In preparation for re-reading The Iliad and The Odyssey with a few friends, I’ve been taking in The Cambridge Companion to Homer and M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus. And I’ve enjoyed the insight, the speculation, the scholarship involved in parsing the puzzle of the pre-Homeric world. But sometimes, it seems to me, the scholars are taking this all a little too seriously. Consider this:
Imagine, if you will, that the world as we know it is completely wiped out – all humankind, all buildings, cars, libraries, computers, animal life, plant life, all our daily accoutrements, all record that we ever existed. There’s not even any rubble with which to piece together the facts of our civilization. Everything, everyone is dust. Except for one thing, one thing remains as a document of our existence, a record that we were here. That one thing is a DVD of Oliver Stone’s most recent movie Savages.
Now suppose that some marauding alien spaceship lands on our decimated earth and finds that one thing left of our entire history and civilization, they find that last existent copy of Savages. Naturally, said aliens pop the DVD into their playing device (go along with me here) and conclude that life, indeed, had existed on this earth, and they watch the DVD over and over and over again trying to figure out who we were, what our world was like, what happened to us and why.
It doesn’t really matter if you’ve seen Savages or not to continue the scenario. It could be any action movie, any form of heroic popular entertainment. Think Jason Bourne of the Bourne Series, Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies, Tom Cruise of Mission Impossible. In Savages, the plot line is essentially this: Two highly successful Californian pot growers and distributors, Dan and Chon, are being pressured by the Tijuana drug cartel to give the cartel a cut of their business. The Californians are the heroes, essentially nice guys who just want to be left alone to do their thing. The Mexicans are violent, underhanded, moral-less. When the threat of violence isn’t enough to convince Dan and Chon to partner with the Mexicans, the Mexicans kidnap the girlfriend they share, Ophelia, the one thing they both care about most in the world. The rest of the movie centers around the various plots the two enact to get Ophelia back. There’s also a dirty DEA agent who works on the down-low with all the parties involved to further his own interests; there’s the head of the cartel, Lorena Elena Sanchez, who inherited the drug empire after her husband and sons were assassinated; there’s Elena’s Mexican henchmen who perpetrate horrific violence on anyone who stands in the way of their plans; there’s Elena’s daughter who attends college in the US and who tries to keep her distance from her mother’s world but ends up getting dragged in anyway.
For us, understanding the plot is simple enough. What are our aliens to make of this, though? Remember, this is the only document of our civilization, and the aliens don’t have the benefit of knowing this was merely popular entertainment, a fictional story with hyped-up characters and scenes that are intended to wow an audience as opposed to keep a proper history of our world. What would they make of Dan’s peaceable Buddhist leanings versus Chon’s post-Iraq-war-vet tendency toward violence that seems to win out in the end? And how about the crucifixes, tarot cards and blood-lust of the Mexicans? Why is there always a landscaping crew in a rickety pick-up truck every time Lado, our main henchman, visits an American home? When Ophelia describes her namesake as “the bi-polar basket case who committed suicide in Hamlet,” what the heck does that mean? When various characters refer to the Red Queen, Bono, Cheech and Chong, Butch Cassidy, 1984, and Henry VIII, how could anyone ever figure out those references? And, for the love of God, is everyone in this world perpetually high on weed, coke, or booze?
The world of Homeric scholarship is a bit like aliens trying to construct a clear picture of our world through analyzing an action flick. Yes, that’s a bit reductive – the earth’s prehistory wasn’t completely wiped out before Homer, it was simply not recorded. And modern civilization has a vast array of scientific and analytic tools at its disposal to piece together evidence from ancient civilization and figure out what it might have been like. But so far our best source for piecing together the Bronze Age of Greek history is Homer, and that is a bit like aliens having to rely on Oliver Stone’s aggrandized story-telling to piece together a picture of our modern world.
Homer was a storyteller, a poet. He was a performer, not a historian. The Homeric heroic poems may not have even been considered high art in their day. That’s not to say they are not artful – there is incredible talent in the creation, memorization, and performance of the poems. Homer, like Mr. Stone, has a studied technique, a masterful presentation. And, like Oliver Stone’s story, there are side tales of morality, of belief, of friendship, of love from which we might draw some reasonable conclusions about the values and beliefs of the characters. But these are characters and this is a fictional story. Let’s not forget that even though archeologists have discovered and excavated what is probably “Troy,” there is no evidence of a decimating battle between the Achaeans and the Trojans. There is no evidence that any of the heroes of the epics ever existed. And even Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer’s, complains that Homer’s depiction of the gods in the lives of the Bronze Age heroes takes into account little of what people likely believed at the time.
Oh, shoot, that’s right. I forgot all about the gods! Maybe I should be comparing the epics to the latest Superman, Batman or Ironman flick instead of a straight-up action movie. Oh, well, listen: Just pass the popcorn and pour me a large fountain drink – I’m sitting back and cracking open The Ilaid tonight, ready to be entertained.