Mexicans, Achilles, anger and Michael Phelps

18 Jan

I’ve suddenly had a sudden non-stop bombardment of hits from México — which I never get — on this post on Phelps from London games.  Can anyone tell me why now?


“An angry man — that is my subject.”

That’s my favorite opening line of any translation of the Iliad by W.H.D. Rouse.  Granted, it takes its liberties with the wordiness of the original Greek:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,

πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προί̈αψεν

ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν

οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

and the more literal translations: “The wrath do thou sing, O goddess, of Peleus’ son…” (A.T. Murray).  Fagles’ “rage” is better than “anger” and closer to the Greek “menos,” which, perhaps for no other reason than that it’s the first word in the Iliad, is truly terrifying, but the curtness of Rouse’s opener conveys the message better; he’s angry – too angry for too many words; don’t talk to him; better to not even get too close.  He’s angry and, in fact, his anger is the subject; it’s the whole story.  He’s begged, cajoled; nothing works.  His best friend pleads with him – yok.  He’s offered gifts and treasures far surpassing the one insignificant thing they took from him but the taking of that thing has so lacerated his rightly gigantic ego that he won’t budge.  The Achaeans send their wisest to plead with him – the ones he himself respects the most – and he and Patroclus roast their best meats and pour their best wine for them, in what is literature’s seminal account of Middle Eastern hospitality: not because of the kebab or the wine, but because the feast is entirely about the honour of the host and pleasing the guests is irrelevant.  This guy, especially, has no interest in pleasing his guests; once he’s done his duty as a host he sends them packing with a litany of insults to deliver to Agamemnon that would leave a Russian truck driver’s ears ringing.

Rage is good.  I always thought so and think we’ll suffer as a society now that we’ve banished it to the corner where all our stigmatized emotions sit.  It just needs to be channeled, motivated by something other than blind ego: namely, by fully aware ego.  Even Achilles — once his rage stops being about his bloated self and becomes attached instead to his love and grief for his friend — goes to work decimating the Trojans, delivers some of the most deliciously bloody sections of the Iliad, and stages a wake the likes of which I’m envious that I’ll never attend: with games, massive quantities of food and drink, and the sacrifice of scores of sheep and goats and beautiful horses and twelve Trojan princes.

Achilles’ Rage (no more info)

Achilles’ sacrifice of the 12 Trojan prince POW’s at the funeral of Patroclus. Part of a wall painting in the Francois Tomb, Vulci, 350-330 BC. Museo Torlonia, Rome.

So you see it needs to be given the form of discipline, just as everything needs form; not tempered or minimized or put in contact with its feminine side – please, God…  Women have the right to and are certainly, perfectly and obviously capable of rage as well; but it’s not to be domesticated.  I’ve been watching athletes use it or succumb to it all summer now.

We all know I’ve been watching my man Phelps closely.  He’s not just a hero of mine and one of the greatest athletes of all time; I just wanted so badly to see him stick it to the bloodthirsty mobs who, back in 2009, were howling for his just crowned and anointed head because he had smoked some pot.  My heart sank after that first event, the 400m individual medley: fourth place?   I couldn’t believe it.  I thought they had gotten to him, psyched him down, the Lochte-mania.  In fact, the mobs did immediately start trashing him: “oh, he’s just been coasting a lot…” “oh, maybe at his age…”  What?!  He’s almost a year younger than Lochte!  As he stormed out to the lockers in a rage, I hoped he hadn’t succumbed to Djokovitis, the racket-smashing loss of concentration that’s plagued Nole since the spring.  I knew inside he was hanging his head.  Then silver in the relay, ok.

But then he came in second in the 200m butterfly, the event that he’s had in his pocket for almost a decade, so silver just wasn’t good enough, even if it tied him to Larisa Latynina, the Russian gymnast from the 1960s with the record of eighteen Olympic medals that she had held for forty-eight years.  Or because that was the medal that tied hers.  That was precisely the medal he had wanted to be gold.  He got out of the pool, looked at the clocks, threw his swimming cap back into the lane and stomped off again.

But there was something different about his anger this time, an “I’m better than this…” tone.  And sure enough, he came right back out and surpassed Latynina, who was watching in the stands, with his nineteenth medal – a gold one this time — in the 4x200m relay.

From Duncan White at The Telegraph:

“Nothing fuels Michael Phelps like anger. After failing to even get on the podium in the 400 metres medley and being beaten by the closest of touches in the 100m butterfly, he had plenty of frustrated fury to work with.”

Latynina was great:

Larisa Latynina won 18 Olympic medals in gymnastics for the Soviet Union, but she attended swimming Tuesday night. Michael Phelps was racing. He was trying to beat everyone in the pool and Latynina’s record as well. And when the moment came, she knew exactly what a great champion should do. She put on her lipstick.

Latynina joked in recent weeks that it was time for a man to be able to do what a woman had done long ago. And that it was too bad Phelps was not Russian.

Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, winner of 18 Olympic medals, waving to the crowd during the women’s team final.  (Rolf Vennenbernd/European Pressphoto Agency)

This year in New York, Latynina did meet Phelps and presented him with a medal she had won in a Soviet-American dual meet in 1962. She found him “very simple, smiley, lovely to talk to.” They discussed training and, Latynina said, Phelps acknowledged that he had wearied of swimming and was ready to retire after the London Games.

She understood.

“I think a person should go for sport only as long as they get pleasure from it,” Latynina said. “As soon as they stop enjoying it, they should stop.”

And like she had been the lucky charm — or the older athlete mom that got to our Cancer Mikey’s heart (they’d met before — see article), our man has been cruising on gold ever since.  But I think that it’s just that he took control of his rage.

“Nothing fuels Michael Phelps like anger. After failing to even get on the podium in the 400 metres medley and being beaten by the closest of touches in the 100m butterfly, he had plenty of frustrated fury to work with.”

You wouldn’t think it, eh?

For other Phelps posts see:

“Ποιόν σοι εγκώμιον προσαγάγω επάξιον, τι δε ονομάσω σε, απορώ και εξίσταμαι”“…απορώ και εξίσταμαι.” , which explains the title of the previous Greek post; and “I told you they wouldn’t leave him alone” or my original 2009 “Michael Phelps” and check out tag box at lower right.

(My original 2009 “Michael Phelps” for the event that started it all.)


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