Music We Love

Greeks Like Us

“Thousands teemed in the womb, wanting to be him.”

What defines a hero? Is he comprised of the same ingredients today as he was in antiquity? Are there immutable dimensions to his character and intrinsic motivation that endure regardless of time, place, or circumstance?  In comparing Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey to the Coen brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I will explore the differences and some similarities between the Greek and American hero. I will also integrate complementary ideas gleaned from scholar Kathleen Komar’s article, "Rilke’s Sixth Duino Elegy or the Hero as Feige(n)baum", a piece that explores the contradictory images in Rilke’s poem, Sixth Duino Elegy, the final installment of a ten-part piece by the modern German poet. 

        The heroic schema -- man embodying the exceptional -- has been a recurring theme in the collective psyche of humankind as far back as recorded time reaches. Proof positive is in the fact that I’m writing this final college paper today, attempting to shed new light on an old idea. The hero -- man’s inner ideal projected -- burns on because he is as relevant of a figure today as he was during the time of the ancient Greeks. His recurrence in our art, literature, and historic texts suggests that he (or she) is a vital and necessary human construct. One might say this is so because the hero is the one many of us secretly long to be, whether conscious of this fact or not. Why else would he stand the test of so much time? However, ideas about what sets him apart from the rest differ greatly depending upon who is telling his story, as well as when and where they’re telling it.

          For Homer (the alleged author of The Iliad and The Odyssey circa 1194 BC) the hero -- boldly embodied in his brave Odysseus -- was, among other things, King of Ithaca. A man of nobility repeatedly described by the poet as “great,” “fearless,”  and “long-suffering.” Employing this type of language in reference to their hero implies that the Greeks worshipped their man of great heart and consequence. The Greek hero was beloved indeed! A fact clearly reflected in the goddess Athena’s human-like compulsion to shield and protect him. In Book Seven she covers Odysseus in mist to conceal him so that he could reach the king and queen of Scheria undetected:

            Odysseus went on
            striding down the hall, the man of many struggles
            shrouded still in the mist Athena drifted round him,
            till he reached Arete and Alcinous the king. (163-65)                                                                                                           
Her “man of many struggles” aroused a powerful maternal instinct in the benevolent goddess, and as a result she helped him traverse many harrowing peaks and valleys on his long journey home, like a mother would a precious son. And even when he is not particularly esteemed in the eyes of certain gods, he is nonetheless of great interest to them. When Odysseus blinds Poseidon’s son, Polyphemus, for example, the earthquake god spares the king’s life, cursing Odysseus instead, sending storms to inhibit his journey back to Ithaca. The fact that Poseidon chose not to kill or otherwise harm the arrogant Odysseus suggests some degree of preferential treatment…even on the part of an immortal adversary. The Greek heroes are undoubtedly fortunate to have some sort of impact on their gods who wield much influence over the ultimate state of their affairs, a fact Homer's hero knows well and laments often. 

            Cut to the dawn of the 21st Century. The gifted brothers Coen co-write and direct a quirky comedy called O Brother, Where Art Thou -- their modern retelling of Homer’s epic set in Mississippi during the Great Depression. Such a parallel confounds some audience members who can’t quite envision Everett Ulysses McGill (a Dapper Dan George Clooney) as a modern-day Odysseus. The two men are worlds apart in rank, reputation and godly favor, and these imperative factors make it difficult for some to perceive Everett in the same grand light. But this everyman’s man is a unique/distinct brand of hero -- he’s a hip, slick American hero. Reborn in a time and place where his unique je ne sais qua serves him well. Because of his profound lack of nobility, however, some might feel more comfortable labeling him an “anti-hero” -- again, a uniquely American idea. Much like the 20th Century idea of “postmodernism” (an amorphous term most often used in reference to Post World War II art, literature and architecture), the definition of an anti-hero is relatively unclear, and depends greatly upon who is doing the defining. Put simply, the anti-hero is not a clear-cut, black and white concept, but one that is more individually interpretive (like the poem itself). 

          Nevertheless, Odysseus is resurrected in Everett: a chain gang escapee who dreams a secret dream: that of recapturing the lost riches of his one true love -- his faithful wife, Penny. When the film opens, he escapes confinement on the chain with two fellow convicts, Pete and Delmar: men of more simple minds. With exuberant Everett serving as the wind beneath their little odyssey, dubbing himself the “old tactician with a plan,” the three set out to retrieve an alleged buried treasure (while simultaneously skirting the law). Everett claims to have stolen it from an armored car and subsequently buried before his incarceration. As the film progresses, however, the deeper desire of their hero’s heart is revealed: to be reunited with his beloved wife, whom he learns has become engaged to another, more bona fide suitor. Where Odysseus’ Penelope had an array of “swaggering” suitors, dripping with greed, all vying for her hand in marriage (along with her kingdom) -- Everett’s Penny, it would appear, has found a new man. 

