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

Steven M. Wasserstrom, Moe and Izetta Tonkon Professor of Judaic Studies and the Humanities
Reed College
August 23, 2006

Field Full of Asphodel

I preface with a consumer warning: this program may not be suitable for children. Or, as the poet William Carlos Williams wrote in his introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through Hell.”

The ghost of Achilles meets Odysseus in the Greek hell, Hades, and that encounter provides my theme this afternoon. But before we go to hell, I want to say a few things about the humanities. The humanities have been defined as “studies intended to provide general knowledge and intellectual skills (rather than occupational or professional skills).” Hum 110 does not provide “occupational and professional skills” and, I would add, it certainly does not provide a religious training. Rather, the humanities demand a non-religious reading of the past, a reading that is generally valid for anyone in any—or in no—religion.

Even though I teach in the religion department, I am no less obliged than any other reader to put aside all religious assumptions. The humanities ask you to stretch beyond your home faith. They stretch you to encounter human perspectives not commanded by your birth religion, the faith of your first home. You might say that the humanities require leaving the comfort of home—just perfect for first year students.

My argument today is that returning home is central both to the Odyssey and to humanists who study the Odyssey. I suggest that the classic cycle “to hell and back” demands that a strong contemporary reading of the Odyssey, to speak meaningfully to our times, must not only descend to the underworld, but must also return carrying its own hellish history with it.

Achilles in the Odyssey

Aristotle summed up the Odyssey with almost ridiculous pithiness: “A certain man has been abroad many years; he is alone, and the god Poseidon keeps a hostile eye on him. At home the situation is that suitors for his wife's hand are draining his resources and plotting to kill his son. Then, after suffering storm and shipwreck, he comes home, makes himself known, attacks the suitors: he survives and they are destroyed.”

With almost equally silly compression, it’s been said that there are only two kinds of plots, going away and coming back home. A recent theory of religion published by Harvard University Press has it that the two great themes of religion are voyaging and dwelling.

For those with a taste for such extravagant generalizations, one scholar, for example, suggests that  the Illiad is about dying, and the Odyssey is about living—that one is about war and the other is about life after the war. Or there is George Chapman, the Elizabethan translator of the Odyssey, who noted pregnantly that the first word of the Illiad is wrath and the first word of the Odyssey is man.

I don’t think the Odyssey can be boiled down to any one theme, much less one word. My intention this afternoon is merely to reflect on the theme of “return home,” what Homer called nostos and what I am calling “to hell and back.” I chose this theme for reasons given by Chapman, though without his hyperbole. In his introduction to his translation of the Odyssey, published in 1614, Chapman eloquently expressed his preference: “The return of a man into his country is [the Odyssey’s] whole scope and object; which in itself, …[is] nothing magnificent. And yet even this [does] the divine inspiration render vast, illustrious, and of miraculous composure.  And for this…is the poem preferred to [Homer’s] Illiad.”

As you noticed in your readings, Achilles survives the Iliad and re-appears in the Odyssey as a ghost. But quite a prominent ghost. The educator Eva Brann sums up his sustained stature as follows:

….the figure of dead Achilles is an animating principle, a latent presence, and, so to speak, the hidden armature of the Odyssey ….Where Achilles is short lived, swift fated, and swift footed, Odysseus will grow old, endure heavy vicissitudes, see his runner’s legs go through wear and tear, and reach his great moment in late middle age;  Achilles has one man as bosom friend while Odysseus is befriended by a series of women, young and not young, human and divine; Achilles is, in his own estimation, a man of truth while Odysseus is a proudly accomplished liar…

The Achilles of the Illiad is a gloriously potent conquering hero. And yet when we think of Achilles, what leaps first to mind is not power but rather weakness, that is, our Achilles heel. And some of us associate Achilles with a second flaw, that of his scar. We make this association largely due to the influence of Erich Auerbach. 

