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Transcript of 1869, Episode 101 with Joel Christensen

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Introduction: Welcome to 1869, the Cornell University Press Podcast. I’m Jonathan Hall.

This episode we speak with Joel Christensen, author of The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic. Joel Christensen is Associate Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He is co-author of A Beginner’s Guide to Homer and Homer’s Thebes.

We spoke to Joel about how the Greek epic tradition was not based on the written word, but on large scale performances, in which ancient audiences experienced the stories as ways to think about their own lives, how the Odyssey in particular offered audiences a form of folk psychology, and what lessons modern cognitive psychology can learn from Homer.

Jonathan: Hello, Joe, welcome to the podcast.

Joel: Hi, thanks for having me, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Oh, it’s our pleasure. Well, I want to give you a congratulations on your new book, The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic, it sounds like a very exciting book. And I think it’s interesting that I’m talking from Ithaca, I’m located in Ithaca and that’s the island home of Odysseus, obviously, not in the Greek Archipelago, but named after that.

So tell us what inspired you to write a book on the Odyssey?

Joel: I think the primary thing that probably inspired me to write a book on the Odyssey was teaching the Odyssey year in and year out. I did my early work and graduate school and my dissertation on the Iliad. And, you know, the story I usually tell, which doesn’t make it untrue, that I tell them all the time, is that we’re, you know, what we work on and what we get attracted to is based in part in our experience.

So I started graduate school about a month before 911, I moved to New York City, and I was in New York City for 9/11. And over the years that I worked in graduate school, I kept going back to the Iliad, because it is a poem of war and a poem of rhetoric and politics. And when I left graduate school and started teaching at the University of Texas in San Antonio, what I found frustratingly, is that the Iliad didn’t seem to get students to respond to it.

On the other hand, they kept going back to the Odyssey, so I teach my most thrilling and exciting classes on the Odyssey—a poem, I didn’t know as well, and that I didn’t think I understood or even respected as much. So part of what really pushed me was trying to understand why students were getting such fulfilling experiences from reading the Odyssey when I didn’t.

So, the real sort of key moment for me, happened in around 2011—my dad died suddenly. And I found myself returning to the Odyssey in class and thinking about the ways in which it forces us to think about the way that other people in your life create your identity for you.

So for people who may not remember the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home after 20 years, and he’s not fully home until after a series of reunions—first with a son who never really knew, his wife, and then this problematic part in book 24 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus shows up in disguise still, and he tricks his father Laertes and father cries. And then he immediately relents, and says, “No, no, I’m your son Odysseus, I’m here.” And his father doesn’t believe him. And he has to prove it to him by showing him his scar that he got from when he was a young man on a hunting trip.

And then they go through this orchard, and name the trees that their fathers and grandfathers planted, and they took care of when Odysseus was young. And one day I was teaching that and just completely undone by it because it made me remember my father. And the way he bought five acres of land in the middle of the woods in Maine, when I was in third grade, and we spent the rest of his life trying to turn that into like lawn and gardens. Right. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had to stop the lawn mower and refuel in the process of mowing this ridiculous lawn.

So I think what I started to understand from the Odyssey, is how much rereading and growing with a narrative repays you, but also how much your place in life dictates or shapes the way you receive a narrative.

So again, you know, I responded to the Iliad as a younger man, in a time of war living in New York City, seeing the anti-war protests, debating with friends about the War on Terror. And when I returned to the Odyssey and taught it, I saw my students responding, but I also was a father.
We had two children and you know, 16 months, and I’d lost a father. So I started to see the Odyssey in a way as a poem about what it means to choose to live. And what you need to do in order to survive.

And the sort of the next part of this was the psychology angle. And the psychology angle is this—we’re born without a manual on how to use the human mind, right? And I’ve always been interested in how the what poetry does in the world, how it shifts people, how it changes them, and how narratives shape you over time. And as I watched students respond to the Odyssey, what I saw them responding to was the building of character, identity, and really emotional responses.

