On Anger



Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles the son of Peleus

Homer Iliad 1.1

The first word (Μῆνιν ‘anger, wrath’) of the first line (in Book 1) of the first literary opus (Homer’s Iliad) of the Western canon is among the subjects of the musings that follow, but first I would like to comment on the patent inadequacy of my own nevertheless literally accurate translation.

Like Latin (to which literature this blog promises to revert often), ancient Greek (to which literature this blog promises also to revert often) in all its various dialectal variants has an affluent morphology that makes possible, for powerfully connotative purposes, a great deal of ludic manipulation of word order – even within the rigorously traditional constraints of the dactylic hexameter verse in which the Homeric epics were (orally) composed.  Modern English, by contrast, is by comparison a morphological pauper, relying much more heavily than either of the classical languages on constraints of word order: for example, a completely accurate ‘translation’ of the morphological coding of Homer’s line that preserves the word order of the original will read, ‘wrath sing goddess son-of-Peleus Achilles.’  But you would have to agree with me that this ‘translation’ leaves much to be desired both in terms of precise sense and the normative logotactics, or ‘word order’ 1  2  3, of modern English.

So what is entirely missing from “my own nevertheless literally accurate translation” is the layered richness that lies embedded in the Homeric line.

Begin with the line’s beginning (Μῆνιν) and end with its ending (Ἀχιλῆος): these two words enclose the line, and, at start and end, topicalize the central theme of the entire epic:  the anger of Achilles and its fateful consequences for both Trojans and Greeks but in particular for Achilles himself.  One might say that this embracing word order paints a kind of picture over and above the strict denotations of the words, sometimes reinforcing those very words, at other times, undercutting them.  (Elsewhere I have referred to this phenomenon – not all that uncommon in the morphologically complex richness of languages like Latin and ancient Greek – as ‘logotactic iconicity’.)

A couple further points.

There are three existential states in the Iliad:  the divinity, the mortal, and the hero (the hero being, technically speaking, an individual one of whose parents was divine, the other human).  And that is precisely the existential mapping of the line’s three final words: θεὰ (the divinity) Πηληϊάδεω (the mortal) Ἀχιλῆος (the hero, son of Peleus the man and Thetis the goddess).  This arrangement, then, is a further deftly iconic touch in that it limns as succinctly as possible the cast of the epic’s characters and the close and constant interactions among them.

The central appellative (Πηληϊάδεω) is a patronymic – son of Peleus – first among the countless ones peppered throughout the 15,000 plus lines of the Iliad, and by its very nature speaks to the important of two major themes that the poem explores:  the parent-child relationship, here manifested as that of father-son (and one inevitably recalls in this connection Book One’s adjacent plot-pivotal bonding between the father Chryses and his daughter Chryseïs), and, more generally, family.  Indeed, the father Peleus and the son Achilles anticipates the numerous other such connections and, most pointedly, looks forward to the final conciliatory confrontation between a son (Achilles) and a father (Priam) in the twenty-fourth, and final, book of the Iliad.

As with so many of the themes and motifs in the poem, it is as if (to borrow a biological conceptualization) the genotype ‘parent-child’ though itself without ontological status were source for not only the hundreds of very real relationships between a parent and a child, e.g., Anthemion and Simoeisios (Iliad 4.473-82),   but, analogously, also the virtual ones, e.g., Phoenix and Achilles or even Priam and Achilles.

Thus, I would argue, those few final words of the first line of the Iliad offer a pro-leptic if glancing nod towards much of the whole.

This cognitive housekeeping, then, deservedly given its stylistic due, let us now look at the thematics: anger. I was prompted to address this very ancient and very prominent aspect of our humanness by an article entitled “European Union’s Budget Proposal Stokes Anger” that recently appeared in the NYT for 21 April [to be continued in a future blog, “On Anger 2”).

With reference to a discussion of poems 1 and 47 of the Roman lyric poet Catullus (c. 84 – c. 54 BCE), in the Liverpool Classical Monthly 12.9 (1987) 130-132

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