German-Jewish scholar Erich Auerbach, even though a wounded veteran of the First War, head of the Prussian State Library, and finally the chairman of the romance languages department at Marburg University, was forced to flee Nazi Germany. In a now-legendary act of genius, Auerbach composed his celebrated masterpiece, Mimesis, without European libraries, in a Muslim city, Istanbul, Turkey, in the fateful year of 1942. Auerbach’s Mimesis, whose subtitle is The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, has been called the “magisterial synthesis that made the modern idea of the humanities plausible.” For the past half-century many humanists read the Odyssey through the lens of Mimesis. This reading arose out of Erich Auerbach’s own odyssey, and this reading began at the end of Homer’s epic, with Odysseus returned home to Ithaca. Mimesis opens with this memorable invocation: “Readers of the Odyssey will remember the well-prepared and touching scene in Book 19, when Odysseus has at last come home, the scene in which the old housekeeper Euryclea, who had been his nurse, recognizes him by a scar on his thigh.” Hardly glorious, an old housekeeper and old scar.

I want to place alongside this touchingly un-heroic moment that Auerbach elevated, another moment in the Odyssey that seems to me similarly slight and yet somehow equally central: Odysseus descends into the underworld, almost precisely at the midpoint of the Odyssey. Down there, Odysseus encounters Achilles.

Achilles, no one has ever been luckier than you have been, nor ever will be, for you were adored by all us Argives as long as you were alive, and now that you are here you are a great prince among the dead. Do not, therefore, take it so much to heart even if you are dead.'  

‘Say not a word,’ he answered, ‘in death's favor; I would rather be a housekeeper in a poor man's house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead. But give me news about my son…’

Odysseus then informs Achilles of the valor and military honor that his son brought to the field of battle. Odysseus concludes, When I had told him this, the ghost of Achilles strode off across a field full of asphodel, exulting that his son had made his mark[9:538]. Asphodel is the flower filling the fields of Hades, the mythological Greek hell. Ancient Greeks planted it near graves—their own gates, so to speak, into Hades. 

What haunts me is less the ghost of Achilles than thatfield full of asphodel. I’ll return to this point.

Our last glimpse of Achilles sees him fading away, wading through asphodel, eternally homeless. The great hero of the Illiad explicitly bemoans this fate:  “my return home is lost” [9:410-16]. The remainder of the Odyssey, its subsequent second half, falls back on an all-too-human Odysseus, a scarred sailor successfully struggling back to his family. The bad news: you are only mortal. The good news: you get to return home.

In the last book of the Odyssey there is a second, less memorable afterlife encounter. The messenger of the gods Hermes bears Penelope’s suitors down to Hades where they encounter Achilles and Agamemnon in conversation—in conversation about death, naturally. In other words, the heroic dead of the first book meet the un-heroic dead of the second book. Here Agamemnon consoles Achilles, just as Odysseus had, that a hero’s name lives forever. In the first encounter in hell, Odysseus consoles Achilles with glory among the dead and then, in the last book, Agamemnon consoles Achilles with glory among the living.

The Odyssey leaves us imagining the future of Achilles’ surviving son, just as the epic telescopes its vastness into the figure of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. While Odysseus calls Achilles “the most blessed of all men who ever were or will be,” in fact, then, both heroes were fortunate, being blessed with such sons who preserve the memory of paternal glory. Achilles and Odysseus are equally fortunate that Homer granted immortality to both of them. Achilles and Odysseus are forever remembered as immortal, first by their sons who perpetuate their greatness, then by generations of readers who keep reading the Illiad and the Odyssey, keeping both heroes, in a sense, always alive.

Achilles of the Odyssey in the Twentieth Century

My point of departure was that Achilles survives the Illiad as a ghost in the Odyssey, but also as a guiding presence. I turn now to the reception of the Achilles of the Odyssey across the ages, to the afterlife of Achilles’ afterlife.

If, for the Greeks, Achilles and Odysseus were the two greatest war heroes, for readers of the twentieth century, Homer’s truly terrible bequest is the world of war itself. The twentieth century was the time when the humanities finally fully sickened of Homer’s greatest theme, the “glory” of war.

