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The Veteran and Mediations of War

From: Intertexts
Volume 16, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 67-80 | 10.1353/itx.2012.0002

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The eloquent name of Odysseus tells us more about the veteran of war than we may want to know. Without recourse to a footnote, the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald captures its word play in the story in Book 19 of the Odyssey of how he was named by his grandfather Autolycus. By some accounts Autolycus’ own father was Hermes and he inherited such paternal skills as theft and trickery to pass along to his grandson. “Autolycus” can be translated as “Lone Wolf ” and his grandson’s name promises a chip off the old block.

My hand has been against the world of men and women;
odium and distrust I’ve won. Odysseus should be his given name.

If OD-ium and DIS-trust sounds like a corny etymology for OD-DYS-seus, so does the Greek, which treats Odysseus as a homonym for the verb that Fitzgerald glosses, odyssesthai, “to cause pain to oneself and to others,” to “Odysseus-ize” people. There are many examples of this Odysseusizing throughout the poem. Odysseus knows the story of the Trojan horse, yet in Book 8 he urges the blind singer Demodocus to tell the story, and with the inspiration of the Muses, Demodocus does so. Odysseus sobs to hear a tale in which he played the leading part. On another occasion he tells us how he risked destroying himself, his ship and his crew by hearing the song of the Sirens, who tempt him with All the News That’s Fit to Print about what happened at Troy.

The most egregious example of Odysseusizing comes in Book 24, near the end of the poem, the last of its many dramatic scenes of revelation and recognition. Odysseus finds his father Laertes living a hard-scrabble life far away from the palace that Penelope’s suitors had besieged, up in the hills, longing equally for death and some news of his long-lost son. Odysseus is welcomed hospitably and hears all kinds of proof that Laertes is as loyal as ever.

Odysseus thinks for a moment and resists the impulse to embrace his father and tell him all about the war and his adventures and his return. Instead, he decides it would be best to test him first. He makes up a complicated story in which he claims to have last seen Odysseus years ago, then on his way home to Ithaca—and of course Odysseus never arrived. Laertes collapses in grief. Some of Homer’s commentators find this momentary deception reprehensible, because so unnecessary. In testing his father so cruelly Odysseus is living up to his name, bringing Pain-to-Self-and-Others. In a sense, it would be odd if he did not test Laertes in some such way. We may want Odysseus to be as readable a person as his young son Telemachus, and he’s not.

(This is incidentally the kind of interpretive point that owes much to Irene De Jong’s narratological commentary on the Odyssey—a work accessible to anyone who can read English, and written with as much literary acumen as W. B. Stanford’s classic commentary on the original Greek text.)

Whether we gloss the Odyssey’s title as Jonathan Shay suggests, “The Story of Him Who Was Permanently Scarred in Youth,” or “Tales-of-Pain-To-Self-And-Others,” Homer’s poem about this prototypical veteran and his journey home is a great media event every time it’s read or told or heard.

And I mean ”media” in the sense we use the word today. As a poem the Odyssey bridges the distance in time and space between the Trojan War and all that followed. It transmits its veteran’s story through the inspiration of the Muses to the singers before its first audiences, and then to the readers and audiences of later times, where it would be further mediated by the scholars and translators who have enabled successive generations to read, see, or hear Homer at first-, second-, or whatever hand you care to name. Nor is “media” as trendy as it may sound.

“Medium” is a term ancient in conception, as is the abstract “mediation” formed from...

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