August 27, 2008


Athena telling Diomedes to chill out. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The Goat Rope series on the Odyssey of Homer continues, along with links and comments about current events. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts.

It is a fact of life that war has for thousands of years been a kind of entertainment, particularly for those not engaged in it at the time. This is also true when Odysseus finally makes it to his next-to-the-last stop on his lengthy journey home from the Trojan War.

He is hosted, pretty graciously, by the prosperous and peaceful Phaeacians. His hosts even offer games in his honor, although not those involving the fighting arts. As his host the ruler Alcinous put it,

We're hardly world-class boxers or wrestlers, I admit,
but we can race like the wind, we're champion sailors too,
and always dear to our hearts, the feast, the lyre and dance
and changes of fresh clothes, our warm baths and beds.

While they're not much for fighting, they love hearing about it. The blind bard Demodocus (see yesterday's post) enthralls his listeners, although his all-too-realistic songs of the Trojan War cause cause the battle-weary Odysseus to hide his face and cry.

As Jonathan Shay, author of Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, put it,

The gulf between Odysseus and his civilian hosts is visible in their drastically different responses to the songs of Demodocus. This bard is the genuine article--the Muse whispers the truth of the war at Troy in his ear when he composes his songs. His songs, narrative poems like the Iliad, reduce Odysseus to tears, which he tries to hide. Afterward he proclaims that Demodocus sings with the truth of someone who was there himself. The Phaeacian civilians love these epic poems of war...--along with the harper's dance music and his bedroom farces...It's all the same to them. It's all entertainment. But for Odysseus, the truth-filled stories of the Trojan War open the gates of grief.

The Phaeacians aren't bad people. They just don't get it. Shay uses an example from the present to make his point:

Picture this scene: A Vietnam combat veteran goes to a family wedding some ten years after his service. (Odysseus is ten years out from Troy.) The band plays a Jimi Hendrix piece that reminds him of a dead friend, blindsiding him with emotion. He tries to conceal his tears, but a rich relative notices and says, "Why aren't you over that Vietnam stuff yet?..."

The song of Demodocus causes Odysseus to reveal himself and he finally begins to tell his own tale of the long way home. About which more tomorrow.

SPEAKING OF HOMER, here's an item on the evolutionary psychology of the Iliad and one on its use of humor.

POVERTY DAY. Yesterday the Census Bureau released information on poverty, income and health coverage for 2000. Here's some commentary by Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, along with a link to the Census data and here's an analysis of state data from the WV Center on Budget and Policy.

Short version of the data: poverty didn't change much. There was a small increase in median incomes and a small drop in the number of people without health coverage--BUT, and this is a big but--the numbers don't reflect the effects of the current recession. Also, if 2007 was the peak year of the economic expansion, the health care and poverty numbers are still worse than those of 2000.

AN ECONOMY FOR EVERYBODY? Three out of four Americans think the economy is getting worse. Here are some options for getting there.

MONKEY EMPATHY. Capuchin monkeys enjoy giving to other monkeys. Could it be the monastic influence?

URGENT NEANDERTHAL UPDATE. They might have been smarter than we thought.

MEDICAID. West Virginia's redesigned Medicaid program, called Mountain Health Choices, continues to be controversial. This Gazette article discusses a survey that showed most people in the program don't understand the two-tiered program, which offers a Basic and Enhanced set of benefits. Many people wind up in the basic program, which limits services and prescriptions, by default.


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