Monday, April 6, 2015

Eye of the Needle: Restoring Ecology and Economy at Home

In my last piece I moved from the recognition scenes in the Odyssey to the Lucan recognition scene that defines the resurrection. I want to move back to the Odyssey for a moment, to explore the ecology at Ithaka, and how the Earth Mother, Gaia, restores balance in the oikos, the economy of the home. As is my wont lately, I also want to begin Keller's Cloud of the Impossible

Civilizational ecophobia remains almost indistinguishable from the formative gynophobias. Let me venture the twisted thought that this entanglement is itself cause for green hope. For we admit that the is some systemic justice along the way, much certainly has shown itself in the rapid undoing of millennia of gender/sex arrangements. Gender---and now sex---are so tangled in our queerly eligible Earth that in resonance with an interreligious planetary their vibrant movements may do much to stir up a sustainable future. [Cloud, 282].

Keller gives the "Infinite Entanglement" a "noble nickname:" Gaia (281), after a fascinating discussion of the Gaia complex (268). Moving from Gaia to Book 21 of the Odyssey may seem an abrupt transition, but the restoration of the oikos at Ithaka involves the complicity of father, mother and son in the presence of the Earth Mother, who has been injured by
the disruptive and disrespectful desecration of Penelope's suitors: they have established an ancient 'ecophobia' and 'gynophobia' in Odysseus's hall. The king returns to restore order to his house by balancing its place in relation the Gaia.

The trial of the bow and the axeheads enthralls any reader of the Odyssey.

Penelope speaks:

I will set before you the great bow of divine Odysseus, and whosoever shall most easily string the bow in his hands and shoot an arrow through all twelve axes, with him will I go, and forsake this house of my wedded life, a house most fair and filled with livelihood, which, methinks I shall ever remember even in my dreams.”

Telemachus acts:

... he set up the axes, when he had dug a trench, one long trench for all, and made it straight to the line, and about them he stamped in the earth. And amazement seized all who saw him, that he set them out so orderly, though before he had never seen them. 

Odysseus strings the bow and shoots the arrow through the axe heads:

Odysseus of many wiles, as soon as he had lifted the great bow and scanned it on every side—even as when a man well-skilled in the lyre and in song easily stretches the string about a new peg, making fast at either end the twisted sheep-gut—so without effort did Odysseus string the great bow. And he held it in his right hand, and tried the string, which sang sweetly beneath his touch, like to a swallow in tone. But upon the wooers came great grief, and the faces of them changed color, and Zeus thundered loud, shewing forth his signs. Then glad at heart was the much-enduring, goodly Odysseus that the son of crooked-counselling Cronos sent him an omen, and he took up a swift arrow, which lay by him on the table, bare, but the others were stored within the hollow quiver, even those of which the Achaeans were soon to taste. This he took, and laid upon the bridge of the bow, and drew the bow-string and the notched arrow even from the chair where he sat, and let fly the shaft with sure aim, and did not miss the end of the handle of one of the axes, but clean through and out at the end passed the arrow weighted with bronze.

The orchestration of the three family members plays out in the music (sing in me Muse) Odysseus makes by plucking the string on the bow, which he had strung like a lyre. It is a song of a swallow, a song of death, a song of justice. Still ringing in his ears, the musical tone guides his hand and eye as he threads the needle with an arrow. What does Odysseus see in the alignment but Gaia awaiting justice! Telemachus has tilled the earth itself to set the axes, resting as they do in the breast of Gaia, propped up to embrace them. It is Gaia herself that sets the axes within her substance, giving a glimpse of her opening to Odysseus's eye. All these actants act very close to the earth. Even the great tactician sits when he shoots. Close to the earth indeed.

Many have already commented on the obvious sexual imagery here. The archer sees an aperture with the line of each aligned blade above and below, oriented is a straight line interrupted only by the round, receiving aperture. Is this a phallic adventure, or, perhaps a return to the womb, as Nicodemus pondered, or a quilting stitch that makes Gaia whole again, a stitch woven by a King married the the great weaver herself, Penelope? These three are very close indeed, this father-king, mother-queen and son-prince. Only in the unison of a note played on a single string can they conspire to rehabilitate the earth. We must imagine Odysseus not only sowing, but sewing

In this impossible cloud of a healing Gaia, it is impossible not to conjure Erich Auerbach's Mimesis and his essay, "Odysseus' Scar." The essay is arguably the most insightful discussion of the famous recognition scene that occurs just before Odysseus's surgical repair of Gaia's wound. Auerbach draws a provocative distinction between the Homeric text and biblical texts, in particular, the Abraham and Isaac pericope.

The Bible's claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer's, it is tyrannical---it excludes all other claims. The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historical true reality---it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy...[T]he Scripture stories do not, like Homer's, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us---they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.

   Let no one object that this goes too far, that not the stories, but the religious doctrine, raises the claim to absolute authority; because the stories are not, like Homer's simply narrated "reality." Doctrine and promise are incarnate in them and inseparable from them[.] Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1953. 14-15.

Auerbach's protest against the autocracy of religion is at home in Keller's cloud of apophatic entanglement. It is the very secularization of religious code that perpetuates this "notion of sovereignty" that "sits enthroned amidst the desires and ruses of Western democratic powers" (Cloud, 259). The problem of history does not elude Auerbach either, as he notes the rise of National Socialism during the time of his writing of Mimesis (19), although he was not quite ready to articulate how religious autocracy provides a template for modern political history.

Politics, 'democratic powers' and Nazi Germany are rooted in a modern theory of the state rooted in theological concepts (Keller quoting Carl Schmitt, 259). The current ecological crisis that Keller fears will be deadlocked in acknowledgment and inaction finds a method for proceeding in Odysseus's bow: the restoration of Gaia is the restoration of home. We need to rewrite that grammar into contemporary terms, into policy that sustains peoples, governments and religions by restoring home planet earth by respecting the entanglements that fold human and non-human into a string that sings a swallow's song.

On a more political and ecological note, I would hasten to add that what neo-conservative politicians and neo-liberal economists call 'commerce,' I would call the rape of home planet earth. As Catholics we are called to be honorable custodians of the beauty and delicate balance in the ecology and biology of a living world. Indeed to see the beauty, harmony and balance in the world is to praise its creator and take responsibility for being reliable partners in the ongoing creation of the world.

While we do not deify the earth, the earth obliges us to respect it. The earth always asks us to come home, and that entails a certain Odyssean nostos. Odysseus can string the bow not because he is the strongest in the hall, but because he 'knows how,' applies wisdom, and accepts responsibility to Gaia, and of course, to Poseidon, who asks him to bring the sea to the inland earth.

The politics of ecology are not about winking to climate change, clean coal or fracking, but about aligning the human creature with the air it breathes, the food it grows in the earth, with good house-keeping. Perhaps we can take a page from the playbook of the first family of Gaia: Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus.


  1. Please find an introduction to an Illuminated Understand of the non-human inhabitants of this mostly non-human world, and therefore of Gaia too via the contents of this website:
    Plus an introduction to The Orpheum Trilogy. The author of this trilogy was/is Orpheus, except that he returned from the underworld (of the human mummery) fully awake and radiantly alive.
    Plus this reference on the reductionist institutional dogmas associated with "official" power-and-control-seeking exoteric religion (which is the only kind of religion that now exists - particularly in the USA)
    On the nature of the much vaunted death-haunted Western mind in both its secular and "religious" forms.
    On Shakti - the Goddess or the feminine principle - the great She
    Radical somatic ontology
    The Realization of The Beautiful - on the origins and culturally devastating consequences of the war against She or the intrinsic radiance-of-being

  2. Frederick:

    Since you do not write in your own name, I will, for the moment, accept your references as indicating your own voice. I appreciate your comment here, and your others on the other posts. I would suggest that, far from problematizing uncertainty, Catholicism, has always embraced its foundations, but allows for development. I am struck by a consistent theme that runs through your references: balance, harmony and democracy (egalitarianism). I would recommend St. Augustine's _Confessions_ to you, as we as Jean-Luc Marion's profound reading of that work in his _In the Self's Place_.