:: Article

the ethics of belief

By Patrick Nathan.


Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein’s Ajax and Cassandra, 1806

According to Google Maps, Mount Ida is a 28-hour walk from the ruins of Troy. Satellite imagery reveals the terrain as mostly farmland. In one version of the myth, Helen goes there to beg Paris’s first wife, Oenone, to heal his battle wounds. Spurned by Helen’s ire, Oenone refuses, and Helen returns to Troy alone. In another version, Paris himself makes the journey, only to die on the mountainside. With little reason to expect things to have changed in three thousand years, it’s easy to picture Helen fraught with worry as she hurries through fields of wheat, or Paris bleeding on the crops as he crawls toward the woman he abandoned. Clicking and dragging to the other side of the Aegean, hovering over a cluster of ruins just north of modern Argos, we can imagine what Cassandra must have felt, long after her city was sacked and her family murdered, as she stood before the stone lions at the gates of Mycenae, where she knew she would die. One Google user has given the archaeological site three out of five stars.

In the United States, we rarely have the chance to stand before such ruins, to be cast backward through time. On vacation in Ireland several years ago, I was shocked at how easy it was to become paralyzed by the past—imagining the lives not only of medieval kings and their courts but, even further, the Celtic clans that defended ring forts on Atlantic cliffs in 1100 B.C. Three thousand years ago—and yet there they are for you and your family to walk to, explore, take selfies with, and check in at on Foursquare. Back home—in Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York, Denver, wherever—it’s hard not to leap forward and imagine the tourists of the next millennium, climbing over our once great cities. In an essay on the research process for her 1983 novel, Cassandra, German writer Christa Wolf asks herself: “What kind of faith will the people of the future (assuming there are people in the future) read out of our stone, steel, and concrete ruins?” If we’re to take history as a reliable measure, the story of the 20th and 21st centuries will, in two or three thousand years, be quite the simple yarn: we built the freeways out of national pride; we liberated peoples across the globe from their cruel dictators; we went to war against terrorists to defend our freedom; and so on. Every ruin has its myth; every war has its Helen.

Cassandra, on the other hand, is an unjustly ignored figure. But that was always her pain. Apollo—quite taken with the daughter of King Priam of Troy—bestowed her the gift of prophecy. When she refused sex with the god, he cursed her so that she would never be believed. Last year, in Harper’s magazine, Rebecca Solnit outlined this very modern thread in Cassandra’s story, and lamented the Trojan princess’s failure to lodge herself in our creative imagination à la Helen, Achilles, Odysseus, Paris, Agamemnon, and myriad others who allegedly stood on the same field and watched the same city burn. Sadly, Cassandra’s ostracism is not at all a surprise. Even in the Oresteia, her voice goes unheard. “I say you will see Agamemnon dead,” she warns Aeschylus’s chorus, now a slave in the Mycenaean court. They simply tell her to hush, making way for Agamemnon’s death, not to mention her own.

In Wolf’s novel, Cassandra is a brilliant, observant, and deductive young woman, wise beyond her years and far too reasonable to be caught in the middle of so foolish a war. Her so-called madness is borne from being the sole moral compass, the only citizen of Troy willing to question authority. “A judgment had been passed on me,” she tells us, “but how could I be guilty when I had done nothing but tell the truth?” It is exactly that truth that makes Wolf’s novel such a sad, perfect portrayal of war: no one ever wants the truth, and in fact will rail against it, as violently as possible and at whatever cost. Cassandra warns Priam, her father and her king, not only of the war’s outcome but the effects of war itself: “The first sign of war: We were letting the enemy govern our behavior.” The answer she receives is both unsurprising and depressingly modern: “Priam explained to me that in war everything that would apply in peace was rescinded.”

