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On Odysseus and the Art of Telling

On Odysseus and the Art of Telling

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Published by Laurent Alibert

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Published by: Laurent Alibert on Feb 26, 2012
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ON ODYSSEUS AND THE ART OF TELLING
It has been said in the Lecture course that "the real Odyssey is a grownup affair of familialand social relationships". Nevertheless, if the story of the Cyclops and the others "autobiographicalnarratives" are the first images that come to the mind about the poem, it is certainly because this passage is the most powerful. I do not think honestly that the Odyssey could be compared to theIliad without this passage, because of the poverty of the deeds (according to the criteria of epic) inthe journeys of Odysseus. To many readers - and I am of these - the strength of the Iliad dwelt in thecapacity to describe an impressive number of fights and keep the dramatic tension in the actions.How great was to hear Diomede mocking Pâris just after being hurt by one of his arrows (do notforget the bow was long considered as the coward's arm)! And how much was more symbolic of theepic values (for me) the desperate courage of Hector, almost alone in the Trojan camp to be awarrior of first level, than the wrath of a goddess’s son pre-programmed to win (as boring asGalahad compared to the other Grail seekers)! After the Iliad, where a high tone accompanied sowell the high deeds of men, the simple "familial and social relationships" could seem a simple taleof circumstances, undoubtedly interesting for the intellectual readers but not enough for those, moreemotional, who need to hear the legendary past of mankind when legends were still true. And here,in this passage of the Odyssey, the art of telling (keep in perspective by the change of narrator -which could be seen as a reference to himself by Homer) is so bright that we can see in it the onlyreal reason which permitted to the Odyssey to be more popular than the Iliad.The truths that shimmer of this splendid narrative, I do not want to reduce them to a simpleinterpretation of the relationship between Odysseus and the "human" world, for it is somethinghigher which go through the deliberate magic tone. To keep only a "realistic" approach in such a textis particularly dangerous because it push often the critic to make statement that loses the originalwonder to the profit of some flat allegory. I prefer to insist that all his adventures talk about threethemes: one on a human level (his relation to women and hosts, the feeling of exile) one on atheological level (particularly in book XI, with the entrance in the realm of the Dead -foreshadowing a great tradition in literature from Virgil to Dante) and one a legendary level (becausewe must not forget how much the fantastic scenes have not only a symbolic meaning but also anintrinsic worth to increase the emotional impact in reader's mind by the feeling of marvellous, proper to narrative as a challenge to reality). This last one is the most neglected by the criticstherefore I will begin with it and give it the largest part in this essay.First of all, let us speak of the book IX which deals with one of the most famous passages:the Cyclops's welcome and his punishment. Since the first appearance of the legendary beings inOdysseus's tale they are evilly connoted ("the country of the lawless outrageous Cyclopes" v.106/7).And if the Greeks had very different moral values than the Christian society, the tacit laws of 
 xenia
are one of the most universal in the pagan world of Mediterranean Sea. Still more important wordsare those which opened the first description of the marginal Cyclops who dwelt alone: "a monster of a man"(v.187) and "he was a monstrous wonder made to behold"(v.190). What is a monster? InLatin etymology, it concerns what "shows". I do not know what is the original Greek word in thetext; however, it does not change many things, for the verse 187 insists on the relationship betweenthis horrible being and the man. Even in this pre-Christian (?) context we can admit that the monster of this type (it is not the case, for example, with the dragons) is a deformation of man, a kind of huge caricature of the evil part of the men. And we can easily notice the paradox of Odysseus,telling how "monstrous" and "lawless" his host is just few moments after the story of his attack onthe Kikonians before any judgements of their hospitality (cf. v. 39/41). Here, the Cyclops can be
 
