The Warm-But-Not-Fuzzy Joys of The Odyssey


You remember Homer’s epic similes—those longish, detailed, and often surprising comparisons of rather dissimilar things: helmeted heads to poppy flowers, thigh wounds to stylish harnesses, generals to woodcutters, weeping women to melting mountains, the pieces of skin torn from the limbs of a rock-battered, half-drowned man to pebbles lodged in octopus arms. While the epic similes of The Iliad often startle the reader by comparing acts of war to images of peacetime, those of The Odyssey often reinforce the themes of journey, homecoming, and community.

Especially notable are those passages where Homer compares one character’s experience to an experience that more obviously belongs to another. I’ll look at five of these (using Fagles’ translation, since that’s the one we use in my Great Works of Lit class).

1. In the first, Odysseus has been bobbing in the ocean since his raft was blown to smithereens three days earlier by Poseidon. Lifted by a wave, he catches glimpse of terra firma once again:

Joy… warm as the joy that children feel
When they see their father’s life dawn again,
One who’s lain on a sickbed racked with torment,
Wasting away, slowly, under some angry power’s onslaught—
Then what joy when the gods deliver him from his pains!
So warm, Odysseus’ joy when he saw that shore, those trees,
as he swam on, anxious to plant his feet on solid ground again. (5.436-442)

Odysseus seeing land is like a child seeing his father return from the threshold of death. Our thoughts turn from the coastline of Scheria to Telemachus. Love for his son was the reason Odysseus feigned madness at the first mustering of the troops, and the reason he eventually had to give up the charade and go to war. Like the children of the epic simile, Telemachus, now a precocious twenty-year-old, doubts his father is alive and headed home. Continue reading

On Conversation Hearts

SONY DSCValentine’s Day is a day it’s okay to hate. For some, it’s the day dedicated to force-fitting the expression of genuine feelings into social expectations, without appearing saccharine or heartless, weird or trite, forced or routine. For some who will spend the day in solitude, it’s that special occasion when you find exceedingly trivial others’ frustrated attempts to find a satisfactory gift and dinner reservation, in comparison either with your own loneliness, or with the crude social assumption that, since you are alone, you must be lonely. It’s the day for publicizing love, for turning your heart inside out, for romantic one-upmanship. Like it or not, that intrusive co-worker will probably ask you about your Valentine’s Day on February 15. This year, thank goodness, the day of reckoning falls on a Saturday.

No one in my acquaintance has ever complained to me about Grandparents’ Day or Black History Month, but then again, Grandparents’ Day and Black History Month don’t demand as much of us. They don’t assault our senses in grocery stores, movie theaters, and shopping malls. Perhaps it’s because I’m neither a grandparent nor of African descent, but I’ve never been disappointed after those commemorative occasions. To object to either would be to court contempt unnecessarily, but everyone is permitted to hate Valentine’s Day, an awkward pink-and-red experience in which every couple is expected to participate, but which every individual—coupled or not— is permitted to deplore. Continue reading