Poor Cyclops

David Quint

  • The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ by Edith Hall
    Tauris, 296 pp, £20.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 1 84511 575 3
  • Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ by Lillian Doherty
    Oxford, 450 pp, £80.00, January 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 923332 8
  • The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ by Thomas Van Nortwick
    Michigan, 144 pp, $50.00, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 472 11673 7

In The Return of Ulysses Edith Hall takes us on a tour of global culture high and low, mostly from the last hundred years, to demonstrate how Homer’s great poem continues to permeate our sensibility and imagination. She is an informative and enthusiastic guide, and the sheer wealth of her examples is impressive. But the tour rarely stops at any given poem, novel, film, play, painting, opera or ballet for longer than two paragraphs, and readers can be forgiven for feeling a bit disoriented as they travel to the chapter’s next destination. Hall gives just one page to Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, where W.B. Stanford, in The Ulysses Theme (1954), which Hall cites on her first page, gave it a whole chapter.

The Return of Ulysses brings us up to date, however, with the multifarious Odysseys, Odysseuses and Penelopes that have cropped up since Stanford wrote his study, and since search engines became available to help track them down. Hall’s levelling of the cultural playing field is a deliberate, democratic gesture as well as a bid for an audience beyond professional classicists like herself. Homer is for everyone, including fans of the Odyssey-inspired heavy metal band Sirenia. Like all reception studies, a form of scholarship now popular among classicists, Hall’s book is looking for a two-way conversation: the return of Ulysses in modern adaptations both attests to ‘what has made the Odyssey able to surpass the bounds of its own age’ and prompts a return to it, a rereading of the poem through contemporary eyes.

There are reasons the Odyssey appeals to our own age in particular. Odysseus is a survivor of the heroic age of the Trojan War and the Iliad, many of whose protagonists, Achilles most prominently, he sees as ghosts on his visit to the Underworld in Book 11. If the heroic age is not quite dead, it now coexists with other, non-heroic cultures. The sailor’s yarns that Odysseus tells to his Phaeacian hosts of his wanderings among mythological marvels – Cyclopes, Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, Calypso and Circe – are matched by the lying stories he tells in his beggar’s disguise on Ithaca, stories no less full of danger and reversals of fortune, that involve Phoenicians and Cretans, real maritime trading peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. The second-century Greek author Aelian noted that Odysseus travelled from region to region out of a desire for money, which he heaped up like mountains, ‘in the custom of the merchants of Phoenicia’, although Odysseus bristles with aristocratic disdain in Book 8 when a Phaeacian suggests that he is just such a man of business, ‘careful of his cargo and grasping for profits’.

The Phaeacians themselves, rich seafarers devoted to sports and dancing, seem both to preserve a cultural memory of the Minoan civilisation on Crete – compare the famous description of the dancefloor at Knossos on the shield of Achilles in Iliad 18 – and to stand in for the despised Phoenicians, whose name sounds rather like their own: when Virgil rewrites the episode in Aeneas’ visit to opulent Carthage in the Aeneid, Dido and her people are Phoenicians. (Joyce would repeat this Phoenician-Cretan coupling in Ulysses when he paired the Jewish commercial traveller Leopold Bloom with the young artist Stephen Dedalus, whose namesake is the Cretan master who designed that Iliad dancefloor.) Critics have often noted the Odyssey’s almost obsessive attention to luxury artefacts and crafted objects – a metapoetic nod to its own artistry – but also a description of a world of property in an epic whose ultimate goal is the preservation of the goods of the hero’s household on Ithaca.

Without too much anachronism, we can call this world of merchants and the well-to-do a modernising world of commerce: not ours, but an earlier version of it with which we can identify. The Odyssey places it side by side with – sometimes as a foil to, sometimes infiltrating into – the story of its voyaging hero. It measures the distance between a feudal world where it is possible to make money the old-fashioned way, by sacking cities, raiding cattle or through gift exchange, and a world of maritime trade. It also measures the distance between a world of wonders where gods shape the affairs of men and a disenchanted world that human beings make for themselves and is governed by chance: the lucky occasion that can make you a fortune, the corresponding mishap that can leave you shipwrecked. In terms of literary genres and registers, the first of these is the realm of the epic, the second the terrain of the novel, the characteristic genre of Western modernity.

Homer anticipates two classic plots of the modern novel in the characters of Nausicaa, the rich Phaeacian princess offered in marriage to Odysseus, and Penelope, the wife left behind in Ithaca for twenty years whose fidelity Odysseus tests on his return. Marrying money, either as a means of achieving worldly success or as a sign that you have already arrived at it, and adultery, the failure to live happily ever after, both speak to the centrality of marriage and of the relationship of love to property – where a wife is indeed part of the family property – in the bourgeois world which gave birth to the novel. The Odyssey plays with these novelistic scenarios, while simultaneously trying to exorcise them from its aristocratic, epic world. Odysseus does not marry Nausicaa, and Penelope is virtuous. But this isn’t the case with Clytemnestra or Helen in the poem, nor will it be the case with Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina or Molly Bloom. We recognise ourselves in Homer’s poem, we can agree with Hall, because we’ve been there before in the works it continues to spin off.

