Whatever our current moment of #MeToo media saturation means, all signs suggest that it will entail a diminishing of nuance in relations between the sexes, and that it will be accompanied by a narrowing of individual perspectives. And, of course, the meme-ification of the movement on social media won’t do much in the way of deepening discourse about sexual desire, a subject that has mystified, frightened, and inspired humans since long before the invention of writing, much less the internet. Scrolling through Twitter, however, one might be forgiven for thinking that what it means to be a man or woman living in a shared world is a recently discovered enigma.
Thankfully, the past does in fact exist and gives us classical literature to bring us outside of ourselves and to help us escape the amnesia of the perpetual present. Hélène Monsacré’s classic 1984 Homeric study The Tears of Achilles, recently translated by Nicholas J. Snead and published by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies,is a welcome palliative to our current Manichean gender discourse. What gives the study its power is Monsacré’s refreshingly simple objective: allow the male and female characters of The Iliad to explain themselves to us with their dialogue, actions, and placement in the text itself. In other words, she engages in the novel pursuit of letting The Iliad reveal itself rather than using the epic as a cudgel in defense of an abstract ideology. The result is a study that conveys both the epic and the sexes with the complexity they deserve.
The title of Monsacré’s book is derived from its final and strongest section, which explores the meaning of crying in The Iliad. It’s also the section that does the most to confound contemporary notions of Homeric masculinity. If in the classical world it was considered “unmanly” for men to shed tears (think here of Plato banning male lamentation in his Republic, or of Euripides’ Heracles refusing to cry), then in Homer’s poetry crying is embraced wholeheartedly by heroes—not in spite of, but because of, their very heroic status. Monsacré explains that “If tears characterize first and foremost the great heroic figures, it is because their suffering is active, energetic, and virile. Suffering is inscribed on their bodies in the same manner that warlike ardor is inscribed. . . . Far from being an unimportant accessory to the epic warrior, the gift of tears is, on the contrary, one of the elements that constitute his heroic nature.”
Working with the careful attention of an ethnographer, Monsacré reveals the inherit complexity of Homeric gender roles through a close examination of dualities on scales both large and small. She compares hectic actions on the battlefield to equally complex machinations of the home. She contrasts the opposing roles that vultures and wives play with regard to the bodies of the male warriors. She links the functions of veils in the story to that of walls. And even though these relationships can be quite complex, Monsacré’s analysis is always grounded in the humus of the physical world. And rightly so, for a study of Homer. As Monsacré explains, “In the Homeric world, all qualities are thought of in concrete terms; for reasons inextricably tied to the epic genre and the archaic phase of thought from which it grew, Homeric poetry brings to life the strength and deeds of its heroes through the use of images. The concrete reality of the warriors who confront each other outside of Troy is evoked at length throughout the poem.” And so, following Homer’s lead, Monsacré herself thinks in concrete terms and analyzes the epic accordingly. The result is so rooted in the physical world that it resembles a forensic study as much as a literary one.
Monsacré’s book succeeds for two reasons: first, it is an extended close reading of The Iliad in its original language; and second, it’s predicated upon the belief that we can learn something of the culture from which The Iliad came based upon that close reading. Of course, when we read Homeric and other poems from the oral tradition, we recognize that a gulf of time separates their initial creation and their being written down. Monsacré calls the written result “the remains of a great shipwreck that destroyed the many epics created by an essentially oral culture.” As she writes in her introduction, however, “[We] can be sure that even if the stories told by Homer never took place, Homeric society, on the other hand, did indeed exist during the period we call ‘The Dark Ages,’ which run from the end of the Mycenaean era to Homer.” And so, Monsacré employs a blend of anthropology and literary study in one of the few contexts in which it seems appropriate: resurrecting the values of a collapsed culture through the literary recollections of a subsequent society.
The Tears of Achilles then, the efforts of a French scholar to analyze the values of an ancient civilization which were sung for generations before finally being transcribed, resembles something like a palimpsest. The passage of time is made apparent through the accumulated participation of people involved in transmitting the story. In his translator’s note, Snead uses the archaic French term truchement to describe his own role in that transmission. The word, which has not seen popular use since the nineteenth century, means something like “a go-between, an interpreter [offering] the possibility of penetrating the unknown, of gaining knowledge . . . both sacred and profane,” the French scholar (and Snead’s mentor) Peter Brooks tells us. And so here we have the inverse of a contemporary social media crusade: the brilliant analysis of a legacy of human thought and expression, grounded in objective reality, which throws light on the knotty complexities of human identity. Or, perhaps more pithily, #truchement.