The Only Nerd in the Iliad

That’s Ulysses on the left, Thersites on the right.

When FanGraphs CEO and maker of love David Appelman announced the launch of NotGraphs almost two years ago now, he noted that it would give us, the authorship, “a place to put things that would otherwise not have a place on FanGraphs, that we find interesting and we think you would also find interesting.”

Frequently and violently are the ways in which that original statement of purpose has been abused — and that’s accounting for the work of Dayn Perry alone. Nothing, not even all of the chickens at your local Whole Foods, have been given freer range by the relevant handlers than the contributors to the present weblog.

Still, that’s not to suggest that Appelman’s original and abiding directive is without merit. Indeed, like everything else he touches, it ought to be dipped in gold or stuffed or both. And, in most ways, the work that’s appeared here has reflected the concerns of the modern baseball nerd, purveyor of reason and wearer of spectacles.

It’s apropos both that original statement of purpose, then — and also a recent sojourn by the author into the Great Books section of his home library — that I’d like to introduce (or, as the case might be, to re-introduce) the reader to the only nerd in the Iliad: Thersites.

In Book II of Homer’s epic, the Greeks’ various sceptered kings have assembled their various troops. There’s some question of whether, perhaps, the Greeks might return home now, nine years into their war with Troy and little having been settled. Ulysses, mostly by means of hitting and yelling, attempts to dispel this notion.

It’s at this point that Thersites, described in the least flattering terms by Homer and detested by the aforementioned and very sceptred kings, raises a series of what appear to be a pretty reasonable points — i.e., that maybe the war is absurd and that it’s mostly a vehicle to riches for the generals themselves and that there’s little incentive for the soldiers to fight. The response he receives might be rightly described as “less than enthusiastic” and also “physically and verbally abusive.”

Here’s the episode, quoted in full (from the freely available Gerard Butler translation):

The rest now took their seats and kept to their own several places, but Thersites still went on wagging his unbridled tongue — a man of many words, and those unseemly; a monger of sedition, a railer against all who were in authority, who cared not what he said, so that he might set the Achaeans in a laugh. He was the ugliest man of all those that came before Troy — bandy-legged, lame of one foot, with his two shoulders rounded and hunched over his chest. His head ran up to a point, but there was little hair on the top of it. Achilles and Ulysses hated him worst of all, for it was with them that he was most wont to wrangle; now, however, with a shrill squeaky voice he began heaping his abuse on Agamemnon. The Achaeans were angry and disgusted, yet none the less he kept on brawling and bawling at the son of Atreus.

“Agamemnon,” he cried, “what ails you now, and what more do you want? Your tents are filled with bronze and with fair women, for whenever we take a town we give you the pick of them. Would you have yet more gold, which some Trojan is to give you as a ransom for his son, when I or another Achaean has taken him prisoner? or is it some young girl to hide and lie with? It is not well that you, the ruler of the Achaeans, should bring them into such misery. Weakling cowards, women rather than men, let us sail home, and leave this fellow here at Troy to stew in his own meeds of honour, and discover whether we were of any service to him or no. Achilles is a much better man than he is, and see how he has treated him — robbing him of his prize and keeping it himself. Achilles takes it meekly and shows no fight; if he did, son of Atreus, you would never again insult him.”

Thus railed Thersites, but Ulysses at once went up to him and rebuked him sternly. “Check your glib tongue, Thersites,” said be, “and babble not a word further. Chide not with princes when you have none to back you. There is no viler creature come before Troy with the sons of Atreus. Drop this chatter about kings, and neither revile them nor keep harping about going home. We do not yet know how things are going to be, nor whether the Achaeans are to return with good success or evil. How dare you gibe at Agamemnon because the Danaans have awarded him so many prizes? I tell you, therefore — and it shall surely be — that if I again catch you talking such nonsense, I will either forfeit my own head and be no more called father of Telemachus, or I will take you, strip you stark naked, and whip you out of the assembly till you go blubbering back to the ships.”

On this he beat him with his staff about the back and shoulders till he dropped and fell a-weeping. The golden sceptre raised a bloody weal on his back, so he sat down frightened and in pain, looking foolish as he wiped the tears from his eyes. The people were sorry for him, yet they laughed heartily, and one would turn to his neighbour saying, “Ulysses has done many a good thing ere now in fight and council, but he never did the Argives a better turn than when he stopped this fellow’s mouth from prating further. He will give the kings no more of his insolence.”

