A few weeks ago, I wrote about Orchards and Trees, using them as a metaphor to think about he development of Homeric poetry and its promulgation. Metaphors, of course, are not the things themselves! While one comparison can help us see a truth of a thing, several can help us get a better understanding of the things day-to-day language and thinking have trouble grasping.
The metaphor of the tree is at its core, a visual one. It may call to mind things and how we use them (ships and wood) or roots and branches, as in the stemmata of textual traditions. Homeric poems developed in a song culture, an aural landscape. Aural memory and oral performance inspire different qualia. And it is difficult–if not mistaken–to try to transfer an aural understanding to a visual one. As Epicurus observes, our senses do not translate from one domain to another. What does it mean to feel a smell?
So, try this one now. Imagine a supremely complex symphony: as you listen, melodies rise and fall over time, movements come and go and they return again, sometimes changed, sometimes syncopated, sometimes just an echo of what they once were. But some three or four note sequences are more insistent than others—they press through the sound and are emphasized first by this instrument and then by those.
The problem is that there are many of these sequences and some repeat intensely only to be lost and never to return, while others burst back through the rising wall of music to take over when they are least expected.
The music is beautiful but terrifyingly hard to follow: when you pause, however briefly, you realize you’ve been listening to one line of song when there were three or four others going on at the same time. It is hard to start again because you don’t want to lose track of the one you just heard. But you are already thinking about that brief gasp of song that escaped you.
The 16 thousand lines of the Iliad and 12 thousand lines of the Odyssey are like 24 and 20 hours of polyphonic music, played by musicians in separate rooms who can’t really hear each other but are somehow working in concert. The audience stands someplace apart. If we relax and let the composition fall over us, we can get some idea of the whole. But when we listen closely, we can get lost in the depth of each passing strain.
This is how I explain why it is so hard to translate epic or even to interpret it well. Each line has melodies full of resonant meaning that echo differently based on who you are and what you’ve heard before. When someone tells you the Iliad is about this or the Odyssey is about that they are following one repeated series of notes for their movement and resolution, and necessarily leaving others aside.
The total density of the soundscape of the poems and the generations of meaning’s potential within them makes them impossible to understand or explain in ‘real time’. When I hear someone talking about what epic means, sometimes it is like hearing a different poem talked about altogether. I have been listening to other movements, contemplating different themes.
The individual lines of Homer break into three units—segments scholars from Milman Parry and Albert Lord to John Miles Foley and Egbert Bakker have seen as units of composition (intonation units) or what we might even think of as ‘measures’. The ‘formulae’ are repeated patterns in a bounded soundscape. They are not simple building blocks, they are merely the observable repetitions of a system with clear limits: words and rhythm are part of the form of expression, not something imposed upon it.
We make meaning differently based on our sensory inputs and our cultures of performance and reception. There’s a strange prejudice Walter Ong identifies (explored more by Foley too) that visual cultures and literary productions are in some way more sophisticated and elaborate in both creation and reception than others. This ‘primitive’ pose is an outcropping of colonialism, yes, but it is also a simple observer bias. Even literary Greeks like Aristotle saw ‘writers’ in Homer where he should have found song.
Oral-formulaic theory helps break down our own cultural prejudices by revealing what is instrumentally possible for composition in performance. This is on the side of production; theories like J. M. Foley’s “traditional referentialtiy” or Barbara Graziosi’s and Johannes Haubold’s “resonance”. Each in part also draws on reader response theory, centering how audiences hear and respond to poems. If we try, we can intellectually grasp how intricate songs emerge in performance and how audiences dynamically receive them.
From Song to Translations
All this leaves aside how the epics moved from living song to the fossils we piece together on the page. This runs through the problems of performance, text, and reperformance. I emphasize song and aurality here because Homeric epic developed and flourished outside the constraints of a page. When a translator or interpreter tries to make sense of what they see on the page, it is like a conductor looking at a score for a symphony written in a different system of notation with many sections unclear.
The role of some instruments is left undesignated; some sounds cannot be made anymore; and some sequences just don’t make sense to a modern ear. As Casey Dué notes, Greg Nagy proposes a movement from performance, to transcript, to script, to scripture in the stabilization of the narrative: a translator has to move backward through these stages, yet abandon none
Because of the polyphony of Greek epic it is charged with meaning: the lines of song exist through time and carry many meanings at once. A translator listens to the whole song as it echoes and picks the melodies that ring strongest now.
Each of us is to an extent a translator of Homer and those of us who read the Greek but teach in another language are constantly moving from one domain to another. If Homer is a langue each of us has our own Homeric parole. In my first semester teaching as a professor, I gave a full lecture on the mythic, even Iliadic “plan of Zeus” (Dios d’eteleieto boulê), going so far as to have the students recite the line in the Greek. At the end of the class, a kind and forgiving student came up to me and said, “that was really cool, but there’s no plan of Zeus in my Iliad.”
I had assigned Stanley Lombardo’s fine translation. He writes about “Zeus’ Will” (as many others do). I hadn’t checked the translation and sounded as if I were speaking of a poem none of the students had read.
The way we each create our own Homer is in part why I have such trouble reading any version other than the Greek. This is why for even the best translations the fairest reaction is to crib from Richard Bentley’s response to Pope’s Iliad: “a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” Here’s another quick example of this danger from Emily Wilson’s successful Odyssey translation.
Let’s start with my simple translations and the Greek. In the Odyssey’s proem, the narrator says of Odysseus:
“But he didn’t save his companions even though he wanted to.
They perished because of their own recklessness”
The fools! They ate up the cattle of Hyperion’s son Helios
And he deprived them of their homecoming day.”
The line σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν (their own recklessness/stupidity) echoes through the poem as a theme that connects Odysseus’ companions, the suitors, and the hero too.
It comes again a mere 20 lines later as Zeus complains
“Friends, how mortals are always blaming the gods!
They say that evils come from us. But they themselves
Have pain beyond their fate because of their own recklessness.
So now Aigisthus too [suffered] beyond his fate…”
This is one of those four-note sequences, a melody earlier scholars would have called a formula that follows, indexes and guides the interpretation of the poem. When I read/teach the Odyssey I point to these passages as inviting us to see the world and its actors in a particular frame
In Wilson’s translation, σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν disappears from the proem altogether, yielding the following.
“…He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
They ate the Sun God’s Cattle, and the god
Kept them from home…”
And soon after, σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν is rendered simply as “By folly.”
“This is absurd,
That mortals blame the gods They say we cause
Their suffering, but they themselves increase it
By folly. So Aegisthus overstepped:”
These choices limit the repetition and play down the theme of responsibility and recklessness that is central to the poem (from my reading). “Folly’ also disambiguates the complexity of atasthalia, which evokes foolishness, rashness, arrogance, and blindness. Of course, this is not an oversight Wilson commits alone: Lombardo translates the first example as “recklessness” and the second as “witlessness”
To be clear, Wilson and Lombardo have to make some choices; no language conveys the same semantic ambiguities of another. Translators perform hermeneutic magic, moving things from one realm to another. Some moments dazzle, others are imperfect illusions.
