BMCR 2022.09.42

Embattled: how ancient Greek myths empower us to resist tyranny

, Embattled: how ancient Greek myths empower us to resist tyranny. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781503628564 $30.00.

Preview

 

The title of this book by Emily Anhalt, who is no stranger to making the case for the power of Greek myth to focus, distill, even guide our understanding of current events,[1] presents an alluring thesis. This will be a utilitarian read; we will be given tools—we already have the tools!—to help us manage the distressing political environments of the 21st century, to resist the deleterious powers of demagoguery, tyranny, and nationalist populism. And we need them. Though there’s little doubt the book was written with recent American political events in mind, even in the time since this book went to press we have seen how rising “tyranny” (which Anhalt understands as power based in an individual, who puts personal aggrandizement above the state’s best interests, and who is supported by sycophants, hangers-on, and enablers) has damaged trust in the rule of law, in institutions, and, ultimately, eroded our faith, as humans, in one another, in the United States and globally.

Embattled, like Anhalt’s earlier Enraged, is not a scholarly monograph in the typical sense. It consists of a series of seven retellings, each followed by interpretation and discussion: of Iliad books 1-2, of the entire Odyssey (broken into four chapter-long sections) and of the Oresteia and Antigone. A brief introduction and conclusion fill out the volume, setting out and then reiterating the primary aim of the chapters, which is to show how one can draw useful and valuable ways to think about the modern political environment from these mythic stories. As Anhalt herself puts it, the book’s primary theme is “the abuse of power and the intellectual and emotional equipment required to prevent it” (p. 8). This is not a book primarily meant for specialists, but rather for anyone, specialists included, who might wish to engage the “valuable assistance” (p. 5) Anhalt suggests Greek epic and tragic poetry can supply as antidotes for today’s blossoming abuses of power.

Considered from this perspective, and in this general sense, the book is successful. There is a great amount of retelling of stories here, but it is done entertainingly, with energy, perception, and creativity. There is also a lot of the type of interpretation a good teacher would express, encourage, and elicit in a college-level seminar. Some of this is, for this reviewer, more convincing, some less so (more on this below). But as in a good seminar, readings of myth can diverge and that is the point; it would be an unfair criticism of the book to disagree with a reading here or there. The underlying assumption is never far from these readings, one that to seasoned readers and interpreters of these narratives might be close to a foregone conclusion, but nonetheless is absolutely right, and timely: that these stories are good thinking tools, and that myth’s primary value, then as now, rests squarely upon its ability to remain relevant to issues of the environment in which it is told, or read, or otherwise consumed.

The myths Anhalt discusses are chosen with care and are particularly useful now. But still, this book left me somewhat troubled. Yes, these stories are “good to think with,” as we say, and the ones chosen by Anhalt can be interpreted with good effect to show the folly of, for instance, failing to consider leaders’ decisions in a critical light (chapter 1), or the significant importance of distinguishing between reality and fantasy (chapter 3), or the critical role of justice supported by the norms of a community (chapter 6). Every chapter offers such lessons and observations, every one of them apt and instructive; all relevant to our modern political predicaments, to be sure. But Anhalt’s often pleasing retellings and interpretations leave themselves open to the natural response of independently-minded readers to resist or to supply their own, differing readings and interpretations. For example, I wondered about her somewhat idiosyncratic discussion of Odysseus’s and Telemachus’s treatment of the servant women (pp. 150-51) or her insistence on an understanding of the Phaeacians as immune to struggle or toil, to the point of near callousness (p. 88). What is concerning is not necessarily these particulars—say, that we all may not agree that the Phaeacians, since they endure no struggle, are unable to understand fully Odysseus’s suffering, and would thus be willing to agree that Alcinous and Arete’s response to his account is callous and emotionless. The concern is that resistance to a particular interpretation that is perceived to push a bit too far, or is in some way unpalatable to a reader, could derail the larger point of the chapter, or even the book as a whole. Alternate interpretations are of course possible, that is the core of what makes mythic discourse what it is. But since that is so, would it be possible to write a book with the same framework but the opposite argument about tyranny, demagoguery, and authoritarianism? I think it might; and though it would contain many more interpretations I would find questionable or concerning, it could, in structure, be a remarkably similar book.

In fact, as many BMCR readers will be well aware, Greek myths, including some of those Anhalt engages with in this volume, are indeed deployed by white supremacists, nationalist extremists, and others in justification of positions and activities precisely of the sort Anhalt’s readings push against. And so the specter of an alternate-universe book to this one (something like Embattled: How ancient Greek myths empower us to make America great again) haunted my reading of this volume. And its potential to exist leads to a second observation—not about what is in the book, but of what could have been. In several chapters, especially the final chapter on the Odyssey and those on the tragedies, I wished for more robust discussion of particular and specific relevance to current events. The volume endeavors to be more than a series of retellings and readings. But discussion of recent American or international politics, while not absent, is brief, synoptic, and mostly superficial. Deeper engagement could have integrated the often supple and nuanced readings Anhalt offers into a discussion that would truly make good on giving the reader tools for understanding the nature of justice and revenge, or the importance of a shared conception of what is real and what is fantasy, or the value of community-based power versus autocracy, for us, now. The alternate-universe book could still be written, yes, but Anhalt’s book would be making a case for specific relevance, today, in a more concrete way, and for the utility and significance of the particular perspectives on the stories she offers. It may be too much to ask, but it is what I craved: that treatment of instances of the degeneracy of 21st-century American political events or discourse would offer true “case in point” examples of these myths’ power to help us understand, and possibly resist, a future of continued descent toward tyranny, injustice, or even violence.

That would have given the readings offered here a stronger case for utility and bolstered the power of the particular readings Anhalt presents. As it stands, however, readings of specific episodes, or omissions of various sorts—which are to be expected, this is how we interpret myth—can and sometimes do become a cause for unease. For all the discussion of the Odyssey, for example, there is no mention of the final adventure of Odysseus, inland to a place where his oar will be mistaken for a winnowing fan. It might have made a productive addition to Anhalt’s reading of the final books of the epic—that no adventure or struggle is truly over (vel sim.). Or, no acknowledgement of Euripides’s significant rewriting of the story of Troy in his Iphigeneia plays (Anhalt seems to deny the possibility of such a striking variant, p. 177; perhaps the existence of such significant variations points toward some of the dangers I discuss above). That is to say, generally speaking, interpreters make decisions, this is an open playing field, and in order to make the case more convincingly that these stories are effective tools to “inoculate us against” the “age-old pestilence” of tyranny (p. 215), we would benefit from seeing how the readings Anhalt offers, in their specifics, can be applied, in particular and relevant ways, to our modern versions of this pestilence.

That may be asking a lot. But our current political climate presents us with steep challenges. We could start by working toward exposing more students, and others, to these stories and texts in the first place. Even that seems an increasingly high bar. An engaging and readable volume like this one can help by presenting readers with the complexities and subtleties of Homer and the tragedies in an accessible way, and by encouraging us all to think with these myths as we try to understand our modern world, and, one hopes, work to improve it.

 

Notes

[1] Enraged: Why violent times need ancient Greek myths (Yale University Press, 2017).