Mon - August 16, 2004
Modern-Day Troy and the Perverted Question of This Election
The Trojan War, apocryphal or not, may be the richest source of themes and metaphors in all of Western literature. Homer's Iliad and its sequel, the Odyssey, are the classical roots of Western literature. Those epics served as the basis for works as widely varied as Virgil's Aeneid, Berlioz's Les Troyens, and James Joyce's Ulysses, and influenced Dante's Commedia and countless other works. The tales told of or inspired by that war have proven fertile ground for the exploration of the themes of war and peace, destiny and free will, and honor and deceit, but not until I read Christa Wolf's Cassandra did it occur to me to consider the current American bellicosity in light of the Trojan War.
Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and the sister (or half-sister) of Paris, Hector, Troilus, and others. She was also a prophetess who foretold the destruction of Troy, earning her the derision of her family and all Trojans, and urged the Trojans not to accept the wooden horse from the Greeks. Christa Wolf's book is Cassandra's inner monologue describing the history that led to the execution at the hands of the Clytemnestra that she's awaiting. It's an astonishing piece of literature in many of the ways that literature can be astonishing, but it's also frighteningly prescient. Cassandra recalls confronting her father after first seeing that Troy was doomed:
King Priam felt sorry for himself. The complicated political situation, and now me to boot! He sent the guards away, which was brave of him. If I went on this way he would have no choice but to lock me up, he said wearily. At that, something inside me thought: Not now, not yet. Whatever did I want, for heaven's sake? he asked. All right, so they should have talked to me earlier about that confounded business with Helen. All right, so she was not here. The King of Egypt had taken her away from Paris, the stupid boy. Only everyone in the palace knew that, why didn't I? And what were we to do next? How could we get out of the thing without loss of face?
"Father," I said urgently, in a way I never spoke to him again. "No one can win a war waged for a phantom."
"Why not?" the king asked me in all seriousness. "Why not? All you have to do is make sure the army does not lose faith in the phantom," he said. "And why should there even be a war? You always use these big words. What I think is, we'll be attacked, and what I think is, we'll defend ourselves. The Greeks will ram their heads into a stone wall and withdraw at once. After all, they won't let themselves bleed to death over a woman, no matter how beautiful she is; and I don't believe she is, anyway."
"And why wouldn't they!" I cried. "Assuming they believed Helen was with us. Suppose they were the kind of people who could never get over an insult that a woman, be she beautiful or ugly, inflicted on a king, a man?"...
"Don't talk rubbish," said Priam. "They want our gold. And free access to the Dardanelles." "So negotiate terms!" I suggested. "That's all we need. To negotiate over our inalienable property and rights!" I began to see that my father was already blind to all the reasons for opposing war, and that what made him blind and deaf was the declaration of the military leaders: We will win. "Father," I begged him. "At least deprive them of the pretext of Helen. Here or in Egypt, she's not worth the life of a single Trojan. Tell that to Menelaus's ambassadors, give them gifts a host gives guests, and let them go in peace." "You must be out of your mind, child," said the king, genuinely shocked. "Don't you understand anything anymore? The honor of our house is at stake."
The honor of the house was what concerned me too, I protested. I was thickheaded. I thought they wanted the same thing I did. So what freedom it brought me the first time I said no, no, I want something different. But on this occasion, the king was right to think I meant what I said. "Child," he said, drawing me to him; I breathed the scent I loved so much. "Child. Anyone who does not side with us now is working against us."...
I actually gasped when I reached that last sentence. Is Christa Wolf, who wrote this in East Germany more than twenty years ago about a war that may or may not have happened thousands of years ago, herself a prophetess? Where did this attitude of Priam's lead the Trojans? Where is it leading the United States?
...Then in spring the war began as expected.
We were not allowed to call it "war." Linguistic regulations presrcibed that, correctly speaking, it be called a "surprise attack." For which, strange to say, we were not in the least prepared. We did not know what we intended to do, and so we did not really try to learn the Greeks' intentions... I accepted my parents back in misfortune. But at the time, when the Greek fleet rose against the horizon, a dreadful sight; when our hearts sank; when our young men went laughing to meet the enemy, into certain death, with no more protection than their leather sheilds; then I passionately cursed all those responsible. A defensive ring! An advance line behind a fortification! Trenches! There was nothing of the sort. True, I was no military strategist, but anyone could see how our soldiers were being herded toward the enemy along the level shore to be butchered...
A formation of Greeks in close array, wearing armor and surrounding themselves with an unbroken wall of shields, stormed onto land like a single organism with a head and many limbs, while they set up a howl whose like had never been heard. Those on the outlying edges were quickly killed by the already exhausted Trojans, as no doubt it had been intended that they should be. Those toward the center slew altogether too many of our men. The core reached shore as they were meant to, and with them the core's core: the Greek hero Achilles. He was intended to get through even if all the others fell. He did get through. "So that's how it's done," I heard myself tell myself feverishly. "All for one." What now? Cunningly he did not attack Hector, whom the other Greeks took in charge. He went for the boy Troilus, who was driven toward him by well-trained men the way game is driven toward the hunter. So that's how it's done. My heart began to pound. Troilus stood his ground, faced his opponent, fought. He fought by the rules, as he had been taught was the way to fight between high-born men. He adhered faithfully to the rules of the athletic contests in which he had excelled since childhood. Troilus! I was trembling. I knew ahead of time each step he would take, each turn of his head, each design he would trace with his body. But Achilles. Achilles the brute did not respond to the boy's offer. Perhaps he did not understand it. Achilles raised his sword high above his head, gripping it with both hands, and let it whistle down on my brother. All rules fell into the dust forever. So that's how it's done.
I wonder if anyone watching the towers of the World Trade Center fall thought to themselves, "So that's how it's done." In the same way that the Trojan War has proven to be fertile ground for the literary imagination through the centuries, Wolf's book could be fertile ground for any interdisciplinary doctoral student in search of a dissertation topic. There are many enlightening parallels that can be drawn between her take on the Trojan War and America's recent interactions with the Middle East.
It seems to me that the United States is the inheritor of the Trojan legacy. Aeneas and his followers fled the rubble of Troy to found Rome, after whose republican ideal the United States was founded, whose eventual hegemony and empire we seem to be pursuing, and whose eventual fall we seem to be approaching. Aren't we, like the Trojans, engaged in a theoretically endless war without rules against an enemy that we aren't prepared to fight? In Wolf's telling, the Trojans provoked the Greeks to war by kidnapping Helen (as a response to an imagined insult to the Trojan's sense of honor) and refusing to admit that they subsequently lost her to the Egyptians. Is Middle Eastern oil (the reason we're in the Middle East, provoking Islamic fundamentalists and arming dangerous groups and nations) our Helen? Is Middle Eastern oil (with which we bring terrorism into our country) our Trojan Horse (the modern embodiment of the Trojan Horse being a Canyonero)? Or are we, as Kyle suggests, the Greeks, going to war in Iraq to reclaim weapons that they got from us, but that they no longer have? We're almost certainly engaged in "a war waged for a phantom." Can we, unlike the Trojans, win such a war?
Wolf offers far more than these (admittedly very suggestive) parallels. She writes with clear authority about the dependent arising of war and national attitudes and understandings. Kyle mentions Cassandra's realization that "[w]ar gives its people their shape." But before war can shape a people, the people must shape the war through their fear, longing, and ignorance, as illustrated by King Priam's thinking prior to the Trojan War described above. And Casandra, who is unwilling (and perhaps even unable) to allow her understanding to be shaped by war, finds the transformation of her people to be more painful than the violence and hardships of war itself. As the world around her changes beyond her recognition, Cassandra still seeks sanity and morality. She has a dream:
I knew it was night, yet the moon and the sun were in the sky at the same time and were struggling for dominance. I had been appointed judge (by whom it was not stated): Which of the two heavenly bodies could shine more brightly? There was something wrong about this contest, but try as I might, I could not find out what.
She shares the dream with her servant who eventually tells her, "The most important thing about your dream, Cassandra, was that faced with a completely perverted question, you nevertheless tried to find an answer." This is how I feel about the coming presidential election. John Kerry (the sun) clearly shines more brightly than President Bush (the moon), but there's "something wrong about this contest." It's a perverted question, but I still feel compelled to find an answer.
I intuitively distrust those who become passionate and single-minded about politics, just as I distrust those who become passionate and single-minded about computers, journalism (which was why I lasted only one year as a journalism major in college), business, sports, religion, and just about anything else. I immediately stop listening to anyone who interjects "this is what really matters" into a discussion. I've always sought the universal human reality of which these narrow pursuits are just a piece. I chafe at the processes of distinction and classification as something foolish that will only have to be undone later if anything real is to be accomplished. For me, an election year is usually a time when I seek the greater meaning behind the breathless distortions and self-importance of the pundits and wonks. But in this election year, when even Jon Stewart (usually a great source of bipartisan mockery) can no longer hide his disgust with the Bush Administration and calls Robert Novak a "douche bag" at least once a show, it's very difficult not to be drawn into passionate partisanship.
My attempts at a broader understanding of political choices has never taken the form of Chris's cynical withdrawal from political responsibility. I've never sought to idealize a candidate or the system by which we choose our leaders. I know that having an effective choice between only two morally bankrupt career politicians is indeed a perverted question. But I also know that there are always pragmatic differences between what we can expect from the administrations of those two candidates. The country and the world were clearly better served by President Clinton than they would have been by the first President Bush or by Senator Dole. I think that can be recognized objectively without descending to punditry. Yet in the case of the current President Bush, it's difficult to review his failings objectively or to consider the ways in which we would all be better served by Senator Kerry without being drawn into exaggerated partisanship. It's nearly impossible to locate the universal human aspects of President Bush and his supporters.
Actually, I have a great deal in common with President Bush. Like him, my parents spent the Vietnam War drinking and carousing. Where Bush joined the Air National Guard to avoid combat service, my parents had me so that my father could avoid the military. And speaking of fathers, like Bush's, my relationship with my father, who did so much to see that I was successful, was not sufficiently intimate. Like Bush, I grew up to embrace spiritual practices that, in their fervor, my father would find distasteful. Like Bush, I went to Yale and am ambivalent about the experience. Where he felt out of place academically, I felt out of place socioeconomically. Where he "still has issues about the the phony intellectualism he encountered" there, I have issues with the simplistic, uninformed, and ultimately misguided sense of noblesse oblige I encountered there. Like Bush, I've had issues with addiction, and like him, I haven't been through any formal treatment or recovery. Yet despite all of this common ground, I can't understand how he and those around him seem to see the world--I cannot find their humanity.
I've reached the point of exhaustion with respect to this election. I've found myself drawn further into this quadrennial quagmire than I'm comfortable with. I've found my attention drawn away from what I think really matters, from what I believe to be important, and to struggling for an answer to the perverted question of this election. I want this election to be over; I want the Bush Administration to be over; and I want to be able to read great literature for something greater than a means to understanding our current political situation.
Edited for grammar and clarity.