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Penelope Travels Home, Then Packs to Travel Some More

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

I’ve been traveling the past week-plus, from the Arabian desert to the hallucinatory green of the currently rain-sodden mid-Atlantic, north to Readercon outside of Boston (where I stood bareheaded in the rain!!), and then back again to Philadelphia. Among the many joys and oddities of return: the drivers in these cities are so calm and polite, and so observant of the traffic rules that I feel at peace on that crowded femoral artery of Philadelphia, the Schuylkill Expressway.* Which just goes to show the power of relativity.

Readercon is one of my favorite cons. It’s a small convention with programming pretty much only about books, and the dealers’ room (or crack den, as my friend Vickie calls it) sells no t-shirts or other tchotchkes, only books and magazines. One of my panels was about re-reading the classics, a poor choice by Programming since my reading history is lamentably patchy. Somehow (I think all I said was that Shakespeare was hard to read for speakers of present-day English) I seemed to become the person who thought the classics were all irrelevant. It’d be more accurate to say that I think the classics are valuable if not always relevant.

One interchange was about Homer, and how great the Odyssey was, and how much of the whole history of literature the Odyssey had influenced, and how Joyce’s Ulysses contained the whole of human experience (this last from critic and fellow panelist Michael Dirda).

I actually have no argument with this until we get to the final assertion, although (having been mostly a lit major in college) I have an allergic reaction to that favorite old dish, Canon Stuffed Down My Throat. And I actually have read Ulysses, and found much to admire, if rather less to enjoy. I didn’t get to address most of what I wanted to say on the subject, and I think I was less than perfectly cogent about what I did say, so here is some of it.

First, the Odyssey: I loved it when I was a kid, but I read it differently now, less as a heroic adventure story about a really smart guy, and more about cruelty and brutality and a protagonist who is more than capable of both. I’m among the many writers great and small who’ve been influenced by it; it’s one of the armatures underlying my novel Bear Daughter.

The statement that the novel Ulysses contained the whole of human experience startled me, as it is so at odds with my own experience of Joyce. One piece of this is I think gender-related. Although sf has a very skewed gender ratio, and I often find myself as the only woman on sf panels, I rarely feel I am surrounded by or engaged in purely gender-based opinionating. This panel had several moments where I found myself in a foreign land, for example Dirda’s puzzlement when I mentioned seeing the negative descriptors of femaleness in Le Guin’s pioneering gender-bender Left Hand of Darkness on re-reading it many years after the first time. I might have misunderstood his response, but it was as if he was unaware of this rather well-known (acknowledged and addressed by Le Guin herself) critique of the book. It seems so obvious that it should hardly need saying that one thing not contained in Ulysses is what Molly’s day was like.

The trope of travel and the quest is a powerful metaphor and maybe unmatched as a story driver. That Penelope did not go anywhere is almost tautologically why the story isn’t about her, although in Odysseus’ case, the quest is to get home, and to return to her side is one of the things he is ostensibly questing for. Still, women have been traveling and questing since the first Femina habilis had a notion about more and better berries growing further up on the mountainside, and about where she could find some good long sedge roots to make a container to carry them in. The notion of women as immobile arises out of a way of life, sedentary subsistence agriculture, practiced by only a portion of humanity for a pretty limited period of human existence.

It would be pleasant to chill in an inclusive post-feminist space where Molly’s quest–whatever it was (maybe quite trivial, but finding depth and meaning in the trivial is part of what Ulysses is about)–is welcomed by all as an integral part of human experience. Isn’t assumed to be covered, in all meaningful ways, by the story about hubby. Alas, that there is no expiration date on ignorant cluelessness. Yes, Vickie was reading passages to us on the drive back from Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which certainly focused my ire. If only it were a quaint relic of an earlier era with no relevance to today.

But perhaps, as is often the case, what’s at the core of my reaction is personal. My own life is centered right now around travel and the quest for a new life paradigm. If storytelling is about creating meaning, and I think it is, the Odyssey and Ulysses are not providing a guide as to where and how I should look for what I need. That’s one reason I started writing my own stories when I was a kid, wanting to have heroes who could show me how I wanted to be. Odysseus is no longer my hero. Patient and long-suffering Penelope is no guide for me, either. Another Penelope, shipwrecked far from home with a young Telemachus, might have more to teach me about ingenuity and grit.

Postscript: I’m stunned to hear that Charles Brown, the long-time publisher of the sf/f/h trade mag Locus, died in his sleep on the way back from Readercon.

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* The UAE has one of the highest accident rates, and number of traffic fatalities per capita, in the world. Until last summer, I hadn’t had an accident since a slight miscalculation with a rented moving truck twenty years ago. As a driver I’ve been hit three times in Dubai in the last nine months, and was a passenger when a bus driver in the lane to our right decided to make a left turn into the roundabout without looking to see whether anyone was in his way. The chaos math of traffic means that on a crowded road it takes very little driver craziness to cause major consequences, and after reading an article about traffic in Cairo, I’m wondering about modeling the effects specifically of Cairene drivers (and there are not a few in Dubai).

2 Comments »

  1. I have to say, when you were talking about polite drivers, either you meant Philly but not Boston, or you were being sarcastic.

    I agree on the male-centricness of the “human experience” thing. I posit as an example, the play “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which is supposedly about human existence, and yet the story line is focused on life as men experience it. In fact, the protagonist (male) has a wife and a girlfriend, because while men can have both a domestic and a wild side, it seems women are one or the other, right? (that WAS sarcasm, BTW).

    Comment by karen wester newton - July 14, 2009 8:24 am

  2. Judith: Oh, man, I am not eager to see the place that makes the Schuylkill look calm and polite. But Odysseus: I always imagined The Odyssey as the direct counterpart to the Iliad–in the sense that The Iliad is a play about the psychologically destructive nature of war, and The Odyssey is the long and painful struggle to return to civilization.

    Karen: I’m not sure it’s really fair to pick on Skin of Our Teeth, as it is, quite clearly, a self-conscious reinterpretation of the traditional patriarchal Western literary tradition–a tradition which is broken down by the philosophers who appear at the end. Likewise, it’s actually fairly obscure, especially compared to Wilder’s other famous work, which I think takes a much more egalitarian approach to human experience, so it’s not like it’s really indicative of trends in theater.

    Comment by braak - July 14, 2009 1:30 pm


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