The '300' stroke

Hamid Dabashi* writes on pride, prejudice, Persia and other empires


FOR THE WORLD AT LARGE, the sign "300" may not mean much beyond a mere number placed solemnly between a double quotation marks. But given the prevalent Hollywood hegemony over the globalised pop culture, that anonymity should not remain the case for long. Why should the world care about an oversize American comic book being made into a jumbo- sized videogame look alike, CGI-virtuoso, cinematic spectacle (released theatrically in March and then late this July on DVD), has scarce anything to do with a testosterone-infested infantilised culture of teenage mutant computer wizards giving wild momentum to their belated adolescent fantasies and more to do with the fact that precisely that very orgiastic nucleus of violence is at the roots of a very real -- though still unreal -- predatory empire wreaking havoc around the globe.

On the face of it, Zack Snyder's 300 (2007) is just a bodybuilders' wet-dream version of a foundational myth, of how "the West" began -- albeit the muscularity of its sculpted takes on military prowess bespeaks a bit too noisily the moral obesity it seeks to hide and yet manages to expose even more obscenely. Ever since its original narration by Greek historian Herodotus, the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) has increasingly assumed a symbolic significance far beyond its original import. Not just in Thermopylae, but also in Marathon and Salamis did the Greeks put up splendid resistances to the predatory expansionism of the Achamanid Empire. Much later in history, these battles assumed disproportionate and entirely ahistorical significance -- the farther the myth of "the West" (as the presumed centre of universe and the colour-coded sign of white man's civilising mission around the globe) developed the more these battles assumed almost metaphysical and supernatural significance. Small skirmishes at the farthest frontiers of the shapeless, graceless, and gargantuan Achamanid Empire at the time, battles such as Thermopylae, Marathon, or Salamis increasingly assumed ahistorical, prophetic, and even divine significance in the making of the myth of "the West" as the Christian God's gift to humanity.

The increasingly ahistorical significance of these battles between the Ancient Greeks and the Achamanid Empire corresponds squarely to the expansion of European colonialism and its concomitant self-conception of "the West" as the generic rubric under which Europeans launched their global conquest. The origin of the glorification of the Graeco-Persian wars in modern history evidently goes back to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) who first identified the "glorious defeat of King Leonidas and his men at the defile of Thermopylae" as more glorious than "the fairest sister- victories, which the Sun has ever seen." Appalled by the Turkish domination of Greece, Lord Byron (1788-1824) would later join Montaigne in decrying: "Earth! Render back from out thy breast/a remnant of our Spartan dead! /Of the three hundred grant but three/To make a new Thermopylae!" Reporting these earliest records of reading the Battle of Thermopylae ahistorically, the British popular historian, Tom Holland says "no wonder, then, that the story of the Persian Wars should serve as founding-myth of European civilisation; as the archetype of the triumph of freedom over slavery, and of rugged civic virtue over enervated despotism." (Tom Holland, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, 2005: xviii).

What Tom Holland calls "European civilisation" for the rest of the world spells out as a predatory form of colonialism. No wonder then that the shared sentiments of Montaigne and Byron about Thermopylae were soon to be picked up by grand officers of the British Empire. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), for example, spoke on behalf of the entire British colonial character when he said that "the battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings." Giving philosophical momentum to European colonialism, Hegel (1770-1831) had already chimed in that "the interest of the whole world's history hung trembling in the balance".

The Persian Wars in general and the Battle of Thermopylae in particular were not to remain outside the purview of the direct beneficiaries of European colonialism, namely the rising European bourgeoisie and its preferred cultural outputs. European Orientalist opera was to have a ball with Xerxes and the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis. Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) in 1654, Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) in 1694 and most famously George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) in 1738 had much fun putting the Achamanid king to song and dance. Although in Handel's Serse, the Persian emperor gets to sing one of the most beautiful arias of the opera, " Ombra mai fu ", one only needs to compare it with Aeschylus's Persians (472 BC) to note the vast difference in the manner in which the Greeks themselves saw and empathised with their adversaries and the way the Europeans of the Baroque period began to stage their "Orientals".

