These were the first stories I ever heard. I was four years old, and my young uncle was practicing his Greek on me. He read me the Iliad and the Odyssey, translating as he went. The unknown words poured over me like dark music, and when he turned to English it was always a let down. I was very glad to hear what was happening, and wanted to know what happened next—but still there seemed to be something missing, the golden hero voices, sea whispers [poluphloisboio thallashs], spear shock. I had been bitten by poetry in the dark, and didn’t know it. …
These Greek myths are *drenched in sunlight, and this sunlight is more than weather; it is a moral quality.* Heroes love to cavort in the open air, to fly, to cleave the burning sea, race on the hills, hunt over the fields. Where the Gorgons live it is always winter. Cerberus, the three-headed dog, guards the gate of dark Tartarus, the land of the dead. Scylla and Echidne, the dreaded serpent-women, lurk in a sea-cave waiting to swallow the tides, make shipwrecks, catch sailors and crack their bones. The Minotaur howls in a maze of shadows. The monsters wait in the darkness, and when heroes hunt them, they must come out in the sun, and the ordeal starts right there.
—Bernard [Evslin, Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths, Laurel Leaf Publishing, 1984]
A friend of mine sent me a message the other day, and I was about to reply to him, when it occurred to me that the conversation would be better suited in this forum. The two quotations above are from his message. I will quote the other parts of his message, which are well worth reading, but the reader may look for my reply if he or she is pressed for time.
I copied this out of the intro to a Greek Myths book that I was looking at at the book store the other day (I *starred* phrases or sentences that seemed well said or thought provoking and added in Greek words where I thought it v-likely that the author had them in the back of his mind as he wrote; I imagine [there] are others–perhaps a Greek phrase is behind that “spear shock” too). The passage made me think of you. (Also, […]. Also, what do you have against psychoanalysis??)
In Greek mythology heroes and monsters alike are spawned by the gods. The Gorgons, those snake-haired horrors, are grand-daughters of Rhea, mother of Zeus, which makes them cousins of their arch-enemy [nemesis], Perseus. In other words, both good and evil come from the gods. *Good is the divine enemy expressing itself through men of high deeds.* *Evil is the same energy,* twisted. When a hero confronts a monster in these myths it is apt to be *a family quarrel.* …
The birth of the monster is attended by rage, and this is what makes him monstrous, the wrath of a god—or, more often, a goddess—carving a dangerous, ugly form for itself out of living flesh.
I especially like “good is the divine enemy.”
Per psychoanalysis: Why can’t projections, drives and fixations have moral and personal valences? Eros, for instance, may indeed be more than moral, more than personal, yet Eros is, in every instance of Its appearance, morally and personally significant in profound ways. I see no reason for a psychoanalyst to leave moral and personal concerns out of his analysis. Nor for us to leave the psychoanalytic method [out] of our discussion of heroes.
A Reply Needs a Form
Oh, Evslin’s introduction is brilliant! I believe that he understands Greek myth. I could summarize what he says, but I would just repeat his words, and the reader may skim at a whim those starred phrases.
What do I have against psychoanalysis? In order to form a reply, allow me that to look at one of Evslin’s phrases and psychoanalysis from one another’s view. I will quiet any protestations to this formation by recalling the fact that the psychoanalytic school has always viewed itself in line with myths and laid claim to them to explain itself. Oedipus, Electra, and Narcissus, for example, name complexes.
Drenched in Sunlight
“These Greek myths are drenched in sunlight, and this sunlight is more than weather; it is a moral quality.”
A brilliant line. Evslin compares the myths first to sunlight, then to morality, but I believe that his line could refer just much to the heroes in the myths. The heroes are first of all natural. Much like the wind, no one knows where they come from or where they go, so to speak, but anyone will know when they are here. Being god-born, as they are, makes them in a certain way more natural, not less.
The heroes are moral in the second place. They perform their mighty deeds on the same trajectory on which they were set by their birth. They cavort, fly, cleave, race, and hunt, as Evslin says, in the air, sea, hills, and fields. Their morality, such as it is, is the splendor of their godlike strength, their beauty, and the graceful, awesome disposal of that strength upon the earth when they strive against monsters or other heroes.
But the heroes do not direct themselves to dispose their strength in this way. They are not given over to themselves, as persons are. One might say that they are directed by the gods, or one might equally say that they are directed by the divine blood that surges through their bodies. In a cosmic view, the heroes are given over to the world by the gods in order to make great changes in it. In a psychological view, they are given over by I know not what to the rushing forces within themselves.
Either way, they do not direct themselves toward good actions so much as they are directed to them. They are not given over to themselves, and so, as glorious as they are, they seem incapable of what I take to be morality in the primary sense.
A Concession Regarding Achilles
Achilles is so remarkable because, as Homer puts it early in the Iliad, he “ponders both ways in his shaggy heart” (1.188-192). Achilles is forced into a hard place by the conflicting angles of his dual destiny, to have a short life of great glory or a long life with little, and so when Agamemnon takes his war-prize, Briseis, “the bride of his (Achilles’) heart” (9.336), he ponders whether to strike out at Agamemnon or to check the inward spleen.
Achilles almost seems given over to himself—rather like Heracles, I should say, who at the beginning of his labors stood at the crossroads between the path of ease and the path of ardor and took the latter. Achilles and Heracles seem positioned to direct themselves down the path that they take—that is, I suppose, positioned to make choices not just about means but about ends—but I cannot think of them taking the course that they do except like water in a brook that will spill and splash into the lower of two rocky places.
