The Odyssey is finally over. For now.
Nausicaa isn’t a name that’s on too many lips these days, or was ever, as a matter of fact, but she should be and I’ll tell you why. She’s the prototypical princess rescued by Prince Charming, way, way before Sleeping Beauty, who's real name is Aurora by the way.
And while we’re on the subject of the mythylogical hero/princess journey, have you ever heard of Lorna Doone, the novel, and not the shortbread cookie made by Nabisco? R.D. Blackmore’s classic is subtitled A Romance of Exmoor, and it’s an absolute heart-breaking and thrilling take on St. George and the Dragon if you haven’t read it. I highly recommend this thick, heavy, romantic brick because it’s so achingly and lovingly written. And because John Ridd is the everyman accidental hero, speaking in the phonological vernacular, straight out of the Sir Walter Scott historical novel tradition, and an archetype that could have had a real-life counterpart in Macaulay’s History of England, circa 1660. Lorna Doone is a variation on the Nausicaa theme, and both a critical and financial success since its publication in 1869. It’s never been out of print.
On a sidebar note, I watched the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Methe other day, starring Roger Moore and Barbara Bach. I only mention this because Barbara started her acting career in Italy in 1968, playing Nausicaa inL’Odissea, an eight-hour long TV adaptation, directed by Franco Rossi and produced by the redoubtable Dino de Laurentis. So I stand corrected: I’d assume Nausicaa was a name on a lot of lips bach then, for obvious reasons.
I’m sure everyone knows the story of the Cyclops – Odysseus blinds him in order to escape his cave, and when asked his name he says “Nobody.” Cyclopes represents the animal id incarnate: singular of purpose, tumescent, brutal, dangerous. Do I have to say it? But when Odysseus was sailing away he shouted out “I am Odysseus,” out of arrogance and ego, and that hubris almost cost him his life: Cyclops tossed a huge boulder in the direction of the shout and almost sank the boat with the tidal wave it caused. Odysseus and his crew escaped, barely. But then Poseidon called up a storm that smashed their ship, and all perished save Odysseus, who washed up on the shore of Scheria, ruled by the godlike King Nausithous, and it is here he met the virginal Nausicaa.
Zeus, as you remember, decreed that Odysseus would make it home, finally, but not without drama. Odysseus, urged on by his mother, Anticlea, daughter of Zeus, left the lovely clutches of the lustrous Calypso, who fitted him out with a ship and provisions, and he reluctantly went on his way. His ship was then promptly sunk by an enraged Poseidon, who got wind of his brother’s decree, and only the grace and formidable power of Athena, Odysseus' protector, saved our more than half-drowned hero.
Seriously, a storm-tossed and naked Odysseus comes across Nausicaa and her nymph posse washing clothes in a burbling stream "deep in the sylvan woods." The daughter of King Alcinous, she's the classic naïve and over-protected maiden, who accidentally falls immediately in love with the wandering and lost stranger. Who of course turns out to be a prince figuratively, and a king literally in this case. The chapter The Princess and the Stranger is the most beguiling and dynamite in the whole epic saga, and gave birth to one of the central mythological storylines in Western Civilization.
So you’ve probably figured out by now that Joe E. Buoy at the controls wasn’t going to last long or amount to much, and when he threw the helm to lee, the boat gulped and lurched, but we all finally managed to bring her more or less about without any injuries or autopsies.
Give me some time to blow the man down!”
“You think I know fuck nothing, but I know fuck all!” he said, and laughed his ass practically off.
Anyway, we eventually left Jungle Beach far astern and were approaching Marseilles just about sunset, passing Chateau d’If to port, part of the Frioul Archipelago, and then the massive Fort Saint Jean again to port as we entered the harbor. I mention these two literary landmarks for a reason – to show off my erudition.
“What’s that from?” Ellen asked.
“That castle is Chateau d’If, the prison that was made famous in the Alexandre Dumas novel The Count of Monte Christo, starring Edmond Dantes, who, wrongly imprisoned, eventually escapes with the help of his wise mentor Abbe Faria – they spend years digging an escape tunnel together – and goes on to fortune and revenge against his evil enemies. It’s one of the most uplifting revenge fantasies ever written – have you read it?”
“No, but I’ve heard about it,” she said.
“Dickens,” Joe E. chimes in.
“What?” Sally asked.
“That’s actually the last line of The Tale of Two Cities,” Joe E. said. “Mustard doesn’t know his Dickens from his ass.
"That's so sad," Ellen said.
Percival Christopher (P.C.) Wren’s adventure book Beau Geste is another high-adventure romp if you haven’t read it, and has been filmed numerous times, including the 1939 version starring Gary Cooper. It’s the tale of three brothers from a wealthy English family who join the French Foreign Legion after they were accused (wrongly) of a jewelry theft or some other typical macguffin crime, and the reason I’m bringing the novel up now, besides the one I already mentioned, is because they shipped out to Africa from Fort Saint Jean.
