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The Choice of Achilles: The Ideology of Figure in the Epic

The Choice of Achilles: The Ideology of Figure in the Epic

by Susanne Lindgren Wofford
The Choice of Achilles: The Ideology of Figure in the Epic

The Choice of Achilles: The Ideology of Figure in the Epic

by Susanne Lindgren Wofford


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This book examines the ways that Classical and Renaissance epic poems often work against their expressed moral and political values. It combines a formal and tropological analysis that stresses difference and disjunction with a political analysis of the epic's figurative economy. It offers an interpretation of three epic poems - Homer's Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid, and Spencer's Faerie Queene - that focuses on the way these texts make apparent the aesthetic, moral, and political difference that constitutes them, and sketches, in conclusion, two alternative resolutions of such division in Milton's Paradise Lost and Cervantes' Don Quixote, an 'epic' in prose. The book outlines a theory of how and why epic narrative may be said to subvert certain of its constitutive claims while articulating a cultural argument of which it becomes the contradictory paradigm. The author focuses on the aesthetic and ideological work accomplished by poetic figure in these narratives, and understands ideology as a figurative, substitutive system that resembles and uses the system of tropes. She defines the ideological function of tropes in narrative and the often contradictory way in which narratives acknowledge and seek to efface the transformative functions of ideology. Beginning with what it describes as a dual tendency within the epic simile (toward metaphor in the transformations of ideology; toward metonymy as it maintains a structure of difference), the book defines the politics of the simile in epic narrative and identifies metalepsis as the defining trope of ideology. It demonstrates the political and poetic costs of the structural reliance of allegorical narrative on catachresis and shows how the narrator's use of prosopopoeia to assert political authority reshapes the figurative economy of the epic. The book is particularly innovative in being the first to apply to the epic the set of questions posed by the linking of the theory of rhetoric and the theory of ideology. It argues that historical pressures on a text are often best seen as a dialectic in which ideology shapes poetic process while poetry counters, resists, figures, or generates the tropes of ideology itself.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804719179
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/01/1992
Edition description: 1
Pages: 496
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.31(d)

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The Choices of Achilles

The Ideology of Figure in the Epic

By Susanne Lindgren Wofford


Copyright © 1992 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-1917-9



THE SPECIAL PATHOS of heroic death in the Iliad is felt in part because the dying heroes act out the contradictions of the heroic code. These contradictions are made apparent through the epic structure that keeps the representation of heroic actions separate from the act of assigning value to them, a distance that reveals both the relative arbitrariness of cultural values and the costs to the individual of the process of constructing value. Imagined from the point of view of the warriors, the contrast between the types of meaning posited in the similes and those available in the characters' lives is complete. An important shaper of the poem's emotional effect, this strong contrast also contributes to its moral complexity. Through simply juxtaposing (like the parts of a metonym) the argument of the poetic figures and the action, the Iliad reveals that the poem's ideological resolutions and compromises depend on a troping of death. The figures thus necessarily work to avert or displace the only certainty in the lives of those whose stories make up the narrative — the absoluteness and finality of death — but the poem, in demonstrating at the same time that there is no consolation for the individual in the significance given death in art or society, also exposes a violence in the metaphoric construction of ideology itself, and makes it possible to criticize the processes of transformation and interpretation in which the poem itself and its audience are engaged.

These figurative transformations can be very powerful. My questions about the relative success of a given figure are aimed not at suggesting that the figure is in some way aesthetically inadequate, but rather at finding in the tension between likeness and difference a place from which we can discover precisely what metaphorical work is being done and uncover to some extent the resistances of the poetic material to that work. Among the most important sites for beginning such a critique are precisely those moments — such as in the domestic scenes in Troy, or in similes that do seem to establish some likeness between pastoral scenes and the war — where the similarity between the two serves within the action to establish an allusion to the kinds of imagery typical of the figures. At such moments, the disjunction between the action and the figure is highlighted by the very suggestion of similarity, and allows the poem to demonstrate the violence in the heroic code. This critique can take the form of an implicit counternarrative lodged in the representation of heroic action.