Homer later places Odysseus in a similar position, I might add. Odysseus would seem to be a point of contrast for Achilles, but he saves Odysseus from the semblance of making a choice by a turn in the plot, and so the contrast between them seems slight to me by the end. The same necessity drives both heroes. Homer says that, because it was not Odysseus’ destiny to slay Sarpedon, Athena steered his anger toward the Lykians (5.668-676). Achilles may have had a dual destiny, but in my interpretation even his steps toward the path of longevity, regarding Briseis and Patroclus, took him further down the path of glory.
Spawned by the Gods
I feel that I must make a detour. Early modernity, so fixated on the literal, explained the gods as projections of human nature. I might give my consent, if early modernity would agree that “projection” is a figure. The heroes, if not projections of themselves, were said to be historical personages whose legends were stretched and stretched again by inflation—which seems to me like more projection—until they reached mythical, godlike dimensions themselves.
At their core, the mythical heroes in my view are the same in their stories as outside of them. That core is the expansion of the human spirit in nature. When the open air invites one to cavort, or when the burning seas, hills, or fields put in one the desire to cleave, race and hunt, then one knows the expansion that I mean. It is the upwelling of nature in a human being that releases itself in beauteous, and sometimes ugly, actions. To call the heroes “high-hearted,” as Homer does, is to know that their hearts are always welling up with forces, as if from some hidden spring or god.
The heroes act in just that way in their stories, as agents whose actions flow from their high hearts, and they are formed outside of them in just that way, I believe, that is, from the high-heartedness in the poets who formed them, along with other elements, or rather the high-heartedness that fills the poets’ imaginations.
Early modernity may call the formation of these heroes projection, but I believe that the heroes are first of all creations, not projections. After they are created, then they may be viewed as projections by omitting from view the creative process.
Here, I have occasion to mention an argument that I have had with other friends about whether the makers of myths were inspired by the gods and whether their belief that they were so inspired makes their creation something at its core different than artistic creation. I say that making myths and creating fictions share a common core. My friends argue the contrary.
Setting that argument aside, once the myths have been made, then they can be seen as projections, or as one might say, prints or print-collages made from the various stamps in human beings and in the nature outside of them.
Waiting in Darkness
If I may conjecture, I would say that the psychoanalytic school shows such a proclivity toward myths just because they bespeak forces within a person that are below the level of the person—they are nature arising out of itself—but out of which may come actions. The basic concept of the psychoanalytic method, as I understand it, is the self at mercy of forces within itself but below the self. Also, myths prove rich in metaphor, which may also draw the school’s proclivity, but I have less to say about that.
Carl Jung differs from Sigmund Freud, of course, and from whatever other stand-out theorists there are in the school, but so far as I know they share the basic concept. That is what I have against the school.
On the one hand, indeed, there are forces, or shall I say, moods and urges, that arise from within the self. I name the expansion of the spirit as one, and hunger and thirst are two more, or better, the urge to possess or to disown. But one important feature of these moods and urges, which human beings do have, is that they well up within the self, however quickly or slowly, and may be acted upon or not acted upon and either sated or recede, as they are, or understood anew and satisfied according to that new understanding. Some, like Eros, are drenched in sunlight. Not all are, but the ones that are not may be contested. They may be hunted and come into the sun. The ordeal may come to an end.
On the other hand, the forces that psychoanalytic theory speaks of all have a dark quality. The urge for pleasure, the urge for power, or some other urge, they are born in rage and wait in darkness. They yearn for satisfaction, but they are not sated by any one of the actions that are taken on their behalf, or not for long, and they do not seem to recede as they are. They can be hunted, but they do not come into the light, except the light of recognition. They cannot be contested, except without victory. An ordeal with them does not come to an end.
It makes no difference to the urges, so to speak, who or what sates them, so long as they are sated. The source of satiation, according to psychoanalytic theory, matters only to social convention, which has rendered certain actions taboo. In psychoanalysis, so far as I can see, there is no morality but social convention, and no happiness but bodily pleasure.
The concept of sublimation, to my mind, is a concession, first, to the fact that not every action seems to flow from such urges, and second, to the desire that there should be some vent for them within social conventions. The urges may be said to be transformed—I do not assert that the school ever speaks of transformation, only sublimation—but they remain the same in substance and differ only in figure, rather like a god who assumes a mortal guise.
Some human beings may have the urges that psychoanalytic theory speaks of, but only damaged souls, I should think, damaged either by others or by themselves. This is the great insight of the psychoanalytic theory, in my opinion, but also its great flaw: the vision of a soul at the mercy of itself, that is, of the urges that arise within it, burning, insatiable, and unable to be cloven from the soul, only recognized, contested, perhaps temporarily appeased, and sublimated.
Until the damage is healed. So long as psychoanalytic theory is the only vision had of the soul, I say, the damage will not be healed. The monsters of the id will be unconquerable; the superego will be forces from above; and the ego will be the self’s negotiation of its own self as a compromise of the terms offered by two intractable parties.
A Remark or Two on the Reply
I do not intend to write a screed against psychoanalysis, I want to insist, and I do not understand myself to have done so. I have stated what I have against psychoanalysis, based on what I know of it, and if I have said anything unjust, I said it in ignorance. I welcome those who know better than myself or just take a different view of psychoanalysis to teach me why what I have said is unjust or what other view of it can be taken.
Also, for my friend himself, I would like to stress that I did not leave psychoanalytic theory entirely out of my discussion of heroes, that is to say, superheroes. Nor do I have any objection, at the moment, to including it in any future discussion. I do believe, however, that I said everything that I have to say about it and that anything more that I say will only be further explication. I did leave aside economic and political forms of “the theory”—the theory that a superhero’s universe unendingly vacillates between order and disorder—but these forms seem less psychological, even if they derive from psychoanalytic theory in some way, as I asserted that they do, and so I considered them less pertinent to the topic.