Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

This post is a paper I wrote for school, hence the more formal tone.

First John begins with a startling juxtaposition. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… (1 John 1:1)” The juxtaposition is this: that the eternal being who “was from the beginning,” has entered time and space and is the Word of life who tells us that “our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:4)” The Gospel presents a hopeful world in part because it declares that there is something beyond the here and the now–eternal life coming from the eternal Savior Jesus Christ.

The Greek epic The Iliad displays a different world, one in which hope is fleeting and tragedy is the only inevitability. This despair is a major theme within The Iliad and it stems from the Homeric concept that there is nothing beyond the here and the now. Against this, the Christian worldview provides a deep and lasting comfort.

As W.H. Auden says, “The world of Homer is unbearably sad because it never transcends the immediate moment.” Auden is right, of course, but there is a nuance to add. Within the Homeric worldview, the gods do transcend the present. Despair stems from the fact that no human can hope to achieve this same transcendence. Auden calls this a tragic “flaw in the nature of existence.” What, exactly, is this flaw? Why does the worldview of The Iliad lead to such despair? What, if anything, does Christianity offer to the characters of The Iliad?

The problem becomes evident in the 6th line of the poem. Homer says that the violence and death caused by the rage of Achilles was “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end. (1.6)” From the outset the poem is set in light of Zeus’ final plan. What happens is ultimately due to the orchestration of the gods.

But as the rest of the poem displays, this is not new information to any character. Greek and Trojan culture has a fatalistic outlook. The characters toil and fight for their cause all the while knowing they are subject to the whims and wishes of the gods. Agamemnon is forced to retreat during a rampage because, “Zeus who rules the world/forbids me to battle Trojans all day long. (11.324­–11.325)” Glaucus before plunging into battle, declares,

“Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray

and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,

I would never fight on the front lines again

or command you to the field where men win fame.

But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,

thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive

can flee them or escape… (12.374–12.380)”

Neither Glaucus nor Agamemnon hope to escape the fate of the gods. They do not hope because they cannot. Zeus’ plan will be accomplished regardless of their actions, and fate will have its way. Though they yearn for peace and life they can have none because they are trapped by their mortality. Their lives–with all their hopes, dreams, fears, and joys–are mere pawns in the hands of the gods.

Perhaps this is nowhere more poignantly evident than at the death of Hector. Athena deceives him into believing that a Trojan warrior, Deiphobus, is by his side as he charges the raging Achilles. She disguises herself as Deiphobus and claims to have come to help him because “the heart within me broke with grief for you. (22.288)” She urges him on, promising to fight side by side against Achilles. Emboldened by this promise Hector charges, but when he calls to Deiphobus for another spear to throw at Achilles, Deiphobus is nowhere to be found.

“yes, and Hector knew the truth in his heart

and the fighter cried aloud, ‘My time has come!

At last the gods have called me down to death.

I thought he was at my side, the hero Deiphobus–

he’s safe inside the walls, Athena’s tricked me blind.

And now death, grim death is looming up beside me. (22.349–22.354)”

Why can’t Hector simply turn and run? He answers the question.

“This,

this was their pleasure after all, sealed long ago–

Zeus and the son of Zeus, the distant deadly Archer–

though often before now they rushed to my defense.

So now I meet my doom. (22.355–22.359)”

The moment is charged with despair and tragedy. Hector all alone, the bloodthirsty and near-unstoppable Achilles approaching, is deceived by the gods he worships. He has no chance of escape. Death surrounds him, and his only prayer is that his battle with Achilles will be remembered.

John’s gospel begins similarly to his first letter. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)” The characters in The Iliad would share this idea. There are gods who exist immortally. There is something beyond the here and the now. But the Greek and Trojan worldview lacks what comes next.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)” Their worldview lacks any hope that they can transcend the present moment, or that they can be rescued from the fate that controls their every move. As Auden says, in this world “one is happy, one is unhappy, one wins, one loses, finally one dies. That is all. (Auden 18)” Within the Homeric worldview mortals are locked in their mortality. They cannot escape it. They must fight with everything in them to be remembered for there is nothing more that they can do. The immortals are comfortable to watch at a distance without offering a way of escape. While the gods work within the here and the now, they never enter it, so to speak. They never subject themselves to it. The eternal and the temporal remain two separate realms. One does not enter the other.

