“May the gods grant as much as you desire in your thoughts,
A husband and home, and may they give you fine likemindness,
For nothing is better and stronger than this
When two people who are likeminded in their thoughts share a home,
A man and a wife—this brings many pains for their enemies And joys to their friends. And the gods listen to them especially”
“To exact vengeance from someone was thought to be more important than not suffering at all. If oaths were ever taken in turn, were strong because each person was at a loss and had no power at all. But as soon as one of them had the advantage, he attached if he saw anyone unguarded: it was sweeter to take vengeance despite a pledge than to do so openly. It was thought generally to be safe and to have won a prize for intelligence, prevailing by deceit. Many wicked people become famous for being clever than good people do for being ingenuous. Men are ashamed by the latter but delight in the former.
To blame for all of these things the love of power and a love of honor. From both, they fell into a voluntary love of conflict. For those who were in charge of the state each claimed identities for themselves, some the equal rights of the masses, the others the wisdom of the aristocrats; while guarding the common goods in word, they were making them the contest’s prize, competing with one another to be pre-eminent, they dared the most terrible things—and they surpassed them with greater acts of vengeance too. They did not regard either justice or advantage for the city…”
An essay upon the life, writings, and character of Dr. Jonathan Swift (pp. 235-7):
Among the admirers of Dr. Swift, many have compared him to Horace, making proper allowances for the respective ages in which they severally flourished. The resemblance however between them is not so exceedingly strong, as that a similitude and manner of writing could have excited the least degree of emulation between them, further than to be equally renowned for their peculiar excellencies. Each of them had, independent of what is generally called a fine taste, a thorough knowledge of the world, superadded to an abundance of learning. Both the one and the other of these great men held the numerous tribe of poets, as well as that motley generation of men called criticks, in the utmost contempt; and at the same time have manifested themselves to be incomparable judges of all that is truly excellent, whether in books or men. Neither of them had the least regard for the Stoicks and whatever may be said of their being of the Epicurean taste, which, if rightly understood, is far from being inconsistent with the highest virtue; neither of them was attached to any particular system of philosophy.
Homer was the darling author of both Horace and swift. Horace declares in his epistle to Lollius, that Homer had abundantly more good sense and wisdom than all the philosophers; and Swift’s opinion was, that Homer had more genius than all the rest of the world put together. Yet neither the one nor the other of them have attempted to imitate his manner; but, like heroes of a bold and true spirit, have industriously followed the bent of nature, and struck out originals of their own.
Memoirs From the Peace in 1679 to the Author’s Retirement:
And so I take leave of all those airy visions which have so long busied my head about mending the world; and, at the same time, of all those shining toys or follies that employ the thoughts of busy men: and shall turn mine wholly to mend myself; and, as far as consists with a private condition, still pursuing that old and excellent counsel of Pythagoras, that we are, with all the cares and endeavours of our lives, to avoid diseases in the body, perturbations in the mind, luxury in diet, factions in the House, and seditions in the State.
“Later on, there was a whole generation of journalists doing the same thing. The new emphasis was given a fancy name: postmodernism. Actually it had been going on for so long that you could trace back through time all the way to wax tablets. T.S. Eliot wrote about Mary Lloyd and the music hall; Mallarmé edited women’s fashion magazines; Love’s Labour’s Lost is a pseudo-pedantic pop concert from start to finish; and Catullus sang a syncopated blues for the dead sparrow of his mistress. But to me this carnival of the qualities felt like a big and complex event, and the symbolic centre of it was the Edward Pygge Review.”
“Works of art which survive must all be indebted to the spirit of their age. Thus though Virgil and Horace copied Greek models, they imitated them at a time when the flowering of Roman civilization demanded just such a refinement, a taking over of the trusteeship of the past by the swelling Latin genius. In that sense every writer refashions the literature of the past and produces his tiny commentary, nothing is ever quite new; but there comes a moment when a whole culture ripens and prepares to make its own version of the great art of its predecessors.”
Whatever the poets pretend, it is plain they give immortality to none but themselves; it is Homer and Virgil we reverence and admire, not Achilles or Æneas. With historians it is quite the contrary; our thoughts are taken up with the actions, persons, and events we read, and we little regard the authors.
