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Do You Know What An Odyssey Is?

Originally this essay was delivered as the opening lecture for the Honors Program at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington in September, 1993. It is re-printed here with permission from The Imaginative Conservative.

My title is a question: “Do you know what an odyssey is?” I am asking each of you to ask yourself: “Do I know what an odyssey is?”

In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while. So let me call for a time out before the game has properly begun, and let me backtrack before ever having started on the road.

I asked you a question. Before having got to know a single one of you I asked you all a question. The question stared out at you from posters around the campus. Forget for a moment what the question was asking—you probably pay minimal attention anyway to this and to most posted intrusions on your consciousness—and concentrate on the mere question. Ask yourselves: What is a question? Some of you, those interested enough to turn that question over in your mind, might sense that there is something weird about it: It seems like a self-defeating, paradoxical, Catch-22 question. How can someone who doesn’t know what a question is ask what anything is, including a question? How can we be sure we are actually doing whatever one does when asking a question before we know what we are supposed to do? Yet we do it all the time—we just ask away.

Now when things are going on in life that seem impossible in thought—that is the moment at which something flashes out, for some people and I hope for many among you, that has the name “wonder.” Wonder is that sense of fascinated estrangement from yourself and your world that makes you think. Both of the two great ancient philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, think that wonder is the origin of that peculiarly searching kind of thought called 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). Wonder is the sense, which comes in a flash but won’t go away, that things are not as straightforward as they seem, that the ordinary way, or explanation and argument leaves you with unbearable contradictions and impossibilities. And philosophy kicks in when you start to take your puzzlement seriously and think it out articulately. Everyone who is aroused to inquiring thought by a contradiction is willy-nilly a philosopher; Let us therefore philosophize together by pursuing the apparent paradox of asking about questions.

What then is a question? To begin with, I might answer that there are many kinds of questions. Of course, they all end with a question mark, and they almost all demand some sort of response. But beyond that they are very different. Let me give you examples, as if you couldn’t think of plenty yourselves.

“May I see your driver’s license?” is a wolf of a question in sheep’s clothes. It is simply a polite order, a police question. The safe response is to comply. “How long was Odysseus gone from Ithaca?” is a fake question, an example of the infamous class of “teacher’s questions.” It is a demand for spitting out facts that the teacher already knows. One deserved but unsafe answer would be: “Why ask me, it’s in the book if you really want to know.” (Incidentally, the answer is: twenty years, ten fighting before Troy, three seafaring on an ocean of fantasy, seven with the nymph Calypso, seventeen more days on a raft, a couple of days in magical Phaeacia, and then, after twenty years, Odysseus wakes up with all his treasure on the shore of his island home, Ithaca.)

Here’s another question: “What do you mean, this country is a democracy? Just look at what we did to…” and then you name the victim of the day. That is the kind of question particularly called “questioning” as in “questioning our values.” The “we” and “our” in such questions is pure generosity on the part of the questioner, who does not really think he’s part of the trouble. These are reformer’s questions and they are implicit accusations, not so different in feel from “Why do I have to tell you everything twice?” To which the peaceable answer is not “Because I stopped listening long ago,” but an eager show of listening.

Here is yet another, very serious, kind of question: “Is there a way to immunize an at-risk population against an endemic virus?”. This is the kind of life-and-death question called a “problem.” It is complemented by a methodical inquiry. If an answer is found, the problem is solved and the question belongs to history. Our living interest in it fades quickly, and funding goes elsewhere.

Finally there are the questions induced by wonder: What is goodness? Does knowing what goodness is have an assignable relation to being good? What does it mean to be or not to be and is being better than not-being—a question you have all heard Hamlet utter, but not perhaps taken as seriously as one should, considering that while we’re alive the ability to be or not to be is our ultimate power. Thinking about such questions necessarily drives you into asking others: Is death the end of life? What comes afterwards? Is a divinity watching?

Let me call these questions true questions, because they do not go away. Some would say that they do not go away because unlike well-formulated problems they neither dictate a clear common method of inquiry nor have a universally acceptable answer. Their pesky perennialism is therefore purely the effect of their unanswerability. I don’t think so. First you have to know a lot, in fact you have to know everything, to know that such questions are in principle unanswerable. I happen to know that students find answers they can live with every day. I think such questions do not go away because, unlike problems that get solved and cease to be an issue, questions of this sort become the more engaging the closer they come to the answer. That is because those who truly ask long for the answer not because they want to be finished with the problem, but because they really want the answer to be with them; they want to live by its light. Let me give a hypothetical example of what I mean. Suppose after a life given to the quest for God you found yourself suddenly standing before His Throne. You would not rub your hands and say, “Well,—that’s that” and lose interest. It would be a beginning, not an end.

I seem to have evaded our paradox by surveying the field of questions and classifying them. But it got me a little further because I picked out the kind of question I really care about.

So back to the original question: What is a question, a true question in my terms? Perhaps the inquiry is not so hopeless if you make the following starting hypothesis, throwing logic to the winds. Recall the logical quandary: If you don’t already know what a question is, you can’t ask what it is. And so about any search: If its object is unknown to you, you’ll have no way to recognize it if you come on it. But logic, though indispensable to the thinking that goes in stretches, spanning the way from here to there, is not very helpful in finding the right beginning, and it ought to have only a limited say in deciding the outcome. If a stretch of rigorously logical thinking leads to a humanly mad outcome, suspect the beginnings and don’t be co-opted by the rigor. Hence, formally speaking, it may well be impossible to ask what anything is, and above all, to ask what a question is. Yet in real life we just do it. The hypothesis that gives us support says that in fact we already know the answer—in some way. Socrates calls this sense that in pursuing a true question we are delving into something familiar, “recollection.” To ask such a question we have to have a sense that we are about to remember something we have always known and then we dredge it up. Questions are possible only if the answers in some sense precede the questions. Another way to think of it is this: When we ask “What is the truth about this?” the “this” is already in some negative way in our mind and the question shapes a kind of receptive form into which the answer can seep and, as we say, “inform” us. Questions are in complicity with answers—they imply them. It is entirely possible to ask questions, if a proper question is not a demand on us to acknowledge an unidentified package or a command to deliver made-to-order goods. Question-asking is feasible as a meandering yet purposeful search for something of which we have just enough intimation to want to possess the clarified whole.

Having spent a good deal of my time with you beating around the bush—though it is something of a burning bush—let me now get back to the beginning and to my title question: “Do you know what an odyssey is?”

It is a triple question. It is first one of those irritating teacher’s questions. Your answer might be: Of course I know that. We are just now reading a book called the Odyssey after its hero Odysseus. He takes his sweet time about getting back from the wars, for twenty years claiming to all and sundry that he is seeking only to return home, and that prolonged adventure-seeking ramble is called his “odyssey.” Later on people transferred that term to any adventure-laden progress through space and time, and that is what we now call an “odyssey.”

I have to point out to you that there are two ways of knowing that an odyssey is an adventurous and searching journey, or, as my dictionary says, “an intellectual or spiritual quest.” Many people know it just as they know most words, as a term they happen to have picked up. Our speech is like an archaeological site. We walk over it picking up shards of pottery and pieces of carved stone here and there as we find them, but the stories they tell and the meanings they embody are lost to us. Similarly, we come across and pick up words and have no idea what is behind them. Let me give you really spectacular examples of such words: nature, essence, the Greeks, discrimination, method, logic, science, technology, art, modernity, information—to most users a jumble of lost significance. “Archaeological site” is too elegant a description of our language: “kitchen midden” would be better.

That is what an education, and particularly this educational journey you are about to embark on, is supposed to do for you: to help you to recover and refurbish your speech so that what you yourself say has its proper significance and the language others use comes alive with meaning for you. To put it succinctly: educated people know not only what they really mean but also what they are actually saying. Let me illustrate that effect with the word “odyssey”. When you have finished reading and talking about Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, the common noun “an odyssey” will have all sorts of fresh significance when you see it in a book. You might even use it yourself on some proper occasion. For you will have begun to be literate, and you will be entitled as well as be able to use all sorts of words to express what is in your well-stocked minds and full hearts.

