Heroism, liminality, time

by Paul Maharg on 06/02/2014

The Hero MOOC called up more memories.  A large wall poster from my primary school days, in a Catholic boarding school — and me, aged eight, just arrived there, bewildered enough by the school, trying to make sense of the poster.  I remember an imperious-looking Greek man in a chariot drawing up in a sunlit palace courtyard.  He’s steadying himself, grasping the rail, his charioteer beside him is wrestling with the reins.  Obviously he’s a nobleman or a king.  He’s looking, glaring actually, at a woman in front of the colonnade who has drawn herself up, arm outstretched, in a formal gesture of welcome, nothing welcoming in her face.  The detail of the poster drew me in, the emotion puzzled me — what was going on?  Why were they unhappy with each other?

In my fourth and last year in the school I came upon Robert Graves’ The Siege and Fall of Troy.  Graves’ book, an account written for children, takes in pre-homeric narratives and post-Iliad cycles, including The Odyssey and the Nostoi, tales of other returning heroes from Troy.  Reading that, aged 12, and recalling the poster, it began to dawn on me that the man might be Agamemnon, the woman his wife Clytemnestra.  Agamemnon has just returned home after a ten-year absence, and is soon to be killed, according to prophecy: neither in water nor out (he will be stepping from a bath), neither eating nor not eating (he will have an apple at his lips), neither dressed nor undressed (Clytemnestra will throw a towel, a net in another version, over him, prior to Aegisthus, her lover, murdering him, or in another version doing him herself).  The poster was of course airbrushed myth: Cassandra, brought from Troy to Argos by Agamemnon as a slave, later executed by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (who also killed her twins by Agamnenon), didn’t appear in it; nor Clytemnestra’s children – Orestes who, with his sister Electra’s encouragement, will avenge his father by killing both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

Looking back, it might seem remarkable that such an episode, involving slavery, rape, adultery, child killings, vengeful murder and feuds down through generations, appeared on the walls of a primary school classroom; but I guess a Brother just pinned it up to fill a wall space, and without knowing what it represented.  I can’t remember it being used in a class — it was there with other posters, none of which I can recall.  And years later, reading Graves’ autobiography Goodbye to All That, when I learned that he too, in the midst of boarding school misery, turned to the Iliad as escape from the present, it made sense to me.  It was an escapist turn to a world at once recognisable, but completely alien; neither one thing nor the other, neither historical fact nor pure fiction but a domain between.

What were we escaping?  A place where it had been determined for you that the conditions of school and home were forced together, and you wanted them desperately to be separate.  The situation of neither one condition nor the other fascinated a child who was drawn to the edge of things.  Other books read at that age revealed the same preoccupation.  The historical worlds of Rosemary Sutcliff, a favourite author, often set in transitionary and tragic historical moments, where home undergoes radical change; and the fantasy half-worlds of Alan Garner, were full of such liminal narratives.  I was absorbed in early archaeology — the archaeologist as hero, Schliemann, Evans, etc (and years later, learning of Schliemann’s complete destruction of the archaeological layers at Hisarlik and Mycenae, absorbed in his own Homeric fantasy).  Later, as an adolescent, Xenophon became a hero, much as Shackleton was, in his leadership in failure — in a school Greek reader I translated the exhilarating passage in his Anabasis where the retreating Greeks finally reach the Black Sea, and had to read the rest, in translation; and I found his account of Socrates’ trial and death extraordinarily moving.  Moving on to Plato’s dialogues in translation to find out more about Socrates, I was bored, fascinated, irritated in equal measures: at that age, Xenophon’s account of Socrates seemed so much more powerful because historically backgrounded, an account of failure and time.  Much later I noted that as an adult I was drawn to narratives that dwelt on time’s passage or used time as a narrative device – Herodotus’ digressive structuring of historical time, Walter Pater’s construct of aesthetic time, Eliot’s Four Quartets, Proust, Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, children’s literature such as Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden.  

I began to realise more clearly how for me in my childhood time and liminality had been linked; how generally our attitude to future time and time past affects what we enact in the present and how we represent it and explain it to ourselves.  In one sense, Achilles’ life-choice, so heroically stark and clear, is brutally selfish because it doesn’t involve thinking about relations with others or past or future generations.  All the tiny implicated choices and decisions we make every day of our lives are abolished – it’s a decision rendered heroic, iliadic, because stripped of quotidian time.  Thinking about the MOOC, maybe the real heroic struggle that’s at the core of what we were learning doesn’t involve physical prowess, victory or even logos, though that was there: the real test is how we negotiate failure, loss, time and death.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristoffer Greaves February 6, 2014 at 09:21

I enjoyed reading this post too, Paul. Your recollection of the death of Agamemnon and its instance of “neither/nor” resonated for me.
I am studying de Certeau’s “Heterologies” and “The Writing of History” – he frequently refers to the generative “interspace” between things: subject and object, discourse and practice, “exact” and “human” sciences. Mostly generative but “wavering” space, a “changing rapport” of which neither point can be stable points of reference; but sometimes an “abyss opened before scientific reason in the form of objects that it winds around without reaching.”

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2 Paul Maharg February 11, 2014 at 03:50

Thanks Kris. Am off to look up de Certeau now. ‘Interspace’ is exactly right for what I was trying to express on one level above.

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3 Kristoffer Greaves February 11, 2014 at 09:26

If I had my time over again I would start with Michel De Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, Theory and History of Literature (1986), and Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (1988), before reading Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984).

Ian Buchanan, an Australian expert on Deleuze, authored the really excellent Michel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist (2000), which I found very helpful. Jeremy Ahearne and Michel de Certeau, Michel de Certeau: Interpretation and its Other (1995) is also useful.

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