ON ODYSSEUS AND THE ART OF TELLING

It has been said in the Lecture course that "the real Odyssey is a grownup affair of familial and social relationships". Nevertheless, if the story of the Cyclops and the others "autobiographical narratives" 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 the Iliad without this passage, because of the poverty of the deeds (according to the criteria of epic) in the journeys of Odysseus. To many readers - and I am of these - the strength of the Iliad dwelt in the capacity 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 not forget the bow was long considered as the coward's arm)! And how much was more symbolic of the epic values (for me) the desperate courage of Hector, almost alone in the Trojan camp to be a warrior of first level, than the wrath of a goddess’s son pre-programmed to win (as boring as Galahad compared to the other Grail seekers)! After the Iliad, where a high tone accompanied so well the high deeds of men, the simple "familial and social relationships" could seem a simple tale of circumstances, undoubtedly interesting for the intellectual readers but not enough for those, more emotional, 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 only real 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 simple interpretation of the relationship between Odysseus and the "human" world, for it is something higher which go through the deliberate magic tone. To keep only a "realistic" approach in such a text is particularly dangerous because it push often the critic to make statement that loses the original wonder to the profit of some flat allegory. I prefer to insist that all his adventures talk about three themes: one on a human level (his relation to women and hosts, the feeling of exile) one on a theological 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 (because we must not forget how much the fantastic scenes have not only a symbolic meaning but also an intrinsic 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 critics therefore 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 in Odysseus'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 words are 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? In Latin etymology, it concerns what "shows". I do not know what is the original Greek word in the text; however, it does not change many things, for the verse 187 insists on the relationship between this 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 on the 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 a strength permitting all the whims. Nevertheless, in his lecture of November 1936 to the British Academy called Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Professor Tolkien explains the way in which monsters a priori so near as the Giant Grendel in Beowulf and Homer's Cyclops are actually of different kind: "Of Grendel it is said: 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 (the dualist Scandinavian tradition from where he comes and his Christian part as a Cain’s descendant agree 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 instinctive definition we are tempted to link with the notion of monster, because his protection gives him another 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 Island were dwelt his friends (like bringing him a bit quicker to his doom. And Polyphemos is also something else: as the change of Odysseus's fellows in pork by Circe, as the possibility of an access to 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 symbol of "our reality". And this worth, which is so neglected and scorned by the greatest part of the modern critics, is imagination. Imagination: the art of create a consistent world, at the same time very different and very near of us, exceeding the limit of our world to bring us, however, real and strong emotions: 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's narrative. 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 within them, / and expertly, as a singer would o you have told the story" (v.366 / 8), it is above all because of the wonder of his tales. Otherwise, how explains the difference of "realism" between Odysseus's narratives 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 Alkinoös and his folk, under the charm of a marvellous tale. And the truth emerging of this statement is the mighty impact of magic in literature, and an opposition between Homer's and Odysseus's narratives which are the opening of the two principal literary traditions in most part of our western societies. At the 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 in a reciprocal hatred) during the last century, writers of "slices of life" and writers of "fantasy". There is 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 be sufficient even for an agnostic. There is a truth shimmering in the tales of wonder somewhere else than in allegory or symbolism (but it does not imply an absence of symbolism), and this truth is in the 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 old Väinämöinen 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 develop an 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 sexual obligations which are only mentioned in book V where he is not the narrator: "By nights he would lie 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 an earlier passage: Circe's island. Here also, Odysseus is on a situation of inferiority with a Goddess and 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 than in the Iliad. Out of the context of war, their place is more important. And not only the two goddesses that Odysseus meets in his narratives but also the mortal women as young and moving Nausikaa and Penelop herself for whom Odysseus cares more. Unfortunately they are out of our purpose, for they are not concerned with Odysseus's autobiographical narratives. The way Odysseus chooses to judge his host is hard to understand, as I said above about his own attitude to the Kikonians. It is equally possible to notice his paradoxical statement on Calypso’s welcome: "she received me / and love me excessively and cared for me" (book VII; v. 255/6) is a strange sentence. Of course, there is "excessively" which shows how Odysseus was not choosing his life, 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 own suggestion 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 in Hades'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 any cultural 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 and when Odysseus calls him the king of the dead, he answers bitterly "I would rather follow the plow as 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 the same 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's interviews 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 dead completely conscious of their ancient life but not completely aware of what happened still there and extremely anxious for there family's fate (Achilleus asks for Neoptolemos, Antikleia for himself and Elpenor for his corpse...). This is very odd and interesting to read that several dead know Penelope waiting for Odysseus (his mother, Agamemnon) at the same time that other ask for news. It insists on the Odysseus "elected". His fate is famous before its end, and the dead look like soothsayer even Agamemnon, who was unable to understand the omens during the Trojan war (on the Iliad), seems

