A Complicated Man: The Odyssey and Daniel Mendelsohn
by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)
W. W. Norton
Published November, 2017
An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic
by Daniel Mendelsohn
Published September, 2017
James Joyce claimed that he used the Odyssey as the mythical framework for his modern epic Ulysses because the poem’s wandering hero was the most complete man in all literature. Odysseus is son to Laertes, husband to Penelope, father to Telemachus, and lover to Calypso. He experiences life as a king and a vagabond. He is not predisposed to war: he initially resists the call to arms against the Trojans, feigning madness to avoid enlistment. In a rare instance of the wily Odysseus being outwitted, the ruse fails. The recruiting officer Palamedes smells a rat when Odysseus begins sowing a field with salt, so he places the infant Telemachus in the path of the plough, forcing Odysseus to swerve and reveal that he is sane. Thus the would-be draft dodger is compelled to leave his island kingdom of Ithaca and go to war for ten years, where he proves himself a valiant warrior and a cunning tactician, his trick with the Wooden Horse delivering victory to the Greeks. (‘The tank is his creation,’ observed Joyce.) Odysseus is a man whose chief virtue is his intelligence, but more importantly Joyce saw him as a ‘good man’, who declines Calypso’s offer of immortality, who longs to be reunited with his family, who has his share of human failings but is fundamentally decent.
That Odysseus is a multifaceted character is undeniable; the goodness and decency Joyce attributed to him are debatable. The opening line of Emily Wilson’s brisk new verse translation of the Odyssey strikes an equivocal note: ‘Tell me about a complicated man.’ That sounds about right. Odysseus is intriguing because he is morally ambiguous. He is, as Daniel Mendelsohn observes, ‘a tricky character, famed for his shady dealings and evasions and lies and above all his way with words’. The first adjective that is applied to him in the Odyssey — the word Wilson renders as ‘complicated’ — is polytropos, the literal meaning of which is ‘of many turns’. Its implications are twofold, as Mendelsohn explains. Polytropos refers to the looping trajectory of Odysseus’ long journey home: he is ‘the man who gets where he is going by traveling in circles’. But it also refers to the twists and turns of his mind, ‘not all of them strictly legitimate’.
His very name is an allusion to his duplicitous nature. In Book 19 of the Odyssey, we learn that it was bestowed upon him by his grandfather Autolycus, a notorious liar and thief. When the newborn infant was handed to him, Autolycus declared:
I am disliked by many, all across the world, and I dislike them back. So name the child ‘Odysseus’.
There is some untranslatable wordplay in the original lines, which Wilson elaborates in her introduction. The Greek verb she translates as the mild term ‘dislike’ is odussomai, which can also mean to hate or be angry with. Autolycus, in other words, anoints his grandson heir to the unsavoury reputation he has earned through a life of turpitude. Mendelsohn suggests even stronger negative connotations when he glosses Odysseus as ‘the man of pain’ ⎯ a formula that is appropriately double-edged. Odysseus suffers (‘I miss my family,’ he laments to the Phaeacian queen Arete; ‘I have been gone / so long it hurts’), but he also causes suffering. He makes his way through life practicing the arts of deception and so acquires many enemies. It is hardly surprising that in Virgil’s Aeneid, which includes an account of the destruction of Troy from the Trojans’ perspective, Ulysses (as the Romans called him) is deplored as a ‘mastermind of crime’ and an inventor of ‘vicious schemes’. One of the reasons it takes him ten years to find his way home is that the sea god Poseidon blows him wildly off course in retaliation for blinding his son, Polyphemus the Cyclops. Not even his family are spared his dishonesty, as the goddess Athena notes with admiration shortly after Odysseus returns to Ithaca:
You clever rascal! So duplicitous, so talented at lying! You love fiction and tricks so deeply, you refuse to stop even in your own land … An ordinary man would rush straight home to see his wife and children when he reached his country, after such a journey. You decided not to even ask about them, until you test your wife.
An unflattering interpretation of Odysseus’ character is voiced, with clarifying bluntness, in Mendelsohn’s memoir An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic, which begins with his father deciding, at the age of 81, to enroll in the course on the Odyssey that Mendelsohn teaches at Bard College. The hero of the Odyssey is not a hero at all, Jay Mendelsohn objects from the back of the classroom, to the bemusement of the other students. Odysseus lies all the time. He cheats on his wife. He is a lousy commander who is constantly losing his men. And (fair point this) whenever he is really in trouble Athena swoops down and bails him out.
Emphasising the disreputable side of Odysseus’ character might seem to be reading against the grain of the epic poem that celebrates his bravery and intelligence, but it is one of the ways that Wilson and Mendelsohn draw the ancient text of the Odyssey into a dialogue with the present. Any reconsideration of a ‘classic’ work of literature (as distinct from ‘Classical’, though of course the Odyssey qualifies as both) requires us to take stock of its historical distance, mediate between contemporary assumptions and its culturally alien elements. This dialectic of strangeness and familiarity acquires a peculiar dimension when it comes to the Odyssey and its companion poem the Iliad, as they were already ancient texts when what we now think of as Classical Greek culture began to emerge around 500 BCE. The event that inspired them, the Trojan War, is thought to have occurred almost a millennium earlier, perhaps as early as 1400 BCE, when the Greeks were pre-literate — they did not learn to write until around 750 BCE. At some point in the intervening centuries these two extraordinary poems came into being, originally as parts of a larger cycle of epics that related the entire history of the war and included a subset of poems, known as nostoi, that told stories of homecoming. Though the ancient Greeks spoke of Homer as if he were a single poet, it is now generally accepted that the Iliad and the Odyssey are the products of an oral tradition, that they were recited, perhaps for centuries, before they came to be written down.
There is a kind of narrative corollary to the murky origins of Homer’s epics in the way that the Odyssey seems to take place in a borderland where a tangible historical reality blurs into pure fantasy. The poem lives in the collective imagination as an adventure story; its tales of enchantment and magical transformations and grotesque monsters and interventionist gods situate it squarely in the realm of myth. Its most famous episodes — Penelope weaving and unweaving a shroud to keep her suitors at bay, the encounter with the Sirens, the escape from the Cyclops — belong to a common stock of cultural references: they are archetypal tales that have come to represent fidelity, temptation, the triumph of brains over brawn. Yet the world of the Odyssey, as it is experienced in the poem, never seems merely fanciful or fable-like. Its principal characters are highly individuated. They inhabit a palpable world of complex familial and social relations, a world with its specific customs, beliefs and codes of honour.
The problem of capturing something of the immediacy of the original poem received its definitive articulation in Matthew Arnold’s essay ‘On Translating Homer’ (1861), in which he identifies four characteristics of Homer’s verse: rapidity, nobility, plainness of expression, and directness of thought. Arnold goes on to observe that English translations never manage to convey all four, that they invariably favour one or two of those qualities at the expense of the others. There is an elementary reason why it is so difficult to reproduce the insistent quality of the original, which Mendelsohn notes in one of the many learned digressions he weaves into his memoir: Homeric Greek is dactylic (dum-de-de, dum-de-de, dum-de-de …), whereas the natural rhythm of English is iambic (de-dum, de-dum, de-dum …). For the ancient Greeks, iambic metre was suitable only for low satirical verses — in fact, the word ‘iambic’ is derived from a word meaning ‘to lampoon’. This is not a rule that applies in modern English, of course, but the language’s iambic quality does mean that Homer’s strict hexameters can be unwieldy, since a regular six-beat line in English tends to come across as jaunty and affected, and will often sound as if it wants to break into two lines of three. Robert Fagles, who published widely admired verse translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the 1990s, rendered both poems in hexameters, but made use of considerable and sometimes strenuous variation.
Wilson takes issue with Arnold, though she gets his four qualities slightly wrong, listing them as ‘plainness, simplicity, directness of thought, and nobility’. She asserts that Homer’s verse is not always simple and direct, that it is often marked by redundancy and repetition, and that his language is not necessarily noble. The notion that epic poetry demands an elevated or ostentatious style prompts her strongest resistance. An archaic or mannered English, she argues, is no ‘closer’ to Homer’s Greek than an unpretentious contemporary idiom. Her translation is accordingly rendered in natural sounding iambic pentameters; its language is studiously unadorned. She makes no attempt to emulate the formality of the original, most notably in the case of the repeated epithets that betray the poem’s origins as an oral text (‘wily Odysseus’, ‘bright-eyed Athena’, ‘the wine-dark sea’, ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, and so on), which she varies according to the mood of particular scenes and to suggest subtle inflections of character. Thus the wily Odysseus is at different times seen to be clever, crafty, tactful, cautious, tricky and devious.
In opting for a familiar style, Wilson positions herself in opposition to a long tradition of translating Homer’s poetry using an elevated or formal language that, in one way or another, seeks to register its strangeness and grandeur, make us conscious of our distance from the original. Her plainspoken Odyssey defies the Classical authority of Longinus, who proposed that a writer striving for loftiness of expression should imagine how Homer might have expressed the same idea; it also contradicts a contemporary Classicist by the name of Daniel Mendelsohn, whose Waiting for the Barbarians (2012) includes an essay in which he cites Arnold on the way to criticising a recent verse translation of the Iliad for adopting a similarly stripped-back approach. Homer’s Greek, argues Mendelsohn, is a stylised language that no one ever spoke, which ‘likely sounded to Greek ears the way the King James Bible does to ours: old-fashioned but so much a part of the language that it never registers as stuffy’. A translation that does away with the element of formality effaces important nuances and linguistic effects that contribute to the expressive power and, yes, the nobility of the original: ‘Part of the way in which the epic legitimatizes its ability to talk about so many levels of existence and so many kinds of experiences is its style: an ancient authority inheres in that old-time diction, the plushly padded epithets and stately rhythms.’
Those of us who cannot read Homer in the original Greek have little choice but to leave the contrary Classicists to sort out their differences among themselves. What can be said in favour of Wilson’s translation is that is excels in the Arnoldian quality she forgets to mention: it is eminently rapid. Her Odyssey is not only readable but succinct, as she has restricted herself to the same number of lines as the original poem (most translations are longer ⎯ in the Fagles translation, for example, Book 19 is 681 lines; in Wilson’s version, it is 604 lines). The unadorned style encourages immersion in the narrative and a clear view of the poem’s major themes.
The most prominent of these, the one around which the story organises itself, is what Mendelsohn calls the ‘hospitality theme’. Wilson points out in her extensive introduction that the Odyssey can be read as a series of ‘case studies’ in the concept of xenia or ‘guest-friendship’, which is related to the word xenos, a paradoxical term that can mean both ‘stranger’ and ‘friend’. Xenia refers to the rules of hospitality, the mutual obligations that arise between host and guest. The world of the poem, writes Wilson, is one in which it is ‘the responsibility of male householders to offer hospitality of this kind to any visitor, even uninvited guests, strangers, and homeless beggars’.
The concept has an obvious relevance to a story about a man who spends ten years wandering from one foreign land to another. The poem not only presents us with numerous examples of how xenia should or (more commonly) should not be practised; it includes a running commentary on the importance of this social obligation. When Telemachus visits the court of Menelaus in search of information about his missing father, we are presented with a positive example of xenia, but also treated to Menelaus’ pontifications on the subject. In Book 6, when Odysseus arrives in the land of the Phaeacians, the princess Nausicaa reacts to the sudden appearance of a naked and grimy stranger with admirable sympathy and generosity:
But this man is lost, poor thing. We must look after him. All foreigners and beggars come from Zeus, and any act of kindness is a blessing. So give the stranger food and drink, and wash him down in the river, sheltered from the wind.
Much later, when Odysseus returns to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, the integrity of the loyal swineherd Eumaeus is established when he welcomes this apparent stranger into his house. Eumaeus holds the uncharitable view that ‘Tramps always lie / to get a meal’, and the poem doubles down on the dramatic irony of this statement when the notorious liar Odysseus concurs: ‘I hate like Hades’ gates the man who caves / to poverty, and starts to lie’. Yet the lowly swineherd understands that he has a duty to a higher principle:
One must honor guests and foreigners and strangers, even those much poorer than oneself. Zeus watches over beggars and guests and strangers.
More than just a theme, xenia is intrinsic to the worldview expressed in the poem. As the references to Zeus suggest, the obligations we bear toward strangers in need and the respect that is due to a generous host are not simply questions of etiquette; they are entangled with the concepts of morality and divine favour, and thus with the poem’s conceptions of order and justice. The moral universe of the Odyssey is defined by the role of the immortal gods, who in Greek mythology are inclined to argue with each other, play favourites, bear grudges, indulge whims, and meddle directly in human affairs in ways that are sometimes beneficial and sometimes detrimental. This creates an element of ambiguity when it comes to the question of responsibility. The first voice we hear in the Odyssey (apart from the poet’s) is that of Zeus, who complains to the other immortals gathered atop Mount Olympus that humans constantly behave in foolish ways that compound their misery, then blame the gods for their misfortune. He is speaking specifically of the fate of Aegisthus, who seduced Clytemnestra while her husband Agamemnon was away fighting the Trojan War, conspired with her to murder Agamemnon upon his return, and was in turn murdered by Agamemnon’s vengeful son Orestes — and he is understandably cross because the gods had told Aegisthus quite specifically not to cuckold and murder Agamemnon.
Zeus’ exasperation anticipates a brilliant irony in the final Book of the Odyssey when the ghost of Agamemnon reappears to lament being killed in such an ignominious fashion and declares glumly that ‘Zeus had planned it’. And one cannot help but hear the echo of Zeus’ complaint when characters says things like ‘Blame nobody but Zeus’ and ‘Zeus gives us good and bad at different times’ and
Zeus apportions happiness to people, to good and bad, each one as he decides. Your troubles come from him, and you must bear them.
Beyond the apparent fatalism of these sententious pronouncements lies the durable Greek belief, expressed powerfully in Classical tragedy, that human beings unwittingly collude with the forces of their own destruction, that what we are apt to call fate is the result of our innate flaws and blindnesses, our inherent wilfulness, working in concert with the unpredictability of circumstance. The capricious gods personify this idea, and in the Odyssey we see another implication of their capriciousness. Odysseus is the opposite of a tragic hero. Though he experiences many hardships and setbacks, he lives a charmed life. The goddess Athena oversees the Odyssey: she sets the plot in motion and orchestrates Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. She intervenes when he is trapped on an island having sex with the glamorous nymph Calypso — an ordeal he endures for seven years — with the declared intention of halting his run of ‘bad luck’. The special interest she takes in Odysseus steers the narrative to its happy resolution, ensuring he triumphs despite his flaws and misfortunes.
When Athena first states her case for intervention, Zeus concedes that Odysseus is ‘more sensible than other humans’, but there is nevertheless an element of arbitrariness to the bestowing of favour. ‘Everybody needs the gods’, we are informed — and yet the gods ‘are not / equally visible to everyone’. There is often a sense in Homer’s epics that, as Wilson remarks, ‘the gods are all on the Greek side’. Mendelsohn comes to realise that this is one of the things that offends his father: ‘the problem, for my father, was that Odysseus’ willingness to receive help from the gods marked him as weak, as inadequate’. It also tilts the moral axis of the poem, as Odysseus and his men are far from blameless.
It is in this sense that xenia encapsulates the tensions and inconsistencies that arise from the poem’s metaphysical assumptions. As Wilson observes, whenever hosts or guests abuse the divine principles of hospitality ‘violence follows’. In many instances, the link between transgression and punishment is clear. When Odysseus’ hungry men slaughter and eat cattle belonging to the sun god Helius, even though they have been explicitly warned against doing so, retribution is swift and brutal: their ship is promptly wrecked by a thunderbolt from Zeus and everyone except Odysseus drowns. But the ethical questions raised by the episodes are often more complex than the straightforward imperative to obey injunctions from the gods, particularly when they are interpreted on a human level, understood in the context of the poem’s apparent social and political realities.
Mendelsohn and Wilson both note that in Book 9, when Odysseus arrives in the land of the Cyclopes (‘Cyclopes’ is the plural of ‘Cyclops’: there is an entire race of them), the terms in which the one-eyed giants are described suggest that they are being disdained as coarse and primitive. The episode occurs in the middle section of the epic, known as the apologoi, in which Odysseus takes over the narration of his own tale. He is relating his recent adventures to the Phaeacians, who are the acme of ancient Greek sophistication, so he makes a point of noting that the barbarous Cyclopes live in caves, have no centralised system of government, and live by herding sheep rather than cultivating the soil.
Wilson’s commentary on this episode draws out some of the implications of the assumed superiority, taking into account the historical context that might allow us to see the Odyssey as ‘a complex response by the Greeks to their own growing dominance as traders, travelers, colonizers, pirates, leaders, and warriors’. She takes a sympathetic view of Polyphemus, notwithstanding the fact that the unfortunate monster imprisons Odysseus and his men in a cave and begins devouring them one by one — something the ancient Greeks regarded, not unreasonably, as a serious faux pas. The story of the Cyclops, she argues, can be interpreted as a prototypical narrative of imperial self-justification: a burgeoning civilisation, confident in its virtue, having expanded beyond its natural boundaries, confronts an alien and less technologically advanced culture, which it regards as irredeemably primitive and uncultured, even grotesque, a view that becomes a justification for the exploitation and abuse of the native inhabitants.
The emphasis Odysseus places on the barbarism of the Cyclopes casts his own actions in a heroic light, even though certain details in the story admit other possible readings. The Cyclopes may lack beauty and refinement, but they appear to live orderly and peaceful lives. When Polyphemus discovers the Greeks skulking in his cave, he asks if they are ‘pirates’ — a reasonable suspicion, when one considers that they are a fresh from a bout of killing, raping and looting in the land of the Cicones, and that they are indeed intending to rob him. Wilson has highlighted this moral ambiguity, and her own sympathies, in her title for this episode: ‘A Pirate in a Shepherd’s Cave’. The justified wariness of Polyphemus draws attention the underside of xenia, which is that, in a violent world populated by liars and thieves, admitting a complete stranger into one’s home can be a dangerous thing to do. In this context, Odysseus’ explicit appeal to the principle of xenia — ‘grant a gift, as is / the norm for hosts and guests … / respect the gods’ — could well be interpreted as self-serving rather than pious or noble.
The somewhat skewed notion of divine favour is not incidental to the poem. The long arc of the Odyssey’s narrative of wandering and return bends toward the harmonious reunion of Odysseus with the son who has become a man in his absence, with his faithful wife, and with his elderly father. But it also bends toward the rough justice he dispenses to the obnoxious suitors, whose violations of xenia are egregious: they spend their days gorging themselves on their host’s food, harassing Penelope, molesting the slave girls, and plotting to murder Telemachus. They confirm their unworthiness when Odysseus infiltrates his home in disguise and is met with abuse and scorn. As early as Book 2, the suitors have been warned that they should
be afraid! The angry gods will turn on you in rage; they will be shocked at all this criminal behaviour!
The second half of the Odyssey gathers momentum as it moves toward the fulfilment of this prophecy. From the moment the disguised Odysseus sets foot in Ithaca in Book 13, the poem is replete with portents — strange dreams, ominous birds of prey, a perfectly timed thunderclap — that anticipate the carnage to come. The signs are so overt that the poem seems to flirt with self-parody: at one point, Telemachus sneezes and Penelope pronounces it ‘a sign of death for all the suitors’.
There is no more powerful illustration of the tangible quality of Homer’s epics than the clinical specificity with which violence is depicted. Mendelsohn is fond of citing the lines from the Iliad that describe Patroclus spearing a Trojan through the jaw and lifting him out of his chariot like a fisherman hauling his catch from the sea. When Odysseus and his men blind the Cyclops, the poem lingers over the gnarly details for almost twenty lines. They don’t just stab the sleeping monster; they first sharpen an olive branch and heat its tip in the fire, then twist their improvised weapon like shipbuilders boring a hole in a piece of wood (the simile adds insult to injury, as one of the things that marks the Cyclopes as primitive is that they do not know how to build ships). The sizzling as the blood pours out around the blazing spear is likened to the sound of a blacksmith plunging a glowing axe-head into cold water.
The violent climax of the Odyssey occurs in Book 22, which Wilson simply titles ‘Bloodshed’. Her plainspoken translation captures the breathtaking savagery of the scene, which begins with Odysseus tearing off his beggar’s rags, seizing his bow and arrow, and delivering a line worthy of a modern-day action hero: ‘Playtime is over.’ The suitors’ ringleader Antinous is the first to die: Odysseus shoots him through the neck, sending him crashing to the floor with blood gushing from his nostrils. A second suitor dies in agony when an arrow pierces his liver. Telemachus spears another suitor from behind, ‘ramming it through his back and out his chest’. A priest named Leodes begs for his life, only for Odysseus to decapitate him with a sword-stroke. When the suitors are all dead, Odysseus orders the slave girls who consorted with them to carry out the bodies and wash away the blood, then has them taken outside and hanged, their ‘feet twitching for a while, but not for long’. The grisliest fate is reserved for a goatherd named Melanthus, who sought to warn the suitors of Odysseus’ intentions. He is first tortured by being strung from the rafters with his arms and legs tied behind his back, then has his nose, ears and genitals cut off and fed to the dogs. Still not appeased, Odysseus has the traitor’s hands and feet cut off for good measure.
The scene is a bracing reminder of the political reality that underlies the poem. The world of the Odyssey is aristocratic: the social order is strictly hierarchical and ultimately sustained by violence. Wilson ⎯ the first ever female translator of the Odyssey ⎯ notes this particularly as it applies to the depiction of women and their assigned roles in this ancient society. In her version, the hanged girls are accurately described as slaves: there is no recourse to euphemisms like ‘servants’ or ‘maids’. The emphasis that is placed on Penelope’s faithfulness, even though Odysseus sleeps with Calypso and the witch Circe in the course of his adventures, is an early example of a sexist double-standard that would go on to have a very long history, but it is also a matter of considerable political importance. The suitors clamouring for her hand in marriage are seeking to usurp Odysseus’ position of power; the disorder in his royal household represents disorder in the kingdom. Early in the Odyssey, it is suggested that Odysseus was a moderate and fair-minded ruler before he set sail for Troy, but the chaos that arises in his absence and the violence that is required to reestablish his authority leads the poem to affirm an unhappily authoritarian maxim: ‘Kings should always / be cruel’.
On this level, the Odyssey is not a poem to warm progressive hearts. The spectacular reversion to the extreme violence of the battlefield in Book 22 makes palpable the uncomfortable idea that peace is conditional upon war. For all its strangeness and wonder, the poem depicts this as a savage truth, while reminding us that one of privileges of the victor is to exonerate himself. Odysseus has barely finished slaughtering the suitors when he cautions the elderly nurse Eurycleia not to gloat, taking the opportunity to disavow any personal responsibility:
Divine fate took them down, and all their wicked deeds. They disrespected all people that they met, both bad and good. Through their own crimes they came to this bad end.
Whether or not one regards Odysseus as a hero, this is a heroic display of chutzpah coming from a man who is literally drenched in the blood of his victims. There is a limit to the extent that one can psychologise the actions of a mythical protagonist. I would suggest that the limit is roughly the point at which Wilson speculates that Odysseus’ violent outbursts and fits of weeping might be evidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yet as a tale of nostos ⎯ of homecoming ⎯ the Odyssey is concerned with its hero’s transition from a man of war to a man of peace. The poem is haunted by the fate of Agamemnon, whose demise at the hands of his unfaithful wife and her lover is, as Mendelsohn observes, ‘a kind of negative Odyssey’: a cautionary tale about the potential danger Odysseus faces upon his return. His wariness and deceptions when he arrives back in Ithaca are thus justified as a survival strategies. In a sense, the action-hero comparison is not far-fetched. Faced with the lawlessness of the suitors, Odysseus has no choice but to take the law into his own hands. He is operating in a world in which there are no codified laws, no reliable mechanisms of natural justice: a world in which the only justice is revenge and the concept of divine authority is, as a result, apt to seem rather like a convenient rationalisation. The coincidence of personal and political motivation, the poem’s fusing of the desire for reconciliation and necessity of revenge, and the fact that Athena makes sure that when the suitors try to fight back none of their missiles hit their targets (‘You see?’ cries Jay Mendelsohn: ‘He only wins because he gets help from the gods!’), are the final confirmation that the poem’s vision of justice is retributive and merciless, even though the poem recognises the fatal flaw in the logic of retribution, which is that justice unilaterally and summarily dispensed is no justice at all, that revenge can only feed the cycle of violence. In the final Book of the Odyssey, the families of the murdered suitors gather to denounce the ‘scheming man’ who has ‘done us all most monstrous wrongs’ and to seek their own revenge. The epic is only able to resolve itself peacefully thanks to a familiar narrative contrivance: the direct intervention, one last time, of the goddess Athena.
If we are to appreciate the Odyssey as a living work of art, and not simply as a remarkable historical document that allows us a glimpse of the beliefs and customs of an ancient society, then it must speak to us on an intimate level. It is easy enough to assert that Classical myths evoke timeless themes; it is less easy to specify what this means in practice, to demonstrate that the idea is more than a platitude.
This is the understated but substantial ambition behind An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic. The book is a moving account of Mendelsohn’s relationship with his father, organised around the story of Jay Mendelsohn enrolling in his son’s Odyssey course and the Mediterranean cruise they subsequently take together ⎯ a touristy affair that follows the path of Odysseus’ wanderings, stopping at sites where the epic’s major episodes are supposed to have occurred. The Odyssey is, among other things, a poem about an estranged father and son trying to find each other, and in mapping his experiences onto the ancient poem Mendelsohn draws an obvious parallel. But he also, rather ingeniously, uses his personal reflections as a Wooden Horse to smuggle before his unsuspecting readers an episode-by-episode analysis of the poem.
An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic is, in this sense, a pedagogical work and a reflection on the nature of pedagogy. It is a book that considers the question of how and why ancient literature might continue to speak to us, what it might have to teach us about ourselves. More than simply a memoir, it offers an implicit argument for the study of Classical literature, and by extension the value of the humanities in general. One of the things Mendelsohn seeks to demonstrate is that the analysis of literary texts is not the vague and subjective pursuit it is sometimes assumed to be. The modern tradition of Classical philology, which he traces back to the eighteenth-century scholar Friedrich August Wolf, was founded on the principle that texts can and should be interpreted with scientific precision. Mendelsohn writes with authority and conviction about the way in which textual scholarship connects us with traditions of learning that have endured for millennia, but uses the classroom scenes to dramatise the process of interpretation and the necessary give and take that characterise the business of teaching.
The concept of mentoring is where father-son and teacher-student relationships overlap. In a neat coincidence, the word ‘mentor’ itself comes from the Odyssey, where it is the name of an old friend of Odysseus. In Book 2, Mentor gives a brief but impassioned speech deploring the disorder that has engulfed Ithaca, in the course of which he delivers the line about kings needing to be cruel. The term’s modern meaning is derived from the fact that Athena disguises herself as Mentor at several points in the narrative: initially, to warn Telemachus that the suitors are plotting to kill him and advise him to set sail for the kingdoms of Nestor and Menelaus; and then in the second half of the poem, when she guides Odysseus through his confrontation with the suitors and resolves the ensuing conflict with their aggrieved relatives. In the poem’s closing lines, the goddess makes ‘the warring sides swear solemn oaths of peace / for future times ⎯ still in her guise as Mentor’.
Mendelsohn is interested in the process of mutual understanding, the element of reciprocity that characterises successful mentoring relationships, and the mercurial nature of teaching and learning. He reflects that one of the ‘strange things about teaching is that you can never know what your effect will be on others; can never know, if you have something to teach, who your real students will be, the ones who will take what you have to give and make it their own’. The memoir contains scenes that will be familiar to anyone who has ever struggled to engage the interest of a room full of lethargic students, but it is also punctuated by regular moments of enthusiasm, humour, insight and connection. In one scene, Mendelsohn provides his class with a detailed explanation of the pun that Odysseus uses to trick Polyphemus. (‘I have to say this part is just great,’ his father interjects, on the side of Odysseus for once. ‘Intellect beats the bullies! The little guy beats the big guy with his brains.’) When Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is ‘nobody’, he is punning on his own name: the Greek word for ‘nobody’ is outis. But there is another layer to the wordplay in this famous scene:
In Greek, one way to convey ‘is anybody’ is actually a two-word phrase, mê tis, pronounced may tiss. That, in fact, is the phrase the Cyclops’ neighbors use when they rush up and ask him if anybody is stealing his sheep or trying to murder him: ‘Is anybody [mê tis] killing you?’ To which he replies. ‘No, nobody [outis] is killing me.’
Mendelsohn goes on to explain that mê tis is also a pun, on the word mêtis, which means ‘tricky intelligence’ ⎯ Odysseus’ defining quality. In other words, Polyphemus ‘has been undone by outis, nobody / Odysseus; but he’s also being undone by mêtis, anybody / trickery’. At the conclusion of this seminar-room set-piece, one student whistles and says: ‘Whoa. That is totally cool.’
The intellectual stimulation flows the other way too. At one point, another perceptive student proposes the theory, based on a number of apparent parallels between Calypso and Circe, that the adventures Odysseus relates in the apologoi are meant to be interpreted as fictions, that the incorrigible liar is entertaining the Phaeacians with tall tales that are loosely based on his real experiences, but exaggerated and dramatised for effect. The theory is persuasive enough for Mendelsohn to entertain the possibility for a while, until one of his intellectual mentors identifies the line that proves Circe cannot be a figment of Odysseus’ imagination. The episode thus becomes a small lesson in the importance of close reading and the limits of interpretation.
The pedagogical theme acts as a prism through which the memoir examines the personal relationship at its centre. Mendelsohn’s affectionate portrait of his father reveals him to be a recognisable and somewhat melancholy type. Jay Mendelsohn is a man of fixed ideas and principles. He is modest and decent, but undemonstrative, impatient with signs of weakness and overt displays of emotion, uncomfortable with affection and intimacy. He is a mathematician, a firm believer in the primacy of incontrovertible facts and logic and the importance of intellectual rigour. He abhors religion, distrusts the ambiguities an imprecisions of the humanities, suspects anything that seems too easy. If something is not difficult to achieve, he thinks, it is not valuable or important. His strict work ethic correlates with a no less strict commitment to honesty ⎯ the source of his distaste for the freewheeling dishonesty of Odysseus. The one thing that everyone knew about him, writes Mendelsohn, is that ‘he never cheated and he never lied’. This principled stance is necessitated by his conviction that the world is an unjust place, its deck permanently stacked against the little guy:
The roughness of the world, I knew, was what justified his own rough justice: the inflexible application of severe standards of honesty and intellectual performance to himself, to his friends, to us. You had to be tough. The world didn’t compromise, after all, so why should you?
It is not hard to detect an underlying woundedness in this defensive aspect of Jay Mendelsohn’s personality. Seeking refuge in the bitterness of hard truths and the solace of personal integrity is a stereotypically masculine reaction to injustice, and one of the things Mendelsohn comes to learn about his father is why he has such a hatred of liars and cheats. Much of the pathos of the memoir lies in its heartfelt account of their halting attempts to address the distance that arises between them simply because Jay Mendelsohn is reticent and uncomfortable with certain kinds of intimacy. Mendelsohn observes at one point that ‘good teaching is like good parenting’; the corresponding principle that his memoir articulates with great sensitivity is that no one ever does these things perfectly, that their essence lies in the ongoing attempt to achieve a connection that may or may not eventuate and negotiate the delicate misalignments of individual temperaments, understandings and expectations. He recalls himself as a schoolboy with little aptitude for mathematics asking for help with his homework, knowing that his father would become frustrated at his inability to see the obviousness of the logic. That Jay Mendelsohn, late in his life, should seek to share in his son’s passion for Classical literature is a touching gesture, but one that is, inevitably, only partially successful. ‘I had never found a way to persuade him of the beauty and usefulness of this great work,’ Mendelsohn reflects near the end of his memoir, ‘whose hero he still didn’t find very heroic, whose structural ingenuities left him cold, whose famously fascinating protagonist had failed to fascinate him.’
