Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Death of Ulysses


After skimming through Book IX of the Odyssey to get a a glimpse of the 'grey sea' as Ulysses and his companions leave the island of the Cyclopes, I'd like to take a step back to Book V of the Odyssey.

Book V narrates Ulysses's voyage out on the open sea after he is set free from Calypso's island.

All Ulysses has at his disposal is a rickety raft he has created himself out of:

"...adler and poplar, tall pine trees
long dead and seasoned, that would float him high"

to ferry him over a very rough sea.

A narrative of the ordeal he undergoes ensues:

"A great wave drove at him with toppling crest
spinning him round, in one tremendous blow,
and he went plunging overboard, the oar-haft
wrenched from his grip"

"He had been flayed there, and his bones broken..
Then the backwash
hit him, ripping him under and far out."

"Swollen from head to foot he was and seawater
gushed from his mouth and nostrils"

Miraculously, Ulysses appears to survive this segment of the journey and Book V ends with with the king of Ithaca falling asleep after he made it ashore:

"In quiet sleep he sealed his cherished eyes."

At the end Book V a huge sense of disbelief reigns supreme in this reader's mind, a disbelief that the story can follow its course within the boundaries of fiction convention with Ulysses still alive.
In fact, the unfolding of the scenes in Book V appear to lead to only one possible and climactic outcome: the hero's death, symbolically rendered through:

In quiet sleep he sealed his cherished eyes.

This is perhaps the ending of Ulysses' story, cut short by drowning, well before his hypothetical return to Ithaca, the recounting of the fall of Troy and his eventful voyage. 
Yet the story does go on in Book VI, where the clock is turned back to where it all started: sailing off from Troy.

It feels as if, at this moment of narrative cesura, the fictional & poetic discourse takes on the attributes of a cult of the dead. 

The king of Ithaca, a protagonist of The Trojan War could not have died a simple and anonymous death, submerged by waves.

 He would have to be reborn to the story, all naked, at the beginning of Book VI.

The almost certainty of Ulysses being forever lost, as apparent in Books I and II of the Odyssey, is awkwardly negated by the fabricated and his not quite credible re-appearance in Ithaca.
If Ulysses is alive, why can't Penelope recognize him upon his return to Ithaca?
 Who is the stranger (or perhaps the impostor) that has taken Ulysses' place, the stranger that she has to put to test to prove his identity?

This stranger is an unconvincing king, a fictional surrogate in the construction of the Odyssey, meant to replace the one who:

In quiet sleep he sealed his cherished eyes.

Somewhere in Book V of the Odyssey, a prophecy comes forth that Ulysses will die from a death coming from sea, after he returns to Ithaca. (In auctorial terms this might be read as a deferral of the death which may have already taken place.)

Would then the subsequent chapters be meant to act as a funeral oratio?

It little profits perhaps  that in this post we bring forth the idea of poetry and fiction as a vehicle for the cult of the dead.

And in  the end, who needs all this heroic stuff?

Perhaps some of us  would much rather choose the approach laid out in Margaret Atwood's poem Circe:

"I search instead for the others,
the ones left over
the ones who have escaped from these
mythologies with barely their lives;
they have real faces and hands, they think of themselves as
wrong somehow"


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