Category Archives: B — READING - Page 2


27649. (Michael Breen) The New Kore­ans
27650. (Kon­stan­ti­nos Kopa­nias & Sher­ry C. Fox) Head­shap­ing and Iden­ti­ty at Tell Nad­er
. . . . . [arti­cle]
27651. (M. Ginolfi, et al) Where Does Galac­tic Dust Come From? [arti­cle]
27652. (Hergé) Tintin au Con­go
27653. (John T. Koch) Hα C1α ≠ PC [The Ear­li­est Hall­statt Iron Age Can­not Equal Pro­to-
. . . . . Celtic] [arti­cle]
27654. (W. D. Val­gar­d­son) Thor
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(Richardson 1965) The Loved One

This is the kind of film that should be seen by hap­pen­stance. A delib­er­ate view­ing can’t match the deli­cious plea­sure of stum­bling upon it by chance. I real­ly shouldn’t even be telling you about it.

In 1947, the British nov­el­ist Eve­lyn Waugh was approached by Hol­ly­wood for a pos­si­ble film­ing of his nov­el Brideshead Revis­it­ed. The book’s two essen­tial com­po­nents were a heavy dose of the mys­ti­cal upper-class Catholi­sism which exists only in Eng­land and bears no resem­blance to Catholi­cism any­where else, and a steamy homo­sex­u­al yearn­ing that man­ages to nev­er men­tion homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. The idea that this would have been made into a film even vague­ly resem­bling the orig­i­nal was ludi­crous, but Waugh was hap­py to let Hol­ly­wood give him an all-expense-paid trip to Los Ange­les to hag­gle. Waugh had no inten­tion of going through with the deal. Waugh was a snob — he was revolt­ed that “low­er-class” ser­vice peo­ple spoke to him as an equal, detest­ed Amer­i­can infor­mal­i­ty, and com­plained about every­thing. But snobs often write the best satire (think Thack­er­ay), as they have no com­punc­tions about hurt­ing people’s feel­ings. Hol­ly­wood is a bizarre, arti­fi­cial, and goofy place even for Amer­i­cans, and Waugh found plen­ty of mate­r­i­al for his next satir­i­cal nov­el, The Loved One, which appeared in 1948. He was par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by Amer­i­cans’ pecu­liar atti­tudes towards death and (to a Brit) weird funer­al cus­toms. The plot is sim­ple: A young Eng­lish­man with a posh edu­ca­tion but no par­tic­u­lar ambi­tion wins a trip to Hol­ly­wood, and stays with an Uncle who is a stal­wart in the expat British com­mu­ni­ty in the film stu­dios. His host com­mits sui­cide, leav­ing him to fend for him­self on this alien plan­et. Attend­ing to his uncle’s funer­al, he becomes involved with Aimée Thanatogenos, an embalmer work­ing at Whis­per­ing Glades Ceme­tery, a spec­tac­u­lar­ly vul­gar Dis­ney­land of Death cre­at­ed by the mega­lo­ma­ni­ac Blessed Rev­erend Glen­wor­thy. He encoun­ters an assort­ment of lunatics, all of them dis­play­ing extreme ver­sions of Amer­i­can cul­ture that Waugh found offen­sive and laugh­able. As in many of Waugh’s books, and many of the same ilk, the “hero” dis­plays no notice­able virtues oth­er than not being one of the loonies. 

