Odysseus (Ulysses, in Latin) is in its origins a name of the utmost ambiguity, suitable to a figure at once so singular and so pervasive in Western literary tradition. The name appears to mean everything that is contrary to a blessing: anger, hostility, a curse, a vexation. Ambiguity extends to the question of passivity or activity: is the bearer of the name a curse's victim or a curser's agent? Somewhere behind the name a god's displeasure lurks and the ambiguity therefore is a religious matter. The hero of the Odyssey is a hero-villain in Dante's Inferno and in Tennyson's dramatic monologue, "Ulysses," and very much a hero again (whatever his author's intentions) as the lovable Poldy of Joyce's Ulysses. But the Odyssey's indubitable hero has his equivocal aspects: he is a trickster, in some ways remarkably comparable to the Jacob of the J writer or Yahwist, the Bible's inaugural genius. Each is a double man, Odysseus and Jacob; each is both hero and heel, triumphant warrior and reluctant fighter. Jacob wins the name of Israel by holding out through an all-night, crippling wrestling match, fought against a nameless angel, and yet Jacob has been a fearful man of peace, dreading the vengeance of his rough brother, Esau. Odysseus, when he has to do so, fights with power and prowess, but according to the Neoplatonist Proclus, this wiliest of the Achaeans pretended madness in order not to be drafted for the war against Troy. The deepest affinity between Odysseus and Jacob is that each is more a storyteller than a quester, and each tells a story of his own survival. The Ulysses of Dante (and of Tennyson) is a survivor only in an equivocal sense, but Joyce's Poldy, at once Odysseus and Israel, is again the most authentic of survivors.
Since we are all condemned men and women, with a kind of indefinite reprieve (I cite Walter Pater's paraphrase of Victor Hugo), we are immensely interested in survivors, and identify with them in literature, rather more readily than we identify with tragic victims, or even with epic heroes too much contaminated by . . .