Zachary Mason's remarkable new novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, is based on a grain of fact. Before the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey were crystallized and canonized in the books of Homer sometime in the 8th century B.C., various (and often conflicting) tales of the Trojan War and its heroes had floated around in various forms for hundreds of years. Some of these variants survive in fragments of other ancient works, like ghostly echoes of alternative universes. Mason's intriguing fictional conceit is that he is translating one of these: a "pre-Ptolemaic papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus" which "contains forty-four concise variations on Odysseus's story."
And that is what he proceeds to offer us: 44 chapters, 44 alternative (and conflicting) universes, where some tale of Odysseus -- or, occasionally, the whole arc of his life -- is presented in sharply etched, psychologically penetrating modern prose. (No faux-epic stylizations.) Sometimes there are gods and magic; sometimes Odysseus lives in a world of the grimmest realism.
It's not my intention here to give a literary review of the book. I just wanted to highlight two passages which seem to me to have some particular relevance for our current political situation. Both come from a chapter called "The Iliad of Odysseus." This is the longest chapter in the book, and one of the most "realistic." As Odysseus puts it toward the end of the section: "There are, as far as I have seen, and I have seen much, no gods, no spirits and no such thing as witches, but I seem to be the only one who knows it."
In this chapter, Odysseus begins as a rather soft, dreamy young prince, more given to the songs and stories of the bards than to the role of warrior-king for which his father is rigorously -- and violently -- molding him. In time, the young man learns to fake his way through the role, and when Agamemnon comes calling for troops to take to Troy, Odysseus is given command of Ithaca's armies. An attempt to get out of the war by faking an epileptic fit fails; instead of being rejected as sickly, Odysseus is now considered touched by the gods.
In any case, he goes to war. He avoids combat whenever he can, without losing face, often by following in the wake of the berserking Achilles, and picking off his wounded victims. Achilles is killed after five years, and Odysseus, desperate to end the war, bribes a maid to kill Helen of Troy, in the hope that scotching the cause of the war will bring it to a close. It doesn't; a massive battle ensues in which both sides are almost completely destroyed, Troy is sacked, and only a few Greeks manage to slink away in their boats.
But Odysseus has already walked away in the midst of the battle, and begins wandering down the Ionian coast. He takes on the persona of a bard, singing for his supper. He is skillful, becomes popular, well-paid -- and begins to incorporate tales of the Trojan War into his repertoire: fanciful stories filled with the gods and spirits that he has never seen, with many passages celebrating the great cunning and courage of the warrior Odysseus. After 10 years of enriching himself, he goes home, is greeted with amazement and celebration -- which he finds tedious: "I just wanted it to end so I could spend my remaining years with sword and harp on the wall, making loans at high interest and fathering sons."
The first relevant passage comes early in the chapter, when young Odysseus is still hoping to become a bard, only to be slapped down by his father, who scorned such a lowly fate for his son, insisting instead that he become a warrior:
[My father] and his men would say things like, 'We are here to live the stories, not compose them!' Sing, Muses, of the wrath of god-like shit-for-brains, hereditary lord of the mighty Coprophagoi, who skewered a number of other men with his pig-sticker and valued himself highly for so doing.
(In a handy footnote, Mason reminds us that "Coprophagoi" means "excrement eaters.")
Here we have the essential foundations of militarism, which, along with greed and fearmongering, has become the organizing principle of modern American society. (And innumerable other societies since the days of Troy.) Another passage in the chapter speaks to the guiding mindset of our ruling elites, and their forbears down through the ages:
Many times I was on the verge of just leaving and sailing back to Ithaca. I did not flee only because I would have lost all face with my father and our subjects. As Father and I know, and as we try not to remind them, there is no good reason for our subjects to pay their taxes, row our ships, fight our battles or tip their caps to us other than tradition and the threat of violence (which is implicit, nicely civilised and glossed over in the older, better families like mine). Much as I loathed the war, there was at least the prospect of a tolerable life afterward ... I would rather have died than come down in the world.
And here we have our elites in a nutshell. Their power and privilege -- though real enough in their deadly application-- are, at their core, empty shams, and entirely illegitimate. Arthur Silber wrote eloquently on this theme just a few days ago, in a piece outlining the need -- and great effectiveness -- of non-violent non-cooperation with evil. You should read the whole piece, and follow the links, to get the full scope of the piece, but here is an excerpt:
It is only the slavish obedience to authority, the reluctance and refusal to break the goddamned rules and "cause trouble," that makes the elites and their hold on power possible. Take away that obedience, take away the refusal to deny the legitimacy of the ruling elites and their demands that all the rest of us support them in their rule, and they have nothing. The elites know that; most Americans don't ...
The ruling class is corrupt, immoral, deadly, and entirely illegitimate. Their greatest fear is that you will realize it.My statement that the ruling class has "nothing" if and when a critical number of people refuse to obey (i.e., when they choose non-cooperation) doesn't contradict my observations concerning the weapons our rulers could use against those who don't obey. The "nothing" refers to the ultimate foundation of the elites' power; the weapons they possess represent only one aspect of the day-to-day operations of that power, as terrible as that particular aspect is.
And it cannot be overemphasized that peaceful non-cooperation can be enormously effective against even the most vicious of totalitarian regimes: see here and here for some astonishing and inspiring examples of that effectiveness from fairly recent history. From the first of those links, carefully note this: "[I]n the end almost all Danish Jews escaped unharmed.
"The power of "No" is far, far greater than most people ever permit themselves to understand.
Of course, the matrix of myth, legend and history from which the stories of Odysseus arose has much deeper resonance than the political exigencies -- now lost to us forever -- surrounding the Trojan War. Even at a remove of thousands of years, these tales are still imbued with numinous power, conveying and representing a heightened awareness of many aspects of human reality, states of being by which we are seized, or enlightened, or harrowed, or destroyed, as the ancient heroes were possessed and guided, and often ruined, by the gods.
Odysseus is one of the best representatives of human consciousness, that strange spirit of knowing and confusion that arises from the ever-churning matrix of biological and neurological activity that makes up our physical being. Odysseus the wanderer is a man of many identities, a man of deception and self-deception, of keen insight and rash impulse. Perhaps the most telling of his false personae is the one he used in talking and scheming his way past the Cyclops. My name, he tells the giant, is Nobody (or No Man). He hopes by this to forestall any revenge for blinding the creature, who, when asked who has wounded him so grievously, can only cry, "Nobody! Nobody did this to me!"
Here Odysseus is true to his role as an avatar of consciousness -- both in his attempt to escape responsibility for his actions, and, inadvertently, in revealing the empty core at the center of that furiously firing neurological matrix. Who are you, really? Are you Odysseus, a king, a warrior, an ally, a husband, a son, a wanderer, a killer, a hero? Lay each torn scrap of defining -- and reductive -- identity aside, or have them torn from you by fate, and who are you? "I am Nobody," says the man; I am just this "I am," making himself up as he goes along, in a world of chaos and danger, with the eternal night of death looming at every turn.
All share this condition; there are no elites. No amount of power or privilege can lift you above it, or above another single living soul. We are all wanderers, bound in a universal union of separateness, made bearable and given meaning only by the moments, the numinous moments -- of genuine connection with our fellow wanderers (each locked in the mystery of their own unique, ever-shifting coalescence of neural networks, hormonal flows, memory and perception), of insights and flashes of awareness into some aspect of reality that seize us (through nature, art, books, thought and many other venues) and carry us, for a moment, into a higher, deeper apprehension of being.
As Odysseus learned, you cannot force the gods to give you these moments, you can't call them forth at will. But you can stand ready for them, you can try to stay open to them, to recognize them when they come, and feel their quickening power. And you can strive to make the networks of association that we wanderers form, on large scales and small, to be more conducive to these connections, to foster their occurrence and their recognition, to remember and honor them, and pass on their good effects -- to enhance whatever good that has emerged from the countless millennia of breakage and mutation that have molded, so imperfectly, our human kind.
But we live today in networks given over to death and domination -- rapacious, aggressive, degraded and degrading. Networks which actively, at times gleefully destroy the moments of connection and awareness, and instead seek to impose ever-more reductive and false definitions of reality, which then must be defended with manic ferocity against the mysterious flows and eruptions of being. We are now hurtling a thousand miles an hour in the wrong direction, deeper into death and degradation, which are no longer resisted, or lamented, or regretted, or even debated, but embraced and celebrated, in a sickening inversion of the "civilized values" that our degraded, militarist-corporatist system purports to defend.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in America's current political state, where a warmongering, corporate-coddling political hack who claims the tyrannical power to assassinate anyone on earth or imprison them for life without charges or trial is somehow considered a "progressive," a "liberal," or, god help us, a "socialist" ... while his most vocal and powerful opponents rail against him for not being even more degraded, elitist and death-ridden.
Like Mason's Odysseus, we live in an age where murderous pig-stickers and corporate Coprophagoi demand that we tip our caps to them, sing songs of their goodness and glory, and praise the hideous system they have made. For generations now, we have taught our children that this is the way the world should be, this is the only form of reality -- this crabbed, cruel, diminished, hollowed-out travesty.
The power of "No" that Silber speaks of is the most positive, productive response you can make to such insanity. Saying no to cooperation with evil, in whatever form it takes, on whatever scale -- including the scale of our own chaotic, wandering, mysterious psyches. What we need, desperately, is more and more of the power of No -- and the determination in live in -- and live for -- those moments of connection and awareness that the free flow of being can provide.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on June 1, 2010.