Thursday, May 19, 2005

Illuminated objects

It is popular in high school English classes to extract from the Odyssey the form of the epic hero’s journey and apply it to the narrative of Star Wars. Even our textbook does this—yesterday a student discovered pictures of the Death Star battle in a little section after the Odyssey excerpts.

A more plausible and interesting commonality is the texts’ infatuation with cool weapons and tools. The real narrative—and one that destroys epic time—is that of the weapon commensurate with our powers of representation, the weapon proportioned to our eye and hand and enemy, the weapon that makes killing an aesthetic performance.
But the man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow’s look and heft,
like a musician, like a harper, when
with a quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the cord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow’s note.
It would be wrong, though, to think that this Odyssean way of being interested in objects applies only to weapons. Tools, treasures, food, architectural structures, clothes—all this is solid and appealing and intelligible in the Odyssey. It all has the look and heft of something massy and real, material yet as infinitely available for imaginative reproduction as the Star Wars ships and guns and helmets whose forms boys memorize and redeploy on brown paper book covers and handmade Father’s Day cards.

This is the objective counterpart of the Odyssey’s constitution of the unified bourgeois subject: the self-identical, self-contained, fully thinkable commodity, whose lines snap tight into the forms of desire, whose very design compels its use; a sum of power that makes a claim on our awe and attention that’s more confident and persuasive than the claim of a human personality.

My favorite object in the Odyssey is the swordbelt worn by the shade of Heracles, an object too grotesque for Odysseus’ taste. He is offended by its phantasmagoric sequence of images, for the principle of objects is not mimesis, but identity. One goes to battle armed with a signified, not a signifier.
My hackles rose at the gold swordbelt he wore
sweeping across him: gorgeous intaglio
of savage bears, boars, lions with wildfire eyes,
swordfights, battle, slaughter, and sudden death—
the smith who had that belt in him, I hope
he never made, and never will make, another.


Post a Comment

<< Home