If we might suggest that it is the province of the nerd not only to offer a reasonable voice in the absence of them, but also to receive the slings and arrows of the bemuscled for so doing, then it is entirely reasonable to suggest that, in Thersites, we have perhaps the first instance of a nerd in literature.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

10 Responses to “The Only Nerd in the Iliad”

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  1. Choo says:

    “He was the ugliest man of all those that came before Troy — bandy-legged, lame of one foot, with his two shoulders rounded and hunched over his chest. His head ran up to a point, but there was little hair on the top of it.”

    I suspect Thersites was the template for Bert from Sesame Street.

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  2. yolo says:

    Mr. Cistulli- I don’t buy it. ie, if you’re suggesting that the community or spirit of FanGraphs is best represented by Thersite, the victim of the ‘bemuscled’, it just doesn’t make sense to me. Isn’t this precisely the type of cliché that we as critical thinkers are working to avoid?

    Or, from a different angle: Blachman recently posted an article sharing his favorite pieces of baseball writing. I think what unified these pieces was a type of originality and engaged analysis that stands out against a sea of brief commentaries that almost write themselves (think of Dave’s robot post on NotGraphs –

    Your piece gives us a lot to work with (literally four paragraphs of quoted text) but doesn’t really confront the questions raised. The identity of a community (NotGraphs), a critical reading of this character as (un)related to baseball literature or the apparition of the “nerd in literature” seem ever at-the-ready.

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    • It’s entirely possible that I was too ambitious in the thesis — and/or bereft of the tools necessary to deliver on it (i.e. the thesis). I’m guilty of either/both rather often.

      At its root, my interest was merely to share the passage, which is one that has always remained with me since I first read the Iliad — over 15 years ago, now. On what pretense to share the passage — that was the question, in this case. One, perhaps, I didn’t answer excellently.

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  3. leonidas says:

    i’m pretty sure this was an intentional and comical device, but it’s samuel butler, not gerard butler…

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  4. AC of DC says:

    Sing in me, Muse, of Thersites the authorial device! Unfortunately, Thersites in the text did not pose a reasonable argument; he trashtalked. When served the inevitable result of insulting large and war-like men in a forum quite fit for violence, he satisfied their injured pride with tears and quiet. Rather than raise these issues at any time in, say, the prior nine years, Thersites seizes a public opportunity and employs inflammatory language in an attempt to embarrass his bosses — his brutish, easily-offended bosses — ultimately forwarding the case in a fashion that even if presented to a wholly reasonable audience (thus resistant to politics) might well find disfavor. That the principal may be correct is immaterial, as the context suggests the character is positing it not to appeal to reason, but rather to seem right.

    This image of the nerd as self-impressed twerp is one that I might expect you lot to rather be inclined to quash.

    Incidentally, that translation may well be Gerard Butler. Yeesh. Fitzgerald is dead — can’t we get at least his for free?

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    • Point taken — although, we should note that the means for mass communication were pretty limited for Thersites. He’s unable to write a considerate blog post, for example, or even distribute a pamphlet. A public gathering, and the constraints of that form, would certainly influence his rhetorical choices (not that they would be wholly reasonable to begin with, I admit).

      Also, of course, the episode is being related by a narrator who clearly sides with the very sceptred kings. Thersites is intended to be despised, even as his points are sound.

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      • AC of DC says:

        Fair enough. Being a caricature, ol’ Thersey’s options are naturally limited. I think you might be underselling Homer a tad, though. The narrator’s presentation of the character as despicable may be due to one or more of a number of reasons (such as understanding that his audience, especially, sides with the sceptre-swingin’ royals), and folks far sharper than I have proposed a subversive wrinkle to the episode (after all, if I recall aright, Ugly T makes no other appearance in the poem). Thersty has gotten no little press over the ages from philosophical types (I’m thinking Hegel as an example, but that may be because Hegel wrote about everydamnthing), as object of praise, item of insight, etc. In short: Far more has been said than I can paraphrase in this crumby comment.

        Then again, maybe it’s just Homer anticipating some smartass in the audience and indirectly threatening him with a beating.

        Perhaps I am subconciously objecting to the suggestion that Odyesseus is Biff. Maybe the great strategist gets overhyped — and no doubt he had his jerk side — but he remains, after thousands of years of Western literature, one of the only big-time heroes to get more credit for using his noodle than for using his fists. The mode by gross majority — the standard we are advised to respect is the biggest guy who’s dumb enough to punch any suspected villain in the mouth, who makes the audience feel good by being just barely dimmer than they and by confirming their kneejerk moral judgments. But that’s another matter entirely.

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  5. yolo says:

    I just wanted to add: I hope my above comment is simply read as a conversation starter.

    I don’t pretend to know more about writing than a published poet (one studied in American AP English classes – for example – or in international universities). That Carson takes time to write for us here is pretty incredible.

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