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Feet, Fate, and Finitude:

On Standing and Inertia in the Iliad

Kalliopi Nikolopoulou

Kalliopi Nikolopoulou teaches "Man stands alone, because man alone


stands." (Weston La Barre)
in the Department of

Comparative Literature at the I. Swift Feet and Winged Words

F
State University of New York at eet and fate seem to be curiously related
Buffalo. Her research interests in the ancient Greek tradition. The
remark may strike us pedestrian at first
focus on philosophical approaches (no pun intended), but I hope to show that

to modern European literature this connection signified for the Greeks


something of utmost importance: it signified
and the relation of the ancients
what it is to be human—in other words, to
to the moderns. 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 hterally on one's feet as
the proper mode of human existence.
Our most noted example comes of
course fi-om the myth of Oedipus and its sub-
sequent dramatization by Sophocles. The
Kalliopi Nikolopoulou 175

story is well-known: trying to avoid the fatal prophecy that he wiU 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 shejDherd and raised by an adopted family, the limping foundhng
grew—of all things—into a peripatetic wanderer. First he w^andered 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 witnin itself the singular fate of the person. In his reading of
Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus, Seth Benardete notes the intricacy of this con-
nection bet:ween 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^ and that looks like two
uneven legs: "The name of Oedipus perhaps most clearly shows that the sur-
face 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 fal:e and feet, it is not unique. In less obvious but still evocative
terms, this relation is expressed earlier on in Homer's Iliad as weU,^ I am
referring, in particular, to the repeated characterization of Achilles-' as a man
of the swift feet \podas okus^ and of an untimely [panaorion] POCIV,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 AchiUes 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-Hved,
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: "(im&OM moi huion hos okutnorotatos
allon / eplet'" (1,505-06), Later on, in requesting Hephaestus to craft a shield
for AchiUes, Thetis again uses the regular form of the same adjective to refer
to her son's speedy death [okumorSi] (XVII1,458),
Swiftness may indeed be the very essence of AchiUes,'* since he is also a
man of w^inged words [epea pteroenta]. Pteroenta derives from the verb pteroo,
for which the LiddeU-Scott lexicon gives two meanings, one Hteral, the other
metaphoriciil: 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 weU as to an agitated, edgy speech. Although this formu-
176 College Literature 34.2 [Spring 2007]

la of the winged words apphes 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 fre-
quently 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 resem-
bles most of all the goddess Iris, the messenger of the gods, whose swiftness
of feet [podas Skea] (11.790, 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 knowl-
edge of his own fate, a kind of knowledge that is inaccessible to other
humans. Hence, in Hving 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 hnking them also through the mor-
tality 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 AchiUes's life marks his body from mouth to
feet, from speaking to standing—namely, the two activities that, as I will dis-
cuss shortly, distinguish human existence from all other. Such overdeter-
mined connection between AchiUes's mortality and his feet is literalized in
the w^ell-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.
AchiUes, 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 trag-
ic consequence of a pecuhar 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 isola-
tion of the menstrual period to the time when visual stimuli were paramount
and the genitals become visible, and thence to the continuity of sexual exci-
tation the founding of the family and so to the threshold of human civiliza-
tion" (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 comphcates its usual trajectory, appearing almost counter-
intuitive at first: we would expect that the repression of the lower sense of
Kalliopi Nikolopoulou 177

smell, and its substitution by a higher sense such as vision would attenuate
the sexual instinct, since attenuation of sexuahty 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 instinci; 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 toU, 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 hap-
piness with communal responsibihty. 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,
bet^veen the individual and fate, w^ere we to subscribe to the vocabulary of
tragedy. l( Antigone is the tragedy par excellence of this rupture between fami-
ly 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 sat-
isfaction in the figure of Briseis, namely, of a public recognition and a private
relationshipi, 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 bio-
logical 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 oui; of a natural creature a fuUy 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 hap-
pening, the: human being itself happens for the first time. Jager continues:
"This standing up is all at the same time a wounding separation and emer-
gence 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). Standin g up is an emergence, a coming-to-be human, while the wound
178 College Literature 34,2 [Spring 2007]

