I love many of the classic myths and poems of ancient Greece. My favorite, though, is The Odyssey. While on the surface it seems to just be another epic adventure story, if you dig deeper, The Odyssey can give you insights on fatherhood, marriage, and surviving in a world that’s in constant flux.
My guest today recently published a book exploring these themes in The Odyssey, particularly the theme of fathers and sons searching for each other. His name is Daniel Mendelsohn, and he’s a classicist, essayist, and book critic. In his latest book, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Daniel shares the experience of having his 81-year-old father enroll as a student in the undergrad seminar he taught on The Odyssey and the insights he gleaned about his relationship with his dad by looking at the father-son relationships explored in the epic poem. We begin our conversation with a big picture overview of The Odyssey and why Daniel’s dad decided to take his seminar on it. Daniel and I then discuss what we can learn about the relationship between sons and fathers from Odysseus’ relationships both with his son Telemachus, and with his father Laertes. We then shift to what we can learn from Odysseus and his wife Penelope on forming a strong marriage, how travel can change us, and why The Odyssey becomes more relevant to men when they have families of their own.
This is a fun podcast filled with amazing insights about one of the greatest stories ever told. After you listen to it, you’ll want to dust off your copy of The Odyssey itself so you can read it with fresh eyes.
- How Daniel became interested in teaching a seminar on The Odyssey in the first place
- Why Daniel’s dad wanted to sit in on that seminar
- How the presence of Daniel’s father changed the dynamic of the classroom
- What makes The Odyssey unique in ancient literature, and its themes that continue on in popular culture today
- Why The Odyssey and The Iliad laid the foundation for nearly every form and genre of literature
- Why I much prefer The Odyssey to The Iliad, and the differences in these two epic poems
- Why the story starts with Odysseus’ son, Telemachus
- Daniel’s own “telemachy” — his finding out about his father
- Why every man is drawn to study and know more about his family, and his father in particular
- What The Odyssey can teach us about identity
- Odysseus’ relationship with his wife
- Why pillow talk, and not sex, is what makes a great couple
- How Daniel’s seminar ultimately affected his relationship with his father
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Why Every Man Should Study the Classics
- Podcast: The Classical Education You Never Had
- The Odyssey & The Iliad by Homer
- Podcast: What the Ancient Greeks and Romans Thought of Manliness
- Hector and Achilles: Two Paths to Manliness
- How to Read a Book
- How a Man Responds to the Death of His Father
- 6 Lessons from Growing Up Fatherless
- You Don’t Have to Be Your Dad
- Why the Secret of a Happy Marriage is to Treat It Like a Bank Account
- The Best Ways to Fund Your Relationship Bank Account
An Odyssey was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. Filled with incredible insights and emotionally poignant. I read it over a month ago and I’m still chewing on stuff that I read.
Connect With Daniel
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. I love many of the classic myths and poems of ancient Greece. My favorite, though, is the Odyssey. While on the surface it seems to be only an epic adventure, if you dig deeper, the Odyssey can give you insights on fatherhood, marriage, and surviving in a world that’s in constant flux. My guest today recently published a book exploring these things in the Odyssey, particularly the themes of fathers and sons searching for each other. His name is Daniel Mendelsohn, and he’s a classicist, essayist, and book critic. In his latest book “An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, an Epic”, Daniel shares the experience of having his 81 year old father enroll as a student in the undergrad seminar he taught on the Odyssey one year. The insights he gleaned about his relationship with his dad by looking at the father-son relationships explored in the epic poem.
We begin our conversation with a big picture overview of the Odyssey and why Daniel’s dad decided to take the seminar on it. Then Daniel and I discuss what we can learn about the relationship between sons and father from the Odysseus relationship with both his son Telemachus, and his father Laertes. We then shift to what we can learn from Odysseus and his wife Penelope on forming a strong marriage, and how travel can change us, and why the Odyssey becomes more relevant to men when they have families of their own. This is a fun podcast filled with amazing insights about one of the greatest stories ever told. After you listen to it, you’re going to want to check out the show at AOM.is/Odyssey. You’re also going to want to dust off your copy of the Odyssey yourself so you can read it with fresh eyes.
Daniel Mendelsohn, welcome to the show.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You’ve just got a new book that’s coming out. It’s a book about my favorite book, the Odyssey, but it’s also a memoir about you and your father. You’re a classics professor, and one year you gave a seminar, an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey, and your 80 year old father asked to sit in on the seminar. Before we get to why your dad wanted to take your seminar, why did you decide to teach a seminar on the Odyssey, because a seminar is where it’s sort of free-flowing? There’s no real set curriculum. There’s reading, discussion. Was it a work that you spent a lot of time researching and writing about, or did you have some deeper attachment to it?
