Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teenage Demigod Warrior Achaeans



There is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, called "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." It is very much like what T-Rex describes, except a bit less silly: a man in the 20th century is attempting to write Don Quixote word for word, not as a transcription, but producing them as if he were writing a novel of his own. He was not going to do this by trying to be Miguel de Cervantes—learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, forget about European history from 1602 onward—no, that would be too easy. He was going to do this by writing from the mind and experience of Pierre Menard. "I have assumed the mysterious obligation to reconstruct, word for word, the novel that for him was spontaneous."

This complete recontextualization makes a word of difference for how one is to interpret and understand the book. "The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer":
Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, examplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the "ingenious layman" Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, examplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
History, the mother of the truth!—the idea is staggering. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as delving into reality but as the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not "what happened"; it is what we believe happened."
(I am going to take this opportunity to say that you should go read Borges's Collected Fictions. It is a thick volume, but I don't think any of the stories in it are longer than ten pages, and you will not be disappointed. A couple of the "classics" are "The Library of Babel" and "The Garden of Forking Paths." Prepare to have your mind blown, man.)

When placed along side Borges, T-Rex's idea for recontextualizing classic stories is not as silly as it sounds. Rather than The Odyssey, let's look at the opening lines of The Iliad, because I know that book much better.  So, think of the following lines as coming from a blind poet living in Bronze Age Greece:
Sing, muse, of the rage of Peleus' son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end."
As opening lines go, that one is pretty damn good. But let's reimagine it as a commercial interrupting "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." You see a commercial for how Pantene Pro V can make your hair shiny and beautiful, then you see a commercial for how you can own a Toyota Forerunner today with no money down and 0% APR financing... and then you see this commercial come up:
Sing, muse, of the rage of Peleus' son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end."
Nobody writes like that anymore! Not only that, but nobody puts that kind of poetic craft into writing commercials, unless the poetry is meant to be part of a joke. "Hurling down to the House of Death"? Fuck. Yes.

And then! There's that part at the end where Priam is trying to get Hector's body back from Achilles, and he gets down on his knees and says, "I have been through what no man has been through. I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children." Can you imagine anyone in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan doing something like that? Imagine that the Taliban captured and killed a high-ranking US officer, maybe even General Odierno, and not only refused to give us his body but hooked him up to the back of a humvee and spent the day dragging it around. We would be shocked and appalled, and though there might be negotiations to get the body back, nobody is going to get down on their knees and say, "I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children."

That is the kind of balls this commercial has. Good sir, whatever you are selling, I am buying it.

Oh, fuck, it's a commercial for AXE body spray? I'm going to have to backtrack here. It was a good commercial, but there is no way I'm going to go around smelling like a douchebag.

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