Whatever the reason for traveling, it seems that in most cases, travelers set out with a plan. What do you hope to accomplish with this trip – find rare textiles to sell back home, learn a foreign language, or perhaps see the Mona Lisa – and how will you do it?
Likewise, Odysseus had a very clear goal. He was set on going home to Ithaca. And as a result, he treated the act of traveling as purely functional; he sought the most straightforward means of getting to his destination, never viewing the experience of the trip itself as something he prioritized.
Odysseus had a plan, like many who travel. Wake up early, take photographs at top of Rockefeller Center, watch a Broadway play, see Times Square. Set sail with the whole crew, do not anger the Gods, avoid temptresses, arrive in Ithaca. But what I think is one of the most valuable elements of travel, valiantly demonstrated in The Odyssey, is the susceptibility towards the unplanned. Had Odysseus and his men traveled across treacherous waters uneventfully, then there would not be much to say about this trip. But instead, Odysseus amassed stories of blinding Cyclops, outwitting Circe’s potion, meeting the Shades of the Dead, and escaping the Sirens. The unplanned led them to adventure, albeit dangerous ones, and showed them things they would not have experienced otherwise. As John Lennon sang, "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans."
In my own travel experiences from studying in Florence, my favorites have always been times when I discovered something new because I had meandered down a different Renaissance corridor. There is an intensification of thrill and concern when you scrap your plans and guide books, but often times I found that I appreciated the experience more when it was something I had crafted unexpectedly myself. My default picture, also seen above, was taken during such an adventure, where I wandered the streets of Florence for an entire day and stumbled upon gorgeous views, funny graffiti designs, and my favorite, a vibrant carousel in an otherwise vacant, widespread piazza.
Would she be unfaithful to her husband and indulge along the way as Ulysses did? Would she be able to overcome the obstacles more easily and return home sooner because of her will against temptation? Would her husband move on to another woman assuming that she had died? These questions are just a few of the many questions that would be interesting to think about in a reframing of the classic tale of “The Odyssey”.
As a junior in high school, I visited my “cool” (read: hippie) Aunt Christie in Brooklyn over winter break. A first time jaunt through NYC at 16 was formative enough, but the true adventure came upon departure. By way of a snowstorm, a night flight out of JFK morphed itself into an early morning Newark flight. Christie didn’t have a car so I knew that trains were my only hope. After receiving some cryptic directions in New Yorkese, I embarked upon a journey full of awe and horror, no doubt heightened by lack of sleep and the psychedelic qualities of airport cuisine.
Remembering this little odyssey of my own, it becomes clear to me that travel, mishaps, adventure, and the stories that result are inseparable. Human error and the forces of nature seem to be unavoidable. For the sake of art at least, let’s hope travel never loses its penchant for the unexpected, even as we’re being “beamed up” across the galaxy.
Moreover, the Odyssey seems to encapsulate two central themes, one being the triumph of intelligence and strength over adverse circumstances, and the other, perhaps more important theme, of reminiscence which gives color to much of Odysseus’s story. This reminiscence or melancholy is a source of pain in the epic, and no mater how promising a situation Odysseus finds himself, he still remains joyless. The only thing that can remove the pain and longing Odysseus is feeling is his own home.
In addition to this central theme of returning home, much of the Odyssey is relayed via memory, with every one of these memories being steeped in a sort of nostalgic wistfulness. One example of this is the nymph goddess Calypso, who despite offering Odysseus immortality is unable to abolish his overwhelming desire for home. In rejecting Calypso’s offer and instead staying steadfast to his mission of returning home to Penelope, Odysseus undoubtedly opens himself up to the painful thoughts of what could have been if he had stayed, especially as he enters his later years. Odysseus trip to the underworld also congers up many a nostalgic memory from the past that is doubtlessly painful, especially in the case of Ajax.
All of this works to build the essential atmosphere of the epic, which is essentially characterized by pain, longing, and nostalgia.
Odysseus begins his recounting of his journey tackling a leading attraction: greed. After sacking the city of the Cicones, taking their wives and their booty, Odysseus ordered his men to leave and continue their travels. Greed easily overtook his men, causing them to refuse departure, indulge in drinking, and kill the sheep and the oxen by the shore. Due to their temptation, the Cicones engaged in battle and Odysseus “lost half a dozen men from every ship [he] had.”
