If you’ve been reading my blog lately you know I’m eyeballs deep in a parallel reading between Homer’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’ve scraped together a few previous posts concerning mythology and how certain books play off of others. I am not happy with the result of such a scrape, so I will continue to mold my thoughts around this idea of a secondary historical dialogue.
It seems, back when this book was published, the literature field was very different. So before I go into what inspired the Odyssey by Homer and was inspired by The Odyssey, I must first give a quick, short history of literature from 1920’s to now.
*queue Magic Schoolbus music*
I know, I know, we’ve already gone over this. But, I’ve learned a little more since then, and wish to flesh a little more out. Structuralism is alive even today. It’s alive and well. And it doesn’t focus solely on writing. Anything with a pattern can fall under a structuralist’s microscope, or magnifying glass. A structuralist seeks to find the core parts of a thing, be it a poem, a novel, a play, a football game, a balanced family, the stock market, and dissects it (deconstructs it) to find how it’s put together.
Joyce et al, in the 1920’s and a little earlier, decided to try and take a scientific approach to understanding writing, and literature, and pulled together a new way of writing. This structuralist approach allowed Joyce’s novels to seem reticulated and over-explanatory, yet be entirely set in the background of the larger story. Where multiple dialogues exist at the same time, but one has to dig down to the core of the book to separate.
Then, when one reads one of the novels that inspired Joyce, one gets an entirely different read of the initial novel: the new knowledge changes the dialogue. Grows it. Improves on it.
(To take from a previous example) You can drink a glass of wine and like it. “Good.” But if you try and train yourself to understand the things surrounding that glass of wine: storage, additives, geographical location of growth, the narrative dialogue from that glass of wine changes, develops, deepens. And understanding the wine, you can store it for when it opens up, decant it to remove sedatives, aerate it, pair it with the right meat, etc. It inspires, and in turn is inspired, and in turn inspires the next drink. A theoretically unending process of knowledge, taste, growth. This is no different with literature.
We modern readers study individual texts as if they exist in a vacuum. Thanks to New Criticism, a movement that started mid 1930’s and has persisted to the present day, you don’t need to know the writer’s life, the political/social issues present in the author’s life, or even the original language he wrote in to fully understand a work. You don’t need to know the previous texts it was based off, even if it was a sequel, because a good text will explain itself proper, if it is written well.
Most people read this way, study this way through grade school and high school. The New Criticism way: one novel, one poem, one play. There’s a touch of investigative discussion–whether Shakespeare himself wrote every play, whether Woodstock impacted the importance of Tom Bombadil, etc.–but the majority of the focus is on the text and nothing but the text.
This has killed a lot of deep thought in literature. This has assisted in distancing a lot of smart people from the literature field, due to the fact that we are trained to read in such a limited, albeit scientific way. (Scientific as in: it is much easier to limit the data of the book to the confines of the spine, from cover to cover, instead of trying to collect a limitless amount of input from outside sources. Oh, Author A read Swift’s A Modest Proposal? Well that changes everything! Oh. Never mind. He read a first draft of it, in French, and we all know how terrible that translation was!)
The 1970’s brought about a crazy idea that the over-explanative idea of literature was, in a way, self-serving and pointless in nature. It’s a slippery subject, but a bunch of French guys came along and said, well, the whole world exists because of language. To deconstruct everything, from belief systems to governmental systems to personal opinions and moral values, you find language as the existent “text.” Everything we know about our world and ourselves is based on language. Without language, this world would not exist.
Kinda dramatic, I think, but they might have a philosophical point. Psychologically, to have, say, a “dream,” and not have a word for “dream,” one forgets it. To have a dream and call it a vision is to attach connotation to it. To call it a waste of time or inspiration or process or memory, is to change it. Manipulate it. Sort it. But most of all, give it life. You are allowed to develop it, abstractly, into something that helps your life (if only to dismiss it, and be able to discuss it in your head). Without language, a “dream” is nothing. It is a forgotten thing. Lapsed and lost. To give it language, to give it word, is to nail it down to a board for study. “I have named this thing, and it exists.”
The same goes for concrete thought, though it has less of an impact. To call this thing before me a “aluminum can” is to give it communication rights. I can (no pun intended) then go to someone not directly in front of the aluminum can and talk about it. Explain it. Even to someone who, perhaps, has never seen one before “Ornithopter,” “Flux capacitor,” “mutagen ooze,” and “Tardis” are examples of words given to things with otherwise no words to explain.
Literature study, and the Growth of Homer’s Perspective
Before the 1930’s, people who were considered “genuine” literature thinkers studied the amorphous blob that surrounded an individual text, which encompassed the author, the author’s family life, native language, religious implications, social ramifications, etc. I would go so far as to call this the Old Criticism model of research. If other works were involved (and there always are), an observer of the text would (could) delve into those texts, those inspirations, inputs, etc. All the way back. Aaaall the way back. And, not surprisingly, Homer’s Odyssey is the farthest back we can go to get base text. Epic poems, too, full of input from the time period.
It is patient Zero. It is the Alpha Immortal. The Vlad Tepes of books.
Quick note: there are other Vlads, too. Beowulf is one, for example. Certain texts exist without previous texts behind them, and one can’t move any farther back behind the text for more, feeder texts. So it is, effectively, the source.
Remove New Criticism (because I gave it a name, can you see how easy it is to use a short phrase to help better inform an idea?), remove Structuralism, and remove Post-Structuralism from the discussion. They have no place in the focus of Homer’s literature tree. Discussing Joyce? Structuralism is very important. Not now.
Looking at this tree picture I posted, you can understand the vast stores of knowledge left beneath the branches. Homer is the base of the tree, and the root system beneath is all the previous insight we have now lost to the ages due to time, fire, religious persecution, etc. (Damn you, Library of Alexandria! Why couldn’t you have survived forever?)
So. Homer’s Odyssey comes as the first text. We know Homer was inspired by other texts (or word-of-mouth) via the use of external mythology to reinforce the story. Athena, Apollo, Hermes, Calypso, Agamemnon, Troy, etc. They existed outside the text, and he used them as inspirations for the text. So we know the roots exist behind this text.
Heck, some believe book 11 (The Death chapter) is much older than the rest of the epic poem, as well, having been written first and possibly before Homer incorporated it in his epic.
Others wrote using Homer’s works as inspiration for further discussion of a topic. Leaving out religious works such as the Old and New Testament and the Quran and Book of Shadows (apparently, discussing this topic is taboo in literature: they exist as divine inspiration only. Even though man and men have written it, these texts exist wholly outside of extramuros inspiration), Virgil’s Aeneid (29-19 BC) plays off book 11, further fleshing the idea of Hades. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 AD) delves into the transmogrifying aspects of the parable, while fleshing all manner of creatures/demons/gods into the mix. Dante’s Inferno (Cantos XXVI specifically) (1320 AD) plays off Homer’s work, and some say his entire Comedy is a list mimicking, developing, overcoming book 11 of Homer’s poem due to its listing quality. Milton’s Paradise Lost (first written in 1667 AD in ten books, then re-released in 1674 in twelve books to better mimic Virgil’s Aeneid) plays off the same Epic narrative to better help people understand the ways of the gods. As all these works try to do. Understand the randomness of the gods and God.
There are thousands other books that are lost to (at least) me, perhaps the world. We do not know the depth of religious dogma that developed due to Dante’s fictional work, although to fully understand the work would take a lifetime of reading said religious works that inspired Dante.
The farther from the trunk we go, the more the branches grow leafy: Joyce, Kant, Yeats, Longfellow, Tennyson, Pound, Borges, Faulkner, Jung, Nietzsche, all developed ideas from these works. I’m sure history is rife with writers who branched from that tree to write inspirational works based in part on it. Much like Aphrodite and Ares sleeping in Haephestus’s bed is a back-story to some of the Odyssey‘s relationships, so too is the Odyssey back-story to these peoples’ works.
Some might say the better read the writer, the more those other influences grow within his work: Joyce uses a smattering of many of those writers, as does Pound and Yeats and Longfellow.
I posit this tree-of-literature has influenced our society, and our world, far more than we give it credit for. Western thinking also grows from this tree, in part due to its societal implications and its religious undertones.
Do you know of writers that have found inspiration among the branches of this tree?
P.S. – This is obviously not the only “literature” tree out there. I’m wholly uneducated on Eastern writing. I know of a smaller, no less important tree called the American Gothic tree, and the tree from which Cervantes’s Don Quixote grew, and the limited Viking literature that sprouted from Beowulf, and still others that share this tree’s branches. Perhaps this is more a literary copse, or grove, or even forest. But this tree, the Homer tree, is by far the largest currently seen.