The Bodies of Men Who Have Perished: Reading the Iliad in the 1980s, by L.D. Burnett

“Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus,” Gavin Hamilton, ca. 1763

Queer love lies at the heart of the Iliad as a work of art.

This was not the claim of my fall quarter Western Culture prof, though he certainly tried to explain the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroklos, and how that fit into Greek ideas of manhood, and how it fit (or didn’t) with our own ideas of sexuality.  I don’t think he used the word “queer,” but he did emphasize that to call those two heroes “a gay couple” or “gay lovers” would be both anachronistic and inattentive to the complexities and resonances of the intimacy between them.  Or something like that.

But “queer” as a word that points to a body of scholarly theory and “queer” as a word reclaimed by folk whose intimate relationships, whose inner and intertwined lives, don’t fit neatly within simple binaristic categorizations – that’s a fitting enough word for a consideration of Patroklos and Achilles and the Iliad and the canon and the culture of the 1980s.

What struck me on this re-read of the Iliad was the distinctive portrayal of Achilleus’s grief.  Many warriors fall in these few days of battle, and many Greek heroes, and Trojan heroes too, lose men dear to them – perhaps as dear, indeed, as Patroklos was to Achilles.  Warriors on both sides are smitten with sorrow to see their brothers in arms fall, and warriors on both sides fight fiercely to retrieve the bodies of their fallen comrades – though no battle rages as fiercely or as long as the battle for Patroklos’s body.

And when that broken body is returned to the tents of Achilles – there grief pours forth from different, deeper streams. It is all the grief of brothers in arms, and more.  It is the grief of a lover for not only the life, but the very body, of his beloved.

Achilleus’s anguish over the broken body of Patroklos is compelling.  In a way, I suppose, it is echoed in Priam’s grief as he later pleads for Hector’s body.  But I think rather Priam’s grief harmonizes with Achilleus’s sorrow – it is grief in a different register, or maybe a different key altogether, and they share but one note in common between them:  an unfathomable tenderness toward the body of their own fallen warrior, beloved, though loved in different ways.

Here is how Achilles mourned, and what he feared:

Peleus’ son led the thronging chat of their lamentation
and laid his manslaughtering hands over the chest of his dear friend
with outbursts of incessant grief. As some great bearded lion
when some man, a deer hunter, has stolen his cubs away from him
out of the close wood; the lion comes back too late, and is anguished,
and turns into many valleys quartering after the man’s trail
on the chance of finding him, and taken with bitter anger;
so he, groaning heavily, spoke out to the Myrmidons….
So speaking brilliant Achilleus gave orders to his companions
to set a great cauldron across the fire, so that with all speed
they could wash away the clotted blood from Patroklos….(XVIII, 316-323, 343-345)

The poem goes on to describe in detail the tender care Achilles and his companions take in cleaning and preparing Patroklos body for his eventual funeral.

Yet no mortal effort can overcome decay. The body of the beautiful, the beloved one, his spirit shorn from the world of the living, will see corruption, Achilles fears, before he has a chance to return from avenging Patroklos’s death.  And he is not resigned.

His mother cannot comfort him, but she can help him.

Thetis, the water nymph, the immortal, does two things for her son in his grief:  she commissions for him immortal armor from the Olympian forge of Hephaistos, and when she returns with the enchanted shield – that immortal aesthetic object, art that literally captures the full round of earthly life, a frieze of figures in constant motion, the whole world of human meaning and meaning-making to live on and on past the death of the hero who will bear it on his shoulders – she gives her son what aid she can in caring for the body of his friend.

Achilles, after receiving the armor, tells his mother,

I am sadly afraid,
during this time, for the warlike son of Menoitios
that flies might get into the wounds beaten by bronze in his body
and breed worms in them, and these make foul the body, seeing
that the life is killed in him, and that all his flesh may be rotted.”(XIX, 23-27)

Achilles’ love for Patroklos does not transcend the burdens of embodiment.  This a feature that some other readers, maybe from another time or maybe now, might see as a great flaw. But in Achilles I see a mother’s son grieving for his lover, and like his mother, I find in this no cause for reproach.