Daniel Mendelsohn: It’s funny, because I myself as a classics scholar, my actual specialty is Greek tragedy and is not the Odyssey. By a kind of funny concatenation of life events, I ended up both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student studying the classics sort of under the sway of two great scholars who were specialists in different ways in the Odyssey. It was sort of always haunted by the Odyssey. I even actually while I’m talking to you, I remember that one of the most influential high school teachers I had, a woman who was an English teacher at the high school on Long Island that I went to when I was growing up, put the Odyssey in my hands. She was actually a friend of my dad. Her husband worked with my father, and she told me, “Oh, if you ever read anything, you should read the Odyssey.” The Odyssey has always sort of been in my life, even though it was not for a long time my academic specialty.
Then the reason I was teaching the seminar about the Odyssey is that I teach at Bard College. I’m not a full-time professor, because I have to have time to write. I try to think of courses that are sort of useful to the classics department. I guess that year I had talked to the chair, and they said, “Oh, it would be good if you could do sort of a seminar for first year students who were first coming to college, and focus on one text.” It’s essentially a way to teach them how to read as college students. I just thought, “Oh, it would be great to teach the Odyssey, because it’s a text that young people love because it’s got adventures, and monsters, and witches. It’s a lot of fun. I think it’s probably more fun than the Iliad, say, in certain ways.” I just thought, “Okay, I’ll do a semester-long seminar on the Odyssey just reading two books per session, one session per week, a three hour, almost three hour session, and just teach them really how to read in great detail. That’s how I came to teach that course.
Brett McKay: Then tell us about your dad, because I feel like I got to know him really well the way you describe him.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Oh good.
Brett McKay: Even pronouncing the accent he had, coffee, that’s how my in-laws are from back east, that’s how they say coffee, coffee. Tell us about him. Did it surprise you that he wanted to sit in on the seminar?
Daniel Mendelsohn: To some extent. My father was a research scientist at an aerospace corporation, Grumman Aerospace who built the lunar module. We were a very aerospace family. It was the largest employer on Long Island in the ’70s when I was growing up. He had done an undergraduate degree in math and was a science guy. He was largely self-taught in life. He was a veracious reader from childhood, and he had actually been a kind of Latin wiz in high school in the Bronx in the 1940s. It didn’t totally surprise me that my dad would be interested in an Odyssey, because I knew he had this lingering interest in the classicists and in the classics.
In fact, when I announced to my parents during my first year at the University of Virginia that I wanted to be a classics major, I may have been the only Long Island boy in history to announce that he wanted to be a classicist and to be cheered on and have that announcement welcomed with open arms by his parents. They never asked me, “What are you going to do with this? How are you going to make a living?” Because my dad had been a Latin guy, and he thought it was just great that I was studying the classics, and my mom did too. I was very lucky in that respect.
On the other hand, I was a little surprise, not that he was interested in the Odyssey, because he had a very interested mind and was a great reader, but the fact that he wanted to drive three hours every week up to Bard and sit in a classroom for two hours and 30 minutes with a bunch of 17 and 18 year olds in order to learn the Odyssey, that did surprise me at first. When he brought it up, I was a little bemused, I guess is fair to say. I said, “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s a lot of driving, for one thing, but also to just sit as a student in a freshmen seminar?” He said, “Yeah,” actually, he did. Then I thought, “Okay, this could be interesting.” Of course, it turned out to be very interesting.
Brett McKay: Right. Did it fill you with a bit of trepidation to know that your dad … I could see if my parents sat in on what I was doing, it would kind of make me a little nervous.
Daniel Mendelsohn: It was. I will say that it did affect the dynamic of the classroom. I love to teach I’m a total ham. I love being up in front of a bunch of students. It has always been a total pleasure for me, but having my father in the classroom did pose a kind of an interesting challenge. As you know from reading the book, we had sort of agreed beforehand that he wasn’t going to say anything. I said, “Well, are you going to be active? Are you going to be a participant? How do you want to work this?” He said, “No, I’ll just sit in a corner and listen,” which when he said it, I believed it, because that’s sort of the kind of person he was. He was not a performer, and he didn’t like to draw attention to himself.
Going into this seminar I thought, “Okay, he’s just going to sit there, and the kids will stop noticing him, and it will be more or less a normal class.” Then as you know, from the very first day of class, he got very engaged and was very contentious and very vocal. That didn’t quite work out the way I thought it was going to be. It was obviously it’s a unique experience in my career as a teacher, I’m never going to have a parent in my classroom again.
