Verity (Iliad Book X)

The Trojans are watching, lest the Achaeans sail away in the night. Achilles is staying in his own camp. As we open Book X of the Iliad, Agamemnon cannot sleep. He worries, not just about the Trojans, but about whether his own men are properly worried.

A swimming man leaves a wake in a calm sea, whose gravelly bottom is seen in the foreground
One of two men I found swimming near Kireçburnu
Sarıyer, Istanbul
Sunday, New Year’s Day, 2023

Having sought the counsel of Nestor, who was no trouble to wake up, Agamemnon suggests checking on the sentinels, to see that they are minding their business (lines 93–101, in Lattimore’s translation):

Terribly I am in dread for the Danaäns, nor does my pulse beat
steadily, but I go distracted, and my heart is pounding
through my chest, and my shining limbs are shaken beneath me.
But if you are for action, since sleep comes neither upon you,
let us both go out to the pickets, so that we may see
if they might not have found weariness too much for them, and fallen
asleep, and altogether forgotten their duty, to keep watch.
There are men who hate us sitting nearby, nor do we know
that they might not be pondering an attack on us in the darkness.

Staying on the job is a challenge. There’s an argument that it’s getting worse today, because

some of the cleverest people in the world are dedicated toward one goal: “How do I get Sean to pick up his phone more often and scroll as long as he possibly can?”

Sean here is Sean Illing, being answered by Johann Hari in an interview on Vox (February 8, 2022) about his book, Stolen Focus. Mobile phones are the latest distraction. Without them, would my students really pay more attention in class? I’m not sure. In any case, before there were consumer electronics, there were still people like Agamemnon, anxious about whether their comrades were staying focussed.

An even earlier need to stay focussed is taken up by Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (page 134):

Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir far upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narratize the situation and so hold his analog ‘I’ in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was then capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘internal’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do.

Jaynes gives the range of the late Pleistocene as 70,000–8,000 b.c., and this is when he thinks we learned to speak. We must therefore not have been conscious, at least not fully (pages 67–70):

consciousness can only have arisen in the human species, and that development must have come after the development of language …

The first writing in human history in a language of which we have enough certainty of translation to consider it in connection with my hypothesis is the Iliad … What is mind in the Iliad?

The answer is disturbingly interesting. There is in general no consciousness in the Iliad. I am saying ‘in general’ because I shall mention some exceptions later. And in general therefore, no words for consciousness or mental acts.

Jaynes’s main exception is Book IX. I have said this book contains “The Asıl of the Iliad,” but Jaynes cites Walter Leaf for the idea that the book is a late addition to the epic. In A Companion to the “Iliad” (London: MacMillan, 1892; page 170), Leaf says,

If we accept this book [namely IX] as original, we must regard Achilles as really inexorable, wishing not for satisfaction for his wounded honour, for that is admittedly offered him in abundance, but for simple unreasoning vengeance.

I have tried to show how Achilles is offered not satisfaction, but only material wealth: not actual contrition, much less understanding. Perhaps this is all the more reason to think Book IX was not part of the original epic.

In any case, we are now in Book X, and to my understanding, this book too could be happening today.

Nestor criticizes Agamemnon’s brother for not being up. Agamemnon defends him. It is true, says Agamemnon, that Menelaus often must be told what to do; however, this time, he was up before Agamemnon.

Agamemnon shows a sensitivity for other people that the title character of Emma learns over the course of that novel.

Menelaus needs to be told what to do, even now. He understands Agememnon’s order to rouse Idomeneus and Aias; but still he has to ask what to do then (lines 62–3):

Shall I wait where I am, with them, and watch for your coming,
or run after you, when I have properly given the order?

Agamemnon tells him to wait there—but also, it seems, to rouse more than those two men. Agamemnon has detailed advice for good manners in this context (lines 67–71):

Call out wherever you go, and waken each man to give him
your orders, naming him by descent with the name of his father.
Give each man due respect. Let not your spirit be haughty,
but let it be you and I ourselves who do the work, seeing
that Zeus cast on us as we were born this burden of evil.

Compare with how Mr Knightley admonishes Emma for haughtiness towards poor Miss Bates during the excursion to Box Hill:

Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion.

