The Odyssey of Homer
Anyone who read Homer at some point in school will probably remember
the oft-repeated "wine-dark sea" and "rosey-fingered dawn." Less famous
is the epitaph so often attached to Odysseus throughout the poem --
man of many devices, as it is given in this translation;
man of many turns,
as it is elsewhere rendered. While some heroes are famous for strength
or for bravery, Odysseus is known for his resourcefulness. Throughout his trials, he never hesitates to make use of what would generously be called
cunning. That is to say, he's a bullshit artist. This first become clear when he introduces himself to Polyphemus as
Noman, so that, once he goes after him, Polyphemus will cry out,
Noman is attacking me, and all the other Cyclops will leave him to be blinded.
Of course, we can forgive -- or even commend -- a little b.s. when
it's necessary to escape the Cyclops or drive dozens of armed suitors
from one's home. But the most striking example of Odysseus's
comes in the poem's last book, once he has successfully made his way
home, revealed himself, and defeated Penelope's suitors. At this point,
he goes to find his father, Laertes, who is living out what remains of
his life in mourning for his lost son. Odysseus finds his father alone,
dirty and stooped with sorrow. Homer writes:
Then he communed with his heart and soul, whether he should fall on his father's neck and kiss him, and tell him all, how he had returned and come to his own country, or whether he should first question him and prove him in every word. And as he thought within himself, this seemed to him the better way, namely, first to prove his father and speak to him sharply.
Why does he feel the need to
test the father he hasn't seen
in twenty years? Stranger still is the method he chooses for his test.
He approaches Laertes in the guise of a stranger and, after a brief
Tell me moreover truly, that I may surely know, if it be indeed to Ithaca that I am now come ... Once did I kindly entreat a man in mine own dear country, who came to our home, and never yet has any mortal been dearer of all the strangers that have drawn to my house from afar. He declared him to be by lineage from out of Ithaca, and said that his own father was Laertes son of Arceisius. So I led him to our halls and gave him good entertainment, with all loving-kindness, out of the plenty that was within.
At this point, Laertes begins to weep, and says,
Stranger ... plainly tell me all: how many years are passed since thou didst entertain him, thy guest ill-fated and my child, -- if ever such an one there was, -- hapless man, whom far from his friends and his country's soil, the fishes, it may be, have devoured in the deep sea, or on the shore he has fallen the prey of birds and beasts. His mother wept not over him nor clad him for burial, nor his father, we that begat him.
This would seem like as good a time as any to reveal himself, but Odysseus
of many counsels continues:
But for Odysseus, this is now the fifth year since he went thence and departed out of my country. Ill-fated was he. It's only after Laertes begins to pour ash and dirt over his head that Odysseus relents and admits,
Behold, I here, even I, my father, am the man of whom thou asked.
All in all, these seems less like a test of loyalty and more like an ancient episode of Punk'd.
Leaving aside the cruelty of it, what is most striking is how purely
gratuitous it is. Nabokov once remarked that literature began not on
the day when the boy came running down the hill crying,
Wolf, and the wolf came chasing after, but on the when he came running down the hill crying,
and there was no wolf behind him. I thought of this line when I read
this exchange between Odysseus and Laertes. Odysseus is like a
CIA-trained assassin in a bad movie, who can't stop killing once the
war is over. He lies not to save himself, but for the sheer pleasure of
the lie. At that moment, he becomes a story teller.
This seemed fitting to me, because the other thing that struck me as
I read this week was how many of the other books in the Classics owe
some sort of literary debt to Odysseus. To begin with there is The Aeneid.
Then there are all the Greek tragedies that dramatize stories -- like
Agamemnon's murder -- that originate with Homer. And without The Aeneid, there couldn't be the Divine Comedy.
Without Aeschylus there couldn't be Shakespeare. And so on. And all
this began not when Odysseus, trapped in the land of the Cyclops, gave
his name as
Noman. It began once Odysseus was safely home, and he couldn't stop turning.
---CRB, July 11, 2007