The Odyssey continues to make a comment about lingering in dangerous terrain. The island of the Cyclopes presents a playing ground of one-eyed giants, unfit for man’s leisurely exploration. Refusing his mens’ pleas, Odysseus decided to check out the island. The old cliché, “curiosity killed the cat,” comes in to play here and results in Odysseus’ curiosity killing his men as Polyphemus swallows his men whole. Human curiosity and mistrust leads to several other mistakes like the incident with Aeolus’ bag of winds.
The Odyssey then goes about depicting the negative effects of human pride and boastfulness. Odysseus could have simply escaped the Cyclopes a free man, but his pride got the best of him as he revealing in his rage, “Cyclops, if any one asks you who it was that put your eye out and spoiled your beauty, say it was the valiant warrior Odysseus, son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca.” This foolish pride leads to Odysseus’ largest penalty as Polyphemus reports this information to his father, Poseidon. Odysseus’ arrogance leads to the wrath of Poseidon over Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.
A final temptation that men fall victim to in the Odyssey is the lure of women. Odysseus and his men lodge with Circe for a year due to Odysseus’s lust. Human lust is also displayed with the irresistible song of the Sirens. The flaws of men appear throughout Homer’s work to allow readers to keep an eye on themselves in their own lives.
Although it is arguable to suggest Odysseus and his men were mere victims of circumstance (falling by ill chance on the island of Kirke, unaware of impending treachery due to Odysseus’ recurring strategy of withholding information, fated to the will of the gods by divine prophecy, etc.), it seems to me as though the characters in this epic poem were consciously seeking fulfillment of indulgences inflicting self-harm as much as, if not more than, their ‘alleged goal’ of a safe return.
The discussion of fulfilling indulgences undoubtedly brings me to the topic of psychoanalysis and, thus, Sigmund Freud (although without the Oedipus, incestual crap). While Freud emphasizes the legitimacy of the “Pleasure Principle” as a pre-condition of human psychology (the idea that humans fundamentally act to seek pleasure & avoid the opposite), he also endorses the subsequent “Reality Principle,” which suggests that humans will relinquish instant gratification of an instinct in the hopes of more rewarding future gratification (in this case, the return home to Ithaca).
Not only does the ‘pleasurable’ satisfaction of return for the characters in Books 9-12 not appear to coincide with this theory (in consideration of the “Reality Principle”), but Odysseus and his men seem relatively aware of the dangers to come prior to each incident (i.e. the sacrifice of the oxen of Helios) and fail to act in a ‘self-preserving’ manner.
For me, this begs many questions regarding the nature of mankind—Is there an inherent self-destructive quality that exists in man? To what extent, or under what conditions will man forgo the Pleasure Principle for the Reality Principle (and the opposite)? Is there a time limit on indulgent ‘pleasure’? Seven years is a long time to maintain ‘instant gratification’ from some one who isn’t your loving wife.
The story of the Lotus eaters has a framework common to other Greek myths. The audience knows exactly what happens when you eat an unknown fruit: Persephone becomes doomed to live in Hades for half of the year. The fruit triggers a collective memory where the audience can anticipate that no good will come out of eating the lotus.
Another example occurs when Odysseus says “My soul foreboded I should find the bower of some fell monster, fierce in barbarous power;/ some rustic wretch, who lived in Heaven’s respite, Contemning laws, and trampling on the right.” There are several allusion to another myth, one of the “original” myths. Uranus, the grandfather of Zeus, had several children with Gaia among them the Cyclops. He kept them in a pit because they were so ugly. His son Cronos later freed them to defeat his father but when the battle was won he put them back in the pit. Zeus took them out again to defeat Cronos and then used them to forge his thunderbolts. So historically the Cyclops lived “in Heaven’s respite”. They are also known as symbols of primitive brutish behavior, or “contemning laws”. The reader can pick up on these hints and guess at what is coming next.
The author also uses hints that are not based in mythology to keep the reader engaged. When the ship has left the home of Aeolus, King of the Winds, the sailors say to themselves that they will return home “rich in barren fame” while Odysseus has gold and Aeolus’ new gift. This is a storyline everyone has heard in some form or another. We all know that they are going to get jealous and loose the winds. But the reader stays to hear the tale to see if they’re right. The use of these lines to hook the reader in not only helps them to stay engaged it also helps them to remember the tale. As there were no written texts at the time, the more the tale was remembered the more it could be retold.