The distinctness of the poetic figures in the Iliad, due in part to the structure of the epic simile itself and to the temporal distance of the poet from the events he describes, generates and maintains what is often called the epic distance. The narrator is set at such a remove from his story that his perspective more closely resembles that of the gods than that of the human actors. Although this divine perspective seems clearest in those moments when the poet demonstrates his foreknowledge of the plot, it is also revealed in certain of the similes in which the act of comparison itself requires a near-divine point of view. The first of the threshing images in the Iliad suggests that the act of simile-making itself leads Homer and his listeners to adopt the perspective of the gods, for the audience is asked to think of the Achaeans as chaff:


(V, 499–505)

As when along the hallowed threshing floors the wind scatters chaff, among men winnowing, and fair-haired Demeter in the leaning wind discriminates the chaff and the true grain and the piling chaff whitens beneath it, so now the Achaians turned white underneath the dust the feet of the horses drove far into the brazen sky across their faces as they rapidly closed and the charioteers wheeled back again.

While both rural and martial scenes bring to mind hot, dry, dusty days, the peacefulness of the threshing scene contrasts with the fury of the fight that makes warriors resemble chaff. The lovely Demeter brings a special divinity to the hallowed threshing floors (hieras ... aloas), a divine capacity for sorting grain and chaff. This double figuration — a divine personification of human deeds raised at the moment of comparison itself and calling attention to the figurative movement — points in turn to the goddess' activity, for only from such a point of view could the aesthetic value of the war scene — the beauty in the violence — be perceived. Demeter's sorting, her heightened capacity to tell the difference between what is productive and what is not, becomes also a paradigm for the poetic virtue of perceiving differences, of separating, while her presence in figurative form suggests indirectly that the similarities between men and chaff can only be imagined from a divine perspective. The simile suggests both that the bringing of meaning to war through such poetic imagery puts the audience in the position of divine onlookers, and that such poetic transformation of violence into art — a transformation that occurs at the moment of seeing a connection between these dissimilar scenes — is itself a divine gesture, gaining authority through its connection to the divine (which is in turn, itself, a part of the poetic figuration) and requiring first a paradigmatically divine capacity to distinguish the productive and the nonproductive. The divine perspective, in short, allows both the poetic imagery to work and the simile to cohere; it allows the poet to transform war into song — and thereby separates it out, winnows it — for aesthetic contemplation as a beautiful event through which heroes gain immortal fame.

Such striking poetic allegories of the separation and juxtaposition of aesthetics and action magnify the epic distance by being themselves already so resolutely aestheticized, and hence by putting the audience at a protective double distance from the violence of heroic action. When Menelaos is wounded, for example, Homer's comparison draws his listeners' attention away from the wound toward the separate space of civilization and its artifacts. After Athena kindly brushes the arrow away from its more fatal course, it grazes Menelaos's skin under the corselet. Homer spends seven lines describing the arrow as it plunges through Menelaos's war-belt, but as soon as the dark blood rushes forth, he shifts his attention:


(IV, 141–47)

As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple colors ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses; it lies away in an inner room, and many a rider longs to have it, but it is laid up to be a king's treasure, two things, to be the beauty of the horse, the pride of the horseman: so, Menelaos, your shapely thighs were stained with the color of blood, and your legs also and your ankles beneath them.

The move from considering the blood rushing forth to picturing the beautiful ivory cheek piece occurs disconcertingly quickly, with some of the speed of the blood itself, and the scene in all its details seems intended to turn attention — like Athena turning aside the arrow — from the literal impact of the wound. The simile, for instance, transforms the wound by treating it also as an aesthetic object: the emphasis on the beauty of Menelaos's thighs (they are well shaped: meroi euphuees) and the use of the verb miaino (mianthen is the epic aorist passive of miaino), which means both "to paint over, stain, dye, color" and "to stain, defile or soil" (a dual sense that Lattimore has attempted to catch in his translation "stained with the color of blood"), both give the wound an artistic quality, as does the more straightforward comparison to the well-made artifact, stained with dye of the color of blood. For listeners and readers, the comparison subtly reminds us, the wound is an object of art to be contemplated in part for its beauty.

