Homer, The Odyssey

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When we say “epic,” we tend to mean Homer’s Odyssey, or even just the second quarter of the Odyssey, Books 5-12: the story of a hero’s far-flung wandering among fantastical places and mysterious beings. The earlier Iliad, though the longer book, and encompassing heaven and earth in the larger story of which it forms a part, is nevertheless much more restricted in time, space, and plot: the story of Achilles’s rage over a few days in the 10th year of the Trojan War, almost a classical tragedy. Yet the Odyssey’s central journey is cradled in a nest of domesticity, nostalgia, the yearning for home.

“The Odyssey is the Iliad’s wife,” the Victorian writer Samuel Butler is supposed to have said. He went on to claim that the Odyssey was in fact written by a woman—in an era before it was widely accepted among scholars that these poems likely had their origins neither in writing nor in a single author but were rather song cycles only later organized (circa the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C.) into singular written narratives. Butler’s quip and his later theory, with their implicit distinction between the masculine life of power in public—best exhibited in Iliadic war—and the feminine world of hearth and home celebrated in the Odyssey is very Victorian.

In the mid-20th century, the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer derided the Odyssey in Dialectic of Enlightenment as the first bourgeois novel: a rational narrative that builds its calculating, acquisitive hero out of all the myths he subdues, just as the capitalist turns nature and labor into exploitable value. Adorno and Horkheimer, understandably attentive to the poem’s many paeans to patriarchy and many representations of feminine licentiousness and monstrousness, ultimately judge the epic a misogynist fantasy as well. Likewise, Erich Auerbach’s comp-lit set piece “Odysseus’ Scar,” which opens his famously magisterial Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, arraigns the Odyssey as a gilded monument to a statically hierarchical society, this in comparison to the social and psychological tumult dramatized in the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.

Like Adorno and Horkheimer, Auerbach was a German-Jewish exile from Hitler’s Germany; their critical accounts of the epic, written in the 1940s, may be read as a protest against a German nationalist tradition running from Winckelmann to Nazism that had appropriated Ancient Greece as a pagan (i.e., pre-Christian and non-Jewish) precursor to an anti-modern ethno-state. Horkheimer, Adorno, and Auerbach are the forerunners of our contemporary skepticism of the classics, perhaps memorialized in Emily Wilson’s recent translation of the Odyssey, designed to bring out with frank labels like “slave” the brutality of the society Homer describes, apparently without censure.

But to attribute such iconoclasm to a post-Holocaust, post-feminist, and postcolonial sensibility is to miss the irony that Homer was first challenged as the western literary tradition’s founder by the founder of the western philosophical tradition. Dreaming, with whatever degree of irony, his ideal society, Plato is no less affronted than is Adorno or Auerbach by the barbarism the bard revels in—capricious gods, unhinged heroes, exhilarating slaughter. As we’ve seen in these electronic pages before—in my essay on Tolstoy’s What Is Art?, for example—the call to abolish the canon is itself canonical, a protest out of the mouths of dead white men with long white beards.

Even that irony is outdone by the further surprise that Homer—whomever that may have been—anticipates the ethical and political critique and answers it in the poem, at the beginning and at the ending. In Book 1, in medias res, a now-mature Telemachus and his long-suffering mother Penelope are tormented by the presumed widow’s many suitors, eating them out of house and home as they make their own bid for the throne of Ithaca. In one moment, the household bard strikes up a song about the Trojan War, and Penelope gets what we might now call “triggered” by the aesthetic reminder of the conflict that took her husband away from her 20 years before. She chides the bard for his insensitivity, only to be rounded on by her son:

“Bards are not to blame—
Zeus is to blame. He deals to each and every
laborer on this earth whatever doom he pleases.
Why fault the bard if he sings the Argives’ harsh fate?
It’s always the latest song, the one that echoes last
in the listeners’ ears, that people praise the most.”