considered as a increasing mirror which shows the horror of a man's deeds when he is gifted of astrength permitting all the whims. Nevertheless, in his lecture of November 1936 to the British Academy called
 Beowulf: TheMonsters and the Critics
, Professor Tolkien explains the way in which monsters
a priori
so near asthe Giant Grendel in
 Beowulf 
and Homer's Cyclops are actually of different kind: "Of Grendel it issaid:
Godes yrres baer 
. But Cyclops is god-begotten and his maiming is an offence against his begetter, the God Poseidon". If the first one is a whole symbol of the Evil from his two origins (thedualist Scandinavian tradition from where he comes and his Christian part as a Cain’s descendantagree perfectly to create an incarnation of Evil), the Cyclops cannot be interpreted in the same way.If he is an immoral and "lawless" creature, he, however, keeps another meaning than the instinctivedefinition we are tempted to link with the notion of monster, because his protection gives himanother place in the Greek ancient order of the world.Thus, what could be the other sense of the Cyclops? First of all a sign of Odysseus's fate.Cyclops's malediction is like a door opening Odysseus's principales adventures and by this way,gives him a meaning, the personality by which we designs today Odysseus. It is even by a shot of the Cyclops that, on an artificial wave and without any effort he comes to the shores of the Islandwere dwelt his friends (like bringing him a bit quicker to his doom. And Polyphemos is alsosomething else: as the change of Odysseus's fellows in pork by Circe, as the possibility of an accessto immortality in Calypso's island, as the stop of the stream when Odysseus swims near from a river of Phaiakian's island, Polyphemos and his folk has a higher worth than an simple and insipid symbolof "our reality". And this worth, which is so neglected and scorned by the greatest part of the moderncritics, is imagination. Imagination: the art of create a consistent world, at the same time verydifferent and very near of us, exceeding the limit of our world to bring us, however, real and strongemotions: amazement, sadness, joy or hate. Imagination was a precious jewel of literature for Homer  because all the most wonderful and fantastic scenes of the poem are contained in Odysseus'snarrative. And in the interlude, on book XI, if all the folk listening "held in thrall by the story"(v.334) , and Alkinoös claims "you have / a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense withinthem, / and expertly, as a singer would o you have told the story" (v.366 / 8), it is above all becauseof the wonder of his tales. Otherwise, how explains the difference of "realism" between Odysseus'snarratives and the other parts of the poem, more strictly human? And why do we often think instinctively to these passages to describe the whole poem? Definitely because we are like Alkinoösand his folk, under the charm of a marvellous tale. And the truth emerging of this statement is themighty impact of magic in literature, and an opposition between Homer's and Odysseus's narrativeswhich are the opening of the two principal literary traditions in most part of our western societies. Atthe inverse of many other literary tradition still living (even in Europe), Homer makes a clear distinction of tone between these two narratives and we can notice how much were distinct (often ina reciprocal hatred) during the last century, writers of "slices of life" and writers of "fantasy". Thereis probably also an ambiguity on the word "truth", too often considered as a synonymous of "reality". It is not an open-minded conception but only proper to an atheist view, and it cannot besufficient even for an agnostic. There is a truth shimmering in the tales of wonder somewhere elsethan in allegory or symbolism (but it does not imply an absence of symbolism), and this truth is inthe feeling of "sublime" or supreme joy in reader's spirit.On the legendary level, I can also add that journeys on the sea such as Odysseus's are proper to a topic of imaginary literature: islands (from Circe's to Laystrygones's or Aiolian Island, all possess at least one supernatural characteristic) and travels on the sea are archetypal of the
wonder 
and there are innumerable examples of literary work using island as a door on another world (the oldVäinämöinen in the Finnish epic
 Kalevala
, the numerous Celtic tales treating of Avalon or Môn,Poe's adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym are few example where seas and islands are tools to developan altered world).
 
 Nonetheless, it would be stupid to deny the link between Odysseus's narrative to the human's problems (social, sexual, moral ones) and numerous are the examples of a transcription of those problem on a huge or altered scale.For insistence, the narrative technique, permits to Odysseus a subtle distortion of his "real"adventures: in book VII, Odysseus tells his despair with Calypso the nymphomaniac nymph("forever was drenching / with tears that clothing" - v.259/60) but does not relate his sexualobligations which are only mentioned in book V where he is not the narrator: "By nights he wouldlie beside her, of necessity, / in the hollow caverns, against his will" (v. 154/5).The sketch of his story with Calypso find an echo in his later narrative - book X - of anearlier passage: Circe's island. Here also, Odysseus is on a situation of inferiority with a Goddessand must "[clasp] her by the knees" and supply her to continue his journey to Ithaca.The relationship between men and women in Odysseus's tales are there of a very different kind thanin the Iliad. Out of the context of war, their place is more important. And not only the two goddessesthat Odysseus meets in his narratives but also the mortal women as young and moving Nausikaa andPenelop herself for whom Odysseus cares more. Unfortunately they are out of our purpose, for theyare not concerned with Odysseus's autobiographical narratives.The way Odysseus chooses to judge his host is hard to understand, as I said above about hisown attitude to the Kikonians. It is equally possible to notice his paradoxical statement on Calypso’swelcome: "she received me / and love me excessively and cared for me" (book VII; v. 255/6) is astrange sentence. Of course, there is "excessively" which shows how Odysseus was not choosing hislife, and there is equally no reason to deny his tears drenching his clothes during seven years.However, it is difficult to believe in Odysseus's sorrow concerning his exile because, the tears of  being jailed in Calypso’s island during more than seven years are just followed by his ownsuggestion to stay one year if they "[give him] glorious presents" in Alkinoös's island! (book XI;v.356/8) Actually, the Odysseus's will to come back soon in Ithaca is not obvious at all.At last, there is another passage almost as famous as the story of the Cyclops: Odysseus inHades's realm talking with the dead. Here are the most important scenes because in the question of death and character’s relationship to it shows human condition in its nakedness, apart from anycultural difference. I explain: Greek world is a world with
 something after 
and Achilleus in the Iliad,of godkin, appears less human than Hector or Patroklos. But here, Homer shows him as a mortal andwhen Odysseus calls him the king of the dead, he answers bitterly "I would rather follow the plowas thrall to another / man, one with land allotted him and not much to live on, / than be a king over all the perished dead" (book XI; v. 489/91). This is a terrible and universal truth that really
 shimmered 
on the Styx, for mighty warrior or anonymous loser, atheist or believer; all men are thesame in death. I really think this scene powerful because Homer shows in the great problem of human race: the love of a world where we are but simple guests for a brief period.There is also something particularly different to Christian or atheist conception in Odysseus'sinterviews of the dead. Today, in funeral context, both Christians and atheist are in habit of saying"where he is, his suffering are finished" - the first one because they consider pain proper to our world and not to the realm of the Lord, the other because void and nothingness cannot bring the physical and spiritual pain of the sickness. On the other hand, Homer shows a host of deadcompletely conscious of their ancient life but not completely aware of what happened still there andextremely anxious for there family's fate (Achilleus asks for Neoptolemos, Antikleia for himself andElpenor for his corpse...). This is very odd and interesting to read that several dead know Penelopewaiting for Odysseus (his mother, Agamemnon) at the same time that other ask for news. It insistson the Odysseus "elected". His fate is famous before its end, and the dead look like soothsayer evenAgamemnon, who was unable to understand the omens during the Trojan war (on the
 Iliad 
), seems

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