I am MOOCing my way through Homer’s “The Odyssey,” which amounts to a fairly intensive first-time reading. With lectures, quizzes and whatever.
It is not my first time for Homer, though. I reread “The Iliad” with relish a few years ago, after struggling mightily with it in my teens. Schools are funny places. Books are a lot like food, I think; your taste and what nourishes you best can change over time. But teachers don’t seem to know it.
Anyway, even though I had not read “The Odyssey” before, and being still only through the first 12 “books,” I am nonetheless moved to make a few observations.
For one thing, I was prepared for a rollicking travelogue of gore and adventure. I had apprised myself of the chronological greatest hits of Odysseus’ trials, oddly repetitive though they may be, and was ready to tick them off my scoresheet. Of course, I realized “The Odyssey” is not about a journey, it’s about a return. But what I did not realize is all that running around and waking up in the surf — “Man of misery, whose land have I hit on now?!” — really is just a fraction (maybe an eighth) of the action.
To wit, consider the Sirens. You know, the Sirens and their “high, thrilling voices.” Everyone knows that Odysseus had to be lashed to the mast of his ship to keep from swimming toward the seductively sonorous Sirens in rapture, there to forget about his home and family forever.
That is great, of course. And the whole thing could be quite gripping, in the hands of a Hollywood screen writer, perhaps. But the encounter with that spectacular choir consumes just 15 lines, in Robert Fagles’s translation, anyway. Fifteen lines! And Odysseus didn’t “have” to be lashed to the mast of his ship. His advice initially was to plug his ears, an entirely more manageable and sensible tactic, if you ask me. But clever, brave Odysseus is also something a self-indulgent, thrill-seeking douchebag, and curiosity drives him to resort to ropes.
Sirens, Cyclopses and the alluring Calypso, who with the best of intentions keeps Odysseus a prisoner on her island – they’re the things you hear the most about. But — and remember we are considering here only the first 12 books — more memorable is Odysseus’ attempt to leave Ogygia, where he was held in the seven-year conjugal embrace of Calypso. Poseidon, the earth-shaker and god of the sea, has it out for our hero: “I’ll give that man a swamping full of trouble!” says Poseidon, a man who it can be presumed knows from his swampings. Homer continues: “With that he rammed the clouds together — both hands clutching his trident — churned the waves into chaos, whipping all the gales from every quarter” and like that. The reader’s heart races. Odysseus, clever, brave, self-indulgent Odysseus, knows he’s in trouble; he even rebukes himself: “Wretched man — what becomes of me now, at last?”
But never mind that. The whole of Book 11 describes Odysseus’ apparently superfluous, but definitely creepy journey to the underworld, where he performs a stomach-churning ritual to summon the shambling dead. Clever, brave Odysseus is supposed to be seeking advice, but his self-indulgent side transforms the bleak landscape into a kaffeeklatsch. Odysseus, always one to enjoy an advantage, chit-chats with a macabre receiving line of Greek’s formerly rich and famous, warming himself in the glow of their jealousy. He meets the comrades who died at Troy, including the still-mad-at-him Ajax, and — shock! — his own dear mother, who he doesn’t even know is dead.
It is all brilliant stuff.
That is why it is a classic, I suppose. But in the journalism business, we call that burying the lede.
- Mythology: The Adventures of Odysseus (danitorres.typepad.com)
- Staying home vs. coming home (geneveith.com)