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  • The Narrative "Openings" in the Odyssey
  • Lillian E. Doherty

Opening" is one of those messy terms that mean too many things. This is because it is a metaphor with deep roots in ordinary language: she gave me an opening, opening a can of worms, open hostility, open arms, open mike, open book. Then there are the further nuances created by the opposition between open and closed: openhanded, close-fisted; open-mouthed, closemouthed; open-ended, conclusive. Open and shut case. They blew the case wide open.

So what do I mean by the "openings" in my title? When literary critics try to emulate the so-called hard sciences by limiting the meanings of terms for the sake of precision, we sometimes find ourselves in the situation of Menelaus trying to pin down Proteus. Even ordinary language, as the linguists have taught us, operates according to what we can't help thinking of as the literary principles of metaphor and metonymy. And the literary genres we tend to study positively revel in the layered meanings of language. So rather than limit my definition from the beginning, I have deliberately kept it vague to accommodate a range of observations about the themes and structure of the Odyssey. Later in this paper, I will focus on a more technical sense of the term and explore the implications of one such "opening" in the narrative fabric.

I was emboldened to open up my topic in this way by two specific real-life "openings": a semester of leave in the spring of 2000 and Jack Peradotto's retirement, in honor of which these papers were first composed. No matter how hard one works while on leave, it has a different feel to it because, as we say, "our time is our own." In this sense, it can be seen as a foretaste of retirement, of what we should be able to do when all the pressures of scheduling and earning and credentialing are removed. Of course there is an element of fantasy in this anticipation since other kinds of [End Page 51] realities will certainly encroach on the dream of freedom; yet it is a necessary fantasy and one with real consequences in the ways we think about the world. There is a reason why our word "scholarship" is derived ultimately from , "leisure." So I am grateful to Jack for providing the occasion for these reflections and wish him the prospect of new openings in the days ahead.

In fact Jack has provided more than just the occasion for this talk. Like other contributors to this volume, he has "opened" specific new theoretical vistas on the Odyssey. His book, Man in the Middle Voice, is an exploration of the opposing tendencies in the poem that he calls "centripetal" and "centrifugal"-the first closing down or limiting the play of meaning by invoking the authority of social and divine hierarchies and the "ends" they impose, the second celebrating various forms of escape from these constraints. Jack's emphasis was clearly on the second, on what he called at one point the "relative freedom [of literary narrative] to fashion and entertain alternative versions of 'the world'" (1990.30). Surely freedom, relative though it must be, is one of the things we mean by "opening" and one of the values we associate with this property of a text.

By contrast, my own work on the Odyssey has tended to emphasize the redundancy in its narrative patterns, a redundancy that can be seen as "closing down" certain possibilities and limiting the freedom of both characters and audiences. I have not changed my mind about the ways in which I see the Odyssey as authorizing and even glamorizing certain forms of hierarchy, including gender hierarchy, but perhaps because of the occasion, and inspired by a spark of rebellion against the forces of determinacy, I have chosen to emphasize the openings this time. The fact that the same person can see different and even opposing values in the work at different times is testimony to the active role of the audience in making meaning out of a text-and this activity is in itself one of the most important openings that literature...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6504
Print ISSN
0004-0975
Pages
pp. 51-62
Launched on MUSE
2002-01-01
Open Access
No
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