Chapter 5

Comic Recovery of the Hero-Artist

In contrast to the tragic heroes of the last chapter, Homer’s Odysseus has the power to counter death-in-life, to recover from the compulsion of events and win through to life, thus surpassing even the deeds of Heracles.

§5.1 Achilles and Odysseus reduced to nothing

The saltimbanque is like one of those “sailors forgotten on an island” that Baudelaire names among characteristic exiles in “Le Cygne.” He inhabits a “forgetful world,” as it is called at the end of our poem, one which has forgotten him, and its moving flood stops short of his wretched hut. The archetype of such sailors is Odysseus, whose story opens with the hero forgotten by gods and men; the rest of it, one might say, is a matter of remembering him. Athena has to chide the gods twice for their neglect; the poet does not show Odysseus for four books. We get a report of him, and then see him on the shore, watching as a stranded sailor would for a ship, shedding tears and looking over the sea.[1] Back home on another island, his wife too seems marooned and forgotten: she watches with her mind’s eye for his ship, gazing over the turbulent sea of her wooers, who stuff themselves while she weeps. The two of them form as it were an androgyne, cruelly separated like Aristophanic halves.[2] Odysseus is drawn back to his mate, whom he reaches in spite of wind and wave; the saltimbanque is attractive to the poet, and although the crowd sweeps him far away, there is every certainty that he will come at last to the prostitute Death that he recognized in the old charlatan.[3]

On the way to their embrace Odysseus and Penelope are menaced by death, never more gravely than at the moment in Book 19 when Eurycleia detects the hero’s scar. Then we see a picture strangely like that in our poem. There is Odysseus, who has said of himself, “Necessity compels me [to be foul] … I too once dwelt in a house of my own among men, a rich man in a wealthy house….”[4] Like a saltimbanque, he must get his supper as he can—by wrestling another beggar, for instance. The old nurse suddenly sees through his rags to who he is; at this she experiences hysteria, he takes her by the throat—and the day is saved. Necessity and hysteria are here a preface to life, not death. If Achilles exemplifies the collapse and doom of our poet (according to Chambers’s scheme, §4.2), Odysseus exhibits the opposite possibility. The reason is that Achilles, fixed as he is upon the battlefield, has no life but that of the glory of the public performance of his art; while Odysseus, a man on the move, overcomes mere performance and practices art for life’s sake. In order to see how this is so we must examine a structural feature of Homeric epic.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are similar in plot, broadly speaking: a hero who is unrecognized, out of place—who is neither in battle nor at home—suffers grievous loss; he emerges from obscurity, destroys his enemies, assumes his rightful place, and experiences reconciliation. In the case of the Iliad, Jacob Klein has identified “the two foci from which all light dispersed throughout the poem stems” as (1) the long silence of Zeus when Thetis has asked for his help on behalf of her son Achilles, and (2) the brazen-voiced shout of Achilles (twice repeated) that terrifies the Trojans after the death of Patroclus. “The long stretch of the poem which corresponds to Achilles’ inactivity fills Zeus’ silence,” and the shout “sonorously echo[es]” it. “Achilles will get what he wants [as promised after the silence], but at the price of the greatest loss he could suffer [marked by the shout]—the loss of his beloved friend, his other self.”[5] The two events bracket the hero’s period of submersion. He had sought and received affirmation of who he was, namely “the best of the Achaeans” (above at n. 4.26); his last words to his mother, with which he sent her off to Zeus, interposed οὐδέν, “nothing,” “not at all” between that phrase and “honor”: in the original word order, “the best of the Achaeans nothing did he [i.e. Agamemnon] honor.” There’s the outrage in a nutshell: eclipsing Achilles with nothingness. It must be rejected, at all costs. Patroclus echoes this.[6] The pregnant silence of the god prepares the decisive nod by which he rejects the outrage and acknowledges the hero’s worth. This approval of Zeus is the greatest possible gain, which fills the hero with self-certainty (even if others do not know of it); its echo, the second event, is the greatest possible loss (even if essentially private), which strips him of his other self, his good and humane friend. Naked and crying, like an infant, Achilles is reborn into an ambiguous existence for the pleasure of the gods—at the great race with Hector, “all the gods watched.” Having seen his own ghost (above at n. 4.29), Achilles may be said to have completed the short but glorious life he expected before ever he wins glory on the field, if by life is meant fully human existence.[7] By an error he has fallen from prosperity to adversity: his tragedy is over, his posthumous life begins. For the great action that will open it his mother is to give him the brazen weapons he needs, so that he may go forth like grim Necessity herself to bring doom upon his enemies.

