Feet, fate, and finitude: on standing and inertia in the Iliad.
"Man stands alone, because man alone stands." (Weston La Barre)
I. Swift Feet and Winged Words
Feet and fate seem to be curiously related in the ancient Greek tradition. The remark may strike us pedestrian at first (no pun intended), but I hope to show that this connection signified for the Greeks something of utmost importance: it signified what it is to be human--in other words, to be a mortal being, someone who is conscious of, and thus in relation to, his or her finitude. To speak of a human being's fate then is to speak of his or her standing; standing not merely in the sense of social status--though status is always bound up with the question of fate--but standing literally on one's feet as the proper mode of human existence.
Our most noted example comes of course from the myth of Oedipus and its subsequent dramatization by Sophocles. The story is well-known: trying to avoid the fatal prophecy that he will be killed by his offspring, Oedipus's father, Laius, had the infant's feet first pierced and bound, and then instructed a shepherd to dispose of it in the wild. Rescued by the shepherd and raised by an adopted family, the limping foundling grew--of all things--into a peripatetic wanderer. First he wandered in search of his natural father, and after the accidental parricide, wandered in exile in expiation of his crime. Both myth and drama suggest that Oedipus's fate is inscribed bodily in the injury of his feet, an injury that in turn is inscribed in his very name: "Oedipus" means "swollen foot," and thus the proper name carries within itself the singular fate of the person. In his reading of Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus, Seth Benardete notes the intricacy of this connection between fatality and feet, and their co-inscription in the proper name. Benardete traces the marking of fate in the shape of the letter that "begins" Oedipus's Labdacid ancestry, the letter L (1) and that looks like two uneven legs: "The name of Oedipus perhaps most clearly shows that the surface truth of Oedipus is the sign of his depths as well. To be crippled was considered to be a sign of tyrannical ambitions, and the very name of the royal family, Labdacidae, contains within it labda or lambda, the letter that resembles an uneven gait" (2000, 75).
Although the Oedipal myth illustrates most emphatically this link between fate and feet, it is not unique. In less obvious but still evocative terms, this relation is expressed earlier on in Homer's Iliad as well. (2) I am referring, in particular, to the repeated characterization of Achilles (3) as a man of the swift feet [podas okus] and of an untimely [panaorion] (XXIV.540) and bad destiny [kakei aisei] (1.418). Physical quickness in this story goes hand in hand with the brevity of life. In her first appearance to Achilles in Book 1, his mother, Thetis, calls him okumoros--a word that contains the adjective okus of Achilles's feet--and that designates someone who is short-lived. When Thetis pleads to Zeus to grant due honor to her son, she appeals to the god by reminding him of the brevity of Achilles's life. This time she uses the superlative form of the same adjective, stressing how amongst all men he is the one doomed to this tragic destiny: "timeson moi huion hos okumorotatos allon / eplet'" (1.505-06). Later on, in requesting Hephaestus to craft a shield for Achilles, Thetis again uses the regular form of the same adjective to refer to her son's speedy death [okumoroi] (XVIII.458).
Swiftness may indeed be the very essence of Achilles, (4) since he is also a man of winged words [epea pteroenta]. Pteroenta derives from the verb pteroo, for which the Liddell-Scott lexicon gives two meanings, one literal, the other metaphorical: a) to furnish with feathers or wings; b) to excite, to agitate. Hence, "winged words" could refer both to a rapid but smooth and eloquent verbal exchange, as well as to an agitated, edgy speech. Although this formula of the winged words applies to other figures in the epic alongside Achilles, I think that it is more distinctively his characterization as is that of the swift feet. The reason is that no other mortal hero is assigned this epithet as frequently as is Achilles. (5) Since swiftness is what I am claiming here through the attribute of winged words, it would be interesting to note also that, in this double characterization of swift feet and winged words, Achilles resembles most of all the goddess Iris, the messenger of the gods, whose swiftness of feet [podas okea] (II.790, 795) is also compared to the wind [podenemos okea] (XVIII.166, 183, 196), as she flies to deliver her divine messages [epea pteroenta] (XVIII.169). It is arguable that Achilles too becomes something of a messenger of fate to the mortals, precisely because of his intimate knowledge of his own fate, a kind of knowledge that is inaccessible to other humans. Hence, in living and agonizing over his destiny, he shows the other warriors, and the readers as well, how we all participate in mortal destiny. Fittingly then in Book 24, he explains to Priam the way Zeus distributes fate amongst the humans (XXIV.525-33), separating each mortal being from the other according to his/her own lot, but linking them also through the mortality they share. However, more on this issue of the sharing of finitude will follow in the next two sections of the essay.
It is as if then the brevity of Achilles's life marks his body from mouth to feet, from speaking to standing--namely, the two activities that, as I will discuss shortly, distinguish human existence from all other. Such overdeter-mined connection between Achilles's mortality and his feet is literalized in the well-known extra-Homeric myth, in which he is said to be vulnerable only in his heel. Achilles and Oedipus: a peculiar symmetry arises as their two courses that are run oppositely lead to the same place--mortal destiny. Achilles, who knows of his fate at birth, often runs away from it, only to meet his death at a young age. Oedipus, who is in search of his origin and destiny, spends all his long life pacing painfully toward that fatality.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud thinks of civilization as the tragic consequence of a peculiar archaic event, namely, the appearance of homo erectus: "The fateful process of civilization would thus have set in with man's adoption of the erect posture. From that point the chain of events would have proceeded through the devaluation of olfactory stimuli and the isolation of the menstrual period to the time when visual stimuli were paramount and the genitals become visible, and thence to the continuity of sexual excitation the founding of the family and so to the threshold of human civilization" (1961, 54 n.l). Civilization is the effect of the repression of smell and its replacement by the sense of vision. Interestingly, however, at this moment Freudian logic complicates its usual trajectory, appearing almost counterintuitive at first: we would expect that the repression of the lower sense of smell, and its substitution by a higher sense such as vision would attenuate the sexual instinct, since attenuation of sexuality is the typical function of repression. Instead, the prominence of vision results in the prolongation of sexual excitation, since as Freud reasons, the reproductive organs of the upright human being are now thoroughly visible at all times. The presence of a permanent sexual partner who could assure the regular satisfaction of this instinct then becomes necessary--and hence the creation of the family as a unit of civilization ensues.
