The term “classics” both refers to the study of the Greco-Roman world and summons the omnipotence of the word “classic.” A classic is a combination of the foundational, exceptional, and influential, something that, as Italo Calvino wrote, “has never finished saying what it has to say.” A classic is something that you have always experienced, in some other way, before you experience the classic itself. And a classic can often feel as if it has already been experienced for you. The wonder I experienced upon my first readings of Homer, in a college Great Books course, was the wonder of being linked to a chain of readers more than a millennium long. It was a chain that I could hold onto, but whose weight I felt in every line. As Calvino wrote, “If I read the Odyssey, I read Homer’s text, but I cannot forget all that the adventures of Ulysses have come to mean in the course of the centuries.”
Some of the adventures of Odysseus—the clever warrior-king who sacked Troy and spent ten years outwitting monsters and surviving shipwrecks to return home—are still fixtures of popular culture, identifiable even to those who have never read the actual poem. The Odyssey has exerted, and still exerts, an undeniable influence on storytelling. It certainly would be hard to call yourself a serious student of literature without having read the Odyssey. It’s one of those books that seemingly transcends appraisals of “like” or “dislike.” It just is. The question: What does the Odyssey still have to say?
It says a great deal to Daniel Mendelsohn, a memoirist, critic and translator, best known for his 2006 book The Lost, in which he spends years trying to uncover what happened to six family members during the Holocaust. Mendelsohn is also a classicist and ancient texts permeate his work. Whether he’s investigating human fantasies of robots, the controversy surrounding the burial of Boston Marathon Bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, or his own double-life as a gay city-dweller and suburban father-figure, Mendelsohn often looks to the works of Ancient Greece and Rome to not only find answers to modern questions, but to demonstrate that the same questions existed thousands of years ago.
His new book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic, does more than reference classics. Here, the act of reading Homer tests a father-son relationship, and the larger meaning of classics for modern lives. As a child and teenager, Daniel—romantic, literary, esoteric—had difficulty connecting with his father Jay, a somewhat severe mathematician, prone to grudges (at various points, he broke off contact with both of his brothers). In 2011, Jay has retired and asks Daniel, now teaching at Bard College, if he can sit in on his Odyssey seminar. In high school, Mendelsohn senior had read Ovid (Oh-vid, in his Bronx accent), but stopped at that, about which he would often express regret to his classicist son. “Speaking in the slightly musing way that he had,” Jay would tell Daniel this story many times, “as if by telling it over and over again he might finally understand why the rest of his life had come out the way it had.”
Jay’s sense of failure comes as a surprise to the reader, given his response to the Odyssey. Sitting in the back of the classroom full of kids a quarter his age, Jay kvetches about how Odysseus is a lying adulterer, Telemachus an obedient weakling, and Homer simply wrong about love, war and justice. To his son’s annoyance, the other students occasionally agree with Jay. The characters and their actions, the students protest, are inexplicable and off-putting. Their comments, which at first seem so stereotypically stoner-freshman (“Yeah, it’s weird that he kind of goes from zero to 60 here—ten minutes ago he was nobody”) betray a real anxiety. Presented with a work that they’re supposed to identify with, the students nervously stare into the mirror of The Odyssey and don’t see a reflection.
Mendelsohn Senior begins to appreciate Homer (and perhaps his son) more after he and Daniel go on a ten-day “Odyssey Cruise” together, visiting Odysseus’s various stops in the Mediterranean. The narrative isn’t quite so straightforward. The book is split into three main sections: The first concerns Daniel’s childhood, the second the cruise, and the third a reflection on the end of Jay’s life. This tripartite structure mimics the Odyssey, which starts with Telemachus searching for his father, moves to Odysseus’s accounts of his adventures, and ends with Odysseus’s return home to his wife Penelope and father Laertes. Woven amongst the sections are scenes from that Bard seminar, as well as Mendelsohn’s summaries and interpretations of the relevant Odyssey passages. The decidedly non-chronological structure isn’t always successful—some shifts, especially within the same sentence, leave one feeling a bit nauseated, like driving on a switchback road. Overall the scheme works, not because it’s an imitation of the Odyssey, but because Mendelsohn is able to embed certain moments within a deep context that, in a traditional narrative, would have come 100 pages before, and been long forgotten by the reader.
At the end of the semester, Daniel laments that he “had never found a way to persuade [his father] of the beauty and usefulness of this great work, whose hero he still didn’t find very heroic, whose structural ingenuities left him cold, whose famously fascinating protagonist had failed to fascinate him.” Daniel’s disappointment is double. Yet again the father fails to appreciate something cherished by the son. More disconcerting, though, is that an educated, successful man remains unconvinced of Homer’s worth. In Mendelsohn’s earlier works, classics slip in and out unhampered and unquestioned, like a friend with a key to the house. In An Odyssey, a classic frames a story in which one of the characters is skeptical of the work’s very value. Besides creating page-turning narrative tension between the two protagonists, Jay’s skepticism raises a question: What good are classics to a modern life?
An Odyssey hints at an answer, both when it is soul-stirring and when it is, on occasion, plodding. Which of these effects Mendelsohn achieves depends on whether he is engaging with the Odyssey or mimicking it. I ground down half a pencil underlining Mendelsohn’s assessment that “the best teacher is the one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him. In this way—because it arises from an acceptance of the inevitability of death—good teaching is like good parenting.” This emerald of an insight doesn’t come from a close reading of Homer. It comes from Mendelsohn reflecting on his teachers after he himself has become one, one who struggles with the gap between his love of a work and that of those around him. Many other jewel-like moments and meditations arise in a similar manner. Mendelsohn does not so much transmit the importance of Homer as the importance of loving something.
The moments in which Mendelsohn draws parallels between the Odyssey and his own life are, less fruitful. In one section, Mendelsohn relates how Odysseus is a “circular” traveler (he started in Ithaca and comes back in a roundabout way) to a moment when, as a child, he and his father were stuck on a plane that had to fly in circles for hours before being allowed to land. The analogy is clever, but also feels slightly empty. Looking to the Odyssey to give a memory meaning makes the memory seem weak, as if resemblance to something greater and older was the most it could be. Mendelsohn seems to be trying to collapse the spacetime divide between Homer’s world and ours, to modernize the epic and make epic the modern. In comparison to those moments of love, though, these parallels feel perfunctory.
The entire value of classical literature is often defended in terms of resemblance and inheritance. In 1991, in the pages of this magazine, Irving Howe defended traditional, Greco-Roman heavy “Great Books” courses, arguing: “Such courses, if they are to have any value, must focus primarily on the intellectual and cultural traditions of Western society. That, like it or not, is where we come from and that is where we are. All of us who live in America are, to some extent, Western: it gets to us in our deepest and also our most trivial habits of thought and speech, in our sense of right and wrong, in our idealism and our cynicism.” Classics, he implies, are of public, not private, importance.
Talking of Americans as a homogenous “we,” and of homogenous origins, feels increasingly fallacious, of course. Even if one agrees with Howe’s appraisal of America, it falls into the familiar trap of “These books are our origins, therefore we seen ourselves in them, therefore they must mean something.” Quite often, Mendelsohn’s students don’t see themselves in the Odyssey. This should come as no surprise, because the world of Homer—of all classical authors—is radically different than that of the twenty-first century American reader. It’s essential, I believe, to accept, even rejoice in, this difference. The joy of reading Classics is the joy of the traveler, who enters a world unlike their own and decides if this world inspires them. For some, like Daniel Mendelsohn, that foreign world is a place they want to return to again and again. For others, it is just too distant. Ultimately, the Classics will survive because of the love of the former group, rather than the fealty of the latter.
Should Classics still be taught? Of course. The highest compliment one can pay the Classics, however, is to acknowledge that their strange beauty won’t, and needn’t, appeal to everyone. Rather than stone telamons that hold society up, Homer and Plato and Ovid are bodies that some embrace and feel, still, a heartbeat. Or, to use a more modern example, classics are like The Grateful Dead. And we should all remember what Jerry Garcia said: “Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”