Here it is: Marry a Penelope, not a Clytemnestra.
Penelope, as you'll remember, was Odysseus' loyal wife – who waited for twenty years for him to get back home after the Trojan War, and the odyssey, all the while fending off suitors who came from far and wide to woo the "widow." The eventual successful reunion, twenty years in the coming, of the waylaid King and his honorable Queen is the triumph of The Odyssey. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself and spoil the ending.
Clytemnestra, in contrast, was King Agamemnon's queen, who, along with her lover, Aegisthus, murdered her husband upon his triumphant return from the war. When Odysseus meets up with his beloved comrade in Hades on his journey home, in the chapter The Kingdom of the Dead, Agamemnon exclaims: "There's not a man in the world more blest than you!"
Why is this important? What does it have to do with anything, with me, or you, reading this, here, today? Just this, and I’m convinced, even though the fatuous imbecile me sitting at that sidewalk café all those years ago hadn’t a clue: A loyal and true marriage partner is one of the surest foundations for finding success and meaning in your life, and your job or business as well. Happiness is the welcome guest of high ideals lived together with honesty and conviction.
Or, I’m thinking, maybe I made a mistake… maybe it was eponymous Man in the Iron Mask who was locked up at Chateau d’If, and not Edmond Dantes? I’ll have to look that up. But that novel is another fascinating story of palace intrigue and treachery – this time of (rumored) historical significance – was the disguised prisoner the identical twin of King Louis XIV, born second, and therefore not the heir but still a legitimate threat to his brother’s reign?
So why and how did Penelope stay steadfast against the improbable, insurmountable pressure and odds, devoted until death, while on the other hand Clytemnestra betrayed and murdered her husband, the king, for a jealous lover’s tickle? Or was Clytemnestra’s revenge because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the gods so the Acheans would triumph at Troy? Homer doesn’t address the question, since it happens after The Iliad ends, but I think it’s one of the central themes of the epic, and the reasons why are worth exploring. Virgil gives us a taste of it in The Aeneid, an epic for another time.
I think Penelope’s devotion was a combination of her indomitable personality and unwavering principles: a sense of duty, marriage vows said and meant, piety, and disgust at the crudeness of the seductions, the arrogance of the seducers. But it was most likely also hypergamy, at least according to my takeaway from Desmond Morris’s thought-provoking and best-selling book The Naked Ape, which I was reading or had just read at the time and was flabbergasted by. I reread this provocative paperback recently and it’s still an eye-popping treatise that essentially states, and proves, that men are all almost, scientifically speaking, biologically, genetically, down to every seemingly random synapse, nothing more than almost hairless upright (in the physical not moral sense) primates – crazy chimpanzees that, deep in our bones, want nothing more than to impregnate fertile women and tear our fellow unaristocratic monkey-brained competitors apart at the slightest slight or perceived threat. It’s called kin selection, and is millions of years of bloody, violent biology incarnate.
But before I wander too far down this digression, I want to tell you how I ended up at that café, and not alone, from when you last saw me aboard Fantome off the starboard side of Fort Saint Jean, dreaming of maybe even a romantic Beau Geste-esque escape/adventure of my own. We motored into the harbor, and pulled stern to into our slip, just as a loud warning alarm went off in the engine room. It couldn’t have been timed more perfectly to announce our embarrassing arrival.
The prognosis turned out to be grim – a complete engine overhaul. So Captain Bill gave us two days of shore leave while the repairs were carried out. My attorney was elated:
“The early bird catches the worm,” as the saying goes. “Let’s shamalama ding-dong the do dang dee, brother!”
I told him I had decided to see some of the sights in the city instead – Marseille has a long and interesting cultural and architectural history – and would rendez-vous back with him for dinner.
One of my college girlfriend’s mother grew up in Paris during World War II, and had a school friend from back then who now lived in Marseilles. I decided to give her a call, and see if she was free to give me a tour of the city. She was – so we decided to meet at the Fort, and get lost in time from there.
Her name was Celia, and she reminded me of Simone de Beauvoir, with her precocity, and her long neck, elegant. A fiery feminist and Modigliani heroine, once upon a time; now a retired third grade teacher. We clicked immediately. She was born in 1920 in the Calanques district of Marseilles, but went to a private school in Paris, which is where she met Natalie, and they became fast friends for life.
She was telling me this as we were climbing the 739 steps up to Notre Dame de la Garde, a basilica built in 1852 on the ruins of a twelfth-century chapel, I think. Marseilles was originally a Greek colony of Massalia going back to 600 BC, and became a preeminent port in the Hellenized world for more than half a millenium. Fortunately, the city-state sided with the Romans against Carthage in the Second Punic War around 200 BC and wasn’t therefore destroyed. However, the city lost its independence when they fought on the losing side against Julius Caesar in 49 BC, after which Roman colonists and culture were brought in and flourished. My old friend Petronius, of Satyricon fame (infamy) was born here in 27 AD.