Yet war isn’t even the term the Trojans are permitted to use: “Linguistic relations prescribed that, correctly speaking, it be called a ‘surprise attack.’ For which, strange to say, we were not in the least prepared.” Linguistics is crucial in Priam’s defense of the city. When Menelaus, Helen’s former husband and Agamemnon’s brother, is seated at the head of a banquet table with Priam and Hecuba, the court is forbidden to refer to him with the traditional term, “guest friend.” Instead, behind his back, Menelaus is a “spy” or “provocateur,” the “future enemy.” In exchange for hospitality, Priam establishes a “security net”—“a new word,” Cassandra observes. “What do words matter? All of a sudden those of us who persisted in saying ‘guest friend’—including me—found themselves under suspicion.” It isn’t long before the king establishes a citywide surveillance network, because, after all, “those who had nothing to hide had no reason to fear the king.” Least surprising of all—because we know the story, because Cassandra can see it clear as crystal—Priam’s methods do not work, and Cassandra’s warnings go unheeded. The Trojans drag the horse inside the walls. “The Greeks will tell their own version of what happened that night,” she says. “Blood flowed through our streets, and the wail Troy uttered dug into my ears; since then I have heard it night and day.” It’s only human, in the end, that she awaits her own murder.

Another search on Google Maps reveals a photograph of “Grave Circle A,” just outside the walls of Mycenae. It’s here, presumably, where Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and—why not?—poor Cassandra are rotting in each other’s miserable company, and where they’ll continue to rot, down to the last carbon atom. At least if we allow ourselves to forget that the Iliad is only a poem, Cassandra a novel, and the Oresteia a mere cycle of plays. One need not even have read Homer to know these stories. A Trojan prince absconds with Helen, wife of the Spartan king, and—to defend their honor—the Greeks sail a thousand ships to the walls of Troy, where for ten years they lay siege. There’s a large wooden horse involved, a poisoned arrow, a host of women traded back and forth as spoils of war. It is said that Helen is the most beautiful woman on earth, the most beautiful to have ever existed; it’s not so far-fetched for generals and kings to embark on an adventure of chest-puffing and dick-measuring, all in her supposed “honor.” But ten years of siege? Crossing the Aegean with 1,186 ships?—all for, as Herodotus notes, “the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl?” It’s certainly poetic to think so.

For the Greeks, the events of the Iliad were, largely, historical fact. Later, in Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid recounted the history of those who fled burning Troy to found a new empire. Even in the Middle Ages, the Trojan War was known, understood, and accepted through Homeric detail and embellishment. Then, late in the Renaissance, it began to lose its cultural sway. Pascal called Homer a writer of Romance: “Nobody doubted that Troy and Agamemnon no more existed than did the golden apple. Accordingly, he did not think of making a history, but solely a book to amuse.” By the nineteenth century, the Iliad had fallen into the realm of total fiction, and the city of Troy was doubted to have ever existed. In the 1870s, however, a retired businessman named Heinrich Schlienmann set sail for Turkey and began an amateur excavation outside the northwestern town of Hisarlik. Later in life, he would claim that, at the age of eight, he had declared to his parents that he would one day discover the site of Homer’s Troy. Based on what little knowledge we have, this is precisely what Schliemann has done—so too with Mycenae, in Greece. Now, anyone with an Internet connection can spy on these ancient ruins, from which one can see—via the photos of tourists—the Trojan citadel, faraway Mount Ida, and, just beyond the city, the waters of the Dardanelles.

Here are what we consider to be the facts: Troy was an ancient city located along the waters of the Dardanelles, formerly known as the Hellespont. A geological layer of broken bones, shards of weapons, and smashed rocks indicates a violent battle and mass death circa 1190 B.C. During this time, the citadel at Mycenae was a military stronghold, and one of the most important political centers in Greece. Sometime between 1500 and 1100 B.C., there was a great general at Mycenae named Agamemnon (“very resolute, ”). Situated as it is, Troy would have controlled and policed access to the Dardanelles—the only seafaring passage between the Aegean and Black Seas, allowing trade access to cities across western Asia. While traveling through Greece and Asia Minor, Christa Wolf poses the question: “Did Homer and the others who handed down the cycle of legends about Troy suspect that in following the myth they were helping to conceal the actual facts? Did they suspect that the Achaeans’ struggle against the Trojans—whoever they were—was about sea trade routes?” If what Wolf suggests is true, the greatest tale of heroes ever told is a glorification of a war of commerce, an act of violence committed in the name of greed—which, sadly, sounds far more realistic than a war to reclaim a stolen woman, regardless of how beautiful Helen might have been.


