Agamemnon, king of kings, led the Greek city-states in their war against Troy. Early in the conflict, Agamemnon took a slave-girl, Briseis, from the best Greek warrior, Achilles. Achilles, in high dudgeon, retired to his tent, and refused to participate in the battle. The wrath of Achilles is one of the main themes of Homer’s Iliad.
Agamemnon eventually realized that he shouldn’t have taken Briseis from Achilles. Agamemnon apologizes, and blames his misdeed on ate, “divine temptation or infatuation.”1 Throughout Homer’s works, all sorts of mistakes and misdeeds are blamed on the gods, blamed on divine temptation or infatuation.
Did the Greeks really believe that the gods put bad moods and bad ideas into them? Or is this just a verbal habit, as someone today might say “God only knows” or “God help me,” even if he’s an atheist? In his book The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds argues that we shouldn’t overlook the role of “divine temptation and infatuation” in Homer’s works. Dodds says that, even if references to Zeus and ate are a verbal habit, the habit must have an origin, it must be rooted in history.
Invoking the gods isn’t just a Greek habit, it’s found among primitive men in general. Primitive men don’t have terms like “unconscious” and “archetype,” so they speak of Zeus and ate instead. Perhaps Dodds’ argument throws light, not just on Greek culture, but also on primitive culture in general, and on primitive religion. Glen Bowersock said of Dodds, “His great book The Greeks and the Irrational is, without question, one of the masterpieces of classical learning in the twentieth century.”
Dodds calls attention to how Homer’s heroes bring in the gods on all occasions. Homer was long considered an irreligious writer. Gilbert Murray, for example, said that Homer’s religion “was not really religion at all.”2 And Maurice Bowra said that Homer’s gods have “no relation to real religion or to morality. These gods are a delightful, gay invention of poets.”3 Is it possible that Homer is a religious writer, but it’s not the kind of religion that we’re accustomed to? Does Dodds’ argument force us to re-think our conception of religion?
In Homer’s poems, the gods don’t always prompt us to make mistakes; the gods are the source of our good deeds as well as our misdeeds. Dodds speaks of, “the repeated claim that minstrels derive their creative power from God.” The poet “relies on the hexameter phrases welling up spontaneously as he needs them out of some unknown and uncontrollable depth; he sings ‘out of the gods,’ as the best minstrels always do.”4
Today we would say that the creative artist expresses his unconscious; there’s an obvious parallel between the gods and the unconscious. In Homer’s poems, if someone “remembers what he might well have forgotten or forgets what he should have remembered,” it’s ascribed to the gods or to ate. Today we would say that the unconscious often determines what we remember and what we forget.
In Homer’s poems, not only minstrels, but also warriors, derive their power from the gods. As ate is divine temptation or infatuation, so menos is the power/energy/confidence that the warrior receives from the gods, often as a result of praying for it. Menos is “spontaneous and instinctive.” As a bad mood or bad idea seems to come from outside us, so menos seems to come from outside us. Menos is
|the vital energy, the ‘spunk,’ which is not always there at call.... Men in a condition of divinely heightened menos behave to some extent abnormally. They can perform the most difficult feats with ease; that is a traditional mark of divine power.|
In Homer’s world, the warrior or athlete needs divine help, divine inspiration; war and sport are part of religion. If the Greeks saw a great athletic performance, they ascribed it to a supernatural force. We call this force the unconscious; today, if a basketball player makes ten shots in a row, we say “he’s unconscious.”
So Homer’s heroes ascribe an outstanding performance to menos, a big blunder to ate, and various things to a daemon. Primitive man acts in a similar way, ascribing feelings and events to supernatural forces. Dodds says that, over the course of time, the Greeks introduced specific gods — Zeus, Hera, Athena, etc. — to replace or supplement impersonal, supernatural forces. Gods like Zeus, Hera, and Athena replaced or supplemented impersonal forces like menos, ate, and daemon.
Homer’s poems mention both impersonal forces and specific gods. Sometimes a Homeric hero ascribes an event to an impersonal force because he doesn’t know which god caused it. Sometimes Homer ascribes an event to a specific god because he wants to make his narrative more personal, more lively, more visual. For example, “Athena plucks Achilles by the hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon.” This is more vivid than Achilles receiving advice from his daemon. Athena is a “pictorial expression” of Achilles’ daemon, a projection of Achilles’ unconscious, hence she’s only visible to Achilles, the other characters don’t see her. Athena and other gods are personifications of supernatural forces, unconscious drives.
So there’s a 3-step sequence:
As Dodds puts it, “the inward monition, or the sudden unaccountable feeling of power, or the sudden unaccountable loss of judgement, is the germ out of which the divine machinery developed.”5
Dodds’ argument resembles the argument of William James and Carl Jung: religion is about inner feeling, unconscious feeling, feeling that comes from outside our conscious self. Religion isn’t an intellectual superstructure, it’s a personal feeling. Dodds uses a quote from William James as the epigraph of his first chapter. James said that he’s
|bent on rehabilitating the element of feeling in religion and subordinating its intellectual part. Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done. Compared with this world of living individualized feelings, the world of generalized objects which the intellect contemplates is without solidity or life.6|
Homer’s heroes ascribe everything to the gods, and nothing to chance. Dodds says, “For Homer, as for early thought in general, there is no such thing as accident.”7 In my view, to downplay chance is primitive and also profound; I’ve often praised the profundity of primitive thought. The primitive is adept at catching “real fact,” while we’re carried away from reality by rational thinking.
Jung downplays chance with his theory of synchronicity, his theory of “meaningful coincidence.” I’ve argued that Darwin’s theory emphasizes chance, random mutation, and I’ve argued that this is a weakness in Darwin’s theory. If we look for connections/synchronicities, instead of ascribing things to chance, we can “catch real fact in the making.”8
So Dodds argues that, while Homer’s poems are often called irreligious, they actually depict people who have a “constant daily dependence on the supernatural.” Homer’s world is replete with religion, but since it’s not the religion we’re familiar with, we don’t recognize it as religion.
I recently saw the new Hemingway documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It’s an excellent documentary, long (six hours) but never dull. My only complaint is that it lacks “spoiler warnings,” it reveals the plots of Hemingway’s works. The documentary inspired me to read some Hemingway stories.
This story deals with a question that has been present in literature since ancient times, but acquired a new urgency in Hemingway’s time: What does it all mean? Does life have any meaning or value? Or is it just a long sequence of the sun rising, and the sun setting?
The story was published in 1933. The setting is a Montana hospital. “The story ‘evidently grew out of Hemingway’s hospitalization in Billings, Montana, following an automobile accident in November 1930.’”9 The protagonist, Frazer, is a writer who seems to represent Hemingway.
Frazer may feel the hopelessness of The Depression, but he doesn’t long for revolution, he isn’t captivated by Communism or Fascism. Revolution is ecstasy, Frazer thinks, but it can’t last, it can’t fill up the 24 hours of the day, it “can only be prolonged by tyranny.” Frazer thinks, “a belief in any new form of government [is] an opium of the people.... What you wanted was the minimum of government, always less government.”
Frazer is weary of life. “Mr. Frazer had been through all this before.” But Frazer finds some relief in a radio, turned very low, which he listens to all night. “Living... requires the aid of opiates.”10 The story depicts several kinds of opiate: Liquor, gambling, music, religion, radio, etc.
In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway wrote, “Always another day starting and then another night.”11 This attitude was widespread in Hemingway’s time. Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up, “No choice, no road, no hope — only the endless repetition of the sordid and the semi-tragic.”12 Beckett said of the world, “It has gone on long enough.”
Edward Stone argues that even one of Hemingway’s upbeat stories like “Big Two-Hearted River” can be viewed in terms of the “nada-concept.”13 Nada, nothing, meaninglessness. There’s a certain nihilism in Hemingway’s world, even when the sun is shining and the fish are biting.
Hemingway’s generation struggled to find meaning/value. It’s easier for our generation to find meaning/value because we start with lower expectations, we start from zero, we start from Hemingway’s nada. Every sunrise is a bonus.