In turn the goddess Thetis the silver-footed answered him:
“My child, no longer let these things be a care in your mind.
I shall endeavor to drive from him the swarming and fierce things,
those flies, which feed upon the bodies of men who have perished….
Go then and summon into assembly the fighting Achaians,
and unsay your anger against Agamemnon, shepherd of the people,
and arm at once for the fighting, and put your war strength upon you.”
She spoke so, and drove the strength of great courage into him;
and meanwhile through the nostrils of Patroklos she distilled
ambrosia and red nectar, so that his flesh might not spoil. (XIX, 28-39)

Ambrosia is an Olympian gift, the drink of the immortals – but that was not the gift we talked about when we discussed this work in reading group in the 1980s.  Instead, we talked about that shield, about how the poet celebrated art and storytelling as something immortal, with the shield of Achilles a stand-in for the poet’s work itself: a made thing through which life immortal moves.  That was our focus:  understanding the meaning of the shield of Achilles.

But the years during which Stanford freshmen were asked to read the Iliad were the very years when AIDS was ravaging queer communities, sweeping away queer lives (and hemophiliacs’ lives, and needle-sharing heroin addicts’ lives and unsuspecting partners’ lives) in an ever-advancing tidal wave of utter destruction.  Imagine the keening grief of Achilles magnified by the millions.  Imagine the great immortal shield, the Solace of Art, clattering to the ground, unfinished and undone, because the artists – the writers, the painters, the set designers, the actors, the sculptors, the dancers, the poets, the singers, the writers of songs – were literally wasting away.  Often they were mourned by the friends, their comrades in arms, their partners in love.  But often they died, as Patroklos did, and Achilles too, far away from home – disowned, despised, abandoned.

“David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio, 1990,” Therese Frare / LIFE

We were reading this text against that background, but I’m not sure how many of us made the connection.  At the time, I did not. Seeing they do not see…

Now, though, every time I teach the second half of the U.S. history survey, I talk at length about the AIDS crisis.  I talk about the murderous neglect of the Reagan administration, and the vile hatefulness pouring forth from many key leaders on the religious Right, who called AIDS a punishment from God and a fate that gays deserved.  I talk about how many in mainstream American culture, out of prejudice and fear, had turned their backs on their own fellow citizens, and how AIDS activists and allies incessant advocacy and hospice training and political work and lobbying and protesting and constant painful heartrending public appeals to shared humanity and common decency combined to force the nation to take heed, to take care, to pour research and resources into finding a cure, a treatment, a ray of hope.

I tell my students that in the 1980s and 1990s, AIDS was seen as a sure death sentence, and many saw it as a sentence that its sufferers deserved.  But now there is preventative treatment, and treatment for symptoms, and maybe even hope of a cure.  And on the final exam, every semester, I have one or two students who tell me some version of, “I’m gay [or, I’m queer, or, I’m a LGBTQ ally] and I didn’t know anything about this history. Thank you so much for teaching this.  We didn’t cover the AIDS crisis in high school.”

And at first I think, How could you not cover the AIDS crisis in a high school U.S. history class?  On the other hand, how could you begin do it justice?

And who am I to judge?  I read Achilles mourning for Patroklos, lover for beloved, and my thoughts turned to abstractions like Art and Immortality, Great Books and Canonicity, when matters of much greater import were at stake.

Learn, and live – live.  There were too many who did not.

This piece was originally published at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog

~ L.D. Burnett received her Ph.D. in Humanities (History of Ideas) from the University of Texas at Dallas (2015), where she is currently employed as the 2017-2018 Teaching Fellow in History. Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is under contract with University of North Carolina Press. (Bio credit: S-USIH)

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Let Us Perish Resisting, by L.D. Burnett

Jefferson's Book Collection at the Library of Congress (cropped), photo 2016 by Amy CoolsA few years after I graduated from college, when I was short on cash, short on space, and short on hope that some significant portion of my days might ever again be spent in reading and writing and thinking about something beyond my immediate material circumstances and familial duties, I made a decision that I have wished many times to take back: I sold almost all of my textbooks. Not just the overpriced and (for me, anyhow) under-studied behemoth from Intro to Econ, nor my well-used but no longer useful grammar and exercise book from French I and II – those weren’t the only texts I culled from my little library.

