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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Homeric Subjects: Psychoanalysis and the Iliad

  • Author(s): McCrary, William Witherspoon
  • Advisor(s): Vine, Brent
  • et al.

The Homeric poems’ folk theories of the mental apparatus are primitive, the characters are not very introspective, and the narrators are not particularly concerned with depicting interiority. All of this should not, however, be taken for a lack of characterization or psychological insight on the part of the poet(s). As some scholars have recognized, interiority is not absent; it is implicit. This dissertation makes the implicit explicit. Drawing on four theories or schools of psychoanalysis (object relations, self psychology, attachment theory, and relational psychoanalysis), I show what beliefs, assumptions, and interpersonal templates Achilles and other Homeric characters use to interpret the world, construct their subjective experience, and guide their interactions with others. We see how Achilles’ characteristic ways of relating reflect his mental representations of self and other in interaction.

The first two chapters show how the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon in Iliad 1, and therefore the plot of the whole poem, grows out of their personalities. The first chapter explains Agamemnon’s refusal to ransom Chryseis, points out the subtle ways in which Achilles masochistically provokes Agamemnon, and traces Agamemnon’s shifting and contradictory defenses. In the second chapter, I analyze the quarrel proper. The heart of the chapter begins our discussion of narcissism and establishes Achilles’ relational manner and what it implies about his personality. The third chapter shows how Achilles prevents reconciliation with Agamemnon in book 1, introduces the enactment that Achilles repeatedly draws others into, compares his behavior and personality with Thetis’s, and considers his heroism in the context of masochism and narcissism. After first demonstrating that Achilles is narcissistic, the fourth chapter then uses self psychology, object relations theories, and relational psychoanalysis to explain the outcome of the embassy, Achilles’ enactment, and the origins of his narcissism.

I take the characters apart and put them back together to show how they work. Just as an orthopedist might be able to visualize what each bone and muscle are doing as a person moves, we learn to discern what mental processes and representations of self and other are at work as the characters interact with one another.

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