Lost returns

A papyrus fragment of the Odyssey from the 4th century AD (Wellington, Museum of New Zealand)

Sometimes it’s worth looking at books and literature as though they were subject to the same laws of evolution as natural things. That the environment is as important as the structure of the thing itself, and that the former has the final word in shaping the latter.

The story of Ulysses and the Odyssey are known to almost everyone in the West (and those who don’t know these timeless stories ought to feel some shame). Surely, the Homeric epics are powerful in themselves, and readers have for over 2 millenia experienced their pull like supernovae drawing everything and everybody to them. Their influence on our culture – certainly beyond literature – requires whole libraries to explain.

But there’s another reason why Homer stands undefeated, and that has to do with ‘natural’ selection. Its competitors are dead and extinct. The world which produced the Odyssey also produced a myriad of competing and completing narratives, among which the epic poem known as Nostoi was one of the most prominant. Nostoi means ‘The Returns’, meaning the Return of the Greeks. It told the story of the return journey of the Greek heroes who fought at Troy, the wise Nestor, the young Diomedes, the proud Agamemnon, among others.

We know the gist of the Nostoi, but we lack its substance, the text itself. Like an archeological dig, we have remains, but the structure has since collapsed, and we’re walking among ruins in the valley – while Homer shines brightly on the hill.

The accidents of history partly account for why the Nostoi hasn’t reached us in the same way as the Odyssey has. But at the most basic level, the Nostoi wasn’t copied by scribes as often as the Homeric epics. Which is another way of saying that the Nostoi failed to reproduce itself as well as its more succcessful competitor. The Odyssey has found favour with children as with the most seasoned scholars, philosophers and littérateurs. It speaks to everyone because it is for everyone. And it is for everyone because it deals with the most timeless human truths, the beauty and uglyness of human nature, the power of resilience. The Nostoi, by certain accounts, lacked the depth of the Homeric epic, descending all too often into pure entertainment, a Ridley Scott to Homer’s Bertolucci. And history is the most perceptive judge.

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