BMCR 2008.05.13

The Wooden Horse: The Liberation of the Western Mind from Odysseus to Socrates. Translated from the Danish by Russell L. Dees. Edited by W. Glyn Jones

, , The wooden horse : the liberation of the western mind from Odysseus to Socrates. New York, Woodstock and London: Overlook Duckworth, 2007. 605 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9781585678181 $35.00.

The sweeping topic of this extended meditation is the emergence and liberation of the western mind as embodied in the figures of Odysseus and Socrates, who anchor Zeruneith’s discussion of an array of intellectual figures between Homer and Socrates. The method is textual analysis, and the focus is on ancient works and not other scholars, although a post-modern framework of ideas centered on subconscious and feminist theory is present at every step. We might ask up front: “liberation” from what, and delivery into what? The nutshell answer is: liberation from the female, chthonic, world of external phenomena, and delivery into the masculine, Olympian, democratic, world of subjective insight.

The Wooden Horse unveils the emergence of a distinctly western form of “consciousness” through a series of categorical dichotomies, each resolved with a triumph: of intelligence over physical strength; of patriarchal Olympian gods over maternal chthonic gods and fertility cults; of the misogynistic, male-dominated democracy over women, and of inner “subjective poetry” over concern for external gods and forces; of soul over body. But this also highlights the critical issue with the book: Greek intellectual history is collapsed into a series of categories, which guide the analysis throughout. Should there be no evidence that Telemachus’ relationship with his mother entails a rejection of the chthonic female and the rise of an Olympian masculinity, for instance, The Wooden Horse answers that the meaning has been “repressed,” and that the repression is evidence for the power of this development.

In part I, “Odysseus,” chapter I, “The Myth of Discursivity,” marks the establishment by Odysseus of “a duality in which the external and the internal no longer correspond to one another.” (28) Odysseus is able to think independently of “heroic reality,” understood as a phenomenological creation of the mind rather than his awareness of the world around him. Using his metis rather than physical strength, he fulfills the promise of Iliad 15.71, that Troy will fall by the design of Athena — i.e., by the Wooden Horse. The horse is a great divide in European civilization and consciousness, Zeruneith maintains; the claim that Troy can fall only by the cunning of Odysseus marks the end of the heroic code of strength, embodied by Achilles, and the victory of the intellect. The categories are the emotional, warrior-focused Achilles versus the intellectual, wily Odysseus, situated in a single “The Homeric Project” with a single telos : the homecoming of Odysseus, and his establishment of a rational political order in Ithaka.

This dichotomy between Achilles and Odysseus is one of the categorical distinctions that is taken too far. “As his obsessive fury demonstrates, the wrathful Achilles is a backward-looking hero, personifying the aristocratic-heroic culture to which Odysseus both belongs and from which he distinguishes himself with his forward-looking, rational choices and tenacity.”(35) But contrary to this argument, one may read the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon as the discovery by Achilles of his ability to control his wrath and to think beyond the immediate moment. But the later murders of the suitors and the maids — which re-establish Odysseus’ aristocratic dominance over his homestead — might show Odysseus to be more backward-looking than Achilles. Further, since the approach in this book here is phenomenological, Odysseus’ basic intellectual achievement is to replace the “heroic reality” in his mind with a new set of subjective structures. The categorical divide between Achilles and Odysseus may not be as wide as Zeruneith insists, neither in mind nor in action.

A panoply of conscious and subconscious motifs leads to another developmental theme, the “Dual Religiosity” of chapter III. The categories here are the chthonic gods, identified with the earth mother of fertility and her cults, versus the younger Olympian gods and their advocates, including Homer and his warriors. These heavenly gods are associated with “aristocracy as an institution” on a “patriarchal foundation.” (87) The liberation of Odysseus, Zeruneith maintains, implies the liberation of Greeks everywhere from the strictures of the traditional fertility cults. If there is little evidence for this in Homer, the reason given is that the mother figure has submerged into the subconscious, hidden background of the Homeric epics. That Demeter is mentioned only six times by Homer is “eloquent evidence,” Zeruneith maintains, “for her hidden but guiding intent.” (89) The argument turns, of course, on whether one agrees that Homer is elevating a new pantheon over these hidden cults, and that such silence constitutes evidence.

The development continues with the liberation of men from women. Chapter 4, “Athene and the Apple of Discord,” weaves together the themes of eris and eros, and distinguishes Odysseus through the figure of Athene. Zeruneith finds Athene’s derivation from an ancient fertility goddess into the embodiment of metis, the cunning intelligence that supplants memory of her connections to the earth, and further drives the chthonic female underground. In Chapter V, “The Telemachy“, Athene, herself separated from the mother earth cults, “inspires him [Telemachos] with the spiritual strength to mature” and “to free himself from the bonds tying him to his mother.” (136) What I had thought was an arresting “coming of age” story has been turned into a microcosm of a titanic struggle between the feminine and the masculine — and a precursor to democratic Athens. To say that this is a stretch is to say too little.

Chapters VI through IX take us to Odysseus; he is the telos for Part I of the book as Socrates will be for Part II. Chapter VI, “Odysseus,” reconstructs Odysseus’ development into a nine-step character profile. His cunning, his sociability, his prudence, and his capacity to identify his own psychic functions are all needed to bring the war to its end. Odysseus controls himself when nearly carried away by rage at the sight of the giggling maidservants; his decision, whether to kill or not, leads him to identify his own heart and scold it: “Bear up, my heart” as you did earlier, “until intelligence got you out of the cave.” (173, citing Odyssey 20.9-24) This explicit identification of his own psychic processes, Zeruneith maintains, marks the inner development of Odysseus, as the horse is his outer demonstration of intelligence. Maybe so, but the murderous result is surely no break with the warrior past.

