March 20, 2017 - Northern Illinois University

Seeing as my trip last week to perform two shows at Northern Illinois University involved a simple drive out to DeKalb, Illinois, I'll spare you a post about travel (short story: I-90 to I-290 to I-88) and talk a little more broadly about how I came to the story that has become such a big part of my life, Homer's Odyssey.

Where to begin?

Well, possibly with my senior year in high school, when in my AP history class I read a book called The Myth of the State by Ernst Cassirer.  

I don't remember much of the book (there were Nazis, I think) but I do remember that the author dropped a couple of Greek words into the text.  Google Books is helpful here: the words were παλίντροπος άρμονίη meaning "the harmony of opposite tensions," which is a concept attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus.

I remember being mesmerized by the look of these words to the point that when I was registering for classes at University of Wisconsin - Madison later that year, I decided to take Ancient Greek my first semester.  Just a few months later, first semester Ancient Greek became second semester Ancient Greek plus Classical Archaeology and Classical Mythology, and I was a sudden and accidental Classics major.  Though I eventually took Latin (two years condensed in 8 weeks one summer to start), Greek remained as the thing that most captured my interest and that intensified once I had the chance to read part of Homer's Iliad in its original form.  

It's very hard for me to put into words what my first experience reading Homer was like... I've heard other Classics majors and professors talk about it in similar terms, but I always say it was like my head and heart exploding simultaneously.  There is a synthesis of form and meaning, a poetry evident even to our modern eyes and ears, a sophistication without pretension... all wrapped into Homeric Greek which reads like a living, breathing organism. There's nothing like it. 

Homeric Greek (and by extension The Iliad and Odyssey) is like a time machine through which you can perceive a straight-line connection to human beings and culture from thousands of years ago.

And guess what: for all the material differences, they don't seem to be that much different from us.

That is the main thing I took from studying the Classics in general: there's a human connection and existential poignance in reading a moving portrayal of a mother-father-son relationship from 2800 years ago that was already part of a tradition that was likely 500 years old when it was fixed in writing.

Think about that for a minute: by the time The Iliad and Odyssey were written down (which is an incredible story in and of itself), the stories that were told came out of a tradition that was already more than twice as old as the United States is as a country.

The field of Classics is filled with moments like this and I'm lucky enough to live them out during each and every Odyssey performance and discussion.  I tell my audiences two things just about every time I sing:

1) Human beings are the best and only completely reliable method of transmission of our stories.  Libraries burn, hard drives are erased, but as long as there are humans in existence, we can still tell stories.

2) By sitting in a room and listening to a guy (me) sing about the exploits of Odysseus, they (the audience) are part of a tradition going back over 3000 years.  They are doing the exact same thing that someone was doing in Greece in the year 1250 BCE.

And every time I really sink in to that fact, really think about the ramifications of that condition and the connectivity, I get that same feeling I got when I first read Homer.  My heart and my head swell up with empathy and humanity and the human condition gets bigger and smaller at the same time. All because of those two words in senior year history class which lead me to ancient Greece which somehow led me to DeKalb, Illinois, on March 20, 2017, to sing about maybe the most famous of travelers, Odysseus.

Talk about a journey.

Leave a comment

Add comment