Stela of Hernan Perez
National Archaeological Museum, Madrid
Over the last month, I've been engaged in a reading of the translation of the Iliad by Robert Fagles, as an adjunct activity to my studies on Mediterranean history, which began with The Making of the Middle Sea by Cyprian Broodbank. Both books are outstanding works of their kind, and give deep insights — in so far as we can gain them— into the roots of Mediterranean, and thereby European, social and cultural history.
No book other than The Iliad can better emphasize the degree to which a fascination with violence and warfare — terror incarnate — infuses our cultures. This is an ancient thing. Yet in the midst of this carnage, the idea of a radiant Being that transcends it is always present. Even in the Iliad, drenched in blood thought it is, the idea of a nobility that stands higher than the violence — higher, even, then the petty gods that drive its narrative forward — is ever present.
This is, in the Iliad, oddly embodied not by the gods, who in terms of their emotional development are as tiny (or perhaps even tinier) as the men they manipulate, but perhaps most of all by Achilles (see Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson) who despite his reputation as a terrible killer cleaves to an ideal of principles, dressing himself in golden armor crafted by the god of fire. He is willing to die, and accepts his mortality; but he also understands that the real measure of glory is achieved by staying true to one's own beliefs. He lives fully; when he rages, he acknowledges his rage, and when he grieves, he grieves mightily for the death of his beloved Patroclus. He is, in other words, truly human: and he refuses to live other people's lies, unlike egoistic Agamemnon and crafty Odysseus.
Dating from the same age in which the events in the Iliad take place, they serve today — as they did then — as reminders that no matter how grand and powerful we think we are, death is ever present. One doesn't need to celebrate death as part of a warrior culture in order to understand this simple fact. Ancient peoples, as it happens, were much closer to the ideal of their own mortality than we are, and one can see it everywhere in their art. It's just as true of medieval art as it is of ancient art.
Living within the awareness of our own lifetimes, mortality seems to be very far away. Within any given instant of life, the understanding of my own death is as far away as possible; it is, as Gurdjieff put it to Ouspensky in his comparison of levels, or cosmoses, as big as the difference between zero and infinity. To put it one way as well as the other, "I" am at zero — and my death is infinity.
I know nothing about it, no matter what I may choose to imagine.
While it's always possible to contemplate the question of death with an approach through the arts — whether poetry, painting, or theater — these always end up being philosophical and intellectual pondering. One needs to acquire an organic understanding of one's own death, and one can only do this through sensation, that is, the molecular sensation of Being.
That, of course, is a difficult question, since human beings so rarely develop this sense. It's accompanied by powerful emotive and feeling-understandings, since the development of the molecular sensation of being inevitably attracts the third center (feeling center) to participate in the work of the mind and the body. It isn't until all three centers participate that one begins to come to a deeper sense of how mortal one is. Only this can inform one's respect for life as it stands, which is an ongoing mystery that penetrates us to the marrow.
Sitting here in my hotel room Sunday morning, drawing together the threads of yesterday's experience, I see the difference between the experience I am writing about and the intellectual and philosophical ideas that surround it. They, as well, are like the difference between zero and infinity. I have one cosmos which is my life, and I inhabit it – God willing, organically, not through the abstraction of the mind.
That is a truly extraordinary cosmos that contains, as Gurdjieff would have put it, all and everything.
Then there is the cosmos of these written ideas, which is at the same time much larger — it reaches roots out in so many directions — and at the same time smaller, because it can in no way encompass the depth, the compassion, the intelligence of life as it stands, as it is lived.
It is imaginary.
All of us, myself included, are so often drawn into the quicksand of our ideas. There is a much simpler and more organic intelligence through which we can live; and although both of these aspects of our life are valid, we need to rediscover a center of gravity in the organic intelligence, not the imaginary one.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.