Tony Richard­son, a British direc­tor who had scored big with crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed and finan­cial­ly suc­cess­ful films (Look Back in Anger; The Enter­tain­er; A Taste of Hon­ey; The Lone­li­ness of the Long Dis­tance Run­ner; Tom Jones) filmed the book in 1965. The script was writ­ten by the wild­ly unlike­ly com­bi­na­tion of Ter­ry South­ern and Christo­pher Ish­er­wood. South­ern is not much read now, but in 1965 he was in lit­er­ary vogue, and usu­al­ly paired with Kurt Von­negut as a satirist. Ish­er­wood was a gay play­wright and nov­el­ist who had chron­i­cled the sex­u­al under­ground of Weimar Ger­many, and would lat­er reach a wide audi­ence with Cabaret. Waugh had vicious­ly car­i­ca­tured Ish­er­wood in one of his nov­els, but in that cat­ty lit­er­ary crowd such things appar­ent­ly did not mat­ter much. The film script sticks fair­ly close to the book, but adds a some scenes that make it fit in bet­ter with 1965. These addi­tions would, I sus­pect, have been fine with Waugh. Visu­al­ly, the film is a feast. Every shot fills the eye with details just as fun­ny as the sit­u­a­tions and the dia­log. Every cut serves a satir­ic pur­pose. But the real bonan­za is the cast­ing. Aimée Thanatogenos is played to per­fec­tion by Anjanette Cormer, whose remark­able tal­ent was nev­er well-used by Hol­ly­wood. The Eng­lish hero is played by Robert Morse, one of the few Amer­i­can actors at the time who could con­vinc­ing­ly play an Eng­lish­man — while the vul­gar Amer­i­can film mogul is played by Rod­dy Mac­Dowall, then still best known as a for­mer Eng­lish child star. Lib­er­ace turns in a hilar­i­ous per­for­mance as a funer­al direc­tor — he real­ly missed a chance to be a great com­ic film actor. Jonathan Win­ters plays both the Rev­erend Glen­wor­thy and his incom­pe­tent twin broth­er, mak­ing each char­ac­ter a gem. Rod Steiger chews the scenery with the moth­er-obsessed and near­ly psy­chot­ic Mr. Joy­boy. Paul Williams is a child rock­et sci­en­tist. The actu­al Hol­ly­wood Eng­lish Con­tin­gent (reg­u­lar­ly cast as “Lords and but­lers”) essen­tial­ly play them­selves: John Giel­gud, Robert Mor­ley, Alan Napi­er. Mil­ton Berle, James Coburn, Mar­garet Leighton, Bar­bara Nichols, Lionel Stander, and Bernie Kopell do well-craft­ed bits. There are numer­ous Hol­ly­wood in-jokes that the audi­ence could hard­ly have been expect­ed to catch. For exam­ple, the cow­boy film star who is being absurd­ly voice-coached by the stu­dio to play an Eng­lish Lord is played by Robert Eas­t­on. Eas­t­on was him­self a voice coach, and one of the worlds great­est author­i­ties on Eng­lish dialects. Many in the cast were clos­et­ed gays. Tab Hunter plays a tour guide! 

It’s extra­or­di­nary that this satir­i­cal film, made 54 years ago, based on a book writ­ten 71 years ago, remains rel­e­vant and bit­ing­ly fun­ny.


27625. (Alber­to Ren­zul­li et al) Pan­tel­le­ria Island as a Cen­tre of Pro­duc­tion for the Archa­ic
. . . . . Phoeni­cian Trade in Basaltic Mill­stones [arti­cle]
27626. (Kenan Işik & Rifat Kuvanç) A New Part of Horse Trap­ping Belong­ing to Urart­ian King
. . . . . Min­ua from Adana Archae­ol­o­gy Museim and on Urišḫi-Urišḫusi-Urur­da Words in
. . . . . Urart­ian [arti­cle]
27627. (Fri­da Beck­man) Gilles Deleuze
27628. (Gina L. Barnes) Chi­na, Korea and Japan ― The Rise of Civ­i­liza­tion in East Asia
27629. (John T. Toth) For­ma­tion of the Indo-Euro­pean Branch­es in the Light of the
. . . . . Archaeo­ge­net­ic Rev­o­lu­tion [arti­cle]
27630. (Nuwan Abey­war­dana et al) Indige­nous Agri­cul­tur­al Sys­tems in the Dry Zone of Sri
. . . . . Lan­ka: Man­age­ment Trans­for­ma­tion Assess­ment and Sus­tain­abil­i­ty [arti­cle]
27631. (William S. Ayres) Review of Rapanui: Tra­di­tion and Sur­vival on East­er Island by
. . . . . Grant McCall [review]

