Saturday, August 07, 2004


Hector and son

I just got around to reading last Sunday's article by Mark Edmundson on why we should read. After arguing that reading can play an important role in the socialization of readers, Edmundson's article closes by arguing that "the effects of reading major authors are almost always good ones. It is virtually impossible to be a consequential literary artist without infusing your work with sympathy. This understanding dates at least as far back as Homer, who makes it a point to depict the Trojans nearly as humanely as he does his fellow Greeks."

One might quibble (or more than quibble) with the idea that all great literature is a source of human sympathy, or that Homer can help people play well with others. (I seem to remember a lot of cracking skulls, sulking jocks, gangrenous greed, and murderous egotism in the Iliad.)

But Edmundson closes by pointing out that even the Iliad has its tender moments, citing the famous scene in which the doomed Hector says goodbye to his infant son on the walls of Troy. It's a scene that stands out in my memory from the undergrad course in which I first read Homer, and it's poignant enough to be worth an excerpt before going to bed tonight:

In the same breath, shining Hector reached down
for his son--but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror--
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods:
"Zeus, all you immortals! Grant this boy, my son,
may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power
and one day let them say, 'He is a better man than his father!' ...

From The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

Collective Improvisation:

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