The Orientalist opera became integral to the artistic and ideological make-up of the European bourgeoisie. The more European bourgeois historiography became self-conscious of its colonial globalisation the more the minor skirmishes between the Achamanid Empire, the very first globalised empire the world had ever seen, and its tiny Greek borders assumed extravagant, ahistorical, and entirely mythic significance. The more European imperialism, it seems, was modelling itself on what it called the Persian Empire, the more it claimed the embattled heritage of a tiny archipelago it misappropriated as its point of civilisational origin.

John Stuart Mill's glorification of the Persian Wars was premonitory of its further celebration by other British colonial officers. It is not accidental at all that Lord Curzon (1859-1925), just before he became the viceroy of India, visited the ruins of Xerxes Palace with a certain sense of dual identity. "It might have flattered the British Empire," as Tom Holland puts it, "to imagine itself the heir of Athens; but it owed a certain debt of obligation to the mortal enemy of Athens, too." (Ibid: xxi).

Following the footsteps of European ahistorical historians, Orientalist storytellers, and British colonial officers alike, Adolph Hitler positively adored the Battle of Thermopylae. "To the Nazis", Tom Holland has pointed out, "as it had been to Montaigne, Thermopylae was easily the most glorious episode in Greek History." This is not all. It gets even better: "The three hundred who defended the pass," Tom Holland reports, "were regarded by Hitler as representative of a true master-race, one bred and raised for war, and so authentically Nordic that even the Spartans' broth, according to one of the Fèhrer's more speculative pronouncements, derived from Schleswig-Holstein."

Thermopylae has indeed made very strange bedfellows of European historians, poets, philosophers, colonial officers, world conquerors and mass murderers. Such is the fate of European self- delusional reading of history. Soon after Montaigne, Lord Byron, Hegel, British colonial officers, and Hitler, it was the turn of the British novelist William Golding (1911-1993) who in the early 1960s wrote his famous essay on the event, "The Hot Gates" (1965), where he declared, gleefully, "a Little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free."

Reporting all these creative adoptions of the Battle of Thermopylae with a sense of historical duty, Tom Holland himself is not immune to bizarrest forms of ahistorical fancy footwork. "Had the Athenians lost the Battle of Marathon," the British historian firmly believes, "and suffered the obliteration of their city, for instance, then there would have been no Plato -- and without Plato, and the colossal shadow he cast on all subsequent theologies, it is unlikely that there would have been an Islam to inspire bin Laden" (Ibid: xxii). I am not making this sentence up. This splendid show of analytical logic and historical perspicacity is by an otherwise very respectable and popular British historian.

As the decade of Thatcher-and-Reagan dawned on the world, a new lease on life was given to the Battle of Thermopylae. Throughout the 1980s and then 1990s and beyond there was a resurgence of books on the Battle of Thermopylae. The British historian Ernle Bradford wrote his Thermopylae: The Battle for the West (1980), as did Steven Pressfield did his Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae (1998); and so did Paul Cartledge his Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World (2006) -- and it is right here that we need to place Frank Miller's pre-9/11 comic book 300 (1998), with colours by Lynn Varley, on the basis of which Snyder made his post-9/11, CGI virtuoso, adaptation 300 (2007).

At the centre of all these narrations and re-narrations of the Battle of Thermopylae is the constitution of a Homo Militaris, a militant mutation of the political and the civic into the Spartan site of a malignantly militarised humanity. What we see in Frank Miller and Snyder's 300 is nothing but the latest edition of a long and arduous degeneration of factual memory into fanciful nightmare, where history keeps repeating itself in ever more violent and vicious ways.

THE NARRATIVE FUSION at the creative core of 300 -- in which Snyder deliberately seeks to recreate the visual mood and the mimetic Verfremdung of Miller's comic book -- is fully at the service of the fact and fantasy that here come together to make 300 work on an excessive dosage of testosterone-infested adolescent hype.