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27611. (Bruno Ernst) The Mag­ic Mir­ror of M. C. Esch­er
27612. (Ľubomír Novák) Yagh­no­bi: An Exam­ple of a Lan­guage in Con­tact [arti­cle]
27613. (Bas­ti­aan Star et al) Ancient DNA Reveals the Arc­tic Ori­gin of Vikin Age Cod from
. . . . . Haithabu, Ger­many [arti­cle]
27614. (Bob Wood­ward) Fear ― Trump in the White House
27615. (Olivi­er Pute­lat et al) Une chas­se aris­to­cra­tique dans le ried cen­tre-Alsace au pre­mie
. . . . . moyen âge [arti­cle]
27616. (Phil R. Bell & Philip J. Cur­rie) A Tyran­nosaur Jaw Bit­ten by a Con­fa­mil­ial: Scav­eng­ing
. . . . . or Fatal Ago­nism? [arti­cle]
27617. (Ian Hod­der) Where Are We Going? The Evo­lu­tion of Humans and Things
27618. (Rebec­ca Miles -ed.) Eye­wit­ness Trav­el: Cana­da
27619. (Steven A. Rosen) Cult and the Rise of Desert Pas­toral­ism: A Case Study from the
. . . . . Negev [arti­cle]
27620. (Justin Son­nen­burg & Eri­ca Son­nin­burg) The Good Gut
27621. (Kevin Sachs) Does Chris­ten­dom Explain Europe? [arti­cle]
27622. (John D. Rock­e­feller) Ran­dom Rem­i­nis­cences of Men and Events
27622. (Or Rosen­boim) Bar­bara Woot­ton, Friedrich Hayek and the Debate on Demo­c­ra­t­ic
. . . . . Fed­er­al­ism in the 1940s [arti­cle]
27623. (Jack Elliott) Hiver­nant Métis Fam­i­lies, Brigades and Set­tle­ments in the Cypress Hills
. . . . . [arti­cle]
27624. (S. B. Kli­menko & M. V. Stanyukovich) Yat­tuka and Tuwali Ifu­gao Hud­hud: Yat­tuka,
. . . . . Keley-1, and Tuwali Ifu­gao Inter­fer­ence [arti­cle]


27580. (Mario Liv­erani) The Ancient Near East ― His­to­ry, Soci­ety and Econ­o­my
27581. (John­ny Hart) B.C. ― Great Zot, I’m Beau­ti­ful
27582. (Ni Sheng; U Wa Tang & Adam Gry­de­høj) Urban Mor­phol­o­gy and Urban
. . . . . Frag­men­ta­tion in Macau, Chi­na: Island City Devel­op­ment in the Pearl Riv­er Delta
. . . . . Megac­i­ty Region [arti­cle]
27583. (Fred C. Woud­huizen) The Luwian Hiero­glyph­ic Con­tri­bu­tion to the Alpha­bet [arti­cle]
27584. (Robert van Gulik) The Emperor’s Pearl
(Kath­leen Warnock) Best Les­bian Erot­i­ca:
Read more »


27556. (Philip José Farmer) Sail On! Sail On! [sto­ry]
27557. (Joan Collins) The Snow Queen [ill. Kathie Lay­field]
27558. (Clive Gam­ble) Archae­ol­o­gy: The Basics
The Mag­a­zine of Fan­ta­sy [& Sci­ence Fic­tion], Vol.1, #1, Fall 1949:
. . . . 27559. (Lawrence E. Spi­vak) Intro­duc­tion [pref­ace]
. . . . 27560. (Cleve Cart­mill) Bells on His Toes [sto­ry]
. . . . 27561. (Perce­val Lan­don) Thurn­ley Abbey [sto­ry]
. . . . 27562. (Philip Mac­Don­ald) Pri­vate ― Keep Out! [sto­ry]
Read more »


