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Greece Is the Word 

Thomas Cahill grew up Irish Catholic in a mixed neighborhood in the Bronx. His most recent book, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, is the fourth in his Hinges of History series, which explains in everyday terms how Western civilization came to be. The series began with How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995), then moved on to The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998) and Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (1999). Cahill currently splits his time between Rome and New York.

Q: Earlier this year, we watched the Olympics, all those gorgeous camera shots of Greece. Was there anything you wanted to tell the television audience?

Before the Olympics, all the news stories said, "The Greeks will never be ready; they'll never be ready." But they were ready. Of course they were ready -- they're very smart people and great artisans, and so they brought it off beautifully. They just didn't bring it off in a North American or northern European time frame. In the end, they were happy to work through the night to get everything ready.

But I wished that the broadcasters had done more with the deep cultural roots of Greece. They should've shown us the original Olympic grounds; they should've brought us to the islands; they should have taken us to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. Not just show us, as in a travelogue, but to say what these things meant, what they were. Or why didn't they at least have a little segment on Greek architecture, which had such an overwhelming influence on us? We couldn't have the Lincoln memorial without Greek architecture.

Q: You've been reluctant to peep ahead at the three remaining Hinges of History. But can you reveal what you're working on right now?

I think I'd like to keep it quiet a little bit longer. I like people to be pleasantly surprised by each new book as it comes out.

Q: On a long-term project like the Wine-Dark Sea, how often do you run into the unexpected?

There were a number of big surprises. One was how contemporary the poems of Sappho really are. Of course, a lot of this is dependent on the translation -- my translation -- and some might say, "You've gone too far." But I don't think so. I really was able to translate her voice from Greek into contemporary English. Her work is very understated; you have to find the emotion in her words -- it doesn't drip all over you. She seems extremely clipped and modern.

Q: Sappho seems even more interesting because she's a woman.

She had the advantage of not being an entitled Greek male. I mean, she was no slave or anything like that. For a woman, she was probably very well-placed in her society. But because she was a woman, she was marginal in some ways. Very often, it's the people who have been pushed to the margins who can actually see what's going on. They will be called cynical by the people in the center, but nonetheless their voices will carry into the future, their judgment will turn out to be the real judgment.

Q: Your book explains how Colin Powell's "overwhelming military force" could not exist without the Greeks, the first nation to rely on military strategy. And Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration have credited the Greeks for their views on war.

They really groove on it.

Q: War is not unjust or immoral, according to the Greeks, if it's fought for good causes?

The end justifies the means.

Q: But ultimately, you say, because of their focus on intellect, the Greeks would be questioning this war. Are we?

Some people are. But I do think there's a tremendous amount of false rhetoric swimming around. For instance, there is no connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein -- that's all there is to it. But 60 percent of the American people still believe there is a connection. This is dividing us into camps. There's a passage from Thucydides, which could be about these divisions within our society: "Democratic leaders trying to bring in the Athenians, and oligarchs trying to bring in the Spartans. Š To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member, to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward."

Q: Couldn't this war share the motivation of Homer's heroes -- raw honor for honor's sake?

That is not enough. Because in addition to the Greco-Roman strain, we have the Judeo-Christian strain, which causes us to say things like "turn the other cheek" and "blessed are the peacemakers, they are called the children of God." That would have struck the Greeks as hilarious and silly. But it's at the heart of what the West really believes. And we do not pay attention to that at our peril.

Q: What is it that creates an abundance of art in places like Greece -- and New Orleans?

Probably diversity more than anything. I love New Orleans. It has French history, it has Spanish history, it had the octoroon culture, it has the beginnings of jazz, just on and on and on. And it's also wonderfully sleazy. I think you'll find over and over again that the places that art comes out of -- although they may be quite different from one another -- are all similar in that they're not highly scrubbed and sterilized. They're always a little funky.

Q: Your book traces the origins of drama in Greece. Why is tragedy found in Greek and Irish literature?

It's kind of pagan; it's prehistoric. There's a line at the end of Riders to the Sea by (Irish playwright) John Millington Synge: "A man cannot be living forever, and we must be satisfied." The mother says this after her son is brought in dead from the sea. It's spoken by an Irish woman in the Aran Islands, but it could've been spoken by a figure in Greek tragedy.

Q: Or it could be spoken today by a New Orleans mother, following the casket of her son in a jazz funeral.

It's in those things that we touch ancient people. In my books, I'm not trying to come up with any startling new theories of history. I'm trying to bring the reader into a place where, when they close the book, they say, "Now I understand what it would've been like to have been there," what it would've felt like to be an ancient Greek or an Irish pagan or one of the people I've written about. I think we do that by finding a way to connect our own deepest emotions with their deepest emotions.

Thomas Cahill will deliver the keynote address for this year's Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, in the Queen Anne Ballroom in the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St., 586-1609). Cahill also appears at other sessions throughout the festival. For more information and a complete schedule, visit
click to enlarge "Very often, it's the people who have been pushed to the margins who can actually see what's going on," says Thomas Cahill, who delivers this year's keynote address at Words & Music.
  • "Very often, it's the people who have been pushed to the margins who can actually see what's going on," says Thomas Cahill, who delivers this year's keynote address at Words & Music.


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