This takes us back to the symphony played in separate rooms heard only in parts. When people ask me why Homer is different, I sputter about its bigness and depth and land on the layers and power. Like translation itself, analogy and metaphor only take us so far.
There are several works cited above, but for the atasthalia theme see my recent Many Minded Manor these better books:
Leon Battista Alberti, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literature (Part V):
“I had often heard a great number of the most serious and most erudite men recalling those things about the study of literature which could not unjustly drive anyone away from literature and the desire of learning.:
Sepe audiveram plerosque gravissimos eruditissimosque viros de studiis litterarum ea referentes que non iniuria possent a litteris discendique cupiditate ununquenque avertere.
Today A Bit Lit debuted a video of Paul O’Mahony, Evvy Miller, and me talking about literature, performance, and experience based on our experience with Reading Greek Tragedy Online. We tell the story of how we started doing these readings and give personal narratives about what the performances meant to us during the pandemic and how the experiences changed our idea of what literature is and does in the world.
“But if this clear profit [of studying literature] is not clear and if entertainment alone should be sought from these pursuits, I still believe that you would judge them the most humanizing and enlightening exercise of the mind.
For other activities do not partake in all times, all ages, and all places—reading literature sharpens us in youth and comforts us in old age. It brings adornment to our successes and solace to our failures. It delights when we are at home and creates no obstacle for us out in the world. It is our companion through long nights, long journeys, and months in rural retreats.”
Quod si non hic tantus fructus ostenderetur et si ex his studiis delectatio sola peteretur, tamen, ut opinor, hanc animi adversionem humanissimam ac liberalissimam iudicaretis. Nam ceterae neque temporum sunt neque aetatum omnium neque locorum: haec studia adolescentiam acuunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.
Gilbert Murray, The Interpretation of Ancient Greek Literature
“There are many elements in the work of Homer or Aeschylus which are obsolete and even worthless, but there is no surpassing their essential poetry. It is there, a permanent power which we can feel or fail to feel, and if we fail the world is the poorer. And the same is true, though a little less easy to see, of the essential work of the historian or the philosopher.”
“Simonides said that Hesiod is a gardener while Homer is a garland-weaver—the first planted the legends of the heroes and gods and then the second braided together them the garland of the Iliad and the Odyssey.”
Take a minute and imagine a tree in a park or garden. Make it a really nice tree, one you’d notice and remember if you lingered on it a bit, one that has been well situated in its environment. Think about the tree’s imperfect symmetry, the way it occupies its space.
Now think about this: someone planted the tree; others tended to it and trimmed it; more people spent generations selecting this domesticated tree from its ancestral stock. Think about the uncountable hands that made this tree possible, the saplings transplanted, the varieties combined over time. What were their lives like? What stories did they tell? What were trees to them?
Then think about the tree’s beauty, its aesthetics. What makes us set this tree apart from others? What is essential about it? Our appreciation is based on other trees we might not remember as well as an entire ‘grammar’ of human beings and the environment. Like any other native language, you learned its basic syntax without trying. You have a sense of the way trees should be.
You probably judge a tree differently from a shrub for historical aesthetic reasons. You have expectations on what trees should do, how they should look, and what function they fulfill. You are mostly not cognizant of these assumptions. But you almost certainly have different notions about a shrub or a bush.
Sure, the shrub comment may seem a bit of an aside, but it is really about genre. We have different sets of expectations for different categories of form based on explicit and implicit criteria.
Now, if someone asks you who is responsible for the tree, what do you say? Is it someone who designed the park? Is it a gardener? Is it the first person who imagined a tree in the garden?
Any single answer ignores those countless hands, minds, and environments that contributed to the treeness of this tree. It also ignores the salient fact that you are the one judging the tree and that your gaze is shaped by non-tree things.
For me, the Homeric epics are like that tree. They come out of a complex relationship between performance traditions, new technologies, and aesthetics that are both products and producers of the same song culture. The reception and transformation of this ancient song culture into something fixed and reanalyzed as a text with an author has shaped our own culture too.
How we respond to ‘arboreal’ questions is keyed into individual psychology and cultural discourse. We always simplify our interpretation of where the tree came from because our minds are too small to understand we are part of mind-networks and our lives are two abbreviated to trace time’s larger sweep. We impose simple origin stories on art and human products because it is hard to escape our own single experience of culture and see how it works in the aggregate.
These individual psychologies are shaped as well by a cultural system deeply interested in teleology and the import of design. Two aspects of this among many that interest me. First, our search for meaning in the empty universe encourages us to argue that design necessitates a designer. Second, our system of values and credit under capitalism emphasizes the metaphor of authorship as an opportunity for creating and maintaining value.
The two aspects are part of a shared problem: we assign meaning to the world we see based on patterns and human-mirroring things. We re-cast the pattern as a design and in that an intention we assign to authority and authors. So group activities that result in notable patterns are reanalyzed as communications of some type of an authorial intention.
And yet, we know that meaning is made from observation and reflection.
We impose a god/author model on complex things for cultural and psychological reasons. It is a fallacy to insist that design implies a designer when we recognize design as viewers conditioned to do so. The history of Homeric scholarship and its so-called ‘question’ (of which there are actually many) is dominated by the problem of design without an urgent exploration of what design may entail until the 20th century (in addition to work by Greg Nagy (recently Homer the Pre-Classicand Homer the Classic), see Casey Dué’s recent Achilles Unboundand Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer).
There’s no smoking gun about Homeric authorship. There will never be a clear answer to the issue. That we care so much about it is a problem. it is, dare I say, the rot at the core of ‘western’ liberalism and capitalism, this desperate search for ancient authority combined with a pathological need to extract profit from everything.
In searching for “Homer”, most people find what they want to find. (Something Casey Due makes the case for in looking at the invention of Ossian). My experience of teaching, reading, and writing about the epics for over two decades is that people cleave almost painfully to what they believe about authorship and art before they really listen to the Homeric poems.. That’s also why I keep returning to the bench and thinking as much about who is thinking about Homer and why.
And when I turn back I think less in terms of “who wrote the Iliad” than what the people were like who domesticated the epics and set them aside and why we still look at them today.
“For poets certainly tell us that they bring us songs by drawing from the honey-flowing springs or certain gardens and glades of the Muses just like bees. And because they too are winged, they also speak the truth.”
Trees in Homer: Paris’ Ship, Odysseus’ Raft, and Laertes’ Orchards
My metaphor of a tree for seeing Homer as something organic and exhibiting aesthetic beauty without a designing authority may seem a bit whimsical, if not outlandish. But I am in part inspired by what we find in Homer. In Homeric poetry trees are objects of wealth, inheritance and memory. They appear at a crucial moment in Odysseus’ return to Ithaca when he meets his father. Odysseus follows the patterns established earlier in the book and attempts to deceive his father before they both weep and he tries to prove who he is, first by pointing to his scar, and then by pointing to the trees.
Odyssey 24. 336–339
“But, come, if I may tell you about the trees through the well-founded orchard
The ones which you gave to me—when I was a child I asked you about each
As I followed you through the garden. We traced a path through them
And you named and spoke about each one.”
As Erich Auerbach famously observes, Odysseus’ scar is an entry-point into a universe of aesthetic thought. As I see it it, the scar is a metonym for identity and story traditions. It marks experiences and potential stories to be told. The trees are metonyms for stories themselves and they have are metapoetic as well. Alex Purves (2010:228) characterizes steps as Odysseus “taking an imaginary walk through the orchard in his mind just as [Elizabeth] Minchin has suggested that Homer takes a cognitive walk through the Peloponnese in order to recount the Catalogue of Ships (2001: 84-7).”
As Elton Barker and I explore in Homer’s Thebes (78) Whether or not Laertes’ trees mind the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, the trees are suggestive of the stories that are or could be told. [Cf. Henderson 1997:87 for the trees as “epic wood.” So too, “… the trees may stand metonymically for epic poems… the combined product of nature and nurture which have been shaped by the judgment (aesthetic and political) of countless constant gardeners” (628).
Of course, these assertions seem strange if we don’t look at other Homeric trees. For me, a signal moment in epic poetry comes when Odysseus is authorized to build a raft to escape from Ogygia and try to return home. The narrative pays special attention to enumerating the trees and specifying Odysseus’ skill in using them:
“She gave him the smooth axe and then took him on the path
To the farthest part of the island where the tale trees were growing,
Alder, ash and fir trees reaching to the sky,
Dry for a long time, long-seasoned, perfect for sailing.
Once she showed him where the great trees were growing,
Kalypso, the beautiful goddess, returned to her home,
While he was cutting out planks. The work went quickly.
He picked out twenty altogether and cut them with bronze.
He skillfully planed them down and made them straight with a level.
At the same time, the shining goddess Kalypso was bringing him augers
And he drilled all the pieces and fit them together.
As wide as a man who is skilled in wood-working
Traces out the line of a merchant ship—that’s
How wide Odysseus made his skiff.
Once he set up the deck beams he attached them to the
Close-placed ribs. And then he finished out the raft with long gunwales.
He fashioned a mast and placed on it a yard-arm.
He also made a rudder to steer with and then
He fashioned willow-branches and brush into a wall
To stand against the waves around the vessel.
And then Kalypso brought him a bolt of cloth
To make into a sail. He crafted that too, skillfully.
He tied into the raft braces, and restraints, and sheets
And using levers moved it down toward the shining sea.
It was the fourth day and everything was complete.”
Here we find a balance between nature and skill, between the material found and offered and the creative power of a maker authorized by a god. If the trees at the end of the Odyssey are symbols of tales that might be told, these Ogygian planks are echoes of stories that were told and lost. They also tell us about the relationship between narrative agent and story. As I write in my recent Many-Minded Man: “In this passage’s detail and the dramatization of Odysseus’s labors, the epic offers an anticipatory metaphor for the rebuilding of the hero’s identity. The material available has been there for years—it is not of Odysseus’s own making, but his skill and agency are critical for forming it into something new, something that can make a path or journey of its own. The selection of the trees stands in for the selection of stories and aspects of the self that will be reassembled as Odysseus journeys home.” ( 2020, 11).
But in this analysis, I might focus overmuch on the epic’s hero and not enough on the epic stuff itself. There is a relationship between the basic matter (the wood, the trees) and the stuff matter makes: ships, homes, vessels of meaning and vessels for meaning. It may be too cute to juxtapose, but there may be more to the Greek word for “matter” hule, which can also mean wood, than meets the eye.
Epic is deeply concerned with what comes after and some of its figures, like Hektor, imagine singular monuments, tombs that can be seen and act as reminders for men to come. In a way, the grave is a kind of scar left on the earth conveying its own story. But groves of trees and the ships they provide can carry on meaning and life in different ways. I am reminded here of a brief aside from the Iliad.
“Mêrionês then killed Phereklos, the son of the carpenter,
Son of Joiner, who knew who to fashion all sorts of intricate tings
With his hands. Pallas Athena loved him especially.
He is the one who designed Alexander’s fantastic ships,
Those kindlers of evil which brought evil on all the Trojans
And on him especially, since he understood nothing of the divine prophecies.
Well, Mêrionês, once he overtook him in pursuit,
Struck him through the right buttock. The sharp point
Went straight through his bladder under the bone.
He fell to his knee and groaned. Then death overtook him.
Ok, this passage may seem unconnected and offering it may seem indulgent even for me, but consider the way Phereklos is marked out as a carpenter’s son and how the ships that carried Paris to war are positioned as the vehicles of evil for them all. While as scholiast (Schol. bT ad Il.5.59) glosses the name Phereklos as “one who brings the turmoil of war through the ships” (Φέρεκλος ὁ φέρων κλόνον διὰ τῶν νέων), I would also like to believe that name Phere-klos, might make someone think of ‘fame-bringer’. And the connection between poetic fame and the activity of the war arises elsewhere in this passage two.
Note that the this Phere-klos is the son of Harmonidês, a man who, according to the passage, is the one who build the ships “the bringers of evil” (ἀρχεκάκους) for Paris (those ships which carried him from Troy to Sparta…). The name Harmonidês is not insignificant: Gregory Nagy has etymologized Homer as “one who fits the song together”. Phereklos’ father is a “craftsman” (“tektôn”) who built the very ships that allowed his son (and Paris) to bring the conflict to Troy and generate the fame of the songs it generated. Here, the ships are positioned as the first steps in evil, but I would suggest, that as the means by which the songs themselves travel across the sea, the ships are, as products of specialized craftsmen, both metonymns for the stories themselves and necessary vehicles for their transmission.
And here, even if asymmetrical, I find myself considering a life-cycle of Homeric trees: the way one set were cut down to fan the flames of war that launched myriad ships; that others fell to bring Odysseus home to gaze upon his ancestral orchards, potentials tales to be told or curtailed…once Odysseus journeys to a land where no one remembers the sea.
A particle is a meaningless sound, which neither hinders nor causes a significant sound to be made out of many sounds … which cannot fittingly be put at the beginning of a sentence by itself, like μέν and δέ.
ARISTOTLE, POETICS, 1456B38–57A4 (GREEK TEXT FROM TARÁN AND GUTAS, 2012)
Eric will be rolling out a new post about a different particle every week. Eric starting designing this project over a year ago, building on his own fascination with particles and his frustration with easily accessible tools to understand them. Here’s what he says about his website:
“This website is aimed primarily at that student. Its goal is to aggregate the discussion of particles, which is often spread out and hard to track down, into one place, where the views of various scholars can be summarized in a succinct and understandable manner. Particles entries include extensive hyperlinking to the Glossary page, which includes definitions for common terms and explanations of theories which underlie the arguments being described.”
I have learned a lot in discussing the project (and particles!) with Eric. He resisted my urge to name the site “Particle Man”, showing maturity and wisdom beyond his years.
