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The Greek Presence in An Arrow’s Flight

Presentation to the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, New York, 1999


© Mark Merlis, 1999


My assignment this evening is to talk about the Greek presence in my novel An Arrow’s Flight That sounded pretty easy when I agreed to come: the book is based on a Greek myth, it’s full of famous Greeks like Achilles and Odysseus, actual gods wander through now and then.  But all those things taken together don’t really amount to a Greek presence.  I took a few artifacts, things the Greeks left behind them, and used them to furnish what is basically an account of contemporary gay life—rather as if I had taken a Greek vase and used it to hold flowers in my contemporary living room.  Or—perhaps a better analogy—as if I had found a Greek chariot with the keys left in it, the owners long absent, and took it for a joyride to destinations the Greeks would never have dreamed of visiting. If I merely used the Greek material as a vehicle for my own interests or preoccupations, is there anything still Greek about it?


I want to get to that question obliquely, by telling you the Greek story—the story of Philoctetes—and then telling you what I did with it: some of the technical and, if you will, ethical decisions that went into shaping An Arrow’s Flight Not because I think my book is a masterpiece and you’ll naturally want to know every exciting detail of its construction.  But because some of the problems I encountered in writing the book and the solutions I came up with—whether successful or not—may tell a little something about where we as moderns stand in relation to Greek antiquity or maybe any antiquity.


Philoctetes was a Greek warrior who had a magic bow he had received from Heracles.  As the Greeks were on their way to Troy, they stopped to worship at the temple of the little-known goddess Chryse, and there Philoctetes was bitten by a snake, possibly because he had shown some disrespect to the goddess.  He developed an incurable wound, which not only smelled bad but also made him cry out in pain at various religious ceremonies, spoiling the occasion.  Finally the Greeks abandoned him on the isle of Lemnos.  Ten years into the Trojan war, the Greeks learn that they need two things if they’re ever going to take Troy: Philoctetes and/or his bow, and Achilles’ son Pyrrhus or Neoptolemus—I call him Pyrrhus in the book—who must lead the armies wearing his father’s armor.

Odysseus is sent to retrieve Philoctetes, who is understandably resentful and reluctant to come, but he is somehow persuaded.  The prophecy is fulfilled; Troy is taken. 


There were at least three Greek tragedies based on this story, two of them lost but known to us through accounts by ancient Greek critics—surely every writer’s nightmare, that his reviews might outlast his work.  In Aeschylus’s version, Odysseus simply steals the bow.  In Euripides, he wins Philoctetes over through masterful rhetoric.  In Sophocles’ account, the one that has survived and that I most closely follow, Odysseus lands on Lemnos with Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son.  Neoptolemus is supposed to befriend Philoctetes and lure him to the Greek ship.  He succeeds in winning Philoctetes’ trust, but then is conscience-stricken when the moment comes to betray Philoctetes, and he confesses the whole plot.  After various complications, and after one last attempt to persuade Philoctetes to come along to Troy, Neoptolemus at last agrees to take Philoctetes home to Greece—in essence putting their human bond ahead of duty and country.  At the last minute, Heracles descends from the heavens and commands Philoctetes to go to Troy.  Philoctetes obeys.


I’m not a person of wide classical learning.  If a Greek tragedy wasn’t on the syllabus for the freshman-year Great Books course I didn’t read it—in fact, even if a tragedy was on the reading list I didn’t read it, because I found everything Greek unendurable when I was a kid.  Anyway, Philoctetes was definitely not on the reading list, and I was unaware that it even existed until some years ago I stumbled on an Edmund Wilson essay, “The Wound and the Bow,” which talks about the play.  Then I read the play and—for some reason that is now irrecoverable to me—I decided to do my own version.


I really don’t know what my reason was.  Perhaps the one question authors get asked most is Why did you write this book?  What made you decide to write this book?  The very question implies a degree of deliberateness, of intentionality, that is very alien to the creative process, or at least my creative process.  It’s not as if someone hands you a menu of a hundred possible stories and then you pick the one that best fits your current obsessions.  It’s more as if the story picks you: you come upon a story, it grabs you in some indefinable place inside.  And then you write the story to find out where it grabbed you. 


