Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.28

Michael Clarke, Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer: A Study of Words and Myths.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1999.  Pp. xv, 378.  ISBN 0-19-815263-9.  £48.00.  

Reviewed by Alexander Stevens, Pembroke College, Cambridge (
Word count: 2060 words

What was the Homeric perspective on body and mind? In what ways can we read poetic texts as documents of cultural world-views? These are the large questions on which Michael Clarke [hereafter 'C.'] offers readers of Homer a thorough and thoughtful new perspective in his Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer: A Study of Words and Myths. In writing on Homeric material that has been much discussed by others, C. brings a keen eye for detail, a strong philological background, and a willingness to rethink received understandings. These qualities are in evidence throughout and make C.'s book essential reading for all interested in the Homeric poems, not least in order to respond to C.'s attempt to articulate a framework which takes 'Homer' seriously in cultural terms, yet which allows for creativity and the exigencies of contextual demands: 'unity in multiplicity' is C.'s methodological battle-cry, which reflects his basic preference for coherence over disorder (e.g. p. 12); thus C. seeks in Homer unitary concepts that are articulated in varying ways to produce a range of images (p. 30). C. is aware that anthropologists have things to say that are relevant to his project (e.g. pp. 37-39), but he has only gone so far in this direction. C.'s inclination is to place 'trust in the belief that epic poetry is an effective means of communication between poet and audience' (p. 31); accordingly, words mean something. It is C.'s task to explicate the ideas underlying that meaning from amidst a range of articulations.

The core of the book falls roughly into two halves. There is also a prologue (pp. 3-36) which introduces the reader to some of C.'s methodological positions, and an epilogue (pp. 285-315), which sketches the post-Homeric usage (esp. Hesiod and Pindar) of two of C.'s key-words, namely ψυχή and σῶμα. The first half (pp. 37-126) argues that the representation of mortals in the Homeric poems does not sit easily with the dualistic categories of body and mind or body and soul that have frequently been taken as starting points for discussion; on the contrary, the relationship between mental life and the body in the Homeric poems is best characterised in terms of unity. In pursuing this argument, C. focuses successively upon a number of key terms: foremost is ψυχή; then what C. calls the θυμός family, which in addition to θυμός includes φρήν, φρένες, ἦτορ, κῆρ, κραδίη, πραπίδες, νόος. The word ψυχή has been the immediate catalyst for dualist readings (p. 55), and is accordingly C.'s major focus. A 'crucial fact' for C. is that ψυχή only emerges 'in the context of life lost or threatened, never of life held and enjoyed' (p. 55), and accordingly it has a primarily negative value in relation to life: it is 'the cold breath that passes into the air at the moment of death' (p. 60). C.'s treatment of the θυμός family shows how these are 'manifestations in action of an indivisible human whole' (p. 61), because they are both that which thinks and that which is thought (pp. 68ff.). A key factor throughout is C.'s understanding of these words not in terms of substance, but in terms of movement or process (see esp. pp. 109-115).

The second half (pp. 129-284) aims to show how the Homeric poet creatively extends the basic concepts lying behind these key terms, which for C. reflect in the first instance a 'non-mythical' understanding of the process of death, into images that also operate on a 'mythical' level: C. writes of creative images that are built up on the 'simpler' base of what is 'a visible phenomenon, a tangible sign of death' (p. 156). Along the way, C. discusses the corpse, identity, σῶμα, Hades, and the 'shade'. An opposition between the visible and the non-visible does a great deal of work for C., and becomes particularly apparent in this section: key terms are 'literally and visibly', 'literal, observable', a 'visible, sublunary phenomenon', as against the 'shadowy afterlife', and the 'mythical' (see e.g. pp. 130, 135-136, 137, 147). Characteristic is C.'s formulation on the image of the flying ψυχή: 'here the cold breath of death takes wing, emerging suddenly in a mythical shape out of the visible realities of the battlefield' (p. 149). This opposition is then mapped onto a loose set of opposed contexts: in particular, plain narrative as against sections that are 'heightened and mythopoetic' (e.g. p. 150). C. argues, for instance, that it is the irreconcilability between the images of Patroklos that emerge in the varied contexts of the mortal world and of Hades that results in the distress of a figure like Akhilleus in Iliad 23 (p. 208). It is a problem that C. does not really explicate this question of multiple contexts; like the opposition visible/non-visible, it seems to be for C. a distinction that emerges empirically, even if he is rightly reluctant 'to prise the two levels apart as if they belonged in different provinces of thought and imagination' (p. 232). C.'s last chapter before the epilogue (pp. 264-284) explores the implications of these positions, and at this point argues that neither the non-mythical nor mythical can be given primacy. This sits uncertainly with the some of the implications of C.'s earlier insistence on the basic materiality ('visible', 'non-mythical') of his key words.

Throughout C. applies a keenly critical eye to a full range of Homeric material. Outright disagreement with his reading of a passage was rare for this reviewer. One instance illustrates C.'s emphasis in the first half of his book on the visible and the material: at Odyssey 24.318-319, μένος does not denote tears or mucus as C. seems to imply (p. 110); it may 'presage tears' (see Heubeck on Od. 24.318-19 quoting Ameis-Hentze-Cauer), but this is not the same thing. At p. 247 n. 36, C. nods when he writes: 'at Patroclus' death, when Apollo strikes him with his hand and enables Euphorbus to kill him (XVI, 791-2)'; while Euphorbos certainly strikes Patroklos with his spear in the back (Iliad 16.806ff.), he fails to overcome him (Iliad 18.812-13: οὐδὲ δάμασσ̓) and withdraws; Hektor then comes in to kill the wounded Patroklos. But these are minor points.

