Ulysses took twenty years to return to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars. When he arrived home, his wife Penelope didn’t recognize him and only slowly did he reveal himself to her. The myth suggests Penelope needed a long time before she knew Ulysses as the man she sent to war. His adventures on the way back with the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, Circe, and the rest were allegorical. He actually returned to Ithaca soon enough, but the war so dizzied him up it took forever to settle down. “Stay low, go slow, say no” didn’t cut it, and Penelope wasn’t so helpful, either, with her nine suitors and all. Telemachus their son must have wondered what the hell was going on, but by scheming with Ulysses to drive off the suitors, he restored the family.
Circe, jeeze, “the loveliest of all immortals,” according to the Greeks. “He calls her Circe, she turns men into swine.” “He” here is Robert Cohn in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, another post-war story of travel and jangled nerves. The speaker is Mike Campbell, and Cohn is describing Lady Brett Ashley, whom he and every other man in the novel worships, but Cohn also refers accurately to Circe’s actions in The Odyssey. The line’s good, too good for Cohn, who is portrayed unsympathetically by Hemingway—it should have been Campbell’s or Jake Barnes’ or Bill Gorton’s. Campbell even grudgingly compliments Cohn: “Damn good. I wish I was one of those literary chaps.” Speaking of Jake Barnes, what did he do before the war? Wife, kids, job, hometown? Like Mad Men‘s Don Draper, Jake is a wounded war hero with no past, no history, no ties to drag him down.
Well, that’s nuts, but maybe it helps explain the myth of the long return. There are other stories, too. For example, the one of Theseus fighting the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Minos. Theseus killed the Minotaur, but that’s not the interesting part. If you remember, he then needed Minos’ daughter Ariadne’s help to escape the labyrinth. Next, he left Crete with Ariadne, only to abandon her on the island of Naxos, where Dionysius, of all people, rescued her. So she starts out with the fighter and ends up with the artistically-crazed drunkard. How does that make sense? Something happened on Naxos, that’s for sure. Maybe Theseus was punished for killing the Minotaur, which Picasso (for one) associated with imagination, intelligence, and courage.
There are hundreds of pictures of Ariadne lying bereft on Naxos, like this one:
But I’m thinking possibly Theseus did not leave Ariadne; instead, she told him to move on without her. In this reading, he was her Jake Barnes and she was his Lady Brett. Brett liked Jake, but he wasn’t all she wanted him to be, so she gave herself to the bullfighter Romero, while Ariadne rejected her bullfighter boy for the man-Minotaur Dionysius. The logic’s a little mixed up, but it just might work.
Anyway, big love and thanks to my wife and sons, my own Penelope and two Telemachii. No nine suitors or lying bereft on Naxos business, thank goodness.