of a recent all-night reading of Homer's Iliad, the ancient
Greek classic, billed the event as a form of activism staged
'in an oblique way' as commentary on the current climate of
political debate over the wisdom of the war in Iraq, others
took it as simply a way to reacquaint themselves with one
of world culture's great monuments in literature.
"Not all scholars agree that it is an anti-war epic,"
notes Kathryn Hohlwein, "but I feel that the uneasy effect
it produces in us requires that we acknowledge it as such.
Distant from us as Homer is, he understand the travails of
our world, and brutal as the Iliad is, it is also infinitely
tender and life-affirming."
In an era when popular movies such as Kill Bill contain graphic
and gory bloodlettings of unprecedented magnitude, the uneasiness
Hohlwein would attribute to Homer's classic may be more in
the fact that a foundation stone in world culture is so full
The marathon reading - one might more properly call it a
relay - is part of a worldwide traveling effort organized
by Hohlwein and others. It was held at the Angel Orensanz
Center on Norfolk Street in lower Manhattan - a converted
church cum synagogue which now hosts a decidedly European-influenced
menu of visual arts - and lasted 12 hours, from approximately
7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Fittingly, the evening's schedule was announced by organizers
with Homer's own words: "The night is very long - immeasureably
so. It is not yet time to sleep in the palace. But go on telling
me about your wondrous deeds." As reader after reader
- some in Greek, some in English - executed their portions
of the great Greek classic, audience and visitors viewed artwork
by Laura Hohlwein, and listened as percussionist Bill Warren
complemented the readings.
The Readers of Homer performance was introduced by The New
York Times last week as a rendering of 'the greatest war story
ever told.' "In case 'The Iliad' isn't lying around the
Oval Office," notes Nicholas D Kritof, he recaps the
story and says that while ancient heroes like Achilles and
Odysseus 'do not avoid mistakes, they learn from them. Through
their errorrs, they come to understand moral nuance as well
as moral clarity, and to appreciate moderation."
The Iliad is full of battle scenes, confrontations and exchanges
between gods, heroes and men. Some of it is slow going, but
in its best moments confronts human issues of the greatest
magnitude with potency and power that is at once fundamental
and pure poetry. Divided into twenty four books, the ancient
Greek classic was divided into approximately 112 sections,
each about 100 lines long, and as the evening progressed,
a line-up of readers waited their turn on chairs near the
dais while viewers and participants lounged in chairs provided
by organizers in the spacious chamber.
One such passage read by a local writer from Long Island
was a culminating moment in chapter 24 when Troy's King Priam
overcomes his anger and his fear, traveling to the camp of
Achilles with treasure in an attempt to retrieve the body
of his dead son, the Trojan hero Hektor. 'It is well to lift
hands to Zeus and ask if he will have mercy,' says aged King
Priam, as he prepares to cross a plain of war, carrying treasures
to give to his enemy in war. Standing in the middle of an
enclosure in the city, he pours unstained water over his hands,
takes a cup of wine from his wife Hecuba, and pours it on
to the ground, all the while looking up at heaven.
To show he has heard the king, Zeus sends an omen - a black
eagle, sweeping through Troy from the right hand, uplifting
the hearts of Priam and his people. And Priam takes heart,
and sets out across the plain accompanied by an old man driving
a mule-led wagon filled with treasure. The people follow him
for a time, but after a short while they fall back in fear,
and leave Priam to his dangerous journey.
Zeus sees this and takes pity. He sends the god Hermes, disguised
as a young man, a noble, to bgive him comfort and guide him
on his way. Hermes, who beyond all other gods finds it dearest
to be among men, complies. 'Immediately he bound upon his
feet the fair, golden, immortal sandals which carried him
over the water as over the dry land of the main abreast of
the wind's blast.'
Hermes encounters Priam on the plain, and at first the aged
king is afraid. 'The hairs stood up all over his gnarled body
and he stood staring.' But Hermes is persistent and through
gentle discourse, he reassures King Priam. The passage ends
with hermes guiding Priam in safety and invisibly to the lair
of the wrathful warrior Achilles.
The marathon concluded after 7 a.m., as if in synchronicity
with this thought by Homer "And I myself could hold out
until the bright dawn, if only you could bear to tell me,
here in the palace, of your suffering."
The New York reading follows readings of both The Iliad and
The Odyssey in California. Another reading of The Odyssey
is planned in Paris, next year.