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What first drew me to the Trojan War were its many allusions in David Markson’s 1988 novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Markson’s narrator, Kate, can’t extinguish its details or events from her mind, compelled to mention Helen, Paris, Achilles, even Patroclus and “poor Astyanax,” in an ongoing, disintegrating cycle of meditations that also includes fine artists, physicists, writers, composers, and cats. I began to see the human side of what until then had just been another fantasy tableau: fighting, war, glory—all that Xbox stuff. It was Kate, in her loneliness, who first convinced me to go to Google Maps, just out of curiosity, and search for a small, Turkish town: “The name of Troy had been changed too, naturally. Hisarlik, being what it was changed to.” Indeed, Hisarlik is there, deep in the Çanakkale Province, only a short walk from a small lattice of ruins in the forest labeled “Troia.” It had never occurred to me that one could actually walk the grounds of Priam’s once great city, just as Kate herself claims to have done. Early on in the novel, she describes the view of the Dardanelles from the walls of Troy: “I even dreamed, for a while, that the Greek ships were beached there still. Well, it would have been a harmless enough thing to dream.” Suppose my curiosity in searching for Troy had not been rewarded—suppose there were no ruins. Walking on the beach outside Hisarlik, does it matter whether or not Achilles’s ashes are actually beneath the sand? Does it matter, standing at the gates of Mycenae, whether there was a Cassandra, a Helen, a Clytemnestra—is it crucial for their remains to be buried beneath those rocks? Or is it more important simply to think so, to have one’s spine tingle by imagining it? If stories are the emotional portals to the past, we should hesitate to so savagely discount them. After all, a mere few years ago, Richard III’s crooked spine was hoisted out from beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Richard III's spine

Richard III’s spine

In his later novels, Markson replaces conventional narrative with an ongoing collection of anecdotes, stories, and hearsay. So little of Markson’s compendium can be proven, yet all of it feels like the truth. It’s these stories, these legends, that compel us to ask: “Do you know what poor Rembrandt’s students used to do to him?” or “Did you hear what Einstein said, when he learned of Hiroshima?” It’s through these stories that the past becomes human, allowing us to place ourselves there, which is far more important than getting the correct date or the exact number of Greek ships, and whether or not there was a man so powerful that his only vulnerability was his heel. We choose stories because reality is far too forgettable.

When I was in elementary school, Christopher Columbus was a steadfast explorer, alone among men in his belief that the world was round. He convinced the Queen of Spain to fund his expedition across the Atlantic, and what he found was a welcoming paradise, ready for the taking. What he learned from the natives and what they learned from him formed the basis of our culture as Americans, and for his bravery we should be thankful. We should be inspired. The story of Columbus is convenient to believe if we’re looking for justification, for ratification; it’s no coincidence that his narrative began its apotheosis during America’s colonial era, especially in the years following the American Revolution. Thankfully, we’re cognizant enough, these days, to note that Columbus “conquered” the Americas, in contrast to the “discovery” we were fed in childhood, as though this lexical bandage will heal five centuries of grief. But it’s through language—specifically the policing of language—that myths are made and unmade, all the way back to Homer’s wine-dark seas and rose-fingered dawns. In his extraordinary map of Greek myth and history, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso asks what we would see should we look through the light pollution at that great “girdle of some giantess,” the Milk Way. Would we see the gods? Would we see “a movement within that order?” No:

We immediately start to think of distances, of the inconceivable light-years. We have lost the capacity, the optical capacity even, to place myths in the sky… Not only do we not see the Sirens but we can’t even make out the heavens anymore. And yet we can still draw that tattered cloth around us, still immerse ourselves in the mutilated stories of the gods. And in the world, as in our minds, the same cloth is still being woven.

