Friday, December 26, 2008

how the Literary Iditarod saved Christmas

Ok, it's possible that the Literary Iditarod didn't save Christmas, and was in fact not related to Christmas in any way--save perhaps for the fact that I was able to read a lot of the Odyssey in three days off work. I'm on Book 18 (out of 24). Fiona's lagging a bit, but that's ok because I'm leaving tomorrow for the MLA Convention and I may fall behind a little with reading and blogging. I also have a copy of David Lodge's Small World, which was suggested to me by a Literary Person as something I should read before the MLA (I've avoided talking about my job on this blog because it is a personal blog and I don't want to, say, write something stupid or offensive that then, by association, reflects poorly on my place of work, or anything like that, but I have perhaps been remiss in not mentioning that I have the great good fortune to work with people who know a lot about literature, academia, and other topics similarly dear to my heart). Small World is the sequel to Changing Places, which I also have not read, and I hate reading a sequel without first having read its predecessor, but maybe for the sake of the Iditarod I should suck it up this time.

Anyway. So I'm excited about the MLA Convention (and staying in a nice hotel, you guys, I have stayed at a hotel-as-opposed-to-a-motel like twice in my life, it is going to be like a fancy vacation except for the part where I will be working the entire time), and with any luck I will learn Many Important Things about academia and English and so forth and then I will blog about them. (I was talking to my dad on the phone today, and he was like you still want to be an English professor? Are you sure that's a good idea? Have you heard about this Recession thing? And I was like Dad, I got this, it's cool.) But it has been a slow week here at the Iditarod and it may be a slow next few days, depending on how things go. I'm counting on Fiona to pick up any slack.

Before turning to the Odyssey, I just want to thank all of you--both strangers and (mostly) friends--for the kind and thoughtful comments you've been leaving. While this blog is largely intended as a project just for the two of us, it's awesome that people are reading it, following it, and commenting. It keeps me on track, and it gives me stuff to think about. Thank you.

Also, my laptop just died there. For the third time tonight. Seriously, laptop? Dear Santa: Please bring me a shiny new MacBook to replace this temperamental and geriatric iBook (purchased used, on eBay, for $800, the summer before I started Reed, so... 2005). What's that? You say I was astoundingly naughty this year and I'm lucky you didn't just feed this laptop to Rudolph? Well... balls.


So on to the Odyssey. I think Clare has a point here: "The Odyssey is a just a romp, a story with an obvious goal, and in the end it's entirely, satisfactorily resolved. The Iliad is a political struggle and a great clash of human emotion, and nothing is all right in the end -- in fact, things are in many ways much worse than they began. It's poignant."

I can't argue with that. I sort of want to like the Iliad better, because it's more difficult and ultimately, almost inarguably, more meaningful. Hector dies, Achilles is going to die, the war is still dragging on for no clear reason... I mean, I wrote my thesis on Troilus and Cressida. How can I not like the Iliad better?

But the Odyssey is such a lark! Did you think the idea behind Bumfights was a recent one? Did you think it was just another sign of the decline of our modern society that people thought it would be hilarious to induce homeless men to engage in physical combat for the sake of paltry rewards? Because let me tell you, bum fights are at least as old as Homer. Check it out. In Book 18, Odysseus is back at his palace in Ithaca, but he's disguised as a beggar so he can see what's going on, scope out the situation with Penelope and her zillion suitors, maybe plot some horrific bloody revenge. No one but his son Telemachus knows who he is; they all just think he's this impoverished, hungry old geezer. So this actual tramp, Arnaeus--"Irus for short/ because he'd hustle messages at any beck and call" (18.8-9) (heh, Irus, get it?)--comes up and threatens Odysseus, because he doesn't want competition for any food that might be begged from the numerous wealthy suitors.

Irus and Odysseus begin trading insults, which the suitors think is hilarious:
And Antinous, that grand prince, hearing them wrangle,
broke into gloating laughter, calling out to the suitors,
"Friends, nothing like this has come our way before--
what sport some god has brought the palace now!
The stranger and Irus, look,
they'd battle it out together, fists flying.
Come, let's pit them against each other--fast!"

All leapt from their seats with whoops of laughter,
clustering round the pair of ragged beggars there
as Eupithes' son Antinous planned the contest.
"Quiet, my fine friends. Here's what I propose.
These goat sausages sizzling here in the fire--
we packed them with fat and blood to have for supper.
Now, whoever wins this bout and proves the stronger,
let that man step up and take his pick of the lot!
What's more, from this day on he feasts among us--
no other beggar will we allow inside
to cadge his meals from us!" (18.41-58)

Bum fights, you guys. Classy, right? Of course Odysseus wins--he's Odysseus, for one thing, and for another the plot requires him to be able to hang around with the suitors for a while longer. You kind of have to feel bad for the actual bum. But the point is, there's nothing heroic about this, nothing epic, nothing that says much about life and the way of the world (besides whatever you have deduced from learning that the idea of bum fights is thousands of years old). It's just silly, and ridiculous, and sort of a lot of fun to read.

It's also very, very different from the Iliad. Can you imagine the Iliad with bum fights? If anything is going to make you ruminate on whether "Homer" was just one man or two or more, this will do it.


