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

**This lecture was very much composed for oral delivery on a specific occasion. Please keep that in mind as you read along.

Convocation Lecture, Fall 2002
Nathalia King

“Odysseus and the Arts of Memory”

Welcome, Welcome, Welcome
On an occasion of this kind, it may seem very difficult to focus on a lecture because the mind is so crowded with other thoughts and emotions. Some of you may be wondering (in awe and trembling) how kids who were bringing home their first clay turtles and paper flowers only yesterday can already be on the verge of living and laboring on their own. Some of you may be figuring out how fast you can get the parental unit into the car and off- campus. Some may be worrying about how to handle introductions between your new roommate and the stuffed animal you’ve slept with all your life. And I would bet very good money that some of us are tossing and turning over what to do on the first day of class, regardless of whether it’s the first course we’ve taught at Reed or the 37th.

Well, let me share a secret with you. At Reed, when we get anxious about stuff, we sublimate. We take all that emotional energy and random mental static and we focus it on the text or the problem set or the experiment at hand. So I invite you to focus on what I have to say. And if concentrating the mind on an intellectual issue because it’ll make you happier, isn’t reason enough to do so, I’ll give you two other reasons. Reason number one is that I plan to get a jump start on the semester in Humanities 110 so that if you think about what I’ll say, Homer might make more sense to you. And this may hold especially for those who haven’t really exactly quite finished reading the Odyssey and the Iliad yet. Reason number two is for those going into conference immediately after this lecture. You know who you are and you know what we say about conference at Reed: what you get out of it bears an exact correlation to what you’ve put into it. So listen up.

In a nutshell, the Odyssey is a story about the great warrior Odysseus heading home from the Trojan War. The seas are treacherous, the natives are mostly unfriendly, but, after a twenty year absence, he finally makes it back to his own island of Ithaca. One reading of the Odyssey would have it that Odysseus is a really smart person, a cunning strategist and a self-knowing man, and that there’s really no question that he’s going to make it. By this reading, any suspense in the poem is the product of how monstrous and unhuman the challenges Odysseus faces might be and the varieties of guile he uses to overcome them. My argument to you this morning is based on a different premise: it is based on the premise that Odysseus may well be a very smart person, but that he may nonetheless have substantial difficulties with knowing himself very well—that his years of experience as warrior, seafarer and adventurer have blurred or obfuscated his memories of who he was as a good landowner or husband or father some 20 years ago. By my reading, the greater suspense in the poem turns on more abstract and metaphorical challenges: can Odysseus remember himself? Can he resume his old place on his estate and in the social hierarchy of Ithaca in a meaningful and fufilling way? Can those he left behind recognize him for the man they once knew and loved, or will he appear so much the stranger that he will be condemned to beg at the doorsteps he once owned?

My general concern, then, is the issue of memory, and in the next 20 minutes, I want to talk about memory in the context of the Odyssey in three different, but inter-related ways. First, I want to share with you some of the basic concepts from recent scholarship about the functions of memory in oral literature in an oral culture. Second, I want to demonstrate that the Odyssey consistently places a special emphasis on the role of memory. Third and last, I want to argue that Odysseus’s restoration to his original identity and social estate, is A) profoundly influenced by the variety of ways in which his people remember him and recall him to himself, and B) bears crucial parallels to the poem’s depiction of Homeric culture and that depiction’s dependence on the poet’s memory. Certaintly, the members of Odysseus’ family do not have the same mnemonic skills as the poet; the ways in which they recognize Odysseus are more intuitive and less surefooted, than the artful and disciplined ways in which the bard remembers the poem. But in both cases, the uses of memory has the beneficial consequence of contributing to a shared culture that is richer and more refined because it is more consensual.

