Review in Polis

Richard Holway, Becoming Achilles: Child-Sacrifice, War, and Misrule in
Iliad and Beyond (Lanham MD; Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2012), xiv +
255 pp., $29.95, ISBN 9780739146910 (pbk).

Richard Holway’s Becoming Achilles fits into a rich vein of scholarship on the
ancient world in which the concepts of psychology or psychoanalysis are used
to interrogate classical texts. These works — ranging from Philip Slater’s
classic The Glory of Hera to the writings of Charles Segal or Martha
Nussbaum — approach the classical world armed with contemporary theories
of psychological or emotional development. Instead of taking the openly proclaimed
values of ancient texts at face value, these studies look towards the
social and individual tensions beneath the surface of the text. By this methodology,
these authors interrogate the processes by which ancient cultures made
sense of their situation and defended their social norms. For instance, Slater’s
study — with heavy debts to Freud and psychoanalysis — situated Greek
Mythology within the constellation of family dynamics in the ancient world.

Holway’s text can be seen as following from Slater’s groundbreaking
work, but this should in no way diminish an appreciation for the book’s innovative
and challenging claims. Holway leans heavily on theories of attachment
within developmental psychology — associated primarily with the work
of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth — to re-read the story of Achilles and to
interrogate the heroic culture of the Iliad. On the terms of attachment theory,
Achilles comes off rather poorly. Alienated from his true self due to sacrificial
care-giving by his divine mother, Thetis, Achilles and his powerful rage feed
a tragic cycle of violence, neglect and denial that typified heroic Greek culture
more broadly. Moreover, for Holway, the Iliad and the epic tradition were not
merely recording devices for the norms of heroic societies, but mechanisms of
denial that served important cathartic functions for the child-sacrificing (literally
and psychologically) culture of the ancient Greeks. The Iliad performed
this function by obscuring the sources of Achilles’ rage, and this re-direction
was part of a larger cultural catharsis whereby the tensions within Greek
family life disavowed or projected onto convenient scapegoats. The epic
tradition amounts to an organized denial of the real sources of conflict within
ancient Greek society, including parental detachment and the wanton sacrifice
of children’s interests.

Holway’s book has many strengths. First among these is the novel reading
of the Iliad and its background myths motivated by an interest in attachment
theory. Attachment theory clearly identifies the costs of sacrificial parenting,
in which the child’s needs (for the development of individual autonomy, etc.)
are neglected because the parent has to compensate for what he or she lacks.
Experiences of neglect — or, conversely, suffocating attachment — disrupt
the development of clear boundaries between child and adult. Abuse and
seductiveness both lead to strong but conflicted identification with the caregiver.
Because the child has nowhere else to turn, the caregiver is idealized and
adverse experiences are repressed or isolated to ‘suppressed working models’
that motivate behaviour later in life (pp. 43–4). The idealization of the abusive
caregiver requires that the child project responsibility for their conflicted psyche
onto third parties or onto themselves. Complementing these strategies of
splitting and projection are the child’s devaluation and abandonment of its
rejected self — the self that would have developed under conditions of loving
care and proper attachment.

Armed with this theory, Holway interrogates the heroic culture and its
exemplars on offer in the Iliad. Holway focuses on the presence within Greek
myth of idealized or divine mothers, their weak attachments to their spouses,
and the outsized hopes they invest in their hero-sons. The mistreatment of
children such as the young Achilles (who on some accounts was baptized in
fire in order that Thetis might burn off his mortal, vulnerable parts (p. 54))
compromises not only the child’s psychological and emotional development,
but it also inspires defences of splitting and denial that compromise the
child’s ability to recognize its mistreatment. For Holway, Achilles and his
divine mother fit into this paradigm, and the Iliad aids and abets this paradigm
by covering up the scandalous mistreatment of children that motivates the
tragic search for glory within heroic culture.

There are many important implications that follow from Holway’s argument.
The first and most prominent is a revised understanding of the paradigmatic
hero. Achilles has been interpreted not only as a representative of the
finest that ancient culture had to offer, but also as an estimable character for
contemporary societies insofar as he displays ‘the courage to speak truth to
power and the independence of mind to question traditional verities’ (p. 3).
Approaching the Iliad with the resources of attachment theory, we are compelled
to confront the disavowed underside of Achilles’ courage, anger and
search for glory, along with the subsurface tensions within the heroic culture
that justifies his actions and his mistreatment. Holway’s argument also has
implications for work in contemporary political theory that romanticizes
ancient Greek men of action (or women, too, if we include work that lionizes
Antigone). This includes not only the influential work of Hannah Arendt, but
also contemporary ‘agonist’ political theorists who emphasize the role that
conflict and struggle play within political life, but who rarely investigate the
psychological costs and consequences of these conflicts.