Some 25 centuries later, this will be Théophile Gautier’s reasoning in one of the first modern defenses of art-for-art’s-sake against moralizing, politicizing, and otherwise censorious critics: that the artist just represents what goes on in the world, and if you don’t like all the sex and violence, you had better reform nature and society instead of misdirecting your anger at the artist’s truthful representations of them. At the end of the Odyssey, after our hero has come home and slaughtered both the suitors and their collaborators among his household servants, he, too, takes aim at the bard. Didn’t he entertain the suitors while they feasted on Odysseus’s stores and solicited his wife’s attentions? The bard pleads for his life:

“What a grief it will be to you for all the years to come
if you kill the singer now, who sings for gods and men.
I taught myself the craft, but a god has planted
deep in my spirit all the paths of song—
songs I’m fit to sing for you as for a god.
Calm your bloodlust now—don’t take my head!
He’d bear me out, your own dear son Telemachus—
never of my own will, never for any gain did I
perform in your house, singing after the suitors
had their feasts. They were too strong, too many—
they forced me to come and sing—I had no choice!”

Here, the artist is not only innocent of his upsetting representations, but he also can’t be blamed for working with or under unjust regimes. A poet, not a warrior—outgunned, outnumbered—he bows to superior force and sings for king and usurper alike.

Assuming art to be an autonomous drive that will seek satisfaction in any circumstance—the “paths of song” that “a god has planted” in the artist—these Homeric defenses of Homeric injustice seem persuasive enough to me by themselves. The expectation, whether Platonic, Marxist, feminist, or otherwise, that art encode a superior morality finally seems parochial, since we have not discovered the final morality, as evidenced by the fact that the Marxist and feminist critic likely finds Plato no less a proto-fascist icon of iniquity and inequity than Homer. And the Odyssey is not amoral or immoral either, like some tediously didactic post-Gautier attempt on the part of French extremity to shock the bourgeoisie: it is rather a veritable handbook of its society’s ethics, alongside, I would argue, a subtle critique of them. The bard doesn’t plead freedom from moral stricture, only fidelity to the real, to include both the raw existential reality of experience and the social fact of whatever his milieu takes reality to be.

We can quickly tally up the poem’s sins. I have already mentioned its gender politics, from Telemachus becoming a man when he puts his weepy and somewhat ineffectual mother in her place to the gauntlet of female temptresses, sorceresses, and monstresses Odysseus has to run out in the oceanic wilds: Calypso, Circe, the Sirens, and Scylla and Charybdis. Then there’s the main subject of every kingdom’s gossip, which both Telemachus and Odysseus encounter in their travels: the slaughter of Agamemnon upon his own return from Troy by his cheating wife Clytemnestra, the tragedy that serves as foil to Odysseus’s finally comic story of successful domesticity. The feminine for this poem is a devourer when not under male command. The obvious exception proves the rule: Athena, wily Odysseus’s divine and divinely intelligent patron, stands for the virtues of craft and cunning, which we might now call “male-coded,” especially in comparison to the poem’s panoply of female terrors.

As for the poem’s male miscreants, most memorable is the cannibalistic Cyclops, who devours a few of Odysseus’s men before our hero puts out his only eye and escapes his clutches. After getting out of the Cyclops’s cave, Odysseus—who had told the one-eyed giant his name was Nobody—boastfully announces himself as the monster’s assailant, which brings down the wrath of the Cyclops’s father, the sea-god Poseidon, that causes most of Odysseus’s later travails. Odysseus, narrating his own adventure in King Alcinous’s hospitable court, describes the Cyclops:

[L]awless brutes, who trust so to the everlasting gods
they never plant with their own hands or plow the soil.
Unsown, unplowed, the earth teems with all they need,
wheat, barley and vines, swelled by the rains of Zeus
to yield a big full-bodied wine from clustered grapes.
They have no meeting place for council, no laws either,
no, up on the mountain peaks they live in arching caverns—
each a law to himself, ruling his wives and children,
not a care in the world for any neighbor.

The Cyclops are stateless pastoralists and nomads. Not working the land, they supposedly forfeit their title to it—the alibi of conquering peoples who hail from settled societies since time immemorial. Cheerfully raiding and sacking random towns for provision on the first leg of his journey back from Troy, Odysseus is the violent emissary of a feudal agricultural order augmented by seafaring commerce and colonialism. What’s more, Odysseus is eventually conscripted by the prophet Tiresias, when he sojourns among the dead for advice in Book 11, to spread the gospel of maritime empire to atone for his sins against Poseidon as a condition of his repatriation to Ithaca:

“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 beasts 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.”

