In August I drove from Chicago to Seattle and back in two weeks playing shows of my Record of Llfe/Loss/Love trilogy.
My Odysseus-like itinerary was: Chicago -> Duluth, MN -> Bismarck, ND -> Great Falls, MT -> Moscow, ID -> Seattle, WA -> Portland, OR -> Cottage Grove, OR -> Reno, NV -> Utah -> Laramie, WY -> Boulder, CO -> Denver, CO -> Chicago.
It was a demanding and awesome tour. My wife, Andrea, came with for the first half and then I had a lot of a solo driving on the second half.
I used the solo driving time to work through some ideas around my Iliad project: it's starting to take shape conceptually. I'm still in the material-gathering mode but a lot of the pieces are starting to fall into place to start writing it in earnest by next year. I'm really excited: it's going to be challenging and important and I feel a great responsibility to do it right.
During the first half of the trip Andrea and I read some of Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey out loud to each other. It was a fun way to keep busy on the long drives and a great way for me to get my brain ready for my first Odyssey show of the school year at Luther College in Iowa at the end of August.
The freshman class at Luther was assigned Emily Wilson's translation for their summer reading and Dr. Wilson was the Convocation speaker earlier the same day I was to perform. I was hoping I might get to meet and maybe even perform for her but her travel schedule had her leaving before I arrived.
Back to our summer driving activity: I've commented over and over here about The Odyssey's limitless capacity to portray moments of human experience and truth with an almost hyper-real precision and elegance. Every time I encounter the text I find more of these moments.
I've read The Odyssey almost 20 times. I often talk about Telemachus' "coming of age" arc in the first 4 books of the poem. This is one of the facets of the story I've known and admired intellectually from the first time I studied it. I even wrote a song in my version which (I think) accurately captures Telemachus' emotional state at the start of the poem.
But as I listened to Andrea read the first book I was absolutely devastated all over again by how the poem portrays Telemachus' incremental steps towards maturity.
This is what The Odyssey does to you over and over. It reveals its full genius only when you are ready to grasp it, in flashes of recognition, often about parts of the story you thought you already understood. The reveal can be as gentle as a feather brushing away the cobwebs of your mind or as forceful as a sledgehammer clearing out psychic stone.
And as we drove through Montana looking at the Big Sky (nice epithet!) the Homeric hammer struck.
A brief synopsis of Book 1 of The Odyssey:
After the Invocation/proemium, the gods on Mt. Olympus discuss the unfortunate homecoming of Agamemnon and Zeus decides it's time for Odysseus to complete his journey back to Ithaca. Athena (instead of going to Ogygia where Odysseus is held captive by Calypso) goes to Ithaca where she appears to a brooding Telemachus in the guise of an old family friend, Mentes. Mentes (Athena) has a meal and then proceeds to assure Telemachus that Odysseus is coming home and also prod Telemachus to assert himself both at home by calling an Assembly to admonish the Suitors and out in the world by embarking on a journey by ship to seek news of his father.
After Athena departs, Telemachus joins the Suitors who are listening to the bard Phemius sing about various homecomings from Troy. Phemius' song provokes an emotional outburst from Penelope who asks him to stop singing about this very vivid painful subject matter but Telemachus tells his mother in so many words to keep quiet and go back to her room. Following that Telemachus does indeed call for an Assembly on the following day, coyly avoiding disclosing to the Suitors that the stranger who visited was likely a Goddess with news that his father just might be finally returning home.
A standard though slightly tangential beginning to Homer's Odyssey: all the characters are introduced and the scene set for the action.
One of the challenges to fully appreciating The Odyssey lies in understanding some of the cultural subtext and as I explained to Andrea the various aspects of Bronze Age Greece society relevant to the beginning of the poem I found myself paying more attention to how we meet Telemachus and how the poem portrays this initial interaction between him and Athena.
We're told Telemachus is, at the age of 20, sitting around feeling dejected watching the Suitors devour the kingdom to which he is heir, powerless and wishing his father (whom he has never met because his father left for Troy just after Telemachus was born) would show up and "scatter the Suitors." This sounds dire enough to us in the 21st century but to an ancient Greek this would be an absolutely devastating picture. By age 20, a prince like Telemachus would have already been steeped (likely by watching his father) in the important aspects of eventually fulfilling his birthright as king of Ithaca, skills like speaking in assembly, mounting expeditions for treasure, and warding off interlopers. Education in these facets would have started maybe even as early as 9 or 10 and certainly been well established by the age of 14 or 15. To be in this state at 20 is beyond abysmal.
Next, Athena presents herself in a disguise perfectly calibrated to impact Telemachus: Mentes is what's known as a "guest friend" of Odysseus, someone with a personal history of mutual hospitality with Telemachus' father, so likely someone about the same age and stature, a kind of surrogate authority figure with a personal connection to Odysseus. Telemachus would trust a person of this sort implicitly.
Before they speak, Telemachus does something interesting: he invites Mentes (Athena) to have a meal and drink some wine before pressing him with questions. This is the correct way to practice "xenia," the Greek custom of welcoming strangers into one's home and taking care of them. Telemachus gets it mostly right and the audience would have likely noticed that even without proper mentoring Telemachus seems to be conscientious and observant enough to have learned proper etiquette.
Once the discussion between the two begins, Athena puts on a master (mistress?) class in benevolent emotional manipulation.
She first establishes the guest host connection and lets slip that she's heard that Odysseus' father Laertes has essentially retreated into rural isolation. This fact would in some sense relieve Telemachus of feeling guilty that he hadn't been able to learn and assume more duties of authority: Laertes should likely have been the one to take Odysseus' place in educating Telemachus but his grief has overwhelmed him and he is absent (I'll write more about this in the future but I also think Athena drops this piece of information at the beginning to be contrasted with the relationship Odysseus had with his maternal grandfather, Autolycus, which we find out about later in the poem: Autolycus not only named Odysseus but was also responsible for taking Odysseus on one of his first hunts and it seems mentoring him).
Athena then says she came to Ithaca because she heard that Odysseus was home (but must have heard incorrectly) and immediately pivots to telling Telemachus how much he resembles Odysseus in height, eyes, and face.
What a scene: appear as a trustworthy figure of authority, imply that it isn't Telemachus' fault he's inadequately prepared to assume the duties of being an adult, instill hope that his father is alive and then verify and confirm that he is indeed Odysseus' son (by all appearances). Lineage was everything for Homeric heroes (and probably non-Homeric non-heroes too) so these lines would have hit the despondent Telemachus in a way hard for a modern audience to appreciate. Telemachus is truly the son of Nobody at the beginning of the poem (and by extension essentially Nobody Jr.) and the despair this situation would have engendered is hard for us to appreciate fully.
So this scene is a tour de force of psychological assessment, emotional profiling, and rhetorical execution and while I thought I appreciated it previously something about Andrea reading it out loud and me explaining it and the beautiful Montana topography swooped into my soul and I finally GOT it.
This is what Homer can do to you, even to someone as steeped in it as I am.
But it doesn't stop there. After Telemachus (though surely somewhat heartened) gloomily details the household despair, Athena proceeds to prescribe and encourage several important steps: Telemachus should call an Assembly and then venture into the world on an expedition. She is essentially giving him the guidance and the push to "leave the nest."
Speaking in Assembly was one of the most important skills a leader could have in the Homeric world: we see it over and over in the Iliad especially. Being able to persuade your peers or subjects through speech was imperative and Odysseus was known as the best Assembly speaker of all the heroes, so this is an important moment for Telemachus, as would be putting together a crew and sailing off into the unknown. As I said, in a healthy kingdom he would have done these things (or at least witnessed them) numerous times by age 20. Athena is giving him the most efficient path to maturity and success and assuring that by the time Odysseus shows up (in the middle of the poem), Telemachus will be well on his way to maturity.
Again a tour de force of a scene that hardly needs a kicker BUT -
Immediately following Athena's abrupt departure (in which she all but reveals to Telemachus that she was a Goddess in disguise: I think of this as a Wizard of Oz type moment where even though the illusion is revealed, the emotional growth remains) when Penelope reacts to Phemius' song with tears and a request to change his song, what happens? Telemachus yells at his mom and exerts his authority in a public setting (all the Suitors are present).
Some people read this as a sign of Penelope's (and women's in general) impotence or marginalization in the Homeric world but I see something else: what parent (of either gender) hasn't been yelled at by an adolescent child testing his or her newfound confidence in the world?
I see Telemachus (having been given the first push towards becoming an adult by Athena) as taking a small but important step towards being a figure of authority in the safest way possible: yelling at his mother. It's a practice run for calling an Assembly.
All of this hit me like the aforementioned Homeric sledgehammer and anew I marveled at this magnificent text we have. I'm sure I've come across some of this before but it wasn't until this moment in Montana that I actually fully understood the *emotional* scope of what the text accomplishes in book 1 and was able to assemble it in my mind to feel its appropriate impact.
These are the moments that make my 266th performance of my Odyssey as vivid (if not more) as my first and the show at Luther was excellent: a beautiful room with a great audience and myself buoyed by this recent epiphany.
I drove home the next day and noticed that the copy of Emily Wilson's translation was still in the car from that Montana day several weeks prior, sitting on the floor of the passenger side, quietly keeping me company and waiting to reveal its next piece of treasure.
When I was ready to see it.