Thursday, May 20, 2010


Max Beckmann: Odysseus and Calypso

Western literature has given us two great epic poems that deal with the midlife crisis or the transition to the second half of life: Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy, which includes the amazing Ulysses Canto, canto 26 of the Inferno, where Dante takes great liberties with Homer’s plot, since he has a different, non-Homeric vision of Ulysses, one shared by most readers, it turns out: the hero as a heroic explorer, a man infinitely curious about the unknown.

Odysseus has also been called the first modern man, or a Faustian Man, in the sense of insatiable quest for knowledge, even at the expense of other values – not at all the Homeric vision. However, Goethe’s FAUST starts with a midlife crisis, and ends with the Eternal Feminine.  In Western literature we also have a wonderful story of WOMAN’S journey to maturity and a reunion with her husband, Psyche and Eros, by the Roman writer Apuleius, but it’s not an epic poem; it’s a prose account, a part of a romantic novel. The ordeals that the female hero must undergo are very interesting; Psyche is in some ways very similar to Odysseus.

The word ODYSSEY has passed into the language to mean a very long journey, full of detours and trials one must pass; at the end, you return to your palace not in glory, but humbly, in a beggar’s rags. You are older and wiser; you have a different vision of what is most important in life.

Why this continued popularity of the Odyssey, while the appeal of the Iliad seems to have wanted?  Part of the answer is UNIVERSALITY. Homer has revealed some universal truths – in this case, the midlife crisis and the journey of transformation that leads to a happy later life – NOTE THAT THE HERO IS MIDDLE-AGED.  The Odyssey could be subtitled: WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO MIDDLE-AGED HEROES. This is unique because the typical literary hero dies long before the second half of life, or we don’t learn anything more about him after the heroic deed is accomplished.

1. The Collapse of Great Expectations

IN THE SECOND HALF OF LIFE, A CRISIS FORCES US TO INITIATE A PERSONAL ODYSSEY. In the typical case, the heroic ego project has failed, and we are reconciled at last to the idea that we won’t be rich and famous after all.  We won’t write the Great American Novel, we won’t win the Nobel Prize, we won’t become president, we won’t marry Prince or Princess Charming. Our child the genius, instead of winning a scholarship to Harvard, may be on the mental ward, diagnosed as bipolar. We do not live up to our own expectations, and our children do not live up to our expectations either. Reality is simply more modest. It’s not that we didn’t try hard enough; we did the best we could. But it also takes the right circumstances; the whole universe has to be just right if a grand achievement is to be realized. As one of my students brilliantly mis-wrote, “The limits are boundless.”

Now, American culture in particular promotes the “think big” mentality, feeding the young lies such as “You can be anything you want.” Even without this kind of cultural pressure, we know it’s normal for the young to start out with “great expectations.” What happens at midlife?  Typically, the great expectations of the first half of life collapse. This can lead to severe midlife or later-life depression. The image of Odysseus arriving home not as a hero with 12 ships loaded with treasure, but alone, in beggar’s clothes, is a haunting one.

First we have the magical thinking of childhood, then the heroic thinking of adolescence and young adulthood – which may extend until forty or beyond; finally, if we are lucky to sail through the midlife crisis without getting stranded in Lotus Land, or devoured by the Sirens, we start asking, “If I’m never going to be rich and famous, then what is the meaning of my life? What is the most important thing in life?  What should I do during the limited amount of time that remains?” 

2. A new definition of heroism

The answers that the Odyssey tries to give are nothing like “bravery in battle.” Rather, the Odyssey emphasizes the importance of a harmonious, supportive marriage; the importance of friendship; the importance of belonging to a community and one’s duty to that community. Note that these are the so-called FEMININE VALUES OF CONNECTEDNESS. The meaning of life lies in the way we touch the lives of others. In a shocking contrast to the Iliad, in the Odyssey, life is not about striving for personal glory. It’s not about who is the best warrior. It’s about trying to come home – to lead the right kind of life, the life where you really belong. 

The epic also shows the importance of maintaining focus on one’s highest goal – not losing sight of that ultimate goal. This requires persistence, patience, self-control, and trust.  Odysseus is not a superman on the battle field.  He shows courage as well as resourcefulness, but the Odyssey is not really an epic about physical courage; it’s more about not giving up hope.  As long as you have the WHY of life, you can survive almost any HOW – Nietzsche.

Revolutionary difference in Odysseus as a middle-aged hero: heroism isn’t dying in battle, but PERSISTENCE toward a goal, and survival. Heroism isn’t “look what I can do all by myself” but rather being able to ask for help, and accomplishing some important task WITH HELP. 

Achilles: two destinies. The point of the Odyssey is not that the short life with glory is to be preferred to long life without glory, but rather PERSISTENCE AND SURVIVAL – the value of life – and the value of marriage.  Both Odysseus and Penelope give us lessons in persistence.  A new concept of hero is emerging: he or she who persists.

Odyssey could be subtitled, “When Bad Things Happen to Middle-Aged Heroes.”  There is even some similarity to the Book of Job.  Odysseus starts with twelve ships, then is reduced to having one ship, then none, and finally enters his palace in beggar’s clothes.

Opening words are critically important in ancient Greek epics. Menin/andra (“rage” versus “man”)

rage – emotion of a victim, versus the intelligent self-control of the “resourceful man”

3. The theme of two destinies 

The Iliad could be said to be about two destinies:  Achilles could choose a short life with glory, or a long peaceful life without glory. Initially he praises the long and peaceful life; rage at the death of Patroclos thrusts him into battle, though he knows it will be not just his glory, but his doom.

In the Odyssey, we meet Odysseus also at a point of choice between two destinies. He’s being offered immortality – without human suffering, defeats, and whatever glory may or may not come. Perhaps the most astonishing and crucial part of the Odyssey is the fact that Odysseus chooses human life over immortality at the price of living on a lovely but boring island with Calypso (the name means the Concealer [cf “apocalypse,” or unveiling]; Calypso was the daughter of Atlas, implying a connection with the earth; she lives in a cave, suggesting the womb of mother earth.)

Even as she agrees to let him go, she once more repeats her offer. They are having a meal, Odysseus eating human food, Calypso her diet of nectar and ambrosia, when Calypso addresses Odysseus. She speaks to him with AN IMMORTAL RADIANCE UPON HER.

Wily Odysseus, if only you knew all the pain
you are destined to suffer before getting home,
you’d stay here with me and be immortal –
though you wanted her forever,
that bride for whom you pine each day.
Can I be less desirable than she is?
Less fascinating?  Less beautiful? Can mortals
compare with goddesses in grace and form?

To this Odysseus, a supreme strategist a flatterer, replies:

My Lady Goddess, here’s no cause for anger.
My quiet Penelope – how well I know –
would seem a shade before your majesty,
death and old age being unknown to you,
while she must die. Yet, it is true, each day
I long for home, long for the sight of home.
If some god has marked me out again
for shipwreck, my tough heart can endure it.
What hardship have I not suffered
at sea, and in battle!  Let the trial come.”

4. Acceptance of mortality and suffering; how best to use the rest of life

He chooses to accept mortality, persists in his goal, and accepts suffering – “let the trial come.” This is SURRENDER to reality rather than youthful denial of it.  He scorns the easy, peaceful, boring paradise and chooses the storm of human life.

HIS WILLINGNESS TO SUFFER; people not willing to suffer don’t accomplish anything (example – own business, trying to publish)

There is a shift from youthful fantasy of attaining a personal paradise (“rich and famous”) to the idea of having a task to perform, a duty, a service; from the heroic ego-project to the ideal of service.


We know that a goddess is not going to fall in love with us and offer us immortality.  It’s a question of ACCEPTING ONE’S MORTALITY AND DECIDING HOW BEST TO USE WHAT LIFE REMAINS.


from “look how great I am” to “what is my task in life?”

from “what can life do for me?” to “what does life demand of me?”

In the first half of life, we tend to live for the ego; the second half of life should belong to the soul.

But if I am not going to be someone spectacular, what am I here for?  To spread the light, to be part of the chorus – it is a humbling answer, it’s not what the ego wants, but it is ultimately satisfying to feel that you are a part of something greater.

The ultimate prize is A MEANINGFUL LIFE. 

Endless easy life with Calypso would be meaningless.  They were not real partners; they had nothing in common.  (Still, the elemental pleasure of existing?)

Homecoming is more important; leaving the isolation of an island paradise to become part of family and community again.

What is really important to us? Is it making as much money as possible, or having the leisure to do what we love doing?  Maybe the greatest wealth is time to do what you love – and/or human affection.  Dropping the ego, the profit motive, and “following your bliss” is often possible only later in life.

The Odyssey tells us that glory is less important than having a home; a beautiful goddess less important than a spouse who is a true partner.

5. Living for the soul

Considering the collapse of the "great expectations," the second half of life may seem uninspired and diminished. But it can be the more spiritually oriented half of life, coming home to where you really belong.  
David Whyte sees no diminishment in connecting with what might be called "soul projects" as opposed to ego projects.  I hate his stuttering short lines, but enjoy the content of this poem:


In that first
hardly noticed
to which you wake,
coming back
to this life
from the other
more secret,
and frighteningly
where everything
there is a small
into the new day
which closes
the moment
you begin
your plans.

What you can plan
is too small
for you to live.

What you can live
will make plans
for the vitality
hidden in your sleep.

To be human
is to become visible
while carrying
what is hidden
as a gift to others.

To remember
the other world
in this world
is to live in your
true inheritance.

You are not
a troubled guest
on this earth,
you are not
an accident
amidst other accidents
you were invited
from another and greater
than the one
from which
you have just emerged.

Now, looking through
the slanting light
of the morning
window toward
the mountain
of everything
that can be,
what urgency
calls you to your
one love?  What shape
waits in the seed
of you to grow
and spread
its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting
in the fertile sea?
In the trees
beyond the house?
In the life
you can imagine
for yourself?
In the open
and lovely
white page
on the waiting desk?

~ David Whyte

(The House of Belonging)

Oh how I'd love to believe this stanza -- let me commit the blasphemy of making the lines just a bit longer: 
You are not a troubled guest on this earth, 
you are not an accident 
amidst other accidents --
you were invited 
from another and greater night
than the one from which
you have just emerged.
It would be emotionally comforting to think so. But even without such a belief in having been invited, we simply have to take the responsibility for making the most of our life. Odysseus chose a rich mortality rather than an empty, boring immortality. It's been said that people who are most afraid of death are those who haven't really lived. 

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