Odysseus on Scheria, weeping at the tales of Troy. Francesco Hayez, 1791-1882
In Book 8 of Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus, on his way home from the Trojan War, has washed up on the shore of Scheria, a magical island, home to a race of mariners whose self-guided ships sail “faster than thought.” His handmade raft has been destroyed by an angry Poseidon, god of the sea, and he has lost everything, is barely alive, mere flotsam. But he is rescued by Nausicaa, the princess of the Scherians, and taken to the royal palace where he is lavished with xenia, hospitality worthy of a god, without even being asked who he was, as was the practice. This included a performance by the resident singer of tales, Demodocus, and included a description of the Trojan horse, the invention of “crafty” Odysseus himself. But rather than glory in his fame, kleos, Odysseus weeps “hot tears,” like those of the Trojan women whose husbands he has helped to kill, and who are themselves about to be forced into slavery. Alkinoos, king of the island, sees the tears and says to Odysseus: …tell me why you weep and grieve at heart When you hear the fate of the Greeks and the Trojans. This was the gods’ doing. They spun that fate so that in later time it would turn into song. (8:624-26, Lombardo translation)
Admittedly Alkinoos is the king of a people blessed (for the time being) by the gods, but as worldviews go, this one is not bad. It would have us understand that the events in our lives are not random or pointless, but constitute the raw material of song–laments, dirges and screeds to be sure, but also paeans, odes and hymns. The purpose of the poet is to use the tools of metaphor and allegory and myth to make sense of these events, even–perhaps especially–when they seem to have none. Homer, whoever he or she or they may have been, invented this entire poetic toolkit out of whole cloth, and created the musical sound that still resonates through the Western world and beyond.
The Odyssey, along with the Iliad, preceded writing and were both sung into being close to 3000 years ago, making them among the oldest living things on the planet. Homer’s song of the trials and temptations overcome by Odysseus on his nostos, or return home, has long been seen as an allegory for the return of a human being’s strife-filled and divided psyche, or soul, back to love and unity, our “native land” or “Fatherland,” patridos aies. In the third century AD, the neoplatonist Plotinus wrote, The Fatherland to us is There whence we have come, and There is The Father. This is not a journey for the feet;… you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use. (Ennead I:6:8, MacKenna translation)
But despite the recent appearance of a number of fine translations and public domain websites, Homer’s work seems to be losing its connection with literate adults, in the process losing its allegorical power. When I give talks on the Odyssey and survey my audience (which does tend toward the senior citizens), the anecdotal evidence is the same: I read it a long time ago in high school or college because I had to (which I must admit was my own experience). I believe this is in part because its theme of the return home resonates more as one gets older–with students just starting out, not so much. In any case, its power to inspire and connect us to a larger view of humanity is being lost; few feel with Keats when looking into Chapman’s translation that “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken….”
Part of this can be attributed to our living in a fast-paced and superficial age, as well as a shrinking number of students going into the classics as a major. But I think it is also because of its ongoing appropriation by academia which sees it as a rich source for analysis. The most recent evidence of this trend is the embrace of “digital humanities,” bringing the tools and techniques of computer science and “big data” to bear on Homer and other ancient works. This is of course not a totally new development, and I will be the first to acknowledge a debt to some of the existing websites such the Perseus Project at Tufts, and Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies. Their freely available texts and search tools have aided my own research and no doubt greatly widened the audience for these ancient works. But the presence of more powerful computing techniques brings with it the analogy of “data mining;” seeing these works as philological or historical or geographical or anthropological databases ripe for being analyzed into smaller and smaller bits, digging into a depleting resource for any remaining inert facts. Fracking Homer, if you will.
The still-unanswered question is whether the microanalytical capability that allows marketers to define us more and more narrowly as voters and consumers will bring us new insights into Homer. It will no doubt result in a spate of additional papers and academic conferences. But to state the obvious: Siri notwithstanding, computers are not humans. They have no quest, no inner life, and in a sense they have only feet. I believe their use carries the danger of degrading the Odyssey, especially, further from its polestar status as a quest myth, a universal tale of courage and devotion that can still speak to us today, and turning it into a series of self-referential tropes and poetical building blocks. The Odyssey is not about the Odyssey; it’s about the odyssey. It’s about the journey each of us must make from the fragmented to the whole, or as Douglas Frame puts it, “from darkness and death to light and life.” If we analyze we do not synthesize, and we lose the allegorical guidance of the characters: Achilles as the egoistic hero whose uncontrollable anger and wish for immortality lead him to early death. Penelope, the paragon of constancy, but also exemplar of scientific skepticism, as she demands evidence that Odysseus is who he claims to be. Her suitors, the social media distractors of their day, as that part of the mind always trying to tempt us away from the constancy of our purpose. And Odysseus himself, conquering the limitations imposed by his own ego in order to take responsibility for returning his kingdom to be a place “where peace and plenty reign.”
I have no illusions that this analytical trend will stop or even be slowed. It has that aura of inevitability, and may even result in a new appreciation of Homer and other writers. But I would just hope that we can also retain the grand and timeless view; that we can let Homer’s muse sing to us through the accretions of the centuries, through the masses of new data, “and tell the tale once more in our time.”