An Impractical Education

Richard Holway

“Thanks ever so much for the chance to read your manuscript. I loved it, pure and simple. Once I had a chance to start reading it, I couldn’t put it down, and my spouse and I have had great fun over the past two days discussing your ideas about the ancient world and contemporary families.” This was, actually, a fairly typical response to the manuscript for my book, Becoming Achilles. I’d send it to a reader with relevant expertise. The reader would offer the requested advice, but, not infrequently, get their spouse to read it too, and the two of them would have an extended conversation about the issues it raises.

Depending on how I reckon it, I’d been writing the book for fifteen years–or thirty-five. During that time I’d been working as an acquisitions editor at university presses. Why did I keep at it? Like so many others, I find the material–the Iliad, psychology, and Greek mythology–endlessly fascinating. But that’s only part of the answer. The work was a lifeline and a passion, something I needed and wanted to sort out and get right. It was—and continues to be—a way to think through questions and issues pertaining not only to Greek literature and politics but to my own experience.

From the beginning I approached Greek myth, epic, and drama as a therapeutic as well as a scholarly undertaking. During one of many years as a “professional student” at Berkeley, I analyzed my dreams on a regular basis. At some point the focus of my analysis would shift from the personal experience that had insinuated itself, in disguised form, into the dream, to some analogous personage, situation, or episode in film or literature–increasingly the Greek texts that claimed more and more of my attention.

I am an insomniac. Tensions build to the point where I wake up every night. To get back to sleep, I write. I start by putting into words what’s on my mind, how I feel about my imagined situation, and how I am responding to it. Like the awakenings themselves, the answers are both unexpected and repetitive. I don’t know what is bothering me until I attend to and articulate it–but usually it turns out to involve a replay of the same battle between a belief that all is well and a deep-seated conviction that the opposite is in fact the case. The sleep-bringing resolution usually takes the form of admitting that I am probably right that things are hopeless and I am completely inadequate, but I can stand by rather than back away from and berate my evidently inadequate self, if only to confirm these hypotheses.

My book started as a Ph.D. dissertation at Berkeley. Years before, in 1964, I had arrived there as a freshman, just in time to get caught up in the Free Speech Movement. I stayed at, or in, Berkeley through many other facets and phases of the long 1960s. (I stayed on through the 80s and early 90s, by which time the 60s had become a faint memory.) As an undergraduate, I was drawn to political theory, taught by two charismatic professors, Jack Schaar and Sheldon Wolin. It provided distance and perspective on the politics swirling around me. At issue were the university’s role in society and the Civil Rights, Black Power, the Vietnam War, and Women’s movements, as well as the political economy and cultural politics in which each was embedded.

Later, as a graduate student in political theory at Berkeley, I chose to write a dissertation on the Iliad. With its mix of familial and political issues, the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, like that between Antigone and Creon, resonated in complex ways with the generational politics of the 60s. Also, while I remained intrigued by political theory, I became increasingly dissatisfied with studying what was often presented as a conversation carried on above our heads, from one great theorist to the next, across the generations.

The combined family and political narratives of the Iliad and Greek tragedy held out the promise of understanding political thinking closer to the ground. Clearly Agamemnon and Creon were flawed leaders, and they doubtless deserved Achilles’ and Antigone’s scornful repudiations of their authority. But on what basis did characters (and audiences) espouse competing positions about the legitimacy or otherwise of authority or rebellion? Once articulated, how did these implicit, ambiguous judgments compare to the explicit arguments put forward by political theorists?

I grew up in 50s suburban America. Although my mother and step-father were engaged in quantitative, behaviorist, social science research, the Connecticut suburb where we lived is reproduced in the TV series, Mad Men. Significant numbers of its adult male residents boarded daily commuter trains to jobs at Madison Avenue ad agencies. The adults (my stepfather and his professional and academic friends included) consumed so many martinis a day that it would have been difficult to tell the alcoholics from the social drinkers, if anyone had thought to try. Unlike most of my friends, I was a child of divorce–which was still uncommon in those days, at least among families we knew. The fallout from the disintegration of our family–in which my mother was unhappily married, and had limited opportunity to pursue her intellectual interests–and the dynamics of our pre- and post-divorce families, have preoccupied me ever since. The Iliad and Greek tragedy (and, before them, countless novels, and movies like Shane, Bad Day at Black Rock, and Rebel without a Cause) provided external canvasses on which to project and puzzle out family experiences that had left an indelible mark.

Perhaps I should be ashamed of spending a significant part of my life, to limited practical effect, reading, thinking, and writing about these issues in relation to ancient Greek texts; and of grappling family experiences that are, after all, increasingly commonplace, for practically my entire life, from my earliest memories onward.

This continuing education, in and out of schools, with its attempt to make sense of both personal and historical/political questions and experiences, is not the kind that present-day undergraduates, faced with mountains of student loan debt and difficult, volatile job markets, can afford to contemplate. Yet publishing a book rooted in questions that have been with me for a lifetime is an incredible privilege.

But it is more. The book proposes radical new understandings of the heroism of Achilles and Socrates. It calls attention to childrearing patterns that sacrifice children’s needs to parents’, sustaining a predilection for war and other forms of violence. These practices not only disrupt children’s psychological development but corrode citizens’ and leaders’ political competence. In the end, this lifelong learning, rooted in the humanities and social sciences, may turn out to be both timely and supremely practical.

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