Make the Machine Sing
War Music: An Account of Homer’s “Iliad,” by Christopher Logue.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.00.
In 1937 Sergei Eisenstein noted an affinity between filmic montage and the imagistic sequencing Homer employed in The Iliad. Joanna Paul, in Film and the Classical Epic Tradition, traces several arguments “that certain pre-modern societies understand visuality in a way that can be equated to cinema.” Paul Leglise, working from Lucretius’s conception of vision, wrote in 1958 that “it is no paradox to claim that the new terms” of cinema “define very exactly certain literary techniques used by an ancient Latin poet.” Leglise thought of Virgil, not Homer, as the first cineaste; in 1970 we find Alain Malissard arguing that Homer’s poetry, but not Virgil’s, anachronistically exemplifies the seventh art.
Obviously, it is problematic to liken ancient poetry to a medium that was invented around the same time as Coca-Cola. But I’ve been thinking of The Iliad in cinematic terms since I first read it in college, when I was also learning about Eisenstein and Dovzhenko, Godard and Nicholas Ray. Eisenstein, drawing on Lessing’s Laocoon, isolates Homer’s description of Hera’s chariot, pointing out how the poet depicts the wheels in stages. In Stanley Lombardo’s flinty rendition:
Hebe slid the bronze, eight-spoked wheelsOnto the car’s iron axle, wheels with pure gold rimsFitted with bronze tires, a stunning sight,And the hubs spinning on both sides were silver.
Strangely, there is no good film version of Homer’s epic. Or perhaps that’s not so strange. As cinematic as its techniques may be, The Iliad does not lend itself easily to conventional commercial moviemaking. Maybe it would take something like Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 — a thirteen-hour film in which theater groups rehearse avant-garde adaptations of Aeschylus — to capture its sweep and roil. (This is one reason Godard’s Le Mépris remains the best Homeric movie — among other things, it’s a consideration of how one might bring Homer to the screen; Fritz Lang plays himself, hired to adapt The Odyssey.) Directors tend to play up the romance angle and tack the sack of Troy from The Aeneid onto the end, as in Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy (1956) and Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004). As Paul notes, The Iliad “does not claim to be ‘about’ the Trojan War, and it does not matter that it ends before the war does.”
Troy is a bad movie, peppered with basic errors and laughable dialogue. But it contains one scene that seems to me to possess genuine Homeric insight. It’s the battle between Achilles, played pretty well by Brad Pitt, and Eric Bana’s Hector. Achilles is insane with rage and grief over Patroclus — you know the story — and controls the fight from the outset. But at one point, Hector scores a blow, nicking Achilles’s breastplate. Achilles looks down at the mark in astonishment. It’s just a scratch on the leather, not worth a second thought, but Achilles can’t believe it — and you realize, no one has ever penetrated his defenses that far before. No sword-point has ever been that close to his flesh. It’s a brilliant moment: it tells you how good Hector is, and, even more, how good Achilles is. And in a flash, from a simple glance, you have a sense of these two warriors as titans — the son of a god contending with the son of a king.
This is the sort of effect that the late Christopher Logue achieves again and again in War Music: An Account of Homer’s “Iliad,” the greatest film adaptation of Homer ever set down on paper. The new edition gathers the poem, written over forty years and published in installments over twenty-five — War Music (1981, covering books 16–19); Kings (1991, books 1 and 2); The Husbands (1995, books 3 and 4); All Day Permanent Red (2003, books 5 and 6); Cold Calls (2005, Books 7–9) — and adds as an appendix Big Men Falling a Long Way, editor Christopher Reid’s reconstruction of Logue’s projected final installment, which contains fragments from books 10–24.
It’s very far from a translation, by design — Logue, who couldn’t read ancient Greek and worked from existing translations, rearranges Homer’s material as he pleases and drags the diction into the present by way of Pound’s Cantos, even borrowing lines from August Kleinzahler. The redoubtable classics scholar Bernard Knox was shocked at the liberties taken in The Husbands. It might have helped to think of it as a movie. Indeed, Logue opens with an establishing shot worthy of John Ford:
Picture the east Aegean sea by night,And on a beach aslant its shimmeringUpwards of 50,000 menAsleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet.Now look along that beach, and seeBetween the keels hatching its western dunesA ten-foot-high reed wall faced with black claySplit by a double-doored gate;Then through the gate a naked manRun with what seems to break the speed of lightAcross the dry, then damp, then sand invisibleBeneath inch-high waves that slideOver each other’s luminescent panes.