to know precisely what will happened for Odysseus: "do not be too easy even with your wife" and " (book XI; v.441) is an advice foreseeing Odysseus coming back hidden in tramp's clothes in Ithaka. And most of all, a sentence sounds as a terrible forecast: “And yet you, Odysseus, will never be murdered by your wife”. And even if it is not mentioned in Homer's poem, it is famous that Odysseus was slain by his son, Telegone, which he had from Circe. It is easy to interpret this sentence as a unexpressed joke of Homer. And in spite of this, Agamemnon does not know if his own son "is still living". Thus, the land of the dead revealed more an Odysseus's own truth than the truth on what happened after. To conclude, I hope to have shown to my reader how the "autobiographical narratives" - in fact book IX to XII and a part of book VII - are not only a poem inside the poem because Homer uses his hero as an intermediate fictive narrator but above all in reason of the exploration of a really different style and interest than in the rest of the Odyssey: through Odysseus's skilful voice, Homer tries another kind of writing where the real purpose is no more to tell Odysseus's "slice of life", but to enter in the land of myths and shows the strength of legends in a literary context to express a truth of men: the will to heard of something else or something more than their life. This is a possibility of literature and Odysseus uses it to fill Alkinoös and his folk with wonder: he sings a journey in an Outside and the common fear of the Unknown but the audience is moved and his emotions are true. I am not of those people who believe in a universal value of literary works. This appears to me as a typically western "tare", especially among the critics and scholars to justify their places. I cannot have the pretention to show why Elysabethan poetry is still read today, because I am enough honest to consider myself unable to prove why other peoples than me enjoy any kind of reading. Equally, I do think that the concept of "modern audience" does not mean anything precisely. I cannot reduce the worth of any ancient work to the "modern" judgement that will pass away sooner than those works. The obsession of modernity is a quite recent plague and I prefer to understand the word modern as a simple synonymous of present more than a type of higher value (many critics misunderstand the word modern with something of a far greater worth: the word timeless). Therefore, the only modern reader I know enough to understand a little his literary criteria is me. Thus, I will try to explain in what ways I was moved or interested by some - though not the all - of the Elizabethan poems of the Norton Anthology of English Literature. The sonnet 100 of Fulke Greville's Caelica has a particular and weird sound amid the fashion of sonnet cycles that were popular during this period. The general tendency was in the celebration of love by following or contradicting Petrarch's sketch, but here Greville deals with a different subject. The poem is organized around the feeling that thoughts in the night and especially dreams ("witty tyranny" v.6; "hurt imaginations"v.12) are the ground of the evil part of human nature ("inward evils" v.14). This conception is quite interesting because it could be used both by two traditions. The uneasy feeling about night and the growing impressions in the first stanza of being on the threshold of a horrible world of suffering (as shows the idea of nyctalopia) could perfectly be an epigraph of a gothic novel as wrote Ann Radcliff or Mathurin. But one can read it as the fear that takes men because of the impossibility to control their own dreams. The "news of devils" in this way might be the fantasmatical unconscious part of human and it might reveal the deep hidden condition that cannot be destroyed by the moral rules of social relationship. The fear of human's "hurt imaginations" is to me very interesting. To compare, today with the establishment of psychoanalysis as a science, many people consider dreams as partly a key to explain and heal mysterious inward problems to live in society. At this period probably, dreams were not regarded as possible tools of cure but more as the simple expression of evil, because they

are free and escape from the moral laws. The Renaissance preoccupation with architecture and order, but most of all its conception of human's place in universe could not support the way in which he is suddenly at night falls in "self-confusednesses"(v.11). I really think this poem at the same time typical of this period (with the judgement of dreams on a moral scale - principally due to the omnipresent religion in the society) and out of time consideration, at least aesthetically. For the painting of darkness continue to inspire writers in our time. The problem of sight is also proper to poetry. " The eye a watch to inward senses placed, / Not seing, yet still having power of sight" is a couple of verse that could have been written by symbolist poets who, following Poe, were especially interested to regard poetry as a journey to explore the dark and foresight as one of its proprieties. In echo to this poem, but on a quite different tone I find the same interest for the world of the night in another sonnet, from Samuel Daniel's Delia cycle. In both poems dreams are condemned (Daniel talks about "liars" in verse 11; as Greville evokes the "impossibility" of dreams) however, at the inverse of Fulke Greville's sonnet, the poem 45 deals with dreams as the "imagery of our days desires" which is an idea far more precise than Greville's conception of "self-confusednesses". "Torment" (v.8) in Daniel' poem comes from the link between night and day, dreams and awaking life which is a source of vain hope. This topos does not prevent the poem to give off an unquiet mood. The two first emphatic verses set the poem in an inheritance of Latin poetry with the personalisation of Sleep, Night and Death (keeping the sketch of Greek and Latin mythology's genealogy). It is an interesting poem particularly on the work of form. The sonnet as something close on itself, a kind of sphere is a new clear and was very much used long time later, in the nineteenth century's poetry. One can notice here, how the opening, where Sleep is related to death is recalled at the end: "Still let me sleep [...] / And never wake to feel the day's disdain." The general architecture of the poem is equally prepared skilfully. For instance, the work on rhymes shows consciously the inner opposition between the dreams of hope and their consequences: Night/light (v.1&3); desires/liars (v. 9&11); morrow/sorrow (v.10&12). The alliteration work is (the second verse is a good example with brother and born; Death and silent darkness; also v.12 "grief to aggravate") equally a tool to develop this weird atmosphere. Nonetheless, the author let willingly an interesting mystery which can change the manner of reading the poem. Verse 9 related to verse 11 and 12 can perfectly suggest a masochism of the narrator: if dreams were nightmares, it would be easy to understand the sentence "Never let the rising sun approve you liars", but how dreams called "imagery of our day desires" (which means, I suppose, pleasant dreams) could be "aggravate [a] sorrow" if they come true? I admire this way to suggest rather than describe and to keep a subtle ambiguity which dos not permit to the reader to know with certainty what sort of dreams the narrator is haunted by. Campion's song I care not for these ladies belongs to another tradition, though also going back to Antiquity, for this poem is imitated from Catullus. We live in a period were poetry and song are more or less obliged to take different paths, and it is with a deep nostalgia that modern readers who like both of these arts and consider them as naturally twined look at this past were the stupid present segregation was already created. Campion's song is not a lament - one cannot find here the huge sadness of Greville's or Daniel's poem. L.A.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful