Conversation with a Ghost

Federico Castellón (1914–1971), The Dark Figure, 1938. Whitney Museum, New York.

Federico Castellón (1914–1971), The Dark Figure, 1938. Whitney Museum, New York.

“Once you have killed

the suitors in your house with your sharp sword,
by cunning or openly, then take up
a well-made oar and go, until you reach
a people who know nothing of the sea,
who don’t put salt on any food they eat,
and have no knowledge of ships painted red
or well-made oars that serve those ships as wings.
I’ll tell you a sure sign you won’t forget—
when someone else runs into you and says
you’ve got a fan used for winnowing
on your broad shoulders, then fix that fine oar
in the ground there, and make rich sacrifice
to lord Poseidon with a ram, a bull,
and a boar that breeds with sows. Then leave.”

 

Tiresias the Blind Seer, are you out there somewhere?

(quavery voice from the Great Beyond) Yyyessss . . .

I’ve been thinking about some advice you gave Odysseus, the man of many wiles, way back when.

(slight hesitation) You mean, that he should pick up something nice for Penelope on the way home to Ithaca from Troy?

No, not that.

The tip about the coming Dark Age in Greece, suggesting he rebalance his portfolio and invest in basic commodities?

No, no, I mean that bizarre comment about carrying his oar inland until he reached people who knew nothing of the sea and didn’t salt their food.

Oh, that. Honestly, sometimes I have no idea where that stuff comes from.

You gave him a sign. You said that when someone called his oar a fan to winnow grain, he would know that he had reached the spot to plant his oar and sacrifice to Poseidon, god of the sea.

I did? How odd. I’m not even sure I know what “winnowing” involves. Do you?

I do, but that’s not why I’ve summoned you from the House of Hades. I just have this suspicion that the bit about the oar and the winnowing fan is important somehow.

You may be right. I do have a reputation for saying important things. You know – and this is a good story, really great stuff – there was this fellow named Oedipus who married . . .

What interests me is the idea of a sign. You told him you were giving him a sure sign. And the crux of the incident is all about signs: the stranger, you said, would think that Odysseus’ wooden object signified a winnowing fan, not an oar. In other words, you required Odysseus to travel to a place so remote that he left his own sign-system for a completely different one: a place where “oar” and “ship” and “sea” did not exist.

I know I’m supposed to be clairvoyant, but I have no idea what you’re getting at.

Odysseus was the epitome of cunning intelligence, of what you ancient Greeks called mêtis. His skill at deception depended on his ability to manipulate signs. Disguised as a beggar in Ithaca, for example, he signified weakness and submissiveness. Therefore, Penelope’s suitors did not recognize that they were in imminent danger. Masters of trickery rely on this ability, the ability to use X to signify Y and mask Z.

Yes, I begin to see . . . er, I mean, understand what you mean. If Odysseus traveled out of his own sign-system into a completely different one – where up might be down and black could be white, so to speak – then he could hardly have remained “wily” Odysseus. He would not have understood the signs in that place; in other words, he would not have been able to play with people’s minds, because he would have no idea how they thought.

Precisely. And so my question is, why did you require a trickster to travel to a place where he could not possibly be a trickster?

No earthly idea. By the way, what is a “blog”?

A blog  is … is … well, let’s call it a tool that enables me to share my writing instantaneously with people living anywhere in the world.

Then you yourself, forsooth, know the sooth concerning my soothsaying.

Huh?

You can answer your own question about the instructions I gave Odysseus.

How do you mean?

Clearly, what you write on this blog of yours is — as it were — an oar.

Ah. And my readers think it’s a winnowing fan.

Indubitably. Errare est humanum. That’s Latin, by the way, a little something I picked up in the afterlife.

So why should I keep blogging? What’s the point, if I’m the only person in the world who can decode my own signs without error?

Why indeed.

Hmm. I can think of two reasons. First, for my own sake. After all, to venture into a strange land — into the minds and lives of my readers, I mean, via the power of language and imagination — is to force oneself to cultivate some of the best qualities that humans can possess.

Curiosity, daring, perseverance, empathy, and duty-free shopping?

Second, for my readers. Because after I plant my oar and walk away, a couple of people are sure to wander by, do a double-take, and stand there stroking their chins and saying, the one to the other, “You know, that’s a very strange-looking winnowing fan.” “It is. Do you think maybe it could be something else?”

(flash of lightning) Whoops, gotta go. Sign from above.

 

 

(Translation of Odyssey 11.119-32 by Ian Johnston, edited by Abbot.)

 

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