While you wait, a paper!

November 23, 2008

Since one of my three readers has complained about my lack of updates, I present to you my most recent paper on a subject near and dear to my heart: crying men. I am not sure whether this is the exact version that I turned in but it is close enough. I will also post my paper on Virgil and Dante’s underworld landscapes once that is finished, but for now, I hope this will tide you all over until the novel-writing madness is over.

“Why do you weep and grieve”:
Kleos, Nostos and Threnos in The Odyssey

In almost all of the first twelve books of The Odyssey, there is at least one instance in which a character, usually a male, is overcome with emotion and expresses his pain by weeping. Telemachus cries, Menelaus cries, Pisistratus cries; even the great Odysseus himself, when first encountered in the epic, is depicted on the shore of Calypso’s island “wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish” (V.174). At first glance, there appear to be various reasons for these outbursts: injustice, concern, despair, and so forth. However, upon closer examination, there are two primary concepts underlying each incident: kleos, renown or glory from accomplishing great deeds, sometimes through death; and nostos, homecoming, often specifically referring to the return of Greek heroes to their homes after war. When the characters of the epic are denied these two goals, the result is threnos–lamentation, an external expression of grief. The two characters who best embody the threnos associated with denial of kleos and nostos are Telemachus and Odysseus, both of whom frequently weep prior to the achievement of their ultimate objectives.

One important aspect of kleos is that it is, in a way, hereditary; it is the duty of the son to carry on and increase the reputation built by the father. As such, it is natural that Telemachus is concerned with the fate of his father. If Odysseus died in battle, then Telemachus would be able to benefit from his father’s kleos; however, if Odysseus perished in some less honorable and noteworthy way, then his kleos would be lost to his son. When Telemachus is first introduced, he sits among the suitors, wishing that Odysseus would return “and regain his pride of place and rule his own domains” (I.137). Subsequently, when he is inspired to call for an assembly to air his grievances, he bursts into tears after admitting that “we have no man like Odysseus in command / to drive this curse from the house” (II.63-4). Telemachus himself is still “a boy inept at battle” (II.66) and without knowledge of his father’s fate, he is unable to control the suitors by invoking Odysseus’ reputation and honor. Thus, his father’s inability to achieve nostos leads to his own lack of kleos, and subsequently to his public threnos. Notably, the crowd does not react with scorn or derision, but instead with pity and silence; it is unclear whether they are surprised or ashamed by what Telemachus states.

Primarily to find news of his father, but also to begin the establishment of his own kleos, Telemachus leaves home and travels first to Nestor’s court, then to that of Menelaus and the recovered Helen. It is in the latter place that he weeps at the king’s description of Odysseus and his accomplishments at Troy; “Tears streamed down his cheeks / and wet the ground when he heard his father’s name” (IV.128-9). He grieves for his lost father, who has been unable to return home. Soon enough, Pisistratus, Menelaus and Helen all join in the weeping for lost Odysseus and others like him who were unable to achieve nostos. Only by drugging their wine can they stop the threnos incited by their memories, allowing Telemachus to question Menelaus about his father’s whereabouts, and Menelaus to answer without being interrupted by grief. Thus does Telemachus complete his own minor epic and, having acquired some small renown of his own by journeying abroad and making contact with Odysseus’ comrades-in-arms, achieves his own nostos armed with information about his father.

As Telemachus’ tale draws to a close for the time being, Odysseus’ begins. When Odysseus first enters the story in book V, as previously stated, he is shown “weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away / with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home” (V.168-9). The last portion of the line is crucial: he cries because he has been prevented from returning to Ithaca and accomplishing his nostos, his homecoming, instead remaining stuck on Calypso’s island for seven years. When he is finally offered the chance to leave, he is also asked why he wants to go rather than stay and be granted immortality. Odysseus replies, “I long–I pine, all my days–/ to travel home and see the dawn of my return” (V.242-3). While Calypso offers him eternal life, it would be a life of obscurity, devoid of the kleos, the glory that he earned while fighting in the Trojan War. Only by achieving nostos can he simultaneously recover kleos; only by returning to his people can he regain his identity as father, king and decorated war hero. Until the opportunity to pursue those goals is given to him, all he can do is grieve.

In book VIII, at the Phaeacian court, Odysseus is brought to tears twice while listening to the bard Demodocus’ songs about his exploits and those of his comrades. First, he cries at the tale of his argument with Achilles, and later at the story of his own entrance into Troy and the victory that he orchestrated. After this second story, “great Odysseus melted into tears… as a woman weeps, her arms flung around her darling husband, / a man who fell in battle” (VIII.588-9). Ironically, he is compared to the wife of a defeated soldier, when on the contrary, Odysseus himself has earned kleos by surviving and being victorious over his enemies. However, as discussed, it is only when he finally returns home that his kleos will be truly restored, and so he is not yet free of the heartbreak that he expresses by weeping. This outward display of emotion does not go unnoticed, and King Alcinous finally encourages him to not only divulge who he is, but also why he continues to “weep and grieve so sorely” (VIII.647) at the bard’s songs. While he is not yet home, it is at the end of book VIII and the beginning of book IX, so close to achieving his nostos, that he finally begins to recover his identity as well by revealing his name to the Phaeacians.

Although the second half of The Odyssey contains numerous instances in which the characters weep, they are motivated not by the denial of kleos and nostos but by their accomplishment. For example, Eumaeus cries when Telemachus returns home, Odysseus and Telemachus weep when they are reunited, and Eurycleia cries when she recognizes Odysseus while washing his feet. The tears of the first twelve books of The Odyssey are tears of sorrow and loss, while those of the last twelve books are primarily those of recognition and joy. The characters who were gone have their homecoming, and the renown and glory that were earned are rightfully acknowledged. Threnos is no longer required, as kleos and nostos have been achieved, leaving Odysseus to await his return to the sea and Telemachus to prepare himself for the eventual assumption of his father’s legacy.

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