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Monday, December 15, 2008

A Meditation on Survival in Homer's Odyssey

"What does not destroy me, makes me stronger."
--Friedrich Nietzsche

What is it exactly that the Odyssey is about? The short answer is that it concerns a man's quest to return to his home. But many other themes emerge along the way in this journey to Ithaca: there is, for example, the Greek idea of hospitality and how it is conveyed or not conveyed to strangers; the idea of fidelity, of whether or not Penelope will wait for her husband's return or succumb to the demands of the suitors who want her to choose another husband; the idea of vengeance, as related in the tales of Agamemnon and Odysseus and what transpires when they each return home; another idea in this epic is the notion of Gods and mortals and how their worlds intersect; the theme of self-discovery, as Telemachus moves from childhood to manhood; the theme of destiny and what part it plays in the lives of men; and, of course, the most prevalent idea of all, the theme of homelessness and what it means to be lost in the world and separated from one's family.

All of these themes appear in Homer and are worthy of exploration. But I'd like to comment on a different perspective that runs throughout this work, to explore what is required by man to survive in a hostile world. Here, I characterize the world as being hostile because that is precisely what human existence becomes when confronted with the power of an angry god. In the Odyssey, for example, Odysseus has managed to incur the wrath of Poseidon the "Earth Shaker," the hot tempered brother of Zeus. Those who have read the Iliad already know that gods and goddesses are easily irked by the affairs of men, and will strike out with deadly force if they are provoked or slighted by a meager sacrifice. For humans in the company of gods, the rule should always be to tread softly and hope for the best. Unfortunately for Odysseus, he angers Poseidon and because of this his life becomes a living hell, not only for him but for all the men under his command. This turns out to be especially unlucky because Poseidon is the god of the sea, and Odysseus must travel by ship in order to reach Ithaca.

The first question we might ask ourselves is whether or not Homer wants us to feel sorry for Odysseus. After all, he has already spent ten years fighting in Troy, then another nine years trying to return to Ithaca, with little or no prospects for success. When the Odyssey opens, he is living as a kind of fugitive "boy toy," a love slave to the goddess Calypso. , Taking advantage of Poseidon's absence from Olympus, Athena appeals to Zeus for permission to release Odysseus from Calypso's spell.

Here, we should note that sentimentality is almost completely absent from Homer. Pity is not an emotion that gets much mileage in classical Greek culture. In both the Iliad and the Odyssey, men either triumph or fail in their endeavors, but rarely spend time on wishful thinking or regret. Things happen in life, either from human corruption or divine fury, but whatever the cause, there is no room for second guessing. You live or die, and to worry about your fate ahead of time is rather pointless. About the only concession the ancient Greeks made to any forebodings of the future was through prophesy, in which one tries to ascertain, if at all possible, the will of Zeus, before deciding on a course of action. But if Zeus does not look upon your venture with favor, there isn't much you can do about it other than suffer the wrath of the almighty.

What does seem clear in Homer is that Greeks believed one's character reveals the man. In other words, when everything is against you, and your very survival is in doubt, how will you face the situation? With dignity and perseverance or weakness? In the Homeric age, of all the virtues that men admired, courage was the most revered. Yet, in the Odyssey what separates Odysseus from other men is not his courage, for many other Greek warriors were equally brave (Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ajax, Achilles, etc.) What Odysseus has that other men lack is intelligence, an ability to size up a situation and do whatever is required to succeed. With the possible exception of Nestor, no other Greek hero has this ability. Is it any coincidence that Athena (goddess of wisdom) takes such an active role in his struggle to return home?

We should ask how much of Odysseus's trouble is of his own making? The initial problem starts with the blinding of Polyphemus, who is a son to Poseidon. But was this a foolish act on the part of Odysseus or was it unavoidable? Recall that Odysseus and his men landed on the island in search of provisions. They needed food and water to continue their voyage to Ithaca. But even then Odysseus had premonitions of trouble:

"for in my bones I knew some towering brute
would be upon us soon—
all outward power, a wild man ignorant of civility."