One has to look at Miller's original double-page format -- imitated in the film version mostly through bluescreen shots -- to understand why it is that coast-to-coast in theatres around the United States the enthused (mostly teenage) audiences were offered the chance to look at Snyder's spectacle at mega-sized IMAX formats and partake in the spectacular extravaganza. The point here -- in Miller and Lynn Varley's palettes, in Snyder's testosterone- infested vision, in Larry Fong's meticulous angular execution, in William Hoy's spellbinding cuts, in Snyder and Kurt Johnstad's muscular dialogues, and in Tyler Bates heavy metal score -- is to overwhelm and dwarf all human measures, all historical proportions, all boundaries of the ordinary, and thus to place the experience in the daunting spectrum of some frivolous, violent and deadly juvenile culture.

The questions of why now and why this are far less important than what precisely this furious phantasm of playful power, this imperial self-projection of mythological might, entails. It is of course ludicrous to imagine, as does the Islamic Republic and much of a spectrum of so-called "Persian diaspora" in the United States, a conspiracy behind a comic book turned into a Hollywood production. There is no conspiracy. That is how things work in the imaginal making of an empire. Instead of degenerating into such conspiracy theories, it is far more important to excavate the archeology of an evidence that in its varied layers embraces not just Miller and Snyder and the millions of their teenage mutant audience participating in a collective orgy of violence, but that extends to embrace their elected president, vice-president, and above all the American warlord Donald Rumsfeld. What Miller and Snyder have joined forces to do for a whole world to see is the juvenile criminality at the bottom roots of the US Empire. There has always been something juvenile about the American imperialism. If it is vile and violent it is not despite the innocence at the heart of in this case what after all is just a comic book but precisely because it is rooted in nothing but the phantasmagoric labyrinth of that innocence. This is how an illusory empire operates. Those soldiers trained as killing machines and sent off half way around the globe to maim and murder people in Iraq or Afghanistan do so not out of any ideological conviction, political stand, moral principle, or civilisational sense of superiority -- but by virtue of having all been fed on this dosage of violently playful comic books, videogames, and films -- to the point that what they see in front of them in Afghanistan and Iraq and shoot to kill are not human beings but in fact comic strips, videogame images, Sunday matinee double features -- the delusional fantasy of an otherwise deadly real world. When US soldiers are inside their tanks, when US pilots are flying their fighter jets, when US marines look through their night vision goggles -- they do not see human beings when they pull the trigger. All they see are videogame figurines, of the sort they have been shooting at in videogame arcades, reading about in comic books, cheering at in films such as Snyder's 300. It is the same testosterone -- in different buckets.

The peculiar manner in which the visual Imperium of 300 operates in the post-9/11 George Bush led imperialism is by an act of emotive reversal, projecting the American imperial practice back in time and space to something called "the Persians" and instead assuming the identity of a band of Spartan soldiers that now speak and act on behalf of "the West" -- the imperial provenance of American identity. In this emotive swap, the US as "the West" wants to have its cake and eat it too -- act as the Achamanid (what they call "Persian") Empire did but assume it is a small band of Spartans defending freedom and democracy against a horde of foreign invaders. Flaunting and flexing the most deadly military machinery in human history, the US can now partake in the delusional feat that Miller and Snyder have cooked up for it to see itself as a small band of guerrilla fighters resisting a predatory empire. Here "the Persians" mutate and stand for (among other things) what the terrorising propaganda machinery of the US empire calls "Islamofascism".

Cinema is a miraculous (for those who abuse it treacherously) medium. It reverses angle on you (the filmmaker) without your even noticing it. Snyder has gone through all this trouble and these expenses to demonise an ancient and forgotten empire only to give a perfect picture of the empire in which he lives and which he, however inadvertently, serves -- just lower the loud volume of 300 and watch it and ask yourself between Bush and an anonymous leader of Iraqi resistance who has more claim to Xerxes and who to Leonidas?

