Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Introducing Homer and Retribution

I will be discussing part of my dissertation on Monday at the Kenan colloquium in ethics. For this event I have written a new introduction to my dissertation that deals in a general way with many of the topics of interest to me. Here it is:

Ce châtiment d'une rigueur géométrique, qui punit automatiquement l'abus de la force, fut l'objet premier de la méditation chez les Grecs. Il constitue l'âme de l'épopée.
-Simone Weil, "L’Iliad ou le Poème de la Force," Paris, 1940

Simone Weil’s realization that retribution, châtiment, lies at the heart of the Iliad remains true, perhaps even more true, of the Odyssey. At its center is a thematic organization articulated by the Greek concept tisis and dealing with the foundational issues of retribution, suffering, justice, and their mutual relations.

Tisis, which I provisionally define as the act of exacting or suffering retributive justice, frames the narrative. In his opening, programmatic speech (1.32-43), Zeus justifies the ways of gods against the complaints of men, using the concept of tisis, thus presenting to the poem’s audience at the outset a working interpretive paradigm that is to be developed as the poem proceeds. The closing scene of the poem presents another situation where the concept of tisis organizes and motivates the action: the kin of the suitors, whom Odysseus, acting out of a claim to tisis, has just slain, themselves make claims to tisis against Odysseus and his household (24.426-37). Accordingly, they mobilize a force, seeking after retributive killings of their own. In the event, hostilities between the parties are not so much resolved as obliterated. Athena, appearing as a dea ex machina, imposes a final, peaceful settlement by fiat. Zeus causes the killings of the suitors that Odysseus performed out of tisis to be forgotten, as he proclaims in another programmatic speech that one feels must lie in responsion to his first (24.478-86).

The final scenes of the poem have often been considered—going back, perhaps, as far as the Alexandrian scholars Aristophanes and Aristarchus—deficient and inorganic with respect to rest of the poem. But the “Continuation,” as this section is sometimes called, reinforces an oft overlooked unity of structure and theme: hanging over the whole epic is the problem of tisis, which in the end only an act of divine intervention can, if not solve, at least, seemingly remove—though the contingent effects of the grand act of collective amnesia are left unexplored. What will be done with the beds, the vineyards, the homes—in short, all the spaces that the suitors occupied in the lives of the survivors—now inexplicably empty? But the poem claims for itself a happy ending in which philotes, wealth, and peace abound (24.476,486). This glücklicher Ausgang, as Uvo Hölscher calls it, is only the contingent dénouement of a more primary story of tisis, which, properly, has no end, only new beginnings. Thus when Athena complains to Zeus that a new civil war is about to break out between the suitors’ kin and Odysseus’ household, he responds, “Didn’t you yourself devise the plan that Odysseus should return and take vengeance (tisis) upon those men?” The implication is that one plot of tisis necessarily begets another.

With this new threat, the poem itself seems in danger of coming undone at its end and trailing off indefinitely, as a new epic of war, a new Iliad, impends. At its close, the poem settles on an arbitrary ending—perhaps the only kind of ending possible—in which the claims of the suitors’ kin are simply deleted, though ironically they achieved remembrance far beyond the limitations of mortal memory in the form of immortal epic. For the poem’s audience, who, thanks to the distance that the mediation of the text imposes, escape the spell of forgetting, the impression of the centrality of tisis to the plot remains indelible. Any feeling of arbitrariness in the construction of the ending of the poem only enhances the sense that the claims of tisis, being inherently arbitrary themselves, form the central structure of the plot. Tisis characterizes the conflicts that shape the plot and meaning of the entire epic’s story.