The expression in Apocrypha about Tobit and his dog following him I have often heard ridiculed, yet Homer has the same words of Telemachus more than once; and Virgil says something like it of Evander. And I take the book of Tobit to be partly poetical.
The Stoical scheme of supplying our wants by lopping off our desires, is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes.
Augustus meeting an ass with a lucky name foretold himself good fortune. I meet many asses, but none of them have lucky names.
“So he spoke, and a dark cloud of grief covered Achilles.”
῝Ως φάτο, τὸν δ’ ἄχεος νεφέλη ἐκάλυψε μέλαινα·
I don’t know why I’m surprised that I find it hard to write about the Iliad. Or rather, why I find it so much harder to write about the Iliad than I do to write about the Odyssey.
Everything around the Iliad has always been harder and heavier for me as a classicist and a modern bard. And as a human being.
From the first time I read it as an undergrad studying Classics at UW-Madison, I’ve felt that the Iliad punishes the reader in a way that the Odyssey (which to be sure, itself has plenty of punishment) doesn’t.
To be sure, the context in which I’m writing about performing my Homer-inspired musical works has changed. “A Penis on the Screen” was written at the beginning of the first full escalation of the pandemic, more than nine months and three hundred thousand US deaths ago.
It was also written after only a single virtual performance of my one-man musical Odyssey, and before any virtual performances of my one-man musical Iliad, “The Blues of Achilles. Since that initial phallus-inscribed voyage I have completed fourteen virtual Odysseys and eleven virtual Blues of Achilles shows.
In a way these two blogs mirror how the creation of my two epic works unfolded. I wrote “Joe’s Odyssey” in the naive afterglow of my undergraduate studies when I didn’t know any better, when I was too young to understand how audacious it was to create a thirty-five minute non-narrative modern folk opera telling of the Odyssey, let alone to ask folks to sit still for it. That actually worked in my favor, as youthful ignorance sometimes does. I wrote a prompt in my songwriting book that read “create a one-man 24 song folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey” and three months later I premiered it in my parents’ living room, with a full performance for a group of students less than two months after that.
By contrast, sixteen years later when I decided to take on the Iliad, I spent almost a full year reading, researching, even interviewing veterans, before I wrote a single song. Once I composed the songs that comprise “The Blues of Achilles,” I played small samplings of them in modest workshop scenarios for another year before I finally debuted the full cycle in San Francisco in early March just as the pandemic took hold (a selection of songs from that performance can be viewed here on YouTube).
All of this is to say that these two pieces came from and were in two wildly different places in March as I started to consider how I would continue to perform them in a streaming environment: on the one hand, I had 300 plus Odyssey shows under my belt, on the other I had the Blues of Achilles with… one single show (and one in which I performed with an ensemble).
In reading my initial impressions of performing virtually as detailed in the Penis on the Screen blog, I have to give myself a little credit: almost all of what I wrote there about the Zoom performance environment bore itself out as correct over the course of repeated performances of my Odyssey.
(NB: I am so infrequently right about things I have to make a big deal of times when I am. For instance, as she will vouch for, I saw where the pandemic was going early on and told my wife to stock up on canned goods and alcohol for quarantine in early-February. I also correctly predicted that Dwyane Wade would be an NBA Hall-of-Famer after watching the 2003 NCAA tournament. Take that, Calchas).
But while my routines around my virtual Odyssey shows were immediately informed by the hundreds of previous live shows and discussions, The Blues of Achilles was a blank slate. Would I perform all the songs without stopping? Would I work in spoken narrative passages as I did in the public debut in San Francisco? Would I talk about all the works that informed my songs ahead of the performance, or let the audience lead me to such considerations in a discussion?
My Odyssey performance had years and years to develop organically along with my abilities, going from a living room to high school classrooms to university settings over the course of more than a decade. In contrast, The Blues of Achilles had immediate opportunities with very high level college audiences.
Luckily, I had the songs I wrote for the characters we know most intimately from Homer’s Iliad: a number of songs for Achilles of course, but also songs sung by Chryseis, Bryseis, Agamemnon, Hector, Hecuba, Priam, Helen, Andromache, Patroklus, and Thetis. Songs sung by the bard (me in this case) telling the story as well as other more impartial observers to the human suffering portrayed in the poem.
I had these songs that I loved very deeply and I felt said something interesting, deep and most importantly true about the characters and story, something that modern audiences might have a harder time accessing when considering them in millenia old translated texts.
