Academic journal article Helios

Looking to the Feet: The Riddles of the Scylla

Academic journal article Helios

Looking to the Feet: The Riddles of the Scylla

Article excerpt

  KP. 'H [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

  CR. The riddling Sphinx encouraged us to look to what is at our feet,
  Paying no attention to the invisible ...
  SOPHOCLES, Oedipus the King

The story of Oedipus is explicitly acknowledged only once in the Odyssey, when Odysseus sees Oedipus's wife in the Underworld. The underlying dynamics of the "specimen story of psychoanalysis," however--killing the father, sleeping with the mother--lurk threateningly in the background. Consider the moment when Telemachus is about to string the bow in Book 21 and thus about to win the prize of the contest--the hand in marriage of his mother, Penelope--until a timely look from Odysseus stops him. Or consider Odysseus's delayed entrance to Eumaeus's hut in Book 14. In order for Odysseus to be allowed access to the hut of Eumaeus, the swineherd first must prevent the household dogs from mauling, and nearly killing, Odysseus. This event, important enough in itself, becomes retroactively even more significant when the same dogs fawn over the returning Telemachus as he approaches Eumaeus's hut, as he himself is fresh back from his own mini-odyssey to the homes of Menelaus and Nestor. "At this time / the clamorous dogs came fawning around Telemachus, nor did they bark at him as he came, / and great Odysseus noticed that the dogs were fawning ..." (Od. 16.4-6). (1) Here, the Odyssey offers a preemptive clue to the solution of the greatest Sherlock Holmes mystery, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." In that story Holmes solves the case at the moment that he realizes that an absence matters, for the lack of a bark when the criminal entered the house signified that a man known to the dogs--that is, the master of the house--had entered. The silence itself, rather than any idiotic fascination with material evidence, is the key to the solution of the crime. Odysseus, too, is careful to notice what the dogs do (fawn), but more importantly what they do not do (they do not bark or maul Telemachus, as they tried to do to him). Thus, Odysseus retroactively discovers that the dogs he encounters in Eumaeus's hut are, in some sense, Telemachus's dogs, while we see that the Odyssey has, quite fortuitously, escaped an unwitting patricide by way of these dogs.

The Oedipus story, though formally excluded, defines the Odyssey through this exclusion: if the Odyssey does not explicitly remember the Oedipus story, the Oedipus story remembers it, functioning as a kind of abyss that the narrative hovers around without quite falling into. We thus preserve the (fragile) possibility of a return to a "normal" oikos or household. If it is true that the characters of the Odyssey will not do that, nevertheless at key moments the Odyssey--quite behind the back of its characters--seems to blunder toward this prohibited narrative. The Odyssey necessarily cannot be the story of Oedipus, and yet, at crucial moments, we see that it could be. On this reading, the integrity of the story certainly would not depend on any presumed conscious will of its characters (say, Odysseus's desire to return home, or Telemachus's desire to recognize his father and displace the suitors), still less on any conscious control of those characters set in place by the decisions of a poet. We might be closer if we see this failed deadly encounter between Odysseus and his son, via the marauding dogs, as one way in which the logic of the narrative signals its own inherent lack of logic, its basic insufficiency; the dogs do not kill Odysseus, but for no good reason--at least, no other reason than the thoroughly tautological reason that the Odyssey cannot be the story of Oedipus. The story itself is turned over, for a moment, to the arbitrary will of these dogs that will kill, or not kill, the father. Here we might risk a comparison to the actions of the poet of the Iliad, who dramatically parades his own inability to tell the events of epic ("Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympos. …

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