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

1 comment:

  1. Well played Dr. Zecher. The old sausage gambit. Maybe something more noble about sizzling goat sausage than grilled immortal cattle ribs. Possibly the Odyssey's very construction imitates the way sausage-makers hone their craft, rather than butchers.