerpts) are his own and they are, with some minor exceptions, accurate. (One interesting exception is his version of XXII, 496, where he has mistaken for a feminine genitive form, with the sense “flourishing,” a nominative which, ironically enough, is a technical kinship word meaning “a man with both parents living.”) Redfield also knows his way around in the vast scholarly literature; his citations, from scholars writing in German, French, and Italian as well as English, are carefully chosen and economically deployed; they are always exactly what he needs to make or defend his point and no more. In addition, his own discussions of the Homeric words which denote psychological processes or social values are penetrating and useful. This book, which will hold the general reader’s attention by its bold interpretations and the elegance of its prose, must also be taken seriously by the professional scholar.
It is an ambitious book. In addition to a fascinating exploration of the themes implied by the Nature and Culture of his title (deftly summarized on the dust jacket as “the role of the warrior and of women, the relations between humanity and the gods, the power of institutions and ceremonies, of games, assemblies, and funerals…”), Redfield proposes a literary interpretation of the Iliad (based on a new reading of Aristotle’s Poetics) which expands into nothing less than a general theory of the relation of tragedy (Redfield’s Iliad is The Tragedy of Hector) to culture and society. The argument is long, subtle, and complicated, a structure of interlocking components so logically interdependent that the following attempt to present it in outline can hardly avoid omissions and consequent distortions, for which the reviewer apologizes in advance.
Redfield begins with the great speech of Achilles in which he refuses the offers of Agamemnon and his invitation to return to the battle. He rejects two current interpretations of Achilles’ obstinacy, Bowra’s and Whitman’s, which claim respectively, in Redfield’s paraphrases, that Achilles’ refusal is a departure from the norms of his society, “a deviance properly punished and repented,” and that “Achilles is a kind of existential hero who leaves the safe bounds of social convention and sets off on a quest for his true self—and who thus comes to confront the Absolute and the Absurd.”
Redfield on the contrary sees Achilles in terms which “throughout the poem direct attention away from the hero’s personality.” Achilles’ “actions are dictated by his situation.” And this viewpoint is asserted for all the Homeric characters; they are seen as “embedded in a social fabric; they are persons whose acts and consciousness are the enactment of the social forces which play upon them.” If this analysis seems to deprive Achilles of his significance as the central figure of the Iliad, “perhaps the problem is with us, with our conception of heroic grandeur.” Taking now the viewpoint of the poet, he directs attention from character to plot, “that implicit conceptual unity which has given the work its actual form.”
This rejection of the “pervasive assumption that the classic narrative must center on the inner experience of a single hero” is, as Redfield says, “somewhat parallel” to the approach of John Jones in his controversial Aristotle and Greek Tragedy and, like Jones, he finds support for his position in Aristotle’s Poetics which, Jones says (and Redfield agrees), has been subjected “to systematic, misreading.” They both take their stand on Aristotle’s sentence: “Tragedy is the imitation, not of human beings, but of action and life,” and Redfield, quoting Jones’s description of Aeschylus’ Orestes as “isolated by his status-determined circumstances,” suggests that the solitude of Achilles is similarly “status-determined.”
There follow sixty-eight pages which in two chapters (“Imitation” and “Tragedy”) go carefully over the all too familiar ground of the Platonic theory of imitation and Aristotle’s definition of tragedy—error, pity and fear, catharsis—in an attempt to trace “certain aspects of the problematic of narrative art from Homer down to Aristotle.” There is much in these chapters which is new and which in its abstract but careful formulation has implications for literary criticism reaching far beyond the particular work under discussion (the section entitled “Nature and Culture in Fiction” is especially suggestive), but no adequate summary can be attempted. The most relevant point for Redfield’s interpretation of the Iliad is recapitulated in a passage on page ninety-one.
The interpretation of error is the focus of the poet’s inquiry. In his error the actor enacts the limitations and self-contradictions of his culture; through his imitation of error, the consequences of error, and the healing of error, the poet leads us, not to a rejection of culture, but to a reaffirmation of it on a new level of troubled awareness.
But the story of Achilles, though “certainly a tragedy in several meanings of that polyvalent term,” is not a “tragic action in the narrow Aristotelian sense,” for though “Achilles makes errors…the poet has not been at pains to construct a clear relation of cause and effect…. The crucial errors in Achilles’ story…are the errors of others—of Agamemnon, of Nestor, of Patroclus.” His tragedy is “not so much a tragedy of action as of reaction.” Further, Achilles is “a marginal figure, half god, half man, suspended between the worlds.” In fact, the “end of the Iliad is a ceremonial recognition of the monstrous singularity of Achilles”—he is “drawn into the divine community.”
Hector’s story however “is a tragic action in the classic mold…the story of a man somewhat better than ourselves who falls through his own error…the true tragic hero of the poem is a secondary character….” Everyone will recognize the justice of the phrase Redfield uses to describe Hector, “a hero of responsibilities.” Homer shows him in his relations with his wife and son, his father and mother, with Helen and Paris, with all the Trojan warriors and their wives—all of these people dependent on him for their safety. In his tenderness to his wife, his kindness to Helen and even his brotherly scolding of Paris, we are shown a man as clearly supreme in the ways of peace as the brooding figure of Achilles on the beachhead, now isolated even from the male society of his fellow soldiers, is supreme in the ways of war. But Hector’s duty now is to fight, and he does not shirk it. He “embodies the ideal norm of Homeric society.”
But what is his error? Redfield finds it in the overconfidence he shows as, fulfilling in ignorance the will of Zeus, he carries the offensive into the Greek camp. He rejects the advice of Polydamas, who interprets an omen as a signal to retreat, leads an attack on the Greek ships, refuses advice to retreat into the city after killing Patroclus. According to Redfield he “has lost contact with that social order which defined and generated his heroism.” Achilles now returns to the battle and the Trojans are routed Hector, alone before the wall facing Achilles, rejects the appeal of his parents to take shelter; his knowledge that he has caused a Trojan defeat fills him with aidos, “shame”—“the characteristic emotion of the social man”—and he elects to fight Achilles, though he must know it means his death. “A hero who is preeminently responsive and responsible,” Redfield sums up, “he is here defeated by his own characteristic goodness.”
The last chapter, “Purification,” deals with the resolution of the tragic dilemma posed by the action: the ransoming of Hector’s corpse by Priam. Through an involved and brilliant discussion of ceremonies of purification (of which the funeral is the ultimate example, for it “purifies the dead man by setting a definite period to his existence and converting him into something not subject to change…by the funeral the community purifies itself”) Redfield proceeds toward his objective: “The Problem of Ending the Iliad.” Earlier in the chapter Redfield makes the point that the threats to give the enemy’s body to the dogs and birds, made ever more frequently as the fighting grows more savage, are the poet’s introduction of “the limiting case of impurity” from which however he “draws back…. In the event, the two heroes most threatened with defilement—Patroclus and Hector—are properly mourned and buried.”