Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Man of Many Wiles

Vase painting depicting Odysseus killing the suitors. Photo from mlahanas.de

I wanted to take a real old-school liberal-artsy class before leaving Vassar, so I registered for English 320, "The Heroic Tradition." The professor calls us Mr. and Ms. (and this makes me sit up straighter, take more notice) and is fond of saying things like "Remember that scene in The Faerie Queene where..." or "Remember the wonderful first sonnet of Astrophel and Stella," ignoring the fact that none of us have read these works. Our reading this semester will remedy some of the gaps in our knowledge: it includes The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Paradise Lost, and other canonical texts.

We're halfway through The Aeneid right now--this is the first time I've read it, as opposed to The Odyssey, which I've read 2.5 times. I read the whole thing freshman year of high school, then the central books (5-12, Odysseus' journeys) freshman year of college for a class called "Wandering in Literature."

It feels good to do this, to revisit a fundamental text. It feels right. (Though I wonder why no one assigns The Iliad.) Each time I notice new and different elements--and isn't that how you distinguish great literature from the merely good? This semester, I was reading The Odyssey at the same time I had to read Mason Weems' The Life of Washington for my history class--this is the hagiography of George Washington that contains the original version of the cherry-tree story. I was very amused to discover that Weems steals elements of The Odyssey and uses them to underline Washington's heroism. He claims that Washington's father had a big gun that only he and his son could lift--obviously recalling Odysseus' bow that only he can string. There are even epic similes (the only time I have ever seen these in a prose narrative) comparing Washington to a lion, the same simile often used for Odysseus.

Of course, Weems' biography takes place in a clearly ordered moral universe where Washington is a great, pious, noble man who "could not tell a lie." Whereas the moral universe of The Odyssey is completely chaotic--it has very little internal logic, and I find that fascinating. The men who killed Agamemnon by ambushing him are denounced as cowards, but Odysseus ambushes and kills people at least twice: from the Trojan horse, and when he returns to Ithaka. Odysseus is a deceiver, boastful, always needing to assert his identity and get to his home. Due to his complexity, I find him much more interesting than I do Aeneas, at least so far.

I have also learned that there are myriad ways to study something like The Odyssey, even in the context of a class called "The Heroic Tradition." For instance, last year I took a class on fairy tales with a Jungian prof. Her version of a "Heroic Tradition" course would probably involve much work on archetypes and Joseph Campbell mythography. Campbell would surely have a lot to say about the section where Odysseus travels to Hades, as a reflection of "the hero's journey to the underworld and return with newfound knowledge." Conversely, my current prof said that the Hades scene is the one section of The Odyssey we are allowed to skip.

Instead, this year, we perform close readings that examine word choice (especially etymology), patterns of images, the characters' attitudes toward heroism and the author's attitude toward his characters, and any passages that seem especially thorny. Naturally, we focus a lot on the Homeric similes--I've done that before with Homer, but not to the extent of noticing how weird some of them are. There's a passage where Odysseus, weeping as he hears a bard recount the story of his victory over Troy, is compared to a defeated Trojan woman weeping over the death of her husband, presumably killed by Odysseus' band of Greeks... Just another example of that moral confusion that complicates The Odyssey.

Each of my 3 times reading The Odyssey, I have had to buy a new edition/translation. In high school we used Allen Mandelbaum's version. All I remember about this one was that Telemachus kept telling the suitors "Stop your brouhaha," which struck me a ludicrous word choice. Also it was a cheap mass-market paperback that was hard to hold. I did have to memorize the first 15 lines of this translation, which are full of interesting sonorities, alliterations, half-rhymes ("Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles / the man who wandered many paths of exile / after he sacked Troy's sacred citadel"). But I don't believe Mandelbaum is able to keep this up through all 24 books.

I got rid of the Mandelbaum version after getting Robert Fagles' translation three years ago. It is an attractive deckle-edged edition and Fagles is really trendy in academia--I read so many of his translations that year and thought they were all pretty good. This year, I read the Richmond Lattimore version (a nice trade paperback with good margins) and enjoyed it very much. Though the translation is from the '60s, it doesn't seem too dated or colloquial, and strikes me as being very faithful to the original Greek--for instance, using just as much repetition as Homer did, rather than trying to vary things for a modern reader. Twice over the course of two pages, Lattimore's version introduces Athene's speech with the lines: "Then in turn the gray-eyed goddess Athene answered him." Fagles tries to jazz this up by having the first instance read "And sparkling-eyed Athena drove the matter home," and the second, "Athena, her eyes flashing bright, exulted." Maybe this makes things more lively for a casual reader, but when you have to examine the text as closely as my prof demands--and, I would argue, The Odyssey gains so much by close examination--Lattimore's seems like the best choice.

No comments: