Heroic crying

Tr. Emily Wilson
W. W. Norton & Co., 2018

Maybe one of the most significant reading experiences I’ve had in recent memory, at least since 2666.

I remember the hype for this translation being that formally it matched the original ancient Greek line for line, but in a condensed English iambic pentameter, and ideologically it was a satisfying alternative to the Lattimore and maybe especially the Fagles, which tend to slut shame Helen. That’s basically true, and the work also supports the reading of Homer by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly in ALL THINGS SHINING, that the gods are externalized human emotions or drives, implying that the story can work at a blunt empirical level: yes, the suitors all missed their spears, and yes clear-eyed Athena was there, but it’s just as well that Odysseus and Telemachus exhibit the situational awareness and blind luck that are called for in moments of decisive violence.

The gods are only interested in civilized places, where folks own enough livestock to sacrifice more of it; they come into being in developed slave and feudalist social formations. They come and go depending on the moment, so Odysseus spends a lot of time crying, lamenting and rolling around in grief, until the time for it is over. At the risk of sounding like a mindfulness huckster, the pagans may have had a better way of possessing emotions than modern Christianity.

It was also excellent to read Wilson’s translation after a long reading of Brecht. Many of the basic principles of the epic were reaffirmed, like the sense of the whole story being known and contained in memory, the downplay of suspense; the “autonomization” or breakdown of scenes into smaller and smaller processes and actions, both a system of layered division and also a bewildering linear stream of action.

The blank verse has a clarity and hard-hitting character, the five-beat lines are actually very prominent, like a military beat. The descriptions have a nice rigor to them, like all the various formulations of Dawn being born, touching the sky with flowers. The epithets are well known from high school English, but in Wilson even a simple phrase seems to bear significance:

Meanwhile, outside Odysseus’ house,
the suitors relished games of darts and discus,
playing outside as usual, with no thought
of others. (Book 17, 167-70)

The suitors play with no thought of others, and having no thought of others is a typical image of what it means to play. Language and speech, the art of rhetoric, of giving and getting information or fabricating a cover story, are all part of Odysseus’s stratagems (Penelope is also noted for choosing her words carefully). But I was struck most of all by a line after Telemachus tells his mother to go to her room: “His flying words hit home.” The whole translation has this effect, despite its rhythm and rigor.

Telemachus took up his spear and marched
out through the hall, two swift dogs at his side.
Athena poured unearthly grace upon him.
Everyone was amazed to see him coming.
The suitors gathered round and spoke to him
in friendly tones; at heart, they meant him harm.
Keeping away from most of them, he joined
Mentor and Antiphus and Halitherses,
who were his father’s friends from long ago. (Book 17, 61-69)

Again, Athena has these machinations (though they don’t exactly add up), and “pours unearthly grace” to amplify the son’s entrance. But it’s also that Telemachus is just a really confident and charismatic figure right now, that he emanates an aura that captivates everyone else in the room. His epithet in the early books is “godlike” when he’s covering ground and sea, believing in himself, and all the rest of it.

Apparently William H. Gass taught Edwin Arlington Robinson’s MERLIN in his creative writing classes. Wilson’s ODYSSEY suggests all the ways verse clarifies narrative action and makes it more engaging.

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