The Wisdom of Odysseus
—or, The Reconquest of a Lost Harmony
I will now speak of the celebrated voyage of Odysseus, which Homer describes in the Odyssey, and which takes ten long years in the aftermath of the terrible Trojan War. If we take account of the fact that the conflict itself separated our hero from his own people for ten years, that makes twenty years or more that Odysseus is not “in his rightful place,” near his loved ones, where he ought to be. Nor did Odysseus want this war in the first place. He does everything in his power to avoid taking part in it, and only when forced to do so does he leave his homeland, Ithaca, the city of which he is king—leaves his little son, Telemachus; his father, Laertes; and his wife, Penelope. It is morally imperative for him to do so, of course, but no less painful for all of that: despite his deepest wish to remain at home, with his people, Odysseus must gird himself and honor his obligations toward Menelaus, the Spartan king whose wife, the beautiful Helen, has been abducted by the young Trojan prince Paris. Odysseus’s life is shattered or, in the Greek sense, “catastrophied,” overturned: he is forcibly removed from his natural place, from the place that belongs to him but also to which he belongs, forcibly separated from those who surround him and who form his human world. And he has but one wish, which is to return home as soon as possible, to find his place again in the order that war has overturned. However, for several reasons the voyage back will be extremely painful and difficult, full of pitfalls and almost insurmountable trials—which explains the extent and duration of the journey that our hero will have to accomplish. Besides, these events unfold in a nonnaturalistic atmosphere, in a world of marvels that is not our human world—a universe peopled by divine or demoniacal beings, benign or maleficent, but who at any rate no longer exist in ordinary life, and who therefore symbolize the constant possibility for Odysseus of never being able to return to his initial state, of never finding his way back to an authentic human existence.
I. Context: the meaning of the voyage
and the wisdom of Odysseus, from Troy
to Ithaca, or from chaos to cosmos
It would be easy to recount the different stages of the voyage, one by one, without addressing their significance. They are sufficiently gripping and entertaining to be read for their own sake. But this would be a missed opportunity; we would lose so much, and to so little purpose. Firstly, because there have been dozens of retellings, not least for children, of the travails of Odysseus. Secondly and above all, because the adventures of the king of Ithaca do not assume their true contours and depth until placed in the perspective of what we have been exploring in these pages: the emergence, with a full-fledged theogony and cosmogony, of what might be termed a cosmic wisdom, a new and compelling definition of the good life for us mortals, a “secular spirituality” of which Odysseus is perhaps the very first representative in the history of Western thought. If the good life, for those who will die, is a life lived in harmony with the cosmic order, Odysseus is the archetype of the authentic individual, the wise man who knows both what he wants and where he is going. This is why, even if it holds up the story for a moment, I would like to offer some suggestions that will allow us to get the true sense of this Homeric epic and to grasp its philosophical profundity.
First main theme: toward the good life and
a wisdom for mortals—a voyage, like the
theogony itself, from chaos to cosmos
In the first place, we should note that it all begins with a series of ruptures, or fractures: a succession of upheavals that must be confronted and resolved. As with the Theogony, the story starts with chaos and ends in cosmos. And this initial chaos takes many different forms.* Firstly, and most obviously, there is the Trojan War itself, all of which occurs under the sign of Eris (going back to the precipitating episode of the “apple of discord,” described at the beginning of this book). The conflict is terrible, and thousands of young people lose their lives in warfare of an unimaginable cruelty: not only is it bloodthirsty and brutal, but it also represents an unprecedented upheaval for soldiers who are sent far from home, far from all civil society, all happiness, and plunged into a universe that no longer has anything to do with the good life, lived in harmony with others and with nature.
Once the war is won by the Greeks, thanks largely to the cunning of Odysseus and his infamous wooden horse, events are prolonged for a second act of utter chaos: the sacking of Troy. This goes beyond all moderation, almost beyond all understanding—besmirched by the most mindless hubris. The Greek soldiers, who have lost ten years of their lives in conditions so atrocious that they will certainly never recover from the experience, have become worse than beasts. When they enter the sacked town, they take pleasure in massacring, torturing, raping, and smashing all that is beautiful and even all that is held sacred. Ajax, one of the most valorous of the Greek warriors, will go so far as to rape Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam, sister of Paris, within the temple dedicated to Athena. The goddess does not appreciate this—still less on account of Cassandra’s gentleness. Cassandra, it is true, is afflicted by a sinister misfortune bestowed on her by Apollo. The god of music fell in love with her and, to gain her favor, offered her an extraordinary gift: the power to foretell the future. Cassandra accepts his suit, but at the last moment refuses to yield to the god’s advances … which in turn angers Apollo. To avenge himself, he condemns her to a terrible fate: that henceforth she will continue to be able to foretell the future—for a gift can never be recalled—with the corollary that no one will ever believe her! It is thus that Cassandra pleads in vain with her father not to allow the Trojan horse into the city, for no one listens to her… .
That is no reason to rape her, however, and least of all in the temple of Athena. And the behavior of the Greeks is all of this order—such that the Olympians, even those who have been supporting the Greeks against the Trojans, such as Athena herself, are appalled by this new chaos in human affairs, heaped so pointlessly upon the chaos that is war: true nobility consists in showing oneself worthy and magnanimous not only in adversity but also in victory—and in the event the Greeks have behaved in a manner that is to be deplored. Put bluntly, they have conducted themselves like swine. Confronted with this great tide of hubris, Zeus must resort to harsh measures: he unleashes tempests upon the Greek fleet when they decide to turn toward home after the pillage of Troy has finally run its course. For good measure, and to put a halt to their gallop, he sows discord between their generals, notably between their two most powerful kings, the brothers Agamemnon (who has commanded the Greek armies for the whole of the conflict) and Menelaus, king of Sparta and cuckolded husband, discarded by the beautiful Helen in favor of Paris… . So here we have at least five different varieties of chaos accumulating and piled one on top of another: the apple of discord, the war, the sack of Troy, the tempests, the squabbling of the generals—the latter two already directly responsible for the initial difficulties of Odysseus in trying to return home.
But there is much worse to come for Odysseus: as we shall see in a moment, he will in the course of his voyage earn the undying hatred of Poseidon on account of blinding one of the latter’s sons, a Cyclops named Polyphemus. Under the circumstances Odysseus could hardly do otherwise: the Cyclops is a terrifying monster decked out with a single eye in the middle of his forehead, who has started devouring the companions of Odysseus. Blinding him is the only means of escape. On the other hand, Poseidon has to stick up for his children, however ill mannered, and he will never find it in himself to pardon Odysseus: henceforth, and at every opportunity, he does whatever lies in his power to make life difficult for Odysseus and prevent him from returning to Ithaca. His power is considerable, moreover, and the tribulations of Odysseus will testify to it… .
Finally, the last manifestation of chaos, which Homer evokes at the outset of his story and which Odysseus will have to confront at its very end, is by no means the least: the young men of his beloved homeland, Ithaca, have in his absence created the most unimaginable disorder within his palace. Convinced that Odysseus has long been dead, they decide to take his place, not only in charge of the island kingdom itself but also at the side of his wife—who tries at all costs to remain faithful to her husband. They are called the Suitors, or Pretenders, since they pretend both to the throne of Ithaca and to the hand of Penelope. Not unlike the Greeks during the siege of Troy, the Suitors likewise behave like swine: every evening they carouse in her palace, to her despair and that of her son, Telemachus, who is still too young to turn them out unaided, but who lives in a state of fury and indignation from morning to night. The Suitors drink and eat whatever they find, whatever they are capable of consuming, without restraint, making themselves entirely at home. They slowly exhaust all the wealth accumulated by Odysseus for his family. When they are in their cups they sing and dance as if possessed and then sleep with the serving women. They even make improper advances to Penelope—in short, they are intolerable, and the household of Odysseus, what the Greeks would call his oikos, his natural place, itself passes from order to chaos.
