Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Weary-Eared Listener

The Odyssey, by Homer, Translated by George Herbert Palmer, Read by Norman Dietz, Recorded Books, LLC, 1989

I never read The Odyssey in high school. Due to transferring schools between my ninth and tenth grade years and inconsistent standards, I missed out on The Odyssey as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, but I did get to read The Old Man and the Sea twice. There are other slight gaps in my secondary education reading that pop up from time to time, certain short stories and poems I only later discover in some anthology or other, but for the most part I don’t feel I’ve been harmed in any way by this.

One of the drawbacks of being exposed to canonical literature in high school is an inoculation period that takes some time to get over before you can truly appreciate the works as just books first and foremost and not (in booming stentorian tones) classics. It wasn’t until mid-college that I could enjoy Heart of Darkness (helped in no small measure by Apocalypse Now) and quite late in college before I could really groove with Albert Camus. Having a senior high school teacher who pronounced his name Al-burT Cay-muss didn’t help, I suspect.

And I was well into my post-graduate work when I finally sat down and made the acquaintance of Homer in Robert Fitzgerald’s supple translation of The Odyssey. I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable the experience was. It’s always a joy to read the right book at the right time and that pleasure is magnified when the book is one of those musty classics stuffy old farts are always banging on about. It was either Fitzgerald’s or Fagle’s translation I hoped to snag when I ordered the audiobook version.

Alas. And it is a great alas too. George Herbert Palmer is, if I’m not terribly misinformed, the translator foisted onto the youth of America in a vast number of high schools for the horrendous reason that he renders Homer in prose. The thought behind this is that long, long poems are a turn off to most teenagers and the prose will appeal. I have nothing but admiration for high school teachers who attempt to interest students in reading basically anything beyond Teen People, but this is a mistake. A hideous, heinous, awful mistake. Palmer, while apparently sacrilegious enough to turn decent lines into weak sentences, is at the same time so slavishly devoted to Homer that he translates almost as if aiming for a literal rendition.

Not one “rosy-fingered dawn” is left out. Not one single possible instance where it could be put in the text has it been left out. For those of you familiar with the poem through the above-mentioned translators, let me clue you in: there are a lot, a whole shitload. Likewise “discrete Telemachus,” “light-haired Menelaus,” and everyone’s favorite “wine-dark sea.” Palmer never once, not once, deviates from these formulations. If the sea is mentioned at all, it is wine-dark and that is all there is to it. Now, I’m not enough of a Homer scholar to back up my claim that the Greek writer put all these in, but my intuition and a modicum of learning tells me that repetition was a big feature of oral narrative.

Which is part of why it doesn’t work at all nowadays, despite this being an audiobook version, the closest thing we have in these modern times to an oral tradition. We’re simply not in the same place in the architecture of our entertainment psychology where rote repetition is all that captivating. The reader, Norman Dietz, delivers it the prose in such a smooth fashion that it was an enjoyable experience, but not one I’d ever repeat nor want to. In fact, if I never hear “rosy-fingered dawn” again in my life, I’ll consider myself fulfilled.

Further, to read of Odysseus is to find no better literary example of how the winners write the histories. The mastermind behind what amounted to a primitive genocide is celebrated, sung of, an inspiration to other literary talents. It is as if you traveled two thousand years into the future and there were movies of the heroic struggles of Hitler. Nazi Field Marshal Rommel already received his cinematic absolution in The Desert Fox only a scant few years after WWII, so don’t scoff at the idea as outlandish.

Another difficulty in reading (or listening) to a book as old and as influential as The Odyssey is hearing particular phrases that have now come to be considered cliches. Back to “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn.” While these were original in the day, they’ve been so picked up and so carried about by following generations of writers that their creakiness is only enhanced by Palmer’s incessant use. Fitzgerald used these stock Homerisms as punctuation, just often enough to give you a jolt, but never so frequently that it became like a five year old telling you the same knock-knock joke for twelve hours.

And there are a variety of things that just didn’t make sense to me. Why does all of Odysseus’ travels make up the first half of the book, while his landing in Ithaca and killing all his wife’s suitors takes up an equal sized second half? It seems like there’s a bit more story in part one that we’re getting cheated out of. I also question Menelaus’ letting Telemachus spend the night under the same roof as his wife Helen, wondering if he hadn’t learned his lesson about his wife and handsome youths.

Then there’s the function of the gods. They take an inordinate interest in the affairs of one man, Poseidon, Zeus, Apollo, Hera, and Athena all getting in on the act. Of course, no one is more constantly on stage than the goddess of wisdom. Athena shows up all the time for miniscule things, kind of belittling for a deity. In one scene, she materializes in disguise to praise Odysseus’ throw in a discus competition as though she had nothing better to do. And she is always doing this kind of thing, oddjobs that anyone else could have done. Was there no one else on the entire field who could have declared his discus thrown farther than others?

If you think nutso Christians who wish to thank god for every single twist in their daily grind, then The Odyssey is the ancient equivalent. Any bit of good luck is attributed to the gods; likewise any bad luck. If Odysseus is out walking and spots a deer to hunt, it’s because some unnamed god brought it to him. This is another wearisome gimmick Homer employs throughout. It gets a little more fatiguing than my paternal relatives who never tire of telling me of the glories of Jesus.

All of this isn’t to say that The Odyssey is a bad read; it really isn’t. It’s a far greater enjoyable thing than that other cobwebbed canon poem, Beowulf, a clunker kept in textbooks merely from age. When Odysseus goes down to meet Tiresias in the underworld, this is a master bit of horror, the ghosts clamoring around a pool of sheeps’ blood to drink. Odysseus meets his mother there who had been living when he set out for Troy which gives us a rather touching piece of writing. The various monster stories we’re all familiar with are great good gripping reads, which is at heart what The Odyssey is supposed to be, entertaining. Scholars who approach so-called high-literature with reverent delusions would do well to remember that.

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