- Introduction: Tears for the Phaeacians
In book eight of the Odyssey the eponymous hero, whose identity has not yet been revealed to his Phaeacian hosts, urges Demodocus to tell the story of the wooden horse that sacked Troy. Rather than responding with pride at his own cunning that crafted the famous deceit, Odysseus weeps:
That was the song the famous harper sang but great Odysseus melted into tears, running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks... as a woman weeps, her arms flung round her darling husband, a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen, trying to beat the day of doom from home and children. Seeing the man go down, dying, gasping for breath, she clings for dear life, screams and shrills— but the victors, just behind her, digging spear-butts into her back and shoulders, drag her off in bondage, yoked to hard labor, pain, and the most heartbreaking torment wastes her cheeks. So from Odysseus’ eyes ran tears of heartbreak now(trans., Fagles, 8.585–97 [=Od. 8.521–31]).
Odysseus’ tears, emerging here as response to tales of his own martial prowess, for the moment unhinge his identity and famously render him, through Homer’s simile, a feminized casualty of war. From the same tears we may also trace in the history of Western discourse a protracted conversation over the sorrows of the returning soldier: as long as there have been wars, there have been those veterans who are transformed by the experience of war and who shape our civilian understanding of it. Like the audience of Phaeacians, Americans have listened attentively to the stories of soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and tried to evaluate, with inevitable frustration, the moral and psychological impact of war on the self.
For those veterans who are denied both the satisfaction of a mission accomplished and the cathartic release of tears for themselves and others, there is often a pervasive unease. This volume’s frontispiece includes a photograph of a fresco taken from a 4th century B.C.E. south Italian chamber tomb, now housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts. A placard beneath it authorizes the story this wall painting hopes to tell the Museum’s many visitors: “Return of a Mounted Warrior.” And yet the [End Page 1] title’s matter-of-fact certainty is undercut by the hesitant question written on the face of the returning soldier, as well as by the welcoming female figure—a wife? a mother? a sister?—whose expression is partly effaced, leaving visitors to respond with frustration. What will her reaction be? What would ours be?
The five essays included in this issue of Intertexts constitute some hope of replacing the failed recognition between the two figures in the damaged fresco with appreciation and reciprocal understanding by offering a range of literary and historical contexts from which we might assess and most humanely respond to veterans and the experiences that accompany them home. In the Spring of 2011 the University of South Carolina hosted a conference that encouraged new ways of thinking about “homecoming” (nostos) in light of the gradual withdrawal of troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the conference papers explored very disparate concepts of departure, home-coming, self, and identity over time, often removed from the theater of war, others, including the five essays in this volume, more directly addressed the challenges of re-integrating the soldier into civilian life. Two of the papers offered in this issue of Intertexts explore how ancient civic and martial apparatus functioned to alleviate the trauma experienced by soldiers. In the first of these, Peter Meineck explores the role of fifth-century Greek tragedy, whose surviving examples so frequently dramatize the hazards of combat, in allowing soldiers and civilians to come to terms with the violence and aftermath of war. Meineck approaches the conflicts staged during the City Dionysia as a healing ritual, one that addressed the psychological needs of a polis beset by almost constant warfare in the fifth century. The author’s own experiences directing the Aquila Theater’s Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives program for communities of...