The reality of a Fairbanks winter is setting in. It’s cold, around zero most every day this week at our house, and around minus 20 in town. There’s comfort in this hard windless cold, so solid a person feels he can lean against it.
Not so the dark. Today there are fewer than four hours of the sun’s actual presence in the sky and a new moon once it sets. By the time I finish my ski, the tracks have become a faint white-on-white pattern in the snow. Sometimes I’m skiing by feel.
Most people who come to this place and stay figure out how to deal with the cold. We just put on more layers of clothes as we go deeper into winter and begin peeling them off as spring comes on. Not so the dark. I have good friends who’ve left Fairbanks because the darkness wore them down, drove them into a despondency that no amount of exercise or sitting before a full spectrum light could overcome. Because there’s something fearful in the dark, something that turns our thoughts too far into ourselves and too far down.
And in this moment of time, the news is full of events that can build on the darkness. We seem bent on hating, shooting, blaming. I hear all this noise of anger and recrimination blasting from the radio as I drive back home from Healy where I’ve spent a morning working with high school students.
What can a writer do? What did I do for those students? I helped them think some fresh thoughts, I’d like to hope. We talked about Animal Farm in one class, and The Odyssey in the other. But to what good end?
I keep the Robert Fitzgerald translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad near at hand on my bedside table. And when I can’t get to sleep, I read selections. The Iliad? Make no mistake, it’s not a romantic war story. The violence comes at a reader thick and fast. Simon Weil’s essay “The Iliad or the Poem of Force” gets at the heart of it: the practice of violence turns people into things. Witness Achilles dragging the desecrated corpse of Hector around the walls of Troy.
This is what we’re doing to ourselves every day, turning humans into objects.
And The Odyssey? This poem, too, has more than its share of bloody episodes climaxing with Odysseus killing his wife’s suitors. Yet for all the violence visited on Odysseus, and all the violence he meets out, there are redemptive moments in The Odyssey. Despite his infidelities along the way, Odysseus and Penelope are reunited in their bed built around the trunk of an olive tree, and he reassures her their final days will be tranquil, repeating Teiresias’ prophecy he learned in the underworld:
The moment of revelation he foretold
Was this, for you may share the prophecy:
some traveller falling in with me will say:
“a winnowing fan, that on your shoulder, sir?”
There I must plant my oar, on the very spot,
with burnt offerings to Poseidon of the Waters:
a ram, a bull, a great buck boar. Thereafter
when I come home again, I am to slay
full hekatombs to the gods who own broad heaven,
one by one.
Then death will drift upon me
from seaward, mild as air, mild as your hand,
In my well-tended weariness of age
contented folk around me on our island.
He said all of this must come.
“If by the gods’ grace age at least is kind,
we have that promise—trials will end in peace. “
(Book 23, lines 271-289)
A long, strange trip it was.
So what good did that hour spent sharing my thoughts on The Odyssey with high school students do? It’s a hard question because I’d like to think literature can make a difference in this world.
But I also have to admit that my way of writing, and of thinking does not necessarily lead to solid, comforting conclusions. In fact, if a writer begins with a posture of not-knowing—to cite eponymous title of Donald Barthelme’s essay—there’s a pretty good chance that what she or he writes might drift farther from rather than nearer to certainty.
There’s a good bit of uncertainty in The Odyssey. How are we to judge that man “skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end”? Because he’s brought many of these trials on himself. Odysseus is no simple hero. There’s not-knowing here, too, as there is in all the literature that endures. And this would be my hope for those students who are reading The Odyssey for the first time: that this story stays with them, that they consider Odysseus’ many twists and turns as their own lives take their own unexpected turns.
And there is this, too: When we travel, Margot and I often play The Odyssey in the aged truck’s tape player. The words cascade over us, gentle lapping waves of words as Homer might say. Remember this poem was first said aloud. Words mesmerize and transport us to strange places as they must have done for the ancient Greeks when they heard them. And something magical happens through all those words. Words cast a spell of wonderment over all we’ve heard. Odysseus belongs to us now; his adventures, his actions wise or foolish, good or bad, are ours to consider—always new for every reader, for every reading.
Frank Soos has lived in Fairbanks for almost 30 years, for the past eleven with wife Margo Klass. His next book of essays, Unpleasantries, will be published by the University of Washington Press in the spring of 2016. He is the current Alaska State Writer.