The Odysseys Within the Odyssey

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

The Odysseys Within the Odyssey

La Repubblica (Rome), October 21, 1981.

How many odysseys are there in the Odyssey? At the beginning of the poem, the story of Telemachus is the search for a story that is not there, the story that will be the Odyssey. Phemius, the bard at the royal palace of Ithaca, already knows the nostoi of the other heroes. Only one is lacking, that of his own king. For this reason Penelope doesn’t want to hear him sing any more. Then Telemachus goes off in search of this story among the veterans of the Trojan War. If he finds the story, whether it ends happily or not, Ithaca will emerge from the timeless, lawless, and chaotic situation in which it has been for many years.

Like all the veterans, Nestor and Menelaus have a lot to tell, but not the story Telemachus is seeking, until, finally, Menelaus comes out with a truly fantastic adventure: disguising himself as a seal, he captured the Old Man of the Sea (that is, Proteus of the countless metamorphoses) and forced him to tell him the past and the future. Proteus of course knew the whole Odyssey word for word, and he began to recount the adventures of Ulysses at the same point that Homer does, with the hero on Calypso’s island. Then he broke off, for at that point Homer could take over and continue the story.

Arriving at the court of the Phaeacians, Ulysses hears a bard (who is blind like Homer) singing about the adventures of Ulysses. The hero bursts into tears and then decides to take up the narrative himself. In this story he gets as far as Hades to question Tiresias, and Tiresias tells him how his story ends. Then Ulysses meets the Sirens, who are singing. What are they singing? Still the Odyssey, perhaps the same one we are reading, perhaps a very different one. The story of this return is already there before the return is accomplished: it exists before being acted out.

Even in the Telemachus episode we find expressions such as “think of the return,” “tell of the return.” Zeus did not “think of the return” of the sons of Atreus; Menelaus asks the daughter of Proteus to “tell of the return” and she explains how to force her father to do so, so that Menelaus is able to capture Proteus and say, “Tell me of the return, and how I will go on the fish-laden sea.”

The return must be discerned and thought about and remembered. The danger is that it might be forgotten about before it has happened. Indeed, one of the first stages of the journey recounted by Ulysses, the episode of the Lotus Eaters, involves the risk of losing his memory by eating the sweet fruit of the lotus. It may seem strange that the test of forgetfulness occurs at the beginning of the journeyings of Ulysses, not at the end. If, after overcoming so many trials, bearing so many setbacks, learning so many lessons, Ulysses had forgotten everything, his loss would have been far graver: not to have gained any experience from what he had suffered, or any meaning from what he had lived through.

But, if we look more closely, this threat of the loss of memory comes up a number of times in books IX-XII: first in the encounter with the Lotus Eaters, then with Circe’s drugs, then again in the song of the Sirens. Each time Ulysses has to be wary, lest he forget on the instant. Forget what? The Trojan War? The siege of Troy? The wooden horse? No. His home, the course to steer, the purpose of the voyage. The expression Homer uses on these occasions is “forget the return.”

Ulysses must not forget the route he has to travel, the form of his destiny. In short, he must not forget the Odyssey. But the bard who composes by improvising, the rhapsodist who memorizes and sings passages from poems that have already been sung—they, too, must not forget if they are to “tell the return.” For anyone who sings verses without the aid of a written text, “forget” is the most negative verb in existence. And for them to “forget the return” means to forget the poems known as nostoi, which were the warhorse of their whole repertoire.

I wrote a few comments some years ago on the subject of “forgetting the future” (in Corriere della Sera, August 10, 1975), and concluded as follows: “What Ulysses preserves from the lotus, from Circe’s drugs and the Sirens’ song, is not merely the past or the future. Memory really matters—for individuals, for the collectivity, for civilization—only if it binds together the imprint of the past and the project of the future, if it enables us to act without forgetting what we wanted to do, to become without ceasing to be, and to be without ceasing to become.”

My piece was followed by an article by Edoardo Sanguineti in Paese Sera (reprinted in Giornalino 1973—1975 [Turin: Einaudi, 1976]) and by a whole string of answers, his and mine. Sanguineti objected as follows:

For we must not forget that the wanderings of Ulysses were not an outward journey at all, but a return journey. Therefore we should ask ourselves for a moment what sort of future he really has before him; because the future that Ulysses was seeking was really his past, in point of fact. Ulysses overcomes the flatteries of regression because he is totally bent toward a Restoration.

We gather that one fine day, out of spite, the real Ulysses, the great Ulysses, became the Ulysses of the Ultimate Journey, for whom the future is by no means a past, but the Realization of a Prophecy—that is, a true Utopia. Whereas the Homeric Ulysses comes to the recovery of his past as a present; his wisdom is Repetition, and we can easily realize this from the scar he bears, which marks him forever.

In reply to Sanguineti I pointed out (in Corriere della Sera, October 14, 1975) that “in the language of myth, as in that of folk tales and of the popular novel, every undertaking that brings justice, repairs wrongs, or relieves a miserable situation is usually represented as the restoration of an earlier, ideal order. The desirability of a future to be conquered is guaranteed by the memory of a lost past.”

If we take a close look at fairy stories, we find that they present two types of social transformation, always with a happy ending: either from high to low and then again to high, or simply from low to high. In the first type a prince is by mischance reduced to being a swineherd or some such lowly station, and then regains his royal status. In the second type there is a young man impoverished from birth, a shepherd or a peasant, and maybe simple-minded into the bargain, who by his own courage or with the help of magic powers succeeds in marrying the princess and becoming king.

The same patterns hold good for tales with a female protagonist. In the first type a girl of royal, or at any rate wealthy, status falls to the condition of a derelict because of the rivalry of a stepmother (like Snow White) or her half-sisters (like Cinderella), until a prince falls in love with her and raises her to the very top of the social ladder. In the second type we have a real shepherdess or peasant girl who overcomes all the disadvantages of her humble birth and marries a prince.

One might think that it is tales of the second type that give the most direct expression to the people’s desire for a reversal of social roles, whereas those of the first type reveal this desire in a more attenuated form, as the restoration of a previous, hypothetical order. But, on closer consideration, the extraordinary good fortune of the shepherd or shepherdess represents nothing but a miraculous and consolatory illusion, which in large part has been carried on by the popular romantic novel. On the other hand, the misfortunes of the unlucky prince or princess link the notion of poverty to the idea of a right that has been trodden under foot, of justice to be vindicated. That is (on the plane of fantasy, where ideas can put down roots in the form of elementary figures), this second type of story puts its finger on a spot that was destined to be fundamental to the entire development of the social conscience in the modern age, from the French Revolution on.

In the collective unconscious, the prince in beggar’s rags is proof that every beggar is in fact a prince who is the victim of a usurpation and must regain his realm. Ulysses or Robin Hood, kings or kings’ sons or knightly aristocrats fallen on evil days, when they triumph over their enemies will restore a society of the Just in which their true identity will be revealed.

But is it the same identity as before? It may be that the Ulysses who arrives in Ithaca as a poor beggar unrecognized by everyone is no longer the same person as the Ulysses who departed for Troy. It is no coincidence that he had once saved his life by pretending his name was Nobody. The only immediate and spontaneous recognition comes from his dog, Argos, as if the continuity of the individual could make itself manifest through signs perceptible only to an animal.

For the nurse the proof of his identity was the scar left him by a boar’s tusk, for his wife the secret of the manufacture of their marriage bed out of the roots of an olive tree, and for his father a list of fruit trees. These signs have nothing regal about them; they put the hero on the level of a poacher, a carpenter, a gardener. To them are added the qualities of physical strength and pitiless aggressiveness toward his enemies, and, above all, the favor shown by the gods, which is what convinces Telemachus, if only by an act of faith.

In his turn, the unrecognizable Ulysses wakes up in Ithaca and does not recognize his own country: Athena has to intervene to assure him that Ithaca is really and truly Ithaca. In the second half of the Odyssey the identity crisis is general. Only the story assures us that the characters and places are the same characters and places; but even the story changes. The tale that the unrecognizable Ulysses tells the shepherd Eumaeus, then his rival Antinoüs, and even Penelope, is another and completely different Odyssey: the wanderings that have brought the fictitious person whom he claims to be all the way there from Crete, a story far more likely than the one he himself had told to the king of the Phaeacians. Who is to say that this is not the “real” Odyssey? But this new Odyssey refers to yet another Odyssey, for in his travels the Cretan had come across Ulysses. So here we have Ulysses speaking of a Ulysses traveling in countries where the “real” Ulysses never set foot.

That Ulysses is a hoaxer is already known before the Odyssey. Wasn’t it he who thought up the great swindle of the wooden horse? And at the beginning of the Odyssey the first recollections of his character are two flashbacks to the Trojan War, told to each other consecutively by Helen and Menelaus. Two tales of trickery. In the first he disguises himself in order to enter the besieged city and wreak havoc; in the second he is shut up inside the wooden horse with his colleagues, and is able to prevent Helen from unmasking them by inducing them to talk.

In both these episodes Ulysses is associated with Helen—in the first she is an ally and an accomplice in his trick, in the second an adversary, who imitates the voices of the Achaeans’ wives to tempt them to betray themselves. The role of Helen seems contradictory, but it is always marked by trickery. In the same way, Penelope’s web is a stratagem symmetrical with that of the Trojan Horse, and like the latter is a product of manual dexterity and counterfeiting, so that the two main characteristics of Ulysses are also those of Penelope.

If Ulysses is a hoaxer, the entire account he gives to the king of the Phaeacians might be a pack of lies. In fact, these seagoing adventures of his, concentrated in four central books of the Odyssey, a rapid series of encounters with fantastic beings (the ogre Polyphemus, the winds bottled up in a wineskin, the enchantments of Circe, sirens and sea monsters), clash with the rest of the poem, which is dominated by grave tones, psychological tension, and a dramatic crescendo gravitating toward an end: the reconquest of his kingdom and of his wife besieged by suitors. Here, too, we find motifs in common with folk tales, such as Penelope’s web and the test of drawing the bow, but we are on ground far closer to modern criteria of realism and likelihood. Supernatural interventions are concerned solely with the appearance of the Olympian gods, usually concealed in human forms.

We should remember, however, that the same adventures (especially the one with Polyphemus) are mentioned elsewhere in the poem, so that Homer confirms them. Not only that: the gods themselves discuss them on Olympus. And Menelaus also recounts an adventure of the same folk-tale stamp, his encounter with the Old Man of the Sea. We can only attribute these excursions into the realm of fantasy to a montage of traditions of diverse origins, handed down by bards and meeting up later in the Homeric Odyssey, which in the account given by Ulysses in the first person probably reveals its most archaic stratum.

Most archaic? According to Alfred Huebeck, things might have happened the other way around. Before the Odyssey—even in the Iliad—Ulysses had always been an epic hero, and epic heroes, such as Achilles and Hector in the Iliad, do not have fabulous adventures based on monsters and enchantments. But the author of the Odyssey has to keep Ulysses away from home for ten years, lost, unaccounted for by his family and his ex-companions-in-arms. Therefore, he must make Ulysses leave the known world, pass into a different geography, an extra-human world, a “beyond” (it is no coincidence that his wanderings culminate in a journey to the Underworld). For this excursion outside the bounds of the epic, the author of the Odyssey resorts to traditions (which really are more archaic) such as the feats of Jason and the Argonauts. It is thus the novelty of the Odyssey to have put an epic hero such as Ulysses at grips with “witches and giants, monsters and maneaters”—that is, in situations typical of a more archaic saga, the roots of which must be sought “in the world of antique fable, and even of primitive magical and shamanistic concepts.”

According to Huebeck, it is here that the author of the Odyssey shows his true modernity, the quality that makes him so close to us, so up-to-date. Traditionally the epic hero was a paradigm of aristocratic and military virtues, and Ulysses is all this, but over and above it he is the man who bears the hardest trials, labors, sorrows, and solitude. “Certainly he draws his public into the mythical world of dreams, but this dream world becomes the mirror image of the world in which we live, dominated by need and anguish, terror and sorrow, into which man is thrust with no escape.”

Elsewhere in the same volume Stephanie West, starting from premises different from Huebeck’s, suggests a hypothesis that supports his argument: the idea that there had been an “alternative” Odyssey, another route for the return, earlier than Homer. Homer (or whoever wrote the Odyssey), finding this travelogue too poor and scant of meaning, replaced it with the fabulous adventures while retaining a trace of it in the voyages of the pseudo-Cretan. And, in fact, in the Proem there is a line that might be seen as the synthesis of the entire Odyssey: “He saw the cities and learned the thoughts of many men.” What cities? What thoughts? This hypothesis would fit better with the wanderings of the pseudo-Cretan… .

However, as soon as Penelope recognizes him in his reconquered marriage bed, Ulysses goes back to talking about the Cyclops, the Sirens… . Isn’t the Odyssey perhaps the myth of every journey there is? For Homer-Ulysses, the distinction between truth and falsehood may not have existed, and he told of the same experience at one time in the language of actual experience, at another in the language of myth, just as even for us today every journey, long or short, is always an odyssey.