Thursday, December 16, 2004

Not dead yet

[Last words for English 2601, Backgrounds of Western Literature]

When an interviewer asked the poet David Shapiro to name his favorite living poet, he named Wallace Stevens. But Stevens is dead, the interviewer objected. Not to me, Shapiro replied.

It’s still fashionable (merely fashionable, not genuinely illuminating) to refer to the poets we’ve read (with the exception of Sappho) as “dead white men,” as if they were therefore irrelevant to our current understandings of human possibility and freedom. But it doesn’t take very much reflection to recognize that the truth is a lot more complicated. “White”? That’s a category that might say more about our painful American inheritance of the “color-line” (W.E.B. DuBois’ term) than about the writers we’ve read. “Men”? Sure, but what does that mean? Dismissing a work of the imagination on the basis of its maker’s gender seems downright totalitarian. Besides, as the poet Susan Howe has said, the poet is never merely a man or woman, the imagination never reducible to gender.

There’s a tremendous irony in seeing our world as somehow beyond the works of Homer and company. In truth, the world of these “dead white men” is in many ways our own. War is still the way that conflicts between states and peoples are too often settled. We still remember the dead by memorializing their names. We still experience the deep difficulties of returning home and becoming reconnected to people and a place. We still debate whether the penalty of death is or isn’t a form of justice. In our pursuit of desire we still make ourselves and others ridiculous. We still lie awake at night wondering about the ones we love, and we still delight in the miracle of children to carry life forward when we're gone. The continuities between past and present are numerous and specific. Thus the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay finds in Achilles and Odysseus patterns of trauma that help him understand the experiences of the Vietnam veterans with whom he works. Thus a recent production of Euripides’ Medea draws parallels between the dialogue of Medea and the chorus and the dialogue of guest and audience on trash talk-shows. (Like ancient Athenians, we seem to have a penchant for stories about women who have done what’s monstrous—killing their husbands and children, seducing their much-younger students.)

It doesn’t make me happy to draw these analogies, or to point out that we’re still living with patriarchy, slavery, and genocide. But it occurs to me that these ancient writers might be far more honest than we might like in acknowledging these realities. How many mainstream news organizations have shown the grief of mothers, wives, and sisters in war as fully as Homer has in the Iliad? How many have shown the horrors of war and genocide as Homer and Virgil have? (There’s genocide taking place in Sudan as I write these words: have you seen much about it on the news?) And in many ways, these ancient writers seem to be far ahead of us. Homer gives us a partnership of deep, mutual understanding in Odysseus and Penelope; Aristophanes gives us women who make a radical change in the affairs of state. Yet materials in use in federally-funded “abstinence-only” education programs tell young women not to give too many suggestions or too much advice to their boyfriends. Sappho’s “Look at him, just like a god,” was celebrated among the ancients as the poetic representation of the effects of love. How easy is it to imagine a poem of same-sex desire attaining that status in our culture? Who’s more modern than whom?

The ancient world was a complicated place. We’re still living in it, along with Homer, Virgil, Sappho, and all the poets we haven’t read (Hesiod, Horace, Catullus, and so on, all of whom are waiting for your attention). For those of you who will teach, I hope you’ll be able to return to some of these poets, even if you also have to teach novels about young adults who confront painful choices and go on to make self-empowering decisions in their lives. It’s entirely possible: a former student recently persuaded his high school to order several hundred copies of Lombardo’s Odyssey.

In the words of the poet Ted Berrigan, “Not dead yet.”

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