Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Just one look

I’ve always loved the end of Odyssey 16. Odysseus and Telemachus are out in the country when Odysseus (in disguise as a beggar) and Telemachus share a private glance in the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus:

Telemachus smiled, feeling his ancestors’
And glanced at Odysseus, avyoiding the
    swineherd’s eye.
                                    (Lombardo translation)
This passage from a book review in the Christian Science Monitor just gave me a new way to think about the significance of this scene:
The critical concept in The First Idea is what the authors call “co-regulated emotional signaling.” By this they mean the affectionate back-and-forth between baby and caregiver. Mom and Baby make eye contact, and when Mom smiles at Baby, Baby smiles back.

It would be simplistic to say that the authors see games of peekaboo and patty-cake as the foundations of civilization—but it would not be completely wide of the mark. It is just this sort of nonverbal “conversation,” the authors argue, that was essential to the development of language among early humans and remains essential to each child’s learning to talk today.
I’ve always thought of this moment in the Odyssey in terms of the knowing look partners might give each other in a social setting. How interesting though to think of Odysseus and Telemachus as bonding in the way that a father and an infant son would bond. Telemachus is “reborn” as Odysseus’s son at the beginning of Odyssey 2. And Odysseus is, almost literally, a new father, having not seen his son in twenty years. His relationship with Telemachus is less than a day old when they share this moment of silent, eye-to-eye, mind-to-mind communication.

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