Leonidas' mission in Snyder's 300 is an act of suicidal violence -- a suicidal violence that if performed by white people in remote corners of history is heroic but if by Palestinians or Iraqis then it becomes sign of barbarism. So what Miller/Snyder effectively want is yet another example of having their cake and eating it too -- stealing the strategy of suicidal violence from those desperate measures of resisting imperialism of one sort (US) or another (Israel) and cast the enemy as imperial. It is a complete reversal of fact to make spectacular fantasy -- stealing resistance of the poor coloured folks and white--identifying it, while projecting your own imperial barbarity to some remote point in history and calling it The Enemy, "The Persians". This is a remarkable act of reversal, a projection backward. You become the enemy you abhor and you catapult the abhorrence you are to your enemy. 300 thus amounts to a CGI-engineered sense of tragedy and valour for an otherwise carnivorous empire that has just inflicted unfathomable pain and suffering on millions of Afghans and Iraqis.

What Snyder actually portrays (for the whole world to see) is the best picture of the US army in action. That monstrosity that Snyder pictures marching towards Thermopylae is the American empire -- and that band of brothers that stood up to that monstrosity are those resisting this empire: they are the Iraqi resistance, the Palestinians, Hizbullah. Thermopylae, in 300, becomes a floating signifier. "The West", Miller and Snyder, have no control over it. 300 is thus too smart a thievery for its own good. It is a robbery completely -- from beginning to end -- caught on closed caption camera. Today the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi resistance to US/Israel imperial warmongering have a far more legitimate claim on being the Spartans of their time than Americans, British, or Italians do.

The reversed projection of Miller-Snyder, now seeking to provide the Bush-Cheney project with an ideological hegemony they otherwise lack, ipso facto casts a claim on the absolutist militarist culture anachronistically attributed to the Spartans -- all narrated around their presumed infanticide practices, where children deemed useless to the military culture were killed at birth. This is Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis in a nutshell -- where the only citizens worth living are citizen soldiers. There is a scene in Snyder's 300 where King Leonidas makes fun of a regiment of Greek soldiers that has come to help him in the battle. He asks the Greek soldiers what their professions are. They respond by stating their ordinary professions before they became soldiers. He then turns to his soldiers and asks them the same questions, and they respond in unison that they are all nothing but soldiers. This is not just the end of history. This is the end of humanity. This is the US military projected back into history -- a professional and heavily privatised army entirely divorced from the will and wishes of a polity and a democracy that does not have to invest its own sons and daughters in its military adventurism.

THE REACTION OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC to 300 was at once banal, hypocritical, and entirely irrelevant to the psychodynamic synergy that 300 had generated in the imperial denomination of its origin, the United States. The officials of the Islamic Republic, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, opted for the usual conspiracy theories. That "Americans" are launching a psychological warfare against them as part of "their" opposition to the Iranian nuclear programme. Meanwhile, they sought to abuse the situation and posit themselves as the defenders of Iranian national pride when their heritage and identity was under attack. Never mind the fact that over the last three decades, the Islamic Republic has done everything to eradicate the non-Islamic aspects of Iranian culture (whether nationalist or socialist) and most recently started viciously cracking down on a nascent civil society and women's rights activists.

It is imperative to keep in mind that the reaction of Iranians to 300 in the United States was mainly by the computer and Internet savvy young generation. The youthful disposition of this demography is crucial in our understanding of its visceral disposition. The reaction of young Iranian-Americans to 300 was swift, bitter, and traumatic. They immediately launched an online petition and led a Google-bombing campaign against 300. "It is a proven scholarly fact," the young Iranian-Americans declared solemnly in their online petition, "that the Persian Empire in 480 BC was the most magnificent and civilised empire. Established by Cyrus the great, the writer of the first human right declaration, Persians ruled over significant portions of Greater Iran, the east modern Afghanistan and beyond into Central Asia; in the north and west all of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the upper Balkans peninsula (Thrace), and most of the Black Sea coastal regions; in the west and southwest the territories of modern Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, all significant population centres of ancient Egypt and as far west as portions of Libya..."

