Homer on Paying Attention

Alex Petkas

Reading long books is tedious. Reading long articles too, for that matter. Let’s say you are a busy person trying hard to accomplish something meaningful with your life. Honestly, you do not have much time for pure entertainment if you want to accomplish your goals. There had better be a purpose to your reading.

The best kind of reading, for someone in your position, will inspire you to work harder and make better decisions, equip you with useful and perhaps profound insight about the things you care about. (It would also be nice if it makes you laugh or cry occasionally.)

If you are going to take other people’s advice and read a book that has withstood the test of time, let me suggest something: read it with the assumption that it is indeed about what you care about most, and is ultimately about you and your experience. This is not as fanciful a hypothesis as you might think, but we don’t need to get into that kind of discussion here.

Take Homer’s Odyssey as an example. Consider it as a poem about focus: the hero sets a firm goal – get home from Troy. Odysseus had built up a beautiful little kingdom back on Ithaca, wealthy and well ordered. Cattle, friends, loyal servants, amazing wife. By the end of the war, he was the man who deserved most credit for the victory. After ten years away, he’s accomplished just about everything one could hope for.

Now, he just has to get back to Ithaca. Sounds simple, right? It’s the final stretch; this should be easy. They will wave your flag and sing for you as you stride down the gang plank. You’ll wave back, but maintain a stern expression. Thanks, but no, no praise please; just doing my duty; glad to be home.

Not so fast. If you think you have accomplished much and are ready to retire, but then realize that you may only be at the fifty-yard line, the Odyssey is a poem for you. It takes Odysseus another decade, and a lot more toil and suffering, to accomplish his goal. It also takes superhuman concentration.

Odysseus manages to escape the Cyclops Polyphemus’ cave beneath a ram (‘Sappho Painter’, Athens, c. 510 BC)

In Odysseus’ mind, heroism is about rejecting specious alternatives. After years of keeping him as a lover on her remote island, the nymph Calypso is ordered by the Olympian gods to let Odysseus go. She has no choice. But he does. Calypso tries to persuade him to change his mind and stay with her. “If you only knew how many hardships you were fated to undergo… you would stay here with me and be the lord of this household and be an immortal (ἀθάνατός τ’ εἴης)” (Odyssey 5.206–9).[1]The Greek text of this passage can most conveniently be read, with interlinear English translation, via the Chicago Homer project.

Calypso’s offer must be rejected, like all of the other temptations Odysseus has faced. She offers him an alternative to all of that hard work, death – all of that risk. But her name means “she who covers” (Καλυψώ from καλύπτειν, “to cover up, hide”) – it’s a comfortable immortality, but one that would hide him from the world of human meaning. He could name many of his dead shipmates who would have taken the deal. No, thank you.

Better be careful how he puts this, he can’t afford to irritate her. Good thing his wife can’t hear. He replies: “Goddess and queen, I myself know that all you say is true, and that circumspect Penelope can’t compare to you in beauty and stature. But I long to see the day of my homecoming (νόστιμον ἦμαρ ἰδέσθαι)” (5.215–20). Nostimon ēmar: the phrase is related to nostos (νόστος, “homecoming”) – from where we derive the word “nostalgia”.

Odysseus and his crew skirt the Sirens (Roman mosaic of 2nd cent. AD, Bardo National Museum, Tunis, Tunisia)

But it isn’t some quaint nostalgia that drives Odysseus to choose pain over pleasure, risk over security, death over life. To give up on his resolute purpose when he has the chance to press on would constitute the ultimate betrayal – self-betrayal. How could he ever set any meaningful purpose for himself again, if he once and for all gave up on the most meaningful thing he ever had? Moreover, he would lose his value to anyone beyond himself. The wise man would rather die than lose his integrity of character, his unity of conscience. Gazing into the pool in the nymph’s glowing cave, forever he would see an empty wraith staring back at him.

So, at last an answer to his prayers to return. The gods, at least some of them, are on his side. They will help him get home. Calypso, too, says she will help. But what help will he get? A unicorn? A whirling transport cloud? No, not even so much as a ship of friendly Phoenician merchants to chance by and give him a ride.

Calypso directs him to where the best trees on the island for shipbuilding are, hands him an axe, an adze (what’s an adze again?), and an auger. Time to build your own boat. Have you built a boat before? The gods seem to think you can do it. Either way, you had better pay attention – you probably won’t get another chance.

Odysseus and Calypso, Sir William Russell Flint, 1924

As the original Greek words thrown in above may have suggested to you, your freedom to make the poem mean whatever you want it to mean is not infinite – there is something real and irreducible there. Some human actually wrote this, with a genuine intention. The fact should be reassuring.

Paradoxically, the more of the Odyssey’s “original context” you grasp – the Indo-European epic tradition; the political economy of archaic Greeks; the strange, subtle, yet brilliantly clear language in which Homer writes – the more you will be able, if you choose, to derive real benefit from the poem. You will be enabled to make it more your own.

That is a big if, mind you. Scholars regularly fail to derive personal benefit from subjects they are experts in – this has even been documented, apparently, in the case of ethics professors. The present author also, regrettably, has learned from his own mistakes in this regard. By the same token, amateurs (remember, that literally means “lovers”) regularly grow in personal excellence without all of the learned apparatus, gaining much more value in return for much less work. The choice is yours.


Alex Petkas is a former professor of Classics, who now lives and works in Texas.

Notes

Notes
1 The Greek text of this passage can most conveniently be read, with interlinear English translation, via the Chicago Homer project.