Homer

Review by Hans van Wees

University College
London

Achilles in Vietnam. Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by Jonathan Shay. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995. Pp. xxiii + 246. pb ISBN: 0-684-81321-1

Homer. His Art and His World by Joachim Latacz; translated by James P. Holoka. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1996. Pp. xi + 175. hb ISBN: 0-472-10657-0

The anger of Akhilleus has previously been diagnosed as a childish temper tantrum, as an expression of nihilistic despair, and as any number of things in between, but there is always room for one more theory. Here are two : it may be the suppressed wrath of a visionary youth destined to achieve greatness but `hindered on his course by a mediocre official', as Joachim Latacz believes (p. 104), or it may be the indignant rage symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) displayed also by Vietnam veterans, as Jonathan Shay argues. I never knew there were so many different kinds of anger.

Both scholars present studies that are often insightful and already highly successful. The paperback of Shay's Achilles in Vietnam is littered with extracts from rave reviews of the hardback, while the very fact that, after Italian and Dutch translations of the German original (1985), an updated English version has now appeared is a measure of the popularity of Latacz's Homer. Both studies, moreover, have in common a concern with the universals of human experience. `My claim throughout this book', says Shay, `is that the Iliad can be legitimately read as a text concerning the human experience of combat' (p. 97), and Latacz, noting optimistically that `not much more than eighty generations' have passed between Homer and ourselves, announces that `each reader will discover for herself or himself what is immutable in human thoughts, values, and aspirations' (p. 21). The quest for universals may well be one of the keys to the success of these books, but as a historian I am bound to protest that it is also their major weakness, which tends to lead to questionable interpretations. Far more fundamental change has taken place in the course of eighty generations than either author allows.

Shay, a psychiatrist whose interest in Homer is secondary to his interest in understanding and healing the veterans traumatised by combat with whom he works, is in some ways rather more successful than Latacz, a renowned Homerist, in casting light on the epics. Latacz shares with many classicists a desire to emphasise and modernise the poet's creative genius : he seems to think, firstly, that none of Homer's predecessors and rivals were capable of any depth or complexity in their compositions, and secondly, that inside the poet's own action-packed poems a couple of psychological novels are trying to get out. Hence his suggestion that Akhilleus used to be portrayed as a `hulking' and `naive ... young hothead' until transformed by Homer into a brilliantly perceptive youth who clashes with his commander as result of `the extreme incompatibility of the two personalities' (pp. 97-8, 101, 104). Hence also his claim that the Odyssey had always been `told in an exemplary and comforting manner' (p. 136), until Homer turned it into a complex account of the hero's `psychological rehabilitation' (p. 145), since he was `not interested in the external, superficial aspects of the struggle' between Odysseus and the suitors, but `captivated by the question of what it meant psychologically to have to "win" one's wife again' (p. 139, emphasis original). There is, of course, no evidence for earlier epic poets' interpretations of these legends, and I can see very little textual support for the modern literary motifs of `searching for one's identity' and `dealing with relationships' here spotted lurking deep below the surface of Iliad and Odyssey. These poems reflect instead the concerns of a culture different from our own : they subtly explore the intricacies of the practice, psychology, and ethics of respect and hybris, anger and pity, self-control and excess. This is how the poet presents them, and for all we know this is what audiences had long come to expect from their bards.

A historical perspective on ancient texts does not detract anything from their literary value, but does aid the modern reader's understanding. The same is often true of the kind of comparative perspective provided by Shay, who looks at the Iliad with an in-depth, if second-hand, knowledge of the experience of living in an army and engaging in armed combat. The testimonies of Vietnam veterans throw up some striking parallels, from the feeling of guilt as well as grief at the death of a comrade, and the surprisingly high valuation of `gentleness' in a fellow-soldier (p. 44-9), to the amazing parallels between the unsympathetic image of the gods in Homer and the picture of higher military officials, or REMFs (`rear-echelon motherfuckers'), in the mind of the American soldier (pp. 149-161). Shay realises that there are differences, too, and points out some of these, but a certain lack of historical awareness nevertheless does lead to misunderstandings.

Thus, he uses the story of Akhilleus as a model instance of the nature and causes of going berserk, regardless of the fact that both Akhilleus' cultural background and his experience of combat differ significantly from that of any American veteran. The `betrayal of the moral order by a commander', which he sees as a key to the berserk state, is much less devastating in the case of Akhilleus, who suffers a personal insult in a competitive society where men are expected to compete for respect, violently if necessary, than it is in the modern instances cited, where a commander humiliates or otherwise betrays a soldier whose training has led him to put complete trust in the competence and morality of his superiors (pp. 3-21). Again, life in the combat zone is much less harrowing for Homer's heroes than it was for the soldier in Vietnam. Shay is right in saying that the epic picture of battle is sanitised to a degree, but when he asks `where are thirst, hunger, lack of sleep, ... an inability to wash the body, pants sticky and reeking from dysentery' (p. 121), or regards it as `suspicious' that no-one dies in `friendly fire' (p. 125), it must be said that the relatively desultory nature of fighting, and the fact that it takes place largely in face-to-face confrontation in open order, means that such problems barely occur. Presumably as a result of the lower intensity of the moral and physical stress suffered by Akhilleus, his `berserk' episode, when it is finally triggered by the death of his friend, is not nearly as extreme as those which occurred in Vietnam. For example, American berserkers apparently often felt invincible and threw off their helmets and flakjackets (pp. 97), but Akhilleus, for all his fury, is afraid of being hurt even when he is wearing his impenetrable armour, and he pointedly refuses to enter battle without it (XX.261-3; XVIII.188).

Most significantly, Akhilleus suffers no `disorder' afterwards, and needs no psychiatric treatment. His anger may seem excessive to some of his fellows, but when it is properly appeased, he becomes, as he was, civility itself. Shay's veterans, on the other hand, find that the experience of going berserk alters their characters essentially, and they may for years be unable to live even a semblance of normal life. This is hardly a matter of mere `dramatic compression' (p. 94-5) or sanitization on Homer's part, but a sign that the experiences of American soldiers differ fundamentally from those of the heroes.

Among the virtues of both Latacz's and Shay's books is their provocative quality, of which this review is proof in black and white. In addition to the topics singled out for discussion above, Latacz's Homer deals in detail with the poet's background, in a chapter which has much to admire as well as a good deal to disagree with, while the bulk of his book is devoted to a minute and perceptive investigation of the narrative strategies employed by the poet in developing his stories, and does a particularly fine job of deconstructing Iliad I in this manner. As for Shay's Achilles in Vietnam, whatever my disagreements with its comparative conclusions, it is a fascinating and important study of experiences of combat, which offers what is surely an acute analysis of the causes of PTSD, along with sound recommendations on how to deal with it. Apart from anything else, Shay presents a range of heartbreaking and appalling stories, told in the veterans' own words, which in themselves make the book worth every penny. The frequency with which I have already quoted Shay at length in my own work on warrior mentality in Homer is the best indication I can give of my admiration for his book: in the academic world, after all, quotation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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