The traumatic response of young Iranian-Americans was perfectly understandable. Born either in Iran before their parents left their revolution- and war-stricken homeland, or else immediately upon their arrival in the United States, these young Iranians were told to identify themselves scarcely as "Iranian" but principally as "Persians". "Persia" was a safe and sound fantasyland; Iran a war torn abode of terror and fanaticism. No one knew where exactly this "Persia" was. Too many Americans knew where Iran is and had an allergic reaction to it. Soon after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the American Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980, the expatriate Iranian communities in the United States began to identify themselves as "Persians" and termed the language they spoke as "Farsi". The mutation of "Iranian" into "Persian" and "Persian" language into "Farsi" was the most immediate response of the traumatised Iranians living in the United States while their compatriots were holding Americans hostage in their own embassy. For almost three decades, these young Iranian-Americans painted themselves into the Persian corner of their parents captured imagination. Persia and Persian were now cool; Iran and Iranian were too barbaric, rugged, ugly. Ayatollah Khomeini was Iranian, so was the Islamic Revolution, bearded men, veiled women, hostage taking, airplane hijacking, transnational terrorism. "Persia" was a whole different story. Persians had fluffy and cool cats, delicious and expensive caviar, and colourful and precious carpets. Along with cats, carpets, and caviar, these young Persians were led by their parents to exoticise themselves and stage their identity on the exotic angle of American Orientalism, rather than the rugged realities of their homeland. This young generation went to school in the United States and then to college, and thus its emotive and imaginative universe were by an large American in culture and disposition, with a little bit of "Farsi" to their fantasies, a pinch of saffron or a bite of Qormeh Sabzi under the palate of their McDonald's taste buds. Their annual Noruz get together, the Anglicised spellings and vocalisation of their names, and even their embarrassment that their parents came from an Islamic Republic notwithstanding, for all intents and purposes this young generation was American, yet another variation on the theme of other hyphenated-Americans, and it thus spoke its English with a decidedly American accent, and was fully at home in American culture. Three decades into this story, suddenly comes a Miller and a Snyder and smack from the very heart of the pop culture with which the young Iranian-Americans deeply identified blasted them out of their ghettoised slumber with a visceral demonology of unsurpassed racism -- portraying them and their "Persian" ancestors as beasts, as subterranean creatures, as monstrous apparitions, as the very definition of evil. Young Iranian-Americans were stripped of their hyphenated hypothesis of who and where they were. They could no longer partake in the youthful fantasies of their generation. They were denied emotive catharsis with who and what they thought they were. In Snyder's 300, they were, they had become, the other of themselves, the denial of themselves.

Thus the origin of the outlandish fact of young Iranian- Americans, at the prime of their idealist hopes for a better world, unabashedly identifying with a predatory empire called the Achamenids. The sad pathology of boasting about how civilised the Persian Empire was (it was no such thing -- no empire is) -- or how expansive its domains were -- reflects the even more troubling fact of these Iranians in effect identifying with the imperial adventurism of their host country, the United States of America. What has been categorically absent in Iranian-Americans reaction to 300 is even the slightest sign of a critical angle on the Achamanid Empire itself, the very first global empire that set the standard for carnivorous warmongering, military expansionism, colonial domination of other peoples and lands. The fact that the arrested intelligence of adolescent fraternity brothers like Miller and Snyder has given free range to their testosterone-infested fantasies does not mean that the Achamenids were God's gift to humanity. All empires are terrorising propositions.

"Persians" are fond of saying that Cyrus the Great set the Jews free from Babylon and wrote the very first human right declaration. What nonsensical pieces of absolute gibberish! Cyrus did no such thing. He set the Jews free from Babylon very much the same way that the US army set the Iraqis free in Iraq, and the declaration of human rights he presumably wrote (predated by Codex Hammurabi by more than 1,000 years) is the precursor of the constitution that Paul Bremer wrote for the Iraqis. The "respect" that the Achamenids had for other people and cultures was limited to permitting them to obey their imperial rule any way they wished and in terms domestic to their political cultures. The biblical narratives of Jewish freedom from Babylon are the signs of a grateful people left alone to practise their faith within the boundaries of a global empire, and as such is no indication of the magnanimity of Persian Kings. No human being must be left to the magnanimity of any king. Freedom is the inalienable rights of all humans, ancient or modern, and should never be contingent on an emperor's goodwill. Where ever the Achamenids went they coroneted themselves in the manner of local customs, by way of seeking to legitimise their otherwise predatory conquest of other people's lands. And any people who resisted them -- as the Greeks rightfully did -- were murdered and their houses set on fire. The fact that the history of Thermopylae, Marathon, or Salamis has been appropriated and abused by European colonial historiography, or that it is now the subject of a visual orgy of violence, does not mean that the Achamenids were bringing peace and prosperity to the ungrateful Greeks. Whatever their own problems were (such as not just practising but in fact theorising slavery), the Greeks had every right to defend themselves against a carnivorous empire seeking to gobble them up.

