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Apollo

Apollo

The older I get, the less reading I do, and the more re-reading. It’s a common symptom of age. There are many things that change as you leave behind the enthusiasms of youth.

I remember the complaints about conductor Arturo Toscanini that his repertoire was small and repetitive: How many times can you play the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, and why don’t you play more contemporary music?

Toscanini 2First, you have to remember that when Toscanini was young, he gave world premiere performances of many new works, including Puccini’s La Boheme and Sam Barber’s Adagio for Strings. He gave world premieres of at least 25 operas. When he was young, the music of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy were brand new, not the concert stalwarts they later became. He gave the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. He programmed all of George Gershwin’s major pieces, even if his Italian soul never quite beat to the jazz rhythm. 

But it is true that after he came to the NBC Symphony, he concentrated on the war horses. His repertoire did narrow as he got old. The problem is that we know Toscanini mainly these days for his RCA Victor recordings, made near the end of his life, and so we have a skewed vision of his career.

That narrowing is not uncommon in artists, who generally — if they get to live long enough — develop a streamlined “late style,” which eschews much of the complexity they favored as young Turks, and gets straight to the point, as if the knew they didn’t have time for all the hoopla and somersaults. 

And so, as his hair whitened, Toscanini focused on those works he knew he could never exhaust: things like the Beethoven symphonies. They provide endless riches, endless possibilities, and endless satisfactions. 

I say I recognize this because as I’ve aged, I, too, have narrowed my focus. As a young art critic, I kept up with all the newest trends in contemporary art. I loved the buzz and fizz: Who’s up, who’s out. What’s the latest and greatest. I even went so far as to disparage much of what is found in our art museums as “relics” of the art process, and therefore not really art — real art is what is coming out of the studios today. Or even better, tomorrow.

And, as a music critic, I felt the same way. Give me something to shock my ears and lord keep me from having to hear another Beethoven’s Fifth! 

But there is a great change in one’s approach to art as one matures. Maturity isn’t just a slowing down and tightening up: It is the weight of experience. When we are young, we know so little, yet we think we know so much. We have the answers, and why don’t the fogeys understand that?

Life, however, burdens you with the accumulation of experience and what was clear as an adolescent is infinitely muddy as a grandfather. 

When we are striplings and in love with art, we tend to idolize it, and its makers. We test ourselves against our heroes, and against the art they made. Are we up to it? Can we maintain in ourselves the vibrancy and aliveness of the art we adore? Aren’t we “special,” too? Of course, we are! The world in art seems so much more brilliant and colorful, so much more emotionally intense. 

But, after a few marriages, a few divorces, a few illnesses, a few disappointments and the deaths of too many of those we loved, after seeing the politics of our time repeat themselves endlessly and stupidly, after seeing more genocides in the world, and hearing the idiocies of dogma and doctrine, the evils of ideologies and the fears of unknowing engender the hatreds of tribes and nations, after all that and the heavy weight of more, we — if we have been lucky — have earned a portion of wisdom. What we once valued from books, we know know more directly from life. And now, instead of measuring ourselves against the art we love to see if we measure up, instead we measure the art against our lives and experience to see whether the art measures up. And very often, it doesn’t. 

So, in our dotage, we fall back on a few trusted worthies, those poems, books, paintings, symphonies, choreographies that we have tested against our experience and which hold up and continue to give pleasure, consolation, understanding and — I hesitate to use the word — what we have come to regard as truth. 

It is what I find in those books and in that music that I re-read and re-listen to — that give me sustenance, that feeds my inner life and tells me that I am not alone but share something with those writers, those composers, those painters and sculptors who have gone through enough life to have developed enough emotional complexity to make art that says something real, and doesn’t just tickle my need for novelty, or — as in my youth — my self-announced grandiosity. glenn gould

So, I re-read The Iliad at least once a year, and re-read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust. I just finished again Dante’s Commedia, and expect to take on Chaucer next. I listen to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, or to the Budapest Quartet and the late Beethovens. I weep every time I see Balanchine’s Apollo or his Prodigal Son. I cannot get all the way through Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode without sobbing quietly. 

And Toscanini doing Brahms’ Fourth. I don’t know how many times he conducted that piece, and I certainly cannot count how many times I’ve listened to that recording. I can hear it all the way through now purely in my mind; I don’t even need the score. 

These things — and many more — seem rock-solid and true. 

I expect you have or will have your own list of works that do it for you. They shouldn’t be the same ones; after all, you have lived your own life and collected your own list of wounds and sorenesses, giving you your own sense of what life must be, despite all our best efforts. 

patroclus and achilles

Why should the first book written in the Western tradition still be the best book ever written in the Western tradition?

I’m talking, of course, of the Iliad, a book so beautiful, so profound, and so inclusive, as to remain unsurpassed by Tolstoy, Proust or even Dave Barry.

