I have written before (here, and here, and also here) about the need, when approaching Homer and other ancient Greek texts, to embrace this paradox: The ancient texts that we continue to find relevant today are both the voices of specific people, writing about their unique experiences during a particular time, from a particular place AND they express universal human longings, needs, and struggles. Both are true.
Paradox is hard. To confront it means to accept that there are limits to human knowledge and understanding. The only way forward is with humility, an earnest desire to listen and hear, to release the ego, remember that everything isn’t about “me” and “I,” and to acknowledge that we cannot ever fully understand experiences that we have not lived through ourselves. But even where our daily realities are different, our histories are different, the human experiences that we have in common can help us achieve empathy, if we are willing to stand at the intersection of specific and universal.
Obviously, this is about more than reading Homer. This is about how to be in the world, which requires us every day to stand at that intersection. I’m always saying that the best reception lingers there, leans into discomfort. Rather than judging a world that it cannot hope to understand, then inevitably finding it lacking and claiming to correct it, the best modern reception of antiquity draws on the universal to illuminate the particular. It acts, in a sense, as a rehearsal for how to meet the world.
Homer, ancient Greece, and human nature are our shared language that became a bridge capable of bringing me new insights and opening my heart. These seven books are exemplars of the very best thing that literature is and does, a conversation across time that is both mirror and window. They show what remains devastatingly constant with humans in any time and place while illuminating a specific time and place.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis
Omeros by Derek Walcott
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozi Obioma
Oh My Gods by Alexandra Sheppard
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward