Saturday, 29 May 2010

Bride of Discovering the Classics

Well, I've finished the Odyssey. What a ride!

I must say I enjoyed this work immensely, in contrast to my experience of the Iliad. Curiously enough, however, I found the Odyssey worked retroactively and actually made me enjoy the Iliad rather more in retrospect (if that is possible).

Let me try to unpack that a bit. Firstly, the Odyssey contextualises the Iliad. It does this both by letting us see what was going on before, during and after the Trojan war in other parts of Greece. For me, I also found it gave me more of a taste for Greek poetry (in terms of content at least- alas! my Greek is confined to occasional New Testament word studies in sermons over the years), so that I saw that Homer and the Greeks in general were not just interested in interminable action sequences and that these were particular to the Iliad rather than to Greek poetry in general. If anything, that made the particularity of the Iliad sharper. With that wider context, it becomes clearer that that poem is nothing more nor less than a war poem and that, if anything, the dullness and chaos and many of the features I found it difficult to come at as I read it actually express that reality. I had a notion of this immediately after finishing it, but reading the Odyssey made the contrast clearer and helped me to appreciate the Iliad a bit more for what it is.

If the Iliad is a war poem, the Odyssey is perhaps a kind of post-traumatic stress poem. It is a poem of recovery, both in the psychological sense and in the sense of finding and taking possession of things which one had lost.

In coming to it, I shared what I suppose is the popular image of the Odyssey as being essentially a travel-log. Parts of it are that, but it is much richer and deeper than that, and even the travel-log elements are told in a perhaps unexpected and (I felt) almost cinematic way, with flashbacks and cuts between different characters' narratives. Homer has here the delightful directorial sense of when to cut to a different scene, when to jump forward or flashback or pause the action, as it were, to create tension. In the early chapters, for example, one doesn't know anything about Odysseus, where he is or what he is doing. All one hears is hearsay and rumour, and one finds oneself in the same position as Telemakhos, who operates as the audience's surrogate. Odysseus himself doesn't appear until the middle of Book 5. By that point, we only too eager to hear what has been the cause of Odysseus' decade-long delay. Another masterly example comes in Book 11 when Odysseus, who has been narrating his travels in flashback to the Phaiakaians, pauses in his relating of his conversations with the dead just as this was getting interesting, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats as to what will happen next.

More thoughts and impressions, in no particular order.

1. Nothing in the poem makes one realise how far one is from paganism and to what extent the Christian ethos has permeated Western culture than sexual morality. This on several fronts. Most obviously, narrative-wise, the fact that, technically, Odysseus has had two affairs on his travels, both of which lasted for substantial amounts of time (one year and seven years, respectively). This, for some reason, does not make Odysseus' character less sympathetic, and no cloud hovers over his and Penelope's reunion on account of it. Of course, it is obvious to anybody that in our present culture Christian sexual morality does not maintain the dominance that perhaps it once did; yet even now, one could not make a film or write a novel in which the male protagonist was unfaithful to his wife and this had no effect on his story-arc or on their relationship. In the Odyssey, however, the focus is not so much on Odysseus' extra-marital relations but on the fact that these have delayed him from continuing his journey. Once he sets off again, nothing further comes of them, and everyone's conscience is clear. The modern reader (whether Christian, feminist or anything else) is likely to think Odysseus a cad for behaving like this and Penelope a fool for not reproaching him with it, or at least showing some indignation given that she managed to remain totally chaste the whole time he was away. Yet such reactions aren't even on the radar for Homer. Christian ethics, I guess, infects us more deeply than we realise.

On the other hand, other forms of morality do affect things where we would not expect them to. I was bewildered by the episode with Kirke, for example. In Book 10, Odysseus and his companions come upon an island and a number of them travel inland where they find a hut and hear singing. It is the hut of the witch-goddess Kirke, however, and she turns them into animals- all but one, Eurylokhos, who comes running back to tell Odysseus. Odysseus sets off to see what's what and, on the way, is met by Hermes who gives him a plant to ward off the witch's magic. Odysseus enters Kirke's hut but she is surprised when he does not succumb. So far so good. Typical fairy-tale fare. But then it gets weird. Kirke tries to seduce Odysseus. He refuses, understandably enough. But then he decides that he will sleep with her after all, as long as she promises not to harm him (the text seems to suggest that he's worried she might castrate him in his sleep). She promises, and off to bed they go. At this point, I experienced a whiskey tango foxtrot moment. Kirke is, after all, a witch. Odysseus' men have been transformed into pigs. Why should he trust a promise from her? Does it not occur to him that she isn't the sort who keeps promises (as I imagine most people who slip drugs, magic or otherwise, into their guests' drinks are not)? Clearly this doesn't enter Odysseus' thought-process; ironic given that Odysseus is himself the master of deception. I was prepared at this point to see Odysseus's error of judgement here serve him up a mountain of woe (Eurylokhos echoed my feelings by being understandably apprehensive about accompanying Odysseus back to Kirke's hut when he goes to fetch his other companions to come and meet her). But nothing comes of it and Eurylokhos' apprehensions ultimately appear unfounded. Bizarrely, Kirke keeps her promise, lifts her spell from Odysseus' companions and then - weirder and weirder- they all spend a year living with her, feasting and having a gay old time. Kirke turns, for no reason that seemed plausible to me, from a sinister witch, no less terrifying than the Cyclops, to a winning hostess. I finished Book 10, bewildered at a world in which husbands' promises of fidelity to their wives are of no consequence at all, but in which it is literally unthinkable for anybody to break any other kind of promise.

