Proteus

I spent a couple of hours reading the Odyssey, intending to go from that to Ulysses, but I didn’t get around to the latter. I did, however, find out why the third section of Ulysses is characterized as “proteus” by other writers. true, I could have found that out much faster by reading the notes, but the Odyssey is enjoyable in it’s own right, and it’s never quite the same reading secondary sources over primary ones. Two resonances between Ulysses, section 3, and the Odyssey, sections 3 & 4, most stand out to me at this point. The first is between Stephan’s reflections on returning from his studies in Paris to refuse his mother her dying request that he pray for her, and the recollections of Nestor (breaker of horses) and (the warlord-king) Menelaus on the siege of Troy and difficult passage home. The second is between Stephan’s ever-shifting stream-of-consciousness thoughts and Menalaus’ encounter with Proteus.

Proteus is a god — “the old man of the sea,” who “plumbs the deeps” of the wine-dark sea; unlike Athena and Odysseus, he never lies, if only you can get him to talk with you. Every day at noon he rises from the sea, counts his seals, and then lies down in their midst for a seal siesta. Menelaus needs to find out from Proteus how to get out from under another god’s curse, so, on a suggestion from Proteus’ daughter, he and three of his men hide under four seal skins with a bit of ambrosia (from the daughter) under their noses to help the stench, and then when Proteus settles down for his nap they rise up, jump him, and hang on tight while he changes shape in to a lion, bear, snake, geyser, and some other things. Eventually he gets tired of it and answers Menelaus’ questions. This, I suppose, is where we get the word “protean” from: formless, always changing, difficult to know or pin down.

Stephan’s thoughts are very protean in this chapter… he is obviously intelligent, gifted, and well educated, but all his knowledge and insight simply wanders about aimlessly, shifting and moving like the surface of the sea; yet there are also depths to them, when he chooses to plumb them. I’m not gong to stretch my luck in going for a dead dog as seal carcass. What would it be hiding? Stephan’s true feelings about his mother’s death, smelling of wet ashes?

Sometimes thoughts are obvious and meaningful. Sometimes it is apparently necessary to drag meaning from them by force. My philosophy of number course was more like the latter, but I learned some interesting stuff in it. The main impediment to finding the truth in protean thoughts, however, may not be the necessity of wrestling them to the ground in order to get a straight answer from them; it may more often be knowing what it is you wish to ask of them. Menelaus didn’t have that problem: he wanted to get off that island. I’m not so sure about Stephan, though: what would he ask of the thoughts and images of his past that roll through his mind as he walks along the snotgreen sea?

Every great once in a while I come across a passage, or someone says something, and I go: Aha! yes! Excellent! but far more often I have to tackle the thought of someone and whack it into submission. “I will understand metaphysics!” *whack* “I will, I will!” but sometimes it wins and leaves me sitting despondently under a tree wondering about the possibility of convincing someone that the world around us does indeed exist, and we can know something of it. But at least there I have some understanding of what it is I want to ask of metaphysics should I manage to get some of it in my head: what did Aristotle see in you? Why was it important? What does it mean to try to prove basic things like God and reality and the intelligible world? What does it mean to declare such things unprovable? How does it affect us to live in a whole post modern culture that supposes them unprovable? Are they therefore unknowable? What is it to prove something, anyway?

I know those questions because I took a class on metaphysics, and had incentive to find them so that I could pass the class and justify to myself spending money on it. But what about when I don’t? Are those questions worth finding anyway, or are they simply “logismoi,” useless, pestering thoughts? How do I know the difference? Do I have to wrestle some text of a flock of thoughts, silly as seals, to get that answer as well? Take my experience of the Odyssey and Ulysses. If I were in school perhaps I would have this as a preceptorial, and would be required to write a 15 page essay about something in the text. Then I’d have to find a question, and would have to ask it and search out the way toward an answer too. If I had time and energy I might even drag meaning from that book and essay and question. But what about when there is no such necessity? Do we make necessity for ourselves, or somehow find it?

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