The Immortality of Achilles

Jürgen Manthey

Sigmund Freud did not have a particularly high opinion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky as a "moral" person. On the contrary, he regarded him as a criminal, a man of "boundless selfishness and strongly destructive tendencies". Freud nevertheless maintained that The Brothers Karamasov was the "most brilliant novel ever written". The reader of Crime and Punishment, similarly, can never be certain of the author's standpoint. Does Dostoyevsky identify with his hero, the murderer Raskolnikov, or does he point an accusing finger? The answer must be that he does both. A similar question arises after reading the first European epic handed down to us in writing, Homer's Iliad. Its hero, Achilles, nicknamed "the destroyer of cities", is celebrated not for his amorous adventures but for the seething hatred which, finally, leads to his own downfall. Because he desires Troy as his personal booty, innumerable Greeks and Trojans must lose their lives. Achilles is the mortal enemy of civil order, symbolized by his father Peleus, and the problem child and protége of his divine mother Thetis. Consequently, he is the archetype of innumerable fictional protagonists

Following his comprehensive reading of the Iliad and Odyssey, Jürgen Manthey lays bare the basic pattern of epic poems and novels. In this pattern, Achilles appears as the secret hero, a phantom who has become an inseparable part of the history of world literature. From the Gilgamesh epic to Arno Schmidt, his powers of attraction capture writers and readers alike. The way in which Achilles is transformed into Parsifal or Werther, or returns, in diverse guises, in Boccacio's or Shakespeare's works, is as startling as his career in the writings of Goethe, Kafka, Musil, Thomas Mann, Brecht, Céline, Nabokov, Faulkner or Günter Grass. The reader will discover that Homer has created a character whose psychological make-up is so perpetually "modern" that, to date, no author has been able to get p

The Immortality of Achilles

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