“A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling,” Nietzsche once wrote, meaning that laughter requires a high degree of intellectual hardness. One could also say that an ideology is an epigram on the death of both feeling and laughter, since ideologies arise when the twisting and turning ambiguities of life become intolerable. In the perspective of ideology, art, which embodies life’s complexity, needs to be policed before it can be experienced. And if it does not reflect current pieties, it must be chastened, even rejected.
But art embraces those very social pieties even as it transcends them. Consider Homer’s Odyssey, that keystone of Western literature. (For all the moments of tenderness in the Iliad, the Odyssey rings with a cosmic laughter that is like one loud heartbeat of life after the Iliad’s panorama of human travail.) Surely it is the most “transgressive” work of literature ever composed.
For one thing, “Homer’s” Odyssey was in fact written by a woman. And this tale of Odysseus, the most virile figure in Western literature—Achilles is a crybaby who also happens to be a killing machine—celebrates what Goethe called “the eternal feminine” (he meant it as a compliment), a principle of superior intellect and morality. Finally, the figure in the poem who has the last word is not Odysseus or his son, Telemachus. It is not even Penelope or Odysseus’s guardian deity, Athena. It is what we would call today a transgender person, identifying as a man, who plays on the poem’s hero the most elaborate and cunning practical joke in Western literature. Think Buster Keaton running around the seven hills of Rome throughout A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and you will be on the right track.
Of course, no one can prove that the Odyssey was written by a woman, any more than anyone can prove that it was written by a man, let alone a blind poet named Homer. I borrow my fanciful-seeming assertion from one of the most curious and satisfying books ever published, The Authoress of the Odyssey, written by the nineteenth-century English novelist Samuel Butler (who once memorably quipped that life was like learning how to play the violin and having to give concerts at the same time). Butler’s elaborate argument, supported by strikingly original readings of the poem as well as a profound grasp of the history of the ancient world, is that the poem was written in Trapani, located on the west coast of Sicily, by a highborn woman—a cultured aristocrat—who playfully represented herself in her portrait of Nausicaa, the tall and beautiful daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaecia.
The woman who wrote the Odyssey, according to Butler, was “both short and plain, and was laughing at herself, and intending to make her audience laugh also, by describing herself as tall and beautiful.” She was playful and self-possessed, so much so that Nausicaa’s first appearance sees the princess doing the laundry with her maidservants. But there is no mistaking the role she plays in Odysseus’s fate. He comes to her as a stranger, and strangers could mean trouble. One word of disapproval or dislike from her and he’s finished.
In an interpretation of the epic so obvious that it barely needs demonstrating, Butler observes that the cunning, resourceful Odysseus finds himself at the mercy of one woman after another. It would be fatal for him to arouse Athena’s displeasure. Without her guidance and protection he would never survive the voyage from Troy to his home in Ithaca. He is clearly in the power of both Calypso and Circe. Nausicaa holds his fate in her hands. And to the extent that the Odyssey concerns itself with depicting the development of Telemachus, the young man finds himself not just in thrall to Athena but also a witness to the dysfunctional marriage between Helen and Menelaus: in a scene right out of a John Cheever story, Athena takes Telemachus to visit the couple at home, where Menelaus is the subject of one after another of the dominant Helen’s put-downs as the unhappy pair get sloshed on wine spiked with a powerful sedative.
Looming above all the strong women in the Odyssey is Penelope. It could even be said that the other women who have Odysseus in their power over the course of the poem are incarnations of his wife. (That is how Stanley Kubrick interprets the poem in Eyes Wide Shut, his modern-day retelling of the Odyssey.) Though Butler never says this, the fact that any one of the women Odysseus finds himself in thrall to could cause his destruction is a reflection of his fraught relationship with Penelope. At any moment, she could accept the offer of one of the young suitors who has overtaken her household and marry him, thus robbing Odysseus of his kingship and, should he reappear, of his life. This is why Odysseus, upon his return home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, gradually allows one trusted person after another to know his true identity—except for Penelope, whom he reveals himself to only after Telemachus has seized the suitors’ weapons and locked them away.
