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Why Literature Matters:
Permanence and the Politics of Reputation
Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation, by Glenn C. Arbery; 255 pp. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2001, $24.95.
Over the last decade or so, there has appeared an increasing number of books critical of the profession of literary studies. Such criticism has typically been directed at literary theory and its preoccupation with the politics of race, class, and gender. To a limited extent, Glenn Arbery's Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation can be classified as belonging to such a "genre." Early in the book, for example, Arbery argues in favor of the "old-fashioned" idea, as he calls it, that literature is a "mode of knowledge" with the potential to open up transcendent modes of experience. Yet Why Literature Matters is so short on polemics and so long on incisive, sometimes brilliant readings of works ranging from the poetry and fiction of Seamus Heaney, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, and Emily Dickinson to Shakespeare's Othello and Homer's Iliad, that such a characterization is insufficient at best and distorting at worst. Notwithstanding its title, this book is devoted less to advancing a polemic about "why literature matters" than to dramatizing, with performative power and grace, why most of us, politically oriented or not, are already quite sure that it does.
Such performative power can be felt throughout Why Literature Matters, but [End Page 373] its presence is especially strong in the final, lengthy chapter on the Iliad, "The Sacrifice of Achilles." Bringing to bear his training as a classical scholar, Arbery contends that the Iliad is "about" a single event: the death or "sacrifice" of Achilles. Achilles, Arbery notes, was not just the greatest hero of the Iliad. He was also the greatest hero of the entire classical world: "Achilles has no rival in glory, either in the generation of heroes before him (not even Herakles), or in the ages after him. According to Plutarch, Julius Caesar wept because he had not accomplished as much as Alexander at the same age, but Alexander the Great envied Achilles."
Why, then, does Arbery refer to Achilles' death as "sacrificial"? Drawing on a version of the Greek myth whose source is Pindar rather than the more commonly cited Hesiod, Arbery observes that Achilles' sacrificial death, which is not in fact narrated in the Iliad but is everywhere taken for granted, was necessitated by Zeus' successful plan to forestall a prophecy. That prophecy said that a son would be born to Zeus and the goddess Thetis, who would overthrow the Olympian god as Zeus had overthrown the Titans. Such a son, prophesized to be not the greatest of mortals but, much more, the greatest of gods, would have been--should have been, from Achilles's justly embittered standpoint--Achilles. But in fact Zeus foiled the prophecy by marrying Thetis off to a mere mortal, Peleus, thereby ensuring his own continued reign and Achilles' eventual death.
It is the burden of Arbery's discussion to show not just that Achilles comes to accept and even "will" his own death, but that the meaning of such sacrificial death is embodied and given "presence" in the poetic form and language of the Iliad, including especially the descriptions of Patrocles and Hector, each of whom "inhabits the meaning of Achilles" by dying, successively, in Achilles' armor. Arbery goes so far as to compare Achilles' sacrifice with Christ's, asserting that reading the Iliad "in ignorance of the central importance of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis [is comparable] to reading [Dante's] Inferno (where references to holy things are scarce) in ignorance of the existence of Christ."
Arbery makes clear, however, that it is the differences, rather than the similarities, that are most important in such a comparison. Those differences revolve around three issues. First, whereas Christ is a deity who sacrifices himself for humanity, Achilles is a mortal who sacrifices himself for the gods. Second, whereas humanity gains ultimate...