September 30, 2008

The wolf himself

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Goat Rope is in the process of winding up a long series of reflections on the Odyssey of Homer, although you'll also find links and comments about current events.

Odysseus, the eponymous main character, is a hero in the ancient Greek sense of someone who lived a larger than normal life and whose deeds are remembered after his death. The word did not imply moral superiority and some of the most famous Greek heroes did some pretty nasty things.

Such is the case with our boy. As we've seen along the way, he's a terrible commander who is directly or indirectly responsible for the death of around 600 of his men on 12 ships--and that was after the war was over. He is secretive, totally lacking in social trust, excessive in his desire for revenge, and impulsive. He lies nearly every time he speaks, even when there's no good reason to do so. What's his deal, anyway?

The VA psychiatrist and classical scholar Jonathan Shay has some interesting thoughts about this. First, while Odysseus has been through many grueling ordeals at war and on his way home, he doesn't seem to have suffered from the classic symptoms of war-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a direct result. But there are interesting clues of an earlier trauma.

In his homecoming, he is recognized by his nurse Eurycleia by a scar on his thigh that he received as a child:

Bending closer
she started to bathe her master...then,
in a flash, she knew the scar--
that old wound
made years ago by a boar's white tusk when Odysseus
went to Parnassus, out to see [his grandfather] Autolycus and his sons.
The man was his mother's noble father, one who excelled
the world at thievery, that and subtle, shifty oaths.

Autolycus means something like "wolf-like" or "the wolf himself" or even "werewolf." It was he who gave him the name Odysseus, which means something like "man of pain" or "he who gives and receives pain."

When he was a boy, he went to visit Autolycus and nearly died on that hunt. Some commentators have seen this as a turning point in his development. This may have given him a sense that those who were responsible for his well-being couldn't be trusted. As Shay put it,

I see it as a darker transformation, when Odysseus concluded that no one was to be trusted, when he concluded that unless you beat them to it or get over on them first, other people only want to hurt, exploit, or humiliate you...

Shay notes that some of his patients who had the most difficult symptoms experienced abuse and neglect in childhood and adolescence prior to their military service.

...If the expectation that other people plan only harm, exploitation, and humiliation produces a cynical "strike first" attitude, trauma can produce an active, self-starting predator. Odysseus' scar alerts us to the interconnection of childhood trauma, combat trauma, and a veteran's character.

El Cabrero is well aware of the limited practical utility of psychoanalyzing literary characters, but there you have it. Let's just say he had issues.

THE BIG NEWS of course is the failure of the Wall Street bailout bill in the House. El Cabrero has mixed feelings about that. The bill was a vast improvement over what was originally proposed but didn't go far enough in helping ordinary Americans. The best advice I've heard is for people to take a deep breath and then start advocating again for a package that provides more protection for homeowners, an ownership state in every firm that receives public assistance and increased regulation of the financial industry. Congress also needs to consider another targeted stimulus package aimed at the hardest hit Americans.

RETHINKING "FREE" TRADE. Lots of economists are.

STALEMATE. A BBC poll conducted in 23 nations found that 59 percent of respondents believed that the Bush administration's "war on terror" either hasn't weakened al-Qaeda or made it stronger. Let me guess...the decision to invade Iraq didn't help.

URGENT DEEP SEA FISH COMMUNICATION UPDATE. Stop the presses! It appears that the cusk-eel uses some form of sonic communication, which is to say it makes noises to other cusk-eels. Take that, all you cusk-eel communication skeptics out there!



Anonymous said...

Hey there!

Ran across this and you are one of the few people around here positioned to get the word out about this, it's in re: the "wall st. crisis" and a (meant to be private) conference call the US treasury boys had with some wall street types... if you find any validity, would you spread the word???


keep fighting the good fight...

El Cabrero said...

I'll check it out. Thanks!