In additional to the specific posts, this site has gathered electronic resources on particles and includes a useful glossary. For each particle, Eric will focus on Homeric examples and usage in part, but these posts will range from basic definitions, through usage from a perspective of grammaticalization, and to different readings based on historical linguistics and contextualization.
My question was this, can we imagine that the Odyssey is depicting someone who has been broken down by life, who doesn’t believe that he can succeed anymore, and needs something radical to happen to shift him out of it? And how would this shape our reading of the epic, and help us understand what ancient audiences were doing with it?
CUP’s fabulous editor, Dr. Bethany Wasik ,was kind enough to edit a pull quote that works on twitter:
"What makes the epic therapeutic? …You learn to ask questions about your own life, right? You learn to think about causality and agency differently, you learn to accept that there are some things you can’t control." – @sentantiq via the @CornellPress #1869 podcast https://t.co/I0qPkjOYUi
The podcast is not too long. It covers a good deal of the book and only features me saying “the ways in which” a few times, like here:
So, the real sort of key moment for me, happened in around 2011—my dad died suddenly. And I found myself returning to the Odyssey in class and thinking about the ways in which it forces us to think about the way that other people in your life create your identity for you.
Although I talk about my father a bit at the beginning of the book, I think this podcast is the first time I talk about seeing him in Homer’s Laertes:
So for people who may not remember the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home after 20 years, and he’s not fully home until after a series of reunions—first with a son who never really knew, his wife, and then this problematic part in book 24 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus shows up in disguise still, and he tricks his father Laertes and father cries. And then he immediately relents, and says, “No, no, I’m your son Odysseus, I’m here.” And his father doesn’t believe him. And he has to prove it to him by showing him his scar that he got from when he was a young man on a hunting trip.
And then they go through this orchard, and name the trees that their fathers and grandfathers planted, and they took care of when Odysseus was young. And one day I was teaching that and just completely undone by it because it made me remember my father. And the way he bought five acres of land in the middle of the woods in Maine, when I was in third grade, and we spent the rest of his life trying to turn that into like lawn and gardens. Right. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had to stop the lawn mower and refuel in the process of mowing this ridiculous lawn.
Check out the podcast to support Cornell University Press, and the book. Remember that all of the author’s proceeds go to supporting open access publishing.
The Greek noun trauma, meaning “wound”, does not appear in Homeric epic where we find more commonly helkos (ἕλκος) or ôteilê (ὠτειλή). Indeed, there is a surprising range of fatal and nonfatal wounding to be found in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Wounds are like almost everything else in Homer: places where stories can be advanced or where they begin. As Erich Auerbach notes in his famous Mimesis, Odysseus’ scar reveals a remarkable connection between memory, metonymy, and poetic art, making the story and the detail powerfully present
But Odysseus’ scar is also about the connection between the past and the present through the memory of pain. The word used to describe it-–oulê--is also a possible source for the Roman variant on Odysseus’ name, Ulysses, perhaps meaning the “scarred man”. Odysseus’ scar is a marker of his story and his past, a sign of his identity for his nurse Eurykleia to recognize, and a connection between the boy who earned the “hateful” name Odysseus (folk-etymologized in Homer as “hateful”) and the man who returns home. This wound—this trauma—is part of what makes Odysseus who he is, for better or worse.
And even though the same words are rarely used to describe literal physical wounding and emotional pain in Homer, the idea that the experience of prior suffering stays with us is there. Penelope complains in book 1 of the Odyssey that the story of the failed homecoming of the Achaeans causes her pain and Odysseus repeatedly cries at hearing famous tales of himself arguing with Achilles or deploying the wooden horse. Yet we also hear that stories of past pain can bring some pleasure: Eumaios invites Odysseus (in disguise) to share with him the story of his troubles as they dine and drink. This pleasure comes in part from sharing tales that confirm who the speakers are and in reciting pains that are certainly over.
Pain without resolution, or stories without end? They cause suffering that lingers too. The Odyssey and the Iliad may not use the word ‘trauma’ to describe it, but both seem to have the concept embedded in their structure.
* * *
I have never been shy about my interest in what literature does in (and to) the world. I started my academic career trying to understand how the Iliad engaged with and enforced ideas of politics and rhetoric, how epic poetry explores the use of language to create and destroy communities. This was in no small part influenced by the fact that 9/11 happened in my first week of graduate school at NYU and that I was writing my dissertation prospectus during the many tragic missteps of the war on terror.
In fact, I always considered myself an ‘Iliad’ person, preferring to see that epic as more complex and interesting than the Odyssey. This affinity or alignment made it extra frustrating for me as I repeatedly failed to teach the Iliad well, despite the fact that I taught at the time at the largest veteran serving institution in the country (UTSA) and had students who had grown up and into adulthood around the rhetoric of war.
The Odyssey, however, always resonated with them. I would find myself going through passages and books of the Odyssey with students and reaching that breathless, brain buzzing point where they were saying things about the poem I had never heard and I was framing it in ways I never imagined. There was an energy to their responses that left me wondering about my own tastes.
In January 2011, my father died suddenly at 61 of pneumonia. I talked to him on the phone as he was admitted to the hospital on a Saturday afternoon, chastising him for not taking better care of himself and got a call 10 hours later to tell me he was gone. I don’t think I cried for 6 hours: we had to get on a plane from Texas to Maine; we had to secure release from duty for my wife (who was serving in the Army, stationed at Ft. Hood); we had to figure out what to pack for a funeral for an 8 month old. I broke down when the plane left the ground.
There is no way for me to divide the work I eventually did on the Odyssey from the emotional and ultimately physical shock of my father’s death. Back in the classroom, I would teach about the Lotus-Eaters making the choice to live a life of oblivion, and think of my father. I would make it to the final recognition scene, when Odysseus makes his father Laertes weep and then comforts him by taking him for a tour of their family’s orchards and choke up, finally understanding that the trees they tended together were a metonym for their relationship just as the gardens and lawns my father and I cut out of a pine forest were a record of our time together. And I saw for the first time the rupture of stories left incomplete, how the Ithacans were left without news of their sons and fathers for decades and how that destroyed their community.
I also learned something more deeply that I had suspected all along. A work like the Odyssey changes the more you read it, certainly; but it also is reshaped by your experiences in life. It is a different poem to a young man than it is to a young father. It transformed for me entirely over an 18 month period as my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world, lost my father, and then 11 months later had a son.
* * *
During the summer of 2012 or so, I walked into a class where I was teaching the Odyssey after reading a newspaper column that mentioned the idea of Learned Helplessness, the psychological phenomenon whereby people met with failure over time will both attempt tasks less frequently and also demonstrate declining success on those they try. Learned helplessness has been observed in animals and human beings and has been used in part to explain endemic poverty, depression, suicide, chronic illness, and premature death. It can also be triggered by unresolved trauma.
In that class, I told the students about the idea and then asked them to think about Odysseus on the edge of Ogygia, crying every day as someone suffering from the effects of learned helplessness and it was the first time I felt I really understood why he lingered there, without trying to act, mindlessly having sex with the goddess Kalypso every night. Suffering, failure, and repeated trauma can condition people not to try to improve their lives because they believe they will fail anyway.
