Synopsis of Class: August 29, 2000

We began our discussion of Homer's Odyssey in earnest today, examining various differences in the understanding of the world between literate and oral cultures. We began with the question: "What is a tree?" As the class most ably responded, a tree is a plant with bark, branches, and leaves. A taxonomy of different examples was given (ash, oak, etc.), categorized by conifer and deciduous kinds. Photosynthesis and oxygenation were mentioned as important aspects of a tree's life cycle, and then different uses for trees were mentioned (paper, construction, shade, etc.). The class unanimously agreed with this definition. I then explained that studies of those oral cultures that still exist in the former Yugoslavia have asked the same question of non-literate people. Surprisingly, there too the response to the question was, for the most part, unanimous and yet completely different from our own: a tree is like a man whose arms reach up to heaven but whose roots are caught in hell. Why this incredible difference in response? Can we not even agree on an issue as fundamental as the answer to the question: "What is a tree?"

Well, the REASON we, in a literate culture, can all unanimously agree with this definition is that we automatically turn to our communal literate source--the dictionary, which structures our experience of the world through the conventions of science and taxonomy (hence the class' use of such scientific language as "photosynthesis," "conifer," "deciduous," and "oxygenation," terms that clearly suggest that individuals were drawn to language of a different register than quotidian speech). In an oral culture, there is no written source to which people can turn; there are instead only oral stories: Daphne, for example, who, in Greek mythology, is turned into a laurel tree when she is on the verge of being overtaken by the God, Apollo (or whatever oral tale may be being referred to in the oral culture of the former Yugoslavia).

I then asked what other facts that we take for granted my be different in a society that has yet to be introduced to writing. These included:

1) the general narrativization and personification of inanimate things (like trees and rocks), as Jen Slawson explained.

2) the state of flux of the story, which changes on each reading depending on the context.

3) the resulting differences in social structures like law and politics, particularly the understanding of justice since there can be no book of rules or laws that one can turn to (consider how Telemachus and the suitors engage in a contest of storytelling before the elders of Ithaca in Book II; another example is how Helen and Menelaus engage in a storytelling contest of sorts in Book IV, with the prize being the very reputation of Helen).

4) the importance of the rhapsode as a repository of all sorts of knowledge (etiquette, politics, ship-building, proper forms of sacrifice, the tending of swine, geneologies, etc.).

5) the importance for a leader to have not only martial strength and skill but also a knowledge of common stories (that can be called on as we call on precedent) and also a certain amount of rhetorical guile, as Beth Dick pointed out.

6) as Melissa Young-Spillers, Meg Lowry, and Stacey Morgan argued, we also have a major change in the understanding of economic relations. In our society, as Karl Marx argued, we tend to experience a general commodification of reality, which is to say that we tend to understand all social relations in terms of money and profit. We, for example, become separated from the materiality of the individual craftsman's labor, instead buying goods from larger capitalist distributors (K-Mart, Target, etc.). Similarly, the individual craftsman becomes alienated from the products of his labor, which are now "owned" by his employer. A laborer now sells his own "labor" as an abstract quantity on the open market (I am worth so much money/hour of my time). In an oral society, before you could stamp denominations on coins, "you could not," as Stacey brilliantly put it, "buy more than you already have." Money, production, consumption and labor could not be understood as abstract quantitites that could be bought and sold on the open market (as they are through stocks, bonds, loans, and interest accretion in a transnational economy of limitless investment and speculation). Instead you paid the individual craftsman directly through barter and, thus, through a direct valuation of that laborer's particular product. You are by force closer to, as Meg put it, the materiality of the individual's labor. Meg thus used the very terminology employed by Marx to critique capitalism in the nineteenth century.

One might also consider a few other possibilities that we did not get a chance to discuss in class or that we discussed only in passing: the mnemonic devices (epithet, epic similes, etc.) and strict metrical schema (dactyllic hexameter) used in the rhapsode's remembering and telling of the story; the episodic nature of the story, which allows a storyteller endlessly to stitch together new episodes or, when necessary, to unstitch them (in fact, the etymological source for rhapsode is the Greek, rhaptein, or "to stitch"); the layers of archaeology that we can, consequently, find in a text like the Odyssey (elements from the bronze age and iron age coexist, for example, as do eating habits from earlier stages in the development of Greek society). Another related issue is the "Homer question"; that is, the very authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey has been questioned. In an oral society, there is no "author" in the modern sense, since stories are passed on for hundeds of years by many generations of rhapsodes. As a result, there is some question about who exactly "Homer" might be, whether the authorship of both the Iliad and Odyssey can be attributed to this one figure, and whether the very idea of associating a single figure with these two tales is not a mere fiction. We should also keep in mind Melissa Young-Spiller's and Michelle Beauchane's argument that this oral way of viewing the world is not necessarily inferior to our perception of the world. After all, one could argue that a certain magic and, as DJ Dangler added, an interactive connection with nature are lost in our "scientific" reliance on the taxonomic dissection and categorization of the world implied by our response to the question "what is a tree?" Just as an oral culture perceives the world through narrative (through mythological stories about the world), so we can only perceive the world through our common literate source, the dictionary.

We also spent some time discussing the reasons why the Odyssey begins not with Odysseus' adventures (as one might expect from the title of the epic), but with Telemachus' trials and tribulations. Some of the responses the class offered include:

1) It helps to provide a balanced structure to the Odyssey, placing the emphasis squarely on family relationships; in addition, as members of the class suggested, it helps to underline the urgency of Odysseus' return). It also thus helps to build up Odysseus, thus helping the audience to believe his exploits once he appears in the narrative.

2) It sets up the background of the story, both the events of the Trojan war that preceded this narrative and the related stories that bear on the actions of Penelope, Odysseus, the suitors, and Telemachus (especially the stories of Agamemnon, Clytemnéstra, Aegísthus, and Oréstes, on the one hand, and those of Helen, Meneláus, and Paris, on the other). In other words, we are given the pre-history of the diegetic story.

3) We also discussed the differences between the Odyssey and the Iliad. In what important ways could the Odyssey be seen as a post-war (or post-Iliadic) epic? Indeed, could we not see the Odyssey as a kind of salve over the traumatic wounds left by the military exploits of the Iliad? Whereas the Iliad is all about martial conquest, the Odyssey concerns itself with the overcoming of loss (particularly that of Laértës and Anticleia), the re-establishment of empire, the resolution of enmity, the reunion of men with their families, the management of captured slaves, the particularities of civic and family life, etc.. As in the Star Trek episode we discussed, narrative thus once again could be said to be attempting to heal over some traumatic kernel. For this reason, Anu Karumanchi pointed out, the domestic drama of Telemachus becomes important: he is representive of those youths most affected by the Trojan war. Having been without a father for twenty years, he must both live up to the heroic stature of his absent father and must grow into a man without a father's guidance and support.

4) The Odyssey is also encyclopedic in its sequence of geographical and mythical locations (unlike the more unitary setting of the Iliad), which underlines its peacetime role of educating its listeners in the establishment of nationhood in times of peace.

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