I’ve been lying in my sickbed reading those two Odyssey-related books I mentioned (flash – asthmatic bronchitis sucks). Both are good at what they are intended to do. Norman Fischer’s book, Sailing Home (which I am still reading), does a good job of finding appropriate episodes (albeit occasionally with a bit of stretching, IMO) to illustrate his basically straightforward Zen teachings and life guidance; it includes semi-guided meditations, which I have to admit I have not felt up to attempting in my present state. Not a keeper for me at this point, but I could certainly recommend it for somebody looking for that sort of book.
Scott Huler’s book, No-Man’s Lands, I have already finished. I loved it. This book is definitely a keeper – in tone it reminds me of A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, which I have blogged about before and which I also want to add to my collection.
I was expecting a fairly straightforward travel narrative, and that aspect is certainly not lacking – Huler provides the requisite amount of camera-eye scenery description and recounting of incidents, both humorous and touching, among the natives and fellow travelers. The real prize in this book, though, is the author’s engagement with and reflection on The Odyssey itself.
Huler has obviously engaged with the text at a fairly deep level; he tells us so himself, as it happens, but it also shows up in his bibliography and in the level of insight he exhibits both into the text and when discovering lessons in the story for his own life journey. He has not only read The Odyssey in a number of translations, but his pre-trip research took him into the often arcane worlds of textual and historical criticism, not to mention the various writers down the centuries who have tried to pinpoint every stop on Odysseus’ journey (really, there are so many of them that it could almost be called a sub-genre of its own!).
This depth of work has given him the tools to find a number of powerful insights in the text that he applies to his own situation. I found more satisfying, on a personal level, than the Fischer book that laid out its intention to draw lessons from the Odyssey right on the cover, because these lessons come from the text itself, and to an extent from the religious and cultural milieu from which it was born, not from another wisdom tradition laid over it like a grid over an archaeological site. People have been looking to Homer for guidance and inspiration for thousands of years, and it’s gratifying to see the tradition both continued and so well explicated.
And if, once or twice, it feels like the author is trying just a little too hard to find the parallels between his experiences at each location and those of Odysseus (something he calls himself on at least once), I also appreciate his openness to the journey and its mystery, and the fact that he takes the ancient religion seriously on its own terms. I love this passage in particular, describing his visit to the (presumed) palace of Menelaus at Sparta:
After walking an hour in heat that later proved to be over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, I must have been exhausted and sweating, but I never noticed, because the moment I reached the top I received an omen from the gods. On my right I saw at once, surrounded by pine trees, a ruined but still easily identifiable pyramid … And on it sat doves, which flushed when I stepped toward them, rising at once into the sky – four white, four black. Startled, I followed them upward with my eyes and saw, directly above the monument, slowly circling, a single hawk. And then suddenly, blown in by the steady, brisk wind, the site swarmed with monarch butterflies.
The ancient myths are full of this type of thing … above all, time and again: birds on your right? That’s a good sign. … I actually got chills. This was an omen.
Of course, without an oracle handy, try to interpret.
And a few pages later:
From the beginning of my association with Odysseus, back in my twenties, I had conceived a loyalty to Athena, his patroness. In Nashville,where I lived … they have a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, replete with a forty-foot statue of Athena … I used to go sit on the steps of that fake Parthenon and gaze in at the statue, communing. Thus, finally seeing her home temple made me feel like I had demonstrated my fealty, made a true effort to earn her patronage.
Go forth and read!