In following summers and classes, I kept pressing on these ideas, reading through the epic looking for expressions of agency and determination and reflections of other ideas from modern psychology and cognitive science. At the same time, I started reading more from these modern subjects, getting increasingly sure that we underestimated the sophistication of what I came to think of Homeric “folk psychology” or epic’s “theory of mind”, the implicit assumptions about how human minds work in the world (and what happens when they don’t).
Of course, I wasn’t the first person by any means to talk about Homer in this way. Jonathan Shay demonstrates convincingly in his Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America that the Homeric epics reflect complex psychological experiences. But his approach does what much conventional scholarship on Homer does: it follows the natural emphasis of the text on elite men and ignores the reflections and lives of women and the enslaved. So, a good deal of the book I eventually published—The Many Minded Man—traces both the positive and negative impact narrative can have on human minds. I moved from thinking about how Odysseus uses narrative to regain agency, to how he imposes his will on others and how the epic itself depicts (and even creates) the mental conditions of oppression.
What I thought were the final stages of my work took me back to the people of Ithaca, to consider them not as villains and foils for Odysseus’ return but as a reflection of the majority of people left behind thanks to ‘heroic’ behavior. One of the things I like to emphasize to students is that the mythical term ‘hero’ does not overlap well with our modern usage. Where the modern term has a sense of sacrifice and nobility, the ancient one points to a person from a specific generation who has certain characteristics which include, above all, the capacity to suffer or to cause suffering (as articulated so clearly by Erwin Cook).
Part of what sets Homeric poetry apart is how it gives depth and care to most of its characters: the Odyssey individuates the suitors and allows their families and those of Odysseus’ lost companions to express their grief. In finishing my work on the Odyssey, I tried to see the whole of Ithaka as representing a people traumatized by their experiences, by the uncertainty of their political situation and their losses in war.
* * *
“Your father is not here, for he died, used up by unfair fates”
nec genitor iuxta; Fatis namque haustus iniquis / occidit
Statius, Silvae 5.64-65
Living into and through 2020 made it hard for me to turn away from Greek epic and myth. Before the beginning of the shutdown here, I wrote about the politics of plagues in Greek myths and I spent my spring worried about the effects of isolation followed by a Fall wondering about the impact of not properly mourning the dead. The US election cycle had me returning to the end of the Odyssey to think about whether opposed sides can ever truly find peace. And since November at least I have been thinking about the long-term effects of paralysis. When finishing my work on the Odyssey, I picked up Robert Scaer’s The Body Bears the Burden to learn more about what happens to the human body and neurobiology from a long term lack of resolution in the fight or flight instinct. As Scaer explains, the prolonged “freeze” moment can cause us physical harm as well as psychological trauma, impeding our learning, altering the way we remember, and changing the way we react to danger. The longer we remain incapable of running away or doing something about our situation, the worse the effects can be.
So I’ve been thinking about Hektor in the Iliadas someone whose behavior might be better understood from this perspective and about how we might think about ourselves and our fellow human beings as peoples besieged by a plague, by anxiety about the future, by hateful racism and harmful politics, and by an inability to understand that the suffering we feel in our minds leaves its scars on our bodies too.
I have a tendency to reduce things at times to just-so stories, a moral to take from the Iliad, a paradigm to follow from the Odyssey. What I have learned at some cost is that living along with epic in my hands and my mind has helped me make sense of the world and my place in it and has helped me be a better ‘reader’ of Homer too.
“As a serpent awaits a man in front of its home on the mountain,
One who dined on ruinous plants [pharmaka], and a dread anger overtakes him
As it coils back and glares terribly before his home.
So Hektor in his unquenchable [asbestos] fury [menos] would not retreat,
After he leaned his shining shield on the wall’s edge.
He really glowered as he spoke to his own proud heart
As he stands before the walls of his city in book 22, Hektor is compared to a snake, coiled to strike an intruder. This moment of anticipation of violence is prolonged as Hektor turns away from the pleas of his family not to face Achilles. In a moment marked by the repeated speech introduction “ (ὀχθήσας δ᾽ ἄρα εἶπε πρὸς ὃν μεγαλήτορα θυμόν), Hektor ruminates, and worries despite what the opening simile anticipates. He resolves to face Achilles, but then immediately changes his mind: “When Hektor noticed Achilles, a tremor overtook him and he could not bear to wait for him / but he left the gates behind and left in flight” Ἕκτορα δ᾽, ὡς ἐνόησεν, ἕλε τρόμος: οὐδ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἔτλη / αὖθι μένειν, ὀπίσω δὲ πύλας λίπε, βῆ δὲ φοβηθείς).
What happens between the end of Hektor’s speech and his choice to run from Achilles?
In the fall of 2019, I submitted my final manuscript for a book about the Homeric Odyssey and modern psychology. To say I had spent a lot of time with this book would be as much of an understatement as to make the overly banal claim that I learned a lot in the process. Both statements are true, but neither gets to the core of how much researching and writing this book changed the way I read ancient literature and think about just being a human being.
This project started with the observation in class one day in 2011 that Odysseus and Telemachus may be suffering from something we’d call learned helplessness and ended up with a reading of the whole epic as rumination on human agency, traumatized peoples, and the way stories have the power both to liberate and to chain us.
But, as with most long projects, my feeling at the submission was one of release and escape–every time I finish a paper or book, I wonder if I am done, if I have written all the words in me, and whether I have any other thoughts worth forming. I wanted to be done with the Odyssey and its trauma for a while, to think about something new, or, perhaps, to think about nothing at all.
And so much of what I read for the Odyssey book continued to course through my mind. Some people may bristle at the terminology, but it was clear to me that we were being collectively traumatized: by our fear about the safety of our lives and our loved ones’; by our inability to do anything about it; by the massive and arrogant failure of our government to protect or aid us; by fears about losing our homes and feeding our children; by the necessary and powerful reminder of racist rot at the core of our civilization provided by the #BlackLivesMatter protests; by the horrible uncertainty of the Trump administration’s attempt to steal the election; by rising threats of violence; and by a white supremacist coup. Each week and month of the pandemic was a frozen moment in an actual apocalypse, the unveiling of the terrible truths of who and what we are.
The question I started asking myself in April was whether or not knowing you’re being traumatized helps you process the trauma. The answers I found were contrary. So I started doing the very thing I swore I wasn’t going to do anymore, to think about Homer and human psychology. Somewhere along the way that took me back to Hektor, Troy’s prince and protector.
Very few people who read or write about the Iliad can make great sense of Hektor. His traditional character is part of James Redfield’s widely cited The Tragedy of Hektor (1975) and his strange engagement with his advisor Poulydamas–with whom he argues on three separate occasions–is seen as a function of the limits of Trojan politics but rarely as evidence of the emotional response of an actual human being.
