Sunday, May 5, 2013

Reading the Iliad in Worcester

Friday was the next-to-last day of classes at Holy Cross.  Driving home, I was thinking about how to respond in Monday's final meeting to some of the questions students in my intermediate Greek class have been raising.  We have been reading the Iliad, most recently book 22.   Perhaps they were conditioned to expect a simpler, Hollywood narrative, but many students were finding the complexity and ambiguity of the Iliad both more powerful and more challenging than they had expected.  Several were troubled that when Achilles tells Hector, "Don't talk to me of 'agreements': lions and men don't make treaties;  wolves and sheep don't have understandings" (22.261-22.263), he suggests that he and his hated enemy belong to different species.  There is no possibility of human relation between the two of us, Achilles says, and the end will be bloodshed. (22.264-22.267).  But which of the two heroes does Achilles' simile really dehumanize?

When I crested the hill on Hammond Street, I was, unexpectedly, stuck in traffic.  Main Street was completely blocked off, and a police detail was directing single lines of cars through the resulting jam.  I didn't see any smoke, so I assumed it wasn't a fire, but it was obvious from the flashing blue lights and the line of TV "live-coverage vans" with their extended satellite dishes that something out of the ordinary had happened.

I only found out after I finally got home that the blockade was due to protestors outside Graham Putnam and Mahoney Funeral Parlors, the funeral home that has taken in the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  (For a brief profile of Peter Stefan, the remarkable director of Graham Putnam and Mahoney, see this column from the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.)

The angry crowd was protesting the idea of burying a mass killer.

So on Monday, we'll think about why the poem's final resolution arrives not in book 22 with the slaying of Hector, or in book 23 with the funeral games honoring Patroclus, but in 24.804:

ὣς οἵ γ᾽ ἀμφίεπον τάφον Ἕκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο. 
So they saw to the burial of Hector, tamer of horses.

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