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 lan-
guage. 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
matterfiromwhich it awakened, thus reaching equilibrium, could be read as
this fantasy of recuperating the lost primordial unity. However, Jager correct-
ly resists such a facile interpretation of Freud, The death of a being that has
already stood up is different firom the death of the other natural creatures, so
that this return is comphcated: 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 w^hich
this seemingly biological model could be reduced: Freud's insistence on the
incommensurability of wound and sign allows for a non-totaUzable under-
standing of the human, an understanding beyond both a "barbaric sentimental
science that seeks to heal our wounds by seducing us back into an undifferen-
tiated natural matrix where 'all is one,' and a hubristic science that would trans-
form our wounds into letters and our world into a text" (8),
If we translate this statement into the Homeric characterization of
AchiUes, 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 chiasmaticaUy 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 concern-
ing 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 w^inged, though they are admittedly profound, if somewhat agi-
tating, 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 pref-
aced with the line "Then in answer to him spoke AchiUes of the swift feet"
(IX,307, 606, 643), The chiasmatic relationship between feet and words is
reinforced even formaUy, as Homer's epithets turn our attention to what
Kalliopi Nikolopoulou 179

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 v^^hile, as he stands up at the sight of his visitors. Sitting away firom
the fury of the war and composing himself epic poems on his lyre, AchiUes
now has to suddenly rise up [anororousen Ahilleus] (IX.193) on his swift feet
Ipodas okus] (IX. 196), but only for a moment, and this to greet and welcome
his guests. S>uch hospitality, Achilles recognizes, must take place despite his
anger againiit 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
huraan 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 unerr-
ing readiness or lightness of eloquence, but rather in the sense of a fast, agi-
tated, 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 distoi ts it into sheer violence and inhumanity.
In these later books that narrate Achilles's return to battle, AchiUes
repeatedly aligns himself with the world of beasts rather than men. Book 20
concludes vdth AchiUes's fury setting everything ablaze, as hefights"daimoni
isos" (XX. 493), namely, with inhuman intensity. Richmond Lattimore ren-
ders this phrase as "something more than a mortal," while the Loeb edition
prefers the more literal translation "like some god." We should underhne
here, however, that the term daimon does not carry only the positive conno-
tation of being godlike; it carries also the negative one of inhumanity, of act-
ing beyond one's own destiny. Both LiddeU-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. Wlien AchiUes is said to behave like a god in this instance, it is
because he assumes the hubristic position of controUing the fate of others, as
if he were liimself immortal, distributing indiscriminately death aU around
him. As such, he also assumes only the bestial, mad, most primitive aspects of
divinity.^ Indeed, in the next book, as Achilles wages war against the river-
god. Xanthos,' we see that he tries to match his prowess w^ith that of the god,
even though it is also during this battle that he faces most concretely his own
human limins 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 fulfiUment of his mortal destiny
180 College Literature 34.2 [Spring 2007]

(XXI.251—286). That in being more than a god AchiUes is also less than a
man is further shown in this book in AchiUes's refusal to spare the life of the
supplicant Lykaon (XXI.99-113).This refusal once again points to the space
of inhumanity AchiUes now inhabits, a space of utter lawlessness.
Lykaon's treatment at the hands of AchiUes forms a preamble to the way
AchiUes wiU handle Hector. AchiUes's exit from human community culmi-
nates in his refusal of Hector's plea for a reciprocal oath that would bind
them to treat each other's corpse respectfuUy. Just like his speeches to the
embassy, AchiUes'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, AchiUes's
swift feet remained his prevailing characterization in Book 9. After aU, one
tends to think of AchiUes not as a verbal, let alone, philosophical character.
Homer perhaps is in on the joke: even when AchiUes speaks thoughtfuUy, one
stiU thinks of his physical prowess; yet in emphasizing physical pro-wess 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 empha-
sis on AchiUes's feet is literal, as his aristeia devolves into a killing spree. Here
feet and words are no more contrasted chiasmaticaUy; rather, they coUapse
upon each other, as AchiUes's language reduces itself to the violent physical-
ity 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 foUowed by atavistic speech.
In his speech to Hector, AchiUes describes his relationship to his enemy
w^ith a simile that explicitly equates Hector with animal prey and himself
w^ith 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^ between you and me, nor shaU there be / oaths between us"
(XXII.262-66). The fear of mortality, the quintessential fear of the standing
being, turns AchiUes into an animal. The animal is not bound by oaths or
treaties—the symbohc reminders of human limitedness and of human sub-
jugation 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 BataiUe writes, "for an animal, nothing is ever
forbidden. Its nature fixes the animal's hmitation; in no instance does it limit
itself" (1955, 31). AchiUes's rampage is the result of this impossible and terri-
ble 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
Kalliopi Nikolopoulou I8l

