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Do You Know What an Odyssey Is?

Eva Brann

My title is a query: “Do you know what an odyssey is?” I’m asking every of you to ask your self: “Do I know what an odyssey is?”

In studying as in touring and, in fact, in lovemaking, all of the allure lies in not coming too shortly to the purpose, however in meandering round for some time. So let me name for a outing earlier than the sport has correctly begun, and let me backtrack earlier than ever having began on the street.

I requested you a query. Earlier than having acquired to know a single considered one of you I requested you all a query. The query stared out at you from posters across the campus. Overlook for a second what the query was asking—you in all probability pay minimal consideration anyway to this and to most posted intrusions in your consciousness—and focus on the mere query. Ask yourselves: What is a query? A few of you, these sufficient to show that query over in your thoughts, may sense that there’s something bizarre about it: It looks like a self-defeating, paradoxical, Catch-22 query. How can somebody who doesn’t know what a query is ask what something is, together with a query? How can we make sure we are literally doing no matter one does when asking a query earlier than we all know what we’re imagined to do? But we do it on a regular basis—we simply ask away.

Now when issues are happening in life that appear unattainable in thought—that’s the second at which one thing flashes out, for some individuals and I hope for a lot of amongst you, that has the identify “wonder.” Marvel is that sense of fascinated estrangement from your self and your world that makes you assume. Each of the 2 nice historic philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, assume that marvel is the origin of that peculiarly looking sort of thought referred to as philosophy. Plato has Socrates say: “This is indeed the special feeling the philosopher has—wondering” (Theatetus 155D). Aristotle says: “It was because of wondering that people first began to philosophize” (Metaphysics 982 b12). Marvel is the sense, which is available in a flash however gained’t go away, that issues will not be as simple as they appear, that the strange approach, or rationalization and argument leaves you with insufferable contradictions and impossibilities. And philosophy kicks in once you begin to take your puzzlement critically and assume it out articulately. Everybody who’s aroused to inquiring thought by a contradiction is willy-nilly a thinker; Allow us to subsequently philosophize collectively by pursuing the obvious paradox of asking about questions.

What then is a query? To start with, I’d reply that there are numerous sorts of questions. In fact, all of them finish with a query mark, they usually virtually all demand some type of response. However past that they’re very totally different. Let me offer you examples, as in the event you couldn’t consider lots yourselves.

“May I see your driver’s license?” is a wolf of a query in sheep’s garments. It’s merely a well mannered order, a police query. The protected response is to conform. “How long was Odysseus gone from Ithaca?” is a pretend query, an instance of the notorious class of “teacher’s questions.” It’s a demand for spitting out information that the instructor already is aware of. One deserved however unsafe reply can be: “Why ask me, it’s in the book if you really want to know.” (By the way, the reply is: twenty years, ten preventing earlier than Troy, three seafaring on an ocean of fantasy, seven with the nymph Calypso, seventeen extra days on a raft, a few days in magical Phaeacia, after which, after twenty years, Odysseus wakes up with all his treasure on the shore of his island residence, Ithaca.)

Right here’s one other query: “What do you mean, this country is a democracy? Just look at what we did to…” and you then identify the sufferer of the day. That’s the sort of query notably referred to as “questioning” as in “questioning our values.” The “we” and “our” in such questions is pure generosity on the a part of the questioner, who does not likely assume he’s a part of the difficulty. These are reformer’s questions and they’re implicit accusations, not so totally different in really feel from “Why do I have to tell you everything twice?” To which the peaceful reply isn’t “Because I stopped listening long ago,” however an keen present of listening.

Right here is yet one more, very critical, type of query: “Is there a way to immunize an at-risk population against an endemic virus?”. That is the sort of life-and-death query referred to as a “problem.” It’s complemented by a methodical inquiry. If an reply is discovered, the issue is solved and the query belongs to historical past. Our dwelling curiosity in it fades shortly, and funding goes elsewhere.

Lastly there are the questions induced by marvel: What is goodness? Does understanding what goodness is have an assignable relation to being good? What does it imply to be or to not be and is being higher than not-being—a query you will have all heard Hamlet utter, however not maybe taken as significantly as one ought to, contemplating that whereas we’re alive the power to be or to not be is our final energy. Excited about such questions essentially drives you into asking others: Is demise the top of life? What comes afterwards? Is a divinity watching?

