Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Iliad and The Odyssey, memory

Some stray thoughts on The Odyssey

The first thought has to do with the similarities and differences to The Iliad as well as references to the Trojan War in The Odyssey. Both works look at mortality and man’s need to accept it. Achilles, when presented with a choice of fates, initially chooses a long life. Unable to accept Patroclus’ death, however, he defaults to the other fate—a shortened life with great honor. One of the most moving scenes in The Odyssey is Achilles’ shade in Hades, lamenting that he should have chosen life even if it meant being the servant of a poor man. On a side note, I can overlook many of the discrepancies in Book XXIV, but not the conversation between the shades of Achilles and Agamemnon. Having Achilles tell Agamemnon that he should have died in Trojan land when he had his full honor completely undermines the power of his earlier lament.

Odysseus is presented with the chance of immortality (directly contravening his fate) by Calypso, but he does not accept the offer. He accepts his own mortality, which is the pivotal factor in his return home. The exile of Achilles and Odysseus ties into the mortality issue as well. Achilles sets himself apart from those around him, first when his honor is wounded and then in his manner of fighting after Patroclus’ death. Only when he reconciles with Priam does he embrace community again as well as mortality. Odysseus has been exiled by the gods, but it is his own humanity that he has to accept. I mentioned earlier that I (partially) like the framework that others use in likening Odysseus’ physical journey to his change from warrior to the head of his household. The assumption underlying this framework moves him from the amorality of war (with its own code) to the human community, based on law and order. Except… That is not what he finds at home. His home is in disarray because there is no law and order. He must fight, just as violently and amorally as he did in Troy, to restore that order. If anything, The Odyssey shows that man has to balance both roles simultaneously. The sanctity of the home and its values are lost if not guarded. Part of being a member of the human community includes acknowledging and confronting human frailty, whether it is moral or physical.

The second thought has to do with how the Trojan War is referred to in The Odyssey. We see Penelope and Odysseus weep when Phemius and Demodocus sing about the war or their return home. Nestor and Menelaus lament about the losses that were caused by the war, which essentially boils down to reclaiming a wayward wife. While Penelope and others realize Helen’s actions were driven by the gods, she is still front and center for blame. “Many died for Helen’s sake” is not something anyone would want pinned on them. The Iliad mentions the costs of the war many times, such as when a soldier would die and Homer details his family’s loss, for example. But The Odyssey highlights the costs even more. Penelope’s comments on the “disastrous folly” of going to “wicked Ilion” are not uncommon from many of the characters. The shades of the warriors in Hades (at least in Book XI) may talk of past glories on the battlefield, but not necessarily in a wistful manner. Their longing is clearly to be alive again. One last thought on the war—when Odysseus relays his adventures to Penelope, only the events after the war are mentioned. The implication is that she already knows about the war, but he has nothing to say about it from his perspective? It’s a small event, but it might be emblematic of the desired distance between war and home.

The third thought has to do with memory in The Odyssey. Memory works in many ways within the text, several of which I won’t explore. One idea revolves around how an individual is remembered, the glory they receive from others. The fear of being forgotten drives many of the actions of the characters—it is the only way they exist in the land of the living after their death. But the approach I want to look at a little more centers on an individual’s own memory—memory of home and their past. As I’ve mentioned before, the dangers during Odysseus’ journey come in both active (external) and passive (internal) forms. One of the passive dangers comes in the form of temptation to abandon his return home, which confronts him often: Circe, Calypso, the Lotus Eaters, and the Sirens all entice him to stay with them. Thoughts of home and his return drive Odysseus through these temptations. The symbolism of Circe’s magic explicitly provides a message—lost memory of home is the equivalent of being nothing more than an animal. Lost sense of self is a type of death, possibly not that much different than that of a shade in Hades.

Not that memory automatically provides comfort. Helen drugs the wine because she knew that talking about the Trojan War would be painful. But the alternative, forgetting one’s past, provides its own pain. While not trying to read too much into it, the recent case of Robert Jeangerard confirms yet again the cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases that rob individuals of their memory. The case was a reminder that (as The Odyssey points out) we cannot avoid physical death but the loss of memory and of self are a type of living death.

Update (2 Jan 2013): A slightly different take, but also tied into loss of memory and self: Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost


Ollie Kane said...

How else do you think memory works in the Odyssey - I would love to know your ideas. I am working on a dissertation on memory in the Odyssey and the Aeneid and I'm trying to draw some sort of thread between the two epics so any input would be most helpful! Thanks

Dwight said...

Ollie, at this distant point from having read the Odyssey I don't think I could add anything to it. It's been much longer since I've read the Aeneid, so I don't think I could do it any justice on the topic.

There's the obvious tie-in on Troy, but the Aeneid was meant to be a foundational story. So I guess there's the tie-in regarding looking back in order to provide/publicize glory. There's a double-edged sword regarding memory in the Aeneid, almost saying "Yes, this is where we're from but it's more important to look at where we're going."

A few other threads come to mind, but nothing as major as those. If I think of anything else I'll definitely post on it. Thanks and good luck!