The filmic qualities become explicit at times, infiltrating the poem’s vocabulary. The shift of speakers in Achilles’s insolent exchange with Agamemnon is produced by “Silence. // Reverse the shot. // Go close. // Hear Agamemnon ... ” After Hector kills Patroclus, as the Greeks mass on the beach to attack: “Close-up on Bombax; 45; fighting since 2.” “Quick cuts like these may give / Some definition to the mind’s wild eye.”
Critics have focused on these cinematic aspects of the poem, but Paul brings out how properly Homeric they are — how The Iliad is “primed and ready to be made cinematic.” Logue’s poem, I’d argue, zooms in closer to Homer than the plodding literalism of a version like Richmond Lattimore’s, made to “please professors,” as Guy Davenport said. Of course lines like these take us far from the Greek text:
‘There’s Bubblegum!’ ‘He’s out to make his name!’‘He’s charging us!’ ‘He’s prancing!’ ‘Get that leap!’thock! thock!‘He’s in the air! ‘Bubblegum’s in the air!’ ‘Above the dust!’‘He’s lying on the sunshine in the air!’ ‘Seeing the Wall!’ ‘The arrows keep him up!’thock! thock!
And you’ll find Kansas in these pages, and Uzis, binoculars, Stalingrad and Cape Kennedy, “headroom” and guitars, helicopters, airplanes, fly-fishing, gigantic font, and the earth revolving around the sun. But like Brad Pitt’s stunned face, War Music finds a visual and emotional equivalent for Homer’s human realities, as when Achilles looks over the armor Thetis has brought him:
Spun the holy tungsten like a star between his knees,Slitting his eyes against the flare, some said,But others thought the hatred shuttered by his lidsMade him protect the metal.His eyes like furnace doors ajar.When he had got its weightAnd let its industry assuage his grief:‘I’ll fight,’He said. Simple as that. ‘I’ll fight.’And so Troy fell.
It doesn’t always work. But Logue’s reconciliations of idea and image are often perfect.
Think of a raked sky-wide Venetian blind.Add the receding traction of its slatsOf its slats of its slats as a hand draws it up.Hear the Greek army getting to its feet.
There are fine passages in the unfinished material culled from Logue’s notes — with a title as delicious as Big Men Falling a Long Way there would almost have to be — including an initial stab at Brad Pitt vs. Eric Bana, the scene I most lament Logue’s not having lived to complete. But welcome as it is, this material is mostly undeveloped and diffuse, and can’t add much to our experience of the poem. We can all regret that the poet was unable to undertake his planned rewriting of Homer’s famous 130-line description of Achilles’s shield, which Logue proposed in his notes to extend.
But War Music is complete in its way, one of the mad socko follies of the twentieth century, writhing with coarse, fevered life. Logue conveys the terrible rush of war with the guerilla pathos of Samuel Fuller’s epigraph to The Big Red One: “‘Why are you crying?’ — An insane child to a burning tank.” Odysseus to Achilles:
They do not own the swords with which they fight,Nor the ships that brought them here.Orders are handed down to them in wordsThey barely understand.They do not give a whit who owns queen Helen.Ithaca’s mine; Pythia yours; but what are they defending?They love you? Yes. They do. They also loved Patroclus.And he is dead, they say. Bury the dead, they say.A hundred of us singing angels died for every knockPatroclus took — so why the fuss? — that’s war, they say,Who came to eat in Troy and not to prove how muchDear friends are missed.Yes, they are fools.But they are right. Fools often are.Bury the dead, my lord,And I will help you pitch Troy in the sea.
Western literature is born in rage. But it is also born in song. μῆνιν and ἀείδω. “Our machine was devastating,” Michael Herr wrote of America’s profane destruction of Indochina. “And versatile. It could do everything but stop.” Logue’s Homer makes the machine sing.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014), as well as a book of criticism, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his...