- Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy by Marina Berzins McCoy
Wounded Heroes exemplifies as well as any book I know what a textual study in literature and medicine can and should be. Classicist Marina McCoy’s subtitle best expresses what her interest is: the centrality of human, bodily vulnerability in Ancient Greek epic, philosophy, and tragedy. Her concern is whether and how vulnerability first can be acknowledged at all, then how different authors presented vulnerability as a communal and political issue, and finally how Greek theater communalized vulnerability by performing it with the most inclusive public visibility. Medicine is discussed less as practice than as metaphor, and no parallels are drawn to how contemporary medicine positions itself with respect to vulnerability, but I find the book more eloquent in that silence and more useful to those whose interest is contemporary. The art of writing includes deciding what to leave to the reader. Wounded Heroes prepares its readers, including practicing clinicians, to rethink their understanding and engagement with vulnerability.
The most specific wounds in the book occur in the first chapter on Homer. Wounds abound in the Iliad. McCoy reads the Iliad’s characters as variously able to acknowledge their own and others’ vulnerability. Beyond individuals are “questions of how the community is formed, its strengths and weaknesses, and the nature of the root of the bonds between human beings” (2). McCoy considers the difference between how gods are wounded and human responses to wounds. Wounds cause pain to the gods, but for those who are immortal pain is transitory, more an annoyance than a crisis, as Zeus tells Aphrodite when she complains of her wound. Aphrodite’s wound precipitates self-absorption. McCoy observes the detail of her dropping her son, Aineias (whom Apollo catches, conveniently for later mythology). By contrast, wounds among humans open dialogues. When Menelaos is wounded, he immediately reassures his brother Agamemnon that the wound is not [End Page 222] life threatening, and Agamemnon seeks the doctor Machaon to assist. “The possibility of loss reverberates from Menelaos to Agamemnon and back again, in their communication about the wound’s meaning” (8). Moreover, “Their mirroring of one another’s suffering is simultaneously familial and political, as their interpersonal care is intimately linked to the question of whether Menelaos’ wounds will also result in the loss of the war’s moral significance” (8). The latter point is that if Menelaos dies, then the mission of returning Helen to her husband ends with his death. But the moral issue is also whether the Greeks can remain unified in concerted political action.
I recalled Menelaos’s wound from my past readings of the Iliad, but reading McCoy, I realized I had nodded over what seemed like a plot detail. McCoy shows how this small story contributes to setting up the big story, that of Achilles. Her central argument is how Achilles comes to accept his own vulnerability, culminating not only in returning Hector’s body to Priam, but also in Achilles sharing a communal meal with Priam. Achilles eats with his enemy as he breaks the fast he has maintained since the death of Patroklos. What matters in the meal is acknowledging a shared human need for food. A brief review cannot begin to summarize the elegance of McCoy’s description of a moment focused on multiple converging vulnerabilities.
The discussion moves from Homer to Sophocles. McCoy first gives equal attention to the two Oedipus plays. Perhaps her most original argument is the centrality of Theseus as the hero of Oedipus at Colonus. Theseus, at least as depicted in that play, exemplifies the integration of vulnerability in individual action that meets communal need. That theme continues in McCoy’s analysis of Sophocles’s Philoctetes, which again has both physical and psychological wounds that connect individuals to communities and are as political as they are personal.
The genre shifts from tragedy to...