Homer scholar Margo Kitts points out the small comfort offered by this worldview. Commenting on the death of Hector she says, “Hector immediately grasps that he was tricked by Athene and that the gods are calling his death (22.297 – 299), but he heroically faces his fate, at least briefly (22.303 – 305).” In the face of this fatalism Homer offers “divine and human care as some small compensation for the lack of human autonomy and for the constraints of fate.”

But this is fickle hope. Divine care is no more than a whim, as another writer observes.

“For while men often petition their gods for favor, few mortals actually confidently expect their god’s beneficence. A man is happy to receive the kindness or protection of the gods, but is not surprised if the gods do not respond, or indeed if those same gods choose deliberately to harm him.”

The Iliad itself reveals that human care is no better. When Hector speaks to Andromache after returning from the battle she pleads with him to stay within Troy. Hector refuses, knowing first that he must defend his wife and son, but also that he has no hope for victory or survival (6.481–6.600). All too soon his care will pass away.

This is the flaw in the nature of existence that leads to such unbearable tragedy. To return to First John, the Greek gods are “from the beginning,” but they have not been heard or seen or touched, and they certainly offer no word of life to complete the joy of mortals.

This is not to say that Greek culture is deistic. On the contrary, the gods are extremely involved in everyday life. But the gods never subject themselves to the here and now. They are bemused spectators who, at best, jump into the fray for fun. Even proud Achilles understands this: “the Immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men/ live on to bear such torments–the gods live free of sorrows. (24.613–24.614)” This is a worldview devoid of lasting hope. The eternal sits comfortably to the side, and no temporal being can ever transcend the present.

Christianity offers an antidote to this despair because it declares that the eternal has entered the temporal. Current circumstances are not the sum total of human existence because the Word has offered the words of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)” Mortality is not an inescapable trap within Christianity. There is no need to fight to be remembered because eternal life can be gained.

The Iliad recounts a terrible war. The Homeric worldview offers no hope to anyone within the war. If they do not win glory they will be forgotten. They cannot transcend this moment of battle. Christianity offers a radically different hope. It declares that eternity has entered history and a greater war has been won. Now, for those who follow Jesus, there is hope beyond this moment–hope that tragedy will give way to joy, that suffering will be conquered by happiness, that death will surrender before life.

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Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?

A few days ago, in the New York Times, Alice Gregory wrote a short piece on the question, “do moralists make bad novelists?” I commend the article to you, not because I necessarily agree with it, but because it’s a well-expressed and thoughtful answer to the question.

In short, she argued that there are two kinds of moralists: didactic moralists and ambivalent moralists. Didactic moralists are those who write pamphlets disguised as novels, while ambivalent moralists are those who deal with moral questions without forcing them into a novel. I find the distinction helpful, but I want to suggest an additional nuance.

Andrew Peterson, speaking a few years ago at a conference, talked about a particular way to read the Bible. Before searching for a lesson in a Biblical story, he argued, we should let the story be a story. Let the reality of what we just heard sink in. That God split a sea in two, that a blind man saw again, that a dead man came back to life. These are miraculous realities. They contain a lesson, but they are realities nonetheless.

I’m not certain, but I think Gregory expresses this same sentiment about fiction when she says:

“For [the ambivalent moralist], ethics are measured and expressed in nonliteral units: the sorts of people to whom she chooses to extend her theory of mind, the small details upon which her characters disagree, the extent to which they are willing to forsake integrity for social graces. She does not inject her fiction with moral content, but moral content is there nonetheless.”

If by this she means that moral lessons ought not be crammed into novels where they don’t fit, I agree. However, a bit later, Gregory throws a wrench in this understanding.

“We live in an era of constant online castigation and unequaled opportunity to judge and be judged. We are unceasingly exposed to our friends’ and enemies’ real-time (and seldom flattering) calibrations in self-presentation, and novels should offer a relief from that.”

This seems to imply that novels are supposed to be an escape from constant moral judgement. But how can a novel deal with moral content without making some sort of moral judgement? Gregory seems to suggest that it is through “moralism with the intent to question,” in contrast to “moralism with the intent to teach.”

If we take Flannery O’Connor’s advice, however, that distinction might run into some trouble. O’Connor says that, “for the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye.” If I understand her correctly, she means that the writer must first observe before he writes. He must write about real people, and real worlds. That’s not to say that a writer can’t write fantasy, but that fantasy must be believable. In some sense, it has to be real. Stories must begin by expressing something concrete, not abstract, like an idea.

