Guest-Friend

Odysseus, when he is in Phaeacia with heavy heart nonetheless begins in book 9 with words of appreciation for the pleasure of sitting "in order due" at a table laden with food, being served wine, while listening to a minstrel, who had recently sung of him, at which point he shed tears.
He had entered that palace to begin with thanks to Athena's help (here I think of Ruskin's paean to her, Queen of the Air), disguised in a cloud, bringing a hazy, ethereal contrast to the metallic palace guarded by mechanical dogs and which shone "like the sun" partly thanks to the lighting system intensified by golden statues.
Athena, at once bright and misty, working through concealment and revelation, succeeds in her diplomacy such that Odysseus finds himself a guest at the palace banquet table. He is asked to reveal himself only when his neighbour at the table notices his groan, and urges that he "no longer hide with crafty thought" and speak plainly about who he is and where he comes from - so the Phaeacians' ships could return him to his home. This would be done by their telling the ships where he is from: "For the Phaeacians have no pilots, nor steering-oars such as other ships have, but their ships of themselves understand the thoughts and minds of men, and they know the cities and rich fields of all peoples, and most swiftly do they cross over the gulf of the sea, hidden in mist and cloud, nor ever have they fear of harm or ruin."
This is a point of transformation, not only because Odysseus is about to reveal himself, but we are perhaps reminded of what "flashing-eyed Athena" told Odysseus in book 7, namely that the Phaeacians do not take kindly to strangers, for they are those who travel to other countries, not receive people, "their ships are as swift as a bird on the wing or as a thought." (Athena is also swift, Athena is swifter.) Odysseus is now deep inside the palace of this people, at their table, and asked to lift the fog that only the Phaeacians' vessels could cross. We also learn that the Phaeacians value friendship: "any one with even a moderate amount of right feeling knows that he ought to treat a guest and a suppliant as though he were his own brother" (I now switch from A.T. Murray's translation to that by Samuel Butler).
The music stops, Odysseus begins with his praise of having a minstrel and a formal table of food and begins to make the translation from stranger to friend: emerging from the fog.




His arrival in Phaeacia is marked by the topic of ξεῖνος - meaning stranger, foreigner, but also one who gives or receives hospitality, "host and much more commonly guest." As Odysseus begins to explain who he is, he says, "First now will I tell my name, that ye, too, may know it, and that I hereafter, when I have escaped from the pitiless day of doom, may be your host, though I dwell in a home that is afar" (emphasis added). The word he uses is ξεῖνος - also translated as "so that you may be my guest" or "so that I may be your guest-friend," the latter being, to my mind, the more interesting.
In ξεῖνος are combined the notions of the strange and foreign, hospitality and implications of friendship. In The Relevance of the Beautiful, Gadamer writes of the tessera hospitalis, an object broken in two, half of which presented to the guest to be rejoined on their next visit. He writes that more than being a symbol for recognition, we may want to think of Aristophanes speech in Plato's Symposium, where he describes how human beings were once spherical creatures split in two for their misbehaviour, making every individual a symbolon tou anthropou. Love is becoming whole again through uniting with our other half. We may also be made whole through the symbol in art. A few pages later, he writes that recognition is knowing something better on our further encounter with it (it is no longer a foreigner or stranger!). He uses a Hegelian phrase to explain recognition as something "by which man 'makes himself at home in the world'".
At lunch today, at my own banquet table of sorts where the music was - and how is it to read this in today's world - provided by said friend as before the meal was served as he sang about a young man imploring a popular neighbourhood maiden to consult the calendar so she would see how it instructs that one ought to love one's neighbour, at lunch today my friend said that the best thing we can do for each other in today's world, riddled as it is with so many uncertainties, is to let each other know that we are not forsaken. If we are in the slightest bit aware of uncertainty, we ought to be a ξεῖνος to a person who may feel like a ξεῖνος. Odysseus himself uses the same word, reversing the meaning from foreigner to the less common meaning of host.
To be this guest-friend, we may wont to remind each other that even the most meandering of rivers reaches its source, the sea, home to Phaeacian ships that see through the fog to their goal.





2 comments:

  1. Hello friend! Sorry I haven't visited for a long while. Hope all is well with you.

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  2. Hi Christy, welcome back - as per the nature of friendship, the hour of one's return is always the perfect time! Wishing you all the best, too.

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