Posts Tagged 'the odyssey'

What’s above the text.

There’s a funny exchange in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona. An American with time on his hands in a foreign city tells his friend that he’s been doing a lot of reading, and:

Fred: One of the things that keeps cropping up is this about subtext. Plays, novels, songs, they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?

Ted: The text.

Fred: [Pause] Okay, that’s right. But they never talk about that.

Fred is right, we use the term subtext a lot without really considering its topological implications. If we think of a story or narrative as a series of layers – at the bottom, the subtext; above that, the text – is there another layer, still further out?

If the subtext is the “hidden message” which can be accessed only at one remove, through the mediating layer of the text – does this hypothetical outermost layer mediate our interpretation of the text in the same way? What might this layer consist of?

I’m not going to pretend to know anything about French critical theory, specifically the branch of it known as Structuralism. But while poking around last week for terms to help me refine Josephine Tey’s concept of Tonypandy I kept coming across references to Gérard Genette’s theory of transtextuality, which gives us a bunch of fancy words for classifying the ways texts interact with and are interpreted through their connections to the world outside the text:

  • Intertext is when a text is quoted in other texts.
  • Metatext is critical commentary on a text.
  • Archetext is the way a text conforms or doesn’t conform to the conventions of whatever genre it belongs to.
  • Hypo- and hypertext refer to a source material and its later adaptations; so, the script of the 2002 movie Spider-Man is a hypertext based on the hypotext of the character’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy issue #15.
  • Paratext is all the text surrounding a text, including the title, back-cover blurb, and introduction; and at a further remove, author interviews, publicity materials, and ads intended to guide how readers should interpret the text.

For a good summary of how paratext can shape readers’ interpretations (written in 1963, and therefore unsullied by French critical jargon), consider the opening lines of Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato:

It sometimes happens in the history of the written word that an important work of literature carries a title which does not accurately reflect the contents. A part of the work has become identified with the whole, or the meaning of a label has shifted in translation. But if the label has a popular and recognisable ring, it can come to exercise a kind of thought control over those who take the book in their hands. They form an expectation which accords with the title but which is belied by much of the substance of what the author has to say. They cling to a preconception of his intentions, insensibly allowing their minds to mould the content of what they read into the required shape.

Havelock is referring to The Republic, which he claims isn’t really the book of political philosophy its title would suggest; it’s really about the shift, still ongoing at the time Plato wrote, from a primarily oral to a literary culture.

Last year I wrote about how nearly all of the events we think of as the Odyssey – Polyphemus, the Lotus-Eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, and so on – are related in flashback in a few chapters in the middle of the epic. Knowing that odyssey means “a long, adventurous journey”, we read the work expecting a journey – just as readers of Plato’s Republic expect a book about politics. Someone who’d never heard the word odyssey, encountering the epic for the first time and asked what it was about, would answer not “a journey” but “a homecoming”.

***

There’s an old standup bit by Father Guido Sarducci where he talks about launching a Five Minute University, where “in five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.”

So for economics class, you’d learn the phrase supply and demand; for Spanish you’d learn ¿Cómo está usted? ¡Muy bien! …And so forth. The $20 fee would cover “tuition, cap and gown rental, graduation picture, snacks…everything.”

Father Guido doesn’t mention it, but we can assume that the Five Minute University would include a literature department. What would its scholars be taught about, say, Robinson Crusoe?

An island…a footprint…Friday.

FMU grads who subsequently peek into Crusoe will discover there’s a lot of unfamiliar stuff in there. In hindsight it seems inevitable that the story should be reduced to the thirty or so pages of Crusoe and Friday dwelling peacefully amid the palms – just as it seems inevitable that the Odyssey should be reduced to some sailors fighting a cyclops. But why should those thirty pages of island idyll have attained such fame, relative to what comes after – a breathless cascade of cannibals and mutineers leading to our heroes’ escape? Or what about the preceding 150 pages of Crusoe’s solitude? I have no evidence to support this, but my impression is that what people who’ve actually read the book remember best is Crusoe’s gradual conquest of his environment – fitting out his cave, taming the wild goats, shaking some loose grains out of an old sack and delightedly seeing barley sprout up a few days later. Crusoe alone seems to me inherently more intriguing than Crusoe plus one other guy; but the popular imagination disagrees.

