Wednesday, December 30, 2009

We Are the Suitors and Odysseus Is Coming

--> In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero has a painful epiphany when he discovers that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”—that is, people who appear to be good can turn out to be secretly evil. In the Odyssey, it is the protagonist and not the villain who is the figure of disguise, and the appalling discovery is not disguise but its opposite, a comfortable naiveté: the Suitors can smile and smile and be utterly doomed. Their slaughter is scary precisely because they failed to heed the prophecies, omens, and outright warnings that they would be killed if they persisted in their easy indulgence of appetite and grandiose fantasy. While Odysseus was out in the world, learning to accept his humanity and mortality through suffering and seeking, they were at his home, indoors and at ease, living without effort like the gods (or like their favorites, the Phaeacians, whose life of ease is also eventually stopped). One of the gods’ oft-repeated and defining characteristics is that they live “at ease.” As George Dimock has emphasized, the Suitors’ central flaw is their contempt for the reality of their position. This is as good a definition of neurosis as we are likely to find in Freud, and a reader with a modicum of self-knowledge might well be struck by the depth of their self-deception and then head for the mirror with some difficult questions.

Already in the Iliad, Homer sang the potential horrors of the delusions that mislead us, as in Agamemnon’s captivity to Atê, the goddess of mental blindness and “Ruin,” and in Achilles’ similar captivity to his own smoldering anger. Dolon thought he would carry off the horses of Achilles; Hector thought Apollo was Deiphobos; Pandaros thought he would win glory by breaking the truce; and on and on. Here in the later poem, person after person has been told some prophecy of a certain Odysseus who will eventually arrive and cause pain, but none of them recognizes that the new arrival is he. Which is more frightening to you: the monsters like Scylla (gigantic and bizarre man-eaters) which nobody you know has ever seen, or the disastrous experience of the 108 Suitors, whose all-too-familiar complacency destroys them? Remember that “one barrel of oil provides the latent energy of up to 25,000 hours of human labor, or 12.5 years working 40 hour weeks.” Oil will not last forever, and its supply has already entered permanent decline at roughly 9% per year. Then there's the special perversity of the American financial position, printing empty money into existence out of thin air and calling it "debt," with no intention of ever paying it back. Our consumerist culture is itself based on a fantasy of inexhaustible abundance and ease, like the ambrosia of Olympus, the groves of the Phaeacians, or the household of Odysseus viewed from the perspective of the freeloading Suitors. Their demise is a fable for our times.

1 comment:

  1. You might enjoy Zachary Mason's "lost Books of the Odyssey".


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