So my question started to be, how does the Odyssey anticipate the way its audience’s minds work? And how does it reflect the way minds work together in the world, right, both both emotionally, and, and intellectually.

So first step, I’ll pause after this, the first sort of critical step out of that day where I was thinking Odysseus, and his father and the trees, I read a short article in The New York Times, it was an op-ed about a concept called learned helplessness. And that’s a basic concept that’s been around since like 1900 or so. It says that when we experience failure, we’re less likely to try after repeated failure. And we’re also it turns out, liable to succeed less when we try, because we get habituated to the idea that we won’t succeed. And we sort of both lose skill-sets, right? But you also lose an extent to the belief that you can do something to change your surroundings. So this has been this has been, you know, used to describe depression, cycles of poverty, responses to racism and trauma.

And I went into class with this idea, and address the problem at the beginning of the Odyssey, which is that Odysseus has been on this island for seven year, right? We see him here and book five of the Odyssey. He’s been in this island, seven years, crying all day at the edge of the sea. And having sex with Calypso at night, even though he doesn’t really want to. And then Hermes comes and says, make a ship, or have him make a raft so he can leave. And we had been talking the day before about why doesn’t he try?
Right? Why doesn’t he build a ship until that moment? And there are all sorts of arguments you can make? Oh, well, it’s the gods, he knows he can’t go. But at the basic level.

My question was this, can we imagine that the Odyssey is depicting someone who has been broken down by life, who doesn’t believe that he can succeed anymore, and needs something radical to happen to shift him out of it? And how would this shape our reading of the epic, and help us understand what ancient audiences were doing with it?

So at a very basic level, like that’s the first observation that I sort of built the research for the book on, and I moved from there to sort of look at a whole series of different ideas of the way human minds work and modern psychology, both clinical and cognitive, to really look at the epic as a whole with a basic question like, what does it do in the world? What does it say about human minds? And why is that an important question to ask now?

Jonathan: Wow, that’s a beautiful and amazing story. You have a first-hand experience of the Odyssey as a therapeutic tool, you see your students responding to it, and seeing that tit helps them compared to the Iliad. So tell us, you have you have a term called folk psychology, tell us how reading, hearing, experiencing the Odyssey is therapeutic.

Joel: So folk psychology is an idea that you’ll see in different
in different texts in different way. But the main author I draw on is a guy named Jerome Bruner, we use a cognitive psychologist who used to teach at Harvard. And he has a book named, I think it’s “Possible Worlds, Actual Mind.” So maybe you flip it around. And the idea is that, you know, you can have embedded in a narrative tradition of basic concept of how human minds work and don’t work. And he calls this a folk psychology. And he doesn’t use the word folk in any way to contrast it with say, official or scientific, just that it’s something that doesn’t come out of a clinical environment. And it’s a basic assumption of the way human minds work in the world.

So for me, understanding the epic or Greek epic tradition as psychological, oras conveying folk psychology, is based in understanding its performance context and the way people experienced it in the ancient world. So we too typically experience ancient literature as something on the page, we read alone and think about, and then only once or twice, but earlier, I mentioned that the important step of rereading and returning to a narrative as you change in life.

In the ancient world, audiences would have heard sections of Greek epic all the time, and they would have seen it performed in monumental performances, and they would have had it throughout their life, they would have talked about it, they would have reflected on it. And so it has sort of a narrative load, and occupies a cultural space that almost nothing in our modern world does, right? Like maybe if you took like religious texts, added the Marvel Universe, and then threw in some fan-fiction altogether, it might have the cultural space that epic had in the ancient world.

And so even before like Aristotle, and philosophers talked about tragedy and the catharsis that happened there, I think that ancient audiences experienced epic, as a way to think about their own lives and their own problems. And it changed over time with them. So part of the performance context is that the epics weren’t written down. They weren’t perfect scripts. They were performed and sung in response to audience interests. And so really what they are are complex narrative engagements, they don’t give solutions to problems, they give ways to think about what it means to be a human.