revert to a stage before homo eredus. Indeed, AchiUes's responses to Hector


become increasingly animalistic, and as such, not disclosive of mortality, but
paradoxicaUy mute: now that everything is reduced to bestiahty, language is
also reduced to an assault, as AchiUes is unable to truly listen to his inter-
locutor. To Hector's plea to not let his body become prey to the dogs
(XXII,339), AchiUes rephes first by caUing him a dog pCXII,345), and then
by quickly slipping himself into this canine image: "I wish only that my spir-
it and fur;^ would drive me / to hack your meat and eat it raw"
(XXII,346-47),
Swift feet and winged words characterize AchiUes, ahgning 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 p o e m 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 faithfuUy 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 eredus, from where
this discussion of word and wound proceeded. T h e difference between
wound and word, or body and meaning corroborates the fact that Freud's
account of standing as a genetic m o m e n t 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 (Amanke). And as every arche is a leap, suggesting a moment of dis-
continuity, i;his genetic narrative turns out to be one of finitude as weU—
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 fiinc-
tions as a quantum leap that differentiates us once and for all from the ani-
mal world (indeed in a sense it makes the very reference to a possible con-
tinuum im]5ossible), and engenders aU the ensuing antagonisms that have
constituted civilized existence, as weU 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 pre:cisely because of this connection between mortality and stand-
ing as humjin habitation. T h e 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 aU other natural
creatures: " M these creatures are born, grow up, live, and die with a single
182 College Literature 34.2 [Spring 2007]

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 AchiUes's heel is not to be
found in Homer. Thetis announces to Achilles in Book 1 that to a bad des-
tiny she bore him in her chambers (1.418), but there is no mention of the
fact that she failed to immerse him fuUy into the immortal water of Styx,
leaving his heel dry and vulnerable.^ Regarding this notable omission,
Lattimore, in the introduction to his translation of the Iliad, w^rites:"AchiUeus
is not in any sense immortal. The legend of almost complete invulnerabihty
is either unknown to Homer or discarded by him" (1961, 47). He adds that
AchiUes "is neither semi-divinity nor superhuman" ( 47), and that "[a]bove
aU, AchiUeus is a real man, mortal and faUible, 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 aU, even if such a myth
were not in currency during Homer's time, the poet could have easily
invented one hke 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 teU another one—the story of mortal men. Homer moves
us aw^ay from the static realm of almost invulnerable demi-gods and other
immortals into that of heroes, who are actuaUy mortal beings and who take
responsibility for their acts. Hence, Lattimore can read AchiUes the way he
does—namely, tragicaUy, for tragedy is an expression of the mortal predica-
ment. AchiUes is a mortal being of splendor but also of destructive passions,
rather than an immortal deity, whose acts are not bound by time. In AchiUes'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 usuaUy 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 hterature.
This claim needs some elaboration, particularly in light of the fact that
the Iliad, as the Ur-text of Western literature, has been predominantly dis-
Kalliopi Nikolopoulou 183

cussed in terms of a coincidence between myth and literature: it is myth as


hterature. That the Iliad itself furnishes us with a definition of muthos as a
word of mouth, a spoken word, can only lend flirther credibality to this argu-
ment of mythical and literary coincidence. FoUowing 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 Uterary 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 vio-
lent reversal, the obfuscating character of myth presents itself as transparency,
as the patency of aU 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-
caUed national Uterary heritage, which in turn is defined as native myth and
the hke. Ultimately, in fostering unproblematic identifications with heroic
figures and moral ideals, the objective of every myth, in some way or anoth-
er, 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 confiates the mortal with the
immortal, thus disorienting the human from turning toward its proper direc-
tion, toward finitude.
Perhaps the most systematic phUosophical problematization of the rela-
tion 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 caUs 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 aU
sorts, thus de;nying the irreducible singularity of events as weU 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, reUgious, or any other group membership,
which myth promises; and c) myth's promise of immortality through the
184 College Literature 34.2 [Spring 2007]