27536. [2] (Ray Brad­bury) Dan­de­lion Wine
27537. (Ian Tat­ter­sall) The Acqui­si­tion of Human Unique­ness [arti­cle]
27538. (T. S. Vasu­lu) Genet­ic Struc­ture of a Trib­al Pop­u­la­tion: Breed­ing Iso­la­tion among the
. . . . . Yanadis [arti­cle]
27539. (Vera South­gate) The Princess and the Frog [ill. Mar­tin Aitchi­son]
27540. (Alis­sa Mit­tnik et al) The Genet­ic Pre­his­to­ry of the Baltic Sea Region [arti­cle]
27541. (Sharon Abramowitz) Epi­demics {Espe­cial­ly Ebo­la} [arti­cle]
27544. (Chris Buck­ley & Aure­lien Bree­den) Head of Inter­pol Dis­ap­pears, and Eyes Turn
. . . . . Toward Chi­na [arti­cle]
27545. (Ian Mor­ris) Death-Rit­u­al and Social Struc­ture in Clas­si­cal Antiq­ui­ty
Read more »


27509. (Bar­bara Newhall Fol­lett) The House With­out Win­dows and Eepersip’s Life There
27510. (John Ljungkvist & Per Frölund) Gam­la Upp­sala ― The Emer­gence of a Cen­tre and a
. . . . . Mag­nate Com­plex [arti­cle]
27511. (John T. Koch) La fór­mu­la epi­grafi­ca Tarte­sia a la luz de los des­cubriemien­tos de la
. . . . . necrópo­lis de Medel­lín [arti­cle]
27512. (E. Lynn & Chuck Mor­ton) Fer­rets
27513. (Zhuo Feng et al) Late Per­mi­an Wood-bor­ings Reveal an Intri­cate Net­work of
. . . . . Eco­log­i­cal Rela­tion­ships [arti­cle]
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27492. (Homer) The Odyssey [tr. Stephen Mitchell]

Ulysse et Télémaque massacrent les prétendants de Pénélope. (1812) Thomas Degeorge

Ulysse et Télé­maque mas­sacrent les pré­ten­dants de Péné­lope (1812) by Thomas Dege­orge

Before the fatal attrac­tion of Sci­ence Fic­tion, my ear­ly child­hood read­ing was dom­i­nat­ed by dinosaurs, jun­gles, vol­ca­noes and tales of explor­ers and sci­en­tists. But there was also a niche set aside for ancient myth, par­tic­u­lar­ly Greek myths. I read a crum­bling old copy of Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes: Perseus, Jason, The­seus, and Jason in par­tic­u­lar appealed to me, a taste firm­ly cement­ed by repeat­ed view­ings of Har­ry Harrihausen’s mag­i­cal stop-motion effects in the film Jason and the Arg­onauts. I also pos­sessed (I’m not sure how) a lit­tle blue book, some­thing pro­ferred as “edu­ca­tion­al” from a Cana­di­an pub­lish­er, enti­tled Clas­si­cal Mythol­o­gy in Song and Sto­ry: Part Two, Epic Heroes. It was choc full of line draw­ings from some uncred­it­ed artist. These were rea­son­ably good, and some were quite sexy. But most delight­ful of all, the two end­pa­pers were maps, show­ing in a ser­pen­tine dot­ted line the jour­ney — it actu­al­ly said “wan­der­ings” in the map ― of Odysseus. The land of the lotus-eaters was Tunisia. Scyl­la and Charib­dis stood fero­cious­ly on either side of the straight sep­a­rat­ing Sici­ly from Cal­abria. No doubt this explains the pre­pon­der­ance of Ital­ian immi­grants to Cana­da from those two provinces. I can’t express how much maps meant to me at that age. Maps were my cat­nip. Put a map on the end-papers of any­thing, and I would read it. 