Neither Agamemnon nor Menelaos shares this poetic perspective on the wound, however:


(IV, 148–52)

Agamemnon the lord of men was taken with shuddering fear as he saw how from the cut the dark blood trickled downward, and Menelaos the warlike himself shuddered in terror; but when he saw the binding strings and the hooked barbs outside the wound, his spirit was gathered back into him.

Although the wound is not fatal, Menelaos is frightened and Agamemnon groans heavily (line 153). They are fighting a war that we, like the gods, are watching, and necessarily we sympathize at the same time that we stand aside and enjoy the story. This simile, then, makes the audience or readers briefly take the point of view from which the war seems painful but beautiful, a figurative move that deflects attention to the epic distance, displacing the violence and transmuting the war scene into a source of aesthetic contemplation.

By using such similes to highlight and increase the epic distance, Homer thus seems to give the audience a different, wider vision of the action. The warriors themselves have no access to this larger expansive world, and the distinctness of action and poetic figure limits the range of meanings that the participants in the war are free to assign to their actions, in particular to their own death. As they die, the heroes hope for a kleos ("glory" or "fame") that their deaths cut them off from enjoying or knowing.

The heroic action in the Iliad — heroic anger, suffering, and warfare, and the ethical questions they raise — can be said to include all the events of which the human characters in the poem are aware and all the scenes in which they take part. The representation of the action occurs through the medium of a highly traditional discourse, which, in its commitment to an epic sense of destiny in which death can never be escaped, serves to challenge the values asserted in the several, very different figurative discourses. The meanings attached to the war scenes, in contrast to those expressed through this discourse of fate, and in contrast to those felt by the characters, are brought to the poem through the poetic figures: this symbolic or figurative dimension of the story is constituted by the epic similes and other uses of poetic imagery, by Homer's digressions on the past or on the gods, by his foreboding warnings and proleptic laments (and in other instances in which the poem reveals its own distinct temporality), by ecphrases of all kinds, by any moment in which he calls attention to the act of narration, and by the formal patterning of the poem through which its symbolic shape is felt. The few moments when characters (like Achilles) are self-reflective fall into an intermediate category and are often figured by a conversation with a god: these intermediate moments often seem to be consonant with the action's symbolic or interpretive attributes, but finally do not remove the characters from their mortal predicament. Poetic figures provide throughout the Iliad the means by which the poet (and the heroic tradition) appropriates and explains the violence on the Trojan plain, and to this end they bring to the poem a dimension that remains distinct from the story of the war. The ironic distance between action and figure also points, then, to the difference between the epic narrative and the implicit allegory of its production, which tells of the poem's efforts to shape significance from the action it represents, and of the ideological stake of the oral tradition in attributing social and aesthetic value to heroic experience.

The human characters in the story are thus by definition unaffected by Homer's figurative and metanarrative gestures. The perspective of the bard and audience or readers is far from that of the participants in the fight, and the epic reflects on and exploits that difference. During the tug-of-war over Patroklos's body (see XVII, 389–95), for instance, Homer presents his audience with the image of people standing in a circle pulling on the hide of a great ox to make it into leather, but no warrior thinks of this image. Indeed, the poem stresses that the warriors' minds are taken up by the battle:


(VII, 395–98)

the hearts of the Trojans were hopeful to drag him away to Ilion, those of the Achaeans to get him back to the hollow ships. And about him a savage struggle arose.

