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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 45: Final Thoughts on The Odyssey and Recognition

So, as my holiday vacation came and went and I didn't sit down to write this post and the one that was supposed to accompany it, I essentially decided just not to finish writing about The Odyssey. I was going to let it sit there and I would come back to it occasionally when my mind came up with something to say about it. The poem has an ending, however, and so I thought the blogging about it should, too.

Above I mentioned that there were to be two final posts I had wanted to write: the farewell/general overview and, before that, a final "Big Ideas" post on the idea of recognition, which is all over the place. As my subconscious worked, however, writing the post before either my fingers or conscious mind could get in the way, the idea of recognition became so central to what the poem was about that it essentially took over the overview post, so the two posts became one.

This is made explicit in the final book, when Odysseus goes to old Laertes. Some scholars through the ages have questioned the provenance of this part of the poem, believing that surely the story has ended once Odysseus and Penelope are reunited. That misses, however, that Laertes has, like Achilles and Agamemnon, been a ghost hanging over the entire poem. How often has Odysseus been described as "the son of Laertes." No homecoming of Odysseus would be complete without that recognition scene between him and his aged father. It's the final moment of recognition that completes Odysseus' journey.

Throughout The Odyssey, again and again, characters need and demand to be recognized for who they are. People declare their lineage and recount their deeds--they all want to be known. Indeed, many of the major turning points in the epic revolve around this idea. Think of Helen recognizing Telemachus as Odysseus' son, of Odysseus declaring his identity to the blinded Polyphemus instead of getting the hell out of there as quietly as possible, and of the multi-stage process by which Odysseus declares his return to Ithaca.

The Iliad, the sister poem that always lingers in the background of The Odyssey, is about achieving glory on the field of battle and about committing great deeds. But what good is all that if, like Agamemnon, you are murdered by your wife as soon as you get home? Or even if, like Achilles, you die on the field of battle? Sure, songs are sung about you, and your fame spreads throughout the known world. But, and here's something that I think makes The Odyssey both a more personal and modern poem than The Iliad, those things are meaningless if you aren't there to enjoy them. What's the point of fame if you're not able to enjoy that fame? Or, writ smaller, if you're an exceptional person, but no-one recognizes you as such, are you actually exceptional?

Odysseus' ten years of voyaging keep him not only from his home and family. They also, by and large, keep him out of normal human society. Eight of those ten years are spent on magical or hidden islands and during most of the remaining two years, he's struggling for his life or the life of his ill-fated crew. He cannot enjoy the fame he has earned. He cannot sit contentedly and look back on his life knowing that he had lived well and been an example and a hero to others.

Odysseus' journey is, of course, paralleled by that of his son, Telemachus, who, after first being recognized by Helen, comes to grow into a worthy successor to his father. Indeed, for Telemachus, his father's recognition of him as his son, such an uncertain prospect at the beginning of the poem, is no less important to him than his recognition of his father is to Odysseus. Of course, the recognition serves a different purpose for each: for Odysseus, it begins the process of returning him to his family and his kingdom. For Telemachus, his father's recognition, both as a partner-in-arms and as a son, brings him fully and finally into the adult world. Even the suitors realize that the Telemachus who left on his journey is not the same one who returns.

Penelope has her own recognition, though it's so much a part of the thread of the poem that it's almost easy to miss. She is known, throughout the world, as a faithful, devoted, and beautiful woman. That's why she has so many suitors! She's compared thus not only explicitly with Clytemnestra, whose unfaithfulness is much discussed, but to that other beautiful woman who had far too many suitors: Helen herself. Indeed, it was a mutual pledge among Helen's suitors that created the alliance of city-states that would eventually topple Troy years later. Penelope is thus recognized as being superior to both Clytemnestra and to Helen, and by extension, to essentially all other women. And while this is all widely recognized, it's Odysseus' recognition that matters.

Viewed through this lens, the poem becomes a powerful meditation of being known by the right people for doing the right things and for being the person that you are. It is not merely the voyages and adventures that still thrill the imagination some three millennia after the story was first told around the fire; it is the homecoming, the recognition of those whose opinion matters that makes us as envious of Odysseus and his family now as our ancestors were. They are recognized, known, and loved, despite all their faults and all their weaknesses. Who wouldn't want that?

And so this year-long odyssey of recognition ends. To all of you who accompanied me on this, I can only say how grateful I am. It has been a pleasure to forge this path with you all, and I hope that you've gotten even half as much pleasure from this experience as I have.

If you're so inclined, I highly recommend reading Eva Brann's Homeric Moments. It has been an invaluable resource for me in this project, and it's written in a conversational, almost breezy style, that makes it far more compelling that many traditional commentaries. I also recommend reading, if you haven't already, Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" which, even though it presents a version of Odysseus I'm not sure Homer would recognize as the same man, still speaks truthfully about the idea of Odysseus and what he represents.

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Onward--ever onward.

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