Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 21-24)

In 1963 a group called The Angels had a hit song called My Boyfriend’s Back. One of the stanzas goes like this:

My boyfriend's back and you're gonna be in trouble
(Hey-la-day-la my boyfriend's back)
When you see him comin' better cut out on the double
(Hey-la-day-la my boyfriend's back)
You been spreading lies that I was untrue
(Hey-la-day-la my boyfriend's back)
So look out now cause he's comin' after you

This could have been the theme song for The Odyssey and Penelope could have sung it. Beginning with Book XXI Odysseus does start comin’ after the suitors and it isn’t a pretty sight. He kills almost all of them and for good measure also executes a dozen of the serving-maids. Was this just a bloody rampage of revenge killings or was it justice?

The Odyssey is a great epic poem that stands at the prehistoric dawn of Western civilization. People in the Greek-speaking world were only half civilized at this stage of their development. War and violence was apparently just a routine part of life. That’s what makes this work so astonishing in many ways. It’s not just a long story; it’s a work of art. It’s not just about a guy coming back home from war to kill more men. He’s come back to restore order not only within his own household but he also brings a civil code of honor to the whole city-state. One of the earliest literary critics praises the way Homer shapes his material as a poet. Aristotle’s Poetics has a section that says: “A whole host of things happen to one man, some of which cannot be worked into a unity; and likewise one man does many things which cannot be reduced to a single action…Homer was quite clear on this point and whether by art or instinct he excels in every respect. In writing the Odyssey he did not include all the hero’s adventures; e.g. being wounded on Parnassus and pretending to be mad when called up for military service, neither of which incidents had any probable or necessary connection with the other. No, what Homer did in the Odyssey, as also in the Iliad, was to take an action with a unity such as we are describing. The fact is that, just as in the other imitative arts one imitation is invariably of a single thing, so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole…”

The Odyssey does indeed represent one action, a complete whole. Odysseus has come back home. The world is as it should be. But the poem does much more than that. It gives us an early lesson in the values that have driven Western civilization for 3,000 years: law and order is better than anarchy; there’s a certain sanctity in the private home and private property rights must be respected by all citizens; marriage is the primary building-block of the state and should be protected; religious rituals are important to the community and confirms the reality of a world beyond what we can see and touch; civility and manners are the glue that holds society together. Finally, it’s a tough neighborhood we live in; but it’s also a world where things can be put right – like the one described in this early Greek poem or in an American hit song written 3,000 years later.


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