No Homers Club
Enough about what people in the present think of the Odyssey. What does the Odyssey think about us?
The Wall Street Journal reports, with some panic, that “Even Homer Gets Mobbed.” How, exactly, do you mob someone who’s been dead for nearly three thousand years? The article explains: “A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts.” Unlike the carefully and sensitively crafted young-adult fiction of today, these classics risk doing harm to our children. One of the educators behind the slogan summed up its general theory: “Did y’all know that many of the ‘classics’ were written before the 50s? Think of US society before then & the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books. That is why we gotta switch it up.” Ugh, gross—the past.
In actual practice, what this mobbing of Homer amounted to was a single high school teacher proudly announcing that she’d removed the Odyssey from her English curriculum. This is a strange thing to be proud of, but not exactly a cataclysm. Even so, the article provoked a brief firestorm. It’s still worth asking, though: of all the people furious at this attack on the Odyssey, how many have actually read it? Do these culture warriors storm across the loud-roaring sea with sails unfurled, carrying a treasure of many tripods and copper bowls? Don’t be stupid. Who has the time? Never mind books of epic poetry; we can barely watch films, not without automatically messing around on our phones. Sometimes I’ll make the mental effort to turn the thing off and focus on the other, bigger screen—only to find my hands still fiddling with it a second later, tapping away of their own accord. We’re all living in a permanent daze; we need distractions from our distractions. Linear, sequential media is always too big and cumbersome for our churning algorithmic now.
The people outraged on Homer’s behalf don’t really care about his work; as always, the canon wars have very little to do with the actual texts contained in any given canon. Instead, Homer acts as a fetish-object, standing for some hazy concept of a Western tradition: the veneration of dead European males, the capitalist mode of production, the guns on the hips of the police. Poor blind Homer: they’ll pick him up by his feet and swing him around as a bludgeon. Never mind that the actual poet doesn’t really belong to anything called ‘the West,’ that he was probably not a European, and that (if you subscribe to certain eccentric Victorian theories) he might not have even been male. It doesn’t matter. Why think too much about the past? Don’t you know we’re in a war?
It’s hard to blame these people too much: nobody reads anything any more. One of the most popular thinkers in circles like #DisruptTexts is Frantz Fanon. When they rage against Achilles, it’s in his name: tear down these monuments to white supremacy! Build something better, more inclusive, more relevant in their place! It’s worth asking if any of the champions of Black Skin, White Masks have actually read their book either. Did they not notice that it’s an intricately structured Bildungsroman? Did they miss its glorious final chapter? “The Negro, however sincere, is the slave of the past. Nonetheless I am a man, and in this sense the Peloponnesian War is as much mine as the invention of the compass… I am a man, and what I have to recapture is the whole past of the world. I am not responsible solely for the revolt in Santo Domingo.” Frantz Fanon was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the twentieth century. Again, it doesn’t matter. He’s just another cudgel in the bush wars of our culture. A book is a large heavy object, useful for battering skulls.
This is the real threat to Homer, far more dangerous than any gang of cancel-happy mediocrities. He’s seen off better enemies than #DisruptTexts. Plato, quite famously, wanted to actually ban the poet by force of law: “If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city, instead of law and the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely, reason.” To properly institute the discourse of philosophy, he had to exclude literature, which is irrational and untrue, a false reflection that always comes with the risk of doing harm. Plato’s Academy was the first-ever chapter of the No Homers Club. Somehow, the Odyssey survived. What it might not survive is a society in which even the defenders of classical culture are now basically illiterate. Prime Minister Boris Johnson can make a spectacle out of reciting from memory “the greatest classics ever known,” but while his Greek is definitely better than mine, he still omits or improvises nearly half his lines. It’s not about Homer; it’s about constructing a certain vision of Boris-ness: the point of the classics is to legitimize the right of the ruling classes to rule.
But enough about what people in the present think of the Odyssey. The present is stupid and our opinions hardly matter. It might be more interesting to reverse things: what does the Odyssey think about us? Because whoever you are, it is relevant to your life, much more so than any crap young-adult novel about teens confronting their identities. It’s not just a product of its time, to be contextualized and then safely locked away in the oubliette of the past. It is addressed to you: to a human being, alive and suffering in the twenty-first century.
The world of the Odyssey is not like that of the Iliad. The song of Achilles is a social epic; one long squabble between opposing forces in a single camp, constantly at each other’s throats for the spoils. Achilles is the rebellious individual; Agamemnon embodies cruel and arbitrary authority. This is a very familiar story; it’s the same sort of Hunger Games-style narrative that commodity-culture is still endlessly producing today. Fantasies of rebellion are important for a growing child; they help you make your peace with the establishment in the end, just like Achilles does.
But the Odyssey is something else. We’re now on the open sea, far away from the agonisms of the polis. Lonely and wandering, untethered to any social whole. “You sail the sea as rovers, with your hands against every man, and every man’s hand against you.” Odysseus doesn’t angrily insist on his individuality; he’s been condemned to it. Odysseus is the figure of the human subject under neoliberalism.
See, for instance, the account of the Cyclopes, who “neither plant nor plough, but trust in providence, and live on such wheat, barley, and grapes as grow wild without any kind of tillage, and their wild grapes yield them wine as the sun and the rain may grow them. They have no laws nor assemblies of the people, but live in caves on the tops of high mountains; each is lord and master in his family, and they take no account of their neighbors.” In other words, they live with a superabundance of commodities that seem to appear all by themselves, plopping brightly into the realm of circulation, but social life is basically extinct. They are not afraid of Zeus. The island of the Cyclopes should sound familiar: you’re on it now.
In the Odyssey, we’re all reduced to the status of bare life. If the Iliad is about pride and prestige, the Odyssey is simply about eating: its world is one in which the social structures that make biological life possible are no longer assured. Odysseus delivers the poem’s manifesto in Book XVII: “A man cannot hide away the cravings of a hungry belly: this is an enemy which gives much trouble to all men; it is because of this that ships are fitted out to sail the seas.” Even when he travels to the underworld to speak with the ghosts of Agamemnon, Achilles, and his own mother, the spirits first appear as monsters, almost zombie-like: demonic creatures whose only speech is a “strange kind of screaming sound.” The dead can only speak in words once they’ve been fed: our hero digs a ditch at the mouth of Hades, and fills it with blood for them to drink.
Every time Odysseus and his followers arrive on an island, one of two things happens. It’s possible that they will be warmly welcomed by their hosts, bathed, rubbed with olive oil, and given something to eat. But the opposite possibility is always in play: perhaps, his hosts will try to eat him. The Cyclops, who has storehouses full of food, still wants to eat Odysseus; so does Circe, surrounded by her animals. It’s a schema right out of Marx: somehow, material surplus doesn’t reduce the hunger, the need to consume human bodies in the system of profit; if anything, it speeds it up.
Adorno and Horkheimer knew what this ocean meant. “Abandoned to the vagaries of the waves, helplessly cut off, they are forced by their isolation into a ruthless pursuit of their atomistic interest. They embody the principle of the capitalist economy even before they make use of any worker.” (Their essay on the Odyssey is one of the most brilliant pieces of Homeric scholarship ever written, which is part of why it’s so weird to see the Wall Street Journal include “critical-theory ideologues” among the enemies of the classics. As Lukács complained, “those who do not know Marxism at all or know it only superficially or at second-hand” tend to be “surprised at the respect for the classical heritage of mankind which one finds in the really great representatives of that doctrine and by their incessant references to that classical heritage.”)
But the lonely ocean doesn’t simply exist outside of society: it’s spreading, cracking the social world open at its joins. While Odysseus is out crossing oceans, back in Ithaca society is in a state of collapse. Not just that: it’s the kind of collapse prescribed by the Chicago school. The ruling classes of the island have abandoned any idea of the common welfare: they’ve become an extractive mob, ransacking the coffers of the state and privatizing its assets. All the island’s cattle are being slaughtered to fuel a series of endless feasts, fading limbos of pleasure and entertainment. (In the end, Odysseus comes back and murders these parasites, but he spares Phemius, the bard who performed for them. Homer wants to believe that culture can still be innocent. It’s worth noting, though, that his characters do not themselves read or write; like us, they are outside the kingdom of the written word.) In Book II, like all the disappointed rich boys that would follow him, Telemachus even attempts to incite a proletarian revolt. It fails. It always does.
So how did this happen? How did a piece of oral literature nearly three thousand years old manage to express the condition of our present? Plausibly, it’s because the Odyssey is a horror story. (That episode with the ghosts sort of gives it away.) Deleuze and Guattari suggest that pre-capitalist societies understood capitalism very clearly; they could see it in their nightmares. “Capitalism has haunted all forms of society… it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes.” A kind of null point, an apocalypse of any society; the monster that became the world. And this monster is, as they argue in the same text, “profoundly illiterate. Writing has never been capitalism’s thing.” What “survives in us” is only “the memory of extinct signs with which we still write.” Here, at least, they weren’t wrong.
The Odyssey is a letter to you, a message sent from the very beginning of the literate age to its end. This is one of those little ironies the Greeks liked so much. By the time it reached its destination, there was nobody who could read it.
Sam Kriss is a writer and dilettante surviving in London.