Enduring Appeal of the Odyssey: 2019 National Book Festival

Enduring Appeal of the Odyssey: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Amy Stolls: Welcome to the 19th Annual National
Book Festival, brought to you by the Library of Congress. Not only has this
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absolutely. [ Applause ] Yay for libraries. You can visit us in person on
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library’s brand-new National Book Festival Presents series. This is a series which
will extend the reach of this festival with
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next month. So, please check LOC.gov for
updates on all the programs, for children as well
as for adults, and the ticketing
options for each one. We welcome your questions,
they are so wonderful, at the end of this presentation, but if you have a particular
question for the author, we ask if you could please
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off your cell phone or put it in silent, so, we can enjoy the
presentation in its fullest. So, without further
ado, I absolutely want to thank you for coming. Enjoy the rest of
your afternoon, and welcome to our presentation. [ Applause ]>>Alberto Manguel:
Good evening. My name is Alberto
Manguel, and I’m here to get these two fabulous
writers to talk to us. They are, in the far left
of me, Madeleine Miller, who is the author of
the Song of Achilles that won the Orange Prize for
Fiction, an extraordinary novel. And now, she has come
back to the ancient world, the world of Homer, with a
superb novel called Circe. Emily Wilson. Emily Wilson is a Classics
professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and
she is a specialist in the world of Rome and Greece. She has written two astonishing
biographies, or rather, explorations of two very
ambiguous characters of the past, Socrates
and Seneca. Perhaps she will tell us
something about them eventually, and she is very well
known as a translator of the plays Seneca
four plays by Euripides. Her translation of The
Odyssey has been received as outstanding, and this in
a field that’s very crowded. I don’t know how
many translations of The Odyssey exist,
but surely, in their hundreds into English. We are going to talk tonight
about a best-selling author who has never appeared in the
New York Times Bestselling List and perhaps never existed. [ Laughing ] Oscar Wilde, in a debate
about whether Homer existed or not said, “Homer, or
another Greek by the same name.” So, we will start with a
strange figure, and I will ask for your opinion on who
Homer was or who Homer were. Was he a woman? Were there poets throughout
centuries that contributed to this figure that we like to
call Homer, established more or less, I think, in the eighth
century or seventh century BCE. So, Emily, let’s start with
your vision as a classicist of who Homer was
and what did he do?>>Emily Wilson: Yes,
it’s a great question. In the scholarly world,
it’s usually presented as Homeric Question, capital
H, capital Q, because there’s so many different
books, articles, theories about that question
that has been debated for at least the last 100
years of classical scholarship. I mean, I think they is
the best pronoun for Homer. I mean, not least because even
if there was an individual or two individuals who put
these monumental poems together in the eighth or
seventh century BCE, those individuals were
drawing on centuries of old tradition
during the centuries when there was no writing
in the Greek speaking world. So, it’s not in debate
that whoever it was, whether that’s a
singular or plural, who created the written
poems, they were drawing on the inspirations,
the formulae, the words, the characters, the poetic
rhythms that had been developed by multiple different singers.>>Alberto Manguel: No, it’s
extraordinary, as you say. If there were, as there probably
were, centuries of writers, poets, singers, that created
these characters that act out in the Iliad
and the Odyssey. There are centuries of
poets, writers, and so on, who have taken those
figures further. Homer in the eighth
century is a watershed, but Homer exists
today, for instance, in the works of Madeleine
Miller. Why Circe? Among all the women
characters, or all characters, you chose Achilles first. Now you went to the
Odyssey, but why Circe?>Madeline Miller: Circe was the
one that I was angriest about.>>Alberto Manguel: Angriest
with her or with Homer?>>Madeline Miller:
No, with Homer. So, I first really have a
memory of encountering Circe when I was 13 I was reading
the Odyssey in eighth grade for English class, it
got to the Circe section, and I was really excited
about it, because I had heard that there was this witch
who turned men into pigs, which is a very unusual
feature for female characters in the ancient world,
and so, I was excited. You know, here’s this character
that isn’t going to be flat. She isn’t going to be just, you
know, the character who dies to motivate the hero, she’s
going to have her own thing. But then, when you actually
read the scene in Homer, she is incredibly flattened. You know, the first
thing is happens is, yes, she turned Odysseus’s men into
pigs, but then Odysseus shows up and pulls a very phallic
sword on her, and forces her to her knees, and she has to
sort of submit and be tamed. And I, at that moment, the
13-year-old in me wanted to hurl the book
across the room. I didn’t, is I was
obsessed with books, and I would never have
done that to my book, but that’s how I felt. And I think Circe really has
just hung around in my brain since that moment of sort
of wanting to say, well, how would this look from
Circe’s perspective? And I think the Odyssey
actually really invites that, because the Circe episode is
narrated by Odysseus himself. It’s him telling the story
to some other people. And so, when you start
to look at the episode from that perspective,
