My lecture tonight addresses directly a young person who goes on a journey. This is likely the first extended journey that he has taken away from home on his own. In setting out, he probably can’t fully anticipate what he will discover, for in the course of his journey he will encounter people who are new to him and places that are foreign. Furthermore, he will not approach his journey merely as an onlooker, for his journey is motivated by a deep desire to learn something, and he means to engage others in conversation to fulfill his purpose. Though his desire for conversation is strong, it is apparently an activity that is new to him, so that he is still vulnerable as to his place in it and the meaning that it will acquire for him. This young man is very much a beginner on a journey that promises to transform him.
My lecture indirectly addresses our freshmen, who are also on an extended journey away from home. It is to these young men and women, who are likely not so far apart in age and in experience from the young man I just mentioned, to whom I dedicate tonight’s lecture. I suppose that the Dean’s Lecture must always in some sense be dedicated to the freshmen, for it is the lecture that is concerned with beginnings—the beginning of the new school year, the beginning of an opportunity to engage the arts that liberate us toward a deeper humanity. As quintessential beginners, the freshmen surely deserve our dedication, and I hope that this entire community will join me in taking special interest in helping them during this first leg of their journey into life at St. John’s. Their desire to begin this journey into an education that promises to transform them from children into free men and women is a noble one, and its fulfillment depends on each one of us inside the classroom and out of it.
But a journey is never wholly defined by its beginning. As our freshmen will soon discover, and as all of us already along our way know, we are transformed by our journey even as our journey is transformed by who we become over its course. For as many students as there are in this hall tonight, there will have been as many different journeys taken at St. John’s by the time this year comes to an end. Yet the journeys taken by each of us will certainly have features in common. A shared program of instruction is one such feature. Together we will explore one program comprised of a variety of worlds—the world of philosophical thought; fictional worlds; the world of magnitudes and multitudes; the worlds created by different languages; the natural world; the world as it comes down to us in history and in the political theories that shape it; the world of poetry, and its close cousin, music. And though the worlds we will explore vary according to whether we are doing the undergraduate program, the Masters program in Liberal Arts, or the Eastern Classics program, our journeys will have something else in common: conversation will be the vehicle by which our journeys take place.
What might it mean to say that conversation is the vehicle by which a journey takes place? In some sense, I suppose it means that conversation makes possible the kind of serious exploration that we are about to undertake. As such, conversation is more than “idle talk.” It is surely more than what has come to pass for conversation in the all pervasive talk shows and chat rooms that promise real contact between people, only to deliver diversion or perhaps even genuine entertainment. Rather, conversation is the very means by which we are moved toward a greater understanding of the worlds we inhabit and our place within them. As such, conversation is in its essence an action that is no less important than the other actions through which we go about making a place for ourselves among others in a variety of settings.
In coming to St. John’s, all of us commit to finding our place at the tables around which we engage in conversation. But conversation doesn’t just happen; like any vehicle, conversation must be driven if it is to move us. We must desire to be in conversation. Or to put it another way, we must ardently want to find our place among others in the give and take of speaking and listening through which we explore the unknown, the vaguely familiar, and even what we believe we know intimately. This isn’t simply a matter of the ubiquitous problem of “class dynamic,” which our students so love to discuss. It is, rather, a matter of the much deeper problem of making a place for ourselves in relation to others. As such, it may just be a matter of learning to be at home in the world.
Homer’s Odyssey is very much a book about finding a way to be at home. Specifically it is a book about King Odysseus who, after nine years fighting on the battle fields of Troy, spends another ten years trying to get himself and his crew home to the land for which he longs. The first passage reads as follows:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns/ driven time and again off course, once he had plundered/ the hallowed heights of Troy./ Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,/ many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,/fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home./ But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—/ the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,/ the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun/ and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return./ Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,/ start from where you will—sing for our time too.
Now this first passage would suggest that the Odyssey will take up the story of Odysseus immediately. But it begins neither with Troy nor with Odysseus’ journey. In fact, except in passing, it is not until Book V that we even find out where Odysseus is in real time, and not until Book IX that we hear from him the story of his travels since leaving Troy. It is worth pausing with this fact, for there is divine intention operating here. The Muse has been prompted by the poet to tell the story he wishes to hear, the story of Odysseus’ journey, filled as it has been with adventure and the trouble it can bring. But after so prompting her, the poet shows special deference to divine inspiration. Instead of telling the Muse where to begin the story of Odysseus, he invokes her to begin where she will.