As I write this, French police are pursuing unidentified gunmen through Paris, following the mass shooting at the offices of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. On social media, readers remind newspapers and magazines that the twelve left for dead were not “executed” but “murdered,” as executed would imply legal process, a trial. The myth, of course, is that Islam is the enemy of free speech and expression, all that’s good in the Western world. The other myth is that Charlie—the metonym we’ve chosen to represent every individual killed in the shooting—had it coming. As in any media case—from Missouri’s “lootings” to Oscar Wilde’s “gross indecency”—we only need modify our syntax and synonyms to overwrite the facts into a story, good guys and bad guys included, values and evils demarked and exalted. We are still, as Calasso says, weaving “that tattered cloth,” but we seem to have lost any ability to introduce complexity into our myths. Achilles, though a hero, was a monster to women. Helen herself was contradiction incarnate, friend and enemy to Greek and Trojan alike. Even Odysseus—that cool, levelheaded everyman—threw another Greek to the wolves when he framed Palamedes for theft and betrayal. Interestingly, it was in this moment, as Palamedes—in Calasso’s words—“mourned the passing of the truth,” that Odysseus showed the world how “the lie was more consistent than the truth.” Unfortunately for Palamedes, it was Odysseus who discovered that truth was contingent on the arrangement of events, on the portrayal of character. It was Odysseus who used narrative as a means to an end—so we’re told, at least, from the stories that have come to us.

As a fiction writer, it’s not my intent to indict narrative, or even to claim that truth is malleable as gold. Stories are everything to me; everything, for me, is read and interpreted as stories. Perhaps we can forgive ourselves these daily deceits by understanding them as such. Again, one recalls Markson’s Kate, the last person on earth, leaping from one historical anecdote to another:

When I state that any of these things were done or said, incidentally, what I more truthfully mean is that they were alleged to have been done or said, of course.

As it was similarly alleged that Giotto once painted a perfect circle freehand.

Although I happen to believe it categorically about the circle, most of such tales being harmless enough to believe in any event.

It is harmless, as Kate says, to believe that Giotto—to prove to Pope Boniface VIII his worth as an artist—painted a perfect circle without the use of a compass. It is not harmless to believe that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, ushering in a new, exciting era of global prosperity. It is harmless to believe that Cassandra foresaw her own death at the walls of Mycenae. It is not harmless to ignore, in that same story, how her warnings go unheard, how she could have changed the course of history, and of myth. It is relatively harmless to believe that Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world, then as well as now. It is not at all harmless to believe that an entire city and civilization was eradicated to defend what the Achaeans called their honor, which really meant—even in the stories—their property.

As far back as Aeschylus, Clytemnestra demands that we think critically: “And why get angry at Helen? / As if she singlehandedly destroy those / multitudes of men. / As if she all alone / made this wound in us.” If we’re to understand history as a subjective arrangement of events, as narrative shaped by character and context, we’re faced with what can only be called the ethics of belief. Every day, at nearly every moment, we’re exposed to one narrative or another, confronted with a choice to believe or not believe. Most stories, in fact, must be broken down into their individual events . By extension, what we choose to believe and not believe within these unique stories then forms a new narrative, or our own version of the truth, such as Christa Wolf’s Cassandra or Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, or—for better or worse—the clumsy collection of artfully chiseled Hollywood torsos in the 2004 cinematic disaster, Troy. Beneath the ruins, there’s always another layer of truth.

At the hour of her death, Wolf’s Cassandra asks herself: “Once a thought comes into the world, does it live on in someone else?” As Troy is facing destruction, she laments the loss of her city’s beauty, the history of its day-to-day livelihood: “No one will ever learn these all-important things about us. The scribes’ tablets, baked in the flames of Troy, transmit the palace accounts, the records of grains, urns, weapons, prisoners. There are no signs for pain, happiness, love.” The last person on earth, Markson’s Kate leaves messages in the street—“Somebody is living in the Louvre”—but to whom? Though Cassandra is a novel and its eponymous character a fiction, the story has survived. The Trojan princess, whether or not she ever existed, still has a voice. Though a novelist’s creation, what she passes on to us is true. It is true because the precision and beauty of her language informs us that it is true. As Kate empties a lifetime of intellectual and emotional baggage, living alone in a world that’s failed her, we sincerely believe that she is the last person on earth. So too do we believe—just as she so desperately wants to believe, scrawling another message in the sand—that “Somebody is living on this beach.” Kate wants to exist, and she wants us to want her to exist. There are fictions in this world with nothing harmless about them, and many more it would be harmful not to believe.



Patrick Nathan‘s work has appeared in Boulevarddislocate, the Los Angeles Review of BooksMusic & LiteratureRevolverFull Stop, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 23rd, 2015.