Photo: Monica Neuwens
This essay was commissioned for The L.A. Odyssey Project, a month-long, city-wide exploration of Homer’s epic poem presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Public Library. For more information, visit http://lfla.org/odyssey/
By James Porter
The two poems attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are among the finest treasures in the world. They are also among the most puzzling and mysterious. Sprung full-grown like Athena in full armor from the head of Zeus, the poems miraculously appear sometime around 750-650 BCE, each the size of a hefty novel (nearly 16,000 verses for the Iliad and 12,000 for the Odyssey), each perfectly self-contained and of the greatest narrative sophistication, and neither one overlapping with the other, as if obeying some silent convention or territorial prerogative.
No two works of literature could be more different, yet the Iliad and the Odyssey complement each other like a pair of gloves. Most remarkable are their shared ties to a background event that gives them their raison d’être but which neither poem narrates: the fall of Troy. Both are in some crucial sense aboutthis catastrophe, but instead of confronting it directly they both circle around it, warily and from different sides. The Iliad brings us within a few days of the capture of Troy but stops short of the event itself. The Odyssey tells of the aftermath. The choice is shrewd and effective. Other minor epics after Homer filled in the missing ground, but those poems quickly fell into oblivion while the two Homeric poems alone were remembered from the mass of songs whose stories they presupposed.
The Homeric poems survived first and foremost because they are stunning artistic achievements. They share the same form, their language is remarkably similar, they come from the same stock of myths, yet they have utterly distinctive styles and manners. The Iliad is thought to be the older of the two poems (possibly predating the Odyssey by a generation or more): it is grim and bloody, the heroes strut and brood about on their killing grounds, and most remarkably of all, nothing really happens. This is the beauty of the poem: it is a celebration of war’s utter futility. The Iliad is also claustrophobic in the extreme. Reading it, one gasps for air and for a place to escape.
The Greeks are massed on a narrow beachhead, separated from the Trojan citadel by a small plain—fatally so, for with their ships hauled onto land and turned into defensive walls and with Achilles skulking inside his tent away from the fighting, Homer enacts a stupendous reversal: it is the Greek invaders who are holed up in a defensive posture for the greater length of the poem, while the Trojans enjoy unfettered movement outside their citadel, attacking the Greeks and threatening to burn their makeshift stronghold to the ground. The action is at once brutal and abstract. Only the days and the nights mark the progression of time as they come and go (famously, there is no weather in the Iliad), which is compressed into a mere fifty-two days of the tenth and final year of the war. Despite the reminders of the Olympian gods watching (and sometimes intervening) from on high, for the most part the Iliad describes a world of men locked together in a fatal death-grip and bathed in each other’s sweat.
The Odyssey makes for a complete contrast to the Iliad. It is a poem about enduring, surviving, and aging (it covers a decade of events—never was a decade so long), unlike the Iliad whose heroes impatiently embrace an all too early “beautiful” death. Heroes in the Iliad hurry to complete life. Characters in the Odyssey are completed by life. There is an undeniable intellectualism to the Odyssey that contrasts with the muscular Iliad: Odysseus is a trickster who gets by as much through his wits as through his prodigious physical endowments. But there is also a lightness and airiness to the Odyssey that comes with the exposure to the wild elements of nature, a sense of long and incalculable distances traveled, the fanciful elements of myth and of other worlds, and the domestic details of homes (the poem takes us from one home to another, starting with the goddess Calypso and finally back to Odysseus’ island of Ithaca), all of which is missing from its landlocked companion poem of war.
And yet for all its forward momentum, the Odyssey is no less shrewd about its business than the Iliad. Nominally organized around the desire for homecoming (Odysseus’ much-vaunted nostos—the Greek is the source of the English word nostalgia), the Odyssey is in fact a poem about digressions and delays, of failed or postponed returns, almost to the point of teasing the reader to distraction. Does Odysseus, the first procrastinator in literature, even really want to return?
Homer bequeathed to posterity more than a poem: he left behind a template for the imagination. Though his poem translates well (and it has been rendered across the globe in hundreds of languages, including Arabic and Chinese), one word needs no translation at all: the poem’s title, which has become a by-word for any adventurous journey you undertake.You can odyssey into space, into Hell, or simply home, and you can even do some of this traveling in a minivan marketed as an “Odyssey.” The entirety of your life can be a physical or spiritual odyssey, though you should beware the label, which conjures up a mountain of difficulties and effort, however rewarding the final outcome may be.
