Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma

“Alcidamas called the Odyssey a ‘fine mirror of human life’ ”

καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον

Aristotle, Rhetoric

Like many of the people I talk to, I find myself incapable of focusing on much these days as a I move mechanically from zoom ‘teaching’ to virtual meetings, all while doom scrolling on twitter. We joke about “the end of the world” even as it is in fact the end of an era. I often think of these repeated motions as a kind of paralysis: with no new goal, bereft of any way to change anything, just waiting for some report or action to show me the way. Then, at the end of each day, watching the news leaves me exhausted in the wake of intense, yet impotent, rage.

The image that comes to my mind too frequently is Odysseus on the shore of Kalypso’s island in the Odyssey’s fifth book. (5.151–159):

Kalypso found [Odysseus] sitting on the water’s edge. His eyes were never dry
of tears and his sweet life was draining away as he mourned
over his homecoming, since the goddess was no longer pleasing to him.
But it was true that he stretched out beside her at night by necessity
In her hollow caves, unwilling when she was willing.
By day, however, he sat on the rocks and sands
wracking his heart with tears, groans and grief,
Shedding tears as he gazed upon the barren sea.

τὸν δ’ ἄρ’ ἐπ’ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον· οὐδέ ποτ’ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ’ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ’ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ·
ἤματα δ’ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠϊόνεσσι καθίζων
[δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων]
πόντον ἐπ’ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων.

When we find Odysseus at the beginning of his epic he has been here on the shore of Ogygia, crying during the day for seven years (and, let’s not forget, having sex with a goddess each night, which has lost its charm). I think I go here because I have taught the Odyssey and I have spent the past five years writing a book about Homeric epic’s internal theory of the human mind, emphasizing how the Odyssey presents its characters responding to suffering and trauma in ways that correspond to modern psychological observations and interventions. I don’t know if this makes me any more capable of coping with what we are all facing, but it does remind me daily that the nothing we are experiencing  is something and that this drawn out, uncertain catastrophe is reshaping us.

What I have learned from these years of reading is that ancient poetry (and modern literature too) can come as close to anything else as offering a guide to our grief and providing a primer on how to stay human in inhumane times. And this makes it even clearer to me that not talking about these experiences while they happen is dangerous. I hear the trauma and fear in my own voice and in the words of my friends and colleagues, and I worry about who we will all be on the other side. Talking about this may make a difference. Acknowledging it might help us emerge a little stronger, if not faster, with fewer of us left behind.


Helplessness and Complex Loss

“The person who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”

Τῷ μὲν τὸ σῶμα † διατεθειμένῳ κακῶς
χρεία ‘στ’ ἰατροῦ, τῷ δὲ τὴν ψυχὴν φίλου·
λύπην γὰρ εὔνους οἶδε θεραπεύειν φίλος.

Menander (fr. 591 K.)

One of the things I think that gets overlooked when people focus on the Odyssey’s heroic narrative is the extent to which the epic features characters who are trapped and deprived of control over their life in some fundamental way. Odysseus, of course, is clearly marginalized from action right at the beginning of the epic. But when Athena—as Mentor—first finds Telemachus, he is caught in a daydream, thinking about his father:

“God-like Telemachus saw her much the first
For he was sitting among the suitors, pained in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts…”

τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής·
ἧστο γὰρ ἐν μνηστῆρσι φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
ὀσσόμενος πατέρ’ ἐσθλὸν ἐνὶ φρεσίν…

In his recent book about Telemachus, Charles Underwood sees this daydream as a type of fantasy where Telemachus explores possible futures (2018, 25–31). I like this formulation a lot, but what I also see here is that it is not until after several conversations with Athena that Telemachus can even conceive of acting himself. He is, essentially, a grammatical subject but not an agent, which makes him an object of the forces in his world and goes a great way to explain his lack of action.

Telemachus is, I think, in a kind of paralysis that issues from his experience of the world (rather than in it because he has done so little).  And he sets us up to see other figures in the epic from the perspective of agency and object, of limitations that our views of ourselves in the world impose on whether we think we can act in it. Penelope, Odysseus, and even minor figures like Eupeithes the father of a slaughtered suitor appear in frozen states. In each case, the epic invites its audiences to see how a character’s experiences and context shape or constrain their ability to act in the world.

