Sat, Nov 27, 2021

Another Rosy-fingered False Dawn: The Endless Homecoming of Odysseus


  • 11/15/2021 - by Dean A. Hoffman

Academic chauvinism toward such a heretical notion notwithstanding, Mikhail Bakhtin’s advocacy of the novel for the conveyance of narrative in his “Epic and Novel” (1941) remains every bit as relevant today as it did eighty years ago. Through novelization, argues the Russian semiotician, other genres “become more free and flexible,” their elements “permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody.” Most importantly, “the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality.”

If a latter-day BBC poll is indeed correct that Homer’s The Odyssey is the most influential tale ever told, it is an indirect but unsurprising vindication of Dana Gioia’s pre-millennial lament over the absence of extended verse in modern poetry, particularly his observation that, faced with the prospect of writing on an epic scale, such figures as Robert Graves and Howard Nemerov turned to the novel as their mode of choice, part of a pattern of avoidance of the long poetic form. 

In light of the breadth and scope of Homer’s episodic and interlaced narrative, the Odyssey has been continually co-opted by any number of individuals or institutions as an exemplar of such values as loyalty to hearth and home, perseverance and redemption through suffering, and resourcefulness in the midst of threatened survival.  And despite the interminable succession of “definitive” vernacular translations by classical scholars, the virtual inability of the contemporary reader to discern the rhapsodic ethos of Homeric verse form, let alone imagine its equivalent in contemporary English, remains ever-present, a syndrome wherein centuries-old subtleties of orality, metrics, and wordplay tend to vanish, leaving narrativity as its most powerful and influential remnant, one that is inevitably articulated most effectively not in approximated verse but in novelistic prose.  

Academic chauvinism toward such a heretical notion notwithstanding, Mikhail Bakhtin’s advocacy of the novel for the conveyance of narrative in his “Epic and Novel” (1941) remains every bit as relevant today as it did eighty years ago.  Through novelization, argues the Russian semiotician, other genres “become more free and flexible,” their elements “permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody.”  Most importantly, “the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality.”

These points were driven home decisively in 2010 with the unexpected and welcome arrival of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a debut effort by reclusive young computer scientist Zachary Mason.  Predicated on the disingenuous premise of discarded papyrus remnants from Oxhyrhynchus containing forty-four episodes of the Odysseus narrative, this kaleidoscopic deconstruction of multiple perspectives dramatizes at once both the overwhelming need for narrative to provide definition and purpose and the virtual impossibility of the storyteller himself to apprehend his creation, whether ancient or contemporary.

The influence of such postmodernist predecessors as Calvino and Borges are apparent here, along with affinities between Mason’s novel and Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s epyllion  Throne of Labdacus (2000), Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (2005), Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles (2001), and Alessandro Baricco’s multi-voiced treatment An Iliad (2006).  Yet Lost Books of the Odyssey, thanks to its antinomic relationship to its source, remains perhaps the most compelling specimen of contemporary Homeriana of the last decade.

In an irregular series of shifting apocryphal fragments of Odysseus’ story wherein the eponymous hero becomes both narrator and narrated, we witness him showing the reluctant ghost of Penelope her grave; conspiring with Nestor and Agamemnon to entomb a mutinous Achilles, whose legendary reputation becomes reduced to that of a street beggar or wandering sophist; overhearing three spiteful cave-bound goddesses resembling a sniping administrative committee preparing his encounter with Calypso; and his being imprisoned for desertion and finding an introduction to Homer’s works that tells of their divine origin and their protagonists’ skepticism toward their accuracy, leading to his re-enactment of the war, a liaison with Helen and a consequent snub from Athena.

As the Lost Books proceed, we further observe his return from Troy to a deferential wife and son and his resumption of duties as the “level-headed lord of a small island,” later contrasted with his arrival at his abandoned and derelict estate; his reanimation of the deceased Achilles as a golem; and his demeaning attempt to avoid being drafted into service against Troy by unsuccessfully feigning madness, followed by his paying an assassin to murder Helen and his desertion to a distant coastal city under the guise of a sword-wielding bard, deftly constructing his own false heroic profile and inventing the semi-comic strategy of a wooden horse crammed with warriors. 

