Read an Excerpt
From Robert Squillace's Introduction to The Odyssey
When Odysseus awakens from his dream-like voyage on the shore of his own island, he fails to recognize the place, asking: "To what men's land am I come now? Lawless and savage are they, with no regard for right, or are they kind to strangers and reverent toward the gods?" While the mists of Athene have produced the mariner's confusion, his questions do not vanish with their dissipation. Is Ithaca the ordered kingdom he left behind or a new realm of incurable savagery? And, after all the alternative worlds through which we have passed, to what land have we finally come? After meeting Arete and Polyphemus and Anticleia and Achilles and Circe and Calypso and the Sirens and the Lotus-eaters and many others, how do we now perceive Ithaca? The poem offers no unified answers, instead multiplying the complications it has engaged since Telemachus set sail for Pylos.
The first surprise of the Ithacan episode, at least to many modern readers, is its length; the landfall of Odysseus on his home shore marks only about the halfway point of the tale. Homer's buildup to the battle with the suitors is one of the slowest and most suspenseful in literature-even though his original audience knew the outcome from the start. As Alfred Hitchcock once observed, the sudden explosion of a bomb of which viewers know nothing generates a half-second's shock, while the slow ticking of a bomb of whose existence they do know generates a quarter-hour's suspense. Moreover, Homer fills the delay with its own significance. In the period between Odysseus's landing and the fight with the suitors, a series of recognition scenes unfolds, of disguises adopted and then penetrated or let fall. Odysseus reveals himself to his son, Telemachus, and to his loyal swineherd and cowherd. The old dog Argos, who had known his master as a pup, and the old nurse Eurycleia see on their own through the guise of age and poverty that Athene has helped the man of strategies don. To recognize Odysseus means more than simply to know who this particular individual is-or was, for if Odysseus remains unrecognized as the island's patriarch, if he cannot reclaim his old identity, he will become the old beggar he appears to be. To acknowledge the identity of this stranger as Odysseus is, in effect, to acknowledge authority itself, to demonstrate one's acquiescence to the whole system that legitimizes a king's rule. After all, no one who opposes the rights of Odysseus learns who the old beggar really is until he puts an arrow through Antinoüs's throat. Not even such old, disloyal servants as Melantho and Melanthius show the slightest suspicion that the mysterious stranger they enjoy abusing is their dangerous master returned. Only those who submit themselves to the hierarchical system, who recognize their own places, can also recognize Odysseus. Indeed, Argos not only recognizes but directly mirrors his master, who also risks consignment to the dung heap in his disregarded age if he can no longer prove himself the man he used to be, bend the great bow he once wielded, and, in an image suggestive of continued sexual prowess, fire an arrow through a dozen axes.
The Telemachy's emphasis on the twin values of authority and identity dovetail with particular neatness in the token by which Odysseus is known. An old scar received years earlier in a boar hunt, the first heroic episode that vaulted the youth toward his maturity, made him who he is, written into his body so long as he lives. As in the Nekyia, bodily existence-bodily prowess and endurance-measure the value of life; indeed, the scar suggests that one defines oneself by exterior, bodily deeds, not by any individual interior psychology. The violence of Odysseus's reaction to his old nurse's discovery of the scar, a symbol of his passage from boyhood to maturity, even recalls the curt rejection of Penelope by her son, a parallel reinforced by the nurturing role Eurycleia has played for both father and son. In these respects, the return to Ithaca seems also to be a return to the familiar, hierarchical values presented to Telemachus on his miniature odyssey.
And yet identity is never so fluid as it is in the second half of the epic, authority never so elusive. Though the scar represents the absolute fixity of self, what saves Odysseus on Ithaca is his capacity not to be who he is. This same ability to reconstruct himself in accordance with the demands of circumstance freed him from the cave of Polyphemus and taught him how to approach Nausicaä. Were Odysseus merely to weave these impostures to overcome imminent danger, little sense of contradiction with the idea of a solid core of self would result. But such shifting marks Odysseus's character even more deeply than the scar does. So habitually does he transform himself into someone else that by the time he approaches his father, the aged Laërtes, in the guise of yet another wandering stranger, the excuse that he needs to test the old man's loyalty has worn nearly transparent. The hero's tendency to assume other selves has not only come to define him, it connects him most nearly with the divine. For the gods can be anything, as Athene's transformations into man, woman, child, and bird affirm; to be stuck as oneself is to be merely human. Odysseus reaches his apogee not by his glorious force of arms, but by his lies and fictions. In one of the most charming moments of the work, Athene recognizes their unity in owning the divine gift of the creation of what is not: "Bold, shifty, and inexhaustible of lies, will you not now within your land cease from the false misleading tales which from the bottom of your heart you love? . . . you are far the best of men in plots and tales, and I of all the gods am famed for craft and lies." When Odysseus acknowledges of his patron that "You take all forms," he might as well be talking about himself. Nor does the scar suffice to confirm the hero's identity to his feminine alter ego, Penelope. She acknowledges her husband only when he shows that he remembers the secret of their bed. Such a test of identity-with all the erotic overtones that a private, mutual knowledge of the bed evokes, an implicitly carnal knowledge-depends not on the exterior, public reputation preserved in that reminder of past deeds, the scar, but on a private, intangible, even unspeakable knowing of who someone is. Nowhere does the work come closer to identifying the interior sense of desire as the heart of selfhood.