And so, the Muse does begin where she will. She begins with the journey of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, the young man I mentioned at the outset of my lecture. At first, it looks like the journey of the son could not be more different from the journey of the father. Odysseus’ journey will, according to his telling, be comprised of one harrowing adventure after another, each an extravagant expression of appetite that keeps Odysseus from reaching home: Odysseus attacking and plundering the first city he comes upon after just having sacked Troy, and the thirst for revenge that he encounters there; hosts who cannibalize their unwitting guests; people who lure their guests with drugs to numb their desire for hearth and home; monsters that snatch men from their ships not with one mouth, but with six; monsters that are but one giant gulping and vomiting mouth big enough to ingest and expel the sea and its contents.
Comparatively, Telemachus’ journey involves no real adventures to speak of. In fact, his journey is essentially comprised of a series of conversations—conversations which are somewhat one-sided to boot, with Telemachus acting often as listener, for these conversations are the product of Telemachus’ appetite for one thing and one thing only: news of his father.
Different though it may be in its details, however, Telemachus’ journey, like his father’s, is a journey toward being at home. In Telemachus’ case, the conversations that comprise his journey are the vehicles through which he comes of age; they are the means by which Telemachus comes to find his place in the world. This will have important implications for Odysseus’ homecoming, so that the Muse isn’t just toying with the poet whose desire it is to hear the Odyssey rather than the Telemacheia. But for tonight, I propose to dwell with the conversations through which Telemachus finds his place in the world, through which he comes to be at home. Attention to these conversations will surely tell us something about Telemachus, a character in the Odyssey who seems unfairly destined to pale against the enormity and color of his father and mother. What’s more, these conversations, and especially their effect on Telemachus, might just help us to understand better the supreme importance that conversation has in this place called St. John’s, which our freshmen will call home beginning this year.
If the first four books of the Odyssey are about Telemachus coming to find his place in the world, coming to be at home, where has he been up to now? When we meet the young prince, he is in fact sitting awkwardly in his own halls, though he is clearly not at home. He appears lost among a throng of suitors for his mother’s hand in marriage—suitors who are making out to be guests while actually eating him out of house and home, their appetites unchecked in an act of war. As they revel in the feast his estate unwillingly provides, Telemachus grieves for his father. And like the child that he has been, Telemachus is lost in a daydream rather than in any thought about what he might do about his plight.
In addition to what we observe of Telemachus, we also learn a few things about him indirectly through Athena. Speaking to her father on Odysseus’ behalf, proposing that Zeus dispatch Hermes to Calypso’s island to pronounce that Odysseus’ exile must end and his return home commence, she offers herself to “go down to Ithaca/ rouse his son/ to a braver pitch, inspire his heart with courage/ to summon the flowing-haired Achaeans to full assembly,/ speak his mind to all those suitors, slaughtering on and on/ his droves of sheep and shambling longhorn cattle.” Telemachus, then, is not only a young man lost in the daydreams of a child; he is a young man whose courage is lacking. This lack is especially apparent in his failure to speak his mind among those who have invaded his home. It is Athena’s role to awaken in him the courage first to speak up against the suitors, and then to act on his deep desire for news “about his long-lost father” by journeying to meet with those who knew his father at Troy. In essence, Athena means to inspire Telemachus to find his voice, to speak up to the suitors and to ask questions of his father’s comrades.
And so it is no surprise that Athena’s inspiration, which comes in many forms during the course of this epic including dreams and visions, for Telemachus comes through a conversation. Welcoming his guest Athena, who is disguised as Odysseus’ old friend Mentes, Telemachus brings Mentes into the dining hall to eat before the suitors arrive. Arrive they do, and we are told by Homer that after putting “aside the desire for food and drink/ the suitors set their minds on other pleasures, song and dancing, all that crowns a feast.” 5 But Telemachus, once he has fulfilled his desire for food and drink, hungers for something more profound than entertainment. Presumably like us in this room, he hungers for conversation. Leaning close in to his guest, he first shares his plight, and then checks his manners, essentially for having talked too much about himself:
Dear stranger, would you be shocked by what I say?/ Look at them over there. Not a care in the world,/ just lyres and tunes! It’s easy for them, all right,/ they feed on another’s goods and go scot-free—/ a man whose white bones lie strewn in the rain somewhere, / rotting away on land or rolling down the ocean’s salty swells./ But that man—if they caught sight of him home in Ithaca,/ by god, they’d all pray to be faster on their feet/ than richer in bars of gold and heavy robes./ But now, no use, he’s died a wretched death. No comfort’s left for us…not even if/ someone, somewhere, says he’s coming home./ The day of his return will never dawn./ Enough./ Tell me about yourself now, clearly, and point by point./ Who are you? where are you from? your city? your parents?/What sort of vessel brought you? Why did the sailors/ land you here in Ithaca? Who did they say they are?/ I hardly think you came this way on foot!/ And tell me this for a fact—I need to know—/ is this your first time here? Or are you a friend of father’s,/ a guest from the old days?