It was actually sort of interesting for many reasons. It was interesting in a comic way, first of all, because he was my father, there was someone in the classroom who had more authority than I did as the students saw it. I noticed as the semester wore on, that more and more if I asked a question, the students would start sort of looking over towards my father as if he were the professor when they were saying their answers, when they were giving their answers. I thought that was very funny.
In another way, I thought it was interesting because he, as you know from reading the book, he quite often challenged my interpretations of things, not I don’t think because he wanted to be ornery, but just because he was himself and had a different take on things, I guess. It was like having the opposition leader in a legislature. Students who wanted to contend with the professor’s interpretations had someone they could align themselves with, because remember, these are first year students. They’re 17, they’re 18. They tend to be intimidated quite often. I think the fact of having a grownup in the class who was often at loggerheads with the professor sort of emboldened them in a way that otherwise would not have been the case. I thought that was actually kind of great.
Brett McKay: That’s fantastic. We’ll talk later on a little bit about the influence that your dad had on the kids that you learned afterwards. Let’s talk about the other character in the book, which is the Odyssey itself. Hopefully all of our listeners have read it or are at least familiar with the general plot, but looking at things from a big picture level, what makes the Odyssey unique in ancient literature? How did it sort of set the … I don’t know. What sort of literary devices did it introduce into western literature that we see in shows today that we’re watching on AMC? That’s from the Odyssey. That started there.
Daniel Mendelsohn: How long do you have? First of all, the Odyssey lays the groundwork for a number of genres. The first of these is the adventure narrative. A hero goes literally out on the sea, the open sea, and has a number of adventures before he gets home. That is established and defined by the Odyssey. It’s also the first homecoming narrative. A person is separated from his family, his loved ones, and fights all these obstacles to come home. As you know, there’s a moment when my father and I were on a cruise that recreated the voyages of Odysseus where we were all sitting around one night over drinks, and somebody asked me, “Do you think the Wizard of Oz is an Odyssey narrative,” and I said, “Absolutely. ‘There’s no place like home,’ that could be the theme of the Odyssey.” Of course, there is no place like home, but it’s also nice to stop on the way and meet interesting people, which is what both Dorothy Gale and Odysseus does. It’s the first homecoming adventure narrative.
It’s the first, one could almost argue, it’s the first sort of science fiction narrative. A hero, as James T. Kirk used to say, boldly goes where no one has gone before to discover new civilizations. The Odyssey invents creatures, cultures, new civilizations, radically different forms of life in order for the hero to encounter them and sort of test himself against them. In that sense, it’s certainly the first instance of, I guess, what we would call fantasy literature, if not science fiction.
I would also much more broadly speaking, look, the classical past has bequeathed to us these sort of two great epic monuments, the Iliad and the Odyssey that stand as the sort of book ends that contain all subsequent literature. With that in mind, one could certainly say that the Odyssey is the first comedy, not in the sense that it’s haha funny, although there is a tremendous amount of humor in it. Odysseus has a great sense of humor in it. There are many moments of really charming, amusing humor in it, but in the sense that it is a narrative that takes a hero, puts the hero through many trials, but gives the hero a happy ending that ends with a reunion with a wife and a kind of a wedding basically. In that sense, it’s the model for all comedies, just as the Iliad is the model for all tragedies.
Those are just a few of the things that come to mind, and also obviously I left out one of the most important ones, which is it’s also one of the great father-son stories. A little boy is separated from his dad at birth. They come together when the boy is grown up, get to know each other, get to understand each other, and then have this great adventure together, this great challenge, which of course is to take control of their palace and their city again after being outcast for many years. It’s also one of the great father-son stories, as I emphasize in the book.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That made your dad sitting in on this class all the more poignant, right? Yeah. One thing I think before we got on the show we were talking about how Odyssey is my favorite. I’ve read the Iliad and the Odyssey multiple times. I always go back to the Odyssey. I’m always thinking about the Odyssey. The Iliad, it’s got some really cool battle scenes where Homer describes black blood coming out of people’s throats and whatever, but it leaves me cold. I don’t feel like I’m better for it. I don’t feel like I got any life lessons from it.
I think you’d hit on one of the themes in the Odyssey is this idea of father … I feel like Odysseus, he’s a multi-faceted character. Achilles is simple. He’s angry. He has a very sensitive sense of honor, and that’s it. You don’t know about him as a father, a son, a dad, but Odysseus, you get the full picture as a husband, a father, a leader, etc.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Right. I have several responses to that, one of them being that you should really take my Iliad seminar some time.
Brett McKay: Okay. All right. You need a second book.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Be careful what you wish for.
Brett McKay: Right.
