August 19, 2008


The Vatican Penelope, courtesy of wikipedia.

The Odyssey of Homer is about something lots of people are thinking about and living with today: what does it take for someone who has been away at war to make the transition to "peaceful" civilian life.

This has always been an issue after major wars, but it rose in public awareness after Vietnam and is once again front and center. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, a student of classics who works with traumatized Vietnam veterans, has written two illuminating books on the subject: Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. Shay sees in the story of Odysseus many parallels with the trials of returning veterans--in fact, the hero of the epic may be seen as an example of how not to do it.

(An alternate reading would suggest that Odysseus needed to go through all these things in order to be re-integrated into society.)

While the parts of the story that stick most in popular imagination are the monsters and adventures encountered on the way home, the epic is also about the cost of war on the home front, about parents, spouses and children left behind and about the corrosive effect of war on social norms and customs. His son Telemachus grows up fatherless in a patriarchal society and is menaced by his mother's insolent suitors who devour his household resources and threaten his life.

Odysseus' faithful wife Penelope is under enormous pressure to remarry as Telemachus' adulthood nears. Her husband is presumed long dead and the society in which she lived had no place for independent unmarried women who were not elderly or caring for children.

Penelope's young suitors are lawless and arrogant in pressuring her to wed and violating all the laws of hospitality. Perhaps one reason why they don't know how to act is because so many older and presumably wiser men have long since gone to Troy, never to return.

(To inject a little modern reality here, this is actually something documented in population research. As economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in Common Wealth: Economics for A Crowded Planet, "a youth bulge significantly raises the likelihood of civil conflict, presumably by raising the ratio of those who would engage in violence relative to those who would mediate disputes."

The older folks have their sorrows too. Odysseus' mother Anticleia died of grief over her son's failure to return. His father Laertes has retired to a rural farm where he grieves and labors in solitude. The war has also changed the lives of servants who remain behind.

Even when loved ones finally are reunited in the story, they usually weep uncontrollably at first, mourning lost time that can never be regained.

Monsters and all, the Odyssey is a pretty realistic tale.

SLOW FOOD. Here's an item on sustainable eating.

CHEATING IN SCHOOL. Of the many sins of which El Cabrero may be guilty, cheating in school isn't one of them, although I was more than willing to slack. Nowadays it seems to be much more common. A new study looks at students who don't cheat.

DOG DAYS. Here are some reflections on summer's end.

WHICH CAME FIRST for humans--words or numbers?


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