The poem also equivocates in its rhetorical support for the hierarchical system by which the man at the top of the ladder, so long as he acts justly, exercises complete authority to enforce order down to the bottom rung. The careful differentiation the poem makes between the really vicious, the merely weak, and the nearly sympathetic suitors transforms the hero's slaughter of his foes from exultant triumph to, at best, regrettable necessity. While Homer never challenges the morality of Odysseus's actions, this differentiation modulates the emotional tone of his victory. Even more tellingly, the poem refuses to allow the killing of the suitors and their mistresses to be a resolution. Since the first book, the confrontation of Odysseus and the enemies occupying his house has been anticipated as a climax, a final judgment between chaos and authority. Surprisingly, it is nothing of the kind. Indeed, Odysseus's victory lasts only the length of a single night, after which he must embark on a new journey, leaving Penelope yet again to escape the vengeance of his victims' families. In the hills, he gathers fresh support from his father's household; the suitors' families pursue and the fighting begins all over again. Since what the poem seems to have advertised as Odysseus's greatest triumph fails to bring peace, the human capacity to enforce order by strength of arms falls into grave doubt. The killing only stops when the gods command it, forestalling its resumption by blacking out the bitter memories of the survivors. If memory itself leads men to war, how can it be in any king's power to make a lasting peace?
So Ithaca appears after the Odyssean tour of alternative worlds. And yet in a sense we remain in an alternative world even after the hero of the epic has come among the familiar scenes of his homeland: the alternative world of fiction. The second half of the epic makes readers more conscious of storytelling than ever, virtually offering a seminar on the nature and uses of fiction. When Odysseus spends his first night with his wife, he tells her the whole tale of the Odyssey in compressed and chronological form. This condensation neatly contains the epic and at the same time alerts us by contrast to the complexities of the tale's nonchronological, expansive construction. For that matter, little occurs in the poem that is not also narrated; even the suitors tell the story of their slaughter amid the shades of the underworld, delighting Agamemnon. What is real, what lasts, it seems, is the story, not the event. Fictions may, of course, be simple lies; the disguised Odysseus deceives both Eumaeus and Penelope by claiming to be a Cretan veteran of the Trojan War who suffered difficulties among the Phoenicians and Egyptians-and who has encountered the great Odysseus himself. Every detail of this moonshine rings true, the tale confining itself to plausible circumstances among well-known peoples of the Mediterranean coast; as the narrator observes about his surrogate storyteller: "He made the many falsehoods of his tale seem like the truth." No monsters haunt the tracks of Aethon-the name Odysseus adopts in deceiving Penelope-no one hears the Sirens sing, no one changes form, and no one speaks to the dead. Within the confines of the poem, then, the apparently impossible (the actual voyage of Odysseus) is true and the entirely plausible (the journey Odysseus makes up) is false, implicitly suggesting that the truth of a story is not to be found in the accuracy of its events to what we perceive as daily reality, but in their significance, their capacity to show us some previously unknown way of understanding the world.
Most vitally, though, in a work that dwells so continually on the borders-it explores the intersection of living and dead, the flimsy barriers between human and inhuman, the double natures of authority and identity, and so on-the ideal of storytelling is to erase the boundary between the characters within the tale and the listeners outside it. When, in book XIV, a disguised Odysseus tells his swineherd a story of a night he spent outside the gates of Troy when he was cold, the man recognizes the present relevance in the narrative of the past and hands the old beggar a coat. By his reception of the story, Eumaeus proves more than his loyalty to his absent master or the customs of hospitality; he shows his humanity, his willingness to recognize that another man's story is also his own, another man's discomfort his responsibility. To see themselves in the tales of others is precisely what Antinoüs and the other suitors fail to do, despite the explicit invitation of Odysseus, who warns them (in his beggar's rags) that he too prospered once but was brought low. The suitors fail to acknowledge their image in the old man's words-"What god has brought us this pest?" is the substance of Antinoüs's answer-and in so doing exclude themselves from humanity. It comes as little surprise when one of their number mocks poetic diction in aiming an empty jest at the old beggar's baldness. The song reserved for those who fail to read themselves in another's story is only that sung by the bowstring, an analogy the poem makes explicit: "even as one well-skilled to play the lyre and sing stretches with ease round its new peg a cord, securing at each end the twisted sheep-gut; so without effort did Odysseus string the mighty bow." To rule oneself outside the common circle of humanity, in other words, is to die.
Each reader today faces the suitors' choice: to read the story as it concerns himself-or herself-or to turn it aside as an extraordinarily old man's babble. No arrow will pierce the throat of those who make the latter choice. But a contracted sense of humanity may follow. Whether one regards the conflicts that the poem relates as fundamentally the same as or fundamentally different from those of our own time makes little difference. The poem largely does not offer an argument for the validity of the civilization that produced it, but instead allows the reader to view from different angles that world's ideas of life and death, women and men, order and chaos, war and peace, wealth and poverty, and so on. In this way, the Odyssey makes room for many sympathies. Its enduring wisdom is that only by encountering what seems unlike oneself does one come to gain any self-knowledge at all.