Is Homer the Jane Austen of ancient times? As Agamemnon is now, so is Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park a model of propriety. Nonetheless, each man induces a withdrawing: Agamemnon, of Achilles; Sir Thomas, of his niece, when he tells her,

For I had, Fanny, as I think my behaviour must have shown, formed a very favourable opinion of you from the period of my return to England. I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence. But you have now shown me that you can be wilful and perverse; that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you, without even asking their advice.

The modern young woman is as wilful as Achilles! In Book I of the Iliad, in what I suggested was the greatest act of the epic, Achilles had to hold back his sword arm, lest it impale Agamemnon. In Mansfield Park, Fanny does not consider stabbing her uncle with a penknife; however, she must hold her tongue, since it would wound Sir Thomas to hear the real reason why Fanny cannot marry Henry Crawford. Jane Austen explains:

Her ill opinion of him was founded chiefly on observations, which, for her cousins’ sake, she could scarcely dare mention to their father. Maria and Julia, and especially Maria, were so closely implicated in Mr. Crawford’s misconduct, that she could not give his character, such as she believed it, without betraying them. She had hoped that, to a man like her uncle, so discerning, so honourable, so good, the simple acknowledgment of settled dislike on her side would have been sufficient. To her infinite grief she found it was not.

A big difference between the self-restraint of Achilles and that of Fanny may be that, by Jaynes’s account, the former is due to an hallucination of Athena: this is how Achilles must have perceived the order given by one side of his bicameral mind to the other. I don’t know that this keeps us from understanding Achilles’s dilemma as being of a type with Fanny’s. In either case, the impulse that gets restrained is one of self-defense.

Obviously Achilles differs from Fanny by being a warrior, used to killing men and enslaving women. In Book X, after Agamemnon tells his brother the proper way to summon other warriors, one of those warriors is going to go out and kill twelve Thracian warriors as they sleep, after he has killed Dolon, who has told him where to find the Thracians in the first place.

In the passages quoted from Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has returned to England from his Antigua estates, and we can infer that these are supplied with slave labor. Earlier, after her cousin Edmund had criticized her reticence, Fanny told him,

But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?

Explaining why she didn’t pursue the subject, Fanny says,

And I longed to do it⁠—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like⁠—I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by showing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.

How do we feel, about slavery? It is not clear whether Jane Austen wants to guide our thoughts. Neither is it clear whether Homer wants us to think anything in particular about the slayings committed by Diomedes.

Before volunteering for the mission, on which he requests the help of Odysseus, Diomedes was sleeping peacefully when Nestor came to him with that very man. Homer describes the scene (lines 150–8):

They went to the son of Tydeus, Diomedes, and found him
with his gear outside the shelter, and his companions about him
slept with their shields underneath their heads, and their spears beside them
stood upright, the heels driven deep in the ground, and the bronze afar off
glared, like the lightning of Zeus father. The hero
slept, with the hide of a field-ranging ox laid beneath him,
but underneath his head was laid out a lustrous blanket.
Nestor the Gerenian horseman stood by to waken him
and roused him, stirring him with his heel, and scolded him to his face.

Such details might go into the script of a play or film today.

After their nocturnal adventure, Diomedes and Odysseus return to camp (lines 572–6):

And the men themselves waded into the sea and washed off
the dense sweat from shin and shoulder and thigh. Afterward
when the surf of the sea had rinsed the dense-running sweat away
from all their skin, and the inward heart had been cooled to refreshment,
they stepped into the bathtubs smooth-polished, and bathed there.

The photo of a swimmer at the head of this post is the best I can do for a recent illustration.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Soap (Iliad Book XI) « Polytropy on February 8, 2023 at 7:44 am

    […] ransom by Achilles, and this shows that ransoming does happen, and not every captive is killed like Dolon, although we may note that Achilles took Isus and Antiphus, not in the heat of battle, but as they […]

  2. By Femininity (Iliad Book XIV) « Polytropy on March 3, 2023 at 5:22 am

    […] the Achaean camp that night, in Book X (lines 255–9), when Diomedes was setting out with Odysseus to spy on the Trojans, Thrasymedes […]

  3. By Mind (Iliad Book XVII) « Polytropy on March 24, 2023 at 3:00 am

    […] Book X of the Iliad, Agamemnon said his brother often needed to be told what to do. We shall see this […]

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