So back to this idea of learned helplessness that I mentioned, the epic, the Odyssey actually presents three different figures who are paralyzed by their inability to have agency in the world. First, we see Telemachus in book one, then we see Odysseus in book five, and throughout, we see Penelope. So the three chief characters in this epic, are sidelined from the action, they can’t make choices, they don’t know how to navigate in the world. And what we get then are different interventions that communicate, how they can re-engage with the world and what they need. Telemachus needs a tutor, he needs someone to show him how to act, and so he needs to hear other stories and different examples of how people work in the world. Odysseus needs something that’s akin to cognitive behavioral therapy—he needs to try and then he needs to fail again.

So in book five, when he – people, often forget – when he leaves that lonely island, he almost dies several times— his ship wrecks again, he has to choose to swim to safety, and he has to decide to live. And then the most the central part of the Odyssey, if you ask an average person, what they remember from the Odyssey, nine times out of ten, they’ll remember the part of the story of Odysseus tells himself. So from books nine through twelve, Odysseus tells all the famous stuff from the Odyssey, the bag of the winds, the Cave of the Cyclops going to the underworld Circe changing the men, the Sirens, that’s all his story.

And I think the primary lesson we learn in the middle of the epic, is that the way you regain agency in the world, is by getting control of your own story by telling stories about yourself that put you in the center of the action. And I really got this inspiration from the clinical therapy practice of narrative therapy, as written by a man named Michael White, who’s from Australia. And he really emphasizes and this echoes a lot of what happens in clinical therapy, in talk therapy, which is that part of the reason we can’t act in the world, part of the dysfunction we feel is that we believe bad things about ourselves, right? Or we believe that we didn’t have control of situations, or we did have control of situations where we didn’t. So part of the goal of talking about stories, and to be telling our own stories, is figuring out where our own responsibility stands and where it doesn’t.

And I know I’m going on a little longer on this one, but in the beginning of the Odyssey, Zeus says this fabulous thing that I returned to several times in the book—he’s looking down on the mortals and he says mortals, they’re always blaming us for their problems when they make their fate worse than it needs to be because of their own stupidity, right? And the word stupidity is recklessness or blindness. But this is a radical break with the mythical tradition. It’s a break. You know, when people read the Iliad, they’ll say, oh, what’s fate and what’s divine will? In the beginning of the Odyssey Zeus is saying, no. Yeah, some things are gonna be fated, right? But you also have some responsibility for your life.

So back to some of your earlier question, what makes the epic therapeutic? It gives you a series of case studies. And a lingering question throughout. And the question is, how are the players in the epic responsible for their own suffering? And how are they not? And I think by going through this process, this narrative process, you learn to ask the question about your own life, right? You learn to think about causality and agency differently, you learn to accept that there are some things you can’t control. But that even within that range, there are some things you could if you just take it into your own hands.

Jonathan: That’s really cool. I like that the quote that you had from Zeus, and that the Odyssey offers in many ways as you said folk psychology or we could say proto-psychology of giving people agency and growing from their experiences. That’s beautiful.

So we have this as a form of psychology. What can modern psychology or cognitive science learn from Homer?

Joel: Well, I think one thing you can learn is that it takes a long time to heal the human mind. But even more importantly, there’s a situatedness, right, there’s a community aspect of mental health, that I think often in the West, we get too far away from, right? The whole notion of one of the most powerful lessons that I’ve gained from the Odyssey is that you aren’t who you say you are, you are who other people say you are. And one of the most uncomfortable and painful things in our life, is when other people believe or say things about us that are so that can conflict with what we believe about ourselves, right?

And so for me, these are different levels of narrative and story, right? The most honest you can be in life, is if other people know what’s going on in your mind, right? If other people say the same things about you believe them about you, that you do, and the most pain comes from when you have that gap between the two.

