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Daniel Mendelsohn on the Odyssey and the power of language

Octavian Report: Why should we read the Odyssey?

Daniel Mendelsohn: There’s a reason the classics are classics — and it’s not because they have better agents than books that aren’t classics. The classics are classics because they pose in a way that is lively and narratively interesting and challenging the most basic questions about human experience. The Greek and Roman classics are the foundation for our way of seeing the world. And therefore we read them because they tell us something true about life. In the case of the Odyssey, aside from everything else it is it’s one of the great family dramas. It’s about homecoming, it’s about the meaning of home, it’s about how you know and how you prove your intimacy with members of your family. It’s about the bonds that connect family members over many years despite time and distance.

Beyond that, it’s in a certain sense the first science-fiction narrative. It envisions an adventurer who’s exposed to strange new civilizations (to quote the opening of Star Trek). Odysseus is the person from Greek civilization, from Western culture, touring abroad through alternative and new civilizations. And it is through his interactions with different models of civilization, from total barbarity to hyper-cultured behavior, that he comes to reflect on his own civilization and to determine where in that spectrum it falls.

Maybe science fiction is a little strong. It’s certainly one of the first anthropological documents in the Western tradition. It’s about somebody who’s very interested to see how other kinds of cultures live. And through Odysseus, we the readers get to reflect on just what it means to be civilized.

OR: What is the civilization that Odysseus is coming from, and how do these other societies look in comparison to the one he has left?

Mendelsohn:  It’s like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” This bed is too big, this bed is too little, this bed is just right. And I think we’re meant to feel that his own civilization, the Greek Bronze Age city-state from which he comes — Ithaca — and the civilization that it represents is, as it were, just right. On one end of the spectrum of civilization is the Cyclops, who represents a low point of barbarity. One of the great measures of civilization, certainly in Odysseus’ own culture, is how you treat guests. And the guest-host relationship is one of the strong markers of this civilized society: you treat your guests well. It’s a standard theme that’s repeated over and over in the poem. Odysseus himself comes as a stranger, anonymous, and he’s always bathed, fed, treated to dinner. And then they say, “Well, what is your name?” That is standard operating procedure. The Cyclops, by contrast, eats his guests. He’s a cannibal, which is clearly the low end of the spectrum of civilization.

On the other hand, the last adventure he has before he returns home is set on the island of Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, who are hyper-civilized. They dance, they love music, they love poetry, they play games. They’re unbelievably refined. They are sensitive to Odysseus, who’s a guest in their household. They notice him crying. They ask him what’s the matter. So, I think between the Phaeacians and the Cyclops, you get these extremes. And the Greeks whom Odysseus represents land somewhere in the middle.

OR: How many hands do you think were actually involved with the composition of the Odyssey? Do you think it was done by the same person or persons that did the Iliad?

Mendelsohn: It’s impossible to say. We have no idea how these things were composed. The prevalent theory is that these epics evolved over decades, if not centuries, out of folkloric material that was like a snowball rolling down a hill gathering more and more episodes before it was finally, by one or more persons, shaped into the narrative we have. There’s no way to speculate about how many bards or poets were actually involved in the creation of the poems we have today. But there’s evidence inside the text that there are, as it were, different layers. It’s like when you look at the side of a mountain and you see the different geological strata. The texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey are like that. There are ways to see the interventions and the inconsistencies that point to the seams, so to speak, where two episodes were sewn together. I don’t think anyone can speculate on exactly how many people were involved.

We do know that there were a number of other epic poems in what we call the Epic Cycle, a cycle devoted to the history of the Trojan War, from its earliest distant origins — the judgment of Paris — to the actual fall of the city and its aftermath and the heroes’ return home. Of that cycle, we only have the Iliad, which treats one episode in the last year of the war, and the Odyssey.

There is, I think, not ample but good evidence that the other poems just weren’t as good. Aristotle speaks disparagingly of a couple of these now-lost other parts of this epic cycle. If we imagine that the Iliad and the Odyssey came into being more or less in their current form in about the 700’s BCE — and they are describing an event that took place in the 1200’s or 1100’s BCE, so it’s 500 years from the Trojan War to the Iliad and the Odyssey — by the time of Pericles, the 400’s BCE, the Iliad and the Odyssey are totally canonical. They are constantly referred to — the Iliad, in particular.

