Release the Hounds
I made a giant mistake.
A while back, I was thinking about my undergraduate “education” from Columbia College of Columbia University. I felt like it was a big joke. I did a little work in some of my classes, but I also read my share of Cliff’s Notes (not “Cliff notes”). My class attendance was not too good. I blew off the second semester of Literature Humanities (a core course) almost in its entirety.
I give the professor half of the blame. His name was James Russell. He was a scholar who did something or other related to Armenia. You can look him up. He’s still well-known. Among the 350 people who know where Armenia is. Cher and the Kardashian family.
He studied a bunch of languages from places that, annoyingly, seem to lack a group designation that would save me typing. I think Iran, Armenia, and Turkey were among these nations. What do you call them? Not “Middle Eastern.” At least I don’t think so. Maybe they are. How about “too-much-facial-hair countries”? “Potential-New-York-Cab-driver countries.”
Places where Borat was banned in order to prevent riots.
He did something fairly dumb early in the semester. He told us he didn’t care if we came to class as long as we did the work.
It was quite some time before he saw me again, and he was really, really angry that I had called his bluff.
He thought I had an excellent mind. Go me, I guess. He wrote some extremely flattering stuff on my papers. When I disappeared and then turned up again right before the final, he appeared to be quite upset that I had zero interest in being his student.
He should not have taken that personally. For one thing, he brought it on himself. For another, I was an idiot. I was only interested in things like eating and waking up. I was miserable, and I had no plans for my life. I just wanted to stay alive and not be out in the street, and I knew that if you stay in college, your parents are likely to help you with those modest goals.
I think he gave me a C or B-, so I didn’t fail or anything. I should send him a ham this Christmas.
He seemed like a great teacher. You would have to ask someone who actually went to class. My loss.
I only cheated once or twice the whole time I was in school, from kindergarten on. I may have cheated on a Lit. Hum. final. I can’t recall. It was either Lit. Hum. or an equally exciting core course, Contemporary Civilization. I had done virtually nothing all semester, and I figured I was going to fail my exam and be expelled. Then a friend took his exam early and gave me the test questions.
That definitely helped.
The system was not very smart. Some teachers tested earlier than others, so it was sometimes possible for groups of students to get their hands on tests. Ordinarily, I would not have even considered cheating. I hate cheating. But I saw a difference between vanity cheating and survival cheating. I was not cheating to get a better GPA than the guy in the next seat. I was cheating to avoid the horror of being thrown out of college.
It was still wrong, but at least I could say I was in a bad situation that made me highly motivated. The other guys who looked at the test with me…not so much.
I feel superior to them as I think about those days, but that’s denial. We were little rats. All of us.
If you want to turn me in so they can revoke my diploma, go right ahead. They never gave me one, because I dropped out and had to finish up at the University of Miami. I know, because I have that diploma today. In my closet. In the box it came in. Unless that’s my law degree.
What a digression.
To get back to the point, the other day I was feeling guilty about learning almost nothing as an undergrad at Columbia, and I started thinking about the books in the core curriculum. There was no reason why I couldn’t download them or buy used copies (because I am cheap) and study on my own.
This was the mistake I referred to in my opening sentence.
I am now 500-misery-odd pages into The Iliad, translated by some guy who probably gets maced when he tries to walk into cocktail parties. Lattimore! I just remembered. It’s Lattimore. I don’t know whose translation Columbia used, but they use Lattimore now, so I decided to read it.
Wow, is it horrible. Reading it is like physical pain. Here’s an important fact you never hear people say: writing has gotten much, much better since ancient times.
As far as I can tell, The Iliad has no paragraphs. It’s broken up into chapters, which are called “books,” which actually means “chapters.” It’s over 900 pages long, and I suppose there are something like 20 books, and once you start a book, there are no brakes. You go until you hit the end of the book.
Man was not made to read long paragraphs. I don’t care who you are or what you write about; if you can’t find a way to shorten your paragraphs, you are doing it wrong.