In the 1980s J.M. Coetzee wrote Foe, a feminist, postmodern retelling of the Crusoe story. In this version, it won’t surprise you to learn, Crusoe is no longer a self-improving Christian but a slovenly misanthrope; Friday is an abused slave; and a third castaway, a woman, is written out of the narrative by the villain, Daniel Defoe himself. In Gérard Genette’s terms we would call Foe a hypertext based on the hypotext of Defoe’s classic. But in fact it’s not the text of Robinson Crusoe that Coetzee is deconstructing, but the Five Minute University summary – the hazy, somewhat inaccurate version picked up second- and thirdhand from Looney Tunes and variety show skits. [1]

looney tunes robinson crusoe jr.

Robinson Crusoe Jr., 1941, starring Mel Blanc. Image source.

Nowadays Robinson Crusoe, the novel, is a small and, perhaps, not terribly essential component of the wider Crusoe mythos. Defoe clearly identifies Friday as a copper-skinned Caribbean Indian; in the hazy popular mind he’s usually an African; the South African Coetzee found this variation more fruitful to his creative efforts, and in making it central to Foe, helped thicken the haze.

Genette’s transtextualist lexicon goes some way toward defining this haze – the insubstantial yet opaque Venerian atmosphere we have to dive through to get a clear view of the planetary surface. Most of us never get anywhere near the surface: we accept the smudge of cloud immediately in front of our viewscreen as representative of the whole thing.

But we’ve been presuming that there is a solid body at the centre of every cloud mass: a text, more or less stable: an Odyssey or a Robinson Crusoe, a comic book or a film. Whereas in fact, many of our stories are like Jupiter – clouds all the way down.

***

A few years back I came across this article by Scott Beggs endorsing the then-current internet crusade to get Spider-Man recast as a black guy. I copied this excerpt into my “Future Essay Ideas” folder:

I don’t care whether Hamlet is a Danish prince from Mexico or Mauritius or Mongolia. More than that, the central premise that leads anyone to deny that a character like Hamlet can be another race (beyond the apparently all-encompassing “white”), is a faulty one that should be dismissed with great prejudice. Which is why it’s infuriating to see people – especially decision-makers – clinging to it like it’s some kind of Get Out of Racism Free card. It’s the same argument some fans made when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. “Viking Gods aren’t black!” they cried, as if the statement didn’t deserve to be tossed instantly on the tall pile labeled Who Gives a Luxurious Fuck?.

I had to chuckle, because the author seemed unaware he was writing a 3000-word article proving just how luxurious a fuck he gave about the skin colour of his superheroes.

In the end, Sony and Marvel hired a young English actor named Tom Holland, who conformed to previous representations of Peter Parker as white, slim, and nerdy. Then to play Peter’s Aunt May – in the comics a white-haired old lady – they cast the forty-something and still sexy Marisa Tomei. Then in Spider Man: Homecoming they gave Peter an A.I.-enabled super-suit.

What is a character? The concept we call “Spider-Man” is a diffuse cloud of story points; it’s impossible to draw a distinct line separating the essential from the inessential. In the comics he starts out as a skinny white high school kid who lives with his aunt in Queens. He’s bitten by a radioactive spider. He feels responsible for the murder of his beloved uncle. He slings webs. He crawls on walls. He has spidey-sense. His costume is red and blue. He has money problems. He gets a job as a news photographer.

I could go on like this for a page or two. None of the above is essential. Even the most faithful adaptation will change or omit many of these details. On the other hand, if you don’t have some of these things, maybe most of them, you’re no longer doing Spider-Man.

Some story points seem more essential than others. How much does it matter that Peter Parker is a New Yorker? Couldn’t we set the story in Los Angeles instead? The radioactive spider, Uncle Ben, the Daily Bugle, all those could take place just as easily in L.A. Shouldn’t matter, right? But it does matter, if for no other reason than because our hero needs tall buildings to swing from. A West Coast Spidey might find a new and interesting means of locomotion – car-hopping on the Pomona Freeway, say. But even if Los Angeles suddenly sprouted a Manhattan-sized complement of skyscrapers I doubt any filmmaker would risk the switch. We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King‘s adventures take place.

