I recently realized that beyond all that, I've been resisting my blog because current events almost scream for someone who writes about the humanities to talk about politics, and frankly, I don't really want to. Only April and I'm weary of this election year already. I'm even tired of online political discussions with the people I agree with! (Speaking in person seems to be a different--and better--story. There's still something to be said for body language, eye contact, audible laughter, and the power of human touch to transcend ideological barriers. Something about these screens seems to delude many people into thinking verbal abuse becomes acceptable.)
And yet, blithely blogging on without regard to some of what's happening around us feels like it could be misconstrued for apathy. Well, apathy, it's not. I think I'm resisting the online political discussion not because I don't care, but because I care too much. I resist because so much of what I'm seeing and hearing (sometimes, even from people who are ostensibly on the same "side" as me) makes me feel physically sick, and I wonder what's happening to us as a people when some of the public discourse we're hearing is, apparently, now considered acceptable.
All this was swirling through my head earlier this semester as I prepared to teach The Odyssey in my sophomore-level world literature class. I'd read it many times, first as an undergraduate, and taught it five times in world lit. But this time, for the first time, the "land of the Cyclopes" jumped off the page at me when I realized they are not mythical monsters from Greek antiquity. The desire of many to keep themselves apart is still very much alive today:
They have no assemblies or laws but live/In high mountain caves, ruling their own/Children and wives and ignoring each other ...
Blessed with abundance, the Cyclopes either fail to realize, or fail to care, that they would actually prosper more if they cooperated and engaged in cultural exchange rather than remaining isolated, detached from any notion of the commonweal:
The Cyclopes do not sail and have no craftsmen/To build them benched, red-prowed ships/That could supply all their wants, crossing the sea/To other cities, visiting each other as other men do./These same craftsmen would have made this island/Into a good settlement./It's not a bad place at all/And would bear everything in season.
I guess we're not the first ones to invent isolationism, xenophobia, or misguided individualism. (Whether this realization makes me feel better or worse, I'm not sure.)
Then there is Polythemus, extreme even by Cyclopian standards: A man/Who pastured his flocks off by himself,/And lived apart from others and knew no law. When Odysseus and his fellow sailors requested his hospitality and "give us the gifts that are due to strangers" according to the Greek concept of xenia (hospitality to the traveler), Cyclopes responds by eating two of Odysseus' men for dinner, tearing them "limb from limb/To make his supper, gulping them down/Like a mountain lion, leaving nothing behind"--a mere warm-up for the next day's breakfast, when he devours two more.
Some symbolism needs no further explanation. "We arrive in a place where the social code says that you welcome 'the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,' and instead of welcoming us, you destroy us."
Most of us probably know the rest of the story--Odysseus wreaks his revenge by using his wily craftiness to get Polyphemus drunk, telling him as he imbibes that his name is "Nobody" before attacking him, putting out one eye. When Polyphemus calls out for help from the fellow Cyclopes, his scream of "Nobody is killing me!" allows Odysseus to emerge victorious. (Odysseus' own ego leads him to brag about his name before he leaves--ultimately inadvisable since this is why Cyclopes urges Poseidon to curse Odysseus, making his homeward journey even more vexed than it already was).
I'd always wondered whether Polyphemus actually expected his fellow Cyclopes to help him, given that they lived in "high mountain caves," "ignoring each other." It always struck me that for someone so disdainful of community, hospitality, and collaboration, as soon as he got attacked, the first thing Polyphemus did was scream for help from others.
And then I look around and realize: The Cyclopes still walk among us--ranting against taxation yet screaming for help from the fire department when their own houses burn down, rejecting community despite their inability to go it alone, and viewing Others not as humans in need of hospitality but as fodder for their own insatiable appetites.
Nowadays we may not need to build "benched, red-prowed ships," but there is so much we could build if we harnessed our collective talents more effectively: a health care system that actually emphasizes care (and makes a modicum of sense); an educational system that ignites love of learning in people of all ages (and not just for money-making purposes alone); a food supply system that emphasizes health and minimizes waste; a network of jobs, housing options, and mental health treatment that offers meaningful solutions to those who face challenges; and so much, much more.
Like the Cyclopes, too many of us have lacked the desire. Too many people have eaten each other (metaphorically) rather than recognizing and implementing the benefits of xenia. Like the Cyclopes, we've also got the resources. We could say of our own land what Odysseus spoke when he reached the land of the Cyclopes: It's not a bad place at all/And would bear everything in season.