I really disliked that book – it’s a decadent pederastic ramble right out of The Canterbury Tales – depraved, base, unfunny, sick and sad. And I didn’t see an obvious political point or moral message to it. Maybe I missed something – after all it’s not still in print 2,000 years later for nothing.
Celia de Rennes (nee Beaulieu) got married in 1940, since her husband had recently been drafted and was being sent off to fight the Hun. She got pregnant, but he was killed before the baby was born and never knew about the child. Celia moved back to Marseilles to be near her parents, who would be able to help her raise Danielle. The French surrendered to the Germans in June of 1940, and even though Marseilles was never occupied, per se, it was ruled over by Marshall Petain and his dictatorial Vichy government, ostensibly autonomous and free, but with the heavy and unforgiving Nazi boot on its neck.
Shortly after moving back to Marseilles, she fell in love with a German soldier who was garrisoned in the city, and kept up the clandestine romance until the armistice in May of 1945. After the war he went back to Germany and she never saw him again. I remember JG Ballard pointing out in his book The Empire of the Sunthat the most dangerous time in war is just after the surrender, and I thought that strange. You’d think that would be the happiest time for everyone – welcomed on both sides. But it’s often, depending on the war of course, and your role in it, and which side you're on, the exact opposite – it’s in the ensuing chaos and confusion where all the scores are settled, and you don’t know who’s the real enemy.
For many ordinary people, who were just trying to live, or make a buck, or feed their families, or were simply envied for their fortune or good fortune, the retribution was sometimes harsh, or even fatal. For some civilian women, who were thought to be “collaborators,” like Celia, it proved to be bloody humiliating and heartbreaking. And nobody ever forgot, or were allowed to forget. But as time went on, the roles played were romanticized, and the dirty deeds done wiped clean, and the sides chosen justified, while the unflattering guilty truth was buried or ignored. And nobody ever forgets.
I told her that that I never understood this age-old problem, because I identified with the men off fighting, and had never looked at it from a female, stay-at-home and vulnerable perspective. At least not until I read The Iliad for the first time very recently. We were on the ferry coming back from the island of If, after a really quite impressive and thoroughly engrossing tour of France’s version of Alcatraz, which I had also visited when I lived in San Francisco. I was slowly jolted awake to the very human and female problem of hypergamy, the exact opposite idea to my romantic conception of matrimonial loyalty, especially back in a time when men were either killed while out hunting beasts, or died in horrible ways at the hands of an enemy. Women had to mentally prepare for the possibility that her man, and her marriage might not last forever, or even until the end of that day. That she’d have to play the odds, keep her options open, psychologically protect herself, for her own sake and the welfare of her children.
I thought of Helen and her unenviable and agonizing downfall, after she bet on the wrong horse:
cowering at the altar: Helen.
And hellish fate: being dragged ignominiously back to Menelaus, now the most hated woman in the world, and living as a despised pariah in her husband’s palace, where she once was queen and worshipped.
Or majestic Hector’s beloved and grieving wife Andromache, famous for her fidelity and virtue, becoming Neoptolemus’ wife after her husband Hector, the hero of the epic and the best man in Troy, is killed and the city pulverized into dust. Sadly, to the victor belong the spoils, as Andromache is carted off unceremoniously, but not before the Greeks kill her son Astyanax, so he won’t grow up and avenge his father’s death. Or Cassandra, King Priam’s daughter, raped by Ajax the Lesser after the war, and then murdered by Clytemnestra along with her husband Agamemnon, who had taken Cassandra as his concubine (pallake) and returned with her to Mycenae.
I got back to the boat late, and Joe E. was nowhere to be found. I tossed and turned in my coffinish berth, thinking about what Celia had said, and done, and trying not to vilify her in my black-and-white judgmental mind for I didn’t know exactly what. For betrayal? But who did she betray? For treason? She wasn’t aiding and abetting the enemy at all, really, since France had surrendered. She was just trying to provide for herself and her child in desperate straits, and a lot of time, especially in the winter, she was trying not to starve to death. For dishonoring the memory of her dead husband by sleeping with the enemy?
I dreamt of a movie I had seen years earlier about a married WW II GI who had been destroyed by the ravages and grotesquerie of war and had had an affair with a local French or German girl. When he returned to the States he tried to explain it to his wife, who had only contempt for her adulterous husband. It starred someone like Rock Hudson or Gregory Peck, and I remember him trying to explain to her that after killing hundreds, if not thousands of Germans, and watching his best friends get blown to bits in the endless, mindless misery and mutilation, that wanting a warm, soothing, temporary and meaningless retreat in the arms of an anonymous and also shell-shocked and shattered woman seemed almost irrelevant in the moral scheme of things. I remember siding with his livid and righteous wife at the time, played by some lovely salmon fishcake like Lana Turner or Gene Tierney, mostly because I had fallen in love with her over the course of the 120 minute film. Actually, I had succumbed to her fluttering eyelashes in the first 30 seconds.
I made my meandering way back to the boat, and everyone was still asleep. I went into my cabin and Joe E. was lying on the floor next to his bunk (he must have missed it!), and there was a calf, as in young bovine, lying in mine. This I gotta hear. So I kick the man, when he was down as it were, which I said I’d never do, and then kick him several times again before he finally pops an eye open and looks at me.
“Never mind,” I said. “Get it off the boat right this second before Bill comes back. If he sees it, he’ll have a cow.”
He ducks down into the cabin and comes back out a few huffing minutes later carrying the animal, putting me in mind of Montaigne’s milkmaid, and steps onto the wharf. He puts the cow down, and ties what I notice is his Deerfield Academy tie around its neck as a leash. That’s just too priceless, I thought, and he’s going to get away with it. He and moo-moo junior head down the street, I would assume back to where he bought it, if he can even remember, smoking a cigarette, wearing a “Death to Disco” t-shirt, barefoot; an improbable, unironic harlequin Tarzan and his dog.
“Angel and I would go to a random office building in midtown during morning rush hour, and would enter an elevator and remove our trench coats, standing in the doorway naked, about a foot apart, facing each other,” Sally told me. “And everyone who came in or went out had to walk in between us,” she said. “It was really funny seeing their amused or scared or disgusted faces about two inches away from mine as they squirmed through,” she said. “A couple of brave pencil pushers and once an office lady kissed me,” she continued, “and I let them.” She took a deep drag. “We’d then put our coats back on when the elevator got back down to the lobby, and be on our hilarious way. I still get a kick out of thinking about it now.” I cracked up. “Which way would you go through, Johnny – facing him and butt to me, or butt to him and facing me?” I said, “What do you think?” and leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips.
Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, his homeland, and it’s changed so much he doesn’t, at first, know where he is. Athena disguises Odysseus as an old beggar, and he meets up with Eumaeus, his loyal swineherd, and then, in a moving chapter called Father and Son, is reunited with Telemachus, who weeps for joy at seeing his father again. When Odysseus enters his house, only Argos the hound recognizes him, wags his tail, and dies. Eurycleia, his nursemaid recognizes him too, but only after he shows her a scar on his leg he had gotten from a boar’s tusk on Mount Parnassus when he was a young boy.
All three, along with Odysseus’ trusty cowheard Philoetius, plot and eventually carry out the murder of all of Penelope’s suitors, especially the vile and arrogant Antinous, leader of the raptorous pack of scheming fiends and shameless vultures. With all his foes vanquished, and reunited with his beloved and faithful wife, Odysseus should have been the happiest and luckiest man on earth. But their reunion was almost unbelievable and bitter, bitter, and sweet to them both since it had been so long and so hard in coming. I think Wallace Stevens captures the agonizing dreamlike joy of it best in the last stanzas of his poem:
She wanted no fetchings. His arms would be her necklace
And her belt, the final fortune of their desire.
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.
Friend and dear friend and a planet’s encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.
She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.
The final chapter of The Odyssey is called Peace, where Odysseus ends his long journey by going to see his father, Laertes, who had exiled himself to the old family farmstead, away from the city’s lawlessness and human seething. When Odysseus introduces himself, Laertes is skeptical, unconvinced. But Odysseus points out the fruit trees Laertes had given him as a child, and once again shows the scar on his leg:
as hearty great Odysseus hugged him to his heart.
I can go on and on, but you’ve really got to dive into it headfirst yourself. I envy you not having read it yet – damn the curse of knowledge! – you have no idea the depths and joys you’ll find in this Homeric masterpiece.
The engine was finally repaired and reinstalled, and Bill said we would be shoving off on the next afternoon’s tide. Joe E. Buoy returned sometime in the night, sans vache, and Celia and I had arranged to meet for a bouillabaisse, the official dish of Marseilles, and to say goodbye at her favorite restaurant on the quai just before we left the next day.
So we’re finally back at Au Sanglier, where I’m sipping the Contreau. I see Celia walking toward me and she really does look like an elegant, elderly female French philosopher. I stand up and we kiss on both cheeks.
“About what?” I say.
“You had to ride to the sounds of the guns,” I say, in English, and then try to explain what I mean to her in French.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she says. The only other people who knew the truth were my parents, obviously, and they’re both dead. Even Natalie doesn’t know, can’t know. Can't ever know.”