Ahab Rages and Odysseus Weeps: Trauma as a Core Concept for Humanistic Inquiry
June 24, 2022
Thanks to David C. Yamada, a 2022 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
The Great Books of the Western World series includes the two-volume Syntopicon, An Index to the Great Ideas, which contains 102 core ideas and accompanying entries that help to frame the major works to follow. The list of ideas covers a wide range of topics relevant to the social sciences, literature and the humanities, mathematics and physical sciences, and the human condition in general. The ideas serve as useful guideposts for self-guided learners who are tapping into the set for their personal education. And, of course, they infuse the heart of Harrison Middleton University’s core curriculum (Harrison Middleton University, p. 18).
While any list of ideas that have shaped Western Civilization shouldn’t be subjected to changes made on a whim, it might benefit from periodic changes and additions that reflect an evolving understanding of human knowledge and insight. Among other things, the original Great Ideas list includes various emotions and states of being, such as courage, desire, happiness, and pleasure and pain. Missing from the list is trauma, and I respectfully suggest that it should be added to the mix. I appeal to two stalwarts of the Great Books collection, Herman Melville and Homer, to make that case.
The Rages of Ahab
Those who are familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (Melville, 2018) may understandably regard the Pequod’s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.
In 2020, I had an opportunity to read and discuss Moby-Dick via a course devoted to this complex novel, offered online by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. As I read the book, I was stunned to read numerous passages that vividly supported that hypothesis.
Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these insights into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times (Melville, 2018, pp. 148, 168, 186, 317, etc.), is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill” (Cambridge English Dictionary).
Ahab’s condition traces back to “the precise time of his bodily dismemberment” (Melville, 2018, 148) when the whale took off his leg, and the aftermath of his painful, delirious recovery aboard ship. Later, we learn more about Ahab’s deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, aggravated by a subsequent “agonizing wound” suffered on the Pequod that “all but pierced his groin” (Melville, 2018, p. 340). We are also told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels” (Melville, 2018 p. 402).
Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (van der Kolk, 2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may continually relive and obsess over them, while seeking justice. Just like Ahab, other trauma sufferers may ruminate over their situations. Oftentimes they can only feel, feel, feel.
Of course, one could also fairly classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state. But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Captain Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I find myself harkening back to the phrase hurt people hurt people. It captures an acknowledged dynamic that some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others. I think that may well apply to Ahab.
The Tears of Odysseus
Boston psychiatrist Jonathan Shay uses Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad (Homer, 1990) and The Odyssey (Homer, 1996), to counsel veterans suffering from PTSD. Dr. Shay recounts this work in two books, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (Shay, 1994) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (Shay, 2002).
I first encountered Shay’s writings before I had read either The Iliad or The Odyssey as an adult. In Achilles in Vietnam, he compares Homer’s vivid depictions of battlefield warfare in The Iliad to the experiences of Vietnam War veterans. Furthermore, Shay explains how he has used The Iliad to help Vietnam veterans who suffer from PTSD understand the psychological devastation of combat. In Odysseus in America, Shay draws parallels between the long, homeward journey of Odysseus and the experiences of Vietnam veterans who are making difficult transitions back to civilian life in the U.S. The Odyssey, he asserts, may assist traumatized veterans in comprehending their own journeys toward recovery.
Within the past year, I kept Shay’s books in mind as I read The Iliad and The Odyssey via the University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education, a four-year, adult education course of reading and discussion of Great Books. Even as a lifelong civilian, I could see how combat veterans might see themselves in The Iliad’s brutal depictions of on-the-ground warfare and its effects on mind and body. Homer left little to the imagination in describing that raw experience.
The relevance of The Odyssey to trauma took a little longer to sink in for me, but when it did, it was like a sudden flash of insight. Book Five finds Odysseus trapped on an island by the beautiful nymph Calypso, where for seven years he is required to service her needs. He is constantly in tears:
Off he sat on a headland, weeping there as always,
wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish,
gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears.
(Homer, 2006, p. 155)
Because Odysseus is not a main character in The Iliad, it may be easy to forget that he has served overseas in combat for some ten years. And now, in The Odyssey, he is in the midst of a journey home that will take another ten years to complete. He is exhausted, grief-stricken, and traumatized. One can easily grasp how those who have experienced warfare might connect with this story about a long journey home.
The Literature of Trauma
The term “trauma informed” seems to be popping up everywhere these days, especially in the contexts of mental health, education, social services, and even law and policy. For example, my own interest in trauma emerged out of my long-time work as a law professor, studying bullying and abusive behaviors in workplaces and the many interplays between law and psychology. I strongly believe that lawyers, judges, and other legal stakeholders should develop a deeper understanding of trauma and its effects.
Trauma has also emerged as a frequent theme in popular literature, including non-fiction self-help books and personal narratives, as well as novels driven by characters’ backstories of traumatic experiences. In fact, in a December 2021 New Yorker article, “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” Parul Sehgal posits that we may be overdoing this theme. While some might tag Sehgal’s piece as the kind of contrarian commentary that typically follows a newly pronounced trend, it’s at least fair to suggest that we can frame too much of our lives through this prism.
In any event, I’m not concerned that Melville or Homer will be confused with the latest page-turners or self-help books. Rather, I’m opining that these classic works might now be seen in a different light, one that, in turn, illuminates our understanding of an important part of human experience. Even if our current attention to trauma results in some excesses and occasional tunnel vision, the rich illustrations of trauma, its origins, and its harm as depicted in these classic works help to center us on why these inquiries are important.
This piece draws upon the author’s application essay for the HMU Fellowship in Ideas and an earlier article posted to his professional blog, Minding the Workplace.
Duffy, Maureen & Yamada, David C., eds. Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2 vols.). Santa Barbara, Ca., Praeger, 2018.
Harrison Middleton University. 2022 Catalog, Tempe, Arizona.
Homer. The Iliad. New York, Penguin, 1990 (Robert Fagles, trans.).
Homer. The Odyssey. New York, Penguin, 1996 (Robert Fagles, trans.).
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: A Norton Critical Edition, 3rd ed., New York, W.W. Norton, 2018 (Hershel Parker, ed.).
“Monomaniac,” Cambridge English Dictionary, retrieved on June 20, 2022, from:
Sehgal, Parul. “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” New Yorker, Dec. 27, 2021, retrieved on June 20, 2022, from:
Shay, Jonathan. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York, Scribner, 1994.
Shay, Jonathan. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York, Scribner, 2002.
van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, Penguin Books, 2014.
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