The Mindful Bard – Alberto Manguel, The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography

Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World

Book: Alberto Manguel, The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography

Publication date: 2007

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, NY

?The chronology we have invented for ourselves prompts us to imagine that our sense of the world and of ourselves evolves, and that there is progress of feeling and imagination as there is development of technology and invention . . . It is difficult for us to imagine that, such a long time ago, we already had words to name our most bewildering experiences and our deepest and most obscure emotions.?

Alberto Manguel, The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography

There’s this guy, Ulysses, who just wants to stay home with his wife and baby boy and farm his fields in peace. In spite of himself he gets dragged across the sea into some war over some other guy’s wife. His side wins but it takes Ulysses some time to get home. When he finally makes it back to the hearth there’s a big bloodbath, and everyone is just so happy.

There; now you don’t have to read The Iliad or The Odyssey. Wait a minute?yes, you do.

Ever have one of those vivid dreams that makes no sense at all and yet leaves you with such a sense of significance that you can’t get it out of your mind and so you irk your friends by repeatedly asking them what it could mean? That’s what you’ll get out of this book. Somewhere between an epic-length vision of the night and a concise survey course in the liberal arts, The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography is a compelling reading experience.

Another in Atlantic Monthly Press’s phenomenal and timely ?Books That Changed the World? series, this one traces the paths of the poet Homer and the heroes and heroines and animals and landscapes and events of The Iliad and The Odyssey in the West, from Virgil all the way up to Timothy Findley.

The dimension of Homer’s influence boggles the mind. One begins to understand, for example, Blake’s assertion that it was the classics and not the Goths which desolated Europe, when you read Turkish Emperor Mehmet II’s letter to Pope Pius II, in which he talks of uniting with the Italians to avenge the blood of Hector on the Greeks, ominously calling to mind the use of the New Testament to justify anti-Semitism. Rarely is a written work taken seriously enough to be radically misinterpreted and still be used successfully to build support for atrocities.

It’s crucial that culture makers continually return to the great works of the past to rethink the literary canon in terms of what’s happening in their own lives, and not just to test the relevance of the work in question.

Northrop Frye wrote: ?. . . it is the primary function of literature, more particularly of poetry, to keep recreating the first or metaphorical phase of language during the domination of the later phases, to keep presenting it to us as a mode of language that we must never be allowed to underestimate, much less lose sight of.?

The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography lives up to six of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for books well worth reading: 1) it makes you want to be a better artist; 2) it proffers tools which help you to be a better artist; 3) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 4) it is about attainment of the true self; 5) it stimulates the mind; and 6) it poses and admirably responds to questions which have a direct bearing on our view of existence.

The Bard could use some help scouting out new material. If you discover any books, compact disks, or movies which came out in the last twelve months and which you think fit the Bard’s criteria, please drop a line to bard@voicemagazine.org. For a list of criteria, go here. If I agree with your recommendation, I’ll thank you online.

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