Saturday, February 17, 2024

Troy Town

Leo Deuel, ed.: Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann (1978)

Troy Town is the traditional name for many of the mazes and earthworks of England. This may refer to the tricky way in which the walls of Troy were constructed, full of dead-ends and blind corners to baffle an enemy. Or, alternatively, it may be just because the razing of the city of Troy, leaving only a few mounds of earth behind, has been seen ever since as emblematic of such scenes of utter devastation.

Heinrich Schliemann (1821-1890)

Recently I've been reading a compilation of autobiographical pieces by Heinrich Schliemann, the (so-called) discoverer of Troy. Schliemann was a bit of a con-man, an inveterate exaggerator, and a self-promoter on a Barnum-like scale, but there was also a touch of genius in him. His instincts often led him to the right place at the right time when others' well-reasoned arguments led them astray.

His initial excavations at Hisarlik, the Anatolian hillock which he believed to be the site of Homer's Troy, were catastrophic. He dug a huge trench through the centre of the mound, in the process destroying many of the remains which might later have helped him and others reconstruct crucial layers of the ancient city. To some extent he made up for this in subsequent years as he found collaborators with a firmer knowledge of archaeological method, but the fact is that he probably did more harm than good as an actual excavator.

He was, however, largely responsible for the discovery of a hitherto unsuspected civilisation. Whether you call it Minoan or Mycenaean, the existence of an advanced, sophisticated culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, long before the Classical Age, was unsuspected before he began his explorations in the 1870s. In the process, Schliemann whipped up a frenzy of enthusiasm not just for treasure hunting but for scientific archaeology in the Europe of his time.

He remains an ambiguous figure, but his contribution to the debate over the historicity of Homer's Troy is undeniable.

Michael Wood: In Search of the Trojan War (1985)

But why should there even be such a debate? Is there anything intrinsically implausible in the story of Troy? Whether the war was fought because of the abduction of Helen of Sparta by the Trojan Prince Paris, as Homer claimed, or over trade-routes through the Bosphorus, as the Greek historian Herodotus preferred to describe it, the basic plotline of a destructive conflict between west and east hasn't changed that much over the past three millennia.

Nor have the ruinous results.

Al Jazeera: Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza Strip (31/10/23)

As I write, Netanyahu's soldiers are invading hospitals and exulting as they blow up mosques. They film themselves doing it, in fact. Shades of Ajax and Achilles looting and desecrating their enemies' bodies!

Has anything changed in the intervening period? The weapons have got more powerful, and the propaganda easier to slipstream around the world. Otherwise, it's business as usual for humanity: hatred, lies, contempt for anyone you can define as 'Other', on whatever flimsy pretext you can find.

Perhaps in another few hundred years archaeologists will be speculating on the various layers of pulverised debris they find in their excavations in ancient Canaan / Judea, modern Israel / Palestine. Maybe they'll conclude that the whole idea of an Israel-Gaza war was just a myth: after all, the subsequent layers of radioactive fallout will have wiped out any sense of whatever civilisation (if any) proceeded the bombardment.

For the moment, though, women and children are dying in their thousands. It seems impossible to exaggerate the terror and privations being suffered by the people of Gaza: 27,708 is this morning's total of dead. Just stop. How can that be so impossible to achieve? Have we learned nothing at all from those previous massacres and cataclysms?

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus (1920)

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
- Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Rear Window

A friend of mine
set up a camera
in the back of her car

and drove down the hill
to the beach and back
art film

scoffed her boyfriend
and yet
there was something

so strange in the way
it bucked and leapt
as it recorded 

the unchanging mountains
with no hint of the wild sea in front

Benjamin’s angel of history
does that
sweeps on

looking back
unable to help
as the rubble and graves pile up

they used to project it at rock concerts

Demonstration in London (14/10/23)



Anonymous said...

Hear, hear!

Richard said...

I like the poem here. Yours? I wrote a poem re that Angel of History, the actual picture, after reading Benjamin and some discussion, which I studied, surprised me. But Klee is a fascinating artist, Benjamin very astute and observant.. Interesting mix showing that history. I read Herodotus's 'History' it is addictive to read...hence the 'English Patient''s fascination with it, there is a sense that nothing is for sure I think...somethings are...the Salt Houses in West Africa actually did exist...But not the 'bees the size of a cat'... etc.

Gaza is terrible. In a perverse way, in a certain political or maytred sense Hamas are someone said in the Herald, if they decide to kill all the hostages, blow up the rest then move out...they will have won as Netanyahu will not be popular, and if there is cease fire after all this terrible destruction he loses also. But the Israelis still have US backing it is a cynical game...

Yes, it is business as usual!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

Thanks for your comments on the poem. Yes, it is indeed my own.

International politics is indeed a cynical game: but stopping killing innocent people is a pretty universal constant, I think.