Saturday, May 3, 2014

Odysseus' Lack of Contrition and a Class Full of Disapproving Teens

Bartholomäus Spranger - Odysseus and Circe

Statistics tell a troubling tale: the current rate of divorce in the United States is 50 percent. Ten percent of the population is divorced. Forty percent of people who divorce have children. Forty-one percent of married people say they have had an affair. One could even say broken marriage and cheating spouses are "normal." One would think today's teenagers are unfazed by adultery.

And so I was struck the other day, as my public high school class of reluctant readers and writers  finished reading The Odyssey, that, to a student, they were outraged by the hero's infidelities to his loyal wife, Penelope.

In case it's been a while since you have read this ancient poem, here's a recap. If this were a telenovela The Iliad and The Odyssey would get the steamiest of ratings.

The first part of this tale begins with The Iliad, another epic poem by Homer in which Paris of Troy kidnaps Helen from her husband, Menelaus of Sparta. This starts a war.  Odysseus, Greek king, leaves his home in Ithaca to fight in  war, a war in which he cleverly comes up with the idea of building a Trojan horse for the Trojans. It's not a gift but rather a subterfuge: Odysseus hides his men in the massive horse and they win the war.

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy 
by Domenico Tiepolo (1773),

The Odyssey is the sequel and recounts the homesick Odysseus' ten-year journey home.

He ends up using his considerable guile to battle monsters like Polyphemus, the one-eyed monster, and incurring the wrath of the Poseidon, the sea god, which doesn't make his journey any easier. But he also ends up in the arms - and beds of  goddesses, including Calypso and Circe. Despite my efforts to teach students how Odysseus is a human hero with flaws, my students could not see past his adultery They were especially rankled that while Odysseus was straying, his wife Penelope was loyal to the core.

As the story ends, Odysseus is back in the arms of Penelope in their marriage bed.
While I did not take notes, the conversation among students when we finished the poem went something like this.

"Why did Odysseus have affairs? He is not a good person."

"Oh, he couldn't help that. He had to have the affairs with goddesses in order to save his men."

"Yeah, but it didn't do any good. All his men got killed anyway."

"OK, well he was a man. Twenty years is a long time to be away from your wife. But why didn't he tell her about his affairs?"

"He should have told her. She has no idea he was disloyal. That is not right." 

I was not sure what to make of their reaction. I chose to listen, and not interject my views, into these  conversations in part because I am curious about where the conversations are going. I am happy they are engaged in literature and the conversations began to take a life of their own, with students "citing textual evidence" or making reference to characters or incidents to make their points. This is the kind of engagement a teacher dreams of.

As their teacher,  I started to wonder, however, whether these teenagers understand that even heroes are going to fall down, over and over. They will fall because they are as human as we are. Nobody and nothing on this earth will satisfy us for long. As St. Augustine wrote: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

As the school days went by and my students kept bringing up - among themselves! - the matter of Odysseus' unfaithfulness - it struck me that it's not so much his sins but his lack of regret and truthfulness, his lack of contrition, that bothers them the most.

This belief in contrition that is part of the Christian proposal. Without contrition, we cannot reconcile ourselves with the one who made us.

 Perhaps it's the state of his immortal soul that troubles them most as these students "dis" Odysseus.

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