"Persians" are fond of saying that "our enemies wrote our history," meaning the Greek did. And if so, whose fault was that? At the same time that the Achamenids were giving the world Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes, delusional monarchs and warmonger emperors, the Greeks were giving the world Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Aeschylus, and forming the very first republics. What sane person would leave the company of Greek philosophers, dramatists, historians, scientists, for the frightful company of Cyrus the Great, or Darius the First or Xerxes the Last? Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes were the George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld of their time. The real Spartans, the real Greeks, people who resisted the Persian Empire, do not belong to the barbaric tradition of modern European colonialism, Fascism, or imperialism. They ought to be rescued from such abuses and recognised as the real forefathers of Third World revolutionary resistances to European colonialism and now American imperialism.

Too much in a hurry to defend the gargantuan Achamanid Empire, too much enamored by the might of the US Empire, the expatriate Iranians have categorically failed to watch carefully and see who precisely are these "Persians" that Miller and Snyder have exorcised out of their nightmares. The term "Persian" in both Miller's comic book and Snyder's gory tale is much in need of decoding. Iranians of "the Persian Diaspora" persuasion are presuming too much thinking that it refers just to them. Having opted to call themselves "Persian" ever since the American Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980, Iranians have failed to watch carefully and read Snyder's "Persians". They are not just Iranians. Look at them carefully. They are also Arabs, Indians, Turks, Afghans, South and East Asians and Latinos. They are also gays, lesbians, and transvestites. Snyder's "Persians" are the nightmares of the White Christian America, the semiotic summations of all their undesirable elements -- all the racialised minorities, all the vilified foreigners, all demonised in the interest of a white gang of patriarchal warriors who do not hesitate even to kill their own children if they fail the military standard of thuggish buffoonery. Look also carefully at the graphics of Miller and the cinematography of Snyder. The Spartans are not just that. There is a blatant Christian Christological disposition about King Leonidas and his soldiers. In one final frame where King Leonidas and his Spartan soldiers are lying dead after the battle is over there is a powerful portrayal of a crucifix that unmistakably invokes the European tradition from Michelangelo to Titian, Tintoretto and El Greco. Miller and Snyder's King Leonidas is the alter ego of Christ running amuck. There is a Dantean demonology about the manner in which Miller and Snyder depict the entirety of the world they hate for being other than white, male, Christian, and heterosexual (the only woman in 300, Queen Gorgo, is a cut in her warmongering between Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Maryam Rajavi and Condoleezza Rice -- all coming together to provide the German Gestapo ideal of womanhood).

But we, the demonised minorities that Snyder sees like monsters swarming around him, can look back through his own camera and reverse his angle. To this "Persian", that weird looking giant coming down from his throne to meet with the leader of the resistance looks amazingly like Bush going to Iraq for a quick visit -- and those obsequious "immortals" bending to accommodate his feet on their backs remind me of the members of the US congress abrogating their constitutional responsibilities and consenting to an immoral and illegal war against Afghanistan and Iraq. Fearful of all the racialised minorities in and out of the United States -- Jews, Muslims, Asians, Africans, Latinos -- gathering storm around his white-washed racism, Snyder has quite unbeknownst to himself given a perfect picture of the way the world sees Bush's army. He could not possibly have been more accurate.

* The writer is a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York.