life and death

The Iliad


What is life?

I have not posted for some time here because I have been consumed with my studies. As the semester draws to a close, I will spend the next few months catching up on both my reading and my blogging, focusing, of course, on the Great Books of the Western World in particular. The next several posts will be somewhat out of the order in which these works are listed in our reading plan because I have been selective with those I have been able to sneak in here and there while reading, choosing those I was most interested in at the moment rather than whatever was next on the list.

For now, though, we are on track as I will be here briefly discussing Homer’s Iliad. It is fitting, it seems to me, that the title of the last work of last year’s reading was What is Life? Although that book is about a quite different topic, the question is an apt one to apply to Homer as well, and this work especially. (To be honest, it could be applied with equal force to nearly any of the Great Books).

This is the heart of the question that Achilles must answer when he chooses what sort of life he will live. His famous choice of two fates–to live a long, peaceful life or a short, glorious one–is one of the defining moments of the story. And it is, in a sense, the sort of choice that each of us must make. Behind this choice lies that question: what is life? What is the purpose and the value of a human life? For what are we intended? Achilles’s choice is well-known enough: glory–and an early death to go with it.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld. During this visit, Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a poor farmer on earth than be dead. I don’t recall that it’s ever made explicit, but it seems evident to me that if Achilles were given a second chance he would choose a different fate for himself.

Book Review: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Given the importance and widely acknowledged greatness of this book, I would like here, in lieu of a “review” in the traditional sense of the term, to offer instead a few thoughts and comments toward a possible interpretation.

There is a great deal of Christian religious symbolism that runs throughout the book. There is, for example, the wonderfully succinct statement of the shortest chapter of the book, and perhaps the shortest meaningful chapter in all of English-language literature: “My mother is a fish.” The words of a child; simple, yet poignant and bursting with possibilities. What Faulkner has done in this single simple sentence is to turn the symbol of a fish, the ichthys of Christianity, a traditional symbol of the resurrected Christ, into a symbol of the finality of death, of the eternal absence of return. His mother is a fish because, like a fish, her eyes are lifeless, she has been gutted (metaphorically, in the case of the mother), and, of course, she flops around in the water when her casket falls into the river as they attempt to ford it.

It is in this Christian symbolism, I believe, that we can begin to arrive at a possible interpretation of the ostensible insanity of Darl. Darl is not insane in actuality, but is perceived as insane by the others because of his failure to conform to their expectations. He is different. He sees through things, he knows things, and he understands things. He is the only one of the members of the family that sees into the inner worlds of those around him, that is not entirely preoccupied with his own concerns. Dewey Dell even imagines that she has a conversation with him that takes place entirely in the realm of the mind. He penetrates her thoughts, he surpasses her objectivity.

And because he surpasses subjectivity he is frightening to the others. The rest of the family prefers their private obsessions. They do not want to be known. For this reason they have him taken away. They want to be away from his presence and the insight he has into each of them.

If all of this holds, Darl may be seen as a Christ-figure. He behaves in ways that do not meet other’s expectations and so makes them uncomfortable. He understands them perhaps better than they understand themselves, again making them uncomfortable. And he attempts to save them through a means which they do not understand and will not accept. In the end, they send him away because they want so badly to be out of his presence. There are, however, something (quite modern) fundamental differences between Darl and the usual Christ-figure. He is not killed and there is no resurrection; there is, therefore, no redemption.