Odyssey Funmaries #14: Wandering Rocks (Book XII.LXI-LXXX)

by BEN VORE

Today’s Funmary takes us backward in chapter 12, to Circe’s speech to Odysseus after he has ascended from Hades but before he encounters the Sirens, Scylla & Charybdis and the Oxen of the Sun (coming tomorrow!). The text amounts to a mere 19 lines, and yet Jerry Grit has chosen these lines to be the metaphor for our collective assault on the treacherous cliffs of Mt. Ulysses. And he has assigned me to write about them, even though he has already done so. It’s time we finally pulled the curtain back on this joker.

beez1

Jerry Grit, the College Years. (That’s my butt he’s touching.)

Let’s look at exactly how Circe describes the Wandering Rocks (or “Clashing Rocks” in the Fagles translation, although some scholars contend that the Wandering Rocks and Clashing Rocks [or Symplegades] are similar but in different locations):

But once your crew has rowed you past the Sirens
a choice of routes is yours. I cannot advise you
which to take, or lead you through it all —
you must decide for yourself —
but I can tell you the ways of either course.
On one side beetling cliffs shoot up, and against them
pound the huge roaring breakers of blue-eyed Amphirite —
the Clashing Rocks they’re called by all the blissful gods.
Not even birds can escape them, no, not even the doves
that veer and fly ambrosia home to Father Zeus:
even of those the sheer Rocks always pick off one
and Father wings one more to keep the number up.
No ship of men has ever approached and slipped past —
always some disaster — big timbers and sailors’ corpses
whirled away by the waves and lethal blasts of fire.
One ship alone, one deep-sea craft sailed clear,
the Argo, sung by the world, when heading home
from Aeetes’ shores. And she would have crashed
against those giant rocks and sunk at once if Hera,
for love of Jason, has not sped her through. (XII.LXI-LXX)

Translation: It’s your choice, Odysseus, but you’re dead meat if you sail for the rocks. Better go the other way even though that’ll probably kill you too.

The Jason and Hera reference is illuminating. You remember Jason and the Argonauts. Let’s pad this funmary watch the trailer. (Pay close attention to the “treacherous, falling rocks” at 0:53!)

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (and shame on you if not), Jason releases a dove to fly through the Clashing Rocks. It passes through but not without losing a few tail feathers. Surmising that they’ll be fine since they don’t have tail feathers, the Argonauts paddle really hard and pass through as well, except for losing part of the stern (the mascot). (The scene where Mr. Argonaut gives them a tongue-lashing for smashing up the family boat was left on the cutting room floor.) Once they have passed, the Rocks never Clash again. (The Clash, however, will never cease to Rock.)

So why does Circe tell Odysseus that “not even birds can escape [the Rocks], no, not even the doves”? Because she knows he won’t make it? Because, like many immortals, she can’t stop meddling with her mortal boy toy (although she’ll make a big production out of how the mortals have free will to decide as they please)? 

Whatever her motivation, Circe ensures that the Wandering Rocks, while mentioned, never make an appearance in The Odyssey. This begs the question: Why on earth did Joyce include them in Ulysses? I guess we’ll find out, unless Jerry wants to just tell us all now.

What should we make of the fact that Odysseus chose to avoid the Wandering Rocks and yet we humble tillers are sailing straight for them? Are we suicidal? Possibly. To some, most definitely. But given the pedestal I had put Odysseus on during my collegiate years, and given the drop in stature (both on a moral level but even more so on a basic competency level) Odysseus has suffered in this re-reading, dare I say that I’m excited to take the path Odysseus did not? Is this hubris? Will this be my hamartia?

This also begs the question: Who have you invited to Wandering Rocks

Countdown to Bloomsday…

 Page 1 of Ulysses awaits us next Tuesday!

Wandering Rocks won’t crush you if you just paddle really hard!

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Odyssey Funmaries #7: Cyclops (Book IX.LXXI-DCXXX)

By JERRY GRIT

Here we have the worst house guests in all antiquity vs. the worst host, in a competition for last.

