War Music

By O'Leary, Michael | Chicago Review, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

War Music


O'Leary, Michael, Chicago Review


Christopher Logue. War Music. New York: Noonday, 1997.

Imagine wrath. Divine wrath. Imagine a man filled with that wrath. How can we imagine such a man? And perhaps more importantly, why have weas English speakers-never been able fully to imagine him?

There has never been an adequate translation of The Iliad into English. From Chapman to Lattimore, English translations have always revealed more about the particular time of translation than Achilles' wrath. If you talk to students of Greek, most of them will tell you that Lattimore's translation is amazing, or at least adequate. The main reason they say this is because it's a good crib that keeps a steady meter. If you talk to people who don't know Greek but have read Lattimore or any other version, they usually respond by saying that it just wasn't as good as The Odyssey or that it was simply a snooze. It's strange because there have been several adequate translations of The Odyssey in the 20th century alone, including versions by T. E. Shaw, Robert Fitzgerald, and the latest by Robert Fagles. And by "adequate" I mean that something of the push of the poem comes through. I've never read any English translation of Homer that truly offers an encounter with the foreignness of the Greek in the Benjaminian sense. That would truly change things. But various Odysseys do the job of keeping up the pace of the poem. This probably has something to do with the narrative nature of the poem and the psychologically resonant structure of the narrative itself. The Odyssey is a great story and the details of the story facilitate a sense of proportion in translation. Twenty years: ten at war and ten wandering seas made dangerous by the threat of Poseidon's revenge. It is fate to return, but to return the hard way.

The Iliad doesn't have the same narrative advantages to keep the poem going in translation. It begins with the word meinin-wrath-from which we get mania and manic. Sing wrath. And meinin is what the poem is about. But what doesn't quite come through in "mania" or "wrath" is the dreadful inspiration of that meinin. The night before the fifth game of the NBA championship last year, Michael Jordan was puking his guts out in a Salt Lake City hotel, poisoned by bad pizza and wine. The series was tied at 2-2. The Bulls needed to win, so Jordan agreed to play as long as Phil Jackson could rest him when necessary. Needless to say, Jordan played 43 minutes with 38 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists and an i.v. at half-time. What emerged that night was both staggering and dreadful. What won that game was Jordan's will, stripped down to its dark, bare, dreadful essence. But it wasn't even so much a matter of choice: Jordan's purpose and burden was to win at all costs. And there is something both horrifying and awe-inspiring about that urge, especially when laid so bare as on that night. Jordan's will is the only thing in this day and age that approaches the scope of the unknowable meinin of Achilles.

Christopher Logue opens his account of The Iliad with a cinematic panorama of the Achaians sleeping on the beach, saying nothing of wrath:

Then through the gate a naked man

Whose beauty's silent power stops your heart

Fast walk, face wet with tears, out past its guard,

And having vanished from their sight

Run with what seems to break the speed of light (5)

As he approaches the sea, he "beggar[s] his arms, and say[s]":

Source, hear my voice.

God is your friend. You had me to serve Him.

In turn, He swore: If I, your only child,

Chose to die young, by violence, far from home

My standing would be first; be best;

The best of bests; here, and in perpetuity.

And so I chose.

(One can almost imagine Jordan addressing Lake Michigan in such a manner.) By no means is this the best or the worst poetry in the account, but is rather indicative of the successes and failures of Logue's unorthodox method of translation. …

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