This is one of my high-falutin posts, so be warned.
Flannery O’Connor once said that writers can do anything they can get away with, then observed, with typical O’Connor tartness, that nobody ever got away with much.
If a writer’s greatness is measured at least in part by how much he gets away with, then Homer still stands as a mountain range compared to us lowly toilers. Even Shakespeare, perhaps the most brazen and impudent of English poets, takes a distant second to the great blind liar.
To prove this, I’m going to quote a couple of passages from The Odyssey, which I admire not only for their power, but for their bald-faced – well, I’ll let you judge.
The first passage takes place after Odysseus has returned from his wanderings. The evil suitors are in the great banquet hall trapped, unknowingly, and Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, has accepted a seemingly impossible challenge: to string the master’s bow – which no one but Odysseus can do – and shoot an arrow through the sockets of twelve axes in a row to hit a target on the other side. Ignoring the jeers of the suitors, Odysseus easily strings the bow and plucks the “taut gut” like a musician, making a thrumming note, “in the hushed hall it smote the suitors, and all their faces changed. Then Zeus thundered overhead, one loud crack for a sign.” From his stool, Odysseus makes the shot, demonstrating unmistakably his true identity, and says, “The hour has come to cook their lordship’s mutton.” Telemachus belts on his sword, picks up his spear, and takes a position near his father.
There ends book Twenty-One, and in the original telling, this is where the bard would have left off for the night, to resume the action the next evening. This is fairly brazen stuff in itself; no one manages a cliffhanger like Homer, but the real chicanery comes in Book Twenty-Two when after a little more huffing and cussing, Odysseus pours out a quiver of arrows, and
He drew to his fist the cruel head of an arrow for Antinoos
just as the young man leaned to lift his beautiful drinking cup,
embossed, two-handled, golden: the cup was at his fingers;
the wine was even at his lips: and did he dream of death?
How could he? In that revelry amid his throng of friends
who would imagine a single foe – though a foe strong indeed –
could dare to bring pain’s death on him and darkness on his eyes.
Odysseus’ arrow hit him under the chin
and punched up to the feathers in his throat.
Backward and down he went, letting the wine cup fall
from his shocked hand. Like pipes his nostrils jetted
crimson runnels, a river of moral red,
and one last kick upset his table
knocking the bread and meat to soak in the dusty blood.
Tom Franklin writes some pretty cool violence and so does Cormac Mcarthy, but no one tops Homer. I especially like the last line: Antinoos’ blood, the floor’s dust floating atop it, already covers the ground before the bread and meat hit. And the arrow punching up to its feathers in his throat: you can fairly feel it.
But that’s not what Homer’s getting away with here; in fact, all that gore is just distracting us as he lifts our car keys and wallet out of our pants.
Notice that just before Antinoos gets his, he’s casually drinking a cup of wine, not even dreaming that a foe strong indeed would dare to kill him. A convenient bit because lifting his chin, Antinoos gives Odysseus such a juicy target, except it doesn’t make sense! In the previous book the suitors are “smote” by the realization that Odysseus has returned. All their faces change. Telemachus is strapping on a sword and picking up a spear. Zeus makes a thunderclap, for heaven’s sake! All this is going on and Antinoos doesn’t “dream” he might be in trouble? Hasn’t he been paying attention? Does he think when Odysseus says he’s going to cook their mutton, he’s actually talking about cooking mutton? At the very least, don’t you think Antinoos would be too involved by what’s happening to go for another sip of retsina?
Here’s the thing. There are two desirable ways to render a revenge scene. In one version, we give our enemy fair warning and savor his terror as he awaits his well-deserved doom. In another version, we catch our enemy completely unaware, shoot him in the throat, and send him and his stolen groceries into a pool of his own blood. The problem is, those two versions are mutually exclusive: you can’t warn your enemy and catch him by surprise.
But Homer can.
He uses the divisions of The Odyssey to pull off a stunt so stunning, it’s – well – epic.
Flannery said no one got away with much, but she wasn’t thinking of Homer. Homer. Damn. Daylight robbery.