The Book Club

Marinated in Cruelty

Dear Nell,

For all its spare beauty, I did not love “Relay”—the little chapter about Keats that Elizabeth Cook has clipped on to her Achilles. And yet it is worthwhile I suppose to remind us how much of our culture is a relay, and how many times this particular baton has been passed from writerly hand to writerly hand. I did not know that the Achillea that grows in my garden takes its name from the great hero, who reputedly discovered its virtues as a child learning botany at the hooves of Chiron. All of Western culture, gardens of the soil and gardens of the mind, seem to have been fertilized by this particular story. I say fertilized, but sometimes, in bleak times, I think poisoned might be a more accurate description.

A photographer friend of mine has an ongoing project, documenting his own family from grandparents to newborns. Recently he decided to make a record of his children’s toys. He says that when he collected and piled up all the various weapon-related toys amassed by his 10-year-old son, the extent of it about equaled in scale the recent haul from the PLO ship intercepted by the Israelis.

I mention this because it is intensely bothersome to me that so much of the Western canon is so violent. I want to share these fundamental stories with my son at the same time that I want to redirect the circuits in his hardwiring that make him, when we are walking quietly in the countryside, pick up a bent stick and start shooting imaginary bad guys.

Our culture marinates us in cruelty. Here, for instance, is Cook on Achilles’ mutilation of Hector’s corpse: “He has threaded a strap through Hector’s ankles, thonging them together like fish to be carried. Then he hooks this thong to his car and drags the body, nose bumping down, through the dust.” And of the 12 Trojans, randomly captured alive to die later as offerings on his lover’s funeral pyre, while others are hacked into the river until it is “A thick, stinking soup; so full of bodies of men and horses, bits of limbs and pikes, mashed hide of shields, it can hardly move.”

Where does this come from, this ability to imagine the soft tissues of the human body and all the hurts that can be inflicted with iron and fire, instruments blunt and sharp? Cook has clearly thought much about anatomy. Her description of Thetis sifting through the ashes of her son’s funeral pyre is ghastly in its beauty: “She sets to work like a gleaner, her bare feet paddling in the soft dust, winnowing the ashes with her hands. … She holds the twelve long bones of his body across her arms like wands of peeled wood. they are curiously light now the fire has sucked out their moisture. … Now she collects the ribs like a precious bundle of kindling….she keeps the skull; tucks it into the front of her robe as if she were suckling it.”

We are not the only animal that mourns; apes do, and elephants, and dogs. Yet we are the only one that tortures. Sometimes I want to have a mental book burning that would scour my mind clean of all the filthy visions literature has conjured there. But how to do without TheIlliad? How to do without Macbeth? Even the classics that we read to our young children are full of wolves’ fangs and burning ovens and bloody feet and ice shards piercing hearts. Even the New Testament climaxes with an act of unspeakable torture. Might as well just read to our kids from the Amnesty Annual Report and be done with it.

And that, I suppose, is the worth of it. It is who we are. A cruel species who will—a couple of millennia after Troy—behead a journalist simply because he is a Jew.