The Generation of Leaves: What Heroism Really Means
One of the things that’s surprised me as I approach the first fall of my retirement is how much I miss the books I taught, especially for some reason the books in a course that no longer exists, “The Literature of Western Civilization.” In the first part I always taught excerpts from Homer, from The Iliad and The Odyssey, and I always liked The Iliad the best. It always gave me a sharp and surprising joy.
One of my favorite passages was a passage in the middle of the battle when a Greek soldier and a Trojan soldier stop and greet each other before they resume fighting. They recognize each other, and one, the Trojan, says to the Greek that the human generations are like the leaves, that we all “come and go, just like the leaves in their seasons” (VI.150). And as the trees outside my classroom window turned red and yellow each fall term, when I usually taught this course, and a new crop of students appeared in my classroom, with their fresh, young faces, I thought of them and of all the generations of students I’ve taught over the years.
Achilles is the hero of The Iliad, and the image of the generation of leaves is the key to understanding his dawning self-awareness and so to what makes him a hero, his growing awareness that we are all leaves and all of the generation of leaves. We all fall. There’s a point in the story when he’s refusing to fight because his honor has been offended, and what he says seems selfish at first, and maybe it is in part, but he’s also starting to rise above the easy story his culture had taught him, the story of heroism as a matter of strength and of victory, and he is starting to recognize that, that the old story is false, that we are not all powerful, that we all die, whether we’re a famous warrior or some ordinary soldier or a sheepherder in the pastures—we all die, and so what’s the point of it all? “A man’s life cannot be gained again or recovered,” he says, “once it has flown from his mouth” (IX.110).
That’s the moment, David Denby says, the literary critic and New Yorker film critic, that’s the moment Achilles is really heroic, or starting to be: when he starts to think.
He does go back into battle, and he does kill, with great precision and arete—with great excellence—and that’s a part of his heroism, too, that strength, but it’s the sadness that really makes him a hero, at least for a moment, and it’s the sadness that shows up again, when Priam, the King of Troy, comes to claim the body of his son, Hector, the greatest of his warriors. Achilles has killed Hector in his anger and his rage and then has not only refused to release Hector’s body but dishonored it, dragging it behind his chariot again and again. It’s a moment–this moment when Priam pleads with Achilles–beautifully captured in Troy, Wolfgang Peterson’s movie version of The Iliad, from the 2004, with Brad Pitt, perfectly cast as Achilles, and the great Peter O’Toole, in his last role, as Priam. Achilles, the great warrior, the great athlete, begins to cry as the aged king begs him for mercy. Achilles cries, and relents, and returns the body, but not before he kneels by it and cries again and says something like “soon, I will be with you brother,” as the waves crash on the shore.
It’s the word “brother” that moves me. It’s Achille’s grief.
It’s such a beautiful scene, and I always showed it in class—it clarifies something in the story we might not see otherwise—and I always said: this is true heroism.
Odysseus in The Odyssey models the same thing. It’s at the end, when he’s escaped from Calypso and been bobbing in the sea, his raft destroyed, all his men long dead, years before, and he’s being tossed in the waves, thrown around in a tremendous storm, close to drowning—that’s the moment when he becomes a hero, when he recognizes his powerlessness, that he is just one of the drops in the sea, that he is just one of the leaves on the tree, and that we all are. And then, when he’s cast up on shore, saved with the help of a couple of goddesses, he buries himself in the leaves of an olive tree—a tree, with leaves, generations of leaves–and he hears the next morning the beautiful young princess of that kingdom playing in the stream with her handmaids as they wash their clothes, and he rises up, he rises up from the dead, the leaves pouring off his battered, naked body, and he begs the princess for hospitality, begs her to help him. He doesn’t overpower her, he doesn’t assert his male privilege, he falls at her feet, maybe in a calculating way, in part, because Odysseus is always calculating, but sincerely, too, I think. He says: help me! And she does, and this is heroism, when the middle-aged man—and the great heroes are always middle-aged—the battered man, the frightened man, begs for grace.
And when Odysseus returns to Ithaca finally, where the suitors are eating him out of house and home, and hitting on his wife, and trying to seize power and generally failing to show proper courtesy and self-control, he disguises himself as beggar. This is partly a strategy, too. It’s for reconnaissance, to see what is what, and when the time comes, he and his son, Telemachus, who has joined him, kill everyone, with great skill and without mercy. So there’s that. But until that point he is a beggar, and he is abused by the suitors and taunted and made fun of, and he says to them, look, I know—speaking then in his disguise—I’m trying to tell you something, that we are all beggars, that we are all weak, and I think that’s the whole point of the story and of all the great stories, the point we always miss:
Listen closely: Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth,
our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man. (XVIII.150-52)
This is what my students always needed to know and what I needed to know and still do, that the hero, however we use that word in the press—to assuage our doubts and oversimplify our terrors and tamp down our panic, that whatever Walt Disney version is out there, whatever the internet says and the browsers—that the hero is the one who saves the day and solves the problem so that we don’t have to worry anymore, don’t have to face the reality and the chaos—none of that is true. The hero in fact is the one who realizes that the problem can’t be solved, and certainly not by strength, that life is a mystery, it’s a vast storm at sea, the waves are higher than we can see, and all we can do is pray for mercy.
As Christians we know this story, too, though we add to it. As Christians we know that Jesus as the true hero became a hero when he didn’t come down from the cross, when he allowed himself to die, to be killed. It was only by dying that he could rise, only by entering into our weakness—by not being the sort of messiah, the sort of hero, people thought he should be, someone who would do all the work for them, who would resolve all the problems forevermore—it’s only by dying that he became the messiah and saved us. He saves us by telling us we have to take up our cross, we have to empty ourselves out, have the same mind as Christ Jesus, Paul says, who, “though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at but emptied himself”—kenosis, self-emptying. That’s what we know. Jesus was crucified on a tree, the tree of the cross, of the generation of leaves and of all the generations, but in our story the ending isn’t tragic. It’s comic—not in the sense that it’s funny, though it’s full of laughter, too, but in the sense that in the end there is joy beyond all telling. The Resurrection follows, not just Odysseus rising up from his grave of leaves but a rising into eternal life, for all of us—not a dying into the vague underworld the Greeks imagined, where Odysseus meets the dead Achilles, who says it’s better to serve on earth than rule in hell. That’s not the afterlife for us and it’s not even just the afterlife. It’s this life, or the one we can have through grace, if we choose. It’s the life of joy.
We’re all heroes in that sense—when we realize we’re not. We’re all saints, when we realize we can’t be. When we let ourselves go. There’s a higher, childlike innocence as we age, or can be. We forget our illusions, or try to, rise above the false self the culture tries to sell us—or try to. Or we don’t try. We stop trying. We surrender. Because we realize finally that it’s only through grace that we can rise.
Yes, we are all the leaves in the generation of leaves, but each one of us is precious in the sight of God and loved by God. We are nothing and we are everything, and there is spring, there is always spring, and there is that wonderful man, the Risen One, the one who is mistaken for the gardener, mistaken for a beggar, walking in the garden of the tombs in the cool of the day, and who redeems that garden, who makes it, through his gentleness and his powerlessness, O who makes it the Garden of Eden once again.