IDES: The Odyssey

CORINTHIAN BATTLE HELMET – yes, they did look like this

CALLS COMING IN about the Odyssey, which I take to mean the Coen Brothers’ glorious film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and I think I own an electronic copy of this very tome.

It is beautiful, especially the music.

It is not, however, Homer’s Odyssey exactly, and while I applaud it as an “homage,” it is not a replacement, and here we are, with the necessity of grappling with Homer, like a rich and well-educated SYSTEM.

Recall from college that every major has that thing that you have to do again and again. In theatre, it is Aristotle’s Poetics. In biology, it is cell biology. How many times have we stared down the mitochondria? In the English department, it is Hamlet. I calculate I read Hamlet five times in college. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down and still somehow, It’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.” That is how I feel about Hamlet, but I do know it is part of the bones of everyone with an English degree.

In the Classics Department, it is Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. You have to read them. I should read them again. They are the core of one of the greatest literatures in the world — and most people are vastly preferential to one or the other.

The great heights of Achilles in his moment, and what was that, anyway? Back in the day, going to war meant standing there with a sword, staring down an individual opponent, and suffering your destiny. It was customary in Ancient Greece to introduce yourself to your opponent, to give your pedigree, to list the warlike deeds of your ancestors and your own accomplishments in battle.

It was a flowery custom — then came the stench.

Young Spartans were told by their mothers to come home “with your shield or on it.” But that was Sparta for you.

Homer did not hold back in his descriptions of the bones breaking, the skull exploding, the blood gushing out, everything a pile of black gore. It was, in fact, an action flick in dactylic hexameter!

Everyone’s temper frayed, pestilence stalking the camps, the boredom of a ten-year siege, the Greek gods finagling all over the place — for what is a war but a pile of fun for gods? — and so much of its tone determined by the character of Achilles, a young man out to make his name as a hero, which he does, AFTER BEING DISPATCHED.

We must expect that many who read this epic did themselves did have to go through that very experience and were healed by this art.

Whereas the hero of the Odyssey is an older fellow who is DRAFTED into this ridiculous war, feigns madness to avoid it, and goes only after being exposed.

His epic doesn’t like to reminisce about all the gore, but is set after the end of the tedious business, and involves a great number of funny events with monsters or chocolate bars. We evidently have to make an accounting to posterity for that part of our lives, while keeping in shape with the bath’leth, for you never know who around you is WITHOUT HONOR. And it may very well be that participation in war marks a person in some way and that they have strange luck which has to be dealt with by wit and flexibility: “polytropos” or “many sided” was the appellation of Odysseus.

It is a fundamental sign of a person’s disposition as to which of these epics is THE ONE.

A similar idea occurs in Norse mythology wherein half of those who die in battle go to Odin’s heaven Valhalla and endure an afterlife of rigorous combat and half rest with Freyja in Sessrumnir and enjoy a nice home life.

Let’s check in with THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT the American poet John Berryman, whose poem Dream Song 14 sums it up nicely:

Life, friends, is boring

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so./After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,/we ourselves flash and yearn,/and moreover my mother told me as a boy/(repeatedly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now that I have no/inner resources, because I am heavy bored./Peoples bore me,/literature bores me, especially great literature,/Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes/as bad as achilles,

Who loves people and valiant art, which bores me,/And the tranquil hills, and gin, look like a drag/and somehow a dog/has taken itself and its tail considerably away/into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving/behind: me, wag.

So, yes, bring on the television, but not without the poetry.

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