- Polymetis Freud:Some Reflections on the Psychoanalytic Significance of Homer's Odyssey
Freud's "Good Books" and the Question of Homer
In 1907, the editorial board of Neuen Blätter für Literatur und Kunst, a Viennese journal for criticism in the arts and humanities, invited a number of renowned intellectuals, including Hermann Hesse, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Mach, and Sigmund Freud, to compile a list of what they regarded as ten "good books." Freud's answer was most extraordinary, because all in all he mentioned more than twenty titles, whilst at the same time discarding half of these as irrelevant with regard to the question, since they concerned "most magnificent," "most significant," and "favourite" works, rather than merely "good books." Freud justified his response by pointing out that good books are "books to which one stands in rather the same relationship as to 'good' friends, to whom one owes a part of one's knowledge of life and view of the world—books which one has enjoyed oneself and gladly commends to others, but in connection with which the element of timid reverence, the feeling of one's own smallness in the face of their greatness, is not particularly prominent."1 I shall refrain from reproducing Freud's actual list of "ten good books," here, not because the "good books" lack importance—indeed, it is quite interesting to see who is featured amongst Freud's "literary friends," especially since the list is not in alphabetical order but (as we may assume) in descending order of influence—but because it is quite clear from Freud's [End Page 252] comments that his true reverence lay elsewhere.2 And in good psychoanalytic fashion, it is always better to focus on what appears in the margin of the message or, as Freud himself put it, "[to be accustomed] to paying attention to small signs."3
Instead of immediately listing his "ten good books," Freud preferred to contemplate first "the ten most magnificent works (of world literature)" (245), whereby he started with a single name rather than a specific book: Homer. Trivial as this metonymy may seem, the rhetorical figure definitely deserves some closer attention, partly because nowhere else in his enumeration of books did Freud identify a text as completely with its author, partly because Homer is no doubt the most elusive and paradoxical author in the entire history of Western literature. Not only does his provenance remain couched in mystery, but the precise nature of his talent has puzzled and divided more researchers than anything else in the academic study of epic authorship, so much so that it has become quite common for Hellenic scholars, Classicists, and Ancient historians to refer to "the Homeric question."4 If there is one author in world literature whose books cannot be identified with his own act of writing, let alone displaced metonymically to a single authorial identity, it must be Homer. Whether Homer himself was able to write, and whether he himself wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, is not really the issue here. What matters is that both works derive their structure, composition, and aesthetic qualities from oral epic performance. Even if Homer did write his books, he constantly drew on the musicality of the spoken word, and even if he did want his audience to read, he constantly forced his readership to listen. As Alexander Pope proclaimed in a famous phrase: "Homer makes us Hearers and Virgil leaves us Readers."5 In mentioning Homer, rather than The Iliad and The Odyssey, Freud thus placed a question mark at the beginning of the most magnificent works of world literature.
If we take Freud's list of "good books" and his aforementioned definition of "good" seriously, we can only arrive at the conclusion that "Homer" was not someone to whom the inventor of psychoanalysis owed part of his knowledge of life and view of the world. In what follows I shall argue that we must guard ourselves against interpreting this conclusion as indicative of Freud's intellectual and emotional indifference towards the Homeric canon. If Freud could not have owed part of his knowledge of life and view of the world to...