We return to Homer’s tale—to the story about seas, sailors, singing sirens, and songs causing death.
The storyteller tells of the sirens, half bird-half human creatures on their island who sing sweet, enchanting songs to lure passing ships. The sailors lulled by their song land on the island. As soon as they do, the winds die down and the sea is as smooth as glass. Soon after, the sailors die, suddenly, en masse.
It is said that on that bleak island are piles of human bones, the remains of those lured, who came and died over centuries.
Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, hears this story on his return from the Trojan War. When his ship passes the island of the sirens, he—a cunning hero—is ready. He wants to hear the marvellous sirens’ song, but he does not want to be lured to land. So he orders all his crew rowing the ship to close their ears. They must not be lulled. Odysseus himself leaves his ears open—but he asks to be tied to the mast so that, if lured, he cannot dive into the sea to go to the island.
He succeeds. He passes the island safely and is able to enjoy the sirens’ song. For centuries, people admired Odysseus as the epitome of steadfastness and successful intelligence. He was a man who, through his own wit, was able to defeat the mystery of nature. He survived enduring all kinds of experiences in his seafaring—a single, entire subject who overcame the odd, the different, outside of himself.
But in the anxious and uncertain 20th century, Odysseus appeared otherwise. That century (as also this one) brought enlightenment, the triumph of reason, the development of technology, and capital. But there was another aspect: that century also brought barbarism. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, millions exterminated in gas chambers and incarcerated in concentration camps, millions more oppressed by totalitarianism and extorted by capitalism. And from there, the Homeric story gets a new angle.
Lovers of the history of philosophy will recall what Adorno and Horkheimer wrote in Dialektik der Aufklärung, Dialectics of Enlightenment, which was pubished in 1944. Odysseus is actually a dark hero.
He does indeed appear as one who is safe from the vagaries of adventure. He is not the object of mysterious destiny and nature. He is the subject who opposes this. He opposes with wit, and wit is the function of reason.
But this resolve and wit is also what accompanies capitalism and the power of machines and politics that subjugate whatever is not themselves. “The seafarer Odysseus,” Adorno and Horkheimer write, “outwits the natural deities as the civilized traveler was later to swindle savages, offering them colored beads for ivory.”
We must not forget that Odysseus succeeds also because he forces the sailors rowing his boat not to hear the song; only he has that right. The others are assumed not to have it. He is Robinson Crusoe on his island. His boat is like a factory whose workers are given no right to choose an enjoyable rest. The king is like the boss who enforces discipline on his workers so their work target will be met. “Those who work,” Adorno and Horkheimer write, “are forced to look head, full of energy and keenly focussed, ignoring anything that lies to one side.”
Of course, the powerful one has reasons: he ‘rescues’ the workers from the seduction of enjoyment. Enjoyment is a nuisance. Religions also teach this: the body, which senses pleasure, must fast.
And Odysseus can say, “Look, I myself am bound.” But probably he would not admit that allowing himself to be bound is a protection. This kind of self restraint from temptation is not sacrifice, but a strategy to protect oneself—to be untouched by evil, so that eventually one can gain merit or pleasing results. “The lone voyager armed with cunning is already homo oeconomicus,” Adorno and Horkheimer said. Odysseus is bourgeois.
And so, like an investor, Odysseus initially curbs his desire, by binding himself. He surrenders, before appearing as victor. His success and glory are preceded by strategy: the urge to ‘attain entire, universal, undivided happiness’, pretending to ignore this, or to consider it trivial.
Meanwhile, his ears are open…
What is his true desire? To get enjoyment without fatal risk? To obtain merit and profit for himself, without sharing?
Desire has no fixed meaning. Lacan says that desire is one ‘métonymie’. We know it with a sign that also alludes to other signs: its meaning is forever unfinished.
In the end, Odysseus is the story of desire that cannot be defined. Like the history of human greed.