When Greek children of the 9th century BC played "Greeks and Trojans," who were the good guys and who the bad? The terms of the question are anachronistic in various ways and need qualification, but the question is nevertheless fascinating. What prompts it is a new understanding of the emotional dynamics of the Odyssey that emerges from an analysis of its form. The heart of this analysis is a perception of symbolic correspondence between the fall of Troy and Odysseus's slaughter of the suitors. The correspondence is supported by, and prompts new explanations for, problematic passages and thematic relationships that have long concerned commentators. My interpretation suggests what in any case seems reasonable, that the Odyssey was strongly influenced in its composition and initial reception by contemporary response to the fall of Troy.
In considering this response I will make psychological claims that expand conventional reader-response theory by enlisting cultural anthropology to evaluate evidence spanning centuries of social evolution. My wide-ranging speculation is New Historicist in regarding the form of the Odyssey as evidence of contemporary attitudes toward the sacking of Troy; my approach is anti-New Historicist in assuming that a basic psychological dynamic is constitutive of human nature and in discerning psychological continuity between Homeric and later audiences. In the Odyssey, problematic passages and thematic parallels to the fall of Troy suggest that those who composed and first listened to the epic felt unconscious guilt over the victory of their not-so-distant ancestors. In the context of this unconscious guilt, the climactic action of the epic has transtextual significance. The slaughter of the suitors is symbolic reparation for the sacking of Troy--a reparation in which Odysseus symbolically becomes, or is made to resemble in his bloody defense of home and family, a last, now victorious, Trojan.
My leap from formalist analysis into considering what the Odyssey meant to its first audiences is precipitated by the implications whereby a text, and particularly a "historic" text, establishes its full field of meaning. I call these implications "transtextual" by analogy with "metahistory," Hayden White's term for the moral and esthetic motives which determine the way history is written. Chronicle and epic are related genres, and much of the content of the Odyssey is, like historical data, received, not invented. But in an epic, freedom to choose, arrange and embellish is far greater, so that the transtextuality of the Odyssey is broader in its implications. Of these implications I am chiefly concerned with the moral and psychological.
Consideration of the transtextuality of the Odyssey involves an exercise in reader-response theory--or, here, listener-response theory--across a vast expanse of time and differing cultures. At such distance, there are obvious dangers of projection--what Edward Said would call imaginative colonization of otherness. We may, however, be able to surmise the response of the Homeric audience to the epic and to the oral tradition that was, and to a significant degree remains, its context. The reason for thinking this possible is that, despite great cultural diversity, human beings are fundamentally the same. To say so is, of course, to fly in the face of current relativist theory, which holds that all "regimens of truth" are based on nothing more enduring than social consensus. Foucault, the chief spokesman for radical relativism, proclaims that any axiomatic system is arbitrary. Such exclusive localization of values has been challenged, however, by researchers from various disciplines. For example, G. P. Murdock and Alexander Argyros argue convincingly for basic cultural universality and maintain that cultural differences are noticeable only because they figure against a larger ground of common culture. Underlying this cultural ground are physical, biological and familial relationships that do not differ fundamentally between peoples of varying cultures. These relationships, particularly the biological and generational (adult-child and sibling), inform basic psychodynamics. Whether innate or determined by these relationships, human psychodynamics seems basically the same throughout history and across cultures.
Freud, Jung, and most psychologists since, have held this to be true, and the enduring and widespread popularity of the Homeric epics seems to attest to it. Basic sameness allows for considerable difference, however. We should not, for example, confuse the values of Homer and his initial audiences with our own, or even with the values of later Greeks such as Aeschylus or Plato. But sameness of fundamental human psychology throughout history and across cultures ensures underlying continuity between Homer's contemporaries, their immediate descendants, and ourselves. This continuity endures even if it is, on their part or ours, largely unconscious and even though, as cultural anthropologists have shown, ancient Greeks encoded their values in forms foreign to us.
The textual correspondence between the fall of Troy and the slaughter of the suitors rests on Odysseus being the person most responsible for victory over enemies at Troy and Ithaca. Circumstantial affinities between the two situations contribute to the correspondence. There are, furthermore, other parallels throughout the epic which many commentators have noticed and which take on new and increased significance when seen as contributory to the larger correspondence. These parallels involve, as we shall see, Odysseus's disguises, his resemblance to Menelaus, and similarities between Helen and Penelope.
The large correspondence and the contributory parallels are all present in the text regardless of whether they first emerged in early oral formulation or in later oral or written elaboration. It is impossible to determine the degree to which the final form of the Odyssey may be ascribed to tradition, to a series of poets, to a single poet--a hom-eros, "he who fits together"--or to a redactor who fine-tuned the epic. The question of origins should be considered, however, because notions about origins have inhibited interpretation. Many readers convinced of the oral composition of the epics in a process described by Milman Parry and Albert Lord assume that the Odyssey is archaic and, compared to works composed by writing, inartistic. When the epic was composed and performed, however, the faculty of memory was far more powerful than in predominantly literate cultures and so, consequently, was the creative capacity of oral poets and the appreciative capacity of their listeners. It is precisely the formal sophistication of the Homeric epics, and especially the Odyssey (Kullmann 35), that prompts the German neoanalysts to see in them deliberate written form rather than solely what they assume to be the less significant improvisational form of oral composition. Writing was a factor in Greece before the Homeric epics reached their final form--but we are concerned with form, not the means by which it was achieved. We need not and should not allow assumptions about origins to limit expectations about form and its meaning.
Within the epic and in the larger tradition it evokes, the correspondence between the fall of Troy and the slaughter of the suitors is huge in scale. Yet it has gone unnoticed for various reasons, one being the breadth of the correspondence. It is almost too big to see. Another is that the correspondence is an expression largely of form and is not explicitly stated in speech or narrative. Furthermore, the form that implies the correspondence is not that of either the Iliad or the Odyssey alone or of both taken together but of the story behind the epics as it is remembered and evoked in the Odyssey.
The fall of Troy does not, of course, occur in the primary narrative of either Homeric epic, yet it is the climax of the principal story behind them. While esthetically separate from this larger, unwritten story, the epics are not autonomous in meaning. If they were, the presumed knowledge of the audience would not, for example, have freed the Iliad from having to narrate the outcome of the Trojan war. Neither Homer nor his audience could have imaginatively divorced the epics from the oral tradition with which they initially coexisted.
An important narrative accomplishment of the Odyssey is, moreover, …