Achilles and Odysseus

A really interesting report on NPR’s All Things Considered the other day dealt with two different but intertwingled issues.

One was the psychological reality of fictional characters. Some readers challenge the appropriateness of discussing the sexual orientation of Dumbledore, on the grounds that he is a fictional character so it doesn’t make sense to talk about anything that’s not in Rowling’s writings. But that seems to me to be missing the point. If writing is compelling enough to encourage the willing suspension of disbelief, then the characters take on a life of their own. It’s not unusual for an author to say that s/he writes in order to find out what happens to his or her characters. If a reader can believe in a character’s life outside of a work of fiction, then it certainly makes sense to consider that character’s sexual orientation and everything else about his or her life. I don’t know whether Dumbledore was gay, but I think it’s highly probable based on Book 7.

The second issue is more specific: the claim by Bill Mullen that people tend to identify with either Achilles or Odysseus. Even though the NPR show cited above strongly suggests an orientation with Achilles, I have long felt much closer to Odysseus. This started in 11th grade, when I read the Iliad in Greek and the Odyssey in English. Just to be sure, I then read the Iliad in English and parts of the Odyssey in Greek — and sure enough, I’m clearly an Odyssey person. Odysseus speaks to me, but Achilles leaves me cold. Not surprisingly, Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses” and Joyce’s great novel Ulysses have meant a lot to me. From Tennyson:

’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

(Note, despite the dichotomy proposed by Mullen, that Tennyson explicitly refers to “the great Achilles.”)

And from Joyce:

Sitting at his side Stephen solved out the problem. He proves by algebra that Shakespeare’s ghost is Hamlet’s grandfather. Sargent peered askance through his slanted glasses. Hockeysticks rattled in the lumberroom: the hollow knock of a ball and calls from the field.

Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands, traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors. Gone too from the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark men in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.

— Do you understand now? Can you work the second for yourself?

— Yes, sir.

In long shady strokes Sargent copied the data. Waiting always for a word of help his hand moved faithfully the unsteady symbols, a faint hue of shame flickering behind his dull skin. Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive. With her weak blood and wheysour milk she had fed him and hid from sight of others his swaddling bands.

Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.

The sum was done.

— It is very simple, Stephen said as he stood up.

— Yes, sir. Thanks, Sargent answered.

He dried the page with a sheet of thin blottingpaper and carried his copybook back to his desk.

— You had better get your stick and go out to the others, Stephen said as he followed towards the door the boy’s graceless form.

— Yes, sir.

Ah! I don’t feel like downloading the 93-hour audiobook version for my iPod, but it’s tempting…



Categories: Books, Life, Teaching & Learning