Sunday, June 18, 2006

Odysseus in Kabul: the death of epic?

Those of you who have read the Odyssey no doubt remember Odysseus' journey into Hades. Among his many meetings there is one with Tiresias, the ancient prophet, who tells Odysseus he has another journey to undertake after he arrives in Ithaka:

[G]o overland on foot, and take an oar,
until one day you come to where men have lived
with meat unsalted, never known the sea,
nor seen seagoing ships, with crimson bows
and oars that fledge light hulls for dipping flight.
The spot will soon be plain to you, and I
can tell you how: some passerby will say,
"What winnowing fan is that upon your shoulder?"
Halt, and implant your smooth oar in the turf
and make fair sacrifice to Lord Poseidon . . .
(trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

Of the Odyssey's many wonders, this one, a description not of gods or monsters but of a very human place, has been the one that most give me pause: what would such a place look like? How long would it take to get to such a place? This place, wherever it might be, seemed more fantastic, all because, paradoxically, it was a place of human culture that I had great difficulty imagining.


I was reminded instantly of Odysseus' journey-to-come when I heard a story this morning on NPR about an enterprising Afghan giving boat rides to people, many of whom had never even seen a boat in person before, much less ridden in one. "Odysseus has finally arrived!" I thought . . . though, things being what they are in Kabul these days, I wasn't certain how smoothly that sacrifice to Poseidon would go.

What happens in such moments? This is analogous to, say, the experience of a Kansas girl eating Indian food for the first time in her life, as happened when Mrs. Meridian and I visited an Indian restaurant here in town a couple of weeks ago. Surely the Afghans recognize the boat's ancientness, that it after all has an existence within their linguistic memory if not in their personal recollection.

The image you see at the beginning of this post might provide a clue. It doesn't depict Odysseus' journey inland but, rather, his arrival on Calypso's island; the caption on the original document reads, "Odysseus finds an oar on the island of Calypso and remembers that he is a human being." The Afghans clearly know they are human beings; I think it fair to say, though, that the boat's presence in their midst expands their knowledge of what it means to be human. That is, the boat compels them to imagine other places, other peoples, where boats are not novelties but a matter of course.

Which leads me to this abstract of an essay (MUSE subscription, which I don't have, required) in which the writer argues that Odysseus' inland journey foretells the end of the (Homeric) epic tradition. Perhaps that is because Odysseus' erecting an altar to a sea god in a place that doesn't even use salt on its food is analogous to a leaving behind of the world as known by the Greeks; that is, though epic's vision is cosmic, that vision is filtered through the lens of a culture--and even in the world of the Odyssey, we learn through Nestor that an older, still-more-ancient world is passing from the Greeks' collective memory. Similarly, Afghani culture will, sooner or later, no longer have a memory of a time when boats were unknown to them, except, perhaps, among a Nestor or two, whose long, long memory might inspire a Homer in their midst.

Perhaps it is the (ever-)impending death of culture that leads to the birth of epic?

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3 comments:

Raminagrobis said...

Good post.

That part of Tiresias's prophecy has always been a sticking point with me too, not least because in the long tradition of Greekless readings of the Odyssey right up to the Renaissance and beyond, it often gets overlooked, as Odysseus's story devolves into a poetic commonplace. The notion of happy homecoming long-deferred comes to be associated with the figure of Odysseus, without the complications: that he will not be allowed to return home 'as himself', he will not be immediately recognised by those closest to him, he must defeat the suitors by guile, and eventually he will be forced to leave Ithaca again. One of the most famous poems of the French Renaissance, Du Bellay's 'Heureux qui comme Ulysse...' seems to gloss over all these complications (or at least, subsequent readings of the poem do). This must be partly because the story of Odysseus's second journey does not get told, it is left hanging as a possibility only. But it is surprising that readings of the Odyssey so often fail to take account of this point, the deferral of the nostos, the homecoming, to an indeterminate point in the future. And surely the point of the prophecy is that it is held out as a lure: the journey by foot to a point where people have never heard of the sea would (to a Bronze-age Greek mind) surely take much longer than the ten year span of Odysseus's wanderings in the Aegean and environs. The true homecoming of Odysseus is always 'to come'.

Another odd thing about the way the ancients conceptualized the technology of boat-building is that it is often seen as being a relatively recent development. I'm thinking in particular of the 64th poem of Catullus, which opens with a description of the building of the Argo; the Argonauts' voyage is said by the poet to have been the first ever time mortals sailed the ocean (this is a claim with some precedent in ancient literature). But not long after this, there's a flashback to the story of Theseus and Ariadne, which, according to the logic of the poem, happened before the wedding of Peleus and Thetis -- and Theseus, of course, had a ship of his own. How could Catullus have made such an elementary error of chronology? I suppose it's because ships and boats have this strange doubleness as symbols: they are markers of a technologically-advanced civilization, but they also have something elemental and ancient about them, as if they must always have been there. And so, as you say, they seem to tell us something about what it means to be human, and to forget.

You said:

Perhaps it is the (ever-)impending death of culture that leads to the birth of epic?

and I think that has the ring of truth. But what about Virgil's epic, written at a time when a new culture, the culture of an empire, the pax Romana, was just being born? If anything that particular epic was the model for all those written in the Western tradition since. I suppose you could say that the Virgilian epic is not really an epic in the true sense at all...or that Virgil did not really believe that the reign of Augustus was the true beginning of a Roman 'imperium sine fine' (a case could definitely be made).

Sorry, I've been rambling on for ages here. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Keira said...

I haven't read the book and on sort of a different note, have you read, "the Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran. He's a Lebanese author, poet, activist, philosopher, artist... I think you'd really enjoy it that is if you haven't read it already.

Keira :-)

John B. said...

Keira,
Thanks for commenting. I've read parts of The Prophet, but not all of it.