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Rubens_The_Feast_of_Achelous_1615Are you as numb to news of war as I am?

We the American public are so used to hearing that our country is acting militarily in yet another place on the globe that we don’t even question whether we should be arming the Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen or “supporting” Syrian so-called moderate rebels.

We’re still fighting (and killing civilians in wedding parties and now even a hospital) in Afghanistan. And, incredibly, we’re back in Iraq: “training” (yet again) government forces. Aren’t they trained by now?

At least there’s a bit of public outrage over the recent disclosures about our drone “kill lists” in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan…

I’ve heard that the U.S. military is involved right now in from seventy-five to a hundred thirty wars, depending on how you define “involved” and “war.” This was the context for my recent re-reading of Virgil’s Aeneid, in Robert Fitzgerald’s fine translation. As I read, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity of my country’s militaristic sense of mission to that of Augustan Rome. “Headlong we rush to bite the desert dust” is how Fitzgerald’s iambic pentameter puts it.

Fitzgerald’s Iliad and Odyssey are also on my shelf. With warring so much the rage these days, you’d think I’d turn next to The Iliad. But instead it’s The Odyssey that I reached for—since it’s about how we should live instead of how we do.

Restoration is The Odyssey‘s theme. Though the title word has come to mean adventurous wandering, the poem’s whole thrust is really toward restoring Odysseus to his rightful place at home.

In Book Six of The Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the coast of the island of Scheria. Nausikaa and her handmaidens go to the seashore to wash clothes. Awakened by their games, Odysseus emerges from the forest naked and begs Nausikaa for help. He articulates what “home” means in a famous speech.

I actually cried when I read that speech. Odysseus does his share of crying in the poem, so I was in noble company. He’s weeping with longing for home when we first see him; he weeps later with grief when the minstrel sings of the Trojan War. My tears at his words to Nausikaa, though, were of gratitude—for the human fulfillment they picture:

And may the gods accomplish your desire:
a home, a husband, and harmonious
converse with him—the best thing in the world
being a strong house held in serenity
where man and wife agree.

“The best thing in the world” isn’t in the Greek, which literally says “there’s nothing more excellent or better than.” But Fitzgerald was brilliant to bring the world in via the English idiom. Because the Homeric household is very much in the world. The domestic concord for which Odysseus claims prime value isn’t a private peace cut off from the cruel world. Quite the opposite: The harmonious households visited throughout The Odyssey make the world a better place by spreading their blessings.

They do this mainly by extending hospitality. Strangers wandering in receive a welcome fit for the gods. The creed of good homes is the line graciously used to welcome Odysseus at two different times when he shows up looking particularly bedraggled: “Strangers and beggars come from Zeus.”

Nausikaa is the first to welcome Odysseus with these words. She does so, in fact, in response to her guest’s assertion of the value of domestic concord. From her parents’ supremely peaceful household, she has learned the right order of things: that hospitality is the natural extension of the harmonious home.

What all the harmonious households in the poem are doing when either Telemachus or Odysseus drop in is feasting. The amount of food consumed in the poem could feed an army—though the whole point is that peace, not war, is now being nurtured.

My husband and I were recently musing about this. He commented that The Iliad and The Odyssey together are Homer’s War and Peace. I see them also as Homer’s tragedy and comedy: comedy in its largest sense, as the celebration of life. While the defining activity of The Iliad‘s tragic vision is fighting (from the battlefield slaughter to the squabbling among the gods), the defining activity of The Odyssey‘s comic vision is feasting.

A feast, especially for a marriage, has always been the symbol for comedy’s celebration of human concord and continuity. All the singing, dancing, and athletic games that go on at The Odyssey‘s feasts are collective body language expressing exuberant harmony. And the remarkable amount of joking among characters—the fun we commonly think of as comic—is a manifestation writ small of the larger vision of joy.

Comic and tragic visions are essentially inseparable, though. Just as at the instant a warrior in The Iliad bites the dust in gory death, a brief glimpse is often given of the peaceful world being lost, so does The Odyssey repeatedly recall the terrible waste of the Trojan War, giving a sense of precious value to the time of joy. Homer couldn’t bear the thought of war without the possibility of people living in harmony, and we can’t either.

At least I can’t. That’s why, while our political world is behaving tragically, I need the balance and restorative hope that comedy brings.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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