Che Guevara as Achilles

W.H. Auden on Che.

Paul Berman used the occasion of the release of a movie about the young Che Guevara to unload both on the cute, privileged Stalinist violence-worshipper personally and on those who admire him for getting himself, and a bunch of other people, killed without making any actual improvement in the lives of the poor Latin Americans he professed to serve.

Matt Yglesias pointed out that a political tract isn’t the same thing as a movie review.

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber agreed with Matt, and said further that the right way to portray Guevara was as a hero in the classical sense: Achilles was flawed, and Achilles was cruel, and Achilles failed, but we still respond to him.

Brad DeLong denied that Achilles was a hero. As far as I’m concerned, we “respond” to Achilles–we may even pity him–but we do not admire him. None of us would wish to have the character of Achilles.

Henry Farrell responded that a classical “hero” wasn’t like the hero of a Western: didn’t wear the white hat, wasn’t the “good guy,” but rather embodied a certain kind of human excellence, admirable on its own terms even if destructive. He doesn’t note, though he might, that Homer himself twice compares Achilles, streaking across the field of battle in his shining armor, to Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest of stars but a bringer of death to mortals.

See, for example, Book XXII, 31-37:

On this, with fell intent

    he made towards the city,

and as the winning horse

    in a chariot race

strains every nerve

    when he is flying over the plain,

even so fast and furiously

    did the limbs of Achilles

bear him onwards.

    King Priam was first to note him

as he scoured the plain,

    all radiant as the star

which men call Orion’s Hound,

    and whose beams blaze forth

in time of harvest

    more brilliantly than those

of any other that shines by night;

    brightest of them all though he be,

he yet bodes ill for mortals,

    for he brings fire and fever

in his train.

    Even so did Achilles’ armour

gleam on his breast

    as he sped onwards.

Brad replies that admiring that sort of stuff has really bad social outcomes; it’s a mark of, and a prerequisite for, progress that our heroes (in the “good guy”) sense, have names like Guillaume d’Orange, Coke, Hampden, Godolphin, Walpole, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Lincoln, de Tocqueville, Juares, Clemenceau, Roosevelt–not Lenin and Guevara.

The Armed Liberal agrees: imagining that heroic revolutionary virtue substitutes for real political action he sees as the root of much evil.

Brad continues what he calls the virtual seminar, replying to another piece by Matt.

It seems to me that the point of diminishing marginal returns is somewhere behind us now.

But I would like to give Auden the final word. (Update: or at least the penultimate one: Philip Hart weighs in with an exquisite sonnet.)

Auden’s service with the International Brigades in Spain gave him a glimpse of what Machiavelli calls “the effectual truth” of revolutionary hero-worship:

The Shield of Achilles

She looked over his shoulder

For vines and olive trees,

Marble well-governed cities

And ships upon untamed seas,

But there on the shining metal

His hands had put instead

An artificial wilderness

And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,

No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,

Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,

Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood

An unintelligible multitude,

A million eyes, a million boots in line,

Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face

Proved by statistics that some cause was just

In tones as dry and level as the place:

No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;

Column by column in a cloud of dust

They marched away enduring a belief

Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder

For ritual pieties,

White flower-garlanded heifers,

Libation and sacrifice,

But there on the shining metal

Where the altar should have been,

She saw by his flickering forge-light

Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot

Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)

And sentries sweated for the day was hot:

A crowd of ordinary decent folk

Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke

As three pale figures were led forth and bound

To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all

That carries weight and always weighs the same

Lay in the hands of others; they were small

And could not hope for help and no help came:

What their foes like to do was done, their shame

Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride

And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder

For athletes at their games,

Men and women in a dance

Moving their sweet limbs

Quick, quick, to music,

But there on the shining shield

His hands had set no dancing-floor

But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,

Loitered about that vacancy; a bird

Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,

Were axioms to him, who’d never heard

Of any world where promises were kept,

Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,

Hephaestos, hobbled away,

Thetis of the shining breasts

Cried out in dismay

At what the god had wrought

To please her son, the strong

Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles

Who would not live long.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Che Guevara as Achilles”

  1. Looked a lot like Che Guevara

    Much virtual ink has been spilled over the recent release of The Motorcycle Diaries, a motion picture biography of the young Che Guevara. (See Mark Kleiman for an exhaustive blogography.) I have nothing substantive to add to the discussion, but…

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