Hall organises her book into three thematic parts, and gives due space to the formal literary aspects and psychological resonances of the Odyssey that modern writers and artists have explored in new ways. But it’s the rewritings of the epic’s sociopolitical dimension that bring her analysis to life, and place the poem in the midst of late 20th-century issues: racism (Ellison’s Invisible Man), anti-colonialism (Walcott’s Omeros), feminism (Atwood’s Penelopiad), exile (Kundera’s Ignorance). Here the monster Polyphemus looms large. His encounter with Odysseus was the central example in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and their critique of a purely instrumental, technological reason that unreflectively dominates both the natural world and other human beings, whom it assimilates to a non-thinking (hence monstrous) nature. ‘This is always the conundrum of empire,’ Hall notes: ‘that its justification (the ascent from primitive barbarism) is inevitably cancelled by the physical or cultural violence required to impose it . . . the minute Odysseus behaves this badly, the stupidity of the Cyclops begins to look more like benign naivety.’ Hall’s descent into political correctness here makes Polyphemus seem a bit too benign. She remarks that Odysseus and his men feast off Polyphemus’ cheese like Penelope’s suitors freeloading on Odysseus’ household back in Ithaca, and then of the Cyclops: ‘He does eat Odysseus’ men, but (anthropophagy apart) is this form of self-defence really so shocking?’ Well, yes, it is shocking: Homer makes it hard to get beyond the anthropophagy:

   he reached for my companions
caught up two together and slapped them,
         like killing puppies,
against the ground, and the brains ran all
          over the floor . . .

The suitors at least have a fighting chance once they get hold of weapons. Surprisingly, Hall does not cite the blinded Polyphemus’ ensuing address to his old faithful ram, complaining of the ‘Noman’ who disabled him: the poem’s deliberate attempt to humanise and make us feel sorry for the not so bright giant.

Hall’s blanket statement about Penelope, that ‘no modern reader can find her emotionally plausible,’ may be based on notions of what a right-thinking liberated woman is supposed to feel. As she goes on to document, feminist rewritings and critical studies of Penelope have tried to fill in the gaps that Homer leaves in a character about whom we are supposed to keep guessing, as Odysseus himself must.

Hall cites several of the essays on the Odyssey newly collected by Lillian Doherty. Twelve of the 16 are 25 years old or more, representing, Doherty says, not ‘the cutting edge of the field but . . . its more established wisdom’. It is not a risk-taking volume. Specialists will nonetheless be glad to have these studies in one place for quick reference. Something fresher and more welcome is Thomas Van Nortwick’s The Unknown Odysseus, an elegant and lucid critical study that is also a good introduction to the poem. Acknowledging his debt to Sheila Murnaghan, Van Nortwick remarks on the divide in the Odyssey between the heroic plot of Odysseus’ return, planned and abetted by Athena, and the more down-to-earth scenarios of his lying tales; or more generally between a mythical fantasy that upholds an unchanging social hierarchy and a vision of mortal limitations, contingency and the need for human solidarity. This divide also characterises the double narrative movement of the epic, what Van Nortwick calls its centripetal drive towards Odysseus’ restoration as king, husband, father and son (as if nothing has changed in his twenty years of absence), and its centrifugal delays, both his wanderings and his protracted period in disguise as a beggar on Ithaca.

One side of the hero, the side that compels him to listen to the singing of Sirens, relishes these excursions into the realm of experience. Odysseus is in no hurry to leave Circe and, to the distress of most readers, he still disguises himself in order to meet his aged father in the last book of the poem. It seems only fitting that he is not yet allowed to live happily ever after with Penelope, but, because of his blinding of Polyphemus, must appease Poseidon by undertaking another, seemingly interminable voyage to the ends of the earth, or the Mediterranean at least. The poem ends, but Odysseus still has plenty of adventures in store. Van Nortwick argues that it is in those situations where Odysseus withholds his fixed heroic and social identity – when he is ‘Noman’ to the Cyclops or an outcast beggar and social nobody on Ithaca – that he can most fully experiment with and realise his own humanity. By contrast, this humanity and its emotions are suppressed beneath the hard shell of the Odysseus who ruthlessly, with the aid of the even more ruthless goddess, engineers his return. The power of the Odyssey depends on its balancing of these unresolved perspectives on the constraints as well as the glory of making a heroic name for oneself, a name that sometimes the hero himself may want to forget.