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Against Truth

Using star charts and astronomical evidence drawn from Homer’s Odyssey, two scholars claim to have fixed the exact date on which Odysseus returned home to Ithaca from his ten years of wandering after the Trojan War. Marcelo O. Magnasco of Rockefeller University in New York and Constantino Baikouzis of the Astronomical Observatory in La Plata, Argentina used imagery from the poem to set the exact date of Odysseus’ return, and subsequent slaughter of the suitors pressing for his wife’s hand, as April 16, 1178 B.C. According to an Associated Press story, they based this date on the concurrence of a series of astronomical events described in the poem:

Homer reports that on the day of the slaughter the sun is blotted from the sky, possibly a reference to an eclipse. In addition, he mentions more than once that it is the time of a new moon, which is necessary for a total eclipse, the researchers say.

Other clues include:

— Six days before the slaughter, Venus is visible and high in the sky.

— Twenty-nine days before, two constellations – the Pleiades and Bootes – are simultaneously visible at sunset.

— And 33 days before, Mercury is high at dawn and near the western end of its trajectory. This is the researchers’ interpretation, anyway. Homer wrote that Hermes, the Greek name for Mercury, traveled far west to deliver a message.

Magnasco and Baikouzis concede that their calculations required them to make certain “assumptions.” The biggest, in my mind, is that there’s some need to establish the truth of a poem like The Odyssey, as if by doing so we can save Homer from being simply a weaver of tales and make him a historian, much as Odysseus saves his crew from Circe’s enchantment, forcing the goddess to transform them from pigs back into real live boys.

The evidence that Magnasco and Baikouzis present is amusing, if only for its determination to read every metaphor literally, the kind of evidence you get on the History Channel when they set out to prove that the Garden of Eden can be found in northwest Iran or that the Ark of the Covenant now lies buried in a prop room at DreamWorks. Never mind that the Homer we know by literary tradition was blind, and so unable to see these astronomical phenomena, or that recent scholars have argued that “Homer” may have been not one poet, but a tradition of oral narrative that evolved into its current form over centuries. Personally, I’m less interested in imagining these stories as true than I am in their persistence in the collective imagination. We need these literary vanishing acts to sustain us in a world that turns so easily into banality in our hands: for every brutal Stalingrad, we need a Troy to make our acts of violence golden and god-haunted. And yet we also feel compelled to reduce the literary imagination to so many acts of transcription: Shakespeare, any number of self-published books contend, must have been a nobleman or a lawyer or a leatherworker, because he speaks of those professions with what can only be an insider’s knowledge. Never mind that by the same logic he’d also have to be a murderer, a fool, a Roman, a Moor, a cross-dressed woman, and a ghost hurrying back from Hell to whisper horrors in our ears.

Why has our culture become so uncomfortable with acts of imagination? Publishers would rather stake their business and reputations on autobiographies by 26-year old media kids than print a literary novel that might last longer in our cultural imagination than a flicker of thought in Paris Hilton’s eyes. It’s not a particularly original observation on my part, but we seem to have developed a raging case of cultural narcissism, as if we’ve come to believe that nothing could be more interesting than our own lives. I’ve always believed that fiction, whatever its faults, has the capacity to teach us the habit of empathy: where “reality” narratives ??? especially those on television — allow us to sit in judgment of their carefully-constructed character types, and while recent autobiographies often seem a series of self-affirming fictions based on the conventions of addiction and recovery narratives, a well-written novel demands that we extend ourselves through an act of imagination and sympathy into another’s life and experience, inhabiting a consciousness very different from our own. By contrast, reading autobiography these days can feel like being led on a guided tour where the closets are thrown open but we remain behind velvet ropes.

Magnasco and Baikouzis’ desire to read fiction as history strikes me as an extension of the impulse to read history as prophecy. We’re always trying to spin the record backwards to make it reveal its secrets, but that impulse also reflects a kind of narcissism: we claim to have broken the code, and so affirm our status as privileged readers who can compel God or Homer to whisper their secrets in our ear. History, in these terms, becomes a long, slow climb up a mountain toward the summit upon which we stand, masters of all we survey. In a sense, we’ve simply flipped the record over: where Odysseus saw gods, we now see stars, and so believe that we’ve risen out of darkness into the light of truth. But in doing so, we miss what the blind poet saw so clearly. What matters in the poem isn’t the rage of the gods or the movement of the stars, but the desire of a man to find his way home. That’s a human truth, but we can see it most clearly by letting our imaginations wander.

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