In “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” Cayetano Ruiz, the gambler, has some traits of the Hemingway hero. He endures intense pain in silence, he controls himself. He becomes paralyzed in one leg but still has laughing eyes.14
“Fifty Grand” features a boxer who is a typical Hemingway hero: aging, experienced, understated, able to master intense pain and keep going. His opponent is a younger boxer who appeals to the crowd, who seeks “popularity,” whose motto is “Be yourself,” who can’t master pain but instead “rolled [on the ground] and twisted around,” who lacks grace under pressure.
The hero seems cynical, seems to care about nothing but money. But he has his pride, his code of honor: “He wanted to finish it off right to please himself. He didn’t want to be knocked out.” The hero says, “I think I can last. I don’t want this bohunk to stop me.” His motto seems to be “Control yourself,” rather than “Be yourself.”
[Spoiler Warning: If you’re thinking of reading this story, skip the next paragraph.]
His code of honor isn’t a traditional moral code, so he doesn’t scruple to bet against himself, to “fix” the fight. He’s a loser; he loses the fight on a foul, and even without the foul he would have lost. But he wins a subtle kind of victory by maintaining his self-respect, keeping the code, mastering his pain, not being knocked out.
“Fifty Grand” was published in The Atlantic in 1927, then in a short-story collection called Men Without Women. Joseph Wood Krutch described the collection as “sordid little catastrophes” involving “very vulgar people.” There is something sordid in “Fifty Grand,” but it also has something heroic. And Hemingway is certainly a master of the language of vulgar people; every word has truth and weight.
Hemingway and his generation had no faith in civilization, so they didn’t look for the heroic in the representatives of civilization — generals, statesmen, professors, and other leading figures. They looked for the heroic in the fisherman, the foot-soldier, the boxer, etc.
When Hemingway was in high school, he was tall and somewhat uncoordinated, he wasn’t very good at baseball, football, etc. But he liked boxing, and became somewhat proficient at it. When he lived in Cuba, he offered $250 to anyone who could stay in the ring with him for three minutes. He also refereed youth boxing.15
Hemingway is often called an innovator, and this may be partly true. But he can also be viewed as a follower, a follower of Joyce and other moderns. Hemingway was 17 years younger than Joyce, and he spoke highly of Joyce’s work; it was natural for him to be influenced by Joyce.
“A Way You’ll Never Be” is a story that Hemingway published in 1933. It’s an autobiographical story, a story drawn from Hemingway’s WorldWarOne experience; Hemingway was on the Italian side when Italy was fighting Austria.
Hemingway dwells on the harsh realities of war. He speaks of “rape in which the woman’s skirts are pulled over her head to smother her, one comrade sometimes sitting upon the head.” Hemingway says of helmets, “They’re absolutely no damned good.... I remember when they were a comfort when we first had them, but I’ve seen them full of brains too many times.”
When Hemingway was 18, he was wounded in the head, legs, etc. The protagonist of “A Way You’ll Never Be,” Nick Adams, has an assortment of wounds. “If you are interested in scars,” Nick says, “I can show you some very interesting ones.” Hemingway describes how Nick struggles with the effects of his wounds and his traumas. Nick has bad dreams, he can’t sleep without a light on, etc.
On the day described in the story, Nick lies down, and his mind wanders; he thinks of a dancing girl in Paris. Hemingway uses the stream-of-consciousness technique that Joyce popularized:
|And there was Gaby Delys, oddly enough, with feathers on; you called me baby doll a year ago tadada you said that I was rather nice to know tadada with feathers on, with feathers off, the great Gaby, and my name’s Harry Pilcer, too, we used to step out of the far side of the taxis when it got steep going up the hill and he could see that hill every night when he dreamed with Sacré Coeur, blown white, like a soap bubble.16|
When Hemingway is in “Joyce mode,” he aims at obscurity, not clarity. After Joyce, it seemed that obscurity was a virtue, a characteristic of serious writers.
“A Way You’ll Never Be” has little action, little plot; this is baffling to young readers, but it impresses sophisticated critics. One might say that Hemingway doesn’t try to give pleasure to the reader; this is characteristic of modern artists — painters as well as writers.
