Wednesday, November 29, 2006

More Classics shenanigans

I don't know how I missed this when it came out last year, but there is a new book by a "layman," one Robert Bittlestone, which claims to have discovered Odysseus' island home Ithaca. University of Texas Emeritus Peter Green reviews the book, Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer's Ithaca, in the NYRB.

What's cool in this particular case is that Bittlestone, the founder and managing director of the consulting firm Metapraxis (whose copyrighted name must be driving Alain Badiou crazy), basically started with nothing except a copy of the Odyssey (and, of course, his vast fortune and the amazing geological technology that comes along with it). Determined that "Homer" was "right," he set out to make sense of the confused geographical mishmash of Odysseus' world, and in fact succeeded quite admirably. He even enlisted some very respectable Classics names along the way, such as James Diggle and Anthony Snodgrass of Cambridge. ("Diggle and Snodgrass" easily being the greatest instance of British Classics names-pairing since "Hornblower and Spawforth," eds. of the Oxford Classical Dictionary.)

Bittlestone's "millionaire amateur done good" story mirrors in many ways that of Heinrich Schliemann, the eccentric treasure hunter who excavated Troy in the late 19th century. From Green's description of Bittlestone's book, it's hard to know who is kookier--Bittlestone, who believes that the composer of the Odyssey was a contemporary of the actual events of the narrative and addressed its "real-life" characters at banquets ("In reply to him then you said, swineherd Eumaios"), or Schliemann, who named his children "Andromache" and "Agamemnon" and had a penchant for announcing his discoveries as "Priam's Treasure," "Helen's Jewels," and the "Death Mask of Agamemnon."

However, ridiculed as they were by many self-important Classics mavens, both Schliemann and now Bitterman made important discoveries relying only upon their good faith and (heavily endowed) spirit of entrepreneurship. (Austin-5000, I suppose this means you have won our disagreement over the "Geist des Kapitalismus.") The history of philology is full of such colorful characters, and I look forward to encountering them.

Postscript--I bought the NYRB today on a magazine run (Sheriff, I have not forgotten the joy of a good 'zine binge) and I'll be damned if it wasn't the biggest waste of five bucks since I saw that Ronald Reagan film. The whole spankin' show is free and online. As is the International Socialist Review. But The New Republic--you'll always be my password-only newstand purchase.


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