Comfort Classics: Joel Christensen

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Joel Christensen

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

I have been turning to the Iliad or the Odyssey to gain peace for years. It may be strange that epics filled with suffering and war help me calm down and ignore the world around me, but they do, and for a few different reasons. Intellectually, gaining some access to a bigger human world through time lowers my anxiety because of the useful, if not cheery, reminder that all this is temporary, that it has all happened before and will likely happen again (to crib from Battlestar Galactica). When I can situate myself as part of a larger human story, I feel less alone, even if smaller and less significant.

A second part of this is the physical and mental exercise of slowing things down, of focusing on something outside oneself. The linguist Roman Jakobson famously called philology the “art of reading slowly”. When I read in English during times of depression or anxiety, I race through the words and gloss over them, losing any chance of making meaning. I just can’t focus. But Greek takes me more time, it makes me slow down just enough that I get into a meditative space, a therapeutic space where time slows down. (Stefani Echeverria-Fenn was the first person I ever saw articulate this clearly and explain some of the brain science behind it.) When I was in elementary school, I was hospitalized for a severe broken arm. A young doctor taught me meditative breathing, and it has been a precious gift to me since. I recognize the same calming effect from reading Greek.

Epic works for me because the lines are self-contained universes of meaning (you can read a handful) that stretch into one another if you need to keep going—5 minutes, or 50, there’s always some length of Homer left for you. And the depth of the poetry is powerful too: each time I return to either epic, I see things I have forgotten or never knew. Since the epics work together to speak to most aspects of human life, there’s always something there to speak to my concerns.

When did you first come across Homer?

I first fell deeply in love with Homer when I was an undergraduate. I used to suffer from a strong seasonal affective depression. The onset of fall and winter was literally and figuratively dark for me. During my junior year, I started reading the Iliad and came upon similes in book 12 describing the weapons falling in battle like snow falling in a storm. It was snowing; it was so clear to me how the weapons were at once individual and totalized as they blanketed the field. Yet, despite the violence of the conflict, the image resolved for me into one, again, of calm and repose. I always found the dissonance between the action, the image, and my reception of it fascinating and in a way liberating.

I was in my first year of graduate school at New York University on September 11th, 2001. NYU is not that close to the former site of the World Trade Center, but it is close enough to watch the towers fall from the upper floors of some buildings and hear the sound. It was not easy to return to school or focus on any of the work I was supposed to do when the world was coming apart. But I could keep reading Homer. Instead of doing all my homework, I spent my mornings reading the Iliad every day. Its echoes of war, political strife, and the human cost of it all were harrowing, but touching in a way they hadn’t been before. Similarly, when my father died suddenly 10 years ago, I found myself reading the Odyssey for the first time as a son bereft of a father with children of my own.

Homer Among the Greeks, mural by Gustav Jaeger

Can you tell me a bit about the works and their context?

Well, there’s a lot to say about Homer! I think it might be better if I just focus on book 12. The reason book 12 is so fascinating is that it is the battle over the Achaean walls. In a story of the siege of Troy, this book focuses on when the Trojans break through the Greek defenses! It has a series of remarkable similes that evoke the balance being broken between the sides and the tenuous nature of human life. In particular, we find a simile comparing the two sides to two men arguing over a boundary marker between their fields, followed soon after by one comparing Zeus judging the balance of the battle to a weaving woman measuring out wool to make a living. I have always found the scale and life shifting between these similes and the action to deeply and thoughtfully invite the audience to see their own lives in epic terms and, in turn, to see epic lives in their own terms. These are the very moments where epic helps us into worlds beyond ourselves.

What is it about reading Homer that appeals to you most?

As I said above, it is the accessibility on the line and the scalability, that epic keeps going. At this point, I think there is also a bit of nostalgia too. I have been reading Homer for more than half of my life and I can turn to some passages and find myself moving back through time, to a classroom in 1999, an apartment in 2003, my first office as a professor, when my children were infants, etc. In a way, returning to epic provides a nostos (homecoming) of its own.

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

I run—not too fast, like Odysseus now I guess. I play with our children (they are 8 and 10) or the cats. At night, we have been watching the sometimes absurd, sometimes sublime Flash television show. I am a sucker for musical episodes of science fiction or fantasy shows ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer rocked my world with “Once More With Feeling!” In Flash season 3 there’s a musical episode that’s half good, but good enough that I cried during it. My kids claimed at that moment that they had never seen me cry before! I couldn’t explain it, but I knew it was mostly just everything building up and sitting there under the surface.

Joel was born in Maine and educated at Brandeis and New York Universities. He has written broadly on language, myth, and literature and also engages publicly through (twitter @sentantiq). He teaches at Brandeis University and lives in Boston with his wife, Shahnaaz, their children, Aalia and Iskander, and their cats, Mowgli and Hermes. His book The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic comes out this December with with Cornell University Press.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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