Reading the Classics in Montana

For the last few months I have been immersed in reading The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  In my younger days these works of ancient Greece and Rome held no attractions for me.  They were fusty and moribund.  My education did not afford me an in-depth look at these works. I vaguely thought of them as irrelevant and considered modern literature as much more vibrant and pertinent in my life. However, the journey into the epic and drama has been exhilarating. The reading underscored that there may not be any new stories, just new ways and versions of relating age-old human conflicts and passions.

I was transported by the flow of Robert Fagles’ translations of the Greek epics, hurtled along into the realistic, very gory descriptions of hand-to-hand combat. (And I thought realism was a literary movement of the late nineteenth century?)  I fell in love again with long narrative poetry; its elevated style rich in simile is incomparable. The modern novel is at ground-level, but epic poetry and  Greek drama soar to the mountain heights.

Moreover, I found the narratives pertinent to contemporary events. The desecration of Hector’s body brought to mind modern-day soldiers urinating upon the corpses of their enemies. The Greeks believed that the dead, whether friend or foe, deserved a proper burial.  The difficulty in finding a cemetery willing to accept the body of the Boston marathon bomber evoked the image of Priam, Hector’s father, pleading with Achilles for release of his son’s body so that he could perform the funeral rites.

At so many points in reading the Greek tragedies, I remembered Shakespeare and how much the modern theater draws from Greek tradition. The tragedies are as powerful as the day they were first performed in Athens. I was particularly captivated by the full-dimensional portrayal of women, strong characters like Penelope and Antigone.  Hardly fragile flowers, they take charge, plot, oppose and resist male domination.  The women can be murderous and treacherous–take Clytemnestra, who made me think of women capable of slitting a lover’s throat from ear to ear. The goddesses are feisty; Hera gives Zeus tit for tat; Athena disguises herself as a man to bolster the courage of Telemachus. While The Iliad and The Aeneid describe in detail the gruesome slaughter on the battlefield, The Odyssey gives a fascinating look into the ancient household with its many references to ordinary objects and furnishings–bowls, stools, bed, loom, and the like.

From my reading of this literature originating more than two millennia ago, I find that human intelligence and emotions, the dimensions of personality have not changed. Despite vaunted technological progress,  the human being remains the same.  The modern-day brain is constituted the same way as the one that occupied the cranium of an ancient Greek. Certainly, society has not evolved to the point of forswearing war as a method to resolve conflict. Issues of what is just and what is unjust persist.  Men and women can still be adulterous or faithful.  Crime and duplicity coexist with valor and nobility.

Coming to this literature in later life, I think, was a good time to approach it. I doubt I had the experience to derive as much enjoyment and appreciation of these classics in my younger days. That is not to say, they should not be included in the school curriculum.  The definition of great literature, in my mind, is any work that bears multiple readings at different stages in life, each reading bringing new meanings and themes to light.


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