James Joyce thought that the Odyseey was critically important in modern times.
Why? I suppose it is because it is about the hero’s (Ulysses and the modern Ulysses, Bloom) search for meaning amidst the challenges thrown at him by nasty outside forces. In the original, the outside forces are those mischievous gods. One offends the gods at one’s peril!
In Joyce’s version, it is the dehumanizing effect of day to day life. in the modern world. One lives as an outsider at one’s peril! But the adventure one finds in doing so may just make it worth while.
Here is an interesting factoid. In ancient Greece, the Illiad was the great epic poem that taught something profound about life. Of the two great epics, it was the more important.
What did it teach? It brings out a deep tension between the glory of fighting and the tragedy of killing. One cannot have one without the other, and both are essential to form the character of a man – quest for glory and empathy for suffering and death. And in each sub-story within the Illiad, each is brought out.
So is this relevant today? While we do not accept that killing makes the man a hero, I think we do well to think more deeply about this epic, and make it part of our lives.
Why? Because no story offers meaning to us without dramatic tension. Indeed, you might argue that modern man’s failure to understand that basic idea about life has made him rather stupid — endlessly trying to find meaning in events in themselves, and refusing to admit that events in themselves mean nothing. And so, we keep banging our heads against the wall and complaining that it hurts.
Can we better talk about the dramatic tension that frames our modern lives? I think so, and I offer two ideas that we might pursue.
The first is the tension between self love and love of others. This is the story of Achilles. Achilles is in love with his individual story. Indeed, that is the sole reason he came to fight at Troy — to create a story about himself that would be told for eternity. And he loves his closest companion, Patroclus. When Patroclus dies, Achilles goes mad because he is complicit in his death. His self-love kills his friend.
In our modern world, we have no shortage of great evocations of self-love. Our modern egos rage. And yet, we seem less aware that our self-love must be balanced with a great love of others. We risk the same sort of outcome that Achilles created.
The second is the tension between lust for the present and stewardship of the future. This is the story of Paris. Paris steals Helen away to Troy — solely out of his passion for her. He knows it will lead to trouble, but he apparently cannot help himself. And this brings on the war that in the end destroys Troy.
In our modern world, we are endlessly exhorted to make the most of the present. To live for “experiences”. To indulge in luxuries. And one wonders how well we see that this may be at the expense of the future our children will inherit.
- tension one – self love versus love of others
- tension two – present obsession versus future stewardship
My point — one can argue that our modern lives are bounded by these tensions. We can understand them, but we cannot escape them. They are at the core of our modern story. And yet, one may ask, do we have a modern epic poem that captures these tensions clearly and simply? An epic that we can turn to in order to better understand ourselves?
If this interests you, check out this fun video that takes you into the Iliad in more detail. I loved it!