To begin, then, let me make the claim that it is impossible to understand the Homeric poems without comprehending the fact that they issue from an oral culture. This means that rather than being written by an author and read by a group of readers, these epics were orally composed, orally retained, orally performed, and orally received. It may seem difficult to grasp the fact that such a poem, so many lines, so many characters and events, could be held within the bounds of a single human memory. To put this claim in perspective, it may help to know that of thousands of languages that have existed, only about a hundred have produced a written literature—or that of the roughly 3000 languages spoken today, only between 70 and 80 have a written literature. In spite of our preconceptions about the universality of literacy, or about the superiority of literacy over illiteracy, human experience throughout history demonstrates that the majority of people have lived in oral cultures rather than literate ones. This does not mean that they have lived without the benefit of songs, poems, stories or histories. On the contrary, it means that they have lived in a different relation to the arts than we have, a relation arguably more immediate, more sensual, and more intimate to the arts than ours. Or that they have lived in a relation to the arts familiar to us from our own experiences in oral culture: for example as children internally voicing the words of the bedtime story a parent reads aloud. If we reflect carefully about our own such experiences as oralists, we soon realize that our tendency to equate illiteracy and orality is profoundly mistaken; that rather than signaling a lack of ability, genuine orality depends on its own set of learned skills, special competencies, or what scholars call oral technologies.

What were such competencies in the case of the singer of tales in the Homeric age? Scholars of orality have identified 4 basic categories of oral technology, to which I will give the following labels: metrical; phonetic; formulaic; and thematic. Metrical competence consists of the bard’s ability to sing his story to a specific rhythm, repeated in every line, and iterated by the musical accompaniment of the lyre. Phonetic competence consists of the bard’s ability to construct memorable patterns of sound, such as assonance and alliteration, or rhyme and off-rhyme. Formulaic competence consists of the bard’s ability to strategically deploy memorized (prefabricated) units of poetry. These formulae can be relatively short, like epithets: epithets are those constantly repeated noun adjective combination such as the rosy-fingered Dawn, or wily Odysseus. But formulae can also be relatively long, as seen in the deliberate redundancy that occurs throughout the poem in the descriptions of feasts or libation offerings. Thematic competence consists of the bard’s ability to exploit traditional story elements that, strung together, provide the outline of the whole plot; that conventional themes are still prominent even in our own culture is evidenced in phrases such as it’s a boy meets girl movie or it’s a rags to riches novel.

To these four categories of oral technology, present in virtually all oral cultures, I would add one more which is more specifically characteristic of the Homeric oral tradition. I call this the ekphrastic or descriptive technology. Descriptive competence consists of the bard’s ability to create remarkably vivid mental images, so alive and animate as to make an indelible impression on the mind’s eye. In the Homeric poems, hundreds of these images take the form of extended similes. I’ll cite just one based on a parallel that is interestingly tangential to that in my opening argument. This simile compares the moment in which Odysseus successfully strings his ancient bow to that in which the lyre player first replaces and then plucks a string on his instrument(Bk 21, line 460, p.404).

… The man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow’s look and heft,
like a musician, like a harper, when
with a quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: //that effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the cord and plucked it,
So the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
A swallow’s note.
In the hushed hall it smote the suitors //
And all their faces changed.

The provocative comparison here between the action hero and the harper is deliberate and purposeful: the simile specifically makes the point that both the hero and the harper practice a discipline; that because of that discipline, both embody a kind of perfection; and that both can “smite change,” whether the tool for change be as concrete as a weapon or as ephemeral as a musical note.

Like the physical skills of the meticulously trained and practiced warrior, the metrical, phonetic, formulaic and thematic competencies are essential to the bard’s livelihood. They perform crucial and complementary functions for the bard: they help him retain and recall those elements of the tale he has memorized; and they provide different strategies for improvisation. During a performance, the bard’s reliance on memorized chunks of poetry gives him the time to observe his audience, to anticipate what they want to hear, and to respond to these unspoken requests by improvising on those parts of the tale most appropriate to the audience’s needs. The bard’s excellence, like that of his tales, depends upon a combination of learned poetic discipline and constant practice. By skillfully manipulating oral technologies, the very best bards can alternate at will between memory and improvisation; convention and spontaneity; the traditional and the new.

