Peter Green

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An Odyssey: A Fa­ther, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Men­del­sohn

An Odyssey: A Fa­ther, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Men­del­sohn. Knopf, 306 pp., $26.95

In Jan­uary 2011, just be­fore the be­gin­ning of the spring se­mes­ter, Daniel Men­del­sohn—well known to read­ers of The New York Re­view and a pro­fes­sor of clas­sics at Bard Col­lege—was ap­proached by his eighty-one-year-old fa­ther, a re­tired re­search math­e­ma­ti­cian and in­struc­tor in com­puter sci­ence. Could he, Jay Men­del­sohn asked his son, “for rea­sons,” Daniel writes, “I thought I un­der­stood at the time,” sit in on his an­nual fresh­man sem­i­nar on Homer’s Odyssey? Ner­vously, Daniel wel­comed this un­ex­pected au­di­tor, be­liev­ing, as he was as­sured, that the old man would be happy just lis­ten­ing. Be­fore the first ses­sion was over he had re­al­ized his mis­take and was think­ing: This is go­ing to be a night­mare. In fact the pa­ter­nally aug­mented sem­i­nar, and the Odyssey-re­lated Mediter­ranean cruise that fa­ther and son took shortly af­ter it, turned out to be an un­ex­pected, and re­veal­ing, suc­cess. In par­tic­u­lar, they stim­u­lated ex­plo­ration, via Homer, of the time­less el­e­ments of fam­ily re­la­tion­ships down through the gen­er­a­tions.

About a year af­ter the sem­i­nar, Jay Men­del­sohn suf­fered the fall that un­ex­pect­edly led to his fi­nal ill­ness. The un­usual, and un­usu­ally com­plex, na­ture of the book be­fore us is pre­viewed, and ex­plained, in a med­i­ta­tion that its author re­counts in its early pages of watch­ing over his un­con­scious fa­ther, “as im­per­turbable as a dead pharaoh in his ban­dages,” in the lo­cal hos­pi­tal’s in­ten­sive care unit:

But we had had our odyssey—had jour­neyed to­gether, so to speak, through this text over the course of a se­mes­ter, a text that to me, as I sat there look­ing at the mo­tion­less fig­ure of my fa­ther, seemed more and more to be about the present than about the past. It is a story, af­ter all, about strange and com­pli­cated families, in­deed about two grand­fa­thers—the ma­ter­nal one ec­cen­tric, gar­ru­lous, a trick­ster with­out peer, the other, the fa­ther of the fa­ther, tac­i­turn and stub­born; about a long mar­riage and short dal­liances, about a hus­band who trav­els far and a wife who stays be­hind, as rooted to her house as a tree is to the earth; about a son who for a long time is un­rec­og­nized by and un­rec­og­niz­able to his fa­ther, un­til late, very late, when they join to­gether for a great ad­ven­ture; a story, in its fi­nal mo­ments, about a man in the mid­dle of his life, a man who is, we must re­mem­ber, a son as well as a fa­ther, and who at the end of this story falls down and weeps be­cause he has con­fronted the spec­ta­cle of his fa­ther’s old age.

The sight of his in­firm fa­ther is so over­whelm­ing to Odysseus that he, a con­gen­i­tal liar and ex­pert sto­ry­teller, aban­dons his ma­nip­u­la­tive tales and “has, in the end, to tell the truth. Such is the Odyssey, which my fa­ther de­cided he wanted to study with me a few years ago; such is Odysseus, the hero in whose foot­steps we once trav­elled.” What are we to make of this re­mark­able dec­la­ra­tion? In the first in­stance, ob­vi­ously, that any­one em­bark­ing upon this fas­ci­nat­ing book would be well ad­vised to read, or reread, the Odyssey first, since Men­del­sohn’s ex­plo­ration is at least as much a per­sonal fam­ily mem­oir as a crit­i­cal re­port on Homer’s epic, and the two facets of the book are by no means al­ways re­lated, de­spite the sur­pris­ing ways they fre­quently il­lu­mi­nate each other. But we have here also, un­der­stand­ably, a par­tial and se­lec­tive read­ing of Homer that con­cen­trates on fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ships above all else, some­times sees these in a way that may sur­prise the ex­perts (for ex­am­ple the de­scrip­tion above of Odysseus’s re­union with his fa­ther, Laertes—what’s the point, now the suit­ors are dead, of yet an­other otiose cover story, not least one caus­ing un­called-for distress?), and at­tributes to the an­cient text il­lu­mi­na­tions that more plau­si­bly de­rive from mod­ern re­flec­tion.