While Odysseus reigned, his household resembled a small cosmos—a microcosm—a small harmonious world in the image of the universal order established by Zeus. And now, ever since his departure, all is turned upside down. If we wish to pursue the analogy, we could say that the Suitors conduct themselves like “mini-Typhons” within the state. The primary purpose of his voyage, for Odysseus, is to reach Ithaca in order to restore his world to its proper place, to reinstate his oikos, his house, as itself a cosmos—at the heart of which our hero is well and truly “divine.” Moreover, he is often spoken of as “divine Odysseus.” Zeus himself asserts at the start of Homer’s poem that Odysseus is the wisest of all humans since his destiny is to behave on this earth as does the ruler of the gods on a universal scale. Although mortal, he is a just epitome of Zeus, as Ithaca is a miniature world, and the whole purpose of his exhausting return, if not of his entire existence, is to see justice—harmony, in other words—triumph over the odds, whether by cunning or by force. Zeus cannot remain indifferent to this project, which reminds him of his own trajectory. And whenever necessary, he will assist Odysseus in this journey back to the final and fateful confrontation with those embodiments of chaos and disharmony, the hubristic Suitors… .
Second main theme: two pitfalls, to
forego being a man (the temptation of
immortality) or forego the world (forget
Ithaca and abandon the voyage)
We have now established where Odysseus is coming from and where he is heading: from chaos toward cosmos—on his own terms, naturally, which are human but which reflect the larger scheme. It is a journey into wisdom, a painful path, tortuous in the extreme, but whose purpose at least is perfectly clear: to achieve the good life while accepting the mortal condition that is every human lot. Odysseus, as I have said, wishes not only to find his own people again but also, equally, to put his polis (his city) back in order, for it is only in the midst of others that a man is truly himself. Isolated and uprooted, cut off from his world, he is as nothing. This is what Odysseus himself says, quite clearly, when he addresses the good king of the Phaeacians, the wise Alcinous (as we shall see shortly), whose harmonious and peaceful island government he so admires:
“Nothing is better than when deep joy holds sway throughout the realm and banqueters up and down the palace sit in ranks, enthralled to hear the bard [custom dictated that a poet or storyteller, called an aoidos, sing his stories accompanied by a cithara, rather like the medieval troubadours], and before them all, the tables heaped with bread and meats; and, drawing wine from the crater [the vessel in which wine was placed before being mixed with water] the steward makes his rounds and keeps the winecups flowing. This, to my mind, is the best that life can afford… . Nothing is as sweet as a man’s own country, his own kin, even though he’s settled in some luxurious house, in a foreign land and far from those who bore him.”
The good life is the life lived among one’s own people, in one’s own land, but this definition should not be understood in its flattened contemporary sense of “patriotic” or “nationalist.” It is not the famous modern formula of “Travail, Famille, Patrie” (“Work, Family, Homeland,” coined by Maréchal Pétain) that Odysseus has in mind, as if he were thinking ahead of his time. What underpins his vision of the world derives from cosmology, not political ideology: the successful life, for a mortal, is a life adjusted to the surrounding order, of which family and polis are simply the most tangible expression. In the tuning of a particular life within the larger orchestra of this world, there are an infinity of individual considerations to be negotiated, nearly all of which Odysseus will explore: one needs time to understand others, sometimes to struggle against them or to learn how to love them; time to civilize oneself, to discover other ways of life, other cultures, other landscapes; time to know the inmost depths of the human heart under its least obvious aspects; time to test one’s own limits in the face of adversity. In short, one does not learn to live harmoniously without undergoing myriad experiences, which, in the case of Odysseus, will occupy a large proportion of his life. But beyond its almost initiatory role in human terms, beyond even its cosmological aspect, this conception of the good life also possesses a properly metaphysical dimension. It is profoundly tied to a certain conception of death itself.
For the Greeks, what defines death is loss of identity. The defunct are first and foremost “nameless,” even “faceless.” All those who leave life behind become “anonymous”; they lose their individuality; they cease to be persons. When Odysseus is obliged, during the course of his voyage, to descend into the underworld where those who are no longer alive pass their time, he is gripped by a gnawing and terrible anguish. He observes with horror the numbers who dwell in Hades. And what anguishes him above all else is the indistinct mass of these shades, none of whom he can identify. What terrifies him is the noise they make: a confused murmur, a hubbub, a sort of muted rumbling beneath which he can no longer distinguish an individual voice or even words that make any sense. It is this depersonalization that characterizes the dead, in the eyes of the Greeks, and the good life must mean—insofar as possible and for as long as possible—the absolute antithesis of this infernal blankness.
Now the identity of an individual is defined by three crucial conditions. Firstly, membership in a harmonious community, a cosmos. Once again, man is only man in the midst of other men; in exile, he is no longer anything at all, which is why banishment from the polis counted for the Greeks as a death sentence, the supreme punishment that could be inflicted upon criminals. But there is a second condition: memory, or recollection, without which we do not know who we are. A man must know where he comes from in order to know who he is and where he is going: the oblivion of forgetting is, in this respect, the worst form of depersonalization to be experienced in this life. It is a petite mort at the heart of life, and the amnesiac is the most unfortunate creature on earth. Thirdly, an individual must (by definition) accept the universal human condition, which means, when all is said and done, mortality itself: not to accept death is to live in hubris, in a state of immoderation and of pride bordering on insanity. Whoever refuses death takes himself for what he is not—a god, an Immortal—just as the madman takes himself for Caesar or Napoleon… .
Odysseus accepts his mortal condition by rejecting the offer of Calypso. And he retains everything in his memory, and he has but one fixed idea: to reclaim his place in the world and put his house in order, in which respect he is the model and archetype of archaic wisdom.
But it is within this same perspective that we must understand the pitfalls that Odysseus will encounter en route. It is not simply a question (as in a thriller or a Western) of challenges devised to test and bring to the fore the courage, strength, or intelligence of the hero. Here we have trials that are infinitely more searching, endowed with a significance both menacing and precise. If the destiny of Odysseus, as Zeus states explicitly at the outset of the poem, is to return home, to restore order in the polis and thereby find his rightful place again among his own people, then the obstacles placed in his way by Poseidon are by no means chosen at random. They are well and truly devised to lead him astray from his path and his destiny, to make him lose all understanding of his existence, to block him from achieving the good life. The traps strewn in his path are just as philosophically charged as is the end in view, as the voyage itself. For in order to divert Odysseus from his destiny, there are only two options if we renounce killing him off at the outset, as Poseidon must: either to induce in him the oblivion of forgetting or to tempt him with the blandishments of immortality.* Both of which prevent a man from being a man. If Odysseus forgets who he is, he will also forget where he is going and will never achieve the good life. But if he accepts the offer of Calypso, if he succumbs to the temptations of immortality, he will just as equally cease to be a man. Not only because he would become a de facto god but also because the condition of this “apotheosis,” this translation into divinity, would be exile itself: he would have to renounce forever being with his loved ones, in his rightful place, so that his very selfhood would be lost.
This is the paradox that informs the entire trajectory of our hero and gives its meaning to the epic as a whole: that by accepting immortality Odysseus would in effect become indistinguishable from one of the dead! He would no longer be Odysseus, husband of Penelope, king of Ithaca, son of Laertes… . He would be an anonymous exile, one of the nameless ones, vowed for eternity to be no longer himself—which for the Greeks affords as good a definition of hell as any. In conclusion, immortality is for the gods, not for men, and not what we should be energetically searching for in this life.
This, then, is what menaces Odysseus for the whole of his voyage: the risk of losing those two constitutive poles of the successful life, his belonging to the world and his belonging to humanity, his being part at once of a cosmos and of a microcosm. Odysseus will be menaced ceaselessly with forgetting: on the island of the Lotus-Eaters, whose food makes his men lose their memories; or when they pass close to the Sirens, the lure of whose singing makes them lose their minds; or when they are in danger of being transformed into swine by the goddess Circe; or when Odysseus succumbs to the charms of Calypso, described by Homer at the start of the poem as “coaxing him with her beguiling talk, so that he forgets Ithaca,” whereas he “longs only to see the hearthsmoke rise heavenwards from his own island …” It is additionally in the shape of a deadly but entirely human sleepiness that Odysseus will be menaced by forgetting—and these losses of consciousness will allow his men to make fateful errors (as we shall see) in respect to Aeolus, god of the winds, and Helios, god of the sun. Forgetting, in all its forms, is the temptation to abandon the attempt to return home, which in turn for Odysseus means renouncing his place in the scheme of things. And the other menace is equally grave: to give in to the desire for immortality, which for Odysseus would mean losing his humanity.
This is why it is absurd to try to locate the stages of his voyage on any actual map. This has never been feasible, and with good reason (which might have spared those who have wasted so much time in the conviction that it is a literal journey). The world through which Odysseus moves is not our actual world. Of course, the author of the Odyssey, whoever he was (it is not known whether Homer in fact composed this work, or even if there were several authors, nor does it matter for our purposes), blended the real and the imaginary so that some of the names correspond to very real places. Sometimes we can identify a particular island, or city, or mountain, etc. But the deeper purpose of this world through which our hero moves has little to do with geography. It is an imaginary realm, if not a philosophical realm, peopled with beings who are neither quite men nor entirely gods—the Phaeacians, the Cyclopes, Calypso, Circe, the Lotus-Eaters—all of whom are bizarre, out-of-this-world (in German one would say weltfremd), supernatural. The attempt to map the voyage of Odysseus is absurd, meaningless. It entirely misses the point: namely that Odysseus is, for a period of time—the time of his voyage—outside of the cosmos. He has a foot in two worlds, so to speak, and it is his choice, employing all the courage and cunning and tenacity of which he is capable, to become truly a man once more and reenter the real world.
The ultimate menace that weighs upon him, which explains the uncanny aspect of his voyage and of the beings he encounters, is quite simply the twin possibility of ceasing to be authentically human and of no longer fitting into the world, the cosmos. This is what is at stake (rather than the difficulties of navigation or mere map reading …). Odysseus will steer clear of these twin reefs, and Tiresias, the soothsayer whom he encounters in the underworld, tells him so, albeit in somewhat equivocal terms: firstly, that he will reach home, after dreadful trials, and secondly that he will die in old age, unlike Achilles… . In short, Odysseus will recover his manhood and his world: mortality and the reality of men, on the one hand, and on the other hand, Ithaca and the reality of a corner of the cosmos to which he can and must restore order. Ordinary reality, and the good life for mortals, at the very last… .
We shall now see how this is achieved, and at what cost.
II. The voyage of Odysseus: eleven
steps toward mortal wisdom
We can distinguish eleven stages or episodes in the journey that leads Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca, from war to peace. But in Homer’s work, the Odyssey, these are not presented “in the right order,” according to the actual chronology followed by Odysseus; rather they are presented in flashback, as we would say today. In the cinema this refers to a “retracing of steps”: roughly, a transition to an earlier event or scene that interrupts the chronological development and explains how we arrived at the present moment. To be specific, the Odyssey opens at the point where Odysseus is prisoner of Calypso—which was also the starting point of this book—and where Zeus sends Hermes to command the nymph to release the hero. This is when she offers him immortality and eternal youth—and he refuses this seemingly irresistible but in reality lethal proposition. It is also during this episode that we momentarily glimpse the Suitors in Ithaca, a far cry from Calypso and Odysseus, despoiling the palace of Odysseus and trying to rob him of both his place and his wife. But by this point, even if the voyage is by no means over, many things have already happened.
Firstly, we learn that Odysseus does finally leave the island of Calypso after lingering there for a long time—perhaps seven years, perhaps more, perhaps less. For on this island time no longer has any meaning: it is located out of the known world, and obeys rules that are not those of ordinary reality. But Calypso cannot hold out against Zeus. She must obey and allow Odysseus to leave. She does so with death in her soul, for she truly loves him and knows that henceforward she will be alone. But she does so finally with good grace nonetheless. She gives him the means to construct a raft: an axe, good tools, strong ropes, wood. Then she offers him water and wine and provisions for his journey. Odysseus believes that now he might finally be able to reach home. But he is prematurely forgetting the hatred that Poseidon still bears toward him for blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, which occurred before Odysseus came to Calypso’s island. From on high, Poseidon notices Odysseus sailing through the “fish-filled seas,” as Homer always refers to them … and he is filled with a terrible rage. He realizes that his colleagues, the gods on Olympus, have taken advantage of his absence—he had gone off to feast with his friends the Ethiopians on the other side of the world—to agree in council to allow Odysseus finally to return home, whereas Poseidon has all along been doing his level best to prevent this from happening. He cannot openly flout the other gods, or at least not the will of Zeus—otherwise he would surely have killed Odysseus by now. But he can nonetheless stick his oar in (so to speak) and considerably lengthen the homeward journey by laying a series of traps along the way, as he has been doing from the start.
It is by now seventeen days since Odysseus left the island of Calypso, seventeen days and nights of navigating as best he can on his small raft, at which point Poseidon unleashes the most fearful of all tempests. The waves are gigantic, the wind demented. Naturally, the tree trunks patiently lashed together with ropes by Odysseus begin to break up, for a raft is not made to resist such a storm. At the last, our hero finds himself perched astride a wooden beam, and after two days of this ordeal, without sleeping or eating, in the cold and the salt water, he is convinced that he will inevitably drown. It is at this point that Ino, a sea goddess, comes to his assistance: she offers him a white veil and tells him to cast off the remains of his clothes, to wear this veil and swim for it—without fear, for he will come to no harm. Odysseus hesitates, asking himself—as you would in his place—is this not another ruse, another of Poseidon’s tricks to destroy him. On the other hand, as he really has no other alternative, he takes the plunge. He must either drown or trust himself to the waves.
It was the right thing to do. Without too much trouble he finally reaches dry land: a magnificent island inhabited by a people, the Phaeacians, whose king, Alcinous, and queen, Arete, are profoundly good and welcoming people. In needs to be added that, during this entire episode, Athena is watching over Odysseus and making sure that he comes through unscathed. Alcinous and Arete have a daughter, the ravishing Nausicaa, fifteen or sixteen years old. She finds Odysseus, who is in a terrible state of disarray and exhaustion. His hair all matted, his face swollen, streaked with brine and filth, he looks more like a scarecrow than a hero. But Athena still watches over events. She dispels Nausicaa’s fears and makes her see Odysseus as he is “in truth,” despite appearances. Nausicaa has him washed, decently clothed, and anointed with olive oil, all of which makes him recognizably human… . Then she leads him to her parents’ palace, where he is received as a friend. Alcinous grasps immediately that he is dealing with no ordinary mortal. He even offers Odysseus the hand of his daughter, Nausicaa, which Odysseus declines graciously, telling them the simple truth: his wife, Penelope, his city, and his son await him. But here again, the temptation is great and the trap of forgetting very nearly springs shut… .
Odysseus is presented with magnificent gifts, games are organized, grandiose dinners, a magnificent feast in the course of which an aoidos, the bard or troubadour without whom no Greek celebration is worthy of the name, retells (what else?) the late story of the Trojan War. Odysseus can no longer contain himself. His tears flow—unperceived at first, for he hides them well—but Alcinous sees them and cannot help but ask the reason. It is now that Odysseus reveals his true identity: that he is in reality Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War, whose exploits the bard has just been singing. Naturally the entire assembly holds its breath. The unfortunate bard falls silent, as he must when faced with such competition. And Odysseus is asked to continue the story in his own words: Who better placed than he to narrate his own adventures?
It is here that the famous flashback begins, the retracing of steps that will allow us to fill in the gaps and to understand what really happened between the end of the Trojan War and the arrival on Calypso’s island (we know what occurred afterward, but we know nothing of what preceded Calypso). Odysseus sets about telling the whole story, before the king, the queen, and their guests—all of whom are fascinated to learn what will follow. He begins by recalling the sequence of events, the primal scene, so to speak: the Trojan War has just ended; the dreadful pillage is over and done with, on account of which the Olympians are angry with the Greeks; Zeus sends a tempest and sows discord among their generals, as I described earlier. So the homeward journey of Odysseus starts off under very poor auspices. All the more so since immediately or soon after his departure he drops anchor with his companions in a hostile region, the land of the Cicones, a warrior race with whom any truce seems impossible. It is warfare all over again. Odysseus and his men plunder the city—just as they plundered Troy—and massacre their new enemies with a vengeance, apparently sparing only one man and his family: a certain Maron, a priest of Apollo. By way of thanks, Maron offers Odysseus several goatskins of delicious wine, quite out of the ordinary, at once delicate and strong, which will later prove very useful … but let us not anticipate. For the moment, Odysseus and his soldiers set to feasting on the beach. This is the well-earned rest of plunderers, but hardly prudent under the circumstances. The few Cicones who have escaped with their lives have gone inland for reinforcements; they come back in the dead of night and descend like eagles upon the Greeks, massacring in their turn a goodly number. The survivors take flight as quickly as they can. They reach their boats and hasten to leave this country, which decidedly has brought them little good, apart from the wine of Maron. We are back in the archaic epoque of conflict and chaos.
Nevertheless, up until this point all is, so to speak, normal and believable: we are dealing with a real city (Troy), a real country (that of the Cicones), real boats, all too real humans—violent but nonetheless “eaters of bread,” meaning Odysseus and his companions… . There is chaos everywhere, certainly, but nothing as yet has crossed into the uncanny. With the next stage of his voyage, Odysseus will leave behind the real world and enter an imaginary one, where he will confront obstacles that are no longer quite human, nor even natural, but properly speaking “supernatural”: whose meaning can no longer be accommodated in terms of geography, nor of politics or military strategy, but operates rather at the level of myth and philosophy… .
Odysseus and his companions have just put out to sea once more, in Homer’s words, “sick at heart, glad to have escaped death, though we had lost our dear comrades …” For the same reasons as before, Zeus is not best pleased by what has occurred: the Greeks seem to pile one pillage upon another, one disorder upon another, and this must stop. He unleashes once more a terrifying tempest. The sails of the ships break up, such is the force of the wind. The men must resort to rowing (the Greek boats used both means of propulsion). Day and night, Odysseus and his men pull at the oars with all their might … until once more they reach a stretch of land. There, overcome with fatigue, they remain on the sand for two days and two nights, unable to do more than sleep and try as best they can to recover their strength. Then, on the third day, they set off again, but the waves, the currents, and the wind, which has picked up again, drive them off course. They no longer know where they are. They are quite lost, with no means of finding their bearings, and for good reason: Zeus has led them into the waters at the edge of this world, which gives us some clue as to the nature of the island on which, after ten days, exhausted once more, they finally land.
It is an island whose inhabitants are indeed strange. They do not eat bread or meat, like ordinary mortals; rather they live off one dish, one flower: the lotus. They are for this reason named the Lotophagi, which in Greek simply means “lotus-eaters.” You will find no entry for this flower in any dictionary. It is an imaginary or fabulous plant, a species of date that possesses one remarkable property: whoever tastes of it immediately loses his memory. Completely. He becomes perfectly amnesiac, remembers absolutely nothing at all. Neither where he comes from, nor what he is doing here, nor (even less so) where he is going. He is content with his condition, and that is all there is to be said. He has all that he needs. Of course, there is a complete contrast between this flower, as delicate as it is delicious, and the terrible menace it represents for Odysseus. If ever he has the misfortune to taste even a small amount, a sprig, his destiny will be turned upside down; he will no longer have any wish to return home, will no longer retain even the notion of home, and any possibility of attaining the good life will slip through his fingers once and for all. Besides, three of his companions have already tasted this herb, with calamitous results. They are more or less beyond recall. They walk around with a perpetually inane smile on their faces, like simpletons. They are entirely happy to be living finally in the present tense and have no interest in hearing about any voyage home. As Odysseus nicely puts it:
“And any crewmen who ate of the honey of the lotus, lost all desire to bring back word or return home; their only wish to linger there and remain among the Lotus-Eaters, gorging on the lotus, all memory of their homeward way dissolved forever… . But I brought these men by force to the ships, weeping though they were, and clapped them in irons, forcing them beneath the rowing benches and lashing them fast in the hollow of the ships; and I commanded the rest of my faithful companions to embark with no delay, so none could eat of the lotus and forget the voyage home.”
These Lotus-Eaters are no doubt charming and gentle people, like their flower, but Odysseus is all too aware of his narrow escape, and that the worst dangers are not necessarily those that come in menacing shape: they can equally assume a seductive appearance and be as soft as honey. So he takes to the sea again, relieved to have got away so lightly. The next stage of his journey will, however, involve a less concealed and more overtly horrible trial. After several days of rowing, Odysseus and his companions reach their next island, the land of the “one-eyed,” also known as the Cyclopes.
Here, too, as with the Lotus-Eaters, he encounters beings like no others, albeit a great deal more unpleasant. Neither men nor gods, they are simply unclassifiable. Here is how Odysseus describes them in the account he gives to Alcinous and Arete:
“Thence we came to the land of the Cyclops, a race of overweening and lawless brutes, who, trusting entirely to the everlasting gods, plant nothing with their own hands nor plough the soil; but the earth teems for them without sowing or ploughing: barley, wheat, and vineyards bearing rich clusters of grapes which the rain of Zeus ripens. They have neither assemblies for council, nor appointed laws, but dwell separately on the peaks of lofty mountains, in hollow caves, and each is a law unto himself, ruling his wives and children, and they have nothing to do with each other.”
Plainly, these people, like the Lotus-Eaters, are not really human. The proof? They do not cultivate the soil and they have no laws. Not that they are therefore gods, but we learn in passing that they are protected by the gods and, to all appearances, very well protected, since they do not need to toil in order to live… . In effect, we are in the intermediate world—between mortal and immortal—which will characterize the whole of Odysseus’s voyage once he leaves human reality behind, after his bloody encounters with the Cicones. This island of the “one-eyed” abounds with the fruits of the earth. The companions of Odysseus go hunting and come back with an abundance of provisions, with which they fill the holds of their ships. Everyone gets ready to set sail except Odysseus, who has an unquenchable curiosity about other lives. He is not merely cunning but also intelligent—interested by everything, constantly enriching himself and enlarging his intellectual horizons with new knowledge and experience. He thus addresses his companions:
“The rest of you stay here, my faithful comrades; but I with my own ship and crew will go and make trial of these men, to learn what they are—whether they are cruel, savage, and lawless, or whether they love strangers and fear the gods.”
As this makes clear, the expedition that he now embarks upon is exclusively concerned with knowledge—and here we see another facet of Greek wisdom. An imbecile would not know how to find the good life, and if the final end is indeed to find one’s place in the cosmic order, this fulfillment will not occur without a journey that offers the individual the means to enlarge and enrich his vision of the world and his understanding of the beings that populate it. This healthy curiosity is not, however, without its dangers, as Odysseus’s encounter with the one-eyed Polyphemus will unhappily demonstrate. With twelve handpicked members of his crew, Odysseus visits the neighboring island. Here he discovers a high cavern, roofed over with laurel: it is both the home of a Cyclops and the shed where his flock of goats and sheep shelter with him at night:
“Here an individual of monstrous size had made his home, who shepherded his flocks alone, and mingled not with others, but lived apart, set in his own lawless ways. For he was fashioned like a wondrous monster; not like a man that lives by bread, but like a wooded peak, a man-mountain which rears head and shoulders over the world.”
Polyphemus, in effect, is a man as tall as a mountain. With his one eye in the middle of his forehead and his Titanesque strength, he is quite simply terrifying, and Odysseus begins to wonder whether his curiosity has not finally got the better of him … but he wishes to satisfy it nonetheless. Seeing that Polyphemus is not at home and that his cave is empty—the Cyclops is out grazing his sheep in the neighboring fields—Odysseus and his companions enter the lair of the monster. One more point to note: Odysseus has taken care to bring with him the dozen goatskins of excellent wine given to him by Maron, Apollo’s priest, as a present for Odysseus’s bounty in sparing him and his family. The cave of the Cyclops groans with provisions: the racks are full of delicious cheeses; the pens are full to bursting with lambs and kids, with metal churns overflowing with milk, with earthenware jars… . Odysseus’s companions have but one idea in their heads: to help themselves to all these victuals and get out of there with all due haste and without further questions. But Odysseus wants to know more about these strange creatures. He will not leave the cave without having seen Polyphemus—to his own deep misfortune and, above all, that of his companions who will lose their lives there in atrocious circumstances. For Polyphemus is well and truly a monster.
Odysseus and his friends settle in and wait. As night falls, they kindle a large fire and warm themselves while eating some cheeses to pass the time. When he finally returns home and comes upon this scene, Polyphemus begins by breaking all the rules of hospitality. For the Greeks—at least for those “who eat bread and fear the gods” like true mortals—custom demands that you begin by offering strangers something to eat and drink before asking them anything about themselves. But Polyphemus begins by subjecting them to an interrogation: he wants to know their names, who they are, where they have come from. Odysseus senses that the encounter is not going well. Instead of replying, he asks for hospitality, reminding Polyphemus, in passing and with an air of veiled threat, of the reverence due to the gods. The Cyclops bursts out laughing: he has absolutely no use for the gods, not even for Zeus himself, the god of strangers. The Cyclops and his like are, so he says, stronger than the gods. As if to make his meaning clear, he now seizes two of Odysseus’s crew by their legs and dashes them to the earth, head first. Before their brains have emptied into the ground, he has torn them to pieces, limb from limb, and made his supper of them … after which he stretches out and calmly falls asleep.
Sickened, racked by grief and by a sentiment of guilt—for it is his curiosity that has led to the death of his companions—at first Odysseus thinks of killing Polyphemus with his sword. Then he thinks the better of it: the Cyclops, who is of unimaginable strength, has blocked the entrance to the cave with an enormous boulder, and even with their combined force, Odysseus and his friends would be incapable of moving it by so much as an inch. Even if he managed to kill the Cyclops, he would remain forever trapped in his lair. He must therefore find an alternative solution. An atrocious night is spent waiting for an equally terrifying day. And so it proves. For his breakfast Polyphemus devours two more of Odysseus’s companions, following the same bloodthirsty procedure. Then he contentedly goes out with his sheep, carefully closing the entrance to the grotto with an enormous boulder. Impossible to escape. Odysseus reflects and comes up with a plan. Noticing a great beam of wood lying near one of the sheep pens, a sort of massive club of olive wood, as huge as one of the masts of Odysseus’s ship, he and his men take hold of it. They hew it, and with their swords they sharpen it at one end, like a giant pencil. Once this stake is well honed, they plunge it into the fire, to harden it as far as possible in the blaze… .
Polyphemus finally returns and, as is his custom, sacrifices two more members of Odysseus’s crew for his supper. Then Odysseus, following his plan, offers him some wine, namely the delicious but very strong nectar given to him by Maron, which as I said would someday prove useful. The Cyclops, who has never tasted better, drains three or four well-filled craters, one after the other, with the result that he is now properly drunk. He asks Odysseus to tell him his name, promising that if he replies, the Cyclops will make him a sumptuous gift. Odysseus immediately answers with a made-up name, which is the third and last part of his stratagem: that he is called “No One” (outis, a word that in Greek inevitably evokes metis, or cunning, to which it is very close). The Cyclops replies, cynically, that his great gift to “No One” will be to eat him the last of all his comrades, since he has been gracious enough to tell his name. And with a great burst of laughter, he stretches out and immediately falls into a drunken sleep, to work off the wine and the human flesh that he has just consumed… .
Odysseus and his companions thrust the stake back into the fire to heat up. It is by now as hard as bronze and as sharp as a lance. The wood begins to glow; it is time to act. Helped by his men, Odysseus seizes hold of his new weapon and plunges it into the monster’s eye while at the same time whirling it around. The scene turns to horror: the Cyclops’s blood spurts out and bubbles; his eyelashes burn and turn to ashes; he roars deafeningly. He tears out the stake and searches desperately for the culprits, to exterminate them … but to no avail, for he is now completely blind, and you may imagine how well the others have shrunk themselves, silently burrowing into the most concealed corners of the cave. However he tries, Polyphemus cannot lay hands on any of them. So he pushes back his boulder and opens his door to cry for help. He bellows with all his might. His Cyclopes neighbors rush to his aid and ask him what has happened: Was he wounded by cunning or by force? And by whom? Polyphemus replies that of course he was wounded by cunning … namely by “No One,” which he thinks is the name of Odysseus. The others take him at his word. They do not understand. “If you were wounded by no one,” they tell him, “then there is nothing we can do for you. You’ll have to manage as best you can!” And off they go.
Abandoned by everyone, Polyphemus stations himself at the entrance to his grotto, determined to let no one (precisely so) leave, and to avenge himself on them all in the most brutal manner. But Odysseus has thought of everything. He has braided some ropes and has yoked together the rams, three at a time. The men slide beneath, and cling firmly onto their underbellies, and by this means leave the cave without drawing the attention of the giant… . Everyone escapes, and they rush as fast as possible toward their ship, which waits at the foot of the mountain.
Odysseus, however, does not wish the matter to rest there. He cannot help himself from shouting his hatred at Polyphemus: if he does not reveal himself, the punishment will not be fully accomplished. The Cyclops must learn by whom he has been vanquished. So Odysseus, while running to safety, turns and yells in the direction of Polyphemus: “Know this, you poor imbecile: that it is I, Odysseus, and not ’No One’ who has punished you as you deserve by blinding you.” This is an error on the part of Odysseus. He should not have yielded to this insidious form of hubris that goes by the name of boastfulness. He would have done better to remain silent, to leave without a murmur, as his companions, moreover, beseeched him to do. But we have to concede that Odysseus cherishes his identity, which, after all, is at stake at every moment of the voyage home. Polyphemus now breaks off the peak of a high mountain and hurls it in the direction of the voice that he has just heard… . The boat is very nearly destroyed. What is worse, he prays to his father, Poseidon, begging him to punish in turn the impudent one who has dared to attack one of the latter’s sons. He does so in these terms—which I quote here because they outline clearly the obstacles that now lie in wait for Odysseus:
“Hear me, Poseidon, earth-enfolder [Poseidon is god of the sea, but reigns equally over the earth because all the rivers belong to him, and because he can also unleash earthquakes with his trident], and god of the sea-blue mane, Poseidon, hear me! If I am indeed your son and you claim to be my father: grant that Odysseus may never reach home, this sacker of cities, this son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca! But if he is destined to see his people once again, and reach his high house and his native land, may he get there only after many sorrows, after losing all his comrades, alone in a stranger’s ship, and let him find a world of pain at home.”
And such, in effect, is the destiny that awaits Odysseus. He will reach home, certainly, but only after enduring a thousand misfortunes. All of his companions will meet their deaths, without exception. His ship will be wrecked and it will be on a boat borrowed from the Phaeacians that he will arrive back in Ithaca, only to find the most complete disorder (here, too, the prayer of Polyphemus will be answered)… . The formulaic phrase is by now the norm: Odysseus and his men take to the sea once more, “sick at heart, glad to have escaped from death, though lamenting their lost comrades …”
I will summarize briefly the four subsequent stages of the voyage.
Odysseus arrives on the island of Aeolus, god of the winds, who makes him welcome. A benevolent host, he even offers him the most precious of possible gifts: a leather skin, closely sealed, containing all the winds that are unfavorable to Odysseus’s voyage. He has only to let himself be carried by those winds now gusting above the waters: they are gentle and are blowing in the right direction, so he is quite certain to arrive safe and sound in Ithaca. Things could not be better. Odysseus thanks him with tears in his eyes and sets off again, holding on tightly at all times to his magnificent gift. But his sailors, who are not very bright, convince themselves that the bag contains treasure that Odysseus wants to keep for himself. Eaten away by curiosity, they take advantage of a moment’s inattention on the part of the hero—Odysseus has been overtaken by sleep—and they open the bag, just when the coast of Ithaca has come into view. Disaster! The adverse winds are released, and the ship is driven helplessly off course, heading out for the open sea once more. Odysseus is mad with rage, and above all desperate with disappointment. He is angry at himself; he should never have allowed himself to fall asleep and drop his guard, for sleep is a form of forgetting, of oneself and of the world—momentary, no doubt, but sufficient for everything to turn to ashes once again. However much he beseeches Aeolus, when the ship is driven back to his island, the god of winds will not listen to another word: if Odysseus has such rotten luck, this is most certainly because a more powerful god than Aeolus is angry with him, against which one can do nothing… .
So Odysseus and his men are off course once more, completely lost. As chance would have it, at the end of six exhausting days, they reach new land, that of the Laestrygonians. At this stage of his voyage, Odysseus is still at the head of a proper fleet, numbering several vessels, which moor alongside one another in a sheltered cove forming a natural harbor, where all seems perfectly calm. Cautious as ever, Odysseus decides nonetheless to moor his boat slightly apart, in a creek, attached to the rocks by strong ropes. He sends three men to reconnoiter the ground. Approaching a village they see a young girl, in effect a giantess, who has come to draw water at a well. Although very young, she is as tall as a full-grown plane tree. She is the daughter of the king of this region, Antiphates the Laestrygonian, and she offers to lead the men to her father’s dwelling. There, the unfortunate men meet her parents, two monstrous beings as tall as mountains. Antiphates wastes no time on social niceties. He seizes one of the mariners and subjects him to the same fate meted out by Polyphemus to the other friends of Odysseus: he smashes his skull on the ground and devours him whole. These people, as Homer says laconically, are no “breakers of bread.” In short, they are not humans at all but monsters, from whom all humans must flee urgently. But it is already too late. The other giants in the village overlooking the port have run to the scene, and they, too, are demanding their share of flesh. Seizing huge boulders, they hurl them down at the ships, crushing the men, breaking the masts and the hulls. The carnage is appalling. All of the ships are destroyed in a matter of moments and their sailors devoured on the spot. Odysseus barely escapes, together with his boat and a few other survivors. Seeing the dreadful spectacle, he cuts the ropes with one stroke of his sword and heads for open sea as fast as possible, once more “sick at heart, glad to have escaped from death, though he has lost his dear comrades …”
More days at sea, and another island appears on the horizon. Odysseus still cannot get his bearings, but they need provisions, water and food. The decision is taken to land. For two days and nights, Odysseus and his sailors, overcome by exhaustion, slowly regain their strength. They stay on the beach, without visiting the interior of the island. On the third day, Odysseus’s curiosity gets the better of him: he sends two sailors on reconnaissance. Smoke can be seen rising from a distant chimney. Approaching the house, they see lions and wolves along the path, moving about in a natural state of freedom. At first they are terrified and keep their hands on their swords to anticipate attack, but nothing of the kind occurs. Besides, these normally wild animals have an expression—a look, one might say—that is extremely strange: both profound and imploring, almost human. As gentle as small dogs, they come up and rub themselves against the legs of the mariners, who cannot believe their eyes but continue along the path and begin to hear a voice, unworldly, seductive, coming from the house.
It is the voice of Circe, the enchantress, aunt of Medea (another enchantress, whom we shall encounter later on in other contexts). Circe is a little bored all alone on her island. She is grateful for the company of these new visitors, and would like above all to detain them at her leisure. She invites the sailors to sit down and offers them refreshments. They start to feel unwell. It is the effect of a magic potion, which immediately transforms anyone who drinks it into animals. One tap of the magic wand and the friends of Odysseus are changed into pigs. Circe gently leads them toward the pigsty, where she will give them water and acorns fit for their kind. They are in every respects proper pigs, except that inside they remain humans. Their minds are unaffected, and they are frozen with horror to see themselves reduced to this new condition. Now they suddenly understand the reason for the tameness of the lions and wolves who crossed their path earlier: these, too, were clearly humans whom Circe has transformed into animals for company.
Fortunately, one of the sailors, Eurylochus, had sensed a trap in the making and refused to drink the concoction offered to him by Circe. He escapes and runs as fast as his legs will carry him back to Odysseus, to whom he describes everything he has seen. Odysseus takes up his lance and his sword, and sets off to liberate his companions. It is courageous, of course, but in truth he has no idea of how he will set about freeing them. As always, when a difficulty becomes insurmountable, Olympus rouses itself and comes to the rescue. Hermes intervenes on the orders of Zeus. He offers Odysseus an antidote, a little herb that, if taken immediately, will inure him to the spell of Circe. Hermes gives him some advice, moreover: when he sees Circe, he must drink her potion. Nothing will happen to him, at which point Circe will understand who he is. He must rise up, threaten her with his sword as if he means to kill her. She will in turn release his companions, restore their humanity, but in exchange she will invite Odysseus to share her bed. He must accept, but on one condition: that she swears by the river Styx not to do him or his men any further harm.
Everything unfolds as promised, but because Circe is so beautiful—a goddess of sorts, like Calypso—Odysseus is rather taken by her. In consideration of which, he remains in her arms for a full year, loving, eating, drinking, sleeping… . and with each new day the same scenario repeats itself. What he is once again being stalked by, of course, is the temptation to forget. Circe does everything in her power to make him stop thinking, above all to stop thinking about Penelope and Ithaca, so that he will stay with her in her warm bed. Once again, Odysseus comes within a hairbreadth of catastrophe—an imperceptible, beguiling catastrophe, certainly, but nonetheless calamitous. And for once, it is his sailors who come to the rescue. They start to grow impatient, even mutinous, not having a Circe to spend their nights with … so they go in a delegation to Odysseus and demand that he get back on the road.
Against all expectations, Circe takes this rather well. After all, you cannot keep a lover by force, and if Odysseus wants at all costs to go home, he had better get going! Which is more or less what she tells him herself. Odysseus supervises preparations for departure, but he still does not know where he is, and has not the slightest idea of how to go about setting a course for home. Circe will help him, but the instructions she offers make him shudder: he must find the entrance to Hades, the kingdom of the dead, and present himself to Tiresias, most celebrated of all soothsayers. Tiresias alone can tell Odysseus what is in store for him for the rest of his voyage, and how to find his bearings… . It is an understatement to say that Odysseus lacks enthusiasm for the sinister prospect opened up by Circe. But there is nothing else for it and he must set his course.
It is at this point that the famous descent of Odysseus into the underworld takes place, usually referred to as the Nekyia (“a voyage to the realm of death”). I will not go back over the dread that takes possession of Odysseus at the sight of this population of shades, who create a permanent hubbub, at once confused and sinister. Once again, what characterizes the dead—and what terrifies the hero—is their loss of individuality. To restore them to a little life, so that they take on color and begin to speak, there is but one means: to sacrifice a ram and get them to swallow a beaker of the warm blood. It is by this means that Odysseus succeeds in having a conversation with Tiresias, then with his mother, Anticlea, whom he tries in vain to embrace: as soon as he folds her in his arms, he presses against a void. The dead are but shades who no longer possess any reality. It is here, too, in Hades, that Achilles makes his dreadful admission, which reduces the myth of warrior heroism to ashes: that he would prefer a thousand times to be the living slave of the humblest peasant rather than the most glorious hero in the kingdom of the dead. As I have said, Odysseus learns from Tiresias that he will ultimately reach home, but only after seeing all of his companions perish and losing his ship. The end of the voyage is assured, but the journey promises to go very badly, all on account of Poseidon, who is determined still to avenge the blinding of his son… .
The episodes that follow are so well known, and so often retold that there is no need to do more than summarize them here. Odysseus and his companions first encounter the Sirens, those bird-women (and not mermaids, as is often thought) whose song is as deadly as it is seductive: its charm drawing sailors irresistibly toward the reefs on which they will be shipwrecked. Their appearance is intensely alluring, but they are fearsome, as shown by the fact that they are surrounded by rocks scattered with whitened bones and rotting flesh. One detail in particular holds our attention: to protect his sailors, Odysseus stops their ears with wax. By this means, they do not risk yielding to the sulfurous attractions of these bird-women. But Odysseus, on the other hand (as with his encounters with Polyphemus or Circe), wants to hear it for himself, at whatever cost: his will to know and to experience is still intact. And so he has himself lashed to the mast with ropes, and gives orders to his men to tighten his bonds if he has the mad notion of letting himself be drawn any closer. Naturally, the song of the Sirens can hardly be said to leave him indifferent. After only a few moments of listening to it, he would give anything and everything to join them, but this time his men are wise to his ways. As promised, they tighten the bonds that tie him to the mast and their ship sails past without mishap. Odysseus is henceforth the only man to survive hearing the song of the Sirens, and will remain so for as long as he lives, just as he is the one of the rare mortals to visit Hades in this life and tell the tale, before one day returning there for a second and last time.
After another visit to Circe, who supplements the predictions of Tiresias and gives him some additional advice, Odysseus takes to the sea once more. There ensues the episode of the wandering rocks, which destroy any ships that venture between them, and are all the more dangerous on account of the two terrifying beings who hide in their midst: Charybdis is a female monster whose mouth is so vast and voracious that she swallows whatever comes within her vicinity, causing a permanent giant whirlpool. She can be avoided, certainly, by keeping to the open sea, but in this case hapless sailors draw close to Scylla, another female monster, whose hideous body is topped by six horrifying dog’s heads. From this duo we derive the common expression: to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Six of Odysseus’s sailors are snatched by the head and come to an unpalatable end in the jaws of Scylla. The predictions of Tiresias are beginning to be fulfilled, and Odysseus realizes that he will indeed quite probably return alone to his fold.
He now lands, to regain his strength, on the island of Helios, god of the sun. It is populated by magnificent oxen. But these are sacred animals, belonging to Helios, and are absolutely forbidden to touch. Their number indeed possesses cosmic value, equaling as it does the days of the year. And, as Helios is all-seeing, it would be foolish indeed to misbehave in this place. Circe has given them provisions, after all—what more can they need! But a south wind prevents them from hoisting sail for more than a month. Short of food, the sailors can restrain themselves no longer. One evening when Odysseus has fallen asleep and his men are on night watch—sleep once again symbolizing the temptations of oblivion—they commit the unforgivable: they roast a magnificent cow. And then another, making a true feast of it. Awakened by the scent of smoke, Odysseus rushes to the scene. Too late, he arrives merely to see the disaster unfold. He orders everyone into the boats, but of course Zeus always punishes the guilty. He unleashes once again a dreadful tempest. All of Odysseus’s friends drown. He alone survives, clinging to a spar of wood. He drifts until he reaches the island of Calypso, the ravishing nymph who will hold him prisoner for many long years.
The circle is therefore complete: we find ourselves back at the starting point of the whole narrative. Odysseus will end by leaving Calypso and touch land among the Phaeacians, in the castaway condition we have already described, from where he will finally set sail for Ithaca, with Athena on hand to aid him until the very last: to massacre the Suitors, be reunited with his son and wife and father, and restore order to his oikos: his house, his kingdom… . Once Odysseus arrives among the Phaeacians, we leave behind those episodes of the voyage that most concern us.
Two final remarks, by way of conclusion, to underline the philosophical reach of this initiatory voyage: firstly, concerning the “nostalgia,” supposed or real, of Homer’s writing; secondly, concerning the seduction or charm that Odysseus exerts over his entourage, over those he encounters on his travels, and notably over women.
Is it correct to speak of “nostalgia”?
And if so, in what sense?
Is it appropriate, as is often remarked of the Odyssey, to speak of “nostalgia” to characterize what motivates Odysseus? At first sight, we might be tempted to say yes. The word itself sounds Greek, formed as it is from nostos—which derives from nesthai, “to return home,” a verb that in turn borrows from the proper name Nestor, “he who comes victoriously home”—and from algos, “suffering.” Nostalgia is, therefore, the painful longing to return. And is it not this, precisely, that drives Odysseus? A fanatical but constantly thwarted will to get back to his original point of departure, to “return”—or, to adopt the terms of the German Romantics (masters par excellence of nostalgia), to be bei sich selbst: to be close to himself?
It would be better to proceed with caution, however, and not let ourselves be carried away by a magic formula, firstly because the term “nostalgia” does not belong to the vocabulary of the ancient Greeks. It is nowhere to be found in the Odyssey, nor for that matter in any classical text. And for good reason. It was only coined belatedly, in 1678, by a Swiss doctor by the name of Harder, to translate a term destined to acquire a growing importance over the centuries and notably so in the twentieth: namely Heimweh, whose equivalent in contemporary English is “homesickness” (the expression only appears in the nineteenth century, but already in the eighteenth century it was possible to speak in French of mal du pays: sickness for home).
If we leave the foothills of philology and history for the more elevated air of philosophy, we can discern in effect three different forms of nostalgia, among which Milan Kundera’s fine novel Ignorance—whose subject is nostalgia—does not always distinguish. There is, first of all, a purely sentimental nostalgia, which regrets all past happiness, of whatever variety: the family nest, childhood holidays, defunct affairs… . We all feel this at some point or other. Then there is historico-political nostalgia, “reactionary” in the proper sense of the term, which is the driving force behind all Restorations or “returns to order,” and which expresses itself most comfortably in a dead language, for example by the Latin tag laudator temporis acti, itself the title of a very good anthology by the philosopher Lucien Jerphagnon, and which means quite simply: “We were better off before”—in the days of Atlantis, or before modern civilization, before industrialization, before cities became too big, before pollution, before capitalism, and so forth. It was already in this spirit that, in nineteenth-century Germany or Switzerland, the Romantic movement constructed ready-made antique ruins at the bottom of its gardens rather than up-to-date geometrical avenues à la Versailles. By this means they attempted to evoke the idea of former days, in which humans were better off, or quite simply better, than today: nobler, loftier, freer, bolder, more educated, etc. Finally, even if the term is inexact, or at any rate anachronistic, there is the nostalgia of the Greeks, of Odysseus, which is above all else a cosmological anguish, and is encapsulated within a formula I have borrowed for the occasion from Aristotle: phusis archè kinéséos, or “nature is the principle of movement.” Which is to say that we are by nature moved, as in the Odyssey, to return to the place from which we have been displaced: namely Ithaca, the purpose of the voyage being, for the hero, to rediscover his lost harmony with the cosmic order.
It is not love that moves Odysseus. He has never set eyes on Telemachus, and has largely forgotten Penelope, whom he constantly betrays, moreover, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Even less is he driven by an interest in restoring a prior political reality: if he wants to restore order to his household, it is not to reverse some decline or other that has been set in motion by a revolution or by some modernizing vision of the world. No, what propels Odysseus, fundamentally, is the desire to return home, to live in harmony with the universe, a harmony worth more to him even than the immortality promised by Calypso. Put differently, if Odysseus embraces his mortal condition, it is not as a worst case but, on the contrary, in order to live a fuller life. As I have said before, the choice of immortality he was offered would have depersonalized him by severing him from others, from the world, and, finally, from himself. For he is not cut out to be a lover of Calypso—someone who betrays his own kin, forgets his homeland, is content to live wherever, in the middle of nowhere, with a woman he does not truly love… . No, none of this is Odysseus! And to be truly himself, he must accept death, not with resignation but, on the contrary, as a driving force: it is what pushes him at all costs to find his point of origin again. This is how the wise man must negotiate with the cosmic settlement that, hitherto, we had considered only from the point of view of the gods. And Odysseus is the earliest embodiment of a wisdom for mortals, of that secular spirituality that Greek myth was to bequeath, indirectly, to Western philosophy. And it must be admitted that this wisdom, which Odysseus was without doubt the first hero in literature to embody consummately, still exerts a powerful attraction.
“Enlarged thought,” or the
seductions of Odysseus
As everyone knows, Odysseus is cunning. And, as we have also established, he is strong, resourceful, courageous. All of which is impressive enough. But there is more: Odysseus is a “real” man, as we say in sentimental novels: neither immortal nor forgetful of his place in the world—wise, experienced, and, for these reasons, wholly seductive. He is also, as I have said, naturally curious: “Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned …” He likes to understand, to know, to discover—countries, cultures, beings different from himself. From the very opening lines of the poem, we learn that he is not only “the man of many devices,” not merely “the sacker of Troy.” He possesses to the highest degree what Kant was to call “enlarged thought”: curiosity about others, a constant will to broaden his horizon, which is what will get him into trouble on Calypso’s island, or with Polyphemus, but which is what makes him finally a true human, a man whom no woman can resist, because he is many-faceted and because he has a thousand stories to tell.
One day, a Brazilian journalist asked me a question that immediately struck me by its strangeness. As I was speaking of this “enlarged thought”—of Odysseus and, as it happens, of Victor Hugo—she asked me point-blank: Why, after all, is it so important to “enlarge” one’s thought? She gestured toward the nearby beach, at Copacabana, which was full of young people, carefree and fit, tanned and happy to be living their lives as in an innocent and endless game: Why wake them from their pleasant distractions? And, above all, even were I able to come up with an adequate answer, how would I convince them to leave their beach and their games, to immerse themselves in Homer or enlarge their horizon by displacing themselves, if only intellectually? I immediately thought of the response that might have been given by Odysseus, or by Hugo: no woman can live for very long with a blue-eyed boy who knows nothing, who has nothing to say. If he is very young and very handsome, she can enjoy putting him in her bed, as do the nymphs who surround the companions of Odysseus. But faced with a goddess such as Circe or Calypso, with a strong-minded wife like Penelope, this youthful paragon is no match. This is why Odysseus triumphs over the Suitors—those young, gilded, and doubtless fit and tanned Pretenders. He does so not merely by cunning and strength (which are after all the dowry of the gods) but through the seductive force of the honed and accomplished man: a force that comes from within, from his voyages and tribulations, from what he has made of it all—and not from the gods or anywhere else. Odysseus might have remained eternally young, handsome, and strong. Let us not forget that it was in full possession of the facts, after looking death in the face, that he chose to age as a mortal, because, on balance, such a fate, however calamitous in itself, is the condition for acceding to a humanity that alone can make a man truly singular and, by this token, irresistible.
The fact remains that the choice of Odysseus, even if it is the wisest choice, is also intensely courageous. Not all of us are capable of this, and, as is clear from the trials to which he is subjected at every turn of his voyage, wisdom does not come automatically. Whence, undoubtedly, the temptations of hubris, the tendency to immoderation and pride that makes us all believe that we can elevate ourselves to the ranks of the gods without in any way deserving it. And, as we shall see in a moment, in the world of the Greeks, this flaw is never forgiven… .