Young though he is, Telemachus knows that to host a guest is to attend to him. Overwhelmed by his plight, he briefly forgets his manners and talks too much about his own situation—in essence breaking the rules of hospitality twice over, once by failing to attend first and foremost to his guest and twice by slighting the suitors, who are at least apparently guests in his home. Checking himself, he goes on to ask after his visitor. Yet he cannot help revealing his desire to know something about his father, and so his questions about his guest become questions about his father. Though he is perhaps coy in expressing this, fishing as he does for news of his father while overtly asserting that he knows his father is dead, his desire sets in motion one of the most moving conversations in the poem. It is a conversation characterized by the kind of give and take, by the kind of responsiveness each to the other, which makes possible genuine intimacy and familiarity in the exchange of thoughts and words. Of course the conversation is predicated on a deception, and a divine one at that! But Telemachus makes the most of his conversation with the disguised Athena by listening carefully and by being genuine in his responses. In the course of this conversation, we learn about Telemachus’ special difficulties in finding his place.
The transition from childhood into adulthood is difficult enough, entailing as it does acknowledgment of what our parents have given us as well as the need to distinguish ourselves from those very things. For Telemachus, finding his place is especially difficult. His father has been nothing to him but an absence, so much so that he suggests openly that he doesn’t really know if he is his father’s son. “Mother has always told me I’m his son, it’s true,/ but I am not so certain. Who, on his own,/ has ever really known who gave him life?” 7 Even more than a slight on his mother, which I think it is, this seems to be Telemachus’ way of saying that he doesn’t know who he is because he doesn’t know who his father is. Indeed, Telemachus is deeply disturbed at being the son of a “nobody”, one who neither died at Troy nor came home to be surrounded by his loved ones in death. He tells Mentes openly “I would never have grieved so much about his death/ if he’d gone down with comrades off in Troy/ or died in the arms of loved ones,/ once he had wound down the long coil of war…”
Telemachus is perhaps in an even more difficult position with regard to his mother. Odysseus’ absence has meant that Penelope must rule her home and her son. The unkind suggestion regarding her fidelity is only one example of Telemachus’ resentment toward her. He complains to Mentes that his mother “neither rejects a marriage that she despises/ nor can she bear to bring the courting to an end”, with the result that Telemachus’ estate is being bled to death. Athena as Mentes responds with questions, with encouragement, with advice—all meant to rouse in Telemachus the courage to act. He is urged by Athena to think how to drive the suitors out of his halls, to sail in quest of news of his father, to stop clinging to his boyhood, and to see as a model Orestes, who won glory throughout the world by avenging his father’s treacherous homecoming. Through their conversation, Telemachus comes to resolve the need for his own journey. “Oh stranger,” he concludes his conversation with Athena as Mentes, “…You’ve counseled me with so much kindness now,/ like a father to a son. I won’t forget a word.”
Telemachus knows that he has had an encounter with the divine in his conversation with Mentes, the stranger who has managed to mentor him with words that go directly to Telemachus’ deepest concerns. The immediate effect is not that he becomes more passive for his respectful listening, but that he begins to find his voice. First, he challenges his mother’s authority, interestingly by chiding her for the same sort of self-pity that he has been indulging with regard to Odysseus’ fate. He commands that she leave the bard to sing what he will of the Achaeans’ hardships following the Trojan War, and suggests that she tend instead to the tasks appropriate to her, leaving him to rule the house in his father’s place. While his words may be harsh, or worse have the tone of an ungrateful brat, it is important to his own development that he speak up as he does, and Penelope is a good enough mother to see this. She is astonished by his words, suggesting that this courage to speak up is new for her maturing son; rather than bristle, she reflects on his good sense, and takes his words to heart.
The suitors do not receive Telemachus’ newfound words with such graciousness. But Telemachus bravely speaks his mind, putting the suitors on notice that they are no longer dealing with a boy who will simply sit by as they bleed him white. He makes clear that their behavior is unacceptable and that he means to be lord of his own house even if not king of Ithaca. While what he says expresses real understanding of the situation that he faces, what he does not say expresses even more in this regard. He does not share the news that Athena has given him with regard to his father’s return; in fact he hides it, claiming that his “father’s journey home is lost forever.” Telemachus has found his voice, and he is beginning to discover when and how to use it. He has also replaced his daydreams with careful thought, weighing all night long “in his mind the course Athena charted.” He has begun to find his place at home, in relation to his mother and to the suitors, through what is apparently the first meaningful adult conversation he has had. Now he must leave home to locate himself, and his father, in other conversations.
Telemachus’ ability to enter into meaningful conversation continues throughout his journey. His success has as much to do with his open desire as it has to do with his developing sense of how and when to express it—a lesson for all of us as we gather around the seminar table in the afternoons and evenings to come! Approaching Nestor at home in Pylos, Athena accompanies Telemachus now explicitly as his Mentor. She urges Telemachus on:
Telemachus, no more shyness/ this is not the time!/ We sailed the seas for this, for news of your father—/ where does he lie buried? what fate did he meet?/ So go right up to Nestor, breaker of horses./ We’ll make him yield the secrets in his heart./ Press him yourself to tell the whole truth: he’ll never lie—the man is far too wise.
Telemachus’ answer for Athena comes in the form of a question, which we are told by Homer makes the prince “wise in his own way too”. “How can I greet him, Mentor, even approach the king? I’m hardly adept at subtle conversation./ Someone my age might feel shy, what’s more,/ interrogating an older man.” Now as I have suggested, I read this as a sort of discretion on Telemachus’ part. His question is precisely concerned with figuring out his place in a world that is foreign to him and more than a little intimidating. That he poses a question, rather than worrying quietly, suggests more growth still in the direction of adulthood.
Telemachus’ mentor, however, doesn’t leave to chance the possibility that Telemachus’ discretion will get in the way of his continuing to learn how to express himself in words. On the contrary, Athena suggests to him that the words inside of him make him what he is, and that this is his connection to the divine. She tells him, “Some of the words you’ll find within yourself,/the rest some power will inspire you to say./You least of all—I know—/ were born and reared without the gods’ good will.” Apparently, Telemachus’ desire for conversation is true to what is inside of him. And it is true to the good will of the gods on his behalf. Indeed the words that make conversation possible, that are both inside of Telemachus and forthcoming from the inspiring power of the gods, are often referred to in the Odyssey as “winged”, an adjective used throughout the epic to describe the very movement of the gods themselves. Words will wing Telemachus along on his journey, and as we shall see, his journey will be as fruitful as it is safe. His desire for conversation continues to put him in touch with the divine, as well as with men who, unlike his father, have found a way to be at home.
Telemachus’ worry about what he will say to Nestor ends up being largely unfounded, for the old war hero exhibits a rather too generous inclination to talk! Nevertheless Telemachus grows through this conversation. He learns to satisfy his need for answers indirectly, through his insight into his companions in conversation. Overtly addressing Nestor, who has just suggested that Telemachus might really rout the suitors if only Athena will favor him as she has favored his father, Telemachus seems to feel out the truth of this suggestion by baiting Athena, who continues to stand by him as Mentor. “‘Never your majesty,’/ Telemachus countered gravely, ‘that will never/ come to pass, I know. What you say dumbfounds me,/ staggers imagination! Hope, hope as I will,/ that day will never dawn…not even if the gods should will it so.” 21 Athena takes the bait, telling Telemachus what his young and fearful heart needs to know. “‘Telemachus!’/ Pallas Athena broke in sharply, her eyes afire—/ ‘What’s this nonsense slipping through your teeth?/ It’s light work for a willing god to save a mortal/ even half the world away.’”
If I am right that Telemachus is baiting Athena here, seeking reassurance that he indeed has the full support of the goddess, then his next question for Nestor regarding Agamemnon makes perfect sense. Telemachus needs to know what went wrongwith Agamemnon’s homecoming. He needs to know what he needs to do in order to make the most of Athena’s help in the event that his own father comes home to find not one treacherous suitor, but dozens. And so he asks Nestor to tell the story of how King Agamemnon met his death. And he asks something more. He asks where Menelaus was at the time of Aegisthus’ treachery, a question he might just as well have kept for Menelaus himself, if not for the delicacy involved.
Through discretion and indirection, then, Telemachus gets the answers to his questions. He has begun to understand that conversation is more than what people say: it is how they are in relation to one another, which comprehends both what is said and unsaid, both what is said directly and what is said indirectly. By listening openly and respectfully, Telemachus gets even more, for Nestor reminds him not to stay away from home too long. His journey will come to nothing if his wealth at home is carved away and devoured in his absence. Such was the fate of Agamemnon, and such is the danger that Odysseus faces in coming home. Telemachus, by having listened and by having measured his words carefully in conversation, all the while asking questions about what most matters to him, may be in the best position to find his way home unscathed despite the plots of the suitors against him.
But if Telemachus acquires information from his conversation with Nestor, as well as greater subtlety in finding out what he desires to know, he gets something perhaps even more valuable from his visit to Pylos. He gets what is arguably the most precious gift that conversation has to offer: his imagination is awakened, and in this case, fed by the possibility of home that he witnesses. For conversation in Nestor’s home isn’t some artificial activity apart from the simple rituals and activities that give domestic life its shape: conversation there occurs as part of a larger set of relations that bind Nestor and his people. Sacrificing to the gods; sharing meals; sharing a bed with his spouse, who arranges it night after night; making requests of his grown children and being responded to respectfully and with genuine affection—the rhythm of domestic life is of a piece with the words that pass between Nestor and those with whom he is at home. It is in this setting that Telemachus finds a friend his own age, Pisistratus, who will accompany him on his journey to the home of Menelaus and Helen in Sparta.
Upon arriving at the home of Menelaus and Helen, Telemachus and Pisistratus find that a double wedding-feast is underway for Menelaus’ two children, Hermione and Megapenthes. The scene is touching for the intimacy in conversation that Telemachus expresses with his new friend, marveling quietly with Pisistratus about the remarkable wealth of Menelaus and his beautiful wife. It is a moment in which Telemachus shows the power that words have to express wonder, especially to a trusted friend with whom one can share one’s thoughts openly.
The beauty of this power is that it makes possible a fresh look at people and at situations, and Telemachus’ ability in this regard will reveal a great deal to him in Sparta. But for those of us with a few more years than Telemachus behind us, Menelaus’ wealth is not what causes us to wonder. Rather, we find ourselves wondering at the fact that Menelaus and Helen have found a way to share a home at all after having had their marital difficulties played out for nine years on the battle fields of Troy! In the home of Menelaus and Helen, Telemachus comes face to face with the sort of conversation which is not what it seems. The veneer of conjugal harmony only thinly disguises tension so thick it would take more than Odysseus’ strong bow and arrows to pierce it!
In one of the most deliciously difficult conversations rounding out Telemachus’ journey, Menelaus and Helen each give an account of Odysseus’ role in the ending to the Trojan War. The stories are different, and there is tension between wife and husband that has clearly not been resolved. The differences in their stories hinge on the depiction of Odysseus, who in Helen’s story makes his first appearance as a beggar but who in Menelaus’ story is all hero. As most of you know, and as our freshmen will find out soon enough, this motif of Odysseus appearing as a beggar becomes very important as the Odyssey unfolds. For tonight, though, I want to focus on how this image captures the imagination of Telemachus, who in his wonder at the King and Queen of Sparta, manages to find truths in the conversation that seem to elude them precisely because they have long since ceased to wonder at one another, coming armed as they do with knowledge each of the other that limits their ability to speak and to listen openly. This will be as delicate and telling a conversation as any Telemachus has yet encountered.
Helen’s image of Odysseus appearing as a beggar is striking, for our experience with Odysseus in the Iliad is of a hero who more than any other is never at a loss—never at a loss for words, never at a loss for strategies, never at a loss for strength in action that will make good on his words and strategies and secure his place among the army’s best. Helen’s account of how Odysseus infiltrates Troy, however, is focused on his appearing totally reduced from his heroic stature to the cowering status of a beggar who is out of place and extremely vulnerable. It is also focused on Helen’s recognition of Odysseus even—or perhaps especially?—in that state of displacement and vulnerability. Helen, the woman who found herself a world away from home, and who regrets the trouble she has caused, offers this story to Telemachus:
So come, let’s sit back in the palace now,/ dine and warm our hearts with the old stories./ I will tell something perfect for the occasion./ Surely I can’t describe or even list them all, the exploits crowding fearless Odysseus’ record,/ but what a feat that hero dared and carried off/ in the land of Troy where you Achaeans suffered!/ Scarring his own body with mortifying strokes,/ throwing filthy rags on his back like any slave,/ he slipped into the enemy’s city, roamed its streets—/ all disguised, a totally different man, a beggar,/ hardly the figure he cut among Achaea’s ships./That’s how Odysseus infiltrated Troy,/ and no one knew him at all…/ I alone, I spotted him for the man he was,/ kept questioning him—the crafty one kept dodging./ But after I’d bathed him, rubbed him down with oil,/ given him clothes to wear and sworn a binding oath/ not to reveal him as Odysseus to the Trojans, not/ till he was back at his swift ships and shelters,/ then at last he revealed to me, step by step,/ the whole Achaean strategy.
By Helen’s account, Odysseus infiltrates Troy by appearing as someone wholly out of place and in need, the consummate opposite of the war hero whose standing is secured by taking what he wants. Presumably, in so appearing, Odysseus is manifesting the need for reconnaissance that will make it possible to deliver the final blow to Troy. If he is successful, he will secure his place in history as the hero whose strategy puts an end to the nine year war. Helen’s story emphasizes that it is she who manages to get Odysseus to tell her what the Achaean army is up to. All it takes is a bath, a little oil, some warm clothes, and a conversation in which Helen is the master whose questions cut through the wily Odysseus’ defenses.
This image of Odysseus transformed by Helen’s ministrations is of course meant to make Helen look far better than she has been, for her marital infidelity has caused great suffering to the fighting force that has risked its finest warriors to bring her home. But even the drugs that Helen provides in order to help her story along aren’t enough to compromise Menelaus’ memory. He refuses her attempt to vindicate herself in words, and what’s more, he will disclose another little secret between them: that Helen was in fact a traitor up until the very end, someone who truly took her place on the side of the enemy—in Menelaus’ account, Prince Deiophobus, Helen’s second husband at Troy. Also in this account, Odysseus couldn’t be farther from the image of the beggar that Helen has portrayed. Odysseus, even in his position hidden deep in the belly of the Trojan Horse, stands firm against Helen’s own seductive calls. Menelaus’ story is about Odysseus the hero, and he is even willing to emphasize Odysseus’ heroic stature at the expense of his own. He refers to himself as “crouching”, a position associated with one who begs. He is also forthright about his yearning to call out in answer to Helen’s seductive calls. But Odysseus seems to be in a position to hold Menelaus and all of the others back. Any intimation of Odysseus’ vulnerability in Helen’s account is blotted out in Menelaus’ quick reply, which is seamlessly complimentary and dismissive at the same time.
There was a tale, my lady. So well told./ Now then, I have studied, in my time,/ the plans and minds of great ones by the score./ And I have traveled over a good part of the world/ but never once have I laid eyes on a man like him—what a heart that fearless Odysseus had inside him!/ What a piece of work the hero dared and carried off/ in the wooden horse where all our best encamped, our champions armed with bloody death for Troy…/ when along you came, Helen—roused, no doubt,/ by a dark power bent on giving Troy some glory,/ and dashing Prince Deiphobus squired your every step./ Three times you sauntered round our hollow ambush,/ feeling, stroking its flanks,/ challenging all our fighters, calling each by name—/ yours was the voice of all our long-lost wives!/ And Diomedes and I, crouched tight in the midst/ with great Odysseus, hearing you singing out,/ were both keen to spring up and sally forth/ or give you a sudden answer from inside,/ but Odysseus damped our ardor, reined us back./ Then all the rest of the troops kept stock-still,/ all but Anticlus. He was hot to salute you now/ but Odysseus clamped his great hands on the man’s mouth/ and shut it, brutally—yes, he saved us all, /holding on grim-set till Pallas Athena lured you off at last.
Now Telemachus is surely out of his league in this conversation, for he hasn’t had the opportunity to be privy to the layers of meaning that come to characterize the conversations of those who have been together for a very long time, and this marriage has layers to which most children wouldn’t want to be privy! Yet Telemachus’ response is deliberate and surprising in the imagination it exhibits against the dominant view that Menelaus has expressed: He refuses outright the correction that Menelaus has insisted upon at his wife’s expense, and in so doing, he refuses the image of the hero pure and simple, one who can conquer all not only without the help of others, but in spite of them and their weaknesses. Telemachus ventures, “Son of Atreus, King Menelaus, captain of armies,/ so much the worse, for not one bit of that/ saved him from grisly death/ not even a heart of iron could have helped.”
Telemachus, the son of Odysseus who sojourns to satisfy his pressing appetite for news about his father, who does so by recognizing the intervention of the divine on his behalf, and who begins to find his voice and gain his footing for doing so, understands that there are powers greater than a strong heart determining a man’s journey. The place a man occupies, no matter how heroic or strong hearted he is, is determined as much by what is inside of him that he cannot control as it is by external vicissitudes. Telemachus’ journey has apparently put him in a position to recognize something true in Helen’s depiction of Odysseus as a beggar. He is in a position to see deeply what his father’s absence has meant for his father: that he has been displaced, that he has somehow failed to find a way to be at home. This displacement and the vulnerability it entails, as manifested in the image of the beggar, positions Telemachus to recognize that his father will need him should he manage to reach Ithaca’s shores alive. Telemachus’ ability to listen has strengthened his ability to see.
It is with this newfound insight that Telemachus hears from Menelaus that his father is, indeed, alive. In fact the last image of his father that Telemachus takes from Menelaus has Odysseus “weeping live warm tears/ in the nymph Calypso’s house” where he is held against his will. Helen’s image of Odysseus in a position of vulnerability seems to win the day, and so she has indeed managed to tell something “perfect for the occasion”. But this is a function neither of Helen’s motives nor of the social lubricant she has furtively provided. In fact it is in spite of Helen’s intentions, and yet through his conversation with her, that Telemachus has managed to discern his father’s vulnerability, and therefore the risk that he himself will have to take should his father reach home at last. That Telemachus has managed to see this is a testament to an obvious fact about conversation, though it is easily overlooked: what we get out of a conversation is not just a matter of what others say. It is a matter of what we are prepared to hear. Telemachus’ journey has apparently prepared him well.
The conversations that Telemachus has had on his journey have put him in touch with what is inside himself, which may be another way of saying that they have put him in a position of self-knowledge, the beginning of adulthood and the beginning of actions that will be deliberately his own. Telemachus, the boy with a voracious appetite for news of his father, recognizes that he has heard enough and that it is time to go home. Once he no longer has need of the words that will inform him about his father, he is clear with Menelaus that his words, though wonderful, can no longer suffice for keeping Telemachus in Sparta. “Please, Menelaus, don’t keep me quite so long./ True, I’d gladly sit beside you one whole year/ without a twinge of longing for home or parents./ It’s wonderful how you tell your stories, all you say—/ I delight to listen! Yes, but now, I’m afraid, my comrades must be restless in sacred Pylos….” Telemachus, tactfully but firmly, makes clear that it is time for him to gather his men and to return home.
It is in Book XVI that father and son reunite at last, their journeys coming together. Odysseus appears the beggar, and Telemachus the captain of his own ship, arriving home with crew intact and guest gifts to add to his family’s wealth. Even as it began, Telemachus’ journey ends with a conversation between himself and a guest whom he cannot host properly for the presence of the suitors. But whereas before, with Mentes, Telemachus lamented that his father wasn’t there to put the suitors in their place, daydreaming about what would happen if he were, Telemachus now looks only to himself and acknowledges simultaneously the vulnerable position that he is in and the challenges that he faces. Requested by Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd, to give the beggar before them shelter, the newly returned Telemachus replies, Shelter? Oh Eumaeus…that word of yours, it cuts me to the quick!/ How can I lend the stranger refuge in my house?/ I’m young myself. I can hardly trust my hands/ to fight off any man who rises up against me….I can’t let him go down and join the suitors./ They’re far too abusive, reckless, know no limits:/ they’ll make a mockery of him—that would break my heart./ It’s hard for a man to win his way against a mob,/ even a man of iron. They are much too strong.
It is in this new position of self-awareness, from which he has faced his plight head on rather than from the safety of a day dream about being rescued, that Telemachus enters the conversation with his father disguised as a beggar.
Telemachus is a different young man for the journey he has taken. His differences show immediately in his conversation with his father, in which a number of the very same topics arise as did with Athena disguised as Mentes. To begin, he no longer has doubts about who he is, answering firmly Odysseus’ question about his paternity, even as he approaches the question now empathically from Odysseus’ viewpoint rather than from the viewpoint of his own self-pity. “…I am Odysseus’ only son. He fathered me,/ he left me behind at home, and from me he got no joy.” And when he speaks of his mother, repeating verbatim what he said to Mentes about her failure to put the courting to an end one way or another, he follows up with a mature and warm act of consideration for the very mother he has apparently criticized twice, asking Eumaeus to “…go, quickly, to wise Penelope” to tell her that he has arrived from Pylos safe and sound.
He has also learned to look to himself for his best judgments, even when confronted with the father figure he so desperately desires. Whereas earlier he stated openly that he wouldn’t forget a single word that Mentes has told him, for his words were like those of a father to a son, Telemachus now openly rejects Eumaeus’ suggestion that he stop to tell Laertes that Telemachus is home before going to Penelope. Yet the embrace of Telemachus by Eumaeus has just been characterized as that of a father, “brimming with love” for his son.
It is after Telemachus has already revealed this greater sense of his place in the world that Athena transforms Odysseus from a beggar into a king. Likely associating his father’s transformation with the experience he has had of Athena as Mentes and Mentor, Telemachus thinks that Odysseus must be a god. But Odysseus’ response holds the image of the vulnerable beggar firmly before Telemachus, his transformation notwithstanding. He speaks honestly to his recognition of the vulnerability that Telemachus has shared so openly, even as he speaks to the need that he has to be recognized in all of his mortal weakness by his son.
“No I am not a god,”/ the long-enduring, great Odysseus returned./ “Why confuse me with one who never dies?/ No, I am your father—/ the Odysseus you wept for all your days,/ you bore a world of pain, the cruel abuse of men.”/ And with those words Odysseus kissed his son/ and the tears streamed down his cheeks and wet the ground,/ though before he’d always reined his emotions back.”
It is in this conversation, comprised as it is of mutually-expressed vulnerability, that Telemachus comes to recognize his father. When the two embrace, neither one is standing. Both men are “filled with compassion, eyes streaming tears”.
