Saturday, November 24, 2012

Jayden Cameron on Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles as Love Story for Gay Teens

At his marvelous Gay Mystics site, Jayden Cameron provides a thoughtful argument for why educational programs for teens should include Madeline Miller's prize-winning retelling of the Iliad as a classic love story between Patroclus and Achilles.  Jayden writes,

As soon as I finished the book, it became so clear how important, in fact, how necessary fiction of this sort has become. There is a place for the 'coming out' stories, chronicling all of the pain, humiliation, heartache, freedom and joy of such a singular event in a gay person's life journey. But we also need to see the love of two males in the context of a homophobic free environment. What would it look like, what would it feel like, and what effect would this have on the characters themselves? More importantly, what effect would this have upon young gay teen readers themselves to see their love reflected so naturally, without the burdens of a disapproving society.  
Perhaps this is one reason Ms. Miller decided to tell the tale - in her own very gay friendly fashion. The love story is so positive, without self conscious guilt or even the need to reflect on the uniqueness of the experience. Nothing has damaged these boys' self-confidence in themselves as loving sexual beings. And one of them is a champion and a hero.  Open-minded, liberal high schools in the US and the UK are already putting the book in their libraries and on reading lists, and it is so right and fitting that they do so. 

And I agree (as I agree, too, with Jayden's assessment of the review of Miller's book by Philip Womack in The Telegraph as "pissy"--I haven't yet read the New York Times review Jayden also cites).  I read Song of Achilles after Jayden noted the book at his blog recently.  It's one of those books I had been picking up and then setting back down in bookstores, wondering whether I should turn loose of pennies from my fast-clutched coin purse to buy it, or whether I might retrieve it from our local library, instead.  Jayden's recommendation nudged me to read the book, and I'm glad that I did so--and grateful to Jayden for the nudge.

What struck me in reading Miller's re-telling of the Iliad is how, for the first time, the entire mysterious mythological story from the dawn of Western history makes sense to me.  How it makes sense to me as someone living at the dawn of the 21st century . . . .

I worked my way through the orotund syllables of Virgil's Aeneid in high-school Latin class, polishing my Latin considerably and developing an appreciation for Virgilian style in the process--but without ever glimpsing anything in the plot that made real sense to me as someone living in a world of thought, expectation, experience, and belief quite different from that in which Virgil or the characters of the Aeneid lived.  The story didn't quite hang together qua story.  Not for me, at least.

Then when I took Greek in college, I had precisely the same experience as I labored my way through the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Again, beautiful rhetoric, glowing word pictures (Homer's famous "wine-dark sea") which opened a whole new world of imagery and understanding of how language can work for me.  But, still, no coherence in the plot, nothing that made the beautiful images come together in a narrative whose meaning I could grasp as connected to my own life and experience as someone living in an altogether different universe of thought.

Miller's book succeeds brilliantly in opening the mysterious story to me.  Once one begins to understand (as Plato did) that at the very center of this story of extraordinary heroism is a love story--a love story between Patroclus and Achilles--doors to understanding that have previously been fast shut (for me at least) suddenly spring open.  Why Achilles's mother Thetis is so intensely ill-affected towards Patroclus becomes clear.  Why Patroclus defies Achilles to pursue the Trojans, sacrificing himself to save Achilles, begins to make perfect sense.

Miller provides a powerful psychological hinge point on which to hang the entire plot, and for me, the hinge point works.  For the first time in my years of reading and re-reading the Iliad, I finally understand the story as a narrative that flows from one point to another with clear sense.  It doesn't hurt in the least, either, that Miller's spare, imagistic style perfectly captures the tone of Homer's Greek.  The concordance between style and plot in Miller's re-telling of this story makes her work compelling, and I find it baffling that reviewers who want to niggle about her description of how Patroclus and Achilles kiss (as Womack does) seem to miss this point that must have been self-evident to those who awarded Miller the Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles.

I agree with Jayden: this book provides a valuable glimpse into the possibility of love between two men in a time and place very different from the world in which we live in the first part of the 21st century.  This is a time and place in which the love between two men is taken for granted.  It's a measure of how conflicted we remain about that simple, historically attested possibility, even as the 21st century gets underway, that many scholars continue to labor so mightily (and so doubtfully) over the code of same-sex love in stories like the Iliad--or in the narrative of Abraham Lincoln's life, for that matter, or Thoreau's or even Whitman's.

Young people need stories like Miller's--and, in particular, young gay and lesbian people need such stories.  They make accessible rich veins of Western literature that have been too long deliberately obscured by scholars and those educating the young.  I'm grateful to Miller for opening this particular vein in a book that will make Homer's heroic love story meaningful to younger readers.

The graphic, a depiction of Achilles bandaging the wounds of Patroclus, is from a red-figure kylix by the Sosias Painter ca. 500 B.C.  The kylix is in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin and the image is at Wikimedia Commons

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