          Getting wind of this sets Everett ablaze. It’s all the impetus he needs to make his bold escape, unknowingly thrusting himself head-long into his own heroic odyssey; prophesied to him by the blind seer on the railroad tracks and inspired by the most compelling of human incentives: his beloved. Like the Greeks, we Americans love to be in love! At the end of the day only the love story truly moves us. Not so much the love of money story (because that’s the root of all our evil, you know.) But authentic, abiding human love. Love transformed Everett into the hero of his own life. Yet, we mustn’t lose sight of one vital caveat: Everett is a very specific type of hero/lover -- modeled after the Greek’s Odysseus, yes, but fulfilling his heroic destiny (the acquisition of love and a little money) in a very modern and highly individualistic way -- the American way, baby.

          The great American hero of the early 20th Century (Everett), at the beginning anyway, is someone aided in times of trouble not by concerned and benevolent gods, per se, but more so by the latent talents his (Christian) god kindly bestowed upon him. Fortunately for Everett, he has no problem capitalizing on his inner resources as he attempts to dodge the law and actualize his secret initiative. What are some of the inner/outer resources he’s able to utilize to his benefit? For starters, it doesn’t hurt that he is the most handsome of his MIA posse, and we all know how far good looks can take a person in America. In addition to his good looks and abundant charisma, he is a natural leader; a self-proclaimed strategist with the ability to “think abstractly”. More importantly is that Everett (like Odysseus) is blessed with the gift of gab -- being able to bring others around to his point of view with the intensity of his convictions. Within the context of his time, place, and set of circumstances, Everett is a compelling rhetorician -- a quality that American culture at large values greatly and rewards honorably (our current President being a stellar, present-day example of such communicative verve.) This talent is highlighted when Everett convinces the blind radio station owner to let he and his impromptu band, The Soggy Bottom Boys, sing into tin cans for quick cash. Little did he know that by thinking so swiftly on his feet, it would catapult he and his friends toward fame (a fashionably American dream). At his metaphoric essence, Everett symbolizes what it means to do it your way -- an ideal as American as Frank Sinatra and Jack in the Box. Do it your way and (maybe even) get rich and famous in the process! This is at the very heart of the American Dream, and Everett embodies our kind of hero. In the end, he not only wins his beloved Penny back, but he also garners freedom and notoriety -- bonuses he never saw coming. 

             Another important distinction between the Greek and American hero: in the Greek tradition, the gods (most likely) would have had to intervene in order to effect such a fortunate turn of events as the ones Everett and his friends encountered. For the Greeks, the gods had a direct hand in the ultimate success or failure of their hero. This is not necessarily the case for the American hero who, in times of unparalleled crisis is forced to rely solely on his faith in a benevolent God, versus the Greek certainty that their human-like gods will come to their rescue or manipulate events to their advantage. This implementation of faith is evident at the conclusion of the film when, faced with certain death at the hands of the bounty hunters who’d been tracking them, their intense petitioning of the Lord’s pity makes way for a what appears to be a miraculous intervention and just in the nick of time. A local dam breaks just in time to save them and drown their enemies. It wasn’t necessarily their god that saved them, but the faith they had that god existed. Us Americans, we know the power of faith. And it is this quality alone that gives the common, every man -- like Everett -- heroic potential.
          Which brings us to Kathleen Komar’s 1985 article on how poetic language in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sixth Duino Elegy attempts to violate it’s own poetic boundaries by painting an unusual and confounding portrait of the hero, comparing him to a fichus tree. (Fichus being an adjectival derivative of an earlier Greek root, ‘sykon’ meaning “cowardly.”) In her 11-page piece, Ms. Komar states that “the hero is, first of all, like the youthfully dead in that he rushes toward death and is not afraid of it.” (30) In respect to Everett, at least, her statement is not entirely accurate. (But this must be so if he’s a hero!) Everett, first and foremost, is a human being. To be human is to naturally fear death. To be a hero, however, is not to deny ones fear but to acknowledge and elect to move beyond it. This is what Everett was able to accomplish thanks to his faith in that great something out there. By no means was he fearless in the face of death. We see his natural, human fear surface like the white tide when he, Pete and Delmar begin feverishly petitioning the Lord to have pity on them. Perhaps this is the heart of where the hero has evolved since the days when Homer was penning epic poetry. 
                 Where Ms. Komar is most astute on is on page 31 of her article where she asserts, “The primary image of the hero, then, is one of constant and furious motion, of activity at its peak. Unlike the meaningless activity of the acrobats, the hero’s frenetic activity is directed and meaningful and is, therefore, aided by existence at large”. Those final five words being key. The hero then, now and evermore is aided by existence at large indeed! What a wonderful thing for all the hero poets to know. And herein lies a connective bridge between the hero’s journey in both Homer’s Odyssey, as well as O Brother -- an idea exquisitely expressed in Paulo Coelho’s allegorical novel, The AlchemistCoelho’s hero, Santiago, comes to discover that when you (the hero of your own life) have a noble fire (that single burning objective that blots out all frivolity) burning in your heart -- all of the Universe will conspire to help you capture it. Odysseus captured his fire. Everett did too.

                                                        Have you?

*Grade received: A-