A sweeping, accessible inquiry into what the makers of classical Greek literature were thinking about.
Danish literary critic Zeruneith’s mentalités approach is a bit old-fashioned; first-generation Freudians such as E. R. Dodds and mythologians such as Jessie Weston were worrying about the ancient mind decades ago, and even such comparatively recent studies as Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind are 30 and more years old. Unlike many others, Zeruneith reads the original Greek sources and can make sense of etymologies; like them, though, he works from the anthropologically problematic assumption that it is possible to “read” another culture across not just space but time. The premise may be faulty—or it may not be—but the author’s view that the Greeks had the same concerns as ours and that their literature was made up of “concrete interpretations of experience” has the virtue of making, say, Euripides’ worries about reason’s slide into “the chaos of the unleashed instinctual world” more comprehensible, the tale of Prometheus as a peacemaker punished for breaking the cycle of violence that much more affecting. Zeruneith pays attention to the smaller concerns of classical scholarship: the meaning of dolos, métis and até; the structure of tragedy as trilogy; the parallel crises (in the Greek sense) that drive The Iliad. But he also works larger themes, such as the development of Greek thought from the Ionian epic to the comparatively modern works of Aristophanes and Plato—in the second of which we, to follow Zeruneith, must wonder just what those voices Socrates heard in his head were.
A readable, vigorous survey—if a touch overlong—of a piece with modern works of classical scholarship such as Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993) and Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet (1986).