I just finished reading Why Homer Matters, Adam Nicolson’s breezy (for an arid subject) study of Homer and his twin terrors, The Iliad and The Odyssey. In this book, Nicolson makes like Homer and waxes poetic early and often. He also teaches his readers a little poetry, a little history, a little archaeology, a little anthropology, and a lot of psychology and sociology. Sound like college is in session?
The good thing about books like this is yes, reading them can be like auditing a course, but it’s by choice (yours) and at a steady pace (yours). I learned a lot about the mysterious Homer, his ancient world, and his celebrated characters, especially Achilles (mass murderer, after all) from The Iliad and the wily Odysseus (mass murderer, when all is said and decidedly done) from The Odyssey.
But the chapter that most caught my attention was “The Gang and the City.” Here Nicolson turns the term “Greek hero” on its Achaean ear by drawing parallels between the marauding Greeks camped around Troy and gangs in St. Louis as documented by criminologists Bruce Jacobs and Richard Wright. “Iliadic behavior echoes through modern urban America,” Nicolson writes. And, reading it, I say, “Right,” in my sarcastic, unconvinced way.
According to Nicolson, these Greeks are a nomadic sort out to settle scores, plunder, and earn some respect. And Troy represents everything the Greek gangs loathe — wealth, comfort, home, stability, order, self-satisfaction, entitlement, the establishment.
To quote the book:
Revenge is at the heart of their moral world, a repeated, angry and violent answer to injustice, to being treated in a way that does not respect them as people. There appears to be no overriding authority or legitimacy on the streets of St. Louis. Authority resides in the men themselves and their ability to dominate others. “This desire for payback,” Jacobs and Wright say, “is as human and as inevitable as hunger or thirst.” Crime itself on these streets become moral, and revenge a form of justice.
Like the Greeks, the gangsters are “urban nomads,” not set up in their elaborate house, but living nowhere in particular, “staying” or “resting their head” in different places according to mood or what is going on. They are rootless, dependent on themselves, displaying their glory on their bodies, in their handsomeness, their jewelry and in the sexiness of the women on their arms or in their beds.
They can only rely on themselves: “maintaining a reputation for toughness dominates day-to-day interaction.” And because any act of revenge has to deter the enemy from taking revenge in his turn, there is an accelerator built into the process. Any insult, any slight, any suggestion that you are not a man worthy of respect summons severe, intense and punitive retaliatory violence. Achilles longs to kill Agamemnon after he has humiliated him in public over a slave girl he loves. The St. Louis gangs take revenge without a thought.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about the Trojan War as a metaphor for universal truths about man’s desire for respect and propensity for violence. You may read Nicolson’s comparison of Jacob and Wright’s work to Homer’s epic and disagree, but at least it gives you pause and widens your horizon, taking in all the possibilities. Some of the violence in Homer’s work looks, at best, bloodily random and overly-glorified. Can the same be said of violence everywhere and throughout history, right up to the present day? Nicolson thinks so — and that’s just one reason why you should think of the classical writer and not a beer-guzzling Simpson when you hear the word “Homer.”
Meaning? Someone whose name shall remain nameless has to get cracking on rereading (OK, who am I kidding — on reading) his Homer. I purchased Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey so I can begin that epic task this summer.