A larger question stems from C.'s foregrounding of the problem of mind/body dualism that C. tells us is the 'pervasive' condition of 20th-century Western thought. C. on more than one occasion inveighs against its 'insidious' nature (e.g. pp. 38, 39); the understated intensity ('insidious danger', an 'especially insidious power') with which he does so seems to point towards the difficulty that C. himself has had in escaping dualistic implications in his own language and thought. For while C. wants to discard mind/body dualism as an analytic premise in reading Homer, he has not really found an alternative basis on which to proceed: he is aware that his own use of the terminology of the 'body', 'mental life' and so on runs the risk of reintroducing the same insidious dualistic implications. The final formulation at the end of the first half of the book is more negative than positive as a result: 'When these points are combined, Homeric man stands revealed as a continuum in whom the sources and processes of his mental life are inseparably united with the substance of what we would nowadays call the body' (p. 126). In the same vein, C. opposes 'not-body' to 'body' (p. 115), on the grounds that 'to seek a word for 'body' is to ask Homer a wrong and unanswerable question' (p. 118). What is needed is a basic paradigm shift. In fact, what C. has arrived at here, though cast in different language, is similar to the starting point for a burgeoning area in anthropological studies, which regards 'embodiment' as the fundamental existential ground of the self, since the body is (and always has been) a necessary condition of selfhood, and which consequently aims to articulate a method and a language that reflects this basic collapsing of the mind/body dichotomy.1 The problem of mind and body is, on this view, not really a problem at all: the body is the ever-present basic condition of subjective experience, and as such tends to remain below the threshold of perception until there is a particular reason for its emergence into consciousness. The step beyond this starting point for anthropologists such as Thomas Csordas is to frame questions that transcend the mind/body problem and thus may go on to consider in positive terms the ways in which the body, in its full cultural diversity, only emerges as an object of consciousness in particular perceptual contexts. The death of the Homeric warrior is one such context where the body emerges as an object, precisely because something has happened to it; corporeal transformation in the Homeric epics offers a similar point of emergence, as does the wounding of the Homeric warrior and/or his loss of consciousness.

It is, for example, no coincidence that the problematic images of the flying ψυχαί to which C. returns several times in the course of his book are precisely those of Patroklos and Hektor, and are closely linked to the corpses which become such talismanic objects within the Iliadic exploration of honour, mortality and 'care'. Such an image is for C. a matter of poetic elaboration, a 'creative image' built up on the simpler Homeric schemata of what visibly happens at death (cf. pp. 130, 151-156); but what does it do? It could be argued that it is part of a powerfully emotive emergence of the body, in a form which underlines the objectification of Patroklos which Akhilleus will subsequently so palpably confront in the form of Patroklos's inert body, since the flying ψυχή is a stark realisation of Patroklos' selfhood as an active entity suddenly separated off at the precise moment when his body is now completely objectified (as σῶμα); the image thus enacts the emergence in death of Patroklos's identity into several aspects, each of which are now separately objectified and of a different order from the living Patroklos. Identity coheres in these entities in various ways (as C. demonstrates: see, for the corpse and for the shade respectively, pp. 157-165 and 200-214), but their sum is less than Patroklos as he was constituted before his death. Such an image is more than just a visually oriented elaboration; it enacts a meaningful set of emergent oppositions, in particular that between the inert body of Patroklos, as it will now exist as an object for Akhilleus and others, and Patroklos as the dweller in Hades.

As it is, C. is left slightly uncomfortable when he concedes (p. 214) that, for all his insistence that mind/body dualism is not a useful idea in reading Homer, there are some developed images in the poem, like the flying ψυχή, that seem prima facie to point towards a division along such dualistic lines. What C. does is to explain such images as being built up creatively out of simpler materials without affecting the basic underlying unity; but there is an element here of explaining away. What C. might easily have done would have been to show how the cultural elaboration of Homeric embodiment goes so far as to recognise the emergence in death of separate entities that constitute something distinct from the living, sensate Patroklos, without therefore worrying that the flying ψυχή might introduce mind/body dualism by the back door.

But none of this is intended to detract from C.'s significant achievement: by close and detailed attention to the words of Homer, C. has arrived at a sophisticated reconsideration of previous understandings of a set of slippery terms that are at the centre of how the corporeal self is constituted in the Homeric world. The book itself is excellently produced, as one might expect from OUP (along with the price!). Misprints are few and far between (I noticed only 3) in a book that is dense with interchanging English and Greek. There is, however, one curious substitution in a bibliographic citation: the title given to J. Bottéro, Mésopotamie: L'Écriture, la religion et les dieux, Paris 1987, should in fact read Me/sopotamie: L'Écriture, la raison et les dieux. One might speculate on the implications for C. of this interchange between religion and reason, but it remains the case that C. has brought to the subject matter of Flesh and Spirit much thought and sensitivity with regard to both.


1.   On 'embodiment', see esp. T. J. Csordas, 'Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology', Ethos 18 (1990), 5-47; ibid., 'Somatic Modes of Attention', Cultural Anthropology 8 (1993), 135-156; ibid., ed., Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self, Cambridge 1994. For a broader survey of anthropological approaches to the body, see M. Lock, 'Cultivating the Body: Anthropology and Epistomologies of Bodily Practice and Knowledge', Annual Review of Anthropology 22 (1993), 133-155. This material, and C.'s book along with it, has been the subject of intense discussion in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics Graduate Common Room, both before and during the writing of this review; particular thanks are due to Ashley Clements for his anthropological acumen.

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