Thoughts on Heroism From the Odyssey

With Ms Trish's recently completed readalong (which I did a horrible job of contributing to, sorry Trish), I have read the Odyssey three times now. I've read three different translations (my favorite, though I know this is geeky, is the old, inaccurate poetic one by Alexander Pope). I've been told the story in a number of forms outside of this, I've even read Ulysses.

And every time I read this story, my main impression of it is strengthened: that Odysseus and Telemachus are big jerks.

Let me apologize, this is in some ways my failing. I am aware of why I don't like him - it's the classic issue of a 21st century reader trying to sympathize from someone from a very different time and place. Intellectually I can understand this, but it doesn't change the fact that I really loathe the guy. He's just not very nice. At all. Ever.

Looking at WHY I dislike him so much, however, was kind of illuminating to me, so since I want to at least show that I MEANT to be a good participant in the readlong, I will try to put a few of these thoughts down.

Of course, at one level, it's very simple to explain why I dislike Odysseus. He's a misogynistic, violent, seemingly unloving man, dishonest on a whim, unabashed about taking advantage of others, and cruel to even the slightest failing of others (killing the maids of the house because they had sex with teh suitors puts the final nail in for me). But then, of course, I'm left to step back, and ask myself: why was a man like this considered heroic? And why do I hate him so much, when I can like other heroes from later in history that are obnoxious in their own ways? Why, in short, does Odysseus, whether I like him or not, not feel like a hero, when clearly he is meant to?

The trick, for me, in looking closely is that Odysseus's heroism is almost entirely selfish. Throughout the book, his entire purpose is for himself - he wants to get home, and get his life back. HE wants to be back with his wife, but only after he's tested her loyalty. He wants to meet his son, but only if he's worthy of him. He wants to reward those loyal to him, and punish those who were not. In Odysseus's character there is not. one. single. shred. of altruism. No ideals, no grand purpose, or meaningful direction. He just wants to get home, get his stuff back (his wife being more or less just slightly noisier stuff from his point of view, by the way), and get back to being the king.

At some level, this is honest. After all, at some level someone like, say, Joan of Arc to take a somewhat more contemporary mythic hero, is much more selfish. Sure, she goes out with a purpose - to save France and glorify God - but it's not really out of the goodness of her heart. The religious martyr can never do anything truly selfless, because every good thing becomes an investment in some future heaven. Joan's suffering, in some sense, doesn't matter to her, because she knows that when she dies, if she remains faithful, god will pluck her up and reward her for her goodness.

In some sense, then, the closest character to this modern martyr-hero model in the Odyssey would be, say, Eumaeus, the faithful swineherd who is a slave to Odysseus, and who could have made his life easier by being craven with the suitors, but who is loyal to his 'god', believing that when his master returns (or when he dies and the Gods see what kind of slave he was), he will be rewarded.

Not all modern heroes are martyrs, of course. Not all are even saints, to be honest - one of the more popular heroes of the last few years would be Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. And he's the latest in a long series of rogue heroes - Han Solo is another great example. This woudl seem to be much closer to the old Odysseus model. Sparrow is not a paragon of virtue - on the contrary, his entire motivation is simply to get his ship back, to be captain again, etc. But here too there are differences, two of them really - one the writer juxtaposes the rogue character against someone truly wicked (Captain Barbossa, say, or the Galactic Empire and Darth Vader), making the rogue the lesser of two evils. Who is the greater evil in the Odyssey? The suitors? There's some argument to be made for this, but not to the same extent, particularly because of the second reason: rogue heroes are always underdogs. If they aren't, they cease to be heroes. Third, the sins of an underdog must be presented as, more or less, venial. Sparrow was a pirate, yes, but notice you never see him kill anyone except for Barbossa, you never see him rob anyone who can't manifestly afford it, etc. Of course, a moment's thought will tell us - thi sis a pirate. Of course in the normal everyday line of his business, he's going to rob a ship, which will require the use of martial force, and the indiscriminate robbery of the cargo no matter who it belongs to. But if he did these things on screen, his desire for a ship would cease to be easy to empathize with. Finally, rogues are pretty much universally comic characters, usually even a bit clumsy and clownish. In a serious picture, we'd engage the thinking part of our brain, the part that makes judgements.

