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.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Review of "Avatar" for After You've Seen It

Ok I just saw Avatar. Second row. We got seats B-4 and B-5, which seemed like a little flake of the synchronicity dandruff that descends from God's scalp now and then. It suggested that we'd be different after the film from the persons we were B-4 we saw it, and that the film itself would show before and after pictures of the world. Then I remembered there's only one seat in the house with that number. Rein in the dreamyness.

Well, it was breathtakingly beautiful. The film uses a formulaic core [good aliens + bad USMC = crisis, solved by good human] as a stable platform on which to build an amazingly innovative film. The core gets the film past the barriers that would have prevented it from ever getting made, since that core is utterly tried and true at the box office, from Close Encounters to E.T. and so on. Sure enough, $242 million in the first weekend. Richly deserved.

So here is this new movie, which just happens to be shot in IMAX-friendly format with the best 3-D glasses element ever, and a new technique of film-making, in which the body mechanics animation includes the information scanned from the actors' facial expressions, transferring it all to their virtually enhanced onscreen counterparts. This technique is symbolically parallel to the technique inside the story, whereby a human can use a machine to transfer his or her mind into a different, alien body and back again. The parallel brings the world of the movie a little closer to the world of the audience, even though a mind transplant machine is as far beyond our current capability as this new form of film-making was beyond Charlie Chaplin.

As the hero is acclimated to the culture he is trying to penetrate, he experiences an identity crisis which he resolves by "going native" and switching his allegiance to the aliens. He then leads them to a costly but decisive victory over the human intruders. The identity crisis helps to pry the viewing public out of the death grip of its consumerist ego. When this movie dismisses the entire human race with the words "They killed their mother," it hits home.

The philosophy and tactics of non-violence don't gain a moment's hearing in this movie. The alien natives are a composite of Native American traits (real and legendary), including a proud warlike courage and contempt for death, without which there could have been no hope at all. Presumably a non-violent solution to our problems here on Earth is still possible, if only the boycotts and so on were of sufficient size and scope and duration, but there's little sign of that. Copenhagen has just failed.

Insofar as our desperate situation is like that of the assaulted indigenous people on planet Pandora, only violence will do, but insofar as it's different, a massive shift of thought and practice of the kind pictured at places like The Post-Carbon Institute might still be possible without armed conflict over it. Planet Pandora has a biosphere in which every organism is linked electrochemically with every other, so that the whole thing forms a unified conscious intelligence capable of deploying various organisms against the intruders. Our planet may (or may not) be fighting us with viruses, but it cannot seem to go all Hitchcock on our asses and launch the birds against us or it would have by now.

Toward the middle of "Avatar" when the Home Tree fell, we saw the protagonist walking on the forest floor as a rain of ash settled on and around him in an arresting visual parallel to the WTC. When the natives merge with their steeds or with another organism, the linkup is in the tail--but when the failing human body has to be transferred into a healthy alien one, the linkup is at the base of the head, evoking "The Matrix," where that cranial site was the hookup for McWorld. The payoff on invoking that movie, I think, is to reinforce the motif of the false self, whose (capitalist) false consciousness leads to disaster.

As Heidegger explained so well in "The Question Concerning Technology" (the only essay of that Nazi pig I can stand to read anymore), the heart of the matter is the way industrial civilization perceives ("enframes") nature as a limitless source of free wealth of lifeless "resources" to be exploited without constraint. In "The Matrix" (an innovative but verbally flatulent film) human beings are factory farmed for "bioenergy"; though it's never entirely clear just who has set up the dystopian system in that movie, the Matrix is clearly a figure for our own civilization. In "Avatar," the bad guys are the corporate-military crowd, up to our old human tricks, while the good guys are the natives, their planet, and the few human turncoats decent enough to side with the victims.

Sometimes the Marines wear giant metal robot battlesuits, similar to what the human defenders of "Zion" wore in "The Matrix," but there's also a parallel to the forklift-like suit that Sigourney Weaver (the Good Anthropologist of "Avatar") wore in "Aliens." In that movie human beings are meat, but we are bushmeat, not cattle. The enemy is not tech gone wrong ("Terminator", "Nine", "2001") but wild nature in the form of Ridley Scott's hungry, insect-like alien monsters. Since they want to eat us just as the wolves used to, we are roused to defend ourselves with the same insurgent yet humble courage with which King Arthur killed all the wolves in Britain and Hercules drove the lions out of Greece. Nature was vastly bigger than us, we were the endangered underdog, and we fought like hell to survive. Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed Humbaba the Forest God so that civilization could continue in spite of Nature's power to snuff it out. Films like "Alien" are satisfying because they relieve guilt about destroying nature (since they restore Nature to its lost ferocity) while allowing us to return to the state of insurgent heroic self-assertion that we dearly miss from the old days when good Beowulf killed bad Grendel. In "Jurassic Park," the opponent is both human hubristic tech gone wrong, and Nature's retaliatory self-assertion, since by bringing back the dinosaurs we have re-armed Nature against ourselves.

Most boys lose the Oedipal struggle to possess the mother, and must mourn for that loss in pain. A few are truly unlucky; such a boy wins the Oedipal struggle and commits incest with his mother, only to find his sanity has been destroyed. Like such an Oedipus, civilization cannot sort out the good feelings of its incestuous and matricidal triumph over Nature from the bad feelings of the resulting loss, guilt, and the mounting fear of real planetary catastrophic system failure and collapse.

Kafka wrote, "there is plenty of hope, but not for us." In "Avatar," the planet of nature that can still be saved is called "Pandora" and the Earth is already ruined.

Monday, September 7, 2009


I read the first 3/5ths of Henry VI Part 3. Then went to a friend's house for a group reading of Richard III. I brought candied pecans from a supermarket. There was a pool outside with kids playing in it, making that ancient sweet racket of kids playing, the same in every age like birdsong.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Here's my note to the world about this production's purpose. I wrote this not as a reviewer or a person shaping the show but as a participating actor, looking at the thing and answering the question of what the production is aiming at.

This show is the expression of a single idea: deaths in Shakespeare, collected and juxtaposed, laced with a few incongruous bits (of narration and/or mime) for comic relief, and launched headlong at an audience of consenting adults. Of death, we Americans of the Twentieth/Twenty-First Centuries have been just about as terrified, ashamed, and ignorant, as the Victorians were of sex. Shakespeare was deeply steeped in each: he had had the worst experience in the entire human repertoire, the loss of his own child. He also had an erotic life whose presence in the mansion of his work forms both an entire wing (the sonnets), and a motif pervading the whole place.

In NOT TO BE, all the characters die. There’s almost no time to tell the stories that eventuate in these deaths, so the Audience lacks the usual opportunities in which to come to value the characters. In that respect, the show belongs in the genre of horror, with its groans and its fake blood. The venue is Zombie Joe’s on Lankershim, so that’s a good fit and yes, it’s a central part of what NOT TO BE is about. But we’re also going for is a holographic effect, where one decent glimpse of the role can have a chance to trigger associations from the spectator’s past experiences of Shakespeare elsewhere—as an audience member, a reader, and perhaps a player—summoning up a non-verbal ghost of feelings about the figure who is even now being so briefly flashed at him or her. Some people already care about Romeo, and can be purged of pity seeing him perish, even in a fifty-five-second excerpt. Some people already hate King Richard III or Iago and, for the sweet-tooth of that hate, would take an hour out of life to go watch them die one more time. Purging somebody of terror by presenting some well-staged violence is a challenge, but the bigger challenge is on the “pity” side of Aristotle’s prescription for catharsis. “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?”

The answer is (a) Hecuba, and by identification, oneself; and (b) an Other Person, not oneself. So, on the one hand, we’re betting the audience will have some familiarity with these plays, so that the mention of a figure’s name will invoke stored significance and enable the emotions. On the other, we’re just inviting the audience into an exercise, one that’s more primitive than Shakespearean storytelling. It’s a very simple exercise, but perhaps not an easy one: see and hear the next Other Person die; tolerate that experience; feel your feelings; let them go; lather, rinse, repeat.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Not To Be: The Shakespearean Death Project" at ZJU in L.A.

I'm in a weird anthology show at Zombie Joe's Underground Theater 4850 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, CA, directed by Amanda Marquardt. Tomorrow is opening night and I am eager to play it. Blessed with some Lear lines, some Claudius, and the jewel of Clarence's Dream in the Tower, from RIII. For reservations please call 818-202-4120. Gus Krieger is KRIII as well as many other roles. He's wonderful as usual and there is a good troupe. Do come.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nonhuman Persons

A recent Austrian court ruling (1/15/2008) declared that chimpanzees are not persons, a doubly obscene irony: first, because a big part of Austrian identity now consists of bitter remorse for the failure (the refusal) to perceive the humanity of Jews just a few decades ago; second, because legal personhood is exactly what has enabled corporations to destroy most of the biosphere and its inhabitants. Nobody can look into Raytheon’s eyes; a chimp, or an elephant, is a different story. The stakes are high in any discussion of the boundaries of the human, the rights of other species, and the grounds for claims about those rights. What hangs in the balance is a world of food and medicine and sport, a planet’s worth of contested land-use, and a long-cherished belief in the utter superiority of one species of primate. The impediments to a new paradigm are deeply rooted in the two poles of the world’s culture — Biblical Dominionism (e.g., Genesis 1:28) and Aristotelian anthropocentrism (e.g., Nichomachean Ethics, 1098a). The former rests upon the alleged divine origin of the Bible, vexingly difficult to uphold after four centuries of textual criticism. The latter, Aristotelian claim for absolute human superiority is the product of the same imagination that brought you the flaming crystalline spheres of the planetary orbits. When Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus asks his Mephistopheles whether those spheres exist, the devil replies: “No, Faustus. They be but fables.” That hungry category – the fabulous – yawns open the moment the ancient Hebrews turn from Monolatry (the worship of one God) to Monotheism (the belief that only one God exists). That forces monotheists to keep their own God from slipping into the same void that He himself excavated as a tomb for His predecessors. Were human uniqueness to go the way of the epicycles, the ether, and the soul, then the slaughter of animals for food would become far more difficult to reconcile with the more compassionate elements of both Biblical and Aristotelian sources. Doubt about human superiority and doubt about God’s existence are of the same form.