And here’s a simplified explanation for what the epic is reflecting. When we cannot run from a threat or rise to fight it, we are shocked into a moment of inaction, frozen in time like proverbial deer in headlights. From modern perspectives, this paralysis is rooted in a deferred fight-or-flight response. We have all encountered such moments when we do not know how to act, but deferment prolonged over time can have psychological consequences, creating pathological anxiety responses and forming an essential part of our relationship with trauma. Chronic activation of this stress response can have serious consequences for mental and physical health. Digestive issues? Yes. Sleep? Yes. Immune response? Yes, unfortunately 

In his book The Evil Hours, David J. Morris talks about how people suffering from trauma exist in a “liminal state” between life and death (2015, 6-7). To what extent people get stuck in this state has little to do with who you are before—no one can predict the overlapping impact of emotional and somatic responses. But a sense of helplessness can enhance the impact of trauma considerably. As a category, psychologists have discussed “learned helplessness”—the process of becoming habituated to a lack of agency and control over life—and its maladaptations for over a century. A developed sense of helplessness can make it hard to learn new things or demonstrate what you have learned; it has been linked to depression and anxiety; and it can prevent us from making plans for the future because we believe or suspect our own agency does not matter at all (see Mikuluncer 1994 for a full study).

A sense of lost agency—which contributes to depression on its own—is just not about helplessness: it has a recursive and reinforcing relationship with trauma. Prolonged helplessness changes the way we see the world and is itself traumatizing; helplessness in the face of prolonged suffering can be dehumanizing.

The Odyssey, I think, gives us a range of figures subject to helplessness and marginalization from different sources. Odysseus, of course, is the most obvious figure (followed by Telemachus, as I write about in a few places). But many major and minor figures are trapped in cycles of behavior from which they have little escape. Menelaos and Helen in book 4 are engaged in “off task coping” (drugs and alcohol), arguing about the past through the stories they tell, constrained by the decisions they made, the actions they committed, and the inability to imagine any different future.

The enslaved people of the epic have either completely internalized their worthlessness and commitment to their masters (Eumaios and Eurykleia) or they lash out with ‘misbehavior’ only to be murdered for it later (Melantho, Melanthios, the other enslaved women). Laertes has retreated to his gardens, repeatedly going over the same works again and again. Penelope reduces to tears amid her pacing from room to hall, expressing that most human of needs to feel something or give up. Her uncertainty is like the fragmentation David Morris describes in traumatized figures: their past and present seem disconnected and the future is hard to imagine at all. Trauma and helplessness undermine the internal assumptions of causality which makes it possible for us to act in the world.

The Odyssey also gives us a sense of trauma’s multiple sources: it is not just that people are marginalized by their sense of helplessness, but they are also undone by unresolved loss. Characters like Penelope, Menelaos, and Eupeithes (the father who lost his son and speaks in favor of killing Odysseus at the end of the epic) are shown undone by the grief that comes from not knowing if someone is dead or alive (in reference to Odysseus) or not being able to attend to their grief in a way they understand (as in Eupeithes’ desire for revenge). In recent years, researchers have called these types of emotion “ambiguous loss” or “complicated grief” and have explained how they create and perpetuate states of inaction (see Boss 1999) or paralytic returns to the topic of loss and uncertainty (see Hall et al. 2014).

So, if you feel paralyzed for events, stultified by your own response, or lost in trying to make some sense of each day, that’s your brain and body telling you something. The world is changing in ways we cannot fully understand, and it hurts. It is ok not to write a book during your isolation; it is normal to feel distracted and lost.  Overeating or drinking too much? Look at the suitors waiting for something to happen in their lives. Having trouble sleeping? Both Telemachus and Odysseus stay awake all night. Having trouble not sleeping? Penelope is overwhelmed with exhaustion (and weeping) by Athena.

File:Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the Island of Ithaca by Giuseppe Bottani.jpg
Athena and Odysseus by Giuseppe Bottani

Collective Trauma and Social Memory

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