Distractions and remembrance

The Temptation of Ulysses, Salvatore di Masi, 2020, Palermo

The Odyssey is a great story. In many ways, it’s one of the foundational stories of Meditarranean civilization, which the West is hugely indebted to.

The hero of the story, Ulysses, is an inexhaustible figure. He is everything and everyone, though he may introduce himself, occasionally, as ‘Nobody’, especially when he and his tragic crew face oblivion and death.

While Ulysses is everyone, the Odyssey is everything, and has been that to live audiences and readers for centuries. It has been a record of the lifeworld of the peoples of the Sea, an encouragement to virtue and resilience, an entertaining epic, a role-modelling saga, a travelogue, a dark joke (Ulysses’ crew survived a 10-year war only to perish on the way back home), or a reassuring comedy (despite everything he goes through, the hero arrives home to his wife and has a happy ending).

But most of all, I think, the poem is the expression of a people’s deep-seated anxiety around memory and forgetfulness, the accumulatesd fear that the guarantee of the future, of continuation and survival, lies in the ability to remember the past, to recount the steps, to tell the story.

The greatest enemy in this Homeric epic is amnesia. It is forgetting one’s mission, one’s name, one’s humanity. Eating the mysteriously delicious fruit of the Lotophagi people at the beginning of the poem causes the crew to forget their voyage, their homes, their purpose. When Circe turns Ulysses’ companions into pigs, gone is the possibility of memory and remembrance. There is only darkness and blankness, the end of history, the collapse of humanity.

The hero is constantly visited by the spectre of amnesia and tempted by the possibility of forgetting his story – or cutting it short befors the thread has been fully unwound. The Sirens, Calypso, Nausicaa, are all distractions that have the power to remove memory. Ulysees has to keep his eye on target, even if that means waxing his ears shut to avoid the enchantment of waywardness. He has to say no so that his story might have a chance to say yes to its own destiny. His survival is the guarantee of an entire civilization, both wandering and in search of rootedness, both ship-building and vine-planting, ready to affirm its commitment to full human flourishment in the face of death and oblivion.

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