Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 17-20)

In Tolstoy’s great epic novel War and Peace the reader is shown a vast panorama of conflict covering both the battlefield and life back home. In Homer’s great epic poem The Odyssey the reader is shown a vast panorama of one soldier’s journey back home after a long war abroad. In many ways they’re telling the same story: war is hell; and not just on the battlefield. War disrupts everything and generally makes life unpleasant for everyone involved; and everyone eventually does get involved when war takes place on a national scale. War has the same effect on both Russians and on Greeks.

Of course there are differences too. One story is set in 19th century Russia and the other is set in ancient Greece. The personal violence in Russia tends to be somewhat more stylized if not more civilized than the ancient Greek version. For example, when there’s conflict between two Russian gentlemen there’s an established way to settle the matter: have a duel. Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel and miraculously Pierre comes out the winner. That can happen sometimes when pistols are the weapon of choice. In ancient Greece when there’s a conflict there’s also an established way to settle the matter: fight it out man-to-man. The beggar Irus foolishly challenges Odysseus to a fight: “Gird yourself then, that all these men may watch our fighting. Yet how could you defend yourself against a younger man?” Odysseus accepts the challenge and gives Irus a good drubbing. It’s not as civilized as the Russian method but it seems to work for the Greeks.

The question is: can there really be such a thing as “civilized violence”? Dolokhov is seriously wounded when he gets shot by Pierre; Irus gets his jaw broken in his fight with Odysseus. Both men get hurt. The backdrop in the Russian novel is the Napoleonic war. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are killing one another – mostly with guns and cannons. The backdrop in the Greek poem is the Trojan War. Hundreds (if not thousands) of soldiers are killing one another – mostly with spears and swords. What’s the difference? There are lots of dead men in both cases. The result is the same whether you kill a man from far away using cannon shot or kill him up close using a sword.

The message is the same too: the world is a tough neighborhood to live in. We can try to gloss it over but violence is a fact of life that every society must learn to deal with in its own way. We’re not talking about abstract men killing and being killed. These are flesh and blood human beings. In Book XVII Homer gives a little glimpse into the humanity of Odysseus. The Greek hero has returned home incognito and is talking with his servant Eumaeus. Here’s the scene: “So they conversed together. But a dog lying near lifted his head and ears. Argos it was, the dog of hardy Odysseus, whom long ago he reared…now he lay neglected, his master gone away…Here lay the dog, this Argos, full of fleas. Yet even now, seeing Odysseus near, he wagged his tail and dropped both ears, but toward his master he had not strength to move. Odysseus turned aside and wiped away a tear, swiftly concealing from Eumaeus what he did…” Anyone who has ever owned a dog doesn’t need to be told the meaning of this little passage. Odysseus isn’t a god. He’s a homesick man who misses his home and his family. He also misses Argos. There are good guys and there are bad guys. Odysseus is obviously the good guy. The suitors let Argos get all full of fleas. Now Odysseus has come back home. It’s payback time.


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