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.

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