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Odysseus

Emulating Odysseus Today

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The epic poem known as the Odyssey, or Homer’s story of Odysseus, the ancient Greek king of Ithaca, who was cursed by the god of the sea, Poseidon, to wander for 10 years before returning home after the fall of Troy, is well known. In the course of his eventful journey, which took him as far as Africa, Odysseus had to overcome many, and varied, obstacles, from the giant Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops, who ate some of his men, to the sorceress, Circe, who transformed his men into pigs, and the lethally seductive song of the Sirens, which he survived because he had himself lashed to the ship’s mast to prevent him from steering in their direction, while his men were protected by putting wax in their ears. 

Cutting a long story short, Odysseus eventually does reach Ithaca, where he has to dispose of a bunch of troublesome suitors who, thinking he was dead, have been trying to win the favour of Penelope, his wife. The characteristics which enable Odysseus to overcome the diverse hindrances during his journey, and which one cannot fail to notice while reading this epic, are courage, intelligence, and cunning, the latter in the sense of resourcefulness as far as outwitting one’s foe is concerned. This has important implications for the fraught situation in which we find ourselves today.  

Even people who are reasonably familiar with this narrative of an arduous and hazardous search for the protagonist’s home do not necessarily grasp the psychological and existential significance of Odysseus’ journey for their own lives, or their community’s cultural trajectory in their own time, though. It is no accident that the leitmotif of a perilous search for, or return to, one’s home has informed many a literary work through the ages, the best known of which is probably Virgil’s Aeneid, with the Trojan hero, Aeneas, encountering Ulysses in the course of his own wanderings as his enemy. This Latinised name for Odysseus, in turn, points forward to James Joyce’s 20th-century literary masterpiece by the same name

Think, too, of the recently deceased Robert Pirsig’s two memorable novels, the fictionalised, autobiographical Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceAn Inquiry into Values (1974), and the later, semi-autobiographical Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991), just to mention two exemplary, late 20th-century tales of an odyssey. In both cases the Platonically named central character, Phaedrus, sets out in search of his ‘cultural home,’ as it were, all the time battling the spectre of insanity – in the first novel this occurs on a motorcycle, with his son riding pillion, travelling through America, and in the second novel he is on a boat, travelling down the Hudson River.

I won’t spoil things for people who have not read these two classic ‘odysseys’ by divulging more about their respective plots; suffice to say that they are a rich repository of literary and philosophical insights into what it means to be a human in search of a home, in this respect being true to the original Homeric poem. 

The title of the present essay already suggests the point of writing about the paradigmatic Odyssey, and the literary repetitions and representations of this journey in search of one’s home. One has to keep in mind, of course, that ‘home,’ even when featuring in a literal sense in the narrative, usually suggests something in metaphorical terms, such as one’s spiritual, cultural, intellectual, or psychic home. Under current circumstances no one could be blamed for feeling that their ‘home’ in this sense has been eroded, or obscured, by the events that started unfolding in early 2020, but which, one knows by now, stretch much further back.

This ‘home’ would be associated by many with their religious affiliations, and it is noteworthy that a collective counterpart to the Odysseus narrative is encountered in the Old Testament account of the Israelites journeying from Egypt in search of their promised land or home, the land of Canaan, after the Pharaoh finally let them go, lest greater suffering befell the Egyptians than the ten plagues that were visited upon them by God.

Was the meaning of such a ‘home’ today – a spiritual promised land of sorts – affected by the authoritarian measures that people were forced to submit to during lockdowns, when their ability to gather for worship was severely curtailed? I would wager that it was, although it would be difficult to ascertain whether it was mostly negatively affected, or perhaps positively in the sense of being strengthened and reaffirmed, paradoxically, by the obstacles placed in the way of worshippers. 