In turning now to the poem itself, I want to show that, as the bard composes his tale, so Odysseus’ extended family also pieces together the old and new, the past and present manifestations of their lost hero. If, in the first half of the poem, Odysseus travels through a largely fantasmagoric territory, inhabited by caricatures of human behavior, like the Cyclops, the Sirenes, or Circe, in the second half of the poem Odysseus confronts the paradoxically unfamiliar challenge of re-integrating a human place. If the first half of the poem shows us Odysseus outside himself, beside himself, or prisoner to a series of exaggerated aspects of himself, the second half figures his return to the orbits of time and memory, among those he remembers and who remember him, and thanks to whom he can take back possession of a gratifying centrality in a familial and social world.

At the poem’s outset, then, we could say that Odysseus’ condition resembles that of an epic only vaguely recalled, a poem that is falling beyond the bounds of human memory. By contrast, once Odysseus sets foot on Ithaca, his encounters engage him in an elaborate game of hide and seek with his familiars, involving progressively less self-concealment and more self-revelation. It is my argument that each of the persons Odysseus encounters on Ithaca, assists him in shedding the disguises he wears, in coming closer to the origins of his self. His shepherd, Eumaios, helps him to reject the images of himself as scavenger, drifter, beggar, slave, in some sense enabling Odysseus to dissolve these fictions by uttering them [Bk 14]. His son, Telemachus, guided by divine illumination, helps Odysseus to identify himself for the first time with plain honesty as “that father whom your boyhood lacked and suffered pain for lack of [16.221-2].” His old dog, Argos, lives exactly long enough to remind Odysseus of the pleasures he used to take in the chase and the hunt, in the company of domesticated beasts[17. 375-422]. His nurse, Eurykleia, as she bathes him, startles Odysseus into making a stunning connection between the body of the aging fighter he is now with the body of the beautiful hunting youth he once was. I quote:

“ The scar: He had forgotten that. She must not
handle his scarred thigh, or the game was up.
But when she bared her lord’s leg, bending near,
She knew the groove at once [19.456ff].”
[…] She traced it under her spread hands, then let go,
And into the basin fell the lower leg
Making the bronze clang, sloshing the water out.
Then joy and anguish seized her heart; her eyes
Filled up with tears; her throat closed, and she whispered,
With hand held out to touch his chin:
yes! You are Odysseus! dear child! I couldn’t
See you ‘til now—not till I knew
My master’s body with my own hands! [19.541ff]

In each of these examples, a different kind of memory or recognition, be it informed by divination or premonition, be it made manifest through touch or creature sense, confirms to Odysseus with new force that he is indeed the lord returned to his lands and loyal servants, the father and husband come back to child and wife. Ideally, I would want to analyze each of these examples in more detail, but in the interests of time, I want to reserve my closest focus for the most complex example: that of Penelope. For it is the pull and tug, the resistance and the giving in of Penelope’s modes of recognition that best reveal to Odysseus the real profundity of the emotions that have not only lead him home, but are home.

It is Penelope who holds the keys to the most hidden recesses in Odysseus’ house and to the almost irretrievable secrets of their ancient intimacy. Penelope’s recognition of Odysseus seems at first virtually unconscious; as if her memories needed to be stirred up from the depths and can surface only slowly before she is able to deliberately test his identity. To trace this progression from Penelope’s intuitions to her certain knowledge, I want to look at 3 episodes in the poem: the dream that Penelope tells and that Odysseus interprets for her; Penelope’s proposition that she make the suitors undertake the trial of the bow; and finally, Penelope’s provocation of Odysseus when she deliberately pretends ignorance of the secret of their bed.

“ Listen, interpret me this dream,” says Penelope to the stranger as they sit by the fire late into the night. And she recounts the dream of an eagle who plummets out of the sky to break the necks of 20 geese feeding beside her house [19.620-650]. Penelope’s account of her dream provides Odysseus with the perfect setup: his interpretation of her dream allows him to proclaim himself and his intentions without blowing his cover to anyone, even to her. A few lines later, when Penelope decrees the contest of the bow, she again provides Odysseus with advance knowledge of a workable strategy for killing the suitors: she all but puts his old weapon in his hand. Although in these instances, Penelope seems to resist full cognizance of her sense that she knows the stranger before her to be Odysseus, Odysseus still seems to grasp that she has recognized him, and he rises to the challenge that such recognition entails with the bold and otherwise unintelligible vaunt that: “Odysseus… will be here long before one of these lads can stretch the string of that bow.”

It is one of the sweeter ironies of the poem that the task of killing the suitors is in some sense easier than that of releasing Penelope’s long pent up love. When the slaughter of suitors and unloyal maids is over, when there is no longer anything tangible to hold his parents apart, Telemachus reproaches her bitterly for hanging back: “What other woman could remain so cold?…. Your heart is hard as flint and never changing” and Odysseus echoes these words when he says: “Her heart is iron in her breast.” But Penelope, ever cautious and forward looking, needs to put Odysseus to a final test—not the test of physical prowess, nor that of courage. It is both simpler and more complicated: it is a test of memory. Can he remember what she remembers? what only one other person besides them knows? What will he say when she suggests that his bed be moved? Odysseus’ response is spoken in anger, but specific and graphic in detail. Only when Odysseus can recount, in specific and graphic detail. When he recounts how he built their house and bed, incorporating the trunk of a single tree in the very core of both, Penelope can know with utter assurance what her 6 senses have already told her. The enormous sense of release that follows in Penelope and Odysseus’ embrace is cause for one of the most magnificent and synoptic similes in the whole Homeric corpus. With a new degree of proximity , the poem reveals to us the state of Odysseus inner being:

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
Of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
His dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,//
Longed for
As the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
Spent in rough water where his ship went down
Under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
Few men can keep alive through a big surf
To crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
In joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind…

Since his return to Ithaca, Odysseus has often been provoked to tears before this moment, but he has never wept as he does here, openly and without restraint. Perhaps until this moment, Odysseus has yearned for Penelope with an old and conventional longing; but now he yearns for her with new urgency. Holding her in his arms, Odysseus yearns for Penelope as he yearns for the fundamental vitality of his own breath and life. And the abyss that she holds him back from is not just that of all the engulfing seas he has traversed; it is also the abyss of the crippling amnesia they have only narrowly escaped; that amnesia in which they might have come together without really recognizing or fathoming each other.

To conclude, let me rehearse my argument one last time. Just as the bard exploits a panoply of mnemonic techniques to bring the poem and the culture it represents into brilliant illumination for his audience, so Odysseus is returned to a complete sense of his essential self through the different mnemonic processes by which his son, his nurse, his wife recognize and remember him. If the hero can only retrieve his own most whole identity because others remember it for him and with him, so the culture represented in the poem can only achieve its most complete manifestation when both the bard and his community of listeners participate in that process. Ultimately, then, the Homeric poem tells us that neither a whole self nor a unimpoverished culture can be autonomous or independent entities; neither can come into full being without the creative interventions and interpolations of the communities surrounding them.

In coming to Reed, you have chosen and are now embarking upon your own kinds of odyssey and homecoming. It is fair to anticipate that you will be entranced, bewildered, challenged and enlightened, in unprecedented and memorable ways. I believe I can say, on behalf of the Reed faculty, that we will do everything we can to make this happen—not only for your sakes, but because we too are most at home in communities of thriving intellect, whether oralist or literate, whether they issue from the past, are those we build in the present, or project into the future. Let’s have a great year.

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