Vincenzo Sanguineti. Clash of Cultures: A Psychodynamic Analysis of Homer and the Iliad. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2021.
Homer is “the Bard of the West.” And “for over two millennia, the Iliad has been seen as a powerful description of the tragedies of war.” The story of the Iliad is familiar to us. It has been adapted into Hollywood films and television productions numerous times. Its heroes have passed on their names to posterity through culture and popular phraseology. Apart from the Bible, the Iliad has arguably had the most cultural capital and influence over Western consciousness and literature compared to any other work. Even Virgil’s Aeneid, which once held pride of place over the works of Homer, was indebted to it—Virgil’s heroic Trojan exile is first encountered in the Iliad. Maybe the heroes of Troy were the subject of Homer’s song all along?
What is psychodynamic? It is part psychotherapy, part psychoanalysis. Psychodynamism attempts to uncover “the way a person’s unconscious thoughts and feelings” influence “conscious mental activities.” In other words, our conscious thoughts have unconscious and subconscious influences—the task of psychodynamic analysis is to uncover those unconscious and subconscious influences which will enrich the conscious construction of a writing. I consider the task invaluable and worthwhile, not in the least because I engage in the craft myself especially in various cultural and film analyses and in discussions with friends and colleagues.
Vincenzo Sanguineti attempts to offer such a psychodynamic reading of Homer and the Iliad, moving beyond the banal linguistic and Homeric authorship debates which drown out the majesty and genius of the poet named Homer whose work which continues to inspire hearts, souls, and minds after nearly three millennia.
Much has been said, and much can continue to be said, of Homer and his epic cycle. It is unnecessary to belabor all the complexities and totalities of Homeric scholarship here, but there are a couple of major points that help Sanguineti’s overall thesis of exploring why and how Homer constructed the epic he gave to posterity, or that posterity credits to him.
First is Sanguineti’s implicit thesis “that Homer was the offspring of local laborers, if not actually the fatherless child of a laborer-captive woman, and grew up as a subject citizens under Greece.” The thesis of an Ionian-Trojan Homer, a poet who is partially related to the losers of the Trojan War, helps advance the otherwise negative portrayal of the Greek heroes (especially Agamemnon and Achilles, but also the wily deceit and conceit of Odysseus and even Nestor, whom our author brilliantly exposes as far from being the just and wise man he is often considered being). The reason for a Trojan-lineage Homer is actually straightforward from a historical point of view. Greek colonists arrived in Ionia and settled the region after the Bronze Age collapse and intermingled with the local population—all but certainly seizing women as they intermingled—and since Homer was believed born in an originally non-Greek land by the Greek sources themselves, it is highly likely that Homer had a partial Trojan or a non-Greek lineage even if he became the Bard of classical Greece and that land’s prized poet.
Second, if impiety “is indeed the fundamental trigger for the strife,” and if impiety drives the wrath and problems of Greek heroes that they contend with in the epic, then a major theme within the Iliad—humanity’s relationship to the divines—also makes sense from the purview of a Trojan Homer when the Greek and Trojan relationships to the divine is analyzed. The Greeks, especially Agamemnon and Achilles, act impiously toward the gods. Their Trojan counterparts, by contrast, act reverently to the gods. Hector and his brothers, and the other Trojan heroes, are constantly described as praying, commending others to pray, and respecting the boundaries of the god-man relationship in the polytheistic cosmos. Further, the Trojans on the whole are portrayed much more admirably throughout the poem compared to the Greek invaders.
Third, Homer’s “expressions of genuine—rather than formulaic—empathy for specific characters and situations” tend to skew in favor of Trojan characters than their invading Greek counterparts (more on this in a bit). Despite being outnumbered, the Trojans act heroically and Homer praises their fatalistic heroism. Furthermore, the greatest moment of empathy is Priam’s begging the return of Hector’s body in the tent of Achilles after the Greek hero has slaughtered his sons and vowed to kill Priam. We grieve with Priam more than with Achilles. (We also grieve for Andromache and Hector with his family on the battlements of Troy.)