This leads to Gregory’s point about “moral content.” If we’re writing about concrete things, like actions, we’re going to write about morality because many concrete things carry a moral value. Stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is an action, but it is not a mere action. It is a wrong action. Portraying it as a wrong action is a moral judgement, even though it’s a commonly accepted moral judgement.

This makes me wonder if writing about reality without making moral judgements is, in fact, not writing about reality. Gregory’s distinction may be helpful, but I’m not sure her assertion that novels are an escape from judgement is workable. If we are to have “moral content,” it seems we must make moral judgements. It would simply be dishonest to portray, say, an attempt to slander a friend as amoral simply because we don’t want to make a judgement.

Again, I’m not sure that Gregory is arguing against this–there are some comments in her article, however, that make me wonder if she is.

Perhaps this question–do moralists make bad novelists?–is best answered by O’Connor. O’Connor is all for a distinction between a novel and a sermon, but while she agrees that a story is not a mere statement, statements will inform our stories. Or, as she puts it:

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

Off-Topic: The Contradiction of Man as Merely an Animal

“Those who most despise men and regard them as the equivalent of animals still want to be admired and believed by them, and contradict themselves by their own feelings, their nature, which is stronger than anything, convincing them more strongly of man’s greatness than reason convinces them of their vileness.”–Blaise Pascal

All Was Lost Through A Man

“True religion must therefore teach us to worship only him and love only him. But as we find it impossible to worship something we do not know, or to love something other than ourselves, the religion which teaches us these duties must also teach us about our inability. It must also instruct us about the remedies. It tells us that all was lost through a man, that the link between God and ourselves was broken, and that through a man the link was repaired.”–Blaise Pascal

Tolkien and Reading Security

Randon Billings Noble, writing recently for the LA Review of Books, discussed the idea of Reading Security. This, if I understand it correctly, is basically another way of phrasing the issue of escapism in literature. In other words, what happens when books, when reading, becomes an escape from the real world?

Noble says this as she sets up the problem:

“But then I read Anna North’s New York Times essay “When Novels Were Bad for You,” and wondered if, in some ways, they still are. North uses Emma Bovary and Catherine Norland, (of Northanger Abbey) as examples of readers who are swept too far away by their reading, finding their actual lives either lacking or mistakenly fraught when compared to the romances and Gothic horrors in which they lose themselves. I’m older than they are, and living in a very different time and place, but even though I can indeed distinguish between fact and fiction, I feel the same sense of thrall when I read, and I relish it. But is this “bad” in the way 18th- and 19th century critics thought?”

This is a very interesting paragraph. A standard question is raised: what happens when we realize that the lives we live barely resemble the novels we read? What happens when books become an escape, and we begin to dislike the real world? We should confine ourselves to dealing with the real world, with sophisticated problems and mature ideas, and not try to escape from it, goes the anti-escapist reasoning. Why would escapism be a desirable thing?

J.R.R. TolkienThat’s not necessarily a new question: Lewis and Tolkien dealt with it a lot. In fact, a large part of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” is devoted to this very idea. And in answer to the question, “is escape bad?” Tolkien gave the same answer Noble does. The difference is in the reason for the answer. Here’s what Tolkien said:

“Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

Tolkien here was writing from a worldview that said that there was a world beyond our own, a world beyond the prison. This world was a world that fulfilled the longing we all have, a world where jailers and prison walls were no more. This world was a home, not a jail. Tolkien says there’s nothing wrong with escapism in this sense because we are trying to escape to where we really belong.

In other words, books provide us a glimpse of this real home, and so there’s nothing wrong with escaping to it.

Noble gives the same answer as Tolkien: no, escaping to another world in a book is not necessarily wrong. But Noble has a very different reason.

“…here’s the thing – I do indeed want to divorce myself (if only temporarily) from my everyday life. I want to be in a more sophisticated world than my three-year-olds’. I want complex characters and elaborate language and mature themes…”

I want to ask the question, is a three-year-olds’ world really so unsophisticated? Or if it is, why is that a bad thing? Why would we want to escape from that? As G.K. Chesterton points out, young children are fascinated with the mundane in life–they wonder at everything around them. They don’t walk outside at night and treat the moon and the stars nonchalantly. The moon and the stars are not just there, the moon and the stars are wonderful, intricate, stunning things. It is only when we get older, according to Chesterton, that we lose the wonder inherent in these things.

