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And unextinguish’d laughter shakes the skies.
– Alexander Pope, Iliad of Homer
Poor old Homer. Originally a churner of vigorous potboilers, he has since been elevated to immortal status by an unforgiving canon, ‘Aryanized’ by generations of imperial ideologues, and made into a primordial singularity because the crude concept of authorship cannot stand multiplicity. The Homeric Complex, perhaps the most famous of the early franchises, was a collection of gifted hacks who dimly remembered the divine corpus of the Vedas or the epos of Old Africa and decided that it was time for a thuggish new revision. The result was the Iliad and the Odyssey, both of which proved to be successful properties.
The Iliad shows up in later Greek and Roman books because it was initially a schoolyard hit, finally made respectable by a conspiracy of good luck, timing and catchy repetition. And here it is again, courtesy of the razor-sharp War Nerd himself, John Dolan. What makes Dolan’s Iliad probably the best since it was first recited around the tough-guy campfire is that he realizes what a piece of junk it truly is. The first rule of a junk is that it moves briskly over busy waters, wending its way from port to port with all its ragged sails intact, available to anyone looking for a short giddy ride. The War Nerd has concocted a stew of Shaw Brothers martial opera, notaroja viscera, Krazy Kat, and L-F Céline, with Homer’s hallowed name hanging over it all in a great irreverent sneer.
Most of what we know of the classical world is a product of the Victorians, who aligned the ‘Classical’ with the Colonial in that strange spirit of timelessness which characterized the era. This great pedagogic mass still weighs down the Hellenic with the weight of gray classrooms, prudishness, and a cranky obsession with racial origins (For a view from the opposition, read Gore Vidal’s Creation). A feisty, dirty late Roman such as Ovid never stood a chance against the 19th Century, never mind the outré dizziness of the Eleatics or an anarchic Keatonesque contraption like Diogenes. The new managers of the Classical Factory kept their image of Ancient Greece alive, pausing occasionally to persecute people like Martin ‘Black Athena’ Bernal, who reminded them (like Plato and Herodotus before him) that most of it came from Egypt anyway. Meanwhile, the contemporary Greek is seen as a lazy sod fit only to serve American bond-holders and the European Bank by the same ‘West’ that his ancestors apparently produced. The fabricated Greece still lingers on, while the real Greece starves, courtesy of the sons of Goethe, Keats, Pope and the Renaissance.
It isn’t necessary to know anything about Homeric Greek to read Dolan demotic and the dactylic hexameter of the original is rendered here in prose. The War Nerd’s antidote to the sasquatch-like English of many earlier Iliads is to render it in stubby sentences that leak as much bodily fluids as possible, attacking centuries of dryness with raw pantomime and Peckinpah blood. It’s a good strategy and his Iliad zips by with true narcocorrido gusto. Generous use of the anachronism also reminds us that we really know nothing of Homer’s world, except for a few eerie remnants which seem to parody our modernity in scandal, seediness, and bad conscience. Gone is the swift-footed, lightning-exemplified, fartonguereaching plushcompounding of earlier translations, a scholar’s Sanskrit leftover which works fine in song but not in text (academic killjoys usually mistrust music). Maybe such gerundish epithets were a joke to begin with, and the epic structure was intended to be a parody of the grandiose gestures of kings and their armies, hidden by swarms of appellation. The Mahabharata was the first outright comedy; Gilgamesh was the Ur-vaudeville skit.
The oily, heavy, noxious mess of prior Homers was also a way of avoiding the agonies of a David Jones or the unfortunate William Tyndale – two examples of people who created jagged magpie English which still seems unstuck in time, simultaneously atavistic and avant-garde. It’s either that or Shogun Assassin – the latter path is Dolan’s and he works it with true teenage guts. He’s unimpressed by lofty reputation, never suffers a foolish character without commentary, and is quick with the good rude analogy. His Olympians are louche third-rate technocrats: inept, pompous, and utterly unworthy of belief (in other words, Brechtian). Dolan/Homer’s mortal heroes are even less worthy of veneration, capable of sentimental pity at best; at worst, they are outright sadists from the back pages of Soldier of Fortune. Huge chunks of the poem wallow in gaudy, ludicrous battle scenes where prowess is shown by how much weight can be made to descend on an ant-like body at once. A mistake made once is revived countless times to the same effect, a lesson the American Imperium seems to take as an eternal riddle which will only be solved when Zeus finally appears to save ‘the good guys’.
The Trojans’ alliance with ‘Asians’ is subject to the same derision Homer & Hesiod & Co. poured on anything outside of their provincial little poetry club, and is probably the prime modal for the West’s racist loathing of the East. But Troy got its revenge by becoming Rome, which enslaved the sons of Agamemnon, before falling victim to its own alliances with ‘barbarians’ who later sacked the old backwater capital and forced everyone to wear pants instead of togas (See Durrenmatt’s Romulus the Great). Fashion is the deadliest of battlefields and it may be the real motor behind the secret machinations of history. K-Pop, not the arsenals of Pyongyang will seal the fate of the arrogant, blusterous worldview of the Washington Consensus and True Detective.
The one very moving thing Dolan adds to this catalogue of atrocities is that he begins his version with the grim fate of Chryseis, enslaved and raped by that old goat, Agamemnon. The boss refuses to give her back to her father, a priest of Apollo, thus unleashing the wrath of the god in the form of a hideous plague which almost eviscerates his army. Women are the first casualties and the last witnesses, the only fact in the wreckage of the Iliad that has not changed. Dolan does it almost Breslin here, in that Jimmy Breslin was a man who reported the effects of collateral damage and was never suckered into the suburban Cult of Bastardy – unlike a ponce like Martin Scorsese, who thinks that people getting their heads kicked in is transcendental. The book ends with the similarly-moving speech of dead hero Hektor’s wife Andromakhe, who sees her future much like Chryseis’ present. The wooden horse and the fall of Troy are not far off. The rest is mud, the governing element.
Who was this collection of bragging, club-footed, stupid fables intended for? Its descendents appear in the city-lore stories of gang fights you heard about as a kid, the letters RIP and LIVES written after each nom de guerre on the wall, myths of martyrdom one hot summer and the glory of stints in famous penitentiaries. Hector’s ghost appears with his nunchucks at the State-Lake grindhouse. Blood-brotherhood rites in the flies and cement, warriors before Poseidon and his open hydrants, or by the back of school, catching the eye of someone’s Afrodite. You understand, it is all classical.
We owe Mr. Dolan a great debt for returning velocity to the Iliad colossus, for not taking it too seriously, and for reminding us who pays the highest price from the first outrage to the last. There are now more slave girls than ever before, on the run from direct siege or from the austerity of war by other means. As Pope had it, “vulgar deaths, unknown to fame.”
Note: John Dolan’s commentary on currant military affairs, as unerring as Akilles’ mighty pike, can be found here: http://exiledonline.com/cat/war-nerd/