Re-imagining Homer’s women

Two recent books imagine the lives of the overlooked female characters in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey respectively. I actually did a similar exercise in high school writing a metrical poem depicting a dream of Penelope’s that is only alluded to in Book XIX.

The legacy of Atticus Finch

Written in light of the December premiere of an Aaron Sorkin Broadway adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, which is apparently directly influenced by the revelations of Go Set A Watchman and the events in Charlottesville.

Perhaps his perfection was only ever as a father, and not as a civil-rights crusader. He teaches Scout and Jem a kind of radical empathy that he himself cannot sustain but that they might grow up to embody. That is the version of Atticus still beloved by many of the book’s readers: not a noble lawyer on a par with actual civil-rights heroes such as Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, or Morris Dees but a compassionate, courageous single dad raising his children as best he can.

Not everyone, however, was inclined to agree, and not long after Rudin announced that Sorkin’s play would première in December, 2018, the estate of Harper Lee filed a lawsuit, alleging that the adaptation violated the spirit of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” At the heart of the dispute was a disagreement about the essential nature of Atticus. According to the estate, the character, as written by Lee, was “a model of wisdom, integrity, and professionalism,” while Sorkin had made him into an “apologist for the racial status quo.”

In this new production, the empathy for which Atticus has always been celebrated— his belief, as Sorkin sees it, in the “goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists”—would be his fundamental flaw. Of course, framing Atticus in this way compounds the complication of putting him at the center of the story: the tragedy, it suggest, isn’t that a black man loses his life, but that a white man loses his case."

Reporter, Seymour Hersh

Very apt one-word title; Hersh despite or because of his hard-headedness comes across as the living embodiment of the profession at its best. Would recommend to anyone with any interest in or respect for investigative journalism.

It inspires mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, his career is a monumentally successful story that follows a copyboy from the South Side of Chicago who finds his calling and thrives amid a culture of self-censorship, conformity, and hierarchy led by his idealism and work ethic. His work exposed protected secrets of institutions as powerful as the military, the White House, Capitol Hill, and to a smaller extent, Wall Street and the mafia.

On more than one occasion, Hersh refers to himself as a “lone wolf”. It is remarkable how single-handedly his successes come in an industry run on self-censorship, publication prestige, personal vendettas, and competitive one-upmanship. His Pulitzer-winning work uncovering the My Lai massacre came as a freelance journalist. When his agent refuses his request to approach the New Yorker about any writing vacancies, Hersh visits its editor’s office without an appointment, secures a job on the spot, then fires his agent. Even when he finds secure work in The New York Times and The New Yorker, the arrangements seem more like the hiring of a truth-seeking mercenary than an employee. But the results speak for themselves and the reader cannot help but admire that Hersh’s body of work has come largely on his own terms, without compromise of his integrity, objectivity, or values. What cynical lessons there for success in other industries like academia?

Despite his breakthrough successes in the 1980s, Hersh paints a pessimistic image of modern journalism. A common thread in Hersh’s work is empathy for the powerless, which he sees as rarely matched by his peers. At his first reporting job, he is keen to break the story of a horrifying murder of a Chicago family by arson, but relaying the details to his editor, he is asked: “Ah, my good, dear, energetic Mr. Hersh. Do the, alas, poor, unfortunate victims happen to be of the Negro persuasion?” Hersh answers in the affirmative and the story is reduced to a single sentence along the lines of “Five Negroes died in a fire last night on the Southwest Side.”

Hersh attributes his uncommon compassion, staunch pacifism, and skepticism of power to his upbringing among minorities in the South Side. I found it difficult to resist the thought that were it not for this man’s unlikely ascent to the media elite, the brutal rapes of murders of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and the clandestine bombing of Cambodia would have not just been unquestioned, but entirely unknown, the Abu Ghraib abuses underreported. These works mostly went unpunished and he laments that for all the work that can go into an investigation, its intended impact is repeatedly dulled by public disinterest, the industry declining to follow up a competitor’s story, a newspaper’s reach, a public refutation of fact, or irresponsible coverage.

Underpinning all this pessimism is the certainty that the landscape of investigative journalism is much worse now than in Hersh’s heyday. Hersh alludes to this in the introduction, perhaps because reflecting on the sad state of affairs in an epilogue would sour the mood:

It’s very painful to think I might not have accomplished what I did if I were at work in the chaotic and unstructured journalism world of today. Of course I’m still trying.

Normal People, Sally Rooney (h/t Helena)

Really enjoyed this and am finding it difficult to say why without referring to specific details of my personal life. The excellent pacing made it a breeze to read despite its narrative unfolding over several years and it was interesting how modern and accessible the writing was. It’s set in Ireland but with an absence of distinguishing detail or idiosyncratic diction, it could just as well have been set in any Western country.

My mom read it after me and found it hard to forgive the melodrama that could have been easily avoided with a basic standard of communication. I see that perspective but also recognize easily avoidable miscommunications in my own life. I’m also just a sucker for stories, like Richard Linklater’s films, that realistically depict relationships inflected by the passage of time and featuring a pattern of multiple reconnections at different stages of life.

Two Roads for the New French Right

Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic populist outbursts. Ideas are being developed, and transnational networks for disseminating them are being established

…In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern… France is a good place to start.