Universiteit Leiden

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Gesture and Repetition: the End of the Odyssey

  • Alex Purves
Thursday 31 March 2016
University Library
Witte Singel 27
2311 BG Leiden

This paper considers the last gesture which Odysseus performs in the Odyssey: a single leap a mere ten lines before the poem’s end (Od. 24.538). It understands that leap within the context of the relationship between gesture and repetition in Homeric epic, paying particular attention to the ways in which gestures work as a series of habituated impulses which almost automatically drive the actions of their characters forward. In the case of Odysseus, his final leap expresses an instance of what I term “rebellious repetition,” where the kinaesthetic impulses of the warrior’s body run counter to the demands of the narrative (in simple terms: he wants to keep going while the poem wants to end). There is a kind of muscle memory at work in Odysseus’ body which unexpectedly emerges as an expression of autonomy when he disobeys Athena’s command and keeps on fighting as his story draws to a close.

In order to solve the “problem” of the Odyssey’s famously unsatisfying ending, ancient scholars reached back into Book 23 and tried to end the poem there. Instead, I will follow the trajectory which Odysseus launches with his leap, reaching forward through this verse to the notion of alternate plot lines and competing authorial impulses. As such, I will trace Odysseus’ leap through two passages in the Iliad (Achilles’ partial drawing of his sword in Book 1 and Hector’s last leap in Book 22) and, briefly, one in the Aeneid (the death of Turnus), in order to show how this final leap falls into a small category of gestures or actions that reveal a moment of divergence between body and narrative form.

Alex Purves is Associate Professor at the Department of Classics at UCLA. She received her BA and MA degree at the University of Nottingham and completed her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books and articles focus on the great writers of the archaic and classical period such as Homer, Sappho and Herodotus. She specialises in the concept of space (landscape) and time; for multiple authors she has showed how the interpretation of these elements in a Greek text can add significantly to our understanding of the text (and the plot) as a whole. In 2010 she published Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative (Cambridge) and in 2013, together with prof. Shane Butler, Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses (Abingdon/New York). Only recently has she edited the volume Touch and the Ancient Senses, soon to appear; at the moment she is finishing a book that reviews the works of Homer by means of studying somatic positions and actions (Six Positions in Homer). In addition to this, she is member of the editorial board of Classical Antiquity

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