Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wiener Takes All: Odysseus the Sausage Maker

Dr. Armstrong has suggested I post this in response to his piece on dissimilar similes, as it is not often that we have the opportunity on the Profblog to speak at length about goat sausage.  I want to discuss a simile which elevates the problem of incongruity or inappropriateness to new heights of absurdity, and I suggest that precisely in its vulgarity there resides a profound claim about the character of Odysseus and the world of the Odyssey.

Odysseus, we are told in Fagles’ spirited translation,

...forced his spirit into submission
the rage in his breast reined back—unswerving,
all endurance.  But he himself kept tossing, turning,
intent as a cook before some white-hot blazing fire
who rolls his sizzling sausage back and forth,
packed with fat and blood—keen to broil it quickly,
tossing, turning it, this way, that way—so he cast about:
how could he get these shameless suitors in his clutches,
one man facing a mob?... (XX, ll. 25-35)

This passage describes Odysseus’ tormented state of mind the night before his triumphant and bloody revelation.  It describes his considerations as the “man of tactics,” while also hinting that he must speak to his fighting spirit if he is to gain his rightful place and glory once more.  Yet how could this image be in any way worthy of the great Odysseus—how can it speak to his rightful place and his glory? 

To understand the evocative potential of this simile better, we must remember the crucial importance of dissimilarity in similes—the incongruity points to a deeper import.  I would add to this the importance of resonance in these similes.  Repetition of imagery or vocabulary—think of all those “Homeric epithets”—in different contexts helps build up our understanding of characters, of the meanings present in events, of the world the poet conjures up through his poetry.

In this case, the resonance is heightened because, mercifully, sausage is mentioned only twice in the Odyssey.  The first instance I have already quoted, the other features sausage as a prop for the jarring scene of Odysseus “battling” Arnaeus in what can only be described as a pitiful spectacle of human degradation—a “hobo fight” urged on by the suitors.  Arnaeus, recall, was already the court beggar, doing odd jobs for food; and he was most upset to find another had usurped his place—as Odysseus is upset to find the suitors trying to take his place.  The fight reads like a sad parody of Iliadic braggadocio and battle.  Odysseus threatens to “bloody your lip, splatter your chest / and buy myself some peace and quiet for tomorrow” (XVIII, ll. 26-27).  In return, Arnaeus vaunts in heroic fashion about how he would “batter the tramp with both fists, crack every tooth / from his jaws...litter the ground with teeth / like a rogue sow’s, punished for rooting corn” (XVIII, ll. 34-36).  The young lords urge on a fight with a prize for the winner.  A boxing match, perhaps, as at the Phaeacian court?  Is the prize a tripod, worth twelve oxen?  A bow or sword of pitiless bronze?  No, it is “These goat sausages sizzling here in the fire” (XVIII, 52-53).  We are a long way from Patroclus’ funeral games or the posturing of Hector and Achilles in the Iliad.  These men fight for their place in society, yes, but it is hardly a noble one. 

So we have two scenes with sausages—two jarring, even repugnant images—and both are used to describe Odysseus in his “disguise” which, perhaps, reveals more to the reader than it conceals.  What is Odysseus’ plan but a “groaning feast,” a sacrifice—or a hideous meal like the one the Cyclops prepared?  Odysseus’ triumph leads him to an act of impiety—killing the suppliant Leodes (XXII, ll. 306-45; cf. XIV, ll. 291-319 and VII, ll. 196/215) and  knowingly to begin a blood-feud (XXIII, ll. 133-57).  He is described repeatedly as a lion with its kill—a lion who has eaten what he kills (XXII, ll. 425-30; XXIII, ll. 51-2).  All of this foreshadowed in the image of Odysseus cooking sausages—an ignoble simile that is, in fact, foreboding, savage, almost inhuman.

