Friday, April 15, 2016

From The Iliad to the Odyssey

As homicides in New York have fallen sharply over the last two decades, the tit-for-tat violence between crews like 3 Staccs has persisted…[T]estimony has given jurors a look at the warrior subculture of some young men in and around Harlem projects. The gang members described how they would venture into another gang’s territory to commit assaults, and then trumpet their exploits on Facebook, daring their rivals to respond. They would pool money to buy communal guns that they would keep close at hand for fights that escalated…Though some gang members sold marijuana and cocaine, the disputes were mainly about respect and revenge.[1]
It is tempting to characterize the 3 Staccs as ‘barbarians’. In fact they were behaving exactly like Greeks of the Heroic Age. Revenge and the quest for ‘respect’ drove them; they raided enemy territory and fought to win honor for themselves their mates. Stripped of its literary packaging, the Iliad is an account of the gang warfare in the warrior subculture in the Eastern Mediterranean, doing violence for the sake of honor and for the possession of a woman.
Nowadays population is denser and gang warfare is largely restricted to city neighborhoods; then it occupied the Mediterranean, from Ithaca to Troy. But the story is the same: violent young men, under the direction of a few warlords, fighting for the chance to rape and pillage, and to capture slaves, women and loot. This is the way the world was when muscle and guts were what mattered.
These days heroism has receded like the ebbing tide, leaving only isolated pools of violence and machismo in the Global South and elsewhere in urban slums, where young warriors replay the Iliad.
The Odyssey is another matter. According to psychologist Julien Jaynes, it was the transition from the world depicted in the Iliad to the world of the Odyssey that marks the dawn of human consciousness as we understand it. ‘Iliadic man’ he writes, ‘did not possess subjectivity as we do…he had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon’.[2] In the Odyssey, ‘wiley’ Odysseus comes into his own: the Greeks have gotten the idea that there is such a thing as intelligence, and that it is advantageous. Women figure, not merely as spoils of war, but as powerful agents.
The 3 Staccs are not barbarians. They are Iliadic heroes—anachronisms from an age when the whole world was a slum, and all but a few warlords lived in poverty because resources were burnt off in endless warfare. In a warrior culture players are locked into a sub-optimal equilibrium. Each imagines that he can, and will, win consistently and, eventually, get all the loot. But in fact, the game goes back and forth, and the rapers and pillagers are themselves raped and pillaged. In the process, lives are lost, resources are wasted, and everyone is worse off than they would be if they just minded their own business.
The West only escaped that trap when people realized that military adventurism was wasteful: better to invest in plowshares, in manufacture and trade, than in swords. It happened once: we became civilized. Civilization spread and in the end only a minority was left out—in urban slums and in the Global South.
The mystery is: how do we get here from there—from gang warfare to rational self-interested business, from a world where muscle and guts are all that matter to one where intelligence (Odysseus’ wiliness and Penelope’s prudence) is decisive? That is the problem of violence at home and international terrorism. What will it take to get latter day Achaeans to abandon the ethos of romantic heroism, the quest for honor and revenge, in favor of the rational self-interest?
How do we get from the Iliad to the Odyssey?