We know that the number of papyrus fragments that come from copies of the Iliad outnumber Odyssey fragments by far. So the Iliad seems to have been copied out more, which means that it was probably used more as a school text. But what’s so interesting about these two works is that they’re already canonical very early on. It’s not like some classics department in the 1800’s decided out of a number of contestants that these two works were going to get the imprimatur. They were already classics in their own time.

OR:  Are there moments or scenes in the Odyssey where the idea of home and family and what they mean is most especially concentrated for you?

Mendelsohn: Paradoxically, there are two scenes in the poem where Odysseus is reunited with family members that speak very powerfully to this issue of who are — and how you relate to — the people most intimate with you. And they couldn’t be more different. Odysseus, after 20 years (it’s actually halfway through the poem, at the beginning of book 13 out of 24 books), finally reaches his home. He sets about making his way back towards his palace in order to take vengeance on the suitors. The first family member with whom he is reunited is his son.

It’s a strange passage. When Athena finally waves her magic wand and allows Odysseus to reveal his true identity to his son Telemachus, it’s a curiously anticlimactic moment. Telemachus doesn’t believe it. He resists the idea that this total stranger could be the father that he’s dreamed about for 20 years. As we know, Odysseus left when Telemachus was an infant. Now his son is a 20-year-old man. There’s a disconnect between father and son. And Odysseus actually says at one point, “There’s no other Odysseus who’s going to come.” I think that’s very canny, because they don’t know each other. There’s nothing to recognize; you can’t have recognition without a prior cognition, so to speak. They never knew each other and so there can’t be a kind of “ah-ha” moment of truth between them. They have to take each other on faith.

One could contrast with that the unbelievably emotional climatic reunion that takes place in the poem between Odysseus and his aging father Laertes, who’s the last person to whom Odysseus reveals himself. By this point he has killed all the suitors and revealed himself to his wife Penelope. He goes to look at his father and they both break down in tears, overwhelmed by the very real connection that they have. And so I think those moments signal something very smart about relationships on the part of whoever composed this poem. With the son there’s a lot of talk. Telemachus says, “No, no, no, no, you can’t be my father.” Odysseus goes on and on explaining why, and then they finally accept each other and start making plans. Odysseus and his father — who did have a relationship, who are in fact being reunited — nearly can’t bring themselves to talk. They dissolve in tears.

OR: Do you have a favorite character in the poem — one that you identify very deeply with?

Mendelsohn: I’m anti-identification. I always tell my students not to identify or to try not to identify.

That said, you can’t teach the Odyssey unless you have a bit of a crush on Odysseus. And he is a beguiling character. I think that as a writer I wouldn’t say I identify with him, but he’s famous for his way with narratives. He’s a storyteller, a liar, a trickster, a punster. He vanquishes the Cyclops by means of a very elaborate pun. He is a hero of language and narrative. In that sense, of course, he’s irresistible to writers.

But the Odyssey has so many great characters it’s sort of torturous to have a choose a favorite. The Cyclops is a great character. Penelope is a great character. As is Eurycleia, the crabby old nurse who helps Odysseus kill all the suitors.

The Odyssey, as many people know and are now remarking on in particular, is particularly rich in great women characters. I should say female characters, because some of them are deities. Athena is a great character. She has a bit of a sense of humor. She’s no distant, remote goddess. Then, of course, there are Circe and Calypso. There was a theory at one point that whoever composed the Odyssey had to have been a woman because there were so many great female characters. No one believes it. But it says something about how rich these characters are. I can’t choose a favorite because they’re just all so damn good.

OR: What is the most rewarding thing about teaching the Odyssey to undergraduates? What is the hardest thing?

Mendelsohn: A lot of undergraduates come in because they know it’s a poem about adventure, which it is. I’m not going to deny that. But it’s always rewarding when you can start opening undergraduates’ eyes to the extraordinary thematic richness of this work of art. There is nothing that the Odyssey isn’t interested in: anthropology, language, narrative, identity, disguise, family, social life. I always think they come in for the adventure, but they leave with a healthy appreciation of how vast and complex — in a delicious way — it is. And what it is to be connected to somebody, and what that means, intimacy and recognition.