Take the examples of William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, and Gerald Stern, three celebrated male poets respectively of the beginning, middle and end of the twentieth century. They encounter an Achilles not of awe-inspiring immortality but precisely of fallible mortality. You might say that they were attracted to the dead Achilles of the Odyssey rather than to the living Achilles of the Illiad.

Dr. William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel, that greeny flower” draws directly upon the appearance of Achilles in the Odyssey. It concludes:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                         I come, my sweet,
                                                  to sing to you!
My heart rouses
                         thinking to bring you news
                                                  of something
that concerns you
                         and concerns many men.  Look at
                                                  what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
                         despised poems.
                                                  It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                         yet men die miserably every day
                                                  for lack
of what is found there.

Much darker in tone, W. H. Auden disturbingly reimagines The Shield of Achilles:

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

As I was writing these words, another poem appeared to me, uncannily, as if in confirmation. Gerald Stern’s poem “Asphodel” was coincidentally published just a few weeks ago. It may be a dream or a vision or an act of the imagination, I can’t say, but Stearn in any case sees before him a Korean War veteran at a train station in the rain: “his ears were large/ the way it sometimes happens in older men.”

He was dead so he was only a puff
of smoke at the most and I had to labor to see him….
                                        And war
Was what we talked about and what the flowers
Were, the way a poppy is the emblem
Of World War One, and we both laughed at how
There were no flowers for Korea or any
Poems for that matter… and although
He wore the hat he said it was a stupid
Useless war, unlike Achilles Odysseus
Talked to in Hell, who loved his war and treasured
The noses he severed and the livers he ruptured,
And picture them selling their asphodel in front of
A supermarket or a neighborhood bank
And picture us waiting until our ears were long
Just to hate just one of their dumb butcheries.

Return to Humanism

Our poets keep returning to Achilles, but with a twentieth-century sensitivity. In an essay on the twentieth-century American idea of the humanities, Steven Marcus proposes that we have no choice but to accept that all our texts are supersaturated, so to speak, with the pain of our history, and that we have an obligation to teach that, too. These humanities are, as Marcus puts it, “carrying their own history along with them.” Or, as another scholar memorably puts it, “Computers may be copying machines but, thanks to Aphrodite, we are not. The way from her to now and back must always be gone over again.” We try, in other words, to teach the problems that come with the text and its history, and not some idealized version of the text.

We must return to the Illiad if we are to overcome the Illiad.  To follow Homer’s lead means that “the way from then to now and back must always be gone over again.” I must still turn back to Homer, the greatest poet of force, of violence, determined not to teach his epics without keeping the horror in, as it should be—and as, finally, I think Homer himself teaches how to do.

Erich Auerbach wrote during the Holocaust and survived due to the hospitality of his Muslim hosts. His friend, the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide fleeing the Nazis, famously said that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism. And, I might add, of conquest. After all, the Illiad is a scripture of conquest, what some like Weil famously read as a kind of psychological blueprint for collective violence. The Odyssey distances itself from the Illiad’s horror, if only obliquely. By the twentieth century, the bloodstain of conquest becomes a dominant poetic re-imagining of Achilles, as in the examples of the poets Auden and Stearn.

The Illiad glorifies Achilles’ wrathful slaughter at Troy; it idealizes what Stearn calls “dumb butcheries.” Fortunately, as Chapman taught us, Odysseus’ returning home from war is “as vast and illustrious” as the supposedly glorious conquest of Troy.

Another way of thinking of it is that the Odyssey already criticizes the Illiad. This critique, I suggest, is exemplified in the meeting between Odysseus and Achilles.

Timeless Present? Overcoming Death?

Chapman implied that a “divine inspiration” enlivens the Odyssey generation after generation. This animation, this making immediate, presumes that there is, so to speak, some sort of life in the thing. So what do we mean, in some serious sense; finally, what do we mean when we say that Achilles survives?  