Daniel, as his med­i­ta­tion makes very clear, this time around is not only teach­ing the Odyssey but us­ing it as a psy­cho­log­i­cal key to un­lock the per­son­al­ity of a fa­ther he feels he has never re­ally un­der­stood: this odyssey only makes sense as a quest for emo­tional un­der­stand­ing. We can see how the al­leged par­al­lels as­sist him, but we also can’t help notic­ing how the dis­cov­er­ies he makes and mys­ter­ies he solves emerge not from Homer, but rather from his per­sis­tent ques­tion­ing of his own fam­ily—var­i­ous Men­del­sohn un­cles, cousins, broth­ers, and close ac­quain­tances.

Thus we learn a good deal about the mem­bers of the ex­ten­sive and tightly woven Men­del­sohn clan, and in the process one or two strik­ing Homeric like­nesses are in­deed es­tab­lished, most par­tic­u­larly that of Daniel’s ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, who is re­mem­bered as vain, talk­a­tive, and a great trick­ster, and had four mar­riages but only one son: the alert Homerist will at once be re­minded of Odysseus’s ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther Au­toly­cus, and the re­peated one-son pat­tern of Odysseus’s own fam­ily. Jay him­self comes across ini­tially—as he has long seemed to his son—as an im­pa­tient man of dog­matic opin­ions that too fre­quently re­call the clichés of his pro­fes­sional class and gen­er­a­tion. He be­lieves in firm def­i­ni­tions (“x is x,” “Only sci­ence is sci­ence”) and the virtues of hard work, the more dif­fi­cult the bet­ter; he’s sus­pi­cious of emo­tion­al­ism. He and his de­voted wife, Mar­lene—house­bound, but witty, cheer­ful, fun-lov­ing, ex­tro­vert: a fine teacher, and this book’s ded­i­ca­tee—are clas­sic op­po­sites in all re­spects, an ar­range­ment that seems to work well.

Like the va­grant Odysseus, Jay has a large, bald cra­nium (to the young Daniel he seemed “all head”). On his trips to Bard he sleeps on the nar­row bed that he had, years ear­lier, car­pen­tered for Daniel af­ter he out­grew his crib; it had been dou­bling as a sofa in Daniel’s study. Fa­ther and son, like Odysseus and Pene­lope, share a bed se­cret: just as Odysseus built their bed around a bed­post made from an im­mov­able vine, so Jay had made Daniel’s bed from a door. Daniel, who has no real grasp of math­e­mat­ics, ap­pre­ci­ates, but is ner­vous about, his fa­ther’s dic­tates: “It’s im­pos­si­ble to see the world clearly if you don’t know cal­cu­lus.” Yet Jay, who gave up Latin as a school­boy, does, grum­blingly, take note of his son’s re­sponse: nei­ther can you see the world clearly with­out know­ing the Aeneid. In con­se­quence fa­ther and son come ap­pre­cia­bly closer by tack­ling bits of Vir­gil to­gether over the phone. As the Latin fi­nally gets too dif­fi­cult for Jay, he dis­arms his son by say­ing: “It’s okay. Now you’ll read it for me.” And hard as Jay may be, no one could have been more un­der­stand­ing when, as a con­fused ado­les­cent, Daniel came out to him as gay.

The sem­i­nar, of course, has a wider reach than the Men­del­sohn fam­ily, so as we en­ter the class­room the fo­cus broad­ens. We are al­ways con­scious of Jay, small, bald, qui­etly ag­gres­sive, week af­ter week in the same seat by the win­dow, a lit­tle apart from the rest, com­ing out with some ar­rest­ing and es­sen­tially non­lit­er­ary com­ment: apro­pos Odysseus and Pene­lope’s mar­riage, on the shared “lit­tle things that no­body else knows about”; on Telemachus, “He proves he’s a grownup by tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity”; and, most un­for­get­tably, on Achilles’s con­fes­sion in the Un­der­world—a com­plete nega­tion of his Iliadic so­cial code—that he’d rather be a liv­ing hired field hand than rule as king of the dead: “It re­veals that you can spend your whole life be­liev­ing in some­thing, and then you get to a point when you re­al­ize you were wrong about the whole thing.”