Whatever the effect on the audience, the simile that compares the fight over Patroklos's body to the stretching of an oxhide does not shift the focus of the soldiers' attention or change the direction of events — nor, indeed, is it clear how it could. The comparison is directed solely toward the audience : it makes a poetic statement that neither enters into nor reflects the fictional experience of the warriors, nor therefore represents an interpretation of events possible from the standpoint of battle.

The narrowness of the warrior's focus is made especially clear in another of the threshing similes, which again momentarily urges the listeners to consider human action from a divine viewpoint, while Achilles persists in an obsessive, even daemonic battle-lust (like the heroic fury, or lussa, that possesses him in XXI, 542):


(XX, 495-503)

Or as when a man yokes male broad-foreheaded oxen to crush white barley on a strong-laid threshing floor, and rapidly the barley is stripped beneath the feet of the bellowing oxen, so before great-hearted Achilleus the single-foot horses trampled alike dead men and shields, and the axle under the chariot was all splashed with blood and the rails which encircled the chariot, struck by flying drops from the feet of the horses, from the running rims of the wheels. The son of Peleus was straining to win glory, his invincible hands spattered with bloody filth.

Achilles resembles the farmer since the men crushed by his chariot are as inconsequential to him as are the individual kernels to the farmer; yet this simile, like the Demeter simile discussed above, is most striking for the contrast it establishes. The implicit claim of the imagery is that Achilles' acts as a heroic warrior find their meaning in the context of — can be understood through analogy to — the world of the threshing scene: it is in this peaceful world that he hopes his glory will live on. But the contrast established in the simile, a contrast summed up by the opposition in the concluding two lines of kudos and luthron, glory and filth, suggests that Achilles is not thinking of that broader significance, and that the two regions, like the grain and the chaff, cannot be put back together again. Even as he hopes for glory, he is defiled, cut off from the larger social context in which the memory of his glorious deeds might be passed on.

Through the very figures that deny the characters such a memory, however — these expansive figures drawn from threshing scenes, for instance — Homer provides a perspective that keeps their names alive. He finds meaning in all the deaths he recounts by incorporating them into a larger order; art, in this case the patterned art of the Iliad, is one example of such an order, the natural world or the human society that lives on is another. The poem claims for itself a continuity that it implicitly denies to its characters: it projects an image of the future while telling of a war that stands in small for the wars that will level not just Troy but the imagined civilization of the poem — a civilization that, the poem knows on another level, has been lost. In spite of the possibility that heroic society might be destroyed by the contradictions the poem illumines, in its poetic figures the epic persists in claiming that this civilization will endure. The claim is made through the divided imagery of the epic simile, the paradigmatic poetic figure for the poem.

The consequences of this structural distinction between action and figure are not, however, as easily assimilated into the narrative as the value-laden elision or veiling of this contrast at the level of theme might lead one to expect. The distinction not only operates at the disembodied level of figuration, but is anthropomorphized in the set of figures who observe from afar without full understanding — shepherds and goatherds listening to faraway sounds, a man lost in mist (III, 10 — 13), a man passing on his way stung unexpectedly by wasps (XVI, 259-65). An example from Book VIII can provide an illustration. As the night approaches, the Trojans, temporarily victorious, camp out on the plain. Hector gives a lively tactical speech, in which, among other things, he says he believes the Trojans will win on the next day. The Trojans then settle around their watchfires for the night. Homer describes these fires in this way:


(VIII, 555 — 61)

As when in the sky the stars about the moon's shining are seen in all their glory, when the air has fallen to stillness and all the high places of the hills are clear, and the shoulders outjutting and the deep ravines, as endless bright air spills from the heavens and all the stars are seen, to make glad the heart of the shepherd; such in their numbers blazed the watchfires the Trojans were burning between the waters of Xanthos and the ships, before Ilion.


Excerpted from The Choices of Achilles by Susanne Lindgren Wofford. Copyright © 1992 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
PART I - The Ancient Epic,
PART II - Versions of the Renaissance Epic,

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