This is the cornerstone that Sanguineti stands on in analyzing the genius of Homer and his greatest poem, the Iliad—because Homer was at least a partial descendant of the losing side, this relationship with the losers influenced (subconsciously) his composition of the text. I will be upfront in acknowledging that I also agree with the minority report in Homeric scholarship that sees Homer as likely being—at least partially—a descendant of the losing side of the Trojan War and a victim of the Greek colonization of Ionia. I disagree, however, with the thrust of piety thesis within the Iliad. As I’ve written in the pages of VOEGELINVIEW and elsewhere, I consider Homer a humanist who exposes the capriciousness of the gods (seen rather clearly from the Greek side) and the failure of piety to produce justice (seen rather clearly from the Trojan side) which demands human-to-human forgiveness apart from the capricious divinities that populate the Homeric cosmos. But that is neither here nor there. (Though it is true that the Trojans do act piously toward the gods, not that their piety helps them.)
From an Ionian-Trojan Homer, then, our author begins to unpack the key scenes and moments of the Iliad as a contrast in cultures: the Greek culture of the invaders on one side, the Trojan-Anatolian-Near Eastern culture(s) on the defending (and ultimately losing) side. And in presenting this dialectical contrast of cultures represented in the Iliad we find the genius of Homer in his sympathetic portrayal of the Trojans and what this entails for understanding the poem.
The world of wrath, which Homer accepts as a given, is found within the Greek camp and not the Trojans, who are defending their homeland from invasion and the wrath of Achilles. The animosity between Agamemnon and Achilles, the strife between them, violates even the divine cosmos which brings divine wrath upon the Achaean army! (How easily and frequently we forget this.) In time, however, the wrath of the world that Homer’s cosmos contains is eventually transferred from within the Greek army to the gods and the Trojans (crystalized so powerfully and vividly in the wrath of Achilles, the blood flowing into the Scamander River which causes the wrath of the gods to reemerge, and the death and defilement of Hector).
Homer, then, as Sanguineti carefully reads, presents the Greeks in a wholly negative light as if a foreign culture to the Near Eastern lands they now occupy. Their characters are arrogant and impious, they are callous, they are deceitful. Their leaders are pompous and filled with the spirit of strife which brings death and suffering onto their own side. They lack all the qualities and virtues of the Trojans. Quite interesting when you consider the Iliad as a Greek epic with Greek listeners.
In contrast to the Greek culture that is presented in the poem, the culture and characterization of the Trojans is entirely sympathetic and their values seemingly virtuous. (This furthers Sanguineti’s implicit thesis of a Trojan-lineage Homer whose ties to Near Eastern culture informs the poet’s positive construction of the Trojans.) The Trojans, as mentioned, are pious in the actions. They are also the characters to whom we, as readers—and undoubtedly the listeners in Homer’s day—share with in their grief. First is Chryses in trying to save his daughter from sexual depravation at the hands of Agamemnon. Second is Hector and his family, especially Andromache, whom we meet on the walls of Troy when Hector kisses Astyanax and Andromache goodbye, one of the most touching moments in the entire epic. We also witness the grief of Andromache after Hector is killed. Third, and perhaps most powerfully and vividly, is Priam in the tent of Achilles pleading the return of Hector’s dead body with tears and lamentations for pity and compassion at the foot of the world’s most vicious warrior.
It is in Sanguineti’s careful reading of the sympathetic portrayal of the Trojans that his work shines most brilliantly, illuminating the subconscious soul of the poet Homer who undoubtedly identified with the grieving parents of Troy and not the vain militaristic heroes of the Greek army:
[T]he description of Andromache’s somatic expressions of acute anxiety indicates Homer’s empathetic inter-subjective sharing with her mental state, his detailed lines about the fate of an orphan may reflect something more private, and perhaps speak of a shared personal experience of orphanhood…If, indeed, there is a kernel of truth in the reports about the origins of Homer, the illegitimate pregnancy and his status as a fatherless child, one has to wander [sic] how those gruesome stories about the Trojan prince affected his infantile mind and contributed to empathetic identification with Astyanax and to his reactions toward the Greek callous and violent ways in handling anything and anyone who was not of their liking, Achilles being the prototypical example of such self-centered violence.