If until this point in Freud's account repression seems not to have taken its toll, we should not be hasty. Family and community as the hallmarks of civilized existence form also a pair of irreconcilable opposites that tear the human being asunder as s/he tries to harmonize the desire for personal happiness with communal responsibility. This is then the price of repression: the human being becomes the site of an unending strife between what Freud also calls "Eros and Ananke, [Love and Necessity]" (1961, 55)--namely, between the individual and fate, were we to subscribe to the vocabulary of tragedy. If Antigone is the tragedy par excellence of this rupture between family and society, then the Iliad furnishes us with the epic version of the very same rupture, as Achilles struggles between his private desire and his military duty. Ironically, the epic's commensuration of military honor and sexual satisfaction in the figure of Briseis, namely, of a public recognition and a private relationship, radicalizes all the more the antagonism between these two domains. Eros and Ananke form a conundrum for the human being, as only this erect creature is claimed simultaneously by an internal desire (and not merely by instinct), and by the external necessity of coexisting lawfully with others of its kind, and ideally, with the rest of nature. Thus, reading past the obvious biological aspects of Freud's narrative of the homo erectus--the biological is only one of the meanings of what Freud calls a "genetic" narrative (1961, 12)--we come to see that what is at stake in the notion of the biped organism is in fact the notion of standing qua comportment: in other words, standing up is the part of the human that transcends mere organicism, thus making out of a natural creature a fully human being.
This is what Bernd Jager also means when he writes that for Freud the moment of standing up "does not simply occur but ... is instead assumed or inhabited" (1988, 8). It does not occur as a biological fact; rather in its happening, the human being itself happens for the first time. Jager continues: "This standing up is all at the same time a wounding separation and emergence into humanity.... Whatever may have guided life up to this decisive point remains obscure. But beyond this point human life would be desire in the form of a standing up and in the form of a falling back into oblivion" (8). Standing up is an emergence, a coming-to-be human, while the wound of separation refers to the severance from the undifferentiated natural state from which primordial humanity emerged. This state, Jager contends, cannot be accessed, and it is precisely its irretrievability that becomes a wound for the nascent human being. In turn, this wound, which exceeds expression and articulation, paradoxically also demands them. The need to articulate this wound marks in fact the entrance into meaning. Consequently, standing up as the loss of primordial unity is inextricably related to meaning and to language. The standing human is first and foremost a linguistic being.
Jager's reading seems to suggest that in falling back into oblivion death returns us to the non-human natural state. Certainly Freud's definition of the death drive as the organism's entropic tendency to return to the inanimate matter from which it awakened, thus reaching equilibrium, could be read as this fantasy of recuperating the lost primordial unity. However, Jager correctly resists such a facile interpretation of Freud. The death of a being that has already stood up is different from the death of the other natural creatures, so that this return is complicated: the death of a standing being is a death that means, not just a simple factual event. This death, of which the human being is constantly aware during its life, makes of the human being a mortal--for a mortal is a being for whom death means, and more generally, a being who comes to meaning through death. Jager understands that Freud's theoretical formulation takes us beyond the two equally problematic paradigms to which this seemingly biological model could be reduced: Freud's insistence on the incommensurability of wound and sign allows for a non-totalizable understanding of the human, an understanding beyond both a "barbaric sentimental science that seeks to heal our wounds by seducing us back into an undifferentiated natural matrix where 'all is one,' and a hubristic science that would transform our wounds into letters and our world into a text" (8).
If we translate this statement into the Homeric characterization of Achilles, we see that the swift feet are set in a correspondence with the winged words as both allude to the brevity of life, but they are never reducible to each other. In fact, the two are chiasmatically related. When the feet are actually idle, the words fly wisely and eloquently, as in Achilles's speech to the embassy that requests his return to battle--a speech concerning the mortal fate the war holds for everyone, brave or coward alike (IX.318-20). Peculiarly, nowhere in this episode are Achilles's words described as winged, though they are admittedly profound, if somewhat agitating, to their audience. To the contrary, in this book, where Achilles is least physically active and most verbally engaged, all three of his speeches are prefaced with the line "Then in answer to him spoke Achilles of the swift feet" (IX.307, 606, 643). The chiasmatic relationship between feet and words is reinforced even formally, as Homer's epithets turn our attention to what remains inactive (the feet), since this physical inactivity itself foregrounds the significance of the hero's words. If anything, Achilles's inertia is interrupted for a short while, as he stands up at the sight of his visitors. Sitting away from the fury of the war and composing himself epic poems on his lyre, Achilles now has to suddenly rise up [anororousen Ahilleus] (IX.193) on his swift feet [podas okus] (IX.196), but only for a moment, and this to greet and welcome his guests. Such hospitality, Achilles recognizes, must take place despite his anger against the Achaians, for these guests remain his dear friends even in his anger (IX.197-98). This is also why, despite his strong refusal to their request, his words remain weighed, revealing both a sober understanding of human mortality and the genuinely mortal anxiety that life is always too short, and that one should not cut it any shorter by seeking a glorious death.