When you hear the word “odyssey” you will see in your mind’s eye pictures that will form the backdrop to the particular present occasion and will give it depth and romance. For example, you might hear of a friend’s inward odyssey and how he wandered around from spiritual place to place until he found his way home to a laboriously achieved belief. You may hear that on the way this friend got hopelessly involved with a powerful woman, luscious and wealthy, with a cavernous villa on a scenic island, and how she isolated him from active life and prevented him from going where he needed to be, whilst he grew sick and tired of having to go to bed with her every night and fell into a deep depression, until he found a way to extricate himself, taking the plunge to brave the waters that separated him from his wife and child. Such things happen and everyone hears about them. But you will know the true and universal name of this island woman, which is Calypso and means “She who conceals.” You will live with the mythical backdrop that gives significance to the common events of human life, and you will be the one who gets the allusions that weave our personal affairs into the web of myth provided by the traditions of civilization.

You will be educated, which means that you will be interested where others are bored, that you will notice unities where others experience randomness, and that you will intend meanings where others are just spouting words. For exactly that is supposed to be the result of becoming literate: The world becomes a thick texture of significance that you know how to “access.”

Therefore, besides knowing what an odyssey is in the dictionary sense, there is also the knowledge of the tradition behind the definition that gives depth to the sense of the word odyssey spelled with a lower-case o. Logicians would say that besides the denotation of the word, which is its direct meaning, there is also its connotation, the images and associations that cluster around it. To know what a word means is to know both. Denotations can be looked up. Connotations take time to accumulate—four years at least, to begin with.

Here is a second way of taking the question: “Do you know what an odyssey is?’” You might answer “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.” Again this question can be a mere teacher’s question, really an instruction: “Open your examination books and write down all the adventures of Odysseus. Misspellings will be penalized.” The sensible reply to this demand is once more: “Why don’t you read the book yourself if you want to know?” The true question, however, might 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 wise response is: “I have to read and reread this book and talk about it to my friends, and can you make some suggestions?”

Yes, I can in fact make some suggestions. They constitute one answer to the question what Odysseus’ odyssey is. If I thought they constituted the answer, I wouldn’t tell it to you because you might then be tempted not to think about the book further. But at the same time I want to make myself very clear that just because a number of interpretations of a book make sense—and a really great book is almost defined by this fact—it doesn’t follow that the book has no fixed meaning. On the contrary, it is like a hard jewel that shows different facets and colors from different perspectives and under different illuminations. I belong to that increasingly rare species of readers who believes that there was once a mind in which all the meanings were compactly present together: the mind of the author.

Let me tell you what I think about Odysseus’s odyssey. Ask yourself first who its author is. Who is the poet of the odyssey? Is it Homer? Well yes, in some way. But actually it is Odysseus, it is Odysseus who takes the place of the palace-poet in Phaeacia and who tells the story of his adventures there. He is the true teller and poet of his odyssey.

Now there is something we know about this hero: he is a habitual and practiced liar. Wherever he turns up, he tells lying tales. Homer calls them that—”lying tales.” He tells various people, his honest servant Eumaius, his faithful wife Penelope and others, a lot of partial stories about his travels, stories quite different from the grand odyssey he tells those artistic folk, the Phaeacians. His very own goddess Athena encourages him in this rather peculiar tale-telling. Imagine the scene. It happens right after the crew of the magically instantaneous Phaeacian ship has left Odysseus in a deep sleep on the shore of his home Ithaca, together with a heap of loot. He awakes to find that for the first time in decades his own goddess is visibly with him. Here is Athena herself, handsome and tall, the embodiment of all the true womanly virtues, for she is warlike, cunning, and wise. She all but makes love to her protegé. She strokes his check 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 a while in her pleasure with him. He really is an olympic-class liar.

Now what lies has he been telling, according to Homer? He tells all and sundry that he has been here and there, to Crete, to Syria, to Egypt, as a brigand and merchant mariner. What else would an impoverished hero, having wasted ten years of his life to sack one small citadel, do on his way home from Turkey? Of course he would circulate in the Aegean sea, stealing or trading so as not to come home empty-handed. All the Greeks did it on their return trip from Troy.

So here is my interpretation of Odysseus’s odyssey. See if you believe me—it’s pure speculation. I think Odysseus’s lying tales, the supposedly made-up stories he keeps telling, are the simple fact. Of course he went to Crete and Syria and Egypt to accumulate wealth by various peaceful and violent means. What else would he have been doing in the ten years he takes to get home? He is, I say, telling simple facts.

Then what of the wonderful and fantastic adventures that form the odyssey he tells in Phaeacia, the journey that gives its name to the poem? They are not the simple fact. They are instead the utter truth.

This very thing must have happened to you: You go to a place. certain prosaic things occur, ordinary external factual occurrences. But your trip also has an inward significance: you learn something about yourself or about others; you see the ordinary things in a larger, perhaps in a magical perspective. This view of events, this vision, is the truth of the trip. The mere facts are a kind of correct non-truth.

Here is how it happens to Odysseus. He comes to a place, probably Egypt, where the inhabitants eat the lotus flower, which apparently contains a drug. We know from their frescoes that the Egyptians sniffed lotus flowers at parties. You may have done something like that yourself. Odysseus, a man of independent vitality and imagination, does not join his crew in indulging in this mind-altering activity, and eventually he has to extricate them by force from their spaced-out stupor. This mundane, all-too-factual episode becomes the true mythic adventure of the lotus eaters in Odysseus’ odyssey.

Another time he and his crew come to an island bordello. His men are quite ready to make pigs of themselves. Not he; in fact he masters the madam of this house. The mythic truth of this episode collides out in the adventure on Circe’s Island, where a seductive sorceress turns his crew into a herd of grunting beasts, while he retains his manhood.

In mathematics books there is often an irritating but well-meaning sentence: “The rest of the proof is left to the reader.” I am leaving the rest of this proof, the other ten adventures, to you to interpret.

If there is any sense in what I am saying, Homer will introduce into your intellects and imaginations to what may be a new notion: the distinction between brute, but somehow mendacious, fact and fantastic, but significant, truth. His poem will serve for you as the first and probably the grandest example of the poet’s function, which is to turn mere life into meaningful myth.

The second answer then to the question “Do you know what an odyssey is?” will be: It is that telling of an episode in a human life that gives its incidents magic and meaning.

Now to the third and last way to understand the question. It is the one that is deepest and takes the longest to get hold of. Therefore I will be briefest about it, so as to leave you that much the more mental space to think about it.

This third way asks: Do you really know what an odyssey is as the dictionary defines it: a journey of discovery or a quest? Well, begin by thinking of a quest as a question being enacted in life, a lived question.

Ask yourselves if your four years at Whitman College ought not to be such a quest. I think so, but I cannot tell, and I have no intention of prescribing what you should be looking for. Some of you will lose and find, or find and lose, or confirm and reconfirm a faith in God. Others among you will search for your vocation in life and prepare for it here. Some of you will find a problem that won’t let you go until you solve it. Others will seek and find someone to spend your lives with. Some of you will look for opportunities to make a lot of money, so that you can make large donations to your college. Others will decide for a life of depressed income but exhilarating service to the world.

The point is that whatever question you live out here, it should have some dimensions of a true question in the sense I tried to delineate for you before. It should be a kind of increasingly better directed receptivity, an openness based on ever clearer foundations. It. should be the expression of a deeply felt desire. The last answer then, to the question “Do you know what an odyssey is?” will be: It is the proper name for your life as students, for the life of learning.

The studies you are starting on here and the books you are about to read can, if you let them, help you to shape your own odyssey into a journey that lacks neither enchantment nor definition. You will have your own vivid personal answer to the question I asked you collectively. You will know what an odyssey is.

Bon Voyage!

This article was originally published at – and is printed here with permission from – The Imaginative Conservative.

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