Let me name these questions true questions, as a result of they don’t go away. Some would say that they don’t go away as a result of in contrast to well-formulated issues they neither dictate a transparent widespread technique of inquiry nor have a universally acceptable reply. Their pesky perennialism is subsequently purely the impact of their unanswerability. I don’t assume so. First it’s a must to know rather a lot, in truth you need to know every thing, to know that such questions are in precept unanswerable. I occur to know that college students discover solutions they will reside with day-after-day. I feel such questions don’t go away as a result of, in contrast to issues that get solved and stop to be an difficulty, questions of this type grow to be the extra partaking the nearer they arrive to the reply. That’s as a result of those that really ask lengthy for the reply not as a result of they need to be completed with the issue, however as a result of they actually need the reply to be with them; they need to reside by its mild. Let me give a hypothetical instance of what I imply. Suppose after a life given to the search for God you discovered your self out of the blue standing earlier than His Throne. You wouldn’t rub your palms and say, “Well,—that’s that” and lose curiosity. It will be a starting, not an finish.

I appear to have evaded our paradox by surveying the sector of questions and classifying them. Nevertheless it acquired me just a little additional as a result of I picked out the sort of query I actually care about.

So again to the unique query: What is a query, a real query in my phrases? Maybe the inquiry is just not so hopeless for those who make the following beginning speculation, throwing logic to the winds. Recall the logical quandary: In the event you don’t already know what a query is, you possibly can’t ask what it’s. And so about any search: If its object is unknown to you, you’ll haven’t any method to acknowledge it in the event you come on it. However logic, although indispensable to the considering that goes in stretches, spanning the best way from right here to there, just isn’t very useful find the correct starting, and it should have solely a restricted say in deciding the result. If a stretch of rigorously logical considering results in a humanly mad end result, suspect the beginnings and don’t be co-opted by the rigor. Therefore, formally talking, it might be unattainable to ask what something is, and above all, to ask what a query is. But in actual life we simply do it. The speculation that provides us help says that the truth is we already know the reply—indirectly. Socrates calls this sense that in pursuing a real query we’re delving into one thing acquainted, “recollection.” To ask such a query we now have to have a way that we’re about to recollect one thing we now have all the time recognized after which we dredge it up. Questions are potential provided that the solutions in some sense precede the questions. One other means to think about it’s this: Once we ask “What is the truth about this?” the “this” is already in some unfavourable method in our thoughts and the query shapes a sort of receptive type into which the reply can seep and, as we are saying, “inform” us. Questions are in complicity with solutions—they suggest them. It’s solely potential to ask questions, if a correct query shouldn’t be a requirement on us to acknowledge an unidentified package deal or a command to ship made-to-order items. Query-asking is possible as a meandering but purposeful seek for one thing of which we have now simply sufficient intimation to need to possess the clarified entire.

Having spent a great deal of my time with you beating across the bush—although it’s one thing of a burning bush—let me now get again to the start and to my title query: “Do you know what an odyssey is?”

It’s a triple query. It’s first a type of irritating instructor’s questions. Your reply may be: In fact I do know that. We’re simply now studying a guide referred to as the Odyssey after its hero Odysseus. He takes his candy time about coming back from the wars, for twenty years claiming to one and all that he’s looking for solely to return residence, and that extended adventure-seeking ramble known as his “odyssey.” Afterward individuals transferred that time period to any adventure-laden progress by means of area and time, and that’s what we now name an “odyssey.”

I’ve to level out to you that there are two methods of understanding that an odyssey is an adventurous and looking journey, or, as my dictionary says, “an intellectual or spiritual quest.” Many individuals comprehend it simply as they know most phrases, as a time period they occur to have picked up. Our speech is like an archaeological website. We stroll over it choosing up shards of pottery and items of carved stone right here and there as we discover them, however the tales they inform and the meanings they embody are misplaced to us. Equally, we come throughout and decide up phrases and do not know what’s behind them. Let me offer you actually spectacular examples of such phrases: nature, essence, the Greeks, discrimination, technique, logic, science, know-how, artwork, modernity, info—to most customers a jumble of misplaced significance. “Archaeological site” is just too elegant an outline of our language: “kitchen midden” can be higher.

That’s what an schooling, and notably this instructional journey you’re about to embark on, is meant to do for you: that will help you to recuperate and refurbish your speech in order that what you your self say has its correct significance and the language others use comes alive with which means for you. To place it succinctly: educated individuals know not solely what they actually imply but in addition what they’re truly saying. Let me illustrate that impact with the phrase “odyssey”. When you’ve completed studying and speaking about Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, the widespread noun “an odyssey” may have all types of recent significance whenever you see it in a e-book. You may even use it your self on some correct event. For you’ll have begun to be literate, and you may be entitled in addition to be capable of use all types of phrases to precise what’s in your well-stocked minds and full hearts.

Whenever you hear the phrase “odyssey” you will notice in your thoughts’s eye footage that may type the backdrop to the actual current event and can give it depth and romance. For instance, you may hear of a good friend’s inward odyssey and the way he wandered round from religious place to put till he discovered his approach residence to a laboriously achieved perception. You might hear that on the best way this good friend obtained hopelessly concerned with a strong lady, luscious and rich, with a cavernous villa on a scenic island, and the way she remoted him from lively life and prevented him from going the place he wanted to be, while he grew sick and uninterested in having to go to mattress together with her each night time and fell right into a deep melancholy, till he discovered a solution to extricate himself, taking the plunge to courageous the waters that separated him from his spouse and youngster. Such issues occur and everybody hears about them. However you’ll know the true and common identify of this island lady, which is Calypso and means “She who conceals.” You will stay with the legendary backdrop that provides significance to the widespread occasions of human life, and you may be the one who will get the allusions that weave our private affairs into the online of fantasy offered by the traditions of civilization.

You shall be educated, which signifies that you’ll be the place others are bored, that you’ll discover unities the place others expertise randomness, and that you’ll intend meanings the place others are simply spouting phrases. For precisely that’s alleged to be the results of turning into literate: The world turns into a thick texture of significance that you understand how to “access.”

Subsequently, apart from understanding what an odyssey is within the dictionary sense, there’s additionally the information of the custom behind the definition that provides depth to the sense of the phrase odyssey spelled with a lower-case o. Logicians would say that apart from the denotation of the phrase, which is its direct which means, there’s additionally its connotation, the pictures and associations that cluster round it. To know what a phrase means is to know each. Denotations may be appeared up. Connotations take time to build up—4 years no less than, to start with.

Here’s a second means of taking the query: “Do you know what an odyssey is?’” You may reply “Oh yes, you mean the odyssey (lower-case 0, common noun) of the Odyssey (capital O, proper noun). You are asking me if I know where Odysseus went and what he did.” Once more this query could be a mere instructor’s query, actually an instruction: “Open your examination books and write down all the adventures of Odysseus. Misspellings will be penalized.” The smart reply to this demand is as soon as extra: “Why don’t you read the book yourself if you want to know?” The true query, nevertheless, may go like this: “What is the significance in each of the stations of Odysseus’ journey and what is its meaning as a whole?” To this, the sensible response is: “I have to read and reread this book and talk about it to my friends, and can you make some suggestions?”

Sure, I can in truth make some strategies. They represent one reply to the query what Odysseus’ odyssey is. If I assumed they constituted the reply, I wouldn’t inform it to you since you may then be tempted not to consider the guide additional. However on the similar time I need to make myself very clear that simply because quite a few interpretations of a e-book make sense—and a very nice ebook is nearly outlined by this reality—it doesn’t comply with that the e-book has no fastened which means. Quite the opposite, it is sort of a exhausting jewel that exhibits totally different sides and colours from totally different views and underneath totally different illuminations. I belong to that more and more uncommon species of readers who believes that there was as soon as a thoughts by which all of the meanings have been compactly current collectively: the thoughts of the writer.

Let me inform you what I take into consideration Odysseus’s odyssey. Ask your self first who its writer is. Who’s the poet of the odyssey? Is it Homer? Properly sure, ultimately. However truly it’s Odysseus, it’s Odysseus who takes the place of the palace-poet in Phaeacia and who tells the story of his adventures there. He’s the true teller and poet of his odyssey.

Now there’s something we find out about this hero: he’s a ordinary and practiced liar. Wherever he turns up, he tells mendacity tales. Homer calls them that—”mendacity tales.” He tells numerous individuals, his trustworthy servant Eumaius, his trustworthy spouse Penelope and others, loads of partial tales about his travels, tales fairly totally different from the grand odyssey he tells these inventive people, the Phaeacians. His very personal goddess Athena encourages him on this quite peculiar tale-telling. Think about the scene. It occurs proper after the crew of the magically instantaneous Phaeacian ship has left Odysseus in a deep sleep on the shore of his house Ithaca, along with a heap of loot. He awakes to seek out that for the primary time in many years his personal goddess is visibly with him. Right here is Athena herself, good-looking and tall, the embodiment of all of the true womanly virtues, for she is warlike, crafty, and sensible. She all however makes like to her protegé. She strokes his examine and says: “A man would have to be really guileful and rascally to out do you in all sorts of trickery.” She goes on like that for some time in her pleasure with him. He actually is an olympic-class liar.

Now what lies has he been telling, in line with Homer? He tells one and all that he has been right here and there, to Crete, to Syria, to Egypt, as a brigand and service provider mariner. What else would an impoverished hero, having wasted ten years of his life to sack one small citadel, do on his approach residence from Turkey? In fact he would flow into within the Aegean sea, stealing or buying and selling in order to not come house empty-handed. All of the Greeks did it on their return journey from Troy.

So right here is my interpretation of Odysseus’s odyssey. See in the event you consider me—it’s pure hypothesis. I feel Odysseus’s mendacity tales, the supposedly made-up tales he retains telling, are the straightforward reality. In fact he went to Crete and Syria and Egypt to build up wealth by numerous peaceable and violent means. What else would he have been doing within the ten years he takes to get house? He’s, I say, telling easy information.

Then what of the fantastic and unbelievable adventures that type the odyssey he tells in Phaeacia, the journey that provides its identify to the poem? They don’t seem to be the straightforward reality. They’re as an alternative the utter fact.

This very factor should have occurred to you: You go to a spot. Sure prosaic issues happen, atypical exterior factual occurrences. However your journey additionally has an inward significance: you study one thing about your self or about others; you see the bizarre issues in a bigger, maybe in a magical perspective. This view of occasions, this imaginative and prescient, is the reality of the journey. The mere information are a type of right non-truth.

Right here is the way it occurs to Odysseus. He involves a spot, in all probability Egypt, the place the inhabitants eat the lotus flower, which apparently accommodates a drug. We all know from their frescoes that the Egyptians sniffed lotus flowers at events. You might have achieved one thing like that your self. Odysseus, a person of unbiased vitality and creativeness, doesn’t be a part of his crew in indulging on this mind-altering exercise, and ultimately he has to extricate them by pressure from their spaced-out stupor. This mundane, all-too-factual episode turns into the true mythic journey of the lotus eaters in Odysseus’ odyssey.

One other time he and his crew come to an island bordello. His males are fairly able to make pigs of themselves. Not he; in reality he masters the madam of this home. The mythic fact of this episode collides out within the journey on Circe’s Island, the place a seductive sorceress turns his crew right into a herd of grunting beasts, whereas he retains his manhood.

In arithmetic books there’s typically an irritating however well-meaning sentence: “The rest of the proof is left to the reader.” I’m leaving the remainder of this proof, the opposite ten adventures, to you to interpret.

If there’s any sense in what I’m saying, Homer will introduce into your intellects and imaginations to what could also be a brand new notion: the excellence between brute, however by some means mendacious, reality and incredible, however vital, fact. His poem will serve for you as the primary and doubtless the grandest instance of the poet’s perform, which is to show mere life into significant fantasy.

The second reply then to the query “Do you know what an odyssey is?” shall be: It’s that telling of an episode in a human life that provides its incidents magic and which means.

Now to the third and final option to perceive the query. It’s the one that’s deepest and takes the longest to pay money for. Subsequently I might be briefest about it, in order to go away you that a lot the extra psychological area to consider it.

This third method asks: Do you actually know what an odyssey is because the dictionary defines it: a journey of discovery or a quest? Properly, start by considering of a quest as a query being enacted in life, a lived query.

Ask yourselves in case your 4 years at Whitman School ought to not be such a quest. I feel so, however I can’t inform, and I’ve no intention of prescribing what you have to be in search of. A few of you’ll lose and discover, or discover and lose, or affirm and reconfirm a religion in God. Others amongst you’ll seek for your vocation in life and put together for it right here. A few of you can find an issue that gained’t allow you to go till you remedy it. Others will search and discover somebody to spend your lives with. A few of you’ll search for alternatives to make some huge cash, in an effort to make giant donations to your school. Others will determine for a lifetime of depressed revenue however exhilarating service to the world.

The purpose is that no matter query you reside out right here, it ought to have some dimensions of a real query within the sense I attempted to delineate for you earlier than. It must be a sort of more and more higher directed receptivity, an openness based mostly on ever clearer foundations. It ought to be the expression of a deeply felt want. The final reply then, to the query “Do you know what an odyssey is?” shall be: It’s the correct identify on your life as college students, for the lifetime of studying.

The research you’re beginning on right here and the books you’re about to learn can, when you allow them to, enable you to to form your personal odyssey right into a journey that lacks neither enchantment nor definition. You may have your personal vivid private reply to the query I requested you collectively. You will know what an odyssey is.

Bon Voyage!

This essay was initially revealed right here in Might 2013, and seems once more in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was essay delivered because the opening lecture for the Honors Program at Whitman School in Walla Walla, Washington in September, 1993.

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