It is this spirit of compassion that seems to reveal the true nature of conversation as action. As Odysseus and Telemachus plot the destruction of the suitors, each takes his place with respect to the other and with respect to this most important topic of conversation between them. The place that each takes, however, is not defined simply by the relation of father and son. Rather, the conversation somehow cuts through Odysseus’ authority over Telemachus, so that Telemachus’ newfound manhood has a proper place to express itself. For example, Telemachus expresses skepticism that he and his father can take on the suitors alone, but Odysseus reminds him that Athena and Zeus will be on their side. Odysseus goes on to give orders, which Telemachus promises he has the courage to obey, yet Telemachus also checks his father’s plan, offering his own good sense about how and when they ought to go about questioning the field hands and the serving women. Both Odysseus and Telemachus are able to speak freely to one another, and to hear one another in the generous spirit of a shared purpose. They are, through their conversation, poised for the action that will finally allow them to defeat the suitors.
Telemachus’ journey through conversation probably ends in Book XVI. And though Odysseus, with the help of Athena, is the primary force behind the restoration of order in his house that allows him to be at home again and that rounds out the rest of the Odyssey—save book XXIV when Odysseus himself confronts his father in a mutually-expressed moment of vulnerability—there are two moments toward the end of the epic that are worth noting as we round out our account of Telemachus’ coming of age. Both highlight the courage and the discretion that Telemachus has gained during his journey through the most important conversations of his young life; both demonstrate that he has found his voice and learned how and when to use it.
The first moment is when Telemachus, upon his fourth try, is about to string his father’s bow. This is, of course, a moment of great excitement for him, holding out the potential to establish his fame across the land. But a quiet gesture from his father stops him, and Telemachus’ words express his understanding that the larger strategy and action at hand is more important than his own personal satisfaction. He lulls the suitors into thinking that they surely have the upper hand in the situation, exclaiming with real inspiration “God help me.../ must I be a weakling, a failure all my life?/ Unless I’m just too young to trust my hands/ to fight off any man who rises up against me./ Come, my betters, so much stronger than I am—/ try the bow and finish off the contest.”
While Telemachus hasn’t lied outright in what he has said, he has chosen his words and tempered them for the occasion. But he has also learned through his conversations when words must be as direct as the thrust of a sword. The slaughter of the suitors is nearly complete, and Telemachus hears the bard who has been forced to play night after night for the suitors begging Odysseus for mercy just after Odysseus has lopped off the head of another so pleading for his own life. We are told by Homer, “The inspired Prince Telemachus heard his pleas/ and quickly said to his father close beside him,/ ‘Stop, don’t cut him down! This one’s innocent./ So is the herald Medon—the one who always/ tended me in the house when I was little—/ spare him too’.” Telemachus has learned the power of words to determine life and death. Like his heroic father, who has wielded power through bloody arms, Telemachus has had his own heroic moment. If his hands weren’t skilled enough to string the bow on his first try, his voice was strong enough to determine the fates of two innocent men on his first try. His voice is powerful enough to check his father’s bloody rampage, and Odysseus acknowledges to both men that the “prince has pulled [them] through.”
Now perhaps I have exaggerated a bit the importance of Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey. And perhaps some of the more experienced readers of the Odyssey suspect that I’ve made up the importance of conversation in Homer’s epic. But even if it is true that I have exaggerated for my own purposes tonight, I wouldn’t be in such bad company. Our freshmen may soon find themselves in conversation about the stories told by Odysseus, exaggerations surely if not outright lies. But there is always some truth in the words that Odysseus speaks, even as I hope there has been some truth in the words I have shared with you tonight. If an hour hasn’t afforded me the time to develop fully the significance of Telemachus’ journey through conversation for the purpose of understanding Homer’s Odyssey, it has afforded me the opportunity to suggest directly the role of conversation in Telemachus’ transformation as well as to suggest indirectly the deep significance that conversation has for all of us as we enter into the important work of our classes at St. John’s.
Telemachus’ sense that conversation matters; his sense that there are things that should be said and that should be left unsaid; his care in listening, and in responding; his gracious recognition that his interests are being addressed at every turn in the conversation, whether by a Nestor who is talking too much, or a Helen who is defending herself, or a Menelaus who is licking his wounds to the detriment of the conversation; his openness to wonder and to imagination; his deliberate desire to know the truth, even when it is not what he might have wanted to hear; his healthy mixture of skepticism and openness to what others are saying; his willingness to take ownership of his words in action—all of these lessons learned in the act of conversation help Telemachus to find his place among others, to be at home in the world, so that when he is called to the most important actions of his life, he is ready for them.
I am certain that if we give ourselves fully to conversation as Telemachus did, refusing the ease of idle talk in favor of satisfying the deeply human desire to be truly in relation with others, and if we allow the image of the beggar to capture our imaginations so that we see that it is not so terrible that those relations may very well expose our vulnerability even as they expose the vulnerabilities of others, we too will find ourselves on a journey toward being at home, in the world and among others, but perhaps most importantly, with ourselves.