Convocation 2011

Kenneth Brashier
Professor of Religion and Humanities
The Odyssean Anguish of “Almost”

Brashier photo
Kenneth Brashier

Even a festive convocation has its anguished moment, and it’s not the anguish of having to wear these woolen British gowns in 90-degree heat. No, it’s that moment at the car, now full of empty boxes and echoes of promises to call home. It’s that moment when parting words are traded and the last bits of a story are dragged out. It’s that moment when tangible presences are about to lose out to thoughtful absences.

But absence and the thoughtfulness it engenders are of course nothing new. Think back to poor Penelope, her husband Odysseus off on a decade-long tour of duty and now MIA. Already in Book 1, when she hears the bard singing to her suitors about how other soldiers have returned from Troy, she begs him to stop:

[T]he unforgettable grief, it wounds me most of all!
How I long for my husband—alive in memory, always,
That great man whose fame resounds through Hellas
Right to the depths of Argos!

And think of Odysseus’s son, also obsessed by grief. As Homer tells us in the same book:

[Telemachus] could almost see his magnificent father, here . . .
In the mind’s eye—if only he might drop from the clouds
and drive these suitors all in a rout throughout the halls
and regain his pride of place and rule his own domains!

“Alive in memory” for Penelope. Almost in sight, “in the mind’s eye” for Telemachus.

I. Thoughtful anguish in Odysseus’s Greece
“Pretty sad,” we modern readers might respond. “But either he’s here or he’s not—there’s no in-between.” For us, “alive in memory” and “almost in sight” just don’t really count for much. “Tough luck, guys.”

But I would challenge us to take it out of our either/or context and put it into theirs. Let’s look to the Odyssey for other anguished moments when “almost” does count for something. By studying their dreams, their dead, and their divinities—all moments when the mind focuses on an absent other—we can better frame this absence, this almost-ness.

But why do I want to peer into this absence? Here’s where it gets weird. Dean of the Faculty Patrick McDougal is right about my not being a student of Western humanities, and the faculty may be a bit confused and horrified to see me standing here. But while a billion people in the world today can claim intellectual inheritance from ancient Greece, two billion are the heirs of early Chinese traditions, and I’m a student of early China. I’ve seen how they talk about their dreams, about their dead, about their divinities, and at the very least, they make me read the Odyssey with new questions in mind. That search for a new perspective may be the bigger take home message this afternoon, but let’s first see if I can say something about the Odyssean anguish of “almost.”

A. Their dreams
We start with their dreams. In Book 19, Penelope says, “Odysseus, I tell you, is never coming back . . . . Odysseus. There was a man, or was he all a dream?” Here again Telemachus and Penelope seem to be singing in the same chorus because he already said in Book 15: “Odysseus is my father—there was a man, or was he all a dream? . . . but he’s surely died a wretched death by now.”

In fact, when Homer says in Book 1 that Telemachus in his anguish could almost see his father, his very next line is, “Daydreaming so as he sat among the suitors, he glimpsed Athena now.” His mind adrift—that’s when he sees the goddess.

Goddesses and dreams. For me, one of the most moving scenes in the epic occurs in Book 4 when the goddess Athena, phantom-like, enters Penelope’s bedroom and soothes the anguished wife of missing Odysseus. Penelope, “drifting softly now at the gate of dreams,” as Homer tells us, sleepily responds to the goddess, asking why the goddess is here to comfort her when she visits so rarely, when her home is so far away. Here REM sleep isn’t just Penelope’s anguished mind, alone in a void; here in her dreams—her almost-ness—her mind encounters the goddess.

Later we learn that the Land of Dreams is in fact geographically located between the sun’s western gates and the underworld, land of the dead, and I don’t think that association is merely coincidental or poetic. There’s a kind of liminal state they both share.

B. Their dead
In fact, the underworld is where we really begin to see memory-for-the-absent-other evoking the dead. It’s where we see thought actually generating their very existence. Here we finally shift away from that empty household in Ithaca to meet Odysseus himself as Circe advises him to visit the underworld to learn how to get home. But how do you talk to people who aren’t there anymore? In Book 10 Circe advises a ritualized remembrance:

… vow again and again to all the dead, to the drifting, listless spirits of their ghosts, that once you return to Ithaca you will slaughter a barren heifer in your halls, the best you have, and load a pyre with treasures . . . . And once your prayers have invoked the nations of the dead in their dim glory, slaughter a ram and a black ewe . . . .”


And of course Odysseus does just that when he reaches the Underworld in the next book. Sword in hand, he poises himself over a trench to spill the blood of that ram and ewe in one of the most colorful passages of the Odyssey:

I took the victims, over the trench I cut their throats
And the dark blood flowed in—and up out of Erebus they came,
Flocking toward me now, the ghosts of the dead and gone . . .
Brides and unwed youths and old men who had suffered much
And girls with their tender hearts freshly scarred by sorrow
And great armies of battle dead, stabbed by bronze spears,
Men of war still wrapped in bloody armor—thousands
Swarming around the trench from every side—
Unearthly cries—blanching terror gripped me!

So as Circe commanded, he “invoked the nations of the dead in their dim glory.” And “dim glory” are the operative words here. “Dim” because, in the darkness of this underworld you might rule as a king, but it’s still nothing compared to the lowest manner of life out here in our sunlit realm of the living. “Glory” because it is remembrance—remembrance made tangible through ritualized action—that feeds the dead.

In her study on the Greek view of death, Emily Vermeule depicts the soul as, in her words, “the wind-breath psyche that left the carcass and went elsewhere into a pool of personalities which could be activated by memory.” That psyche was not capable of spiritual feeling or mental anguish but witlessly mourned the loss of its body and of the sunlight it had once enjoyed. Its existence as an underworld image was doomed if the person’s identity on earth had faded from common memory. Conversely, it could last forever—becoming a “dead immortal”—if its owner had entered into mythology or history. Thus if it was remembered, its existence was prolonged.

And Vermeule’s description seems appropriate to the Odyssey’s world. As you read it, you’ll see at least five cases (by my count) of proper funeral rituals or proper tombs being equated with prolonging the dead’s name for years to come. That includes the burial of Elpenor, one of Odysseus’s own sailors, who had only died just before Odysseus reached the Underworld. He needs a proper burial “so even men to come will learn my story,” he says. Once again, remembering the absent isn’t just keeping it all bottled up inside. Remembering is performative; remembering does something to the absent.

C. Their divinities
And yet, as a student of religion, it’s not their dreams or their dead that interest me as much as their divinities. When I read the Odyssey, I’m struck by something Odysseus says to Nausicaa, a young girl who does him a big favor. He says in Book 8:

Even at home I’ll pray to you as a deathless goddess
All my days to come. You saved my life, dear girl.

After he’s left her behind, he’s going to remember her and pray to her, this little girl, as if she were a divinity? What’s up with that?

There was a Greek writer named Euhemerus who in the third century BCE wrote a novel called The Sacred Inscription in which Zeus himself tells the story of the gods. They in fact started out as humans with extreme talents, were worshipped in life for their talents, and that worship continued after their deaths. They were remembered, and so they became gods. This account of the gods, known as “euhemerism,” became a plausible explanation for religion from Cicero to the Church Fathers, from David Hume to Sigmund Freud. And that’s why students of religion might find Odysseus’s words to Nausicaa of interest. He’ll pray to this talented girl while she’s still alive, infusing her with divinity.

So perhaps we here have hints of euhemerism in Homer, and not just once. Elsewhere Telemachus says to Helen—yes, that Helen whose face launched a thousand ships and started this whole mess that runs for two epics—Telemachus says exactly what his father said: “Even at home I’ll pray to you as a deathless goddess!” That is, even in your absence I’ll think upon you, Helen, and make you divine-like.

So in their dreams, the goddesses come; in their memories, the dead find their existence prolonged; in their prayers, the divinities take shape. In all three situations, the cogitations of the living seem to contribute to the presence of absent others. Not absence; not presence; almost-ness. All this together makes for an interesting context when Homer says Telemachus “could almost see his magnificent father, here . . . in the mind’s eye, if only he might drop from the clouds.” I’m not saying Telemachus’s anguished thoughts were about to make his father pop out of thin air, but it really gives more meaning to the almost-ness when we realize there’s a larger discourse here, a discourse of thought cultivating the dead and the divine.

Weird stuff. But, in fact, it’s not so weird. At least not to me. Why? Because I’ve seen it all before.

II. Thoughtful anguish in Emperor Wu’s China
Far beyond the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean back in the second century BCE, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty was experiencing his own thoughtful anguish in the absence of his favorite concubine, the deceased Lady Li. To explain his grief, he composed a poem in which he "imagined her soul" (想魂靈兮). In these verses he repeatedly describes the intensity of his emotions, "the thoughts like rolling waves and the sorrow that occupy my mind" (思若流波,怛兮在心). Let me translate just a snippet of that poem:


So desolate, my spirit sends its thoughts afar;


Set adrift, my essence transcends all limits.


She is cast away to sink into the darkness, neglected forever,


And I regret she never reached her full bloom.


I contemplate the finality of her never returning;


I conceive of her faintness off in distant heights.

Thus engulfed in thoughtful anguish, he fails to see his lost love. Or does he? His last words admit to uncertainty, to the almost-ness of Telemachus. In his intense contemplation he perhaps conceives of her faint presence in the distance. Do his intense, far-roaming thoughts ultimately reach her?

A. Their dreams
Here we know a lot more about the contextual world surrounding the mind’s eye of Emperor Wu. For example, it was a given that the ancestral spirits could visit us in our dreams just as Athena could visit Penelope in hers. Sometimes they might give advice or let you in on the big picture, but usually they just wanted more animal sacrifices. (Four generations after Emperor Wu, those accumulated sacrifices were getting expensive and had to be cut back, but the imperial ancestors scolded Emperor Yuan in his dreams, making him ill and coaxing him to reinstate their commemorative rituals.)

B. Their dead
And indeed, it was that kind of thoughtful, ritualized remembrance for the dead that actually prolonged their existence, just as it did for the Greeks. Even in the earliest hymns of the oldest Confucian classic, music and alcohol "lets us realize our thoughts" (綏我思成) in the form of our ancestors becoming manifest at the sacrifice. To explain this idea, Confucian commentators like to draw on texts from the 3rd and 2nd century BCE such as the Ritual records that nicely detail how our thoughts get realized:

During the days of abstention [before the sacrifice], think upon [your ancestor's] dwelling, think upon his amusing talk, think upon his intentions and ideas, think upon his entertainments and think upon his desires. After three days of abstentions, thereupon visualize [the ancestor] for whom your abstentions were carried out. Coming to the day of the sacrifice when entering the hall, in awe you will definitely see him in his place. When making the rounds to go out the door, in reverence you will definitely hear his voice. When going out the door and listening, in resignation you will definitely hear the sound of his sighs.

Here there is no sense of ancestors suspended in the void, waiting for their descendants to seek them out. As one famous commentator by the name of Zheng Xuan summarized, this visualization is nothing short of “the maturation of thought" (思之熟也).

In other words, our intense thoughts actually create the ancestors. This discourse on proactive thinking spans a score of early texts and continues for at least a thousand years. To put it another way, as Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” He’s got a point. But in this earlier context, living on in the hearts of your descendants indeed translated into your living on.

C. Their divinities
In fact, this notion of euhemerism—of humans becoming gods after they die—is best exemplified in the ancestral cult itself. Let me give you one last passage from early China to demonstrate how the thoughtful prayers of the living translate into ancestral spirits. The poet Madame Tangshan in the early 2nd century BCE nicely sets the sacrificial scene, and like the Greek case, there’s an interesting interplay of light and dark. She sings (and try to imagine this scene in a dark ancestral hall):


As great filial piety is perfected,


Excellent virtue is radiant and pure.


The square frames [holding the bells and chimes] tower high,


As music fills the hall and court.


The incense sticks are a forest of plumes;


The cloudy scene an obscuring darkness. …


As the spirits come to feast and frolic,


We hope they will listen [to our music].


Zhou! Zhou!—the music ushers in the spirits,


Arousing and purifying human emotions.


Suddenly, [the spirits] ride off on the darkness,


And the shining event concludes.


Our clear thoughts grow so dim,


As the warp and weft [of heaven and earth] fall so dark.

Here the spirit's presence seems uncertain within the cloudy atmosphere amidst the aromatic incense, and the sacrificers can only “hope” the spirits are listening in this bubble of altar-space and ritual-time. We’re again in the world of “almost-ness.” After this expression of ambiguity, both the spirit's entrance and exit coincide with changes in the psyche of the human participants. First the spirit arrives, and the sacrificers’ emotions are aroused and purified. Then in the closing couplets, there is an explicit coincidence of four events, namely, one, the spirit departs; two, the musical performance ends; three, the sacrificers' thoughts “grow so dim”; and, four, their surroundings darken. Just as the earlier abstentions focused the mind until the ancestral spirit could be visualized at the sacrifice, upon conclusion of the sacrifice and the end of the music, the mind reverted to the mundane world and the spirit simultaneously faded to black.

There’s a richness to this world of almost-ness. We modern listeners equate “almost” with “not succeeding.” End of story. Here though, “almost-ness” means “not succeeding” but also “not failing”—“almost-ness” is somewhere between, where the gray is as real as the black and white.

III. Comparative anguish
So, am I right to use evidence from early China to argue that this is what is going on in early Greece? Absolutely not. That would be silly. Fifty years ago we might have made such an argument, looking for meta-narratives in all the world religions. But postmodernism—for all its faults—rightly pointed out that every situation is unique, that context informs any particular idea, that you can’t selectively look for what is similar and ignore all the stuff that is dissimilar.

Yet in the past decade comparative religion is making a comeback with a much more nuanced methodology. It still advocates what Max Mueller, a founder of the field of comparative religions, aptly said: “He who knows one, knows none.” If you don’t have a comparative, you probably don’t even know what questions to ask when studying your “one.” Or as Diana Eck at Harvard recently wrote:

To understand and begin to articulate someone else’s point of view, someone else’s worldview, requires that we understand and begin to articulate our own. But this is not a sequential process, as . . . advocates of the “Western canon” have suggested, stressing the urgency of studying the classics of our “own” culture before tackling those of “other” cultures. As Charles Taylor has argued and as all of us who are teachers well know, understanding is not sequential, as if we must learn “this” before we learn “that,” but dialogical. It is precisely the dialogue with what is “other” or “different” that begins to make us more aware of and interested in what we ourselves presuppose and take to be normative.

This dialogical way of thinking—this comparative methodology in which both sides continuously feed off of one another—has both small and big implications for you all who are commencing your studies here at Reed.

On the small scale and in terms of your reading of the Odyssey, the Chinese perspective can wake us up, tell us to pay attention when we see something we might otherwise think we already know, when we might think the Greeks are more like us than they really are. We pay attention when we see something similar but also different in Chinese culture. And so I now ask new questions I probably would not have otherwise asked:

  1. Is Telemachus’s “almost-ness” manifested in other ways throughout Homer’s epic?
  2. Is there an interplay among thoughtfulness, self, and the absent other?
  3. And if our thoughts indeed contribute to the divine other, is there any evidence in the Odyssey of the reverse, of divinity contributing to our own existence as we blur this separation between self and other?
    • I think the answer to that last question is in fact “yes!”, but I’ll let you and your conference leaders figure that one out. Look for evidence of how divinities subsume the self’s agency in ways that might make us modernists—us rugged individualists—uncomfortable.

On the big scale and in terms of your Reed career, never forget that most of you are a product of the Greco-Roman tradition that you are here studying. You are the students of the centennial year—the “centenarials” of Reed College, a distinction that no one else can ever claim. The disciplinary lenses you centenarials will focus on Western discourse were ground and polished by that same Western discourse. But “he who knows one, knows none.” Let me put it another way: This year you’ll learn your Greco-Roman heritage; next year I expect to see you in Chinese humanities where we’ll continue the dialogue between Odysseus and Emperor Wu. You centenarials need to look back at your Western humanities, but now you also need to look eastward if you would take up residence in the global village.

Today, we celebrate convocation, even though an anguished moment of separation is also at hand. And parents: while your son or daughter is standing there next to you at the car, the AC on, the engine now running as you’re about to put it in drive, think back to Odysseus in the Underworld facing the ghost of his sailor Elpenor in the gloom:

So we sat
And faced each other, trading our bleak parting words,
I on my side, holding my sword above the blood,
He across from me there, my comrade’s phantom
Dragging out his story.

Elpenor’s story is over. Is yours about to start? Well . . . almost.

Thanks and good luck.