Godlike Struggle and Artful Existence
Readers of the Odyssey could certainly find frustration in crafting a judgment of Odysseus’ decision to depart from life alongside the goddess Kalypso. Some might point to a yearning for his day of homecoming. Others might argue precisely the opposite – that “godlike Odysseus” simply grows tired of the secluded life and yearns for his next adventure. And all could be, at least in part, correct. An interpretation of this moment in the poem hinges on the question of Odysseus’ motivations, and of what kind of hero Homer intended for Odysseus to be. At least for some time, Odysseus is satisfied with Kalypso’s company and enjoys their arrangement. Why, then, does she find him sitting by the seashore, with eyes “never wiped dry of tears,” lying beside her at night “of necessity” and “against his will?” (V, 151-155). And why won’t he accept the offer to spend eternity alongside Kalypso, the immortal, ageless beauty? Perhaps most confusing of all is his decision to spend one final night at her side, once she promises to send him on his way towards home. If Odysseus is to be our hero, then his decisions must reflect Homer’s image of heroism. A close look at the moment of this decision renders Odysseus a hero not just in the epic sense, but because he chooses to embrace the contradictions inherent in human existence even when presented with the opportunity to leave them behind.
Odysseus justifies his decision to venture towards home even in spite of certain hardship and struggle. As Kalypso watches him crying by the sea, she sees the “sweet lifetime draining out of him” as he weeps for a way home (V, 153-154). Even the godlike Odysseus, hero and king, is weakened and lost when the prospect of his homecoming is far from reach. Kalypso’s immortality and his humanity are mismatched. Kalypso cannot understand his distress or his refusal to consent to immortality at her side. She reasons that, if only he knew “in [his] own heart how many hardships [he was] fated to undergo,” he would finally give up on his journey home (V, 206-207). It is here that Homer demonstrates the knowledge and power that our humanity grants us. The finitude of Odysseus’ existence bestows his choices with a significance that an immortal could never understand. Endowed with this perspective, Odysseus is fated to struggle for his homecoming at any cost.
Kalypso cannot understand Odysseus’ refusal to enjoy what is, to her, a perfect existence. She gives him her love and cherishes him, and it is not enough (V, 135-136). To Kalypso, the desire to return home even in light of the arduous journey seems like a contradiction. And she is right. But here lies the contradiction in humanity: that life is difficult, imperfect, and ends in certain death, but we go on living anyway. Odysseus’ burning desire to return home is a sort of tragic choice, since he knows that it will furnish him with only a moment of fleeting happiness. This “stubborn spirit” is a feature of his heroism, one that Homer wants us to see in ourselves as well (V, 220). As Telemachos reminds his mother, Odysseus is “not the only one who lost his homecoming day at Troy” – his suffering is a profound aspect of the human condition (I, 344-345). What makes Odysseus the hero is a faith in life as worth living even in spite of this intrinsic suffering and contraditction.
It would be naïve to ignore the time that Odysseus is happy to spend at Kalypso’s side. For a while, he is content to live as the goddess’ concubine. Though it is unclear what brings about his change of heart, Odysseus sounds earnest in his willingness to suffer any consequences once he finally determines that he is headed home (V, 223-224). What, then, are we to make of the final night that Odysseus and Kalypso spend together? Just after he makes a declaration of his intention to venture home, we learn that “these two, withdrawn in the inner recess of the hallowed cavern, enjoyed themselves in love and stayed all night by each other” (V, 226-227). This gesture is likely meant to ensure that the relationship between the two lovers ends on happy terms. But it can also be seen as a moment of weakness in Odysseus, when his resolve to continue with the human struggle is tainted by a desire to experience perfection for one last evening. But this perfection is a source of suffering, too, since it only serves to remind Odysseus of how unapt he is to enjoy it.
His humanity situates Odysseus in a tragic position, stretched between contingent life and certain death, unable to enjoy happiness in any kind of perfect way. Compassionate as she is, Kalypso cannot use her godly powers to secure an understanding of his position. Her offer of immortality is ill suited because, godlike as he may be, the humanity in Odysseus is incapable of enjoying perfect happiness or contentment of any kind. To exist is to struggle, and for Odysseus to give up on that struggle and accept Kalypso’s offer would be nothing short of nihilism. Ultimately, Odysseus’ heroism has little to do with battle or kingdom or family, but with his true understanding of what it is to suffer a human existence.
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