February 6, 2013, Vol. 58, No. 6, Article 7
A Hero’s Aesthetics
A Review of
Becoming Achilles: Child-Sacrifice, War, and Misrule in the Iliad and Beyond
by Richard Holway
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. 255 pp. ISBN 978-0-7391-4691-0 (paperback) $29.95.
Reviewed by Spyros D. Orfanos
Why are we moved to tears by a fictional character’s plight? Why do we deeply recognize Odysseus’s yearning to return home to his family? Why is it that although we know that Anna Karenina is a character who does not exist in the world, we are deeply upset by her misfortunes? Why do we suffer with Willie Loman at the end of Death of a Salesman? This may not be an aesthetic issue because not all great works of art evoke an emotional response, whereas many bad films and dime store novels succeed in doing so. Clearly, there is some kind of recognition and identification for the characters and their plights (Eco, 2011).
When dockworker Terry Malloy in the classic 1954 film On the Waterfront laments, “I coulda been a contender. . . . I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am,” why do we get it? The reason may lie in the fact that such feelings affect us directly regardless of the brilliance of the acting or the scene. Everybody feels like he or she could have been a contender, everyone could have been somebody, everybody feels as though he or she is partly a bum. Each of us feels that we could have done better. Each of us feels a sense of loss about something. Each of us feels the personal tragedy. That is what touches the audience.
It could be argued that political scientist Richard Holway, the author of Becoming Achilles: Child-Sacrifice, War, and Misrule in the Iliad and Beyond, has written a book on two waning areas of scholarship: classics and psychoanalysis. Within academic circles, it has long been the fact that the study of ancient languages and literature has dramatically diminished. Although during the 19th and early 20th centuries the study of classics in the United States constituted an animated, vital, and important discipline, it now is struggling for survival.
The fate of psychoanalysis in academic circles is no better. It appears to exist primarily in literature departments, and then usually it is of a Freudian or Lacanian variant. Despite Freud’s wish for university legitimization, his science of psychoanalysis never really entered academia. Freud wanted his new science to be “psychology” not “medical psychology.” In the United States, the closest it got was the departments of psychiatry and psychology in the mid-20th century, where it did enjoy a period of popularity. But overall, psychoanalysis has had a small room in the tower of academia. This is the case despite both its heuristic value and its scientific base (Shedler, 2010). Psychoanalysis manages in the marketplace primarily due to free-standing education institutes.
One of the ways in which classic studies has tried to deal with its current minor status is by rubbing shoulders with interdisciplinary studies. Becoming Achilles is part of the long-standing and prolific book series Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches edited by the esteemed Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy. Interdisciplinary pertains to two or more branches of learning contributing to or benefiting from each other.
In line with this, psychoanalysis has been interdisciplinary since its inception. Think of the use of Greek myths and tragedies to explain hysterical reactions. Moreover, it has always had one foot in the clinical camp and one in the intellectual camp. In the beginning the emphasis was the unconscious, and central to it was the Oedipal complex. One noble aim was to apply the findings of psychoanalysis to both the arts and sciences. Psychoanalysts had little quarrel with the application of their findings outside the consulting room. Still, the application was often disappointing. Freud, after some preliminary efforts to understand artists, gave up. In the area of music, for example, the application of psychoanalytic concepts never quite penetrated the mysterious achievements of a melody from a gifted composer.
Psychoanalytic studies is currently enjoying a modest renaissance in theory and practice (Orfanos, 2011) due in part to revolutionary thinking and practice of the last three decades brought on by a group of clinicians and scholars whom one might call “relationalists.” Relational praxis in psychoanalysis is a more encompassing approach that melds many theories of the past into a framework that deemphasizes the medical model of diagnosis and psychopathology and looks to the idea that patients suffer from problems in living and that there are two subjectivities in the consulting room.