The essential fragmentation of Mason’s rendition thus becomes a reflection of our own enduring, ambivalent hopes – over the prospect of Odysseus’ safe return, the veracity of the Trojan War’s historicity and that of the poem’s presumptive author, and the mere possibility of conceiving its original performance context or the characteristics of its oral transmission down the centuries – to say nothing about our inexplicable, cherished doubts over the resolution of this most resonant tale.  As Mason’s aged Odysseus himself admits in a first-person testimony near the end of this compendium, his own reiterations of his adventures have left him less certain of the events themselves than of  “their retellings and the retellings’ retellings, which through a gradual accretion of spurious detail and embellishment had, for all I knew, diverged drastically from the truth.”

As Kenyon Review critic Zak Salih astutely noted in a review of Mason’s reimagination of Ovid in his Metamorphica (2018), its similar late chapter “Epistolary” appears as a plausible key to his method: a desperate written plea for clemency dispatched from the exiled poet to his emperor suffers generational loss and reinterpretation through successive transmissions of his testimony, demonstrating the essential failure of the written word to convey truth or even to remain distinct from orality, both of which prove ephemeral and subject to the vagaries of time.

 

 As we are reminded by vestiges of the Troy narrative in this work, it is the abstraction of legend and not the materiality of text that illustrates longevity and example, and why it is unavoidable if not desirable that the Trojan War should remain myth, that Homer should be viewed as never having existed except perhaps as a committee of scribes, and that Odysseus should never really make it back to Ithaca.  As Mason’s shallow Helen, having betrayed both Menelaus and Paris, remarks from her comfortable island redoubt near Sparta where she hears tales of a distant war waged over a woman, “I don’t listen as it has nothing to do with me.” 

Mason’s volume continues to cast a long shadow over such postmillennial treatments of the Trojan War narrative as Terence Hawkins’s Rage of Achilles (2009) and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (2012), two works whose self-conscious stylizations and shared preoccupation with the cliché of homoerotic love between the title character and Patroclus prove at best tiresome and at worst unreadable.  This particular conceit had been thankfully discredited with the 1994 publication of the epochal Achilles in Vietnam by Veteran Affairs psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, whose interpretation of this relationship in terms of the dynamic between shared combat experience and the failure of unit cohesion all but redefined conventional wisdom regarding The Iliad upon its 2000 reprint.  

Moreover, Shay seems to have anticipated Mason’s radical reinvention by one notably  succinct and breathtaking observation in his companion volume, Odysseus in America (2002) – that the familiar episodic trajectory of this hero’s hazardous return from Troy, marked by encounters with such variously surreal, grotesque, and deadly figures as the Lotus-Eaters, Polyphemus, Circe, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and Calypso, might in fact be a poetic retelling of one soldier’s prolonged ordeal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after a decade of battle: 

Might [these] have been ten years at home, but not at home?  Ten years of wildness, drinking, drugging, living on the edge, violence, sex addiction, not-so-petty crime, and of “bunkering in,” becoming unapproachable and withdrawn?  If so, would not Odysseus have been just as “absent” a son to Anticleia, just as “absent” a husband to Penelope, and just as “absent” a father to Telemachus as if he still had been overseas?  Could not these ten years have been told in metaphor as the very same story told in the Odyssey?

How indeed might the figuration of these and so many other junctures of Homer’s epic be the very thing that keeps it permanently lodged in our consciousness and compulsively repurposed by his many successors, sometimes beyond recognition, well into our own age!  

As The Lost Books of the Odyssey reaches its deliberately inconclusive final segments, we see the Iliad reduced to an Achaean chess primer and the Odyssey to an ostensible parody treatise of doubtful provenance, to be used after players have abandoned the game and left one of the surviving pieces, to “[inch] across the crumbling board to his home square,” and eventually join an aged Odysseus and his surviving compatriots revisiting Troy, now a bustling international commercial center where the hero observes theme park reenactments of his own exploits.  Just as the character of Odysseus is at the present moment undoubtedly undergoing strenuous and even painful reinvention by any number of aspirant authors, we who compulsively reengage with Homer’s narrative throughout our lives as followers of the rhapsodes of the present day must prepare once again to encounter our own incipient identification with this character, with all the attendant risk of failure of association as that experienced by Mason’s protagonist when repeatedly confronted, as he is here, with his own heroic past.


Dean A. Hoffman
North American Affairs
Occidental Studies Institute