Guest Column: Trauma and Reading Homer, by Joel Christensen.

In this post I am pleased to present a guest column, “Trauma and Reading Homer”, by Joel Christensen. Joel is Associate Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He is the author/editor of one of my favorite blogs, sententiae antiquae (see the blogroll on the side for a link). He has recently published a new book on Homer: The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic (Cornell University Press: 2020), which I recommend enthusiastically as a rare combination of philological precision and psychological insight. Joel talks about classical literature in a way that makes it important for us today, not just a relic of the past. Take it away, Joel!!

Trauma and Reading Homer

Joel Christensen

The Greek noun trauma, meaning “wound”, does not appear in Homeric epic where we find more commonly helkos or ôteilê. 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, exacerbated by smoking and drug use. 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).

During this period I was also starting and expanding the website sentenitae antiquae, where many of these ideas found early expression. For me, writing and talking about classical literature every day just kind of became an overlapping, cyclical thing: I would teach about something, write about it in a blog post, and then eventually give a talk or publish something about it. That’s how I started publishing about Telemachus and Learned Helplessness and the structure of the epic, how narrative therapy helps explain the stories Odysseus tells in books 9-12 of the Odyssey, and how the end of the epic echoes different ideas about the human brain and storytelling from cognitive science.

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.

* * *

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 Iliad as 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.

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