The retellings of the myths in these two books were in old-fash­ioned styles, a mix­ture of late 19th cen­tu­ry British and 1930’s Cana­di­an prose. I rat­ed the var­i­ous heroes dif­fer­ent­ly. Her­cules, a mere mus­cle­man with obvi­ous­ly lim­it­ed intel­li­gence, struck me as more of a “hero” for the bul­lies that wait­ed to pounce on me on the way to school. The pompous char­ac­ters of the Ili­ad did not impress me at all, and the Tro­jan War didn’t seem very inter­est­ing. For all that I liked Jason, he was too depen­dent on help from var­i­ous gods, ora­cles, and crew­men. The Arg­onau­ti­ca is a pret­ty good sto­ry, but Jason him­self is basi­cal­ly just a gener­ic teen adven­ture hero. It’s with the retelling of the Odyssey that the book hit gold. Odysseus was no pink-cheeked ado­les­cent, cer­tain­ly no wimp, and obvi­ous­ly had a brain… though not nec­es­sar­i­ly the best judge­ment. The adven­tures were not a mere parade of mon­sters. The Cyclops was not just a dan­ger­ous ani­mal, but a par­tic­u­lar­ly grue­some oppo­nent that Odysseus could con­verse with and out­wit. There were sub­tler per­ils, most­ly vari­ants of the femme fatale, and the temp­ta­tions of drug-induced ecsta­sy and time­less­ness. Odysseus even goes to Hell ― the mor­bid cold and misty Hell of the Greeks, not the sil­ly bar­be­cued Chris­t­ian Hell. 

Even­tu­al­ly, I read the actu­al epic, first in the Richard Lat­ti­more trans­la­tion, then lat­er in the Pen­guin Clas­sics ver­sion trans­lat­ed by E. V. Rieu. But it wasn’t quite the same. As a teenag­er and an adult, read­ing could not have the same sense of spon­ta­neous rev­e­la­tion that it had for a small child. The Odyssey ceased to be a “sto­ry” and became “lit­er­a­ture,” con­sumed with the same pedan­tic indus­try that I read Chaucer, Hem­ing­way or Tobias Smol­lett. That is to say, not with­out appre­ci­a­tion and plea­sure, but not with the wide-eyed gus­to of a small child unwrap­ping a Crispy Crunch bar. 

Clas­sics are sel­dom reread, even by omniv­o­rous read­ers. Most of the book­ish peo­ple I know have read an assort­ment of clas­sics in their high school or col­lege years, then filed them away in mem­o­ry, feel­ing lit­tle urge to look at them again with the per­spec­tive of age. There are far too many new­er things com­pet­ing for atten­tion. Grad­u­al­ly, such clas­sics dim into vague impres­sions, sta­t­ic snap­shots of par­tic­u­lar scenes, or trun­cat­ed plot sum­maries. Moby Dick the whale is God. Anna Karen­i­na throws her­self under a train. Gar­gan­tua wipes his ass with a duck.

