Section Two of The Breaking of the Day by O.G. Rose
Who are we when we return home?
Shall we return home Athenian or Jewish? This is the question we should ask when pondering Ulysses. To start, let’s ponder some formal considerations based on “Odysseus’ Scar,” a famous chapter in Auerbach’s Mimesis that contrasts Homer with Genesis.
Generally, Auerbach highlights how nothing in Homer is ‘half in darkness and unexternalized’ — all inner thoughts, emotions, backstory, motive, etc. are voiced and explained.¹ There are no ‘unplumbed depths,’ even at the expense of the narrative tension.² In the Bible however, we see a shift to internalization, uncertainty, and mystery, and in contrast to Homer, ‘[e]verything remains unexpressed.’³
Nothing in Homer is left up to interpretation, and for Schiller, this meant Homer “retarded suspense.” But in the Old Testament, much is left up to interpretation: God appears out of nowhere and speaks to Abraham; we are told Abraham has servants but nothing about them; we know Abraham is old but hardly anything about how he looks; we are told what God wants but not shown a debate God has with other gods to decide what he wants; and so on. The Bile demands interpretation (precisely because it is a work of authority that presents itself as a blueprint to the cosmos), while Homer assures listeners that they only need to be patient and everything will be made clear.
For Auerbach, “the hidden elements” make the Bible more suspenseful and able to tell stories about characters who are more psychologically deep and believable than the characters in Homer, who for Auerbach are less believable and thin. Yet arguably Homer’s prose is much more complex and difficult than the prose of the OT, which suggests that there can be a trade-off between literary merit, depth, and believability. For Auerbach, part of how Western Literature develops is through figuring out how to combine the depth of the OT with the skill of Homer while maintaining the strengths of both. Shakespeare and Dante are examples of how Athens and Jerusalem can be synthesized, but that will be expounded on later.
In Homer, subjectivity is combated with expression, while in the Bible subjectivity is inescapable. The movement from Homer to the Bible is existential and psychological, which is to begin a movement toward a focus on the individual and all the anxiety with which the individual wrestles and copes. The movement from Athens to Jerusalem in literature is in some ways a movement from singular and unified consciousness to ‘the simultaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and conflict[s] between them.’⁴ Where Athens and Jerusalem are unified, there will be efforts to unify objectivity and subjectivity, individualism with community, and other paradoxical endeavors that we “Children of the Enlightenment” can’t help by try to square.
W.H. Auden was a famous scholar of classical works, influenced by the lectures of Tolkien (note “The Scouring of the Shire” seems indebted to Homer), and in his famous The Age of Anxiety, we have characters who overcome their life journeys only to find that the source of their anxiety must result from something other than failing to finish their journeys; having completed them, they still feel anxious. Good friends with Auden, Hannah Arendt noted on Auden’s work after WWII that though ‘[t]he enemy [was] vanquished, the anxieties remain[ed], and are thereby revealed to have their source in something other than the immediacy of wartime fears.’⁵ Perhaps war hid us from the destabilization of Pluralism for a time, but wars have expiration dates.
Unlike us, Ulysses seems capable of returning home and making it feel like home again through “honorable violence” (which for Westerners is no longer an option, thankfully). As we know from Auerbach, Homer externalizes everything, and we do not hear externalizes from Ulysses that sound like a character out of Camus or Kierkegaard; thus, there is reason to believe Ulysses did not suffer existential anxiety like we do today. Perhaps he did, but it was covered and quelled by endless conflict: The Odyssey ends with Ulysses reflecting on how he would have to fight the families of the suitors he killed. Yes, this suggests tension, but we do not detect anxiety in Ulysses. He knows he is right to defend his home; to allude to “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose, “the honor of violence” in such a context is “given.”
While Ulysses seems in and of the world and capable of making it his, moderns seem like they must accept a feeling of being in the world but not of it. Violence, honor, and victory do not solve our existential anxiety as they do for Ulysses, and I do not believe it is by chance that we see a retelling of Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson that depicts the great Greek as needing to leave home and explore again later in life, for it seems we moderns need to believe that even Ulysses did not feel at home. The idea comforts us: not even Ulysses avoided our plight; it’s not just our fault.
What should we do today when we return to a land that was once ours but that we do not recognize? What is the right response if we find our home occupied by alien forces? For the Greeks, the answer was clear: you take back the land. As if taking advice from The Art of War, Ulysses sneaks in undercover and strikes when the time is right. Through power and violence, all considered honorable by the Greeks (especially considering all the trials and tribulations Ulysses suffered), Ulysses reclaims his home from the suitors. But then we have Jesus, who rebukes the Jews for wanting to forcibly reclaim Jerusalem from the Romans. Jesus teaches his followers that we must learn to be in the world but not of it. To use the words of T.S. Eliot, we must learn to live with homesickness, with ‘the fire and the rose [being] one.’⁶
For Nietzsche, a Christian Ulysses would have learned to live with the suitors and suffer all their abuses, and if the suitors took Penelope and murdered Ulysses, Ulysses would be a saint. For Nietzsche, this meant “sainthood” and “weakness” were similes: Christian ethics was a rationalization of weakness into morality by weaklings. Nietzsche was passionately concerned about “the transvaluations of all values” that occurred between Athens and Jerusalem, and as we will eventually see in Hamlet, the Westerner to this day is still caught in the middle of this tension.
According to Greeks, Ulysses is honorable in using violence to make his home his home again, but are Americans today similarly justified to use violence if they feel like America isn’t the America they once grew up in? In a way, because of our moral evolution thanks to Christianity, we today must be like a Ulysses who learns to live with “suitors” (exactly how Nietzsche lamented). Whether we are against Trump and feel alien in Trump’s America, or whether we support Trump precisely because we feel alien due to changes in America, both sides are like a Ulysses who is not permitted to reclaim his home violently. This leads to inner turmoil and existential tension: following Auerbach’s argument, we today are more like the characters in the Bible than the characters in Homer.
Jesus teaches that we must be like a Ulysses who is never fully recognized (a prophet is most rejected in his hometown, after all), and how does that make us feel? Ulysses suffers so much and journeys so far — the Jews suffer so much under the Romans — only to be told they “must live with the suitors.” No surprise Jesus was hated. Similarly, Christian ethics would have had Hamlet “live with the suitor” of his murderous uncle, but ultimately Hamlet decided to be more of a Ulysses or Achilles than a Christ. What should we do? Be an alienated Jesus or a violent monster? What was Ulysses?
Another famous character who attempts to be like Ulysses is Don Quixote, who in a Christian and yet “demystified world” is frankly insane. And when Quixote returns home, he realizes only that he was delusional to embark on a vast quest, turns back into “Alonso the Good,” and dies. Perhaps in Quixote, we have a Ulysses who, upon seeing his home overrun by suitors and bound by Christian ethics against violence, falls to his knees and curses himself for leaving in the first place. Because we journeyed, he cannot return home. But as we moderns know, even if we stay home, our home can change right under our feet. Perhaps had Ulysses never journeyed, Penelope’s love for him would have slowly died through irritation — versus stabilize and grow thanks to anticipation — and Ulysses would have become to her like the suitors. Who can say?
‘We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where started’ — so T.S. Eliot gives us these famous lines to ponder.⁷ In the Greek world, if we were to find that place taken over by corrupt forces, we would be dishonorable if we did not take it back with force. In a Christian world, we will find it corrupted by sin, and we must respond with humility and meekness. Modernity ultimately concludes even if God didn’t exist, Christ is more correct than Homer: we must all live as aliens, especially where we believe we should feel least like an alien (and if we believe Walker Percy is correct, a reason for this is because even if we did kill all our enemies, our alienation wouldn’t go away). Are we better off living in a country more shaped by Jerusalem than Athens? Ulysses would not think so, but perhaps he is not as noble as Jesus.
¹Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton University Press, 2003: 5.
²Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton University Press, 2003: 7.
³Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton University Press, 2003: 11.
⁴Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton University Press, 2003: 13.
⁵Auden, W.H. The Age of Anxiety. Princeton University Press, 2011: XV.
⁶Eliot, T.S. Four Quartets. Harcourt, Inc., 1971: 59.
⁷Eliot, T.S. Four Quartets. Harcourt, Inc., 1971: 59.
1. In Christian thinking today, there is a lot of talk about Rod Dreher’s “benedict option,” and if Ulysses had not been permitted violence, perhaps upon returning home, he would have had to figure out his own “benedict option.”
2. To reiterate, I don’t think it is by chance that in a modernizing world, we see a poem like Tennyson’s come out that depicts Ulysses returning out to sea for more adventure, for home no longer feels like home. Additionally, we see Joyce using the structure of The Odyssey to make an increasingly chaotic world feel sensible, which doesn’t seem like an arbitrary choice to me, for a point of The Odyssey is to tell a story about how we actually can return home (though it may ultimately require violence).
3. Tolkien also tells the story of a man leaving his home and returning to find it overrun by enemies: when Frodo returns to The Shire, though it wasn’t in the movies, it has been conquered by Saruman. Frodo eventually prevails, but he still feels lost due to the lasting influence of the ring. Frodo does not feel at home until he leaves for the Gray Havens, which represents Heaven. For the Christian, Heaven is the true home, and our earthly home just a shadow of that. For Ulysses, we feel at home when we make it our home again (often through force), but Jesus says this is not an option.
4. The Christian today — which the majority of Westerns are — finds his or her self like Penelope, trying to be faithful while the temptations of the world try to win her affection. If Ulysses never returned, would Penelope still have been honorable or a fool? If Christ never comes back, is there still an honor to be found in Christians who wait diligently for Godot?
5. When Modernism turns nihilistic, there seems to be a feeling that if we cannot feel at home at home, then home should be destroyed. Perhaps the problem is the existence and idea of home versus the failure to find it?
6. If we do not like Trump, we cannot turn to violence to save our home; if we like Trump, we cannot turn to violence to save our home. And yet the temptation remains. But what do we mean by saying it’s a temptation? Didn’t Ulysses act honorably? Why can’t we? Jesus?
7. Perhaps many Americans who feel tricked by the American Dream feel like a Ulysses who returned home and was forced to accept what had changed.
8. Food plays an interesting role in The Odyssey, where a sign of good hospitality is giving guests food, while a sign of bad hospitality, say in the case of the cyclops, is making guests into food.
9. The Odyssey ends very abruptly with Athena enforcing a truce between the armies of Ulysses and his rivals, and some commentators argue that the story suggests that Ulysses does not find the peace at home that he longs to find. This is a fair interpretation, but personally I believe our modern circumstance motivates us to over-emphasize this possibility.
10. Odyssey can be thought of as a man who must navigate the different cultures of a Pluralistic world. It should be noted that The Odyssey was written during a time of great expansion, perhaps similar to our situation today. But unlike us, Ulysses seems more able to find a sense of home, and that is perhaps because of options still available to him that Christianity has denied us.
11. It’s also interesting to contrast Ulysses’ need for the cyclops to know his name so that he can receive honor (and the suffering he faces as a result), and Jesus telling his followers to “shake the dust off their sandals” if they are not welcomed. Jesus seems much less concerned about fame than Ulysses, suggesting perhaps that sometimes the desire “for home” is actually just a hidden desire for recognition.
12. Ulysses seems to find that hedonism — a life of pleasure with Calypso — is not satisfying. Perhaps we are reaching similar conclusions today, realizing that even a paradise that doesn’t feel like home cannot be paradise.