Despairing Of The Election? Look To Ths Iliad

I started my summer reading with Emily Wilson’s recent translation of “The Iliad.” I enjoyed her version of “The Odyssey” a few years ago and needed the kind of escape from the news that I knew Homer could provide.

Who needs a beach read on the eve of the political apocalypse when you can enjoy an ancient epic about a brutal war leading to the collapse of an illustrious civilization?

Maybe you can relate to my mood: I want this election season over with. I have no more outrage left to give, yet there seems to be no bottom to Donald J. Trump’s authoritarian shamelessness. Thursday’s debate between President Biden and Trump has me ducking for cover. How the hell can we be in the same perilous position we were in four years ago?

I’m a progressive Democrat. I have family members who are hardcore Catholic Republicans. We don’t talk that much, and when we do it’s almost never about politics. Our worldviews are worlds apart, but I know they’re feeling as full of despair as I am about the state of the country.

But that’s where the similarities end. We’re at an ideological stalemate, where further debate can only devolve into bitter recrimination. I don’t know how to bridge these divides or stand up for what I believe in without sounding condemnatory. It’s hard to listen with an open mind when you’re convinced that the other person is an arsonist trying to torch your house.

Yes, I admit I’m angry. I’m angry at the way Donald Trump is waging war against American democracy and the rule of law. But I’m personally affronted that I have blood relatives who are sticking with a twice-impeached, many times indicted, convicted felon, who just so happens to have been found liable for sexual abuse.

My frustration is compounded by disillusionment. I thought we were rational animals, capable of collective reason. I thought when it mattered most we could put aside our tribal hatreds and protect our constitutional democracy from the depredations of a would-be strongman.

Homer is helping me understand the extent of my naivety. “The Iliad” is a poem about the clash of civilizations, but it is also a song of ruinous personal anger. The epic begins with an invocation to the muse, and Wilson vividly summons the animus fueling the tale: “Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath/of great Achilles, son of Peleus,/which caused the Greeks immeasurable pain/ and sent so many noble souls of heroes/to Hades and made men the spoils of dogs …”

If there’s any doubt that politics is a human sport, swayed by the most primitive of emotions, Homer squelches this innocence in the crib.

Wilson’s translation of “The Iliad” may not have the rocky grandeur of Richmond Lattimore’s English version, the lyrical exaltation of Robert Fitzgerald’s or the fluid gravitas of Robert Fagles’. But the modern accessibility of Wilson’s language brings the battlefield drama back down to blood-caked earth.

Warrior values, like courage and loyalty, are still nobly on display, but the slaughter has a maniacal quality. These glorified military heroes are killing machines. In the blunt-force way Wilson depicts the human wreckage, she delivers a blistering critique of patriarchal madness.

Without editorializing, Wilson never lets the reader forget that all of this carnage has a morally dubious pretext. Paris running off with Menelaus’ trophy wife, Helen, may have constituted a profound violation of the sacred duty of hospitality, but it’s also just another instance of men behaving abominably.

At the start of “The Iliad,” more than nine years into the war, morale among the Greeks is being tested by another flare-up of male ego. Achilles, enraged that Agamemnon has stolen his war-prize concubine, vows to hang up his armor. Later, when Hector leads the Trojan onslaught and Greek soldiers are dying like flies, Achilles refuses to budge from his aggrieved position. It will take the death of his beloved companion Patroclus for him to rejoin the battle.

Men bring calamity onto themselves with their fragile egos. Great feats of bravery are then required to stop the widespread havoc they themselves have wrought.

Helen, no paragon of rectitude, can’t resist Paris’ beauty even as she sees through to the deficiencies of his character. As she tells Hector, “This man has no good sense, no self-control,/and no capacity to change.” Hector doesn’t need to be reminded of his brother’s frailties. He has already had to viciously reproach Paris for standing back in the heat of battle: “Pathetic Paris! Womanizer! Cheat!/You are the very best at looking pretty./ Oh how I wish that you had never lived /or died unmarried.”

Yet for all of Hector’s nobility and valor, he is no more inclined than his Greek counterparts to put aside personal pride for a diplomatic solution that would spare countless lives. Heroism by no means signals moral perfection.

The gods, of course, are abetting the worst impulses of these mortals. Zeus and his motley crew of immortals are as petty, territorial and devious as their human underlings. Nowhere in the cosmos of “The Iliad” does reason reign unchecked, though as destiny tragically unfolds, human actions are judged and recorded for posterity.