I gathered up Robert Lowell and Alice Walker, Edmund Spenser and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretius and Virginia Woolf, Lorraine Hansberry and Aristotle, Montaigne and Nietzsche, Flaubert, Boethius and Baudelaire, and many others besides – most of them authors I had never so much as heard of before I set foot on the Stanford campus. Norton critical editions, and anthologies of fiction and poetry, Penguin Classics, and mass market paperbacks I had acquired for classes — when I had been compelled to choose between buying my books and, say, eating more than one meal a day for a few weeks, I chose the books. I don’t regret those purchases.

Still, I wish I hadn’t sold them. Because what I let go of when I let go of those books was not just a visible reminder of lean years and tough choices. I also let go of my own history as a reader, as a learner – all the notes and exclamations and questions I had scrawled in the margins, the asterisks, the dog-ears, the passages underlined two or three times because they rang true to my young heart or my old soul.

But I didn’t sell all my books. Among the texts I kept were Augustine and Shakespeare, Dickens and Faulkner, Spoon River, Thomas Wyatt, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Thackeray so deft and droll, Dante and Cervantes and a few other stragglers besides, including Miguel de Unamuno.

Before I was an English major, I was a Spanish major, and I had been introduced to Unamuno in the second half of the Spanish lit survey at the end of my freshman year. Alas, the two volume anthology we used in the survey, with its excerpt from Unamuno’s beautiful Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho, was among the books I sold. But the standalone volume of Del sentimentio trágico de la vida – that I kept.

Unamuno’s existential anguish and his quest to find or fashion some hope in the face of the miserable fact of our mortality struck a chord with me. I might not have understood everything he was arguing — or arguing against– on my first read through, but I understood that.

In the face of certain disaster, what do we do?

That question, that problem, has been much on my mind lately, particularly as it relates to the state of higher education, the fate and future of the university as an institution or even as an idea.

What do we do?

Does it even matter?

Thinking of those questions, I was reminded this morning of a passage in Unamuno where he quotes Sénancour – somewhat disapprovingly, as it turns out, a fact lost on me the first time I read the chapter. Here is the quote, and my best attempt at a translation of it:

L’homme est périssable. Il se peut; mais, périssons en resistant, et, si le neant nous est réservé, ne faisons pas que ce soit une justice.

Man is perishable. That may be. But let us perish resisting, and, if Nonexistence is what awaits us, let us not act in a way that would make our fate seem just.

Unamuno, as it turns out, rejected Sénancour’s willingness to allow that “le neant” was our collective end. He would not surrender to nihilism. Still, Unamuno’s ensuing development of his own argument for faith – faith not instead of doubt but rooted in doubt and flowing from doubt — was a means of doing precisely what Sénancour urged, without conceding the rationale for it. Instead, Unamuno inverted that rationale, saying in effect, Let us resist despair together, and so perish not.

I sold my old books in a time of great financial distress and profound personal despair (the two were connected, as they often are). The paltry sum I received for them just exacerbated my sense of sorrow and loss. But at the time I didn’t know what else to do. I did know, however, that no matter how much of my little library I felt that I had to give up, there remained a portion that under no circumstance would I willingly surrender.

Somehow I knew that if I had let those last few books go, I would have gone right with them.

Let us resist perishing. But if we must perish, let us perish resisting. That’s not an ethos they teach in Intro to Econ, not even at Stanford – perhaps especially not there, fons et origo of Silicon Valley. Economic arguments for the value of a humanistic education will not save the humanities, and we should stop making them. The value of what we study, of what we teach and what we learn, is that such learning can help keep the human spirit alive. That may be the surest ground upon which we can stand. If that ground at the very heart of the university is lost, whatever still remains will hardly be worth keeping, whether or not we ourselves are by some miracle still standing.

L.D. Burnett received her PhD in Humanities/History of Ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas in Fall 2015. She has a B.A. in English from Stanford University. Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is under contract with University of North Carolina Press.

This entry was originally posted in .USIH Blog, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Bio credit .USIH Blog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!