Synopsis of Class: September 5, 2000

I began class by going over the major shifts we've examined so far as we move from an oral culture to a literate society. They can be summarized as follows:

orality literacy
shame culture guilt culture
public culture private self split from the public
Old Testament New Testament
Roman Catholocism Reformation (Protestantism, Puritanism)
culture of spectacle carceral society
monarchy democracy
gift culture capitalism
central piazza with radiating streets grid pattern for street layout
atrium architecture hallway/private room
flat, horizontal universe vertical universe

In light of these changes in ideology, I discussed the remarkable historical events that Milton was a part of: regicide, a new republic, church reform, etc., all of which are intimately connected with the changes we've discussed so far. Look to the left for a time-line of this period. I discussed how Oliver Cromwell's revolution, that Milton was a part of, reflected these changes. Of particular interest is the new government's emphasis on religious freedom, the rejection of church hierarchies (particularly the Episcopacy or the system of bishops), radical ideas about government (abolition of the monarchy and even talk about an extension of the vote to more people), and calls for reform of the national system of education, particularly the universities. Although these radical ideas were tempered later in Cromwell's reign, they illustrate just how much new ideas about the subject and about society began to have real effects on the world stage. After the return to the throne of Charles II (and hence the beginning of the Restoration in 1660), Milton barely escaped the public drawing and quartering or public burnings of some of his colleagues in Cromwell's government. Milton at this time lost his position and his wealth and retired to private life, devoting his energies to the completion of Paradise Lost. As some critics have pointed out, these facts mean that Milton found himself in a position that was rather analogous to Satan's position at the beginning of Paradise Lost, since he too was a part of an ultimately failed rebellion against a king. Indeed, Milton even went so far as to defend the right to depose kings in his lengthily-titled treatise, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates: proving that it is lawful, and hath been held so through all ages, for any, who have the power, to call to account a tyrant or wicked king, and after due conviction, to depose and put him to death if the ordinary magistrate have neglected or denied to do it. And that they who of late so much blame deposing, are the men that did it themselves.

We finished class with a discussion of Odysseus' personality. I posed the question: who would you cast if you had to direct a film version of Homer's epic. The major candidates were Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas, Kevin Spacey, and Jack Nicholson. What is interesting about these choices is that students argued that one could not cast a character like Arnold Scharzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme because Odysseus was someone who did not rely on brute strength alone but on cunning, guile, intelligence. We would need a character who would be capable of making long orations and grandstanding--essential abilities in Odysseus' oral culture. Mention was also made of the fact that Odysseus can be perceived as an ambiguous character. (I believe "asshole" was the rather choice epithet used by one member of the class.) After all, Odysseus is someone who relies on his wits, often tricking his opponents and even his own men. He, for example, openly lies to his men about certain things and never tells them about the danger they face when they are about to sail around Scylla and Charybdis. (Indeed, he leaves them to their fate and arms only himself on p. 244.) As Polyphémus states after learning the true ideantity of "No-one," he had been told that a person named Odysseus would one day blind him. As a result,

I was always watching out for one
handsome and grand, a formidable man;
instead, one small and insignificant,
a weakling, now has gouged my eye—he won
his way by overcoming me with wine. (p. 185)

This led to a discussion about whether that trickiness is not affecting the very story Odysseus is telling the Phaeacians about his adventures. As preamble to this discussion, I laid out the "ring structure" of Odysseus' extended narration of his epic journey across the then known world. (If you click on "ring structure" above, you can have a look again at the schematization of that structure.) This led to a discussion of the reasons for Odysseus to tell his tale when and how he does. We thus examined Odysseus' craftiness. After all, he has managed to make it into Arétë's and Alcínous' court despite the fact that he arrived on the island without a ship, money, or even clothes. In what ways does he prove to the Phaeacians that he is someone that should not only be trusted but rewarded with gifts and passage home? In what ways are his tales designed to convince the Phaeacians to give him what he wants? Also, why specifically does he represent his own men as so disobedient and even downright dumb? Can we trust his tales? As I suggested, in an oral culture it was important for any rhapsode to be extremely conscious of his/her audience, choosing stories based on the allegiances and sympathies of the people listening. (For this reason, Odysseus has Demódocus recount the tale of the Trojan horse: how else could he find out where the sympathies of the Phaeacians lay before revealing his own identity?)

Some of the answers offered by the class include the following: the tales present Odysseus as almost greater than human, thus suggesting that he is worthy of the Phaeacian's help; he makes it clear that powerful gods (Athena, Hermes, Zeus) are on his side (even goddesses can't keep their hands off him); he represents his men as incredibly stupid, thus exonerating himself of their deaths (after all, one might question the leadership of a man who managed to lead a 700-strong force of men to doom); he tells stories about either seductive hosts who won't let him leave or about evil hosts that try to eat him, as if to say to Alcínous and Arétë: don't force me to stay and marry your daughtor, Nausícaa, and don't harm me. Either of these actions will lead to punishment from the Gods. Instead, give me men and ships to take me home. As I pointed out, he even tells the Phaeacians that it has been prophesied by Tirésius that they would help him to return home (nudge, nudge).

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Timeline and Image
by Dino Felluga