Odysseus, the Stranger-subject

Death Mask of Agamemnon

If we look at the first 111 lines of the Odyssey, we are given a few key elements that paint the scene; the invocation of the muse leads directly to the distress of Odysseus’ situation in his journey home—this includes a) the slaughter and feasting of the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun, by Odysseus’ men (10-16); b) a second invocation of the muse (17) indicating that he is now alone, held by the goddess Kalypso (20-22) who wants him “for her own” (25); c) but Odysseus was actually saved by Kalypso (cf. book 5), after he was punished by Poseidon, the only god who does not “pit[y]” Odysseus (31-32); d) yet Poseidon at the moment when the Odyssey begins is currently away (we could say ‘suspended’), enjoying sacrifices on the other side of the world (35-42), and so we hear Athena and Zeus plotting to save Odysseus; e) we are shown that Poseidon is angry because of the blinding of his son, Polyphemous (92-92), which will occupy the first event that Odysseus recounts in book 9 in Phaiacia; f) but Poseidon does not kill him, he merely keeps him adrift at sea, as though to torment him (98-99)…nevertheless, since Poseidon is only “one god” (104), Athena and Zeus decide to send the messenger god to tell Kalypso to “let the steadfast man [Odysseus] depart for home” (111).

But this merely sets the stage in medias res.  The action in ‘real time’ instead begins with Telemachus (his name literally means “far-away fighter”, perhaps an ironic nod to his absent father who left for Troy before Telemachus was born). Athena decides to intervene and tell Telemachus to seek out news of his father. Therefore, Telemachus will be the central character throughout books 1-4.  A perhaps overly simple question at this point presents itself: why does the narrative start with Odysseus’ son, rather than with Odysseus?

It is important to note that Telemachus in a sense is acting as the representative of Odysseus, since, for example, Helen almost immediately recognizes him due to his physiological features when he visits Menelaus’ palace, and this gives her a chance to tell a story about Odysseus disguised in rags, along with the first mention of the Trojan horse (book 4). So the drama of the Odyssey begins with Telemachus because he is caught in an awkward situation—he is held suspended, just like his father, and this suspension is in fact the suspension of sovereignty. Furthermore, for Telemachus, Odysseus is primarily suspended as a father. The suitors are brutally feeding off of his family livelihood, and they are all intent upon taking his father’s place. When Telemachus says to Athena, who is in disguise, “My mother says I am his son; I know not / surely. Who has known his own engendering?” (259-260), he is referring to the fact that for him Odysseus is only a name, a name that does not fill the lack of fatherhood or sovereignty. He has never known his father and has only had to go on faith, fiction and fantasy that the great Odysseus is his father; of course, the other side of the suspension is the fact that he does not know whether or not Odysseus is alive or dead, and it is this search that sends him on his journey. If Odysseus is dead, then supposedly Telemachus will be sovereign—the line will continue, and Telemachus will be formally called something like “Odysseides” or “Odysseidon”, the formal title of “son of Odysseus”, retaining the name of his father.

But Odysseus is held captive, and while he is away from Ithaca, his sovereignty is suspended, and Ithaca remains without a king. His place is vacant—as father, as king, as husband—and is threatened by any one of the suitors. So what does Telemachus search for? He is searching for his father’s name—which is his name, too. After Athena helps him devise a scheme to deal with the suitors and find information about the whereabouts of Odysseus, Telemachus is filled with “new spirit” and “a new dream of his father, clearer now” (370-71). This is why he determines to set off to search, not for Odysseus himself, but for “news” of him—in short, he sets out to search for his name.

“Ulysses and the Sirens”, Herbert James Draper

Now, why is all of this important for Odysseus being a stranger, how does Odysseus’ name start the adventures? As we said, Telemachus is searching for his name, but more fundamentally, Odysseus’ name is the only thing connecting him to his identity, and it is precisely what gets Odysseus in trouble. When Odysseus recounts the story of blinding the Cyclops in book 9, he is telling the tale of what began his wandering. When the Cyclops asks Odysseus his name, he quickly thinks of the clever lie that his name is “Nohbdy” or nobody. In fact, this is not a lie but the truth. Odysseus has become no one: he has become a stranger that has no stable position until he sits back on his throne in Ithaca. In the cave of the Cyclops, he is no one, his sovereignty means nothing, he is a stranger, and he miscalculates that the Cyclops will treat him as a stranger with hospitality. But Odysseus is wrong—the Cyclops doesn’t honor Zeus, but Poseidon, and Poseidon does not have the same views about honoring strangers.

So Odysseus is telling the truth when he says he is nobody. This truth—told as a lie, functioning as a trick—allows him to escape, but Odysseus cannot stop there: he has to step over the line (hubris) and shout out his name to the Cyclops, he has to brag that the great Odysseus bested the Cyclops. What can we make of this? Precisely that Odysseus is not Odysseus until he says his name. Until then, he is the stranger, he is nobody, and this status grants him protection from Zeus. As a universal figure (nobody=anybody), he can blind the Cyclops and no one can be blamed—except the gods, or fate, precisely because the Cyclops acknowledges that his blinding was fulfilled by prophecy. The irony here is that when the Cyclops is told he will be blinded by ‘Odysseus’, he is actually being told that he will be blinded by “he who causes suffering” (a literal translation of Odysseus’ name). In that sense, if he were to tell Poseidon that he suffers because he has been attacked by ‘he who causes pain’, then Poseidon might very well act like his Cyclopean brothers: he would react in confusion, not knowing exactly who is being referred to. But this is where Odysseus goes astray, because he not only indicates to the Cyclops his name “Odysseus”, but also indicates that he is the son of Laertes, king of Ithaca. In that sense, he is no longer a universal figure—‘nobody’ or ‘he who causes pain’—but a singular individual—this is what allows him to be the target of punishment.

It would be fascinating at this point to turn to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic as a means of reading the encounter with the Cyclops. How does the single eye of the Cyclops stop short of the move to self-consciousness by remaining content with the death of the other?


One thought on “Odysseus, the Stranger-subject

  1. Pingback: Homer’s Subtle Platonism: Reason vs. Desire – thehistoryofwesternthought

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