Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Two for Tuesday

that insofar as a self is anything its how it acts in a social situation what else is a person anyway but a signifier of responsibility for a series of actions if a self is anything it is what it does with its body does with its mind and that responsibility is for what you do not for what you go home at night and think what you’d like to do if if if if

Charles Bernstein, from “Three or Four Things I Know About Him”
It’s not every day that my job overlaps with my inner life—other than by stealing it, writing over it, making it materially possible, and constituting a great deal of it—but it so happens that the Special Education students I support in 9th-grade English are reading excerpts from the Odyssey this week. (This morning we worked on, among other things, pronouncing “Aeaea” and distinguishing between Alcinous and Antinous.)

Now, I can’t get into Horkheimer and Adorno in class—it’s big enough an idea that what makes Odysseus a special kind of hero is that he’s so clever—but I’ve been thinking a great deal about their reading of Odysseus as the bourgeois outfoxer of inner and outer nature, the amoral technologist of language who tricks stubborn arational life into conformity with the discipline of the time- and property-conscious will.

I’ve found that I’m a bit of an Odysseus myself, in that my job requires me to try to manage a crew of recalcitrant, natural beings who don’t share my sense of what home is. I try to drag my students away from the land of the Lotus Eaters (drugs; video games); I steer them away from Charybdis, knowing that Scylla will pick off a half dozen of them (indifferent teachers); I tell them not to eat the cattle of Helios when they’re starving (plagiarism—you’ve got to write your own paper, even though you can’t read or write, and even though the internet is right there). All this is in the interest of promoting the disciplined, time-managed, bourgeois subject, who masters himself only through a sort of self-destruction, who replaces action with language, disruptive laughter with concentration.

Now, let’s not forget our Two for Tuesday. I was pleased to find that Horkheimer and Adorno’s two favorite passages in the Odyssey happen to be the same as mine:

1.) Polyphemus the Cyclops’ speech to the ram, on the belly of which Odysseus is escaping Polyphemus’ cave:
Sweet cousin ram, why lag behind the rest
in the night cave? You never linger so,
but graze before them all, and go afar
to crop sweet grass, and take your stately way
leading along the streams, until at evening
you run to be the first one in the fold.
Why, now, so far behind? Can you be grieving
over your Master’s eye? That carrion rogue
and his accurst companions burnt it out
when he had conquered all my wits with wine.
Nohbdy will not get out alive, I swear.
Oh, had you brain and voice to tell
where he may be now, dodging all my fury!
Bashed by this hand and bashed on this rock wall
his brains would strew the floor, and I should have
rest from the outrage Nohbdy worked upon me.
2.) Argos the dog’s recognition of his master and subsequent expiration:
Abandoned there, and half destroyed with flies,
old Argos lay.

But when he knew he heard
Odysseus’ voice nearby, he did his best
to wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears,
having no strength to move nearer his master.

[…] death and darkness in that instant closed
the eyes of Argos, who had seen his master,
Odysseus, after twenty years.


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