In an earlier issue, I discussed Arnold Bennett’s response to Faulkner. Bennett said that Faulkner is “difficult to read.... There is no excuse for this.... Too many young novelists seem to be actuated by a determination not to please.” Despite these objections, Bennett was a fan of Faulkner, and I think it’s possible to be a fan of Hemingway despite his occasional obscurity, despite his “determination not to please.”
On March 28, I wrote about the possibility of civil strife in the U.S., and I said that the Army might get involved. About three weeks later, on April 21, some French officers, mostly retired, said that France was coming apart, and the Army might get involved.
Some commentators dismissed the French generals as old men in slippers. But Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing party, applauded the generals’ letter. Le Pen is running neck-and-neck in the polls with Macron; the next Presidential election is in April 2022. In the last election (2017), Le Pen lost to Macron by 22%.
The New York Times spoke of France’s “ever-sharpening fractures.” Couldn’t this phrase be applied to the U.S. too? Doesn’t the U.S. have “ever-sharpening fractures”?
In France, as in the U.S., the “fractures” often involve race. Racial fractures lead to immigration arguments and street violence. Both France and the U.S. have moved, decisively and permanently, in the direction of a multi-ethnic society. Under any circumstances, it’s difficult for people to cooperate; it’s even more difficult for people of different races to cooperate. It remains to be seen whether a multi-ethnic society can function, or whether civil strife will intensify.
So France and the U.S. are both conducting an experiment with a multi-ethnic society. At the same time, both France and the U.S. are trying to function without a ruling class, without an aristocracy. In both countries, the aristocracy was the glue that held society together. It remains to be seen whether a class-less society can function, whether a society without “glue” can cohere.
Update 2022: I came across an article by Christopher Caldwell entitled “France on the Verge of Civil War: The Rise of Eric Zemmour.” Caldwell calls Zemmour a “gifted” historian. “The elegant book reviews and historical essays that Zemmour writes in Le Figaro are a model of popular intellectual history.” Zemmour also appears frequently on TV; Caldwell says that Zemmour is “the star of CNews, a conservative chain sometimes called the French Fox News.”
When Macron telephoned Zemmour, Macron said that Zemmour’s approach would lead to civil war. Zemmour responded, “If we continue to follow [your] policies we are headed for civil war in any case.” It seems that France is headed for decline, division, strife, regardless of which party is in power. And what’s true of France is probably true of the U.S. also, as Zemmour understands. “The United States, too, is at risk of civil war,” Zemmour says.
At the end of the article, Caldwell says that Zemmour is trying to persuade the French that “the only real political question before France is its survival.” Ten months ago, I wrote, “We should focus on national survival.... Biden isn’t serious about national survival.”
Biden is now proposing to spend $225 billion on child-care. Biden is giving a new significance to the phrase “nanny state.” Surely the Founders would roll over in their graves if they knew that the President wants to borrow money from China and elsewhere in order to change diapers in the U.S.
Biden is burdening the country, burdening posterity, with enormous debts. The pandemic is a dream-come-true for Democrats, it gives them an excuse to do what they’ve always wanted to do: borrow money, soak the rich, spend wildly, buy votes, etc. The more Democrats tax the rich, and tax corporations, the more the rich and corporations will leave the U.S. and go elsewhere. To borrow a phrase from Margaret Thatcher, eventually the Democrats will run out of other people’s money. Biden’s policies can be described as open borders, closed schools, and exploding debts.
I recently took a short walk in Newton, Massachusetts, starting in Houghton Garden, and going south to Chestnut Hill Mall. I had never been to this area. I often find new places within driving distance of my house. As Thoreau put it, “My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them.”
Houghton Garden has elegant landscaping; it was once a private estate. The area is full of puddingstone, also known as conglomerate; one might describe puddingstone as a rock made up of smaller rocks. It’s called “Roxbury Puddingstone,” but if you take the walk I took, you’ll wonder why it isn’t called “Newton Puddingstone.” Since this rock is characteristic of this area, when they built a monument at Gettysburg to Massachusetts soldiers, they used Roxbury Puddingstone.