Odysseus continues his tale of sorrow to the nagging Phaeacians (who aren’t letting the poor guy go). After fleeing the Lotus Dopers, and still way off course, his fleet of twelve ships runs aground in the land of the one-eyed Cyclops.

He describes them as a lawless people, “each a law to himself” [9.127] and that they don’t plow their land, relying instead on whatever grows … failing to account that farming may be tough without depth perception.

He also describes how their land is rich with wild bounty, overrun with fat goats and sheep, and teeming with fruit and wheat. You can hear the expansionist’s greed in Odysseus as he rhapsodizes on the natural resources the Cyclops haven’t plundered and ruined like “advanced” two-eyed civilizations.

He decides to take a closer look with his own ship’s crew to “probe the natives” [9.194] to find out whether they were violent and lawless, or stranger-loving and god-fearing. Quite a risk here, Odysseus … wagering you and your men’s lives to see if these people like strangers? I don’t think Odysseus is being completely forthcoming with his intentions.

So Odysseus says he and his crew go ashore and immediately come across a huge cavern, which is obviously a giant’s liar, and a giant who clearly does not mix with the other giants, given its isolation and fortification. It’s also clear from the cave that he is a “grim loner” … which is saying a lot given the lawlessness of your garden-variety Cyclops. Do we have here a Cyclops Unabomber?

So they enter the Unabomber’s cave. And given the cave’s organization, he’s also like the obsessive compulsive of the Cyclops, with all his cheeses and goats are well organized and racked according to type. Odysseus decides to hunker down and start eating “the bulk” of this guy’s cheese while waiting for him to return. I wonder how an OCD Unabomber Cyclops is going to take this?

The Cyclops known as Polyphemus comes back to the cave, shuts it up with a massive boulder, and sits down to do his chores … organizing his cheeses and goats. Finishing up his chores, he sees the hiding freeloaders. Odysseus announces they’re Agamemnon’s men (the Sinatra of the Achaeans) and that they were hoping they would get a warm welcome and gifts … he even threatens Polyphemus for hospitality, announcing, “strangers are sacred — Zeus will avenge their rights” [9.305].

Polyphemus grabs two of the freeloaders, “knocked them dead like pups,*” [9.325] and eats them.

Odysseus: 0
Polyphemus: 1

Thus goes the first night in Chez Cyclops. At dawn, the Polyphemus, grabs another two sailors for breakfast, and leaves for work, this time closing up the cave behind him with the giant boulder.

Odysseus: 0
Polyphemus: 2

And this is just like one of those lame A*Team scenarios. The villainous construction company imprisons the A*Team in a garage with welding equipment, a car, and a nail-gun. Here, they’re locked up in a cave with fire, a huge club, and knives. This team builds antiquity’s nail-spewing-tank equivalent: A giant stake. I wonder where that’s going?

Polyphemus comes home again, does all his chores (impromptu hostage-taking won’t distract him from his schedule), and eats two more men.

Odysseus: 0
Polyphemus: 3

Odysseus then offers up some wine to complement the taste of his men’s bodies: “Try this wine to top off / the banquet of human flesh you bolted down” [9. 387-388] … Odysseus, the wine steward? And again he brings up Polyphemus’ rudeness to his uninvited guests by imprisoning and eating them two at a time.

Cyclops drinks the wine down, wants some more, and demands Odysseus’ name.

“Nobody,” Odysseus says he said, “that’s my name. Nobody / so my Mother and father call me, all my friends.”

Polyphemus essentially responds, “I like you. I’ll eat you last.”

A drunk Polyphemus throws up and goes to bed. Just like every night during Ben’s teenage years. Odysseus gouges his eye out. Odysseus indulges in a gross descriptive passage of the scene, which results in a “red geyser of blood” [9.442]

Odysseus: 1
Polyphemus: 3

Polyphemus calls out to all the other Cyclops, who run to this cave and ask what’s going on. And Polyphemus responds, “Nobody’s friends…Nobodys killing me!” [9.454]. Yuck, yuck. Get it?

Odysseus: 2
Polyphemus: 3

Now completely blind, Polyphemus devises a strategy … a kind of game of Red Rover to the death. He opens up the cave and sits at the entrance, arms outstreched feeling up all that pass through. Odysseus straps each of his men to the underbelly of the goats to escape.

Odysseus: 3
Polyphemus: 3

Odysseus and crew flee to their ship and escape to their fleet. As they’re sailing away, Odysseus can’t help but gloat, but while still within Cyclops boulder-hurling range. Odysseus calls out the that the blinding is Zeus’ payback for not treating his unwelcomed visitors well. Polyphemus throws a rock almost hitting their boat. Odysseus’ crew tell him to shut up.

But the trash talk continues, and Odysseus can’t help but give his actual name. And why not? His address, too. At which point, Polyphemus reveals that he is son of Poseidon, the god of the sea (whoops!). Polyphemus plays the daddy card and prays that Odysseus gets hell.

Odysseus: 3
Polyphemus: 4

Polyphemus wins! The crew reunites with the rest of the fleet. But good times are not ahead. Although Odysseus is fated to return to Ithaca, it will be not without a bumps in the sea.

Way for a plan to come together, Odysseus!

Countdown to Bloomsday…

We read page 1 of Ulysses in 12 days!

Be highly awesome and get involved!


* = What the hell kind of simile is this? Who’s translating this thing, Michael Vick?

Odyssey Funmaries #6: The Lotus Eaters (Book IX.I-LXX)

by BEN VORE

Those of you still reeling from yet another pastel color-coded schedule should take comfort in today’s assignment for The Lotus Eaters, an episode from The Odyssey which merits — wait for it — a whopping 25 lines. Thus, this funmary is going to have three primary objectives:

  1. Detailed exploration of margin settings and font sizes so as to stretch this puppy out to a suitable length for completion.
  2. Some recapping of what has transpired since butt-naked, brine-encrusted Odysseus got creative with an olive branch. 
  3. Some actual thoughts about the Lotus Eaters (not to be confused with The Lotus Eaters).

First, though, let’s watch a cat play a keyboard!

 

Man, that’s brilliant. I mean, it looks as though the cat is actually playing the notes! And he’s wearing a cute little shirt too!

Ahem. On with the funmary, and a lightning-quick recap of what has taken place since Nausicaa brought Odysseus home to meet the parents:

Queen Arete and King Alcinous are such hospitable and generous hosts that they welcome Odysseus into their home without even asking who he is. (Had Homer opted to take the epic poem in a grislier, made-for TV thriller direction, Arete and Alcinous would have been the oblivious murder victims who pick up a hitchhiker carrying an axe and then, after making sure he’s comfortable in the back seat with food and drink, ask if they can sharpen the blade for him.) Odysseus gives them the woe-is-me-I’ve-been-bedding-up-with-nymphs speech and stuffs his face with their food. The next day he takes part in a pentathlon and then listens to a blind guy named Demodocus perform two songs, one of which is about the Trojan War and, specifically, Odysseus and Achilles. Scholars are divided on the form of these songs; more recent Homeric enthusiasts such as Robert Christgau contend that Demodocus was a prog rock enthusiast who used a timbral palette heavy on electronic keyboards and Moog synthesizers, and who changed time signatures as if his life depended on it. Still-anonymous Odysseus finally reveals himself once Demodocus starts crooning about the Trojan Horse, which leads to his recounting of how storms drove his crew off course to the land of the Lotus Eaters.

The Lotus Eaters were, essentially, addicts. They loved the sweet, narcotic taste of the lotus plants (described as “honey-sweet fruit” — I’m thinking something along the lines of a Honey Nut Cheerios fruit smoothee). Once Odysseus’s crew starts hanging around with the Lotus Eaters, they become fellow deadbeats. They

lost all desire to send a message back, much less return,

their only wish to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,

grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home

dissolved forever. [9.107-110]

 

Odysseus rouses them from their complacent slumber and lashes them under the rowing benches so everyone can hightail it out of there. 

There are numerous parallels to lotus in pop culture down through the ages (think, for example, of Turkish Delight in The Chronicles of Narnia or soma in Brave New World). Medical researchers today are rather certain that Swedish Fish have the same chemical properties and lethargy-inducing effects as lotus, particularly when ingested by the box. 

So is this episode simply one big “Just Say No” ad campaign disguised in epic verse? The detrimental effects of the lotus start small by offering temporary relief from the daily grind (in the case of Odysseus’s crew, constant seastorms, occasional death and, unlike the captain, not-getting-any from nymph goddesses) but escalate by making a bed so comfortable and enticing one never wants to get out of it. The root temptation here is escapism. The lesson for those of us who 1) don’t care for the taste of lotus, and/or 2) have kicked or avoided altogether any crippling addictions to narcotics*, is that our lotus could be almost anything, even the most commonplace. The currently unemployed Jerry Grit’s lotus may very well be this blog.** Mine, in the course of writing this post, was spending an hour on YouTube researching Keyboard Cat. What is your lotus? All of us find our central ambitions derailed by the prospect of temporal, ignorant bliss. If we are not strong enough (or disciplined, obedient, wise or simply lucky enough), we can only hope our own Odysseus should lash us under the rowing bench as we stroke to safety. Or, as the case may be, into the path of a foul-tempered Cyclops.

Countdown to Bloomsday…

Don’t let lotus-eating interfere with YOUR central ambition!

We read page 1 of Ulysses in 13 days!

 

* = If you are considering developing a possible addiction to drugs of any sort, may we recommend you watch Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream? Doing so would also enhance your critical understanding of the Lotus Eaters episode as a whole. Maybe make it a twinbill with Red Dawn!

** = PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYER: “So, according to your resume, you’ve been spending your recent stint of unemployment by — do I have this correct? — ‘forming an online reading collective for James Joyce’s Ulysses’? And this involves pornographic pictures of barely-clothed 80s wrestlers how, exactly?” JERRY GRIT: “Let me explain.” PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYER: “Oh, please do!”

Odyssey Funmaries #5: Nausicaa (Book VI)

By JERRY GRIT

The events of this next book play out like an eighties sitcom.

Odysseus washes up on the Phaeacian shore after Poseidon tries to kill him with another storm. He’s also butt-naked, that’s how strong the storm was.

While Odysseus recovers on the shore, Athena goes to Nausicaa, the young daughter of the Phaeacian king, Alcinous. Athena is of course in disguise, this time as one of Nausicaa’s girlfriends. And as girlfriends do, she teases mercilessly. While Nausicaa is still in bed, disguised Athena makes fun of Nausicaa’s dirty laundry, and says she’ll never get married with linens like those.

Low blow, Athena. Taking advantage of adolescent gullibility and soiled linen-sensitivities.

This of course makes young Nausicaa really self-conscious and she begs her dad the next morning to go to the shore to wash up. She takes two friends.

While they’re washing, butt-naked, brine-encrusted, and starving Odysseus sees them. Classy guy that he is, he

crept out of the bushes,

Stripping off with his massive hands a leafy branch

from the tangled olive growth to shield his body,

hide is private parts. [6.139-143]

First, “private parts”? Is Big Bird translating this thing?

Second, for a man of reputed inventiveness, is a branch seriously the best this guy could do for clothes? Couldn’t weave a grass skirt, man of twists and turns?

The girls freak out and run, but for Nausicaa. She stands still b/c “Athena planted courage within her heart.” Whatever.

Odysseus lays it on thick with compliments, which must have been pretty sweet to hear, especially after getting an ear load about her linens. Although Odysseus has no such intentions, too focussed on survival and all, he unintentionally smites the little girl’s heart.

Thus smitten, she agrees to help Odysseus, giving him clothes and directions to dad King Alcinous’ palace. She said she would take him on her chariot, but what would the neighbors say?

The assistance Nausicaa provides Odysseus on the beach is paralleled in Ulysses, along with the dramatically different consciousnesses (i.e., old resourceful dude and impressionable sentimental girl).

Nausicaa directs him to enter the palace and grasp her mother’s knees and beg for help. I hope the queen’s sitting down!

Countdown to Bloomsday…

We read page 1 of Ulysses in 14 days!

If you think funmaries are fun,  just wait for the joy in Joyce!

A Word About Our Moderator

By BEN VORE

As an active recruiter for (and humble participant in) Wandering Rocks, I have found myself answering the same question from would-be participants: Who is this jerrygrit? And would he be on my side in a bar fight? (Also, why does he hate Ayn Rand and like to key Mazda Miatas?) 

While I am certainly not qualified to speak to the true spiritual depths of jerrygrit (a rudimentary understanding of the French language qualifies you to appreciate the wordplay of his online nom de plume), I can at least shed some light on our would-be Virgil. What are my qualifications, you ask?

  • I was a fellow undergraduate (and English major) with jerrygrit.
  • I lived in very close quarters and shared a shower and toilet with him our senior year.
  • I have visited his birthplace in Vermilion, Ohio and glimpsed his humble beginnings as a Joycean scholar.
  • I donated my kidney to him in 2003.

 

And now, you may be asking (as I have been asked), what are jerrygrit’s qualifications to guide me safely through the literary morass that is the confounding Ulysses

I would translate the QBQ there (QBQ being corporate-speak for the Question Behind the Question ©), at least to those who only know jerrygrit through his forays into the Voreblog comment boards, as, “This jerrygrit, though no doubt a swell guy, occasionally comes across as — how should I say? — a bit pretentious, often critical, occasionally hostile, sometimes inflammatory and every now and then a bit opprobious.”

What would lead to such a question? Consider a random sampling of jerry’s comments at voreblog:

  • “Eat it, hosers!”
  • “Sorry for the high-brow list [of favorite books], you anti-intellectual hosers. I’m smart!”
  • “You’re right to say I’m right, and I’m aware how wrong you’ve been.”
  • “This is a complicated issue. With a lot of good points on both sides. Especially on my side. Let’s all just agree to disagree.”
  • “Sasha Frere-Jones is a terrible person without a clue.”
  • “Your critical acumen is Paste-level at best.”
  • “I can’t believe just anyone can listen to music and have an opinion about it. Your post is clear evidence this has oversight has reached crisis proportions. I beg you to destroy your listening devices immediately. Or apply for a license.”
  • “If I walk into your house and any of this junk [music] is playing, I’ll head directly to your garbage disposal, stick my hand in, flip the switch. The sound of my own screams would be far more pleasant than this dreck (even at the cost of my irrecoverably mangled flesh!).”

 

What if he turns his withering critical eye on me? I’ve been asked by many a fearful soul. His judgment is no less sweeping and devastating than the Eye of Sauron from the dark heart of Mordor! These conversations usually end with me hugging these terrified individuals as they resort to sucking their thumb.

Yet those who have pondered the nature of the man behind these remarks have also commented to me their glimpses of a kindler, gentler jerrygrit, coinciding with the launch of Wandering Rocks. Where once was a clenched fist, they say, is now an open hand awaiting a shake, and possibly a vaguely homoerotic bear hug, depending on his level of inebriation

Speaking as someone who was personally rebuked for my fear-mongering regarding the monumental breadth of this project, I can attest that jerrygrit’s big-hearted compassion is no anomaly (though it may sometimes require a bit of digging to locate). Yes, he gets grumpy without a gallon of coffee in the morning. Sure, he can be testy when threatened by plebeian musical tastes. But here’s the core of the jerrygrit paradox: He is critical because he cares. To withhold his scrutiny would be to withhold his love. And, as he has reminded us, what is Ulysses but a book about love?

That is why I can personally assure you we are in good hands. When I texted jerrygrit in a panic today after surveying all the Ulysses commentaries available to the layperson for purchase at his or her local independent bookstore, he texted back immediately with words of reassurance, concluding with this comforting admonition: “Don’t panic.” Nor should you, dear reader.

But if he asks you for a kidney, run.