Posts Tagged ‘Homer’

I have been reading a terrifying book lately, called ‘The Shallows’, about how the Internet is changing the format of our brains and how we process information. The book reasons that the Internet sprays us with little bits of information which we browse lightly, rather than committing to the sort of “deep reading’ that allows us to follow an argument, that is, the kind of brain we have had since reading and writing were invented.

This book follows swift on the heels of an article I read in The Guardian recently about how e-readers allow a huge number of multimedia features to be incorporated into a book. For example, the e-reader version of ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel includes a discussion between the author and Dr. David Starkey, as well as useful illustrative links and so on. However, ‘The Shallows’ argues that these little gems detract from our focus as we read. I know I’d be on edge if I was looking for Easter eggs and hyperlinks as well as following a complex story line.

I was skeptical about e-readers, I’ll admit it. I thought they’d die the death of the 8-Track and Betamax, truth be told. I can see their advantage if you go travelling and don’t want to bring an entire library with you, but their appeal ended there, for me. I love the heft of a book in my hand, the ability to fold down page corners, the fact that I can (and do) drop it in the bath without worrying about the loss of my entire library. Reading this book, however, has persuaded me never to use an e-reader. The human brain, with its ability to focus deeply on a task (especially when that task is a book), is a triumph of evolution/design/both. Anything that distances my brain from the brain of the ancients is, in my opinion, a bad thing. 

Originally, literary works were written on scrolls, which were a bit cumbersome and hard to use. Wax tablets were used for day-to-day writing, since parchment was expensive. To accommodate longer notes, groups of wax tablets were tied together, making a rather thick book-like object. Early in the Christian Era, some bright spark decided to do the same thing to parchment, and in doing so invented what we call the codex, the book’s most recognizable precursor. From there we move on to monasteries, Gutenberg and other aspects of printing and publishing history, but that’s another story for another blog. It may be that the e-reader is just the next step in books and book-making. However, I feel like I don’t have the same deep engagement with the very substance of the page when I’m holding an e-reader. This might just be the novelty of the device, but reading a book in electronic format leaves me feeling disconnected from the page and ink substance of a real book, the page and ink substance with which the book was originally written. This may not be true of many modern authors, who mostly type their works, but I feel very far from ancient authors, who wrote on parchment, wax, or the versatile substance of their own minds. I feel as though I’m cheating by reading Homer in English, let alone in English on an e-reader.

An e-reader also changes my own reception of a work. When I read electronic type, it’s usually because I am looking for some sort of information- where we’re meeting tomorrow night, a bibliographical reference, the news, the opening times of a shop. Reading an e-book makes me feel like I’m strip-mining the book for information, rather than enjoying a story or speech or history. E-readers are efficient, I suppose, but efficiency isn’t the point. I don’t read just to gain information- I read to read! This ties in with the whole “art for art’s sake” feeling I have about Classics and life in general.

So, Cicero, Homer, and the others- I promise you that I will stay close to you and your bookish, codex-y, waxy roots, and far away from e-readers.

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Three posts in three days, not bad!

Basically, I am a massive Doctor Who nerd- I love watching all the excitement and fake science whizzing by at the speed of a witticism. I’ll keep this short so as not to bore you all, but a big part of this series’ plot revolves around a persistent crack in time/space (watch out, the link has spoilers) which consumes anything in its path and does not simply destroy the object/person/race/planet, but also removes it completely from time, so that it never existed in the first place. Unfortunately, and since this has already been out on TV it won’t be a spoiler, one of the main characters in the new series dies and then is devoured by this crack. The Doctor insists that the character will continue to exist if only he can be held in memory, even if that is a sort of vicarious existence.

Since I am a nerd, I also watched the behind-the-scenes ‘Doctor Who Confidential’ for this episode, and the overwhelming impression I got from the interviews of the actors and writers is that it was bad enough for the character to die, but for him to be completely forgotten was “even worse”- as though being remembered would be a consolation for dying.