So that’s what happened with Philoctetes People who read An Arrow’s Flight assume that I hunted around for the right Greek myth to frame a story of modern gay life.  But I didn’t: I just set out to do a rendering of the play.  In fact, it started as a play, it only became a novel later on.  And I initially intended to tell the story “straight,” in both senses.  That is, I didn’t at first have any intention of making the characters gay or of setting the story anywhere other than on a desert island called Lemnos at the time of the Trojan War.  Of course I was going to use some contemporary imagery, characters were going to speak in a twentieth century voice and not the stilted pseudo-archaic voice translators give them, full of words like “beseech” and “mischance.”  What I was contemplating was something akin to what Christopher Logue has done with Homer, what he calls his “account” of the Iliad Freer than a translation, with some new incidents or material, but still basically a rendering of the Philoctetes.


I pecked out a few pages and then I got tired of the project.  For one thing, the story began to seem kind of silly: a guy with a smelly wound and a magic bow, the naive boy scout Neoptolemus, Heracles intervening at the end.  The Greeks liked this story for sort of patriotic reasons—it’s the incident that assures the victory at Troy.  But there was no reason a modern audience would find it interesting.   That’s why the Sophocles is one of the least-read tragedies.  It has a few lyric passages, but nothing very riveting happens in it, nothing we can connect to very easily.  So I gave up, put the project aside, spent a few years writing an entirely different book.  And then found myself drawn to the story again.  To tell you the truth, I’m not a very inventive guy.  I don’t get many ideas for stories, and if I hit on one I don’t abandon it lightly.


So I started it again, this time as a novel, and I wasn’t very far into it when I realized that Philoctetes’ incurable wound was AIDS.  In retrospect, it seems kind of amazing that a gay man could encounter this story, actually begin writing this story, in the 1990s and not think of AIDS immediately.  But I really didn’t, and when it came to me I wasn’t especially thrilled.  The world didn’t need another AIDS novel.  Still there I was, if I tried to avoid the analogy readers would nevertheless stumble on it.  So I started working it out. Philoctetes was gay.  Pyrrhus’s mission wasn’t just to befriend him but to physically seduce him.  Which meant that Pyrrhus was sort of a whore for the state, and from there it wasn’t a big leap to give him a résumé as a hustler in the big city. 


As all of this became clear it also became clear that I would have to do this story in a contemporary setting, in modern dress, if you will.  Because my characters had become modern gay men, with attitudes and behaviors deeply alien to the values of ancient Greece. Their gayness is the most unGreek thing about them.  I’ll come back to that point later on.


In any event, I got rid of the armor and the tunics and the temples and I was embarked on a novel reminiscent of John Updike’s The Centaur, or more grandly Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the Greek myths form the foundation for the action, but there are no direct references to them: no Greek names, no gods, just the occasional buried allusion that might be spotted by an especially erudite reader.  The task before me looked pretty easy: I just had to find modern equivalents for all the essential elements of the story, and what I would have had at the end would have looked like an ordinary novel.  Instead of the very peculiar hybrid that I wound up writing.  So why didn’t I do that?


Well, you see, there was this magic bow.  I got stuck on the bow and the impossibility of finding a modern equivalent for it.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t change the physical object.  I could have made it an Uzi, or a portable missile-launcher, whatever.  But what couldn’t be updated was the basic concept, that the outcome of the war could depend on a single person wielding a specific weapon that had been given to him by a god, and that this was foretold.  The whole action of the story rests on a prophecy: the Greeks learn that they have to have the bow and they send Odysseus to get it.  So the story had to be told in a world where prophecies are uttered and serious adults act on them.  This was not Greenwich Village in the 1970s.


In retrospect, maybe this was the point at which I should once again have abandoned the book.  I couldn’t set it in ancient Greece, because there were these gay people running around, and I couldn’t set it in modern New York, because of the infernal bow—and the prophecies and the gods and all that it implied.  Ultimately I didn’t so much solve this problem as simply decide not to worry about it.  I decided it would be okay for a faggot wearing blue jeans to carry a bow, and for a go-go boy to be descended from the goddess Thetis.


