The Massachusetts Medievalist on archetypal moments and problematic episodes (Odyssey, Books 21-24)

There are so many iconic literary moments at the end of The Odyssey that it’s hard to do more than simply touch on them (and inevitably leave some out). But here’s a starter list:

The bow that seems to know its true owner (just like “the wand knows the wizard”?)

The test of military skill with specific weapons (think Excalibur or Luke’s light-saber)

The choice to let the bard/poet live during the battle so he can sing immortal songs afterward (think about the various bards that appear during Beowulf)

The test of the bed that can’t be moved (with the special satisfaction of knowing that Odysseus, the wily hero, is now being tested himself by his perhaps equally wily wife)

Athena holding back the dawn so that Odysseus and Penelope can catch up a bit (we have all wanted this skill at some point, if not for this specific reason)

The imposition of peace from the gods to end the action (not technically a “deus ex machina” but pretty darn close)

Each of these moments defines a trope or archetype that is then repeated throughout narrative traditions — sometimes intentionally (think about the preparations for the fight between Hector and Achille in Walcott’s Omeros), sometimes unintentionally (think about the courtroom scene at the end of My Cousin Vinny). The parallels with the Ramayana‘s scene with the bow are so striking that they have led to much critical discussion about whether the original compositors of the Ramayana knew a form of the Odyssey.

But there are also some problems with the end of The Odyssey, all of which tie into Wilson’s description of Odysseus as a “complicated man.” Foremost is the issue of the slaughter of the slave girls in Book XXII – Odysseus orders Telemachus to murder them for their sexual infidelity to his house.  Numerous feminist critics have pointed out that these “maidservants” (see last week’s post for references to translation choices around these and other enslaved characters) had no choice in the matter, as female slaves were assumed to be sexually available to male guests.  Both Margaret Atwood and Madeline Miller have provided fictional redress to this problem as part of their novels that re-tell (some of) the events of The Odyssey from the points of view of female characters. (Side note: fanfic is an entry at Merriam-Webster but only a “draft addition” in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

For me this time around, Odysseus’s test of his father in Book XXIV was especially infuriating.  He’s back, he’s beaten the suitors, he’s reunited with Penelope, he has the adulation of his young adult son….but he still needs to make up one more lie, one more fake back story for Laertes to see if he can fool him. He can’t just give the old guy a break, announce his identity, show his scar, and get on with the important point that he’s just killed a lot of the young male population of Ithaca and surrounding districts.  The peace at the end of the epic is a divinely-imposed peace which seems very precarious to me right now (August 2018); the humans in the narrative have agreed to peace only under duress, and the violence under the surface has not been eradicated or dealt with but merely suppressed.  It seems like the end of any epic sequence (Beowulf, the Ramayana, Star Wars, Harry Potter…..) in that the ending isn’t really an ending but more of a pause. Homer didn’t compose a sequel — the Telemachy of books I-IV did not presage a separate epic of the heroic deeds of Telemachus — but he has definitely left wide open the door of opportunity to continue to think about what could happen next. Many of the authors in global literary traditions have walked, consciously or unconsciously, through that door.

So here ends the Lesley summer reading group 2018, though I’ll be monitoring comments here and on twitter through the month of August – I have very much enjoyed this chance to revisit one of the cornerstones of literary tradition!

The Massachusetts Medievalist on epic similes and building tension (Odyssey, Books 13-16)

This week, I’d like to veer slightly off course to think about literary tropes rather than epic structure.  Books 13-16 are very satisfying in terms of plot development: we get to see Odyseeus and Athena making their plans and then Odysseus and Telemachus reuniting. We get a lot of important exposition/backstory about where Odysseus’s father is, where Odysseus hid the Phaiacian treasure, how the suitors were foiled by Telemachus’s return from Sparta.  There’s an exciting, anticipatory sense of building tension in these books.  The feeling is like that of an action movie right before the big heist or the big mission — except Homer invented that feeling and our contemporary film directors just try to recreate and build upon it.

So instead of thinking about plot development or structure, I want to call your attention to what literary critics call the “epic simile,” which is basically an extended comparison using like or as. Homer uses them frequently throughout both Iliad and Odyssey (so they are also referred to as “Homeric simile”).  One of the most famous from the Odyssey occurs as Odysseus comes out from hiding to present himself to Nausicaa, the Phaiacian princess:

……And out he stalked
as a mountain lion exultant in his power
strides through wind and rain and his eyes blaze
and he charges sheep or oxen or chases wild deer……
(Fagles VI.142-145)

The “as” in l.143 triggers your awareness that we’re heading into an epic simile, wherein the lion is powerful, blazing, driving — but Odysseus is as well, thanks to the power of the comparison.

Odysseus and Telemachus are similarly compared to other wild animals during their reunion in Book XVI:

[They] wailed with cries as shrill as birds, like eagles
Or vultures, when the hunters have deprived them
Of fledglings who have not yet learned to fly
(Wilson XVI.217-219)

This simile is incredibly nuanced and interesting in that it compares Odysseus and Telemachus to birds of prey, but also shows those birds in time of weakness, when “hunters” (humans? or other animals?) have raided their nests and taken their young. The comparison thus presents the father and son as simultaneously powerful and vulnerable.

One final literary observation about this week’s section: did you note that our narrator refers to Eumaeus the swineherd in the second person?  Eumaeus (and no other character in the epic) is defined as “you.” Fagles states: “‘Good news,’ you replied, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd” (XIV.192, with a very similar line at XIV.408); Wilson tells us that “You answered him, swineherd Eumaeus” (XIV.166).  Much critical ink has been spilled about this point, of course. It creates something of meta-fiction, another layer of narrative structure, that the poet is speaking to an audience of one (Eumaeus) and the rest of us are just pretty much eavesdropping. So the fictively privileged audience member of this heroic, aristocratic epic is an enslaved agricultural worker.

More about slavery — especially Emily Wilson’s extra-textual remarks about it — in the next post. Enjoy the building suspense!

The Massachusetts Medievalist on Odysseus’s wondrous adventures and self-promoting narrative (Odyssey, Books 9-12)

The impetus for this online reading group was my realization this past year that most of my undergraduate students hadn’t read Homer’s Odyssey, although some of them said that they had read excerpts from it.  The episode with the Cyclops (Book Nine) is without question the most frequently-anthologized section of The Odyssey, as it stands on its own pretty well and showcases Odysseus’s character — his cleverness (the scheme to blind the Cyclops and escape from the cave) as well as his arrogance (his continued taunting after they’ve barely escaped).  Most undergraduates have probably read a version of Book Nine somewhere in their academic pasts.

The Cyclops episode kicks off Odysseus’s narrative in Books 9-12, which is something of a travelogue of miraculous, supernatural adventure – every book in this week’s reading focuses on episodes outside of mortal, human experience so that the settings and characters seem like an endless parade of wonders: the drugged-up Lotus Eaters; the one-eyed, monstrous Cyclops; Circe the powerful, sexy witch; the ghosts of the land of dead and Odysseus’s maneuverings to call them; the seductive and deadly Sirens; the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis…… you may feel like you already know many of these archetypal figures, as they appear in a variety of retellings of the Greek myths, not just here in the epic.

In the midst of Odysseus’s flashback, Homer has a fabulous moment when the framed narrative breaks (Fagles XI.378, Wilson XI.335), when he reminds us that Odysseus is sitting in Alcinous’s hall and telling his story. Odysseus stops at what could be called a cliff-hanger; he has told us how he has spoken with Tiresias and some ghosts of women in the land of the dead, then states that “I cannot name each famous wife and daughter / I saw there; holy night would pass away / before I finished” (Wilson XI. 330-332).  The voice of the poet/narrator returns to remind us that the Phaiacians are Odysseus’s ‘real’ audience: “They were silent, spellbound, / listening in the shadowy hall” (Wilson XI.335-336). Odysseus allows himself to be convinced to continue, with the promise of even more, and more elaborate, parting gifts when the Phaiacians take him home.  The moment can come as something of an interrupting jolt, as Odysseus has “spellbound” us, the modern readers, as well as the Phaiacians — we have forgotten that he is safely in a palace, drinking wine and recounting his adventures.

A point which leads me to a warning about Odysseus and his famous flashback in Books 9-12: he is not an objective narrator.  The poet/narrator isn’t objective either (can any narrative voice be objective? A philosophical question for another time, perhaps), but Odysseus is definitely telling the story the way he wants it told. It’s convenient that everyone else who journeyed with him from Troy is now dead – there is no one to contradict him, or correct a faltering memory, or to provide information about events that occurred when he was absent.

Just as an example, Odysseus relates his conversation in Hades with Agamemnon about the horrors inherent in women (on his homecoming from Troy, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus). Agamemnon says that “there’s nothing more deadly, bestial than a woman / set on works like these — what a monstrous thing / ……the queen hell-bent on outrage” (Fagles XI. 484-490); Odysseus agrees with and expands upon this point, stating that “Zeus from the very start, the thunder king / has hated the race of Atreus with a vengeance — / his  trustiest weapon women’s twisted wiles” (Fagles XI.494-496).

Odysseus and Agamemnon both fail to mention the extremely legitimate causes of Clytemnestra’s anger. Before the war, Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to get the right wind to blow the fleet to Troy. After the war, Agamemnon brought home as captive war-prize and concubine the Trojan princess Cassandra, who had been a priestess of Apollo. So while maybe Clytemnestra wasn’t justified in murdering her husband, she certainly had reasonable grievances that Agamemnon and Odysseus don’t mention.

We have to trust Odysseus, but (and here again is Homer’s brilliance) we already know that Odysseus is wily, clever, manipulative. Be careful: He’s messing with us in the same way that he messed with the Trojans, with the Cyclops, and now with the Phaiacians. He’s very seductive and very good at getting what he wants. He will need all of these skills when he finally gets home; meanwhile, he has seduced us, his audience, and we are rooting for him, knowing that he will have to get back to Ithaca and deal with the upstart suitors, his adolescent son, and his grieving wife.

The Massachusetts Medievalist announces the Odyssey reading group (summer 2018)

Over the course of the 2018-2019 academic year, I realized that many of my undergraduate students at Lesley do not know Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  While both epics used to be assumed in the canon and thus in the high school curriculum, many undergraduate students now have read only excerpts, if anything, from them.  Both epics are touchstones for all of literature — not just for obvious descendants like Joyce’s Ulysses or Walcott’s Omeros, but for any narratives that include children growing up, long-lasting marriages, war, issues around masculinity and heroism, issues around femininity and agency, or humanity’s relationship to the spiritual and the supernatural (which is to say: pretty much everything).

Originally, I had thought that a summer reading group could attempt both of these behemoths, but soon realized that would be a chore rather than a pleasure. The Iliad will have to wait. So — THE INVITATION:

SUMMER READING GROUP ON HOMER’S ODYSSEY

Spend part of the summer (re?)reading Homer’s Odyssey with a low-key online book group loosely affiliated with Lesley University and managed through The Massachusetts Medievalist. From the end of May to the beginning of August, group members will read Homer’s epic in 4-book sections. There are no writing assignments, expectations, grades, or credit – just a virtual group of interested people reading and thinking about the epic.

To join the group, follow @MDockrayMiller on Twitter and also check #LesleyHomer on Twitter for reminders/updates about group activities. I’m working with the tech people from Humanities Commons to figure out how to add an email alert/subscription option to this Massachusetts Medievalist blog (updates and details to follow soon, I hope!).

Group members can work with any translation of The Odyssey they prefer, although it should be a poetic rather than a prose translation.  I’ll be using both the Fagles (1996) and Wilson (2017) translations. If you’re an audio book fan, note that the fabulous Derek Jacobi voiced the audio book for the Fagles translation. And remember that all these materials are available through Lesley’s Sherrill Library as well your local library! You don’t need to buy anything–

My introductory comments for each set of four books will be posted on dates noted; group members can choose to read that post before or after reading the text, whichever makes more sense for them.  The comments section will be open for asynchronous discussion, comments, and questions as soon as the intro is posted.  I’ll monitor comments regularly throughout the summer, answering questions, suggesting potential secondary readings, and trying to shepherd all of us as we make our way through this incredibly important and deeply problematic cornerstone of literary tradition.

Please join me on this literary odyssey (did you see what I did there??):

1-4:  intro post loaded Monday 28 May
5-8: intro post loaded Monday 11 June
9-12: intro post uploaded Sunday 24 June
13-16: intro post uploaded Monday 9 July
17-20: intro post uploaded Monday 23 July
21-24: intro post uploaded Monday 6 August

The Massachusetts Medievalist praises the small, local art show

Small, local art shows have become an inadvertant theme for the Massachusetts Medievalist this month.  I’ve always inclined toward larger, established institutions when seeking out art; I get to the MFA and the Harvard Art Museums pretty regularly. Three small art shows in Cambridge this March have me rethinking that strategy, however, as I’ve found that I enjoy thinking deeply about fewer pieces seen in a shorter period of time.

Anthony Apesos, my erstwhile co-conspirator for an interdisciplinary class on Milton’s Paradise Lost, features in a show at the Cambridge Art Association; all of Tony’s paintings are “illustrations” of Greek myths, but the moments he chooses to depict are not the typical epitomic moments of those narratives.  For example, in “Dedalus and Icarus” (below, with the artist), the illustration is set in a contemporary landscape; Dedalus digs a grave in the sand for the body of his dead son. Perhaps assisted by the presence of a nice white wine, I spent a long time looking at this image, much longer than I would have in a larger exhibition context.  Dedalus’s modern shorts contrast with the timelessness of Icarus’s plain shroud, and Tony forces the viewer to look at the exposed face of the dead boy, to imagine the grief of the isolated father digging the grave.

Anthony Apesos in front of "Dedalus and Icarus"

Right around the corner from my office, Maud Morgan Arts provides exhibit space for local artists. Renaissance man Bill Porter works in the academic technology department at Lesley; he also teaches animation and makes very cool paintings. I popped into his show “Impact” as part of an extended lunch break on a Friday afternoon and was immediately taken by his use of nontraditional items as “canvases” for his paintings. He uses old shingles, boards, and even bits of fences, as in “Clearing Skies,” with the whimsical but unsettling unicorn/narwhal skull as the perch for the pipe-smoking raven. The fence injected a note of reality into the otherwise almost absurdist image.

Bill Porter's "Clearing Skies"

Finally, two Lesley students have installed a specatcular series of portraits of African-American women in the atrium of our university library. “Portraits and Power” by Mosheh Tucker and Rocky Cotard presents larger-than-life images of women in the artists’s communities. Tucker works on traditional canvas, while Cotard’s pieces use loose fabric hung on rails, evoking the femininity implied in cloth and cloth making. Tucker’s “Ms. Marcel” (below) plays with geometry and space in the background of this full-length portrait in an almost Escher-like way; I also really enjoyed the ways that the colors of the figure’s clothes and skin interact with those of the background.

Mosheh Tucker's "Ms Marcel"

I’m realizing as well that all of these shows are associated with Lesley University, so I’m suddenly feeling a warm regard for my university as an art-supporting venue in the community. As spring semester progresses, I’ll be looking for more small art shows to explore.

 

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about contemporary (and ancient) poetry

The Massachusetts Medievalist spent part of January immersed in two very different poets, creating an interesting dialogue to start the spring semester. A chance sighting of a Twitter notice led me to Ocean Vuong’s prize-winning Night Sky with Exit Wounds and I read it almost simultaneously with Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey.

Wilson has been all over the news as the first published female translator of the Odyssey in English, with reviews and interviews on NPR, the New York Times, and the Endless Knot as well as myriads of others.  From her first line, “Tell me about a complicated man,” Wilson makes Odysseus and his journey home from war into a nuanced narrative that presents Odysseus not as unceasingly heroic but as a multi-faceted, dynamic protagonist who is, well, complicated.  Wilson does not elide the slavery of the Odyssey (she is relentless in her presentation of “slave girls” rather than the more usual “servants” or “housemaids”); she does not attempt to explain or excuse Odysseus’s sexual infidelities or narcissistic behavior. All this complexity makes Wilson’s Odysseus seem almost postmodern, and I mean that in a very positive way.

Cover image of Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey

I had never even heard of Ocean Vuong — any of my students will agree that contemporary poetry is not one of my strengths — but decided to investigate when I heard that the UMass Amherst professor had won the world’s most distinguished prize for poetry in English.  Vuong’s work is starkly beautiful and deeply unsettling (the most common modifier for both “blue” and “black” is “bruise”) and sometimes-oblique, sometimes-candid references to violence, both domestic and institutional, pervade his lyrical, astounding lines.

It is fitting that he won the T.S. Eliot prize, since there are numerous covert allusions to The Waste Land throughout the collection (aesthetic association with Eliot’s work is not a criteria for the prize). Explicit allusions to the Trojan War deepen that connection. Vuong’s Troy poems extend Eliot’s connections of classical and modern warfare both chronologically and geographically: Vuong’s Troy is Saigon of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the entire contemporary United States. The second poem in the collection is “Telemachus,” thus placing his speaker in the position of the son seeking the father lost in war. Rather than Homer’s cathartic reunion scene, however, Vuong shows us irrevocable loss: “But the answer never comes. The answer / is the bullet hole in his back, brimming / with seawater” (10-12). Both “Trojan” and “Aubade with Bruning City” similarly make us see the intimate and personal effects of war; Vuong strips away any remnants of Homeric, victorious adrenaline, forcing us to look at the way that “They will see him / clearest / when the city burns” (25-27).