you realize, okay, this is Odysseus
spinning this, right? I came to this island, and there
is this beautiful nymph there, and she was really scary. But then I tamed her, and
then she threw herself at me, and she was super-hot. And that’s sort of, you know,
how he basically describes her. And so, you realize that all
of that stuff that he’s saying, every time she talks
about how beautiful she is or how powerful she is,
really, what he’s meaning to do is reflect on himself
and make himself look better. And so, I wanted to
sort of extract that, strip away Odysseus’s spin, and consider how this episode
might look from her perspective.>>Alberto Maguel: Emily, just
have an idea of what Homer does with it, can you go to the
section of Circe and read it?>>Emily Wilson: Sure, yes.>>Alberto Maguel:
In your version.>>Emily Wilson:
And the thing is, there’s quite a lot
of that Circe –>>Albert Maguel: Because will
you — well, just a few lines. While you’re looking for,
I want to say that you, in your introduction, you say
that Homer is very subtle, and then when we are
thinking it is a male eye that is seeing the
action, and mail close that is describing the
action, suddenly, he said, and we barely notice it as
in the scene with Penelope when he returns, but do you
do the same thing with Circe?>>Emily Wilson: Do
I or does the text?>>Albert Maguell: Well,
you as a translator. We’ll talk about the translator
as author in a moment.>>Emily Wilson: I don’t know. I mean, I think I entirely
agree with Madeline, that there’s a way that the
pollen sets you up to — I mean, you even if you’re not
21st-century feminist reader. But that any reader of, or
course, in antiquity, listener, I think you are set up to expect
that in the wandering books of the Odyssey both Odysseus,
what we know about him is that he’s sneaky and always
telling lies, but he’s clever, and that’s how he survives. But also, that this is a world where very powerful
goddesses are going to be interesting characters. The whole action is engineered by the very powerful
mostly female but sometimes non-binary
Athena that we’ve already had, in a way, of parallel
character of Calypso, and we hear a lot from Calypso. I think, in a way, there’s
something disappointing about how we hear so much
less from Circe than we do from Calypso, even though, in
some ways they’re comparable, and they’re both, these
are mortal goddesses who have their own realm. There isn’t male power. There’s male disempowerment
on their islands, and they have this
quasi-magical quality, the quality of enchantment.>>Alberto Manguel:
And curiously enough, it’s Circe that is more
memorable than Calypso.>>Emily Wilson: Oh, I think
they’re both extremely — I think that Calypso’s
is extremely memorable, as I remember her. I think she’s great. I don’t know. Yes, so, should I
read about the pigs, or should I read about the –>>Alberto Manguel: About pigs.>>Emily Wilson: The pigs. We want the pigs. So, the men get transformed back
into guys., They should, right? That’s probably the
better passage to read. Oh no, I think the
animals are good.>>Alberto Manguel:
Just a short thing.>>Emily Wilson: Okay. It’s difficult because the
whole Circe episode is too long for reading, and I don’t
usually read this part. So, I should have checked
beforehand, Okay, so, Odysseus is forcing the men
to go back to the palace of Circe even though one
of the men who’s gone on a scouting expedition
warns them that half the expedition
party that went out there didn’t come back. It’s dangerous there, and he’s
begging and pleading Odysseus, who is the kind of leader
who forces his men to go into these ultra-dangerous
situations, as he did in the
case of the Cyclops when several of them got eaten. So, he’s forcing them to
do that again, and then, they’re all weeping and wailing
and begging him not to do that. So, “At that, their hearts sank, since they all remembered
what happened with the Laestrygonians, who
ate the huge numbers of them. And to King Antiphates and how
the mighty Cyclops devoured the men. They wept and wailed and
shed great floods of tears. But all that grieving
could do no good. I made them wear their armor
and split them into groups. I lead one and made godlike
Eurylochus lead the other. Those left behind with
me were crying, too. Inside the glade, they found
the house of Circe built out of polished stones
on high foundations. Around it were mountain
wolves and lions, which she tamed with drugs. They did not rushed on them
but gathered around them in a friendly way, their long
tails wagging as dogs nuzzle around their master
when he comes back home from dinner with
treats for them. Just so, those sharp-clawed
wolves and lions, mighty beasts, came
snuggling up. The men were terrified. They stood outside and
heard some lovely singing. It was Circe, the goddess. She was weaving as she sang
an intricate, enchanting piece of work, the kind a
goddess fashions.” I’m going to stop
there, because I kind of want to leave it there. Circe is powerful
and both over the –>>Alberto Maguel:
Let’s go to the pigs.>>Emily Wilson:
[laughing] You want the pigs. Okay, [laughing]
[inaudible] pigs. All right, so Hermes is
telling Odysseus what happened to his men. “Why have you come
across these hills alone? You do not know this
place, poor man. Your men were turned to pigs in Circe’s house
and crammed in pens. Do you imagine you
can set them free? You cannot. If you try that, you
will not get back home.” Okay, so then, dot-dot-dot-dot. Odysseus to gets the house, but
thanks to the help of Hermes and the magic potion, the
magic mole, the plant. He manages to withstand
the enchantment, and then, this is the transformation
back from pigs to men.>>Alberto Manguel:
Maybe we’ll stop there.>>Emily Wilson: Sorry,
that was too much. I’m sorry.>>Alberto Manguel: No-no-no.>>Emily Wilson:
Skipped lots of things.>>Alberto Manguel: It’s
not too much, it’s Homer.>>Emily Wilson: It’s Homer. It’s Greek. [inaudible]>>Alberto Manguel: But
I want to ask Madeline to read the section
about Circe and the pigs to see how you translated
it in your own words, your own imagination for us.>>Madeline Miller: Sure. So, he in the passage
here is Odysseus. “He asked me once why pigs? We were seated before my
hearth in our usual chairs. He liked the one
draped in cowhide with silver inlaid
in its carvings. Sometimes he would rub the
scrolling absently beneath his thumb, ‘Why not,’ I said? He gave me a bear smile. ‘I mean it. I would like to know’. I knew he meant it. He was not a pious man, but for
seeking out of things hidden, this was his highest worship. There were answers in me. I felt them very deep as last
year’s bulbs growing fat, their roots tangled with
those moments I had spent against the wall when
my lions were gone and my spells shut up inside me. After I changed a crew, I would
watch them scrabbling and crying in the sty, falling over each
other, stupid with their horror. They hated it all. Their newly voluptuous flesh,
their delicate split trotters, their swollen bellies
dragging in the earth’s muck. It was a humiliation. A debasement. They were sick with
longing for their hands, those appendages men used
to mitigate the world. ‘Come,’ I would say to
them, ‘it’s not that bad, you should appreciate
a pig’s advantages.’ Mud slick and swift,
they are hard to catch. Low to the ground, they
cannot easily be knocked over. They’re not like dogs. They do not need your love. They can thrive anywhere on
anything, scraps and trash. They look witless and dull, which lulls their enemies,
but they are clever. They will remember your face. They never listened. The truth is, men
make terrible pigs.” [ Laughing ] [ Applause ]>>Alberto Manguel:
Your Circe is struggling to find her identity. She’s born of two titans. She’s in the world
of gods and nymphs. She has relationships
with men, she has a son. How did you build her character,
and who is that mysterious son?>>Madeline Miller: Well, thinking of Circe’s journey very
broadly, I was sort of drawing on some things from Homer,
and one of the things from Homer is this description
of Circe is the dread goddess who speaks like a human
or speaks like a mortal. And it’s kind of a mysterious
description, and it really spoke to me, because immediately, it
sets Circe out as a character who is caught between worlds. She belongs to the world of the
gods, but she has this piece of her that is sort of yearning for are somehow connected
to the mortal world. And characters like that
who are outsiders are really interesting, and particularly,
when you think about the gods, you know, what you think
about when you think about when you think
about Zeus or Hermes? You think about the booming,
the great voice of these. And so, what would it
mean to have a voice that couldn’t equal that? You know, you would
be an outsider. You would be an outcast. So, that was sort of
where I started thinking. I was also interested in having
her journey, in some ways, mirror Odysseus’s journey. And so, Odysseus, I mean,
the whole Odyssey is animated by this longing for
homecoming, for nostos, trying to get back
home and in sort of what happens once
you get home. Is a really home? Is it still home? And Circe doesn’t have sort of
an easy Ithaca waiting for her, but she has to kind of go out
in the world to find her home, she has to discover what
that home might look like and then see if she can
create it for herself. So, that was another part of
her story, this longing for home in her, but a home that is
not actually the home she was born to. She’s very alienated
from her family, so, she has to find it
in a different place. I liked the fact that
she was an artist. That was a really important
part of her conception for me.>>Alberto Manguel: When Homer
describes her as weaving –>>Madeline Miller: Yes.>>Alberto Manguel: Yeah.>>Madeline Manguel: Yes,
well, not only the weaving, but also the witchcraft, because
witchcraft is really distinct from divine power, and
it’s a little mysterious, and it’s a little contradictory in the sources how
witchcraft actually works in the ancient world. But it involves, you know,
the use of herbs and poisons and potions, and other stuff
you have to do and create an mix and make as well as say, and
so, it’s totally different. It’s a totally different
type of power. And so, I like that she had
sort of this double craft. You know, she’s a
weaver, but also, she is this — she’s a witch. And so, that was interesting,
and again, very different from what gods are like.>>Alberto Manguel:
Yeah, and the son?>>Medline Miller: So, spoiler,
but it is 3000 years old. So, she has a son in some
sources called Telegonous, a son with Odysseus, and in
other sources, she has more than one son, but I
went with the one son. And I was very interested in
Circe’s experience as a mother, I think a lot of times,
and epic literature, women are really
sidelined, and you know, the focus in epic literature is
on the world of men and things that are traditionally male. So, you know, warfare
and patrimony inventions and adventuring and
monsters and all of that. And experiences like, you
know, there’s not a lot of diaper changing
in the Odyssey. And I sort of wanted to, as part
of putting Circe at the center of the story, I wanted to bring
in aspects of her experience as a woman that would’ve been
considered not important enough for epic literature. So, you know, what it’s like
for her as a single mother on this island, what
it’s like, you know, who has a difficult child,
and how she struggles just like many parents struggle. So that was an important
piece, and also, this idea of letting
go of your child. That, you know, your child
is, I think that’s one of the essential difficulties of
parenthood is that on one hand, your child is literally
from your body, but they are also completely
their own person and sort of the duality of the total