A political troublemaker like Marjorie Taylor Greene might not seem to have any place in the Homeric universe, though the insolent congresswoman could be a descendant of Thersites, the “foul-mouthed” Greek soldier, who “knew how to blather on for hours/ with pointless and irrelevant complaints/against the rulers—anything he thought/might raise a laugh among the other Greeks.” Thersites is legitimately furious at the way the war is being handled by Agamemnon. But when Odysseus brutally puts him in his place, the troops are grateful to see “the rude windbag” finally silenced.

There’s precedent in Homer for even the most egregious MAGA shenanigans. No wonder Sigmund Freud was drawn to this treasury of human nature. The cornerstone of his theory of psychoanalysis is that our behavior is not completely under conscious control, that we are to a large extent at the mercy of impulses, emotions and memories beyond our immediate awareness and that the better angels of our nature have a mighty battle on their hands against our instinctual drives.

In “Civilization and its Discontents,” Freud takes a grim look at how the psychological makeup of mankind works against its own flourishing. Aggression and self-destruction, as Homer indelibly illustrated, are inextricably part of the human equation. Sublimation of instinct, a prerequisite for civilization, is a recipe for conflict. We find security in the collective, but we balk if our freedom is unduly compromised.

Freud’s dark realism makes for bracing reading, but I find D.W. Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst best known for his concept of the “good-enough mother,” to be more reassuring company these days. “Good-enough” for Winnicott was a description of the environmental condition a child needs to develop. He was a strong believer in the capacity of ordinary mothers to adapt themselves to this vital role.

British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott is seen in London in 1963.

British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott is seen in London in 1963. (Barbara Young / Photo Researchers History / Getty Images)

In his 1950 essay “Some Thoughts on the Meaning of the Word ‘Democracy,’ ” he maps his thinking of the good-enough mother onto democratic society as a whole. But first he points out something obvious yet easily lost sight of: Voting is an emotional act. Why else is the secret ballot such a fundamental part of democratic infrastructure?

Voting, for Winnicott, is an expression of “deep feelings, apart from conscious thoughts.” It is the outcome of an internal struggle, in which societal riffs are internalized and made personal. Private conflicts, he writes, are thus temporarily “waged in terms of the external political scene.”

So much, then, for my shock at the seeming irrationality of Trump voters. We are all to one extent or another in the grip of our emotions when we cast a ballot. This insight doesn’t excuse bad decision-making, but it does shed light on why information and knowledge are so often unpersuasive.

Winnicott understands democracy to be a human achievement “at a point of time, of a limited society.” No constitutional framework can guarantee its permanence. Democracy, he contends, depends on the emotional maturity of its people. As the percentage of antisocial individuals increases in a population, he notes, so too does “the anti-democratic tendency.” Winnicott wrote this essay with deep concern about the psychological fallout of World War II, and reading it today I couldn’t help trembling at the associations it was raising between social disintegration and authoritarianism.

Is there anything that can foster democracy? Winnicott, extending his idea of the good-enough mother, argues that “ordinary good homes provide the only setting in which the innate democratic factor can be created.” What precisely is this mysterious ingredient? Maturity. Emotional development. Psychological resilience. Without this foundation, a society’s political structure cannot be renewed.

In exploiting the resentments and fears of voters, Trump has presided over a national regression. Immaturity now struts in the public sphere, answerable to no one. But there are many ways to be immature, and one of them is expecting human beings to act like idealized versions of themselves the moment they enter the public square. We take our ids wherever we go.

But didn’t we used to do a better job of pretending to be civilized? Vitriol has made us sloppy.

Yet if Americans are angry, they have reason to be. For one thing, those ordinary good homes have become literally unaffordable in this inflationary era. The economy is rigged against Democrats and Republicans alike. Our policy prescriptions couldn’t be further apart, but is the us-versus-them mentality serving anyone other than Donald Trump and those wealthy supporters who are prospering off his Christian nationalist hypocrisy? The time has come to take a new tack.

Simone Weil thought the love of one’s neighbor was best expressed by a simple question: “What are you going through?” Can you imagine asking this of someone with political yard signs different from your own? I can’t, and that’s why I’m bringing it up.

Fascism exhausts our humanity; that is how it succeeds. One of the reasons I feel so depleted right now is that my own humanity has been damaged by the incessant political strife. I’m tired of being at the mercy of partisan algorithms. I’m tired of flipping between fury and helplessness. Demonizing the other side feels good until it doesn’t. And what excuses me from the fundamental paradox of being human? This thing of Freudian darkness, I acknowledge mine, if you’ll pardon my tweaking of Shakespeare.

As I said, I have no more outrage left to give. It’s time to switch gears. Bracing for the worst, I have lost sight of what is best in us. It’s not too late to hope that the American people will do the right thing and choose the mature candidate who cares about “ordinary good homes.” I may be bitterly disappointed. But if I am, I’m going to need this faith to press on with the struggle.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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