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Literature and Human Equality
By Stewart Justman
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2006
Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Odyssey: Inequality of Knowledge
Knowledge in the Odyssey is distributed unequally, like privilege, as the bestowal and concealment of information are acts of privilege.
Only a few pages into War and Peace, at Anna Pavlovna Scherer's soirée, an elderly woman approaches Prince Vasili on behalf of her son. "What would it cost you to say a word to the Emperor, and then he would be transferred to the Guards at once?" (15). In this social world depicted as if through the lens of Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality, it seems that all depends on having friends in high places. In Athena Odysseus has an ally in the highest of places, and we might read the transaction in the drawing room as a travesty or reduction of Athena's appeal to Zeus on her favorite's behalf at the beginning of the Odyssey (a reduction on a par with the shrinkage of Helen to the beautiful and odious Hélène). In the one case a woman asks a prince to use his influence with the emperor, in the other Athena uses her own influence with her father, the mightiest of the gods. Had Athena not exploited the absence of Poseidon to make this appeal to Zeus, Odysseus would presumably have remained in a kind of living stasis on Ogygia. In the sense that Athena's appeal breaks the impasse and sets events in motion, the Odyssey thus hinges on the hero's passage from the status of one who, like any other mortal, has no divine protector or patron, to one who acquires these privileges. Later in the Odyssey, with the hero working in concert with Athena, the secret of his identity is his to keep to himself or to bestow on others, like a privilege in its own right.
By sheer power of antithesis, Tolstoy, a rival Homer, brings out the unusual distribution of knowledge in the Homeric world. It has been said that Tolstoy denies the characters, the reader, and even himself, the author of War and Peace, any "privileged vantage points." In the charged world of literary study, the word "privileged" is often loaded with strong if vague political associations, and in this case we need to ask whether the elimination of special or privileged knowledge argues some actual belief in human equality. I believe it does. War and Peace demands to be read as a challenge to all the received structures of narrative, both historical and literary, and included in this is a challenge to the original poet of the West, who predates the distinction between historical and fictional narrative itself. In the Homeric world not only do higher vantage points exist, and not only are we let into them, but we are precluded from sharing the ignorance and delusion of mortals unaware of the gods' intentions. In contesting Homer, Tolstoy discards the picture of a universe where knowledge is distributed unequally, like privilege or power. The simple question of who knows what takes on real interest in the Odyssey not just because it is handled by the poet with technical skill but because the disposal of information in the poem reflects the very structure of the Homeric world.
That world is so ruled by inequality that the only ones truly "equal" may be slaves, and what they are equal to is a certain sum of money, their purchase price. Eurycleia was purchased long ago for twenty oxen. Eumaeus was kidnapped by a Phoenician woman who herself had been kidnapped and sold for "a fair price" (15.429). The suitors threaten to sell the beggar Odysseus for "a good price" (20.383). By contrast, possessions of the highest value in the Odyssey are beyond price, either because they were given as a gift (like Odysseus's bow or the mixing bowl fashioned by Hephaestus and bestowed on Telemachus by Menelaus) or because they are one of a kind (like Odysseus's pin or even his bed) and thus inexchangeable-outside the exchange economy that includes a traffic in slaves. Such possessions are not equal to anything. Equality in the Odyssey seems to be for the devalued. Those with value stand above some and below others (even Athena appears as a petitioner in one case, and even Eumaeus owns a slave [14.449-50]); and perhaps because it too is a thing of value, knowledge itself is unequally apportioned in the poem's world.
Not until the middle of the fifth book of the Odyssey does the hero make his appearance: a delay that places the reader in the position of knowing more, at this point, than Odysseus himself. Of the decision taken in the heavens to bring about his homecoming-a decision proclaimed by Zeus in book 1 and reaffirmed in book 5-Odysseus knows nothing. In his first speech in the Odyssey this inequality of knowledge produces a sharp effect of dramatic irony. When Calypso announces, with a certain unwillingness audible to the reader if not to Odysseus, that the time has come for him to return to Ithaca, Odysseus does not believe she is really letting him go. "Here is some other thing you devise, O goddess," he replies.
"I will not go aboard any raft without your good will, not unless, goddess, you can bring yourself to swear me a great oath that this is not some painful trial you are planning against me." (5.173, 177-79)
Though some read this distrust as excessive (as if Odysseus were too devious for his own good), the fact is that Odysseus does not know that Calypso has just been ordered by Hermes, in the name of Zeus, to release him. Such is his mind that he suspects the truth all the same, without any real evidence for it other than Calypso's sudden and unlikely change of heart. Later, in his account to the Phaeacians, he remarks that he is uncertain whether Calypso let him go because she received "a message from Zeus or whether her own mind turned within her" (7.263): a characteristically Odyssean judgment, at once a superb leap of inference and a wary suspension of judgment itself. Calypso herself made no mention of any order for his release. She merely said, "Poor man, no longer mourn here beside me nor let your lifetime / fade away, since now I will send you on, with a good will" (5.160-61), instructed Odysseus to build a raft, and warmed him with the thought of seeing Ithaca again "if only the gods consent. It is they who hold wide heaven. / And they are more powerful than I to devise and accomplish" (5.169-70). In these last words we, but not Odysseus, can detect the note of one yielding with reluctance, and in spite of her own show of "good will," to superior power.
In a sense, indeed, Calypso stands to the higher gods as Odysseus himself does to her. Though, being an immortal, she recognizes Hermes as soon as he appears before her, she does not know the reason for his visit and according to the customs of courtesy must wait until her guest has dined in order to find out. Only then does she discover what we, the readers, already know: that Hermes comes from Zeus bearing the order for Odysseus's release. The order itself is delivered in an authoritative tone that leaves Calypso with no choice but compliance, whatever her bruised feelings. ("You are hard-hearted, you gods, and jealous beyond all creatures / beside, when you are resentful toward the goddesses for sleeping / openly with such men as each has made her true husband" [5.118-20].) She cannot disobey the will of Zeus; but she can take out her resentment of Zeus's power on the very object of her possessive love by withholding from him the knowledge that Zeus has, in fact, guaranteed his return to Ithaca and his mortal wife. (From the highly conditional prophecy of Tiresias-known to Odysseus but not, at this point, to the reader-Odysseus learns only that he may just possibly see Ithaca again.) It is almost as if Calypso cannot bring herself to name the power that has commanded her to deliver Odysseus to the sea. Even after notifying Odysseus that he is a free man-but not that Zeus issued the order-she tries to induce him to remain with her as an immortal, possibly reasoning that if he does so of his own will, she cannot be accused of detaining him and thus crossing the will of Zeus. He declines, some days later returning to the sea with a favoring wind and the goddess's blessing, but without knowing, or knowing for sure, that he has Zeus's blessing. So it is that when Poseidon in his rage churns up the sea, Odysseus mistakenly assumes that Zeus has sent the storm and that he himself is bound to perish:
The knees of Odysseus gave way for fear, and the heart inside him, and deeply troubled he spoke to his own great-hearted spirit: "Ah me, unhappy, what in the long outcome will befall me? I fear the goddess may have spoken the truth in all ways when she said that on the sea and before I came to my country I would go through hardships; now all this is being accomplished, such clouds are these, with which Zeus is cramming the wide sky and has staggered the sea ... My sheer destruction is certain." (5.297-305)
Odysseus is in error. Not Zeus but Poseidon staggered the sea (5.292), and not his destruction but his homecoming is certain, because Zeus himself has sworn it.