Indeed, throughout the Iliad, Hektor’s behavior can be hard to parse, and so much harder to defend. He is harsh to his brother, but within limits; his kindness to Helen and joy in his son seems ill-fit to his rejection of Andromache’s advice. In war, he seems relentless, speaking repeatedly of glory and the alternating chance of war, while pursuing an offensive onslaught that seems either wholly irrational or an artificial hastening of the war’s ultimate plot. Sure, we see the man-killing Hektor in all his unquenchable fury, but there are questions: he barely fights Ajax to a draw in book 7; he needs the help of another man and a god to slay Patroklos in book 16; he must be tricked to face Achilles when the final conflict awaits him.
I have always had a soft spot for Hektor–in his acceptance of his doomed state, I used to find a welcome nobility in contrast to Achilles’ selfishness. And, yet, the way he dismisses Poulydamas or ignores Andromache has always troubled me. His final flight from Achilles has always been something I failed to explain to students. Over the years I have called it denial, escapism, a wavering panic when the doom on the horizon finally appears. Who among us can say we won’t quail in our final moments, or shudder and engage in a brief fantasy that there’s more life yet to live?
During the pandemic, I started to think of Hektor as someone marked by prolonged uncertainty and torturous anticipation. In a way, we have lived in our own kind of siege over the past year: often unable to leave our homes, afraid of what days and weeks would bring, and plagued beyond all else by uncertainties that undermined many things we held to be true, even sacred. I started to think of Hektor and the Trojans as living this way not for one year, but for nine, hearing of the deaths or abductions of family members in other cities, seeing no way to break out. Before the beginning of the epic we know, Hektor spent nine years pacing the walls of his city, unable to fight off his enemies yet unable to flee. Until, of course, the Iliad’s action lets him break free.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
In the third edition of his The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease (2014), Robert Scaer looks at the cycle of arousal and rest that characterizes the function of our nervous system in response to crisis or danger. In simple terms, we can think of the fight or flight response which triggers different neurotransmitters to prepare for rapid response: in a resting state, our bodies are prepared for and more efficient at digesting and storing nutrients and also at processing and storing knowledge of facts and events (13). The fight/flight response puts us in a high-energy nervous state, raising blood-pressure and moving blood into our muscular system.
Such a shifting of biological resources is an essential survival tool. But when we experience prolonged arousal without release or resolution we can become locked in or frozen, establishing an unstable state that may look immobile but may actually be “rapid and exaggerated sympathetic/parasympathetic oscillation (15). To put it in other words: when we face a crisis situation we can neither fight nor flee, our “freeze” reaction is a parafunctional cycling through the same fight/flight and resting process over and over again. In this state, our minds can become “numb and dissociated” and our vascular and digestive systems suffer. So, if over the past year you’ve found yourself inexplicably tired, facing unanticipated digestive issues, out of breath with a racing heart while sitting still, you may have been showing the symptoms of your body encoding our trauma
As Scaer outlines (15-16), Animals often show remarkable responses to this freeze (a “discharge”) that can include convulsions and more in an instinctive attempt to restore “autonomic homeostasis” (16), that is, stability. Human beings, however, rarely show such ‘rests’ to discharge the trauma and reset the body. Such an inability to resolve the freeze moment, it seems, compounds the long term dangers of physical responses to trauma and the likelihood that memories of the events will incite similar physical responses, a return to a traumatized state. Scaer argues that many chronic diseases may be rooted in the reshaping of our brains by trauma and the inability of our conscious minds to distinguish between now and traumatizing events.
Reading Hektor’s Trauma
I see so much of my sleepless nights, habitual doom scrolling, and somatic disarray in this description. And during these moments, I have wondered how this can change the way we approach Hektor both in a single moment and from the perspective of the whole narrative.
When we see Hektor before the walls of Troy, he is “coiled” like a snake (elissomenos) and he wouldn’t retreat because of his unquenchable heart. Note that I translate that participle clause ἄσβεστον ἔχων μένος causally. This is, of course, a significant choice, but I think a well-motivated one. This is the only time in Greek epic when menos—one’s energy, life force—is described as asbestos, “inextinguishable, unsatisfiable”. The adjective appears to mark extreme or powerful expressions of emotion as in describing the laughter of the gods at Hephaistos (1.599) or war cries of groups as they engage in battle (11.500, 11.530; 13.169; 13.450; 16.267). In the Odyssey, asbeston twice modifies kleos (4.584; 7.133). This word seems to describe extreme moments of pitch, or aggression with a sense of duration. But as Lorenzo Garcia argues in his Homeric Durability, asbestosmarks things that ultimately cannot endure: what the sound of a laugh or a war-cry share in common with Hektor’s menos is an unsustainable intensity. In addition, the adjective marks something that is public, shared, or heard by others. Here, the asbeston menos is something private, a massive, unsustainable thing somehow contained within a single person.
The simile compares Hektor to an animal coiled for attack; in describing his refusal to retreat, the narrative uniquely describes the energy driving him; the speech introduction that follows places him in a motif of deliberation over fighting or fleeing. Speeches introduced by the formula “He really glowered as he spoke to his own proud heart” (ὀχθήσας δ᾽ἄρα εἶπε πρὸς ὃν μεγαλήτορα θυμόν) are dramatic representations of deliberation—moments that happen in an instant but are unfolded in the time of performance to allow audiences to consider the inner workings of heroic minds. The simile of the serpent creates extra space and invites audiences to consider the space between the image of the coiled snake and Hektor’s actions: it is as much about how Hektor is the snake and how he is not.
For mortals, the moment of deliberation seems to be that very freeze before the selection of fight or flight: at 11.404-410, Odysseus, caught alone in battle worries about being overcome as the battle rages around him. At 17.90, Menelaos pauses in the defense of Patroklos’ body, afraid to face Hektor alone. At 18.5, Achilles is paralyzed by fear that something has happened to Patroklos and later at 20.143, Achilles finds himself perplexed at the sudden disappearance of Aeneas who has been rescued by the gods. At 21.552, Agenor the son of Antenor pauses mid-battle to decide to run or face Achilles.
The participle characterizing the speech, okhthêsas, moreover, expresses anger or resentment and may be an iterative of ekhthomai, that same root that gives us Greek words for hostility and enmity. Especially when combined with the asseverative particle ἄρα, this verb communicates an inward wrath at a choice with no good options. It is the coiling of anticipation, of loss, and of a loss of control. It is, I think, a formulaic marker for the process of navigating between fight and flight. In its pairing with the opening simile, it marks Hektor in that same moment, in an extended freeze. His resolution, however, contrasts with the other scenes: Hektor ends up acting contrary to his choice to stand.
Hektor’s menos, his anger, is a reflex of his loss of control and of his longing for something to be different. Andromache anticipates this when she speaks to him in book (6.407-409):
“Divine one, your menos will destroy you and you do not pity
Your infant child and my wretched fate, the one who will soon
Be your widow. For the Achaeans are on their way to kill you…”
Hektor’s drive to protect those he cares for most is the very thing that separates him from them, that unites them only in loss and longing. This calls to my mind the work of my friend, Emily Austin, who has written a book foregrounding the thematic importance of loss and longing (pothos) in the Iliad: it is the sudden absence that motivates Achilles’ menis. I think it is also the unconquerable fire that keeps Hektor from ever truly being still.
