Saturday, August 18, 2007

Odyssey 2

I finished up Bittlestone’s Odysseus Unbound the other day. Bittlestone presents a case for the island of Cephalonia as the home of Odysseus. His contention is that Ithaca was separated from Samos by a narrow channel, which is described by Strabo, but that the channel has disappeared due to massive uplift, caused by earthquake, and by rockfall. He appears to present a good deal of geological evidence, which he admits needs to be tested and verified by detailed study, and some linguistic analysis of the poem. I’m not qualified to judge either since I have to spell out Greek words in order to be able to read it at all, and my geology is 2 centuries too old.

What is more interesting, and more within my scope as a general reader, is to ask what effect this knowledge will have on me as a reader. I want to avoid what might be called reader-response or reception theory, particularly since I’m not all that comfortable with modern literary theory.

When I was younger, and a more naive reader than I am now, I used to be able to more or less visualize the characters I was reading about. I don’t mean that they had the apparent reality of visual hallucinations, but that I could see vague images of Raskolnikov or the underground man, or Philip Marlowe, who always looks like Bogart. I don’t think I ever quite visualized landscapes and backgrounds though.

Bittlestone concentrates, of necessity, on the landscape, and provides a great many pictures, including the satellite and false color photographs of the sites. Now I think it’s a very rare photograph that becomes part of our mental life. That may be because photography is a recent art form, or because paintings and sculptures involve some effort to see, i.e., they require trips to museums. In any case, a photograph like Capa’s shot of the soldier dying, or the pictures of Matthew Brady or Brassai become part of the mental landscape while the ordinary snapshot from a travel book does not. The ordinary snapshot becomes a part of the landscape to the extent that it is associated with experience.

Now I think that all of this is simply to say that the book is interesting, but I don’t think it will have that much of an effect on what I see when I re-read the Odyssey. A trip to the island itself, and walking in the paths described will probably have a more profound effect on my reading.