Sunday, 10 June 2012

What's so bad about Cyclops?

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm re-reading the Odyssey. It's many years since I last set out to read it cover to cover.  On this occasion I've chosen the E.V. Rieu translation, published by Penguin - not poetry but a quick and pleasurable read in prose.  It's probably the best translation if you want - as I do now - to read for the story.  

At times I'm struck by how familiar the people seem.  I've reached Book IX, where Odysseus meets Nausicaa, the young princess.  It's a hilarious encounter.  Nausicaa is by the stream with other young women, doing the laundry when Odysseus, who has been shipwrecked on the shore, wakes up from the bed of leaves he has made in the nearby woods. He needs to ask for help but is faced with a problem - he is completely naked.  In the end, he does he maintains his modesty by holding a branch in front of him - and decides it is best not to ask for help in the usual way by kneeling before the princess and clasping her knees.

The comedy of Odysseus' situation develops - and then it gives way to something rather different.  Odysseus becomes a guest in the household of King Alcinous, and, after all the rituals due to a guest (bathing, feasting, libations, drinking and so on), Odysseus starts to tell the story of his adventures. For instance, he explains the way in which he and his men would raid settlements, kill the men, rob the settlements and enslave the women.  There is no moral justification for this - it's treated as a perfectly ordinary way of carrying on so long as there is no breach of the obligations of hospitality.  By contrast, the behaviour of the Cyclops is seen as deeply shocking, in ways that the editor of the Penguin edition points out.

If you know anything about Cyclops, you probably know that they are one-eyed giants who practise cannibalism.  But in the world of the Odyssey, their size and cannibalism aren't the only strange things about them.  There are also two important things they do not do.  They don't build ships - and as a result they don't trade or have the habit of visiting other communities.  And, even more significantly, they don't meet in assemblies to conduct business and make laws.  Although there are social interactions - Cyclops listen out for one another and come to one another's help - each family has its own individual laws and customs.  In other words, they don't take part in politics (the word comes from the Greek polis, which means the city state).  They live entirely private lives.

Odysseus and a group of his men are trapped in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus.  There they observe his domestic arrangements.  He is an efficient farmer - even a kindly one, by today's standards.  He lets his flocks into the cave at night where he milks the ewes before putting their lambs back beside them.  This seems to suggest that he takes only the superfluous milk, which he uses to make cheese.  In the morning he lets the sheep out to graze.  But he starts to eat Odysseus' men, two at a time.

When Odysseus sets out to trick him, he does so through a version of gift-exchange, which Polyphemus seems to recognize in a limited way.  He gives Polyphemus fine and very strong wine and Polyphemus reciprocates by promising that he will eat Odysseus last - not a very adequate response.  But the wine renders Polyphemus drunk - there's a particularly disgusting description of him vomiting as a result, and bringing up chunks of the men he has just eaten - allowing Odysseus and his men to blind him.  This will give them the opportunity to escape when Polyphemus next opens the cave.

This set me reflecting that, while we would agree that Polyphemus is wrong to eat people, the other standards by which Polyphemus shows his lack of civilization apply less today than they did thirty or forty years ago.  We may not eat strangers but the idea of hospitality as a virtue seems to be slipping away.  In the Odyssey, whenever a courteous stranger arrives and asks for help, the rules of decent behaviour dictate that he will be given a bath, food and drink before he is even asked his name, that he will be provided with somewhere to sleep and will be given generous gifts.

In the time of the Odyssey, a properly-evolved society is also seen as one in which there is a widespread obligation to take part in political decision-making: to work out, through talk with others, what laws should apply.  There aren't equal societies - slaves don't take part in politics and women's status is mostly based on their relationship to men.  But it's not a dictatorship either - decisions are made after discussion.  Speaking well in public forums is valued as much as action.

When I think about society today, it has more in common than the life of the Cyclops than I would like.  The life we live is largely private - solitary or with family and friends.  Most talk and grumbling about politics takes place in the private sphere and without any sense that it will change anything.  Our society doesn't do much to welcome strangers either.  At least we don't eat them.

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