A book lover's 'secret life'


Kevin O'Brien Chang

AVID READERS lead double lives. One is the flesh and blood reality of family and sex and work. The other is a mostly secret dialogue with ourselves about imaginary characters. For fellow book lovers are scarce, especially if you have a taste for what used to be called the classics, but which, these days, are labelled dead white European male ­ or dwem ­ literature.

Had I been born in Egypt or India or China, my literary touchstones would be works like The Book of the Dead or The Mahabharata or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. But it's dwem literature such as The Iliad, Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov that my western education taught me to revere. And I'm too old now to drastically shift my intellectual moorings.

Normally my real and book worlds are mutually exclusive, but occasionally they collide, as when I recently went to see the movie Troy.

Loosely based on Homer's Iliad, Troy got polite, but not stellar reviews. 'Not as good as Gladiator' was the verdict. Shrek 2, based on a 32-page, 1993 children's booklet, got
better reviews, and made more money. But mediocre or not, I found Troy provoking.


For instance, there is a scene where Paris, Helen of Troy's lover, and Menelaus, her
husband, duel over the legendary 'face that launched a thousand ships'. Meneleus drives back Paris, who hides behind his brother Hector. Hector then clashes with the pursuing Menelaus and kills him.

My girlfriend whispered to me "Is that how the book went?" I was about to explain that in Homer, Paris is actually enveloped in a cloud by the Goddess Aphrodite and magically transported back to Helen's bedroom. But realising how ridiculous it would sound, I murmured "sort of."

In fact, when it tried to stay literally true to the book, the movie often seemed ridiculous. The audience snickered when a Trojan high priest solemnly declared the flight of an eagle to be a sign from the gods to attack the Greek ships. Yet The Iliad opens with the bird interpreter prophet Kalchas telling the Greeks that the plague they are suffering is a punishment from the sun god Apollo, and will cease if King Agamemnon returns the slave girl Chryseis to her father, the priest Chryses.

Agamemnon follows Kalchas' advice, but demands Achilles' slave girl Briseis as compensation. This makes Achilles ­ the Greeks' greatest warrior ­ so angry, he refuses to fight. Hence the
celebrated first line 'Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles'.

No one could take the movie seriously if it started like this. So instead of beginning in media res ­ in the middle of things ­ as Homer so famously does, it recounts Helen's abduction and attributes the Greek invasion of Troy to ancient realpolitiks, which is at least comprehensible to modern moviegoers.

As I exited the theatre, it occurred that I was probably the only one in the audience who had read The Iliad. In my arrogant youth, this might have brought a sense of exclusive superiority. Now it was a feeling of depressing alienation. Why should I care about a book which no one I know has read? Why had I wasted my time on something you can't even explain comprehensively to modern ears?

Indeed, was The Iliad really all that great? Had it truly moved me? Or was my reaction an 'if everyone says so, it must be great' self-fulfilling prophecy'? Maybe I found it 'sublime' only because of critical gushing like Kenneth Rexroth in Classics Revisited ­ "The best-qualified critics have always agreed that the first work of European literature has remained incomparably the greatest.


"Each time I put down The Iliad, I am convinced, as one is convinced by the experiences of a lifetime, that somehow, in a way beyond the visions of artistry, I have been face to face with the meaning of existence. Other works of literature give this insight, but none so powerfully, so uncontaminated by evasion or subterfuge."

As Hamlet said, "Words, words, words." When strung together, they can mean anything. Who are 'the best-qualified critics'? What does 'beyond the visions of artistry' mean? Can any book, especially one where men prophecy using bird entrails, bring you 'face to face with the meaning of existence'? Yet, for 3,000 years, men have been finding something in The Iliad that touched them. To read it then, is to transcend time and space, and communicate with countless minds past. And
looking through it after watching the movie, I did find myself moved again by Hector's noble courage, Helen's confused beauty, and Achilles' raging despair.

I also gained renewed respect for Homer, whoever he was. The characters, both in the book and movie, keep talking about 'immortal fame'. But men have fought countless forgotten battles over the ages. Only Homer's glittering art transformed another bout of mindless slaughter into an epic that still thrills the heart so many hundreds of years later. Yes, there is no magic like that of a poet's tongue.


Great literature teaches us, above all, sympathy for other souls, even if only imaginary ones. Dwelling so deeply in their minds for so long, we end up feeling almost as if we know these characters as well as we know ourselves. Entertaining as movies can be, only the finest books can give this sense of knowing someone other than ourself from the inside out.
In a way true classics enable us to experience more than one emotional life.

So the absurd gods and bird divination incidents of The Iliad dissipate, and its supreme moments remain. Especially perhaps the most moving scene in literature, where the Trojan champion Hector takes leave of his wife and son to do battle, knowing fully that his looming death will mean the destruction of his city and all he loves. ­

"All these things are in my mind also, lady; yet I would feel deep shame ­ if like a coward I were to shrink from the fighting, and the spirit will not let me ­ still I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it: there will come a day when sacred Troy shall perish".

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