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Saturday, June 30, 2007


At the beginning was the sea. Later, ships would come; three, if we count the caravels of the first American wanderer, Christopher Columbus, “High Admiral of the Sea, and perpetual Viceroy and Governor in all the islands and continents which I might discover and acquire.”(Columbus, Journal) or just one, that ship dreamt to carry a myth “That sail which leans on light,/ tired of islands,/ a shooner beating up the Caribbean/for home, could be Odysseus,/ home –bound on the Aegean” (Walcott, Sea Grapes,1-5). From the red-wine Mediterranean sea to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the Ancient World literary legacy would take a new shape in the New World. The Americas rewrote its own Odyssey, and the myth of Ulysses as told by Homer, would be relived by historical, literary and every day heroes. All these new American characters seek for their way back home, even if the identity of that home is nothing else but the travel and the quest. America is both Ithaca and the journey, and we can consider this the first original trait of the reinterpretation of the Greek myth.

The Americas excel in colleges based in Athens’ ideals which came directly from Great Britain and the European university tradition, but Americans do not only relate to “The Odyssey” inspired by the reading of classics. From Columbus on, they grew as children of ships, of the sea wandering, and the astonished discovery of unknown territories. “In the meantime I strayed about among the groves, which present the most enchanting sight ever witnessed, a degree of verdure prevailing like that of May in Andalusia, the trees as different from those of our country as day is from night, and the same may be said of the fruit, the weeds, the stones and everything else” says Columbus who could see from day one the new land differences with Europe, both in its nature and its native people. Even if he thought he had reached Asia and ignored that he had in fact discovered a new continent, he was fascinated by the place: “I assure your Highnesses that these lands are the most fertile, temperate, level and beautiful countries in the world.”(Columbus) First Ulysses in what would become the matrix of the new world, Columbus wandered, confused and marveled, through the Caribbean and its islands: “Afterwards I shall set sail for another very large island which I believe to be Cipango, according to the indications I receive from the Indians on board.”(Columbus). The first chapter of the American Odyssey is the quid pro quo comedy, where Cipango-Japan will end as Cuba, and the first land to be trodden by an European foot, the Ysabela, named after the Queen of Spain, will become Quisqueya or, simply, America, as the rest of islands and the continent. The first four travels of Columbus will inaugurate an era of discoveries and, as the beginning of colonial times, the first psychological island of the American Ulysses.

“Ulysses is the man with thirst for eternity, always threatened by the two risks of the sea travel: destruction and backward movement. Beyond this, heaven or the land of the dead, Ithaca awaits and enlightenment, and the image of an universe not determined by the karma laws. The main mast in the ship expresses the cosmic axis planted in the center of the funeral vessel or transcendental vehicle” observes the Spanish writer Sánchez Dragó ( I, 88, Tr. DF). The American Ulysses is an European reborn in a new land, starting a new history of its own, and even as a colonial subject, in search of its own transcendence and its own place in the universal plan. The conquest began as a search for gold and spices, but the real American treasures would be of a different kind. “In fact, of the so many people who look for treasures, only children usually find them, and also some exceptional beings, doubled as men and gods, such as Parsifal, Ulysses, the Argonauts, and all those who know that each one’s truth lies in each other’s truth as long as we don’t ask them for it. An intuition all the poets had: not to find Rome in Rome but on the road, and understand what the Ithacas mean”(Sánchez Dragó, I, 190.Tr.DF): America was not meant to be the provider of wealth but wealth itself, as the founding stone of a new type of human society. Ithaca could certainly be seen as the cultural memory of Europe, the lost home, a place where every American would unconsciously long to return, but more than that, Ithaca would represent, in the American founding myth, the future home of the perfect society.

“Why did the Spaniards, the English, the French, the Germans, and the Russian come to the New World? To create a new society, when they could not tolerate the injustices and failures of Europe. The history of America is original and distinct; America is something different, and I want to live to one hundred to see how America is doing and where it is going” says the Colombian writer Germán Arciniegas, reminding the originality of America and the need of “the fulfillment of the American being, free from all inferiority complexes, free from the need to imitate European models, conscious of the complexity of his heritage.”(Ambrus). From the first settlers in America to the European colonies, part of the journey was accomplished, but the travel would still last for a while. As Sanchez Dragó points out: “To overcome difficulties, to get rid of karma, to resign to own personality (Ulysses chooses to be ‘Nobody’), to silence passion, to wander through a labyrinth till reaching its center, to die and to resurrect: all the parts of an initiation puzzle are there.”(I, 55-56. Tr.DF). To resign to the familiar European identity and find out what was to be an American came next. The wars for Independence may be seen as the war of Troy or as Calypso-Europe releasing the sailor, finally allowed to return home.

