Status of the universe: It’s complicated

Current reads:

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu
Helen and Trojan Women by Euripides
The Poems of Hesiod, translated by Barry B. Powell

Current thoughts:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my first response to the first line of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey: “Tell me about a complicated man.” Relief. It was a feeling similar to when you have a word on the tip of your tongue but can’t recall it. It’s maddening. For a second, you think you have it, but it slips away. And then someone says it. They give you the word, and now you can relax.

It’s strange because I’ve never read The Odyssey in ancient Greek. This is because I don’t know ancient Greek (yet…?). I read parts of the poem in modern Greek in high school. But that doesn’t explain why “complicated” would feel so right.

Here is the first line from other translations I’ve read:

ComplicatedRobert Fitzgerald: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending”

Robert Fagles: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns”

E. V. Rieu: “Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man”

George Herbert Palmer: “Tell of the storm-tossed man, O Muse”

Loeb Classical Library: “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices”

The ancient Greek word in my Loeb edition is πολύτροπον (polytropon). In modern Greek, “poly” means “very” or “many.” “Tropos” means manner, mean, or way. So based on my knowledge of modern Greek, I’d estimate polytropon would be “many manners/means/ways.” Overall, it’s fairly value neutral.

Maybe this is why “complicated” feels so perfect. It has that same value neutral tone. The Fitzgerald and Rieu translations speak to Odysseus’ agency, the qualities and skills he possesses that enable him to survive. Palmer’s translation—“storm-tossed”—makes Odysseus seem like a pawn of fate. All of these may be true. Odysseus is tossed about by Poseidon’s storms. He is resourceful and skilled. But it seems you have to read the rest of the poem to read “skilled,” “resourceful,” and “storm-tossed” into polytropon. Their specificity is part of what makes them less compelling as opening words. They pin Odysseus down. They explain him, describe him, assign certain values to him from the jump.

ComplicatedFagles and Loeb are less interpretive. Loeb’s “many devices” seems literal but lacks the poetic flair of Fagles’ “twists and turns.” Wilson’s “complicated” is both interpretive and not. It interprets in that it’s a contemporary English word that we might use to describe someone who has “many manners” or “twists and turns.” But it doesn’t definitively interpret the poem and Odysseus within it. “Complicated” is an abstraction that can be positive or negative depending on context. In this sense, it feels like the perfect word to capture, in English, what the poem is saying about Odysseus. And, more broadly, what ancient Greek literature enables us to see about human experience.

Reading the first line of Wilson’s translation a few months ago, I thought immediately of an experience I had in Greece last summer. My cousin had driven us into town and wanted to park in a proper lot rather than on the street. She recalled having seen a parking lot in years past but couldn’t remember its location so asked a taxi driver if he knew where it was.

If a random stranger asked an American, “Do you know where there’s a parking lot?” probably the answer would be either “No,” or “Yes, it’s [insert directions].”

And yet.

Also, sometimes this insanity happens when you park on the street: Assorted vehicles park behind you, and no one knows anything about it until you go a little bat-[expletive-deleted] crazy and start pulling out of your spot anyway. Maybe you’ll thread the needle through them, or maybe you’ll just plow right into them. Who knows? Suddenly, everyone comes running to move their vehicles. It could happen, is what I’m saying.
First, the taxi driver 1) wanted to know why we were looking for a parking lot, 2) didn’t understand why we needed a parking lot, and 3) recommended where we could park on the street. And then the Greek chorus showed up. One random stranger began to debate the taxi driver about whether there was, in fact, a parking lot anywhere on the island and, if so, where it is located. Another commented on how parking lots are unnecessary because “this is [name of town],” where people don’t have the kind of worries that necessitate the existence of parking lots. Except maybe they do, suggested another random passerby. And just as the debate promised to veer into politics (in which the refugee crisis, the financial crisis, and the nation’s current political leaders were all sure to figure) and history (of the island, from antiquity through the present), my cousin reached her saturation point. We drove off and, eventually, found the parking lot ourselves. It was about four blocks away on the right.

This is one of my favorite things about Greece. Any routine errand can blossom into a discussion about history, political philosophy, theology, metaphysics, ontology, with complete strangers. I’m not saying it happens every single time I leave my house. But it’s always out there. It’s always a possibility.

These conversations end, eventually. Someone has an appointment he’s already 20 minutes late for. Or the bank teller calls her number. Or the train is at its final destination, and everyone needs to get off. But these conversations don’t conclude. There are no Answers. It’s like the end of a Euripides play, minus the gut-wrenching, soul-crushing tragedy (hopefully): We’ve all participated in this intense, compelling thing, and now it is over. Move along.

ComplicatedHere is the end of Helen, translated by Wilson in The Greek Plays:

“Spirits take on many forms,
And gods create a multitude of surprises,
Things we don’t expect come to pass,
And gods find ways toward the unexpected.
That’s how this story went.”

And the end of Bacchae, also translated by Wilson in The Greek Plays:

“Spirits divine take many shapes, and many
are the unexpected actions of the gods.
Our predictions do not come to pass;
the god finds a way for what we don’t expect.
This is what has happened here today.”

In summary, life can be beautiful and terrible, at the same time. Humans have some agency, but also, they don’t. Sometimes, we do our best, but things still go terribly wrong. Probably there’s order to the universe, but mortals can’t expect to discern it. There is not enough time.

It sure is complicated.

And yet sometimes, you just want directions to the parking lot around the corner, you know?

What to do?

2 Replies to “Status of the universe: It’s complicated”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, and was astonished that the opening line of “The Odyssey” is such a tricky one to translate – I had never heard that before. I feel like all of the translators did a good job in their own way, and I admire and like Wilson’s translation – but as I said in your last post, Fitzgerald is the master for me. I LOVE how he writes/translates. In fact, that opening line used to be one of the things written on rebel teen Alysa’s army bag purse (rebel teen Alysa was, nonetheless, a writer and unabashed literature nerd, who quoted books instead of , like, punk rock lyrics or something).

    Still, the more you write about Wilson’s translations, the more I admire her. It can be so hard to make language simple and clear -especially a language from long ago. It makes me wonder what she’s like in real life, how she sees the world – like is she this really logical person, with not much liking for poetic florishes and overly packed langauge? Can she NOT STAND Dickens or Romantic poetry? Or maybe, like her Odysseus, she’s complicated, too?

    Thanks for this very thought-provoking post -and I love how you infused it with your own musings, as well – even more to think about!

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed it. 🙂 I remember your saying how much you love Fitzgerald’s translation, and it makes me want to revisit his version. I just picked up three more translations: Stephen Mitchell, whose translation of The Iliad is one of my all-time favorite reads; another new one by Peter Green that just came out last month, and Alexander Pope’s translation, which is in rhyming couplets. Plus, I want to read Richard Lattimore’s, which is the one we read in grad school but that I barely remember now. I also have the Loeb bilingual edition. And then there are three dozen more in existence! It’s fascinating to see how each translator does something different, sometimes very subtle things, but they change the experience. I feel like Wilson’s is very poetic, but it’s a lean, clear poetry, which is how I like my poetry, ha.
      And can I just say how much I LOVE that you had a line from The Odyssey written on your purse?! That just makes me inexplicably happy.

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