Here’s a puddingstone boulder that I saw in Houghton Garden. It seems to have been flattened by the glacier on one side, the upstream side (if we think of the glacier as a stream of ice moving roughly south). The rock might be called wedge-shaped, or one might call it a roche moutonée. Note the rough, bumpy texture of the puddingstone.
Some of my favorite walks are in Concord, Thoreau’s hometown. I lived in the Concord area for five years, so I know many of the trails there, and I go back there a couple times a year. But there’s also a special pleasure in visiting places you’ve never visited. As Thoreau said, “An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon.”
After walking through Houghton Garden, I crossed the train tracks, and began walking through Hammond Pond Reservation. I came across a small cliff (see below). Again the steep side was downstream.
Finally I reached the southern end of the park, where the park meets the mall. There I found a cliff so high that it had attracted rock-climbers. Again the glacier had made its mark, again the steep side was downstream.
If my interpretation of these rocks is correct, the glacier has greatly impacted this area. Wouldn’t Thoreau have enjoyed learning about this? Isn’t it surprising that he never mentions glaciers? Agassiz, who developed the theory of ice ages, began teaching at Harvard when Thoreau was 30, so Thoreau could have heard him, met him, and walked with him. Thoreau borrowed an Agassiz volume from the library, but somehow it didn’t pique his interest.
Thoreau usually walked within a 10-mile radius of his house in Concord. This land was more walkable in Thoreau’s day than it is today. Thoreau said, “I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house.” On the other hand, we have the advantage of being able to drive or fly, so our “walking opportunities” are, in some respects, better than Thoreau’s.
Thoreau is a master of metaphor; one might say that his writings are a string of metaphors. This is characteristic of genius; as Schopenhauer said, “the freshness of the images, and the striking effect of the similes.... distinguishes the works of great minds.”17 Thoreau says that “a beautiful thin sack is woven around” pine seeds, and he compares this sack to the sack used by the government to send seeds through the mail. He compares the route of his walk to a parabola, and his house to the sun: “The outline which would bound my walks would be, not a circle, but a parabola, or rather like one of those cometary orbits... in which my house occupies the place of the sun.” He compares his walks to the west with the western migration of humanity as a whole, and he compares his “migratory instinct” to the instinct of squirrels, “impelling them to a general and mysterious movement, in which they were seen, say some, crossing the broadest rivers, each on its particular chip [of wood], with its tail raised for a sail.”
When Thoreau set out for a walk, he had difficulty deciding where to go. “What is it,” he wondered, “that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk?” I have the same difficulty. Sometimes I change my mind after I’ve started driving.
Recently I set out for Cape Cod’s “Great Beach,” then changed plans, and stopped in Fairhaven. I cycled along the Phoenix Rail Trail from Fairhaven to Mattapoisett, then made my way to the tip of Angelica Point, where I’d never been before. A rocky shore, like the shore of Angelica Point, is a good place to observe rocks. In the woods, rocks are often obscured by lichen, but on the shore, they’re easy to see. From the end of the point, I could see Cape Cod, both CapeCod bridges, the Elizabeth Islands, etc. I also saw two bird species I’d never seen before, the Godwit and the Oystercatcher. Surely Thoreau would have considered this a good day.
|1.||See E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Ch. 1, “Agamemnon’s Apology,” p. 2
Know, angry Jove, and all-compelling Fate,
|2.||Dodds, p. 2. The Greeks and the Irrational was originally a series of lectures delivered at Berkeley in 1949. These lectures are delivered annually, and known as the Sather Lectures.
Dodds entered Oxford in 1912 at age 19. Oxford’s Regius Professor of Greek was then Gilbert Murray (Murray had assumed that post in 1908). When Murray retired, he recommended Dodds for his position, and Dodds was chosen. Dodds dedicated The Greeks and the Irrational to Murray, calling him tropheia, which we can translate as nourisher, educator. Dodds also contributed to a festschrift for Murray, a book called Greek Poetry and Life.
