Greatest Weakness

What a privilege it must be to work in a world of ideas!  (And to get paid handsomely to do so.)    My particular (and peculiar) career—if that’s what you call it—is intimately bound up with academics.  Those who know me personally treat me nicely, but the vast majority who haven’t a clue that I’m anything other than a guy who’s helping them get published sometimes forget their privilege is showing.  I’m not busting on my homies; I know what it’s like.  But I’ve noticed some interesting trends (“turns” in academese) that are fascinating from the point of view of an ordinary mortal with a mortgage and a great deal of anxiety about it.  For example, I find catch phrases time and again.  (See what I did there?)  Academic writers learn that if they buck the conventions they’ll be relegated to presses that don’t enhance your career.  All roads lead to Harvard, after all.

All of this is preamble to a curious trend that I’ve been seeing claiming that an idea’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  I read this time and time again, so I began to wonder about the origin of this idea.  Now, not even Google understands “what is the origin of the phrase greatest strength is greatest weakness?” but it does bring up about a thousand-and-one websites about job interviews.  I’ve had many of these throughout this thing I’m calling a career, and just like everyone else I’ve read that when asked what your greatest weakness is reply that your greatest strength (whatever it may be) is it.  The classics such as “I’m a workaholic,” or “I just can’t stop acquiring more x” (and we all need more x), are tired cultural tropes.  How did academics pick up on this?

Does it stretch back to Achilles and his heel, or Goliath and his gigantism?  Or is it that to admit weakness is to disqualify yourself from a job?  A well-meaning friend told me I should go through this entire blog (as if anyone, including me, has time to do that) and expunge all mentions of having lost my job.  They should be replaced with insinuations that I’d chosen to leave.  “Nobody,” he implied, “likes a loser.”  Well, I guess my greatest weakness is that I’m an honest graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  Novels and nonfiction books, short stories and essays, and even a learned article or two.  I used to be an academic you see.  And I was always honest.  It was my greatest weakness, if you see what I mean.

Troying Around

While discussing Homer with my relatives, it was decided that we should watch the movie Troy. Although conceived as a blockbuster retelling of the Iliad, the presentation reminded me significantly of The Clash of the Titans (2010). In both instances the directors and writers attempted to portray a realism of sorts, making Achilles and Perseus into just regular guys with issues. There is something of the fallen hero here, and perhaps a misunderstanding of the way the Greeks understood their greats. While it can’t be denied that heroes were intended as figures of unattainable stature, they were in some sense conceived as role models for mere mortals. The Iliad is an exploration of the anger of Achilles and the unpredictable influence of the gods.

As the critics pointed out when the movie was first released, the absence of the gods from the film is a serious departure from the Iliad. Without the gods, Achilles takes on a level of prominence never intended by Homer (whoever he was) and the playing out of his revenge begins to feel like a bad western. Although the Iliad does focus on Achilles, it requires an ensemble cast. None of the characters are evil like the movie portrays Agamemnon. He, along with his brother Menelaus, is the hapless inheritor of the curse of the house of Atreus. No matter what Agamemnon does, he is doomed. This fatalism is cut short in Troy as Menelaus, Ajax, and Agamemnon fall in the foreshortened battle of Troy.

The Trojan War is a myth. There is no history to portray accurately here. Instead there are gods and heroes. In removing the gods—a subtle nod toward many modern sensitivities—the movie loses its soul to beat the bank. And so perhaps it is a modern parable for a society that values money above all else. Whether the gods are real or not is immaterial, for they are but projections of the human spirit. Without them we are mere molecules conglomerated into biological entities with no purpose. Troy is a movie that falls short of truly mythical status, but at the same time holds a mirror to modern culture and asks “are you so sure that you can live without the gods?”

Trojan Gods

Every great once in a while Hollywood produces a major motion picture that demands the attention of scholars. Well, at least those of us who like to stay current about the way our subject is being displayed to the wider public. When Troy was released in 2004, I was still firmly engaged in teaching biblical studies and the Trojan War, although located somewhere at the fringes of the Ancient Near East, was not a particular concern. Now that I’m also teaching a mythology course that covers the Iliad, I figured I’d better watch the movie. For research purposes only, of course. Although I hadn’t seen the film before, I knew of the critics’ complaints that the gods, conspicuous in Homer, had been left out. I was expecting to be disappointed, but I found the movie to be more intelligent and subtle than I supposed it might be. The absence of the gods, distressing as it may be to purists, gave the movie an angst that is generally reserved for more cerebral subjects.

The question of where the gods might be in all the slaughter and destruction of war reminded me of a book that had profound influence on me several years ago. Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (Little, Brown, 1995) traces the gradual withdrawal of God from the scene in the course of the writing of the Hebrew Bible. The god who appears so active in the early chapters of Genesis distances himself further and further until the latest writings, according to Friedman’s dating, show few traces of the divine at all. God subtly, quietly, goes away.

Portrayed as defying the power of the gods in the film, Achilles desecrates the temple of Apollo and seals his fate. Nevertheless, although he is shot by an archer, the death of the hero seems more like an arbitrary act than the design of divine majesty. The Greeks, after all, did win the war. Atheism, however, did not exist in any real terms in the twelfth century before the Common Era. Then again, Achilles probably did not exist in any real terms either. Although Troy will never be among my list of most profound films, its commentary on the quiet skies of ancient Ilium serves as a useful metaphor, even for today.