Friday, May 22, 2009

The Odyssey discussion: Books V - VIII

Nausicaa by Frederick Leighton (1878)
Picture source

Gerty smiled assent and bit her lip. A delicate pink crept into her pretty cheek but she was determined to let them see so she just lifted her skirt a little but just enough and took good aim and gave the ball a jolly good kick and it went ever so far and the two twins after it down towards the shingle. Pure jealousy of course it was nothing else to draw attention on account of the gentleman opposite looking. She felt the warm flush, a danger signal always with Gerty MacDowell, surging and flaming into her cheeks. Till then they had only exchanged glances of the most casual but now under the brim of her new hat she ventured a look at him and the face that met her gaze there in the twilight, wan and strangely drawn, seemed to her the saddest she had ever seen.

- from Ulysses by James Joyce (Nausicaä chapter)

Keep in mind that this section is occurring simultaneously as the first four books. This section sees Odysseus leaving Calypso’s island, reaching Scheria (the land of the Phaeacians), and the entertainment held by the Phaeacians in honor of him.

The Homeric similes, little used in the first four books, emerge again in this section. One that I enjoyed occurs when Odysseus has just reached land on Scheria, battered and bruised, more dead than alive. He burrows under some leaves to shelter himself from the evening cold, protecting his flickering spark of life:

Just as
someone on a distant farm without a neighbour
hides a torch underneath black embers, and thus saves
a spark of fire, so he won’t need to kindle it
from somewhere else, that’s how Odysseus spread the leaves
to cover him.

- Book V, lines 503 - 508 (all translations by Ian Johnston)

Fate is mentioned often in this section, with neither humans nor gods questioning or attempting to subvert it. Book XVI of The Iliad shows Zeus wanting to save his son Sarpedon from the death that is his fate. It appears that the gods can alter fate if they so choose, but the implications of doing so are far reaching. Hera points out that if Zeus saves Sarpedon from his fate, he should expect other gods to contravene fate as well. That Zeus decides not to step in to save his son demonstrates the respect that the gods have for fate. (If you really want to mix some metaphors, contravening fate seems to be a Pandora’s box the gods aren’t willing to open.) Yet while grudgingly deferring to fate, they insert themselves in mortals’ lives to assist or hinder fate’s outcome. Athena gives support to Telemachus often in the first four books, and here we see her helping Odysseus (and others) almost as often.

Even though Calypso says to Hermes that “there’s no way another god can override the plans of aegis-bearing Zeus or cancel them,” she attempts to do just that by offering Odysseus immortality in return for staying with her. She has already said the gods are jealous when goddesses partner with mortals—I think it’s possible she only offers this because she knows he will refuse her. In addition, mortals knowing their fate is a rare thing, but at various times Calypso, Leucothea and Athena reveal Odysseus’ fate to him. In addition, as I mentioned in the previous post on The Odyssey, Hermes was sent to warn Aegisthus that he was contradicting fate by planning to kill Agamemnon.

Poseidon’s anger at Odysseus is obvious, explaining why Athena broaches the subject of Odysseus’ return only when Poseidon is away from Olympus. In the opening of the first book, Zeus explains one reason for Poseidon's anger, which will be given much more detail in the next section. Poseidon realizes he will not change fate, but he will make it as difficult as possible for Odysseus to fulfill it. While the gods feel pity for man because he is destined to die, they don’t seem to fully comprehend man’s shortcomings. Time is not a factor for the gods—they are immortal after all. Seven years of a man’s life, such as what Odysseus spends trapped on Calypso’s island, is a significant part of his life that has been wasted. Zeus knows Odysseus’ fate, yet waits (and acts only when he does because of Athena’s prodding) to inform Calypso she must release him. We will see Odysseus directly addressing this point with Athena later in the work and her answer (or non-answer) reveals the gods’ lack of concern regarding time and its impact on man.

It is easy to feel that discussions covering The Odyssey place too much emphasis on xenia. But there are several examples in this section that seem to support the importance of the concept. The most prominent instance occurs with the Phaecians—xenia is almost their reason for existing and they do not evade their duty. In addition, watch how the gods treat each other during their visits. They exhibit their own type of xenia, whether when Hermes visits Calypso or Calypso hosts Odysseus. Of course, Calypso violates xenia by holding Odysseus against his will (after a while) but she is a goddess so there is no retribution from Zeus. Also, when Odysseus desperately struggles to reach land on Scheria, he prays to a river god that “A man who visits as a wanderer commands respect, even with deathless gods”. The river god hears and assists Odysseus, supporting his claim.

When Odysseus wakes up on the island of Scheria, his first thoughts contemplate what the people are like: “Are they violent and wild, without a sense of justice? Or are they kind to strangers? In their minds do they fear the gods?” (Book VI, lines 149 - 151) In other words, providing xenia is a sign of civilization. We will see this question again from Odysseus. One exception to good xenia receiving blessing from the gods comes when Alcinous asks Odysseus to finally reveal who he is. Alcinous repeats a story his father told him, how Poseidon was angry because the Phaeacians would carry all strangers back to safety from Scheria, in effect punishing them for their xenia. The outcome of the crew that takes Odysseus is foreshadowed as well as what will happen to the Phaeacian’s city, but Alcinous accepts it (in advance, at least) as fate.

Odysseus and Nausicaä by Pieter Lastman (1619)
Picture source

The reader gets a good view of Odysseus’ character in this section. It is interesting to compare the Odysseus of this section versus the Odysseus of The Iliad. Calypso offers him his freedom but his reply is wary and cautious. Odysseus feels he has been the victim of the gods’ subterfuges, especially since the fall of Troy (without any recognition of what the Achaeans might have done to earn the gods’ wrath) so his wariness is well placed. For someone who has earned a reputation for deception, he cautiousness is natural and consistent with the earlier Odysseus.

While Poseidon toys with the raft on the sea, Odysseus wishes he had died with Achilles at Troy so his kleos would be great. As it is, he thinks he will “die a pitiful death”, alone on the sea with no glory. The irony of this wish will become apparent later. His glory has already traveled ahead of him as he will hear from Demodocus. But more importantly, Achilles’ view of death and glory challenges the desire for kleos, as Odysseus will find out in the next section I cover.

Odysseus' speeches in this section demonstrate a calculated intellect that fits each situation perfectly. Calypso offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but then implies that his desire to see his wife has to do with Penelope’s “form and beauty” versus her own. Realizing that insulting a goddess’ beauty cannot possibly lead to anything good, Odysseus’ answer to her is crafted perfectly so she can find no fault with him. He mentions that Penelope cannot compare to the goddess “in stature or beauty”, but he longs to be home.

His speech to Nausicaa proves his cunning and intellect. He has to figure out how a naked man, covered only in branches and “caked in brine”, can a) not scare the nearby girls who can help him, and b) successfully appeal for assistance. After musing between methods of supplication (the deadpan comedy at this point must have elicited laughs from the audience), he asks Nausicaa if she is mortal or a goddess. And not just any goddess, but Artemis. By referring to a militantly virginal and chaste goddess, Odysseus has taken many concerns that the girls may have had out of play. The remainder of the speech is wonderfully constructed, demonstrating that the stranger in front of the girls is pious, non-threatening, and in desperate need of help. The closing, when Odysseus asks the gods to grant Nausicaa her heart’s desires is a sly indication that he has known all the time that she is mortal.

During the competitive games, Odysseus stands aside, saying he is too lost in grief to participate. However when Euryalus insults him by saying he looks more like a trader and not skilled in competition (which by default questions his skill as a warrior), Odysseus loses himself in demonstrating Euyalus wrong. Having previously proved himself skilled in his speeches to the Phaeacians, he then shows his strength with the discus. As the potential builds for things to turn ugly, the hospitality offered by the Phaeacians and Odysseus’ acceptance of it calms things down.

Shortly after approaching Nausicaa and receiving her promise of assistance, Odysseus bathes in the river and dresses. Athena makes him appear taller and stronger, causing Nausicaa to marvel at him and wish that a man like that would be her husband. Her speech to Odysseus as they prepare to return home is no less brilliant than the one by Odysseus mentioned above. In explaining why she will ask him to wait outside her town until she has had time to reach her house, she mentions that people will gossip about the man following her. Nausicaa then gives examples of hypothetical gossip, saying the townspeople will recognize Odysseus as tall and handsome. She further notes, through other’s gossip, that she is in the market for a husband and Odysseus is a perfect candidate. All of this is said with a high degree of plausible deniability—it’s not what Nausicaa said, it’s what the townspeople might say.