If one were to combine Tolkien and Chesterton, one might say this about escapism: those who have lost an ability to wonder at the mundane, to see the reflections of another world in our own, ought to escape. There is nothing wrong with wanting to go home, but home may look less like the “sophisticated” world Noble speaks of and more like a three-year-olds’ world.

Complex characters and elaborate language aren’t necessarily bad, but they may not actually be any better than the simple beauty of a child building a sand castle on the beach. The echoes of the home Tolkien speaks of are all around us but they become a bit harder to see, according to Chesterton, when everything is about unceasing analysis and complexity.

When we take things like the world we live in, and try to act “grown up” by dealing with so-called substantial issues and real problems, I think Chesterton would tell us to stop. Before we deal with “important” issues, let’s just step back for a minute and acknowledge the fact that we are tiny creatures, sitting on a large rock, with explosions at the center, hurtling through space at 66,000 miles per hour, around a giant ball of fire.

And we want to be sophisticated. Can we just stop for a moment and wonder at the fact that we even exist?

The real world may not be so different from a three-year-olds’ world.

A world where the sun rising every morning is a wondrous thing. A world where the joy of something simple, like a trampoline, leads to constant repetition of that thing.

The “grown up” world of constant analysis, the “grown up” world where sheer joy and wonder at simple things is shunned, may not be the real world. To use Chesterton’s example, the real world may look more like the world of a child, having just discovered a slide, who says over and over, “do it again!”

Realizing Where We’ve Fallen From

I was reading Blaise Pascal recently and I came across this quote:

“We want truth and find only uncertainty in ourselves. We search for happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are unable not to want truth and happiness, and are incapable of either certainty or happiness. This desire has been left in us as much to punish us as to make us realize where we have fallen from.”

I found this exceptionally powerful, especially as it seems to echo Ecclesiastes 3:11: “Also, He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The concept that a desire for truth and happiness is inherent within us is nothing new, but Pascal puts it into beautiful terminology.

Blaise PascalInterestingly enough, a lot of stories seem to be haunted by this desire. The most recent one I blogged about would be my post on “How Eden Haunts Frankenstein.” In that post I argue that Frankenstein tells the story of the fall over, and over, and over again. At the core of Frankenstein is a desire on the part of many of the characters to get back to a place they’ve fallen from.

Pascal takes that idea, of the drive to return to perfection, a step further when he argues that a desire for truth and happiness exists to make us realize that the world once was perfect. Again, that plays out frequently in stories. It’s a theme I’ve been noticing a good bit lately, so expect to see more coming on this point.

In the meantime, I simply wanted to share that quote and comment a little on it. Expect to see some more O’Connor analysis fairly soon and potentially more Pascal–he’s highly quotable.

How Eden Haunts Frankenstein

On the first page of Frankenstein there’s a quote from Paradise Lost that’s omitted, sadly, from some editions. The quote is this:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay,
To mould me man, Did I solicit thee
From Darkness to promote me?

Ignoring this quote is, I think, a mistake. Not only does it set the tone for the story but thinking of Frankenstein through the lens of Paradise Lost provides a perspective that emphasizes one very interesting aspect of the story. See, Paradise Lost is, as we all know, the story of, well, paradise being lost. It’s the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise–from Eden.

Frankenstein Book CoverFrankenstein, I want to argue, tells this same story over, and over, and over again. The entire story of Frankenstein, in one sense, is the story of a fall from Eden and the violent, stark aftermath of that fall. I may be, in arguing this, stepping outside the bounds of authorial intent (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Shelley did intend this), but from a Christian perspective, looking through the lens of Milton’s classic, I think these observations aren’t that far out there.

So what are the paradises and falls that occur in Frankenstein?

The first paradise in Frankenstein isn’t Victor Frankenstein’s. We often forget that the story doesn’t even start with Victor–rather, it starts with “R. Walton” writing letters to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. As an interesting sidenote, Allen Grove, a professor of English at Alfred University, notes:

“Shelley’s touch is subtle here, but through Walton’s sister, she has inserted herself into the story: Margaret Walton Saville–MWS–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.”

Regardless, Walton is detailing his exploration of the uncharted Northern seas. He’s taken with the thrill of adventure and discovery as he fulfills his dream of sailing through unknown waters.

In other words, he’s living in the paradise of his dreams. He’s happy and excited regarding what is to come. The only problem is that he’s lonely. He’s living his dream–living in his paradise–and yet he’s lonely. Maybe this is pushing it, but that seems to hearken back to Adam’s own dissatisfaction with Eden–Adam lived in paradise, but he was alone. And that, as God said, was not good.

