A Good Match For Myself

A Good Match For Myself May 26, 2014

civcoverlogo-588x290Although the spring semester ended less than a week ago, I have been planning for my fall courses for several weeks now. Such is the life of a teacher—we often live at least six months in advance of the date on the calendar. My teammate in the freshman first semester segment of the four-semester interdisciplinary program I direct and have taught in for years and I have already made our book order with wonderful texts ranging from Aeschylus to Boethius in store for the incoming eighteen-year-olds we will meet in September.

Virtually every team teaching the first semester of this course includes one of Homer’s epics on the syllabus—the question always is “which one?” Iliad or Odyssey? This is not quite the academic equivalent of “boxers or briefs” or Red-SoxYankees“Red Sox or Yankees,” but it is close. I have led discussions on each epic multiple times over the years; which is most appropriate often depends both on the interests/tastes of the faculty on the team and the chosen organizing themes for the semester. Two years ago we used the Iliad; last year my team went for the Odyssey. I profess a preference for the latter, but as my Fall 2014 colleague and I discussed the Homer issue during a planning meeting a few weeks ago, she expressed a marked preference for the Iliad for a number of good reasons. i and oI’m senior faculty, she’s in her third year, I did not want to pull rank (imagine an academic choosing not to pull rank), I appreciate the Iliad’s greatness, so I deferred. She’s a classicist after all, has forgotten more about ancient Greek literature than I think I know, and (I suspect) just really likes the overall violence and bloodshed of the Iliad. But over the past few weeks I’ve wistfully thought “I really like the Odyssey better.” A couple of days ago I found out why.

“Which Classical Character Are You?” the latest Facebook quiz asked.

Which Classical Character Are You?

This quiz was from an Oxford Dictionaries blog, so I expected that it might be a bit more erudite and serious than most. But no, it was pretty much at the same level of complexity (about eighth grade) as the others I’ve taken over the past months. It asked first whether I was male or female, and shortly after the first couple of questions I could pretty much tell that the available options were Achilles, Hercules, Orpheus, Aeneas or Odysseus. I was not surprised when I found out thatFWRO

You are Odysseus. You are renowned for your cunning wiles and fantastic plans. You’ve always got a trick up your sleeve. You are also a home-loving type and will do anything to protect your family.

I am more than happy to be Odysseus, although the quiz description hardly does him justice, nor does it sound that much like me. Odysseus was not the strongest soldier in the Greek army at Troy, nor was he the swiftest or the bravest. But he was definitely the smartest. He’s the one who manages to keep Achilles and Agamemnon from fighting to the death at the beginning of the Iliad (a good thing, or it would have been a rather short book). Other than that, he’s a relatively minor character in the Iliad. We find out from the Aeneid that the Trojan horse scheme that ended the 2011_odyssey_map_BTrojan War and sent Aeneas off looking for a new place to live was Odysseus’ brainchild.

In the Odyssey we get to know Odysseus intimately—full of hubris, always thinking and scheming, a good leader (most of the time) although all of his men die by the time he gets home, comfortable in his own skin, an introvert who has no trouble spending lots of time alone, incurably in love with his wife whom he has not seen in twenty years, and intensely focused on his one motivating goal—getting home. Tell me something I don’t know about myself.

Just for the fun of it, I decided to retake the quiz as a female. My options appeared to be Dido, Clytemnestra, Penelope, Medea and perhaps Eurydice.Penelope

You are Penelope. Loyal and patient you tend to avoid conflict. Everyone admires your restraint and elegance but sometimes you can be a bit of a doormat – but you never give up on someone you believe in.

This makes me even happier, because Penelope is my favorite female character in all of classical epic and drama (with the possible exception of Medea, who’s just a total bad ass). Once again, the quiz description does not do Penelope justice. She is undoubtedly loyal, patient and elegant (I am also loyal and patient, although inelegant), but she is anything but a doormat. 4917188777_f31b2c45e5_zShe is a consummate manipulator, putting her long-absent husband to shame in that category as she keeps a crowd of suitors at bay for years by weaving a death shroud for her supposedly dead husband during the day and unraveling it at night. She is a dedicated mother who is struggling with how to let her young adult son Telemachus go so that he can become a man, something every parent can resonate with.

And Penelope is a brilliant match for Odysseus, his complete equal in cunning, intelligence, and insight. He is a man of action, as all Greek heroes are; given the restraints on women in the classical age, her action is limited but highly effective. My favorite passage in the entire Odyssey is in Book 23, after Odysseus has, with a bit of help, slaughtered all of the suitors who have been plaguing Penelope for years in the banquet hall. P and O marriage bedPenelope is not entirely convinced that this is Odysseus—they have not seen each other for twenty years, and she is aware that gods show up in disguise at the drop of a hat in the classical world. Odysseus, grudgingly, agrees to give her all the time she needs to be sure—he’ll sleep on the couch, so to speak, until she’s ready. When Penelope instructs her maid to have the bed from the master bedroom moved into the hall for Odysseus, he goes nuts. “What the fuck are you talking about??” (my free translation). He knows that growing through the center of the house, and hence the center of the bedroom, is an olive tree that at the time of the house’s construction was used as the center post of the bed. In other words, unless the olive tree has been chopped down, this bed cannot be moved—something that only Odysseus would know. “Gotcha!” Penelope says, they embrace and live happily ever after. Not exactly, but close enough.dos-equis-most-interesting-guy-in-the-world-300x300

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite descriptions of The World’s Most Interesting Man: “He would be in touch with his feminine side—if he had one.” Psychologists tell us that everyone—other than The World’s Most Interesting Man, of course—has both a feminine and masculine side. In my case, I am thrilled to learn that my masculine and my feminine side are so well attuned that if they met, they would get married. Talk about integrated! So Robin, if you read this you will now know what a great sacrifice I made when I agreed to do the Iliad instead of the Odyssey with our sixty-four freshmen this fall. The Odyssey is more than just one of the greatest works of Western literature. It is the story of me!


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  • bahahah! check out my blog? i follow back!!!!!!

    • Robin Greene

      I do recognize your sacrifice! 🙂 It’s always a hard call between the two.
      A few points you may find interesting:
      1. The scene in book 23 is also one of my favorites. However, (and this should make you love Penelope even more), the Greek is relatively clear from book 19 onward that Penelope actually knows that the beggar is really Odysseus. So why would she feign otherwise? There are lots of theories, but the one I find the strongest is that she is not convinced that he is the same man he was when he left. In other words, she is unsure that he is still the man that she married (hence the symbolism of the marriage bed), and it is not his basic identity but his identity relative to what he was that he most prove. He can come home, but can he “come home again”? This goes hand in hand with the contest of the bow, which she decides to hold based on her conversation with Odysseus/the beggar in bk 19. It’s no accident that, after all these years, Penelope decides to marry the man who can perform a feat only her husband could. She knows he is Odysseus, but is he the same man? What I particularly love about everything from book 19 onwards is that it’s not Odysseus who engineers and controls the action, but Penelope. She forces Odysseus to prove himself in terms of skill, to “clean his house” of those who have abused it, and ultimately to show himself to be in all respects her husband.
      2. Odysseus in general is a deeply problematic figure, but quizzes like this (I took it as well and was all Odysseus) tend to focus on what we consider the “good quality” of great cunning and intellect. One critical problem is that the poems paint O (and his cunning) to be just as destructive for his own people as Achilles and his rage. In the programmatic proems of both epics, both heroes are shown to be the doom of their own comrades, which calls into question the intrinsic value of such cunning when applied in the way that Odysseus does. Their rage and cunning can destroy their enemies, but it also destroys their friends. As we read both epics, we’re supposed to reevaluate the worth of such heroes. In my opinion, Odysseus falls short (just as Achilles does).
      I have multiple issues with Odysseus, but this is the deepest and most pervasive one:
      He does achieve some degree of self-knowledge in the Odyssey, but we are left to wonder how much he has actually learned from this. Just after the epic ends, he immediately leaves again! He does this to fulfill Tiresias’ prophecy, but we are given nonetheless the image of a man who does all he can to go home and become the version of himself who can exist in a peaceful oikos-centered world but then without hesitation abandons this version of himself to go on an adventure to Thesprotia where he marries another woman, has another son, and fights in another war! (This is in the final epic in the epic cycle, the Telegony). To me, this is not a man who has achieved true self-knowledge but rather a man who cannot abandon a particular version of himself. In other words, he is the cleverest and “most interesting man in the [epic] world”, but he’s in no way the wisest. I often wonder if that’s a fundamental distinction that the poets are exploring, that is, the gulf between cunning and wisdom.
      3. If I had to choose an epic figure as your analogue, I’d probably go with Hector, just because he, unlike his heroic Argive counterparts, is the only one who understands his identity and value (he really “knows himself, to steal the Delphic motto), and thus can modulate his behavior based on context. With the glaring exception of his critical lapse in self-knowledge which leads to his death, Hector is the one who balances identity, cunning, and martial prowess and appropriately understands himself relative to others, and in this there is real wisdom.

      I’ve rambled enough—I suppose to honor your sacrifice we’ll just have to do the Odyssey next time we teach together!

      • Thanks for the very informative comment! I can tell I’m going to be learning a lot in the fall! And Hektor is undoubtedly the guy I would want to be if stuck into the Iliad–but I don’t think it was an option.

  • Chard Deniord

    Vance, did you know “the most interesting man” lives in Vt.? Also, I think it was an oak tree, not an olive tree. Good post. Chard

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  • I did know that, and I’ll check on the tree. Robin Greene, my go-to classicist, just left a lengthy comment on the post and did not correct me,so we’ll see.