That brings me to what the hard part is. Like many highly sophisticated and very complex works of literature, it’s sometimes about aspects of life that 17-year-old freshmen just haven’t reached yet. That can be a frustration. The climatic unfolding of Odysseus’ recognitions by the members of his family is so moving if you can imagine, as you can when you’re middle-aged or elderly, what it’s like to lose track of someone for 20 years and then to be reunited with them. Anyone who’s been to a 25th, or a 35th, or a 50th high school or college reunion knows what I’m talking about: that strange displacement. Someone is standing in front of you. You used to know them. They don’t look anything like the way they used to. Yet there’s something about them that seems familiar. That’s just an experience you cannot have had when you’re only 17 or 18. You haven’t even been alive 20 years — the length of Odysseus and Penelope’s separation.

OR: What fundamental things are lost in reading the poem in translation?

Mendelsohn: In my book I recreate the classroom discussion when I was explaining to my students exactly how elaborate is the pun with which Odysseus conquers the Cyclops. When he first meets the Cyclops he says, “Oh, my name is Nobody.” At the end of the episode, after Odysseus and his companions have attacked and blinded the Cyclops, the Cyclops’ neighbors come running for help. They say, “Is anyone killing you? Is anyone hurting you?” And he says, “Nobody is killing me, Nobody is hurting me.” They say, “Okay, in that case we’ll go home.” So he doesn’t get any assistance.

In Greek, the pun is about ten times more complicated and interesting than that English rendering can suggest. One of the words for “nobody” in Greek is the homonym of the Greek word for “cunning intelligence.” And so he’s not only saying “Nobody is killing me” when Odysseus attacks him, he’s saying “Cunning intelligence is killing me” — which happens to be true.

There’s another thematic overtone that we can’t get in English, which is that another of the words for “nobody” in Greek is also a kind of gruff homonym for the name “Odysseus.” It’s how you might say the name “Odysseus” if you were a little bit tipsy, which of course the Cyclops is. So there’s a very, very elaborate game going on. There’s no way you can do all that in English. It’s a different language.

OR: Are you concerned about the cultural move away from the liberal arts?

Mendelsohn: Obviously, there’s always a concern about the way that at certain universities different departments within the humanities are being dissolved and that through the general rubrics of humanities without specialization classics is being melded with art history, French, German, and Italian. So I think there’s always cause for a bit of concern. I always resist the “classics is impractical” line that people love to come up with when they are critical of the higher study of these fields. You can study accounting. It’s authentically practical in one way. But when your father dies, your accounting degree is not going to help you at all to process that experience. Homer will help you. The Odyssey will help you. Great literature will help you think about mortality and losing loved ones. That seems very practical to me.

A broad education in which you’re deeply read in literature, and history, and philosophy, and mathematics, and science: this teaches us how to be human beings and it teaches us also how to be citizens. I know that sounds very idealistic, but if the current social and political situation in this country is in any way a marker of what a generation spent focusing on STEM does, then I think clearly we need a different answer. The crude preoccupation with moneymaking as the only goal of a college education is giving us a citizenry that is extremely degraded, as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s only the crudest and least interesting practicality that has no time for the humanities.

OR: Can you talk about how you understand the thematic and cultural relationship between the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Mendelsohn: I certainly think of them as complementary. This is not original. But the two poems cover just about every aspect of human experience between them. The Iliad, in a certain way, is the model of all tragedy. And the Odyssey, in a certain way, is the model of all comedy. The Iliad is about how the choices you make force you to confront the meaning of your life in the face of mortality, which is the tragic dilemma. Whether the values that you profess are worth the effects or ramifications that they create. That’s Achilles’ dilemma.

The Odyssey ends with a metaphorical wedding, a happy ending for the hero. It covers (roughly speaking) what we would think of as comedy. Not in a “ha-ha” sense. But in the sense that it is about a hero who confronts a number of difficulties and has to resolve them in order to be reunited with his family.