I justified this arbitrary choice as sort of a return to the way pre-Enlightenment artists dealt with classical material.  They were pretty insouciant about anachronism—the very concept doesn’t become very important until the eighteenth century.  Before that artists didn’t seem to worry much about incongruities.  You can go up to the Met and see Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, with Aristotle decked out as an Amsterdam grandee.  You can read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which a clock strikes, houses have chimneytops, books are bound volumes instead of scrolls.  Now I’m pretty sure Rembrandt didn’t think Aristotle wore a huge black hat shaped like a pizza.  Maybe Shakespeare wasn’t aware that the Romans didn’t have mechanical clocks, but if he’d known he probably wouldn’t have worried much about it.


They used modern elements rather heedlessly, not so much because they were ignorant as because they didn’t think of themselves as modern, not the way we do, not in the sense of being on the other side of a great historical divide.  If we retell a classical story we’re supposed to choose from between two polar approaches.  You can either try to be faithful to the period, get all the costumes right and try to write convincingly antique dialogue, which no one ever really manages.  In which case what you’re doing is emphasizing how far away, how alien the ancients are.  Or, again, you can do it entirely in modern dress, like Updike, or O’Neill in Mourning Becomes Electra—you can banish the gods and the furies and replace them with inner conflicts and psychic torments.  In which case you’re still emphasizing how far away we are, saying that the Greeks are on one side of the chasm and we on the other side.  Saying, really, that the Greeks were simpler than we are.  Sharing a few elementary passions, but not human in the same complicated way.


I took a third course—free, uninhibited use of anachronism.  Again, this was dictated by necessity: I couldn’t make the story all ancient or all modern.  But I also told myself that this was a way of bridging the chasm.  That if I pretended to be as unself-conscious as Rembrandt or Shakespeare I might come a little closer, as they did, to sharing some common humanity with the Greeks.


So I was all set, I wasn’t going to worry about it, it would be okay if a god took a taxicab.  But there was still an obvious problem: you don’t believe in the gods, and neither do I.  Shakespeare might have Brutus talk about “the gods,” but it was just an expression, an antique ornament.  The gods don’t actually show up in Julius Caesar But they do in An Arrow’s Flight, and I had to ask my readers to believe in them.  Now you can ask readers to do that for a very little while.  If you read a short poem by Cavafy or maybe H.D. in her Attic mode, you don’t just engage in the usual willing suspension of disbelief, agreeing to pretend to believe.  You actually, if the poem works for you, do believe: a poem can find its way into some pagan part of you and make you dwell there for a minute or two. But I don’t think there’s any way to keep a modern reader in that state for the length of a novel.  So what I did, instead of throwing away the gods, was throw away the modern reader. 


The book is explicitly addressed, not to you, but to an implied audience that lives in the world it describes, a third world where there are gods and there are taxicabs—a heterocosm, to use Coleridge’s word.  And the story is told by a narrator who also lives in that world, not ours.  The narrator is a man of the same generation as Philoctetes, and he is telling the story to a younger audience, the next generation, some years after the conclusion of the Trojan War.  The narrator is a little skeptical about some parts of the story—some days he’s not so sure if he really believes in the gods, and he assumes his audience has the same doubts.  But he speaks from within a world in which belief is still possible.  He has doubts about the gods.  He isn’t certain, as you and I are, that the gods never existed.


So at this point, I had the basic rules of the game—a third world, neither fish nor fowl, and a narrator and audience who lived in that world.  Calling a novel a game seems to imply that it falls into some special subcategory—it may recall the tiresome metafictions of someone like John Barth or the more elegant puzzle-books of Nabokov.  But really every novel, even the most ostensibly naturalistic, is a game with its own rules.  I don’t mean that there are any general rules for fiction; I’m not sure there are.  But each novel has its own internal rules: the author gets to make them up but then he has to play by them.  Because part of what readers do, when making their way through the first pages of a new fiction, is figure out what game they’re playing.  And once that’s been established the author can break out of it only at the risk of destroying the whole experience.


The rules I set for my book were, I think, pretty obvious, but they were also very constraining.  They foreclosed a lot of the liberties a writer usually enjoys.  For example, one rule that I hit upon fairly early on was that the characters could eat hamburgers and they could hail taxis, but they couldn’t ever refer to any modern event or person.  No Jesus or Marx or Beatles, no literary allusions, no non-Greek places, no topical jokes or song lyrics.  Working under this rule was a lot like writing with one arm tied behind my back.  A world stripped of all of its cultural elements loses its texture, it becomes very cold and thin, and it gets awfully hard to tell a joke.  But that seemed to me a price I had to pay.


There are other rules, some of them more or less arbitrary.  For example, I allowed myself to add material that was simply missing from the body of Greek mythology, something on which the ancient accounts are silent, such as the whole story of Pyrrhus’s life before he goes off to fight the war.  But I couldn’t modify anything that was actually in the myths.  I did break this rule just once.  And it’s really a kind of paradoxical one: the Greeks had no hesitation about modifying their stories to fit new meanings.  One happy consequence of that is that there are so many variant versions of each myth extant that I could almost always find a story line that fit my purpose.


In sum, then, I set up a game and played it.  Whether it works or not isn’t for me to say.  I’ve found that some readers have played with me for the duration; others just can’t get into it, they get baffled or frustrated and walk out of the arena at the first intermission.


I’m going to read a couple of sections of the book, just to give you some flavor of how it works—or fails to work, it’s up to you.  And then I want to come back to the subject I’ve been avoiding, which is homosexuality.


[Read sample passages]


I said I was going to talk about homosexuality.  The main characters are modern gay men, and they think and act like modern gay men.  And one of the most frustrating things to me about the reception of the book is that so many readers have thought I was saying that the ancient Greeks thought or acted like modern gay men.


I suppose the confusion was inevitable.  If I had chosen to retell, say, some Arthurian legend, and had made various knights act like modern gay men, no one would have supposed that I was advancing any kind of argument about behavior or mentality in the age of chivalry.  But it just so happened that the story I picked, or the story that picked me, is about a people who developed a form of institutionalized homosexuality.  What we know about their attitudes and practices is actually about fifth century Greece, not the archaic Greece of the hypothetical timeframe of the Trojan War.  But I couldn’t expect my readers to make subtle distinctions involving half a millennium of social change.  So let me say a few words about Greek homosexuality in the classic period.


Apologists for homosexuality have been referring to the Greek experience for a very long time.  But I think it’s fair to say that serious study of this subject really began only about twenty years ago, and there’s still a lot of debate over such questions as whether the Greeks endorsed or merely tolerated homosexuality, whether anyone conceived of himself as a homosexual, rather than as a person who occasionally or even invariably performed homosexual acts.  Sophocles was one of the invariable ones, by the way, he was famous for it.  So this is all rather tentative, but I think it’s fair to say that there were at least two more or less distinct modes of homosexual practice or feeling.


The first was the pederastic.  The older man, the erastes, pursues the youth, the eromenos The youth is supposed to be at least semi-reluctant, he’s not usually supposed to be past the age when his beard starts to grow, only the older man is actually supposed to take any pleasure in the act.  What is permissible is very tightly restricted.  The older man has to be active and the youth receptive; it is shameful to play the receptive role with someone younger than you are or someone of a lower social status.


The second mode I might call that of the warrior-companions, the heroes who sleep together, fight together, die together.  The Theban band, the Spartans, maybe Achilles and Patroclus, though I reject that view of them in the book.  Here the lovers are more nearly equals, though there still appear to be some status distinctions.  It’s supposed to be an older warrior and a younger one, a veteran and a new recruit, or maybe a warrior and his chariot-driver. 


In short, and maybe to overgeneralize, it was acceptable, or tolerable, in Greece to engage in homosexual activity so long as you did so in a way that affirmed the basic values of the society.  You couldn’t give yourself to an inferior, love was supposed to be one-way or—if it was two way, mutual passion—then it was supposed to be in the service of the warmaking machine, it was supposed to make you fight harder so you wouldn’t shame yourself in front of your lover.


In An Arrow’s Flight I depict a gay life which is, on the surface, very different.  Adult men are allowed to be mutually in love in a romantic mode which is distinctly unGreek, no one is locked into any particular role.  Yet we still have a gay culture that in many ways affirms, as Greek homosexuality seems to have affirmed, some of the key values of our society.  Values not too different from those of the Greeks. 


For ours, too, is a society devoted to real or figurative combat among a tiny elite of valued males, who are supported by a phalanx of undervalued, dehumanized women—and by slaves, who make our clothing and harvest our food.  And we have a gay culture that remains all too focused on male power and violence, on status distinctions, on treating people like instruments.  Some people have thought my novel was rather preachy on this point.  But I do think that to live the examined life as a gay man now, unless you’re some mindless assimilationist like Andrew Sullivan, compels you to set yourself in opposition to some of the basic values of the larger society.


Of course this theme, of a human comradeship, or love, that exists in opposition to the values of the mainstream society is exactly where Sophocles was headed, except he didn’t quite dare.   At the ending of the Philoctetes, Sophocles has painted himself into a corner. Philoctetes is intransigent, insistent on going home.  Neoptolemus has forsaken his loyalty to the Greeks and is bound to help Philoctetes.  There just isn’t any way of turning the characters around and sending them to Troy, so Sophocles falls back on the deus ex machina The deified Heracles appears and solves everything by promising Philoctetes a cure and then glory if he will go to Troy. 


Edmund Wilson tries to explain this sorry contrivance away: Heracles is just a personification of a change of heart that has already occurred in Philoctetes, a softening in response to the kindness that has been shown him by Neoptolemus.  I think that gets an A for effort, but won’t really do.  Sophocles, in the Antigone, had balanced individual virtue and the claims of the state, and awarded the state—Creon—a narrow victory.  This time, near the end of his life, he swings entirely in the direction of the individual, the personal—the bond between Philoctetes and Neoptolemus.  And he has left the state and its values, in the person of Odysseus, vanquished.  But he can’t do it.  A Philoctetes is supposed to be a sort of patriotic pageant, the Greeks have to get to Troy. 


Now it seemed to me at first that I also had to get to Troy.  Even though I had painted myself into the same corner as Sophocles, I was going to have to find my own Heracles somehow, or some equally abrupt contrivance.  What stopped me was partly my sense that Sophocles had gotten to the right position and then abandoned it.  I wanted to stay in that corner, whatever the consequences for the Greek cause.  But I was also held there by one more specific detail.  It was the cure: I couldn’t decently write about the cure that hasn’t come yet.


Here is how I put it:


This is the point in the drama when Heracles is lowered from the rafters on pulleys.  From the wings a mortal voice—mine—is supposed to utter the great promises, as if they came from the mouth of the understudy who dangles uncomfortably a few feet off the floor.  Greater singers than I, having to get the essential couple to Troy, have resorted to Heracles.  No other way out of that hospital room: Heracles must order them to go.  And must promise the cure.


Here is what is missing, no one has mentioned the cure.  Philoctetes is supposed to obey, unthinkingly, the command from the recently deified hulk who used to boff him, so long ago.  Now Philoctetes will leap out of bed and go with Neoptolemus to the ship.  When they get to Arisbe, at the foot of Troy, Podalirius, son of Asclepius, will dress Philoctetes' twin wounds with divine salves.  He will bathe Philoctetes and anoint him with oil.  Until his whole body shines, that body that was a gift to the city, shines as though it had returned from the dead.  Then he and Neoptolemus will crawl inside a giant mock-up of a horse and—


But I didn't promise to get us to Troy, I said I would get us to where we are.  Even if I believed in Heracles—even if I thought Philoctetes would believe him, hop out of bed and head to Arisbe with his divine prescription—I cannot do it.  Maybe some son of Asclepius is, right now, concocting that miraculous salve.  But he did not do it for Philoctetes, Heracles did not appear, we are where we are.  If I owe nothing else to the dead, I can at least refrain from wheeling out Heracles.



I’m not going to reveal the consequences of my refusal to wheel out Heracles.  My editor is here, and I’m sure he wants you to buy the book.  If you do, I hope you’ll find that the book is not, finally, a game at all, but a serious effort to come to grips with the Greek presence in our world.  And then to overthrow it.  Because what else can we do, we who come after?  We have to overthrow it.