As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I am naturally interested in character and passion. It may be too dichotomous, but one could say that the Iliad is about passion and the Odyssey is about character. The Iliad is intense and sublime; the Odyssey is sophisticated and wry. The focus of this review is Holway’s treatment of Achilles, the passionate hero of the Iliad. Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey is sacrificed, an unfortunate sacrifice of the necessary complement to the Iliad.
This is unfortunate because the Odyssey is a poem full of mental cunning, Eros, the love of adventure, and strange tales—what a psychologist deals with on a daily clinic basis. From my perspective, psychodynamic psychotherapists and/or psychoanalysts address both components of this dichotomy. They dive deeper and stay longer in the depths of the suffering soul (however one defines soul).
Throughout early antiquity, it was the Iliad that was preferred, perhaps because its themes were about manliness, force, duty, fighting, killing, plundering, and arête (a concept about inborn capacities that develop, if the gods do not interfere, into the highest purpose of the individual). Today, many of us prefer The Odyssey, influenced as we are by hermeneutics and feminism.
Homer’s The Iliad is an epic poem that heralds the birth of the great Greek tragedies by hundreds of years (Kaufmann, 1979). During the Golden Age, the fifth century BCE, it inspired the three great tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It also inspired the three great philosophers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The poem is about the wrath of Achilles. It has a narrow focus, and I do not doubt that the philosopher Aristotle would have liked this narrowness. Similarly, like many social and behavioral scientists of today, Aristotle believed that although everything is connected to everything else, one cannot study everything at the same time. He made this a foundational point not just of his sciences but also of his literary analysis of poems and tragedies.
Homer disregards the first nine years of the Trojan War and plunges immediately into the middle of his subject. What shapes the poem is a quarrel between two men and how such a quarrel brings suffering, death, and dishonor. What started the war in the first place was a blow suffered by the Greeks to their pride—the abduction of the beautiful Helen by Paris of Troy. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, is compelled to return one of his captive slave girls to her begging father (a priest of the god Apollo). Think pride.
The Greek commander deals with this humiliation by seizing Achilles’s slave girl. Achilles becomes furious at being made “a nobody.” He not only loses face; more important, he doesn’t want to be a nobody. Achilles wants meaning in his life. And for him, meaning comes by way of recognition from others for his godlike qualities. He is desperate for this recognition.
Achilles decides not to fight with his fellow Greeks (something they desperately need because they are losing the war, and Achilles is an unparalleled warrior). Achilles may be a hero–warrior with anger, but in his fear of being a nobody, a mere mortal, he manages to inflict pain on his own community. There is conflict between the individual and his community. I learned all this in elementary Greek school. There I also learned that the true hero of the Iliad is not really Achilles but Hector, a most sympathetic man with nobility tied directly to his family. Unlike Achilles, Hector is not preoccupied with divinity and immortality.
Holway offers a reworking of the understanding of Achilles as a hero based on a revised reading. He uses ideas first proposed by Freud and Bowlby. His concern in this study is the emotional abuse of children by their caregivers. He understands Achilles’s anger as a defense mechanism. The hero of the Iliad has unconsciously redirected early emotional trauma. It is redirected into hero-seeking behavior. It is internal, repressed narcissistic rage that has deadly behavioral consequences.
Holway takes the childhood story of Achilles and builds a case against heroic psychology. At bottom, he argues that the epic poem is about denial: individual and collective denial of abusive and traumatic features of a mother–son relationship. Through a cathartic story we get a purging of original anger at devaluating parents. It’s about poor and destructive child rearing. Family psychology, father–son psychology, and mother–son psychology all become greater than the sum of their parts to produce a culture of the heroic. Complex dynamics are framed into well-worn oedipal or simplistic attachment theories. Our hero Achilles is subject to what might be called a clinical analysis of defenses.
Moreover, Holway examines Achilles’s selective inattention to his mother’s desires, her misuse of him, and her agenda to satisfy her needs as opposed to his childhood needs. This means that Achilles grows up heeding his mother’s needs and not his own true self. Both mother Themis [sic] and son Achilles have to uphold the false image of self as superior. Achilles is also, and this is the deadly aspect of it all, a hero–son who serves maternal revenge: pretty typical dysfunctional family dynamics, if you ask me.