On the contrary, when the feet are swift and active in their rage, the words become impoverished, concealing rather than exposing the mortal fear that governs their savagery. They are winged not in the sense of unerring readiness or lightness of eloquence, but rather in the sense of a fast, agitated, and impudent thought. Such verbal insolence as we find in the later books of the epic--though stemming from Achilles's agonistic relation to his own mortality--does not disclose finitude as common human destiny, but rather distorts it into sheer violence and inhumanity.
In these later books that narrate Achilles's return to battle, Achilles repeatedly aligns himself with the world of beasts rather than men. Book 20 concludes with Achilles's fury setting everything ablaze, as he fights "daimoni isos" (XX.493), namely, with inhuman intensity. Richmond Lattimore renders this phrase as "something more than a mortal," while the Loeb edition prefers the more literal translation "like some god." We should underline here, however, that the term daimon does not carry only the positive connotation of being godlike; it carries also the negative one of inhumanity, of acting beyond one's own destiny. Both Liddell-Scott and Georg Autenrieth's A Homeric Dictionary associate daimon with aisa and tuche--that is, with the way the immortals act toward the mortals in distributing to them their fate qua finitude. When Achilles is said to behave like a god in this instance, it is because he assumes the hubristic position of controlling the fate of others, as if he were himself immortal, distributing indiscriminately death all around him. As such, he also assumes only the bestial, mad, most primitive aspects of divinity. (6) Indeed, in the next book, as Achilles wages war against the river-god Xanthos, (7) we see that he tries to match his prowess with that of the god, even though it is also during this battle that he faces most concretely his own human limits and his finitude. Here his swiftness of feet is not enough to save him from the onrush of the waters, and it takes the double intervention of Poseidon and Athena to defer the fulfillment of his mortal destiny (XXI.251-286). That in being more than a god Achilles is also less than a man is further shown in this book in Achilles's refusal to spare the life of the supplicant Lykaon (XXI.99-113). This refusal once again points to the space of inhumanity Achilles now inhabits, a space of utter lawlessness.
Lykaon's treatment at the hands of Achilles forms a preamble to the way Achilles will handle Hector. Achilles's exit from human community culminates in his refusal of Hector's plea for a reciprocal oath that would bind them to treat each other's corpse respectfully. Just like his speeches to the embassy, Achilles's speeches to Hector during their duel are also prefaced with his characterization as a man of the swift feet, but this time around his feet are indeed in fury as his stare grows angry and dark: "Ton d' ar' hupodra idon prasephe podas okus Ahilleus" (XXII.260, 344). Though inert, Achilles's swift feet remained his prevailing characterization in Book 9. After all, one tends to think of Achilles not as a verbal, let alone, philosophical character. Homer perhaps is in on the joke: even when Achilles speaks thoughtfully, one still thinks of his physical prowess; yet in emphasizing physical prowess where none is shown, the poet demonstrates by contrast how obviously inactive the hero is, having substituted words for deeds. In Book 22, however, the emphasis on Achilles's feet is literal, as his aristeia devolves into a killing spree. Here feet and words are no more contrasted chiasmatically; rather, they collapse upon each other, as Achilles's language reduces itself to the violent physicality of his feet. The terrible coincidence of language and body, feet and words, wound and symbol, which Jager's reading of Freud warned us against, occurs here: the racing and raging feet are followed by atavistic speech.
In his speech to Hector, Achilles describes his relationship to his enemy with a simile that explicitly equates Hector with animal prey and himself with animal predators: "As there are no trustworthy oaths between men and lions, / nor wolves and lambs have spirit that can be brought to agreement / but forever these hold feelings of hate for each other, / so there can be no love (8) between you and me, nor shall there be / oaths between us" (XXII.262-66). The fear of mortality, the quintessential fear of the standing being, turns Achilles into an animal. The animal is not bound by oaths or treaties--the symbolic reminders of human limitedness and of human subjugation to Ananke. Because it operates on instinct, and because instinct is governed completely by necessity, the animal creature does not recognize necessity as alien to it, and thus remains unconscious of negation, limits, and ultimately, death. As Georges Bataille writes, "for an animal, nothing is ever forbidden. Its nature fixes the animal's limitation; in no instance does it limit itself" (1955, 31). Achilles's rampage is the result of this impossible and terrible dream to re-inhabit (but the prefix re- is always already impossible from the place of humanity) the space of nature where death does not mean, to revert to a stage before homo erectus. Indeed, Achilles's responses to Hector become increasingly animalistic, and as such, not disclosive of mortality, but paradoxically mute: now that everything is reduced to bestiality, language is also reduced to an assault, as Achilles is unable to truly listen to his interlocutor. To Hector's plea to not let his body become prey to the dogs (XXII.339), Achilles replies first by calling him a dog (XXII.345), and then by quickly slipping himself into this canine image: "I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me / to hack your meat and eat it raw" (XXII.346-47).
Swift feet and winged words characterize Achilles, aligning him with finitude and the mortal anxiety over death, but they are not commensurable: the swift feet that wound know nothing of the eloquent winged words that come from the mouth of the wounded and dishonored man, for such words say always more than the private injury that initiated them. I would go as far as to say that in this poem the swift feet coincide with the winged words only when we think of the metrical feet, of the bard's verbal rhythm, whose rush-ness--and even agitation--remains faithfully at the service of measure (of ontological as much as metrical measure) and disclosure.
