Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Blindness of Homer

One thread I've noticed running through The Odyssey has to do with limited knowledge, with blindness and disguises.  Athena disguises herself as a friend, a peasant boy, a water-carrying girl, and so on.  The angels in the Bible usually begin their messages with "Fear not"; their overpowering appearance must have required it.  Perhaps Athena knows that if she appears to a mortal in her own form, she will have to spend most of her time dealing with how she looks; better to hide her identity behind a humble mask and deal strictly with the message she has to deliver.  If this is so, Odysseus ultimately learns more by being presented with less.

All messages about the future, from either god or prophet, seem to follow the same pattern: a traveler is told of a place that is simply and unavoidably in his future, and then he is given options and told of the consequences of each choice.  For instance, Kirke tells Odysseus where to find Teiresias, and then Teiresias tells Odysseus he will go to the island of Helios.  So far it sounds as though Odysseus is subject to fate (as are we, since travels in books usually represent life).  It may seem as if he has the choice to sail either east or west, but apparently either way brings him to the island of Helios.  And yet once there, he must face a terrifying dilemma: either he and his men must die of starvation, or they can slaughter some of the Sun God's herds and invoke his wrath.  So in this situation, he suddenly has a choice.  Perhaps the gods only speak of a few major choices because, again, limited knowledge is better: knowing and thinking about every tiny choice along the way would stymie the adventurer just as the centipede found himself immobile when asked to explain in detail how he moved.  Or perhaps the life Homer portrays here is the same one William James talks about: most of our lives we live by habit, while true, effortful acts of choice come to play only in moral dilemmas and other conflicts of will.

In any case, Homer seems to tell us that avoiding what we would call "information overload" makes the path to knowledge easier.  Two of the most knowledgeable characters, for instance, are blind.  The prophet Teiresias is blind, even after dying and going to Hades, and he has better information for Odysseus than even the goddess Kirke does.  Also blind is the minstrel Domodokos.  Homer tells us that the Muse loves these singing poets best of all men and gives them knowledge of the ways of life and of good and evil.  Tradition says that Homer was blind, and perhaps he, too, saw the ways of life more clearly for not being distracted by outward appearances.

Speaking of good and evil, I said in a previous post that at one point in the story the gods seem to want only sacrifices from their human subjects, not ethical lives.  After reading a bit more, though, it's clear that only god-fearing people are hospitable (hospitality being one of the chief virtues according to Homer) and that the gods "are fond of no wrongdoing, but honor discipline and right behavior."  I guess I'm too quick to critique ancient Greek notions of piety the way Plato does in Euthyphro: one would think the gods must be models for the way they want us to live, and yet they don't agree with each other on what they want from us, and they do to each other as they would not have us do unto ourselves.  The Greeks knew they should act righteously, but they had no clear divine revelation on how to do it.  And yet without clear guidance from their deities, the Greeks still knew that murder, theft, adultery, and neglect of worship were wrong.  "They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them."

The best part so far is the visit to the place of the dead in Book 11.  Steeped in eerie, bloody horror (complete with sacrificial calves lowing on the spit), its touching scenes include views of the famously punished Tantalos (who is tantal-ized by the nearby water he cannot drink) and Sisyphos (who continually pushes a rock to the top of a hill only to have it knocked back down by an invisible Power), and famous personages from other Greek legends such as Leda, Ariadne, and the mother of Oidipos.  Odysseus finds old friends, too, such as Akhilleus (Achilles), who declares it better to be a poor farmhand in the land of the living than a prince in Hell.  Odysseus' most powerful encounter comes when he meets his fellow general Agamemnon.  Agamemnon tells his friend that as his soul left his body, he saw that his wife did not even take the time to shut his eyes after her lover had killed him.  Odysseus is doubly afraid when he thinks that after nineteen years, perhaps he himself will meet with the same kind of homecoming.  But then, Penelope is no Klytaimnestra.

We, too, should become blind that we might see -- blind to the petty annoyances and distractions around us that we might see the profound themes Homer addresses in his saga, and yet blind sometimes to the specific circumstances of Odysseus' travels that we might see our own lives in this ancient mirror.

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