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Political Incorrectness, The Iliad, Gone With the Wind, Roger Ebert, and Propaganda

“Remember that when GWTW [Gone With the Wind] was made, segregation was still the law in the South and the reality in the North. The Klu Klux Klan was written out of one scene for fear of giving offense to elected officials who belonged to it. The movie comes from a world with values and assumptions fundamentally different from our own – and yet, of course, so does all great classic fiction, including Homer and Shakespeare. A politically correct GWTW would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.”

This quote is from a review on Gone With the Wind by Roger Ebert, a film critic and reviewer. It caught my attention because I had just written a short post about my impressions of The Iliad (see my post, here) and I talked about how all I could really think about was what a rotten deal the women were getting. Of course, as Roger Ebert points out, The Iliad is a work of its time and if it were written today, then the affect of the story would probably be highly diluted, because it’s not a story about women. It’s about the Greek heroes who lay siege to Troy.

Literature and movies are windows into the time of their creation, of that time’s values. When we correct racism, sexism, intolerance, and inaccuracies, we are suddenly reflecting our own values backwards into the past and revealing only ourselves. Also, if we were to assume that only something that is perfectly politically correct is worthy of attention, then chances are everything we create today will be forgotten by our descendants.

But I’ve always wondered where the line is between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Not many consider a Nazis propaganda film an acceptable form of entertainment, even if it could be considered well done. I don’t know anything about Nazi art, accept that it is generally disparaged; but art that is propaganda is not automatically bad art. The Aeneid, written by Virgil, is pretty non-subtle propaganda for Caesar Augustus, building him up as a great ruler whose coming was prophesied at the very founding of Rome.

When Gone With the Wind was being made, many African-Americans protested the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s book into a movie because of the racism (there is even more in the book than in the movie). The Birth of a Nation (1915) is still considered one of the finest American films, and it struck me as more racist than Gone With the Wind. Sergei Eisenstein, a much admired, cutting-edge Russian director in the Soviet Union, used his films to further his vision of communism (ironically, and sadly, he had many run-ins with authority for not professing the correct form of communism). The ideology of communism has the unique feature of being less offensive than Nazism, but, in practice, equally destructive of human life.

I guess I don’t know where the line is. I enjoy the movie Gone With the Wind more than I enjoy The Iliad, so I am more willing to accept that it is a productive of its times. And I think, regarding that line, that it is important to differentiate between what is merely a product of its times and what is overt propaganda –  and then we have to evaluate how greatly we like or dislike the view being propagated. Caesar Augustus apologia does not seem quite as pernicious as Aryan racism.

It is important, however, never to get so used to something, whether it is political incorrectness or propaganda, that you cease to notice or evaluate it.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in Movies

 

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The Iliad – Homer

Achilles Slays Hector by Peter Paul Rubens

“Achilles Slays Hector” by Peter Paul Rubens

How do you review a great classic that’s been around for thousands of years? I am not an expert and all I can say has already been said by scholars. All I really have to offer are my own impression and whether or not I thought it was worth my time reading it.

I’m obviously more of a feminist than I usually consider myself because  all I could think about was how badly women are used and that threatened to overshadow all the heroism and bravery I know I was supposed to be admiring. Achilles takes over a small town, kills all the men and then takes Briseis –  after he’s killed her husband, father, brothers – and makes her his concubine. Great. Fantastic. What a brute! When the river god Scamander becomes offended at Achilles during a battle in front of Troy, he attempts to drown him in his river and I was completely rooting for him to succeed. Sadly, he doesn’t.

Clearly, Homer means the audience to admire the Greeks over the Trojans, who come across as rather inept. They can’t even send a spy out efficiently, whereas the Greeks excel at everything. The Greeks have wise help (Nestor), awesome-in-might help (Achilles, Ajax), and cunning help (Odysseus). I think part of my problem is that I have an underdog mentality. I can’t help rooting for the Trojans, even though I know they will lose. Zeus has declared they will lose from the beginning and so it must be.

The poem represents a very specific slice of the Trojan War, so Troy does not fall during the timespan of the poem. It begins ten years into the war and ends after Achilles kills Hector, the son of King Priam of Troy and brother of Paris, who ran off with Helen and started the war in the first place. So, although we know from other poems and myths that Achilles will be shot in the heel by Paris and die, and that there will be a Trojan horse (why isn’t it called a Greek horse; they built it?), it is not the focus of the poem. The main hero is Achilles and his desire to live on in glory, after he’s dead.

The poem is also interesting because the last half becomes a kind of divine free for all, with the gods and goddesses choosing their sides and pitching in, fighting alongside the humans. It is Athena who helps Achilles kill Hector by bringing him back his spear after an errant throw. It is this constant divine intervention and predetermination that is interesting, because these people know it’s happening but keep stoically fighting for glory and immortality, despite the fact that so much is out of their control…and they know it. It makes for a curious, heroic fatalism.

What is also interesting is how reverent people are towards the gods, though there’s no guarantee that respect will cause the gods to help them, but there is a definite guarantee that they won’t if you ignore them. Reverence and piety are very much valued and it is considered unthinkably arrogant and foolish to ignore them.

Despite my general lack of sympathy for any particular character (except all those nameless women destined to be Greek concubines), Homer is an incredibly evocative story teller and really conveys the energy of the battles (there are a lot of battles, and one-on-one challenges, and skirmishes over fallen heroes and their armor). I could picture those battles well, and I don’t usually picture things vividly.

And it was worthwhile to read, if only to say that I’ve done it. I got the idea after reading another book called The Trojan War: A New History, by Barry Strauss, who analyzes the myth of the Trojan War (from The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and others) as well as what we know from history and archeology and describes how it could very well have occurred, even if the characters are most likely fictional. It also connects how the descriptions in The Iliad – complete with references and praises to gods and exaggerations about victory and army sizes – was part of how ancient records did record real events.

Ultimately, I guess the best praise I can give it was that I was not bored, which, if you think about it, is often the best praise you can give any work of literature.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Books

 

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