Friday, February 15, 2008

Aristeia

The aristeia (from aristos, best) is a recurring element in Homer's Iliad. It's a warrior's moment of greatest glory in battle, the poem focusing on him alone as he kills victim after victim after victim.

The longest and bloodiest aristeia in the poem is that of Achilles, who seeks to make the Trojans pay for killing his beloved comrade Patroclus. What sets Achilles' aristeia apart from all others in the Iliad is that it is, at heart, a suicide mission: Achilles knows that if he kills the Trojan warrior Hector (who dealt the final blow to Patroclus), his own death will soon follow. He doesn't mind. When his horse Xanthus — magical, immortal, and gifted with prophetic speech — warns Achilles of his fate, he replies, "I don't need you to prophesy my death, / Xanthus. I know in my bones I will die here."

What follows is unrelenting in its horror. Spattered with blood and tissue, fire shooting from his head, Achilles is both animal and god. He has lost his humanity, killing and mutilating as he moves toward his own death. He fights not alongside his fellow Achaeans, but in a private war. The only community he can now acknowledge is a community of the dead, the one that holds Patroclus and which he soon will join.

I think that what we're seeing in a campus rampage is a version of Achilles' aristeia, the work of a person dissociated from his own humanity and from reality. Simone Weil called the Iliad the poem of force, force being that which turns a human being into a thing. In the fragile version of pastoral that is the open American campus, it seems terrifyingly easy for one who would wield that force to be able to do so.

[Iliad translation by Stanley Lombardo, 1997.]

comments: 2

lesle said...

"O my country, O unhappy land, I weep for thee...."
-Hecuba, The Trojan Women, Euripides

Geo-B said...

I've hesitated to comment, but I think I've come to think of this as the "American disease," a lunacy and obsession with the gun culture that makes people who are unhinged think this is a solution to something irrational. Since I live in Illinois, I can't think, oh, this is someone else. I've lived in rural areas, grown up in the gun culture, full of sensible, decent people. But still, the availability of guns mixed with the openness and freedom which is at the definition of our public universities makes us particularly vulnerable.