In the first version of the story, Odysseus, son of Laertes, struggles home after ten years at sea, having lost all his men (the fools). But in a second version of the story, Odysseus leaves, and takes his men with him—“to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”—to avoid yielding to home, I suppose, to softness and the plush knowing of an island. In another version of the story, Odysseus will live fifty years, not on an island, but on an isolated isthmus called ‘disability pension.’
In a similar version, the gods pay no attention to Odysseus, and he gets home a few years faster; he is a cuckold, but then again, these days, who isn’t? Odysseus, now that he’s home, thinks of himself as a walking one-third of the Declaration of Rights, (not life or liberty) but he was so happy, or rather, that was his morning joke when he looked in the mirror, the way that shrapnel tore off his lips and he could see his teeth in a wet, red and white, chimp-grin clench, which the healers repaired by skimming skin off his buttocks (the scar was not on his thigh, you see—it was on his ass) and fusing it to his mouth, so now, the joke went, Odysseus was, as he had always been, a kiss ass. For that matter, so was his wife. Well, he thought, “War does not change everything.” In one version of the story, Odysseus is wrong, because war strips pieces of you away, so everything you feel is raw. In another version, war adds more to you, like layers of paint, so that you cannot be seen anymore. In yet another, you are not a human being at all, but a house that looks strong and independent, and gets a new coat of paint each year, but is also drafty and ill-made, and, you suspect, worthless in terms of resale value.
Memory, speak about—the hero, the destroyer of cities. According to Thucydides, Odysseus was just a pirate. According to Socrates, Odysseus was a vain, rudderless, antique liar. In a fourth version, Odysseus did not destroy a city, just his neighbor’s garage door. Or was it his garage door? Someone owned the garage door, and he rammed it with his ship and sheared their oars off the starboard side, swung back around and ram-cracked its hull and shattered its mast. They boarded the ship and tossed the surrendering oarsmen overboard—into the water—and Poseidon made the water so still and so clear that Odysseus could see the oarsmen choking on water as they sank beneath the glass.
In a fifth version, Odysseus and his men stabbed the eye of the Cyclops. If you translate that version of the story into the Pashtu language, they describe the Cyclops as massive, powerful, but with no ability to perceive depths—and those same Pashtuns freely interchange the two-syllable ‘Cyclops’ for the four-syllable ‘America.’
I will show you another trick. Translate ‘hero’ into Arabic, and you might get ‘batal,’ but you might also get ‘shahid.’ Translate ‘shahid’ into English and you get ‘martyr.’ Filter ‘martyr’ through an intel report and you get either ‘terrorist,’ or ‘anti-coalition forces’ or ‘ACF.’ Translate ‘ACF’ to Khowst and you find ruins haunted by 3,000 years of blood feuds and honor killings, and you wake up in blast craters surrounded by ACF bone fragments. In that same translation, you snap the butt of your assault rifle on the door to a home at 0200 hours. Then the story diverges into several paths, depending upon which gods make their presence known.
In the version I most often remember, you do not throw anyone overboard because there is no ship and there is no ocean, but there are several score of bearded men who would call Odysseus noble and courageous, offer him sanctuary, and admire his prowess as a raider. The same young men would look at an oar and say “that is a paddle for winnowing grain.” And when they say that to you, you realize that they do not understand your cities, your culture, your wealth; and instead of offering sacrifice to the gods, you take the strongest of their fathers and the bravest of their sons and you cover their eyes, you bind their hands, you gag their mouths, you plug their ears, and grant them three days of moaning broken by an intermittent piss. In 2,003 that was called ‘standard operating procedure,’ but translated into 2,016 they called it ‘torture.’ By 2,066 I want it all to be called ‘forgotten.’
Image: Bronze fitting in the form of a mask of Polyphemus. From Cilicia, Turkey. The British Museum 1869,0805.1
For John M. Meyer’s bio, see https://www.jm-meyer.com/