A corresponding but contrary pair of events governs the Odyssey. The first is not near the beginning of the book, but near the beginning of the hero’s history within it. In desperate straits inside the Cyclops’s cave, Odysseus declares to him, “ ‘No-one’ is my name,” Οὖτις ἐμοί γ’ ὄνομα, and continues, “No-one they call me—my mother and my father, and all my comrades as well.” [8] This is denial of self: I am no one; and it suggests, I can be anyone—I am anonymous, like a flâneur. What Achilles could not abide, the nothingness of anonymity, Odysseus embraces. That might have been expected, since on the bright stage of Troy, where everyone played themselves to the hilt, he alone was hard to grasp.[9] Now in extreme need he adopts the extreme form of the strategy of going masked. The Cyclops despises him as of no account, and when Odysseus tries to take back the denial of himself, to assert his true name, the monster responds that he knew of Odysseus, who (he thought) was somebody; this fellow is nobody, οὐτιδανός. That was Achilles’ term for a worthless man: unrestrained Agamemnon he called “People-devouring king, since you rule over nobodies,” and he refused to be one of these. Facing another lawless people-devourer, Odysseus in contrast has invited the insulting epithet. Having bestowed it, the Cyclops utters the fatal prayer to Poseidon, which includes the plea that Odysseus may lose all his companions. “And the dark-haired god heard him.”[10] Soon afterwards his men think there is substance in his leather bag, but there’s only wind—such as would be contained in the skin of Nobody—what Odysseus found in Agamemnon when he accused him of “saying windy things,” a criticism he will revert to in Hades.[11]

In what follows the self-denier tries various shifts. Although the audience, so to speak, is unappreciative Poseidon, Odysseus does not perish, because he is never invested in his devices. He knows them for what they are, as he affirmed by punning on his cleverness in the denial itself.[12] The pleasant harbor of the Laestrygonians is left to others; Circe is deceived, then accepted, then abandoned; the shows of Hades are admired, but playing the shade has its term; he arranges matters so that he is only temporarily a Siren-fancier; he arms against Scylla in the knowledge that to do so is futile; his solitary prayer to all the gods fails in sleep.[13] The Cyclops, Kuklōps, and Circe, Kirkē, have offered to transform him permanently (into food or a beast); he’ll have none of that, any more than he will let Calypso, Kalupsō, make him an immortal. No fated circle, kuklos, will hold him (above at nn. 3.8–9, 4.13).[14] Even his men can be given up, sad as it is; but in their loss he suffers a kind of vaporization, an exteriorized version of what Chambers identified as the actor’s peril most feared by the likes of Baudelaire. Indeed, they perish as childish fools, νήπιοι, like the pre-Promethean men our poet suddenly found himself among (above at n. 4.30). The angry sea absorbs and scatters his self, as it has been known up to now: he was a captain, a leader of men, who were his resources and his responsibility; his external soul is gone—his “other self,” we might say. “He did not save his comrades, though he yearned to.”[15] That was the cost of facing this audience with his shifts, his devices, his performance. It would have spelled the doom of an artist—the saltimbanque is at his post “as if, ashamed, he had exiled himself”—but Odysseus is no more an artist, at bottom, than he is a boat-builder—though at need he can build a boat, a shield against the sea.[16] He devotes himself to retaining the mortal spark: “As a man hides a brand beneath the dark embers in an outlying farm, a man who has no neighbors, and so saves a seed of fire, that he may not have to kindle it from some other source, so Odysseus covered himself with leaves.” All his fellows are gone, but he puts on the leaves, which are like the generations of men, to protect him, as at the end of the tale he will stand with his father and son in defense of his house.[17]

