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university of toronto quarterly, volume 70, number 2, spring 2001 M. GLOUBERMAN Our Odd Esse: Nothingness and Western Identity mistaken identity Who, in a book at the centre of the Western canon, matches the following description? To gain a benefit that would not otherwise be given, this person misidentifies himself by employing an alias. Special food procured from a third party having been served, lowering the benefactor=s guard, our man, taking advantage of the latter=s reliance on the sense of touch, disguises himself with animal hides to prevent his cover from being blown. Fearing the reaction from the various parties affected by the deception, he flees the scene soon after the objective is secured, journeying onwards on a none too smooth spousal quest. It is, I expect you to say, the third biblical patriarch, the relevant part of whose story is told in Genesis 27B29. Jacob, a second son, is angling for the paternal blessing, the birthright of the eldest. After assuming the hirsute Esau=s name, and having softened Isaac up with a meal of savoury meats that his mother Rebekah had made ready, Jacob, exploiting his father=s dimness of vision, tops off the ruse by swathing his exposed parts with the skins of kids. Fearing the father=s anger and the brother=s vengeance when the fleecing comes to light, he then takes it on the lam, departing for Haran, there, after a number of reversals, to win Rachel, his heart=s desire. But while Jacob fills the bill, I framed the description with one eye on the protagonist of Homer=s Odyssey. The pertinent episode, from book 9, finds us among the Cyclopes. Odysseus and the few of his men who have so far been spared from Polyphemus=s ravenous maw are trapped in the monocular=s cave. Playing for time, Odysseus plies the man-eater with the potent wine procured during his travels from Maron, a priest of Apollo. After the intoxicant takes hold, Odysseus rethinks the plan that he had first devised. Mortally wounding their jailer, he realizes, would doom the prisoners to a slow death behind the slab of rock with which the monster has stopped up the cave=s mouth. Instead, Odysseus uses a pointed and fire-hardened staff to put out the slumbering giant=s eye. Awakening in agony, Polyphemus, responding to the query of neighbouring Cyclopes attracted by the wails, university of toronto quarterly, volume 70, number 2, spring 2001 refers to his immolator with the pseudonym that Odysseus had earlier given in return for the promise of a gift, namely, >Nobody.= >Well then,= came the immediate reply, >if you are alone and nobody is assaulting you, you must be sick and sickness comes from almighty Zeus and cannot be helped.= (9:410B15) Satisfied that no foul play is afoot, the Cyclopes withdraw. Odysseus and the men who remain are saved, then, by the name. Able now to evade Polyphemus=s clutches, they are not however out of the cave yet. During the subsequent sleepless night, Odysseus comes up with a new course of action. As roseate dawn begins to tickle the sky, he trusses the others up between the woolly coats of the monster=s sheep, which he has yoked in threes. The whole party then slips through Polyphemus=s fingers when he removes the boulder and, after a careful palpation to cull the Greeks, sends the flock to graze. Making haste back to their vessel, the voyagers resume the hazardladen journey to Ithaca and Penelope. Two men, two central figures in two central texts of the West, pass themselves off as something they are not B in the archaic Greek case literally as a non entity. Failing their acts of impersonation they would not have become for us what they are. If Jacob=s ruse doesn=t succeed, God=s promise of national longevity passes through the uncouth Esau. If Odysseus perishes, the ravening Suitors inherit his patrimony. Some might say that the world would be a better place had the appetitive rustic (>Esau= means >hairy=) prevailed; had Greek ingenuity, with its power to tame the environment, been snuffed out (the name of the chief suitor...


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