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Eco-criticism and the Wanderings of Odysseus

Samuel Cooper

Bard High School Early College Queens

       This paper revisits the question of the extent to which it is useful to compare the Odyssey, especially books 9-12, to the (early and later) modern literature of European exploration and colonization. While the focus of this question has tended to be on the Odyssey’s construction of a poetic anthropology or ethnography, this paper shifts the focus to the broader category of ecology, echoing a scholarly movement “beyond humanism” described in Bianchi et al. From this perspective, the Robinsonade becomes a later literary form of particular relevance. This paper argues that while the Wanderings of Odysseus combine a set of elements that would reappear as defining features of the Robinsonade, the Odyssey not only conjures but also undermines the fantasy of human technical triumph over strange ecologies.

       Scholarship on the Odyssey as a poem implicitly concerned with exploration and colonization (even though its plot is explicitly oriented towards nostos) has inevitably been influenced by the “advanced (colonizer) vs. primitive (colonized)” dichotomy that is a fundamental feature of the rhetoric and ideology of modern European colonialism. At least since Murray a century ago, there has been a tendency to see Homeric epic generally as celebrating real or imagined cultural “progress.” Influential work on the Wanderings as poetic anthropology (e.g. Segal, Vidal-Naquet, Redfield, Hartog) has seen in these tales repeated warnings against the “primitive,” and more generally, a definition of the (normative) “human” against what it is not. Dougherty, shifting from anthropology to ethnography, makes a similar argument by way of explicit comparison with early modern European literature of exploration and colonization. A different line of thinking sees Odysseus the explorer in a more negative light. Horkheimer and Adorno pioneered this approach and explicitly linked the Wanderings to the later Robinsonade (48). More recently, Rinon (echoing Rutherford) argues that Odysseus the explorer is less “humane” than the Odysseus who returns to Ithaca, and that his colonialist approach to the land of the Cyclopes is particularly inhumane and myopic. Bakker offers perhaps the most ecological reading of the epic to date, arguing that excessive consumption of meat is the key crime all those who suffer: Odysseus himself (in the Cyclops episode), Odysseus’ companions (on the island of Helios), and the suitors. Eccleston approaches Odyssean ecology by way of its reception in Cyrus Console’s The Odicy.

       This paper argues that it is indeed useful to compare the Wanderings to the later Robinsonade, for many of what appear to be the distinctively Homeric additions to and modifications of traditional folktale motifs anticipate the defining features of the Robinsonade. One example of this is the Cyclops episode’s emphasis on Odysseus’ technical ingenuity and desire to extract resources from an environment that is at once perilous, remarkably fertile, and lacking in technology (Glenn); another example is the Circe episode’s linking together of peril, animality, feminine magic, and remarkable abundance. Yet it is a mistake to see the Odyssey as simply celebrating the triumph of human technical ingenuity over hostile (yet vulnerable) nature, as do some very one-dimensional versions of the later Robinsonade. For Odysseus’ triumphs are inevitably only partial and temporary, and he is ultimately unable to preserve any of the resources he has extracted by force. One must also be very careful about characterizing the strange ecologies Odysseus encounters as “primitive,” as this assumes a notion of progressive cultural and technological evolution with its own complex and nonlinear history. Perhaps unexpectedly, science fiction offers many versions of the Robinsonade in which, as in the Odyssey, strange ecologies prove more than a match for the human will to dominate and exploit (Csicsery-Ronay); this may reflect a reawakening to the mutability and unpredictability of nature. In their own historical context, the Wanderings of Odysseus likely reflect a deep awareness of and respect for the dynamic combination of opportunity, diversity, mutability, and danger that Horden and Purcell identify as hallmarks of the Mediterranean environment.

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