care you have to give them with the fact that also, you
must respect their personhood, and I think she — I wanted her
to have to work through that.>>Alberto Manguel: Emily,
do you agree with Madeline that epic sidelines women?>>Emily Wilson: I think,
to some extent, it does. Yes, I mean, I think it
matters that both the Odyssey and the Iliad present themselves
as inspired by goddess, and that in both poems, divine female power is
absolutely essential to how does the plot work? How does action work? But it seems to be that both the
Homeric poems, both the Iliad and the Odyssey, are interested
in exploring, what would it be like to know about other
cultures where the world isn’t as patriarchal, isn’t
structured in this way where to be female means
to be relatively powerless. And in the mortal
world, that is how it is, even if there are differences between different mortal
cultures that are encountered in the Odyssey, the
poem is interested in exploring how
can you be different within the mortal world? I was at different if you’re
a slave versus not a slave? But also, how is it radically
different if you live forever. If you live forever, there
might be a possibility that both female and male people who live forever have
this enormous autonomy, because you can be a goddess
and have your own island. You can be a goddess and you
can cause massacres occurs, and you can have the glory that
comes with causing a massacre. Whereas if you’re a mortal
woman, you’re not going to get to go out to the battlefield
in the way that Athena does. So, I think it’s important
that these are poems which explore the possibility
of huge amounts of female power, but of course, not in
the realm of the mortals. Because, you know, to
be immortal female means that you’re always
going to be vulnerable to some man could
enslave you and rape you, and that’s what keeps
happening to mortal females.>>Alberto Manguel:
Your reading of Homer, does it affect your
translations? That is to say, do you feel
that in translating Homer, you are giving your
opinion about Homer?>>Emily Wilson: I think every
translator of every text, whether it’s Homer or
anything else, I mean, even if it’s contemporary
novel, it’s not the same as machine translation. Then even Google Translate, it has whatever the algorithms
had built into it by humans. I think that a translator is
always going to have a series of possible things you could
do with every single syllable, let alone, every
passage, every line. The choices you make about what
am I going to do with that line, that syllable, that rhythm,
that sound, that character, that voice, those are
always going to be inflected by how do I see this text? And it seems to me that it’s
important to be as conscious as possible about why am I
making the choices I’m making? Why am I thinking of
Penelope this way? What kind of voice do I
want her character to have? What kind of voice do I think
is justifiable that’s going to make sense in the whole
text, as well as of this line? I felt that in the — I mean,
I’m a literary critic as well as the translator, obviously,
a teacher of The Odyssey in college, as well
as a translator of it. I was conscious that I had
particular interpretative interests in the poem going
into the project of translation, and I knew that on some level, my desire to produce critical
commentary is different for my desire to translate,
that I got to the introduction and the kind of writing
that I could do in writing the instruction
was sort of telling you this is what
I think are important things, that’s a different
kind of voice from and this is how I think
this character sounds or this line sounds. But in both cases, there’s me
there, and I’m trying to write in different voices,
but I’m also — that’s me doing the
writing, and that the case for every translator,
not just for me.>>Alberto Manguel:
That’s why [inaudible] said that a translation is another
draft of the original text.>>Emily Wilson: Exactly, yes.>>Alberto Manguel: Now,
you make specific choices. I will ask you to read just the
first lines of the beginning of The Odyssey, and I will
ask you a specific question regarding those lines.>>Emily Wilson: Sure, and I actually did a slight
change in the paperback. So, this is a hardback version. “Tell me about a
complicated man. Muse, told me how he
wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy
town of Troy and where he went and who he met, the pain he
suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked
to save his life and bring his men back home. He failed to keep them safe. Poor fools, they are
the son god’s cattle and the god kept them from home. Now, goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story
for our modern times. Find the beginning.”>>Alberto Manguel: Read
the first line once more, and I will ask you a question
about one word in that line.>>Emily Wilson: That’s what
everyone always asks me, is that [laughing], tell
me about a complicated man.>>Alberto Manguel: Yes. I have here five classic
translations of the Odyssey. I will read them in order. Fagel’s, he translates
your complicated as, “Man of twists and turns.” Fitzgerald, “Skilled in
all ways of contending.” Butler, who thought that The
Odyssey was written by woman. “So ready at need.” Pope, “The man for wisdom’s
various arts renowned,” and Chapman, Keat’s Chapman, “Wound with his wisdom
to his wished stay.” All that in complicated. Do you think that we improve
Homer in different translations? Do you think that the translator
enriches the original? I think you do that
with complicated. I don’t know the Greek. I have not a word of Greek. It’s Greek to me. So, what is the word in Greek?>>Emily Wilson: [Greek word]
or [Greek work], because it’s in the accusative case.>>Alberto Manguel: And
the literal translation is complicated?>>Emily Wilson: Well, the literal translation,
what does that mean? Yes, so polo- the prefix poly-
from which we get polygamy, it implies multiplicity. So, most of Odysseus’s epithets. Start with that prefix
polu-, poly-. He’s repeatedly described
as much, and he’s also unlike other
heroic Homeric characters. He has multiple different
epithets. Whereas Achilles, he’s
almost always swift-footed, and we don’t ever sort
of encounter, and now, all of a sudden,
Achilles is going to be complicated, no, he’s not. He’s always swift-footed. He’s always on is very,
very quick path towards like whenever the quickest
way to get to slaughter lots of people direct, I’m going
to always tell you the truth, I’m never going to be sneaky
or pretend to be someone else, and I’m on the quickest
path to death, and I’m going to get there as fast
as I possibly can. But Odysseus is the
opposite of that, right? He’s always many,
many, many things. So, this is a relatively
unusual epithet of Odysseus. He’s often describes
this [Greek word]. Much cunning. Much cleverness. [Greek word], much stratagem. If I was translating
that, I might think bound with his wisdom, maybe
that has some sense to it. This one is [Greek word] which
is just much turny, much twisty, and I think it applies
to the poem itself. I think it matters that that
that’s the word that’s used out of the many words that
can be applied two Odysseus, his turny — right at
the start of his journey, right at the start of a
narrative, which itself, has its own strange and
difficult and complicated ways of approaching the story. Whereby, we’re looking from
many different perspectives on this single journey, about
a single person’s homecoming. It effects many different
people. It’s layered. It’s told in a complicated way. He’s layered. He’s complicated. So, I wanted to invite the
reader to think about a word that implies not just
this is a journey which takes a really long time, and he goes on with all this
meandering, but that it also, it could apply to
both his interiority. Maybe there are layers to
his personality, but also, there are layers to the journey. Also, there are layers
to the story. Also, there are layers
to the poem. There aren’t that many ways
you can do that where it’s also as the original is
a single word. I didn’t want to do what
many translators do, there’s one word in the Greek. Let me take three
lines to do that. Because then you slow the story
down, so, one of the main things that I wanted to do in
the translation was echo so the clarity of the Greek. That even though
it is complicated, it’s layered, it’s dense. So, we have this real complexity
in terms of human relationships and what is the story about? It’s also fast moving, and we
could actually get a clear sense of what’s happening here. It’s designed to be
comprehensible to, you know, illiterate audiences when
you’re performing out loud.>>Alberto Manguel: I agree
that it’s an extraordinary word, and I think it’s very effective.>>Emily Wilson: Thank you.>>Alberto Manguel:
I like it very much, but I see that Madeline was
nodding when you were talking about Achilles as
being [laughter] and your description
of Odysseus. However, in your novels,
it’s exactly the contrary. The Odysseus in Circe
is almost simpleminded. The Achilles in the song of
Achilles is hugely complicated.>>Madeline Miller:
Well, I wanted Achilles to be complicated in the
sense that he has depth to him in The Song of Achilles. But I really love that line
in the Iliad, you know, that Homer gives Achilles
where Achilles says I hate like the gates of death
the man who says one thing and hides another in his
heart, which is, you know, in many ways, the
definition of Odysseus. And I loved that straightforward
aspect to Achilles, it’s actually something that his
lover Patroclus values very much about him is that he doesn’t
have to worry about this hidden, you know, what are
my hidden motives? How am I manipulating you? Achilles just doesn’t
work that way. He is straight ahead. He is swift-footed to his
purpose, and that there is, as they say in the novel,
a sort of genius to that. And I think that that’s true. With Odysseus, it was really fun
to get to visit him, because I, and both Circe and
Song of Achilles, I’m writing from a first-person
narrator, and I love working from a first-person narrator,
because then you can deal with all the complexities
of perspective and what can this person see,
and what can they not see and how does their perspective
change, and so, I wanted — you know, Patroclus sees
Odysseus very differently from the way Circe sees him. Odysseus, and the Song Achilles,
is mostly an antagonist, and in Circe, he’s much more
of sort of it’s almost like he and Circe are both
kind of shipwrecked in the same survivor moment
of, you know, they’ve lived through a lot of bad
stuff, and they kind of end up on the same shore together,
and you’re able to find a way to each other within that pain
for what they’ve suffered, but I also wanted Odysseus — one of the things I like
about Odysseus is I feel like he recedes from our
understanding exactly because of that sort of complexity to
him, that he just kind of turns out of our grasp every
time we reach for him. And so, I wanted Circe’s
perspective of him in that moment to be sort of
layered with how Penelope talks about him later on in the novel
and how his son sees him later on in the novel and how all
those characters sort of even if you took them all together, you sort of still
don’t get Odysseus. He still is kind of his complex,
you know, chameleon self. So, I wanted Circe to
be in some ways wrong about him the first time
she meets him and to come to the sort of deeper
understanding.>>Alberto Manguel: Well, once
Circe allows Odysseus to leave, she says that before he leaves,
he has to visit the underworld and speak to his father. How do you interpret that
in terms of who Circe is? Why does she give
him said instruction? Not because she’s
following orders. There’s something
in her that wants to do — accomplish something. It’s very effective
in the novel, but you don’t quite
understand why she does it.>>Madeline Miller: I
mean, the famous journey to the underworld, you
know, where he goes down and he actually doesn’t
go into it. He sort of summons the spirits
out of it using a pool of blood, he has to speak to this —
it’s a very strange episode, because it serves a really
important psychological purpose. He has talk to his mother. He has to find out — so, he’s
been away for all these years, and he learns when he does
this that his mother has died, and he also sort of
revisits and re-touches a lot of the characters
from the Iliad. He sees Achilles
there, for instance, and he sees Agamemnon
still complaining. And you know, so, there’s a lot
of, I feel like in some sense, if we are looking at Odysseus as
during this is one of the things that I think is still so
gripping about The Odyssey as a veteran’s journey. We are dealing with
him having to go back and confront the
death of his comrades in the death she has
caused himself and the lives that he has missed out on by
being away, and I feel like that that is something that veterans
have struggled with, you know, down through the centuries, and the ancients really
understood about war. You know, they didn’t
have the word PTSD, but I think it’s very
clear in the Ajax tragedy in Philoctetes and
many other works. Even, I would say, in the
end of The Odyssey itself that they understood that
it can be very difficult to have been away at war
and then to come back home. And so, I think for me, that
Circe is, you know, yes, she has this sort of
frightening part to her, but she’s also a healer, and
she is represented as a healer in The Odyssey, and that
in a sense, I don’t know if there’s sort of some kind of thematic healing that’s
happening there or in an attempt to force him to reckon
with things in his past.>>Alberto Manguel:
That is very convincing. I feel that that explains — no,
really, explains an ambiguity that I felt is that action of
Circe in your novel, but also, if Odysseus, in Emily’s
view, is complicated, your Circe is extraordinarily
complicated, and at the end, when she has to face her
role, her many roles, but especially her role as a
mother, as healer, as the person who wants to be independent
from that past that is imposed on her, would you read
is the end of the novel?>>Madeline Miller:
Sure, spoilers. So, where do you want
— how much of it?>>Alberto Manguel: [laughing]
Just the last two paragraphs, I think.>>Madeline Miller: Okay, sure. Yeah, I don’t know,
is this terrible? Okay, they don’t
want me to do it. All right, so, I’m going to talk
about the ending in a vague way. How about that. Because I don’t want to
ruin — because actually, the ending is one of the places where a most diverge
from mythology. So, one of the myths that
we have about Circe is — and I don’t do this in the
novel, is that at some point, Telegonus, her son was Odysseus,
grows up, and he goes off to look for his father,
and some stuff happens. Odysseus ends up dying, and Telegonus brings
Penelope and Telemachus. Telemachus is Penelope’s
son was Odysseus, back to the island of Aeaea. And the four of them are
on the island of Aeaea. And so, that was very exciting, knowing that Penelope
was waiting for me in the last quarter of the
novel, but then what happens is that Circe marries Telemachus. Penelope marries Telegonus. So, like son swap, and then
Circe makes them all gods. And I knew from the very
beginning I was not doing that version. And I knew I was not
doing that version for a lot of different reasons. One, I think the
obsession in the Odyssey is with man Penelope
is attached to, and I really wanted her story to
and was something that was not about her being attached
to a man. I also never saw my
Telegonus as straight. I, on top of that, saw that
I really wanted Circe — I felt that my Circe was
moving away from divinity. That in her world, in my
imagination of the gods, talking about having
no consequences as Emily talked about. You know, what happens
to human beings when we have no consequences? What happens when we
are completely insulated from any sort of repercussions
for our bad behavior. You become sociopathic
narcissists. So, that’s who the gods are. That Circe’s family, and
so, is moving away from that and towards mortality, as
opposed to bringing more people into this world of
no consequences. So, I pushed back against
that and really kind of moved it all around. So, that’s why I don’t
want to read the ending. Sorry.>>Alberto Manguel: All right
then we will skip that reading, but Emily, I will go to
this idea of consequences. In your introduction, you point out very clearly
the relationship of Odysseus with his men. He calls them brothers. He calls them friends, but
they’re really his servants. They are under him. And so, he imposes
things on them that have terrible consequences. Do you think that that
subtlety/irony is deliberate? It is deliberate in
your translation.>>Emily Wilson: Yes, I
mean, we were talking earlier about what are the many
different minds and brains that contributed
to the development of the story, this poem? Who meant what? I mean, if we have
multiple different creators, it’s hard to — I mean,
it’s always hard to talk about what did the poet intend? Does the poet always
know what she intends? It can be that the text
is saying something and meaning some things that
the poet doesn’t necessarily consciously know, and that’s
even more difficult is that there are multiple poets. I think it’s clear in the text that the poem is very much
engaged with, and interested in, gaps of power and how
do we forge a society where there’s these radically
unequal gaps of power? Not just between Odysseus and
his Hetairoi, his “companions,” who as you say, have
to be subordinate. Had to be subordinate
both in terms of they’re the ones
doing all the rowing, but they’re not going
