Health Care and Public Health: Some Fairly-Recent Must- and Should-Reads

Homer's Odyssey Blogging: "Like Little Birds... They Writhed with Their Feet... But for No Long While..."

Hanging the women in the odyssey Google Search

So let me procrastinate some more this morning...

Let me riff off of something that crossed my desk last night: Emily Wilson's reflections on her translation of the Odyssey, and on the Odyssey itself. There is one passage that always has been, to me at least, horrifyingly freaky in a very bad way. As David Drake—one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors—puts it:

Odysseus caps his victory by slowly strangling–the process is described in some detail–the female servants who have been sleeping with Penelope’s suitors. This is only one example (although a pretty striking one) of normal behavior in an Iron Age culture which is unacceptable in a society that I (or anybody I want as a reader) would choose to live in... a hero with the worldview of a death camp guard...

Indeed:

"When ye have set all the house in order, lead the maidens without... and there slay them with your long blades, till they shall have all given up the ghost and forgotten the love that of old they had at the bidding of the wooers, in secret dalliance."... They led the maidens forth... and wise Telemakhos began to speak to his fellows, saying: "God forbid that I should take these women's lives by a clean death, these that have poured dishonour on my head and on my mother, and have lain with the wooers". With that word he tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship to a great pillar and flung it round the vaulted room, and fastened it aloft, that none might touch the ground with her feet. And even as when thrushes, long of wing, or doves fall into a net that is set in a thicket, as they seek to their roosting-place, and a loathly bed harbours them, even so the women held their heads all in a row, and about all their necks nooses were cast, that they might die by the most pitiful death. And they writhed with their feet for a little space, but for no long while...

Register that: As when thrushes... or doves fall into a net... the most pitiful death. And they writhed with their feet for a little space, but for no long while...

They die the most pitiful death, and they writhe with their feet, but for no long while. That is what Telemakhos wanted. Nobody disagrees with him. And one of the subplots of the Odyssey is: Telmakhos—far-thrower, he who can cast the spear a great distance—grows up.

Emily Wilson writes:

Do Odysseus and Telemachus think it's right? Yes, but... it's about being respected and controlling memories and (re) gaining power. Telemakhos... associates the killing with getting rid of dirt from the house. It's right to take out trash, but not the same kind of 'right' as self-defense or vengeance.

Does THE TEXT show (consistently?) that it's right? Tough question, not skippable. Narrative shows us why Odysseus and Telemachus want them dead. It also shows us what it feels like for them to be terrified and strung up (bird simile). They don't feel their deaths as "right". Is their pain and their deaths... presented as justifiable... a necessary cost for the restoration of Odysseus's household in something like its original state? Maybe. Maybe not. Important grey area. I think the capacity of literature to create these kinds of rich complex questions or fault-lines, between what this or that character thinks, and what the whole poem or story might be saying, is one of the biggest reasons why literature matters. It makes us see/feel/be more...

Is she right? Things are... complex... For one thing, almost all of reading (or listening) takes place between the ears. As Teresa Nielsen Hayden says, addressing authors, readers:

mix the handful of exposition you give them with the story you’re telling, transform it into a detailed real-time color 3D movie in their heads, and credit the whole thing to you. If they take a liking to a character, they can spin an entire human personality out of four facts and a couple of reaction shots, and experience that thing they create as a person that they know. You rely on them. Storytelling wouldn’t work if the audience wasn’t constantly filling in the details from the hints that you provide. Most of them are surprisingly good at it.... Every reader or viewer builds a slightly different experience from the materials you give them. It’s not unjust for them to feel a sense of connection with it, and their doing so takes nothing away from you. It’s an unavoidable consequence of their engagement with your work, so consider rejoicing, because you can’t make it stop happening except by becoming a worse or at least less accessible writer...

In the case of the Odyssey, we cannot even attempt the move of asking "what reading did the author hope for?" and then assign that the privileged status of the "correct" reading. There was no single Homer. All we can ask is "what was the process of poetic performances and listener reactions that led to this 'death of the slavewomen' passage entering and remaining in the canonical text?" And the answer is that we cannot know.

David Drake has one interpretation of this: that the Iron Age listeners who are applauding (or at least those who are rewarding and feeding) the poetic bards approve of heroes with the "worldviews of death camp guards" because those who have managed to become, thrive, and remain the telestai skillfully apply brutal punishments and generous rewards to hold their little piece of order together with themselves at the top in the wrack after the collapse of Bronze Age civilization. The listeners to the Odyssey in the period of its composition will approve of—and the young males will learn to model themselves on—the acts of Telemakhos her, as he denies the slavewomen anything like an honorable death by the sword and instead gives them a pitiful and terrifying death by strangulation. That is, I think, his view of how the age in which the Odyssey grew has left it mark on the text and story.