Let us then briefly return to Freud's narrative of homo erectus, from where this discussion of word and wound proceeded. The difference between wound and word, or body and meaning corroborates the fact that Freud's account of standing as a genetic moment in human civilization is such not only in the biological, instinctual sense of the term genetic, but in the strict psychoanalytic sense of genesis as arche, as the origin of a desire (Eros) and a necessity (Ananke). And as every arche is a leap, suggesting a moment of discontinuity, this genetic narrative turns out to be one of finitude as well--death being the other name of necessity. This moment of standing upright then is an origin, the origin of mortality, and as such, of meaning. It functions as a quantum leap that differentiates us once and for all from the animal world (indeed in a sense it makes the very reference to a possible continuum impossible), and engenders all the ensuing antagonisms that have constituted civilized existence, as well as structured philosophical thought from its very beginnings: high/low, reason/emotion, mind/body, pure/impure.
After all, the Oedipal narrative enjoys such a central space in Freud's thought precisely because of this connection between mortality and standing as human habitation. The Sphinx's riddle is nothing but an expression of the relation between time and human standing; in other words, it articulates the human withstanding of time. As Jean-Pierre Vernant also remarks, the Sphinx's riddle defines the human being in opposition to all other natural creatures: "All these creatures are born, grow up, live, and die with a single modality of locomotion. Man is the only one to change the way that he moves about, assuming in succession three different gaits: four-footed, two-footed, then three-footed" (1988, 214). Homo erectus is not simply a being on two legs, but the being that came to stand on two legs, and the being that knows his/her two legs will give out--the being in succession, in change, in time.
II. Achilles Heel: Myth Interrupted
Apparently, though widespread, the myth of Achilles's heel is not to be found in Homer. Thetis announces to Achilles in Book 1 that to a bad destiny she bore him in her chambers (1.418), but there is no mention of the fact that she failed to immerse him fully into the immortal water of Styx, leaving his heel dry and vulnerable. (9) Regarding this notable omission, Lattimore, in the introduction to his translation of the Iliad, writes: "Achilleus is not in any sense immortal. The legend of almost complete invulnerability is either unknown to Homer or discarded by him" (1961, 47). He adds that Achilles "is neither semi-divinity nor superhuman" (47), and that "[a]bove all, Achilleus is a real man, mortal and fallible, but noble enough to make his own tragedy a great one" (48).
Whether or not Homer was aware of the immersion myth, or its other versions, seems to me to be beside the point. After all, even if such a myth were not in currency during Homer's time, the poet could have easily invented one like it himself, had his purpose been to relate a story about divine feats. However, it is precisely this narrative possibility that Homer must discard in order to tell another one--the story of mortal men. Homer moves us away from the static realm of almost invulnerable demi-gods and other immortals into that of heroes, who are actually mortal beings and who take responsibility for their acts. Hence, Lattimore can read Achilles the way he does--namely, tragically, for tragedy is an expression of the mortal predicament. Achilles is a mortal being of splendor but also of destructive passions, rather than an immortal deity, whose acts are not bound by time. In Achilles's figure, Homer demarcates the mortal and the divine spheres, and in doing so, the epic poet anticipates tragedy. It is worthwhile noting that this much-debated question of the degree to which the Iliad is a tragic work has more far-reaching implications than the simply generic ones, in which the terms of the debate are usually cast. I would suggest that Homer's anticipation of the tragic form as the direct result of his thematic separation of gods and mortals bespeaks an even more profound and structuring separation in the language and thought of the Greeks--that between myth and literature.
This claim needs some elaboration, particularly in light of the fact that the Iliad, as the Ur-text of Western literature, has been predominantly discussed in terms of a coincidence between myth and literature: it is myth as literature. That the Iliad itself furnishes us with a definition of muthos as a word of mouth, a spoken word, can only lend further credibality to this argument of mythical and literary coincidence. Following this argument to its logical conclusion, we would have to concede that insofar as the epic (this epic, but also Western epic in general) forms an originary literary expression of human community, it does so by referring this community to myth. This is not an unproblematic conclusion, since the word "myth" is not simply an innocent word of mouth--at least not for us, modern interpreters of Homer. Myth's hearsay, which results in many and often contradictory stories of the same event, is perhaps the most obvious example of why this word of mouth brings about confusion, deception, and obscurity. Yet, through a rather violent reversal, the obfuscating character of myth presents itself as transparency, as the patency of all there is. The power of myth lies precisely in its invisible distortion.
From this perspective myth looks much more sinister, particularly as it claims to define national destinies by referring human beings to their so-called national literary heritage, which in turn is defined as native myth and the like. Ultimately, in fostering unproblematic identifications with heroic figures and moral ideals, the objective of every myth, in some way or another, is the denial of finitude: the most obvious instance of this denial is the dead soldier, whose singular death is effaced at the very moment he becomes a symbol of pride and national identification, and thus "lives on forever." This, of course, is myth's inevitable lie: it conflates the mortal with the immortal, thus disorienting the human from turning toward its proper direction, toward finitude.
Perhaps the most systematic philosophical problematization of the relation of myth to community today is Jean-Luc Nancy's chapter "Myth Interrupted" in his Inoperative Community. Trying to think through the issue of community and its foundational myths, Nancy maintains that the oldest, most powerful, but also most inconspicuous myth of community is the one that says that community itself originates in myth--in our case, in the epic narratives recounting the great deeds of a tribe's or a nation's heroes. This myth of community's origin in myth is what Nancy calls mythation (1991, 45). Nancy proceeds to show that the structuring principle of this "original" myth is fusion, that is, the tendency of myth to conflate boundaries of all sorts, thus denying the irreducible singularity of events as well as beings. I have already mentioned three major examples of myth's fusional structure: a) the semantic confusion brought about by myth's own many versions; b) the dream of fusion in tribal, national, religious, or any other group membership, which myth promises; and c) myth's promise of immortality through the fusion of human and divine realms, or rather through the fusion of the finite into the infinite.
