11 September 2013

Troy: The National Order of Things 3000 Years Ago

For reasons not to be elaborated upon here (full disclosure: they involved Eric Bana) I recently chose to use 3 hours of my precious holidays watching Troy again, after spending approx. 7 years on forgetting why I didn't like it. It's (very loosely!) ”inspired” by the Iliad, but I have no intentions of going into all the reasons why I think that was not a successful venture – let it suffice to say that when I studied “knowledge of ancient times” (aka “old-øvl”) in high school, when asked to let us watch Troy in class as “relevant to the subject” (we had been reading and analysing excerpts of the Iliad), our teacher actually preferred to let us watch Disney's “Herkules”, as that was deemed closer to its original source material. Yeah.* But before I digress even further, to what I want to treat you today is a lecture on nationalism and the National Order of Things, inspired by how it was allowed to seep into a film that is supposed to take place more than 3000 years ago, where the very concept of nation would not make any sense whatsoever. Spoiler warning: I am not impressed.

When I speak of the National Order of Things, I refer to the way we organise the world today, with everybody and everything sorted into specific delineated units, which we call countries, or nations. An illustrative way of approaching this is through looking at a political world map and contrasting it with a geological one. While the latter shows large masses of land divided by seas, mountain ranges, and other natural phenomena, the former shows a planet neatly divided into more than a hundred small coloured areas with clear lines between them. Only here and there is there a small fuzziness where territory is disputed. While the particular borders of a given state may be questioned, the grand design and the concept that the borders should be there are not, just as the idea that they ought to somehow form and conform to the identity of the people living within them. These divisions appear to show how things are supposed to be, and they determine to whom the land, and in extension the people, belong. You cannot be without a nation, and stateless people are continuously ridiculed and discriminated against, while nationality, often conflated with ethnicity, is taken as indicating something about any of us as a person. Not to mention that each and every single problem presenting itself to the world at large is dealt with within the units indicated by this map, even if the problems are global by nature.

The (natural?) extension of the National Order of Things is nationalism. Since we belong together under one national tag or another, our country is better than your country! A nation is defined by all that which is not part of the nation, and people are often willing to die for this country of theirs, leading at times to dreadful things. As Terry Pratchett wrote, “we're proud of being proud”, which might be said to be a precise definition of many nationalisms. Symbols, languages, anything, can do as marking why my country is better than your country, or in any case different from it.

Now, all of that is a rather recent development, the state was only introduced as a concept in 1648, and talk of “the nation” in the sense it is understood today only came around in the beginning of the 20th century. Before that, yes, there were countries, and states, and peoples, and people were loyal to one thing or another, typically religion, or the king, or some such. Very rarely was the actual ground under your feet important in and of its own, if at all.

Yet, this is what happens in “Troy”. According to this Hollywood blockbuster, these 3000 year old gentlemen are not fighting for a lady that ran off with a man who was not her husband, or about the power balance in the Aegean Sea or because the Gods demand it or whatever, they all fight “for their country”. Orlando Bloom, the dear thing, even has a slip of the tongue and talks about his nation.

The thing is, there was no such thing as a Greek 'nation' at that point, at least not in the sense we understand it today. Agamemnon joined the forces of the various small states of what we today know as Greece, but that doesn't mean that they felt like they belonged together for that reason, and surely that goes as much for the kings as for the common soldiers (also, dear film-makers: “Aegean”, not “Greek”). I highly doubt all those guys (assuming they were real) felt like they belonged to the same people in the sense we understand it today. I'm no expert on ancient Greece but I'm certain of this: “fighting for your country” would not have made sense to these people. For them it would not have been a clash of nations.

What we have is a retrospective interpretation of history, where present-day concepts are applied to contexts anterior in time, where they do not make sense and are not helpful for understanding how people at the time understood themselves and their world. If I interpret this generously, perhaps the script-writers wanted to make it more relatable to their audience why on earth anyone would go into this sort of war for 10 years (only that in “Troy” it's .. 10 days? Psht!). This explanation doesn't actually convince me.

What I think happened is what happens way too often, practically always. The script-writers simply do not have the imagination to think of a world organised in any way different from the one we have today, they can't fathom that it would be possible to have a world without nations or in the process towards becoming one of nations. The National Order of Things is so pervasive that it is invisible, and I have to admit that I do not necessarily find this a Good Thing. We need to question the world we live in, and what it makes us do, if for nothing else, then at the very least to understand it better. And shoddy Hollywood movies that glorify the idea of fighting for your country when countries do not even exist are not what we need.

* No, we didn't actually watch “Herkules” in class. While it was still better than Troy, our good ol' teacher just couldn't make himself sit through that. We watched “The Odyssey” instead

No comments:

Post a Comment