odyssey

What the word odyssey brings first to my mind: the classic Stanley Kubrick–Arthur C. Clarke movie and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. Starting with the opening bars of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. So stirring. So timeless. So cogent.

So brief.

The opening segment is less than 2 minutes long. That’s all most people have ever heard of Strauss’s work. But that’s no odyssey. An odyssey is long and episodic. It is not a single bright sunrise flash. And Strauss’s work is longer, too, over half an hour long. Here, listen to it all:

That is a “tone poem.” It is a poem somewhat as the Odyssey is a poem. A quatrain it is not, nor a sonnet, nor a villanelle, nor a sestina. It is epic. The original Odyssey is a tale of a ten-year journey, a trail of travails with many perilous passages, a detouring tour of possibly more than 8,000 kilometres around the Mediterranean (and to Hades and back) to accomplish a net transit of little over 1000 km by sea (or, now, by road). (I could actually drive from Troy to Ithaca in 3 hours, but that’s the two cities of those names in New York State.)

The Odyssey is the second-oldest extant work of “Western” literature, the oldest being the Iliad. The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, ten years of death over one woman. (Helen had “the face that launched a thousand ships”; thus, a Helen is a unit of beauty, that amount of pulchritude sufficient to launch 1000 ships. A millihelen is beauty sufficient to launch one ship. I did not make that up.) The Odyssey tells the story of the return home of one of the surviving Greek “heroes” of the war, Odysseus. His name is of unclear and disputed provenance. It may come from ‘hate’ or ‘struggle’; it may come from ‘wail’ or ‘lament’; it may come from a non-Greek word. It may be a merging of two names and two characters. The Latin version of the name is Ulysses, which derives from the name Οὐλίξης.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus – or Ulysses – makes a dozen stops of various lengths along the way, including enchantment by various women (Circe, Nausicaa, Calypso – with whom he stayed for seven years…), encounters with various monsters, and interference by the usual gods. It ends with his return home to his faithful wife.

It runs more than 12,000 lines of dactylic hexameter, and it begins like this:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν

Here is the beginning of Robert Fagles’s translation:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

Only it doesn’t begin at the beginning. It begins in medias res and makes liberal use of recollections. This is different from how we typically think of an odyssey. Compare a modern odyssey, which begins like this:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

This is the start of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an episodic tracking from start to finish of a single day in the lives of a small set of Dubliners (Stephen Dedalus, Leo Bloom, and at the last Molly Bloom) in a variety of literary styles, a journey of 700 pages in less than 24 hours. It is an epic slog for some readers, although I thoroughly enjoyed it (I had already made it through Finnegans Wake, and Ulysses was a romp after that). It starts at the time of rising in the morning.

And Also Sprach Zarathustra is the start of Kubrick’s and Clarke’s odyssey, which begins with the dawn of humanity. Zarathustra may be the beginning of the odyssey, but it is the end of theodicy. Also sprach Zarathustra means ‘Thus spake Zarathustra,” and while Zarathustra is another name for Zoroaster, the prophet of the ancient dualist religion Zoroastrianism, Strauss’s title is taken from the title of the work by Friedrich Nietzsche, in which Zarathustra is like a photographic negative of the Persian original, dedicated to overturning morality, speaking of the Übermensch, declaring that God is dead. 2001 does not make such a declaration, but rather presents, as bookends in human history, monoliths manifesting an alien intelligence. The eldritch curious liaison is underscored with an even more eldritch Kyrie Eleison by György Ligeti:

Lord have mercy indeed.

An odyssey is a recounting of a long journey, but one that ends with a return home – not a home that is unchanged, but a home nonetheless. The protagonist in 2001 ends on Jupiter, living through stages of life in a sterile isolation in a series of mere moments of flash forward, but finally becomes a star child, a new being, gazing at the Earth. Ulysses ends with Molly Bloom remembering the day she said yes to Leo Bloom. The Odyssey ends with Odysseus returning to his long-faithful wife and slaughtering her impertinent suitors. Other stories follow a similar arc, for instance Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.

But storytelling, so detailed in recounting the past, has its limits with the future. 2001 was released in 1968, 33 years before the time it foretold. That future is now past. If space exploration had continued on the course it was on at the time, we might well have had a moonbase and a large space station and regular service from Earth to them. We had other things instead, things that may or may not have been any better.

When we retell an odyssey, the episodic travels and travails of a hero over a long time, we retell it in retrospect. We have returned home. Those who do not return do not get to recount their odysseys. When you embark on an odyssey, you don’t truly know whither you will go and whether you will return; you do not know if it will finish as an odyssey. You simply set sail… or take your protein pills and put your helmet on.

This is post number 2001 on Sesquiotica. It has been an interesting journey of a bit more than 7 years so far. And yet I’m always just beginning.

3 responses to “odyssey

  1. Congratulations on 7 years! That’s a milestone, and here I am at the 7-month mark.

  2. Fascinating post–and a point of departure in many ways for my own Journeying. I have a long long way to go. One road–I need to get the translation of the Odyssey you quoted first lines from! Lovely; different from my copy. And a funny note–when I saw your title I thought–‘ooh, finally I’ll learn the derivations of the name Odysseus!’ Alas. It fascinates me that the very name is an enigma. We have a noun from a name but we don’t know where the name originated. Language is fascinating…. apparently the wandering hero epic has roots that are more ancient than the Greek language itself. Thank you for this post. Really enjoyed it. (As I do all your posts)

  3. Pingback: How Rain Smelled After 1964 | genusrosa

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