The Healing Power of Ancient Literature edited by Stephen Bertman and Lois Parker is a small book that crucially hinges on an anachronism, the reading of ancient literatures — for they are several — through the lens of classics and the sciences or arts dealing with the healing of the soul, a more contemporary concern. It is accordingly edited by a classics professor emeritus, Stephen Bertman, and by Lois Parker, the emerita director of Counseling Services at the University of Nevada, Reno. The book attempts a daring feat, namely to show that literature has a healing power, and I argue that it fails in an equally spectacular manner.
The book begins with a one page prologue, entitled ‘Medicine for the Soul’, where we are told quite definitively that ‘literature, especially ancient literature, possesses a profound power to heal our souls, a power that is especially needed today when the rapidity of change and the force of world events combine to make peace of mind an ever more distant and seemingly unreachable goal.’ (p. vii). Lois Parker briefly weighs in next by outlining the scope of the book, which reaches from Egypt to Mesopotamia, Israel, Greece, Rome and China. All of antiquity is somehow read as being equivalent — I assume because it is ancient — and as standing as a counterpoint to our ravaged and ravaging present.
The first chapter, ‘The Wisdom Tradition of Egypt’, by John L. Foster considers long chunks of Egyptian poetry to demonstrate their wisdom. He suggests that the authors and their writings are very much like us: ‘they are so much like us’ and ‘Not so much different from eulogies of today’ (p. 11). Foster does not reveal any further on what basis these comparisons lie but he insists later on in the chapter, ‘I have chosen to emphasize the common threads uniting our culture with the ancient Egyptians — especially by hearing their actual words and their voices speaking’ (p. 21). But I ask if these ‘voices’ are not rather fictional voices and therefore functioning as masks for the author whose intentions might otherwise be quite distinct from his characters?
Foster’s slapdash approach is not distinct from that displayed by the other contributors to this volume. John Maier’s ‘A Mesopotamian Hero for a Melancholy Age’ deals with Gilgamesh. Maier’s interest is melancholy even though he notes that ‘melancholia’ means ‘black bile’ in Greek and is therefore not a Mesopotamian concept (p. 27). The Epic of Gilgamesh is not a medical text, as Maier notes, but it is made to deal with healing. Later he notes in a contradiction that it is not a poem that deals with illness and healing, and he draws a loose analogy between medicine and psychotherapy (p. 43).
With Rami Shapiro’s ‘The Wisdom of Torah: Healing the Alienated Soul’ the attention is on Jewish literature, specifically the Torah. The drawing of parallels with more modern literature persists as Shapiro suggests that the Bible is a ‘self-help book’. This should be a warning bell because it suggests that Shapiro, like the other authors, is not able to discuss the literature he is dealing with on its own terms: modernity is a necessary analogy and anachronism. In his discussion of Job Shapiro alludes to sitting zazen in the Buddhist tradition to make sense of the dialogue between God and Job (p. 58). He concludes that healing in the Jewish scriptures consists in accepting reality, reaching to one another in friendship and navigating the chaos (p. 65).
Lois Parker provides the fourth chapter in the book with ‘Epic Woman in the Iliad and the Absence of Healing’. She begins promisingly by offering that ‘healing’ means psychological healing and psyche means soul but then disappoints a reader looking for a demonstration of such an event by resorting simply to a chronological narrative of the Iliad which concludes with the burial of Hektor. Parker then resorts to catharsis in Aristotle to explain what happens at the end of the epic (p. 79), explaining that the poem “touches something deep within us” (p. 80). Stephen Bertman follows his co-editor in privileging narration in place of insightful analysis in his reading of the Odyssey. He does not offer much at all to support his claim that literature has a healing power and ends his unimpressive piece by resorting to Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again and to the supposed threats of psychotropic drugs, electronica and failing libraries as analogies between our world and Odysseus’ condition.
David Hicks writes ‘Stoic Healing’, focusing his discussion on Marcus Aurelius for chapter six. He begins with some potentially interesting thoughts in suggesting that mankind needs personal and social healing (p. 94) but then quickly becomes obsessed with the question of ‘obedience’. What follows are two pages devoted to a discussion of Judeo-Christianity. So what does this have to do with Marcus Aurelius? Hicks thinks that the Stoics are among several groups of religious thinkers concerned with ‘correction, healing, salvation or rebirth’ (p. 98). What follows is an analysis of the disciplines of assent, desire and action but there is nothing, I observe, on healing.
Bertman returns for the last chapter ‘The Healing Power of the Tao‘. The world of Lao-Tzu is very different from ours, we are told, with nature taking an ascendant position (p. 114) and so Bertman has to resort to citing the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount to begin to articulate his notion of cure.
For someone looking for guidance on what the past had to say about healing the soul, this book is useful and even inspiring but as a classicist I have a less favourable point of view. I have given the impression that I am not favourably impressed by this book and indeed, I am not. There is no helpful discussion of what the soul is, that is of what is being healed, and there is no consideration of what healing actually is. Furthermore, is healing something that the cultures treated wanted, or was the attitude one of ‘grin and bear it’ in light of more pressing issues? Literature, as discussed by the majority of authors, is also not an accurate gauge of what society actually thought about the healing of the soul. All of antiquity is treated on a par despite the fact that these are very different antiquities with very different ways of thinking and this may explain the often jarring and embarrassing analogies drawn between our world and the worlds being discussed.