Thinking through a new Odyssey

This post was written by Roger Macfarlane, Comparative Arts & Letters, Humanities Center Fellow

“This book is really based on the Odyssey. All Roy really wants is to return to a clean home and to a faithful wife.” KUER pitched me this pair of sentences out of the blue when I cranked the ignition and the radio fired up. Skepticism flared up around me. A little curiosity was there, as well. I’ve read and heard such claims so many times. I think I know the Odyssey. That quick claim that some new book was “based on it” did not convince prima facie that would actually be connected profitably to Western literature’s first great travel narrative. Anybody can read the Odyssey into just about any quest, I thought. “So, prove it.” As I pulled into traffic the woman on the radio was discussing characters I’d never heard of — somebodies named Roy and Celestial and … — details from some unidentified novel whose title and author I had missed before climbing in the truck. What was about to happen showed me that Humanities is starting to make me more humane, more tolerant — more tolerable! — and, what’s best, maybe a little more Christian.

Adaptation of classical mythology interests me most of all the aspects of a class I teach regularly, Classical Civilization 241 “Greek and Roman Mythology.” In that class, I began about fifteen years ago to focus students’ writing assignments on adaptations of classical mythology that find us just about anywhere we look. Students are assigned to identify a modern usage of a classical myth and analyze it in a careful, short paper. I started assigning these forays into adaptations of myth, because modern reworkings of classical myths can teach us so much. Myths like the Penelope myth are so good for thinking with. And students’ perspectives are so different from my own. They go into different parts of the world that I can scarcely enter myself. I have learned through this ongoing assignment that are lots of way of looking at the world.

“The main story of the Odyssey is short: a man is abroad for many years… blah blah blah… ” So starts Aristotle (Poetics 17). And I trust most everybody already knows the story. But, adaptations of the great Homeric epic tend to take the “main story” into sometimes unexpected new directions. Honda’s Odyssey, for instance, is a mini-van. (Yes, I knew that.) One myth student’s paper, an especially memorable effort, showed me the rich irony of the automaker’s name for that model:  Put your family in this car and get ready for anything an angered god might throw in your path; fidelity will secure your precarious homecoming!  

More high-brow was another student paper exploring Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. Yet another student probed Anthony Minghella’s cinematic adaptation (2003) of that same novel.

I didn’t know Enda Walsh’s Penelope (2010) until a student found it for me. It’s a drama by an Irish playwright about four “visibly untoned guys in speedos” at a poolside cookout who try to seduce an apparently single woman; she silently puts them off in anticipation of her husband’s expected return.

I have forgotten whether I found Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963) or whether a student first found it for me. (That sentence, read aloud, sounds very ominous.) The cinemaste Jean-Luc Godard built this compelling film around the Odyssey— a couple’s marriage falters as the husband attempts to rewrite the screenplay for a cinematic adaptation of the great epic. The audience learns reasons to despise Hollywood cinema in Godard’s adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel, which itself is a compelling adaptation of Odyssey.

But it was certainly a student who showed me to Ellen McLaughlin’s Penelope (premiered in 2012). The drama is about an ex-husband’s return, a brain-damaged vet from an overseas war, and his wife’s heartwrenching efforts to recognize the man she once loved. My student knew the situation from personal experience, her own husband having returned from a tour of duty a different man. Both Homer’s Odyssey and McLaughlin’s Penelope, she wrote, were giving her the emotional equipment to think through her own situation in Provo in the twenty-first century.

By tasking my students to go explore their world, I have learned much from their insightful reports.

I am engaged by such adaptations of classical mythology. I try to collect them and to analyze them. I try to index them as they are collected in The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts (1993). Indeed, a generous grant from our Humanities Center is helping me learn to do this systematically. I sometimes write about them myself in my Mythmatters blog and pursue ideas to peer-reviewed publication. I especially like working with the Eurydice and Orpheus myth — I’m intrigued by an apparent line running from Ovid to Gluck’s Orfeo to Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and beyond. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, Alain Resnais’ Vous n’avez encore rien vu, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Sarah Ruh’s Eurydice, Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies, Odafe Atogun’s debut novel Taduno’s Song (2017)… and the prospects of exploring truly countless other compelling Orpheus narratives from recent decades convince me that the final word on the adaptation of the Eurydice myth will never be written.