Peter Parker’s (or Hamlet’s) whiteness means something too. The meaning is different for every audience; and every day brings a new and slightly different audience.

In the West, our most famous stories originated in a milieu where the overwhelming majority of storytellers and readers shared a common racial identity. Dr. John Watson doesn’t feel it necessary, when delineating his new roommate’s excessive leanness, piercing eyes, hawk-like nose, etc., to specify the fellow’s skin colour. In a few of his sci-fi novels Robert Heinlein plays with this assumption by offhandedly mentioning near the end that a main character is black, or Filipino, or whatever; but Heinlein was writing in the optimistic age when it was assumed that skin colour would soon recede into unimportance. It looks instead like in the future storytellers will be expected to think deeply about the meaning of the racial identities they assign their characters. Every story inherited from the old monochrome era will be re-examined under the Social Justice spectrograph: racial identity, dismissed by past generations as a trace element, will be declared the essential component of the atmosphere; and stories will present new and unexpected lucencies, while homely old patterns are lost to view.

***

I’ve been tinkering with this essay for ages, wondering whether I would ever arrive at something that could be passed off as a conclusion.

I guess I have two conflicting insights, each captured in a famous quote. The first is from James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, among other novels and stories less successfully adapted by Hollywood. Cain shrugged:

There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. [2]

Maybe Cain’s right. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much haze accumulates around a novel. Barring total civilizational collapse, future readers will always be able to go to the shelf and pull down the original text of Robinson Crusoe.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night that:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

While Robinson Crusoe might not change, all that semi-opaque stuff swirling above the text determines how we read it, and whether we bother to read it at all. Or to put it in Vonnegut’s terms: Our stories become what we pretend them to be.

Is The Merchant of Venice a tragedy about anti-Semitism or a comedic cross-dressing romp? Is Satan the villain of Paradise Lost, or the hero? Is Huckleberry Finn an appropriate book for kids or should it be held back till university and swathed in trigger warnings? What if Sherlock Holmes is black? What if Friday isn’t?

You can’t blame people for getting worked up about these questions. It’s true they’re punching at clouds. We live in the clouds.

M.

1. I suspect Friday became famous in part because Defoe gave him such a memorable name. Why is the Lilliput episode of Gulliver’s Travels so much more famous than his stay among the Houyhnhnms? Probably for the same reason my spell-checker accepts Lilliput while being stumped by Houyhnhnm.

2. Thirteen years ago I quoted the comics writer Alan Moore misattributing this comment to Raymond Chandler – apparently a common error.

Earlier this year I tried (and failed) to apply some numerical analysis to questions of race and representation in Hollywood. I mentioned Gulliver’s description of the immortal Struldbrugs in my 2014 review of the artsy vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. And way, way back in 2001 I read Robinson Crusoe for the first time and was put off by the hero’s frequent theological digressions.

The Odyssey: Mostly non-odyssey.

It was with some embarrassment that last month, a few weeks shy of my forty-first birthday, I finally got around to reading the Odyssey.

homer the odyssey

I feel a little better after finding in the New Yorker this account of how Daniel Mendelsohn’s father encountered the poem at the age of eighty-one, sitting in on a fifteen-week undergraduate seminar taught by his son.

I’m sure the elder Mr. Mendelsohn, having been educated in a more rigorous age, was better acquainted than I was with the storyline going in. I recall learning about Odysseus’s adventures as part of an overview of Greek mythology lasting two weeks or so in in ninth grade English. Of those two weeks we spent maybe a day discussing the highlights of Homer’s epic – the lotus-eaters, Polyphemus, Circe, the Underworld, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis. Just enough to enable us to pick up the most common references pop culture might throw at us in later life.

I knew that, just as the Iliad consists of a fairly brief episode in the Trojan War, the Odyssey covers a few weeks at the end of the hero’s wanderings, with the most exciting incidents already behind him. But I didn’t realize how small a part of the big-O Odyssey – at most a third, maybe as little as 20% or so – is devoted to Odysseus’s little-O odyssey.