I try to reread it at least once a year, and in different translations. It never fails to delight me. More, it never fails to move me deeply.

For the ancient Greeks, Homer was as close as they had to a bible. It seemed to them everything one needed to know was included in the two books he is credited with writing, and the hymns he is supposed to have composed.

It reminds one of Caliph Omar, blamed by some for burning the great library of Alexandria, who supposedly said that the library was not needed, because everything we need to know is in the Koran, and if the books in the library contradict the Koran, they should be destroyed, and if they agree with the Koran, they are superfluous.

Clearly, not everything is in the Iliad: It is a little thin on women, for instance. The Odyssey does better by that count. But it is astonishing how much actually is included.

And what is also astonishing is how clear-eyed Homer is: How unblinking in the face of both good and evil. It is all there, and narrated with hardly a nod to one side or the other. This is the world that is, not the world as we should like it to be.

There is, it is true, a good deal of the Hellenic world view that is foreign to us today, but that hardly matters. The book seems modern anyway, even cinematic. (Not that any movies made of the Trojan war are anything but embarrassing — blame that on Hollywood, not on Homer.)

He writes like a movie camera: Written details play in our minds as if we were seeing them on a screen.

In Homer’s Iliad, when the Trojan warrior Hector has killed one of his Achaean (Greek) enemies, he “planted a heel against Patroclus’ chest, wrenched his bronze spear from the wound, kicked him over flat on his back.”

That’s cinematic.

Critic Roger Ebert talks about a movie cliche he calls the “fruit cart,” when a falling kung-fu fighter or a careening car knocks over a table or fruit cart and spills produce all over the screen.

Odysseus killing the suitors, by John Flaxman

Odysseus killing the suitors, by John Flaxman

In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero comes home to find his estate infested with villains. He kills them all, starting with the head bad-guy.

“Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat with the arrow’s point stabbing clean through to the nape of the neck and out the other side. Antinous pitched to the side, his cup dropped from his grasp as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life blood came spurting from his nostrils in thick red jets. His foot jerked forward and kicked the table and food showered across the floor, bread and meat soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.”

Fruit cart!

It is especially in the area of graphic violence that Homer anticipates Hollywood.

There was a time in movies when the bad guy got shot, grabbed his chest and keeled over. In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde turned death by gunshot into a slow-motion ballet of bodies jerked like marionettes punctuated by squibs popping like bubble wrap.

Since then, Hollywood has upped the ante, and the ballet of graphic gore has gotten more sophisticated, more precise and more messy. No one can be shot nowadays without a shower of blood spattering the wall behind him like spray paint.

In just 20 lines of the Iliad, Homer kills off half a dozen heroes in bloody style. Here’s a sampling:

“Thrasymedes stabbed Antilochus right in the shoulder and cracked through the bony socket, shearing away the tendons. Then he wrenched the whole arm out and down thundered Antilochus and darkness blanked his eyes. …

“Peneleos hacked Lycon’s neck below the ear and the sword sank clean through, leaving Lycon’s head hanging on his body by only a flap of skin. The head swung wide and Lycon slumped to the ground. …

“Idomoneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth, the spearpoint raking through, up under the brain to split his glistening skull, teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids with a gush of red and both nostrils spurting, mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood. He was a corpse as he hit the ground.”

Tarantino is playing catch up.

But it isn’t merely in gore that Homer is realistic. He describes everything from the food to the landscape as if he were a gobbling camera, eating up the full existence of life. And not, like some novelist, in different chapters, but in a single sentence he can telescope from the entire battlefield down to the iris of a bee’s eye, and then back out again in the space of five or 10 words. It leaves one not with the grand view and not with the microcosm, but with a clear sense that they co-exist in a single space, a single comprehension.

Something else that should be said is that Homer survives translation. There are many great poets who live so completely in their native soil, they cannot be shipped overseas without loss of savor. Goethe in his mother tongue is the great poet; Goethe in English seems like the bearer of bromides and platitudes. Horace cannot survive the journey from Latin to English without sounding rather like Polonius.

But Homer works whether in a straight interlinear or in Pope’s heroic couplets or in Stephen Mitchell’s newest colloquial English translation. The power of Homer is in his sweep, not in his preciosity.

Pope Iliad

It is what Longinus praised in his On the Sublime.

He even works in the quaint antique style of George Chapman. In fact, Chapman is a great treat for someone who loves the Queen’s English.

Outside the King James Bible, there is probably no English translation of anything more famous than Chapman’s Homer.

But it is famous for being praised in John Keats’ sonnet, rather than for itself. Hardly anyone alive has actually read Chapman.