Returning to the Odysseus narrative, recall that he had to face, and overcome, many diverse dangers in the course of his 10-year journey, and that he managed to succeed in doing so by relying on his resourcefulness, or wits, as it were, in each different situation. I believe that one can find clues in how the Greek hero confronted these challenges, which lend themselves to being understood allegorically, with a view to grappling with the threats that we face today.

To begin with, when a storm drove Odysseus’ ships to the country of the Lotus-eaters in Libya, the inhabitants offered some of his men Lotus fruit to eat, as a result of which they were struck by amnesia, and had to be rescued by Odysseus. Today, a similar loss of memory is incurred on the part of most people who ‘eat the fruit’ offered to them by the entertainment industry, such as the wide array of movies and television series available on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. It is easy to bury oneself in these fictional and documentary programmes, which function as an anaesthetic and distract viewers from the events occurring in the real world, and which threaten to rob them of their democratic freedom. 

Enjoyable though many of these entertaining films and series may be – and I have certainly enjoyed many of them – they could easily have the same effect as the shadows on the cave wall in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave (arguably the first time a movie theatre was imagined by anyone) in Book 7 of his Republic – those in the cave mistake the shadows for reality, forgetting about the real world outside the cave. The legacy media have a similar effect on viewers, whether it is CNN, the BBC, or MSNBC; but by comparing these outlets with alternative media that have sources ‘on the ground,’ as it were (such as the Epoch Times and Redacted), it is not difficult to discern where one is being lied to.

Then there is the episode in the Odyssey involving the sorceress Circe, who changed Odysseus’ men into swine, while he himself was protected by a herb that Hermes had given him. Today we need various herbs too, in the literal as well as metaphorical sense, to protect ourselves against the spell that the media as well as government and international agencies, such as the WHO, FDA, and CDC, attempt to cast on us all the time. Armed with the right ‘herbs’ one is able to see through the disingenuity of the supposed ‘health information’ intermittently transmitted to us, such as the present hype around new coronavirus variants and the prospect of new lockdowns and mandates, coupled with exhortations to get Covid booster shots, which we know by now are more harmful than preventative.

The allegorical lesson that may be drawn from Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens, who lured unsuspecting sailors to their deaths on the rocks through their irresistibly enchanting singing, is that it is imperative to find ways to resist false promises on the part of Manchurian actors, lest these, too, should lure one to one’s death, either literally or figuratively speaking. The promise of so-called 15-minute cities as a panacea against the putative ravages of climate change is an instance of such a Siren song; CBDCs, touted in terms of convenience and safety as an improvement on a partly cash-based economy, is another. 

Odysseus’ men closed their ears with wax, while he tied himself to a mast so that he could hear, but not be lethally affected by their singing. Similarly, we should devise ways to become immune to the Siren song of the representatives of the supposed ‘new world order,’ in the process emulating those qualities that enabled Odysseus to survive all the ordeals that Poseidon had inflicted on him, in the end reaching his home, Ithaca, and reclaiming his sovereignty. Among these qualities his intelligence, self-confidence, courage, self-reliance and, when necessary, cunning and practical wisdom – what the ancient Greeks called phronesis – equipped him well to survive many tribulations and in the end flourish.

But even if one relies on the character traits by which Odysseus was marked, how do we find, or rather reach, our home again, through the fog of disinformation and outright lies emanating from the agencies controlling the mainstream media? 

First there is the individual and collective memory – whether clearly defined or comparatively vague – of what that home entails; then there is the process of journeying towards it, which may require some conscious and deliberate intellectual exertion and excavation of sorts – such as reading one of Robert Pirsig’s novels referred to earlier. And concomitantly there is the question of warding off further assaults along the way, in the course of one’s journey, which may cause the image of one’s home to recede even further.

Such attacks are bound to occur, virtually on a daily basis, such as the spectre of renewed lockdowns and mask mandates, alluded to above. This calls for resolute, ingenious activity, modelled on those of Odysseus, as well as perseverance in the quest for reaching one’s cultural and spiritual home. With determination and confidence this can be achieved.



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Author

  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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