Emily Wilson's interpretation is very different. She has had a different life, she has different grey matter between her ears, and so she "fills in the details from the hints" in a very different way. She agrees that Odysseus and Telemakhos believe that they are doing what is necessary—δικη—and perhaps even righteous: the kind of thing a man with a comprehensive understanding of the situation—πολυμαχοσ—would do. But in her view the text goes further, and allows and encourages an identification and empathy with the murdered slavewomen, more than and beyond just noting that their terror at their pitiful death is a salutary thing that will keep the slavewomen of Ithaka on the straight-and-narrow in the future, and that raises the question for—and would have raised the question for not just female and wise male but young male—listeners around an Iron Age campfire of whether Odysseus and Telemakhos here are not being their best selves, are not properly and fully αριστοι. And it will have provoked a catharsis of pity and fear in all listeners, even back then, as it does with us today.

David Drake's best works are, IMHO at least, those that are cathartic military horror: awful things happening to people, described in prose with a flatness of affect, because if the people allowed themselves to properly and humanly and humanely register what was happening they would be totally unmanned and unable to function. In no sense are they in any way a glorification of war. And occasionally Drake will allow one of his characters to explain this to others:

Force accomplishes a lot of things. They just aren’t the ones you want here. Bring in the Slammers [Regiment] and we kick ass for as long as you pay us. Six months, a year. And we kick ass even if the other side brings in mercs of their own--which they’ll do--but that’s not a problem, not if you’ve got us. So, there’s what? Three hundred thousand people....

So, you want to kill fifty kay? Fifty thousand people, let’s remember they’re people for the moment.... You see, if we go in quick and dirty, the only way that has a prayer of working is if we get them all. If we get everybody who opposes you, everybody related to them, everybody who called them master--everybody.... They’re not dangerous now, but they will be after the killing starts. Believe me. I’ve seen it often enough. Not all of them, but one in ten, one in a hundred. One in a thousand’s enough when he blasts your car down over the ocean a year from now. You’ll see. It changes people, the killing does. Once it starts, there’s no way to stop it but all the way to the end. If you figure to still live here on Tethys....

What do you think the Slammers do, milady? Work magic? We kill, and we’re good at it, bloody good. You call the Slammers in to solve your problems here and you’ll be able to cover the Port with the corpses. I guarantee it. I’ve done it, milady. In my time...

And Drake in his own voice reflecting on his reaction to having been attached as an interrogator to the 11th Armored Cavalry when Nixon and Kissinger in their ill-advised and criminal way sent them through the Cambodian market town of Snuol:

I [now] had much more vivid horrors than Lovecraft's nameless ickinesses to write about.... I wrote about troopers doing their jobs the best they could with tanks that broke down, guns that jammed—and no clue about the Big Picture.... I kept the tone unemotional: I didn't tell the reader that something was horrible, because nobody told me.... [T]hose stories... were different. They didn't fit either of the available molds: "Soldiers are spotless heroes," or... "Soldiers are evil monsters"... [...] The... stories were written with a flat aspect, describing cruelty and horror with the detachment of a soldier who's shut down his emotional responses completely in a war zone... as soldiers always do, because otherwise they wouldn't be able to survive. Showing soldiers behaving and thinking as they really do in war was... extremely disquieting to the civilians who were editing magazines...

And yet, and yet... there are people whose stuff between the ears reacts to David Drake's prose very differently than my stuff between the ears does. Literary critics who love him find themselves writing things like: "No one who reads Drake properly can imagine him advocating war... not military pornography but rather a form of horror fiction... not intended to deaden the sensibilities to the horrors of war, but to awaken them... immense sympathy for the character who has done repulsive things in battle to win, and finds it difficult to live with himself afterward..." (David Hartwell); "Only an idiot would think that David Drakes stories glorify war. Alas... we have no danger of idiots being in short supply..." (Hank Davis); and "anyone who accused him of glorifying war did not understand his work, nor the intentions of the man himself..." (Alan Brown). And these "idiot[s not]... in short supply" who "did not understand his work" as "not military pornography but rather a form of horror fiction..."—they are not just "fainting maidens and posturing twits... sneering self-righteous... perpetually offended... [whom his editor] Jim Been... enjoyed shaking up..." (Hank Davis, again); they are not just those who know a little bit too much about the muzzle velocities of the different main guns on the different model of the Nazi Armored Battle Wagon 4; they include people (overwhelmingly male) who are a little too impressionable and a little unreflective and a little young.

I love Drake. I love the Odyssey. But I am distressed to find myself somewhat more sympathetic than I want to be with Plato's recommendation that only "hymns to the gods and praise of famous men" be allowed in the Just City because allowing more would lead to sensation and melodrama and would excite the baser instincts of men. And I have now opened up the following can of worms: How do we educate people to read—listen—watch—properly, so that they become their better rather than their worse selves? Mind you, I do not wish that the Odyssey were otherwise (or that David Drake wrote otherwise). But I do wish we teachers taught better how to read—and listen—and watch...


#books
#moralresponsibility
#cognition
#odyssey
#homer

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