Chapter VII, “The Wanderings,” sets Odysseus’ travel adventures as the oldest in terms of consciousness; we are taken “backwards in chronology to a mythical past that seems to be a psychological incursion into the subconscious and its gradual appropriation, assimilation and conquest.” The exact meaning of this has to be “interpreted against the background of the hidden.” The emergence of Odysseus from this mythic past required his separation from the primal mother figure, who appeared as the various females along the journey, e.g., the string of mothers in the underworld “catalog of women” in Odyssey 11. Once liberated, Odysseus must “return to the repressed” and ‘be reborn from the primal mother”; this is the meaning of his homecoming. (191) As is the case throughout, readers will have to decide whether they buy all this.

If the first part of the Odyssey is largely about Odysseus’ “masculine subject or self in his struggle with the mythic primordial and maternal powers,” the second part puts him into the recognizable world of his home, a utopian social order. (226) In chapter VIII, “The Trials of Homecoming,” Penelope has “kept her emotional and rational sides separate,” and thereby healed the “older, primal feminine stage in which the power of women is manifested in promiscuity [of Helen and Klytemnestra].” The bed scene is where “the breach that unleashed the Trojan war is healed.” (254-56) But chapter IX, “The Homeric Utopia,” makes clear that the forces of strife have not been exhausted; the telos of the Homeric Project is not the reuniting of Odysseus and Penelope, but rather the re-establishment of a stable social order through blood revenge. But why is this evidence for liberation, if the means to stability is the satisfaction of Odysseus’ honor through bloodshed? Is it really liberation or rather regression, a new vision of life or a reassertion of traditional mores?

Part II, “Socrates,” takes us to the short Chapter X, “The Subjective and Reflective Breakthrough in Poetry and Philosophy.” In the transmission from oral to literate culture, “[c]onsciousness is placed within psychological processes” that were unconscious to Homer, but have now developed through self-insight. (278) “Hesiod as Transitional Poet” (chapter XI) leaves us misogyny and a utopia based on justice — both continuations of the liberation themes — but Hesiod is as yet “disposed toward material coming from myths, popular local superstitions and other epics, particularly Homer.” (285) The real breakthrough, Zeruneith maintains, is in Archilochus and Sappho, in chapter XII, “The Lyrical Sense of Self.” Archilochus breaks with the heroic mentality as he breaks with heroic meter. Zeruneith maintains that his “internalization” of a “general doctrine of life” allows him to know himself. The relentless drive of “liberation” in The Wooden Horse is liberation from external reality, through the construction of internal intellectual structures that take precedence over awareness of the world around us.

While Sappho “looks into herself in an extreme subjectivization of emotional life, there arises in the same area and at the same time . . . a diametrically-opposed, philosophically-oriented science.” (310) Chapter XII, “Presocratic Thought,” finds a “common field of meaning” in natural philosophy that rejects “the mythological rationality found in Hesiod.” (311) Zeruneith’s account of the Presocratics is intended “primarily to explain the positions set forth in Presocratic phenomenology.” Given this aim, “it might seem as though the Ionian philosophers in their intellectuality seek to establish an empirical understanding of nature representing a purely masculine form of intellect. This is only a hypothesis . . .” (328) The categories are as ever driving the analysis, and I remain unclear as to what the “masculine form of intellect” is. But the question I would ask is whether some philosophers challenged the mythic framework in a different way. Need they become inward-looking subjectivists, or could they rather orient themselves toward an external world? Zeruneith does not consider this question to any satisfying degree.

The discussion of Tragedy, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in Chapters XIV through XVII connects the return of myth through dithyramb, matricide, and the wife-mother figures to the suppression of women in the male-dominated Athenian democracy. Socrates serves as the telos of Plato’s body of dialogues; Plato’s work — like Homer’s — is read as a single project, with a single goal of projecting a utopian ideal, the Republic. To serve this conclusion, Zeruneith asserts a series of parallels between Homer and Plato: each emerged in a period of crisis and each critiqued the status quo. But what Zeruneith omits here is important: he acknowledges his exclusion of Pindar. But also notable is his omission of the Hippocratic treatises — which do not depend upon finding a diagnosis in an image in one’s own mind — as well as Thucydides, who gets only a short discussion of the plague, and Aristotle, whose philosophy is entirely absent. These thinkers had very different understandings of what constitutes the search for truth.

But most telling may be Zeruneith’s near omission of Plato’s own Laws. Without Socrates, the dialogue stands outside the project of The Wooden Horse — or does it? Are we certain that the Republic was Plato’s goal? And if it was, why did he abandon it? Beyond a few scattered references, Zeruneith offers about two pages on the Laws, which he considers to be an attempt to create a utopia, a project shared with the Republic. But how is that utopia to be created? Is it by looking for an inner image and projecting it outwards — or is it by establishing laws based on conditions in the external world? If Plato’s search for the ideal has failed, what does that say about the overall project that began with Odysseus and led to the death of Socrates?

In the end, The Wooden Horse stands or falls on its categorical framework and its phenomenological assumptions. In its scope, the examination of Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus, Sappho, several Presocratics, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Socrates is ambitious — but held rigidly to limits that include not enough about Homer’s characters prior to Odysseus, little about Plato except in relation to Socrates, and nothing of Aristotle outside of the Poetics. This attempt to fit Greek thinkers into a singular scheme of development relies for its validation on its own categories, which have been used to drive the analysis.