Odysseus and the Poet
TL;DR: Rhetoric, memory, poetry — how they are interrelated in the Homeric Epics.
I’ve recently been thinking about rhetoric, memory, and poetry and how they are interrelated. Along with the Odyssey, I have been reading Plato’s dialogues Gorgias and Phaedrus. The dialogues discuss rhetoric as being a “knack” used for persuasion that does not necessarily have anything to do with Truth. Now, it seems to me, that if poetry were put into the equation, and Plato’s metaphysical memory, then Homer seems to embody the, what Plato ambiguously calls, “true rhetorician.”
A passage in the Odyssey, Book VIII starts these musings:
The crier soon came, leading that man of song
whom the Muse cherished; by her gift he knew
the good of life, and evil —
for she who lent him sweetness made him blind.
The passage describes the entrance of Demodokos, the minstrel. Demodokos, in payment for his soul’s vision of truth, has given his earthly sight. This idea is fascinating to me and relates the burden of truth on those who can reach it. Compare, as Hexter begins to do, the blind Demodokos with Milton, Beethoven, Keats, and — might I suggest — Stephen Hawking; these are some of the world’s greatest artists — all of them had some sort of infirmity that either the result, as in the quotation above, of their vision of the Truth, or their infirmity gave them the ability to touch the mind of God. Odysseus later states:
“All men owe honor to the poets — honor
and awe, for they are dear to the Muse
who puts upon their lips the ways of life.”
Indeed, the poet is the one who attempts to translate the ineffable. I am reminded of a scene in Robert Zemeckis’ film Contact, where Arroway is floating before the indescribable brilliance of a galaxy that is deafening in its silence; with tears in her eyes, she states: “They should have sent a poet.” It is the poet, as Dante depicts in La commedia, that can attempt to relate standing in the presence of God, but even he falls short.
Arjuna, the hero in the Indian epic the Bhagavad-Gita, asks Vishnu’s avatar Krishna for a glimpse of his true form. The god answers that even a glimpse of the tiniest part would be enough to burn the body of the warrior. We humans are, unfortunately, limited by our senses and our small minds. Yet, the poet — one who has glimpsed a manifestation of the Truth — may be humanity’s best interlocutor to the truth.
Whether s/he climbs the latter of love to Beauty, or whether her/his soul’s memory is so keen that it still retains a greater amount of the Truth, the poet must have a contact or connection with a greater truth in order to be a true poet / artist / philosopher and not just a speaker of nice words. The poet is the thinker — s/he is the one that educates and the starter of paradigms. Look at Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Homer — are the artist and the philosopher and the teacher just synonyms? Yet, it seems often, that these great artists invent these visions of the truth, but that these visions only work for them ultimately. Their truths are theirs alone. If we, as thoughtful human beings, can use parts of their philosophies to lead us to the answers, then great. But, as the Buddha (and postmodernism) said, we are all on our own unique paths, and we all must discover our own upayas, or vehicles, to the truth. There is, it seems, a Truth, but many paths to getting there.
So how does Homer fit into this? The poet, once again, helps us explore or own thoughts and introduces to others. Poetry, whether it takes the form of a symphony, a movie, an epic, a painting, a novel, or a physics theory, leads us to new perspectives, new wonders, and ever-expanding ideas. The Odyssey, like today’s epics, is a search for home. I am reminded of another powerful image from Contact. The beginning sequence, where the camera begins in earth’s orbit and slowly begins pulling away from the center of our universe, represents this quest for home — for a place in the universe. As the camera travels through the solar system, the transmissions of humanity follow it. The signals get weaker the farther the camera travels. With ever-greater speed, we travel through nebulae, close to stars, through brilliant gasses, across galaxies, and eventually out of the eye of a child. This universe, so vast in its ostensible eternity, can be held in the imagination — the eye — of a child. Perhaps, while we venture out into space, we will find we only need to look inside? Where is your home, Odysseus?
- Originally published on Sep 9, 1997 @ 14:51.
- Hexter, Ralph (1993). A Guide to The Odyssey: A Commentary on the English Translation of Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage. p. 105.