Achilles striding in his field of asphodel is alive for Odysseus, to be sure. And obviously for Homer he was a living presence, made present to him by the Muses, that is, by divine inspiration. Ernst Curtius—like Auerbach, a German celebrated as a godfather of the humanities—said that there is a “timeless present” in the Odyssey. My personal conclusion, that should not intrude into the classroom, is that that’s just baloney; that this atmospheric notion of a “timeless present” muffles the injustices of the here and now; that this pretense of eternity masks male privilege; that it legitimates historically real social inequity in supposedly “eternal” symbols, etc., etc. Such blather about eternal experience, I say privately to myself, is a honey-trap for those hungry for a return of the gods, for an atavistic return to the primordial time of myth, which just happened to be a time of blood-stained strongmen. However, in teaching, I avoid the “timeless present” for more appropriate and more modest reasons. We humanists, it suffices to say to students, are trying to understand the historical past. In short, humanists avoid both extremes, both the ahistorical timeless present and the oversimplifying politics of the professor. The historian Anthony Grafton points us straightforwardly along this middle path. He observes that “the goals of [our] students remain essentially the same as those set by their eighteenth-century ancestors: to produce literary works of art, and to see the world through the eyes of the dead.” Just as Odysseus could see the world through the eyes of dead Achilles.For Odysseus to see through the eyes of the dead Achilles he had to go to hell and back.

To see through the eyes of the dead can be plain spooky and not glorious. Achilles in the Underworld is a reminder of the war that was the Illiad, the hell that was the battle for Troy. And yet, he was glorious. In fact, as Odysseus says of him, Achilles was “the most blessed of all men who ever were or will be.” I accept that the Odyssey knows something blessed about itself, that it will live heroically in future memories, as indeed it has, for Chapman in the seventeenth century, for our poets in the twentieth century, and, I hope, for our students in the twentieth-first century, too.  

At the start of the twentieth century, on its founding, Reed College was almost identical with the budding “humanities” curricula as we still know them today. That is, Reed was founded almost simultaneously with the then-innovative conception of what became the ruling twentieth-century notion of the humanities. The twenty-first century shall need a new notion of humanities, but who knows what that will be. Meanwhile, where else are we to look? Where else should we send our children to look? 

Or, as Williams put it, to bring you news/of something/that concerns you/and concerns many men./Look at/what passes for the new./You will not find it there but in/despised poems.”

The Odyssey still slays me: I despise this poem that I can’t make mine. I know it glorifies violent men, dead white men killing other dead white men. Ultimately, I don’t know what to do with that conflict. But as a teacher I can at least carry my history with me as I retrace our way from then to now and back again. 

The worst form of education…except for all the others.


The humanities, I have suggested, is a business of outsiders, exiles, the homeless, those who don’t read the past exclusively through the lens of a home faith, of an hereditary birth religion. Here I follow Auerbach, who saw that “only when [the humanist] is first separated from this heritage… then transcends it does it become truly effective.”

I am tempted, then, to identify the humanities as itself an odysseyof exiles. The humanities is the work of exiles, the struggle of coming home. It is the reach and labor of loss ever-possibly overcome.  

Achilles’ uncanny return in the Odyssey might guide our own return as readers today—perhaps. As for me, I keep returning to that field of asphodel, to the breeze that seems to animate those petals as the wind blows over them. The wind animates them, that wind that makes them seem almost alive. That gets me every time. Chapman called that wind “divine inspiration,” Homer said it was the breath of the Muses, and we might call it the breeze of possibility, the storm propelling us, like Poseidon puffing Odysseus’ sails, through a hellish history, back to living origins we had lost.

I’m not sure that Hum 110 really teaches all that…. but at least we’ve been to hell and back. The worst form of education…except for all the others?  What’s the alternative?

                                                  Look at
                                      what passes for the twenty-first century.
You will not find it there but in
                         despised poems.
                                                  It is difficult
to get the news from the Odyssey
                         yet men die miserably every day
                                                  for lack
of what is found there.

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