Sunday, December 21, 2008

There is chaos under my blog, and the situation is excellent.

Fiona and I have discussed the fact that our target audience here is basically... my mother. Except I think her computer is broken. And possibly Fiona's little brother because I understand he spends a lot of time online. My boss assures me that he reads it too--very comforting--but really, the idea behind the Literary Iditarod essentially guarantees that no one will read it. Most people, I would guess, have not read the books we're reading, or maybe read them for a high school class that they'd rather forget. The few who have read most of these books are likely already to know a lot more about them than we do, and therefore to find our observations trivial and boring.

Mostly I feel ok about no one reading our blog. I did feel a little bit worse when I read this review of The Wordy Shipmates. In fairness, at times that book was--okay--annoying, but the review was harsher than I felt was really warranted. "With all these middlebrow historians making scholarly work perfectly accessible," Virginia Heffernan writes, "do we really need still more accessibility — pierced-brow history, maybe, with TV and pop-music references?"


Another burn: "Vowell, who constantly emphasizes how nerdy (meaning impressive) she finds her own interest in the Puritans, introduces figures like John Winthrop and Roger Williams as if no one’s ever heard of them."

All right, I'm just going to own this one right here and now: I didn't know who they were before I read The Wordy Shipmates. Admittedly, I dropped out of high school after a year, and got two years of what should've been my high school education at decidedly mediocre Irish schools, so my knowledge of American history is... well... there's not a lot of it--but I'm not the most ignorant person there ever was, and I didn't know the first thing about Winthrop and Williams. It seems unlikely, moreover, that I would've been inspired to pick up a book about them if Fiona hadn't spoken so highly of Sarah Vowell. Just because something has been made accessible doesn't mean it's appealing.

Anyway. I digress. Heffernan's point is that, if you really want to learn about the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vowell is maybe not your best bet. And of course if you really want to learn about Western lit classics, we are not your best bet. Which is fine, since that's not so much the point of the Literary Iditarod. But part of the point of the Iditarod is to make silly comments about great works, which is sort of the Sarah Vowell model. I can see why Heffernan is irritated about that--there's a lot more to say about the Massachussetts Bay Colony (/Homer), and you shouldn't have to have basic history (/literature) fed to you with a spoon. But isn't there room for both highbrow scholarship and lightweight books (/blogs)? I think it can be helpful to have a wide range of viewpoints and contexts; we can't all be David McCullough (/...Clifford Geertz?).

The Iditarod is also largely extraneous to one of its other ostensible raisons d'ĂȘtre: preparing me for the lit GRE. Most of the advice I see about it says buy the Princeton Review guide, maybe buy a Norton anthology or two, and cram. And that's more than reasonable--having seen some sample questions in my study book, well... I need not have skimmed a word of Hawthorne (and I haven't, yet) to be able to name Hester Prynne, and all the epic poetry I can read will never tell me that it was Maya Angelou who worked as a streetcar conductor and also as a prostitute (nor will it tell you that my mom used to date her son, Guy Johnson; I hope that's on the test).

I feel like I should do the reading, though, or at least as much of it as I can. And I enjoy it. So maybe there's no real reason for you to read our blog or for us to write it (especially Fiona--she doesn't even want to go to grad school!).

But if you are reading our blog and you have read Homer, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the Odyssey versus the Iliad. I'm finding the Odyssey so much more readable, to the point where I've flipped ahead a few times at tense points to see when things will be resolved. It's gripping! I want to know how things go down!* I'm sure some of that has to do with Lattimore vs. Fagles, but is some just a difference in the books themselves? David says that "a lot more happens in the Odyssey," but he's only read the condensed version, too, so I'm not sure I can trust his opinion. Is the Odyssey intrinsically more interesting? Is Fagles just way, way easier (I mean, he definitely is)? Knox writes,
One ancient critic, the author of the treatise On the Sublime, thought that the Odyssey was the product of Homer's old age, of "a mind in decline; it was a work that could be compared to the setting sun--the size remained, without the force." ...What prompted his comment "without the force" is clearly his preference for the sustained heroic level of the Iliad over what he terms the Odyssey's presentation of "the fabulous and incredible" as well as the realistic description of life in the farms and palace of Odysseus' domain, which, he says, "forms a kind of comedy of manners." (23)
Maybe I just like the comedy of manners stuff... the Iliad's gory battle scenes got a little repetitive for me. (Although when it comes to gore, the Odyssey maybe tops its predecessor; I was going to quote from the scene where Odysseus gouges out Polyphemus' eye, but then I realized that I don't even want to read it again, let alone commit it to print. Eye-gouging is always bad, no matter whose they are... Oedipus', Gloucester's, Polyphemus'... it's always gross and I always feel sick. Why you gotta gouge out so many eyes, Great Authors?) One of the things that keeps the Odyssey interesting is the huge variety of settings, characters, and events.

So did you like the Iliad better or the Odyssey? Why? And which are your favorite translations?

I wanted to make a more Odyssey-centric post, but I guess I got sidetracked. So further Odyssey to come.


*Even though Homer basically tells you everything at the outset:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove--
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return. [...]
But one man alone...
his heart set on his wife and his return--
Calypso, the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess, held him back,
deep in her arching caverns, craving him for a husband.
But then, when the wheeling seasons brought the year around,
that year spun out by the gods when he should reach his home,
Ithaca--though not even there would he be free of trials,
even among his loved ones--then every god took pity,
all except Poseidon. He raged on, seething against
the great Odysseus till he reached his native land. (ll. 1.1-10, 15-24)
Geez, Homer, way to give away like the entire plot. It's cool. I didn't want any suspense anyway. But really, not even a "spoiler alert" or anything?


annie said...

Found a link to your blog from Picture Poetry (that I found from who-knows-where).

I love the colloquial style here, and the subject matter, too. Even though I'm outclassed in several ways and don't have the free time to follow along in my own copies of the classics (but wish I did), I like projects like this.

Clare said...

I like the Odyssey significantly less than the Iliad, actually. I was just thinking about this today in the bookstore: 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.

To be fair, I liked Julius Caesar best of all Shakespeare's plays, so clearly I prefer some politics complicating in my drama. I like the internal conflicts in these politicians with their agendas and their constituencies and their overblown feelings.

annemarie said...

I have to be real: I've never read the Odyssey, and I only made it halfway through the Iliad.

And I do find Sarah Vowell annoying from time to time. Mostly because I usually find her "humorous asides" way less interesting than the history she's telling. But I feel that way about all hip, popular, accessible history, and I almost never read the other kind of history.

But I also have to say, I like your blog partly because it is silly but also partly because it is super not silly... as I said to a friend recently "I can't believe it! They have full-time jobs! and they go out at night sometimes! I have no idea where they find the time to be so insightful about Beowulf (or now, the Odyssey) so many times a week! It's amazing!"

stacia said...

i'm not gonna comment on the odyssey vs the iliad, because, uhhh, truth be told, i've never read either of them all the way through (i got REALLY CLOSE with the iliad though!), but i wanted to say i've actually been really enjoying your blog! i'm way out of practice thinking like an english major and it feels good to be exposed to that again. plus, you guys are funny AND insightful.

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