The human condition is such that pain and effort are not just symptoms which can be removed without changing life itself; they are the modes in which life itself, together with the necessity to which it is bound, makes itself felt. For mortals, the ”easy life of the gods” would be a lifeless life. ~Hannah Arendt
I am currently in the middle of two books, books of contrasting styles. One of the books, the Iliad by Homer, is widely listed as one of the greatest books ever written and number 1 in the list of 100 greatest works of literature I am attempting to read. I am currently on chapter 20 of 25. My progress has been slow, the text does not grip me, frequently my mind wanders and I catch myself only reading words, unconnected words devoid of meaning in the context in which they were written. I hear the names of gods and the names of heroes and the names of antiheros. It’s very difficult to understand who is speaking the ‘winged words’ and to what end. Most of the story is about the politics of the gods and the games they play with people’s lives. Most chapters are filled with thus smote so and so and black death and brass tipped spears that find their targets based solely on the whims of the gods.
Perhaps the difficulty I am having is the result of the translation I have or perhaps it’s because the story itself does not tickle my interest. Aside from the story not grabbing me, I don’t find interest in the play of the words. For me the words have no rhythm, I find no beauty in their form or sound to sustain me through the slow passages. A book I recently read had a simple story, a story about the Japanese internment in the US during WWII. The author’s ability to paint vivid, detailed pictures with her words kept me entranced, hungry for more, and kept me involved with the characters.
The other book I am reading is Siddhartha by Nobel Prize winning author Hermann Hesse. This book is about an individual’s search for meaning in life which, for me, is always an interesting topic. The story line of a person seeking themselves is one which, I believe, most all people can apply to their lives, a journey to which they can relate. The hero leaves his family, a family of stature, and undertakes a journey which begins in poverty. Along the way, he meets the Buddha, the enlightened one that many follow to try and understand life. Siddhartha, though awed by the Buddha, rejects the way being taught under the belief that each man must find his own path. Aside from the interesting story, there is some beautifully poetic imagery.
Out of the woman’s gown emerged a full breast, and Siddhartha lay there and drank; sweet and strong tasted the milk from the breast. It tasted of woman and man, of sun and forest, of animal and flower, of every fruit, of every pleasure.
Is one story any better than the other? That’s a question I can’t answer for each story has its own merits, its own audience. They both are built upon conflict as are most good stories. Whereas the Iliad is about external conflict, conflict of man versus man, man versus god, god versus god, Siddhartha undergoes only internal conflict. What is the meaning of life? Am I on the path that will lead to internal peace and happiness?
I don’t live a life defined by external conflict. I have learned to get along with most people. I see God as an ally in my journey not as a manipulator stringing me along like a marionette taking enjoyment in watching me stumble. I can say I much prefer the story of Siddhartha. I can see myself walking in his footsteps, I understand his struggles. My life since getting out of college has seen seasons of the same angst, the same search for meaning, the same struggle with wondering if the life I am living really matters. Because I can relate to Siddhartha, I find it a much more interesting book.
I had planned on working through the 100 greatest works of literature in chronological order as they were listed when I came upon the list. The struggle I am having with the Iliad is making me rethink my plan, that it is not the best way to proceed, particularly since the next book is the Odyssey also written by Homer. I don’t see myself being ready to return to the world of manipulative god’s anytime soon.