§5.2 Odysseus restored

He survives, but for a time as little more than the story of his devices. To Phaeacia he comes more naked than Achilles, and sings for his supper by reworking old material. This gets him back to Ithaca, where he adopts strategies of the past: the beggar disguise used at Troy, and the technique of the Trojan horse. Neither is the ultimate solution he needs, the new performance demanded by the new audience, the sea of suitors. When Telemachus first knew his father, he wondered if Odysseus could think of a helper for them in their task; Odysseus proposed Athena and Zeus, rather presumptuously, and the young man had his doubts. Now in the hall the hero is pondering, turning things over anxiously in his mind—this is said twice—“with Athena’s aid.” But there is no sign of an adequate plan, only the negative idea of removing the weapons. “Then wise Penelope came forth from her chamber….”[18] When Achilles, stripped of armor, was at a loss, he shouted, and his mother gave him the tools he needed. The shout is Klein’s second event, the echo of the silence of Zeus. Now beggar Odysseus is stripped of his men, and the all-resourceful man is at his wit’s end; what will happen? His wife is going to give him the tool he needs—his bow—but first something else has to happen: the second event, which answers the self-denial in the Cyclops’s cave. The Iliad moved from gain to loss; here the order is reversed, for the story of Odysseus is far from tragic: in its scheme and its gravity it belongs to the finest type of comedy.[19]

What happens is the episode of Odysseus’s scar. The hero is at the height of his performance, but dancing on air like Fancioulle in “Une mort héroïque,” without a plan of salvation; he’s overconfident, having won over Penelope, as he thinks, and going too far—like Patroclus—he (in effect) asks for his old nurse Eurycleia. At this height he is almost undone. Let us briefly recall the sequence of events. He has a foreboding that she will know him by the scar, and turns toward the darkness. She knows. The story of the name-giving and the hunt is remembered. Again, she knows. She lets the leg fall, there is a clang, and the water spills. “Then upon her heart came joy and grief at the same moment, and her eyes were filled with tears, and the flow of her voice was checked. … ‘Truly you are Odysseus, dear child.’ ” She looks toward Penelope, but Athena has turned the latter’s thoughts aside. Odysseus seizes her throat with his right hand, draws her close with the left: “Mother, why will you destroy me?”[20]

Thus, as we may express it in Chambers’s terms, Odysseus suddenly realizes that his mask, the protective shield of his performance, has failed him. “As an unperfect actor” he turns away from the stage lights. He is condemning himself—like the boar in the thicket (which he resembled under the leaves) he springs out at himself. After all the mask was not he. He, who has forgotten himself (as the gods and men forgot him), must remember himself. This means assuming again the name he gave up in the Cyclops’s cave. It designates him as angry; he has been literally angry before only at the Cyclops, when vainly asserting to him his name, and will burst out in anger once more at Penelope’s final test of his identity.[21] He must take back his name, and the scar is the way to it: it reveals the necessary past as prophetic of life. For in the great peril of the remembered hunting his life was saved by his family, the generations of men, who used song to stanch his bleeding, thereby affirming art as preservative, not destructive, of life. And the whole scene has already been placed in a context of continuity by the affecting episode of the old dog Argos. After training him, Odysseus never got to hunt with him, because he left for Troy.[22] Now in memory he hunts once more, as if with Argos. In fact the old hound helped trigger the memory by recognizing his old master; now in delayed acknowledgment Odysseus recognizes his old self, the hunter who did not die on the Muses’ mountain.

