Madeline Miller’s Circe: attending to the Third Ecology

Félix Guattari argues that we need new configurations of three fundamental and interwoven ecologies – the environmental, the social and the psychic – if we are to address our now toxic situation. It has seemed to me for a good while now that artists, while they may pay lip service to Guattari’s thinking, simply don’t take the ecology of the psyche seriously enough. (Perhaps because they rightly sense that to do so might raise questions that are too close to home for comfort). Yet we are deeply embedded in a culture in which psychic problems of addiction, depression, self-harm and suicide are rapidly growing, not to speak of wider issues like the gap between rich and poor, the national disgrace in the UK of growing levels of child poverty, and the related need for food banks. All of which are indications of a shriving away of the empathetic imagination proper to understanding what constitutes human selfhood. In this grim situation, we obviously need all the help we can get to identify and address the root psychic causes of what is happening all around us. 

These thoughts, or variations on them, have been with me all summer as I’ve struggled with a familiar problem. How do I make any sense of and write about the increasingly dangerous and uncertain situation we’ve arrived at and, in particular, of the role of the arts in the culture of possessive individualism out of which that situation has grown. In the last few weeks help with this thinking has come from an unexpected source. I’ve read and re-read Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, a retelling of many of the elements of the Odyssey, seen from the perspective of the nymph, and later witch, CirceI have been fascinated by Greek myths since I read Robert Greaves’ re-telling of them in early adolescence; a fascination later deepened by my reading of authors such as James Hillman, Ginette Paris, Mary Watkins and Edward S. Casey. Much of which has, no doubt, been at the back of my mind while I read Miller. (Her book has been called an example of ‘feminist revisionism’, but for me such a dry academic term misses so much that makes it compelling as a novel). 

It has helped my thinking because it seems to me to identify and challenge two interwoven and fundamental aspects of possessive individualism – the myth of the hero (usually male, but in today’s culture of any gender), and the cult of fame (our culture’s substitution for “immortality”) which, taken together, orient our culture’s obsession with individual exceptionalism, the desire for attention-grabbing achievement or celebrity to be won regardless of the cost to one’s own humanity, to others, or to the world at large. Consequently, Miller’s evocation of Circe’s final act, her preparation to use the full strength of her knowledge and power to renounce her own immortality, is every bit as important to Miller’s story as her skilful deconstruction of Odysseus’ status as a hero. 

There is a passage late in the book that brought me close to tears because it seems so extraordinary relevant to our current situation and to the questions I’ve been asking myself. It involves a conversation between Circe and Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope who, with her, has found refuge with Circe. (They hope of escape the attention of the Goddess Athena, the force behind Odysseus’ insatiable desire for fame through cunning, trickery and ruthlessness). The two of them are discussing levelling the uneven flagstones in her courtyard. As Telemachus begins the job, Circe points out that their uneven wobble is caused by roof water draining there and washing away the soil. Whatever he does, the wobble will return after the next rain. His reply begins a passage that, for me, is the heart of the book: ‘that is how things go. You fix things, and they go awry, and then you fix them again’.

What follows offers a telling account of an alternative to the heroic model based on exceptionalism. It counters its failure to acknowledge what really drives our restless “scientific” curiosity, our desire for novelty, our desire to move on so as to find new, attention-grabbing challenges to meet and problems to solve. Its failure to acknowledge and celebrate the absolute necessity to human community and solidarity of sharing attention to ‘how things go’. Of attending to their inevitable ‘going awry’, and the central importance of our willingness and ability to patiently return to the task of fixing them yet again. And within this the central importance of taking pleasure ‘in the simple mending of the world’, as Circe puts it later in the book. 

All that happens later in the book flows from Telemachus’ seeing through, and rejecting, the seductive image of the hero his father once embodied for him. Despite everything that Athena offers him, he makes it very clear that he has no wish to emulate his father. Instead he accepts that our being truly human requires us to recognise that, when things inevitably go wrong, that is simply how the world is. That we must then fix them as best we can, recognising that they will go awry again and that we, or those who follow us, will then have to fix them yet again. An honouring of the solidarity t be found in facing basic human necessities, rather than the desire for the exceptionalism of the hero.

Given what we know of the relationship between some current political players and their fathers, this passage takes on a particular relevance. But (for once) I will resist the temptation to be trite and dwell on such individuals. (If you are a regular reader of this blog, you won’t need to guess who I have in mind). This is not, however, an issue of “individual psychology” (itself a problematic and potentially misleading phrase). It’s about a fundamental presupposition that helps underpin the entire “globalised” culture of consumer capitalism. (And, of course, the “success” of artists like Jeff Koons, which depends on the warping of our sense of creativity and imagination in the name of novelties that can be easily and conspicuously consumed by the super-rich). Until we face the psychic issues that that presupposition generates, in whatever way each of us can, those who see themselves as “artists” in the heroic mode will remain just what the performance art Andrea Fraser has named them, part of the problem, not part of the solution.