For Nancy, the last one is perhaps the greatest and most pernicious of myth's fusional dreams, because in denying death in the name of community, it actually denies us the very possibility of community. It denies us community because, as Nancy maintains, community is nothing else but the exposition of finitude as the singular experience that is shared by us (as Achilles states in Book 9, we all die, strong and weak alike), but that also shares us (Moira literally means the lot distributed to each one of us, a singular lot that distinguishes our destiny from that of our fellow human being, a lot that is given to us in common but that is not our common lot). Nancy writes: "Community does not sublate the finitude it exposes. Community itself, in sum, is nothing but this exposition. It is the community of finite beings, and as such it is itself a finite community" (1991, 26-27). Following Heidegger, Nancy calls this mortal existence that is allotted to us our Being-in-common, rather than our having something in common. Anything short of this exposure to finitude is a culture of myth that makes a work out of death, (10) putting death to serve the utilitarian projects of history, nation-building, and other so-called great ideals. To the contrary, Nancy understands community as the un-working of death--hence, the term "inoperative":
Community no more makes a work out of death than it is itself a work. The death upon which community is calibrated does not operate the dead being's passage into some communal intimacy, nor does community, for its part, operate the transfiguration of its dead into some substance or subject--be these homeland, native soil or blood, nation, a delivered or fulfilled humanity, absolute phalanstery, family, or mystical body. Community is calibrated on death as on that of which it is precisely impossible to make a work (other than a work of death, as soon as one tries to make a work of it). (Nancy 1991, 15)
We can now see more clearly the death-work behind the example of the dead soldier I had cited above: in the identification with the national hero, death is worked out and resolved into the "higher plane" of symbolic elevation that can, in turn, serve every patriotic delusion of resurrection. It becomes rather obvious how such denial of finitude results in an ethico-political nightmare where dreams of invincibility are almost always followed by acts of violence.
In closing this brief reflection on myth's relation to community and finitude, I would like to suggest that Homer's omission of the myth of Achilles's invulnerability un-works this process of mythation, exposing instead the experience of finitude. First of all, whereas we have said that myth entails a conflation of boundaries--most of all the conflation of finitude and infinitude--Homer is more interested in establishing clear boundaries between gods and mortals: Achilles may be extraordinarily strong, but nothing is said of invulnerability. Why not? Because to do so would mean to separate the spheres by resorting to the literalness, but also arbitrariness, of a myth that always risks replacing the separation with a conflation: peculiarly by positing one only mortal body part, the myth of Achilles's heel would work to emphasize his near-immortality rather than his mortality. Instead, Homer consolidates the separation of the spheres in a subtler manner, by developing the ethos of his characters through their words and deeds, and by showing how one acts or stands as a mortal, not why one is born a mortal. It is through his words and his acts that Achilles comes to see what it means to be a mortal, and it is through them also that the listeners/readers of the Iliad understand their finitude as well. Thus, if Achilles is killed by an arrow at the heel, it is not so much because his divine mother failed to immerse that part in immortal water, but rather because the heel on which the human being supports itself emerges also as the symbol of mortal vulnerability. What helps us stand is also what makes us fall. Hence, Homer's manipulation of the mythological material serves not simply to yield a more compelling or manageable story-line, but a more profound task, that of demarcating the limits between myth and mythopoesis, of interrupting the unproblematic equation between myth and literature.
III. Laying Apart: Inoperativity and Finitude in Books 9 and 24
Achilles's most vulnerable part marks strangely enough the place of his prowess: being the fastest of the warriors, he is like a lightening bolt in battle. It is, after all, his speed that wins him the battle against Hector, since Achilles tires his opponent to death before he kills him. Perhaps it is this very instability, the fact that he never has both feet on the ground that is responsible for his mercurial nature. (11) Yet this man of the swift feet is confined for the most part of the epic to his tent, not running, or even standing up, but laying apart and awaiting his fate in inertia.
In a certain way the Iliad could be read as the development of Achilles's stance vis a vis the war. In Book 1 he stands in at least three ways. Firstly, he stands out, in the sense that he is the only warrior to question Agamemnon's arbitrariness. Secondly, in voicing his dissatisfaction against Agamemnon, he also stands in as an implicit representative for the rest of the army that is too terrified to express its discontents. Finally, his symbolic standing up to Agamemnon takes place in the middle of two scenes, which require of Achilles a literal, physical standing upright: Achilles stands up as he summons the Achaian assembly to discuss the plague, and after the quarrel with Agamemnon, he again stands up taking his oath of withdrawal. In sharp contrast to this active description early in Book 1, Achilles retreats after the oath to sitting by his ships (1.330,488), weeping for his dishonor. As early as Book 2, the verb keitai (II.772), meaning "to lay," is introduced to describe Achilles's idleness and withdrawal. Significantly, this verb is also used to describe the posture of a corpse, since Achilles's withdrawal can be read both as death for the Achaians and as a symbolic death of himself as a warrior. When the Achaian embassy comes to him, they find him in a reclining state, delighting in his lyre. This reclining posture, which dominates most of the Iliad, is interrupted for the brief exaction of revenge and resumes in Book 24 during Achilles's meeting with Priam. Book 1 then starts with standing, but ends with lying apart, and lying apart turns out to be the way the epic will conclude.
