from Southwest Review, Volume 98, Number 1 / 2013
"Do you know of any complete all-round character presented by any writer?" James Joyce, one day in 1918, asked his friend, Frank Budgen. After a couple of errant guesses—Faust, Hamlet—Budgen gave the answer that Joyce was looking for: "Your complete man in literature is, I suppose, Ulysses?" "Yes," Joyce replied, explaining that:
No-age Faust isn't a man .... Hamlet is a human being, but he is a son only. Ulysses is a son to Laertes, but he is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover to Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy, and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage he came through them all. Don't forget that he was a war dodger.... but the Greek recruiting sergeant was too clever for him.... But once at the war the conscientious objector became a jusqu'au-boutist. When the others wanted to abandon the siege he insisted on staying till Troy should fall. Another thing, the history of Ulysses did not come to an end when the Trojan war was over. It began just when the other Greek heroes went back to live the rest of their lives in peace. And then ... he was the first gentleman in Europe. When he advanced, naked, to meet the young princess he hid from her maidenly eyes the parts that mattered of his brine-soaked, barnacle-encrusted body. He was an inventor, too. The tank is his creation. Wooden horse or iron box—it doesn't matter. They are both shells containing armed warriors.
Joyce's catalog of the elements that make Ulysses a "complete all-round character" is thorough in its diversity: it covers the various social roles he performs; it touches on some of his salient traits, wisdom and courage, which in the context of his "many trials" may be taken to add up to resourcefulness, the paramount quality by which Ulysses is known; and then Joyce comes to the hero's hiding his nakedness, which he humorously propounds as an example of gentlemanliness.
Yet, while I think Joyce is right to adduce this episode as furthering the characterization of Ulysses in an important way, I do not think it accomplishes this by merely showing another of his traits. Rather, it is the plight of the great Ulysses, the mighty and valiant hero, now naked, hungry, lost, and for all he knows forsaken by the gods, having to approach and beg succor from a gaggle of girls disporting themselves on the beach—that we should see him in such a situation, that he has come to this point from glory days on the plains of Troy!—this embarrassment itself makes him seem more real to us quite apart from the chivalrous step he takes to lessen it. The encounter, moreover, has a certain comic charm about it, since if Odysseus is in an awkward situation he is in no immediate danger. Indeed, the spark of that charm is so bright that it was able to be communicated across the centuries to reappear in Joyce's witty designation of Ulysses as "the first gentleman in Europe." That spark is the subject of this essay, which will consider how the presentation of the hero of the Odyssey as vulnerable wins our sympathy for him and adds to our sense of his human reality.
It has long been recognized that Odysseus, to give him the Greek form of his name for the rest of this discussion, is frequently exhibited in the long course of the Odyssey in ways that are not in accord with what we might conventionally and straightforwardly expect of the hero. When we first see him, for example, he is trapped on an island as the consort of a goddess and weeping daily for his homeland, from which he has been separated for nearly twenty years, which would seem to be about as far from the bold and valiant actions one associates with the figure of the hero as one can get. Even the fantastic adventures that he narrates to the Phaeacians and for which he is famous consist of many trials that seem the opposite of heroic, such as helplessly witnessing his men being devoured by the Cyclops or Skylla. In his essay, "Active and Passive Heroism in the Odyssey," the critic Erwin Cook has argued that suffering is an integral part of the Greek conception of the hero's trials, as revealed in the Homeric hymns and amply illustrated by the careers of Herakles and Achilles: not only is the hero one who, through the performance of dire deeds, inflicts pain, he is also one who suffers and endures it. In Cook's account, this is the importance of the scene, related in the famous digression of the scar in Book 19, in which Odysseus first manifests his heroic character: the slaying of the great boar on the estate of his grandfather Autolycus. In this act, causing pain (slaying the boar) is united with receiving pain (being gouged by the boar) in the form of the wound in the thigh that, not incidentally, leaves the scar that will become the sign whereby Odysseus will be able to prove his identity to his servants and his father towards the end of the poem. So from early on, Odysseus is launched on the path that will lead to his earning one of his chief epithets, "πολΰτλας," "much-suffering." Yet even though at many points in the course of the epic he is reduced, in Cook's phrase, "to the passive Man of Pain," he still excels in the very extremity of the hardships he is able to undergo.