Unfortunately this short book is almost all we see of Nausicaa. She is a wonderfully drawn character, and like most female characters in The Odyssey she proves Odysseus’ match in some manner.

Entertainment songs, identity
Three songs are sung by “the godlike minstrel Demodocus” during the Phaeacian entertainment for Odysseus. For a minor character, Homer makes his counterpart central during Book VIII. In Book I, Telemachus tells Penelope not to blame the singer for a sad song—“One can’t blame the singers.” Homer seems to enjoy playing up the blessings that should be laid at their feet, however. The first song involves an argument during the Trojan War between Odysseus and Achilles (which is not something mentioned in The Iliad). Keep in mind as Odysseus cries that he has not revealed his identity to the Phaeacians yet. It isn’t made clear why he is crying at this point, although several things mentioned later in the book hint at the reasons: first is the grief at what has passed since Troy fell and his difficulty in getting home, while the second would be recognizing his kleos has spread far afield (and guaranteeing his name will live on after death).

The second song is a bawdy telling of Ares’ and Aphrodite’s affair. Hephaestus, Aphrodite’s husband, finds out she is sleeping with Ares. Hephaestus lays a trap for the two, catching them during one of their trysts and displays them for the other gods to see. The story doesn’t quite end the way Hephaestus would like, with every god escaping any form of justice. Just as interesting as the tale is Odysseus’ reaction to it: “Odysseus felt joy in his heart”. Yet it should be calling to mind what could be happening on Ithaca and the possibility of Penelope’s unfaithfulness. Maybe the song is more for the audience?

During the dinner, Odysseus requests Demodocus sing a song about the Trojan horse and Odysseus’ role in it. In doing this, he sends a nice cut of meat to the singer as recompense…Homer’s nudge and wink to the audience for tips, I’m sure. Demodocus sings the story and Odysseus weeps again. A striking simile occurs at this point:

Just as a woman cries,
as she prostrates herself on her dear husband
who’s just been killed in front of his own city
and his people, trying to save his children
and the citizens from the day they meet their doom—
as he dies, she sees him gasping his last breath,
embraces him, and screams out her laments,
while at her back her enemies keep beating her,
with spears across her spine and shoulders,
then lead her off, cheeks ravaged by her grief,
into a life of bondage, pain and sorrow—
that’s how Odysseus let tears of pity fall
from his eyes then.

- Book VIII, lines 657-669

The irony could not go deeper. His reaction from the grief he feels from his travels and the joy that his accomplishments are recognized far and wide is the same reaction his victims felt during Troy's fall. So much is evoked in this simple simile. Unfortunately I find it makes Odysseus less likeable as the simile is Homer’s, while Odysseus is blind to the similarity. His grief begins to irritate, much like that of Telemachus’ whining at the beginning of the work when Athena tells him to grow up.

So far, Odysseus has not fully been the same character we saw in The Iliad. Neither at home or at war, he is a character outside of any community. Strength and cunning will be emphasized starting with the next section, but so far his character resembles Achilles in The Illiad after withdrawing from battle. An Odysseus that is not at war and not at home has no identity. Which, come to think of it, could explain an important component of his grief. His acceptance of mortality (when Calypso offers immortality) also echoes that of Achilles’ choice between a long, peaceful life and a short, glorious one. Yet Odysseus’ choice in favor of mortality is in order to get home and to give him an identity and a role…not a choice made for glory.

Odysseus does not answer Queen Arete’s first query about his identity, instead telling of his most recent journey and why he is wearing clothes from her household. He does slip in his reaction to Euryalus’ taunt, yielding some information that would give him away to those that know about the Trojan War. However, we will see Homer’s reply to Alcinous’ question “Who are you?” starting in Book IX.

Odysseus at the Court of Alcinous by Francesco Hayez (1813-15)
Picture source

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