But I’m a chron­ic reread­er. Even some appar­ent­ly sim­ple books nev­er seem to come out the same on suc­ces­sive read­ings. I’ve read Edgar Pangborn’s A Mir­ror For Observers eight times. I’m look­ing for­ward to the ninth. I would no more be fin­ished with it than I would cease lis­ten­ing to “St. James Infir­mary Blues” because I’ve already heard it. So I’ve just reread The Odyssey, after many years, this time in the 2013 trans­la­tion by Stephen Mitchell, whose prodi­gious indus­try has already pro­duced an Ili­ad, a Gil­gamesh, and a Bha­gavad Gita. Any­one tak­ing on the task of trans­lat­ing an ancient work is faced with a basic choice at the very start: whether to use “ele­vat­ed” lan­guage or “col­lo­qui­al” lan­guage, or some com­pro­mise between the two. Mitchell chose the col­lo­qui­al approach with­out com­pro­mise, notice­ably more than either Lat­ti­more or Rieu. I can under­stand this, because an “ele­vat­ed” style does not come eas­i­ly either to an Eng­lish lan­guage read­er or to an Eng­lish lan­guage writer. In soci­eties where caste and class are inte­gral to every aspect of life the use of a spe­cial “high” lan­guage in poet­ry or prose comes nat­u­ral­ly enough ― in some lan­guages there is an entire­ly dif­fer­ent sys­tem of gram­mar for aris­to­crat­ic or poet­ic speech. But most Eng­lish-speak­ing soci­eties do not hold class and caste as sacred ideals, and in Eng­lish such a lin­guis­tic dis­tinc­tion con­veys only insin­cer­i­ty. As a triv­ial, but illus­tra­tive exam­ple, con­sid­er record­ings of pop­u­lar songs by opera stars. Oper­at­ic singers are taught a very spe­cif­ic for­mu­la of enun­ci­a­tion, based on the Ital­ian val­ues of vow­els and con­so­nants, designed to make opera lyrics clear­er and show off the exact­ing vocal dis­ci­pline of oper­at­ic singing. We are not expect­ed to fall into a sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief in which we are tru­ly expe­ri­enc­ing the pow­er­house lungs of the diva as a frail con­sump­tive waif com­mit­ting sui­cide. Opera singers can’t aban­don this dis­ci­pline and enun­ci­ate like a Cana­di­an accoun­tant, a sheep ranch­er in the Aus­tralian out­back, or a teenag­er in Van Nuys, Cal­i­for­nia. So no mat­ter how much verve or tech­ni­cal skill they put into a pop­u­lar song, it is bound to give an impres­sion of arti­fi­cial­i­ty and false emo­tion. The pop­u­lar singer’s enun­ci­a­tion match­es that of col­lo­qui­al lan­guage, and thus sounds more sin­cere. How­ev­er, an Ital­ian oper­at­ic aria does not sound the least bit insin­cere to an Ital­ian. The same dis­ci­plined enun­ci­a­tion can be applied to an Ital­ian folk­song or pop song, and Pavarot­ti could switch from Verdi’s De’ miei bol­len­ti spir­i­ti” to the folksy Neapoli­tan Fen­es­ta vas­cia” with­out bat­ting an eye. The clos­est that one usu­al­ly comes to see­ing the use of the “ele­vat­ed” lan­guage con­ven­tion in Eng­lish is in 1950’s his­tor­i­cal movies set in ancient Rome, where the Sen­a­tors all speak in British Shake­spear­i­an Stage accents, the cen­tu­ri­ons are Amer­i­cans, and the slaves are Cock­neys or come from Brook­lyn. This is not a viable tem­plate for trans­lat­ing the Odyssey if one expects it to be read with­out laugh­ing.

One thing I noticed this time around is that the Odyssey is noth­ing like a “folk epic”. I’ve read or heard quite a few exam­ples of gen­uine folk epics, and this work doesn’t even remote­ly resem­ble them. It gives every indi­ca­tion of being the con­scious prod­uct of a sin­gle author who con­ceived of it as a uni­fied work, in short of being “lit­er­a­ture”, even if it was com­posed and per­formed oral­ly. That is not to say that it doesn’t con­tain folk­loric ele­ments. I think what Homer (or whomev­er) was doing was tak­ing a body of exist­ing folk song, itself based on an estab­lished mythol­o­gy, and embed­ding it into a coher­ent nar­ra­tive, which is in turn framed by an over­ar­ch­ing meta-nar­ra­tive. There is noth­ing impromp­tu about any of this con­struc­tion. Every­where in it one sees the fin­ger­prints of a writer, some­one care­ful­ly select­ing ele­ments, view­ing them from mul­ti­ple angles, cal­cu­lat­ing their tim­ing and effect, and using them as instru­ments of emo­tion­al manip­u­la­tion. The “hero” of the con­struct­ed work is not Odysseus, but young Telemachus, who occu­pies a large part of the total nar­ra­tive, and whose trans­for­ma­tion from inef­fec­tu­al youth to effec­tive adult is deter­mined at first by the absence of his father, then by his uncov­er­ing indi­rect evi­dence of his father’s adven­tures from tes­ti­mo­ny, then final­ly by Odysseus’ return­ing and re-estab­lish­ing his her­itage. As a reflec­tion of this process, Telemachus is guid­ed by Athena in the form of the vis­i­tor Men­tor. Odysseus’ fan­tas­tic adven­tures are embed­ded in this meta-frame in frag­men­tary form. Every­where in the nar­ra­tive it is the psy­cho­log­i­cal, not the phys­i­cal events that are empha­sized. No mat­ter how many mon­sters appear, most of the nar­ra­tive is like a real­is­tic nov­el:

While they were speak­ing Eurýnome and the nurse were mak­ing the bed by torch­light, spread­ing upon it soft sheets and blan­kets. And when they had fin­ished their work, soft sheets and blan­kets. And when they had fin­ished their work, Eurycléa went back to her room for the night, and Eurýnome, hold­ing a torch, accom­pa­nies them to the bed­room and left them there. And in great joy the two of them lay at last in each other’s arms. Telemachus and the cowherd and swine­herd stopped danc­ing, and told the women to stop as well and dis­missed them, and then they went to sleep in the shad­owy hall. When Pene­lope and Odysseus had tak­en their plea­sure in the joys of love, they told each oth­er their sto­ries. She told him of every­thing she had endured in the palace with the despi­ca­ble crowd of suit­ors encamped there, using her as an excuse to slaugh­ter so many cat­tle and sheep and to drink so much of their wine. And Odysseus told her of his great exploits in war, the suf­fer­ing he had inflict­ed and what he had suf­fered on his way home, and she lis­tened to him, enchant­ed, and she did not close her eyes until he had fin­ished.

There are as many female char­ac­ters in the Odyssey as there are male, and the nar­ra­tive either puts them in fore­front, has them behav­ing proac­tive­ly, or attempts to describe their points of view. It is Helen, not Menelaus, who tells Telemachus and the assem­bled ban­queters the tale of Odysseus’ fight­ing at Troy. Folk epics sim­ply don’t do these things, and they are not the prod­uct of the sim­ple accre­tion of folk tales or folk songs into a col­lec­tive tra­di­tion­al epic. This is a delib­er­ate, uni­fied work of lit­er­a­ture. Yes, there is a body of mythol­o­gy and song already known to the audi­ence, just as Her­mann Melville expect­ed his read­ers to already know the bible sto­ries that make Moby Dick com­pre­hen­si­ble, but they are made into some­thing which the audi­ence under­stands exists for and of itself. In fact, when­ev­er Homer is about to use a pre-exist­ing seg­ment of nar­ra­tive, he telegraphs this by his phras­ing and the way he leads into it. These ele­ments are like film-clips. We are invari­ably told how they are known, and why we are being told them — some­thing which folk epics rarely, if ever, do. The result is no more a folk epic or a col­lec­tive endeav­our than is Milton’s Par­adise Lost.

Anoth­er thing I noticed is the promi­nent role that drugs play in the nar­ra­tive. There are more than the Lotus Eaters and the potions of Circe:

And as they were wash­ing, Helen had an idea. Into the wine that they were to drink, she slipped a drug that dis­solved all grief and anger and ban­ished remem­brance of every sor­row. Who­ev­er drank this, once it was mixed in, would not be able to feel a moment of sad­ness that day, or to shed one tear ― not even if both their moth­er and father died or if some­one came and stabbed his son or broth­er in front of his eyes and he looked on as it hap­pened. It was one of the potent drugs that the daugh­ter of Zeus had been giv­en by Poly­dám­na, the wife of Thon, a woman of Egypt, the land where the rich earth pro­duces the great­est sup­ply of drugs, of which many are ben­e­fi­cial, and many are poi­so­nous.

A Roman mosaic portraying the Odyssey. Its stories were known to everyone --- literally thousands of murals, mosaics an painted pottery portraying it have survived, doubtless a tiny fraction of those that once existed.

A Roman mosa­ic por­tray­ing the Odyssey. Its sto­ry was known to every­one — lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of murals, mosaics and paint­ed pot­tery ves­sels por­tray­ing it have sur­vived, a tiny frac­tion of those that once exist­ed.