Daniel Mendelsohn: No, I see what you mean. There’s a sort of a joke among classicists. In fact, there was a scene in my book which I later cut in which I remember having a conversation when I was an undergraduate classics major at the University of Virginia, a student of Jenny Straus Clay, who’s a great authority on Homer and particularly the Odyssey. She had me and a couple of other students over for dinner one night, and we were sort of jokingly arguing about which do you like better, the Iliad or the Odyssey. It was my first exposure to a phenomenon which you are yourself experiencing, which is that the world does tend to fall into Iliad people or Odyssey people, rarely both. They are starkly different.
The Iliad is a poem of death ultimately. It is about death and why death gives life meaning, and how death gives meaning to life. I would say in a very tiny nutshell that is what the Iliad is preoccupied with, why we do what we do when we know that we are going to die. That’s certainly true of Achilles, whatever you think of him. He knows that he’s going to die. He chooses to die, and he chooses to die because he wants his life to be glorious.
The Odyssey is a poem of life. It is a poem of survival. It presents a different kind of heroism. The heroism of the Iliad is the glittering, archaic, almost Medieval heroism of knights in shining armor and this strange allure of military violence, which is a deep part of civilization, whether one likes that or not. There is a thrill to these battle scenes. There is a thrill of violence, and the Iliad grapples with that. The Odyssey is a poem of life. It’s about survival. The hero does anything to survive.
It’s funny. I always joke with my students that the tragedy, you never talk about food in tragedy. Nobody ever says, “Oh, I think I may have married my mother. Do you want to get something to eat?” Because food reminds us of life processes, which are inherently sort of comic. The Odyssey is filled with food, with digestion, with people’s stomachs that need to be filled. It’s very, in a nitty-gritty way, obsessed with the mechanics of survival. There’s so many scenes in which Odysseus survives yet another shipwreck and is clinging like an octopus, Homer says, to a cliff face in order to stay alive.
All of the heroes in the Iliad have a certain kind of dignity because of the seriousness of the undertaking that they are engaged in. The Odyssey, Odysseus, it is one of the salient characteristics of this wonderful character, Odysseus, that he’s willing to be undignified. There is nothing too low for him in order to survive. He abases himself. He dresses up as a hobo. He beats himself with a lash in order to make a disguise convincing as a bum. He grovels. He begs. He dissimulates. He goes hungry. He gluts himself, and he has a family. He’s a grownup. Look, Achilles is a young kid basically, but Odysseus is a grownup. He has responsibilities. He has a family. He has a child that he’s desperate to get back to. I think for that reason, there are ways in which the Odyssey can speak to one that are just different from the ways of the Iliad can speak to one. It really depends on who you are.
I have found as I get older that the Odyssey speaks to me even more than it used to, because it is a poem about adulthood, about the realities of life and grappling with them. One of those realities is time and age. Odysseus comes back after 20 years. He’s a changed person. His wife is a changed person. His son is a changed person. A lot of the poem is how they deal with that. It feels very vivid and present and modern, in a way.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think you’re onto something. I remember enjoying reading the Iliad when I was younger. Now that I’ve got kids, I look to Odysseus, because I can relate to him.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Yes, it’s a great poem about family. I never think of that before when I read it as a graduate student, but now I think it is a poem that is obsessed with family and how do you know your own family, which, of course, is a subject I’m interested in for other reasons.
Brett McKay: Right. Speaking of how you know your own family, what a lot of people don’t realize or they forget, the Odyssey, the titular character, Odysseus, he doesn’t even make an appearance in the story until four or five books in, and it’s all about his son Telemachus, who’s now a young man trying to find out about his dad. What do you think is going on there? Why was Telemachus, why did Telemachus go on this journey to talk to his dad’s old war buddies to find out about his dad?
Daniel Mendelsohn: There are a number of reasons why the poem begins not with Odysseus but with Telemachus, the son. I think partly it’s to introduce this very overpowering theme in the poem about fathers and son, but it’s a very clever narrative device, because we’re interested in the Odyssey, in Odysseus rather. We’re interested in Odysseus, and yet the author holds him back for four whole books, and you get a lot about the son, who is this character we don’t know anything about. It creates a certain kind of suspense.
Everyone’s wondering at the beginning of the Odyssey where is Odysseus? Is he alive or dead? If he’s alive, how do we get him home? If he’s dead, what’s going to happen in Ithaca, because the poem opens with this sort of crisis on Ithaca? The king has been away for 20 years. No one knows if he’s coming home, if his wife is a widow, if she should remarry. His son is now grown up. Should be become the king? Can he become the king? Does he have what it takes to become the king? The poem very cannily begins with the absence of Odysseus as it were in order to make us, the audience, feel the absence of this great hero and to see what it’s like when a great hero isn’t around to take care of business.