Holway’s generally stiff language suggests that this work began life as a dissertation. Although he delivers a promistted Freudian analysis, albeit not contemporary Freudian, it is misleading to think that attachment theory is here used to enhance our understanding of the plight of Achilles. Although attachment theory and research have received remarkable attention in psychology and in the last 20 or so years in psychoanalysis, Holway does not make use of the theory’s main features: namely, its protean paradigm, the centrality of the need to relate, learned adaptations to the real world of family, concepts of critical periods, the child’s capacity for self-regulation as built on an experience of being regulated by the mother, felt security, and that maturation and experience interact.
Although Holway claims attachment trauma, he does not really specify it. Rather, he identifies Gregory Bateson’s ideas of pathogenic families and Nancy Chodorow’s ideas of gender arrangements as his foundation for understanding ancient Greek mothering and relations with hero–sons. These conceptual readings feel retro and thin.
Last, my bias as a clinician interested in how people change has me wondering why Holway does not address the ways Achilles moves from untamed aggression and the need for absolute uniqueness to a capacity to acknowledge the existence of the other. We know that the Iliad left a decisive mark on Greek tragedy via its profound humanity, which experiences suffering as suffering and death as death, even if they strike the enemy (Kaufmann, 1979).
This humanity is at the very center of the Greek contribution to civilization. It is its main achievement. Warriors on all sides have mothers and fathers, and many have wives and children. After Achilles kills Hector and Hector’s father, Priam, asks Achilles for his son’s body, Achilles can see his own grieving father. Achilles and Priam mourn together over the loss that defines us as human. Afterward, they eat together and sleep in the same hut. Thus Achilles’s wrath transforms into the recognition of human values. True, this transformation may have developed against a background of violence and death. Also true, Achilles’s mother may have been a humiliated daughter herself, wishing to raise a superior son who would offer proof of her own divine worth.
But when Holway ignores the shift from Achilles’s narcissistically wounded self to a new spirit of relatedness, we miss an opportunity to understand how intergenerational trauma is creatively transformed. We are involved with Achilles, I believe, because we identify with his change from narcissism to relatedness. It’s something we wish for our own self—an empathic relational sensibility: not a bad reminder from a 3,000-year-old fictional character.
- Eco, U. (2011). Confessions of a young novelist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674060876
- Kaufmann, W. (1979). Tragedy and philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Orfanos, S. D. (2011). Voyaging the relational sea change [Foreword]. In L. Aron & A. Harris (Eds.), Relational psychoanalysis: Vol. 5. Evolution of process (pp. xix–xxxiv). New York, NY: Routledge.
- Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 65, 98–109. doi:10.1037/a0018378
I am grateful to the editor of PsycCRITIQUES for having the book reviewed and to the reviewer for a careful reading and passionate critique—about which I raise some questions below.
- A bad reminder from a 3,000-year-old fictional character. It is helpful to distinguish subject matter (bad stuff, admittedly) from import. Knowledge of how harmful things work—at the level of the individual and, in this case, of culture—can illuminate and liberate. Isn’t that what psychology is all about?
- Achilles may be a hero–warrior with anger, but in his fear of being a nobody, a mere mortal, he manages to inflict pain on his own community. There is conflict between the individual and his community. I learned all this in elementary Greek school. Did they also teach that this common, culturally useful but psychologically and even politically destructive fear—based on the equation of mere mortality with nonentity—was the result of culturally distinctive forms of sacrificial parenting, for which the Iliad and its myths scapegoat Agamemnon, as a child-sacrificing father and people-devouring king?
- It is misleading to think that attachment theory is here used to enhance our understanding of the plight of Achilles. I highlight incredibly precise correspondences between key aspects current attachment theory and research and the Iliad and its myths. Perhaps most illuminating are attachment theory’s insights about children’s “divided working models” of their relationships with exploitative parents. I do this with the advice and assistance of current attachment researchers whom I cite in the notes and thank in the acknowledgments. Perhaps what we have here is a difference of opinion about what features of attachment theory are most illuminating for the Iliad.
