My first exposure to Emily Katz Anhalt’s Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths came via Mary Beard’s review of it in the New York Times, which several friends kindly sent me.
Generally, I’m cautious of trusting Beard as a reviewer. She tends to paint in the broadest of strokes, often glossing over the finer points that shape an argument. I’ve also found she can be manipulative, twisting evidence out of shape in order to support her positions. Beard can’t seem to resist trying to make what she believes to be better arguments than those of the authors whose books she reviews.
In the teeniest of nutshells, Anhalt’s book argues that rage is destructive of self and others, and we are better off (individually and communally) practicing empathy, discussion, and debate. Her evidence consists of literary analysis of Homer’s Iliad and Athenian tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides. We need ancient Greek myths, Anhalt argues, because they demonstrate the value of empathy, discussion, and debate.
Early in her review, Beard writes,
“Ancient literature can certainly be eye opening, and it has a wonderful capacity to make us re-examine many modern assumptions that we take too much for granted. But I am very doubtful that it has any particularly useful direct lessons for us.”
This is a perfect example of what can make Beard so maddening. She hasn’t actually said anything different from what Anhalt says. Why isn’t re-examining our assumptions a kind of direct lesson? In practice, I agree with Beard in that I’m wary about taking “direct lessons” from literature. This is especially so in the case of ancient literature produced by cultures radically different from our modern ones. I worry that by doing so we appropriate ancient literature for our own purposes without understanding it on its own terms. In fact, after reading Anhalt’s book, that is one of my reservations about it. But that is not what Beard is saying. In addition to making a blanket statement (“any particularly useful”), she plays with words to make two things seem different when they’re not.
But the best example of what I find frustrating about Beard as a reviewer is the last paragraph of her review. Let’s break it down:
“Rage, as shown in the ‘Iliad’ and some modern geopolitical debate, can be petty and corrosive, but I doubt that Homer was advocating that we should live entirely without it.”
What is her evidence in taking this position about Homer? Certainly, one could argue that the Iliad neither justifies nor opposes rage but simply points out that it exists and perhaps even that it is unavoidable. Further, rather than advocating for or rejecting it, one could argue the poem shows the consequences of rage. Perhaps some of the poem’s listeners/readers, especially modern ones, find these consequences so unpleasant that they decide rage isn’t worth the destruction it causes. And I hope they do. But I cannot understand where Beard would get the idea that the poem suggests there are times we should embrace rage. The poem tracks the violence and destruction caused by Achilles’ rage and culminates in his recovering his equilibrium when he is able to feel empathy for his enemy’s father.
Saying rage is an inevitable human failing is not the same as saying we need it or that it can be productive.
“It is sometimes not only justifiable but necessary. Do we want to live in a world in which we don’t get furious at slavery, racism, or any number of other global injustices—or even at some of the dreadful truths of the human condition?”
Here, Beard jams two concepts together—“justifiable” and “necessary.” This is a clever way to make it seem as if one logically follows from the other. Most of us would probably accept that rage is sometimes justifiable or at least understandable, but that is not the same as believing it is necessary. Beard then uses the emotionally charged examples of slavery and racism because who would dare disagree with her? But do I need to feel rage about slavery to fight against it? I would say not. I don’t depend on feeling furious to act against slavery and racism. I act against them because they violate my sense of right and wrong and because I feel a responsibility to act on what is right. These are wholly separate from whether I become emotionally overwhelmed by my negative feelings about them. This is not to say that I don’t become emotionally overwhelmed (i.e feel enraged). But it’s not rage that drives me to act.
As for the “dreadful truths of the human condition,” I’m not sure what she means. From her following sentence, I gather she means death. But perhaps she also means inequalities that we can’t “fix,” e.g. a select few being born with extreme athletic or intellectual gifts. It strikes me as a classic emotional appeal. I’m sure many of us can relate to feeling furious that we have to die someday or that we weren’t born with Ella Fitzgerald’s other-worldly voice. But what does feeling furious accomplish, other than consuming the person feeling it without changing a blessed thing? Beard never addresses that, though it’s a key point of Anhalt’s book.
“When more than two millenniums after Homer the poet Dylan Thomas wrote of facing death with the words ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ it was the kind of rage that many of us understandably cherish.”
Another clever rhetorical ploy that in practice lacks substance: trotting out a positive association with rage in the form of Thomas’ beautiful poem that strikes an emotional chord with people who are not looking forward to death. But she takes the line out of its context. Readers with only passing familiarity of the poem may seize on the familiar line without recognizing how the word “rage” is used in its original context: a son’s plea to his father as the latter is on his deathbed despite the speaker’s recognition that “wise men at their end know dark is right.” Beard appropriates the line but leaves the poem’s complexity and contradiction to the side.
All this is to say: I read Anhalt’s book because Beard’s dismissive take-down made me curious to experience the book for myself.
I’ll have more to say about Anhalt’s book itself soon, but for now: Has a negative review ever caused you to want to read the book (or see the movie) because you saw problems with the critique?