Asking the aid of the Muses as he embarks on the catalog of ships in the Iliad, Homer says, "Tell me now, you Muses, who have your homes on Olympos. / For you, who are goddesses, are there, and you know all things, / and we have heard only the rumour of it and know nothing" (2.484-87). Knowing nothing is linked, through the Muses, with knowing everything. In the Odyssey knowledge and ignorance seem correlated in the sense that if one knows, another is ignorant. Why should Athena encourage Telemachus, but not Penelope, with news of Odysseus in book 1-why unless it is the nature of privileged knowledge to be bestowed on one, like the favor it is, and withheld from another? Under the likeness of Mentes, Athena reveals to Telemachus that Odysseus "will not be long absent from the beloved land of his fathers" (1.203), but to Penelope, even in the comforting dream she sends in book 4, Athena will not disclose whether Odysseus lives or has died. Nestor does not know what has become of Odysseus but Menelaus does, having learned from the Old Man of the Sea that he is being held by Calypso. As Telemachus's quest for news of his father suggests, knowledge itself resembles a sought-for good in short supply. It is not just the voices of the Sirens that make them so alluring, but their promise of limitless knowledge:
"No one ... has ever yet sailed past this place in his black ship until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips; then goes on, well pleased, knowing more than ever he did; for we know everything that the Argives and Trojans did and suffered in wide Troy through the gods' despite. Over all the generous earth we know everything that happens." (12.186-91)
But there can be no such absolute knowledge for mortals. Among the dead, the most knowing (Tiresias) states little positively, while others know less than the living, their lack of knowledge the correlate as it were of their lack of life. Even among the gods there are disparities of knowledge. The release of Odysseus has taken place only because Poseidon does not know about it, engaged as he is among the Ethiopians, "most distant of men" (1.23). The action of the Odyssey itself begins with Athena capitalizing on Poseidon's absence to plead with her father Zeus on behalf of Odysseus. Even though Poseidon is not to be tricked like his monstrous son Polyphemus, and even though, as the second highest of the gods, he does not really suffer from defects of perception, still he does not choose to pass his days keeping watch on a mortal, and it is this lapse of attention that makes possible Odysseus's return from Calypso's island. If Calypso takes out her resentment of Olympian power on the object of her love, Poseidon takes out on Odysseus his wrath against the gods-he does not name Zeus-who outwitted him behind his back:
"For shame, surely the gods have rashly changed their intentions about Odysseus while I was away in the Aithiopians' land, and he nears the Phaiakian country where it is appointed that he shall escape this great trial of misery that is now his. But I think I can still give him a good full portion of trouble." (5.286-90)
Odysseus is both a lightning rod for trouble and a great cause of trouble for others.
With Odysseus's return to Ithaca laid down by Zeus in the opening lines of the poem and his triumph over the suitors similarly decreed in book 5, the element of surprise is effectively absent from the Odyssey. The suitors do not know "what was appointed." Never do we as readers of this tale of adventure experience the uncertainty that belongs to adventure itself-the sense of not knowing how things will turn out. "Naturally ... Odysseus never knows what is going to happen next, nor for that matter do we the readers; but we do know what is going to happen last." In the special case of the adventures recounted by Odysseus himself, like the contest with Polyphemus, the simple fact that they are being recounted means that he cannot have lost his life in the course of them. Originally, however, the outcome of these adventures was in doubt, the absence of Athena certifying that Odysseus is on his own, exposed to risk and uncertainty. If Joyce in his transformation of the Odyssey makes use of the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, even the Lestrygonians, while passing almost in silence over the entire latter half of the poem where the action is overseen by Athena, this is partly because only in fantastic adventures like these is Odysseus in anything like the ordinary human position of being without divine aid or privileged knowledge.
During his visit to Hades, Odysseus asks the shade of Agamemnon, "What doom of death that lays men low has been your undoing?" (11.398). By this point, the audience of the Odyssey has already heard the tale of Agamemnon's murder, in one version or another, many times over. We know the tale but Odysseus does not. Agamemnon for his part has no knowledge of the fate of his son, even though the story of Orestes is so well known on earth that Athena reminds Telemachus of the glory won by Orestes "among all mankind" (1.299). Such a lack of knowledge reflects the misery and loss of power that are the condition of the dead. Again, it is immediately after his remark that he would rather be a slave on earth than king of the dead that Achilles asks Odysseus for news of his son.
In the embedded tale of Odysseus's wanderings, there are no conversations among the gods as reported in books 1 and 5. The single apparent exception to this rule turns out to confirm it. Near the end of his narration to the Phaeacian court, Odysseus reports the exchange that took place between Apollo and Zeus after his men slaughtered the cattle of the former: an exchange Odysseus knows of only because Calypso informed him of it. "All this I heard afterward from fair-haired Kalypso, / and she told me she herself had heard it from the guide, Hermes" (12.389-90). By contrast, no explanation is given a few lines earlier when Odysseus reports a speech made in his absence by his troublesome lieutenant Eurylochus:
"Listen to what I say, my companions, though you are suffering evils. All deaths are detestable for wretched mortals, but hunger is the sorriest way to die and encounter fate. Come then, let us cut out the best of Helios' cattle." (12.340-43)
Excerpted from Literature and Human Equality by Stewart Justman
Copyright © 2006 by Northwestern University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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