Monday, June 2, 2014

Sing To Me, O Muse!

Homer (Barry B. Powell, translator), The Odyssey

The biggest lesson I draw from Barry Powell’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey, is how decorous and moralistic it isn’t. I haven’t read the Odyssey since the Norton Critical Edition in 9th Grade, and like most schoolbook translations of Greek myth, that used indirection and euphemism to insert starchy Victorian morality into ancient texts. But Greece didn’t have binary, good-vs-evil ethics like Israel or Rome. Judeo-Christian principles need not apply.

Powell, an American classicist and demythifying philologist, depicts Odysseus as a truly Greek hero. His moral code rests on one quintessentially Greek precept: winners win. Period. Odysseus lies to serve his advantage. He uses physical violence against the weak and powerless. While Penelope remains chaste, awaiting her husband’s return, Odysseus sleeps with Kalypso for eight years. Sure, Homer says it’s forced, but it serves his ends, so why stop now?

Nietzsche meant this when he extolled “the will to power.” Unencumbered by Platonic philosophy or Christian humility, knowing that Hades erases all human distinctions, Odysseus has one opportunity for immortality. Only by winning, by making himself mythic, will mortals remember him hereafter. This eliminates false pretenses of meekness, politesse, or charity. Odysseus wins, by Zeus, which is why you’re reading this review 2,800 years later.

This new translation eschews the self-conscious poetry of translators from Chapman to Fagles, focusing instead on capturing the stirring emotion this text originally inflamed in Greek audiences. This reflects a thesis that pervades Powell’s career: he believes ancient Greeks loved Homer so much, they invented alphabetic writing just to preserve his poetry. Powell’s idea remains controversial, yet reading this muscular, tenacious translation, one could believe that’s true.

Powell situates Homer in his time, when mysterious ancient ruins made living humans feel small. Singing myths of bygone eras gave Homeric civilization meaning. Powell uses linguistic clues to posit a very thin biography for Homer; through process of elimination, he places Homer at Euboea in the Ninth Century BCE. Though acknowledging the ongoing controversies surrounding Homer’s identity, and even existence, Powell nevertheless hangs a persuasive biography on plausible premises.

Set in the waning days of mythological Mycenaean civilization, the Odyssey reflects ancient belief in even ancienter greatness. Odysseus embodies values that seem strange to us, yet tweak our primordial tendons. Kings rule because innate greatness gives them moral authority over the weak. Gods dispense good and evil by turns, for reasons beyond human ken. Heroes are not born; divine blessing and human effort conspire to turn mere mortals heroic.

Corollary to mythological greatness, all change equals decline. While Odysseus performs heroic feats to return home, an indolent cadre of “suitors” occupy his house, putatively wooing his wife. But the spend their days drinking wine, eating roasted meats, and apparently playing bocce ball. In Powell’s translation, these scenes have a “you kids get off my lawn” cantankerousness, verified when Odysseus rewards their sensuous mooching with swift, violent death.

Homer’s Odysseus isn’t removed from us only in time. He’s fundamentally different from ourselves, occupying a culture, a moral space, that doesn’t resemble ours. You don’t read the Odyssey; you vanish into it. As another famous time traveler said: “You can't just read the guide book. You've got to throw yourself in, eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers—or is that just me?”

Modern audiences often have trouble with Homeric stylings, particularly repetitive epithets: “So-and-so of the nodding plumed helmet.” Powell asserts that these repeated tropes are essential to Homer’s verse. Homer didn’t memorize 12,000 lines of dactylic hexameter; he composed the epic afresh with each telling. Thus, invoking “shrewd Telemachos” or “flashing-eyed Athena,” as Powell’s translation does, reflects gut-level narrative techniques that most modern translators simply lose.

By contrast, Powell translates neither Homer’s literal meaning nor his form. He focuses on the experience of encountering Homer brand new, a visceral experience lost in most renditions. He imbues repeated tropes, like “When early-born Dawn spread out her fingers of rose,” with an unforced freshness reminiscent of 1970s pop songs. This feels spontaneous and new, rather than (like schoolbook translations) official, bloodless, and inert. Powell’s translation moves, by damn.

If, like me, school put you off Homer, maybe it’s time to try again. Barry Powell’s visceral, risk-taking translation restores Homer’s original, heroic, somewhat dangerous immediacy. And if Powell’s theories about language are correct, all literature begins here, with the invention of the tool that makes Western Civilization possible: the alphabet. Time has come to try discovering Homer’s majesty with fresh eyes.

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