So I don’t think they’re just two works that happen to be by the same poet or poets. I think these are two works that can very fruitfully be studied and read and reread as complements to one another. Let me note the almost proverbial saying among classicists: the Iliad does not seem to be aware of the Odyssey, but the Odyssey is certainly aware of the Iliad. These are siblings. And as I said before, between them they cover everything. Love, marriage, death, birth, children, war, self-sacrifice, murder, religion. Everything.

OR: Do you find it odd that the most admirable character in the Iliad is Hector — who’s not Greek?

Mendelsohn: There’s a great discussion about the extent to which we’re meant to process the Trojans as a truly different culture from the Greeks. There’s unofficial lip service paid to the fact that they’re Asians, they’re different civilizations. But they all worship the same gods, they all seem to speak the same language.

It’s not that’s he’s Trojan, I would say: it’s that he’s the enemy that makes him so poignant. The enemy of the side for whom we’re supposed to be rooting. There’s obvious identification with the Greeks on the part of the reader. But it’s so brilliant, and touching, and powerful that the most admirable person in the whole Iliad is the enemy, the person who has to die in order for the project of the Greeks to succeed. That, I think, is really devastating because it implicitly asks us to grant humanity to the enemy, to the other, to the foreigner. And by implication to all people who are not us.

Your point is a very interesting and very well-taken one. But as I said, it’s not just Greek versus Trojan, West versus East, or anything like that. It’s even grander than that. Throughout the Iliad, all the Trojans are given full respect as humans. They’re never demonized, they’re never foreignized, they’re never othered. We always know that they’re just as human as we are. I think that is a great ethical achievement.

OR: Is it harder for our culture to process deep, complicated characters like Odysseus in the era of simplification we seem to be living through?

Mendelsohn: One of the things I’m always militating for as a teacher is to combat the impulse, which I think is fostered to some degree by popular culture, to simplify and to think simplistically. Many of my students want to know who the good guys are in the Odyssey and Iliad and who the bad guys are. I always tell them the complexity of a character — and that can be psychological or moral complexity — is directly proportional to the seriousness of a literary work. Their desire to know whether someone is a good character or a bad character is essentially anti-literary.

In my book, I describe the effort my father — who was taking my Odyssey seminar — made to point out that Odysseus is not a straightforward hero. He has all of these qualities that are for some people admirable or attractive. But he has all kinds of qualities that are very unattractive. He was advocating for a more complex reading of the protagonist. Odysseus is charming, and seductive, and appealing, and brilliant — and also very destructive. Wherever Odysseus goes he leaves heartache behind. Every single place he has an adventure in, he leaves death, destruction, or disappointment behind. And as my father pointed out, he may be the hero of the epic, but he’s a pretty terrible leader if all of the guys that he went to Troy with 20 years ago get killed on the way home.

We don’t have to decide whether he’s admirable or not admirable. He’s both. He’s complicated. It’s his complexity that makes him worth thinking about. If he were all goody-two-shoes, and adorable, and wonderful — well, the Odyssey would be about ten pages long.

OR: Other than your own book, of course, are there works you would recommend to non-specialist readers interested in deepening their understanding of the Odyssey?

Mendelsohn: There’s a wonderful book I make all my students who are reading either the Iliad or the Odyssey read. It’s called The World of Odysseus, by M.I. Finley. It’s a classic. It’s been around for 70 years; it actually exists in a new reprint by the New York Review of Books. It is an excellent introduction to the Greek Bronze Age culture that is being described in the Iliad and the Odyssey and what the conventions are socially, familially, economically.

There’s a book I always take chapters from and assign to my students: Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad. It’s by Eva Brann and it’s for people who are used to reading literary criticism.

There’s a wonderful book by a classicist called Sheila Murnaghan. It’s short and slim. It’s not a weighty academic tome. It’s called Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. It traces this crucial theme in the most wonderful, lively way. There’s a retired classicist called Charles Rowan Beye who wrote a very charming and lively book called Odysseus, A Biography. In it, he assembles all of the mythic traditions about Odysseus — not just what we have in the Odyssey. It’s a lot of fun.