Indeed, Butler daringly takes up the question of whether Penelope truly has been faithful to Odysseus, alluding to versions of the Odyssey composed before what has come down to us as Homer’s, in which Penelope has in fact disported herself with one or more of the suitors. For Butler, this tradition is more proof that the poem was written by a woman, who, in his eyes, set herself the task of, as he puts it, “whitewashing” Penelope’s conduct and recreating her as the paragon of virtue, as she appears in the poem we have now.
Without exception, including the sometimes recklessly impulsive Odysseus, the principal male figures in the Odyssey are portrayed, in varying degrees, as rash, loutish, callow, ineffectual, or abject. The women, on the other hand, are by turns shrewd, powerful, artful, benevolent, kind, and wise. This standing of a patriarchal society on its head was surely not lost on Elena Ferrante, who consciously and deliberately stands Homer’s Iliad on its head in My Brilliant Friend, the first in the tetralogy of her Neopolitan novels, a retelling of the Iliad in which she displaces Homer with herself— most transparently by referring to her character in the novel as “El Greco” and making several allusions to the Iliad by name, and by the way she repurposes its themes in her novel. I can’t imagine that she is not familiar with Butler’s hypothesis and that she was not mischievously conceiving of herself as a modern-day Nausicaa.
To my mind, however, the most definitive evidence that the Odyssey was written by a woman comes not from Butler but from the poem itself—in Book 11, when Odysseus descends to the Underworld and encounters the prophet Tiresias, who explains to him what he must do to appease the wrath of Poseidon, who has been the cause of Odysseus’s misfortunes throughout. Here are Tiresias’s instructions from the stunning new translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the poem:
. . . you have to go away and take an oar to people with no knowledge of the sea, who do not salt their food. They never saw a ship’s red prow, nor oars, the wings of boats. I prophesy the signs of things to come. When you meet somebody, a traveler, who calls the thing you carry on your back a winnowing fan, then fix that oar in earth and make fine sacrifices to Poseidon—a bull and stud-boar. Then you will go home . . .
The irony is impossibly rich. Tiresias, thanks to a mishap that angered the gods, was at one point in his life transformed into a woman, then transformed back to a man years later. He was blinded by Hera, the wife of Zeus, when, after the two gods disagreed about whether men or women enjoyed sex more and then asked Tiresias, who had been both man and woman, to tell them, Tiresias replied that women did. Enraged, Hera robbed him of his eyesight. His answer might well have delighted the authoress of the Odyssey. Then, too, his experience of being both man and woman may well have endeared him to the woman who, in the course of writing the Odyssey, imaginatively inhabited both men and women, along with disguising herself as author—not unlike Ferrante’s anonymity, come to think of it—and herself pretending to be a man.
And so it is supremely fitting that Tiresias, having inhabited the form of woman and man, would play his practical joke on Odysseus, the virile man par excellence. For what does it mean to tell Odysseus to travel to a land where no one recognizes an oar and, upon seeing one, people mistake it for a winnowing fan? In the Aegean world that Odysseus lived in, any cities or settlements were either on the sea or close to a river. He would have walked and walked until he died. That eventuality is hinted at in the image of the winnowing fan, a tool that separates grain from chaff once the wheat has been harvested. Odysseus’s death is reiterated, with brutal irony, in Tiresias’s instruction to sacrifice a “stud-boar,” as Wilson translates it. Here, for all the lapidary beauty of Wilson’s translation, I prefer Richmond Lattimore’s more explicitly interpretive rendering of the phrase. Instead of “stud-boar,” he writes “a mounter of sows, a boar pig.” Odysseus, who, in the Odyssey and the Iliad, is identified with the super-aggressive boar, receives instructions to extinguish his masculinity symbolically.
It is a diabolically wrought revenge on the very epitome of maleness. And it is all done within the tradition of Western literature, in the most nuanced literary way, with nary a nod to deadening ideology or punitive pieties. Far from being a narrative of oppression, the masterpieces of Western literature, composed by social misfits and temperamental outsiders, embody a complexity so radical that it makes piety and convention hang their heads in shame.
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