Though it’s represented as his solemn duty rather than his desire, this final mission, which takes place outside the bounds of the epic, is the warrant for the portrait of Odysseus we get in Dante’s Inferno and Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: the restless explorer, almost a Faustian figure, damned to hell as the antitype to the humble Christian pilgrim in Dante, championed as the equivalent of the progressive English imperialist in Tennyson.

So the poem is misogynistic and pro-colonial. What else? The whole second half—after the odyssey proper, the part we tend to remember, Odysseus’s recollection of his adventures in Alcinous’s court just before he returns to Ithaca—is generally unwholesome. In the second half of the book, Athena deliberately incites the suitors to abuse Odysseus, now disguised as a beggar in his own home and kingdom, all the better to justify their climactic slaughter. The game against these rowdy aristocrats is so rigged, and the poem’s delight in their violent deaths so extravagant, even allowing for their transgression of the guest-host ethical code with which Homer is so concerned, that it can’t not alienate readers from ostensibly more pacific societies. (I don’t say modern and contemporary readers, since Socrates and Plato, reading the texts about two to four centuries after they were written and as much as half a millennium after they were first sung, also recoiled.) But here is how Odysseus’s beloved nurse and loyal servant or slave Eurycleia finds him when he has finished mowing down his rivals:

She found Odysseus in the thick of slaughtered corpses,
splattered with bloody filth like a lion that’s devoured
some ox of the field and lopes home, covered with blood,
his chest streaked, both jaws glistening, dripping red—
a sight to strike terror.

While the sophisticated Homeroclast would accuse the poet of naturalizing the violence by attributing human choices—to slaughter and to celebrate slaughter in song—to a non-human order, the admirer of Homer will reply on his behalf that the poet spares us nothing, refuses to sugar the pill, and in his own way, the way of honesty, achieves as much critical awareness as the Platonist, Marxist, or feminist could want, with the added benefit of not troubling us with these -isms usually imaginary and unworkable solutions to the perennial problem that mankind is never quite moral.

The same might be said of perhaps the epic’s most shocking passage, when Odysseus orders Telemachus to execute the treacherous maids, the “bitches,” “sluts,” and “whores”—I assume Robert Fagles’s vernacular phrasing in his 1996 translation catches something authentic in the original—who had consorted with the suitors:

Then, as doves or thrushes beating their spread wings
against some snare rigged up in thickets—flying in
for a cozy nest but a grisly bed receives them—
so the women’s heads were trapped in a line,
nooses yanking their necks up, one by one
so all might die a pitiful, ghastly death …
they kicked up heels for a little—not for long.

Just as the poet himself allowed Odysseus to be a brute beast bathed in blood, here he allows his victims to be not female monsters but birds of peace, birds of song, caught brutally in the predator’s trap. Homer, it is said, portrays this viciousness without censuring—but this is both to expect the poet to be too literal in moralizing, to deliver a mere sermon, and to misrecognize the means by which poetry does often convey, through image and metaphor, an implicit judgment on the social world the bard is called upon by power to commemorate.

Moreover, the epic’s narrative overall tends toward peace. Just before Tiresias in the underworld tells Odysseus he must plant his oar in the distant land of non-seafarers, he also warns him and his crew away from eating Helios’s cattle when they encounter it later in their journey, a commandment his shipmates are doomed to break:

you and your crew may still reach home,
suffering all the way, if you only have the power
to curb their wild desire and curb your own…

If we allow these prophetic lines to ripple across the whole epic, we will discover a story of an old warrior’s bildung, his purgation through suffering of the immoderate desires that motivated his raiding and sacking, his bragging and boasting, until the final orgy of violence against the suitors is succeeded by a peace proclaimed by Zeus at the story’s end, when the god hurls a thunderbolt between Odysseus and the dead suitors’ family before they can begin a blood feud and cycle of vengeance. And what were all the terrors Odysseus met in his journey but images of humanity become formless and monstrous through the inability to curb wild desire, a wild desire that afflicts the hero too?