The poem consists of 24 books of generally equal length, most running between 400 and 500 lines. The titular hero doesn’t really appear in books 1-4, which concern the activities of his wife and son. Odysseus is introduced in book 5 and arrives home in Ithaca midway through book 13. Which means that the odyssey part of the Odyssey – that is, the part concerning Odysseus’s voyages – consists of just eight books, with most of the seafaring action compressed into books 9-12, where Odysseus recounts his misfortunes at the court of King Alcinous, the last stop on his homeward journey.

Post-seminar, Mendelsohn and his dad took an educational cruise around the Mediterranean, visiting the purported sites of the events Homer describes. During their stop on the island of Gozo, site (per local legend) of Odysseus’s imprisonment by the nymph Calypso, the claustrophobic son elected not to descend into Calypso’s cave:

“What are you talking about?” my father exclaimed when I told him. “You have to go! Seven-tenths of the Odyssey takes place there!”

“Seven-tenths?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “The epic is twenty-four books long–”

“Math, Dan! Math. Odysseus spends ten years getting home, right?”

I nodded.

“And he spends seven years with Calypso, right?”

I nodded again.

“So, in theory, seven-tenths of the Odyssey actually takes place there! You can’t miss it!”

According to the unabridged Oxford Dictionary at my local library, the word “odyssey” in the figurative sense of “a long series of wanderings to and fro; a long adventurous journey” dates back only to the late 19th century in our language. The French “odyssée” goes back another hundred years, with a usage recorded in 1798.

Did the Greeks ever use “odyssey” to mean a long voyage? Not as far as I can tell (based on an hour of clumsily searching the Perseus Digital Library database). But my Oxford Companion to Classical Literature mentions that Odysseus’s tale in books 9-12 “became proverbial among later Greeks for a long story”. That seems to be how it’s used in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates introduces the lengthy fable of Er, which closes book 10, with the comment “Mind you, I’m not going to tell you an Alcinous’s tale…”

So it’s possible to imagine a world where “odyssey” came to mean “a long-winded story”. But I think any reader who came to the Odyssey without preconceptions, if asked to summarize what it was about, would say not “a voyage” but “a homecoming”.

***

A summary of the non-odyssey parts of the Odyssey:

Books 1-4. On Olympus, the gods are feeling sorry for Odysseus, stranded far from his wife and son. They decide that while Poseidon is away doing god-business on the far side of the world – Poseidon being the one who holds a particular grudge against the hero – they’ll take the opportunity to help Odysseus get home.

Although it’s unclear how this is at all relevant to the objective, Athena flies down to Ithaca and convinces Odysseus’s grown son Telemachus to go on a journey for news of his missing father. Telemachus sails to the Greek mainland to visit Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen, who reveal what they’ve been up to since the events of the Iliad. Meanwhile the suitors – the young rowdies who, believing Odysseus to be dead, have taken up residence in his palace to compete for the attentions of his wife, Penelope – devise a plot to intercept and murder Telemachus on his way home from the mainland.

Book 5. Back to Olympus. Athena frets that not only is Odysseus still stranded, now Telemachus’s life is in danger too. Zeus reminds her that they’re gods and they already know how this story is going to play out. But to get his daughter off his back he sends Hermes down to earth to order the nymph Calypso, who’s been holding Odysseus captive in her desert island sex cave, to let him go. Which Hermes does. Calypso grudgingly assents, and strolls out to give Odysseus the news.

Here we finally meet our hero, sitting on a rock, staring moodily out to sea. Calypso tells him he’s free to go and directs him to a grove of trees suitable for raft-building. Odysseus builds his raft and pushes off, but by bad luck Poseidon, happening that moment to return from his business trip, notices his impertinent escape and summons a storm to smash the raft. However, a passing sea-nymph takes a shine to the drowning hero and helps him get to shore.

Books 6-8. The daughter of the king of Phaeacia finds Odysseus naked on the beach. Attracted to the stranger – whose natural sex appeal Athena has magically enhanced – the princess gives him clothes and brings him home to her parents. King Alcinous takes in the unlucky traveller, tactfully declines to press him for his identity, and promises to help him on his way. At a festival thrown in his honour, the stranger out-discus-throws a local loudmouth, proving his superior quality. Afterward, during the feast, Alcinous notices his guest weeping into his cloak while his minstrel sings a song about the legendary Odysseus’s exploits in the Trojan War. The king stops the music and asks his guest outright – who are you?

