Friday, October 15, 2021

Emily Katz Anhalt's "Embattled"

Emily Katz Anhalt teaches Classical languages and literature at Sarah Lawrence College. She holds a Ph. D. in Classical Philology from Yale University and is the author of Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths (2017) and Solon the Singer: Politics and Poetics (1993).

Anhalt applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Embattled: How Ancient Greek Myths Empower Us to Resist Tyranny, and she reported the following:
Page 99 finds us in chapter four: Deception (Odyssey 9-16), as the Greek warrior Odysseus narrates his adventures on his journey home after sacking Troy. Odysseus claims to have visited the underworld and conversed with the spirit of Achilles, continuing,
“I also saw many other spirits, including Hercules, who told me of his sufferings and his own successful journey to the underworld and back. I wanted to see more of the great men of the generation before mine, but I became frightened and returned to my ship, ordering my companions to row away fast.

“We remained with Circe another day and night. She told me how to get past the enchanting, immortal Sirens” and “how to get safely past the Clashing Rocks; the monstrous man-eating Scylla with her six necks and six terrible heads; and the horrible whirlpool Charybdis.”
The Odyssey fortifies us against the deceptions of an authoritative storyteller. Most of the epic unfolds in third-person narration, but Odysseus himself narrates a long central section. His account contains numerous supernatural features never vouched-for by the epic’s third-person narrator. Odysseus’ fantastic and -- let’s face it -- implausible story reminds us of our responsibility as readers to try to sift the facts from the falsehoods. A trip to the underworld, really?! Sirens? Clashing Rocks? Six-headed monsters? Do we believe Odysseus? Should we? Later in the epic Odysseus will tell additional deceptive stories. Odysseus’ tales evoke our skepticism and cultivate our empiricism, because we have other evidence, from the third-person narrative, against which to evaluate Odysseus’ claims.

Resistance to tyranny requires the ability and the willingness to measure all stories, even authoritative accounts, against factual evidence. Odysseus is an enchanting storyteller and a consummate con artist, but the tales that he himself narrates caution us against mindless credulity. Unlike many works of fiction, the Odyssey does not ask or permit us to suspend disbelief. In order to enjoy the epic’s twists and turns, we must constantly strive to distinguish the facts from the falsehoods. Tyrants require obedient subjects unwilling or unable to fact-check even their most preposterous lies. Matching wits with Odysseus, however, we develop the skills to fortify ourselves against modern autocrats and would-be autocrats who bombard us with fictions, even contradictory fictions, so as to eradicate the very concept of objective fact.
Visit Emily Katz Anhalt's website.

The Page 99 Test: Enraged.

--Marshal Zeringue