Daniel Mendelsohn has provided us with a lively and insightful commentary on The Odyssey, which, along with The Iliad, both by Homer, are two of the best known and most influential works in classical literature. Reading Mendelson’s gloss on the epic can serve as a vivid reminder of a previous readings or studies of classical mythology, perhaps in the distant past. Or it can serve as an inspiration to read the work. (There’s a much-praised, recently-released translation by Emily Wilson, the first female translator). It can also serve as an enjoyable shortcut to learn about the ingenious plotting and the colorful characters that have been the inspiration for many contemporary stories and have provide editorial writers with resonant allusions.
Mendelsohn carefully explains the “acrobatic” plot and endeavors to account for the digressions and strange appendages to the central story line, the return of Trojan War warrior Ulysses after twenty years to Ithaca where Penelope, his long-suffering wife, is fending off rapacious suitors and where Telemachus, the son he has never seen, is seeking the identity of his absent father and trying to fashion his own brand of heroic action. He’s most interested in bringing to the surface the subtle patterns that undergird the text, for instance, the contrast between the homecoming fates of two warriors, Odysseus and Agamemnon, and the similarities between the episodes involving Calypso and Circe, two seductresses who delay Odysseus’s return to Ithaca. Throughout he stresses the modern applications of the myth written at the end of the 8th century B.C., especially the motivations of the characters who face wartime loss, spousal infidelity, physical decline, and shifting political alliances.
Mendelsohn is a scholar with a ready reading knowledge of Greek and a record of scholarly accomplishments admired by his fellow classicists, but he writes for the layman. He wears his learning lightly. And he writes with a passion about his subject that one simply doesn’t find in the Cliff and Spark Notes summaries.
One would be satisfied enough with the explication of the story, but Mendelsohn also embeds this instruction in an account of a Spring 2011 semester class on The Odyssey to undergraduates at Bard College, a highly selective institution located 100 miles north of New York City. Thus, An Odyssey is a wonderful account of a dedicated and sensitive teacher who is challenged to make the work come alive for undergraduates, only a few of whom are classics majors. We observe the thought that goes into his classroom predication influenced by the pre-class contributions that the students make to the course blog. We observe the gentle way that he pushes students to see the larger meanings of the individual details and then to read new details in light of the larger design.
He expresses exasperation when students pass blithely over story elements that he believes are important. His insistence on bringing an overlooked detail to the attention of students leads one of his bolder students to challenge him, claiming that the teacher has ready-made answers behind the apparently open-ended questions and will not give up until students agree with him. In his end-of-semester self-appraisal he freely admits that he did not do a sufficiently good job listening to students and following their lead.
The classroom memoir provides him with the opportunity to pay tribute to two influential mentors, one at the undergraduate level and another his graduate school dissertation director, who ignited and shaped his academic career. And it’s one of many opportunities to show how our modern vocabulary is shaped by the epic: Mentor is one of the disguises used by the god Athena, who provides guidance for Telemachus during his father’s prolonged absence. At the end of the semester he takes pride in the fact that one of his students has elected to do classics in graduate school, thus adding another link to the long chain of scholarship.
The class is a remarkable class but it is even more remarkable because it includes a special guest: the teacher’s 81-year old father Jay. This convergence of a teaching assignment, a classroom of undergraduates, and the presence of the father gives Mendelsohn an open invitation for a sustained meditation on the father-son relationship conducted under the influence of one of the most memorable father-son relationships, that of Odysseus and Telemachus. Just as Telemachus searches for information about his father, one of the great heroes of the Trojan War, Daniel (often Danny to his father) tries to plumb the meaning of his father’s life, especially the life lived prior to his marriage and fatherhood. Parents know all of their children’s lives; the children know their parents partially.
While the relationship between father and son has never been hostile, it has never been affectionate or even intimate. Jay is a scientist by training and disposition. He is a straight talker and anti-romantic. Before becoming a professor of computer science, he worked at Grumman Corporation and was working on moving object tracking software and on subparts of the lunar landing in the late 60s. But he rarely shares memories of his professional life or even his personal life as a Jewish kid growing up in Depression-era Brooklyn. Jay’s a recluse, perhaps, his son speculates, by virtue of a lonely childhood at home with a much older sibling, a younger one who is physically disabled, and an electrician father frequently away on work assignments for long stretches. Daniel prefers the example of his always- present and much more gregarious mother, a New York City public school teacher, a classy woman who seems to barely tolerate the often boorish husband.
So both father and son welcome the opportunity, the curious father because he believes that one is never to old for learning and the son because he believes the mutual exploration of the epic will serve as a can-opener for his father’s concealed past. Jay proves to be not as disruptive or embarrassing as Daniel fears. Instead, he proves to be a welcomed addition to the class, challenging the whole notion of Odysseus’s heroism by citing the frequent assistance that he and Telemachus receive from the gods, the character’s penchant for lying, and his deep distrust for the motivations of other characters, all defects that Daniel tries to turn inside out. The son is convinced that his father’s skepticism is a result of his belief that life is a struggle and the difficult path must always be walked alone. Choosing the hard way is a moral imperative for Jay, and he reads Odysseus’s decisions against this standard.
Since Jay lives on Long Island a full 150 minutes away from Bard, he stays overnight at his son’s house before or after class. Early morning breakfasts and nightcaps give the two an opportunity to explore the Homer’s narrative and the narrative of their shared history. Additionally, at the suggestion of his graduate school mentor, Daniel invites his father on a Retracing the Odyssey summer cruise, an opportunity to visit locations thought to be the sites of the episodes in the epic. The feeble father, fearful of falling, proves to be more durable and companionable than his son thought possible. In the final accounting, under the skin of the objective scientist beats the heart of an inquisitive and compassionate humanist. The father loves and needs stories just as much as his son.
An illness that befalls Jay spurs his son to seek out Jay’s relatives and his co-workers at Grumman to get a fuller measure of the man. He is able to solve many of the mysteries around his father, especially the “genius” father’s decisions to not accept an appointment to West Point and not to finish his dissertation. And he seeks out his students to learn about their impressions of Jay; to the person they confirm that in private conversations on trains and in coffee shops the grandfatherly Jay was deeply interested in their lives, much to the surprise of his son.
Mendelsohn’s work moves easily between literary criticism, the narrative of a professor’s, the account of a classroom experience, a travelogue, and a family memoir. It’s designed to parallel the Odyssey which interweaves the past and the present and which unexpectedly but delightfully navigates the tributaries to the major river. Foremost, its an invitation to all of its readers to gather and celebrate their own stories, informing them with stories like Homers that are the touchstones of the culture.