So I think one thing to learn, and to really focus on for psychologists and for individuals is that a Odysseus doesn’t get to be home until, or he doesn’t get to be Odysseus until he’s embraced by others, right? So our identities are comprised of social rules we don’t control. And I think that runs against some of the, you know, popular spirit, especially of American individualism, the idea that you are an individual and that you can exert your will, right?

But this goes back, you know, to the old line of poetry that, you know, no man is an island, right, independent of the main. And I think so I think that’s a powerful reminder. But I think it also, it’s a good reminder for modern clinical practitioners, but also theoretical, that, you know, human minds haven’t changed radically, right? I mean, for 2000 years, and that there’s a lot of wisdom in traditional narratives and traditional cultures. That can be I don’t want to say confirmed by but can be explored from the perspective of the scientific side as well.

So one of the things that I find particularly troubling, is the notion that, you know, we’re going to solve our all of our problems with science, right? or drugs, when the harder lesson is that some things take time, and some things can’t be fixed. So I think what I found, remarkably and is how many modern concepts are echoed in the Odyssey. Right? Now, part of the problem there, and I think in danger of my approach is that I’ve gone looking for them.

But I think the process of conversation between the worlds is incredibly enriching, and can really help us understand the final important thing, which I think psychologists understand but which in the public, we don’t talk about enough, which is the power of story. So one of the things that has been really overwhelming and sad has been while I’ve written this book, is watching how much narrative gets away from people, and how fast it moves online, how much it changes the way we look at the world, and can really pervert our public discourse, right about what we believe our place in the world is and what stories we choose to believe.

So this year, as we’ve been in isolation, I’ve been thinking, look, we have social distancing for diseases. Sometimes we need them for bad ideas as well. Right? I don’t know how to do that. But here’s the thing. You talked about you being in Ithaca, NY, and Odysseus going back to to Ithaca—it takes a very long time to get from Ithaca to Troy and back again. Here, now we can move our stories and our identities in the blink of an eye. And we haven’t adapted to that speed of storytelling, and that speed of identity construction.

So I think if anything, we need to reflect on the power of story. And really, by the end of the epic, and the end of the book, as I write it, it’s really self-reflected, and reflective in thinking about how dangerous narrative can be, how tales and stories and ideas about identity can move us to places where we harm communities instead of help them.

Jonathan: That’s fascinating and refreshing, in that, as you so well said, we live in a very fast paced world, where things are expected to change
very rapidly and the news cycle, and the media cycle that we that we are in, doesn’t allow narrative to actually gestate or grow. It’s just a new story, a new story, a new story.

And it it is refreshing, that that this ancient tale, this ancient epic, has so much to offer us, if we just dive into it, there’s a great quote that you have at the very beginning of the book by Heraclitus, “The person who journeys on every road cannot find the limits of the soul by walking. That is how deep its story is.” And are our soul searching, our soul mining requires time, requires depth. And we live in an age of superficiality in many ways, but folks like you are mining, mining the depths of these traditions and bringing this out and we encourage readers to pick up Joel’s new book, The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic.

We’ve only scratched the surface, certainly on what you’ve uncovered with your research. But this has been a fascinating conversation that I’m sure we could go on for hour, there’s so much to talk about. But I so appreciate you coming on to the podcast and sharing what you found.

Joel: Thank you. It’s always great to talk about Homer.

Jonathan: Excellent. Excellent, cool. Well, great talking with you and look forward to talking with you again soon.

Joel: Thank you. All right, take care.

Conclusion: That was Joel Christensen, author of The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow him @sentantiq. If you’d like to purchase his new book, use the promo code 09POD to save 30% on our website. If you live in the UK use the discount code CSANNOUNCE and visit the website

Thank you for listening to 1869, the Cornell University Press Podcast.

Learn more about this new book.

Joel P. Christensen is Associate Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He is coauthor of A Beginner’s Guide to Homer and Homer’s Thebes. Follow him on Twitter @sentantiq.

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