August 06, 2009
ON BOARD S/Y BUSHIDO—It has been three weeks of non-stop peregrinations in Greek waters, a mere bagatelle when compared with the ten-year quest of a certain tempest-tossed figure called Odysseus, which of course makes young Taki a rather dull sailor. No tasting of forbidden fruit, at least not too much, no growing drunk on love in the arms of the nymph Calypso—nor Keira or Mary, for that matter—no feelings of indescribable rapture upon hearing the sweet-tongued Sirens, just a long peaceful sail around the islands and sea that has always brought back pleasant memories from my childhood when I first read about the legend of Odysseus.
As luck would have it, I had Tom Fleming, a PhD in classics, on board, along with his historian wife Gail, and a wonderful couple from Texas, Raymond and Catherine Welder. The latter’s grandfather hit a gusher as a very young man, and he hit it like James Dean did in the film Giant. Covered with black gold, he staggered back to his shack and ordered a gold-plated Cadillac by telephone. He now owns a million acres and is known to burst out laughing when he occasionally reads about large English landowners. But back to Odysseus.
To my eternal shame, Tom Fleming was reading the Odyssey in Ancient Greek, a text I can read out loud faultlessly but with little understanding. But I did have an early start and I think I get the message where good old Ody is concerned. Greek mythology, in its initial form, came before people had learnt to read and write. Gathered around in a pre-historic dwelling, young and old alike would listen to some inspired bard, who more often than not would sing the myths accompanied by his guitar or harp. There were no personal computers for the little dears back then, and the little monsters could not text back and forth, hence they paid attention. At least I did, when taught by my uncle, a first-rate classicist and president of the Archeological Society.
It was my awakening to the human spirit. It wasn’t just a fairy tale. I believed in the reality of those primitive times and the influence they had on the destiny of humankind. The irony was that, just as I was being taught the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Italians attacked us, which made it very easy for me not only to remain very calm—I was four—but also to expect results. Which came almost immediately. Greek victories were announced by the ringing of church bells, and the bells sure rang. But that’s another story altogether.
Odysseus was and remains a Greek favourite because of his resourcefulness and cleverness, but also because he believed in his instincts. Modern Greeks have had a bad time, what with the dreaded Turk and the Balkan wars, and a civil war which truly ended only recently, so resourcefulness counts as paramount among modern Hellenes. Odysseus is also deeply emotional, as are my fellow Greeks, and easily moved. He is also scared shitless at times, but confronts his fears and stands up to man’s greatest anxiety, death. In fact, he embodies all of us humans. As time goes by, Odysseus becomes more and more like a grandfather, an old man telling tales about one-eyed monsters, terrifying creatures with snakelike heads, bird-women, as well as heavenly cities, utopian places where hospitable, good-natured people dwell. A bit like young Taki having grown old and telling stories to ever-young Spectator readers.
Just kidding. The only thing I have in common with Homer is nationality and age (at least he looked bloody old in the children’s book of my youth). Odysseus, like Jason and Hercules and Theseus, is the mythical protector of our voyages, and, as they say back in Brooklyn, some voyages are more interesting than others. And now comes the time to stop being Homeric and take a look at the present. The new Acropolis museum had me pondering what it is that is really wrong with my race. Do we just have very bad taste or is it an acquired one? (I am speaking about the exterior only.) Were Richard Rogers and his modernist types born Greek? No, he’s an Italian who should know better and the new museum was designed by a Swiss. I didn’t mind the glass as much as I minded the ghastly grey cement. Why not use Pentelic marble? They’ve gouged half the mountain out already. Why not stick to the classical form? What are we supposed to do next? Turn Odysseus into a female health-and-safety inspector who roams the Black Sea and the Med in order to protect us?
Ironically, my first-ever favourite was Achilles, half-God, fearless and a looker, but now they tell me that he was nuts about killing folk, as George W. Bush would say. Mind you, Agamemnon was greedy as hell and there was that spot of bother with poor Iphigenia, but he got what he deserved at the end. Reading the Iliad one sees how Homer bent over backwards to make the Trojans nicer and nobler than the Greeks. The neocon scum, Kristol, Frum, Podhoretz, and so on, would have branded Homer anti-Greek and unpatriotic, but we know better. In closing, I apologise to noble Greeks like Ody and Achi for mentioning neocon scum in the same breath as them, but they’re big enough to take it.
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