In his Turning: From Persuasion to Philosophy: A Reading of Homer's Iliad, Michael Naas has argued against Achilles's inertia as the destructive posture of a self-centered, hubristic warrior, who refuses repeatedly to be persuaded, thus driving his community to ruin. (12) I hope to show, in the rest of this section, that Achilles's inactivity can be read differently--not simply as a death-inducing solipsism, but as the figure par excellence of the Iliad's un-working of death, in the sense that Nancy, after Bataille, speaks of un-working. To begin with, this inertia, this rendering inoperative of Achilles's feet, is a mark of withstanding finitude. As I mentioned earlier on, Achilles's feet can be measured against his words and vice versa. In this reciprocal calibration of mouth and heels the disclosure of mortality happens at times as revealing and at times as concealing: the Achilles of Book 9, who refuses to use his feet in the battlefield, is a hospitable man, extending courtesies to an otherwise cunning embassy that tries to buy him back. This Achilles, despite his refusal to be persuaded by the embassy, appeals to his estranged friends to turn their regard toward what lies ahead and is shared by all of them in common: fate as finitude. Peculiarly, the army community, which could have a privileged access to this understanding because of its constant exposure to death, conceals this experience by embracing narratives of heroic action and immortality through glory. In contrast, Achilles's abandonment of the heroic ideal in this book as an un-working of death--that is, as a refusal to idealize death into immortal glory--goes hand in hand with his physical inertia.
Beyond the pragmatic objections Achilles raises against Agamemnon, Book 9 is first and foremost about Achilles's revelation to the embassy that a community not based on finitude is no community, and that in this sense, it is Agamemnon who refuses to accept finitude and to act himself as a finite being. How else can we understand his phrase "ise moira menonti, kai ei mala tis polemizoi / en de iei timei emen kakos ede kai esthlos" (IX.318-19)? The portion--that is, the fate--of the man who abstains from the war is equal to the one who fights, says Achilles. And if divine distribution is alike for the brave and the coward, how could all this be affected by the human distribution of booty as mark of honor? The astounding answer from this bravest of warriors is that brave and coward are held in a single honor. In other words, the portion that really counts is that of moira, of finitude, not of time and the immortality through glory that time implies. Achilles repeats this realization in slightly different terms to the embassy: booty, he says, can be pillaged or won in battle, but a man's life [andros de psyche] can neither be pillaged nor won back from death (IX.406-409). It is this quotidian yet difficult wisdom that Agamemnon cannot reach from his position of power. How significant, that when Agamemnon admits to his fault later on, he attributes it to Ate--namely, to Delusion that blinds his judgment (XXIX.91-94). Indeed, Agamemnon suffers from the most destructive of delusions, the delusion of infinitude, since he conflates kingly power with eternal invincibility. For all that has been said of Achilles's pride, it does not measure up to Agamemnon's arrogance--if for no other reason, than for the fact that Achilles's demand for redress proceeds from and attests to his dishonor, admitting thus to injury and to being finite.
Finitude in Book 9 appears first through Achilles's own fate, as he cites his mother's words to him (IX.411-16), but extends to everyone else equally: "Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard" (IX.318). Although both agonistic and resigned in its tone, this line remains an open invitation to his guests, and presumably to the readers, to partake of finite existence. I imagine that it is such an understanding of finitude that keeps Achilles silent when he is taunted by the embassy with the following remark: "The very immortals / can be moved; their virtue and honour and strength are greater than ours are, / and yet with sacrifices and offerings for endearment, / with libations and with savour men turn back even the immortals / in supplication, when any man does wrong and transgresses" (IX.497-501). The Achaians' implicit denunciation of Achilles is hubris. However, Achilles's silence with regard to this point, less than a mark of hubris, points toward something else. It is not only a different understanding of religiosity, one that refuses to degrade the gods to being partners in barter (a marvelous insight that would be admittedly inconsistent with much of the Iliad's understanding of ritual practice), but one that undermines the very comparison the Achaians attempt between the divine and mortal spheres. Achilles knows by now his place in the order of things, and despite his partly divine lineage, he has learned through his dishonor the corruption and mutability entailed by time. Achilles's silence disrupts the continuum between mortals and immortals, un-works the Achaian comparison, and results in a human-all-too-human refusal to exchange death for glory; for, after all, no exchange--if it ever takes place with the gods--comes at a cost for a god as it may for a mortal.
Book 24 opens with Achilles's restless motion. On the one hand he is lying inconsolable, tossing and turning, unable to sleep after the burial of his friend, Patroclus; on the other, he rises to his feet, pacing back and forth along the seashore: "allot' epi pleuras katakeimenos, allote d' aute / huptios, allote de prenes tote d' orthos anastas / dineuesk' aluon para thin' halos" (XXIV.10-12). Much like Book 9, Book 24 explores the condition of finitude in relation to Achilles's movement and inertia. The restlessness of the opening lines gives way to a resigned calmness, as the gods have decided to send two messengers to Achilles and Priam--Thetis and Iris, respectively--to prepare a meeting for the return of Hector's body. Concerning Achilles's mortality, let me note parenthetically that, although Hera insists during the divine assembly on an honor differential between Hector and Achilles, as the former was a mortal man [thnetos], but the latter is the son of a goddess [theas gonos] (XXIV.58-59), Homer--in the words of another god--reinforces Achilles's mortality, securing once again the separation of mortal and divine realms: when Hermes, who was accompanying Priam to Achilles's hut under the false identity of a mortal, arrives there, he blows his cover, telling Priam that it is time for him to part the company of mortal men, since it is inappropriate for a god to fraternize openly with a mortal like Achilles: "nemesseton de ken eie / athanaton theon hode brotous agapazemen anten" (XXIV.463-64). The mythical time when gods attended human banquets is over, not least because it was in one of these banquets, Thetis's wedding to the mortal Peleus, that the seeds of this war were sown. (13) We could say that it is the very mythical conflation of the spheres that instigates this polemos, and that Homer's Trojan War as the demarcation of the spheres constitutes a moment of de-mythification.