I suppose I call for a category of animality called non-human person, to include dolphins and porpoises, apes, elephants, and parrots, beneficiaries of the convergent evolution of intelligence. Those animals should have rights that approximate the legal rights of human persons. Corporations, on the contrary, should not have that set of legal rights pertaining to individual personhood.

Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen (Yiddish: בייַ מיר ביסט דו שיין, "To Me You're Beautiful")

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Midsummer Night's Dream @ Stella Adler L.A.

From my perspective, this show was carried (if not quite stolen) by its three best performers. Amy Sanders (see photo) is a lovely Hermia with a good ear and a sustained involvement in the flow of verbal events (qualities somewhat hard to come by in this production). Laura Cotene has a bewitching look which she nerdified wonderfully in the role of a non-trad-gender Petra Quince. She led the dance number at the end, with easy grace and some cool bellydancing skills. I wonder if she'd enjoy doing some of the chaste-yet-racy, cabaret-style burlesque that is currently all the rage, like what goes on over at Dollhouse Productions. Mr. Maurizio di Meo (see photo) played a charming Nick Bottom, standing out as the most effective comic player in the troupe. I should add that David Michaelson's Lysander and Kristofer Dayne's Demetrius were competent performances with something to build on. Jill Weller also turned in a solid Puck who was consistently interesting to watch -- and whose image stuck with me.

The physicality was mostly good, with a few exceptions where actors seemed to move as they did because they were blocked to do so, rather than because of some germinating idea with roots in the role. Happily, a crowd of Titania's Faeries faced off with their opposite numbers in Oberon's party, and each group used their arms well enough to successfully suggest movement toward the others, though their feet were fairly still. The set had a cute little bower at the back, in which a sleeper could pass a few womb-like moments of repose while the action continued upstage.

I was puzzled by three aspects of the direction:

1. Everyone seemed to have a thick accent, and I could not quite make artistic sense of that fact. MSND is set in Athens, and some of the accents did sound sort of Greek, but others sounded Russian and still others, just murky. Then again, when I remember that these young actors are from all over the world, that issue disappears.

2. About thirty times--as if they had been instructed to do it--cast members pronounced off-rhymes as though they were full rhymes, without regard for the important convention that makes this awkwardness unnecessary. "Eye" does not rhyme with "melody." Those two words did rhyme in Chaucer's day, two centuries before Shakespeare's birth; they form a couplet in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. But Chaucer heard small birds that "maken melodee," and sleep all night with "open ee." Nobody ever says "melo-dye," so far as I know. "Eyes" should not rhyme with "fantasies," either. And so on. Sometimes they got this right, as when "one" and "alone" were correctly pronounced as a half-rhyme. Since the mistake happened so often, it was hard to tell what the rationale might have been for the director to permit it. Maybe he didn't want to overburden the actors? I don't know. It drove me nuts, but I'm sure many people were unfazed.

3. Only three or four of these actors seemed fully aware of the auditory business called dynamics, where you vary the pitch, the pace, and (more importantly) the volume of your voice to create a more engaging experience for the audience. It also gives you a more extensive toolbox with which to convey the precious sense of what you're actually saying. Mr. Di Meo was particularly good at this.

The script was almost completely uncut, with only about 300 lines missing from the original 2,200 or so. I'm no purist, but I support that sort of thing and consider it courageous. I have rather little to say about some of the choices Director Bruce Katzman felt were important enough to spell out in the program notes--about the music or the transmuting of patriarchal monologue into egalitarian dialogue--because they worked quite well and didn't obtrude as clunky innovations. Any production that boasts its use of 1967-1969 anthems should be enjoyed on the freaky-deaky terms those songs suggest, rather than scolded for impurity as if orthodoxy were an end in itself. This is MSND, not Othello.

This was very much a student production, which might seem unkind but it really is not. There is such a thing as a good student production, and this one was not bad. What I mean is that the quality of the acting was more uneven than it tends to be when a professional company is basing its casting decisions on a set of considerations whose uppermost element is the need for good reviews, to generate ticket sales and help build a company's reputation. A school has a completely different business model and an equally different raison d'etre. It would be foolish for a reviewer to fail to remember this or fail to respect it.

So: at ten bucks a shot, you can't go wrong.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hermeneutics and the Repression of the (Text's) Origin

Hermeneutics has two beginnings; one in the textual criticism of the Homeric scholiasts in Alexandria, the other in the Rabbinic exegetics of the Torah in the Talmudic period. Each interpretive tradition starts as the text it annotates is redacted, given a permanently stable form, and suffused with an agonizing nostalgia. In both cases, memories of the text’s multiple authorship and its gradual accretion must be suppressed; generations of improvising bards become telescoped into the figure of a single blind minstrel called Homer, while a thousand years of myth, chronicle, legislation, and wisdom literature become a single book given in one Moses by God in a single instant on a mountaintop.

For Barbara Holdredge, author of Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture, part of what distinguishes some sacred literature is its tendency to be reframed as the eternal, pre-temporal artifact of direct creativity by the Divine:

"Veda and Torah: Ontological conceptions of scripture in the Brahmanical and Judaic traditions). The dissertation is a study of traditional ontological conceptions of scripture as expressed in the Brahmanical Hindu concept of Veda and the Judaic concept of Torah, in which scripture is viewed not merely as a textual phenomenon but also as a cosmic reality, encompassing both an earthly and a divine dimension. In its earthly dimension the Veda consists of a concrete, finite corpus of hymns, sacrificial formulae, chants, etc., that has been preserved and passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition, while in its divine dimension the Veda is conceived to be that eternal, suprasensible knowledge which exists on the subtle level of creation as the source of the universe. In its earthly dimension the Torah consists of a concrete written text together with an oral tradition of interpretation that was revealed within history, while in its divine dimension the Torah is conceived to be that preexistent, primordial wisdom which is a living aspect of God and the immediate source of creation."
[(the source of this quotation is the abstract of Holdrege’s doctoral thesis of 1987, on which her 1993 book is based].

Had Plato not condemned poetry, one wonders if he would have posited an eternal Iliad and Odyssey of which the actual “city editions” would have been imperfect copies. What unites the Veda, the Torah, the Koran, and Homer is that each eventually took on the utterly crucial work of providing the community with a framework for its own identity and with some sort of access to the Divine. What is of interest here, is that this work entails other, subordinate tasks for its success, and the chief of these is the continual repression of the literary history that produced the central text. Remembrance of that literary history always threatens to disable the text’s revelatory status by reducing it to merely human authorship. If, on the other hand, a given tradition develops a dual origin for its apparently foundational text, one eternal and one temporal, then the theologian’s job changes from the prevention of a temporal etiology of scripture, to the mere containment of that etiology.

At the point when the Jews had forgotten enough Hebrew to require a translation of the Torah into the Hellenistic Greek of their daily life, the text had to be brought from the former language into the latter without the taint of human labor – not merely because such labor is prone to error, but because even a perfect translation by mere mortals would tend to eclipse the Divine authorship upon which the book depends for much of its power. The solution, first articulated in the Letter of Aristeas (among the Pseudepigraphia, 2nd Century BCE), was the “Septuagint,” whose seventy translators are understood to have produced identical renderings of every single word – an outcome so unlikely as to imply a supernatural explanation.

The Goddess named in the first line of each Homeric epic is understood to inspire a single poet, not (or not only) some diffuse, multigenerational, de facto guild of bards who inherit and improvise a multivalent story. Taken to its natural conclusion, as Plato takes it in the Ion, the traditional account of poetic inspiration reduces even the original “blind Homer” to the status of a rhapsode: just as young Ion and his colleagues recite the Iliad without changing a syllable, the tradition’s originary poet recited the Goddess’ words with perfect faithfulness. This creates a swirling, localized little vortex of illogic when we consider the invocation to the Muse, where the poet utters what must be the Muse’s prayer to herself – just as Moses receives on Mt. Sinai a narrative that includes Moses receiving a narrative on Mt. Sinai. As with every other enduring theological quandary, however, the premises which entail this bit of trouble are so important to the culture that produced it, that the costs in cognitive dissonance seem trivial by comparison.

As Walter Ong showed in Orality and Literacy, such a text originates in a long, amorphous historical process of composition and improvisation which is brought to an end by the advent of writing. There follows a period in which the redaction of the text is remembered as the direct result of its inscription. Next, that fact is gradually forgotten, to be replaced by one or another myth of Divine transmission in which the text’s long historical gestation is foreshortened into an instant.

This foreshortening is achieved by the ever-lengthening distance between the present, on the one hand, and on the other, not the lost epoch of original gestation, but the moment of inscription that ended it.

This foreshortening, or forgetting, is what allows (most) medieval people to experience the belief in an instantaneously created, supra-historical Bible (or indeed, the “uncreated” Koran, whose origin explicitly precedes that of the world altogether) as one part of that Bible’s content and meaning.

Another, quite parallel part is the myth of man’s aoristic (once-and-for-all) origin in God’s personal artifice. Of course, it might be much harder to believe to believe that on the Sixth Day (Genesis 1:26), “God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” unless the entire community had utterly forgotten the semi-infinite antiquity of the human species. Man and his sacred text each require a mythical starting point to replace the abysmal nightmare of irreducibly gradual origins; the Torah provides this for man, and in the Talmudic period, he returns the favor.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Zeus sent the wearisome Goddess Hate

I was just reading Iliad XI, line 3 and noticed the first 3-word colon,

"Zeus d'Erida proialle..."

Ζεὺς δ' Ἔριδα προΐαλλε

Zeus sent Eris.

Lattimore translates Eris' name as "the wearisome goddess Hate." I heard that name all the time back in graduate school, that 2nd word in the line... and did we like Limited, Inc.? Hated it.