Like most read­ers, Men­del­sohn’s stu­dents, and his fa­ther, are puz­zled by a work that presents its pre­sump­tive hero at the out­set only briefly, off­stage, as a cast­away on a re­mote is­land. The vic­tim of the an­gry Po­sei­don, Odysseus is res­cued by a sexy nymph: af­ter liv­ing with her for seven years, he is now mis­er­ably yearn­ing for wife and home but seems in­ca­pable of do­ing any­thing about it. He’s lost all his men and ships, Jay keeps com­plain­ing; he cheats on his wife. What kind of a hero is that? Fur­ther, he is left there in limbo un­til Book 5, await­ing the gods’ de­ci­sion to bring him back.

Books 1 and 2 de­scribe, in ar­rest­ing de­tail, the sit­u­a­tion in his is­land king­dom of Ithaca: lo­cal govern­ment is in col­lapse, while a bunch of young aris­to­cratic hooli­gans, con­vinced that the long-ab­sent King Odysseus is dead, have in­vaded his house (on the ex­cuse of court­ing his pre­sumed widow, Pene­lope) and are liv­ing ri­otously, con­sum­ing his goods and swill­ing his wine. There is, clearly, not much that Pene­lope and her near-adult son, Telemachus, can do about the sit­u­a­tion. Men­del­sohn’s stu­dents don’t get a chance to an­a­lyze Homer’s sharp-edged por­trayal of a so­ci­ety en­dur­ing the pro­longed ab­sence of its lead­ers dur­ing a for­eign war, since they are be­ing treated to a lec­ture on the Homeric ques­tion: Were the two epics at­trib­uted to Homer the work of a sin­gle per­son, or did they evolve orally through many bards, by a process de­scribed by Men­del­sohn as com­po­si­tion-in-per­for­mance?

These stu­dents also, un­der­stand­ably in view of their age, seem a lit­tle shy on the sub­ject of Telemachus’s “ado­les­cent os­cil­la­tion be­tween awk­ward­ness and brag­gado­cio,” his bursts of rude­ness to his mother (he clearly finds her

un­washed and un­laun­dered state of mourn­ing dis­taste­ful), and his tear­ful ag­gres­sive­ness in con­fronting the suit­ors. But they emerge as shrewdly per­cep­tive when it comes to Books 3 and 4, which de­scribe Telemachus’s vis­its to Py­los and Sparta seek­ing news of his fa­ther. As they see at once, the so­ci­eties of both Nestor and of Menelaus and He­len—peace­ful, set­tled, ob­serv­ing re­li­gious and do­mes­tic cus­toms—are drawn in de­lib­er­ate con­trast to the an­ar­chic con­di­tions that Telemachus has left be­hind in Ithaca.

By now, how­ever, we also have to con­sider the nu­mer­ous divine in­tru­sions into the story by the god­dess Athena, who not only sends Telemachus off on a jour­ney in search of his fa­ther—even as­sum­ing his like­ness to or­ga­nize his depar­ture—but again and again in­ter­venes to help both fa­ther and son (Odysseus is her par­tic­u­lar fa­vorite) in mo­ments of cri­sis. It is hard not to sym­pa­thize with Jay’s re­it­er­ated com­plaint that Telemachus and Odysseus are just fol­low­ing or­ders, that the gods do ev­ery­thing for them, that life isn’t like that.

When Odysseus fi­nally re­turns to Ithaca, the sem­i­nar be­comes pre­oc­cu­pied with the lit­er­ary propo­si­tion that he needs to be alone to be a proper hero. There is also the ques­tion of whether a real hero can cry. This misses the force­ful dis­play of Odysseus’s physique, prow­ess, and se­duc­tive mas­culin­ity, which are stressed from the first mo­ment of his ap­pear­ance in Book 5. He fells twenty trees, builds a raft in four days, and steers it ef­fec­tively by the stars. All his helpers—Ca­lypso, Athena, the sea-nymph Ino, the Phaea­cian princess, Nau­si­caa, and fi­nally Nau­si­caa’s mother, Queen Arêtê—are fe­male. He ap­pears in front of Nau­si­caa and her hand­maid­ens like a moun­tain lion, naked ex­cept for a leafy branch, and the verb that de­scribes his “min­gling” with them, mix­esthai, is also a term for sex­ual in­ter­course. Tact­ful, clever, and pre­pos­sess­ing, he has not been talk­ing to Nau­si­caa’s fa­ther, King Al­cinöos, for five min­utes be­fore the king de­clares he would fancy him as a son-in-law. The help­less cast­away has been neatly trans­formed into a prize catch—a hero in­deed.