The papers my students write in ClCv 241 has made my journey through that course an odyssey in its own right. But, by definition, all odysseys have their perilous, unpleasant aspects. And, since Joseph Campbell showed narrators that all heroes are essentially manifestations of the same character, analysis of heroic quests sometimes comes to be unwieldy. Accordingly, my students’ papers often argue for the existence of narrative archetypes in places where I strain to see them. “Really?” Must every “man of sorrows” be regarded as “an Odysseus”? And does every obstructed homecoming necessarily derive from Homer’s epic?

Does it really have the Odyssey in it? Or does the narrative only remind you of Odysseus and Penelope? Does Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) really know the Homeric text? Or did the Coen Brothers read the Odyssey into it when they adapted the Sturges film in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)? Does Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982), which a student met at International Cinema, know Homer’s Penelope? Jon Amiel’s Sommersby (1993) may only know Martin Guerre and may not care one wit about my posing a couple of homeric question about his adaptation. I try to keep an open mind about these things, but I often end up doubting that the artist built that narrative or this one “on the myth” through any conscious method. Just because a beholder’s eye beholds Odysseus or Penelope in a strained relationship, or “a capital-O Odyssey” in a storied voyage, my inner skeptic is not always inclined to agree. Cautionary advisement from Wimsatt & Beardsley on the Intentional Fallacy notwithstanding, I have always wanted the artist to tell me directly whether a given myth was underpinning an apparent allusion in the artwork. I was bent on scrutinizing whether or not some adaptations actually “counted.”

I can abbreviate by glossing over the account of my bottoming out. Quickly: I insist (doggedly, at times) for overt acknowledgement of referenced myth in adaptive narratives; but insightful arguments that justify subjective identification of allusions that I didn’t see are becoming more appealing. I can thank a tolerant colleague for steering me to a happier existence.

Dennis Cutchins told me once that my old position was precarious. Dennis really works where I just dabble. He has analyzed the myriad Frankenstein adaptations proliferating in our cultural landscape, and he pulled me up short one day. You’ll be setting yourself up as the mean old guy who passes judgment on what does and what doesn’t count. You’ll be the troll who keeps the bridge. And for a long time I thought I welcomed that arbiter’s role. But Dennis, it has turned out, was right. He was coaxing me toward a position that encourages patient listening to the analysis of others. And I’ve learned something important.

Prophetic instruction advises (e.g. Alma 7:12) that assuming another person’s attitude can lead one to welcome understanding. The Christian is inclined to succor others according to the others’ points of view. More generous acceptance of arguments for finding mythological allusions in sundry narratives has made me a better reader. And I have come to see that there are interesting arguments for receptions of classical mythology that are engaging in their own right. I learn that there are better ways to look at the world.

This insight has come as I’ve grown up in the Humanities. Our discipline is a place where we can learn to see the world through another’s eyes. It is a place where we may learn politely to join conversations already underway. Humanities is a place where I am invited to become more tolerant. Whether or not I become such depends upon me.

Tayari Jones is an accomplished American novelist. Her newest book is called An American Marriage (Algonquin Books, 2018). Its protagonists, I understand (not having read the novel myself), are a couple whose newlywed life is wrecked by his wrongful imprisonment. His uncertain return is problematized in a racially unjust penal system but also in her not unnatural attraction to an available lover at home. All this, I gather, is told in an epistolary narrative that discloses much about a side of real American culture I will likely never know first-hand. Tayari Jones herself was discussing this narrative recently on the radio. I had never heard her voice nor read a single word she has written. When I climbed in my truck and turned the key, she was in the middle of telling her interviewer that her novel about Celestial and Roy was built upon Homer’s Odyssey. Case closed. The artist herself, it turned out, was telling me over the radio that this narrative into an unfamiliar realm is going to be understandable as An Odyssey. Perhaps it’s time for me to open the book and learn something new.


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