Yesterday in the comments to my post about Odysseus's twists and turns in Homer's The Odyssey, Dwight points out that both The Iliad and The Odyssey are books fundamentally about life and death. While Achilles tries to make sense of physical mortality, Odysseus struggles with humanity and the choice he makes to be a mortal. (Dwight lays out his arguments more fully in a terrific post on his own blog.)
As I was thinking about these comparisons, it struck me how much The Iliad and The Odyssey are also both about making connections with the world. Achilles fights his own alienation to make connections with his countrymen and with his enemies. Odysseus, on the other hand, struggles against his alienation to make connections with his family and with strangers. These 4 levels of connection--to small group (family), to large group (country), to enemies, and to strangers--can express the depth of human relationships.
Some of the recent debates about "boy" books and "girl" books cast a divide between books that focus on "masculine" connections to the larger culture of country versus the more "feminine" connections to family and close friends. Homer's exploration of the connections made with enemies and strangers might be an especially fruitful avenue for novelistic exploration right now.
In The Odyssey, Homer details the tenets of xenia--the ancient Greek word for the guest-host relationship strictly codified in tradition. In a time and place without hotels, restaurants, cell phones, or speedy transportation, it seems almost natural that particular customs and expectations would arise to facilitate what by necessity was a fairly common situation: the arrival of a stranger seeking food and shelter at the door of someone else's home. The traditions that arose included feasting and toasting the gods, sharing the entertainments of storytelling, and giving extravagant gifts. Even after the visit, guests and hosts were bound to each other in a way not completely dissimilar to the relationship between relatives. The guest-host relationship was even passed on to the next generation. Such relationships might have underlay a certain degree of ambassadorship or peacemaking in ancient Greece.
The idea of respectful connections with strangers is also a central theme in the literature of the Old Testament, which I promise to discuss when I get there. At least in modern interpretations of those texts, the idea of treating the stranger properly is portrayed as the moral thing to do. In ancient Greece, "morality" doesn't seem to be a major preoccupation. But treating the stranger properly is still seen as a way to please the gods.
As I thought about Odysseus's connection to family--that is, to the small group--I was brought back to another comment yesterday, by OfTroy (a perfect person to comment on Homer!). She points out a religious use of the idea of turning that I had not thought of at all--the Shaker one:
Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
Many of the lines of this hymn fit perfectly with The Odyssey. In fact, Odysseus's main goal is return "to the place he ought to be."
But does he learn to turn to "true simplicity"?
Perhaps learning to be simple is exactly the lesson he needs to learn. Odysseus has been used to being the war hero who everyone celebrates. Now he has to return home to be a family man--a normal plain life rather than the exciting-dangerous world of war. Perhaps struggling through all the twists and turns of his journey helps him conceive of himself as something other than a warrior. These times of imprisonment or punishment turn him into a "Nobody" (see book 9). He rejects the possibilities of immortality and embraces a desire to return home to his valley of love and delight instead.
What I am not so sure of is whether, in the end, Odysseus actually learns these lessons of simple connection to family.