Men­del­sohn dis­cour­ages his stu­dents, on lit­er­ary grounds, from ar­gu­ing that the off-the-map wan­der­ings with which Odysseus re­gales his Phaea­cian hosts (his so­journs among the Sirens, Scylla and Charyb­dis, the Lo­tus-Eaters, Circe, and so on) are imag­i­nary. As Daniel’s old teacher Jenny Strauss Clay—con­sulted on this point—re­minds him, Circe is men­tioned, by the nar­ra­tor, i.e., Homer, as hav­ing taught Odysseus a spe­cial knot: ergo, she, and ev­ery­thing con­nected to her, must be re­garded, for the Odyssey, as real, not fic­tional. But Odysseus does fre­quently tell fic­ti­tious sto­ries about him­self (of­ten pos­ing as a Cre­tan, which re­minds us, with mis­chievous in­tent, of the old say­ing that all Cre­tans are liars). Fur­ther­more our Odyssey was put to­gether in a pe­riod, the sev­enth cen­tury BCE, that saw not only the ex­pan­sion of phys­i­cal hori­zons, through com­merce and ex­plo­ration, but also the dawn of sci­en­tific ra­tio­nal­ism. The old myth­i­cal frontiers of the Mediter­ranean—in­clud­ing the en­cir­cling Ocean and the Un­der­world— were ev­ery­where be­ing chal­lenged, and an en­tire fab­ric of be­lief with them. When be­yond-the-hori­zon myths like those of the Sirens or the Wan­der­ing Rocks were be­ing sup­planted by less col­or­ful ge­o­graph­i­cal fact, it is quite pos­si­ble that our com­poser hedged bets on the au­then­tic­ity of such tales by hav­ing Odysseus, their self-pro­claimed pro­tag­o­nist, nar­rate them, leav­ing ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing the Phaea­cians, to de­cide for them­selves whether he was telling the truth or, as so of­ten, fab­ri­cat­ing a tall tale for the plea­sure of it.

This kind of his­tor­i­cally con­scious scru­tiny is not what we get in Men­del­sohn’s sem­i­nar, which cov­ers ground fa­mil­iar to all teach­ers and col­lege fresh­men. Be­yond dis­cus­sion of the Homeric ques­tion, the class does not, for in­stance, take up is­sues of trans­mis­sion and sourc­ing for the three-thou­sand-year-old text as it is parsed and an­a­lyzed to es­tab­lish char­ac­ter and mo­ti­va­tion. Dif­fer­ences from mod­ern think­ing are noted. Time­less sim­i­lar­i­ties, not least of psy­chol­ogy and be­hav­ior, are weighed as proof of great­ness. In the hands of a clever and imag­i­na­tive teacher, as here, the method has con­sid­er­able merit, even though by its very na­ture it tends (as, again, here) to ig­nore im­prob­a­bil­i­ties of plot, of which the Odyssey con­tains sev­eral par­tic­u­larly egre­gious ex­am­ples. How can Odysseus kill, al­most sin­gle-handed, over a hun­dred suit­ors? (An­swer: orig­i­nally, there seem to have been only a dozen.) And why does Menelaus have to wan­der around the east­ern Mediter­ranean for seven or eight years af­ter the war? (An­swer: in or­der to avoid get­ting home be­fore the mur­der of his brother Agamem­non is avenged by the lat­ter’s son, Orestes; oth­er­wise ev­ery­one would won­der why Menelaus hadn’t done the job him­self.)