Even worse, Homer is incredibly windy within his general-admission-style, festival seating books. He loves inserting horrible similes that take half a page. Torture yourself with this example:
And not even then might the Trojans and glorious Hektor have broken in the gates of the rampart, and the long door-bar, had not Zeus of the counsels driven his own son, Sarpedon, upon the Argives, like a lion among horn-curved cattle. Presently he held before him the perfect circle of his shield, a lovely thing of beaten bronze, which the bronze-smith hammered out for him, and on the inward side had stitched ox-hides in close folds with golden staples clean round the circle. Holding this shield in front of him, and shaking two spears, he went onward like some hill-kept lion, who for a long time has gone lacking meat, and the proud heart is urgent upon him to get inside of a close steading and go for the sheepflocks. And even though he finds herdsmen in that place, who are watching about their sheepflocks, armed with spears, and with dogs, even so he has no thought of being driven from the steading without some attack made, and either makes his spring and seizes a sheep, or else himself is hit in the first attack by a spear from a swift hand thrown. So now his spirit drove on godlike Sarpedon to make a rush at the wall and break apart the battlements.
This underscores a very important point about the ancients: they did not have TV.
In 2016, people consider the value of other people’s time, because we’re all very busy playing video games and looking at cat pictures on Facebook. In 5000 B.C., this was not the case. There were no cable boxes. There were no channels. Zero. People had absolutely nothing to do once the sun went down. This explains why they were willing to let wandering vagrants recite poems to them for hours at a stretch. Paradoxically, they died when they were fifteen years old, yet they felt their time had no value whatsoever.
If Homer decided to spend 900 words comparing the thighs of “godlike” Aeneas (half of the characters are “godlike”) to rippling waves on the storm-tossed Aegean, that was just fine. People didn’t mind. Me, I have other things to do. I would appreciate an occasional nod to concision.
So that’s bad.
Another problem: Lattimore uses English words in ways I never thought possible.
I have a huge vocabulary. I understand that the meanings of words have changed. I don’t have trouble with Shakespeare or the King James. But Lattimore comes up with stuff I never saw before. Nobody calls a beach “a strand.” Nobody calls a hill “a barrow.” Nobody calls a bench “a settle.” So every ten minutes, I have to go on the Internet to find out what he’s talking about.
If Homer were in this guy’s class, he’d pin him to the blackboard with a bronze spear.
What else can I complain about? Oh, yes. The story and the characters.
The story is ridiculous. There is no plot. Paris of Troy stole the wife of Menelaus (or Menelaos, depending on which pedant translated your version), and Menelaus and his buddies sail to Troy to destroy it and take her back. Troy is a big city with steep walls. You saw it in the movie.
His buddies are the Danaans. Or the Achaians. Or the Argives. They have like 4 dozen names. They’re a bunch of criminals from all around Greece. Athena, Poseidon, Hera, and various other immortals are on their side. I think. Zeus is behind the Trojans. Some days, the Trojans do well. Some days, the Achaians do well. And the Achaians can’t finish the job because Achilles the ringer is pouting in his ship.
That’s about it. There is no pace or structure, because, again…time had no value.
The characters are like two-year-olds. They make the Kardashians (again I poke the Armenians) look deep. They talk about honor, but whenever they feel like it, they break promises, use unfair help from the gods to kill people, and even go back to their houses to barbecue while everyone else fights. They steal everything they see. They have no compassion or empathy whatsoever; maybe those things hadn’t been invented yet. They are stupid. They never say or do anything intelligent.
Now that I think about it, the reality TV comparison is dead accurate. Nothing ever happens. There is no rhyme or reason. The people are basically clowns.