Sanguineti is all but convincing in revealing the likelihood of a Trojan-lineage Homer through this psychodynamic approach who, because of his Trojan-Ionian heritage, creates a subversive epic singing sympathy to the losers of the Trojan War despite his audience being the Greek conquerors and colonizers.
If the sympathetic representation of the Trojans isn’t enough, then the duel of Achilles and Hector should be. Once again, Sanguineti offers a very close reading of the duel which has almost ubiquitously been seen as the triumph of Achilles because he was a superior soldier. But was he? Notwithstanding that Patroclus killed more Trojans than Achilles and is described as “the best of the Achaeans” in death, Achilles defeats Hector because of the conniving intervention of the goddess Athena rather than his own skillful prowess as a warrior. Man to man, Hector seems the better soldier. Achilles misses his spear throw. Hector hits Achilles in his vital center, the only reason Achilles is alive is because of the shield forged by Hephaestus. When Hector closes in, alone, with his sword, Athena’s retrieval of the spear that Achilles wildly missed in his original thrust is the weapon that he uses to kill the Prince of Troy. Achilles doesn’t fight Hector sword-to-sword but uses the advantageous length of the spear returned to him by Athena to kill Hector and complete the preordained fate of the prince and of Troy. Man to man, however, it does appear that Hector was the superior soldier (notwithstanding that Hector’s heroism had saved Troy for almost ten years despite superior Greek numbers against Troy and her allies). Achilles won with the assistance and preordained fate of the gods, not because he was a better soldier. Reading the duel this way Sanguineti writes, “Why did Homer make Achilles visibly the lesser of the two in the context with spears? … Why didn’t the poet offer Achilles a second chance of besting Hector in a fair fight with swords, rather than through the deceptions of a goddess?” The answer: Homer’s psychological sympathies are with the Trojans.
“Homer created his Iliad circa three millennia ago. The level of his creativity is measureless; his sense of harmony and balances, his masterly ability to deal with subtle points and counterpoints is so impressive that it is not surprising how his works survived for 3,000 years.” We may say the same for Sanguineti, who masterfully deals with the subtle points of Homer’s grand epic. While I also share many of the same convictions about a Trojan-sympathetic poet (it should be noted, again, that the conclusion of the Iliad is with peace bestowed to the Trojans as if Homer is offering the healing antidote to the world of violence: forgiveness and love to one’s enemies), those who haven’t encountered the idea that Homer was sympathetic to the Trojans and was possibly the offspring of the losers of the Trojan War will find out why the Iliad is far from a celebration of Greek martial virtue but, instead, is a poem preaching sympathy to one’s enemies and singing of the healing power of collective grief which transcends ethnic and political boundaries.
Sanguineti’s Clash of Cultures is one of the finest examples of revisionist Homeric scholarship, one that is a great joy to read and will deepen anyone’s love for Homer’s grand masterpiece. Homer’s “song,” Sanguineti asserts, “is about the tragedy of Troy and that of his sole protector, [Hector].” In just over one hundred pages, Sanguineti makes a compelling case for the minority view of Homeric scholarship: the unconscious, subconscious, and conscious forces that governed Homer’s mind in the creation of the Iliad came from a pro-Trojan disposition likely rooted in Homer’s own Trojan lineage. After all, the epic ends with the funeral of Hector and the collective grief of the city of Troy and not the triumph of the Greeks.
*This review was first published at VoegelinView under the title, Homer’s Song of Troy: Vincenzo Sanguineti’s “Clash of Culture: A Psychodynamic Analysis of Homer and the Iliad” on 23 July, 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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