- Although Holway claims attachment trauma, he does not really specify it. “Totally dependent on the mother, without a sense of himself and his value apart from her, the son is utterly devastated by her rejection of him as a care-seeking child. Instead of a loving and beloved child, he experiences himself as worthless, hateful. A mother’s hostile response to her child violates fundamental norms. It also betrays trust, compounding trauma. Abuse by an acquaintance or stranger causes far less dissociation and ‘information blockage.’” (p. 43) “The divine mother’s devaluations of her actual mortal son and his (until then) admired mortal father are the one-two punch that dissociates the son from his mortal self and paternal model. If catharsis requires that the Iliad reenact in disguised form the primary trauma at the root of the hero-son’s character, might it also involve an enactment of its complement?” (p. 118)
- Rather, he identifies Gregory Bateson’s ideas of pathogenic families and Nancy Chodorow’s ideas of gender arrangements as his foundation for understanding ancient Greek mothering and relations with hero–sons. These conceptual readings feel retro and thin. I mine a vein of ongoing experimental psychological research, the roots of which I trace to Ainsworth and Bowlby, who in turn acknowledged Bateson’s influence, but that’s because the Iliad and its myths fit incredibly well with this particular strand of research and the theoretical insights it continues to spawn. (I also trace lines of influence from Bateson and early family psychologists to contemporary attachment researchers on the one hand, and to Chodorow’s mentor, Philip Slater, who wrote The Glory of Hera, on the other.) That said, there is something retro about my book. I can’t deny it.
- Holway examines Achilles’s selective inattention to his mother’s desires, her misuse of him, and her agenda to satisfy her needs as opposed to his childhood needs. This means that Achilles grows up heeding his mother’s needs and not his own true self. Both mother Themis [sic] and son Achilles have to uphold the false image of self as superior. Achilles is also, and this is the deadly aspect of it all, a hero–son who serves maternal revenge: pretty typical dysfunctional family dynamics, if you ask me. I’m glad the reviewer was persuaded that these dysfunctional family dynamics apply to Thetis and Achilles and are “pretty typical” for the Iliad’s cultural milieu. This is in large part the book’s argument—which contradicts understandings promoted by the Iliad and its myths and revises predominant scholarly views on these topics.
- For Achilles meaning comes by way of recognition from others for his godlike qualities. He is desperate for this recognition. Does it matter whether the godlike qualities for which he desperately wants recognition are components of a false self-construct of invincibility based on disavowing his human qualities—defined from an attachment perspective?
- Achilles’s wrath transforms into the recognition of human values. True, this transformation may have developed against a background of violence and death. Also true, Achilles’s mother may have been a humiliated daughter herself, wishing to raise a superior son who would offer proof of her own divine worth. But when Holway ignores the shift from Achilles’s narcissistically wounded self to a new spirit of relatedness, we miss an opportunity to understand how intergenerational trauma is creatively transformed. Here we need to distinguish ignoring from challenging. The question of the Iliad’s cultural legacy, in particular the relationship between Achilles’ humanity what we count as humanity, is indeed crucial, and attachment theory is particularly helpful in addressing it. For it is precisely the shame of spurned care-seeking—which, in the heroic culture of the Iliad, is associated with with frighteningly weak and shameful mortality—that heroic striving is meant to surmount. It matters that Achilles’ humanity can only emerge in the context of particular deaths, for which he is responsible: of alter egos in whom Achilles has invested his (to him and his mother) shameful humanity—and his final relinquishment of any prospect of actually living a self- and mother-shaming human life. Achilles’ empathy with the grieving father of the enemy he killed is remarkable. It is also wholly consistent with, indeed predicated on, the success of Achilles’ lifelong quest to root out and eradicate the humanity that threatens his status as his mother’s categorically superior son.