Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Book 1: The Oral Tradition

Unfortunately I haven’t gotten through as much reading in the last two days as I would like, but I did manage to finish the first book of The Odyssey today. I flipped through the notes in the edition I own (I have the one translated by Robert Fagles) to refresh my memory.

I think most people who read The Odyssey in high school read a similar version to the one I first read. If you can remember back, its usually an abridged version that focuses solely on Odysseus and his journey back from Troy. It touches on the situation back home in Ithaca and of his son, Telemachus and his wife, Penelope.

That first time I read it, it was simply uninteresting. Yes, the Greek mythology parts of it were interesting, but I didn’t really get into the story. All I could see, as a ninth grader, was that this man was trying to get home and couldn’t.

When I was a freshman in college, I had to take the standard starting English class for all English majors. The first day of class, the professor handed us our syllabus. A few of my friends in the English program had taken the same class in the fall semester and they read some really interesting things. But to my surprise we only had two books to buy for the class: The Odyssey and The Norton Anthology of Classical Literature. So basically we were reading about dead Greeks. I was not so excited.

I was also not excited about my professor. He was probably in his fifties and wore some form of tweed every day. In fact, I think he had about 10 tweed pieces that he rotated so it always looked like he had something different on, but it was just matched differently. He also wore this hat every day that he seemed to set on his head at a jaunty angle. I was positive he wore it solely to look dashing.

He had the class set up so that every Monday we had to write an essay in a blue book, then on Wednesday we had to read them to the class if ours was “chosen.” It was a ridiculous set-up and week after week as my essay was not chosen, I had to listen to some of the most pompous essays ever written.

In addition to all of that, this professor had an irritating way of talking. Besides talking about the things he had accomplished and who he was related to, he had this habit of sucking air in through the corners of his mouth while his lips were pressed close in the middle. It was like he was trying to suck air in but the air was getting stuck on the spit in his cheeks, which rattled and sounded like a noise you shouldn’t make in public.

It was incredibly irritating. Especially when he did it at the end of every sentence.

But, even though I didn’t love the class, I did love the reading. This professor had a way of making it come alive. The first day we read The Odyssey we spent the entire two hour class talking about the opening passage, which I have typed and included here.

“Sing to me man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will-Sing for our time too.”

When you read it in your head, its hard to see the passion and power of these lines. So my professor made us all stand up (the 15 of us still left in the class at this point-the others got out alive) and we recited it in loud voices until he was satisfied we had captured the strength of Homer’s words.

When I went to start it, I had a hard time getting into it. Then I realized that perhaps I needed to remember that lesson, when my tweed coated professor told us that to appreciate The Odyssey which is meant to be recited orally, you needed to give voice to the words and invoke the voices of the muses.

So while I didn’t stand up and proclaim in a loud voice, I stopped and started over, channeling passion into the words in my head. And what do you know, the story came alive. Telemachus and his problems with his mother suitors emerged and Athena’s involvement in getting Telemachus to realize his role as a man seemed clear.

It’s amazing. Whenever I talk about professors I didn’t like, my little tweed fellow was always one that topped the list. But as I finished the first book of The Odyssey I had a shattering revelation.

That crazy man actually taught me something.

1 comment:

  1. It's always the crazy one's that do. I had a professor in law school that I finally understood 4 year AFTER I graduated and started practicing. Suddenly, what he said way back in the first semester of my first year made total sense . . . . go figure.