to get a journey home. They’re all going to be dead. So that it seems to me that
it’s very explicitly thematized that they think they’re
getting a raw deal. That we have the speech of Eurylochus saying this
is actually not fair. This guy is getting all
these gifts everywhere we go. People give him presence. Where are our presents? No presents, and
also, we get no glory. There’s only one of them
that even get the name in terms of the narrative. They get no songs
told generations and generations after them. So, the desire to do
protagonists, to be a hero, to be the subject
of a heroic song. They don’t get that. Instead, they get dead. So, the same thing also
in terms of the contrast between the power of
Odysseus and his marriage and in his household
and his wife’s power. It’s very different perspective
on what does marriage mean? What does a household mean? Depending on whether you’re
in the single position where you get to be in control, versus all the various other
positions were your role is role is to enable his
power and his glory.>>Alberto Manguel:
Is this search for control what underlines the
terrible violence of both poems?>>Madeline Miller: I think
it’s partly about control, and it’s also about glory, it’s also about creating
a wonderful story, and there’s this whole question which I think the Homeric
poems are very conscious of, are we always going
to be complicit? We want to hear violent,
gory stories, I mean, I think most of us actually do. We kind of like it, and we like
hearing about people wrestling with each other for power, I
mean, certainly, both the Iliad and the Odyssey are
about this question of if you have a warrior society where the most powerful
men are extremely powerful, then what happens to
everyone else who isn’t that individualistic, powerful
guy, who wants everyone else to obey him or else be killed. What happens to the
other people?>>Alberto Manguel:
Regarding that, I will just tell you a very
brief anecdote that shows up to what point these
points resonates. The library system in
Columbia is very effective and sends librarians
into the Sierra to distant outposts
with donkeys. Donkeys carry baskets of books,
and they go to the communities and leave the books there. They’re called [Spanish spoken]. So, a librarian that did
that told me the story. The books that they send
mainly handicraft manuals and cooking books and so on,
but they send some poetry, and they send a translation
of Homer, and the books always
come back, but that time, the people in the
village kept the Homer, and the librarian went back
and said, okay, you can keep that book, but why
that specific book? And the elder of the village
told her, “We read the story out loud, and it’s our story. We live in a climate
of war with Gods that are crazy, that
are whimsical. We don’t know what
armies will attack us. This is our story.”>>Emily Wilson:
That’s beautiful, yes. It’s so many people’s
story, isn’t it?>>Alberto Manguel:
Oh, absolutely.>>Emily Wilson: Even if
it’s not actually a war zone where you live, in
almost every — All of us are aware of
violence in our cities and aware of what does it mean
to have broken homes and different cultures
that clash with each other. What does it mean to imbalances
of power that might be partly to do with gender,
partly to do with class? All these things are still with
us and better in experience>>Alberto Manguel: And
as Madeline was saying, it’s also a quest for identity
and trying to find a home in this climate of migration
and having to leave your home in the home no longer exists and finding your
identity like your Circe.>>Madeline Miller: Mm-hm, yeah.>>Alberto Manguel:
Maybe it’s time to open up for questions now. I think you have micro — whoa. Are there microphones? There, yes, I can’t
see anything, because we have this
blinding light?>>Madeline Miller:
We’re on Olympus.>>Alberto Manguel: So, yes,
maybe you are first question?>>Woman: Excellent. Okay, I will try to set this
up as briefly as possible. So, when I approach the Odyssey,
and think of the main players to be clipped so,
Circe, and Penelope. So, I agree, Calypso and Circe
both equally fascinating to me. And Calypso, of course,
by the nature of her name, does a lot of hiding
away, and so, despite offering immortality,
she doesn’t offer him a legacy. And so, it’s kind of clear how
he wants to move away from that. Circe, on the other hand,
she’s full of secrets that she gives them to him. Like so this draw of
knowledge for him.>>Alberto Manguel:
Please the question.>>Woman: Yes, yes,
whereas Penelope, I think, tends to be almost like the
lady Odysseus with, you know, like you were saying –>>Alberto Manguel:
The question, please, because there are many, many
people trying to ask one.>>Woman: I guess what I want to
ask, of those three characters, what from either of
your perspectives do — what is their objective? Like, thinking Calypso,
Circe, Penelope. What did they want?>>Alberto Manguel: So,
perhaps Madeline first, what is their objective?>>Madeline Miller:
Well, I think the — Circe’s objective is to sort
of like the entire novel. So, I think, because
I didn’t want to have it just the one thing,
these I think is true for all of us, that we don’t just
have one thing that we want or that we’re aiming for. That there are many things and sometimes there
are crossed purposes. And so, I wanted to
tease all that out. So, I guess I’ll talk, I
don’t really cover Calypso, but I guess I’ll talk
about Penelope then. I love the fact that I feel like
Homer, in some ways, teases us, with kind of the closest
thing you can imagine to a mutual relationship
in the ancient world, but still making
it extremely clear that Penelope is very much
subordinate to Odysseus, and there’s just this one
part that I really appreciate about Penelope speaking of
someone who says one thing and hides another
in their heart. Is that in the Odyssey, Odysseus
is sort of still in disguise, and he’s watching Penelope