In the present the collapse of the mask has cast him into danger. His leg falls—the actor’s support is gone (cf. “Break a leg”). The clang recalls the sound of Apollo’s death-bringing bow at the beginning of the Iliad, as though heralding a repetition of tragedy; but that epic is being echoed only in parody, and what spills is bath-water, not blood, from a vessel which more resembles the barber’s basin of Don Quixote than Mambrino’s helmet, or Achilles’.[23] So too Eurycleia is far from perceiving a harsh critic condemning life: she sees through the mere appearance of necessity to the vital reality, and joyfully takes its side when the ragged figure completes her experience of hysteria with an iron hand. Her spirit is “firm,” “unyielding,” she’ll be “as close as hard stone or iron.” While in Chambers’s scheme a distant spectator observes the artist’s fatal duality, here the onlooker recognizes the hero’s essential unity, and moreover as his nurse knows herself to be part of it. The past has broken into the living world with life-giving might.

In the Iliad the first event was a silent beholding of the future, the second the anguished voice of the loss of self. Between them was private human existence, after them public activity in the eyes of the gods. Here the situation is the opposite. The false spoken denial of self in the Cyclops’s cave is answered by memory and silence; between them was the stuff of song, after them is private life. The episode of the scar seems to be hidden from Penelope—in a reminiscence of the Cyclops, it is as though her eye had been put out—but the mind’s eye that watched for the ship is at work. She tells the dream of the geese: “I, that before was the eagle, am now again come back as your husband.” Then she announces the archery contest, in effect giving him the bow which is to sing for him like a swallow.[24] Far from being shattered by the forgetful world, he will fling off his rags and leap to the stage in the hall, to reaffirm his name and turn the arrows upon the foolish consumers of illusion, who once had found amusing the necessity that drives the helpless out of life (§1.3). Like Heracles, Odysseus has overcome its menace and taken its place; unlike him, he will end in life, not death, thanks to the superior understanding that has always accompanied his force.


[1] Odyssey 5.81–84, 151–158; Stanford, Odyssey, note to 5.156. The sea is called ἀτρύγετος (1.72, etc.), a word of uncertain meaning traditionally interpreted as “unfruitful, barren,” or else “untiring, restless.” Both meanings would fit the busy crowd that yields the saltimbanque no profit. Which did Baudelaire learn in school?

[2] Plato, Symposium 189c–193d. Cf. Philoctetes (text above at n. 3.36), rescued from his island by Neoptolemus (whom Odysseus has brought there): Heracles explains that only their combined strength will conquer Troy, and tells them to “guard one another like a pair of lions” that are “partners” or “mates,” λέοντε συννόμω, Philoctetes 1434–1437. In both of the other occurrences of σύννομος in Sophocles it refers to a partner in a male-female (human) couple: Electra 600 (male), Oedipus at Colonus 340 (female).

[3] Hungry men surround Penelope as though she were a prostitute (cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.11.13–14); and when she shows herself to them, four times, she stands by a post of the house—σταθμός: either a pillar supporting the roof or else a door-post (Odyssey 1.333, 16.415, 18.209, 21.64)—as the saltimbanque leans on his post (text above after n. 3.22). Nausicaa saying good-bye did the same (as is told in the same words at 8.458). Of course Odysseus as beggar is hungry too, driven by his belly (17.473–474, etc.). Plutarch admits the possibility that Nausicaa is blameworthy, and that Odysseus prostitutes Penelope for gifts: How the Young Man Should Listen to Poems, Moralia 27a–c.

[4] Odyssey 19.73–76.

[5] Iliad 1.503–512, 18.203–231; Jacob Klein, “The Problem and the Art of Writing,” Lectures and Essays, ed. Robert B. Williamson and Elliott Zuckerman (Annapolis: St. John’s College Press, 1985), 146–150. “Other self”: see above, n. 4.28.

[6] Iliad 1.412, 16.274.

