Odysseus Resting (I)


Kurtz & Allison chromolithograph, “The Battle of Quingua, April 23, 1899.”

Talking about Homer is tricky.  There’s the wonderful story: the spellbinding yarns of old soldiers and lost sailors, spinning out tales of battles that shine with the forces of the gods and cunning escapes with clever lessons for us about how to be at home in the world.  But even in Athens, by the 5th century BCE, there were serious doubts about the ability of narratives to accurately convey the facts.  Even epics as marvelous and apparently comprehensive as the Iliad and the Odyssey might distort our understanding of what happened in the past and how it continues to shape events around us.  Thucydides, in particular, worried about the way that, in a democracy, Homeric poetry and other sinuous forms of persuasive rhetoric, could give rise to a world of “alternative facts.”  The historian of the Peloponnesian War was deeply suspicious about a democracy’s susceptibility to the flowery words of would-be tyrants.  Josiah Ober points out how Thucydides repeatedly distinguishes between mere rhetoric and the foundations of actual power:

[W]e have no need of a Homer to sing our praises, nor of any suchlike whose fine words please only for the moment, since the truth (alētheia) will show that in comparison with the facts (erga), [the verbal depiction] is an underestimate.  (Qtd. in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, 85.)

Ober argues that the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles, as related to us by Thucydides, is a complex, “self-subversive,” demonstration of the dangers of Athenian exceptionalism.  Pericles makes an elegant defense of democratic knowledge, of the idea “of making policy on the basis of logoi” and “reject[ing] the existence of a hierarchy between logoi and erga,” but, as Thucydides presents him, Pericles undercuts his own logos as manifested in words rather than in more durable monuments of architecture — or verifiable historical narrative (88).  Thucydides, Ober writes, “considers untested and competing logoi to be a dubious basis for understanding reality” (88).

The OED tells me that the earliest instance of “tricky” in English having the colloquial sense of containing “unexpected difficulties” and requiring “cautious action or handling” is surprisingly recent.  Their earliest instance is from Charles Locke Eastwood’s Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, and Other Details, published in London in 1868:

Chromo-lithography […] accustoms the eye to easily rendered and therefore tricky effects of color which falsify rather than illustrate nature.

Does Homer also “accustom the eye” to false colors?  Does the flash and resonance of the conflict among the gods trick hearers into thinking that an analogous conflict of reasons and frank speech will lead to stable government?

Sojourning settlers


E.M. Lilien, Hebron (1922), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

After Sarah died, Abraham went before the Hittites to ask for permission to bury her, an important act not only for the grieving husband, but also for the identity of the nation and the people that the stories of Genesis were meant to bring together.  It isn’t only ancient cultures who believe that burying ancestors in a place gives heirs a sacred claim to it.  But what sort of a claim?  Today, we would want to make a distinction between legal or political claims and moral claims, of the sort that might entail visitation rights but not ownership.  This is a complex issue, and two translations of Genesis suggest how difficult it is for us to understand the underlying grammar (legal? moral? religious?) of the narrated actions.

Abraham begins his speech by declaring himself an immigrant.  In the translation of the Oxford Annotated Bible: “Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites: I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:3-4).  This translation gives Abraham’s claim the sound of a precise legal matter.  He is asserting residency status and requesting a grant of property.  (It’s also easy to read too much into “out of sight” which makes Abraham sound as if he’s making an appeal to the Hittites’ pragmatism or perhaps their disgust, hinting that this whole display of the bodies is somehow theatrical.  But other translations make this much less plausible, so we should probably ignore that aspect of Abraham’s voice here.)  So is this a legal claim?   According to Robert Alter, the “bureaucratic coloration” of the term “resident alien” (and, by extension, the sense of the Oxford translation) “misrepresents the stylistic decorum of the Hebrew” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary 129).

Alter devotes much more attention to the poetry of parataxis and diction.  For Alter, the seemingly excessive “ands” that attach one sentence to the next and one phrase to another are a significant part of the vision of the world underlying the writing of Genesis.  Likewise, subtle shifts in tense and register.  Attempting to catch these modulations of decorum, Alter distinguishes Abraham’s voice from the narrator’s, giving in his translation a much more resonant (and morally complex) beginning: “And Abraham rose from before his dead and he spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a sojourning settler with you.  Grant me a burial holding with you, and let me bury my dead now before me'” (23:3-4).  The subsequent dialogue with the Hittites, Alter suggests, actually presents an exciting and nuanced negotiation over the definition of Abraham’s status (is he “with” them or “among” them?) and over his claim to a “holding.”