A Cave

J. M. W. Turner, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829), The National Gallery, London

I stopped speaking and went on board ship, bidding my companions come aboard and unmoor us. They did so immediately, and having settled themselves in order upon the benches, they struck the gray sea with their oars. When we reached the mainland nearby, we saw a cave at the edge of the sea, lofty and overhung with laurel. Many animals were being kept there, both sheep and goats, and a high forecourt had been built of flagstones ringed round with long pines and tall oaks. And there dwelled a giant of a man, who kept to himself as he tended his flocks and herds, aloof, having nothing to do with others, rather in his isolation doing just as he pleased. For he was a wonder to behold, gigantic, not at all like a bread-eating man, but like a single forested peak in a towering mountain range, standing out from the others” (Homer, Odyssey 9.177-92).

 

Suppose you’re just a tad skeptical that you yourself have a personal destiny, and that it was created by a god who dipped from two jars, one full of blessings and the other of sorrows.

 

Suppose the implication of that scenario, viz., that every other human being partakes of your condition, if not your exact circumstances, doesn’t do anything for you.

 

Suppose the thought, “Their joy is my joy, their suffering my suffering, and so there can be no genuine peace, no true justice until every single one of us shares them,” just makes you super tired and a bit cranky.

 

Maybe you’d prefer a life that resembles the cyclops’ cave, that is, a refuge from other people and their messy, tedious, these-are-so-emphatically-NOT-MY problems. Dark in there? Dank? A bit cramped? Sure. But try squinting. Or if you happen to have just the one big round eye in the middle of your forehead, you won’t have to.

 

In a cavelike life, surely things would stay sorted, once you’ve sorted them (9.219-22, Johnston):

pens crammed with livestock—lambs and kids
sorted into separate groups, with yearlings,
older lambs, and newborns, each in different pens

And what bliss, to be able to shut out the rest of the world (9.240-43, Johnston):

Then he raised up high a massive boulder
and fixed it in position as a door.
It was huge—twenty-two four-wheeled wagons,
good ones, too, could not have shifted it
along the ground—that’s how immense it was,
the rock he planted right in his doorway.

To aspire to a quiet, orderly life — is that really so monstrous?

 

 


 

We spend the first nine months of our existence suspended in a warm cave. Roughly threescore and ten years later, our family and friends gather at a cemetery to lower us into a cold one.

 

Some of the first humans lived in caves. And perhaps the last human will, too. After all, there’s a manmade cave under the White House, where Donald Trump, having survived nuclear armageddon, will sit in front of his television screen staring at static, waiting and hoping that the hosts of Fox & Friends will someday reappear.

 

For Plato, a cave is a metaphor for ignorance and self-delusion. For Dante, it’s Hell. For Dostoyevsky, there’s always a “nasty, stinking, underground home” where an “insulted, crushed and ridiculed” modern man can become “absorbed in cold, malignant and, above all, everlasting spite.”

 

Then again, in the early 16th century, Íñigo López de Loyola spent the better part of a year in a cave, praying seven hours a day. And he was later beatified!  (Perinde ac cadaver, wrote St. Ignatius, meaning that the Jesuit disciple should obey his master “as if he were a corpse,” i.e., with no will of his own. No doubt he was drawing on his memory of those long, long hours being buried alive.)

 

Finally, in The Second Coming, a novel by Walker Percy, Will Barrett descends into a cave resolved to put God on the spot: reveal yourself, or I remain here and die by starvation! But with a mischievous nod to Dostoevsky, Percy has this character develop a toothache. So much for metaphysics.

 

 


 

You know the story.

 

Odysseus and his men get trapped in that cave. The cyclops begins killing and eating them, two by two. Odysseus fashions a fire-hardened stake, gets Polyphemus drunk, and puts out his eye. In answer to his cries of agony, other cyclopes come to his aid. From outside the cave, they ask, “Is someone killing you?” From inside the cave, Polyphemus replies, “Nobody is killing me,” meaning of course the cunning hero himself, who had given that name, “Nobody,” when first they met. Ultimately, when Polyphemus removes the boulder to allow his rams to go out to pasture, Odysseus and the other survivors escape by going with them, slung under their bellies and clutching tight.

 

 

Attic jar, c. 490-480 BCE, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 61.384

 

Isn’t there something about Homer’s Odyssey that just screams “allegory”?

 

A war veteran sets out on a journey to return home after a ten-year absence. In the ensuing decade, he has one fantastical adventure after another. The world through which he travels is peopled with major and minor deities, man-eating monsters, witchy women, a land of the dead, paradisiacal islands, and more. Stripped of everything — his crew, his spoils of war, even the clothes on his back — except the favor of a goddess and his own native cunning, he manages to reach home, but he’s so thoroughly transformed that he is unrecognizable to his family and friends. So disguised, he plots against the men who are vying to supplant him. With the help of his son and a loyal servant, the hero kills the men who had hoped to occupy his throne and marriage bed. Finally reunited with his long-suffering, resourceful wife, he lives happily ever after.

 

In this vein, there’s a scene near the end of the poem that I find intriguing. Penelope has contrived one final test to ascertain whether the man claiming to be Odysseus is indeed her husband. In his presence, she tells her servant to pull their bed outside their bedroom, so that he may sleep there. If he knows that’s impossible, because of the bed’s curious construction, he must be Odysseus! (23.192-99, Johnston)

“I built my bedroom round this olive bush,
till I had finished it with well-set stones.
I put a good roof over it, then added 
closely fitted jointed doors. After that,
I cut back the foliage, by removing
branches from the long-leaved olive bush.
I trimmed the trunk off, upward from the root,
cutting it skillfully and well with bronze,
so it followed a straight line. Once I’d made
the bedpost, I used an augur to bore out
the entire piece. That was how I started.
Then I carved out my bed, till I was done.”

The stake that Odysseus used to blind Polyphemus was olive wood, too, and Odysseus (i.e., Homer) uses the exact same verb (apekopsa, “I hewed”) for his fashioning of both the crude weapon and the marriage bed.

 

Not to mention that in the aftermath of this very scene, the couple’s bedroom, first lit by torchlight and then darkened, is suggestive of a cave, even as Odysseus recounts to Penelope, postcoitally, the tale of his encounter with the cave-dwelling Polyphemus.

 

 


 

Meanwhile, on a distant shore, the blind cyclops reaches out his hands and feels his way among the rocks.

 

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