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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVIII – Blows and a Queen’s Beauty

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

In this episode, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, fights with another beggar named Irus. The rowdy suitors cheer on the fight as entertainment, and Odysseus easily beats Irus. Then Penelope comes down to address the suitors and tricks them into bringing her gifts as a way of winning her. Penelope, like Odysseus, employs trickery and manipulation.

There are two things in this episode I want to point out. The first is the ideal of feminine beauty and the second is the symbol of fire.

Before going down to address the suitors, Penelope goes to sleep. While she is asleep, Athena heightens her feminine beauty. What struck me about this passage is how similar Penelope’s beauty is to Greek statuary. I have always thought of Greek sculpture as the ideal of physical beauty, so essentially, Athena is altering Penelope’s appearance so that she resembles a statue, or the ideal of what female beauty.

And while she slept the goddess
endowed her with immortal grace to hold
the eyes of the Akhaians. With ambrosia
she bathed her cheeks and throat and smoothed her brow—
ambrosia, used by flower-crowned Kythereia
when she would join the rose-lipped Graces dancing.
Grandeur she gave her, too, in height and form,
and made her whiter than carved ivory.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 342)

When Penelope appears before the suitors, she is praised for her beauty.

Penelope,
deep-minded queen, daughter of Ikarios,
if all the Akhaians in the land of Argos
only saw you now! What hundreds more
would join your suitors here to feast tomorrow!
Beauty like yours no woman had before,
or majesty, or mastery.

(ibid: p. 344)

What’s interesting about this passage is the claim that Penelope is more beautiful than any woman before. This would mean she is more beautiful than Helen, whose abduction started the Trojan War and led Odysseus from his home. So now, on a smaller scale, we have another battle ready to begin over a beautiful woman. It is almost as if the suitors symbolize the Trojans and Odysseus the Achaeans who went to fight in Troy.

So as I mentioned earlier, the symbol of fire was also significant to me as I read this episode. The first passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus takes his place beside the fire to tend to it while the suitors continue their revelry.

I stand here
ready to tend to these flares and offer light
to everyone. They cannot tire me out,
even if they wish to drink till Dawn.
I am a patient man.

(ibid: p. 346)

The first thing I thought of as I read this is that the fire represents illumination and that Odysseus is being likened to Prometheus. His adventures and tales serve as inspiration, lighting the way for generations of future poets and writers. But then as I thought about it some more, I found a second possible interpretation. The fire could also be a symbol of Odysseus’ wrath. If this is the case, then by standing and tending the flames, he is essentially feeding the rage that burns within him, and being “a patient man,” he will bide his time until he is ready to unleash his fury upon those who usurp his home.

There is another passage that supports the idea of fire as illumination. This is a quote by Eurymakhos as he observes Odysseus near the fire.

This man
comes with a certain aura of divinity
into Odysseus’ hall. He shines.

He shines
around the noggin, like a flashing light,
having no hair at all to dim his luster.

(ibid: p. 347)

As I read this, I had an image of Odysseus with an aura, almost like a halo. He shines with divine light, with an inner fire that makes him like a god.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. I found the symbolism to be intriguing and the flow of the tale to be brilliant. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XIX.

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“I Love the Thought of Those Old Naked Days” by Charles Baudelaire

VenusDiMilo

Venus di Milo

I love the thought of those old naked days
When Phoebus gilded torsos with his rays,
When men and women sported, strong and fleet,
Without anxiety or base deceit,
And heaven caressed them, amorously keen
To prove the health of each superb machine.
Cybele then was lavish of her guerdon
And did not find her sons too gross a burden:
But, like a she-wolf, in her love great-hearted,
Her full brown teats to all the world imparted.
Bold, handsome, strong, Man, rightly, might evince
Pride in the glories that proclaimed him prince —
Fruits pure of outrage, by the blight unsmitten,
With firm, smooth flesh that cried out to be bitten.

Today the Poet, when he would assess
Those native splendours in the nakedness
Of man or woman, feels a sombre chill
Enveloping his spirit and his will.
He meets a gloomy picture, which be loathes,
Wherein deformity cries out for clothes.
Oh comic runts! Oh horror of burlesque!
Lank, flabby, skewed, pot-bellied, and grotesque!
Whom their smug god, Utility (poor brats!)
Has swaddled in his brazen clouts “ersatz”
As with cheap tinsel. Women tallow-pale,
Both gnawed and nourished by debauch, who trail
The heavy burden of maternal vice,
Or of fecundity the hideous price.

We have (corrupted nations) it is true
Beauties the ancient people never knew —
Sad faces gnawed by cancers of the heart
And charms which morbid lassitudes impart.
But these inventions of our tardy muse
Can’t force our ailing peoples to refuse
Just tribute to the holiness of youth
With its straightforward mien, its forehead couth,
The limpid gaze, like running water bright,
Diffusing, careless, through all things, like the light
Of azure skies, the birds, the winds, the flowers,
The songs, and perfumes, and heart-warming powers.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

This is a poem of contrasts. In the opening stanza, Baudelaire describes classical Greek and Roman statuary. These statues depict the human form as it truly is—a work of divine art. These cultures believed that there is nothing obscene about the naked human form. The human body is such a thing of beauty that the ancients used it as the ideal for depicting their gods and goddesses.

In the second stanza, we are assaulted with the contrast to the human body as art. Here we are shown the exploitation of human beauty in the form of pornography and prostitution. Baudelaire presents us with a vision of a society that fails to see the beauty of the naked body from a divine perspective, but instead uses the naked human form as a focus for our baser desires. It could also be argued that in addition to this stanza being a critique on the sex trade, it is a statement about inner corruption. Our bodies often reflect our inner health and happiness. In a society plagued with vice, decadence, and ennui, it stands to reason that our physical bodies would reflect the decay that festers within us.

In the third stanza, I sense that Baudelaire is seeking to reconcile these two opposites. He concedes that modern society provides “Beauties the ancient people never knew.” It seems that Baudelaire is seeking a merging between the wonders of the modern world and the appreciation for human beauty that was the ideal of the ancient Greeks.

The last thing I want to say is that this poem stirs the emotion I felt as I watched the video clips of ISIS members destroying artwork. Throughout history, fanatics have destroyed art because it was deemed obscene or heretical. My feelings are that any work of art that portrays humanity, in any of its diverse forms, should be appreciated and preserved.

I hope you have a wonderful and artistically inspired day.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 13

Painting by Michele Desubleo

Painting by Michele Desubleo

This episode corresponds with the section concerning Nausicaä in Homer’s Odyssey.

In Book Six of the Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the coast of the island of Scheria. Nausicaä and her handmaidens go to the sea-shore to wash clothes. Awoken by their games, Odysseus emerges from the forest completely naked, scaring the servants away, and begs Nausicaä for aid. Nausicaä gives Odysseus some of the laundry to wear, and takes him to the edge of the town. Realizing that rumors might arise if Odysseus is seen with her, she and the servants go ahead into town.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, Gerty MacDowell corresponds with Princess Nausicaä, Gerty’s friends Cissy and Edy represent Nausicaä’s handmaidens, and Leopold Bloom is associated with Odysseus. As in the Homeric epic, the scene takes place on the beach and is full of sexuality, which in Joyce’s book is much more overt. Essentially, Bloom masturbates as he watches the girls on the beach.

Early in the episode, Gerty fantasizes about a storybook wedding. Images of fairy tales and being swept away by her Prince Charming abound. It is implied that while she is having these fantasies, Bloom is having his own as he watches. As Gerty notices Bloom watching her, she begins to tease him and play up to his fantasy, positioning herself so he can better see her and steal glimpses up her skirt. She begins moving her leg in a manner evocative of sexual intercourse.

Queen of angels, queen of patriarchs, queen of prophets, of all saints, they prayed, queen of the most holy rosay and then Father Conroy handed the thurible to Canon O’Hanlon and he put in the incense and censed the Blessed Sacrament and Cissy Caffrey caught the two twins and she was itching to give them a ringing good clip on the ear but she didn’t because she thought he might be watching but she never made a bigger mistake in all her life because Gerty could see without looking that he never took his eyes off of her and then Canon O’Hanlon handed the thurible back to Father Conroy and knelt down looking up at the Blessed Sacrament and the choir began to sing Tantum ergo and she just swung her foot in and out in time as the music rose and fell to the Tantumer gosa carmen tum.

(pp. 359 – 360)

What is interesting about this is that while Bloom is fantasizing about Gerty and Gerty is playing up to his attentions, there is a Catholic service happening at a nearby church. This builds a symbolic connection between Gerty and the Virgin Mary. Joyce seems to be criticizing our obsession with virginity and our secret desires for those things which are pure and generally out of our reach. I cannot help but wonder how many men, sitting in a church service, secretly wondered how a statue of the Virgin Mary might look if naked, like classical Greek statuary. Probably more than would be willing to admit.

Undoubtedly, the most memorable scene in this episode is when Bloom reaches orgasm. It happens as fireworks are exploding in the sky over the beach and Joyce employs the image of a Roman candle as a phallic symbol.

She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a strangled little cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!

(pp. 366 – 367)

It is worth pointing out that Joyce uses the word “rapture” to describe the experience. I get the impression that he is also making the connection between orgasm and a profound religious experience. The image that comes to my mind is that of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

Bernini - Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

Bernini – Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

The episode ends on a sad note, with the sound of a cuckoo clock sounding the time.

Cuckoo
Cuckoo
Cuckoo

(p. 382)

The implication here is that Bloom was made a cuckold, that his wife Molly and Blazes Boylan have consummated their affair at the same time he was masturbating and fantasizing. So while it’s easy to look at Bloom in this episode and see a pervert jerking off as he watches a young girl at the beach, you can’t help but pity him also. He seems a sad and lonely person.

I’ll post my thoughts on episode 14 in about a week or so.


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section13.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausicaa

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