Books 9-12. Odysseus announces himself and tells the tale of his wanderings – cyclops, sirens, and all the rest – concluding with the death of his crew and his arrival on Calypso’s island.

These four books contain practically everything the average person thinks of as “the Odyssey”.

Book 13. Alcinous arranges a ship to take Odysseus back to Ithaca. It arrives without incident, and Odysseus is deposited – in his sleep! – on his native shore, along with all the pricey gifts the Phaeacian nobles bestowed on their famous visitor. The ship heads back to Phaeacia. Poseidon wants to punish the kingdom for assisting Odysseus, but Zeus haggles him down to merely turning the ship and its crew to stone.

Odysseus wakes up on an unfamiliar beach and, prickly after years of mistreatment by the gods, assumes he’s been robbed and marooned on yet another desert island. Athena shows up and tells him he’s home on Ithaca, but he can’t return to his palace because the suitors might kill him. She disguises him as an old beggar and directs him to the hut belonging to his trusty swineherd.

Books 14-16. Odysseus is taken in by the swineherd, but once again elects not to reveal his true identity. He spins an elaborate fake story about how he’s definitely not Odysseus but he did run into Odysseus and knows he’s still alive. The swineherd assumes the old beggar is pulling his leg.

Athena visits Telemachus, who’s been dallying in Menelaus’s palace this whole time, and tells him to head home. Arriving safely at Ithaca, Telemachus stops by the hut to see what’s been going on since he left. He doesn’t recognize his father in his old beggar disguise, but Athena drops the enchantment temporarily and Odysseus reveals himself to his amazed son. They make plans to murder the suitors.

Books 17-21. Odysseus installs himself as a beggar in his own hall, where the suitors mock and abuse him. Penelope is kind to him, but he makes no attempt to confide in her, instead spinning another elaborate deception about how, no, he’s positively not Odysseus, although now that she mentions it people have told him they look alike, and by the way he happens to know Odysseus is alive and headed home at this very moment.

Penelope gives directions for her guest to be bathed by an old slavewoman who, by chance, recognizes her master by a scar on his thigh. The old woman turns to shout the good news but Odysseus roughly warns her to put a sock in it before she blows his whole operation. The old woman agrees to keep quiet, and to rat out any servant girls who’ve been consorting with the suitors.

Penelope, resigning herself to marrying one of these jerks, brings out her husband’s old bow and challenges the suitors to an archery contest with herself as prize – but not one of the soft-living suitors can so much as string the bow. The old beggar proposes to take a crack at the challenge himself. The suitors make nervous wisecracks but Penelope is willing to indulge him. Telemachus tells her to pipe down, he’s the man of the house and he’ll decide who gets to take part in the contest to marry her. His mother trots obediently off to her chambers, where Athena puts her to sleep until the massacre is over. Telemachus orders that the bow be given to the beggar.

Odysseus strings the bow and, to the amazement of all, nails the trick shot. Bow in hand, he turns to confront the suitors.

Books 22-24. With the backing of Telemachus, the swineherd, and one other trusty servant – and with Athena providing magical protection – Odysseus butchers everyone. The slavegirls that have been fingered as untrustworthy are forced to haul out the corpses and mop up the gore before being killed by Telemachus. Penelope and Odysseus are tearfully reunited.

Down in the Underworld, Achilles and Agamemnon are swapping tales about their Trojan War days. Seeing a crowd of healthy young souls come shuffling in, Agamemnon asks the newcomers what happened, was there a shipwreck or something? The suitors moan about how badly they were treated first by Penelope, who kept them dangling for years, and then by Odysseus, who was entirely uncool about them crashing at his place while he was away. Remembering his own less-than-warm welcome home, Agamemnon says Odysseus is lucky to have such a faithful wife.

Back in Ithaca, Odysseus goes to see his aged father, where for no reason at all – he just can’t help himself! – he launches into yet another lie about being Odysseus’s friend visiting from overseas. He feels guilty and drops the lie quickly enough though.

Odysseus and his father, son, and allies fend off an attack by the suitors’ aggrieved relatives, before Athena appears to put a stop to the fighting. Abruptly, The End.

M.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added book cover image and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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