Saturday, August 4, 2007

Odysseus

My education began with The Odyssey. I was about five at the time when my dad read Lattimore's translation to me, my brother and sister, and it had an effect on me that was profound enough to delay my Salvation until I was eight. I did not, at that time, make what was a conscious decision to avoid Christianity so much as I chose to ignore it until it could demand my attentions with a more magnetic pantheon of heroes. This aversion was not born out of an ignorance of the heroes of the Bible, because at this point, I already knew many of these, and I liked some of them; when you are five years old and male, you cannot help liking David, who was barely more than a kid himself when he killed Goliath and beheaded him (which detail I always relished). Moses took more effort, as a grown man with his insecurities (or any others) then struck me as a contradiction, but I somehow managed to get around these. Ehud and his assassination of the Moabite king were certainly attractive to the imagination, and I always thought it disgraceful that these only warranted a single chapter amongst the Judges, while simpering minor prophets like Hosea had whole books to their allowance. I liked Ehud, then as now, but had to recognize that he stood low among the giants.

Then I met Odysseus, who stood low in another sense, but triumphed over the giants (or gouged their eye out with a hot stick) in spite of the fact. His limitations were laid plainly before us, but unlike Ehud's, his story made all the vaster because of it; I was already familiar with many of the other Greek myths at this time, (outside of comic books, I didn't read much else) and didn't find the same finitude in any other hero or demigod; Heracles and Achilleus both impressed, but only too much. Each could subdue his world, but could grow none the larger inside of it. Their world was small in comparison to them, and in consequence the scenery suffered.

But with Odysseus, the tone of the story never allowed my attentions to lapse toward the flippant or casual; Odysseus himself was often diminished in contrast to the scale of the world that he traversed and the scope of the divine elements that cast themselves against him. Yet even in the midst of this, none of the edges of the character himself were in the least blurred; he endured his measure of hardships, "harried for years on end," and his role in the tale was almost as often that of victim as that of hero, and still he was harmonic enough for me to make sense of him, and just magnanimous enough to spark a latent idolatry. In fact, I think now that everything I have ever loved about the antique, and above all, about everything that is Hellenic goes back to Homer's sharp, percussive music and his "man of many ways." I have liked any number of mythologies outside of the Greek, but only to the level of avocation. I can appreciate some of the jocularity in the face of doom that weaves its way through all the Norse tradition, but never enough to create any lasting attachments. The window between the clownish volatility of Thor and the gravity of Odin is broad enough to let in all sorts of cold air, but more humane temperaments never seem to find much space for breathing; there, Balder is remembered chiefly for the manner of his death. The Norse tales have their place and time, and find it in autumn, where the twilight of the gods and the twilight of the year can best compliment each other. Here they sit best, and here we leave them.

The spirit of the Greek myths, and especially the story of Odysseus, was more sinuous in nature. Odin was circumspect, to be sure, but Odysseus had that curiosity which turns its interest not just to self perpetuation, but to the pursuit and possession of a knowledge such as gratifies the soul. And while this interrupts, it never too greatly interferes with his purely human longing for Ithica and Penelope. The instincts of both the aesthete and the homesick husband play within Odysseus, and jointly contribute to his preservation. He is governed by more than one characteristic, unlike Achilleus, and so outlives him, whom he finds in the underworld ruminating that it is "Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand. . .than lord it over all the exhausted dead." Achilleus excells all around him too much to live long. Odysseus is both more hesitant and more completely humane, and his humanity is, as with many heroes, always a small step ahead of his better judgment; he leaves his ears unstopped in the presence of the sirens so as to hear their song. His curiosity is as energetic, but less dire than Faust's urgent absorption of the sciences; urgency, for Odysseus, is never far off, and still he finds time for his distractions, his daliances with Circe and Calypso. Reprobate as he often is, the whimsical and the inquiring side of him always prevents us from exhausting the stores of our sympathy. In him is the best, the most daring and the most dastardly in the humanistic instinct, and for this, and for much else besides, "He is always in my heaven."

4 comments:

Jeff Moss said...

A beautiful and wise post.

Odysseus is the kind of great man who is all the greater, because his greatness is accessible to other men.

The heroes of the Bible are amazingly diverse and worthy of long meditation: besides those you mentioned, there are Joseph, Joshua, Jael, Jephthah, Samson, Uzziah, Josiah, Nehemiah, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Stephen, Mark...just to pick a few of the more "interesting" ones. Each of them with their own glory, and each with their own pathos; each one with a unique place in the stream of mankind that flows between First Adam and Last Adam.

I need to go back and read the Odyssey again. I myself have been more deeply moved by Tolkien's great characters, particularly in the Silmarillion: Ulmo, Fëanor, Thingol, Galadriel, Turgon, Elrond, Denethor, for their heights of lordly majesty; Finrod Felagund, Beren, Túrin, Mithrandir, Théoden, Faramir, and above all Aragorn and Frodo, for that heart-rending mixture of nobility and suffering that suggests the Odyssey, or the best of Norse myth, even while it transcends it. As Lewis wrote about The Lord of the Rings: "Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.... good beyond hope."

Jeff Moss said...

The goodness of these works stands out in sharp relief when you contrast them with kitsch. Worth considering:
Leithart on the "War Against Artifice"

Thomas Banks said...

Thanks, Jeff.

The wanderer A said...

I don't know what it is about greek mythology but they definitely did something right. Something about it holds a special place in my heart. So, I would have to say I couldn't agree with you more (except maybe about Achilles).