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 communi-
ty, it actually denies us the very possibihty of community. It denies us com-
munity 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 (Moi'ra literally means the lot distributed to each one of us, a singu-
lar 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 fmitude it exposes. Community itself, in
sum, is nothing hut this exposition. It is the community of finite beings, and as
such it is itself a yin/te community" (1991, 26-27). Following Heidegger,
Nancy calls this mortal existence that is allotted to us our Being-in-com-
mon, 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,^^
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 cal-
ibrated 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 eleva-
tion that can, in turn, serve every patriotic delusion of resurrection. It
becomes rather obvious how such denial of finitude results in an ethico-
poUtical nightmare where dreams of invincibility are almost always foUowed
by acts of violence.
In closing this brief refiection on myth's relation to community and fini-
tude, 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 expe-
rience of finitude. First of all, whereas we have said that myth entails a con-
flation of boundaries—most of all the conflation of finitude and infinitude—
Kalliopi Nikolopoulou 185

Homer is more interested in establishing clear boundaries between gods and


mortals: Achilles may be extraordinarily strong, but nothing is said of invul-
nerability. "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 consoHdates 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 AchiUes 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 vi^ell.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 n:Lakes 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 hghtening bolt in bat-
tle. It is, after all, his speed that wins him the battle against Hector, since
Achilles tire;; 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 respon-
sible for his mercurial nature. ^^ 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 cer:ain 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 con-
186 College Literature 34.2 [Spring 2007]

trast 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 (11.772), 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 w^arrior. 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 Uiad, is inter-
rupted 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.^^ I hope to show, in the rest of this sec-
tion, 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 meas-
ured 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 per-
suaded 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 fini-
tude. 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 por-
tion—that is, the fate—of the man who abstainsfi-omthe war is equal to the
one who fights, says Achilles. And if divine distribution is alike for the brave
Kalliopi Nikolopoulou 187

and the co\vard, 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 brav<; and coward are held in a single honor. In other words, the por-
tion that reiilly counts is that of moira, of finitude, not oftitni and the immor-
tality through glory that time imphes, 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 Hfe [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—name-
ly, to Delusion that bhnds his judgment pOCIX,91-94), Indeed, Agamemnon
sufi'ers 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 arro-
gance—if foT no other reason, than for the fact that AchiUes's demand for
redress proceeds from and attests to his dishonor, admitting thus to injury and
to being finite,
Finituds 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 equal-
ly: "Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard"
(IX,318),AJthough both agonistic and resigned in its tone, this hne 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' impHcit 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 reHgiosit\^, 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 part-
ly 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.
188 College Literature 34.2 [Spring 2007]

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' ante I huptios, allote
de prenes tote d' orthos anastas I 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 inappropri-
ate for a god to fraternize openly with a mortal like AchiUes: "nemesseton de
ken eie I 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.^-^ We could say that it is the very mythical con-
flation 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]
(XXIV473). There follows the scene of supplication and their shared lamen-
tation. 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, genuflec-
tion—is particularly significant in further reinforcing the link between feet
and fatality. In this image of supplication, Priam touches the most murderous
ofAchilles'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 6rto\ and raises the old king by his hand \geronta de
cheiros antste] in pity and respect (XXIV.515). Just as in Book 9, here also the
Kalliopi Nikolopoulou 189

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 hospitahty. The raised Priam is to sit on equal footing with
his son's murderer, to be treated in a dignified manner. Rising to raise anoth-
er to sit ne>:t 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 estabUshed. 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 meet-
ing. 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 iner-
tia 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 vic1:or 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 AchiUes 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 Hke to suggest that this peculiar community that
happens at tae 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. Thi^se 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 symbohzed
190 College Literature 34,2 [Spring 2007]

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.

