Sunday, December 28, 2008

well... it is, and it's not

I am at the MLA, and I practically just got here and it is already blowing my tiny little mind and I haven't even started work yet, and it's super late and I need to go to bed. But. I also finished the Odyssey on the plane on the way over, and I have a few things I want to mention before bed. Because I am bad at stuff.

I can't fully get behind this idea of the Odyssey as just a romp, just a romance. It nags at me. I mentioned already that Tiresias, when Odysseus visited him among the dead, was very clear about the additional hardships Odysseus would endure if his men slaughtered Helios' cattle. Let's look at this passage for a minute. It's long, but important:
Leave the beasts unharmed, your mind set on home,
and you all may still reach Ithaca--bent with hardship,
true--but harm them in any way, and I can see it now:
your ship destroyed, your men destroyed as well.
And even if you escape, you'll come home late
and come a broken man--all shipmates lost,
alone in a stranger's ship--
and you will find a world of pain at home,
crude, arrogant men devouring all your goods,
courting your noble wife, offering gifts to win her.
No doubt you will pay them back in blood when you come home!
But once you have killed those suitors in your halls--
by stealth or in open fight with slashing bronze--
go forth once more, you must...
carry your well-planed oar until you come
to a race of people who know nothing of the sea,
whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all
to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars,
wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign--
unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it:
When another traveler falls in with you and calls
that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain,
then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth
and sacrifice fine bests to the lord god of the sea,
Poseidon--a ram, a bull and a ramping wild boar--
then journey home and render noble offerings up
to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies,
to all the gods in order.
And at last your own death will steal upon you...
a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes
to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age
with all your people there in blessed peace around you. (11.125-156)

That's not even what I would call ominous. That is just very straightforward. (And it leaves little room for Odysseus' men not to slaughter the cattle of the sun, since he's been given such explicit instructions for how to deal with the fallout. After he's done with that little Calypso detour, of course. Plus some other stuff.) Odysseus, "man of twists and turns"--as Fagles likes to translate his epithet--has a lot more twists and turns coming up. I mean, look how long it took him to get home from Troy--and that was a journey with a fairly clear endpoint, whereas this is more like "come home when Poseidon is done being pissed at you."

And you don't get to forget this bit. Almost as soon as he's reunited with Penelope, even before they head to bed, Odysseus repeats this news to her pretty much word for word (he is just going outside, and may be some time). "And so," Penelope replies, "...if the gods will really grant a happier old age,/there's hope we'll escape our trials at last" (23.326-28). I mean... I wouldn't hold my breath. This is Odysseus, after all. God only knows how many ways he can find to screw up this business of finally making peace with Poseidon; how many other gods he'll inadvertently anger along the way.

And the phrasing, at least here in Fagles, is such that it's left open whether he'll make it home again any time before this "ripe old age" and "painless death." You can interpret it optimistically or... not. The way I'm reading these lines, it seems entirely possible that Odysseus has another ten-year journey coming up. And he just got home.

It reminds me a bit of the Iliad, actually--Hector is dead, and there's a lull in the fighting, but the war isn't over and Troy isn't going to fall for a while yet. What's more, we know that Achilles will die before that happens. Like Odysseus, he has two potential fates laid out for him, but for Achilles it's more of a Sophie's choice. Mind you, this is all from memory, but my recollection is that his mother, Thetis, tells Achilles that he can either remain out of the fighting and reach a peaceful and prosperous old age, or head back in and die young but glorious. Since Achilles ends up going back into battle--and killing Hector--to avenge Patroclus, we know for sure that he isn't long for this world. As Clare said, the Iliad ends with this sense that nothing is really going to be okay, but I'm not positive that the Odyssey is so different.


I'm also dying to talk about models of female sexuality in the Odyssey. You have your controlling seductresses, of course, Circe and Calypso, who--as Odysseus is always at great pains to point out--never win the man's heart. You have Penelope walking this impossible boundary, trying to placate everyone and never pleasing anyone: Telemachus constantly berating her, suitors hounding her; crying for Odysseus day and night (after twenty years?!)... and she can never win. After killing all the suitors, Odysseus conspires with Telemachus to make it seem as though a wedding is taking place so that the neighbors will be distracted and no one will realize yet what has actually happened:
And whoever heard the strains outside would say,
"A miracle--someone's married the queen at last!"

"One of her hundred suitors."
"That callous woman,
too faithless to keep her lord and master's house
to the bitter end--"
"Till he came sailing home." (23.165-69)

So apparently that is what the neighbors would have thought of Penelope, had she dared to remarry after twenty years alone. Good thing she didn't, eh?

And then, god help us, there is Clytemnestra, who "...brands with a foul name the breed of womankind,/ even the honest ones to come! (24.222-23). So says the ghost of Agamemnon, immediately after remarking that "[t]he fame of [Penelope's] great virtue will never die (24.216).

Evidently women can all be blamed for Clytemnestra's evil, but only Penelope can take credit for her own virtue.

And THEN if I were actually writing properly about this rather than hastily summarizing a few thoughts, I would talk about the maids, and how Telemachus kills a dozen of them basically just for sleeping with the suitors. They have brought disgrace upon the house of Odysseus, you see, what with the whole "being sluts" thing. Says Odysseus to his son:
"And once you've put the entire house in order,
march the women out of the great hall--between
the roundhouse and the courtyard's strong stockade--
and hack them with your swords, slash out all their lives--
blot out of their minds the joys of love they relished
under the suitors' bodies, rutting on the sly!" (22.465-70)

Man, and that is just the beginning of it. Telemachus, of course, decides that death by sword is too good for whores, and ends up hanging them in a super grisly little scene. The revulsion with which the two men respond to the spectre of female desire is searing in its vitriol, unpleasant to read.

And now I have to go to bed. Damn it.


Leigh Walton said...

Kazantzakis wrote an epic poem in the 1930s, a sequel to the Odyssey in which Odysseus heads out for more adventures.

Another of his books, "Toda Raba," contains this passage: "You know that my particular leader is not one of the three leaders of the human spirit; neither Faust, nor Hamlet, nor Don Quixote, but only Don Odysseus. . . . I have not the unquenchable thirst of the occidental mind, nor do I sway between yes and no to no end in immobility, nor do I any longer possess the sublimely ludicrous urge of the noble battler of windmills. I am a mariner of Odysseus with heart afire but with mind ruthless and clear; not, however, of that Odysseus who returned to Ithaca and stayed there, but of that other Odysseus who returned, killed his enemies and, stifled in his native land, put out to sea once more."

Leigh Walton said...

But that oar anecdote is pretty amazing, isn't it?

What oars are we carrying? And where can we go where those oars will no longer have meaning?