Whenever I think about death and remembrance, my thoughts go to the works of Homer- The Iliad and The Odyssey. In The Iliad, Achilles tells us that he was given a choice by his divine mother that he could die young but gain eternal glory, or live a long life with no glory at all (terrible translation here). He makes his choice and dies at Troy, remaining the archetypal warrior for centuries, inspiring such leaders as Alexander the Great. We can already see here, in a poem composed sometime in the Bronze Age, that people were already thinking that being remembered after your death was a suitable replacement for continuing to live.

However, in The Odyssey, Odysseus encounters Achilles as he wanders through the Underworld, and tells him that his fame back among the living is alive and well, though Achilles himself is dead. Here we can see quite a change from the Achilles we meet in The Iliad– he says that he would rather be the lowest slave alive on Earth than be king of the whole Underworld. Quite a change!

The question of living on in the remembrance of others probably shifted emphasis even more later when the Christian idea of heaven arrived, where the afterlife was not an aimless darkness, but a glorious space where the love of God is fully present for each individual. Nevertheless, we still persist in feeling, for reasons we can’t quite explain, that to be forgotten after your death is a very sad and serious problem. It’s why we have Memorial Day and Remembrance Day, among other commemorative holidays. Philosophers through time have battled with this issue, and I’d be interested to hear your collective wisdom, O Internet.

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I love seeing how the Classics were received by later generations, so I thought I would post one of my favourite examples of such reception- the poem ‘Menelaus and Helen’ by the talented English poet Rupert Brooke.

Menelaus and Helen


Hot through Troy’s ruin Menelaus broke

To Priam’s palace, sword in hand, to sate

On that adulterous whore a ten year’s hate

And a king’s honour. Through red death, and smoke,

And cries, and then by quieter ways he strode,

Till the still innermost chamber fronted him.

He swung his sword, and crashed into the dim

Luxurious bower, flaming like a god.


High sat white Helen, lovely and serene.

He had not remembered that she was so fair,

And that her neck curved down in such a way,

And he felt tired. He flung the sword away,

And kissed her feet, and knelt before her there,

The perfect Knight before the perfect Queen.



So far the poet. How should he behold

That journey home, the long connubial years?

He does not tell you how white Helen bears

Child on legitimate child, becomes a scold,

Haggard with virtue. Menelaus bold

Waxed garrulous, and sacked a hundred Troys

‘Twixt noon and supper. And her golden voice

Got shrill as he grew deafer. And both were old.


Oft he wonders why on earth he went

Troyward, or why poor Paris ever came.

Oft she weeps, gummy-eyed and impotent,

Her dry shanks twitch at Paris’ mumbled name.

So Menelaus nagged; and Helen cried;

And Paris slept on by Scamander side.

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I just moved into a new house! I’m living with some friends from university and I have a job in another city.  The commute (I estimate) is roughly 1 1/2 hours, so I have stocked up on rather a lot of books to keep me going on long train rides, and I thought I’d list some of them here:

Thomas Mann- Death in Venice and Other Stories

Aravind Adiga- The White Tiger

Sarah Vowell- Assassination Vacation

Cormac McCarthy- No Country For Old Men

e e cummings- Selected Poems 1923- 1958

Cullen Murphy- Are We Rome?

David Sedaris- When You Are Engulfed In Flames (this is one of the funniest books I have ever read)

Jon McGregor- if nobody speaks of remarkable things (simply beautiful- it makes you think in poetry)

Charlotte Roche- Wetlands (definitely NOT for the squeamish)

Alexandre Dumas- The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43

Herman Melville- Moby Dick

Christopher Booker- The Seven Basic Plots

Richard Nelson Bolles- What Color Is Your Parachute?

Charles Elton- Mr Toppit

Philip Gourevitch- We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

And, of course, a few classical ones:

Simon Goldhill- Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters

Ted Hughes- Tales From Ovid

Sophocles- The Theban Plays  and Electra and Other Plays

Aeschylus- Prometheus Bound and Other Plays

Suetonius- The Twelve Caesars

Apollonius of Rhodes- The Voyages of the Argo

Christopher Kelly- The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction (one of my professors wrote a very good VSI about Classics, and another wrote a great one on Classical mythology. Brilliant series!)

Homer- The Iliad and The Odyssey (because no Classicist’s room is complete without!)

Virgil- The Aeneid

Euripides- Medea and Other Plays

Aeschylus- The Oresteia

Peter Parsons- City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish (a great book about Oxyrynchus, a town in Egypt whose recently-discovered rubbish tip contained large sections from ancient texts, some of which we didn’t have before. Yay!)

And that’s only some of them! I have a few more books, mostly religious ones, such as some C. S. Lewis texts. Can anyone suggest any more I should look into?

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‘Tis the season for reading lists. Yes, summer is fast approaching and with it comes lists from newspapers (and universities, of course, but those tend to be a little more formal and don’t tend to include the latest bestsellers) of books which we simply must read over the holidays. Rarely however, do those lists include any Classical texts. Naturally, I think this is a travesty, so I have put together my own required reading list, suitable for taking on holiday, whether you’re going to the Lake District, the beach or the mountains. I’m quite skewed in favour of Greek authors, but that is because I do love them so and because I think they wrote some of the best literature on the face of the planet. Incidentally, ‘encyclopedia’ comes from the Greek egkuklios paideia which means ‘circle of learning’, so essentially a syllabus or curriculum. Ah, etymology. It’s excellent.

The Iliad, by Homer. This should top the Desert Island Books of any self-respecting Classicist. Yes, the dialogue can be stilted and drawn out; yes, the genealogies can be dull (unless you’re like my friend S, who weeps over every death because of how Homer describes the deceased’s home life); yes, you should really skip out the Catalogue of Ships in Book 2 if you want to stay sane, but what about the high drama of a man forced to choose between life and glory, the violence of rape by proxy, the humour of swapping gold armour for bronze or an ugly guy getting beaten with a big stick? The seeds of many crucial ideas are contained in the Iliad, depending on what scholar you speak to: democracy, tragedy, women’s rights, individualism vs collectivism, and so on. Read it- everyone comes away with something different. And no, watching ‘Troy’ is no replacement.

The Odyssey, by Homer. If you’re less into battles and more into adventure, this is the book to beat all books. Sex, questionable paternity, witches, monsters, death, lies- this book has inspired cinematic and literary classics like ‘Cold Mountain’ and ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ Plus, unlike many ancient books, there’s a clever woman in it! Penelope, Mrs. Odysseus, was the archetype for many Classical ideas of a good woman (if such a thing could exist, of course), but she’s also devious and an excellent match for her devious husband Odysseus. Plus, this would be particularly good reading for anyone stuck in an airport on the way home- we’ve all known an air hostess who resembled Scylla haven’t we? Just thank your lucky stars it isn’t taking you 10 years to get across the Mediterranean…

The Oresteia, by Aeschylus A collection of three plays by Greece’s first tragedian (who wasn’t Homer), all about the downfall of one particularly dysfunctional family. Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, comes home from Troy to the arms of his wife Clytemnaestra, who is Helen’s sister and hates Agamemnon more than anything else because he sacrificed their daughter to allow him to sail to Troy ten years previous. Now, with her lover, Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus, she takes her revenge. Agamemnon’s children are none too pleased by this, but their vengeance has its own problems… Well, what do you expect from a family with a history of cannibalism and incest? Another plus- plays are quite short and punchy, so they’re a quick read.

The Theban Plays, by Sophocles
“There once was a man called Oedipus Rex
You may have heard of his odd complex
His name is found in Freud’s index
‘Cause he loved his mother”
So the Tom Lehrer song goes. These three plays, chronicling the rise and fall of King Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, are one of the cornerstones of Western civilization, without a doubt. The first, ‘Oedipus the King’, was chosen by Aristotle as the archetypal tragedy for its ability to inspire fear and pity in its audience, and is a beautiful additon to the philosophy of Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. The trilogy is a beautiful piece of writing, with the added bonus of gore (he does tear his eyes out, after all).

A True History, by Lucian Lucian, what a guy. Condemned by the Catholic Church, but the text for students of Ancient Greek for generations, his huge output makes my head spin (particularly because he was central to one of my units this year). This is a story of his bizarre journey around the universe, ranging from the Moon to the Underworld. This might just be the origin of the legend of the Moon’s high cheese content, and even if it isn’t, it’s still hilarious. Naturally, it’s also a subtle comment on education, imperialism, travelogues, the Roman Empire and the nature of truth, but it reads like the best Bill Bryson exploration ever. If you read this after The Odyssey, you’re more likely to get the jokes, but it’s wonderful on its own as well.

Medea, by Euripides This was the play which really put the fire in my heart to study Classics, and it tends to inspire similarly strong reactions in everyone who reads it. Medea, brought from her home by the dreamy hero Jason, is suddenly abandoned by him with her two children so that he can make a more advantageous marriage. After having helped Jason become a hero in the first place, having stolen her dowry and run away from home with him, killing her brother to slow down her pursuing father, Medea is naturally infuriated, and her rage takes a gruesome and murderous form. I dare you not to cringe at the description of a human melting. Is she a feminist? Is she insane? Is she right? This was the most recent Cambridge Greek Play, and an excellent opportunity for us to assess our views on women, the family, citizenship, infanticide, everything. Please, please read it. It’s amazing.

The Metamorphoses, by Ovid My first Latin entry, and a very Ronseal kind of title- exactly what it says on the tin. This is a poem (though now mostly translated into prose) all about various alterations- human to god, human to animal, human to plant, two people into one. There are some clear links with ‘Just So’ stories, since Ovid enjoys including explanations of the origins of flower names and other natural phenomena, like amber. I think one of my favourites has to be the story of the king struck with eternal hunger, whose daughter transforms herself into different animals every day to be sold at market to feed his habit. Reminds me a bit of prostitutes, really. The poem is very entertaining, never slow or stuck, and is very good as a grounding in lots of basic ancient myths. There’s also a beautiful translation of some passages from the Metamorphoses by Ted Hughes, which I highly recommend. Oh, and did I mention, it has the story of Echo and Narcissus? How convenient.

The Aeneid, by Virgil Possibly the greatest Roman epic, ‘The Aeneid’ is the story of the journey of Aeneas, a Trojan prince, from his destroyed home in Asia Minor to his promised land of Italy, where he is destined to become the father of the Roman race. Conveniently, he’s also the son of the goddess Venus. Written for the Emperor Augustus, who claimed descent from Aeneas, it’s a subtle satire of the Imperial family, but also a very exciting story of love, violence and destiny. Try reading it with an eye to the current conflict in Israel/Palestine, or while listening to Purcell’s opera ‘Dido and Aeneas’.

The Satyricon, by Petronius This book is simply hilarious. The archetype of crazy excess, allegedly written by one of the sharpest satirists from the reign of the Emperor Nero, it was made into a very strange film by Fellini in 1969. It tells the story of three wandering layabouts, spending their time in orgies, weird voyages and surreal dinner parties. Perhaps the most famous section is the Dinner Party of Trimalchio, whose eccentric central host was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’– in fact, the working title was “Trimalchio in East Egg”. Few people have read the Satyricon and regretted it.

The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius This history chronicles the first twelve Emperors (or Caesars) from Julius to Domitian. It was one of the key sources for Robert Graves’ ‘I Claudius’, and even after so long it is still great reading- crazy emperors like Caligula, who made his horse consul and had extended incestuous love affairs, cold, manipulating emperors like Domitian, who would squash flies, pretending they were his enemies, exist alongside relatively “good” emperors like Augustus, who brought a certain amount of stability to the Empire but who has been compared to Hitler. It’s a tale of successive perversions and weirdnesses, poisonings, incest, rape and murder- just the thing for a beach holiday.

There are, of course, many other titles I’d like to include- Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ (perfect for all readers because of its bizarre blend of history, ethnography and plain fiction), Achilles Tatius’ ‘Leucippe and Clitophon’ (an early novel wrapped up in concerns about virginity, marriage, true love and bad dreams), and Apuleius’ ‘The Golden Ass’ (a man peers into the forbidden, only to be transformed into a donkey and then stolen by bandits), to name but a few. They’re all wonderful- not only because they’re the root of many other works which we take for granted in the modern world, but also because they’re just plain interesting. Summer reading need not be restricted to Jeremy Clarkson or Patricia Cornwell- try reading something by an author with just one name.

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