(There should be a word for when you read a sentiment similar to one which you’ve arrived at entirely independently, especially when it is confirmed by a lauded source. Joel suggested “serendipity” which is true and good but doesn’t quite capture the validation and confidence boost such an occurrence can confer upon an artist or intellectual.)
If excavating love from the grief of the Iliad was good enough for Simone Weil, it was certainly good enough for me. I thought perhaps this relationship between love and grief was the heaviness that had created such apprehension in me about considering the Iliad.
It was actually several months into these pandemic performances of The Blues of Achilles that I fully realized why adapting the Iliad scared me more and was so much harder for me than adapting the Odyssey.
In April, the songwriter John Prine died of Covid complications. In a beautiful New York Times tribute to this amazing artist, Jason Isbell (a brilliant songwriter in his own right) wrote about the genius of Prine’s writing in general but in particular the song “Angel From Montgomery,” which opens with Prine singing “I am an old woman/named after my mother.” Isbell has this epiphany: “songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right.”
When it came to the Iliad, my anxiety was (and is) rooted in the fear that I couldn’t get the details right. And I knew that for these characters deep inside the machine of war and their legacies, the details were a matter of life and death. This was why I spent a year reading any war literature I could get my hands on from All Quiet on the Western Front to Catch-22 to Slaughterhouse Five. I read Achilles in Vietnam and The Things They Carried and Letters Home from Vietnam and Dispatches. I interviewed veterans who served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Enduring Freedom. I interviewed a Gold Star father who lost his son in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I found myself by chance in a hazy whiskey-fueled late night conversation with a veteran military journalist who turned me on to the album Soldier’s Heart, a set of songs by Jacob George, a veteran of OEF who wrote and recorded this album of the truest war stories I’ve ever heard before he died by suicide in 2014.
And with these details and a new vocabulary, I went back to the text and as is the case over and over with Homeric epic I found truths hovering in the spaces around the words, waiting for me. I thought about some of the other Iliad adaptations I read: Memorial by Alice Oswald, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, the play An Iliad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. Casey Dué’s Achilles Unbound helped me recognize the multiplicity inherent in oral tradition and gave me even more confidence to find my own Achilles.
And out of me in less than 30 days in early 2019 came tumbling my 17 love songs. If Homer’s Iliad tells of the Anger of Achilles, my Blues of Achilles makes its focus the Grief that is prominent in the first syllable of Achilles’ name and the Love that is so inextricably connected to Grief (for more “serendipity,” see Emily Austin’s work in particular the forthcoming Grief and the Hero.)
Frank Zappa purportedly said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and whether or not he actually did, the sentiment is correct. I write songs to capture something that other types of writing cannot convey so I won’t try to describe what my online Blues of Achilles shows are like in detail other than to say they are heavy, connected, and beautiful. I break the songs up to allow for audiences to ask questions and contribute to the meaning as we go rather than waiting until the end for them to participate and engage. Pandemic audiences seem particularly attuned to the less central characters to whom I try to give voice, to the characters who have been pulled into the grievous orbit of the principle tragic figures of the story.
I’ll be doing these shows (both Odyssey and Blues of Achilles) online for at least the first half of 2021: while I’m hoping that later in the year conditions might allow for safe travel and gatherings, it might be even into 2022 before that’s possible. But I know that eventually I’ll be able to bring The Blues of Achilles (and my Odyssey) to audiences in-person.
Whereas my online Odyssey shows were informed by live in-person performances, my live in-person Blues of Achilles shows (when they happen) will be informed by my online performances and I’m interested to see how this inversion impacts the futures of both pieces.
I return to one of my first impressions of performing online which is that these stories are so durable and rich and full of possibility that they can thrive in any sort of performance environment. Maybe better put: making the change from in-person to virtual is no big deal when a story has survived the transition from oral performance to written text and the thousands of years since.
Ulrich Von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones):
“Lachmann, by common consent, was already the greatest living master of textual criticism in the domain of early German literature, where his immortality is assured, and his Berlin friends appealed to him to deal with such exceptionally difficult texts as those of Gaius and the Agrimensores. He acquitted himself well, but the verdict of Mommsen, who once called him ‘the great master of language’ was: ‘His emendations are splendid – if only he had known something about the subject!’”