Monday, August 13, 2018

Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey uses beautiful poetry to reveal the moral failings of Odysseus (Book Review)

I had never read The Odyssey, the Homeric Greek epic detailing Odysseus' travels back to Ithaca from the Trojan War. In my college classics class I read the Aeneid instead and honestly, even though I knew a few stories from The Odyssey (the sirens, the cyclops), I just wasn't that interested. What changed was an article about Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey. It was about a year and a half ago (I ultimately got the book for Christmas 2017 and just read it now) that I read about Emily Wilson being the first female translator of The Odyssey into English and that her translation was supposedly an attempt to render the text in a way that captured more of the nuance of Greek meaning with less  white, European, maleness plastered on top as had been the norm for several thousands of years worth of translations.

That alone would probably have been enough to pique my interest, however, in the article (lost to me now, probably in Smithsonian magazine or maybe this one at Vox), they quoted her translation of the first line: "Tell me about a complicated man." And proceeded to discuss just how startling a change that was from prior translations. Not only would this be perhaps a more balanced, maybe faithful (maybe not) translation, but it would also contain something of nuance that was missing from many others.

I didn't know much, certainly not what I know now, about Odysseus, but it is clear that not only was he a complicated man, but that he was living in a time whose norms of behavior present significant challenges for us now when deciding just how to represent this epic and whether it still holds value. Is it considered a classic simply because it is old? Is it a classic because there are values within it that we still want to cherish (perhaps much much less so in this translation)? Is it a classic because of its beautiful writing (perhaps much much more so in her translation)? Should its revered place in the cannon of western literature be rethought in light of modern values (probably, along with many other traditional works of literature we foist on our children in school rather than the providing them access to the rich and varied literature of a wider human diaspora that is out there)?

The easy part of this review, then, is discussing the translation itself. What Emily Wilson has accomplished is breathtaking. She has chosen to translate The Odyssey into Iambic Pentameter, perhaps best known as the rhythm of Shakespeare. This was a brilliant decision for at least two reasons: 1) it is a lyrical meter without being sentimental, and 2) it is a comfortable meter for many in the western audience who would be familiar with Shakespeare's rhythms and the unrhymed verse as well as far less comfortable reading something in the original dactylic hexameter. Readers are transported into a literate and artful mindset simply through the meter thus reducing the need for the words themselves to provoke that framework in the reader.

But her verse goes far beyond the meter. Her language is clear, simple (without being simplistic), and direct so that the reader never has to search for meaning in such a way as to break the narrative or emotional power of the scene. Nor does she add any artifice or affectation in order to "make" it seem more epic or grand; it does not need that, as a world-and-heavens spanning saga filled with gods and monsters (and men who are monstrous) it is epic in scope and story.

Perhaps the highest height of poetry is when the words disappear and are effortless in the beauty of their choosing and Emily Wilson's text does this magnificently. Does she write poetry for fun? I'd be curious to see her original works if she does, because to accomplish this translation, she would have to have an artist's soul. This is not a dry and academic translation, nor as said before, is it one of unnecessary flourishes. Let me be clear then, it is worth reading if for no other reason than the joy of reading beautiful text. That is often my reason for loving a book, when I love the author's prose. Emily Wilson has done that with a stale old Greek epic and it deserves to be the translation people read if they decide the tale is worth their time (for a good additional look at her textual decisions,go here).

And therein is the challenge, the complexity, of The Odyssey. Probably no clearer before than in her new version, Odysseus is an asshole. Not because she makes him out to be, not because she warps her text or the stories narrative to frame him as such. But because of her clear and plain (but beautiful) words, it becomes painfully obvious that Odysseus's actions do not deserve our adulation or our emulation.

He is not a hero, although he has been praised as such for thousands of years. He is a man who filled with greed and hubris and privilege and self-import makes dozens upon dozens of terrible decisions, decisions for which so many others lose their lives (I'm thinking of all his poor men), and in the end, although he doesn't have it easy, he still comes out alive, married, wealthy, and in power. What should we make of someone who exemplifies every basic fault of decency and yet has thousands of years of hero-worship venerating him? Yes indeed, this is the story of a complicated man and our complicated values for men.

This was The Odyssey I didn't know. I knew he lashed himself to the ship's mast so the sirens couldn't tempt him. I didn't know it was done so that he didn't have to put wax in his ears like his crew. Why didn't he? Because he is deemed "special" and so the gods allow him to hear the sirens beautiful song even though his crew is not special enough to be given that opportunity.

I knew of his daring escape from the cyclops by hiding under the bellies of sheep, but I did not know that he didn't have any need to get his men eaten by the cyclops in the first-place. Had he not been so hell-bent on proving his manhood by looking for treasure and boasting of protection by the gods those men would be alive.

What about the Odysseus who spent years with two different divine women, clearly sleeping with them the whole time, instead of more fervently attempting to return to his wife? Why doesn't anyone fault his infidelity when, as we will discuss later, women are held to a far different standard? What about the Odysseus who makes mention of sacking various towns along his early route home, including raping and murdering the women, simply to gain more treasure to bring back to his already heaping piles (piles that sustain multitudes of lascivious suitors for 20 years)? It is presented in the epic as if this were: a) a norm and b) something praiseworthy. Yes, the rape, slaughter, and robbery of innocent civilians as a basis for Odysseus legendary status in his time and ours says a lot.

Then, there are all the various missions, excursions, and other dangers he puts his men through on the return trip. These are undertaken only because Odysseus is there, only because he is deemed special, but because he is cursed to suffer every one of his men must die on his account. Why is he so special that others must die so that only he may make it home?

I would be remise to not discuss the famous scene where, upon finally returning to Ithaca, he, his son, and two farm-hands kill the suitors who have squandered his wealth while trying to marry his wife. I certainly am not a fan of ruthless murder, but perhaps I can forgive it in the context of a thousands of years old story if those were the traditional criminal penalties for what the suitors had done. However, it is made plainly clear by Odysseus himself that what he did was wrong and that he must flee for his life for having committed those murders. Only the intervention of Zues, himself, reconciles the Ithacans to allow Odysseus to live, and remain their king. He is allowed a free pass for his murderous, illegal act, because he is "exceptional."

But of course, no one mourns the slave women he slaughters. It is unclear, as it is described in different language at different parts of Emily Wilson's text, whether the women have slept willingly or were raped by the suitors, but either way, Odysseus has them summarily executed by hanging and everyone is okay with this, men and women alike.

There are many situations in life where  we could take an historical/cultural lens to understand the context of one's actions, however we need not take that lens in order to excuse them and champion this person now. So while murdering rich men was wrong, murdering enslaved women was apparently not. By continually perpetuating the belief that Odysseus is one of "our" great heroes, we are sanctioning his actions as emblematic of heroism. I see no need to continue to reinforce that viewpoint. Odysseus is an asshole, a misogynist, and frankly, with the lies, warped beliefs about himself, nationalism and other horrible characteristics, reminds me much more of a certain, sick, current US president than any hero I can think of.

And so this complicated man, if we are to continue using The Odysssey as a foundational text in western literature, must be presented as such in our discourse. He should not be studied uncritically, or the textual qualities of the writing be divorced from his actions and the plot. He is not a hero and never was one. He is a rich, spoiled, privileged, misogynistic, boastful, lying, murderer.

What value then does The Odyssey have if we view its main character through that lens? Well, we thankfully have Emily Wilson's beautiful poetry. Without that, I really would have been happy to have never read The Odyssey.  Now, I must reconcile a new complication (Thanks, Emily!), what to do with a beautifully written text with a problematic (and unlikable) lead character and (both stupid and horrid) plot that weaves a story with no sound moral compass, thus leaving me unfulfilled from a narrative standpoint? (Go here for a good conversation with Emily Wilson about her views on Penelope as less of a feminist icon than we might hope for).

Emily Wilson's translation is an easy 9/10, however, the story is a clear 3/10 ("unacceptable moral content") and so rendering an overall rating of this work is nearly impossible. You'll need to decide where you place your value as a reader in order to evaluate whether you should read this or not: on beautiful text and writing or narrative engagement and value-alignment within a story. I'm glad I read it if only for her poetry, the only uncomplicated thing about this very complicated epic.


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