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Speaker highlights Odysseus’ classical journey

Published: March 14, 2014
Section: News


On Thursday, March 13, the Department of Classical Studies hosted an event with an audience of over 45 people. As a Brandeis graduate, Professor Joel Christensen of the University of Texas at San Antonio was welcomed back to the department with open arms. The chair of the department, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, introduced Professor Christensen as a “funny, intelligent, motivated guy,” and went on to state that the faculty in the department could not decide who would introduce him, and so decided to have two professors do him the honor. Minutes into her speech, Koloski-Ostrow began to tear up, and finished her speech amidst quite a few sobs she struggled to hide. The chair of the department then turned the podium over to Professor Leonard Muellner (CLAS), who began his speech by stating that “Joel learned a lot from his teachers here … but he shamelessly and guiltlessly struck out in his own direction in graduate studies.” He went on to describe the speaker as one who possessed “so much creativity, energy and motivation,” and discussed his published work on Nestor’s complaint from the ninth scroll of “The Iliad.”

Upon the end of his speech, Christensen took the stand with an air of detached calm. He praised the Brandeis Classics faculty, stating that they taught the way that subjects should be taught and aided in “changing and rearranging lives”. Unorthodoxly, the professor began his lecture by stating that he used to hate “The Odyssey.” He said, “In comparison to ‘Iliad’ it didn’t have the depth or the complexity,” and ended his introduction by stating, “one thing I’ve learned to like is learning to like being wrong,” with a wry smile.

Christensen spoke on learned helplessness and narrative therapy. He highlighted Zeus’s speech at the start of “The Odyssey,” pointing out that he began by blaming the mortals for always blaming the gods for all evil that befell them. He discussed Odysseus’s construction of a hidden identity and defined nostalgia as a longing for a past that is no more. He spoke of Odysseus undergoing a heroic withdrawal and return, alienated from his home, and stated that the purpose of the epic was the “nostos,” Greek for “homecoming”.

He spoke quickly, almost too quickly for the audience to follow, as he never paused between statements and never gave the audience the time to catch up with his words.

In exploring the concept of learned helplessness, Christensen said, “Learned helplessness deficits occur mainly when the uncontrollable bad event is appraised to be an imminent threat to one’s basic commitments.” He related “The Odyssey” to AMC’s hit show “Breaking Bad.” He compared the two main characters, Odysseus and Walter White, after stating, “People met with uncontrollable outcomes often tend to give up, after attempting to cope in increasingly improbable ways”—a direct reference to Walter White’s decision to cook meth. He then switched back to Odysseus, stating that he had been through so much—the sack of Troy, the butchering of Hyperion’s cows—that he had been reduced to a shipwrecked mess, constantly crying and sleeping every night with Calypso.

Christensen reached his main point, triumphantly saying that Odysseus re-authors his own narrative, claims agency in his life and has an epic homecoming. He argued that Odysseus “doesn’t really make it home until he’s recognized by others.” To back up his theory, he said, “Psychologists show that memory plays a social function … Odysseus makes it home because others are there to recognize him.” Here, he exposed Odysseus and Walter White as both clever heroes who claim control over their narrative and then change their lives drastically. Odysseus was resourceful in reclaiming his identity: He fought through scars, recognition and memory. Odysseus’s violence protected his family.

Christensen compared Odysseus to the hero of the novel “Infinite Jest,” Don Gately. Here, he returned to the definition of nostos, linking his arguments in a full circle. He described how “nostos claims that reclaiming identity is a constant struggle because it’s not self sufficient—it relies on memory and struggles.” In “Infinite Jest,” Don Gately was a former thief and addict, but by the end of the novel, terribly wounded, stood to defend his companions. Like Odysseus, Gately used stories of his past to remind himself of who he was, who he is and who he wanted to be. Gately learned how to control himself and his own agency, like Odysseus and Walter White did. Christensen claimed that both “Infinite Jest” and “The Odyssey,” while contemplating the dangers of narrative, also illustrate the power of reclaiming and retelling.

The professor ended his speech to rapturous applause led by his former professors. With a concise and precise conclusion, he affirmed, “The rehearsal of things past is how individuals and communities create identities.”