talk to the suitors, and Penelope has decided to
say to the suitors, fine, I’ll pick one of
you, but you have to start giving me
a lot more stuff. And, you know, you would imagine that a husband watching
this might feel jealous, but Odysseus laughs, because
he says he knows exactly what she’s doing. She knows that she’s, you know,
getting more money in gold and prestige out of
them, and he knows that she’s manipulating them, and I love that meeting
of the minds. That he respects that about
her, and he sees that. So, I wanted her also to
want many different things. She wants safety. She wants some independence. She wants to rebuild her
relationship with her son. You know, I think there’s
so many different things.>>Emily Wilson: yes, this
is the kind of question which clearly one can talk for
half an hour very happily about. I don’t want to do that. I agree with you that Penelope,
maybe in some ways even more than Odysseus, is complicated,
and that what we get in The Odyssey, in terms of
access to her interiority, we get these amazing
accounts of her dreams. That she’s constantly
saying I had a dream. She tells the dream of
dreaming that she was surrounded by geese, and then
an eagle swooped in and killed all her geese, and
then the Eagle pops up and says, “I used to be an Eagle. Surprise, I’m Odysseus. I’m your husband. Yes, you’re going to — I’m going to come back
and kill them all.” In the dream she’s crying, and
then, in real life Odysseus in disguise says,
mansplaining away. He says, fine, it means
he’s going to come back. And he doesn’t explain
her tears. And I think the poem
is interested in how she has these
different things pulling her in different directions. She wants to keep her home. She loves her home. She loves the bed, even though
it’s marked by tears, grief, abandonment, but she
also wants more stuff. She was more glory. Maybe she wants younger
nose husband. Who knows? I mean, she was to
take care of her son, and she doesn’t know
how to do that. I think, and Calypso’s
case, maybe there’s, in so far as we get access
to what does she want? She wants recognition
for what she’s done. She’s done an important piece
of work in saving somebody. She’s done this thing of
saving somebody’s life. If she was a male
God having an affair, they would let him
survive and stay with her until she got bored
of him, right? In this case, she’s
not yet bored, and yet, they’re taking him away. So, it’s kind of annoying. And she gives that
wonderful speech complaining about how this is a terrible
double standard Olympus, where even if you’re
an immortal goddess, still get the people you’re
having an affair with. They get blasted by lightning
before you’re done with them, which is kind of annoying.>>Alberto Manguel:
Maybe a question there, so that we balance them out.>>Woman: Okay, hi. I was just wondering
what each of you think that even though the story
is thousands of years old, it’s so relevant and kind of
relatable to modern audiences, even though, you know, they
didn’t have modern technology. It was written at a time
of a patriarchal society?>>Alberto Manguel: Emily?>>Emily Wilson: I
think we’re still in quite a patriarchal
society, is one thing. But I also think, you know,
they didn’t have the Internet, but to what extent
are we defined as human beings by the Internet? I actually don’t think
we are particularly. That we’re just still
learning what does it mean to be an Internet human as
opposed to regular human? They had — the Odyssey is about these absolutely universal
questions that have to do with what is to be
a person of a time? If you come back to your
home 20 years later, are you still the same person,
even if the home is changed? Are you the same person in
a different environment? Are we all actually
like Odysseus, always telling different
lies, different personae, depending on who we’re with? I think that’s actually a
universal human question of are you the same? Are you different? Are the people the same
as we or different? The whole question
of what is a family? What is a community? Who’s in and who’s out? The question of if
somebody comes to your house from somewhere else,
would you do? When do you welcome them in,
and when do you slaughter them? And that last — I think it’s
also a particular question for us now with migration
and globalization. I’ll stop there, yes, sorry.>>Alberto Manguel: They
are telling me we have one more minute. So, Madeleine, could you
just give your opinion and then we will
have to close this. I’m sorry.>>Madeleine Miller: So, well,
people often say, you know, what did you have to do
to make Circe relevant, to make these myths relevant? Absolutely nothing. I did nothing. I feel like it’s all right
there, and sometimes, you have to sort of stretch
your perspective a little bit, but I feel like we are
still the same people. We are still struggling
with the same questions. We are still looking at power
dynamics and, as you say, gaps power, and who is,
you know, who is oppressing and who is being oppressed? We still have a long
way to go in terms of how we treat women
in society. So, all these things
are all great there. One of the things I loved about
your translation is you have, I think, is it the
pirate in the shepherd? Is that the — [ Overlapping Speech ] Which I feel like, you know,
the Cyclops is just there. He has his cave. Odysseus shows up. They decide to hang
out in the cave. So, again, you know, this idea of if you just slightly
change the perspective. So, in that, the
pirate in the shepherd, that’s Odysseus the pirate
and the Cyclops the shepherd. And I feel like, you
know, we start to realize that all these dynamics of,
you know who is entitled to take from someone else? I mean, these are all
still vary with us.>>Alberto Manguel: Thank you
very much Madeleine Miller, Circe, Emily Wilson, Homer.>>Emily Wilson: Thank you. Thank you so much. [ Applause ]

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