The Odyssey

Contrary to Judd’s advice, I’m reading The Odyssey in tandem with Ulysses (well, partially contrary to Judd’s advice — he suggests familiarity but also figures that a simplified version suffices). I’m vaguely familiar with a lot of the stories and have read quite a bit of Greek mythology to my daughter in the last year (this is a great book to read with little kids, by the way), but I’ve never read The Odyssey through from start to finish. Ten or eleven years ago, I think I checked it out of the library to read on an airplane, but I got distracted and never finished. It’s high time I read the thing, and what better timing could there be?

I’ve already documented how I’ve found Ulysses so far to be anything but transparent. To augment my reading, I worked my way through both the illustrations and the annotations for the UlyssesSeen project, and it was all very illuminating. The fine folk over there note that Joyce is very money-conscious throughout the book, and they bring to the foreground how Mulligan is leaning on Dedalus for money — a striking fact given that Mulligan has more elevated social status than Dedalus, so that you’d think he’d have more money too. Mulligan shamelessly pumps him for rent, for milk money, and for booze money, and he finally asks for the very key to the lodging. Mulligan is quite simply a parasite.

Parasitism turns out to be a major theme of the first two books of The Odyssey. I wonder, in fact, if a simplified or child’s version such as what Judd suggests would highlight the theme. The basic storyline for the opening of the poem is that Odysseus has been away from home (fighting the long battle of Troy and then waylaid on his home journey) for ages. His son, Telemachus, was a youngster when he left but is now coming into adulthood. Penelope (Mom) has been fighting off suitors for several years now. They all figure that Odysseus is dead, and Penelope is apparently pretty hot stuff. What I had never thought of before reading the epic is that it’s not as if the suitors are swinging by one at a time to take her out to The Olive Garden and have her home by midnight. No, all these guys are lounging about drinking Odysseus’s wine, killing and eating his animals, and generally wreaking havoc and making themselves at home on Odysseus’s/Telemachus’s dime. For years and years. After a helpful visit from Athena, Telemachus decides he’s not going to take it anymore, and he tries to give the suitors the boot. Several times he mentions how they’re mooching off of him (this is emerging as a rhetorical device in the epic, by the way, the repetition — often in the same words — of an anecdote or notion) and how he wants them gone.

It takes the visit from Athena to give Telemachus a kick in the pants. Similarly, maybe it takes a visit from the milk woman (credit to UlyssesSeen for the idea) to give Dedalus a kick. The counting out of money must serve as a bitter reminder to Dedalus of what a moocher Mulligan has been. And the first episode of Ulysses ends, apparently, with Dedalus effectively wiping his hands of the tower and of Mulligan.

All this to say that so far, I’m finding a parallel reading of The Odyssey to be of more value than I might have expected given Judd’s comments. It’s certainly not indispensable companion reading, but I’m finding it interesting. It also happens to be pretty entertaining and sort of anthropologically fascinating on its own.