Chapman issued his translations, first of the Iliad and then of the Odyssey, from 1598 through 1615, overlapping the publication of the King James Bible in 1611. Like that Bible, it is written in a knotty Elizabethan-Jacobean style, when English was first stretching its muscles and testing its power. It is profligate in its verbal extravagance.

Keats wrote that Chapman speaks out “loud and bold,” and he certainly does.

 

“The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way

Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay; 

That wandered wonderous far when he the town

Of sacred Troy had sacked and shivered down.”

 

I love that: “sacked and shivered down.”

Of course, you lose something to gain something. Chapman’s word inversions, to fit his meter, make the words sound as archaic as the more obscure parts of King James, and can interfere with understanding the sense. You keep having to stop and reparse the sentence to understand just what he means to say.

On the other hand, there is a strength and nobility to the stylized expression.

Modern translations, even as wonderful as the recent one by Robert Fagles (which I recommend to first-time readers over Chapman), may be clearer, and it has its own felicities, but it doesn’t give us anything as palpable as that shivering city: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”

The course between elevated style and easy comprehension has to be charted by each of Homer’s translators. Do you try to make him into an adventure novel, like W.H.D. Rouse, or do you look for the astonishing words that make poetry?

The opening of the Iliad has a line about how the anger of Achilles has caused the death of many men. An interlinear and literal translation says that the hero “prematurely sent many brave souls of heroes to Hades and made them prey to dogs and to all birds of prey.”

It is a grim image, of corpses littering the battlefield and being chewed on by animals.

Samuel Butler translates the same passage as “pushing brave men under the sod, feeding young men to dogs and to vultures.”

Alexander Pope, in one of the most enduring translations, gives that as:

 

“The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;

Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,

Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.”

 

The text most often taught in colleges is Richmond Lattimore’s. He gives that same passage as:

 

“hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls

of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting

of dogs, of all birds.”

 

The American poet Robert Lowell has it:

 

“threw so many huge souls into hell,

heroes who spilled their lives as food for dogs and darting birds.”

 

So you can see there is quite a wide latitude of possibility in translation, to make the sense clear and to make the imagery potent.

Here is Chapman’s opening:

Chapman's Iliad

To give a sense how Chapman fits into all this, we should look at the opening of Book XI of the Odyssey.

It tells about Odysseus (Chapman uses the Latin version of the name, Ulysses) and his men setting off from the island of the witch-goddess Circe.

A.T. Murray’s nearly literal translation for the Loeb Library offers:

 

“But when we had come down to the ship and to the sea, first of all we drew the ship down to the bright sea, and set the mast and sail in the black ship, and took the sheep and put them aboard, and ourselves embarked, sorrowing, and shedding big tears.”

 

It is a passage translated by T. E. Lawrence — yes, that is Lawrence of Arabia — as:

 

“At length we were at the shore where we lay the ship. Promptly we launched her into the divine sea, stepped the mast, made sail and went: not forgetting the sheep, though our hearts were very low and big tears rained down from our eyes.”

 

Pope lets these words fly quick and smooth:

 

“Now to the shores we bend, a mournful train,

Climb the tall bark, and launch into the main:

At once the mast we rear, at once unbind 

The spacious sheet, and stretch it to the wind;

Then pale and pensive stand, with cares oppressed, 

And solemn horror saddens every breast.”

 

Pope has expanded the passage to make it fly gracefully. Chapman goes the other way, with his crabbed, organ-tone Elizabethan style:

 

“Arrived now at our ship, we launched, and set

Our mast up, put forth sail, and in did get

Our late-got Cattle. Up our sails, we went,

My wayward fellows mourning now the event.”

 

Over and over, in Chapman, you come across the gnarly masticated consonants that act as rocks in the clear stream of vowels. Reading him can be like walking barefoot on gravel.

But at its best, it makes you taste each word as you utter it. You cannot speed-read the poetry: You must measure each syllable.

There are parts where Chapman seems to be on auto pilot, and when his poetry ventures into the banal, but at his best Chapman gives us a view of Homer as sublime, the version of Homer that Longinus praised, as being bigger and more awesome than our ordinary course of experience.

Oh, but what might have been. There is a passage of Homer that accomplishes what Chapman did, only more so, and with a sweeping poetic power that no one has ever matched.

One wishes, though, that Ezra Pound had finished a full translation of Homer. That cranky, crazy, fraudulent genius has given us the best, most noble, most poetic, and at the same time most comprehensible translation of parts of the Odyssey in his opening section of The Cantos.

It has the best of Chapman and the best of Pope, with a 20th Century irony and an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary that dances and sings. How I wish he hadn’t gone all loony and filled his Cantos with Chinese and economics and instead have spent that same time giving us all of Homer.

 

“And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and

We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,

Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

heavy with weeping.”

 

Well, if we can’t have a full Pound, Chapman will more than suffice.

Homer bust