All this woe, it has been observed, serves to humanize Odysseus. For example, as one scholar, Michael Clarke, puts it, "the Odyssey moves below and beyond the glamour of heroism to a more fundamental level of the human condition, where the hero succeeds only by accepting the inevitability of his lowliness." Another, Richard Rutherford, has argued that Odysseus undergoes a development in the course of the poem that brings him to a greater awareness of the "shared and common suffering" that is the lot of all mankind. But if Odysseus's long experience of pain and suffering in the course of the poem deepens his understanding of what it means to be human, it does so in mostly abstract and notional ways. That is, we can suppose Odysseus has learned this, it would make sense if he did, after all he has gone through, but we don't have enough access to his consciousness that would make that learning process concrete and perceptible. Rutherford himself concedes that his contention that Odysseus comes to a greater awareness of suffering "is not to say that we should read the Homeric poems as psychological novels." So our sense that Odysseus must have internalized the lesson of his misery, even taking into account the few occasions when he warns the suitors about the perils of haughtiness and the fickleness of fortune, is true on a thematic level, but it does not suffice to account for our heightened sense of him as a tangible character.
Yet there are scenes in the poem when such a heightening is achieved, scenes that, somewhat paradoxically, show Odysseus brought low. I am not thinking of all the times when, in the second half of the poem, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, has to endure various indignities and humiliations in the presence of the suitors. Through all this he is back in his role as the hero, and this is another of his ruses, an extended conceit that allows our anticipation to build until the moment when he casts off his disguise and takes his revenge. Rather, I have in mind the two points at which he is not just playing the beggar, but is indeed beggarly, the moments when, after his long wanderings in the enchanted lands, he arrives on the island of Skheria, land of the Phaeacians, and when, conveyed across the waves by those same Phaeacians, he arrives on another island, his homeland, Ithaka, at last. At these junctures he is indeed destitute, alone, friendless and helpless, having nothing but his wits with which to make his way. We might think of these moments as ones of aheroic abasement, as opposed to his heroic endurance out in the realm of monsters and sorceresses, or his heroic forbearance when he goes among the suitors unrecognized; and there are different emotional responses associated with them. Whereas we are liable to feel some combination of the rather distanced emotions of awe and pity for Odysseus in his roles as the passive but heroic Man of Pain, in these scenes of aheroic abasement, when, for all he knows, he is dependent upon a stranger for safe passage, the emotions we are apt to feel are more like sympathy and amusement, which bring us closer to him and give us more of a feel for his reality as a man in an awkward spot. For however threatened Odysseus might feel at these moments, the dangers are only apparent. Athena is present in both scenes making sure that events reach an outcome favorable to him and, in the later scene, even appearing in disguise herself and playfully testing him before revealing her identity.
Both scenes have something mildly comic about them, then, with misapprehensions all around, even on the part of the goddess. But the comedy in these scenes consists not so much in inversions or parodies of heroism as in its bracketing: our awareness of great Odysseus's heroic identity as a performer of martial deeds on the plains of Troy and even as the eventual avenger in Ithaka never fades, but in these scenes of return, to civilization, to his homeland, he is placed in situations in which heroism is not called for. Stripped of heroic options, he has to improvise, and in the process we not only get a fuller view of the hero's humanity, we get a closer view, of his thought processes, fears, calculations, disgruntlements—a gamut of mental life whose close depiction seems inimical to an aura of heroic grandeur. Odysseus's immersion in his own humanity may be part of a mythic pattern of regeneration that will be completed by the end of the poem, when he finally vanquishes the suitors and resumes his lordship over Ithaka, yet along the way we have seen him as a mere mortal, rather common in his anxiety and vulnerability.
Book 6 seems to me one of the most exquisite books in the whole poem. Coming after the busy Telemachiad and the furious, Poseidon-sent storm in Book 5 that all but drowns the hero on the one side, and before the athletic games in Book 7 and Odysseus's tales of his fantastic adventures, the so-called apologue that comprise Books 8 through 12 on the other, Book 6 slows down and takes time to develop, amply, and with a fine delicacy of feeling, Odysseus's encounter with an adolescent girl, the princess Nausikaa. The whole scene is a prime instance of the quality Auerbach identified as the leisureliness of the Homeric style; in strict narrative terms, it does no more than get Odysseus from Point A, a beach on the island of Skheria, to Point B, the palace of the Phaeacians, who, once they have been impressed with the long-suffering wanderer's nobility of character, will speed him back to Ithaka at last. But to view the Nausikaa episode solely in terms of how it advances the story would be a parsimonious view of the matter. Thematically, the book accomplishes a great deal. By dwelling on how the desperate Odysseus has to ingratiate his way carefully into the princess' favor to gain entrée back into human society, it shows us that Odysseus's reintegration into civilization is a trickier matter than we might have supposed. That he should be at the mercy of a young girl who, if she is obviously a person of considerable station, is also physically unthreatening, shows Odysseus at a point of almost maximum distance from his identity as warrior-hero, where his survival will depend neither on force or outright cunning, but on more subtle and civilized means of getting one's way, such as courtesy and politesse.
The book begins with one of the drastic shifts of perspective with which Homer's audience will be well familiar. But this time we are not spirited up to the realm of the gods to enjoy their conspectus of the human drama; more extraordinarily, from the cosmic ordeals of wide-wandering Odysseus, we suddenly inhabit the much more circumscribed private world of Nausikaa, the virginal young princess. Leaving Odysseus asleep in the bracken by the shore of the island, the bard takes pains, from a strictly narratological perspective gratuitous, to provide the psychological motivation that brings Nausikaa to the spot where she will find him. Athena, we are told, appears to her in a dream and, taking the form of her best friend, "daughter of Dymas, famed for seafaring," chides her for leaving her wedding clothes unwashed when the day of her marriage, given her beauty and position, is not too far off (all citations from the Odyssey in the text are from the translation by Richmond Lattimore). Upon awaking, the princess, still beguiled by the dream, goes to her father, but rather than confide in him her hopes of soon marrying, she invents the pretext of wanting to do the laundry for her three unmarried brothers, who "are forever wanting clean fresh clothing to wear / when they go to dance." Her father, King Alkinoos, who sees through the pretext but, lest he embarrass her, does not say so, gives her outing his blessing and furnishes her with a wagon, "the high one with the good wheels that has the carrying basket." There follows a description of further preparations, queen Arete packing a hamper full of provisions and "limpid olive oil in a golden oil flask / for her and her attendant women to use for anointing," a description of girls' procession down to the shore; and finally, after they have washed the clothes and chased the mules off that they might feast "on the sweet river grass," their games by the riverbank, dancing, singing, tossing a ball, all of which Homer compares to the sport of Artemis and her retinue racing with stags and hounds.
The purpose of this vignette featuring Nausikaa is to show settled life at its most fantastically peaceful and pure. We glimpse the Phaeacian king and queen involved in their stereotypical activities, domestic and civic respectively: queen Arete is by the hearth, with her attendants, "turning sea-purple yarn on a distaff," while Nausikaa's father is on his way to "the council of famed barons," when his daughter catches up with him to ask for use of the wagon. Such details are enough to give a momentary picture of an orderly, untroubled kingdom, in sharp contrast to the disturbed state of affairs on Ithaka that the audience has already witnessed in the epic's first four books: the master has been gone for almost two decades and is presumed dead, the queen has been engaging in the subterfuge of the loom to stave off a throng of ill-mannered suitors, and the prince Telemachus, gone abroad to seek definitive information about the fate of his father, is the target of an assassination plot by those same intruders. In his elegant evocation of the civilized life of the Phaeacians, moreover, Homer concentrates on its finest flower, the poised and graceful Nausikaa, the princess on the threshold of marriage, the central ritual whereby civilization renews itself and reaffirms its social coherence. So the depiction of the lovely princess waking up with a dream of marriage and using a pretext to go down to the river and wash clothes and bathe with her attendants is suffused with a vaguely erotic atmosphere; but as the section cleaves to her point of view, the pervasive mood is one of a dreamy or fairy-tale-like innocence; and indeed the portrait of Nausikaa's world grades into mythological idealization at the end when the games of the princess and her maids are likened to those of Artemis, the chaste hunter-goddess, and her attendants. Homer's handling of the whole scene is distinguished by benevolence and tact, qualities epitomized within the text by her father himself, who sees through his daughter's motives and is only the more kindly disposed toward her. The section ends with the solemn summation: "so [Nausikaa] shone among her handmaidens, a virgin unwedded."
Athena, who was last seen repairing to the unshakable home of the gods after inspiring Nausikaa with the dream that brought her into proximity with the hero, now has to think of a way to awaken Odysseus and hits upon the expedient of having one of the girls miss the ball so that it will splash in a pool close to the spot where he is concealed. From a narrative standpoint this is, again, gratuitous, but besides reminding us that, whatever happens in the sequel, Odysseus enjoys divine protection, it is also a manneristic flourish calling attention to narrative art itself as one of the refinements of civilized life the bard is using that art to salute. The device is almost cinematic: the flight of the ball takes us from the girls' world back to that of Odysseus, who
... sat up and began pondering in his heart and his spirit:
"Ah me, what are the people whose land I have come to this time,
And are they violent and savage, and without justice,
Or hospitable to strangers, with a godly mind? See now
How an outcry of young women echoes about me,
Of nymphs, who keep the sudden and sheer high mountain places
And springs of the rivers and grass of the meadows, or am I truly
In the neighborhood of human people I can converse with?
But come now, I myself shall see what I can discover."
James Wood remarks in his discussion of Shakespeare's characters that they seem real to us because they seem real to themselves, that is, in their soliloquies we overhear them communing with themselves in a way that takes their own reality for granted, just as we non-fictional people are wont to do. A similar effect is achieved in Odysseus's soliloquy here. From the flock of maidens playing together on the beach we come to Odysseus, alone, uncertain, but also, as the end of the passage indicates, curious even in the midst of his troubles. Odysseus's self-address is signaled by the words "pondering in his heart and his spirit," one of those formulaic expressions for mental processes in Homer that tantalize us with the hint of some different, archaic way of looking at the mind, and then begins with the simple lament, "ah me." This is an expression of weary resignation, a note picked up at the end of the line when Odysseus wonders "whose land" he has come to "this time," which reminds us that this is another in a long series of encounters in the course of his protracted wanderings. As the passage continues, the effect of immediacy is heightened as we feel Odysseus orienting himself to his new surroundings. The question as to what sort of people he finds himself among gives way to the imperative to attend to the details of his circumstances as he tells himself, "see now." We know from the preceding passage, which relates the connivance of Athena, that the girls' clamor has roused him awake, but now we are brought inside his head as we overhear him wonder "how an outcry of young women echoes about me!"; and then this proximity to his thoughts continues as we are with him as he draws first one inference—that these are nymphs such as grace natural locales—and then another—that these are "human people" he "can converse with," the delay in the formulation of the latter possibility making it seem as if he were afraid of believing what, after all his adventures among monsters and bewitching goddesses, must seem too good to be true. So we hear as he hears, guess as he guesses. Again, however, we know more than he knows: these are not violent, savage, or lawless people, such as he encountered in the enchanted zones beyond the world known to the seafaring Greeks—far from it. We also know that the goddess is presiding over the whole encounter in order to bring him home; and so on the simplest level, our knowing more than he knows adds another tonal ingredient to the mix in this passage, that of a gentle irony, compounded of sympathy and amusement, which allies us with the higher perspective of Athena.
The irony towards the great, but forlorn, Odysseus continues in the sequel that so pleased Joyce. Odysseus emerges from the undergrowth near the riverbank, attempting to shield his private parts with the foliage roughly torn from an olive tree. Then comes, all unexpectedly, the wonderfully complex simile that describes him approaching the girls
... in the confidence of his strength, like some hill-kept lion
Who advances, though he is rained on and blown by the wind, and
Kindle; he goes out after the cattle or sheep, or it may be
Deer in the wilderness, and his belly is urgent upon him
To get inside of a close steading and go for the sheepflocks.
So Odysseus was ready to face young girls with well-ordered
Hair, naked though he was, for the need was on him; and yet
He appeared terrifying to them, all crusted with dry spray,
And they scattered one way and another down the jutting beaches.
Only the daughter of Alkinoos stood fast, for Athene
Put courage in her heart, and took the fear from her body ...
So Odysseus irrupts into the maidens' idyllic world. It is a dazzling moment, fraught with criss-crossing perspectives: the girls' view of the bedraggled stranger emerging from the brush, which is civilization's view of the menacing outsider, who is himself wondering whether the girls belong to a race that poses a threat to him—all these points of view are simultaneously present, compressed, in the simile. Homer has placed us in Nausikaa's world in the preceding verses so securely that we can now see our protagonist through their eyes, to which he appears, horrifically to them but comically to us, a dirty, imposing castaway who has suddenly popped up in their midst. However incongruous it is for the hero in this moment of dire need to be compared to a predator, from the perspective of the Phaeacian maidens, the emergence from the underbrush of the stranger does portend a certain threat. Nausikaa herself is prevented from fleeing only by yet another intervention of the goddess, "who took the fear from her body." Moreover, the vague erotic atmosphere of the foregoing scene of the maidens bathing, playing, singing, and laughing, while performing a task whose purpose is to prepare the nubile princess for marriage, together with the appearance of the naked stranger trying to conceal his private parts with roughly torn foliage, leaves little doubt that the threatened predation is sexual.
It is quite as if Odysseus has stepped into Nausikaa's fairy-tale in the guise of the beast, but the beast would not be beastly if it did not pose, at least momentarily and hypothetically, a danger. While we know that Odysseus ultimately means no harm, the simile's suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding, the girls do not; and while we may be amused to think of our hero at this moment as being inadvertently scary, the scare is not inconsistent with the expectations of the bronze-age Mediterranean realm when raiders roamed the waves and pillaged goods and women. The audience has in fact heard tell of the raid upon the Kikones committed by Odysseus and his men right after they set sail from Troy, and we may further recall that "sacker of cities" is one of the recurrent and approving epithets applied to him; so that while we may find it somewhat droll that he looks so "appalling," as Nausikaa will soon say, and that he is scaring away the people he is going to supplicate for help, the maidens' fear is not ill-founded.
Moreover, it must be acknowledged that the simile implies, very obliquely and fleetingly, that Odysseus does feel a stirring of desire and even perhaps a flicker of ugly intent as he approaches the maidens. The lion's "belly is urgent upon him," driving him to kill and eat the sheep, but since we may assume that Odysseus's corresponding hunger is not to do the same to the maidens, then the appetitive pang he experiences at this moment can only be taken as sexual. So, again, the maidens' fear is, if only momentarily, not without justification. But even within the terms of the simile, this nefarious possibility is insinuated only to be quickly covered up: as the lion is spurred by hunger, Odysseus is impelled by a different kind of hunger, for human society itself, to "face young girls with well-ordered hair." Lattimore's word "face," for the Greek, "μίξεσθαι" (literally "to mix") is quite good, for if on some level Odysseus is driven by sexual appetite at this moment his immediate purpose is to make himself known to the girls as a worthy object of their assistance. It is this rudimentary act of making social contact that, "naked though he was," requires the bravery that is compared to the lion's boldness in raiding the sheepfold that in turn distantly imputes to Odysseus the antisocial intention to attack the girls. As the succeeding adversative clause "yet he appeared terrifying to them" makes clear, his actual intention is quite the opposite. He is going to show himself to them, despite his terrifying appearance; his deepest need is to be accepted back into the lap of civilization.
But though Nausikaa's fear may be more justified, the danger inherent in the situation is still greater for Odysseus, since he is, after all, an intruder in her land who will be dependent on her mercy to get home. In his commentary on the Odyssey, Huebeck even contends that Odysseus's life depends on her favor. Were he not to defuse the threat he represents and win her protection, he would, alone and unarmed, have the entire population of the island to contend with. So while the comparison to the lion is apt in that it projects the latent majesty of Odysseus the warrior, and hints at the darker forces that animate such a warrior, at this juncture his heroic prowess is not a particularly valuable asset. Naked and forlorn, creeping forth out of the undergrowth in which he has taken shelter from the cold and wild beasts, Odysseus is at this crucial juncture Homer's version of Lear's "unaccommodated man ... a poor, bare, forked animal," except that the tonalities of the scene are more comic than tragic. For, as we know, the whole scene has been carefully orchestrated by Athena, who all the while is waiting in the wings for the moment when she will again assist Odysseus, so that the dangers both parties represent for each other are only apparent, and a good outcome is assured, despite Odysseus's desperation. The slight comedy consists in the inapplicability of Odysseus's heroic virtues to the new context he finds himself in as he initiates the process of ingratiating himself to the Phaeacians. To begin with, the brave and mighty hero has now to negotiate humbly and delicately with a girl who, though as the lion simile implies, he might take by force, holds his fate in her hands. So the deepest irony of the simile is that he himself is more in the position of the sheep, a sheep in the guise of a lion. The comparison to the menacing lion invokes both his Iliadic past and the savage territories from which he has just escaped, but only to summon a whiff of former and possible identities that won't help him in his present plight. The brine covering his body as he emerges from the undergrowth is like an afterimage—or indeed an afterbirth—of his sojourn in the wild, enchanted lands, and the first thing he will do once he has been accepted by Nausikaa and her crew will be to take a bath and wash it off. It will be the first step on the long, arduous path that ends with his resuming his rightful place as king of the Ithakans.
The ensuing exchange between Nausikaa and Odysseus illustrates another way Homer brings us closer to his hero during these scenes of aheroic abasement. Whereas the soliloquy externalizes the hero's thoughts, during the exchange with Nausikaa the thoughts of Odysseus are revealed only by implication. To reset the facts of the case: after dallying for a spell in Nausikaa's charmed, dream-like world, where all her thoughts and actions revolve around her eventual marriage, the bard rounds off the episode with the terse summary already cited, "so [Nausikaa] shone among her handmaidens, a virgin unwedded." Needing her help, Odysseus decides not to embrace her knees, lest he scare her, which further shows how far he is from the actual violence implied by the comparison to the hungry lion, but to address her "in words of blandishment." The Greek adjective, "μειλιχίοισι," is repeated thrice in the space of six lines, the last time when it is stated that he speaks "blandishingly and full of craft". Thus we are given to know pointedly that his speech will exemplify the ready craftiness that distinguishes him and that even in this perilous moment has not deserted him. Indeed, the rapidity with which he passes from confusion and uncertainty to suavity already implies more of an inward calculation than Homer puts in words when he tells us that the hero deliberates whether to throw himself down and embrace her knees or keep some distance and address her. One has the fleeting but distinct sense that he has assessed the situation and is confident he can win the young princess over easily enough.
In his plea he first pays homage to her beauty, expressing doubt as to whether she is a mortal or a goddess, and then tops this by wondering whether she is perhaps Artemis herself; next he exclaims how happy her parents and brothers must be when they see" such a slip of beauty taking her place in the chorus of dancers," but goes on to aver that this is nothing as to the joy of the lucky man who will take her home as his bride; and then he winds up this exordium by expressing wonder at her beauty and comparing her, somewhat oddly, to the" the stalk of a young palm shooting up," which had once held him rapt for hours as his ship hugged the coast. It is only after all this that he gives voice to his misery and implores her assistance. Now if this is flattery—and on one level it does come across that way—it does not seem to be of the insincere or manipulative kind we find distasteful. Instead, one might think of it as adroitness, an ability to find the right words for the occasion, the ones that mark the right degree of esteem and ceremony. The difference is that while flattery might be deemed a species of cunning that makes use of another person's vanity to further one's own interest, adroitness requires a more genuine acknowledgment of the other and is thus more social. Nausikaa's response here should guide our own: "My friend" her reply begins, "since you seem not like a thoughtless man, nor a mean one ... " While I have been stressing the gentle humor of the whole book, I think it would be a mistake to suppose that these words are meant to be directly funny, as if Homer were descending to the easy sitcom humor of suggesting that, her vanity tickled, she is saying that he is no fool because he recognizes how beautiful she is; rather, it appears she has been duly impressed with his eloquence, the worth of his words attesting to the quality of the mind that has generated them. Odysseus is again exemplary, but now not for his ability to perform great deeds or suffer great hardships, but for his superior tact.
Two larger points emerge from this. First, whether we deem Odysseus more cunning or gallant at this moment we have been guided to make an inference about the concealed workings of his mind and that this increases our sense that there is a mind there, operating beneath the surface. We are not being told what he is thinking, it is not uttered, but we feel it. Homer establishes a scenario with clear coordinates—a nubile young woman with aspirations to marry, the hero's ready divination of those aspirations, and his "words of blandishment" that play upon them. Thus the unsaid, namely that he is endorsing and encouraging her fondest desires, comes distinctly and palpably to life for the audience. The passage not only characterizes him as, say, resourceful, it makes him more tangible and memorable. Second, the passage also shows that, however distant from one another in their social valence, cunning and tact lie along a continuum. While in the fabulous lands beyond Greek ken cunning is necessary, say, to vanquish a Cyclops, within civilization's fold that same impulse is more properly honed to a finer use. Odysseus is persuasive because he allies self-interest with respect. It is the benign participation in her point of view that allows Odysseus's words to have their winning charm; and as he participates in her hopes we get a greater appreciation for the range of his sensibility. Though it is in his interest to win her over, his accurate estimate of her implies a measure of fellow feeling which, even in his distress, crosses lines of generation and gender to enter into the feelings of a teenaged girl. Moreover, the propriety of his words is demonstrated right away as Nausikaa does not stint to offer him her esteem and protection. On the threshold of civilization his first test is a demonstration of urbanity.
As the narrative proceeds, events follow a fairy-tale pattern. Once the princess takes pity on the stranger, who, as we have seen, represented a possible sexual threat, she is "rewarded" when he has bathed and is transformed into the resplendent figure that causes her no little awe. The beast indeed turns out to be a splendid man worthy of a princess. Again this effect is owing to the agency of Athena, who makes Odysseus" seem taller / for the eye to behold, and thicker, and on his head she arranged / the curling locks that hung down like hyacinth petals." When Nausikaa sees him she exclaims:
A while ago he seemed an unpromising man to me. Now
He even resembles one of the gods, who hold high heaven.
If only the man to be called my husband could be like this one,
A man living here, if only this one were pleased to stay here.
This does not seem likely, given the requirements of the story, but we are obviously meant to see that Nausikaa's attraction to Odysseus, promoted by Athena, furnishes the affective substratum for the collusion that now springs up between them, as they plan together the best way to introduce him to her mother, on whose favor his homecoming will depend. As cunning becomes tact, so eros is transformed into philos, a kind of sociable goodwill towards the handsome stranger. Part of the effect of Nausikaa's being thus smitten with the hero is to revive our sense of his grandeur now that he is reemerging from the abject state, savage-seeming and brine-caked (though not "barnacle-covered"—that is Joyce's embellishment!) that temporarily occluded it at the outset of the episode. If the loveliest of princesses, one easily mistaken for a goddess, is awestruck by him, then how magnificent must he look!—such is the calculus the audience is invited to make. More fundamentally, the submerged possibility of a union between Nausikaa and Odysseus, which her attraction to him might normally lead to, to say nothing of the appreciation of her charms we may presume underlies his gallantry, stands in stark contrast to amorous affairs he participated in in the enchanted lands beyond civilization's pale. Odysseus has just escaped from a seven-year dalliance with the goddess Calypso, and before that he was in thrall to Circe for a year until his men had to remind him that he might want to be moving on. Such things happen out there in the wilds, but within civilization's fold the hint of a possible tie between Nausikaa and Odysseus, a tie that her father himself lets it be known he would smile upon, remains only that, the merest glimmer of a hypothesis, which in her young heart provides the motive force for the social feeling that is so important to his cause. The affection they have for him cues our affection for him, which in turn solidifies our sense of his reality.
Before concluding, I would like to turn briefly to a moment in the analogous scene of return in Book 13, when Odysseus at last finds himself on Ithaka. Once again Odysseus awakens on an island, disoriented and bereft (although this second time the treasure bestowed upon him by the Phaeacians is right nearby), addresses a lamentation to himself, and meets with a stranger who helps him devise a plan for approaching the city and its powerful queen. But this time the stranger is Athena herself, disguised as a shepherd boy with princely bearing, who delays the revelation of the precious news, presumably the better to enjoy her favorite's joy when he learns that he is home at last. When the goddess does finally let drop the happy name, the bard describes the hero's reaction this way:
... and resourceful great Odysseus was happy,
Rejoicing in the land of his fathers when Pallas Athene
Daughter of Zeus of the aegis told him the truth of it,
And so he answered her again and addressed her in winged words;
But he did not tell her the truth, but checked that word from the
Like Penelope when she is told that it is her long-lost husband who has slain the suitors, Odysseus both believes and doesn't believe. So he veils his emotions while going on to spin a lying yarn about being a fugitive from Crete, a bit of crafty self-control that seems to exasperate the goddess herself to a degree, since it has the effect of denying her the anticipated pleasure of being the one who dispenses the good news. But while she does not get to participate in his elation right off, we are given something more precious in the form of the following affectionate rebuke:
"It would be a sharp one, and a stealthy one, who would ever get
In any contriving; even if it were a god against you.
You wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not
Even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving
And your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature."
The goddess seems to have forgotten that, since both the obscuring mist and her disguise are still in place, Odysseus has only a shepherd boy's word for it that he is home at last. But the larger point is that this is a companionable rebuke. Athena's fondness for the hero, her appreciation of and even delight in his personality, with its habitual cunning, is palpable and appealing. As I have been suggesting, her appreciation of him stands in for our own, and it is an appreciation directed towards a character trait, his wiliness, which, if it is said to be a match for the gods, is being exercised in the above scene in a routine, defensive way. Odysseus's caution in this exchange is justified: he cannot yet be certain that he is back in Ithaka, however much the prospect makes his heart pound, and yet there is something stubborn, or one might say, characteristic, in his guardedness. The goddess' friendly accusation that he "would not / Even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving / and your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature" is penetrating. It says that he exercises his deceitfulness more than is strictly necessary and enjoys it. Yet, as she knows, it is that very proclivity, inveterate and incorrigible, which defines him and endears him to her. She hits the bedrock of his nature that has just been dramatized for the audience, the level of inveterateness where who he is is given. Though the deception she admires here is of a piece with the guile behind such signal feats as the wooden horse or the series of ruses he employs to escape the Cyclops' cave, in this scene it is exercised not in the service of an heroic exploit, but in the mere interest of caution. The effect of such moments in the poem is to encompass his heroic persona within a fuller, more accessible humanity.
To conclude, then: just as in Book 6, Athena restores Odysseus to physical splendor as a sort of reward for Nausikaa for having shown the miserable stranger kindness, so Book 13 ends with the goddess all but breathing courage back into Odysseus and inflaming his desire for revenge against the suitors. Both these recoveries enact in miniature the regeneration of the hero traced by the poem as a whole, as he proceeds from lowliness to the ultimate reassertion of his heroic identity in the slaughter of the intruders in his household. The function of this pattern seems to be both formal and mythic: by maximizing the distance the hero must traverse from low to high the bard makes the hero's eventual restoration all the more enjoyable for the audience—in both books Odysseus's true nature is obscured, the better to prepare for the pleasure of recognition when it comes at the end. One might be tempted to argue that, by passing through his own humanity on his way back to his heroic identity, Odysseus acquires along the way a mortifying experience of our common lot that tempers the potentially destabilizing ferocity of the exercise of strictly heroic virtues, but then the wholesale slaughter of the suitors, together with all of the disloyal maidservants in the household, would be hard to reconcile with such an interpretation. It seems the most we can say is rather that the humbling of the hero is the price he has to pay for being superior to other mortals, according to a law of compensation whose operation is overseen, with less than perfect consistency, by the gods. Yet although in a vague, general way the moments of abasement, desperation, and vulnerability may be taken as instances of a divine or cosmic chastisement, the emotions that go with them do not seem to be pity or terror, or even admiration for the hero's ability to endure, but, as I have tried to show, something more like a sympathetic amusement at the fact that one such as he, the great and mighty survivor of such perils as the Cyclops and the Skylla, has to negotiate tricky social situations such as these, in which the direct exercise of heroic virtues will get him nowhere and instead he has to win the acceptance of strangers who can help him. I think it is this tonality that Joyce is responding to and zestfully retelling some 2,600 years after Homer's epic was written down. Such sticky situations entail that the motions of Odysseus's mind be depicted rather closely, and that proximity tends to dissolve the aura of heroism. The hero is reduced, but he is thereby magnified.
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About the Author
Jeff Staiger has recently published essays in literary reviews on the works of Harold Brodkey and Thomas Pynchon. He lives with his wife and children in Eugene, Oregon, where he is currently writing both a novel and a critical study on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and the western canon. He is the librarian for Romance Languages and Classics at the University of Oregon.
Southern Methodist University
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