Did Homer suffer from Hamlet-like self-consciousness? Garry Wills thinks so.

In the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills takes a hard whack at a notion Harold Bloom has long promoted and that seems to show up across a lot of disciplines (and most recently, in a book co-authored by a Harvard philosopher): literate and Hamlet-like anguish in decision (to be or not to be; to do or not to do) was largely alien to ancient people like Homer. It is we moderns of the past 400 years or so who are existentially unmoored, not the god-saturated oral cultures of the ancients.

Here’s how Wills puts the (to his mind, implausible) theory:

[T]he characters in Homer’s epics just go with the flow of the god-induced moods, and thus they escape the anxiety of choice.

Wills traces this notion to “a 1948 claim by Bruno Snell that Homer’s characters have no inner core of identity for making choices, but are simply permeable to impulse”, and he claims that the idea “has been discredited by many later scholars, including Bernard Williams and Bernard Knox.”

And with this, Wills pounces: 

So common is the struggle to choose in Homer that it has frequent formulas to express it. One has a man “converse with himself in perplexity” (Ochthēsas d’ ara eipe pros hon megalētora thymon.”2 A strong line ending has a person “puzzling in thought” (eni phresi mermērizein). A third formula has him “puzzling at heart” (mermērizein…kata thymon). The struggle is sometimes strengthened by adding dikha (dividedly) or entha kai entha (torn back and forth).

A striking description of the anxiety of choice occurs when Odysseus is trying to decide how to oust the suitors from his home. No course seems clear to him, and he tosses about in irresolution. The Robert Fitzgerald translation (which the authors usually prefer) says:

…He…rocked, rolling from side to side [entha kai entha],
as a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick: so he rolled left and right [entha kai entha],
casting about [mermērizōn] to see how he, alone,
against the false outrageous crowd of suitors
could press the fight.

Has there ever been a better presentation of the anxiety of choice [?] . . .

Well, yes. Hamlet’s soliloquy is better; and Charles Chestnut’s great short story, “The Doll” (1912), depicts the anguish of choice every bit as well. But the point is made. Homer Jacob-wrestled with choices—he was as human as we moderns.

Gary Wills’s thesis thus sounds more plausible to me than the one normally associated with Harold Bloom (in which Shakespeare’s Hamlet represents—for the first time in literature—full, conflicted, and shifting self-consciousness—the invention of the human). Ever since humans have been, well, human (perhaps over the last 50,000 years or so), they have almost certainly been internally stirred by Odysseus, Hamlet, and Jesus-like anguishes of choice (“Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me . . .”); they have not just been unambivalently or unironically moved by the voices of external gods or cultural markers. They didn’t always know who they were, where they were, or what they should do. Contra authors like Julian Jaynes, there has probably never been a time, at least since humans acquired knowledge of their own deaths, of complete and unconflicted innocence.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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