What is the beggar but the stranger, the xenos whom the ideals of xenia and the will of Zeus protect?  Odysseus the beggar is no princely guest to be welcomed in expectation that the favour will be returned (cf. IX, ll. 18-20); he is a wanderer whose guest-gifts are just  “a shirt and cloak” (XVII, l. 620).  Odysseus has long been a xenos, and we have seen the vicissitudes of his wandering.  But here, when he comes as the beggar planning murder, we see xenia denuded of high-flown speeches between kings and princes, stripped of all the finery of gift exchange; here xenia is the guest at the mercy of his hosts (hosts who are actually just guests taking over another man's house), who act in accordance with their own character, generous or cruel as the case may be (cf. XIX, ll. 377-83).  In this context, the precarious balance of xenia, I think, makes Odysseus’ endurance and his continual fight for his home as primal as a battle for food--and as savagely pitiful.

When I read images like these, deployed as they are, I cannot help but think that, as much as Odysseus or Homer or even we may want it to be, this tale is not the Iliad.  Far from sanctioned battle and the wrangling of princes, something deeper, altogether more savage is at work here.  Odysseus, like a cook preparing food, plans to slaughter a hundred men.  How different is he, really, from the Cyclops?  What’s worse, for his slaughter, we see that, ultimately, he can have no kleos in Ithaca—Zeus commands that event be expunged from memory in order to prevent a cycle of blood-feud and to secure Odysseus’ reign as king.  As curious as it sounds, the poem seems there to say that no songs can be sung of Odysseus’ slaughter (in Ithaca, at least).  Likewise, Odysseus the beggar, the xenos who cannot recompense his host with anything but words of gratitude, represents the repulsively bare fact of the demands of xenia that alternatively mortify men or drive them to pity.  Yet this is the same man who planned Troy’s doom, who kills princes, who must eventually make peace and leave the Iliad far behind in favour of home and family.   It is hard to imagine a spectacle further from the dignity of the King of Ithaca than to fight a beggar for a “sizzling sausage,” or a more lowly position for the King than a cook at the grill.  Yet this is still Odysseus—not the man whose kleos steps out of the story at the stringing of the bow, but the much-enduring man of craft, the one who can “bear it all.”  It may not be worthy of the stories, but it is still true to the man; it may not be what we expect of epic, but it is still true to the Odyssey—and that, I think, is what is so powerfully unsettling about goat sausages.

—Jonathan L. Zecher 

Apollo reveals the power of sausage

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Swallows and Axes: Dissimilarity within the Homeric Simile

Cliff Swallow on UH Campus (Photo by R. Armstrong)
The simile, as you know, is a formal comparison: A is like B.  In high school, you were probably drilled on the distinction between simile and metaphor, which hinges upon the presence of comparative adverbs: like, as, just as, so, etc. A lot hangs on the notion of similarity, or the poet's assertion that in some surprising way these very different things are actually like one another.  But in Homeric similes, I would argue a lot springs from the dissimilarity as well.

For example, there are two similes that arise at one of the most critical moments in the Odyssey: the blinding of the Cyclops (9.429-441 in Fagles' translation).  One simile likens the Greeks' boring of an olive wood stake into Polyphemus' eye to the work of a shipwright working his drill on a beam; the other likens the sizzling sound the stake makes as it burns its way into the eyeball to the sound made when a blacksmith drops a glowing ax or adze he is forging into the cooling water. Of course, the likeness of these similes is horrifically obvious: the deliberate drilling into the eye, the relentless and mechanical movement of the stake are chillingly conveyed.  Also, the hiss of the burning eyeball is brought out frightfully well. We might say the two similes have a truly disgusting clarity.

But these are two common, workmanlike activities that are quite dissimilar from the panicky effort Odysseus makes to save his men. The shipwright and the blacksmith are just doing their jobs, working with tools upon inanimate matter; Odysseus and his crew are in one of the most dire and extraordinary situations of their lives, something unusual even for warrior/adventurers of the Trojan War generation.  So are these, as Homer's critics argued even in antiquity, ultimately incongruous and inappropriate similes?