It’s not clear how much of the Odyssey can con­nect with a mod­ern read­er. The motives, val­ues and behav­iours are, after all, those of the ancient world, and these over­lap, but are not con­gru­ent with those of today. The Renais­sance and espe­cial­ly the Enlight­en­ment read­ing audi­ences were much more inter­est­ed in Telemachus’ role than in Odysseus’ mon­sters and dal­liances. It is not at all obvi­ous to the mod­ern read­er why Telemachus was seen by Voltaire and Thomas Jef­fer­son as a sym­bol of lib­er­ty and rea­son, enshrined in Fénelon’s Les aven­tures de Télé­maque (1699), which earned its author polit­i­cal exile. In the tumul­tuous 18th Cen­tu­ry, there were operas about Telemachus by Scar­lat­ti, Gluck, Destouche, Sor, Gaz­zani­ga, Le Sueur and Mayr.. far more than there were about Odysseus. Gluck’s Telema­co is still wide­ly per­formed. But the 19th Cen­tu­ry saw lit­tle of inter­est in either Telemachus or Odysseus, and despite the pres­tige of Homer, an atti­tude set­tled in that the Odyssey was an embar­rass­ing vul­gar com­mer­cial work that Homer must have ground out for the plebs to pay the rent while per­fect­ing the high­er-pres­tige Ili­ad ― or bet­ter yet that he didn’t write at all. So it was the Odyssey for the kid­dies and the Ili­ad for the adults. Only James Joyce, so it seems, thought oth­er­wise. This was quite log­i­cal in an age when “seri­ous” was equat­ed with “real­ist” and pres­tige lit­er­a­ture was not sup­posed to have mon­sters in it. Half the best books of the 20th Cen­tu­ry were ignored under the influ­ence of that premise. The 21st Cen­tu­ry has seen a renew­al of inter­est in the Odyssey, along with all forms of imag­i­na­tive, non-real­ist lit­er­a­ture.

Kirk Douglas and Rossana Podestà in Ulysses (1954)

Kirk Dou­glas & Rossana Podestà in Ulysses (1954)

As well as reread­ing the great epic, I also indulged in view­ing some of its cin­e­mat­ic inter­pre­ta­tions. First, I watched the Ital­ian-made Ulysses [Ulisse (1954) d. Mario Cameri­ni], with most of the minor roles dubbed, but the parts of Kirk Dou­glas and Antho­ny Quinn act­ed in Eng­lish. Sil­vana Man­gana appears as both Circe and Pene­lope. Telemachus is played by Fran­co Inter­lenghi, who is lit­tle known out­side of Italy, but began a pro­lif­ic film career at age 15 in Vit­to­rio De Sica’s Scius­cià, and for years rivaled Mar­cel­lo Mas­trioan­ni as a roman­tic lead. Rossana Podestà is a sexy Nau­si­caa. Dou­glas’ usu­al­ly annoy­ing smirk is well suit­ed to a Wily Ulysses [Odysseus], and he does quite a good job. The script doesn’t stray far from the orig­i­nal, though it selects a few seg­ments to con­cen­trate on and omits some oth­ers. The Cyclops devour­ing Greeks scene is pret­ty graph­ic for the 1950s. Next, I saw the 1997 tele­vi­sion minis­eries The Odyssey star­ring Armand Assante, who por­trays Odysseus as not so much wily as grumpy. The series is lit­tered with celebri­ty walk-ons: Isabel­la Rosselli­ni, Eric Roberts, Irene Papas, Geral­dine Chap­lin, Christo­pher Lee, some of which are rather strange cast­ing, e.g. Bernadette Peters as Circe, and Michael J. Pol­lard as Aeo­lus (!) As with the 1954 ver­sion, this minis­eries is rea­son­ably faith­ful to the orig­i­nal. The same can­not be said for Odysseus: Voy­age to the Under­world (2008, d. Ter­ry Ingram), a Romania/Canada/UK co-pro­duc­tion filmed in Cana­da. It bills itself as ” the tale Homer felt was too hor­rif­ic to tell; the miss­ing book of The Odyssey”. Yup. There is also a long French minis­eries from 2013 that I haven’t been able to find. 


27492. (Homer) The Odyssey [tr. Stephen Mitchell] [pre­vi­ous­ly read at 4398 in Rieu trans.]
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