Let us return, however, to Achilles's stance in this concluding book. When Priam arrives in the night, he finds Achilles sitting alone [Achileus hizeske] (XXIV.472) apart from his comrades [hetaroi d' apaneuthe katheato] (XXIV.473). There follows the scene of supplication and their shared lamentation. The text offers a heartrending image, in which Priam mourns his son curled around the slayer's feet (XXIV.510). That Priam falls to Achilles's feet, instead of assuming the usual posture of supplication--namely, genuflection--is particularly significant in further reinforcing the link between feet and fatality. In this image of supplication, Priam touches the most murderous of Achilles's body parts--for as I mentioned above, Achilles defeats Hector by outrunning him--the same body part that in the legend proves the most fatal for Achilles himself. Once Priam's lamentation is over, Achilles springs up from his seat [apo thronou orto] and raises the old king by his hand [geronta de cheiros aniste] in pity and respect (XXIV.515). Just as in Book 9, here also the moments of Achilles's standing up are not associated with warlike aggression; they are rather moments of deference, of acknowledgment of the other's presence, and of hospitality. The raised Priam is to sit on equal footing with his son's murderer, to be treated in a dignified manner. Rising to raise another to sit next to him, so that they can now co-exist, so that they can both "stand" as human beings: this is the movement Achilles performs in response to Priam's supplication, before he even mentions anything about Hector's body. No return would be complete unless this shared humanity between the living foes is first established. This is the reason why Achilles gets briefly angry with Priam, when the old man refuses the offered seat, demanding instead to receive the body before accepting any hospitality. The two solemn actions that follow--actions of forgiveness and hospitality--coalesce with the weighty inertia that otherwise dominates Achilles's hut during the meeting. Except for Achilles's preparation of Hector's body for its return (XXIV.572-96), and the making of the meal (XXIV.621-26), it is this inertia that fosters the friendship and compassion between these two enemies.
In their shared destitution, there is no more to do, no scheme to devise, nowhere to run away to, nobody to chase. Calmly and resolutely, sitting by one another, they acknowledge the finitude they share, but that also shares and divides them; for in the spectrum of life, they are both as close to each other in terms of loss, as they are far apart--the one youthful the other old, the one victor the other vanquished. This calm sharing is given to us in a marvelous image, which also provides the last sustained description of Achilles in this text. Here Achilles is not the brilliant runner he is famed to be, not even the speaker of winged words: he is silent and attentive in the other's presence. Fittingly, this last sight we have of him comes through the prolonged and admiring gaze of Priam, which is then reciprocated by Achilles's admiring eyes: "Priam, son of Dardanos, gazed upon Achilleus, wondering / at his size and beauty, for he seemed like an outright vision / of gods. Achilleus in turn gazed on Dardanian Priam / and wondered, as he saw his brave looks and listened to him talking" (XXIV.629-32). After this comes sleep, and in sleep's inertia the text leaves Achilles for good, turning in its remaining portion to Hector's burial.
In concluding, I would like to suggest that this peculiar community that happens at the end of the epic between the two enemies is possible because of the inoperative character of Achilles's feet--a physical inoperativity, which stands for an ontological desoeuvrement, the one Nancy calls the un-working of death. These feet that were murderous in their pursuit of Hector are now withdrawn; they become the locus of supplication, and this supplication itself renders them vulnerable, exposed. Achilles is able to share with Priam in finite Being, insofar as he passes over to this space of inactivity symbolized by his lying apart. I would also venture the larger claim that such an un-working of death constitutes Homer's most radical contribution in our understanding of the epic genre itself: namely, that the epic is not the origin of a community in the myth of glorified death, but a work of literature that opens itself to a finite community, as it un-works the very ideals of heroism and immortality it is supposed to sing.
(1) The same point was made earlier by Jean-Pierre Vernant in "The Lame Tyrant: From Oedipus to Periander" (1988, 209) and elaborated further by Peter Stallybrass in his essay "The Mystery of Walking."
(2) All translations of the Iliad are Richmond Lattimore's. For the Greek original I used the Loeb edition.
(3) The Iliad gives us summarily another example of this connection of feet to fate in the figure of Philoktetes in Book 2. Philoktetes, an Achaian leader on his way to the Trojan War, received a poisonous snakebite on his foot and was abandoned by his fellow soldiers to suffer alone in the island of Lemnos, the sacred island of the lame god Hephaistos. It is worth noting that a close inspection of the passage describing Philoktetes's fate in Book 2 reveals subtle but strong connections to Achilles. During his isolation in Lemnos, Philoktetes is said to "lay apart" [keito] from the Achaians, a formulation that is used repeatedly to describe Achilles's abstinence from the war (II.721). We are also told that the Achaians, who abandoned Philoktetes in his suffering, would later be in dire need of him (II.724-25), the same way that they are in need of Achilles in Book 9.
(4) Elaine Scarry observes the same point: "Achilles' prowess takes many forms, but it is one thing in particular, his lucidity of motion, his speed.... Because his running is 'brilliant,' it ignites lights in our minds and we see him streak across the shore, or down the Scamander River, or three times around the walls of Troy" (1999, 78-79). For Scarry, this luminescent speed of Achilles, which bathes the whole Iliad as a poem of motion, demands us to enter the poem through a specific path of the imagination she calls "radiant ignition."