Thinking about the fight/flight/freeze complex as described by Scaer helps us confirm the poetic function of a Homeric formula: it also serves to invite audiences into a mind navigating a moment of crisis, of choice or judgment (hence Greek krisis) over running away or facing danger. In combination with a striking simile and a strange description of Hektor’s menos, this pattern also helps us see what can happen when the deliberation fails, when the freeze prolongs. Hektor’s menos is overloaded, it is too thoroughly interiorized, coiled inside him, breaking him from within.
Hektor, Fighting and Fleeing
Almost 15 years ago, Elton Barker and I wrote an article about debates over fight or flight in the New Archilochus Poem and Homer. In it, we argued that both Homer and Archilochus were engaged in a tradition of poetic debate about the merits of fight or flight, transcending our narrow concepts of genre and operating ahierarchically, that is, prioritizing neither Homer nor Archilochus, but providing evidence of debate and reflection over time. I don’t think we’re wrong, still; but I do think that this debate is about more than drama and poets: it is about representing human emotion and cognition.
Broadly speaking, Scaer’s framework and my own experience makes me think that we need to rethink Hektor’s behavior throughout the epic and the depiction of Trojan responses to the war in general, allowing more richness to the emotive and cognitive content. There are thematic ties that tell a story of their own.
When Hektor speaks to Andromache in book 6, he anticipates the shame he worries about in book 22 and considers his wife’s suffering after his death. He expresses a characteristic fatalism when he dismisses Andromache to her weaving, saying, “I claim that there is no one who has escaped his fate, / whether a good person or a bad one, after they are born” (μοῖραν δ’ οὔ τινά φημι πεφυγμένον ἔμμεναι ἀνδρῶν, /οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ἐπὴν τὰ πρῶτα γένηται, 6.488-489).
Perhaps it is too much to read into this passage to say that Hektor thinks flight is impossible (he does…), but it certainly helps explain his subsequent actions: keeping the Trojan army out on the field at night in book 8, breaking through the Greek fortifications despite a bad omen in book 12, and refusing to return to the defense of the city in book 18. When Polydamas calls for them to retreat, Hektor continues to insist Zeus is on their side and declares, “I will not flee him from the ill-sounding battle, but I will stand / against Achilles either to win great strength or to be taken myself. War is common ground and the one who kills is killed” (…οὔ μιν ἔγωγε / φεύξομαι ἐκ πολέμοιο δυσηχέος, ἀλλὰ μάλ’ ἄντην /στήσομαι, ἤ κε φέρῃσι μέγα κράτος, ἦ κε φεροίμην / ξυνὸς ᾿Ενυάλιος, καί τε κτανέοντα κατέκτα, 18.306-309).
When Hektor freezes in the choice to fight or flee in book 22, he knows there is no other option. In his speech, he often surprises modern audiences with a wish that he and Achilles could exchange pledges like young lovers and wishes neither would have to die even as he admits that shame would prevent him from retreat. As another friend Justin Arft has recently argued, Hektor “transitions from imagined mediation, to being unarmed, to being a woman, to intimate discourse, to he and Achilles in the place of lovers” (SCS 2021) and is flipping through cognitive schemas (patterns of behavior) trying to figure out what to do. It is as if Hektor has a handful of cards and is repeatedly flipping through them, looking for one that will change a fate he knows cannot be changed. He goes back through his own stories, perhaps stopping at his conversation with Andromache and thinking about what he loses, what he needs, and the absence of choices remaining to him. At the end, he returns to that deceptive idea, that fate alternates and he just might win the day (εἴδομεν ὁπποτέρῳ κεν Ὀλύμπιος εὖχος ὀρέξῃ, 130).
After not even a year yet in a society in trauma, I now see Hektor as someone whose response to the false hope of choice is to overcompensate, to come on too strong, and to engage in willful denial. He fights to extremes and then he flees excessively too. He is burdened by the weight of his past failures and the ultimate futility of his actions.
The Trojans in Trauma
Of course, there’s not a single way to think about this moment. David Morris in his 2015 The Evil Hours notes that Freud theorized that war neuroses came from an internal conflict between self preservation and responsibility to honor and comrades (15). As Jonathan Shay adds in his Achilles in Vietnam, trauma undermines “the cohesion of consciousness” (1995,188). And this fragmentation has been born out by neurobiological studies since.
The additional thing to think about for Hektor and for us, is that the impact of trauma can be increased by duration. What if we think of the Trojan leader as coiled for nine years, as representing a people besieged, constantly poised between the need to fight and the desire for an impossible flight. The repeated suppression of the fight or flight choice, the prolonged freeze would be traumatizing neurobiologically. It would change the way Hektor’s mind and body worked.
I do want to be careful to say that I am not saying the Greeks would have seen it this way precisely, but rather that there is clearly a traditional marker through the collocation of simile, deliberative introduction, and the invitation to the audience to linger with Hektor for a moment (the freeze) that modern observers have seen as having both psychological and neurobiological components. Ancient audiences would have seen their own peers shaped and reshaped by similar traumas and their poems show evidence of understanding the long term impact experiences like isolation, betrayal, and helplessness can have on the working of human minds (think of Philoktetes, Ajax, Odysseus, and others like Klytemnestra and Medea in tragedy).
So, this is not a positivistic reading saying “this thing is definitely that” but more that our modern scientific discourse has outlined a space of behavior that traditional poetics found meaningful too and that the correlation between these observations may help us understand something about Hektor others have missed. But I think this is bigger than Hektor: it may be about the Trojans, a people besieged, as a whole.
In the traditional story of the Trojan War, the story of the horse seems all but ridiculous (ok, it is ridiculous). But what if we considered the Trojan willingness to accept a clear trap, to engage in such extreme denial, as a function of their collective trauma? We are no strangers to large parts of our population refusing to accept what others see as fact, in engaging in clearly self-destructive behavior because it adheres so much more closely to what they want to be true and reality causes them so much pain.
In Greek myth, trouble tends to run in families and cities, traveling from father to son and grandson until the whole line is used up. This too resounds with what we have learned over the past century. We know trauma can be passed down three generations. Large-scale studies of oppressed populations show greater evidence of trauma related behaviors (depression, suicide, drug use) in the grand-chhildren of those who suffered abuse and displacement than their peers. And these responses may be about more than the power of discourse and socialization. There’s growing evidence for the reshaping of DNA as a result of trauma. Our ancestors’ experiences may impact those parts of our DNA that inform our mental health and shape our responses to traumatic events in our lives.
(As a necessary aside, this makes it even harder to defend people who deny the justice of reparations on financial or ethical grounds. The legacy of past traumas are still shaping people today.)