Most of all, I think it begins this way to focus our attention on a theme, which is sons and fathers, and specifically sons looking for fathers. As I underscore in the book, the structure of the Odyssey itself underscores the importance of fathers and sons by having the beginning of the poem being about Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, searching for his father. The end of the poem, that last thing that happens in the poem is Odysseus, now returned home at last, looking for his now elderly father and seeking him out and having a reunion with him. That structure sort of emphasizes how important this father-son material is in the poem.
At the beginning of the poem, there’s a plot reason as well for Telemachus to go out searching for information about Odysseus, which is that there’s a crisis. He has now reached the age of manhood. We want to know if he can become the king. Poor Penelope has been fending off the suitors for years. We need to know if she should marry one of them or still hold off and wait for him. The question of whether Odysseus is alive or dead is very pressing as the poem begins. That’s why Telemachus, on the advice of Athena disguised as a family friend, goes off to talk to some of Odysseus’s old war buddies to find out if indeed any information can be gotten about him.
Brett McKay: Right. I think that’s interesting. You went on your own. Those first four books, I think they were called the Telemachi often times, because they’re just about Telemachus talking-
Daniel Mendelsohn: Yes, the Telemachi. Right.
Brett McKay: You went on your own Telemachi in the process of writing the book. You went and talked to your dad’s old colleagues and friends. What were you hoping to find out by going on your Telemachi?
Daniel Mendelsohn: Yes. My personal narrative in the book is designed to kind of mimic the structure, to some extent, of the Odyssey itself, which I go to some lengths to explain so that people will get the parallels. I end my book by doing what Telemachus does, which is to seek out some of my father’s hold friends, because in many ways this book is a biography of my father. It is about how he took my Odyssey class, and how we went on this Odyssey cruise, but it tries to amount to a kind of account of his life and who he was.
I got to a certain point when I realized that to get some crucial information about who he was before I knew him, before I was born, I needed to talk to some old friends, just as Telemachus did at the beginning of the Odyssey. I sought out my uncle, my father’s older brother, who’s actually still alive. He’s now 97, and my father’s oldest friend, who knew him as a young man when he first started working in order to flesh out my own understanding of what my father had been like when he was young. I go to great lengths in my book explaining the significance of two visits that Telemachus makes in the beginning of the Odyssey, first to the elderly king Nestor, who was a war comrade of Odysseus’s. I described the encounter between this son of Odysseus and his father’s elderly friend.
Then book four of the Odyssey, I Odysseus goes to meet Menelaus, another hero of the Trojan war who’s married to Helen of Troy. In the course of a great feast, Telemachus learns a lot about Odysseus and a lot about life, actually. I, in my book, am very self-consciously, obviously modeling my visit to my elderly uncle, and then to my godfather, my father’s closest friend and his wife in the course of a very lavish dinner. Of course, I’m invoking these parallels between my trips and the trips you read about in the Odyssey. It’s just one way that I’m using of trying to underscore the way that these ancient works always somehow feel very present and real. The kinds of experiences that they describe are kinds of experiences in many cases that we have. Yes, there is a point in my book where I am very self-consciously being Telemachus, going on a fact-finding mission.
Brett McKay: I think that theme of sons searching for fathers, for some reason, I don’t know why it is, that’s a drive in a lot of men. I know I’ve gotten to the age where, yeah, you have that realization like, “I don’t really know my dad.” He lived 30 years before I came into existence, and there’s a whole part of him I have no clue about. Like you said, it’s almost like they’re aliens. Do you think you can ever really know? This is going back to that theme that you’ve said that is part of the Odyssey. Can you really know your family?
Daniel Mendelsohn: Yeah. I think that let me start by saying that, as I was saying before that I think the Odyssey is in many ways an epic about families. One of the phenomena that the Odyssey seems to understand by spending so much time building up the character of the young son, which can be frustrating, in my experience, to students who want to get right to Odysseus. I think Homer knows what he’s doing, because he creates this wonderful character of Odysseus’s son precisely in order to emphasize a theme that’s very important, which is how well can a child know its own parents?
One of the things I now think the Odyssey is about is, this is going to sound funny, is it’s about how little children understand their parents’ marriages. To bring it back to your point, I think that it’s only when you are an adult yourself, or in the case of Telemachus, a young adult, but certainly when you’re in your 30s, when you get to be the age your father was when your father had a family that you start asking certain questions that you were just literally not capable of asking earlier, because you weren’t in a position to. When you get to a point in your life when you yourself have children, when you start having to make the decisions that a father has to make, you start thinking about your father in a different way.
I’m sure it’s true for daughters and mothers. You get to be in the same life zone that they were in. Then you start to wonder, because you have to make decisions. You have to make life choices. Then you were in a better position both to appreciate the choices that they made, or to question them. I just don’t think it occurs to you until you get to a certain point in life to think about your parents in this way, because you just don’t have the equipment to do it. I think it’s very natural for men to get to a certain age of early adulthood in your 30s, say, and you just start thinking about your father in a different way. You sort of start to wonder, “Why did he do what he did instead of something else?”
I certainly had that experience with my father. I was not close to my father until I was in my late 20s. I was always a little intimidated by him. He was a kind of imposing figure. Being both by temperament and also because he was an American man of a certain era, being not inclined to be a big sharer emotionally, I was sort of mystified by him for a lot of my life until I was in my 20s. Then later in my own life I started to think when I had children myself, of course I thought a lot about my father. I think it happens to a lot of us. Then you think, “Why did he do what he did? Why did he make those choices?” It just becomes more interesting and more present and less hypothetical than those questions were when you were much younger.
Brett McKay: Speaking of trying to know your dad, sons searching for fathers, I thought it was interesting, throughout the book, you described your dad, I wouldn’t say curmudgeon, but he’s set in his ways. Like you said, he’s from an era in America where you’re stoic, you’re gritty, you don’t show weakness, etc. then you take him on this cruise. He seems like he opens up and he softens. He’s charming. He croons these pop standards with a martini glass. It’s like a completely different person. What do you think was going on there? Did you know that part of your dad before the cruise?
Daniel Mendelsohn: That sort of transformation, so to speak, I knew that my father could be that way. I think he didn’t get to be that way a lot when we were growing up, because he was just raising us. One of the things that I’m interested in in the Odyssey is this ongoing theme of identity, which is also one of the fundamental themes of the Odyssey. One of the most interesting things about Odysseus as a character is how multiplex his identity is. He seems to be a different man with different people. He’s ferocious as a leader. He’s violent with his enemies. He’s seductive with attractive young women. He’s charming when he wants to be. He’s obstreperous when he wants to be. The Odyssey is very interested in this question of, “What is identity? What does it mean to be a man? Can you be many things at once? Does being a man mean you’re one thing?”
Achilles, to go back to your earliest comment, is sort of a one thing kind of a guy. One of the reasons we love Odysseus as a character is that he’s so complicated. I mentioned this, because it dawned on me when we were on the cruise, and I got to see at great length a side of my father that he did not often let out, this charming, affable, relaxed old gentleman whom people just naturally loved, which was not the dad I was necessarily familiar with. It raised in my mind while this was happening the relevance of the Odyssey and its interest in identity.
I realize that my father was like Odysseus. He had many sides, some of which I never got to see that often. I remember, I traveled a lot with my father in his later years. He had always been interested in traveling. My mom doesn’t really enjoy traveling, so being a husband of his era, he never went anywhere, because he wouldn’t dream of doing anything without my mother, so he stayed home. Then in the, I would say, I don’t know, in the mid 2000s when my father was in his mid ’70s, I just started taking him everywhere with me when I had a book tour abroad or a literary festival in Jerusalem or whatever, I would just take him. We went to South Africa. We went to London. We went to Paris. It was great. He was like a kid. He really was just so happy to be traveling, I still remember.
In real life, he was kind of gruff and he hated clothes, he hated dressing up. He hated fancy restaurants. I still remember a friend of mine in Paris had a party, a very elegant lady. It was a lot of French publishing people. People kept coming up to me and saying, “Oh, your father is so charming.” I remember thinking, “Who are they talking about?” It brought home to me sort of a truth that the Odyssey understands, which is that identity is not a constant, or at least it is much more complicated than we think it is in that we can be different people depending on the context that we’re in. I would never in a million years when I was growing up have described my father as charming and sophisticated. It’s just not in my vocabulary. Yet people thought that of him.
Look, it’s also a very interesting phenomenon. This is not just about fathers and sons. It’s about children and parents, that we see our parents as our parents all the time, and can sometimes forget that other people look at them with different eyes, and that they have identities that we don’t even dream of because we never have that relationship with them. That was one of the great really strong insights I had from doing this with my dad.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I also think it shows that going on adventures allows you to explore identities you didn’t think you had.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Yes. People say this about travel. Travel, it’s such a cliché, we don’t even pause to think anymore of why it’s true, that travel expands you. That’s why you do your junior year abroad or whatever. The Odyssey is very hip to that. The Odyssey understands that the you that you were before you went on the trip is a different person from the you who returns from the trip. It’s something we’ve all experienced when we go away for a long time for the first time. I don’t care whether it’s summer camp or Mongolia. That’s why we do this. It creates a new self, and that’s why it’s so exciting. That’s also something the Odyssey has a very deep understanding of.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We change when we travel, but as you said, there’s one of the themes of the Odyssey is recognition, anagnorisis. Is that how you pronounce it?
Daniel Mendelsohn: Anagnorisis.
Brett McKay: Anagnorisis. Yeah. I’m saying it how we say it out here in Oklahoma. When he gets home, Odysseus gets home, there’s these recognition scenes. His son recognizes him without ever seeing him before really or not remembering him, but the recognition between him and his wife, because you said Odysseus is sort of like this call to family, the importance of family. Odysseus and Penelope have this really strong marriage. Odysseus, as you said, he can be seductive, and in fact, he was on this island with Circe for seven years. She was a goddess. Beautiful, young, forever young, sex all the time, and he was being held captive there, but Odysseus, the story starts when he’s introduced to us, he’s sitting on this island with this goddess sobbing, wanting to get back to his mortal wife who she’s 20 years older now at this point. What’s going on there?
Daniel Mendelsohn: I’ve been talking so much about the father-son stuff, but we cannot forget that in a way, and I should have mentioned this when I was cataloging the various ways in which the Odyssey is sort of the primal texts for many kinds of narratives, it’s also a great love story, as hokey as that sounds. Here is this guy. He’s a great hero. He’s one of the great heroes of the Trojan war. He’s a king. He’s a royal person. He’s an adventurer. He’s a very sexy guy, and yet there is only one woman for him. He has all these women. He spends seven years with Calypso. He spends a year with Circe. Women are throwing themselves at him. This darling young princess, Naussicaa whom he meets when he makes a pit stop at yet another island and clearly has a crush on him. He sort of has a crush on her as well, I think, but whatever these dalliances may be, it’s very clear that there is only one person who satisfies him.
One of the great things about the Odyssey is that it understands something that we can sometimes forget. Every time I go to the gym and I see people frenziedly working on their bodies all the time, and I think, “Man, I wish these people would read the Odyssey, because it reminds you that ultimately the sexiest thing about people is their minds, their personalities.” It’s interesting what you brought up before that what you were pointing out that Calypso is a goddess. She will never grow old. She will always be fabulously beautiful. She is what all these people going to the gym want to be like, and yet he doesn’t want her. He wants Penelope. Even though, as Calypso reminds him, Penelope is now 20 years older, she’s getting gray, she’s got wrinkles, all of that, but it doesn’t bother him, because she is the one who satisfies him. The reason that she satisfies him is because he likes her mind. Your mind does not get old in the same way that your body does.
The recognition scene between Odysseus and Penelope at the end of the Odyssey was one of the great scenes in world literature. Every time you read it it’s just totally overwhelming, is so satisfying because they don’t recognize each other physically. Remember, he’s been taken on the appearance of a beggar, a hobo, a bum in order to infiltrate in secret his palace. It’s not about a physical recognition, because of course, which I think is a motif in the poem that suggests that Homer understood something very real about life, the thing that connects us to people, if it’s a profound relationship, is not the physical stuff or not only the physical stuff, because after 20 years, you know what? You do look like a different person.
What connects them and the thing that is recognizable in each of these characters, Penelope and Odysseus, to the other is the mind. Odysseus ultimately proves who he is to Penelope because of something he knows, not because of the way he looks. That is so great, because that is true. What binds us to each other is what’s in our head, not the size of our thighs or our pectoral muscles. I just think that it understands that so brilliantly, and it’s so satisfying at the end. It’s a great love story, ultimately. He finally gets back to his wife.
Of course, one of the most charming touches in the poem is that the gods themselves sort of recognized the importance of this reunion, because they delayed the dawn so that Odysseus and Penelope can have that much more time in bed together after all those years, which I just think is one of the greatest things, but one of the great endings to one of the greatest love stories of all time.
Brett McKay: Right. I think it was actually one of your students pointed out that yeah, they have sort of this re-marriage, and they spend all the night not having sex, but just talking. Of course, they had sex.
Daniel Mendelsohn: They do make love.
Brett McKay: But then they just spent the night talking, which reemphasizes that point that it’s not the physicality that makes a strong relationship, it’s that connection, that shared story that you have with your loved one.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Yes, the narrative, the pillow talk. It’s not the sex. It’s the pillow talk that makes them the great couple that they are.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and how the recognition scene happened, I think it goes back. You talk about this in your book that in a relationship, there’s all these inside jokes or things that only you and your spouse know about or your partner know about. That’s what makes that relationship. It’s something that your kids will never know about, your friends will never know about, but it’s just between you two. That’s what creates those little signs that create that relationship, that strong relationship.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Right. I always tell my students think of the thrill that you experience when you’re able to guess a friend’s password to some website, because you know them so well that you know it’s going to be a combination of their dog’s name and their sister’s birthday or whatever. That’s what it means to really know someone is to be intimate with their mind. It’s always satisfying.
Brett McKay: What did your dad think of the seminar when he was done with it? Do you think he was changed by the text, or did he kind of stick with what he thought about life?
Daniel Mendelsohn: Ultimately, we did talk about this, and some of it is in the book. I think he appreciated it very much, and I think one of the things he appreciated about it, he himself, he was a research scientist, but he did have a kind of late life career after he retired from Grumman as a computer science professor. I think he quite liked teaching actually. He liked students. I think one of the transformative things about him was interacting with the students. I think he had a lot of respect for them, how independent minded they were, often how hard they resisted my own interpretations in favor of their own, which I think really impressed him, because a lot of students, especially freshmen, are intimidated by their professors, but these were very feisty kids. My father, excuse me, these were very feisty kids, and my father really appreciated that.
I think he was fascinated to see me in my professional life, which he had never done. Obviously, I’m a writer, he reads, he read everything I ever published, but he knew I was a teacher, but I think it was sort of very satisfying for him to sort of see me in action. I do think even though he never really came to love Odysseus as a hero, I do think he got a lot out of our discussions of the poem and came to have, let’s say, a grudging appreciation of the Odyssey.
It was very interesting to me, because after this seminar was over, my father read the Iliad for the first time since he was in high school in the 1940s, which I think he told me he had only read in excerpts in high school English or something. After the Odyssey seminar where we also talked a lot about Homer, and Homeric technique, so my father could sort of come to the Iliad with more equipment than he would otherwise have been able to bring to it. He called me up and he said, “Now this poem I love.” I think he just responded … It goes back to what we were saying before about being an Odyssey person or an Iliad person. I think my father’s consciousness was formed by two great events in history. One of them was the great depression, which he grew up in the middle of, and did not have an easy childhood. He had a fairly hard scrabbled childhood, and the other one being World War II, which really formed him, I think, as a person.
In a certain sense, I think the Iliad with its stark choices and its obsession with the way that war forces moral choices on people, and its descriptions of war, and its heroics just made more sense to him ultimately. I really think that. I was so happy he read it, because the reason he read it was because he took the Odyssey seminar. I think ultimately the Iliad just made more sense to him. That was something that came out of this experience as well. I’m very glad he got that. He really responded to it. It just sat with him more naturally. I was very happy he had that experience.
Brett McKay: Did your relationship change between you and your father after reading the Odyssey together, this story about sons and fathers reuniting?
Daniel Mendelsohn: I was close to my father before we did this. We had not been close until I was almost 30, and then things shifted for various reasons that I describe in the book. We were already close, but of course naturally, just because we were traveling together, having these experiences together, because we did the Odyssey seminar together, I would say its not that I became closer to him, because I was already close, but I knew more about him, much more about him than I otherwise would have known partly through his responses to the text.
As I say in the book, it’s a bit of a spoiler, but not really that important, it occurred to me at a certain point that one of the reasons he really resisted the charm of Odysseus as a character was that Odysseus reminded my father of his father-in-law, my mother’s father who was a famous bullshitter, and raconteur, and fabulous, and trickster. They didn’t get along that well. It just occurred to me halfway through the course that my father really was not particularly interested in succumbing to the charms of Odysseus because Odysseus reminded him of my grandfather with whom he was often at loggerheads.
Things like that, I just had sort of moments of insight into things about my father through his reactions to the text as he would express them in class discussion. That experience was really unmatchable. Nothing would have given me those insights except the experience that we had, which was thinking about the Odyssey together. The Odyssey really was a vehicle for, I would say, a really enhanced understanding for me of who my father was.
Brett McKay: Daniel, there’s a lot more we could talk about, but we’re going to let people go get the book so we don’t spoil any more of it, because the ending’s fantastic. Where can people go to find more information about the book and your work?
Daniel Mendelsohn: They can start with my website, DanielMendelsohn.com where I have links to this book and my other books. I hope that there will be many more places where readers can find out about it as the reviews come out. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Daniel, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Daniel Mendelsohn: It’s been totally fun for me. Thank you. Great questions. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Daniel Mendelsohn. He’s the author of a book “An Odyssey: A father, a Son, and an Epic”. It launches September 12th, but it’s available for pre-order now at Amazon.com. If you go there today, pre-order it. It’s going to ship to your door and be at your house September 12th, go do it. If you love the Odyssey, you’re going to love this book. A lot of great insights about the story. I’m probably going to read this again just to get those insights and chew on them some more. Go check it out, and Odyssey. You can also find out more information about his work at DanielMendelsohn.com. Check out our show notes at aom.is/odyssey where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the show, have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.