homer, “the odyssey” (redux)

The Odyssey
(trans. Samuel Butler)

While on a visit home, looking for something to read, I picked up the Great Books edition of Homer, volume IV in that series. This edition of the Great Books of the Western World, edited by Robert Maynard Hutchins and published by the Encyclopæedia Britannica in 1952, was my family’s one real pretension to intellectualism. I am not entirely sure how it got into the house; it was never really read, as, my mother explained, the type was too small to read. It was also vexingly incomplete, as some religion-crazed relative had made off with Volume II of Thomas Aquinas; this bothered me as a youth. I don’t think anyone actually read any of these; I’d periodically pick up one volume or another (“Darwin” or “Swift/Sterne”) with intent, but I don’t remember how far I would get. Looking at the list of authors now, it seems decidedly weird: Plotinus gets a whole volume? Is it really worth reading Lavoisier or Fourier or Faraday now? The English-language novelists are the aforementioned Swift & Sterne, followed by Fielding, then a big jump to land on Melville. The ending sequence, volumes 49 through 54, seems particularly ominous: Darwin, Marx & Engels, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, William James, Freud. Presumably there’s a good history of the Great Books project, though I haven’t seen anything other than Wikipedia’s entry, which points out that ours was the first edition of the em>Great Books of the Western World, and that Sterne and Fielding were dropped in the second.

But picking up Homer, it turned out that the translations are by Samuel Butler, which translation I am interested in because it’s the one Joyce used. It’s a decidedly idiosyncratic translation: most prominently, names are given their Roman rather than Greek version, so Odysseus is Ulysses. It’s also prose. It’s an odd choice for a version to include as one of the Great Books: while it’s eminently readable, Butler’s ideas about Homer and how he should be translated were very much his own, and his introduction and footnotes explain his view that the Odyssey was written by a woman (probably Nausicaa) and point out details in the text that support this view; Butler had first advanced this view in The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897), and came at his translation with an argument, albeit one argued in a way that leaves much to be desired. (This note on III.266 might be taken as typical: “The writer – ever jealous for the honour of women – extenuates Clytemnestra’s guilt as far as possible, and explains it as due to her having been left unprotected, and fallen into the hands of a wicked man.” What’s weirdly interesting about the Great Books edition, however, is that the editors have swept away Butler’s introduction and notes. (An online edition of his translation of the Odyssey is available at the Internet Archive; that edition is undated, but includes the original illustrations.) Not, however, particularly well: consider the start of Book IV, which starts, in Butler’s original, in mid-sentence, the sentence having been started at the end of Book III. While the Great Books Book III ends in a comma (“Now when the sun had set and darkness was over the land,”), Book IV starts, in house style, with a drop-cap, capitalized, of course: “They reached the low lying city of Lacedæmon, where they drove straight to the abode of Menelaus”. The next phrase starts with a bracket: “[and found him in his own house, feasting with his many clansmen”; at the end of the next paragraph, we find the end bracket. No explanation, in the Great Books edition, is given for these brackets; however, turning to the scan in the Internet Archive, we find an interesting note:

The lines which I have enclosed in brackets are evidently an afterthought – added probably by the writer herself – for they evince the same instinctively greater interest in anything that may concern a woman, which is so noticeable throughout the poem. There is no further sign of any special festivities nor of any other guests than Telemachus and Pisistratus . . .

One wonders, really, how many people ever actually read Homer in the Great Books edition: did the editor? (This is also, for what it’s worth, a poorly designed book for reading: so that both the Iliad and the Odyssey can fit in 322 pages, they’re laid out in two columns, and the type is rather small.) Butler’s ghost brackets, for what it’s worth, don’t end in 1952; the online edition at MIT’s Internet Classics Archives also has them and no notes; the Project Gutenberg edition, from 1999, includes Butler’s notes, but in unwieldy fashion (they are numbered, at the end), and, inevitably, a huge number of people have issued cheap print-on-demand & Kindle versions of Butler’s Odyssey; looking inside one revealed it to be lacking notes though it did have brackets, and one assumes that the rest are similar. (My favorite of Amazon’s lot is the nicely titled The Odyssey B utler – one hopes the extra space is significant – a new work by Samuel Butler, unknown, presumably, to him.) One knows, of course, that the people creating these POD and Kindle editions are hacks, if they’re even people at all and not a batch script running on the Gutenberg library; but it’s odd to realize that the editors of the Great Books seem to have also had their hackish tendencies. The reason for the choice of the Butler translation for inclusion is almost certainly not because they thought Butler’s was the best (or because they realized the importance of this translation to Ulysses); rather, Butler’s was probably the most recent translation out of copyright in 1952. I wonder again about the ending sequence of the Great Books: did the Great Books series come to that conclusion because copyright gets in the way? In this edition, Freud is presumably the only author that they would have had to pay for.

What I like about the Butler translation is precisely how idiosyncratic it is: his Nabokovian concern for how Ulysses’ house was laid out led him to include his photographs of houses in Sicily which, he supposed, might be similar to the Greeks’; in his introduction, he apologizes that a man and a dog appear in one of the pictures; this, he says, was “accidental, and was not observed by me till I developed the negative”. Looking at the illustration in question, one notes that there’s also a person in the lower illustration; this person is not apologized for, and one wonders who he might be. But the reader is reassured that they are safely in the hands of a man at least slightly crazy; academic rigor is clearly not what Butler was interested in, which is what makes it more interesting that his would be the translation selected to go into the Great Books. Maybe that’s why Joyce liked him; presumably Butler’s notes had not yet been swept away by the time Joyce read him.

And there is something to be said for Butler’s phrasing, which, while it may not be exact (and may well be distorted) is euphonious, and bits feel familiar to those who know Ulysses. Here, Telemachus explains things to Minerva in Book I:

“My mother,” answered Telemachus, “tells me I am son to Ulysses, but it is a wise child that knows his own father. Would that I were son to one who had grown old upon his own estates, for, since you ask me, there is no more ill-starred man under heaven than he who they tell me is my father.”

No one speaks this way, of course; but it feels right and properly fictional: in Butler’s Odyssey, everyone talks this way. It’s a pre-Raphaelite Homer.

butler’s odyssey

“Then Minerva said, ‘Father, son of Saturn, King of kinds, it served Ægisthus right, and so it would any one else who does as he did; but Ægisthus is neither here nor there; it is for Ulysses that my heart bleeds, when I think of his sufferings in that lonely sea-girt island, far away, poor man, from all his friends. It is an island covered with forest, in the very middle of the sea, and a goddess lives there, daughter of the magician Atlas, who looks after the bottom of the ocean, and carries the great columns that keep heaven and earth asunder. This daughter of Atlas had got hold of poor unhappy Ulysses, and keeps trying by every kind of blandishment to make him forget his home, so that he is tired of life, and thinks of nothing but how he may once more see the smoke of his own chimneys.’ ”

(Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Samuel Butler, book I, lines 44–60.)

homer, “the odyssey”

The Odyssey
(trans. Robert Fagles)

Obviously, I should have read this a long time ago, probably in high school: I remember, very vaguely, extracts from Homer, but nothing in particular; it would have been in an enormous anthology of world literature that I’m sure I’d find deeply, deeply entertaining if I found it again. In Social Studies we were shown the Ray Harryhausen Clash of the Titans (to balance out Ben-Hur, maybe: it was a public school after all). In college, I remember spending a lot of time on translations of the Homeric Hymns in a class on lyric poetry; also, somewhere I learned about Millman Parry and how songs were passed down in the Balkans, but I don’t remember if that actually entailed reading Homer. To a certain extent, it’s a book that you don’t have to read any more because everybody’s already read it for you.

Obviously, Ulysses, but I’m fairly certain that when I first read that I had some sort of crib for what the various sections were referencing. A sound-bite thay periodically bounces through my mind: Jack Palance as the impecunious producer in Godard’s Contempt:

I re-read the Odyssey last night. And I finally found something I’d been looking for a long, long time; something that’s just as indispensable in the movies as it is in real life: poetry.

(Add your own translations into French between phrases for full effect; I couldn’t find the relevant clip on YouTube.) Even Jack Palance has read (re-read) the Odyssey. Fritz Lang’s abortive movie version in that film (most here) looks fantastic: I wonder how much was his idea and how much Godard’s?

What’s surprising about the Odyssey now? First, the structure – it’s not the straightforward picaresque (in the style of, say, Tolkein) that I’d somehow imagined it would be. Everyone knows, of course, that the story starts in medias res; I hadn’t understood what that would mean for the way the book is narrated, the way storytelling jumps back and forth in sequence and the multiple layers of narrators. It’s also surprising how it speeds up and slows down: in Book 12, four seemingly major episodes happen in fast succession (Sirens, Wandering Rocks, Scylla & Charybdis, the Oxen of the Sun). I am, of course, taking my sense of what’s an important episode from the chapters in Ulysses. Of the 24 books, the first 4 are the adventures of Telemachus trying to find his father; the next 8 see Odysseus leave Circe’s island for the land of Nausicaa and the Phaeacians (where he relates his story, much of what we remember about the Odyssey) and then the Phaeacians take him back to Ithaca. The second half of the book (Books 13–24) relate Odysseus’s adventures regaining his throne in Ithaca. It’s surprising how little of the book is concerned with Odysseus’ journey: only a third, really.

