In the Iliad Achilles’ mother Thetis appeals to "the artist-god" Hesphaetus to forge new weapons and armor for her son after the death of Patroclus, who was wearing his lover’s armor when Hector killed him. The new armor includes a marvelous shield, and the extensive description that Homer provides for it is generally cited as the first example of ekphrasis (literally “to describe out”) in the Western literary tradition. But even as it inaugurates the tradition of poems that describe or interact with works of art (Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” being one of the most famous), it swerves from that tradition, as a poem within a poem describing a work of art that never existed and never will exist.
The Shield of Achilles renders in impossible detail every dimension of the civilization that the Greeks and Trojans are battling for. It includes images of the country and the city, sowing and harvest, peace and war, and even a court of law, adjudicating "a townsman slain" in Alexander Pope's translation. It is a dialectical image of what the warriors on the field destroy by defending, or defend by destroying. When Thetis brings it to Achilles' camp the assembled rank and file are awed and terrified by it: "Cold tremblings took the Myrmidons; none durst sustain, all fear'd / T'oppose their eyes." But the sight of it rouses Achilles to intenser fury: "Stern Anger enter'd. From his eyes (as if the day-star rose) / A radiance, terrifying men, did all the state enclose." He puts on the armor and goes out to extract his revenge from Hector.
Police officers are the bearers of that "radiance"; it is their task to "all the state enclose." They commonly refer to the badges they wear as "shields," and very often those shields are designed with emblems of the municipality they have sworn to serve and protect. When an officer dies in the line of duty others will commonly put a black band across the shield, symbolically marking the mourning not just of the police, but of the city that has lost one of its defenders.
When I saw the video of Walter Scott running from the man who killed him, Officer Michael Slager of the North Charleston, South Carolina police department, I thought of Hector's flight from Achilles, and the explanation Hector offers for this on the point of death. He has just begged Achilles to restore his, Hector's body, to his family, and Achilles has sneeringly replied that he intends to deface Hector's corpse. Here's how George Chapman renders Hector's last words:
He (dying) said: “I (knowing thee well) foresaw
Thy now tried tyrannie, nor hop’t for any other law,
Of nature, or of nations: and that feare forc’t much more
Than death my flight, which never toucht at Hector’s foote before.
A soule of iron informes thee. Marke, what vengeance th’ equall fates
Will give me of thee for this rage, when in the Scaen gates
Phoebus and Paris meete with thee.”
There is no "law, / Of nature, or of nations" that can defend Hector's body from Achilles' desecration of it, and it was this desecration--the most extreme possibility of social death--not Achilles himself, that Hector fled. The bearer of the shield of civilization stands utterly outside civilization and makes a mockery of its laws. The Shield of Achilles becomes obscene, an emblem of the Iliad itself as "poem of force," which as Simone Weill remarked, is terrible because it turns human bodies and human beings into things.
It is easy to condemn the actions of the police officers who have murdered unarmed black men and children. These murders have been made visible, and so condemnable, not by any new insight into the racist structures of our society, but by technology. The very thing that some hope will bring about a new access of justice--through police body cameras, for instance--is the thing that holds us separate from the actions of the cops and makes it possible to cling to the narrative of "a few bad apples."
It is harder to look into the mirror that is the Shield of Achilles, the shield of civilization that every sworn police officer wears on his or her uniform, his or her armor. It is harder still to recognize that the makers of art, we who fancy ourselves somehow outside the civilization that we routinely criticize, have had a hand in forging that shield.
There is widespread condemnation today of the actions of Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, leaders of the conceptual poetry movement in this country, for the reproductions of racism in some of their recent artworks. Conceptual poetry in my view has never moved far from Duchamp's readymade, and Goldsmith and Place have brought the stinking urinal of racism into the realm of art. In my view they have shown terrible insensitivity to the people of color that are implicitly excluded from the elite white audiences that both poets routinely address themselves to. It is the exclusion of that audience--that inability to recognize the faces of people of color as reflected in the shield of our civilization--that is I suspect more hurtful than anything they've actually done or said. They haven't actually desecrated black bodies. But they've rendered them invisible, and I am afraid that continued focus on these two poets only reinforces that invisiblity.
Place and Goldsmith have reforged the shield, represented its mirror to us in the name of critique. They say: white supremacy exists, look at it. But the manner in which they present their work, and the manner in which they defend it, runs the risk of not simply representing white supremacy, but reproducing it.
Why should any of us be shocked to discover that the racist structures that condition American society are reproduced, down to the finest detail, in the hothouse world of poetry? What makes poets so special? Why wouldn't poets, like police, in their zealous defense of civilized values, injure and exclude?
It would be easy to get Biblical again here and say to all the poets I know, "why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" Well, that shield is certainly dazzling. And to recognize, as the Myrmidons must have recognized, that war (and not just any act of war, but a surprise attack), and justice (but is it justice, or only procedure) are intrinsic to our civilization as we've constructed it--well, those are terrible things to face. Here is Pope's rendition of the scene of law as depicted on Achilles' shield:
There in the forum swarm a numerous train; The subject of debate, a townsman slain: One pleads the fine discharged, which one denied, And bade the public and the laws decide: The witness is produced on either hand: For this, or that, the partial people stand: The appointed heralds still the noisy bands, And form a ring, with sceptres in their hands: On seats of stone, within the sacred place, The reverend elders nodded o’er the case; Alternate, each the attesting sceptre took, And rising solemn, each his sentence spoke Two golden talents lay amidst, in sight, The prize of him who best adjudged the right.
It's an ambiguous scene. On the one hand it's a form of civic peace: instead of Orestean revenge, an eye for an eye, a court of "reverend elders" will decide on the killer's culpability. On the other hand, these elders don't seem particularly alert ("nodded o'er the case"), even as their "appointed heralds still the noisy bands" of people that might otherwise start a riot--or an uprising--in response to the townsman's death. Ultimately it's money--"golden talents"--that will decide "who best adjudged the right" of the case. We have law, we have order--heralds, police. But not justice.
When I think of the task we face, as people of conscience trying to imagine justice in an unjust, corrupt, and racist society, in which every value is subject to the "creative destructions" of rampant capitalism--I think we could do worse than start from the place the Myrmidons begin, in fear and trembling. That doesn't mean we run away, or hide, or don't make art, even risky art. It simply means we act in full recognition of our responsibilities. That we keep "the ability to respond," as Robert Duncan put it. That we don't just dump our work into the public sphere--we defend it. Or recognize and acknowledge when it's indefensible.
The Shield of Achilles cannot defend Achilles' heel.