In contrast to the stark simplicity and tragic finality of the Iliad, the Odyssey is restlessly plural and never-ending: it contains a multiplicity of odysseys. Perhaps this, more than anything else, explains why the Odyssey was an instant classic that became a permanent one. The Odyssey can be variously understood as a tale about a mortal who refuses immortality in the name of humanity and life (which means, of course, a fated death), who choses reality over fantasy (though the poem remains fantastical through and through), or who choses the path of effort and greatest resistance over indolence (Odysseus is, among other things, the archetypal worker and builder, a kind of proletarian avant la lettre, and not simply an aristocrat, sceptered king, or warlord—he has also been read as the first capitalist in the West). It can also be read as a story about an absentee father, a prodigal son, a faithful husband, or a promiscuous cheater, about a self in quest of an identity, about a restless and inquisitive mind in search of universal knowledge and experience, and even, according to some ancient philosophical traditions, about the soul’s passage through the turbulent murk of matter and its return to its truest home in the realms of pure thought.
The poem may be all of these things, but it is also a profoundly entertaining tale about stories and story-telling. There are no professional singers in the Iliad, however important art and song are to the poem. But singers are central figures in the Odyssey, from bards to Sirens, and Odysseus is himself a fantastic raconteur whose first-person stories about his own wanderings ousts Homer’s own story-telling in the middle books of the poem. When Odysseus finally reunites with his wife Penelope, he tells them all over again!
There is a self-reflexive quality to the Odyssey that spins the mind. Reading the Iliad is like watching an epic film unfold before your eyes on an immense screen (the story juts out strangely from the dark past, illuminated for a brief moment). Reading the Odyssey is like reading a book that you see in a mirror. At every level the poem curves back on itself. Time folds inwards while moving forward: we not only start in medias res as in the Iliad, but the narrative contains massive flashbacks while also staging itself on two and sometimes three levels at once. The plot constantly zigzags between a here and a there, as though time and space were unhinged from each other. Contrast this with the Iliad, which is relentlessly there, fixed in time and space. Odysseus tells tall tales (call them lies if you like). Is Homer doing anything different? Chameleon-like, Odysseus changes shape and color with every scene: is he nothing more than what the poem needs at any given moment? At one point he defiantly announces himself as “No-One” (Outis)—a clever pun on his own penchant for cleverness (he is polymetis, “of many wiles”) that reveals an essential fact about his identity: Odysseus is never more himself than when he disguised as another. A kind of No Man, Odysseus is an Everyman—which makes everyone an Odysseus.
Here we arrive at one of the deepest lessons of the poem. Each verse that comprises this poem of detours insists, tirelessly, that to make an odyssey requires partners, shareholders in your return, and the acknowledgment that you are not the only moving part in the universe, which itself is never quite the same as it was a minute ago. Disorientation is the constant companion of nostalgia. Which way is home? How do you know when you’ve arrived?
The Odyssey offers two complementary answers. The first is that no homecoming is final: a return is a pause in a larger sweep of events that has no beginning and no end. (No sooner does Odysseus come home than he sets off again to fulfill a prophecy. This does not annul his prior yearnings, it merely puts a parenthesis around them.) The second is that to return is a collective gesture, not an individual act: to return is to return to something and to somebody, and it is to be recognized in turn.
The point is beautifully driven home half-way through the poem: when Odysseus makes his final landfall in Ithaca and finds no one there to greet him, he does not recognize where he is. Plainly, he has not yet arrived. A weary traveler who returns home from war or from the road to an empty house and without a welcome or embrace has not yet returned. There is no glory or satisfaction to be had in the absence of reconnection. Odysseus finally does get the recognition he seeks, but this comes in waves, not all at once; in a sense, he must return home repeatedly, over and over again, to every character that means something to him, and to whom he means something different in turn.
The poem, in other words, is a remarkably rich document that, like so much great art, can be read in a number of additional ways and on several levels simultaneously. It is in this sense an “odyssey” of possibilities, and it presents itself as a map by which readers can lose and then rediscover themselves with complete abandon.
Readers have been losing and finding themselves in the Odyssey for nearly three thousand years. The reason is not hard to discern. The Odyssey is an improbable poem that makes its readers pine for the journey but not crave the destination. It makes them want to travel deeper into the tangle of fact, fiction, and myth. And it never stays the same, like the sea on which Odysseus travels and like Odysseus himself, because it has a different appearance each time you visit it. The great secret at the heart of the Odyssey is the fact that its real destination is itself.