- The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey
Edith Hall's new book tells a fascinating story: how the Odyssey has come to map a variety of cultural discourses, from the representation of colonists and natives to readings of social class struggles to conceptions of wisdom. Though it also follows the Odyssey's literary reincarnations, Hall's book is not a remake of Stanford's classic The Ulysses Theme, but a more daring investigation that reads high poetry together with rock music and notions of heroism with popular (and less popular) movies (cinema has the greatest share of the pie, as the index shows). The scope of the book is breathtaking, and Hall, Odysseus-like, deftly navigates across the rich landscape she unfolds before us, guiding us through its landmarks with a style that is clear, engaging, and at times outright funny.
The breadth of the subject matter justifies the absence from the book of a driving argument, except for the starting assumption that the Odyssey is a founding text for so many reasons and in so many ways so as to underlie in many more ways subsequent cultural expressions. Hall's book reads like a survey, but a well-thought-out one. It is organized thematically, and within the thematic frame historically: I found this combination effective in that it conveys both the importance of the Odyssey in shaping specific cultural discourses and the development of such discourses in varying social and political contexts.
The most instructive parts of the book for a classicist, and perhaps the most interesting ones for a nonclassicist, are Hall's discussions of the influence of the Odyssey on political and social discourses and its presences in "low culture," rather than in literature. In the latter domain, I found her analyses not always profound and sometimes inaccurate (as when she says that Odysseus in Greek tragedy "always gets what he wants" , ignoring his failure to do so in Sophocles' Philoctetes). There also are a few striking omissions, such as Pascoli's The Last Journey or, in the secondary literature, references to Louise Pratt's book Lies and Fiction from Homer to Pindar, which treats a topic of much relevance to the early pages of Hall's work. But attention to detail is not what we should expect in a study of such amplitude, whose chief interest resides not so much in the analysis of each individual item as in its overall conception. The imaginative ways Hall connects the most disparate sources is particularly admirable, as is her courage to draw into her discussion even such a "text" as a medical condition whose conceptualization was apparently inspired by the Odyssey. [End Page 273]
On 167 Hall mentions the so-called "Ulysses Syndrome," affecting those who embark on an endless medical journey for no serious reason. She gives this example (described by a pediatrician): a child falls, does not break any bone, yet the X-rays show an abnormal area of bone. The parents worry that he has cancer in spite of the surgeon's opinion, so the latter feels obliged to perform a biopsy. And now the "fun" comes: "The pathologist confirms that it [the biopsy] is normal but, in the meantime, the child falls again, this time on the slippery hospital floor, and fractures his leg at the site weakened by the biopsy. So he does finally end up with his leg in plaster for six weeks." Odysseus' odyssey has a happier ending, and we are thousands of miles apart from the Homeric epic. But precisely these remote and sometimes loose connections between cultural phenomena in the broadest sense and Homer's Odyssey are the feature which makes Hall's book both lighthearted and enlightening. The small sample I have given will be enough, I hope, to attract many potential readers, who will not be disappointed, whether they look for a scholarly work or intelligent bedside reading. Lector intende: laetaberis.