Notes
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,
^The Hiad 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 AchiUes's abstinence from the war
(n,721). We are also told that the Achaians, who abandoned Philoktetes in his suf-
fering, would later be in dire need of him (11,724-25), the same way that they are in
need of AchiUes in Book 9,
'^ 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 run-
ning 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 waUs of Troy" (1999,
78-79), For Scarry, this luminescent speed of AchiUes, which bathes the whole Iliad
as a poem of motion, demands us to enter the poem through a specific path of the
imagination she caUs "radiant ignition,"
^ 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: n,7, Zeus to
Athena: IV,69, Hera to Athena:V,713, Ares to Zeus:V,870, Hera to Athena:Vin,351,
Sleep to Poseidon: XIV,356, Hera to Zeus: XV,35, Zeus to Hera: XV,48, Themis to
Hera: XV,89, Hera to ApoUo 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' address-
es to the mortals (e,g,, Athena to Pandarus: IV,92, Athena to Diomedes: V,123,
Poseidon to Agamemnon: XIV, 138, ApoUo to Patroklos: XVI,706, ApoUo to Hector:
XVn,74, Poseidon to Aeneas XX,331, Athena to AchiUes: XXII,215, Athena to
Hector: XXn,228), AchiUes foUows with ten citations (1,201, XVI,6, XIX,20,
XX,448, XXI,121, XXn,377, XXIII,535, XXin,557, XXIV,142, 24,517), The
remaining instances are distributed among various other heroes.
Kalliopi Nikolopoulou 191

^ Mythology and primitive religion in general are based on this coincidence of


god and beast. BataiUe's work on the animal paintings of the Lascaux cave proceeds
from this assumption as well. We could say that AchiUes's inhumanity, or demoniza-
tion, involves a similar equation between the godly and the bestial. As he tries to sur-
pass the river-god, AchiUes also transgresses human limits, acting in a barbarous way.
His excesses turn both against nature, by poUuting the river with corpses, and against
other humans, since he sets out to kiU aU Trojans indiscriminately.
^ 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 AchiUes's ixiortality. Homer teUs us that the same river "is caUed Xanthos by the
gods, but by mortals Skamandros" pCX.74). In Book 21, whUe the poet refers to this
river mostly in its divine name PCXI.2,15,145,364,383), caUing it Skamandros only
twice PCXI.:3O5, 603), AchiUes addresses it consistently as Skamandros pOCI.124,
223). AchiUefi's appeUation 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 (X>:i.332, 337).
8 This ii Lattimore's rendering. The Loeb translation is more to the point:
AchiUes is saying that it is not possible for him and Hector to be friends.
^ Some maintain that the immersion in water is a later Roman version of the
myth ofTheris'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 thatThei:is 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 IUadic references: a) Hector's prediction of AchiUes's death pcXII.359-60),
which invol\'es an aUied attack by Paris and ApoUo, the same figures that in the
immersion myth are said to defeat AchiUes by striking an arrow at his vulnerable
heel; b) AchiUes'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 tlie head drag" (XXII.395-98). The image recaUs almost identicaUy 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 AchiUes'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 AchiUes will soon be.
I'^The notion of the inoperative [desoeuvre), of un-working and neutralizing the
work of death, Nancy takes from Georges BataiUe. The Inoperative Community is in
fact a reading of BataiUe'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 AchiUes as a waver-
ing figure. For instance, Jasper Griffin has argued that often AchiUes cannot make up
192 College Literature 34,2 [Spring 2007]

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
AchiUes's overaU demeanor is more complicated than that of a pouty youth, who
sways irresponsibly from one extreme to another. While there is enough textual evi-
dence to support a reading based on osciUation, there is also compeUing evidence to
argue for a certain unyielding aspect in his posture. For an account of this peculiar
steadfastness that underlies AchiUes's contradictory choices, and for a problematiza-
tion of the very notion of choice with respect to AchiUes's actions, see another arti-
cle by the present author, entitled "Deserting AchiUes: Reflections on Intimacy and
Disinheritance," Indeed, some of the present discussion of AchiUes's stance in Books
9 and 24 furthers the Une 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 AchiUes,"
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 arbitra-
tion 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 insdgating the Trojan War,

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