There be dragons!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dimock Odysseus and the Cattle of Helios

In his most excellent article entitled “The Name of Odysseus” (Hudson Review 1956), G.E. Dimock ostensibly treats the etymological roots of the name of Homer’s hero. Dimmock claims that the name comes from the Greek word “To odysseus” (odyssasthai in Greek)” which usually is said to mean “‘be wroth against,’ ‘hate,’” and is “connected with the Latin odisse.” (Dimock 52) The title, however is misleading as the article though only briefly dealing with the roots of the name is actually about the nature of pain. Dimock makes a remarkably profound statement about the nature of pain saying that
For Odysseus to choose to pursue the path of his painful identity as he did on
Circe’s beach, is to win power over and recognition from, that ambiguous
daughter of Sun, the life-giver, and Ocean, the all-engulfing. It is also
to accept pain as the only real basis of meaning in this life or the next. (61)

Essentially, Dimock claims, the story of Odysseus is a story about accepting the pain of being human in order to make a name for yourself; to leave the security of the womb of nonbeing and enter into that painful world of human identity;
Leaving Kalypso is very like leaving the perfect security and satisfaction of
the womb; but, as the Cyclops reminds us, the womb is after all a deadly
place. In the womb one has no identity, no existence worthy of a name.
(58)

Dimock is very correct in suggesting that “there is no human identity in other terms than pain” (63) and that “in a world without trouble love must be as little serious as the affair of Ares and Aphrodite.” (64) Indeed without the trials of suffering these glories seem meaningless and life seems tedious and dark. Men who avoid pain or succumb to its trials become, in a word, monsters. It is significant to note, therefore, that the threefold distinction of pain which Dimock makes has direct bearing on the episode of Odysseus’ men and the cattle of the sun. Dimock claims that
Teiresias implies three modes of pain: first, pain administered… (second) the
pain of the resisted impulse… and third to introduce the idea of trouble (or
pain) to those who, like the Phaeacians, are not sufficiently aware of it. (65)

The first two modes are the role of the student, the third that of the teacher; the undergraduate, the graduate student, and the professor, so to speak. Odysseus is successful in all three modes of pain. But because he endures the first and holds himself against the second he becomes a teacher or mentor of others, so to speak. His men do not. Because they refuse to endure the “resisted impulse” they fall victim to the monstrousness of oblivion. As Dimock points out “…the life of pain contemplated in the Odyssey is fruitful, not sadistic. The ultimate object is recognition and the sense of one’s own existence, not the pain itself.” (69) This recognition of our own existence, the Greeks held, was the very essence of the spiritual and educational life. Their phrase, gnothi seauton, or “know thyself”, was the distinguishing mark between men and non-men. Odysseus men, because they rejected pain for their own gustatorial satisfaction, become pigs, or worse than pigs, they become men who are pigs; and in such transformation they become monstrous and fit only for destruction.

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