Trauma impacts our physical health; it impedes learning and new memories; it alters how we respond to crisis; untreated, it deprives us of even instinctual advantages. The Iliad’s story of the Trojan War gives its audiences traumatized warriors and families on both sides. It shows people fraying then unraveling under the pressures of long term conflict. And it provides us with vignettes of men and women trying to make sense of the world as everything they know breaks down. When Hektor tries to face his death, but then runs, the traditional language and its images unfold a human mind at its most intense moment of crisis.
Over the past few years, I have often found myself arguing about what the humanities are, about what they are good for. A poem like the Iliad is not some timeless relic, a perfect object to be worshipped for the unmixed good it can bring. But it is a deeply complex inheritance, a poem that gives us the opportunity to move between what we know and see now and what others experienced thousands of years ago. By tracing out the story of Hektor’s mind and his body’s burden, we may find just a little help in learning how to carry our own.
I am entirely aware that the following review of Eric Adler’s The Battle of the Classics cuts a little deep and comes at an inopportune moment. Nevertheless, Adler sent me this book before the outbreak of white supremacist and rightwing violence last week prompted multiple calls for increased training in the humanities. Our context and Adler’s implicit invitation prompted me to finish and post this review, despite our collective exhaustion.
To be clear, Adler’s book has no connection to last week’s coup. But there’s a cyclical and reactive debate about the impact of the humanities on current events, and claims that the humanities are not political are as vacuous as those insisting they are responsible in some significant way. In a sense, both Adler and I serve as mere proxies in broader, contentious debates.
Indeed, I was hesitant to post this review at all for fear of appearing less kind than I aspire to be or of giving the ideas in this book additional attention. Yet I grow increasingly tired of our intellectual histories pretending objectivity while still supporting a trenchantly ideological system. We need Classicists to perform critical and honest histories of our field to help us chart better courses forward. We don’t need sophistic prevarication.
The reaction of many humanists and classicists to the ‘revelation’ that our fields are racist in practice and in origin is not dissimilar to the responses by white intellectuals and politicians to the 1619 Project, which Trump has countered with the risible 1776 Project: resistance, minimization, denial, and outright violent rejection. Even those who try to accommodate new historical analyses may suffer cognitive dissonance, reluctant or incapable of acknowledging that the degree to which one realizes how toxic academia—and classics—is depends upon one’s own positionality.
It is a farce for any field of critical inquiry to refuse to conduct or accept a critique of its own history. To study the past without being interested in how earlier generations shaped this study and how their political, racial, gendered, and otherwise formative discourses influenced them is to engage in intellectual cosplay. This is, of course, an insult to the latter: at least cosplayers know they are engaging in fantasy. How much more ironic and hypocritical it is, then, for a field so proud of the Delphic “know thyself” to resist the practice of doing so!
Some readers are going to leave this piece with a forced misconception, carrying some ridiculous takeaway like “Homerist cancels Homer” or the like. (There’s a free headline for you!) Much to the contrary, this is a call to live up to the aspirations of the practice of the humanities, to force ourselves to be more than simple agents of tradition.
Adler’s primary emphasis in his book—that we need to advocate for the humanities based on their substance or content—is left abstract until its end. It is also at the end that some potential audiences emerge. What starts as a softer, center academic voice (see Adler’s welcome critique of the neoliberal university and educational consumerism) drifts rightward in the conclusion, characterizing Reed college’s inclusion of Mexico City and the Harlem Renaissance in its Hum 110 course as “a capitulation to contemporary American identity politics…[which] reinforces the sense that reforms, nominally aimed at a genuine cosmopolitanism, instead underscore American provincialism” (Adler 220).
Of course, I have excerpted the previous statements to make it seem as if Adler were making them and not merely repeating the kinds of things people say (which is how the paragraph is couched) because the closing chapter, intentionally or not, flirts with dog-whistles and gives a platform to arguments familiar to readers (or victims) of Quillette and the Heterodox Academy, at its best, and the ravings of less rational actors, at the worst.
Once he offers an overview of some texts he might suggest for the “wisdom of the ages”, Adler suggests, “In such a curriculum, diversity and inclusiveness remain important organizing principles. Yet they are not attained by a relentless, tokenizing pursuit of representativeness for its own sake. On the contrary, they emerge from a more intellectually serious investigation of how we as a species have sought to answer the most fundamental questions of life” (222).
This all may sound reasonable on the surface, until one imagines how these phrases resound with certain audiences and how they appropriate the language of inclusive pedagogy and practice to signal that there is a higher principle of rigor and quality. These are like the words of colleagues I have encountered who are happy to hire a woman or BIPOC scholar, as long as we don’t have to sacrifice “quality” to do so.
This summary also leaves out how selectively Adler shapes his intellectual history and how much his argument relies on the deeply problematic conservative scholar Irving Babbitt. On the whole, this book provides a somewhat interesting overview of some debates over the classical humanities in higher education in the United States. It is not clear, however, that the discussions paced over a century would have been recognized by anyone as a specific or continuous “Battle of the Classics”. In ignoring the fact that the “Classics” have always been selective and exclusive (and in eliding the Humanities and Classics), Adler joins his subjects as idealizing the content of the Classical tradition irrespective of the process that delivered it.
In aiming to argue for a “wisdom of the ages” that improves the human condition, Adler trains his gaze always on the idea of the objects rather than the subjects who benefit from them. At some level, I do deeply agree with the plea that we should focus on how the humanities can make us better humans—I just think this is a capacity we bring to the texts as subjects ourselves rather than magical qualities a set of texts may grant to us with the right shamans as our guides.
There will be time aplenty in the new year to reflect on what Reading Greek Tragedy Online meant to those of us who were engaged with it every week. It suffices to say for the moment that it gave us structure, a sense of community, and a reason to drag ourselves out of bed a few times a week. it also gave us the opportunity to think and talking about performing Greek theater in a sustained way that none of us could have imagined a year ago today.
Back in April, when Paul and I were outlining the rest of the year with Lanah, we thought this play would be a nice way to end the series on something of an absurdist but reflective turn. Aristophanes’ Frogs stands as one of the earliest pieces of literary criticism in the Athenian tradition. Even if it is bawdy and hyperbolic, it provides critical comments and cultural frameworks for the three tragedians we moderns know best. As a comedy, it ranges from sophisticated engagement with literary motifs and styles right back down to fart jokes and the regrettable but by no means atypical repeated play with abusing an enslaved person.
But the Frogs also has a sense of coming near the end of things: it starts with the assertion that all the good poets are dead (in a year following the passing of both Euripides and Sophocles). Not only does it come at the end of an artistic era, but it was also composed and performed near the end of the Peloponnesian War and the high point of Athenian influence. Rarely does any play stand at the intersection of so many charged themes; it is even rarer that such a play is a comedy.
So, to end this, our most recent annus horribilis and this series which has meant so much to us, we turn to a new version of the Frogs. Who’s ready for some koaks koaks?
Aristophanes, Frogs 237-239
“I am developing blisters,
My rectum has been oozing for a while,
And soon it will jump out and say…
Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre) Associate Director: Liz Fisher Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University) Dramaturg: Emma Pauly Executive Producer: Lanah Koelle (Center for Hellenic Studies) Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society) Poster Artist: John Koelle Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies)