What They Are Saying, Episode 4
The late Dr. Mary Lewis, archeologist and professor, never spoke to me about Leopold Bloom, but several times I heard her lecture on the transformative role of Odysseus. In Mary’s view, the Ithacan was an icon for mankind transformed by the coming of the Bronze Age.
Heroism in the Stone Age evidenced itself in brutality. Weapons were blunt and heavy, so greatness was the product of physical bulk. Such a Stone Age hero was Ajax the Greater. After the death of Achilles, Ajax and Odysseus are dispatched to steal back his corpse. Ajax carries off the corpse while his companion fights off the Trojans. The armor of Achilles crafted by Hephaestus is awarded to Odysseus over Ajax. The award is the result of Odysseus’ eloquence more than superior bravery. Ajax is driven mad at being supplanted as the foremost Greek hero and commits suicide as Sophocles tells the tale. Here is a cultural revolution.
Odysseus is a warrior, but bronze weapons are lighter than those in the Stone Age. He is squat, not massive. Odysseus has other traits that make him better suited for the new age. In addition to persuasiveness, he is crafty (it is he who conceives of the deceit of the Trojan Horse), willing to forsake traditional values for personal gain (he feigns madness in an attempt to avoid conscription), situationally dishonest (hiding his identity from the cyclops), and willing to compromise his marriage vows.
Leopold Bloom also aims to survive the coming of a new age. He plots his petty commercial plans, creates a false identity, commits minor carnal indiscretions, and forges a new moral code for the Age of the Common Man.
Mark Twain said: “Nothing so focuses the mind as the prospect of being hanged.” If hanging focuses the mind; military duty though not dissimilar to hanging broadens the mind. Hanging begins with confinement; military duty with being shipped like cattle to locales distant for slaughter. The king of rocky Ithaca finds himself first in Anatolia, crossroads of the ancient world (Campbell). Some including Mary Lewis said that the war against Troy may have been an assault over international trade routes personified by Helen’s beauty.
After the sack of Troy, Ulysses’ travels began in earnest. As Bloom’s episodes begin, he thinks about travel too- to the West ahead of the sun. The Odyssey’s second section (beginning with Book Five) opens on the Isle of Calypso. According to Gilbert, this is the place known to the Greeks as Kalpe (the bowl or cup) and to us as the Straits of Gibraltar. Both Ulysses and Bloom use newly discovered information, geographical and scientific respectively. For the Greek, this is the existence of the land beyond the Mediterranean; for Poldy it is the unfolding of new science that theoretically offers travel at speeds faster than sunlight. Both suffer flawed understandings of the new knowledge. Both have been denied the supports of the society they were raised in, promised, and trained for. Two heroes of two emerging eras, forced to cast new molds.