Cover image of Vuoung's Night Sky

These three poems with Homeric allusion in the titles occur at the beginning of the collection, but then Vuong returns to Troy towards his close. “Odysseus Redux” explicitly refers to the Odyssey only in its title, but the themes of necesarily incomplete homecoming and reunion continue to resonate as the speaker tells us that “Back from the wind, he called to me / with a mouthful of crickets –” (7-8). Vuong’s poetics, so different from Homer’s and Wilson’s in form, wrestle with the same issues of identity, family, nation, sexuality, and loss.

Vuong’s and Wilson’s work reminds me that our culture’s foundational narratives are alive, part of our changing landscapes and conversations. It’s exciting to leave the Middle Ages every now and then to see how our conteporary poets are looking, Janus-like, both backwards and forwards in literary history.

Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

Wilson, Emily, trans. The Odyssey. New York: Norton, 2017.

The Massachusetts Medievalist DOES NOT LIVE in a “Shining City on a Hill”

Last week, my university hosted former British prime minister David Cameron as part of the Boston Speakers Series, and he closed his remarks with that shop-worn reference to Boston and the United States as a “shining city on the hill.” The Massachusetts Medievalist will now set the record straight on that enormously irritating phrase. World: please stop using it to refer to my city and my country. Its actual context is pretty much the opposite of what you intend.

The original Biblical reference is quite spectacular.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells his followers that “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5.14). He encourages his followers to be strong in their faith, even in the face of persecution and oppression.

Our contemporary culture likes to refer to Boston as a “shining city on a hill” due to a much less palatable usage, however, that of an early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, who had been elected before the departure from England.  He wrote his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” on board the Arbella, the ship that brought him and many of his fellow puritans to the “new world” to establish a religiously pure colony away from the corruption (as they saw it) of the Church of England.

Winthrop’s allusion to Matthew 5.14 occurs towards the end of the sermon, when he exhorts his fellow puritans:

For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Winthrop invokes the Sermon on the Mount to encourage his fellow colonists to remain true to their religious convictions — not so much because that’s a valuable thing to do in itself, but more importantly  because others will see them if they don’t. Winthrop’s conclusion creates a world of early protestant surveillance, where “all people” are ready to watch and judge the actions of the colonists. Winthrop’s goal in his sermon and throughout his governorship was enforcement of his version of puritan beliefs and regulations, one in which poverty and illness were signs of God’s displeasure for morally corrupt behavior and lack of religious faith.

Winthrop regimented the daily lives of the colonists he governed as much as possible, ignored instructions from the English Parliament regarding open elections and appointments to office, and established intrusive and humiliating procedures for vetting the religious faith of potential new residents in the colony. He also “owned” two enslaved Pequots, who may have been captured during the 1636-38 Pequot War. And historians now consider Winthrop to be something a of a “moderate” among the puritans in his cohort.

While politicians and cultural pundits frequently invoke Winthrop’s “city on a hill” in a positive way, consider the very beginning of the sermon, which must be largely unknown to those pundits:

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.

In other words, God established social class in his divine wisdom and all true believers had to accept their places in those classes. It is worth pointing out that Winthrop was at the top of each category mentioned (wealth; political, religious, and social power; social status). At the very beginning of the sermon, then, Winthrop establishes divine imprimatur for rigid social and political hierarchies. He also believed, like almost all men of his era, in gender hierarchy — which probably seemed so obvious to him that he did not bother to include it in his list of divinely-created assessed categories.

Note that neither the New Testament nor Winthrop uses the word “shining,” although that adjective is now included in most contemporary political misquotations, including Cameron’s of last week. The idea of “shining” is perhaps implied in Christ’s phrase “the light of the world” but contemporary commentators use it to refer to Boston as a beacon of light, a brilliant example of Boston’s rich cultural heritage that illuminates everyone else, metaphorically and literally. Presidents as disparate as Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama have invoked Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” to celebrate Boston specifically or the United States in general; the full texts of their speeches make it clear that they are referring to Winthrop and his puritan sermon, not the Sermon on the Mount.

The greater Boston area (which includes Cambridge, where I work, and the suburbs, where I live) does indeed serve as an example of a broad community that values education, the arts, scientific inquiry, and multiculturalism. But we also face crucial issues of overt racism, gentrification, income inequality, and entrenched sexism.  We need to move away from the rigid social hierarchies and narrow minded righteousness embedded in the historical context of Winthrop’s sermon in which he envisioned Boston as a “city on a hill.” Let’s agree to stop using that tired, inaccurate phrase in our own discourse, as it is actually a misquotation of an exclusionist, racist, intolerant Puritan referring largely to his own superiority. That’s not my Boston.

Next Blog Post: some suggestions for a replacement