Of course, on another level, they are very much alike. What drew Mendelsohn to the study of Classics was his sense that the rules and complexity of Greek grammar might function as ‘a kind of armor that could protect me from things that were less easily classified and ordered’. One does not need to be a psychoanalyst to discern the underlying reason for his attraction to the discipline’s scholarly rigour and difficulty: ‘I felt that if I devoted myself to a career whose training was painful, my father might approve of it’.
This is why the Odyssey proves to be an inspired choice as the framework for Mendelsohn’s memoir about his father, its tale of wandering and return as perfectly suited to his purposes as it was to Joyce’s. Another of the poem’s most important themes is identity, which is played out in its many instances of disguise and recognition. To be disguised is to be simultaneously yourself and not yourself, to exist in a state of exile from oneself. It is no coincidence that the story of how Odysseus got his name occurs at a crucial moment when the disguised Odysseus is recognised by Eurycleia, who has noticed a scar on his leg. The scar is a symbol of his identity, a physical manifestation of the idea that beneath his many guises there is nevertheless an enduring and essential self. Mendelsohn emphasises the significance of this point with reference to the poem’s formulaic epithets: ‘whatever technical function these prefabricated lines and phrases may have served, they provide insight into the mind-set of the archaic poets ⎯ not least, their belief in the underlying consistency of nature and people and objects, whatever the distortions of history and violence and time ⎯ a belief in such constancy being of particular importance in this poem, whose characters are striving to recognise one another after decades of separation and trauma’. This recognition is related to the concept of homophrosynê, which Mendelsohn translates as ‘like-mindedness’. It not sufficient for Odysseus to arrive back in Ithaca and reassert his authority; he must re-establish his connection with his son, his wife and his father. What is ultimately moving about the poem is its reclamation of this idea of home, not simply as a particular place, but on the level of deep psychological affinity.
Mendelsohn and his father do not make it to Ithaca ⎯ not quite. A strike closes the sea route that would have taken them there, so the captain of the cruise ship asks Mendelsohn if he would be willing to don his mantle as a Classics scholar and give the other passengers a short lecture. Rather than speak directly of the Odyssey, he discusses two celebrated modern responses to the ancient poem: Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and C. P. Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’.
The former imagines the hero of the Odyssey as an old man, an ‘idle king’ bored with domestic life and his imperial responsibilities, the melancholy tone of the poem deriving from its weary hero’s awareness that his time is limited, that death is approaching, even as he continues to insist that it is ‘not too late to seek a newer world’. Cavafy’s poem is a reply to Tennyson’s ⎯ one that inverts its perspective in several important respects. It is not spoken by the hero of the Odyssey, but addresses itself to Odysseus, its use of the second-person also implicitly addressing the reader. It imagines him not as he nears the end of his life, but as he is about to set out on his journey home to Ithaca. It is not a poem of melancholy reflection, but one that offers advice: it suggests that the spirit in which one undertakes the journey will determine the nature of one’s experiences along the way. The malevolent gods and monsters ⎯ Poseidon, the Cyclopes, the flesh-eating Laestrygonians ⎯ exist only if you create them and bring them with you:
… do not fear them, you won’t find such things on your way so long as your thoughts remain lofty, and a choice emotion touches your spirit and your body … you won’t encounter them unless you stow them away inside your soul.
Easier said than done. As Mendelsohn observes, Cavafy’s poem ‘articulates, at an exquisitely high level of refinement, what has become a cliché of popular culture: that the journey is more important than the destination’. Part of Mendelsohn’s achievement in An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic is to have found a way to articulate, at a high level of refinement, a series of simple yet profound ideas about those intimate and ongoing processes of discovery and learning that are an essential part of life, and about the various ways in which literature might enrich our understanding of those processes. His memoir suggests that great literature reads us, that it anticipates our realisations. The book is not only an admirable tribute to Mendelsohn’s late father, but a welcome reminder that existential truths about the fundamental desire to belong and the painful experience of wandering and exile can be found, powerfully expressed, in a poem so old that no one knows who wrote it:
The worst thing humans suffer is homelessness; we must endure this life because of desperate hunger; we endure as migrants with no home.
Matthew Arnold, ‘On Translating Homer’, The Essential Matthew Arnold, edited by Lionel Trilling (Chatto & Windus, 1949).
Complete Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn (Harper Press, 2013).
Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, revised edition (Oxford University Press, 1982).
Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin, 1990).
⎯ The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin, 1996).
Daniel Mendelsohn, ‘Battle Lines’, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture (New York Review Books, 2012).
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’, Poetry Foundation
Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fagles (Viking, 2006).