This is one in a series of posts on the common readings in Stanford’s 1980s “Western Culture” course. You can see all posts in the series here: Readings in Western Culture.
Whose story does the Odyssey tell? The answer seems obvious enough: from its first line, the eponymous epic tells the story of “the man of many turns” (as Albert Cook translated it), the story of “a complicated man” (as Emily Wilson translated it), the story of Odysseus, favored of Athena, goddess of wisdom.
But it tells many other stories too, and, much unlike the Iliad, which is a tale of men in conflict and companionship with other men, the Odyssey is very much a tale of men and women in conflict and companionship with one another. It is as if the pastoral world of human life awhirl upon the god-forged shield of Achilleus flowed through the poet’s voice and on its current carried the hero home, where everybody knows your name.
Still, it is not just the story of Odysseus, the man, the husband, the father, the patriarch – it is the story of his family. There is the brooding, moody Telemachus, stewing in his frustration, angry at his mother, dangerously close to souring into Hamlet territory – tragic, yes, but not at all heroic.
And there is Penelope, wife of Odysseus and mother of Telemachus, beset by suitors who daily devour the wealth of Odysseus’s household as they attempt to “woo” Odysseus’s wife. If she is not a widow, she might as well be, for neither wise Mentor nor the few pious councilmen of Ithaca can protect Penelope from the many suitors’ incessant pestering—or if they can, they don’t. Meanwhile, Odysseus’s father, old Laertes, has secluded himself in grief for his lost son, while Odysseus’s son has yet to prove himself man enough to guard the safety of his mother.
The Odyssey is Penelope’s story too, and it reads so differently in this #MeToo moment.
Surviving in the patriarchy without a male protector is no easy task. In Odysseus’s long absence, Penelope is getting propositioned every day by men who don’t respect her agency. That’s what it amounts to. Penelope, within her own domestic sphere – the workplace of a Greek noblewoman – is enduring daily harassment as one man after another asks her to share his bed, to be his wife. But that’s not what she wants. She wants Odysseus back home, and she will wait – for eighteen, nineteen, twenty years – however long it takes.
This is why she has not returned to her father’s house. For to do so would be to admit that Odysseus is never coming home, to admit to widowhood, and thus to make herself marriageable.
So Penelope has the unenviable job of trying to persevere in a space she wants to hold open for her own future, and her family’s future. Her strategy for survival is to humor the “suitors” who daily proposition her without either yielding to them or refusing them outright. For as long as each man thinks he has some hope of having her, no man will allow another to take her by force. That is her only gambit.
The suitors seem to believe that she enjoys it – she enjoys being the object of their desire, the recipient of all their propositioning.
Antinous slut-shames Penelope to her own son:
“…She is cunning.
It is the third year, soon it will be four,
that she has cheated us of what we want.
She offers hope to all, sends notes to each,
but all the while her mind moves somewhere else.” (II, 90-95)
That bitch. She likes the attention, but she won’t put out.
Her very refusal makes her all the more desirable – a prize to win. What woman does not wish to be desired? And even if Penelope married at 14 or 15, she is an old matron now. In fact, she might be well into her forties, for she is on her twentieth year of waiting for her husband to come home. Is that what they want? Penelope the MILF? Penelope as happy, taken Madame George?
They want Penelope for her mind. Each man among them wants to be the master and the center of her thoughts.
Antinous has enough self-knowledge to know that. He tells frustrated Telemachus,
“Athena blessed her with intelligence,
great artistry and skill, a finer mind
than anyone has ever had before,
even the braided girls of ancient Greece,
Tyro, Alcmene, garlanded Mycene –
none of them had Penelope’s understanding.
But if she wants to go on hurting us,
her plans are contrary to destiny.
We suitors will keep eating up your wealth,
and livelihood, as long as she pursues
this plan the gods have put inside her heart.
For her it may be glory, but for you,
pure loss. We will not go back to our farms
or anywhere, until she picks a husband.” (II, 116-129)
I read these lines, beautifully rendered by Emily Wilson, on the same day that I read The New Republic‘s deeply researched, damning article, “A Professor is Kind of Like a Priest.” Using the recently publicized cases of Franco Moretti and Jay Fliegelman, both professors in the English department at Stanford, the essay explores how academics departments deal with the rumored or confirmed abusers in their midst.
In that essay you can read the details of how the English department at Stanford dealt with Fliegelman, who raped his PhD student, Seo-Young Chu. There were professors in that department who, when they learned of it, took action and brought the charge to the university’s administration. But there were professors in that department who closed ranks around Fliegelman:
Consent is slippery in a space as hierarchical as academia. Even if training for sexual assault prevention and awareness is strengthened, it will have to contend with a pre-existing culture defined by vastly unequal levels of power. On Fliegelman, [former Stanford PhD student James] Marino said, “It became immediately obvious to me that it was not to discuss this with faculty. It was clear that some faculty supported him very deeply—some were angry.” As one professor told him, “These are supposed to be the enlightened guys, but they stick together like the fucking mafia.”
When I read Marino’s observation, I immediately recognized the dynamic – not just at Stanford, but at every place in academe: enlightened guys who stick together like the fucking mafia to protect the privilege of predation. (The Chronicle, it seems, is seeking to crowd-source a list of capos and dons and embark on its own de facto Title IX investigations.)
But what I found most striking in the article – and there’s much that’s striking in it, I assure you – was this paragraph:
That Fliegelman offered “genuine intellectual help,” that he had “professional skills,” that he was “brilliant,” as we heard from one former graduate student after another, reveals one of the tragic ironies of Fliegelman’s predatory behavior. Prospective academics were forced to choose between their careers, sense of ethics, physical safety, and psychological well-being, while the “brilliance” of predators in power often overshadowed the brilliance of those without it. Marino, who had been Chu’s peer at Stanford, observes that media accounts of her story rarely note that she “was arguably the brightest student” among the graduate students. “She had the edge over a bunch of really smart students,” [emeritus Professor Herbert] Lindenberger told us. “She was just brilliant.”
She was just brilliant. And instead of nurturing a brilliance that might some day outshine his own, Fliegelman sought to possess it – to possess her, the student with the liveliest mind, the student with the brightest future – for himself.
Athena blessed her with intelligence,
great artistry and skill, a finer mind
than anyone has ever had before…
In spite of what she suffered, Seo-Young Chu is brilliant still, and she has a brilliant future in academe.
Jay Fliegelman does not. He is forever tarnished, forever dimmed, forever overshadowed by his own penchant to possess and put down women who outshone him and outshine him still.
To the wise, the gods are just.