May 2, 2017


A FATHER'S FINAL ODYSSEY : My octogenarian dad wanted to study Homer's epic and learn its lessons about life's journeys. First he took my class. Then we sailed for Ithaca. (Daniel Mendelsohn, 5/01/17, The New Yorker)

As far as my father was concerned, Odysseus wasn't worth all the fuss the poem makes about him. Again and again, as the semester wore on, he would find a way to rail against the legendary adventurer. "Hero?" he would sputter at some point during each class session. "He's no hero!"

His contempt amused the students, but it didn't surprise me. The first adjective used of Odysseus in the epic--it comes in line 1, soon after andra--is polytropos. The literal meaning of this word is "of many turns": poly means "many" and tropos is a "turning" (which is why a flower that turns toward the sun is known as a heliotrope). On one level, the word accurately describes the shape of Odysseus' journey: he's the man who gets where he's going by meandering--indeed, often by travelling in circles. In more than one of his adventures, he leaves a place only to come back to it, not always on purpose. And then there is the biggest circle of all, the one that brings him back to Ithaca, the home he has left so long ago that, by the time he returns, he and his loved ones are unrecognizable to one another. But "of many turns" is also a canny way to describe the hero himself. Throughout Greek literature, Odysseus is a notorious trickster, given to devious twists and evasions. In contrast with Achilles, the hero of the Iliad--who declares at one point that he hates "like the Gates of Death" the man who says one thing but means another--the hero of the Odyssey has no scruples about lying to get what he wants.

Odysseus' sly proficiency as a fabulist, as a teller of tall tales and an outright liar, has endeared him to audiences over a hundred generations; writers and poets, in particular, see him as a virtuoso of language. (In one memorable episode, he uses a pun on the word "nobody" to defeat the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant who has eaten some of his men.) But all this made him unbearable to my father. A mathematician by training, he valued accuracy, precision--a kind of hardness, even. He had meticulously calibrated standards for virtually everything, as if (I often resentfully thought, when I was young) life were an equation and all you had to do was work out the variables: children, marriage, friendships. Everything, for him, was part of a great, almost cosmic struggle between the qualities he championed and the weaker, softer qualities that most other people settled for, whether in songs or cars or novels or spouses. The lyrics of the pop music we secretly listened to, for instance, were "soft": "Assonance is assonance but a rhyme is a rhyme. You can't approximate!" Many of my father's pronouncements took this x-is-x form, always with the implication that to think otherwise, to admit that x could be anything other than x, was to abandon the strict codes that governed his thinking and held the world in place. "Excellence is excellence, period," he would bark. "Smart is smart--there's no such thing as being a 'bad test-taker.' " For him, the more arduous something was to achieve or to appreciate, the more worthwhile it was.

All this hardness, the sanity and exactitude and rationality, often made me wonder how he came to acquire the incongruously silly nickname we used for him: Daddy Loopy. True, there were sudden and unexpected softenings that, when I was a child, I used to wish would come more frequently. Some nights, instead of staying hunched over his small wooden desk in the hours after dinner, muttering at the bills as he passed a slender hand over his smooth pate, he would stand up with a sigh and walk across the narrow hallway, into my room, and then, after doing a "super-duper tucker-inner," sit at the edge of the bed he had built and read "Winnie-the-Pooh" aloud to me. I would lie there in bliss, cocooned like a mummy, unable to move my arms but nonetheless feeling safe as his nasal baritone wrapped itself around the short, straightforward sentences.

And there was the time he took me down to Florida to see his own father, who'd fallen ill. This was in the mid-nineteen-sixties; I was about four. At the beginning of the flight home, we were told that there was "weather" over New York and that we'd have to circle. I was unsettled by the plane's continual tilting, by the moon passing our window again and again, and just wanted to get home; but, instead of being impatient with me, my father put a book in my hands and said, "If you look at this, you won't notice." My father would occasionally tell this story, ostensibly because it showed what a good, patient boy I had been. But now that I know what it's like to travel with small children I realize that it's about how good and patient he was. Of course, being my father, he didn't take long to segue from this tender anecdote into mathematics. The story, he would say as he started to tell it--and this is another reason that the Odyssey makes me think of him--hinged on a riddle: How can you travel great distances without getting anywhere? The answer to the riddle was: If you travel in circles.

In my father's eyes, the hero of the Odyssey miserably fails the x-is-x test. Hence his derision, the sputtered imprecations: "He's no hero!"

The first time this happened was around eleven-fifteen on the morning of January 28, 2011, about an hour into the first meeting of Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer. We'd been talking about the way the poem starts. The proem, as the first few lines of an epic are known, establishes the backstory: our polytropos hero has been delayed on his return "after sacking the holy citadel of Troy"; having "wandered widely," he has been detained by the amorous nymph Calypso, who wants to marry him despite his determination to get back to his wife, Penelope; all the men he took with him to fight in the Trojan War have perished, some through foolish misadventures on the journey home. But, after this brief introduction, the poem turns not to Odysseus but to his son, Telemachus, who was a baby when the hero left for Troy. Now a youth of twenty, he sits around the royal palace as the epic gets going, fretting about the disastrous effects that Odysseus' two-decade absence has wrought. Not only have the suitors overrun the palace, draining its stores of food and wine, carousing day and night, seducing the servant girls, but the social fabric of the island kingdom has frayed, too: some Ithacans are still loyal to Odysseus, but others have thrown their lot in with the suitors. Meanwhile, Penelope has withdrawn to her chambers, dejected. This is how the Odyssey begins: the hero himself nowhere in sight, the crises precipitated by his absence consuming all our attention.

As the session began, I tried to elicit ideas from the class about why the poem might begin this way. I looked around the big rectangular seminar table and peppered the students with leading questions. Why focus on the son, an inexperienced youth, and not the father, already famous for his exploits in the Trojan War? What narrative purpose is served by making us wait to meet the hero? Could the information we glean about Ithaca in these opening lines prove to be useful later on? The students stared at their texts in silence. It was only the first day of class, and I wasn't surprised that they were shy; but nonetheless I was anxious. Oh, God, I thought. Of course this would be the class that Daddy is observing.

But then a young woman next to me, who'd been scribbling in her notebook, straightened up. "I think the first book is meant to be a kind of surprise," she said. "So here we are, at the beginning of this big epic about this great hero, and the first reference to him is that he's this kind of loser. He's a castaway, he's a prisoner, he has no power and no way of getting home. He's hidden from everything he cares for. So it's, like, he can't go any lower, it can only go uphill from there?"

"Great," I said. "Yes. It provides a baseline for the hero's narrative arc."

It was at this point that my father raised his head and said, "Hero? I don't think he's a hero at all."

Posted by at May 2, 2017 6:09 AM