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The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey

by Edith Hall

Johns Hopkins University Press, 304 pages, $35

Edith Hall’s The Return of Ulysses is a sweeping tour of almost all one could wish to demonstrate about the spell of Homer. A professor at the University of London, Hall takes the reader through literature, stage performances, musical works, and films”all showing the enduring impact of the Odyssey .

Thus, for example, in the chapter called “Singing Songs,” Hall discusses operatic adaptations, beginning with Monteverdi’s Il Retorno d’Ulisse in Patria from 1640. Fenelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque was adapted and staged in Paris in 1714. One of the most significant events was the 1872 appropriation of Homer by Max Bruch, “who saw the Odyssey as an antidote to the Christian lamentation and the poetic tears of Bach’s cantatas.”

Because of the diversity of characters”the husband, the wife, the son, each with individual tales”the Odyssey allows for more interpretations than the Iliad . On several occasions, for example, Hall invokes Stanisaw Wyspianski, the Polish modernist writer who, in 1907, published a play that focused on the “‘Oedipal’ struggles” between the son and father.

Hall also shows how the Odyssey has inspired works in nonclassical contexts. In the chapter called “Woman’s Work,” for example, Hall discusses The Cry of Winnie Mandela , a book in which Njabulo Ndebele draws a parallel between the wife of the incarcerated black South African leader and Odysseus’ wife. The nineteenth-century Russian writer Gogol saw the Odyssey as a political model for the creation of a new Russia. Similarly, “Jozef Wittlin proposed that Homer could help writers fuse the best of the old ‘humanist’ European epic tradition with values of ‘Young Poland,’ the Modernist literature that sought to forge a Polish cultural identity.”

One cannot overestimate Homer’s influence in education. Hall invokes Andrew Young and Stanley Weyman, who were inspired by Homer and contributed to spreading the image of the Telemachean ideal among young men. James Joyce’s youthful fascination with Charles Lamb’s influential The Adventures of Ulysses (1808) became a cultural episode in its own right.

The Victorians also did their share of remaking Homer: “The public schools’ ideal of competitive athletics, and the celebration of versatility and cunning intelligence required by imperial service, found ideological grounding in the Odyssean hero.” Alexander Pope’s translation was helpful in this respect. His translation “created a restrained, Augustan ideal of male heroism by reducing the tears and emotions displayed by Homer’s men.” Within the context of the British Empire, the cunning Odysseus was particularly suited for the role of a diplomat.

Hall also provides the reader with informative facts. For instance, the capital of Portugal, Lisbon, is a modification of Olissipo or Ulyssipo (Ulysses’ Polis or city). She notes that Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America ”books by the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, which are testimonies to the relevance of Homeric works”are employed in treating the psychological injuries of war veterans.

At times, Hall ventures too far: “Because Plutarch elsewhere protested against excessive cruelty to animals, and offered arguments in support of vegetarianism, this ancient response to the Circe episode [of transforming men into pigs] in the Odyssey became in the early seventeenth century a foundation text in the history of animal rights.” But this is like saying that Homer was a proto-pacifist because he wrote about the horrors of war in his Iliad .

Reading Hall’s book, the reader will be constantly amazed by her erudition”but also irritated by how much she undermines her own case for reading the Odyssey . The book offers no criteria for distinguishing what is culturally significant from what is not. Hall sees nothing inappropriate in writing paragraphs where rappers and Star Trek join Fenelon, Joyce, and Mandela. She moves from deep insights to banalities and even interpretative insanity, in almost a single breath.

That’s partly because Hall, like almost everyone else, has abandoned the distinction between popular culture and high culture. Accordingly, graffiti and the masterpieces are both culture. Here is an example of absurdity to which ideologically driven interpretations can lead. She looks at the lines in Homer (22.446“54) where we are told: “Odysseus himself kept them at it with his commands, so that [the twelve female slaves] were forced to continue the hauling under duress.” Hall remarks: “As Odysseus’ slaves, these women’s vaginas, like the rest of their bodies, belonged exclusively to him. They were committing a crime against his property by letting others use them without his permission.”

This is not an interpretation of a literary text but a reading into it of ideological assumptions that leave a lover of literature breathless. Why not apply the criterion of Penelope’s loyalty to the slaves in their kingdom? Why not assume that Odysseus’ female slaves giving themselves to suitors is an act of disloyalty and sluttishness (Hall uses this word on several occasions)?

Surprisingly enough, her chapter “Sex and Sexuality” is relatively free from feminist theories. It is probably the best chapter in The Return of Ulysses . Yet, committed to the feminist agenda, Hall feels compelled to address the question of the possible female authorship of the Odyssey , invoking two male proponents of the theory: Samuel Butler and William Gladstone.

Hall’s other methodological hero is postcolonialism. Once again, the explanatory power of the theory suffers from the weakness of excessive ideology. Consider Homer’s descriptive passage about the isle of the Cyclops: “The land is not at all bad and could produce every kind of seasonal crop. For there are luxurious irrigated meadowlands along the coast, by the white-topped sea, which would support vines throughout the year. The soil would be easy to plough, and tall ripe crops could always be harvested, for underneath the top soil the earth is very rich. There is also a good natural harbor there.” Hall’s comment is: “When Odysseus describes the Cyclops’ island, he speaks with the discerning eye of the colonist.” Isn’t is simpler to say that it is written with the discerning eye of a farmer?

To turn Odysseus into a colonizer, Hall needs to endow Odysseus with the appropriate kind of consciousness. (There is also a chapter devoted to class consciousness, and its ideological hero is the distinguished leftist historian Sir Moses Finley.) Accordingly, Odysseus must see the inhabitants in this land as fundamentally “different,” or as the “Other.” The land belongs to the most famous Cyclops, Polyphemus. To escape from the island, Odysseus contrives to get Polyphemus drunk and takes out his only eye. Hall points out that Polyphemus cannot handle alcohol, and from this she moves to the fact that the colonizers in North America used to give Indians alcohol, who could not handle it either. On this account, Polyphemus is the “ethnically other.”

Hmm. Let us recall”Polyphemus is a Cyclops, not human. For that matter, the amount of alcohol Polyphemus consumed indicates that he was smashed, not that his suffering resulted from his other metabolism being different from that of Odysseus. Finally, Polyphemus violates the laws of hospitality and eats two of Odysseus’ men a day. Whatever his cyclopean virtues, multicultural dialogue between Polyphemus and the Greeks seems unlikely.

There is a lot to learn from The Return of Ulysses . But Hall’s inclusion of every theory accusing the Greeks of being exploiters, oppressors, and misogynists”like her summoning up the ghosts of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who called the Odyssey “the founding text of imperialism, capitalism, and fascism””is not likely to make new generations fall in love with Homer. After reading Hall’s book, I am convinced more than ever that the reason we still turn to the Odyssey is because of what Matthew Arnold saw in it: It is “eminently noble.”

Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Cartesian Theodicy and, most recently, How to Read Descartes’s Meditations.