- Provoking Things:Homer, Humpty, and Heidegger
"It is a—most—provoking—thing," [Humpty Dumpty] said at last,
"when a person doesn't know a cravat from a belt!"
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, chap. 6, n.p.1
Homer's Odysseus and Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty. An unlikely pairing, perhaps, but should they ever meet at some wayside inn or afternoon tea table they may find they have plenty to talk about. Both inhabit tales that involve journeys into strange lands, alarming characters, and peculiar dinner companions, and both use their wits to compete in complex language games. One might think that, in narrative worlds where very little is simple, straightforward, or secure, these two could at least rely on their material possessions. Yet they both own what I will call, following from Humpty, a "provoking thing."
To begin with Humpty's story: in Through the Looking-Glass Humpty meets young Alice, who comes unstuck when trying to describe exactly what the ovoid wall-sitter has around his, um, middle. When waist and neck are as shifty as Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit, when does something stop being a belt and start being a necktie? Luckily the girl's good manners prevent Humpty from getting too upset over her mislabeling [End Page 176] of his cravat. But his irascibility is understandable: not just his cravat but his identity is in question. Instead of a socially important person whose necktie was a gift from King and Queen, he is in danger of being reduced to a high-pantsed egg.
To be sure, Humpty uses the term "thing" in the broad sense of situation or affair, and he calls Alice's misidentification of his attire "provoking," as in causing annoyance. But what if one deliberately misunderstood Humpty in a different way, taking him to mean that literal, physical, material, things-in-themselves can be "provoking" in that their identities can strangely shift or change, and those changes can in turn prompt new insights and understandings rather than just irritation?
I will test this concept by using it as a lens through which to view my second text: Homer's The Odyssey. Will borrowing Humpty's nomenclature and calling Odysseus's oar a "provoking thing" help understand the shifts and changes this object undergoes—and instigates?
To set the scene: This passage of The Odyssey comes from around the center of the epic when, tired of years of traveling and hardship, Odysseus just wants to go home to Ithaca and his wife. While on a side trip to Hades he encounters the ghost of the prophet Tiresias, who brings him some good news and some bad news. Odysseus's exile will end, Tiresias promises, but only after he undertakes one last journey. He must travel inland, away from the sea, until the nature of the "well-made oar" he carries becomes contested. In other words, until it reveals itself as a "provoking thing": "You must take a well-made oar and carry it on and on, till you come to a country where the people have never heard of the sea," says the sage. "A wayfarer will meet you and will say it must be a winnowing shovel that you have got upon your shoulder; on this you must fix the oar in the ground and sacrifice … to Poseidon. Then go home."2
The "wayfarer" Odysseus will encounter (surely no proper traveler, at least compared to our protagonist) is so parochial in outlook that he cannot even recognize such an exotic thing as an oar. Instead, drawing on what is familiar to him, the man labels it as a "winnowing shovel." This is an excusable misunderstanding, as both oar and winnowing tool would have been made from wood, with long, sturdy handles and large, shovel-shaped ends—rather like the flat peels used in more modern times to get pizzas in and out of an oven.3 So, no doubt rather provokingly to Odysseus, the oar shape-shifts—its atoms stay in the same arrangement, but the way it is perceived is transformed. And just as Odysseus's emblematic oar becomes contested, so does his identity. [End...