Just before Christmas, The New York Times ran a review in its Sunday book section of a new Robert Fagles' translation of Homer's "Odyssey." Fair enough, you say, as do I.
After all, for a blind guy, Homer wrote some pretty good stuff that after 2,500 years is still being read and if a new and better translation is called for, fine. Personally, I can take Homer or I can leave him. But there he is, one with the ages and even on that most primitive of levels, being read by high school kids, you have to admit he spins a pretty good yarn.
You know, Cyclops and the Sirens and all that.
Anyway, all of this might have gone down without a ripple except for Sharon Uemura Ronholt of Stockton, Calif.
Ms. Ronholt read Richard Jenkyns' review of the new Fagles translation of "The Odyssey" and flipped out. On Jan. 19 the Times published her letter to the editor, denouncing Mr. Jenkyns' review as "remarkable for its naive, uncritical and pre-theoretical acceptance of Homer's text as a `timeless' Great Book."
What had Ms. Ronholt so hot and bothered was Odysseus' treatment of women.
"Homer's hero commits adultery with various gorgeous, high-class women, and the construction of the plot [his desire to depart for `home'] legitimizes his callous abandonment of his ever-changing women lovers."
Not only that, but "it is clear that Odysseus' sexual politics would have been totally unacceptable if pursued by his wife." What irks her about the whole sordid business, says reader Ronholt, is that "Nowhere in his review does Mr. Jenkyns draw critical attention to the fact that Homer's world is that of a quintessential male fantasy."
And you thought Larry Flynt was the only pornographer in the news these days. Meet Homer, the randy old rogue!
Ms. Ronholt goes on, calling Homer "radically transparent in this portrait of a man's world." And she asks why the Times' reviewer didn't ask himself, "if a new translation does not need to showcase at least a critical awareness of the kind of plot and character presented here, at a minimum to highlight the alien nature of classical Greek culture."
The "alien nature" of Greek culture? What the hell does that mean? To the Greeks, Homer was anything but an "alien." Around Athens, he was a homeboy. Also around Athens (and Sparta and Marathon as well), it's Americans like Ms. Ronholt (and you and me) who are the "aliens." But more than that; she doesn't even like maybe the most famous phrase Homer ever wrote. Listen to this:
"A few lines here [of politically correct jargon, I guess she means] would have been more substantial than all of Mr. Jenkyns's lingo-romantic musings about the "early rosy-fingered dawn!"
In all of this appalling rubbish there is nowhere to be found even the slimmest hint of a sense of humor. This is deadpan, serious, ponderous stuff. I don't know what life is like in Stockton, Calif., but clearly they need help if Ms. Ronholt can get this upset about a new translation of an old classic on grounds it doesn't label the hero a male chauvinist pig.
And please note that in her ferocious defense of women and how badly they've been abused by Homer through the millennia, there isn't a damn word, not one, about what Homer did to that poor, visually impaired, optically challenged Cyclops. There's this unfortunate chap living in a cave and with only one eye, and that smack in the middle of his forehead, and here come Odysseus and his crew to steal his sheep and when Cyclops seeks to defend himself and his goods, they put out the only eye the fellow has.
Now if you want to get up petitions and call mass protest meetings out there in Stockton, how about doing so in defense of Cyclops?
I've really got to go back and reread "The Odyssey" and Sharon Ronholt can be thanked for that. I'm sure there's plenty more in there for people to get outraged about, such as poor Penelope back there at the house waiting for Odysseus to come home (10 years, wasn't it?) and all the time she's holding off the suitors and insisting her hubby is still alive. Remember all that spinning of yarn she did everyday and then undid every night just to keep the lads at bay?
What I want to know and Ms. Ronholt ought to be asking while she's in this crusading mood out there in Stockton, did the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union know about this sweatshop homework Penelope was doing and was she getting the legal minimum wage? I mean, if they can ask such questions of Kathie Lee Gifford, why give that S.O.B. Homer a free pass?