Gonna think about pie, flying kites, happy healthy penguins, and Springtime. Happy Independence Day, everyone.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Little Paragraph on the Homeric Gods

The Gods are well able to assert their effects on the environment without being supernatural entities whom mere skepticism can subtract from the world. The gods are the way history works, the tendency of hubris to bring nemesis; the moral calculus of consequences and repercussions which karma constitutes; they are the contours of human psychology, the endocrine charts of puberty and menopause, and the neurology of epilepsy, and of the poet’s trance, and of the soldier’s fight-or-flight response.

Shakespeare Santa Monica's MUCH ADO (6-27-09)

Vincent Cardinale directs this quick, seven-show run whose final performance just took place under the stars at Tennis Court # 1. By way of full disclosure, I should mention that this reviewer is also running around Los Angeles doing Shakespearean acting, and last year I played the role of Antonio in the Porters of Hellsgate production of Much Ado About Nothing. So my perceptions may be colored by a familial love of my own peeps and the directorial choices of Charles Pasternak, who runs the Porters. Nevertheless, blessed with the ability to think for myself, I charge forward into the reviewing portion of what I arrogate to myself as my job.

Great show. As it opened, we were told that one of the first-ever performances of Much Ado About Nothing also took place on a tennis court, and this dispelled any oddness about the location though there were distant yet audible parkgoers and distant yet quite audible fireworks in the background; I imagine the open-air Globe itself was host to plenty of London's noise from sausage-sellers, beggars, itinerant tinkers and polecats. No city goes Juliet-like into a temporary coma just because a performance has started; we all took it in stride. The historical note was endearing, and part of what brought us there was a real thirst for connection to the past. This provided an extra strand of it.

The tennis court is big and brightly lit and airy, qualities it shares with the opening scenes of the Branaugh-Thompson 1993 Much Ado. Neither that film nor Shakespeare's play is the most Italian thing on this Earth, but one does want a sunny background on which to paint the story of deception and discovery, and we had it. In an indoor black box, that is much more difficult. The women in SSM's show were all athletic, buzzing with natural vim, and cute as hell, their affluent white tennis clothes amplifying the already potent perkiness, made even perkier by cheerleading choreography and the breezy abundance of Leonato's Messina. Nobody's going to starve in Much Ado; there's war, but it's far off, and the biggest problem people face is how to couple-up without getting slandered into social death. The villain in this drama, Don John, kills with lies, like Iago; this being a comedy, however, the truth comes out before disaster becomes irreversible, and all is well. The odd thing is that Leonato is given a chance to learn the truth even before the reversible disaster occurs: poor Dogberry and Verges try to tell him and he tries to understand them, but the crazystupid cops and the flustered landlord are too socially and mentally distant to communicate ("This learned constable is too cunning to be understood... V.i. 219-220).

John Farmanesh-Bocca is a sweet, strong, amusing Benedick, delightfully ridiculous in his transformation from a scoffing guy's guy to a smitten devotee of his ex-girlfriend, the Beatrice of one lovely Kim Swennen. Cardinale's direction is broader in its comedy than I was expecting, with plenty of investment in ultra-clarity and plenty of anachronistic departures from Bard-World. Big Kanye West dance number. Waterguns. Claudio mourning with an R&B song (the one longeur in an otherwise well-paced romp of a show--yes, he was mourning, but it still felt too slow for me, with a few thick slices of dead air between the lines). Rhett Nadolny's Dogberry was funny and endearing, not nearly so neurologically weird as the Dogberry of Michael Keaton in KB's movie or of my Porters pal Jack Leahy. The Don John of Carvell Wallace was sort of lost on me, blending into the production with a low-key performance that made people smile, fit with the plot, and neither attained nor perhaps attempted much in the way of evil scary evilness.

In fact the one frightening thing in the production was the cold sarcasm of Bruce Cervi's Antonio--and here my own experience in the role may be blinding me to another actor's interpretation. Since the role was (appropriately) cast to an older actor here, he did not seem to be a credible physical threat to the young Claudio whom he taunts (again, that is appropriate), yet this lithe, bespectacled, patrician Antonio showed neither the anxiety and desperation over fighting a much younger man, nor much of the heartbroken outrage over Hero's disgrace, that I associate with the character. Like every reviewer, of course, I was only there for one performance. But it was creepy-- Cervi's Antonio smiled at Claudio throughout the confrontation and seemed very much in control, as though he had goons in his pay ready to leave a severed horsehead in the kid's bedroom or jump him in the dark (and when he said "come follow me, boy, come, Sir Boy, come follow me," why wasn't he going anywhere?). The prospect of an affluent Yale man (as I mentioned, the show opens with the cast in tennis outfits, including the effeminate yellow cardigan that America's GHWB class wears to say "my money will kill you") smiling while making physical threats he can't personally carry out, is way scarier than a big guy with muscles.

Ross Britz played Hero's suitor well. Much Ado has two comic strata with a layer of semi-tragedy in the middle, and it seems to me that the choice in this role is whether to go tragic when things suck for you, or just tough it out till the comedy returns; I felt Mr. Britz had done the latter; I did not feel as if I was in the presence of a real wound. The actor who did choose that course (to engage in tragic acting when the play appears to turn tragic, even though that turn is temporary) and did manage to pull it off--nearly stealing the show, but for the sass and sheer female power of Swennen's Beatrice--was Tim Halligan's Leonato. Bravo.

I'll close with kudos to Dan Kucin, whose 2008 Coriolanus I reviewed in this blog. His Don Pedro left relatively unexplored the heartbreaking potential of "Will you have me, lady?" But that sacrifice made sense, since Kucin seemed just as young as his Beatrice here; if Don Pedro is played as some 15 or 20 years her senior, then you can get people in the throat by showing the older man trying a final shot at bliss and gracefully failing (as Patrick Saxon did so beautifully in the role last year). Instead, Kucin's Don Pedro was lighter, more pervasive; he held the whole show together, pleasantly piloting the comedy forward and seeming to host it all, as though Leonato were just one private householder but the Don were the spirit of the country wherein such things happen -- reputations are destroyed and restored, justice is administered by hapless illiterates, and the world is peopled.

Apparently we will be given a production of PERICLES soon. I look forward to it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

POETRY Magazine: "unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards"

Someone named "Freewill Applicator" recently blogged up a less-than-enthusiastic review of a recent issue of POETRY Magazine. In response, the editor of that magazine, Don Share, posted a link to Applicator's hostile review. I commented:

Why is Applicator wrong? [Applicator had critiqued -- in a way that turns out to have been much more favorable than I had at first inferred -- this stanza by a writer named Nada Gordon:] "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend’s / house and we couldn’t stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn /and Hitler stay warm on a cold night." ...Anybody wanna defend that? Just what subtlety is Applicator missing in dismissing these lines of Nada Gordon [quoted here in pink ...meantime, Applicator has reached out to let me know that in fact he likes these lines... somehow I was unable to detect that fact in his initial post, probably because my own lenses were clouded by my own resentment of POETRY's prestige, which I, like millions of others, lack the fortitude to dismiss, continuing instead to covet it while trying to talk myself out of doing so]? ...just wondering.>>

But Mr. Share said: "I didn't say whether I thought he was wrong!"

So I said: "Don, if you were to agree with Freewill Applicator, that would be strange, wouldn't it? I would need help understanding how you could hold his position and yet publish the poem he despised. If you disagree with him, I wonder why that is. I feel I can learn something here, so I hope you'll comment."

He had also said: "I think I'll blog about the fact that one can take a phrase or some lines from any poem in the world to make it look bad." Following through, he wrote this, on the blog of POETRY Magazine (called Harriett after their founder of a century ago): The Line's for Real, where he claims that Blake's "Tyger, Tyger" is one of the few poems that can hold up to unfavorable excerpting. There, my own moderate response is awaiting moderation by the moderate moderator. Meanwhile, here it is:

"Maybe you are referring to the stanza recently discussed by one Freewill Applicator (it ain’t me & I do not know the person) at the seemingly genderless blog:, in a less-than-enthusiastic review of a particular issue of POETRY Magazine?
"If so, I think defending your choice (which you seem to be interested in doing, here in the current post) would require posting the entire poem, since you suggest that it only seems to suck because it was quoted “out of context.” By all means, let’s see the context. Will that change our perception? If context was the missing thing, we should have quite a different experience once it is restored. On the other hand, if the poem is part of a literary “movement” that deliberately spurns context and narrative in the belief that these are somehow primitive, or somehow have been discredited by WWI or the Internet, then “context” is irrelevant, right? Can one have it both ways?"
While that awaits a response, let's do like the Zap, and consider an example from the wacky world of painting: Imagine being shown a "detail" excerpt from a Jackson Pollock, say, the lower left quarter of "Full Fathom Five":

That's the whole painting. Here's the detail:

You might claim that incompleteness did the excerpt an injustice, but the complete painting is no more representational than the excerpt was. You can bring terms like "rhythm" and even "narrative" to a Pollock, but if you go claiming to see figure and ground in it, or linear perspective, you're on your own, though if you are a gate-keeping gallerist many artists will agree with you in exchange for a show of their own work, or a few column inches in the next catalogue of the gallery, or even some free Chardonnay. I am not above such things. 
See Plato's Phaedrus, 275e.

In 1959 Frank O'Hara, whose robust imagination and discerning musical ear are much harder to emulate than his penchant for found objects and free association, wrote this about Pollock: " painting does have qualities of passion and lyrical desperation, unmasked and uninhibited, not found in other recorded eras; it is not surprising that faced with universal destruction, as we are told, our art should at last speak with unimpeded force and unveiled honesty to a future which may well be non-existent..." Yep. As Cubism was a response to the wreckage of other structures (bodies and buildings, mostly) in the First World War, which apparently turned both public architecture and soldier-boy heroism into a single losing proposition, so the advent of the nuclear bomb, in turn, did a larger version of the same thing, stabbing a pair of ironic quotation marks into the poor Oedipal face of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see..." Allen Grossman taught us all about this in a great 1990 essay called "Nuclear Violence, the Institutions of Holiness, and the Structures of Poetry."