When I was about 24, I pretty much gave up on literature. I felt like the message was almost always the same: self-pity and whining. “The world isn’t fair.” “There is no God.” “You owe me because I’m a Marxist lesbian.” I thought it was extremely unrealistic and unhealthy, and it was written from a viewpoint with which I couldn’t identify. I live in a world which is more than fair. I know God is here, and I know he treats us much better than we deserve. I know things aren’t hopeless; quite the contrary. We are assured of success, not just here but in eternity, if we do a few simple things. The miserable, mistreated figures of literature seem like creatures from Mars to me. I don’t want the infectious pus of a victim mentality to fill me up and destroy me.
Do I see things this way because I’m a white male, and every day is like paradise when you’re white? No. I screwed my life up very badly, and believe it or not, being white is not early admission to heaven. I have my sanguine worldview because I’ve weighed the evidence, and because I’ve received faith and revelation. Even Marxist lesbians are eligible.
Feel bad if it makes you feel good, but don’t try to tell yourself it’s right.
I gave up reading literature, with occasional exceptions, and it was a good decision. Reading Homer serves to remind me how foreign the godless world (okay…the non-Christian world) is. But you have to make certain concessions to your culture in order to avoid being utterly ignorant, so even though I facetiously called it a mistake, reading this botched spinal tap of a book was a good idea.
I can get through about 50 pages per day, in around half an hour, and then my brain sets up like cold oatmeal and refuses to absorb any more. At this pace, it should be about thirteen centuries, magically crammed into ten actual days, before I finish.
After I read, I have to turn my brain off and let it rest, which is why I’m here. I sat down about 30 minutes ago after a painful Homer session, and I’m writing this to unwind.
I found Cliff’s Notes online, and I found the one for The Iliad. I can now proudly announce that I’m the first person on earth to use Cliff’s Notes as a study guide instead of a substitute for the pain of reading the actual book.
The people who put the notes out put a totally hypocritical warning up front, about making sure you go to class and read the book, because if you don’t, you’re denying yourself the benefit of the education for which you’re paying.
Couple of points.
1. The warning is about as credible as the one on the Q-Tip box that says not to put them in your ears. Yeah, we all run the swab gently around the rim of our ear, where it accomplishes nothing whatsoever. Cliff, who owns his own country in the South Pacific, knows exactly why you bought his notes. By the way, a translation is not the real Iliad. Think about that for a while. You’re already reading a fake.
2. You’re probably not paying for your education. It’s probably the taxpayer, your parents, or the lender who gave you the student loan you are hoping to default on.
3. The question of whether there is a “benefit” to reading Homer is still up in the air. Okay, I just said that to be mean.
Let me say something horrible, which will make professors incontinent with rage; even more angry than the knowledge that they can be completely replaced by iPhone videos: the notes are pretty good, and for most people, they’re a completely acceptable (even superior) substitute for a $9000 lecture from an old socialist in corduroy pants. It’s not like your professor at Texas A&M has some secret inside Homeric poop the Cliff’s people can’t get their hands on. It’s all the same poop. You’re not going to learn that much at the undergrad level anyway, and five years later, a person who used Cliff’s Notes will not be at a detectable disadvantage to someone who paid his parents’ life savings to a trite old bolshevik wearing a “Feel the Bern” button.
It’s kind of amazing. When I was taking easy humanities courses, I cheated once or twice, and I did no work I could avoid. When I got my physics degree, which is about 3000 times as hard as
basket-weaving liberal arts pabulum (Latin word!), I never thought about cheating, and I did my own work. When I got my law degree, which is only about 5 times as hard as advanced navel-gazing liberal arts courses, I never thought about cheating, and I did my own (very little) work.
Life is funny. Funnier than Homer’s jokes, anyway.
I am hoping things get better as I progress. Hopefully other translators will be more humane. If not, I can always look for old copies of Classic Comics. I’ll just have to be careful and realize something is amiss when the Achaians are defeated by Wolverine and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Godlike Sonic the Hedgehog.
By the way, we need to acknowledge something. MOST liberal arts students don’t learn much as undergrads. What I went through was basically normal, although probably 25% worse than average. So get off your high horse already.
Or, if you’re a Danaan, out of it.