Thursday, March 4, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul - The Odyssey Part 3

Again, I apologize to all in the reading group for how the reading group has taken a back seat in my life over the past few weeks. We are strongly seeking to re-establish some semblance of normalcy in our life. So, here's what I came up with from this week's reading.

This is the week where I hit the tipping point where I no longer think of this as an adventure story so much as a "whopper story." I'm convinced that Odysseus is the ancient Greek equivalent of the father from Big Fish. The moment came when the crew opened the wind bag. I thought "Yeah, speaking of wind bags..."

Mind you, this is not a criticism. I'm enjoying it tremendously. But, I think Aeolus showed great wisdom in saying "You know what, the gods don't seem to like you very much so please don't stand so close to me."

Circe turns the men into literal pigs and, when Hermes shows up, the text actually contains this line in reference to the herb: "and the gods call it moly." I don't know about you, but I just about fell out of my chair when I read that line. Needless to say, while Penelope is being faithful in the face of many suitors back in Ithaca, Odysseus isn't exactly faithful to Penelope over the next year he spends with Circe. Also, when Odysseus tells Circe that they want to leave and go back to Ithaca, Circe tells him to go to Hell.

We're given a rather graphic lesson on why you don't ever want to talk to the dead. There are a lot of them, they want you to do things for them and, not surprisingly, they are kind of a bummer. We learn that Odysseus is going to have to make up to Poseidon who, it turns out, is pretty mad about the whole blinding the cyclops episode. We also see Agamemnon who may well have revealed a plot point.

We encounter the Sirens, but Odysseus minds his own... beeswax (are you really sure you want to be reading the classics with me?)

There's the six headed beast that eats more of the red toga-ed sailors from Engineering. There's the sun cow part that was referenced in the first paragraph of Book 1. Suddenly Odysseus and his men are like the Blues Brothers. They've got the sun and the sea mad at them and chasing them.
Back in real time, they get back to Ithaca by the skin of their teeth.

In spite of how a tremendous amount happened in this week's reading, I think we're still shooting to finish this in two more weeks. So, this next week, we will read through Book 18. The following week we will finish.


  1. Part III - Books X-XIII

    If there was a part that I have paid the least attention to, it is this one. This section covers most of the tales of Ulysses that we all are most familiar with. I'm not going to go point by point through the plot, and I think I'll be pretty spoiler-free. Instead, I want to bring up three concepts that came to mind while listening to this section - each could be the subject of a Master's or Doctorate thesis, and I'll give them to you, gratis.

    1. The women of Homer's world. This actually greatly interests me. I'm not sure if the women of this story are representative of the world of Homer, or of the societies of the ancient Mediterranian, but either way, they seem to be drastically different from the women today, or how we are trained to perceive them. First, there is not a weak woman in this story. However, just about all of them seem to be part sexpot, part devious shrew. The best of them are merely capricious, perhaps even fickle, while the worst are man-eating monsters. Still, the men seem to distrust them categorically, and seemingly for good reason. One doesn't get the sense that women were second-class in this society.

    2. The real Ulysses. First, was there a real man whom this story was based on? Was there really a strong warrior who led in an attack against Troy, who didn't return home for years after the battle, only to find his home in shambles? Most good contemporary fiction is based on fact - be it real places that inspire the author to write about them, or the stories of real people, which are converted into plots for fictional characters. There are very few storytellers that can create a tale that is entirely fictional, with no basis or inspiration in reality. I doubt this was different at the time when Homer was writing. Most of this book sounds like a sailor's tale - highly imaginative, colorful, but based on real events, like real storms, things that happened while in ports far abroad, etc. There is myth, legend, and reality - all mixed into one. Well, how much of this story is myth, how much is legend, and how much is real? I could easily see Ulysses' journey to Hades to be the recounting when he had a lot too much to drink one night, or experimented with some wild mildly hallucinogenic herbs, and had a wild dream. Would the real story of Ulysses be something about a soldier who wigged out a bit after a battle, suffered from PTSD, and travelled around for a while trying to find himself before finally coming home?

    3. The afterlife, as it was conceptualized at the time of Homer (or Ulysses). Again, we are looking at a time very different from ours, with vastly different religious and spiritual beliefs predominating society. We know that polytheism was popular, and we know a lot about the different gods and what they symbolized or had power over. What we don't seem to focus on is what this society believed about death and the afterlife. There is no heaven and hell. It seems a brave warrior might expect no better reward in the afterlife than his lowest servant, or his murderer. Everyone seems to go on to exist in a ghost-like limbo. Perhaps we will learn much more about this from Dante, but for now, we can only see it though Ulysses' journey to Hades, where he meets some ghosts. He didn't meet them in some beautiful Elysian fields, but neither did he find them all in a state of perpetual agony - although some individuals were put to some perpetual tasks - and not to say that either of these possibilities didn't exist.

    There, that's enough to foster some discussion or at the very least, inner contemplation. Nothing in this most recent reading suggested that Ulysses was any less of a pompous ass, so my theory seems to be holding up. On to the return to Ithaca, I suppose. I don't see what can possibly take up a third of the book about all that. I get the idea the reader is in for a bit of a dry spell.

  2. I havent been reading with you...I am thinking about doing it over the summer though. Stupid school!
    Anyways..."We're given a rather graphic lesson on why you don't ever want to talk to the dead. There are a lot of them, they want you to do things for them and, not surprisingly, they are kind of a bummer." This made me laugh...I want to read this book now! I think I read parts of it in high school, but I dont really remember.


  3. I agree about the over blown fish story but not sure if I can see the Blues Brothers in Ulysses, of course I have a hard time getting past the dancing.