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Homer in the Gaza Strip

The basic moral imperative is to alleviate the suffering of victims caused by war. The classics of literature can teach us a lot about piety

Friends and family mourn Yosef Vahav
Friends and family of Yosef Vahav, 65, killed by Hamas in the attack on Kibbutz Nir Oz, mourned on Tuesday at his funeral in Beit Guvrin (Israel).RONEN ZVULUN (REUTERS)

The villainy you teach me I will execute — and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

W. Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice; Act III, Scene I)

On Sunday, October 15, in Chicago, a man stabbed a six-year-old boy and seriously injured the boy’s mother because they were Muslim. The authorities declared that the attack was motivated by events in Israel and Gaza. That same day, António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, declared: “In this dramatic moment, as we are on the verge of the abyss in the Middle East, it is my duty as Secretary-General of the United Nations to make two strong humanitarian appeals. To Hamas, the hostages must be immediately released without conditions. To Israel, rapid and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid must be granted for humanitarian supplies and workers for the sake of the civilians in Gaza. […] Each one of these two objectives are valid in themselves. They should not become bargaining chips and they must be implemented because it is the right thing to do.”

The right thing to do: this is the basic moral imperative, now and always. As we have known since the dawn of time, war brings suffering to everyone, caused by a blind hatred toward the other and the thirst for revenge. In war, both sides utter the amoral cry that [Francoist] General Millán-Astray shouted at the Spanish intellectual Miguel de Unamuno: “Long live death!” This is where our collective suicide lies.

In the midst of so much irrationality, there are no practical solutions. Literature, however, could offer a redeeming example. The Iliad conspicuously begins by acknowledging the anger that fuels murderous violence: “Mênin aeide, théa, Peleiadeo Achilleos.” “Sing, O goddess, the wrath of Peleus Achilles” is a more or less literal version of the first verse of the poem. But what did Homer mean with these words?

As readers, we know that we can intuit the meaning of a poetic truth, no matter how old it may be. For example, in 1990, the Colombian Ministry of Culture created a system of traveling libraries to bring books to people in remote rural regions. To do this, bags of books with large-capacity pockets were transported on donkeys to the jungle and mountains. There they left the books for several weeks in the hands of a teacher or village elder who became, de facto, the librarian in charge. Most of the books were technical handbooks, agricultural manuals, collections of sewing patterns and the like, but some literary works were also included. According to one librarian, the books were always safe. “I know of only one case in which a book was not returned,” he says. “We had taken with us, along with the usual practical books, a Spanish translation of the Iliad. When it came time to return the book, the villagers refused. We decided to give it to them, but asked them why they wanted to keep that particular one. They explained that Homer’s story reflected their own: it spoke of a country ravaged by war in which mad gods mix with men and women who never know exactly what the fight is about, or when they will be happy, or why they will get killed.”

Perhaps the Iliad, a poem about the horrors and suffering of war, can offer a few words in response to António Guterres’ plea. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles, who has murdered Hector, who in turn has murdered Patroclus, Achilles’ dear friend, agrees to receive Hector’s father, King Priam, who comes to ask to be allowed to recover his son’s body. It is one of the most moving and shocking scenes I know. Suddenly, there is no difference between victim and victor, between old and young, between father and son. Priam’s words awaken in Achilles “a deep desire to grieve for his own father,” and with great tenderness he removes the hand that the old man has extended to bring the hands of his son’s murderer to his lips:

“And overpowered by memory both men gave way to grief. Priam wept freely for man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching before Achilles’ feet as Achilles wept himself, now for his father, now for Patroclus once again, and their sobbing rose and fell throughout the house.”

Finally, Achilles tells Priam that they must both “put our griefs to rest in our own hearts.” For Achilles, and for Priam, and for the Colombian peasants, and for the victims on both sides of the tragedy of Israel and Gaza, this could be, however small, a consolation.

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