"I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."
This thought is nestled among hundreds of pages of stunning words about war and humanity in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in a page-long vignette called "Good Form."
I haven't been able to get it out of my head. I suppose it's a callback to an earlier piece in the collection entitled "How to Tell a True War Story." Farther down the page in "Good Form" O'Brien writes "What stories can do, I guess, is make things present."
I've been thinking about these ideas with respect to Odysseus' role as a storyteller in The Odyssey.
One of the absolutely jaw-dropping things about Greek epic is its capacity to distill and present human truth in such a basic, perfect simple light that you miss it for years if not decades until one day it snaps into clear view from where it's been hiding in the text, right in front of you.
I've read The Odyssey dozens of times in no fewer than 6 translations and numerous parts in the original Greek... I've digested extensive commentaries by the most accomplished scholars and thought about and basically lived the story for almost 20 years.
And yet still: as I drove the three hours from Chicago to Knox College for the last Odyssey show of my busy 20-plus show spring run I had a realization about something simple but ultimately profound that I'd never noticed: when King Alcinous asks Odysseus to tell his story at the end of book 8, Odysseus says not one word about the ten years he spent at war at Troy.
Now it is true that Demodokus (the blind bard of Phaeacia) has just finished narrating events of the Trojan War including the famous Trojan Horse that precipitated the fall of Troy. So it is perhaps appropriate from a narrative standpoint for Odysseus to pick up where the bard left off.
But thinking about this a little further as I drove I realized that as far as I could remember, throughout the entire Odyssey, its prolific storyteller utters not one word about his time at Troy: not in any of his famous "elaborations," not in his four book tale to the Phaeacians, and not (as far as we're told) in his recounting of his travels to Penelope in book 23 (Emily Wilson has him tell Penelope (perhaps tellingly) "how much he hurt so many other people, and in turn how much he had endured himself" before launching into specifics about his post-Troy journeys.)
It's kind of remarkable that a guy who is willing to use almost anything as grist for his story mills stays away from the decade he spent at Troy. What does that say about his experiences there that he won't talk about them?
Is it possible that to Odysseus "story-truth" is indeed truer than "happening-truth" and therefore his war stories are too much for him to bear (and too personal and sacred to use as raw material for fabrications) as they are and have been for soldiers and veterans from many wars since? Is it possible that telling these stories would make them too "present?"
I set up in a beautiful intimate round room in the Knox College performing arts center. My friends (and, as Knox alumni, the generous sponsors of the performance) Mark and Kat arrived as did the audience, many of whom had been participating in a Homerathon reading of books 9 and 10 of The Odyssey outside that afternoon in the beautiful sunny spring weather.
The performance was more intense for being in front of people I know well and also tinged with a bit of relief at having successfully survived several months of shows during which I navigated multiple rounds of illness and challenging weather.
The discussion afterwards was excellent and following it a student came up to ask me about a line that seems to get a lot of attention: at the end of "Blues in B," which is my attempt to distill all of Odysseus' tales in books 9 through 12 into one song, I have him sing "But through it all I've saved the skins I've shed."
This line comes up repeatedly post-show: audiences seem to like the idea that through Odysseus' changing identities and his framing of them he brings along pieces of his past, much as I think we all do with our own pasts and identities.
Later that night, I sat around a bonfire on Mark and Kat's farm and played some tunes with Mark. We played Knockin' on Heaven's Door and our voices floated up with the embers.
I thought that maybe if Odysseus had to sing his war story, it might actually sound a lot like the weary soul in Dylan's famous song:
Mama wipe the blood from my face
I'm sick and tired of the war
Got a lone black feelin', and it's hard to trace
Feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door