Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Odysseus

The homecoming king

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In my last year at college, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to come back from the dead. I had decided to write my senior thesis about Amphiaraus, an obscure figure from Greek literature best known for a brief appearance in the eighth Pythian ode of Pindar. (When you’re majoring in a field that has been generating articles, term papers, and dissertations with monotonous regularity for centuries, you take your subjects wherever you can find them.) Amphiaraus was the legendary king of Argos, proverbial for his wisdom, who joined the doomed assault of the Seven Against Thebes, although he knew that it would end in tragedy. Because he was beloved by the gods, at the moment that he was about to die in battle, the earth opened up beneath him, swallowing him whole. Much of my thesis was devoted to describing his afterlife as an object of cult veneration, where he appears to have persisted as a chthonic oracle, delivering dreams to pilgrims at his sanctuary as they slept on the ground. He also occasionally returned in person, at least in literature—in Pindar’s ode, he’s evidently some kind of ghost or revenant, since he appears in a speaking role at a point in the narrative at which he should have been long dead. This is striking in itself, because in the ancient Greek conception of the underworld, most men and women survive only as shades, shadowy figures without any trace of memory or personality. In technical terms, when we die, we lose our noos, which can roughly be regarded as the part of the soul responsible for conscious thought. And the remarkable thing about Amphiaraus is that he seems to retain his noos even after his death, as an oracular hero who remains fully aware and capable of returning to our world when necessary.

As I tried to define what made Amphiaraus special, I went down a linguistic rabbit hole in which I was perhaps overly influenced by a curious book titled The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. Its argument, presented by the linguist Douglas Frame, is that the word noos, or “mind,” is connected to nostos, or “return,” the central theme of the Odyssey. (It’s where we get the word “nostalgia,” which combines nostos with algos, or “pain.”) The quality that allows Odysseus to make his way home to Ithaca is his intelligence—which, by extension, is also the attribute that enables Amiphiaraus to return from the dead. A rumor of this theory somehow reached John Updike, of all people, who wrote a story called “Cruise” that offered a portrait of a lecturer on a cruise ship that I’m still convinced was inspired by one of my professors, since he was literally the only other man in the world, besides Douglas Frame, who sounded like this:

His sallow triangular face was especially melancholy, lit from beneath by the dim lectern bulb. The end of the journey meant for him the return to his university—its rosy-cheeked students invincible in their ignorance, its demonic faculty politics, its clamorous demands for ever-higher degrees of political correctness and cultural diversity. “ΚΡΝΩ,” he wrote on the blackboard, pronouncing, “krino—to discern, to be able to distinguish the real from the unreal. To do this, we need noos, mind, consciousness.” He wrote, then, “ΝΟΟΣ.” His face illumined from underneath was as eerie as that of a jack-in-the-box or a prompter hissing lines to stymied thespians. “We need no-os,” he pronounced, scrabbling with his invisible chalk in a fury of insertion, “to achieve our nos-tos, our homecoming.” He stood aside to reveal the completed word: ΝΟΣΤΟΣ. In afterthought he rapidly rubbed out two of the letters, created ΠΟΝΤΟΣ, and added with a small sly smile, “After our crossing together of the sea, the pontos.”

In the end, I moved away from this line of reasoning, and I spent most of my thesis developing arguments based on readings of words like poikōlos and polēplokos, which described the quality of mind—a kind of flexibility and resourcefulness—that was necessary to achieve this return, whether to Ithaca or to the world of the living. Until recently, I hadn’t thought about this for years. Over the weekend, however, I read a wonderful profile in The New York Times Magazine by Wyatt Mason of the classicist Emily Wilson, who has published a new translation of the Odyssey. Much of the article is devoted to a discussion of the word polytropos, which appears in the very first line of the poem as a description of Odysseus himself. Wilson explains:

The prefix poly means “many” or “multiple.” Tropos means “turn.” “Many” or “multiple” could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner…So the question of whether he’s the turned or the turner: I played around with that a lot in terms of how much should I be explicit about going for one versus the other. I remember that being one of the big questions I had to start off with.

And it’s precisely this notion of slipperiness and changeability that I often saw in descriptions of Amphiaraus, who, like Odysseus, has affinities with the god Hermes—the crosser of borders, the conductor of souls, the trickster.