On an unrelated note, I'm wondering about time in the Odyssey. It seems so malleable. Odysseus has been gone for twenty years, but his dog is still alive when he gets back. Just barely, mind you--the poor thing kicks it pretty much as soon as Odysseus shows up--but still. The scene is super sad:
Now, as they talked on, a dog that lay there
lifted up his muzzle, pricked his ears...
It was Argos, long-enduring Odysseus' dog
he trained as a puppy once, but little joy he got
since all too soon he shipped to sacred Troy.
In the old days young hunters loved to set him
coursing after the wild goats and deer and hares.
But now with his master gone he lawy there, castaway, [...]
Infested with ticks, half-dead from neglect,
here lay the hound, old Argos.
But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by
he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped,
though he had no strength to drag himself an inch
toward his master. [...]

But the dark shadow of death closed down on Argos' eyes
the instant he saw Odysseus, twenty years away. (17.317-333; 359-360)

That is ridiculously sad. Although not as sad as the Futurama episode in which Fry's dog dies waiting for him. That is the saddest dog-related story of all time, straight up. (Oh god, you should never look these things up on the Wikipedia or you may discover that they are based on things that actually happened and then you will be even more sad.)

Anyway, Hachikō waited ten years for his master before dying; Fry's dog waited twelve years. Odysseus' dog lived for twenty years. What is going on there? Do dogs ever even live that long? And that's just the start of it. Penelope is described as "looking for all the world like Artemis or golden Aphrodite" (17.37)--which is to say, crazy beautiful--despite the fact that she and Odysseus were married with a small child when he took off twenty years ago, so there's no way she can be much under 35, and she could easily be 40 or older. Which is no biggie these days (Christy Turlington is about to turn 40 and she is approximately one million times hotter than I will ever be), but I'm pretty sure that even 35 was right next door to dead in those days. And Helen is described as continuing to be the most beautiful woman that ever happened, though she must be at least Penelope's age. Meanwhile, Nestor is still alive--seriously how can Nestor still be alive, he is like Methusalah at this point, it is totally absurd--as is Odysseus' father Laertes, and Odysseus himself is still handsome and strong like ox although he was a grown man and already famous when he left Ithaca. And Telemachus, who must be in his early twenties by now, is still more or less a boy, too young and weak to tell those insolent suitors what's what.

Now I think the Odyssey is set in some sort of heroic age, which I vaguely remember from Hesiod, and I could maybe buy that people just lived longer then, like in the Bible. Google Books offers some useful excerpts from The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging, by Stuart Jay Olshansky and Bruce A. Carnes: "The imagery of an idyllic distant time in the past when people were forever young, followed by a progressive trend toward shorter lifespans driven by increasingly decadent lifestyles, is a classic Antediluvian theme" (45). They also say that some people believe that the preposterously long lives of early Biblical characters are meant to be metaphorical, a sort of representation of how important they were--and certainly crying metaphor would make this aspect of the Odyssey a lot easier to swallow.

In any case, it's never clear how this is supposed to work, and Athena has a habit of confusing things still further by making her favorite people look more impressive and attractive for special occasions; she does so, at various times, for Telemachus, Odysseus, and Penelope. (Circe does something similar, making Odysseus' men taller and more handsome to make up for having transformed them briefly into swine.) [Also: to get Penelope extra gorgeous so she can have particular power over her suitors, Athena "made her taller, fuller in form to all men's eyes,/ her skin whiter than ivory freshly carved..." (17.222-23); uh, in case you were wondering, tall, curvy, pale women are all the rage. I missed my era.)

Does anyone have any thoughts about this nebulous depiction of time and age? I want to borrow someone's JSTOR privileges, or maybe visit the Library of Congress, so I can find out what the scholars have to say about it. It's probably something simple and obvious and I just have rocks for brains. I think my desire for everything to be completely literal and logical is hurting me here: the gods are hanging around messing with stuff all the time, Odysseus is held captive by nymphs and a Cyclops, Poseidon turns a boat and all its sailors into a rock to punish the Phaeacians, Odysseus hangs out with a bunch of ghosts in the Kingdom of the Dead, and I'm bothered by the fact that people are staying young for a long time? (I'm also bothered by the fact that Odysseus allowed his men to kill and eat the Cattle of the Sun! After both Tiresias and Circe made it one hundred percent clear that only badness would result! I know, ok, he was outnumbered and then he fell asleep, but couldn't he have told them that two very reliable sources said they would all die if they ate the damn cattle?! Oh my god, you people and your poor life choices, it pains me so much.)


The other thing I wanted to talk about was the lifespan of certain Greek myths. People in the Odyssey keep referring to, say, Oedipus and Orestes, and I think oh yeah, Sophocles, Aeschylus--and then I remember that Theban plays and the Oresteia wouldn't be written for hundreds of years yet. Tantalus and Sisyphus show up too; they won't make their appearances in the Metamorphoses for another, what, eight centuries or so, but they'll show up from time to time in the intervening years. There are so many figures here who pop up repeatedly in Greek and then Roman works. They sure loved to repeat their stories. I want to talk about this more, maybe look into it, but I have been writing this post for over two hours now--how is that possible?!--and I haven't even packed for the MLA and I'm leaving in the morning.

1 comment:

Clare said...

Sad dog story add-on: there is this statue in Krakow, with a plaque reading, "Dżok, the dog. The most faithful canine friend, ever epitomizing a dog's boundless devotion to his master.
Throughout the entire year 1990-1991 Dżok was seen waiting in vain at the Rondo Grunwaldzkie roundabout to be fetched back by his master, who had passed away at the very site."

Also, our mom read us the Odyssey when were little, and that probably influenced my idea of how "serious" it is. It was, for me, an actual (delightful) bedtime story.