Then of course there is the unbelievably competent hero - the action hero for instance. Take, Gibbs, from Amanda's favorite show, NCIS. Taciturn, endlessly loyal, impossibly talented, always wins. This is more the fantasy type - the man designed to be somenoe we yearn for, yearn to be or yearn to be with (Lara Croft, for instance, might be a female example). At surface level, I would say these are unlike Odysseus as well - again, they are always devoted to something - they are patriots, or protectors, or altruists, etc.

But in a sense, this is the closest equivalent we have to Odysseus, the man who is washed ashore after a shipwreck, and nonetheless can outplay the best people in the land at any sport, who can slip in and kill all the suitors almost singlehandedly, who could outwit the entire city of Troy. And this sort of points out the most interesting fact to me - that the main difference is simply one of cultural values. We, as a culture, value patriotism, and protecting the honor of or our country. The Greeks, at least in the evidence of the Odyssey AND the Iliad, fought more for the honor of the individual. There's some overlap in tribe and family loyalties, but even there, these things are mostly shown as simply extensions of the individual - Odysseus protects Penelope because her honor is his honor. When a friend dies in the Odyssey, it is sad because Odysseus has lost something useful or pleasing to him. To an extent, when a friend dies in NCIS, it is Gibbs' duty to pay back the affront, rather than something he does to protect his honor.

This points not to some civilizing effect of progress, I think, but rather simply shows that there are certain things in our current heroes that are equally ephemeral - heroes from a hundred years ago, for instance, often feel dated to us now, so will ours in a hundred years or so. So the hero who is a model of a 'perfect man' will appear less than perfect with time. And I would venture to say, that's a good thing. Gibbs, at a base moral level, isn't a morally superior hero really, and patriotism isn't really more productive, in the long term (or less selfish) than selfish defense of personal honor - after all, we could not fight wars without patriots, on BOTH sides of the conflict.

But then, of course patriotism has it's purposes, and is not an unalloyed evil. Patriotism and Nationalism, in many ways, were the birthing mothers of republicanism and democracy in the western world - they give a natural scope to a people's ambitions. Patriotism, additionally, does sometimes impel people to truly selfless acts in the defense and for the greater good of a group. The problem in the heroic formula of patriotism (or any other unshakeable loyalty) is in it's absolutism. A Gibbs would never, no matter what, betray his country. Just as an Abraham would never, no matter what, betray his god. In both cases, this produces an impetus in the unhealthy mind, towards extremism, in ways that it isn't difficult to find tragic examples of.

The personal honor of Odysseus, then, is very similar after all. Personal honor is not an unabashedly bad thing. A healthy respect for one's own individual welfare and reputation is, after all, at some level the basis of lawful civil society - there is never sufficient punishment available to deter crime, crime must be deterred because committing it has a social cost that is higher than it's physical benefits. Enlightened self-interest is a building block of civilization. Taken too far, though, it becomes the selfishness and mean-spirited hate of Odysseus.

The question, to me, then becomes what is the value of heroes? IS there forms of heroism that are valuable throughout generations? Or is heroism simply a structure we design to impel people to act in socially useful ways? What do you guys think? And with the age of nationalism and patriotism slowly in the decline, I think (a debatable point, I understand), what will be the next definition of hero, and will it be any better?


Emily said...

What an interesting post! I actually quite like Odysseus for (in part) exactly the reason you mention - he's more an individual than a patriot, and I don't identify as a patriot either. He's a pragmatist. You're right, he's not particularly kind, but I don't know if I would go so far as hateful...I think he basically has PTSD (if we're going to be anachronistic!), which is a lens that explains to me a lot of his violent behavior and the way he's fixated on looking out for number one. I would probably act much as he does after the trauma of ten years in hand-to-hand combat combined with ten years of battling the elements and the gods.

The treatment of women is an interesting question. Odysseus treats women like property (unless he's being treated like property by a woman/goddess), but he's hardly unique in that...I have a hard time holding it against him. All his compatriots act exactly the same. I mean no, he doesn't blindly trust Penelope to have remained faithful to him after 20 years, but hey, check out what happened to Agamemnon, you know? I think, in Odysseus's world, ANYONE can have transformed into a lethal enemy.

I also thought a lot while reading Anne Carson's alternate Oresteia, about the misogyny created/excused/explained/whathaveyou by the fact that in ancient Greek lit everyone just got back from fighting this huge protracted war over the abduction/elopement of a woman few of them even really knew. So of COURSE they demonize her, and by extension demonize womanhood. It makes me wonder if the myth of Helen and the Trojan War evolved as a creation-myth for Greek misogyny - like, the Original Sin that Athenian women were supposed to continue atoning for, proof that they were defective in some way, or at least that they were the opposite of the male "heroic."

Anyway, thought-provoking post!

Amanda said...

Well, I know nothing about the ancients. Really I don't. I had to read a lot of that stuff in college, but since then I've endeavoured to forget much of it. However, you ask who the greater evil is in the Odyssey and then mention the suitors, but that's not what I think at all. I think the greater evil here is the Gods that control fate. Odysseus was not fighting against suiters and his wife and whatever the rest of it was. He was fighting against the gods and the force of fate, which chose to throw him wherever they/it pleased. Sometimes he double-backed when he was so close to home - is it a possibility then that he thought "home" was TOO close, that he hadn't done enough to deserve to be home in the Gods' eyes, and thought perhaps by turning around he might be outwitting them? That he showed up in disguise not only to trick his wife and servants, but others who might report him to the gods as back home before he "earned" it? I think a character like Odysseus was so powerful back then because he came so close to being a god. Gods were unpreditable and irrational in the eyes of the people, moody and often merciless. Odysseus's actions are the same, thereby bringing him closer to that state of godhood. I think that's why people admired him. We don't think of divinity that same way anymore, and thus have a harder time understanding why.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - I think I had heard you mention PTSD before (maybe on my review of the ODyssey ages ago?) and it's an interesting. I have to admit, my dislike of Odysseus is very irrational, I can certainly understand why he is how he is - if weren't, honestly, he wouldn't have survived, anyway. Intellectually I can appreciate that. I think I would have appreciated him more if he had had some level of vulnerability, if that makes sense? It's difficult for me to sympathize with impregnable characters. A character who lives to be impregnable, but who you can sense something inside that they're protecting, that I can sympathize wtih . Odysseus just seems to in control of everything (ironically, I know). Too unphaseable. Too perfect. I don't like perfect people, they're usually not honest.

Ms Amanda - I agree to an extent, and ALMOST wrote about the idea of the gods as an enemy, only I talk dystheistic often enough on here, I begin to feel bad about it. But from my perspective, I could almost find it easier to believe in the Greek gods - there is something wonderfully honest about the relationship. I could even love a god like that, I think, because it's more like a human. Worshipping a Greek god, there are no illusions, you know they are simply reacting to your gifts, they know you are giving them to palliate them. Then, if you DO become close to them, the friendship feels genuine - one of the few scenes I found touching in the ODyssey is on the coaast of Ithaca, when Athena and Odysseus are almost playfully bantering with each other. Like old friends. She appreciates what he's done for her over the years, but is also jsut fond of him, and the same in reverse.

Trisha said...

All of this intellectual conversation, and my big contribution is: Odysseus is a big f*tart. He's vain, self-centered, and quite the little liar (even when it's completely unnecessary). The prevalence of pro-Odysseus comments in works outside of the Odyssey do make me wonder if his ginormous head is a result of not only his own arrogance but also a lot of but kissing. And still, his continual self-promotion, especially when he is pretending to be someone else - which is most of the time - drives me bananas.

And I still love the book (well, epic poem).

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trisha - You know I've thought about it before, it bothers me too. And yet... on the other side, have you ever noticed how difficult it is in our society to say something nice about yourself? I'm not saying bragging - it's remarkably easy to brag. And in all fairness, most of the time I think O is more bragging (particularly when he goes out of the way to talk himself up when he's in disguise). Just something I've thought about...

Trisha said...

Good point Jason! We live in a very contradictory society where self-aggrandizing is rather common (social media comes to mind) and yet we are definitely criticized for even something as positive as pride - people equate it with arrogance quite often.

Anonymous said...

really an eye opener for me.

- Robson