Back to our story:

I admire poetry by "talk poets" like Mark Halliday and David Kirby, who put aside conventions of poetic form because they want to be socially informal while they talk about interesting things that happen to real people, using language that sometimes becomes memorable, even wonderfully so. I also enjoy much of the clever prose-like poetry of Stephen Paul Miller, who is not my kind of poet but whose intelligence and genuine Buddhist detachment has him writing some very interesting things of intermittent beauty and grace. And I really like the playful poetry of Brendan Constantine, whose speakers are usually inanimate objects, because his inanimate objects engage each other in relationships of desire, loss, pain and joy and so on. I mention these guys (and I know they're all guys) because much of their work is less grave than Homer,
Dickinson, Shelley or Yeats, the heavy hitting early Robert Lowell of the Quaker Graveyard, and yet I get joy and/or insight from it. I could mention another fifty or sixty (maybe 35% of them women, btw) currently writing poets whose work I love. Big-deal serious lyric poetry of public import is my favorite thing, which is why I try to write that kind. I do, however, love some lighter poetry and some even goofy-ass poetry. But as for "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend's / house and we couldn't stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn / and Hitler stay warm on a cold night." , there is an awful lot of it about, these days.

I thought,
If only there were a word for just what it is that I dislike so much... and then it happened! Using the information superhighway, I discovered I don't have to spell it out anymore. They call it FLARF! As its name suggests, Flarf poetry is other people's mental flatulence: if you analyze it as if it were literary, you are their beloved dupe; if you hate it, you are a philistine; if you love it, you are a blessed, ludic, less-deceived soul whose indifference to serious business (such as other people, their suffering, the past, our shared fate, America's troubles, etc.) shows you have been saved.

Here is critic Josh Corey on the matter:

"I'm no flarfist, but I admire the subversive energy of the project, the daring of setting out to write deliberately bad poetry so as to put our received ideas of "the poetic" into question. It's become a genuine movement, and the evidence of this is that critics (like Dan Hoy and Jane) and assorted flarfists are now struggling to control its reception. This is the final gesture by which a movement or poet or technique becomes canonical, I think: after this it's all consolidation and textbooks. Which does not necessarily negate flarf's subversive potential; but I think the energy behind flarf, the desire to upset the apple-cart, is bound to move on toward something else now."
A few years back someone at a certain bastion of Ivy League gate-keeping set out to "make a splash" (his words) in the publishing world by commissioning translators for a new set of Greek Dramas. What was the splashy part? He chose people who did not know Greek (one of whom told an assembled audience of over 200 MLA attendees [might've been the then-newly formed ALSC, I don't remember, but I was there] that he had accepted awards for his translations from the Hungarian without really knowing any Hungarian either, and that his graduate students had done most of the work --- asked [not by me] whether any ethical issue arose for him, he shook his head as if the questioner were, well ...speaking Hungarian).

Now, the good-ole American craving for fame may be sick, but it is a disease we inhale with each breath, passively consuming its memes and values like estrogen precursors in our tap water or radioactivity in our tobacco. Unless you had a perfect allotment of good-enough motherlove, you will be like Hart Crane in craving "an improved infancy" and perhaps hoping (as I confess I do) that literary fame will amount to one. That's a pathogenic idea, amazingly resistant to sensible critique because of its deeply emotional false promise, but it is rooted in real feeling and sometimes tethered to both an actual artistic gift and the decades of work it takes to learn a craft and produce real work.
But the desire to "make a splash" with bad translations, or upset the applecart with bad poetry (remember, the Flarfist is likely to embrace "bad" as a badge of liberation from the merely conventional rigors of "good") is something different. It is postmodern aestheticism, the precious, effete, winkingly decorative art of whimsy and camp that has nothing to do with what people actually go through, male or female, gay or straight. It is narcissism without the deadly earnest candor of the writer's heart to pay the price; it is the later Anne Carson of lists and acronyms, not the early Anne Carson of pain; it is a heap of broken, context-free toys that a grown-up is trying to want because they are what s/he has.

Guess who else likes to "admire the subversive energy" of aimless whimsy? Langley, folks! Because if you're going to be subverting things, your friends at The Congress for Cultural Freedom prefer that you subvert THE PICTURE PLANE or THE FICTION OF THE AUTHORIAL EGO or THE DISCREDITED IMPERIAL FRAMEWORK OF THE SONNET FORM, rather than, say, their own high-maintainence, well-lubricated, tax-free interest-free ever-liquid narco cash machine:

Left to their own devices, some artists will write in the tradition of great Hollywood pinko movies like "On The Waterfront," with its unions and its workers and its real physical objects like food and bricks; they might even write about things like the CIA's own election fraud and political murders of leftists in Italy. Instead, try to have them write something more.... um,
subversive, like this: "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend's / house and we couldn't stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn / and Hitler stay warm on a cold night."

Now, I'm not saying that the person who wrote those aimless, centerless, shapeless lines -- or the editor who decided to publish them -- is in the pay of The Man. Some people will do this sort of thing for free.

Left to their own devices, some artists will write in the tradition of great Hollywood pinko movies like "On The Waterfront," with its unions and its workers and its real physical objects like food and bricks; they might even write about things like the CIA's own election fraud and political murders of leftists in Italy. Instead, try to have them write something more.... um,
subversive, like this: "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend's / house and we couldn't stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn / and Hitler stay warm on a cold night."

Now, I'm not saying that the person who wrote those aimless, centerless, shapeless lines -- or the editor who decided to publish them -- is in the pay of The Man. Some people will do this sort of thing for free.

Left to their own devices, some artists will write in the tradition of great Hollywood pinko movies like "On The Waterfront," with its unions and its workers and its real physical objects like food and bricks; they might even write about things like the CIA's own election fraud and political murders of leftists in Italy. Instead, try to have them write something more.... um,
subversive, like this: "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend's / house and we couldn't stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn / and Hitler stay warm on a cold night."

Now, I'm not saying that the person who wrote those aimless, centerless, shapeless lines -- or the editor who decided to publish them -- is in the pay of The Man. Some people will do this sort of thing for free.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Remarks on "Catch Me Now I'm Falling" by The Kinks

1. The riff is the same as "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones. There must be a great deal written about that somewhere but I don't care to look in this instance.

2. It's one of those songs whose chorus quite outshines the verses: "Now I'm calling all citizens, / From all over the world / This is Captain America calling. / I bailed you out when you were down on your knees / So will you catch me, now I'm falling?" They sing this in a beautiful way.

3. It's a bit too timely for comfort of course.

4. There is a longeur of 30 seconds from 2:59 to 3:29 which I find sort of inert and even a bit demanding (bad combination, inert and demanding), with its foursquare thud.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Theories of Falling"

Just been reading Sandra Beasley, whose first collection won the New Issues first book prize. Its title poem is at Verse Daily, here:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

On the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009

A Note to Congress

No matter how much or how little "pollution credits" cost, for the moment they remain little more than an accounting gimmick. Pollution allowances can be sold to raise gov't money to invest in clean technologies, or given away to purchase the short-term rational loyalty of businessmen. That's all.

Carbon taxes are a good idea; progressive carbon taxes should draw from big corporate polluters, while regressive carbon taxes should draw from The People as we drive our SUVs, eat meat every day, and fill our hatchbacks with groceries of processed Agribusinessproductloaf.

I understand that the first draft of the bill would have required utilities to produce 25 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2025, but that this figure is now 20 percent. That's disappointing, but I'm o.k. with it, not knowing just what your motivations were and what was achieved by the concession.

As for the legislative process driving the current bill, "The People’s business should be done in front of the people. Instead," writes the group Public Citizen, "deals have been cut in back rooms to bribe special interests into supporting the bill."

Conservation, contraction, re-localization are far more important than renewable technology for our future.

I repeat: continuous conservation, contraction, re-localization are far more important than renewable technology. We need both, but the SCALE of our energy consumption has got to change by an order of magnitude before "renewables" can ever really matter. If you can legislate us a minimally traumatic way into that process, you are heroes indeed. May I recommend the book "A Presidential Energy Policy", by Michael Ruppert? You may find it helpful in your daunting task.

With respect and gratitude,

Dr. Jamey Hecht

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

J. Edgar Hoover Portrait Tile

Under the glassy surface of the past, its solid square,
Smiles the fat sadistic tyrant in his skin of dirty joy,
Blackmail and his own bad drag, celluloid and negatives
and tapes on everybody else. Look at that face. Grendel.
He’d eat your secret heart, eat your diary, eat your ears.
The shower in his bathroom runs on other people’s tears.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Norah Vincent's "Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back"

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back by Norah Vincent

Well, good stuff. It seems to this reader that Vincent is further along than most people get on the journey to self-knowledge. She's also a craftswoman whose prose consistently draws along the reader's interest -- though there is the occasional glitch, such as "In [Robert] Bly's reading of the Grimm tale 'Iron John,' passive, fearful men must have the courage to reclaim their essential manhood by literally [sic] dredging up this lost fierceness and vitality from inside them, just as the young men in the Grimm story dredge up hairy, muddy Iron John from the bottom of a swamp."
(230). I guess the editor at Viking missed that one. But we are told later that Vincent's father was an icy grammarian, so it makes sense that so competent a writer can nevertheless be found making such a gaffe, in an unconscious slap at Dad. It's mostly well-written.
I did not like her third chapter at all. "Sex" is one unremittingly damning portrait of what must have been the worst strip club in the world. I am not about to launch into a paean to Strip Club Culture and lose six hours of my life researching the web sites and books that perfectly epitomize my nuanced position on the matter, but I do not regard them as either snakepits of abysmal cynicism nor innocent dens of Bacchanalian joy. Vincent wound up in some hellish hole in the ground, and seems to have taken it as representative.

The basic action of the book -- comprising the year Nora Vincent spent on a calendar she turned mosaic with Ned days and Norah hours; the choices she made at the keyboard; and the book that resulted -- is a gesture of social empathy, enacted through deception of that empathy's objects. Like the rest of us she, too -- this handsome, mag-writing, not-so-academic dyke -- is an ego with a c.v. who undertakes projects she can sell. But she also seems to care about people in general, and, with understandable ambivalence, she cares about men, too. The author's basic decency is what keeps the book interesting, not the ironies of deceiving someone in order to empathize with him. When Norah Vincent poses as one Ned Vincent in order to join a men's league bowling team, a men-only monastery, and then a men's movement retreat, the deception is necessary if the book is to appear; but the book is an act of love and understanding, and I agree with the author's reasoned if somewhat self-serving conclusion that it's a good enough book to justify the crap she put people through in getting it researched and written.
Strikingly, according to the book's final pages all this bullshitting in the name of the truth seems to have exacted a serious personal price -- a voluntary trip to the psych ward -- which itself became the basis for her next book, Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin, out now from Viking.

I enjoyed the weird Self-Made Man, and I appreciate the sacrifices its author made in the effort to write it.

As with Susan Faludi's Stiffed, I find myself impressed with a book whose core motive is solidarity and compassion. Now here are some excerpts, all from a few pages just before the book's end. I find a few of Norah Vincent's formulations so compelling that I've put them in boldface. From
Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back by Norah Vincent:
It was hard being a guy. Really hard. And there were a lot of reasons for this, most of which, when I recount them, make me sound like a tired and prototypical angry young man.

It’s not exactly a pose I relish. I used to hate that character, the guy in the play or the novel who drones on and on about his rotten deal in life and everyone else’s responsibility for it. I always found him tedious and unsympathetic. But after living as a guy for even just a small slice of a lifetime, I can really relate to that screed and give you one of my own. In fact, that’s the only way I can truthfully characterize my life as a guy. I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like how wooden I felt and had to make myself in order to pass as a believable guy. I had to do a lot of crossing out when I crossed from woman to man. I hadn’t anticipated this when I’d started as Ned. I had thought that by being a guy I would get to do all the things I didn’t get to do as a woman, things I’d always envied about boyhood when I was a child: the perceived freedoms of being unafraid in the world, stamping around loudly with my legs apart. But when it actually came to the business of being Ned I rarely felt free at all. Far from busting loose I found myself clamping down instead.

I curtailed everything: my laugh, my word choice, my gestures, my expressions. Spontaneity went out the window, replaced by terseness, dissimulation and control. I hardened and denied to the point almost of ossification.

I couldn’t be myself, and after a while, this really got me down. I spent so much time worrying about being found out, even after I knew that nobody would question the drag, that I began to feel as stiff and scripted as a sandwich board. And it wasn’t being found out as a woman that I was really worried about. It was being found out as less than a real man, and I suspect that this is something a lot of men endure their whole lives, this constant scrutiny and self-scrutiny.
Somebody is always evaluating your manhood. Whether it’s other men, other women, even children. And everybody is always on the lookout for your weakness or your inadequacy, as if it’s some kind of plague they’re terrified of catching, or, more importantly, of other men catching. If you don’t make the right move, put your eyes in the right place at any given moment, in the eyes of the culture at large that threatens the whole structure. Consequently, somebody has always got to be there kicking you under the table, redirecting, making or keeping you a real man.

And that, I learned very quickly, is the straitjacket of the male role, and one that is no less constrictive than its feminine counterpart. You’re not allowed to be a complete human being. Instead you get to be a coached jumble of stoic poses. You get to be what’s expected of you.

[ ]

Of course, being seen as an effeminate man taught me a lot about the relativity of gender. I’d been considered a masculine woman all my life. That’s part of what made this project possible. But I figured that when I went out as a guy some imbalance would correct itself and I’d be just a regular Joe, well within the acceptable gender spectrum. But suddenly, as a man, people were seeing my femininity, bursting out all over the place, and they did not receive it well. Not even the women really. They, too, wanted me to be more manly and buff, and sometimes they made their fag assumptions, too, even while they were dating me. Hence the phrase “my gay boyfriend.” Women were hard to please in this respect. They wanted me to be in control, baroquely big and strong both in spirit and in body, but also tender and vulnerable at the same time, subservient to their whims and bunny soft. They wanted someone to lean on and hold on to, to look up to and collapse beside, but someone who knew his reduced place in the postfeminist world nonetheless. They held their presumed moral and sexual superiority over me and at times tried to manipulate me with it.

But standing in the pit of the male psyche was no better. There I saw men at their worst, too. I saw how degraded and awful a relentless, humiliating sex drive could make you and how…

[ ]

…someone hanging over my shoulder taking notes, and even though hearing encouragement was always better than being demeaned as a fag, or a brute, or a failure, it was still insulting all the same, because it told me that just being me wasn’t enough.

This was not just my complaint, not just a woman’s mismatch with a man’s part in the world, though that certainly heightened the contrast. It was the complaint of every guy in my men’s group, and a problem if not always a complaint for almost every guy I met, though some of them were too shut down to express, much less see, how much damage “manhood” was doing to them.

In that sense my experience wasn’t unique. Being a guy was just like that much of the time, a series of unrealistic, limiting, infuriating and depressing expectations constantly coming over the wire, and you just a dummy trying to act on the instructions. White manhood in America isn’t the standard anymore by which women and all other minorities are being measured and found wanting, or at least it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. It’s just another set of marching orders, another stereotype to inhabit.

Learning this surprised me. At the beginning of the project I remember thinking that living as a man and having access to a man’s world would be like gaining admission to the big auditorium for the main event after having spent my life watching the proceedings from a video monitor on the lawn outside. I expected everything to be big and out in the open, the real deal live and three feet from my face, instead of seen through a glass darkly. To be sure, there was a time in America when this would have been so, when boardrooms and a thousand other places were for men only, and worming my way into them would have gotten me the royal treatment and given me the very feeling of exclusivity and enlargement that I was anticipating.
But for me getting into the so called boys’ club in the early years of the new millennium felt much more like joining a subculture than a country club. Walking around and interacting with other men as one of them seemed in certain ways a lot like how it feels to interact with other gay people in the straight world. When certain men shook Ned’s hand and called him buddy it felt as if they were recognizing him as one of their own in much the same way that gay people, when we meet each other, often give each other some sign of inclusion that says: “You’re one of my people.”

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Teaching Notes on the Odyssey of Homer

Notes on the Odyssey of Homer
derived partly from George Dimock’s The Unity of the Odyssey
Jamey Hecht, PhD

Important themes
  • Clarity and Fame (κλεοσ) vs. Ambiguity and Obscurity
  • Hospitality (ξενια) and Civilization (θεμισ) vs. Barbarism
  • Indulgence of Appetites vs. Clear-headed Self-Control (σωϕροσυνη)
  • Pain and Experience vs. Ease and Ignorance
Ανδρα μοι εννεπε, Μουσα, πολυτροπον, οσ μαλα πολλα
Πλαγχθη, επει Τροιησ ιερον πτολιεθρον επερσε

1. Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
Μουσα. The invocation of the goddess makes much more sense, is much more important, if you remember that the poem is composed orally. The Muse helps the bard to invent and then helps the rhapsode to recite what the bard has invented. The request for the Muse’s help inaugurates an economy of divine abundance to compensate for human scarcity; this model of human effort mixed with divine inspiration will be repeated throughout the poem. To row is human, to sail divine. [thus spake the late great Jack Collins, Latin-Greek Institute, CUNY].

The poem has inside it the experience of already knowing the story. They ate the Cattle of the Sun and died, but Odysseus got home again.

2. of that man of many turns
Polytropos = much-turning, of-many-turns, resourceful
Πολυτροποσ. Odysseus is the complement to Athena because of his resourcefulness;
the gods help those who help themselves.

arnumenos hain te psuchain kai noston hetairon
αρνυμενοσ ην τε ψυχην και νοστον εταιρων. (i.5)
striving-to-save his both life/soul and the homecoming of his companions.

9. to save his life, to bring his shipmates home
They ate; he suffered pain and experienced the world.

Aρνυμαι: save, earn, win; in the participial form seen here, striving to preserve his life. Bound up with this idea of saving his life is the production / maintenance of his image, for life in the Homeric world is always, for persons of the aristocratic class, a lived, mortal life of experience made visible and in some sense permanent by an immortal life of fame. Kleos = glory, fame, renown. Odysseus does not remain with Calypso because there is no story that can be told about a man who has dropped out of life, no matter how beautiful the place may be into which he has escaped.

Calypso’s name means “she who conceals; the hider.” Her name and her “hollow cave” suggest that Odysseus is hidden somewhere (in a feminine sexuality that leaves no scope for Iliadic male activity, the production of honor in the light of day, nor for Odysseus’ typical activity in the Odyssey, which seems to be trial and experience and exposure).

νησω εν αμϕιρυτη, οθι τ' ομϕαλοσ εστι θαλασσησ. (i.50)
νησοσ δενδρηεσσα, θεα δ' εν δωματα ναιει (i.51)
neso en amphiruto, hothi t'omphalos esti thalasses
nesos dendreyessa, thea
αμϕιρυτ η, • amphirutê • sea-girt

50. a wooded island, in the sea's middle
Hear the liquidity of the consonants in this passage; nothing is clearly defined or delineated in sharp distinctions; instead it all blends together.
"a sea-girt island in the exact center of the sea; an island covered with trees"

she keeps on coaxing him/ with her beguiling talk, to turn his mind from Ithaca.
Calypso not only hides Odysseus from the world, but hides the world from him.
In the meantime the suitors think he’s dead, and in a way they’re right.
When Menelaus comes to die, his condition will be a lot like this immortality which Calypso is offering --- easy and without stories.
let him find
news of his dear father where he may
and win his own renown about the world.
The lack of definition is the problem in Ithaca too --- is Odysseus coming home, or not?
Uncertainty over this homecoming is making Telemachos’s life miserable.

“The beauty of the suitors’ position lies precisely in the fact that, as long as nothing is known about Odysseus, they can woo his wife as though he were dead, while ignoring Telemachos’ rights as though Odysseus were alive.” George Dimock, The Unity of The Odyssey, (Amherst: U. Mass. Press 1989) p23

“Although Telemachos fails in his main object” -- to clarify Odysseus' situation: is he coming home or not? -- “much else is brought into clearer focus: Telemachos's own situation as he realizes that he must take a stand against the suitors and proceeds to do so (book 1); the suitors' situation as they are compelled by his opposition to reveal that their claim rests on force alone (book2); Penelope's predicament as she comes to recognize that her suitors will destroy her son (book 4); and the character of Odysseus himself as Telemachos experiences the difference between his father and the worthies from whom he seeks news of him (books 3& 4).” Dimock, pp.15-16

The divine agent of this clarity is Athena.
Mentes is in some sense really Mentes the family friend, dropping by for a visit. But because the conversation is so significant, it is, in an equally compelling sense, really Athena to whom Telemachos is talking.

252. My mother says I am his son: I know not
surely. Who knows his own engendering?
Here Telemachos nearly fails to accept the responsibility for the role he is struggling to assume. A few lines later (271-275) he wishes Odysseus had died at Troy, winning honor. Then there is the terrible lack of Odysseus' image, the only image that can remind Telemachos whose son he is and whom he is himself entitled to emulate:

273. making him vanish, as they [the gods] have, so strangely.
Were his death known, I could not feel such pain --
if he had died of wounds in Trojan country
or in the arms of friends, after the war.
They would have made a tomb for him, the Akhaians,
And I should have all honor as his son.
Instead, the whirlwinds got him, and no glory.
He's gone, no sign, no word of him: and I inherit
trouble and tears --- and not for him alone...
(Compare Hamlet, "Time is out of joint...O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.")

Odysseus' image, and the comparison of the son to the absent father, brings Telemachos round --- in effect, converts him to the active pursuit of revenge and justice.
(Athena speaking)
294. I wish we saw him standing helmeted
there in the doorway, holding shield and spear,
looking the way he did when I first knew him.
This invocation of Odysseus' image is enough to inspire Telemachos with the spirit of his father, so that he has the courage to pursue the plan Athena gives him at 309.

Note the plan: p.225 lines 309-341.

Telemachos offers a gift, but Athena does not linger to accept it.

386. Mother, why do you grudge our own dear minstrel
397. The lady gazed in wonder and withdrew

Telemachos assumes authority in his dealings with his mother (Compare Hamlet in Act III scene ii, Mother, for love of grace... Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V also depict the maturation of a young prince: You'll find a difference, as we his subjects have in wonder found, between the promise of his greener days and these he masters now.)

236. savages, they must be, to hold him captive
is a line that Athena says about Odysseus. But it applies to Telemachos, too, because the suitors, who are like savages in their disregard for the laws of guest-host relationship, hold him captive to his childhood position by usurping his place in the household.

263. A wedding? Revel? At the expense of all?
Not that, I think. How arrogant they seem,
these gluttons, making free here in your house!
A sensible man would blush to be among them.
Athena compares the suitor's conduct to the festivities at a wedding; that's ironic because it's precisely a wedding they're hoping for (they each want to marry Penelope), and because when they are all slaughtered by Odysseus at the end of the poem, he will disguise the noisy slaughter as a wedding, so that no one overhearing it should suspect.

When Athena came in, it was Telemachos and only Telemachos who offered her the rights of a guest, just as when she leaves it is he alone who offers her a gift.

While Athena (disguised as Mentor) and Telemachos eat, they are lucid and alert; their minds are working, plotting how best to kill the suitors. While the suitors eat, they are "absorbed in the music and the singing; they have an easy life, scot free, eating the livestock of another." (lines 191-193, Fitzgerald's translation modified). Compare Odysseus and his men in the Cattle of the sun episode mentioned in the very beginning of the poem --- Odysseus survived because he resisted physical impulses and kept a clear head, while they ate and gratified those impulses, and they perished.

Notes on Odyssey, book 2
The major action in book 2 is the assembly, in which Telemachos publicly makes clear the suitor's exploitation of him and his household.
Book 2 also includes an oracle. We will discuss oracles when we come to book 17.

Notes on Odyssey, book 3
In book 3, note the hospitality-scenes. They give a clear picture of how guest and host are supposed to behave, a picture which both instructs Homer's audience and shows a striking contrast to those who do not practice hospitality, e.g. the Lystragonians, the Cyclops, Aigisthos (the man who seduced Agamemnon's wife and killed Agamemnon on his returns from Troy), and the suitors (who want to do to Odysseus what Aigisthos did to Agamemnon).

Note the description of Agamemnon's homecoming, which occurs several times in book 3. It is the example of how not to come home, how not to survive: Agamemnon has only force(βιη, bie), not cleverness (μητισ, metis); he clings to the old, heroic, Iliad-type of behavior, and cannot adapt to a new world of new, subtler dangers. Odysseus makes the same mistake in the Cyclops episode, but he learns from his mistake and his eventual homecoming is a success.

Finally, note the implicit and explicit comparisons of Orestes to Telemachos. Orestes (see, for example, book 2, 206-213) was the son of Agamemnon, and he heroically became famous (gained kleos) by killing Aigisthos and thus avenging his father's murder. To compare the two young men is to suggest that Telemachos may turn out like Orestes by killing the suitors, who are eating up Odysseus' estate and trying to court his wife.

Notes on Odyssey, book 4
Menelaos is tremendously wealthy, he has the most beutiful woman in the world for a wife, and yet he is always grieving. Like the Phaiakians (whom we meet in books 6 & 7), he lives in such ease and luxury that life does not really reach him anymore. Odysseus, whose story is painful but ongoing, is far more alive than Menelaos, whose story --- wealthy as he is --- has come to an end .

The Trojan war was caused by a breach of hospitality, at Menelaos' home: an invited guest, named Paris, kidnapped/eloped with Menelaos' wife Helen and took her back to Troy. The Greeks fought for ten years to get her back, and eventually succeeded, destroying that great and ancient city in the process.

This scene in book 4 is another, different, hospitality-scene in Menelaos' house.
Therefore it contrasts with the earlier, disastrous one. Note the way the herald hesistates to admit the guests when they first arrive (25-35).

230. But now it entered Helen's mind
to drop into the wine that they were drinking
an anodyne, mild magic of forgetfulness.
Whoever drank this mixture in the wine bowl, etc.

This drug is part of what makes Menelaos so mild in his dealings with Helen, who has committed serious offenses against him in the past (the adultery with Paris, the adultery with Deiphobos after Paris was killed, the nearly disastrous tempting of the hidden soldiers inside the Trojan horse) and discomfits him in the present (she broke the careful tension in his hosting of Telemachos by blurting out who Telemachos was, and she told the misleading tale of her allegiance to the Greeks, a tale Menelaos counters with his own story about the Trojan horse, in which Helen had again switched over to the Trojan side).

Helen's drug and her beauty are in some sense the same; they make men forget who they are and what is most imprtant to them. This kind of tension between immediate pleasure and long-term responsibility --- the loss of identity and the earning of identity --- will occur again and again in the Odyssey (the Cattle of the Sun, the Sirens, the Lotus-Eaters)

Menelaos' failure to avenge Agamemnon. Menelaos' immortality.
570. How soon
can you return to Argos? You may take him [Aigisthos]
alive there still --- or else meanwhile Orestes, etc.
Proteus advises Menelaos that he can still avenge his brother Agamemnon's murder, thus pursuing Justice and earning kleos (fame, a metaphorical kind of immortality) for himself. But a moment later, 585-595, Menelaos learns that because he is Zeus' son and Helen's husband --- that is, because he is well-connected --- he will be literally immortal anyhow: after his death he will dwell in Elysion. There will be no winter, no torrential rain --- and though safety is good, too much of it diminishes us as human beings. (California).

Menelaos does not go on to avenge his brother; instead, having raised a burial mound in Agamemnon's honor, he simply goes home, to begin enjoying the same boring leisure he will know in the afterlife. In fact, it may seem that Menelaos gives up on the pursuit of kleos the moment he learns that he will go to Elysion after his death.

Odysseus makes the opposite choice, in refusing the literal immortality of Calypso and pursuing the painful course of justice and kleos, the immortality of the image. Notice the way Proteus describes Calypso's island and Elysion in the same speech, implicitly comparing them.


(Sources: The Odyssey, William Thalmann; The Greeks, H.D.F. Kitto; Homer's Odyssey, ed. Harold Bloom)

ca. 10,000-8000 Development of agriculture, paleolithic age
ca. 4000 Dawn of Neolithic age in Greece
ca. 3000 Beginning of northern invasions of Greece
ca. 2800 Dawn of Bronze Age in Crete
ca. 2000 Unification of Minoan power in Crete
ca. 2000-1700 Akhaian invasion
ca. 1600 Destruction of Phaestos and Knossos in Crete. Palaces rebuilt.
Greek linear script replaces hieroglyphs
ca. 1600-1400 Strong Cretan influence in Greece. Shaft grave dynasty at Mycenae
ca. 1400 Second destruction of Cretan palaces. Rapid wane of Minoan power
ca. 1325-1200 Great age of Mycenae. Development of Mycenean trade in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean.
1287 Battle of Cadesh between Egypt and Hittites;decline of both powers
ca. 1250-1240 Trojan War? A modern archaelogical estimate.
ca. 1225 Trojan War? A modern estimate for the sack of Troy VII.
ca. 1200 Destruction of Mycenean palace-culture
1194-1184 Traditional date for the Trojan War. Sack of Troy VI.
1100-1000 Traditional date of Dorian invasions
1100-750 Darke age; population and material culture decline sharply from 1200 to 1050. Iron introduced ca. 1100
776 First Olympic games festival
ca. 750 The alphabet appears in Greece; reintroduction of writing
ca. 750-700 Probable period of composition of Homeric Iliad and Odyssey
700-480 Archaic Age Homeric poems are written down.
479-323 Classical Period. Civic editions of the Homeric Poems
323-31 Hellenistic Period. Written texts of the Homeric poems are edited by scholars at the library in Alexandria

Notes on Odyssey, book 5
170. O forlorn man
Here Calypso calls Odysseus "forlorn man" or "poor fellow," or "wretch," with the fond condescension of a lover. But once he has made her swear that her offer of freedom is not just a trick, his escape from her becomes a real possibility, and her tone changes --- she calls him by name:
Diogenes Laertiade polumechan' Odysseu
Διογενεσ Λαερτιαδη, πολυμηχαν' Οδυσσευ (V.203)
212. Son of Laertes, versatile Odsseus
In fact the Greek is much more magnificent in its tone of respectful praise, and much more specific to Odysseus than Fitzgerald's rendering. The meaning runs more like this: “Godlike (descended-from-Zeus) Son of Laertes, Odysseus of many schemes.” Remember that his name, his image, his identity, his integrity, is precisely what Calypso was “hiding” by keeping him on her island.

234-6. Now as he spoke the sun set, dusk drew on,
and they retired, this pair, to the inner cave
to revel and rest softly, side by side
Once Odysseus has broken her hold on him, he can be affectionate towards her in a meaningful (because voluntary) way; his masculinity is restored along with his mortality and his freedom.

244-270 Odysseus builds the boat that enables his return to the mortal world. But note: the work of building the boat is itself his re-entry into the mortal world, because in these seven years with Calypso, there was no work for him to do. (Compare Genesis 3: 19) Now he can do what mortals do, and gods and animals don't, namely work. Note that he counts the days --- there was no need to before, since time didn't matter with Calypso.

499. grown from the same spot -- olive and wild olive ---
Odysseus buries himself in the leaves of this thicket and goes to sleep, hidden from the elements and from any predators that might happen by. The mixture of domestic and wild olive trees suggests the combination, in Odysseus' nature, of wild, instinctive drives with civilized knowledge.

Notes on Odyssey, book 6
When he emerges again from these bushes in book 6, line 135, he is compared to a wild animal (a lion), even as he wonders whether the people among whom he has arrived are "savages... or gentle folk."

235-256 Odysseus scrubs himself off, removing the traces of the night he spent sleeping naked in the leaves. This is, again, a rebirth out of the wild and into civilization, exemplified by the highly civilized and polite speech Odysseus makes to Nausikaa.

This theme of civilization (themis) vs. wildness or barbarism is prominent in the Phaiakian books (6 and 7) because while the Cyclops don't have enough themis, the Phaiakians have too much. They are so isolated from the rest of the human race (and so close to the Gods, who visit them undisguised and often) that they are a little surprised to hear that Odysseus is hungry.

~120-~140. The land of the Phaiakians is the first Utopia in Western Literature. The fruits and vegetables there grow year round, apparently without much cultivation, just as the ships move not by the sweat of the sailors but by their mere thoughts.

Notes on Odyssey, book 7
Odysseus' experience among the Phaiakians resembles Telemachos' at Menelaos' house. Each is amazed at the godlike opulence of his host's house, and each enjoys the ritual hospitality. When Menelaos recalls his comrades lost in the Trojan war, "especially Odysseus," Telemachos weeps into his cloak, just as Odysseus does when the bard Demodokos sings about the Trojan war: the host notices the guest weeping, and thereby identifies the guest. Pain confers identity.

Notes on Odyssey, book 8
276-383. Demodokos sings the tale of the adultery of Ares and Aphrodite.
Note: the different gods and goddesses have different responses to this tale, as the Phaiakians and Odysseus, or the suitors and Telemachos, or Telemachos and Penelope, respond to the same songs differently. The Odyssey is full of descriptions of what poetry is and how it affects people.

The adultery among the gods has no lasting consequences: they live on Olympus, and laugh it off. Paris's adultery with Helen caused the bloody Trojan war; Clytemnestra's adultery with Aigisthos caused their own deaths and that of Agamemnon; the suitor's desire for Penelope results in the bloodbath at the poem's end.

545-555. Odysseus, having heard both the tragic song (of Troy) and the comic one (of the adultery of Aphrodite), deliberately chooses to hear the tragic type again. Rather than laugh at the distant Olympian farce or to hear of Troy as a mere adventure story, he chooses to weep at a story of real suffering, of the kind that he has experienced as the city-sacker, the violent conqueror, rather than as the defeated victim (though he has lost all of his companions to violence). The simile of the refugee woman contrasts the life of suffering and experience (a life shared by both hero and victim) with the Phaiakian life of games and leisure.

561. Grief/ seems fixed upon his heart. Break off the song!
Alkinoos is almost frantic with the thought that Odysseus is not having a good time, but it was Odysseus who asked for this sad song to be played. Alkinoos has not learned what Telemachos understood when he told his mother to let the minstrel play on --- that sorrow has its truth, not to be ignored or concealed. So distant are the Phaiakians from experience that (580-587) their ships are thought-propelled, and (605-610) Alkinoos can't imagine his guest having any closer relation lost to the war than an in-law or a friend.

Notes on Odyssey, book 9
110-122 The description of the Cyclops as primitive, pre-civilized figures.

Breaches of Xenia (guest-host relationship) by the Cyclops Polyphemos
A. 265. "Strangers," he said, "who are you? And where from?"
This question is not supposed to be asked until after a host has served his guests a meal.
Polyphemos asks it the moment he sees Odysseus and his men.

B. 287. We Kyklopes/ Care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
When Odysseus asks for guest-friendship in the name of Zeus (who is, indeed, the God of hospitality and strangers), the Cyclops responds with impious scorn and defiance.

C. 304. Then he dismembered them and made his meal
Rather than offer his guests a meal, he eats them.

D. 364. Kyklops, try some wine.
The host should offer wine to the guest, but here the guest offers wine to the host.

E. 357. He hefted his great boulder into place
The host should not keep the guest too long nor prevent him from leaving when he likes.

F. 385. Nohbdy's my meat, then, after I eat his friends.
Others come first. There's a noble gift, now.
The host should offer the guest a parting gift, but the Cyclops mocks this with his "gift."

110-145. Description of the Cyclopes' island.
Note: the nearby island is better for the Cyclopes, but they don't go there because it has never occurred to them to do so, nor to build ships for the crossing (130-133).

Their own island is perfect for agriculture, but they don't engage in it because --- it has never occurred to them. Also, it requires cooperation, and they are solitaries.

Polyphemos is duped by Odysseus because he has no experience with names. No experience with strangers, therefore: no experience of wine (despite boast to the contrary), the shutting of the gate before checking if there are strangers inside already, the assumption that the prophecy about his eye referred to someone larger than himself.

The name Odysseus gives is Μη Τισ, which sounds like Mey-Tis and means "Nobody."
"Tis" means "someone" and "Mey" means "not, none." Together they make the word for "nobody."

It is also true that the word for cleverness (and for the stratagems that a clever man makes) sounds just like these two little words for "nobody": Μητισ, cleverness (one word), sounds like Μη Τισ, nobody (two words). Note these ironies:

1. For Odysseus to escape Polyphemos by calling himself Mey Tis (Nobody) is itself a wonderful piece of meytis (cleverness).

2. Odysseus calls himself Nobody, thereby losing his identity --- but cleverness, which he is exercising in that very loss --- is his most distinguishing characteristic (he is over and over again named by Athena and others Polymetis Odysseus, “Odysseus of much Cleverness”). So in losing his name he is subtlely, through the pun, reinforcing his name.

3. Having lost his name for a while, Odysseus relapses into the old heroic need for kleos (fame) through violence (as in sacking a city or putting out a monster's eye), and shouts his name and address to Polyphemos. That mistake --- that failure of meytis --- brings on Polyphemos' prayer to Poseidon, a curse that keeps Odysseus hidden and obscure --- without kleos, as Telemachos complains at Book 1, line 278 ("no glory" is "no kleos") --- for years to come.

Though Polyphemos is quite intelligent within the realm of his dairy-farming, a solitary activity and one which does not change, he is at a loss when confronted with another intelligence. The Cyclopes' lack of community, their utter lack of social experience --- makes them such poor hosts and so vulnerable to Odysseus' revenge.

"The other Kyklopes' failure to make sense of Polyphemos' nonsensical cry is as absurd as his original mistake, but Homer makes it plausible by his earlier references to their indifference to communal responsibilities. They too are caught in the same trap as Polyphemos, although he mistranslates meytis as a real name while they translate it correctly back into the negative pronoun 'nobody.'" (Norman Austin, "Intimations of Order," reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of the Odyssey).

402. turning it as a shipwright turns a drill
The handicraft of making ships is part of the metis, intelligence, of Odysseus which the Cyclopes lack. They specifically lack the ability to build ships, which is both a cause of their isolation (no voyaging, no meetings with others) and an effect of it (no cooperation, like that of Odysseus' men who work as a ship's crew together).

Notes on the wanderings of Odysseus, books 9 through 12

Notes on Odyssey book 9, The Lotos-Eaters
98. but those who ate this honeyed plant, the Lotos
The Lotos is a real problem not so much for Odysseus as for his men. It offers the loss of memory altogether. The men have to be tied down to their benches. Compare the Sirens' episode, where Odysseus must be tied to the mast of the ship. The Lotos tempts the men with utter loss of memory; the Sirens tempt Odysseus with total immersion in memory.

Book 10, Aiolos
50. Temptation had its way with my companions,/ and they untied the bag.
Had they not done so, they would have gotten straight home, but the Phaiakian sort of freedom from the normal frustrations of seafaring cannot hold. Everyday reality intrudes, by way of the men's' curiosity, and they are blown off course again. This happens while Odysseus is asleep, and the whole episode of Aiolos is a kind of rehearsal for the Phaiakians episode.

Book 10, Laistrygonians
The Laistrygonians episode is a sheer disaster for Odysseus and his men; after the foolhardy mistake with Aiolos' bag of winds, the cannibalistic Laistrygonians are a terrible blow of further bad luck. Odysseus restores the men's confidence and re-unites their little community with the killing of the stag on Circe's island and the ensuing feast on the beach.

Book 10, Circe
333. a moly in the language of the gods ---/ fatgue and pain for mortals to uproot

Hermes gives Odysseus a drug, moly, that is hard for mortals to dig up. It prevents him from being seduced by Circe, and that ends up making him able to seduce her in turn. The Cyclops ate Odysseus' men; Circe feeds them, but they lose their identities just as surely. Being turned into a pig is perhaps Homer's idea of the fate of the amnesiac. It is this rash eating --- like the eating of the Cattle of the Sun --- that causes the men to succumb to Circe's power, and it is a gift of the Gods --- Hermes' present of Moly to Odysseus --- to be able to resist this.

"It seems right that the female who seduced Odysseus' crew by a bogus offer of love and care should really become interested in the man before her only when he shows himself both able to resist her gratifications and willing to kill her if necessary to preserve his men's identity and his own." Dimock, p.127

Notes on Odyssey book 11, Hades
As Odysseus left for the Land of the Dead, one of his men, young Elpenor, fell drunk from Circe's roof and broke his neck, the latest victim of reckless eating and drinking and the surrender to impulse. He gets to Hades almost instantaneously. Odysseus promises Elpenor a burial with a humble monument, the oar he rowed in life.
The Prophecies of Teiresias
120. But if you raid the beeves, I see destruction
Teiresias warns against eating the oxen of the sun.
136. "What winnowing fan is that on your shoulder?"
When Odysseus gets home, after he dispatches the suitors, he must travel to a far place where people know nothing of ships and the sea; these inlanders will not even recognize an oar for what it is. And yet as we have learned from Elpenor, the oar is a fitting symbol of the life of wandering, pain and experience that he and Odysseus will have shared.

There is a similarity between what Teiresias is telling Odysseus to do in the future, and what he is doing now among the Phaiakians. The story of his wanderings erupts among their peaceful leisure like an oar planted among people who don't put salt on their food: the hosts' lives lack savor, because they have too much security, while the guest's (Odysseus') life is painful and deep, because it has so little security, so much exposure.

175-240. Odysseus' conversation with his mother's ghost
215. only my loneliness for you, gentle Odysseus, / took my own life away
Odysseus' mother has died of grief for lack of Odysseus, who bites his lip to hear of this, and feels guilt (or something like it). But note Antiklea's parting words:

239-240. Note all things strange seen here, to tell your lady in after days.

The following portion of Book 11 is a catalogue of women, now dead, a catalogue describing their lives from the perspective of death: how these women are remembered. What Antiklea wants Odysseus to describe to Penelope is how a woman is remembered, what makes for a good reputation in the afterlife, where reputation is all that is left of a person. Next there follow Odysseus' meetings with Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax.

503. Land your ship / in secret on your island
Agamemnon warns Odysseus about the need for secrecy upon homecoming.

544. Better, I say, to break sod as a farmhand
Achilles here "critiques the old heroic value system" as they say...

633. But he gave no reply, and turned away,
following other ghosts toward Erebos
We are reminded that Odysseus won the competition for the armor of Achilles, and Ajax lost. It was a fair decision, since it was made by Athena and the Trojans, but Ajax could not bear defeat and killed himself.
"Ajax died for an honor which Odysseus would give up to have Ajax still alive. Ajax can never forget that he was defeated, but Odysseus rises above defeat and victory alike." (Dimock, p.158)

Notes on Odyssey, book 12
The crime of eating the oxen of the sun is essentially the crime of choosing death over life: literally, because over and over again the men are warned that eating them will cost them their own lives, so that this eating, when it happens, is a flight away from hunger and discomfort and into death; and metaphorically because there are 350 sheep and 350 cows, as if they were the days and nights of the year --- they belong, after all, to the sun --- so that to eat them is to kill time, to abbreviate life.

Notes on Odyssey, book 13
Among the Phaiakians Odysseus has gone from a naked, nameless man sleeping wild in the bushes to a man revered by the Phaiakians, provided with a homecoming and more treasure than he can carry as a parting gift.

That has been a process of winning and securing his identity: through the encounter with Nausicaa on the beach, the introduction and supplication at the palace, the athletic games, the hearing of the poet Demodocus and Odysseus' weeping at the memories those songs aroused; the telling of his name, and finally the singing of his own stories, the wanderings of him and his men.

This gradual re-establishment of his identity has been a preparation for the last phase of the poem, in which he will first lose his identity all over again --- by disguising himself as a beggar --- and finally gain his old identity openly and completely, through the old-heroic, kleos-bringing, undisguised violence in the slaughter of the suitors. The non-violent corollary of that disclosure is the series of recognition scenes in which members of Odysseus' household are told who he really is (Telemachos, Eumaus, Eurykleia, the Cowherd, and finally, Penelope).

At this point, the beginning of Book 13, Odysseus has survived the anger of Poseidon.
Whatever suffering he has left will be at home, and no longer the struggle to get home.
The first half of the Odyssey is over.

90. Slumber, soft and deep,
like the still sleep of death, weighed on his eyes
as the ship hove seaward.
This is a kind of death-and-rebirth, from the wanderer to the homecomer.

220. Odysseus/ awoke, but could not tell what land it was
after so many years away
Odysseus must start at the bottom again, as he did with the Phaiakians (book 5, sleeping in the olive thicket like a wild animal).

349. You play a part as if it were your own tough skin.
This is the first of the recognition scenes: Odysseus recognizing his homeland.
There is also the mutual recognition of Odysseus and Athena.
This is the first time Athena has appeared to Odysseus openly; until now she had feared the anger of her brother Poseidon (see the last lines of book 6, p.286).
Note Odysseus' dependence on Athena for his success against overwhelming odds, but note also his independence of her in the matter of his identity --- he is who he is by his own nature.

She hides the Phaiakian treasure, disguises Odysseus, and makes a plan to kill the suitors, not because he can't do these things, but because she can do them better.

Notes on Odyssey, book 14,The visit of Odysseus to Eumaios the faithful swineherd
103. All they want is to prey on his estate
Odysseus learns the state of things on Ithaka (a long, mortal version vs. the quick, Athena-told-him version of book 13) and tests the loyalties of his dear ones.

The whole scene is an example of humble but heartfelt Xenia, more beautiful than the hospitality of the Phaiakians because it is closer to the source of things.
63. All wanderers/ and beggars come from Zeus
Odysseus getting the full, local description of what is going on; later, he will see for himself, but first he must know what to expect.

517. to put it in his head to take his cloak off
Odysseus must deceive both his enemies and his friends, since he's in disguise, but note the way Odysseus can get Eumaos to do what he want, without Eumaos realizing it --- Odysseus is his master. The profession of beggar involves a lot of manipulation. Consider the way Odysseus almost let the young dogs attack him (cf. the Suitors).

Notes on Odyssey, book 15
Telemachos returns Peisistratos to Pylos and comes home to Ithaka, prompted by Athena.
Odysseus hears Eumaios' story of how he came to live on Ithaka on Odysseus' estate.

As Eumaios recounts his affection for Odysseus' mother and father and sister, imagine what Odysseus' own feeling for those same people must be like.

Notes on Odyssey, book 16
The recognition of Telemachos by Eumaios
15-35. The swineherd/ rose in surprise
Not a word about what Odysseus is feeling, when Eumaios is embracing Telemachos. As though to make sure that we see through Eumaios to Odysseus, Homer compares the swineherd's joy to a father's.

49. Friend, sit down; we'll find another chair
Telemachos is, indeed, well mannered to strangers. He has turned out alright.

95-120. Odysseus, disguised, heartens Telemachos with the image of Odysseus.

150-162. Eumaus leaves, Telemachos asserts himself prudently.
The recognition of Odysseus by Telemachos
Athena presides over this recognition, transforming Odysseus before Telemachos' eyes.

τον δ απαμειβομενοσ προσεϕη πολυμετισ Οδυσσευσ 201
Τηλεμαχ, ου σε εοικε ϕιλον πατερ ενδον εοντα
ουτε τι θαυμαζειν περιουσιον ουτ αγαεσθαι
Fitzgerald's rather nasty "this is not princely" is not in the Greek, which is more like "it is not fitting, it is not seemly."

285. Before long they will stand to right and left of us
Odysseus is full of a confidence in devine help that he confers on Telemachos.
Note the economy of scarcity in Telemachos' skepticism (283."other affairs of men").
Notes on Odyssey, book 17

460. What fatherly concern you show me! Frighten
This unknown fellow (ξεινοσ), would you, from my hall
Telemachos shows Antinoos how unqualified he is for the role of Odysseus.
The suitors demonstrate that they deserve the punishment they get.

630. Telemachos' sneeze
Oracles are a kind of knowledge
page 233: Book 2, 188-190.
I am more fit to interpret this than you are.
Bird life aplenty is found in the sunny air,
not all of it significant.
This is a note repeated throughout Western literature, since oracles are always articulated in the medium of the normal material world. Generally the prodigies are in the form of weather, birdflight, animal entrails, or the stars, all of which can, within reason, seem significant when they aren't and vice versa. Is some event a sign or not, and if so, what does it signify?

The oracles in the Odyssey mostly concern the triumphant return and revenge of Odysseus, good omens therefore for him and his, bad omens for the suitors. Generally it is the suitors who misunderstand the omens, thinking them either meaningless or favorable to themselves: they cannot read the signs, just as they can't read the natural, circumstantial signs of their coming doom --- the armaments removed from the walls, their failure to ambush Telemachos, all the innuendo in the beggar's speech, his quick victory over Iros --- but most of all, they can't see that Odysseus is among them, until it is too late.

Notes on Odyssey, book 18
After the fight with Iros, the suitors begin to respect the disguised Odysseus somewhat. He gives them fair warning, at 142-167. This adds significantly to our sense that Odysseus is justified in his murderous revenge.

Notes on Odyssey, book 19

Eurykleia's recognition of Odysseus
Recall Helen's recognition of Odysseus when he was disguised at Troy, in the story she told in book 4.

Penelope's interview with the disguised Odysseus. Here his self-control recalls the moment Menelaus descrivbed in book 4, when Odysseus kept himself and the other warriors quietly hidden while Helen tempted them with the voices of their wives.

Notes on Odyssey, book 23
Kleos is inverted in the slaughter of the suitors. Even though the deed is of the martial kind performed at Troy, the fame of it must remain secret:

μη προσθε κλεοσ ευρυ ϕονου κατα αστυ γενηται
ανδρων μνηστηρων.

See essay by Charles Segal in Bloom volume, p.147

The simile at 23. 233-240 in the Greek, "As the sight of land brings joy to men swimming," see Norman Austin, "Intimations of Order" at page 397 of the Norton Critical Edition of the Odyssey.