[7] Iliad 22.166, 9.410–416.

[8] Odyssey 9.366–367.

[9] He was two-faced in restraining the chiefs and commons from fleeing; to Priam on the wall he seemed like a ram (prophetic of his device in the Cyclops’s cave); before speaking he looked like a fool; Agamemnon mistakenly thought he was standing apart (unless the king was himself employing a device); he seemed to neglect Nestor in peril; he misled the scout Dolon (Wily), and used Diomedes; he employed wrestling tricks against Aias (apparently hooking his leg behind the other’s knee); he fooled the Trojans in his slave or beggar disguise; and he contrived the horse: Iliad 2.188–207; 3.195–198; 3.216–220; 4.329–363; 8.90–98; 10.382–468, 10.477–502; 23.725–732; Odyssey 4.244–251; 4.271–273, 8.492–495.

[10] Iliad 1.231, 293; Odyssey 9.460, 502–536.

[11] Iliad 4.355; Odyssey 10.34–47, 11.464 (Odysseus condemns “saying windy things” in explanation of his own reticence about what he doesn’t know, but surely also with implicit reference to the preceding speech of Agamemnon).

[12] Play on μή τίς and μῆτις, 9.410–414.

[13] The last event is at 12.333–338.

[14] The three tempters have similar names: Κύκλωψ, Κίρκη, and Καλυψώ—the first and third are almost anagrams (with reduplication in the first), the second is similar because of the linguistic closeness of ρ and λ. The family resembles κύκλος, circle; Κύκλωψ = Round-eye.

[15] Prometheus Bound 442–444; Odyssey 1.6–9.

[16] Odyssey 5.234–261—“The description implies a roughly constructed box-like boat, rather than a raft,” according to Stanford, Odyssey, note to 246­–261; a raft, but “Homer seems to have made use of a traditional poetic description of the building of a ship,” according to Dimock (above, n. 1.23), note to 253.

[17] Odyssey 5.482–491; text above at n. 2.49; Odyssey 24.496–527. Cf. Eugene Onegin, who could not be a poet because he “lacked the lofty passion of not sparing life for the sake of sounds”: Aleksandr Pushkin, Evgenii Onegin 1.7.

[18] Odyssey 16.256–269; 19.1–2, 51–53.

[19] Comedy, that is, after Dante and Shakespeare. Aristotle treats of the Odyssey in connection with tragedy, and calls its double structure, in which better and worse characters have opposite fates, only second-best, because by playing to the spectators’ wishes it gives them a pleasure proper to comedy: Poetics 1453a30–39, etc.

[20] Odyssey 19.343–348, 386–482. See text above at nn. 1.16, 2.3. “Heart” is φρήν, seat of life, intelligence, spirit, emotion, etc. The word for the darkness toward which Odysseus turns is σκότος, used only here in the Odyssey but in the Iliad fifteen times and always for the darkness of death, usually as covering a warrior’s eyes.

[21] By “literally angry” at the Cyclops, 9.501, I mean to distinguish anger from “looking from beneath [the brows (?)],” ὑπόδρα ἰδών. For the verb ὀδύσσομαι from which “Odysseus” comes Dimock (above, n. 1.23) prefers the sense “will pain (to)” over “be angry (at)” (note to 1.62). With the Cyclops the verb is κοτέω, similarly covering both senses. To Penelope the hero only “bursts out” or is “much moved” (ὀχθήσας, 23.182), but the anger is evident from the speech and she responds with “Don’t be angry.”

[22] Odyssey 19.455–458 (see note to 457–458 in Stanford, Odyssey), 17.291–327.

[23] Iliad 1.49; Cervantes, Don Quixote, pt. 1, chap. 21.

[24] Odyssey 19.535–581, 21.410–411. With the wooden bow she also will provide “those axes which he used to set up in line in his halls, like props of a ship that is being built”—as Calypso supplied him with an axe and trees, 5.234–243.