2. Book 11 was fascinating for its insight into how the Greeks imagined the afterlife. Clearly this was where Dante derived some of his inspiration (Odysseus, like Dante, is eager to learn what he can by conversing with the spirits). I was particularly intrigued by the points where Homer diverged from anything I read in Dante. For example, these spirits are not exactly incorporeal. In the Divine Comedy, there are a couple of poignant moments when Dante tries to embrace somebody he knew, but it doesn't work because the person has no physical substance. In Homer, however, Odysseus is capable of warding off the spirits with his sword. In fact, the spirits here remind the modern reader of nothing so much as zombies. Not only are they corporeal in some sense, but they have an insatiable and instinctive thirst for blood, towards which they wander mindlessly. Only upon tasting the blood do they recover their personality whereupon they are able to talk with Odysseus. One of Odysseus' fears seems to be that they might all taste the blood at once, though it is not clear what will happen if they do. Presumably they wouldn't injure him in any way? Is he afraid they will all talk over each other and he won't be able to hear what any one spirit is saying to him?

3. One of the things I was not expecting was how little of the poem would be taken up with Odysseus' journeys. A large chunk of it takes place back on Ithaca when he arrives there and sets about putting his kingdom back in order. One of the most interesting aspects of this part of the narrative was Odysseus' measured reluctance to reveal his identity. The results of this reluctance, and the revelations that came when he finally did reveal himself, were by turns moving and hilarious. The most notable example of the latter is when Odysseus is met by Athena almost as soon as he wakes up back on Ithaca, having been borne there by the Phaiakaians. Not realising who she is, and not wanting to draw attention to his homecoming just yet, he spins her a story about how he is a sailor from Crete who has journeyed far and finally washed up on- what is this island again? Athena lets him tell his fanciful and off-the-cuff tale, whose details become ever more involving and extraordinary, and one can imagine her chuckling quietly to herself at Odysseus' elaborate attempt at deception, as a parent might at a child who, fingers covered in chocolate, relates in great detail and with numerous rhetorical flourishes and carefully judged facial expressions how it was the dog that ate the recently-baked chocolate cake.

On the moving end of the spectrum is Odysseus' reunion with Penelope. This comes even after Odyseeus has killed the suitors and has revealed himself to every other Ithacan character the audience has met so far. But Penelope requires special treatment. She has waited too long and is balanced on a knife-edge of hope, unwilling to give in to despair or remarry and shut the door entirely on the possibility of her husband's return, yet realistic enough to know that he is almost certainly dead and that she would be foolish to harbour expectations that will never be fulfilled. She maintains this taut balance, keeping the suitors in suspense at every turn but likewise refusing to hope even when multiple individuals tell her that her husband is indeed coming back and could arrive at any time. After the suitors are killed and her maid announces that Odysseus has indeed returned, she is the very epitome of caution. But her emotional reactions are painted very subtly, and it is at this point that the poem reaches a peak of character-driven drama. Initially, she thinks her maid has gone mad, but when the maid reproaches her and reminds her of her bona fides, there is a moment of pure joy. Penelope begins to weep. Can it be true? But no, its not possible. She recovers herself. You must be wrong, nurse; no one could kill all the suitors. Well, the maid retorts, I don't know how he did it, but they're dead. Fair enough, thinks Penelope, but maybe there is another explanation. Perhaps it is a god disguised as her husband, she says. They do that, you know (and by this point we certainly do!). She decides to go down and see for herself. Across from Odysseus, on the other side of the room, she takes her seat and studies him. Telemakhos is amazed and offended by his mother's reticence, but Odysseus, here being the very model of a good husband (for a change), is patient and goes about organising the clean-up of the slaughter, allowing her to make her own mind up. Finally, she engages in a bit of Odyssean cunning of her own, telling the servants to set up this man in Odysseus' own bed, but to put the bed outside her chamber. Odysseus is astonished that anybody would be able to move the bed given that he carved it from a great tree-stump embedded in the ground, around which he built their bed chamber. But only Odysseus could know that. At this, Penelope realises that this indeed is her long-lost husband and a touching scene of reconciliation, of joy and tears, ensues.