Tropheia should not be connected to the English word “trophy.” Trophy has a different root, trophy comes from tropaion. Both tropheia and tropaion have come into biology. Tropheia is related to words like “autotroph” (self-feeding), and tropaion is related to words like “heliotrope” (turning toward the sun). A tropaion or trophy was erected at the place where the enemy turned and fled. back
|3.||Dodds, p. 2. I’m reminded of the view that Shakespeare doesn’t have a real philosophy. I rejected that view, I argued that Shakespeare sets forth a Hermetic philosophy, a philosophy that emphasizes the connectedness of the world.
One reason we fail to see the religion in Homer is that we associate religion with the feeling of guilt, and we don’t find that feeling in Homer. Homer depicts a “shame culture,” not a “guilt culture.” As Dodds puts it, “We are ourselves the heirs of an ancient and powerful (though now declining) guilt culture, a fact which may perhaps explain why so many scholars have difficulty in recognizing that Homeric religion is ‘religion’ at all.”(p. 26, footnote 106) Homer’s culture is a shame culture; people aren’t concerned with conscience as much as reputation. “Homeric man’s highest good is not the enjoyment of a quiet conscience, but the enjoyment of... public esteem.”(p. 17) The Greek term for esteem/honor/glory is . back
|4.||Dodds, p. 10 back|
|5.||Ch. 1, p. 14. Feelings and impulses come from outside, outside the conscious mind; the Greeks ascribe them to a supernatural force, a god. The Greeks didn’t have an inclusive concept of personality. They felt that only what you know is really you, only your conscious mind is really you, your character is what you know. “Achilles ‘knows wild things’... Polyphemus ‘knows lawless things,’” etc. From this way of thinking, Dodds says, is derived Socrates’ teaching that virtue is knowledge, and vice is ignorance. Socrates’ teaching is a “generalized formulation of what had long been an ingrained habit of thought.”(p. 17) back|
|6.||William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, Ch. 20
My writings explore these “darker, blinder strata of character.” I pay no attention to abstract questions like, What is a just war? What is a just society? In my view, we see “real fact” in an athletic performance, not in elaborate reasoning. back
|7.||Dodds, p. 6. In support of this statement, Dodds cites Levy-Bruhl. I’m reminded of Freud’s argument that we can’t think of a number at random; our choice is always shaped by unconscious factors. back|
|8.||Quantum physics downplays chance when it says that distant particles can communicate; this suggests that the world is connected to a greater degree than rational thinkers suppose, hence events aren’t separate, isolated, random. It’s true that, in some respects, quantum physics emphasizes chance, but this is only one aspect of quantum physics. back|
|9.||Edward Stone p. 378, quoting Carlos Baker|
|10.||Stone, p. 386 back|
|11.||Quoted in Stone, p. 382 back|
|12.||Quoted in Stone, p. 381 back|
|13.||Stone p. 380, quoting Carlos Baker. The nada-concept is mentioned in Hemingway’s “Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” which I discussed here. back|
|14.||Hemingway wrote a very short story called “A Day’s Wait.” It’s about a boy who thinks he’s dying of a high fever. Baker says that the father and son are based on Hemingway and his eldest son, Bumby. Baker notes that the boy “manages to keep a firm and stoical grip on himself.” We see the same stoicism in Cayetano Ruiz and other Hemingway heroes. back|
|15.||See the Burns/Novick documentary on Hemingway. And see Wikipedia, “Fifty Grand.” back|
|16.||Nick steps out of “the far side,” the side away from the driver, because he wants to get away without paying. He hopes they won’t see that driver again, and he has a “fear that they might take the same driver twice.” back|
|17.||The World As Will and Representation, Vol. 2, Ch. 7, p. 73
The Thoreau scholar Robert Thorson, author of Walden’s Shore, tells me in an e-mail that Thoreau thought Agassiz was pompous. Thorson says that Thoreau mentioned glaciers in his journal (see Walden’s Shore, ch. 3). Thoreau describes walking on a snowy night: “It looks as if the snow and ice of the arctic world, traveling like a glacier, had crept down southward and overwhelmed and buried New England.”(Feb. 3, 1852) back