The same qualities, of course, also tend to be present in writers, poets, scholars, and all those who, in W.H. Auden’s words, “live by their wits.” This may be why translators of the Odyssey have been so preoccupied with polytropos, which stands as a signal at the beginning of the poem of the intelligence that you need to make it all the way to the end. As Mason writes:

You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s sixty some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started.

Mason lists dozens of variants, including Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; and T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded.” Perhaps for sentimental reasons, I’m partial to Lawrence’s version, which recalls my old favorites poikōlos and polēplokos in evoking a sort of visual variety or shiftiness, like the speckled scales of a snake. And Wilson? She clearly thought long and hard on the matter. And when I read her solution, I felt a shiver of recognition, as well as a strange pang of nostalgia for the student I used to be, and to whom I still sometimes dream of returning again: “Tell me about a complicated man.”

Written by nevalalee

November 6, 2017 at 8:44 am

The Achilles heel

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What fictional character embodies your masculine ideal?

AMC used to stand for American Movie Classics, but over the last few years, it’s felt more like an acronym for “antiheroic male character.” You’ve met this man before. He’s a direct descendent of Tony Soprano, who owed a great deal in turn to Michael Corleone: a deeply flawed white male who screws up the lives of just about everyone around him, whether out of uncontrollable compulsion, like Don Draper, or icy calculation, like Walter White. Yet he’s also enormously attractive. He’s great at his job, he knows what he wants and how to get it, and he doesn’t play by the rules. It’s a reliable formula for an interesting protagonist, except that his underlying motivations are selfish, and everyone else in his life is a means to an end. And the more ruthless he is, the more we respond to him. I’m only four episodes into the current season of House of Cards, but I’ve already found myself flitting with boredom, because Frank Underwood has lost so much of his evil spark. As much as I enjoy Kevin Spacey’s performance, I’ve never found Frank to be an especially compelling or even coherent character, and without that core of hate and ambition, I’m no longer sure why I’m supposed to be watching him at all.

Ever since Mad Men and Breaking Bad brought the figure of the male antihero to its current heights, we’ve seen a lot of shows, from Low Winter Sun to Ray Donovan, attempting to replicate that recipe without the same critical success. In itself, this isn’t surprising: television has always been about trying to take apart the shows that worked and put the pieces together in a new way. But by fixating on the obvious traits of their antiheroic leads, rather than on deeper qualities of storytelling, the latest round of imitators runs the risk of embodying all the genre’s shortcomings and few of its strengths. There’s the fact, for instance, that even the best of these shows have problems with their female characters. Mad Men foundered with Betty Draper for much of its middle stretch, to the point where it seemed tempted to write her out entirely, and I never much cared for Skylar on Breaking Bad—not, as some would have it, because I resented her for getting in Walt’s way, but because she was shrill and uninteresting. Even True Detective, a minor masterpiece of the form with two unforgettable male leads, couldn’t figure out what to do with its women. (The great exception here is Fargo, which offered us a fantastic heroine, even if she felt a little sidelined toward the end.)

Achilles and Ajax

Of course, the figure of the antihero is as old as literature itself. It’s only a small step from Hamlet to Edmund or Iago, and the Iliad, which inaugurates nothing less than the entire western tradition, opens by invoking the wrath of Achilles. In many ways, Achilles is the prototype for all protagonists of this kind: he’s a figure of superhuman ability on the battlefield, with a single mythic vulnerability, and he’s willing to let others die as he sulks in his tent out of wounded pride, over a woman who is treated as a spoil in a conflict between men. Achilles stands alone, and he’s defined more by his own fate than by any of his human relationships. (To the extent that other characters are important in our understanding of him, it’s as a series of counterexamples: Achilles is opposed at one point or another to Hector, Odysseus, and Agamemnon, and the fact that he’s contrasted against three such different men only points to how complicated he is.) It’s no wonder that readers tend to feel more sympathy for Hector, who is allowed moments of recognizable tenderness: when he tries to embrace his son Astyanax, who bursts into tears at the sight of his father’s armor and plumed helmet, the result is my favorite passage in all of classical poetry, because it feels so much like an instant captured out of real life and transmitted across the centuries.

Yet Achilles is the hero of the Iliad for a reason; Hector, for all his appeal, isn’t cut out for sustaining an entire poem. An antihero, properly written, can be the engine that drives the whole machine, and in epic poetry, or television, you need one heck of a motor. But a motor isn’t a man, or at least it’s a highly incomplete version of what a man can be. And there’s a very real risk that the choices writers make for the sake of the narrative can shape the way the rest of us think and behave. As Joseph Meeker points out, we tend to glamorize the tragic hero, who causes nothing but suffering to those around him, over the comic hero, who simply muddles through. Fortunately, we have a model both for vivid storytelling and meaningful connection in Achilles’ opposite number. Odysseus isn’t perfect: he engages in dalliances of his own while his wife remains faithful, and his bright ideas lead to the deaths of most of his shipmates. But he’s much closer to a comic than a tragic hero, relying on wit and good timing as much as strength to get home, and his story is like a guided tour of all the things a man can be: king, beggar, father, son, husband, lover, and nobody. We’d live in a happier world if our fictional heroes were more like Odysseus. Or, failing that, I’ll settle for Achilles, as long as he’s more than just a heel.

Written by nevalalee

March 6, 2015 at 9:12 am

A writer’s family values

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about family. Over the weekend, my wife and I hosted my parents, my brother, and my grandmother at our house in Oak Park, meaning that we had four generations living for a few days under the same roof—which is enough to make anyone reflect a little on the joys and complexities of family life. After seeing my mother off yesterday, I had my reading at the Oak Park Public Library, where I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, who had his adorably enormous baby son in tow. (He also happens to be the photographer who took my excellent author photos.) When I took questions at the end of the reading, he asked if having a newborn daughter had changed the way I write. I responded, truthfully, that this was an excellent question to which I didn’t have a good answer, but that I expected it would, although the effects have yet to be seen. Every novel, as I’ve said before, is secretly about the process of its own creation, and it’s inevitable that a major change in my personal life will be reflected indirectly in the stories I write.

At the moment, though, if there’s one thing the characters in my novels have in common, it’s that they’re all alone. Ilya, the central character of the trilogy, is literally an orphan, and he’s defined by the fact of his isolation, which pits him against other players and larger systems in a game that he plays on his own. We never learn anything about Maddy’s parents, and Wolfe’s family only appears in a couple of phone calls from her mother. Powell is largely shaped by the absence of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. And none of these characters are married or in a serious relationship. Part of this is due to the conventions of the thriller, which generally doesn’t have much room for family narratives: it tends to focus on individuals versus the world, particularly in conspiracy stories. It also has something to do with my situation when I first conceived the series. At the time, I was living alone in New York, and although I was far from lonely, like most writers, I spent much of my time in my own head.

Odysseus and the Sirens

And while I’d argue that themes of isolation are central to The Icon Thief and its sequels, it also strikes me as a limitation. Families are central to many of the most interesting stories we know, both because they provide such rich material for drama and because they allow us to see the characters from multiple perspectives. I’ve always been fascinated by the example of Odysseus, the most fully realized figure in ancient literature, who acquires much of his interest because we see him in every role a man can play: he’s a father, a son, a husband, a lover, a beggar, a companion, and a king. (It’s no accident that one of his epithets is polytropos, “the man of many turns.”) The same principle applies to Hamlet, whose character is defined by his radically different relationships with Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Horatio, Polonius, his father’s ghost, various courtiers, and even the skull of Yorick. And such characterizations work both as a narrative strategy and as a reflection of life itself, in which we all suffer from a loneliness or individuality that finds its fullest expression in the company of others.

In other words, family is both a subject and a valuable fictional tool, and the fact that these elements play such a minor part in the novels I’ve written is something I occasionally regret. I always welcome the chance to depict my characters in the light of a range of relationships, and I feel that Wolfe, for instance, is nicely enriched by her interactions with her mother. I just wish there were more of it—and I suspect there will be. These days, my life has changed a lot since I first started out as a writer: in the five years since I began work on the first draft of The Icon Thief, I’ve gotten married, acquired a house and mortgage, and found myself the father of a beautiful daughter. And although I’ve spent most of the ensuing time on projects that were conceived much earlier, I don’t doubt that I’ll start to see the signs in my own work. Writing, at its heart, is a way of seeing the world around me more clearly, and it can’t help but evolve as the life around it changes as well.

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2013 at 9:17 am

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