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  • Writing in the Odyssey:Eurykleia, Parry, Jousse, and the Opening of a Letter from Homer
  • Haun Saussy

1. "A Letter Or Two"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau once contended that Homer and writing were antithetical. "Not only are the traces of this art rare in the Iliad, but I dare to suggest that the whole Odyssey is a mere tissue of stupidities and ineptitudes that a letter or two would reduce to smoke, whereas the poem becomes reasonable and rather well-constructed if one supposes that its heroes were ignorant of writing" (Rousseau 1968.110-11). Homer was for Rousseau the poet of face-to-face archaic society, the society against which Rousseau measures all other societies and finds them wanting. In such a state of culture, writing is either useless or the herald of a catastrophic weakening of social bonds (ibid. 117, 122, 173-75). And if it is immediacy that writing necessarily subverts, then the Odyssey would seem to have much to lose. For the Odyssey is (among other things) the story of the wanderer's return to his home; of the restoration of the king and father to his position; of the affirmation of the hero's identity despite the dangers he has encountered and the years that have obscured his memory; of the son's confirmation as his father's adequate image; of the reunion, after twenty [End Page 299] years of separation, of name and reality; even of a personal solar myth.1 By intercutting absence with tokens of presence (for example, a hypothetical letter from Odysseus to Penelope), and conversely intermingling presence with its mere representations, writing would rob the Odyssey of the energy to be gained from its polar antitheses. In Rousseau's demonology, nothing is more apt than "a letter or two" to reduce the triumph of Odysseus to smoke.2

I shall try to show that the threat to the Odyssey and to immediacy is already effectively anticipated by the "oral" poetics of the work itself, indeed that the story the Odyssey tells may be taken as a parable on the relations of oral poetics and writing. My argument will require some reworking, faithfully intended, of the terms "writing" and "orality." Conscious of long-standing precedent, I call Homer as my first witness.

The work of Alfred Heubeck, Jesper Svenbro, Barry Powell, and other students of the early history of the Greek alphabet makes it possible for me to identify one famous episode of the Odyssey as a scene of reading. Late in the epic, slightly before the story has come to its expected triumphant ending, an old serving-woman named Eurykleia is asked to wash the feet of a beggar who may, her mistress surmises, have reliable information about Odysseus (19.386-94, 467-75).

[End Page 300]

. . . The old woman took up the brightly-shining basinto wash his feet in and poured it full of water,first the cold, then the hot. And then Odysseus suddenlypushed his seat back and turned to face the dark:for he had begun to worry, lest in handling him she shouldattend to his scar and his whole enterprise be revealed.She approached and began to wash her master, when suddenlyshe knewthe scar that once a boar's white tusk had torn . . .Running her hands over this scar, the old womanknew it from the feel, and she let his foot slip so thathis leg fell into the basin, making the bronze clang,the basin totter, and water slosh onto the floor.Now joy and pain possessed her mind. Her eyesfilled with tears, and the voice grew thick in her throatas she touched Odysseus' chin and spoke to him thus:"Yes, you are Odysseus, dear child! Not even Iknew you, master, before I held you in my hands."

In the Iliad, "writing," graphein, the word which should have been absent from the Odyssey, makes a few appearances, and always with the meaning "scratch, mark, incise": having one's skin "written on" is a fearsome but not immediately fatal accident.

And now you boast proudly of having scratched the heel of my foot!

(Iliad 11.388) [End Page...


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