It's probably been years since you cracked open The Odyssey, Homer's epic (a word we feel confident we can use here without fear of a hipster linguistic taint) sequel to The Iliad. It's the tale of Odysseus' 10-year journey home following the Trojan War and the intense, sometimes magical, sometimes terrible trials and tribulations he faces therein.

Hold onto your "isn't that high-school stuff?" thoughts, ditch what you think you know and learn a thing or two from Margaret Kirby, a tutor from the Maryland campus of St. John's College, who travels to Santa Fe this week to lecture on the topic. Given the vast majority of narrative tales can be linked to Homer's poem, it should prove fascinating.

I'm a little nervous because it's been years since I brushed up on my Homer and since you're the expert—

Oh, no, I am not the expert. I'm a reader of it, an appreciator of it. Why do I love it? Why do I keep coming back to it? It seems to me that it raises questions that I find fundamentally interesting. It's also incredibly beautiful. It's a poem, a very long poem, but I'm going to be talking on Friday about what it means to recognize others. The recognition of others is central to The Odysseyboth in terms of recognizing others as your fellow human beings and in recognizing particular human beings. It's a story of Odysseus' homecoming, but he lands in Ithaca about the middle of the poem, and he's not recognized by the people there. There's a lot in the poem that's concerned with what it takes for particular people to recognize that this is somehow the same man, very altered by his experience and time.

Would you say that idea of recognition is particularly applicable to our time, in regard to human rights crises?

One of the things about Odysseus is curious about—too curious for his own good—he wants to know how he'll be received in the places he goes. He wants to find out what kind of people live there. One of the things he wants to find out is whether they're hospitable to strangers. There's a concept of hospitality, and somehow the importance of being hospitable to strangers is at the core of the Greek way of being in the world. That, I think, is something extremely topical for us right now. The assumption is that you recognize that other person as one who's like you, not just as 'other.' That's a central question for Odysseus, and one that, as I say—as far as current political events go—is very relevant.

How long at this point have you been studying The Odyssey?

I first read it as an undergrad, in the '70s, so you can put that together. I got a doctorate in German literature. … I read and teach and talk about all kinds of books, and I've lived with [The Odyssey] for many years, I've had all kinds of opportunities to talk to colleagues and students about it, but there have been long stretches where maybe I haven't looked at it.

We read in The Odyssey about how Odysseus is clever or cunning, but pride seems to be a recurring theme to me. Does that come across as problematic?

I’m not sure I’d use the word pride. The place he gets himself in the biggest trouble is when he goes to visit Polyphemus, the Cyclops, and he initially, cleverly, identifies himself as ‘Nobody,’ and when Polyphemus cries out to the other cyclopes, ‘Nobody’s hurting me! Nobody’s blinding me!’ and they figure there’s nothing to be done about that. But as he’s escaping the island of the Cyclops, he can’t contain himself—and he calls out, y’know, ‘Hey! If you want to know, it’s Odysseus that blinded you,’ and Polyphemus calls a curse on Odysseus.
There’s a way in which a lack of restraint at that point leads to all kinds of trouble. I think it might be contrasted at the end of the poem when Odysseus is back at his own house and the suitors are there. Surely he wants to come in and say, ‘Hey look, here I am,’ but he’s got to enter his own house as as a beggar, and the suitors are incredibly rude, they throw things at him, he’s furious—but he doesn’t let it show. He absolutely has to show who he is. He does it at that point. I think he develops and learns not to say ‘I’m Odysseus!’
I don’t know if it’s pride or anger, but he does have to learn to have things hurled at him and not say, ‘Wait a sec …’

Obviously this wasn't the only poem or story from that time. Why do you think it's been so enduring?

Yes, it’s not the only one—there’s a manyness there—it stands with The Iliad. … They are just magnificent. It’s hard to say what it is that’s magnificent about it. … Every time you go back to it, you find more—more about yourself. You say, it’s about him, but it’s so much about us. What it is to be human, what it is to be a self. The way the poem is written, the way he tells his own story, you wonder a little bit: Is he giving a slant to it? What is happening to him as he retells this story? Is he altered by the telling of it? There’s another constellation of questions there that I find remarkable. There’s a literary merit to the poem, but it’s a human question. We tell stories because we like to listen to stories. What does that say about us?

Would you say your lecture will be accessible to everyone, not just students?

Oh, yes. In fact, I've just been going through and making additions and thinking, 'Somebody who hasn't read this in awhile might not recognize this.' I've been trying to think about things like that to make it accessible to anyone. I start with a little Greek, but it's meant to be for everyone. I'm hoping it might inspire people to get out that book they haven't read in a long time.

Dean's Lecture Series: Margaret Kirby: The Odyssey
7:30 pm Friday Feb. 1. Free.
Great Hall, Peterson Student Center, St. John's College,
1160 Camino Cruz Blanca,
984-6000