Copa Mundial

The Iliad, as the world knows, begins in anger. Wrath is its first word, the wrath of Achilles, where the word man begins the Odyssey, which tells us much about the story of each. Man stands for Odysseus, that solitary resourceful individual pitted in misfortune against the obstacles and trials of the world; wrath, Greek mēnin, for anger, dissension, strife, war. Or as Homer’s august translator George Chapman put it, ‘predominant perturbation’. Wrath is war’s cause and its continuance, at once the warring of men at the siege of Troy and the anger and arguments of the Gods which bring upon them such misery. Most of all though, as Chapman suggests, wrath is a matter of temperament, an implacable burning condition of mind that shades into pride, aggression, stubbornness. Yet it is often forgotten what the wrath of Achilles is about. Addressing Agamemnon, he explains, angrily, in this excerpt from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation:

As for myself, when I came here to fight,
I had no quarrel with Troy or Trojan spearmen;
they never stole my cattle or my horses,
never in the black farmland of Phthia
ravaged my crops. How many miles there are
of shadowy hills between, and foaming seas!
No, no, we joined for you, you insolent boor,
To please you, fighting for your brother’s sake
and yours, to get revenge on the Trojans.
You overlook this, dogface, or don’t care,
and now in the end you threaten to take my girl,
a prize I sweated for, and soldiers gave me!
Never have I had plunder like your own
from any Trojan stronghold battered down
by the Akhaians. I have seen more action
hand to hand in those assaults than you have,
but when the time for sharing comes, the greater
share is always yours. Worn out with battle
I carry some trifle to my ships.
Well, this time I make sail for home.
better to take now to my ships. Why linger,
cheated of winnings, to make wealth for you?

Wrath, which bends the bow of the epic, is a powerful force. Yet is not wrath, claims Achilles, that motivates him to fight – rather it is wrath that motivates him not to fight: he refuses, and risks not only the failure of the siege but the destruction of the Greek forces, his friends and companions, by his refusal. Achilles’ wrath, which therefore causes the whole action of the Iliad, is about the distribution of rewards, spoils, the prizes of war – in other words, adequate remuneration. In this he is not alone; much of the fighting concerns stripping corpses of their armour, and men risk the most gruesome death, and indeed suffer it, in the hope of bringing back such riches. The spoils of war are symbols of honour, maybe, representing a due recognition of worth and fame, but they are marks of a desire that is essentially acquisitive. The action of the Iliad itself, as opposed to the larger Trojan war, depends on such desires, which are seen to be nearly universal in fighting men.

We would do well to remember this when criticizing footballers for their apparently acquisitive nature. They don’t risk death, maybe, but then nor is the glory they play for potentially immortal. They play for honour, to win, and, yes, for spectacular remuneration. Such are the expected rewards for the very best players; vertiginous salaries and advertising contracts are the trappings of success, and they are duly demanded. Yet for this footballers, as opposed to other professions, are endlessly criticized. Well, to desire such things may represent a flaw, but is hardly a modern one. It is as old as the hills, says Homer, and as old therefore as Western literature. In fact Achilles’s wrath, which stems from this desire for recognition and remuneration, is the first adequately described motivation in the canon. Even Ashley Cole’s notorious swearing and swerving off the road has a precedent. And despite all his prancing, Christiano Ronaldo is unlike Achilles in that he hardly stands around refusing to play because someone nicked his girlfriend (though pace Wayne Bridge).

So maybe in the next few weeks we should allow ourselves to admit that we admire their arrogance, their desire for honour, their demands, perhaps almost as much as their skill. The difference between then and now is really that this time Greece seems unlikely to come away with a win, however hard-fought.


~ by thebicyclops on June 16, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: