Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus

Roger J. Porter
August 24, 1999


When Peter Steinberger suggested that I might give the convocation address this year, I asked if he had a particular subject in mind. When he indicated that it should be on The Odyssey I was quite surprised: as many of my colleagues will remember, that Homeric epic was the very subject of this occasion last year. "It's my plan," said Peter, "to have a lecture on The Odyssey every year." "You mean," I replied taken aback, "Odyssey after Odyssey after Odyssey, all the way through YK3?" He beamed: "A wonderful idea."

Most of you in the audience are first timersiat this event, so a few words on The Odyssey might be news to you. I apologize therefore, just to the Faculty--but only slightly. If this were the year 2021, and the Faculty were listening to its nineteenth consecutive convocation lecture on The Odyssey, Ed feel a bit reluctant too, but on the assumption it's still fresh enough, let me plunge ahead.

The Freshmen in the audience are aware that before long they will be studying ancient Greek culture in the Humanities course. For some years now only one of the two Homeric poems-- The Iliad--has been read in Humanities 110. One year when I taught in that course, three-quarters of my class was reading The Odyssey on its own, because, as one student put it, tackling only half of the Homeric poems, they "felt cheated." It's a story I often tell when I want to brag about Reed students. I'd like to encourage the new Freshmen to carry on that heroic extracurricular effort, and I hope my remarks this morning might entice you to do just that.

I want to look at The Odyssey--and the look will have to be relatively brief--in the light of something that has long been an interest of mine, namely autobiographical narrative and the story-telling of the self. This strikes me as a topic that could raise some interesting questions for the Freshmen. Here you are, strangers all. How do you tell your stories to those other people around you, make your new classmates aware of who you are, and of the lives you have so far lived? What exactly do you tell about yourself to make others interested in you? And how do you invent, even create ourselves, in transforming experience into meaning?

But on to the poem. In looking at The Odyssey, I am not going to claim that the epic represents Homer's autobiography, or that Odysseus, its hero, is a mouthpiece'for Homer; nor will I argue that there aré no differences between written texts--which we think of as fundamental to autobiography--and the oral autobiographical narratives that Odysseus tells throughout the epic. (The poem itself predates the Greek written alphabet, and was originally chanted or recited by a Bard; only hundreds of years later was it transcribed as a written text.) But The Odyssey contains the first instance in literature of a character who makes his life story the center of his existence. Odysseus is many things in the poem--warrior, conniver, actor, adventurer, and explorer. And he plays many roles in the family constellation--son, father, husband, lover, master. But much of the time he is, like his creator, a Bard, a singer of his own story, someone who not only tells us who he has been but, like many autobiographers, invents himself, undergoing continuous metamorphoses in his narration, as he creates a range of identities in response to particular listeners.

" Autobiography" in the Odyssey (and I put this term in quotation marks) is not a complete story of Odysseus' life, or a linear narrative, so much as a string of episodes told to different listeners. Perhaps we should call it "life-speaking." I will be investigating the function that "autobiography" serves for Odysseus, the "work" it does for him in the world, what we might call its purposive activity. It 1s an activity, not just a story of a personal past. In addition to the practical purpose of eluding those who seek to defeat Odysseus, or to devour him, Odysseus turns to "autobiography" to explore who he is. Now I don't want to make him into a modernist hero of self-analysis. Since his autobiographical narrations are delivered to others, they are, in the broadest-sense social, not internal meditations. Nevertheless I believe that Odysseus, no less than the first "official" Western autobiographer, Saint Augustine, moves from "retrospection" to "introspection": from speaking about his past, to understanding truths about himself. His stories are intersections of narration and reflection. Let us say that Odysseus is our first "unofficial" autobiographer, and while his autobiographical narrations facilitate the plot of the poem, they occasionally serve a more subjective purpose, as he struggles to learn about himself in the very act of telling his stories. Autobiographical story-telling is the very ground of Odysseus' subjectivity.

Odysseus is no less skillful at war than any Homeric fighter, but this is not where his center of gravity lies. Or, put another way, he is a warrior of words. This is the quality that allows him to take command of his poem, in a way that Achilleus never can in his. In the Iliad Achilleus is too deep inside his own fate to tell his tale; the Homeric narrator, detached as a god, must do this for him. But unlike The Iliad, the Odyssey unites the story and the storyteller. As actor and commentator, Odysseus interprets the significance of events for himself, and understands with a critical perspective. Odysseus is the first great wordsmith, a verbal enchanter who charms his friends and beguiles his enemies, a calculating Bard whose stories, whether truthful reports or conniving fictions, allow him to make his way through an endlessly precarious world. In an oral culture words are temporary, evanescent; they disappear on the wind. As a result, they have great provocative power over listeners, and Odysseus' narratives gives to them an almost magic, incantatory spell, a vital force. -

One of the principal functions of Odysseus' autobiographical story-telling is to keep his memory alive, and in the poem memory is the sole defense against dissolution. Memory and autobiographical narrative are products of the desire to resist death. The fear of being forgotten is analogous to the fear'of the natural world that is always in flux, coming into being and passing away, so that the memory which makes autobiography possible is a phenomenon that resists--or at least permits the comforting illusion of resisting--the time-bound world of change. Memory is what makes Odysseus' narratives possible, constitutes his identity, and becomes a stay against oblivion.
Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, reminds us: "Forgetting is the great private problem of human beings: death as the loss of the self. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life." We may see The Odyssey as "the struggle of memory -against forgetting." Memory of course plays a crucial role in oral culture. Without a written text the Bard himself has to memorize enormous amounts of material, and modern scholarship has shown how certain mnemonic devices of the oral epic facilitated that process. Memory is aided by various techniques of reciting, and is itself a theme in The Odyssey. The poem constantly demonstrates the importance of memory, as a repository of the culture's wisdom, and as the crucial factor in the making of autobiographical narrative. An autobiographer depends on memory no less than the Homeric Bard; Odysseus fulfills both roles, and his constant repetition of his story--making it a' formula but also pitching it in different ways depending on the specific occasion--is like what a Bard does in telling the epic. Bards remember metrically-tailored formulae, but shift them around as the occasion demands; this is exactly what Odysseus does when telling his story--one way to an enemy, another way to a friend, yet another way to a listener of whom he cannot be certain.

A related function of "autobiography" for Odysseus is to keep his own past in mind. Separated from wife, child, and home for twenty years, he needs to remember and to speak of the past lest it fade from his consciousness. Even as he enjoys a long dalliance with Calypso, a goddess who seeks to keep him forever as an immortal mate, Odysseus remembers.

Autobiography normally investigates one's origins, say the influence of the family, or of childhood experience. As such, autobiography becomes a return to the past. But of course that past can never be fully recaptured; we could say that the self is exiled from that past, which is as unrecoverable as the land that an exile longs to return to, but cannot. The autobiographer himself is a kind of exile, enraptured by the past which is like the unreachable place to which he may not return. The exile/autobiographer may attempt to recover what has been lost, but at some point concedes that it may be recoverable only in the imagination, or in the stories he or she tells about it. Autobiography as a genre expresses both a nostalgia (literally a sickness for home) about recovering the past and the desire to go home again (home regarded the past); but autobiography is also an implicit lamentation for the inevitable realization that one cannot go home again--that is, to the past. If you can't literally go home again, the autobiographical turn to the past is a way of creating the illusion of a return. That is why autobiography may be a form of consolation. Odysseus for a long while in the poem "goes home" only through narrative. As hero of an epic of exile, he narrates his life partly as compensation: deprived of home, frequently wandering helplessly on the sea--adrift and in despair that wandering constitutes his very condition--or bound to lengthy stays on islands that mock the home he remembers, Odysseus, hungry for a world that seems lost and gone, turns to autobiography.

Odysseus' autobiographical narrations serve as compensations in the face of what the French call dépaysment, the condition of being without a country. Such narratives become the new "country" as it were. Theodor Adorno is not discussing autobiography but his words might apply to Odysseus' impulse in the midst of his estrangement: Adorno says, "For a man who no longer has a homeland, [story-telling] becomes a place to live." Autobiography, then, represents at once the exile's wish to return to his origins and a recognition that he may never achieve that return, will have only a story which will stand in its place. When home is but a memory, it is important to cultivate one's memory.

In the Odyssey, there are many stories about Odysseus: songs by other Bards, tales by Menelaos, Nestor and Helen. But the stories Odysseus tells about himself are more complex, not just because he has access to fuller and more authentic subject matter, but because his motives differ from those of other narrators. The others tend to fix him into archetypes and into myth, to immortalize him by "naming" him as a legendary hero whose image slowly recedes into a dark and seemingly irrecoverable past. But by telling his own story Odysseus frees himself from the. rigidity of such views and unfolds a character which constantly changes to fit the necessities of particular and unexpected circumstances. The stories that Odysseus tells about himself convey his invented, multiple quality, and his oral "autobiography" has a complexity which history and biographies of others in the poem cannot achieve. His imagination will not be fixed into the archaic rigidity that marks the obsessive behavior of those gods, demigods and monsters he meets on his travels; creatures like Kalypso, the Sirens, and Sylla and Charibdis, whose lives and actions have a sameness and a simplicity. But Odysseus, with his autobiography, represents a departure from the reductions of primordial nature or myth. In telling his story Odysseus asserts the power of culture against raw nature. One of the things that makes The Odyssey a civilized poem is that it insists on our narrative-making function, and the way our capacity for change constitute our human identity.

An oral culture, where there are no written records, demands that you say who you are; you are. your story, and your narrative 1. your identity. In an oral culture speech is what enables you to survive. Confronting the dangerous, one-eyed monster Polyphemos, Odysseus lies to protect himself, famously calling himself "Nobody." The false name and the true one that corrects it suggest that Odysseus is always conscious that his identity may depend upon words. One can be nobody or somebody almost at will; thus the magic potency of language. Odysseus is indeed both nobody and "Odysseus," now one, now the other, not only because his situation threatens to obliterate him but because he tries to be whatever he can through the story he tells about himself. When Athene says to him, "Your ways of deceiving ... are your very nature ... you are the best of all mortal men for ... stories" (XII, 294298), she is praising Odysseus not for lying outright but for his power of fictionmaking. In the menacing world of The Odyssey, one's autobiography is literally a matter of life and death, for how the stranger presents himself may determine whether hedineg, or is dined upon.

Homer has made Odysseus a singer of his life becausein his world there are so many others who try to tell his story. In effect he must take back the narrative. But the "truth" of his life is never simple or straight-forward. He is a notorious liar, a deliberate creator of false stories, false pasts, false genealogies. Odysseus switches between true and false accounts of himself not only so he can test the integrity of others, but because he insists on the right to tell his story in a way that expresses his underlying self.
These autobiographical narrations concretize Odysseus' duality, his identity as both king and beggar, god-like hero and weather-beaten victim, scourge and sufferer. He discovers that self-destructive and self-preservative gestures exist in a fierce embrace, and that his life is a struggle between these impulses. Odysseus' autobiographical narratives, which stress how anguish and peace, pain and pleasure are interwoven, embody on one hand a sense of vital power and enjoyment of the body, and on the other hand a recognition of how precarious everything is, the inevitability of disappointment, loss, and suffering. Of course Odysseus arrives home and reclaims his wife and his kingdom; but he perceives that each experience is part of a larger destiny in which success and failure, being adrift and being home, mark the cycles of being human. Odysseus' stories reveal to himself that his life has the relentless rhythms of mixed fortune, that it moves like the rising and falling of sun or waves.

Odysseus' narratives also confirm his identities in a network of family; when, for instance, he eventually tells them to his son Telemachos, he establishes a continuity across generations, joining father and son. At the same time the stories become elegies for what Odysseus cannot totally re-capture: we always feel the gap of the twenty years' separation that he and Penelope have endured. Like Scheherazade's tales, Odysseus' may temporarily stave off fatality, but his final autobiographical narrative to Penelope recounts the prophecy of his ensuing death, thus conceding his limitations. As with autobiography in general, the protagonist does not die (how can we relate the story of our own death?), but the elegiac note is sounded.

The problem facing Odysseus in his reunion with Penelope is that felt by all exiles upon their return: on one hand Odysseus has needed to hold onto the image of the Penelope in order to remain faithful, to keep the image, as it were, as talisman or guide for the cherished goal; on the other hand if that image had been held too fixedly, Penelope could not have matched it in reality. Face to face with his wife, Odysseus needs the flexibility of perception he so often demonstrates in order to accommodate himself to the new reality. All along Odysseus has had to hold to the fantasy of the youthful Penelope, and then let it be. There is a beautiful statement by the philosopher Heidegger, which applies to this matter of Odyssean memory. Heidegger reminds us that initially the word "memory" did not mean the power to recall. At one time the term designated rather "a steadfast, intimate concentration upon the things that essentially speak to us; originally 'memory' meant something like devotion: a constant, concentrated abiding with something--not just with something that has passed, but with what is present and with what may come." And so, if I may put it this way, as Odysseus regards Penelope, he remembers her--as she is now.

Penelope is suspicious that the strange man before her may be an Odyssean impostor, so he relates to her the story of their bed--how he had constructed it around the trunk of an olive tree. It is a story only the two of them can know. Here the autobiographical narration of a past deed gives Odysseus title to his identity as husband. But there is one story left to recount, and that is the entire story, up to the present and including the prophecy of his death. Autobiography LS a deathhaunted mode; it suggests both a staving off of the end, and an edging toward that moment, a flirtation with demise in the act of summing up. Autobiography can never be ultimate, only penultimate. Odysseus speaks with great equanimity, calmed in his wife's arms whereas before he had been becalmed on the seas. Mutual dissimulations and mutual testings are behind. The autobiographical story has almost no burden to bear; it merely i.

So there remains only the sheer hedonism of song, surrounded by lovemaking and sleep. After a 20-year hiatus, the improbable adventures have become simply the subject for song, all passion spent.. The story Odysseus finally tells to Penelope includes the story he has earlier told to the Phaekians about his wanderings; Homer tells the story of Odysseus telling the story of himself telling the story of his life! As autobiographical tale collapses into autobiographical tale, the past recedes into an abyss of deep time, and Odysseus turns from the fabulous and timeless world of romance to the commonplace world of family. As the autobiographical tale becomes merely a story, Odysseus' art pales before the celebration of life by the reunited lovers.

I want to conclude with a fantasy of sorts. Although Odysseus narrates in compact form the story of his 20 years worth of adventures, Penelope does not directly tell Odysseus how has spent those same two decades. And while Odysseus speaks his stories in his own voice, Penelope does not; instead the narrator speaks on her behalf: the narrator says, "She told of all she had endured in the palace." We have heard pieces of Penelope's story, but not very much from her own mouth. We learn that she promised to marry one of the suitors when the shroud that she has been weaving for Odysseus' father is complete, and that she unweaves it each night, never completing the garment and thus staving off the day of reckoning. In Greek, the word that means "weaving together" is the same as the word designating what the Bard or poet does when he "weaves" or stitches together various stories into an epic; an epic is a woven song, and the Bard is a weaver of songs. Raveling, unraveling and re-raveling a garmet, is analogous to what Homer or Odysseus do as they tell or weave their stories; just so, Odysseus sometimes undoes his own story, or contradicts it later on. Odysseus weaves his stories on the high seas and on dangerous islands; Penelope does her weaving as woman's work, a domestic chore, though with an equal necessity to survive.

My fantasy involves the fact that the Greek word for weaving is also the word for "text." (We can see this easily in Latin: taxa means "to weave," and it gives us the word "text.") Let us imagine, then, that all along Penelope has been concealing and weaving her own stories, in a more private realm than the one where Odysseus performs his. stories. The narrative, engine that might drive her autobiography is consciousness, rather than experience. Of course Penelope, no less than Odysseus,, is a character in a work of oral composition; but let us also imagine thather literal and private weaving anticipates the equally private activity of literary composition, which autobiography comes to be. And let us finally imagine that one day, in an era of written texts, that is, of literacy, Penelope--or maybe her descendants--will produce a literary work, 'a textual weaving of memory and writing, perhaps, in fact, her autobiography. Samuel Butler, the Victorian novelist, thought that The Odyssey was composed by a woman; he was probably wrong, but I like to think that the heroine of the poem has been weaving together what might become her own text, her own self-writing, perhaps called The Penelopiad. As a Hemingway character puts it, imagining an impossible love affair that might have been, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

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