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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Odyssean Hospitality

I've been enjoying various books on CD during my daily commute -- hoping against hope that the officious Pollyannas that research driving cognition, or whatever, do not turn their intrusive attentions to the "dangers" of listening to books while driving.  New York City, I was astounded to discover, has exactly one measly classical radio station -- it used to be owned by the New York Times but was recently sold, taking up an ignoble place way up the radio dial where you often can't hear it, and slowly adopting the kind of soporific aesthetic that is mass marketable (classical music -- "it's what you want when you need to RELAX and UNWIND").  Nothing says "I'm relaxed" like Puccini arias sandwiched between incessant reruns of the Pachelbel Canon and The Girl With the Flaxen Hair. 

I'm listening to The Odyssey, narrated by Ian McKellan.  He does a wonderful job with the Fagles translation -- one mark of a good narrator is that sometimes you actually forget that it's the narrator saying the words, and imagine that the words are really being said by the character portrayed in the story.  McKellan can do that.

At any event, one facet of the story that I had not realized is so central is the theme of hospitality.  Hospitality is in general an absolutely crucial ancient Greek virtue.  Hospitality is of special importance to Zeus and acts of hospitality, or their absence, are a constant.  Only utterly barbarous peoples -- the Cyclops, the Laestrygonians, the Lotus Eaters -- are brazen enough not to honor the importance of hospitality.  The civilized world is steeped in the customs of hospitality -- to the point where hospitality is state policy.  Telemachus receives it from all whom he visits when searching for his father, and Odysseus is greatly honored by the Phaeacians before being escorted home, with untold gifts.  And, of course, a large part of the reason that the suitors are destroyed is their manifest lack of hospitality: they raid Odysseus's home, and when he returns (in the form of a beggar), they hurl footstools and invective at him.  Then they all are killed mercilessly.

All of this emphasis on hospitality got me thinking about the virtue in this country.  All in all, I doubt very much that hospitality is a virtue here.  It is certainly not an official policy -- immigration law is particularly inhospitable.  I understand that we live in a different time from Homer's, and that the demographics are radically different.  Still, something important has, I think, been lost when Odyssean hospitality is not even a virtue to which we aspire, let alone achieve.  For all of its barbarism, Homer's world was, at least in that respect, more humane than ours.

Thanks to Dan and the co-bloggers for their hospitality to me this month.

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on November 29, 2009 at 08:49 AM | Permalink


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Hospitality is also the central theme in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Posted by: malthus | Nov 29, 2009 10:16:39 AM

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