The Paris Review

Grilling with Homer

In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers. 

I’ve been reading the Iliad recently, the world’s first war classic, concurrently with Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, which uses the epic poem’s central plot line to cast light on modern war trauma. (We will get to why this makes sense for grilling, I promise.) The Iliad, attributed to Homer (seventh or eighth century B.C., possibly), tells of a dispute during the Trojan War between Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces, and Achilles, his star warrior. The fight is ostensibly over a girl, but really, Shay says, is over Achilles’s sense of being sold out by the top brass. The terrifying killing rampage that Achilles subsequently goes on, in which he breaks all of his culture’s social and moral rules, is, Shay says, our first recorded instance of war crimes. Shay is a psychologist who works with veterans, and it’s partially his project to explore how ordinary men, even good men, can commit atrocities, how, as he puts it, “war can destroy the social contract binding soldiers to each other, to their commanders, and to the society that raised them.” Shay says that the Iliad’s great tragedy is not the one the marauding Greeks inflict on the Trojans but is the undoing of human character, the destruction of a person’s social ties.

The book is also then—in the way that or the Poem of Force,” wrote that violence is the poem’s central character, but that “Justice and love … bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent.” The destruction, in other words, only underlines the importance of what is being lost. And those slow parts where Homer enumerates the Greeks’ ships, what they cost and who sent them, or names the dead and how they died, become not so slow when you realize that in the book’s logic it matters—every death, every person. A central lesson of theis the terrifying fragility of the things that bring us together, and the importance of safeguarding them.

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