Increasingly, few sophomore-level literature surveys include Homer's epics among required readings, partly because of students' lack of enthusiasm for the material. Using a cultural approach to teaching Homer's Odyssey, coupled with essential tenets of phenomenology that foreground the aesthetics of reading, opens classroom discussions to serious topics. Such an approach enhances the entertainment level of literary texts while honing students' critical reading skills, and it shows students the relevance of literature to their lives.
Introduction: Homer versus the XBox
In his first-century BCE Art of Poetry [Ars Poetica], the Roman poet Horace declared that "poets strive either to instruct [prodesse] or to delight [delectare]" . Instructors know, of course, that superior poetic texts delight while they instruct. Unfortunately, few students agree, especially with ancient texts like Homer's epics. The Iliad and the Odyssey's narrative structures are more intricate and dense, their scope more far reaching, and their diction more multivalent than what students are accustomed to reading. That students only experience Homer's epics in the classroom reinforces a preconceived notion that they are inherently boring and irrelevant. Such attitudes are not new, and indeed, when set alongside modern entertainments--iPod, YouTube, XBox, MySpace--it is little wonder that there is no room in the twenty-first-century student's imagination for eighth-century BCE epic. This mindset poses a serious challenge to teaching Homer, and it is understandable why his epics collect dust on instructors' bookshelves. Yet we do our students a disservice, especially our English majors, by neglecting these monolithic texts; except for the Bible, no other tradition has exerted as great an influence on the western literary imagination as Greek mythology, particularly the matter of Troy. English majors will need to understand something about this tradition when they take upper-division literature courses, and the sophomore-level survey, whether of world or western texts, is the only place in many English Department curricula where students can experience Homer.
This essay suggests ways for students to establish connections with Homer by offering a cultural view of the Homeric epic--namely the Odyssey--through the lens of phenomenology. Wolfgang Iser distinguishes the "text created by the author" from "the realization [of the text] accomplished by the reader" . The literary work comes into "existence" when these artistic and aesthetic points converge (275). For Iser, the text generates a particular set of readerly expectations that are constantly modified to engage the reader as the narrative progresses. Ultimately, the text relies on the reader's imagination to unite its disparate elements and construct meaning, or more precisely, a meaning, what Iser calls the text's "gestalt" (284); by imbuing the text with meaning, the reader "implicitly acknowledges the inexhaustibility of the text" (280). Iser's emphasis on the reader's imaginative engagement with a text and the endless possibilities of meaning illustrates how entertainment, experienced in a serious way, can make learning challenging material collaborative and interesting. More significantly, it teaches students how to find their own critical voices. I have discovered that this pedagogical approach engages students on an aesthetic level while it teaches them literary, historical, and philosophical ideas. Since most sophomore-level courses now focus on world literature, and it is often not feasible to teach both epics, this essay focuses only on the Odyssey. The Odyssey complements other literary texts more so than the Iliad because it encompasses a wider range of themes, it exploits not one but two generic systems (epic and comedy/romance), and its entertainment level is more readily accessible to students. Clearly, this approach may be modified for the high school classroom or for the survey of western literature class, where the Iliad can also be taught. …