(5) In fact, out of the total instances where this formula is used, the majority belongs either to interchanges among the gods (e.g., Zeus to Dream: II.7, Zeus to Athena: IV.69, Hera to Athena: V.713, Ares to Zeus: V.870, Hera to Athena:VIII.351, Sleep to Poseidon: XIV.356, Hera to Zeus: XV.35, Zeus to Hera: XV.48, Themis to Hera: XV.89, Hera to Apollo and Iris: XV.145, Zeus to Iris: XV.157, XIX.341 Zeus to Athena: XIX.341, Xanthos to Hera: XXI.368, Athena to Ares: XXI.409, Hera to Athena: XXI.419, Athena to Ares and Aphrodite: XXI.427), or to the gods' addresses to the mortals (e.g., Athena to Pandarus: IV.92, Athena to Diomedes: V.123, Poseidon to Agamemnon: XIV.138, Apollo to Patroklos: XVI.706, Apollo to Hector: XVII.74, Poseidon to Aeneas XX.331, Athena to Achilles: XXII.215, Athena to Hector: XXII.228). Achilles follows with ten citations (1.201, XVI.6, XIX.20, XX.448, XXI.121, XXII.377, XXIII.535, XXIII.557, XXIV142, 24.517). The remaining instances are distributed among various other heroes.
(6) Mythology and primitive religion in general are based on this coincidence of god and beast. Bataille's work on the animal paintings of the Lascaux cave proceeds from this assumption as well. We could say that Achilles's inhumanity, or demonization, involves a similar equation between the godly and the bestial. As he tries to surpass the river-god, Achilles also transgresses human limits, acting in a barbarous way. His excesses turn both against nature, by polluting the river with corpses, and against other humans, since he sets out to kill all Trojans indiscriminately.
(7) The double naming of this river is of particular interest, since it functions as a mark of the separation between gods and mortals, and as such, it shows us something of Achilles's mortality. Homer tells us that the same river "is called Xanthos by the gods, but by mortals Skamandros" (XX.74). In Book 21, while the poet refers to this river mostly in its divine name (XXI.2, 15, 145, 364, 383), calling it Skamandros only twice (XXI.305, 603), Achilles addresses it consistently as Skamandros (XXI.124, 223). Achilles's appellation confines him strictly within the sphere of mortals, and is set in sharp contrast to the goddess Hera's choice of name, which is, of course, Xanthos (XXI.332, 337).
(8) This is Lattimore's rendering. The Loeb translation is more to the point: Achilles is saying that it is not possible for him and Hector to be friends.
(9) Some maintain that the immersion in water is a later Roman version of the myth of Thetis's efforts to make her son immortal, though others insist that it is an earlier and, admittedly, the most dominant myth. An alternative version of the myth says that Thetis tried to purge the mortal aspects of her son by placing his body over fire, an act that frightened his father, Peleus, who interrupted the process. Significantly, neither version--even though it is likely that such a myth must have been in circulation by the time of Homer--appears in Homer. My supposition that such a myth must have existed by the time of Homer is mainly supported by two other Iliadic references: a) Hector's prediction of Achilles's death (XXII.359-60), which involves an allied attack by Paris and Apollo, the same figures that in the immersion myth are said to defeat Achilles by striking an arrow at his vulnerable heel; b) Achilles's fastening of Hector's corpse to his chariot by the heels: "In both of his feet at the back he made holes by the tendons / in the space between ankle and heel, and drew thongs of ox-hide through them, / and fastened them to the chariot so as to let the head drag" (XXII.395-98). The image recalls almost identically the piercing and fastening of Oedipus's feet, and it seems to me that the attention to Hector's heels may not be simply coincidental in an episode where Achilles's and Hector's duel foregrounds the workings of mortal fate. In other words, the text here intimates that Hector has already arrived to the place where Achilles will soon be.
(10) The notion of the inoperative (desoeuvre), of un-working and neutralizing the work of death, Nancy takes from Georges Bataille. The Inoperative Community is in fact a reading of Bataille's thought on sovereign inertia-namely, the refusal to think the human through project--along with Heidegger's Mitsein--namely, the fact that Being is always a Being-with.
(11) There is a consensus among classical scholars in reading Achilles as a wavering figure. For instance, Jasper Griffin has argued that often Achilles cannot make up his mind: in Book 9 he wavers between going back to Phthia or staying in Troy, while later on he oscillates between keeping and returning Hector's corpse (Griffin 1995, 22). Without attempting to further explicate my position on this issue, which would exceed the focus of the present essay, I limit my remarks to saying that Achilles's overall demeanor is more complicated than that of a pouty youth, who sways irresponsibly from one extreme to another. While there is enough textual evidence to support a reading based on oscillation, there is also compelling evidence to argue for a certain unyielding aspect in his posture. For an account of this peculiar steadfastness that underlies Achilles's contradictory choices, and for a problematization of the very notion of choice with respect to Achilles's actions, see another article by the present author, entitled "Deserting Achilles: Reflections on Intimacy and Disinheritance." Indeed, some of the present discussion of Achilles's stance in Books 9 and 24 furthers the line of arguments the author has started there.
(12) I have pursued a more extensive critique of Naas's argument and the ethics of persuasion in "Deserting Achilles."
(13) According to the myth, it was in the banquet in honor of Thetis's wedding that the goddess of discord, Eris, left a golden apple as a token of dispute among the other goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite). The dispute necessitated the arbitration of a young Trojan prince, Paris. As a reward from Aphrodite for granting her the apple in the contest, Paris received Helen of Sparta, thus instigating the Trojan War.
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______. 1999. The Iliad. The Loeb Classical Library. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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Naas, Michael. 1995. Turning: From Persuasion to Philosophy: A Reading of Homer's Iliad. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1991. "The Inoperative Community" and "Myth Interrupted." In The Inoperative Community, ed. and trans. Peter Connor. Theory and History of Literature 76. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nikolopoulou, Kalliopi. 2005. "Deserting Achilles: Reflections on Intimacy and Disinheritance." European Journal of English Studies 9.3: 229-50.
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Kalliopi Nikolopoulou teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her research interests focus on philosophical approaches to modern European literature and the relation of the ancients to the moderns.
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