His crew advise him to just steal the provisions they need while Polyphemus is out grazing the flocks. But this would violate the code of hospitality which all civilized Greeks lived by. Plus, there was perhaps just a bit of cowardice to sneaking around and stealing provisions when you should ask your host for them. Yet, when Polyphemus returns he quickly shows that he cares nothing for hospitality. He uses Odysseus' men as appetizers, smashing their skulls against the walls of his cave. The situation is dire and requires a desperate solution. Odysseus conceives of a trick to get himself and his men away. He uses the wine they brought to get Polyphemus drunk, then blinds the Cyclops after he passes out. In the morning, the men escape by clinging to the bellies of Polyphemus' sheep, after he moves the great stone blocking the entrance to the cave. At this point, everything might have turned out fine except that Odysseus' cannot restrain himself from boasting about how he outwitted Polyphemus:

"Cyclops, if ever mortal man inquire
how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him
Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye:
Laertes' son, whose home's on Ithaca."

This rash boast identifies his tormenter to Polyphemus who loses no time in telling Poseidon who it was that mangled his eye. This turns out to be an unwise move by Odysseus. But, it seems unfair to blame everything that happens to Odysseus on this one bad decision. After all, Polyphemus had already killed and eaten several of Odysseus' men, with the intention of slaughtering the whole crew if they had not escaped. Yet, it must be conceded that all of the torments that lie in his future flow from this one lapse of judgment. Is this not a kind of brutal truth to human existence? That we are always at the mercy of powers beyond our control and that one small misstep could ruin us forever?

With Odysseus, the struggle to save his life (mere survival) runs counter to the more noble pursuit of kleos or everlasting glory. Time after time in Homer, we recognize that true Greek heroes like Ajax, Patroclus and Achilles choose glory over mere self preservation. Yet with Odysseus we find a man who uses every trick in the book to cheat death. He wants desperately to return home with honor but if he needs to he will not hesitate to lie and conceal his true thoughts. At one point, he even spins his web of deceit to Athena who laughs at his brazen dishonesty:

Whoever gets around you must be sharp
and guileful as a snake; even a god
might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.
You! You chameleon!
Bottomless bag of tricks! Here in your own country
would you not give your stratagems a rest
or stop spellbinding for an instant?

But that is who he is. Odysseus can never let down his guard for an instant. He looks for the best angle in every situation. Though Calypso offered him everlasting youth and pleasure, he chose freedom and a perilous voyage home. Whereas a man like Menelaus would simply fight his way past an adversary, Odysseus thinks his way around the obstacles in his path. Does that make him less noble or virtuous in our eyes? Probably, especially when compared to other Greeks of the heroic age. But it also makes Odysseus more human, someone a modern reader can more easily relate to. He can be vain and foolish at times, even afraid. But he is persistent in his quest. He might have stayed with Calypso, Circe or Nausicaa and enjoyed a very long, comfortable life. But his desire to return home would never leave him in peace.

This recurring theme of life versus kleos runs throughout the Odyssey, which sets it apart from the more heroic tales in the Iliad. When Odysseus travels to the underworld, he discovers that everlasting fame is not much consolation to those tormented spirits. Achilles, greatest of all heroes, next to Hercules, says:

Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

In other words, no amount of glory and fame is worth the everlasting solitude of death. Please observe, this is no whimpering cry by some forgotten man who achieved nothing in life, but Achilles himself, greatest of Achaean warriors. For Odysseus, the voyage to Hades leaves no doubt that life must be for the living, and the living have no place in the infernal regions of hell. Thus, one's desire for fame must always be weighed against the fragility of life and the pleasures of one's home and family. Yet, nothing is guaranteed. All human actions are mediated by the will of Zeus. No man can be called good or bad except in his suffering and his will to endure what the gods decree.

The recognition of this fact brings us back to the classical belief in destiny which says that man is fundamentally powerless to control his fate. In other words, that misfortune comes to us regardless of our good intentions. The Judeo-Christian spin on human misfortune is that God punishes evil, and we have only ourselves to blame for our suffering. Homer suggests that suffering is unavoidable in human life, and touches the good and noble as well as the guilty. Survival becomes a matter of luck and endurance, rather than blessedness. In one sense, the Odyssey is the ultimate testimonial to family values, the affection and loyalty we show to our wife or husband, children and friends, and a profound sense of attachment to our own place in the world. To me, the Odyssey says that man on his own initiative can accomplish nothing, and that if he is to get any place at all he must have divine assistance, for even then the way home will be long and difficult, filled with much pain and uncertainty. But that journey is one we all must take as members of this frail species, though at times we might be tempted to ask as Hamlet does while pondering his own will to survive:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!


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