Bits of it, of course, seem like anticipatory plagiarism: when Odysseus finds the various sinners (Titytus, Tantalus, Sisyphus) being punished appropriately in the Land of the Dead, it’s almost like the Inferno. (I presume that Dante wouldn’t have read this directly, though I haven’t checked.) The general outline of what happens is familiar, of course; but little of the language is, perhaps because I’m reading Fagles’s translation.

One of the things I find myself focusing on is how people behave – especially in comparison with the insanity of Genesis, which I re-read late last year in Crumb’s edition. Here there are codes in place (which do get broken, of course) but it’s clear that the rules function in an orderly fashion. Cause and effect is operational: if guests, for example, are mistreated, there will be revenge, divine or otherwise. There’s a feeling of civilization that isn’t really there in Genesis. While there are gods, the gods are pointedly not omnipotent: generally, they can only act indirectly. Athena can guide Odysseus, but she can’t stop all of his crew from being killed; there’s a give and take between her power and Poseidon’s.

How human are these characters? We like Odysseus because he’s imperfect: he’s a braggart, and is punished for it, although his crew, of course, is punished far more. Most of Odysseus’s relationships are master/servant: there is a strong hierarchy, and people behave in that manner; the loss of Odysseus’s crew is Odysseus’s loss, not their own. There are values that shape his behavior: home, certainly; duty, hospitality; but we don’t see Odysseus being friends with anyone in this book. Friendship does exist in the book, in the example of Telemachus and Pisistratus, though it’s possible that exists only in the context of battle. Odysseus seems more hero than person. Erich Auerbach points out in Mimesis that Odysseus never seems to change in his twenty years: he wants exactly the same thing at the end that he wanted at the beginning: to Auerbach, the characters of Genesis, who are uniformly beaten down by God, are more realistic.

I don’t love Fagles’s translation (as i didn’t love his translation of the Oresteia, but I’m not entirely sure of the reasons for my dislike. There are occasional infelicities in the translation. Odysseus narrates: “But now I cleared my mind of Circe’s orders— / cramping my style, urging me not to arm at all. / I donned my heroic armor . . .” (12.245-247) That “donned”, slightly archaic sounding, and the epithet “heroic armor” set off how strange “cramping my style” is here: it’s too James Dean, and that’s not how Odysseus should be. (Or, if he is, he should be consistent: then “donned” stands out.) Odysseus tells Polyphemus that his name is “Nobody”; again, this seems a little too colloquial. Certainly this is a readable translation; maybe it’s just not the translation for my ear. Ian MacKellen reads the audiobook version of it: he sounds entirely appropriate, but I don’t know if he fits my idea of ancient Greek. Maybe I’m at fault.

Bits of the language can’t help but stand out, regardless of the translation. Here, for example, Odysseus and Telemachus are reunited:

They cried out, shrilling cries, pulsing sharper
than birds of prey – eagles, vultures with hooked claws –
when farmers plunder their nest of young too young to fly. (16.246–248)

Again, I don’t love the phrasing of these lines in English (“young too young” seems off to my ear) but the metaphor still surprises. The present-day reader realizes how different Homer’s world must have been if such a comparison could be made: why, one wonders, would farmers have been doing that? Were the eagles and vultures eating their livestock? Later, we hear about eagles eating geese; and we remember that it was only in the mid-twentieth century that farmers stopped shooting birds of prey. Or are the farmers stealing chicks for falconry? Why must they be too young to fly? There’s a distance here between us and the text that we can’t entirely get around.

Hugh Kenner points out that Joyce got many of his ideas about the Odyssey from Samuel Butler’s translation, which is online; Butler, for example, uses Roman names rather than Greek names, and has Telemachus living in a tower. His Authoress of the Odyssey is online, as is his translation; primarily interesting that are the introduction, illustrations, and notes, which seem to be lost in many of the online editions of that. (The Gutenberg edition, from which many editions have been made, is something of a disgrace, full of “[Greek]” where there should be Greek text; also page references are useless, and illustrations are lost.) Maybe I’ll look at those next.