This reading, in which the epic is a dream image of psychic states and a psychological quest rather than an encrypted political treatise on behalf of the Achaean aristocracy, likely accounts in part for the poem’s longevity in the face of ideological challengers from Plato forward, for aren’t we all on a journey toward some higher consciousness than mere appetite? Just as Plato’s complaint long predates Marxism and feminism, so the neoplatonic scholar Porphyry of Tyre interpreted the epic as the journey of man’s soul in the third century A.D., over a millennium and a half before Freud and Jung.

Finally, though, “the Odyssey is the Iliad’s wife,” which means that home and the arts and pleasures of home are the poem’s telos and highest value. Homer praises craft over almost every virtue except the more well-known hospitality, which, too, relies on domestic art. Penelope’s most laudable act, a piece of cunning worthy of her husband, is the web of deception she weaves and unweaves for the suitors, while Odysseus himself reminisces about the artistry with which he remade nature into artifice, the wilderness into home, in furnishing his bed from a tree-root:

“I know, I built it myself—no one else …
There was a branching olive-tree inside our court,
grown to its full prime, the bole like a column, thickset.
Around it I built my bedroom, finished off the walls
with good tight stonework, roofed it over soundly
and added doors, hung well and snugly wedged.
Then I lopped the leafy crown of the olive,
clean-cutting the stump bare from roots up,
planing it round with a bronze smoothing-adze—
I had the skill—I shaped it plumb to the line to make
my bedpost, bored the holes it needed with an auger.
Working from there I built my bed, start to finish,
I gave it ivory inlays, gold and silver fittings,
wove the straps across it, oxhide gleaming red.
There’s our secret sign, I tell you, our life story!”

And in Homer’s many references to the bard’s art the epic generates a meta-text about its own craft. After weeping in Alcinous’s hall over a bard’s recitation of some Trojan War stories, Odysseus himself turns poet and narrates, in the poem’s most memorable sequence, his own journey. Part of the poem’s enormous pleasure and immediacy stems from this first-person narrative of peril overcome.

The Odyssey’s level of craft is astonishingly high. Early novelists like Defoe and Fielding took Homer as their model for their relatively new form—Fielding overtly, applying Homeric epic to domestic and comic subject matter in Tom Jones, and the earlier Defoe more warily in his puritan version of the Odyssey in Robinson Crusoe. Yet their narratives are largely linear, moving from point A to point B in temporal succession, a legacy they will bequeath even to later novelists from Austen to Dickens to Twain. Meanwhile, the archaic Homer, distant and primordial and supposedly primitive fount of the western tradition, gives us a narrative structure as complex and tightly organized as a Conrad or Faulkner novel, with two plots—Telemachus’s voyage and Odysseus’s voyage—in two time frames—the narrative present and the 20 years of Odysseus’s wandering—with two narrators—the poem’s third-person voice and Odysseus himself—all of which finally converges in Book 16 for the poem’s climactic final third. It is difficult to read the Odyssey as anything other than a novel avant la lettre, and an experimental novel at that.

There is no anachronism, then, when we find in the Odyssey the obsessions and images and structures of Plato, Porphyry, Dante, Defoe, Fielding, Conrad, Jung, Adorno, or any other later eminence. The classicist or historicist might chide us that the work belongs to its context—even that a commenter like me, who has not mastered its context nor its language, has no right to comment—but this is what the scholars, grateful to them as we must be for the transmission of the texts, often fail to grasp about the work of art. Like Homer’s own recursive narrative, it doesn’t transcend time so much as bend it, so that Homer walks our streets and posts on our platforms just as Plato and Adorno turn up cruising the archaic Aegean.

Like Odysseus’s bed, with its root in nature, the poet’s first material, the epic is built sturdily and to last, so that humanity may dream over it in perpetuity. And like Penelope’s art, which both weaves the text and unweaves it—and the formal name for “unweaving the text” is criticism—the poem is so self-contained it contains the undoing of all its own certainties. Here, in this celebration of craft from bed to tapestry to epic, from litter to literature, from textile to text, and in this artifact of a perpetual present containing the past, the present, and eternity, we can locate the modern Homer par excellence: the Homer—and the Ulysses—of Joyce, “the man of twists and turns” whose art of involution and interrelation is finally an art of peace.

“From all who walk the earth our bards deserve
esteem and awe, for the Muse herself has taught them
paths of song. She loves the breed of harpers.”