Walton soon meets a friend in Victor Frankenstein, and Victor begins to tell his story. Here we see the second paradise emerge.

Victor paints the picture of his childhood as idyllic. He’s given free reign to explore and learn, and he immerses himself in reading outdated scientific works. In this we see a subtle set-up of another paradise. Not only is Victor perfectly happy, enjoying life with his friends, but he also is plunging himself into mastering the works of outdated and incorrect scientific theories. He does master these theories and thinks he has gained an immense amount of scientific knowledge.

And then comes his fall. It’s small, brief, but significant. The first fall portrayed in Frankenstein occurs, I think, when Victor meets his professor of science at the university. Victor tells him the books and authors he has learned by heart, proud of his achievement. The professor responds like this:

“Every minute,” continued M. Krempe with warmth, “every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient? I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.”

Victor is devastated. He’s lost the paradise of knowledge he thought he had.

But his fall isn’t to end there. Because, as quickly as he falls from one paradise he enters another. He applies himself to new studies, becoming skilled in modern science. He begins work on the creation of a new life–the creature. This work doesn’t last long, though.

His complete devotion to this project is a paradise. He is fulfilling a childhood dream as well, just like Walton. Visions of his creation worshiping him, honoring him as a god fill his mind. And then he brings the monster to life and is revolted.

He was in a place of perfection. He discerned nothing wrong or harmful with what he was doing–in his mind, he was in paradise. Then, when he finally completes his project, he sees what the creature really is and his supposed paradise is lost.

Mary ShelleyBut Victor’s fall isn’t complete. That happens when the monster kills his nephew William. Then, it seems, Victor’s innocence, Victor’s perfect childhood, is shattered by grief. It’s only expanded when someone else is blamed for William’s death and executed. Victor has fallen from paradise and finds himself lost in a world where he has unleashed destruction and evil.

But the creature has his own fall.

See, after Victor deserts him, the creature is angry and frustrated but not murderous. He runs off, taking shelter in the woods until he comes upon a small hut in which lives the De Lacey family.

According to the monster, this family is, though they are poor, in paradise. They love each other, they get along, they care for each other. The monster, too, is in paradise, beginning to fancy these people as his friends. Although he doesn’t let them see him, he watches them all day and night. He chops firewood for them in secret, providing them with food and warmth.

The creature has a vision of coming into the hut and greeting the family, explaining all he has done for them, and becoming close friends with them.

The creature perceives no fault and no flaw. He is in paradise where he thinks he has friends, and he thinks the De Lacey family is also in paradise. And then, in what must be one of the most tragic moments of the book, the creature reveals himself to the family and they drive him off, revolted by his hideous appearance. The family is traumatized and so is the monster. He feels betrayed and alone–he’s run into reality and his paradise is lost.

So is the family’s. Their trauma tears them apart, forcing them to move out for fear of the creature’s return. The creature watches as they pack up and leave, their perfection shattered by him. As they ride away he sees his innocence fade into the distance. In a moment of rage he burns their hut down, torching the last physical reminder of the paradise he lost.

Paradise LostNear the end of the story Walton also loses his paradise when his crew refuses to go on, forcing him to turn back under threat of mutiny.

Thus, Frankenstein is, it appears, the story of fall after fall. First Victor, then the creature, then the De Lacey family, and then Walton. In the rest of the story, after the fall of the creature, both Victor and the creature spend their time longing for what they’ve lost. The creature longs for the comfort of friends that he found in the De Lacey family. Victor longs for the return to the idyllic world of his youth through the destruction of the creature that ruined it.

There’s a lot going on, thematically speaking, in Frankenstein. I personally wouldn’t dare to make the claim that the loss of Eden and the longing for its return is the main theme, but I think there’s enough evidence to support the conclusion that it is a theme.

Because, even after all the characters have fallen from paradise they’re still haunted by Eden. Eden won’t let them go.

None of them search in the right way for this paradise, but all of them search. It seems the story of Frankenstein is a retelling of the fall, and humanity’s subsequent striving to regain Eden. It seems Frankenstein tells the story of us all, and that story is the story of a longing for a land we lost.

Tolkien was right. All stories are about the fall. And they’re about the fall because our whole being is soaked in a visceral sense of exile from Eden.

Eden haunts us, and Eden haunts our stories.