Becoming Achilles also contains fresh arguments about the cathartic function
of the epic tradition within ancient Greek societies. By seeing the Iliad as
a mechanism of cultural denial, Holway interprets catharsis as less the refinement
of fear and pity (or the clarification of the sources for fear and pity) than
the redirection of anger and anxiety onto convenient scapegoats. Holway
perceives this structure of denial in the way that Thetis is presented in the Iliad
as kourotrophos (a nurturer of youths), whereas Achilles is often portrayed as
a responsible leader seemingly unburdened by the curse of his sacrificial
upbringing. These representations form part of a ‘tripartite denial’ that idealizes
Thetis and obscures the damage done to Achilles (and to hero-sons more
generally) in part by identifying scapegoats such as Agamemnon (pp. 73–6).

Holway’s arguments about the cathartic function of the Iliad are tied to a
novel approach to the supposed ‘tragic learning through suffering (pathei
mathos)’ offered by epic (p. 3). For Holway, what is learned through performances
of the Iliad (or, later, of tragedy) is less a form of ‘chastening wisdom’
than a mode of psychological defence that excuses the violence of heroic culture
and disavows the tensions and conflicts beneath its surface. Holway does
not develop this point at length, nor does he engage the long literature on
catharsis and tragic wisdom within the main text. Nevertheless Becoming
Achilles is a worthy addition to the literature on the pedagogical effects of
epic or tragedy.

Alongside the strengths of this book, there are also some significant drawbacks
to Holway’s approach. First, the argument often gives the appearance
of being a wilful contortion of the chosen material to fit a pre-existing narrative.
For instance, the above acknowledged lack of fit between Thetis and
Achilles and the narrative of sacrificial caretaking is explained away by the
Iliad’s cathartic work of denial. This argument has a ‘heads I win, tails you
lose’ quality to it, however. If Achilles acts the part of the hero-son who
redirects his anger onto safely hated others, then this is confirmation of
Holway’s approach and of attachment theory. Yet if Achilles appears to act in
ways counter to this narrative, then this is merely evidence that he is in denial
about his abusive upbringing. This is reminiscent of Freud in Civilization and
its Discontents, where he acknowledged the reader’s potential frustration that
guilt seems impossible to avoid regardless of how the Oedipal conflict is
resolved. The seeming lack of falsifiability within these claims is what
inspired Karl Popper to reject psychoanalysis as unscientific, and this rebuke
hovers over contemporary theories such as Bowlby’s despite their obvious
value as an interpretive lens onto family dramas and psychological

Holway does not adequately face down this problem. He would have been
wise to follow Slater, however, who argued convincingly that the identification
of contradictory arguments cannot by itself constitute a rejection of those
arguments. As he put it, ‘to say that a thing must be one or the other is to miss
the significance of the whole’.38 Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction
does not apply to the psyche. The question, then, should be not whether Achilles
was or was not in denial, but whether the Greeks were unusually preoccupied
with myths of divine mothers and hero-sons, which both reveal and
obscure sacrificial modes of care-giving.

Holway could have chosen to imitate Slater’s more modest, hesitant style
of argumentation, but instead he doubles down on his preferred theoretical
approach in an epilogue in which he compares Achilles to another ancient
exemplar — Socrates. Holway argues that the Platonic oeuvre is a ‘Trojan
horse’ by which the heroic Greek culture of Homer has infiltrated Western
culture in a new guise (p. 178). Holway interprets Socrates’ defence in the
Apology as part of his ‘habitual, unprovoked attempts’ to undermine the
authority of the laws of democratic Athens. However, the rampant use of
qualifiers (‘may’, ‘might indeed’, ‘perhaps’) in the epilogue indicates that
Holway feels himself to be on shaky ground in making these claims. The
multivalent and complex figure of Socrates (filtered through the camera
obscura of Plato and Xenophon) is contorted, and there are no obvious gains
from this operation. Holway acknowledges some of the obstacles to his reading
of Socrates, but ultimately this reviewer was left unconvinced and began
to wonder whether the interpretive framework of attachment theory had been
given too much influence within the argument.

Despite these problems, Holway’s book is to be recommended for the way
it comes at well-worn material with a fresh perspective. More importantly, the
book has much to teach us about the connection between familial and cultural
violence, and the interpenetration of the micro and macro forces that shape
human communities. If the micro-level forces are given a more serious treatment
here than any macro forces, this is not so much a fatal flaw as a choice of
focus. Future studies in this vein might attempt to do as the classicist Charles
Segal once counselled: to combine structural and psychological approaches in
order to take a fuller measure of the ‘multifaceted and multivalent nature’ of
Greek society and poetry.39

David W. McIvor

38 P. Slater, The Glory of Hera (Princeton, 1992), p. xxi.
39 Charles Segal, ‘Pentheus and Hippolytus on the Couch and on the Grid: Psychoanalytic
and Structuralist Readings of Greek Tragedy’, Classical World, 72 (1972), pp.

Source: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought, Volume 30, Issue 2, pages 357 – 360
Subjects: Classical Studies
Publication Year : 2013
DOI: 10.1163/20512996-90000553
ISSN: 0142-257X
E-ISSN: 2051-2996

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