So, here I am with my maritime theme; am I interested in seafaring? I think not, and yet, as a literary subject, I think I very much am. Or, if you will, as a chronotope. From Margaret Cohen’s fascinating essay, “The Chronotopes of the Sea”:
There are six waterside chronotopes across the history of the English and French literary traditions that date back to the novel’s prehistory in antique forms. These chronotopes are (1) blue water, the open sea; (2) brown water, the murky depths of the river; (3) white water, when bodies of water are riled up into extreme natural danger; (4) the island, land entirely surrounded by water; (5) the shore, a zone of contact between land and sea; and (6) the ship, an unstable piece of terra firma that propels humans across the sea’s inhospitable territory.
I will say that I am not terribly interested in brown water, although Cohen’s discussion makes it sound like I could be. And while I am interested in the island and the shore, I have tried to segregate them from my current undertaking, though I have considered a future island/seaside course of reading as well.
Cohen describes blue water as
the realm of the open ocean containing immense and violent powers of weather, terrain (currents, tide, water depth), monstrous animals, and aggressive warriors, as well as pirates and adventurers seeking gain in unpoliced zones beyond the control of sovereign and law. On blue water, individual characters test their agency by meeting these violent forces and struggling to survive the clash among them.
There is a lot of blue water in The Odyssey. (In fact, Cohen does not limit her discussion to the English and French literary traditions, as she brings up The Odyssey to illustrate several points.)
Continue reading Odysseus on the Wine-Dark Sea
So, my favorite thing about The Odyssey might be its almost incessant repetition. I had worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a real feel for the language of the poem, but in fact the words are hypnotic.
First, there are the epithets, metrical stopgaps that were an important part of oral poetry. Basically, everyone gets a set of adjectives to help his name fit into any necessary spot on a line, in any necessary case. Some examples from Bernard Knox’s introduction to the Penguin edition of the Robert Fagles translation I read:
Odysseus, for example, is “much-enduring,” “a man of many schemes,” “godlike” and “great-hearted”; the island of Ithaca is “rocky,” “seagirt” and “clear-skied”; ships are “hollow,” “swift” and “well-benched,” to list only some of the often polysyllabic epithets attached to them.
There are many, many more, and they swirl around just about every reference to a character or object common in the poem. And in addition to these there are stock phrases that are almost epithets (“bright-eyed girl,” “deathless goddess,” “blissful gods”). The effect of both is a sense of intense familiarity with nearly everything that appears—we know their characteristics inside and out. Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus, has bright gray eyes, is deathless, blissful, and wise. The ships are swift, hollow, black with pitch, and scud along the waves. And the sea is “fish-infested.”
It was another type of repetition though that did me in. Passages two, three, a dozen lines long, repeated two, three, a dozen times throughout the text. Everything is a ritual in The Odyssey, from “when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more” to the retellings of Odysseus’s trials themselves (did I mention how much I love framed stories? there are only about a million here). Hospitality is a
Continue reading No fear in your heart? Wine’s got to your wits?—or do you always play the fool and babble nonsense?
So last week I told the consumption partner about the upcoming maritime theme. He is, as a rule, completely uninterested in the blog, but this got him very excited. He even started recommending books! One of his suggestions was a funny one, not really what you would think of as maritime literature at all, but sailing and the sea do play a large role in it, and it will also serve as my first and possibly greatest de-humiliation of the year: The Odyssey.
My first reaction was, what a great idea, a good way to start the year and the theme and get this big awesome de-humiliation out of the way. My second reaction was, how do I connect with this piece of literature? I have read a very little bit of Ancient Greek stuff before, way back in high school. But in general I don’t read many things so far removed, and I don’t read much in translation. It makes me nervous. I felt like I wouldn’t know what to do, since between the translation and the oral nature of the poem, the words seem so slippery, and all I’m looking at is the words.
That was pretty silly though. I felt better after reading Bernard Knox’s excellent introduction to the Robert Fagles translation I have, and just kind of jumped in. And I like it a surprising amount. (Warning from the CP: classical lit is pretty much all downhill from here.)
So, after that, a tentative list for the remainder of the theme (with thanks especially to Amateur Reader—several items on your list were things I’d considered but wasn’t sure about):
The Voyages of Captain Cook by James Cook Narrative of the Mutiny by William Bligh The Loss of the Ship “Essex”, Sunk by a Whale by Owen
Continue reading Who would willingly roam across a salty waste so vast, so endless?