But in Kafka’s story, Odysseus did silence the sirens through his brave, if childishly foolish, behavior. But yet he does not realize this; he thinks he’s simply immune to their song and cannot hear it. Though this perceived feat certainly inflated his pride, he believes he has simply overcome an obstacle, and not that he is so all-powerful that the obstacle bowed down before him. If Odysseus became convinced he had the power to transcend all obstacles without effort, he would certainly lose his resourceful nature and perish along the remaining journey. Instead, the level of self-confidence he already possesses gives him bravery, but does not diminish his capacity for quick and cunning schemes. What’s more, Kafka’s Sirens long to look upon Odysseus after he has sailed past, implying that courage and a (rather blind) sense of trust in fate are the most admirable and successful characteristics; not a degree of arrogance that would lead to laziness and a dull sense of wit, and ultimately to one’s demise.
As a leader, Odysseus attempts to look out for the wellbeing of his crew, but he is willing to do whatever it takes to get back on course toward Ithaca. He would rather not lose men along the way, but anytime it does happen that some of his men die, he does not hesitate to board the ship and move along. Don’t they each represent their native land to one another? Odysseus even describes the reunion between those who Circe turned into swine and those left on the ship saying, “that's how my shipmates, once they saw me,/ thronged around, weeping—in their hearts it felt/ as if they they'd got back to their native land,/ the rugged town of Ithaca itself (chapter 10, lines 537-540).” This is a concept well understood by most- the idea that the people you surround yourself with are what truly make a home.
Most of the men probably have family in Ithaca that they would like to get back to, so it makes sense that they don’t derive full satisfaction in the company of one another. On top of their desires and wants to be back in Ithaca, the otherness of what the islands embodied drove them to want to get home. The dedication they all put towards getting home showed their fear of being in the unknown and being alone. They were pushed away from the foreign places by all of their dreadful encounters. But more than that, they were powerfully magnetized toward home with the desire to be with the familiar. Two forces work together- one pushing them away from the other islands, and the other pulling them en route to Ithaca.
1. The Odyssey—Winds of Athena: http://www.hiddenobjectgames.us/the-odyssey-winds-of-athena
2. Video of an Odyssey 'mini-game' designed by David Yen. I like the graphic design: http://vimeo.com/9157084.
On a totally different note, I think that Odysseus’s adventure-filled journey encompasses many of the same ideas and expectations about travel held by travelers today. When I travel, I hope for adventure and anticipate being swept away by a world of unknown. Though not quite as extreme, I think that many travelers long for whirlwind experiences similar to those of Odysseus.
The recurrence of food was another travel-related expectation I noticed throughout Odysseus’s travels. Odysseus and his men seem to be constantly eating. The places they visit are frequently characterized by an abundance of tempting foods like the exotic Lotus in the land of the lotus-eaters the sheep and cheese inside the Cyclops’ cave. Today, food and drink remain a significant aspect of traveling to a new place. We are attracted to places for their unique delicacies and when we travel, we expect to eat and drink and indulge.
The Odyssey seems like an endless journey in which Odysseus saunters from island to island, dips down to hell and up to heaven, braves the rough seas and finally, eventually, unpunctualy makes his way to the great Ithaca.
As Odysseus makes several stops, to conquer a beast, or sleep in a woman's arms for many years, he eventually leaves each location with some guidance on how to make it to his next. Circe, for example guides Odysseus to Hades with the following: "When you have crossed over the ocean, you will see a low shore, and the grows of Persephoneia, tall poplars and fruit wasting willows; there beach your ship beside deep eddying Oceanos, and go on yourself to the mouldering house of Hades."
Later, in Book 12, when Odyssesus is leaving Hades he is given the following advice. "The second course leads between two cliffs. One drives a sharp peak high into the heavens…" The directions he is given are vague and poetic. They address a world that is connected very deeply to the worlds above and below. The way space is talked about in this story removes it from the concrete. Poetic imagery makes the world seem endless and the journey more epic.
It is fun to think about maps. Odysseus's route has been mapped out by readers of his story. The map he used at the time of his journey was word of mouth. Another exciting map concept is that of the Flaneur, or wanderer. Baudilaire's flaneur map or guide psychologique, represented the experience of a place rather than the physical space represented. Today we live in a world that is explored and flattened. We can map the most remote places via satellite, and sign onto Google Maps for immediate door to door directions. It's all very scientific and it feels sometimes like the poetry is gone. I suppose that's why we read things like the Odyssey- to remember the poetic image behind place.
Due Date, for example, shares many common plot points of The Odyssey. Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Peter Highman, is egotistical and short tempered, similarly to Odysseus. Peter and Odysseus are both leaders and strong strategists. Additionally, they share a common goal of wanting to return home to their respective wives. Along the way, both face many obstacles. As the story progresses, they confront obstacles each more difficult then than previous one. Although Peter never faces a Cyclops or a goddess, he is challenged and must be strong willed to in order to return home.