The American journey to its own identity is also a poetical search and as Harold Bloom points out: “There are no poems, only relations between poems.”(Farquhar). The American odyssey cannot then but mirror the Western literary pattern for all foundational travels. Bloom, as one of the most outstanding American critics perceived well the character of this literary identity search, never too far from all the Freudian battles between powerful fathers and sons struggling for being themselves. As Farquhar notes:
From Freud he (Bloom) borrowed the notion that the human quest for imaginative autonomy takes the form of struggling against his poetic influences: struggling, that is, to appropriate and warp, or ‘misread,’ his precursor’s work in such a way that, to a later reader, it would appear that the precursor had failed. It would seem that his poem was in some way asking to be corrected by the poem of the later poet, or as the though the precursor were the weak successor to the later poet and not the other way around.(Farquhar).
America would invest its own identity at some point of the voyage and surpass the given European culture. Literary independence is conquered in one of the stops of the trip, with Emerson as a version of a daring and smart Ulysses. “The strength of the strong poet, as Geoffrey Hartman said in an essay about Bloom, is chiefly cunning: more Jacob’s strength than Esau’s, more Odyssean than Achillean.”(Farquhar).

“The American writer has an exhilarating role” say Arciniegas, “He has to create a New World, a world that departs from the European one, and understand it is something different” (Ambrus) Borges would be inspired by the labyrinth, that older pattern lying below “The Odyssey”, and Pablo Neruda would live and write his best poems in an island, Isla Negra; Leopoldo Marechal would create his own Ulysses in “Adán BuenosAyres,” another novel where the journey happens inside the mythical city and Derek Walcott would recreate in his poem “Omeros” and in his stage version of “The Odyssey,” the Caribbean travel to the American self. However, the opposition between America and Europe still represents a relevant and unfinished discussion about cultural colonialism.
Walcott implies that colonialism and imperialism, as monsters, are present in every person’s house, because such monsters are created by those in the house. They do not invade a community; they are the product of a community. The postcolonial writer cannot simply ignore his past, including an education in British and European literature. He must confront his “monsters” –both native and foreign- and learn to live with them in harmony, not fight against them in anger. When the postcolonial can accept his own monsters, including the dark memories of a colonial past, he can accept his present hybridity. There is no perfect past to return to, no place without Walcottt’s metaphorical monsters. (Martyniuk)
As Martyniuk remarks, Walcott provides a way for postcolonial authors “to write as heroes and not victims.” (Martyniuk). Writers become not only the tellers of chapters of a common American odyssey, but Ulysses themselves, and their characters can even be domestic and modest Ulysses of a new democratic breed. As Walcott says: “The hero in my poem (Omeros) is a simple fisherman who doesn’t conquer anything and who works with his element the sea.”(Cabrera).American literature can be also read as a journey in discovery of a new style and if Hemingway will resort to the eternal sea to give another novel of the American trip in “The Old Man and the Sea” --maybe the story of a Ulysses grown old and facing his last battle against a monster-fish--, De Lillo, in our 21st Century will set the wanderings of a financial Ulysses across Manhattan neighborhoods. Margaret Atwood would join them and publish “The Penelopiad”, “a brilliantly funny and sardonic version of the Odysseus stories seen from Penelope’s angle and told through the incorporeal mouth of her shade in Hades with the benefit of 3,000 years of hindsight.”(Taplin)

The American journey is not yet finished. Americans reached the Moon and some will soon travel to Mars. For them, Ithaca is not just America but Earth, that big island in the sea of space. The Ulysses and Penelopes of the Americas, travelers of water and air, weavers of stories not yet lived, know that “First, there was the heaving oil,/ heavy as chaos;/ then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,/ the lantern of a caravel,/ and that was Genesis.” (Walcott, The Sea is History). The rest, is the eternal odyssey; again, and again.

Works Cited

Ambrus, Steven. "Germán Arciniegas: Guardian of Our Distinct History" Americas (English Edition) 49(May/Jun 1997):41.
Cabreras, Elena. "Derek Walcott: The Voice of the Caribbean." Americas (English edition) 59(May/Jun 2007): 38-46.
Columbus, Christopher. "Extracts from Journal." Medieval Sourcebook. 8 Jun 2007 .
Fajardo-Acosta, Fidel. "Omeros." World Literature. 8 Jun 2007 .
Homer, The Odyssey, The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd Edition by Sarah Lawall. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2002.
Mac Farquhar, Larissa. "The Prophet of Decline." The New Yorker Sep30, 2002: 86.
Martyniuk, Irene. "Playing With Europe." Callaloo 28(Winter 2005): 188-200.
Sánchez Dragó, Fernando. Gárgoris y Habidis. Una Historia Mágica de España. I & II. Barcelona: Editorial Planeta, 1985.
Taplin, Oliver. "Homer's Wave Machine: It's Fast, furious ans fun. But it isn't really ‘The Odyssey’as Oliver Taplin Knows it.." The Guardian London.U.K.(May 20, 2006): 18.
Walcott,Derek."The Sea Is History" 8 Jun 2007.

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