Having been a shameless dilettante in my youth, I am now obsessed with self-improvement. Nothing involving physical exertion, of course. In that regard I remain a sloth, alas.
Last winter, as U.S. President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq proved to be more of an exercise in hubris than a struggle against terrorism, I studied Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. This summer, with the Olympic Games scheduled for next month in Athens, my thoughts turned to Homer's Iliad - though not in the original Greek, of course. Even a self-improver has limits.
Homer is like the Bible or Shakespeare. You don't read it to learn about what happened back then. You go to the classics to find out what they can tell you about the here and now.
The connection between athletic prowess and war predates Homer, but he was the first to orate about it, in The Iliad, his long poem about the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, composed around 800 BC. The war was launched because Paris, prince of Troy, on a visit to Menelaus, the King of Sparta, seduced his host's wife, Helen, and sailed back to Troy with her.
Abusing a man's hospitality is grievous at the best of times, but in choosing Helen (the face that launched a thousand ships), Paris irked the other Greek kings, especially power-hungry Agamemnon, who formed an alliance of the willing to defend Menelaus's honour. Even more important, Paris upset the balance among the ever-capricious gods.
Hollywood also had ancient and modern games in mind this summer with the release of Troy, the big-budget Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt as Achilles, Diane Kruger as the beauteous Helen and Orlando Bloom as that cowardly womanizer, Paris. There is lots of flesh and plenty of combat in the film, but precious little poetry. For that you have to go back to Homer himself.
Reading Homer could have been a solitary exercise - impressive on the subway or lying on the beach - but I opted for a group effort so that I could trade impressions and insights with other aficionados. And I knew just the place: Classical Pursuits, a week-long summer camp for intellectuals run by Ann Kirkland at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto.
Like so many other tourist-driven businesses, Classical Pursuits has suffered from the SARS scare and the Iraqi war. To try to boost attendance, Kirkland was offering a two-for-one deal this summer. Bring a friend and pay approximately $1,000 for six days of discussion groups, museum tours, gallery outings, plays, a daily buffet, or watching, as I did, Wagner's Gotterdammerung on video every afternoon along with commentaries from opera buff Iain Scott.
For an extra $400, you could have breakfast and accommodation in the college.
About 140 people took Kirkland up on her offer, or twice as many as last year's "small but happy group." Consequently, my study group had about 15 people, and was dominated by Americans, many of whom were inclined to use the generic "we" when talking about aggression and hubris.
One couple, Bill and Peggy from Syracuse, had used the half-price deal to cross the lake on the new ferry from Rochester and see the sights in Toronto. They dropped out after three days and headed back home to their animals. It wasn't such a loss because Bill, an anthropologist by training, was more interested in talking about warrior codes among the samurai in Japan and the Maya in Mexico than in reading Homer or sorting out the gods from the mortals.
There are only two prerequisites if you want to join a shared inquiry group: Read the book ahead of time (even if you have signed up at the last minute, as I did), and arrive with an open mind. Unlike Bill, I was more than willing to play by the rules, but I couldn't find the prescribed text, a colloquial translation by Stanley Lombardo, complete with references to medics, and exhortations to "Get a grip."
Lombardo is a professor of classics at the University of Kansas, who has developed a sideline in delivering dramatic readings from his book on American college campuses. He's working on an audio book to increase the audience for his wares. Who says academics aren't entrepreneurial?
After phoning five bookstores and checking out two libraries, I searched my own bookshelves and came up with an old translation by Erewhon author Samuel Butler that I had inherited from an ancient aunt. I didn't need to worry about having the wrong translation, because three other members of the group arrived brandishing rival translations like warring shields on a battlefield. Joan from New York was a Richard Lattimore loyalist, while Suzanne from Chicago preferred Robert Fagles. Martha from Toronto loved her Lattimore but she kept her preference mostly to herself.
Neither Joan nor Suzanne was prepared to switch to the agreed translation. Whenever we read a passage from Lombardo, there was a scramble to find the corresponding section in Fagles and Lattimore. Often Suzanne and Joan, or both, would then insist on reading the version in their texts.
Meanwhile, I kept searching for Lombardo and finally found one copy at the University of Toronto Book Store, and sprinted over there at lunch the first day to make sure that I at least was on the same page as most of the group.
The translation problem is a bigger issue than you might think. Entire books have been written about the more than 200 translations of Homer produced from George Chapman in 1611 to Alexander Pope's rhyming couplets in 1720 to Christopher Logue's War Music, which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize two years ago. Keats, the romantic poet, wrote a laudatory sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, that is now more famous than the translation that inspired it. Dr. Johnson much admired Pope, while contemporary American critic Gary Wills thinks Logue has brought Homer "crashing" into our own time - and Logue doesn't even know Greek.
Why we were reading Lombardo was hard to determine, since Don Whitfield, the original tutor for our group, had to cancel at the last minute because of a death in his family. I knew we were in trouble when Priscilla from Toronto asked Mark, the well-meaning substitute, about Keats's poem the first morning and all he could muster was a bemused expression.
Judy from Chicago became the de facto leader because she kept dragging us back to the text - the Lombardo one - even when Suzanne periodically waxed enthusiastic about nuclear holocausts. Not only had Judy bought the assigned book; she had trained assiduously before coming to Toronto by spending the previous six weeks reading nothing but The Iliad and related books on Greek mythology and history.
The Iliad opens in the 10th year of the war. The Greeks have camped beside their ships on the shores of the walled city of Troy, much as later this summer the cruise ships bringing spectators to the Olympics will be anchored in the harbour below Athens. If reports about the inadequate local transportation system in Greece prove accurate, the struggle to breast the fortifications of ancient Troy will seem like practice trials for the daily climb to the Olympic site when the games open on Aug. 13.
Achilles, Homer's sulky hero, is the best warrior the Greeks have, but he is refusing to fight because the greedy Agamemnon has claimed Briseus, the Trojan girl that Achilles captured during one of the many battles in the previous decade (shades of baseball and hockey stars holding out in contract disputes). Achilles finally enters the fray near the end of The Iliad after Hector, the crown prince of Troy and the epitome of a noble warrior, kills Patroclus, Achilles's dear friend and possible lover.
Before he challenges Hector to fight in front of the walls of Troy, Achilles organizes funereal games in memory of his dead friend, and distributes prizes to the winners, much the way Olympians are honoured today.
On a more philosophical level, Homer's account of the Trojan war raises all sorts of issues about leadership, fighting for a just cause, the difference between honour and glory, and asks who is really in charge - the gods, who represent fate, or the mortals whom we link with individual will. That's the other thing about reading great literature. Instead of pat answers that date like yesterday's headlines, it asks big open-ended questions about the meaning of life and death.
In the end, most of us in the class were happy. We had read Homer, we had thought about his relevance in a post-atomic age, we had pulled together as a team, and we had learned that when leaders weaken, men and women grow strong.