All these concealments, the hints, the deceptions and the eventual revelations made me think, curiously enough, of the Incarnation. By concealing his identity, he preserves the freedom of the inhabitants of Ithaca, is able to see their true loyalties, and also prepares them to receive him. Is the swineherd longing for his master's return? Yes, he is. Would the suitors give way to the master of the island if he came back and stop chasing his wife? No, they would not. Thus, long before the slaying begins or their visitor reveals himself, judgement is passed on this generation. John Zizioulas, in Lectures on Christian Dogmatics, sees as one of the important aspects of the doctrine of the Incarnation the fact that it preserves human freedom. True relationship, true communion between persons, is only possible when both parties are free. By becoming man, God refuses to impose Himself on mankind but leaves people free to respond to Him, or not. Thus, the possibility of a genuine relationship with God is established. In the first century, and later in His Body, both in the Eucharist and in the Church, His presence did and does not overwhelm but was and is, in a way, hidden. Thus rejection is possible, but so is free acknowledgement. And, like in Homer, judgement is passed, in a sense, by the people on themselves; either condemnation or vindication.

Likewise, Penelope's realisation made me think of the Resurrection appearances- something one dared not hope for, something that doesn't even seem possible, has taken place. Can it be true? The slow dawning of hope and eucatastrophic joy, the characteristic air of Easter, is present here. In fact, Penelope rather reminds me of Thomas, casting around for any more plausible explanation, requiring evidence, wanting to believe but unable to do so until all other possibilities have been exhausted; then finally accepting, believing last of all but with joy more profound than all.

4. One thing I found a bit difficult to come at was the exultation over the killing of the suitors. The exultatory climax of Books 22 and 23 includes, quite unself-consciously, delight at the suitors' deaths, not as a regrettable but necessary prerequisite of Odysseus' reclaiming what is his but as an actual element of the celebration. One feels the poem urging one to be, not satisfied or relieved, but happy and even overjoyed that the suitors met such bloody ends. For example, the maid, when she comes to tell Penelope of what has happened, exclaims, (in Fitzgerald's translation)

"So I went out and found Odysseus/erect, with dead men littering the floor/this way and that. If you had only seen him!/It would have made your heart glow hot! - a lion/splashed with mire and blood."

Pope has a turn of phrase here at once masterly chosen yet horrifying- 'glorious in gore". Such sentiments turned my mind to passages in the Old Testament - the terrible end to Psalm 137 with its blessing of those who would dash out the brains of Babylonian infants, the zeal with which the Israelite army slaughtered entire populations during the conquest of Caanan, and that at God's command (perhaps the most difficult-to-answer apologetical problem for the modern Christian). We moderns do not feel comfortable glorying in violence to this extent. Sure, we watch very violent films and play very violent computer games (well, some of us do) but in order to do so, we usually need to dehumanise the victims of the violence. It's fun to shoot at Nazis, but only while they're in uniform. It's fun to watch the foyer scene in the Matrix, not so much because lots of people die but because it's well-executed and stylish. But these characters have been painted carefully. They have distinct personalities. We've heard speeches from them. Even their final moments are depicted humanly (when the first man falls, the others initially cry foul, thinking Odysseus missed his target and accidentally shot one of them; only subsequently does the realisation dawn that he means to kill them all). We too have our revenge fantasies (c.f. almost any Tarantino film) which, like the Odyssey, play on our sense of justice. But we also have a sense of the dark side of- even justified- violence that is absent here. The heroes of modern cinema walk away from explosions with a look of combined determination and world-weariness- they don't look back and hoot with glee.

Why is this? Has something in our culture made us more empathetic, so that we cannot inflict voluntary harm on a person and enjoy it unless we convince ourselves subconsciously that they are not a person? Has the echo of the Great War not yet faded from the collective subconscious, a war which more than any war since combined zeal to fight and horror at the consequences of that zeal? It's an interesting question, and one which brings to mind a line from Chesterton's "Song of the Strange Ascetic":

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still...
Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight-
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

Well, there are some thoughts anyway. Now I'm moving forward a few centuries to Milton. A bit ambivalent about that, actually (what kind of man makes the Devil his protagonist?) but we'll see. The poetic odyssey (in a more popular sense) continues.


Matthias said...

GAB have you read Eusebius's THE CHURCH HISTORY. I read it in an entire weekend as i could not put it down. I am yet to read either Euripides or Aristhophanes but will try and get around to it soon.

GAB said...

Oh, Eusebius is gold! Magnificent and fascinating. I always felt some kind of disconnect between the Apostles' time and any other Church history before I read him, but he ties it all together. Wonderful stuff. I haven't read either Euripides or Aristophanes, unfortunately, though I have a copy of the latter. Let me know how they are when you're done. So many books, so little time. :)

Matthias said...

Our Bible Study group is currently working its way through Mark's Gospel,and I found Eusebius's reference to Papyas comments that St Mark wrote his Gospel directly from St Peter. i did so because one of the blokes in our group is a bit of a sceptic-he attends a UCA which is pretty dead- and when he made a statement as to the validity of Mark I was able to quote Eusebius. Afterall Eusebius was much closer to what occurrdd than we are and he was also a Bishop in good standing with Connie the Great