Because of its stature and influence, The Odyssey has become synonymous with travel stories. Rarely does a travel story not parallel Homer’s epic.
I found Book 12 of the Odyssey to be particularly, and amusingly, relevant to my own traveling experience. I think it is particularly ironic that Odysseus' men survive the clear and present, if still terrifying, dangers of Scylla, Charybdis and the Sirens with relative ease, but are felled almost to a man by their greed for the flesh of Helios' cattle. It's not that I, too, have braved anything as magical or monstrous as the calls of the Sirens or the dreadful gauntlet of Scylla and Charybdis. However, just as Odysseus' unfortunate crew, I have learned the hard way the dangers of succumbing to hunger and forgoing caution in a foreign land.
I was on a school trip to Venezuela with a group of Gallatin students. After the wealth of culinary options available in New York City, the omnipresent menu of arepas, rice and beans grew tedious for most halfway through the trip. Even I, having boldly declared a deep love for the arepa at the start of the trip, found myself wishing I could eat my words instead of yet another griddle-fried cornmeal pocket for sustenance. However, in the second half of the trip we began to encounter Venezuelan interpretations of US favorites like hamburgers, pizza and pasta, which we sampled first with excitement and then trepidation as they revealed themselves as completely unmatched to our expectations.
I'm not saying they were bad, but the hamburger meat was seasoned exactly like beef arepa filling, and the pizza dough seemed suspiciously arepa-like in consistency and flavor. In the interest of full disclosure, the pasta was, for the most part, delicious, but did little to break the monotony on its own. It must be said that I feel bad complaining at all when I think about the meal vegetarians in our group ate on a literally daily basis: "fruit salad" consisting of numerous slices of avocado garnished with a few token pieces of other unidentified fruit, and perhaps a slice of cheese.
Then, near the end of our trip, we encountered a small cart selling shaved ice flavored with fresh fruit juice. Many of us, especially the vegetarians, immediately jumped on the chance to sample a refreshingly local take on that American classic, Italian ice. But, including myself, held back, giving each other knowing looks and muttering dangerous things about the water quality. Having been expressly instructed to avoid non-bottled water and fruit juice, we nevertheless understood why many of our group had chosen to ignore the warning and heed temptation.
Needless to say, half our group was wrought with brutal stomach illnesses by the next day. But if you think this is a smug story of triumph over temptation, you are dead wrong. The next day, the next-to-last day of the trip on the whole, my friend and I, who had both chosen to resist the siren sno-cones, began to rationalize. After all, if we got sick now, our journey was almost over; we'd be free to curl up in our own warm beds with a bottle of NyQuil soon enough. The hot Venezuelan sun and the previous night's drinking gave us a powerful thirst, and soon we were eagerly lined up for our own deliciously toxic Italian ice. Both of us survived the rest of the trip without incident; upon return, however, we were both cripplingly sick for a week and a half. Before this journey I always found Odysseus' men incredibly stupid for eating that cattle; now, it must be said, I definitely understand where they're coming from.
In other words, though introducing oneself as “Lord Agamemnon, son of Atreus, king of men” is acceptable in ancient Greece, you would be ridiculed in NYU for presenting oneself as Zachary Flynt, son of William Flynt, seller of apartments (I used a real estate agent as an example). This type of elongated name from Ancient Greece is a part of cultural identifier. Much like when we hear someone with the last name of chang, xu or han were not going to picture a white man, when we hear these elongated names, we think ancient Greeks.
Coincidentally, I just returned from a month long trip to India and these extended Greek names are very similar to Indian addresses. In New York City, our addresses are very simple, 21 e 9th street, 25 w 4th street. Assuming this is the fact for New Delhi as well, I landed in Delhi, equipped with my hotel name and what I thought was the hotel address, 1563 Laxmi Narayan Street. The taxi driver yells at me in Hindi claiming it is not the full address. I look at him stupidly and said very slowly, one five six three, laxmi Narayan street, OK? Turns out in India, you have to use “full addresses”, and in my case, the address of my hotel was 1563 Laxmi Naraya Street, Near Imperial Cinema, Behind Ramakrishna Metro Station, Panchkuian Road, Main Bazar Pahar Ganj’ mouthful and inconvenient but regardless, an important cultural distinction that my uncultured self ignored.