The Odyssey cruise, wished on Men­delssohn and his fa­ther by an­other of his for­mer teach­ers, Froma Zeitlin, paid off in sur­pris­ing ways, de­spite the fact that the Si­cil­ian and Ital­ian sites vis­ited were mostly the im­prob­a­ble sug­ges­tions of Greco-Ro­man sa­vants des­per­ate to main­tain that the myths re­told by Odysseus had a solid fac­tual ori­gin. Though Jay be­gins as ex­pected, ready for a se­ri­ous ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence backed up by the ac­tual Homeric lo­ca­tions, he finds the sites dis­ap­point­ing (at Troy he de­cides that “the poem feels more real than the ru­ins”) and, to his son’s as­ton­ish­ment, mel­lows so­cially at sea, singing old songs from the 1930s and mak­ing un­likely friends over the mar­ti­nis. All this leads Daniel to won­der—hav­ing al­ready been taken aback to learn, post-sem­i­nar, from his stu­dents how much they’d been en­joy­ing Jay’s com­pany on their train jour­neys home—“How many sides did my fa­ther ac­tu­ally have, and which was the ‘real’ one?” What most moves Men­del­sohn at the end of the Odyssey is the im­age of son, fa­ther, and grand­fa­ther stand­ing tri­umphantly to­gether, the suit­ors slaugh­tered, present and past “jux­ta­posed in a sin­gle cli­mac­tic mo­ment.” The en­light­en­ment he gains of­ten comes not di­rectly, but by as­so­cia­tive sug­ges­tion, re­flect­ing on “long jour­neys and long mar­riages and what it means to yearn for home.” Jay’s blunt­ness and in­flex­i­bil­ity, we come to see, con­ceal anx­i­eties and sym­pa­thies as well as en­dur­ing (though sec­u­lar) Jewish prin­ci­ples. His pas­sion for ed­u­ca­tion and hard work, his ap­pre­ci­a­tion for so­lid­ity and au­then­tic­ity, are just those qual­i­ties that led his son to pur­sue the rig­ors of clas­si­cal philol­ogy. Yet for what­ever rea­sons—sev­eral are sug­gested—some­how Jay never com­pleted, and in­deed may never have be­gun, his Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion in math­e­mat­ics, and a strong rec­om­men­da­tion from his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer that he go to West Point and train as an of­fi­cer came to noth­ing. Some hu­man mys­ter­ies never get solved.

There are many mo­ments to cher­ish in this tan­gled and pas­sion­ate in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The dis­cus­sion of the Odyssey, if nar­row in some re­spects, sparkles, and the sem­i­nar was lucky in its stu­dents. (I shall not for­get in a hurry the sug­ges­tion of one that Telemachus may un­con­sciously hope that his longab­sent fa­ther is dead, since be­ing ex­pected to love a liv­ing stranger would be tougher than con­tin­u­ing to mourn a dead one.) It was a sym­bol­i­cally happy ac­ci­dent—the tem­po­rary clos­ing of the Corinth Canal—that pre­vented the cruise from ever reach­ing the is­land that may or may not be Ithaca. This left a whole day with­out instruction. The cap­tain, re­call­ing that Men­del­sohn had trans­lated C. P. Cavafy’s marvelous poem on the value of not hur­ry­ing to reach Ithaca—a poem made fa­mous by its recital at the fu­neral of Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis—per­suaded him to fill in with a read­ing of the poem and a lec­ture on Cavafy. He did, with much of Ten­nyson’s “Ulysses” as well as Cavafy, and we get a haunt­ing glimpse of it here: the fear that the end of your jour­ney means fi­nis, the hope resid­ual in per­pet­ual post­pone­ment, in “the virtues of not ar­riv­ing.”

But best of all are the var­i­ous small recog­ni­tions that com­bine to build the late-blos­som­ing in­ti­macy be­tween Jay and his son. Of these the most in­tensely mov­ing for me was the mo­ment on the cruise at which Daniel, who suf­fers from in­tense claus­tro­pho­bia, hys­ter­i­cally re­fuses to go into an Ital­ian cave (al­legedly that of the se­duc­tress Ca­lypso). Jay takes him gen­tly by the hand and not only walks him through what he most fears (“You did good, Dan”) but after­ward tact­fully ex­plains to other trav­el­ers that his son was help­ing him man­age the steep stairs. We re­call what he said to his wife when Daniel con­fessed to be­ing gay: Let me talk to him, I know some­thing about this. De­spite his em­bar­rass­ing ta­ble man­ners and de­fen­sively ob­sti­nate dec­la­ra­tions, this is far from the only mat­ter of real im­por­tance that Jay Men­del­sohn knew some­thing about. We should all be so lucky as to have had a fa­ther like that; and now we can en­joy his son’s hon­est, and lov­ing, ac­count of the im­prob­a­ble odyssey that gave them this one last deeply sat­is­fy­ing ad­ven­ture to­gether.

Jay & Daniel Men­del­sohn

Pene­lope’s suit­ors; en­grav­ing of a draw­ing by John Flax­man

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