On Narrative Time
25 Jun 2017

THE THEMATIC IMPLICATIONS OF THE JUXTAPOSITION OF PAST AND PRESENT

IN

BOOKS 9-12 OF HOMER’S THE ODYSSEY,

The opening discussion about Homer’s narrative introduces ‘flashback,’ a device that has thematic implications (Odysseus learns from his mistakes). The fractured narrative simply emphasizes the fact.

The Odyssey is the first narrative in Western literature as we know it that is told out of order. Books 9-12 suspend the forward movement of the plot altogether, while Odysseus tells the Phaeacians about his experiences, from the time he left Troy to his arrival on the shore of Scheria. The epic could have begun just as Odysseus’s narrative does, proceeding linearly through his visit with the Phaeacians straight through to his return to Ithaca, to the climactic events of slaughter and reunion. But the scribal choice to organize differently (as we have it), with Ithaca in the twentieth year of Odysseus’s absence, suggests something about Homer’s use of time in the epic.

Specifically, the use of ‘flashback’ and prophecy as narrative devices allows Homer to lift us beyond the confines of the ‘narrative present,’ a present that we experience as something unstable and ephemeral, situated between past and future. At times, the narrative is part of a process leading up to an event that is still in the future from the perspective of the narrative present.

So when Odysseus tells Alcinous about his (Odysseus’s) meeting with Agamemnon in the House of the Dead, the narration (and narrator) shifts to a time in the past in which Agamemnon relates his own regicide to Odysseus, thus taking us deeper into the past to the event itself, Agamemnon’s homecoming and death at the hands of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. But that account also forecasts Odysseus’s own homecoming, an event that has not yet occurred, one that lies ahead from the point of view of the narrative present.

By having Odysseus provide the flashbacks, by telling the story out of chronological order, Homer is able to bring to an event a perspective and understanding that is gained only from later events. So, for example, the story about Polyphemous is told after the events of Book 6, Odysseus’s initial meeting with Nausicaa. By the time we get to hear about Odysseus’s recklessness in giving his name to Polyphemous, we (and he) know that that action has caused him many hardships as consequence and that he has learned from that mistake. We can make that inference because we have already seen Odysseus acting far more discreetly, in his delicate negotiations with Nausicaa, to secure the help he needs. Despite our sense of fractured time, despite the fact that the story is being told out of its chronological order, the reader has the ability to construct both timelines.

Additionally, the first-person flashback offers us a richer, more intimate knowledge of Odysseus, as he, as narrator of his own tale, seems to be speaking directly to us even as he speaks to Alcinous. In effect, the stories become his, not Homer’s. The dynamic gives the reader a ‘window’ onto Odysseus’s feelings and reactions. The experience is also made more complex because we have no way of knowing to what extent Odysseus might be extrapolating or embellishing ‘truth.’ The information we are receiving is only as good as its source. How reliable is our narrator? We also recognize that the Odysseus we meet in the narrated story, whichever that happens to be, is not the same character who narrates. The displacement of time, forward and back, also complicates matters, as what was the future in the past may now be past in terms of the narrative present. The story within the story has the potential of escaping the constraints of conventional time or how we perceive it.

If the present is always turning into the past or is seen as transitional to the future, what is the value of any human endeavour? If time is so elusive, how can any action have meaning? The moment something occurs, it is gone. So perhaps Homer is trying to convey something about the value of narrative itself, especially because it has the power to order and reorder time and, thus, giving events a kind of stability and permanence beyond the limits of a lifetime. Narrative works through memory to preserve the past, and by bringing forth that past, we then gain a perspective on the relationship amongst all three, past, present, and future.

Stories have arbitrary beginnings and endings. We think of life as a continuum and divide it so. But by fracturing conventional narration, Homer teaches us something more about perspective and causality. At times, his retrospectives serve to illustrate the point: a rash, reckless, impulsive, self-indulgent, vain, egotistical, self-glorifying Odysseus gloats in the aftermath of his victory over the Cyclops—and pays dearly for having done so. He has every reason to be exceedingly cautious in the narrative present, withholding his identity from the Phaeacians until he knows that it is safe to reveal it to them. Odysseus has learned that actions have consequences. Memory has a tendency to rank order events in terms of importance. Divergences from the narrative present provide insight into both storyteller and story told. In the fractured narrative, present time becomes virtually ‘lost’ and, at least temporarily, insignificant. The listener seems to get lost in the recesses of Odysseus’s memory: flashback keeps both teller and auditor intimately engaged. When Agamemnon speaks to Odysseus about Aegisthus, it is the first time that Odysseus has heard about the horrific event. But the reader has heard it repeatedly from the very beginning of the epic. Agamemnon is not actually speaking, but being cited by Odysseus, whose memory and perspective shape the narrative.

Conclusion

In terms of orienting reader (listener) consciousness, Homer has led the way, refracting time in such a way that he has taught us new ways of thinking about our experience in the context of time, a consideration so fundamental to our understanding of our place and our ability to define ourselves.


Author

Dr. Jeffrey Fast

Dr. Jeffrey Fast has been a teacher and administrator in America’s leading independent schools for almost 40 years. After graduating from Oberlin College, he served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines teaching English at both secondary and collegiate levels. He received his MA in English Literature fromYork University in Toronto, then moved on to receive his PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, England. Upon his return to America, he took on both teaching and administrative positions at The Webb Schools in California, serving for 15 years as English department head, Dean of Students, Director of Curriculum, and Director of the Summer Studies Program. He also taught English to Japanese students at The Toin Gakuen School outside Yokohama in one of his sabbaticals. After Webb, Dr. Fast moved to Boston, and took on teaching and administrative positions at Belmont Hill School, serving as English department head, Director of Curriculum, and Form Head for the past 22 years. He currently teaches sections of 9th grade English, as well as several advanced English electives — Shakespeare, Faulkner and the Southern Tradition, Search For Faith, Literature of Social Reflection.

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