Two things come to mind here.  First, the plane of the comparison is indeed the day to day, whereas the narrative moment is mythological, far away, extraordinary.  Such homely analogies give us a sense of the audience for this poetry, for whom the simile is a key indicator of a reality closer to their world.  Scholars have discussed the cognitive power of such similes, and how they support the rapid visualization of a remote past.  We hear very little of "Homer's" audience within the Homeric poems; not much is done to map explicitly the distance from the generation of the Trojan War to the audience's own time--even less in the Odyssey than in the Iliad.  The simile draws the past into the sensuous immediacy of the present, and does so in a manner that doesn't date all that quickly.  They are apolitical, seemingly universal comparisons. Even now, when these technologies are no longer every day sights, we still understand readily what the comparisons are driving at.

Second, in this particular case, the emotional distance is a striking contrast to the sensuous immediacy of the comparison.  The shipwright and the blacksmith are firmly in control of their worlds; they are not in a panic, they are not fighting for their lives.  And of course, for a warlike and seafaring people, it will not escape notice that a shipwright and a blacksmith also both make implements of war: namely, the black ships and pitiless iron that bring war around the world.  They represent the military-industrial complex of the audience's own time, a link to the world of Homeric warriors that occupies their historical fantasies. 

Odysseus and his men deploy an elementary form of technology, the fire-hardened olive stake, against the primeval "cannibal" Polyphemus in a stripped-down conflict of civilization over savagery. The emotional distance of the similes seems to bring alive the detached and workmanlike attitude towards the technology of death and maiming.  Just as one makes a drill to bore into boards, one makes a weapon to bore into enemies. This is what our abstract and cunning minds do for us, the humans. This is why we are so dangerous to ourselves and others. We coolly turn bodily harm into a craft. All this is conveyed in a split second, through the deployment of vivid similes whose dissimilitude is as poignant as their queasy similarity.

Or take another instance of a fancy double simile: when Odysseus finally strings the bow, he handles it like a fine musical instrument and plucks the string; it resounds "like the cry of a swallow," or as Fagles translates it, "it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow's cry" (21.458).  This seems like a pleasing image: a humming string that sounds like birdsong.  But two problems immediately arise here. First, there is a wicked irony in likening the bow to the lyre, which the Greek text plays out extensively.  Odysseus is said to handle the bow, "like an expert skilled at lyre and song," where the "song" (aoidê) in Greek recalls the figure of the bard or singer (aoidos) we have encountered throughout. The bowstring "sings out beautifully" with the verb related to aoidê: aeidô (this verb is the second word in the Iliad). Odysseus is about to "entertain" his guests with an instrument of death.  The convivial setting, which by now we all know so well, is about to turn nasty, as it had in the Cyclops' cave.

The bow becomes a wonderfully ambivalent symbol here, linking dreadful and lovely things together. Yet the comparison is rooted in a real physical and linguistic similarity: a bow string and a lyre string have the same name (neurê), just as archery and lyre playing are both associated with the same god: Apollo. This particular bow is a beloved object with its own epic story behind it (see the beginning of book 21), one which ties Odysseus to the famous bowmen Eurytus and Herakles, and the ill-fated Iphitus, who gave it to him.  You might recall the last encounter in the Underworld is with the "image" (eidolon) of Herakles, menacing the dead souls with his bow (11.690ff, Fagles).

The moment Odysseus strings the bow, he steps at long last back into the frame of heroic epic. No longer a shadow of himself or an impostor, he will now act as the man he truly is: father of Telemachus, husband of Penelope, King of Ithaca, and master of the bow and the house.  He goes back to "singing" his own story, plucking it out on the bow/lyre; but this is an action, not just a story like those he recounts to the Phaeacians.  And this part of the story is death to the suitors, but oh so very entertaining for us; it is the story we have been waiting to hear for many books now. This is an ambivalence we can truly relish: the bow song of doom for the suitors.

But let's go back to the sound of the bow string, which resounds "like the voice of a swallow."  Anyone who knows his birds will immediately realize this is a very inapposite comparison; I think this explains Fagles' attempt to clarify it by overtranslating the passage as: "it sang out as clear and sharp as a swallow's cry." Before him, Robert Fitzgerald had rendered this "the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang / a swallow's note" (374), and Alexander Pope had gone so far as, "From his essaying hand the string, let fly / Twang'd short and sharp like the shrill swallow's cry." But there is nothing in any swallow species' vocalization that would resemble the twang of a bow string. The translators' repeated likening of swallow twittering to humming and twanging constitutes a bogus factoid easily disproved by two minutes of birding at your nearby overpass or barn. (European swallows do not sound that different from North American ones.)

So is this, then, a gratuitous and ill-placed comparison?  Not if you consider that the swallow is a migratory species whose annual appearance signals the arrival of Spring, the time of rebirth and renewal.  We might alter slightly an English expression and say that the "swallows have come home to roost" on Ithaca. Now the King has returned and life will resume; a lovely natural image this time, for what will be a very bloody Spring cleaning.
--Richard Armstrong

Works Cited

Fagles, Robert. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Fitzgerald, Robert, trans. Homer: The Odyssey. Garden City, NY: The International Collectors Library, 1961.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Memory and Absence in New York

Rendering of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City

Today in New York they are holding the solemn dedication of the 9/11 Memorial, ten years after the events that changed the face of Manhattan and our entire national culture.  I have often polled our incoming students about what events in their own lifetime made them aware of history unfolding around them, and 9/11 has been the dominant answer.  It quickly became the date that molds the flow of contemporary history. We live in the year 10 ATT (After the Twin Towers); Ground Zero became the year 0. 

The New York Memorial itself has a history; it marks the literal spot where the attacks occurred.  That space needed to be cleared of human remains and vast piles of debris, and a single design able to meet the incredible challenge of commemorating the events had to be found.  Memorials are quite often clichés in marble, but the sheer human complexity of 9/11 pushed everyone well past any notion of an obelisk, a sculptured allegory, or a solemn list of names on a colorless plaque.  We all know what war memorials look like.  But we are still learning how to commemorate the victims of terrorism.

The first step seems to be to define them as victims, not martyrs.  Martyrdom, historically, means the "witnessing" of an authority or a morality that goes beyond the historical moment and the powers that be. In the Christian tradition, the spectacle of martyrdom recounted in countless lives of the saints conveys a kind of spiritual machismo: the martyr, when given a choice between submitting to Roman authority or obeying the word of God, freely chooses a gruesome death in testimony to the superior truth and even happiness inherent in keeping faith with God. According to St. Augustine, they contend "for the truth as far as the death of their bodies, so that the true religion might be made known and fiction and falsehood convicted" (City of God, 8.27). Augustine imagined after the Resurrection of All Flesh, the martyrs will have their dismembered bodies reconstituted, but with the scars still visible where their limbs were hacked off. There will be no ugliness in this, for in these "glorious wounds" there will be "no deformity, only dignity, and the beauty of their valor will shine forth" (City of God, 22.19). 

But the civilians of 9/11 did not bravely choose to die in some cosmic, spiritual drama.  They were simply going to work, trying to pay bills, trying not to get fired. Had they been given a moment to choose their deaths, to proclaim the cause for which they were dying, to feel the eyes of the world upon them as they performed some memorable act of endurance, then the horror of their deaths could be imagined—at least in retrospect, in our tribal narratives—as somehow sacred.  But instead, they were caught suddenly, quite unprepared, and died unconsoled and miserably.  Instead of the sacred drama of voluntary martyrdom, they died obscenely, vaporized or blindly choking, at best choosing to jump instead of burn. Even the language of martyrdom had been preempted by their attackers.

No wonder it has always been easier to commemorate the first responders who willingly ran into those collapsing buildings than those many who just died. The civic heroism of the policemen and firemen is of a kind we can readily appreciate. It comes almost as a relief, wiping away the horrific implications of being a victim, where there is no option to embrace a death with meaning.  And it is with just that unpredictable, explosive, all-consuming death that terrorism threatens us.  Death without dignity, preparation, confession, or choice.  Death reduced to its absolute and meaningless finality.  That is why an act of terrorism makes us all feel so utterly unsafe.  War, with all its horrors, seems a hundred times preferable to victimhood.

But the Monument must remind, warn, and admonish: all meanings of its root verb, the Latin monere.  And the designers have created a most astounding—and to me, effective—solution.  The Twin Towers will be commemorated in their literal absence from the skyline of New York City, which they dominated when they towered confidently over lower Manhattan's financial district (that is why they were the targets after all).  Now, the negative space of their footprints is deeply embedded on the site, where two vast square wells gape to receive the flowing waters that pour down into a pool, then disappear into another square hole at the center.  Gone.  This kinetic monument conveys both ablution and disappearance.  Around the square rims of the two pits are inscribed the names of the victims, distributed according to a complex algorithm, like the one that threaded them together on that day.

Around these vast square chasms will grow a grove of trees, redefining this space as one of contemplation, recreation, and escape from the concrete warren of the city. This seems a fitting complement to the structured absence of the towers.  We fight death with life, urban devastation with green spaces, darkness with sunlight. In place of the mechanical drone of cabs and cars, there will be the cascading roar of living water, to mark out what this place has become for us all: a watershed.

—Richard Armstrong

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Tale of Two Brothers

Irish Land Woes

Years ago in Ireland there was a widower named Cushnahan who had two sons.  The elder was named Jeremiah and the younger, Joseph.  Once Cushnahan had been a strong farmer, but through drink and mismanagement he had lost everything but his homestead and a few rocky fields.

Then came the war.  The English were half starved and the local butcher was paying ready cash for game.  Joe was a diligent youth with a talent for traps.  Every morning he walked the narrow road into town with his arms full of dead rabbits and pigeons.

Cushnahan rejoiced in their new prosperity, thanking God for Joe and his craft—so much so that the elder son became consumed with jealousy.  Disguising his hand, Jer wrote a letter to the Guards denouncing the younger Cushnahan lad as a poacher.

The sergeant called.  No accusations were made but Cushnahan’s nerves went bad.  Drunk, he fretted out loud about his skillful son being sent to an industrial school.  The next morning, Joe was gone.  His father wept.  “They’ll find his body at the bottom of the quarry,” he groaned.  “Don’t talk ráiméis, Daddy,” his elder son scolded.  “He’s on the boat to England like the rest of them to work in a bomb factory.”

A decade later, with still no word from his younger brother, Jer was on that boat himself.  He could get nothing out of their land but the small farmer’s dole, and that his despairing father drank.  In England, the rationing was over and there were more jobs than ever.  Jer got one in London, sweeping the streets of the West End.

At dawn one day, sweeping Shafesbury Avenue, he looked up and read on the marquee of a theater the title A Barman’s Funeral.  Suddenly he was homesick.  Have you ever been to a barman’s funeral? was a great phrase of his father’s, and Jer had learned at a young age that the answer was no because barmen were cute with money.  The other side of the marquee revealed the author’s name to be James Madigan.  Obviously an Irishman like myself, Jer thought, reared by a father who asked the same question.

Though he had never been to a play in his life, Jer had a great yearning to attend this one.  Impossible, he decided—the price of the cheapest seat, he saw from the poster, was more than what he sent home in his fortnightly remittance.  And he knew that the quality wore suits to their evening entertainments. He had no suit.

Three more mornings he swept past the theater, telling himself it was impossible; he could not see James Madigan’s play: he couldn’t afford a ticket, and he had no suit.  But on the fourth morning he changed his mind.  His father had the dole; whether or not he drank it was his business.  Jer shared a room with an Egyptian lad studying to be a doctor—neither of them could find a place in a regular boardinghouse—and he would lend him decent clothes.  That evening, wearing an ill-fitting suit, he bought a ticket at the box office and took his seat in the gods.

The drama was a great disappointment.  Jer didn’t know much about plays, but he did expect there would be something of a story.  This was nothing but a crowd of gurriers waking the dead barman in the pub he used to serve.  The audience found everything they said hilarious, but Jer wouldn’t have given tuppence for all their blather.  He would have left at the intermission had an usher not handed him a note saying that the author would like to meet him after the performance in a place called the green room.

So he stayed, and suffered through the second half, which was worse than the first.  The gurriers had gone home, and here came the corpse out of the coffin.  He spent the rest of the play talking to the audience.  The English lapped it up.

At last it was over and he was escorted to the green room.  James Madigan turned out to be a young man with a chestnut-brown beard who wore a trim houndstooth jacket.  He had a firm handshake.

“Well,” he asked, “what did you think of the play?”

“To be honest, Mr. Madigan,” Jer replied, “I could make neither head nor tail of it.”

“Not worth the price of admission, then, for a working man like yourself?”

“I suppose … I suppose not, but how do you know who—”

“I know who you are, just as you know who I am.”

“ I know nothing about you, Mr. Madigan, apart from that queer play you wrote.”

Then the bearded man switched to the Irish language.  “O and indeed you do, brother, for I am Joseph, whom you sent to England.”

All resistance to recognition collapsed, Jeremiah wept and clasped his younger brother’s hands.

After that, there was forgiveness on one side, and redemption on the other (or as much as either gift as can be given this side of the grave).

To their father they sent royalties, and then themselves.
 — Robert Cremins

Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Book of The Dead

Re in his Night Bark

   My mother died in the evening of January 9, 2011 in Harbor Springs, Michigan.  My phone rang at one in the morning the next day, my father on the other end weeping.  He’d been at the hospital through the night.  I was staying at my daughter’s house downstate in St. Clair Shores.  Later that day, I was to fly back to Houston and prepare for the beginning of the spring semester.  Plans change.
   At ten in the morning, I was driving back up north singing “Thunder Road.”  My daughter’s fiancée had found a cd of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” in the snow outside his house, and I played it passing through Flint, Grayling, Gaylord, exiting I-75 at Indian River.  My mother in her lifetime listened to Elvis, The Lettermen, and the Beatles.  Long ago, when I was eighteen, I insisted that she listen to “The Boss.”  Decades later, we were sharing it again. 

  Well the night's bustin' open, these two lanes will take us anywhere

  We got one last chance to make it real

  To trade in these wings on some wheels

  Climb in back, heaven's waiting down on the tracks

And so I drove into the northern woods, singing with my mother and Springsteen about death, regrets, lost love, and a refusal to accept it all with a bowed head.  What had thrown me the most about my father’s voice on the phone earlier that morning, echoed in his tears, his crying—fear and hurt lurked in my father’s words.  My father, who never cried.
            I would spend the next four days and nights with my father negotiating the business of death: death certificate, funeral home, social security administration, flowers, phone calls from friends day and night; and in the evening, we would sit down together in the big room in the big house and he would tell me stories about not only my mother’s life, but his life as well.  Stories about my father’s time in the national reserve, crawling through ditches in Arkansas, almost ending up in Vietnam; about his father’s people back in Cornwall, England, his mother’s people in Glasgow, Scotland; stories about meeting a girl in high school, showing his car off to her, marrying her and spending the next 50 years of his life at her side.
            On the night of January 15, 2011 my father had a heart attack in the big house, falling at the bottom of the stairs.  I pumped his chest, breathed into his mouth; the paramedics arrived.  My father’s heart began to beat again, but he never regained consciousness and twenty-four hours later we took him off life-support and he passed quietly away.  
            My sister and I organized a funeral for our parents later that week.  Neighbors, friends, paramedics attended and spoke of our mother and father, and their love for each other.  A friend of my father’s brought a newspaper, cup of coffee and a dog biscuit.  Every morning for years, my father had stopped at the local coffee shop, bought a paper, regular cup of coffee, and picked a dog biscuit out of a jar for Martin, his beagle back at home.  My father’s friend asked if her could set this in the coffin, and as he did I thought of a book I’d lectured on at the college a few years back, of the night-bark in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and how the deceased goes forth with the objects, the material of their daily human existence—goes out into a great beyond that looks very much like their life in Egypt.  So my father and mother set sail, climbing into a sky where for eternity they kiss in the morning, my father drives to the coffee-shop to buy a dog biscuit, and then continues on with the great work of being alive.
—John Harvey