Thursday, March 1, 2007

Navel-gazing with the Greeks

From Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day:

omphaloskepsis (om-fuh-lo-SKEP-sis) noun

Contemplation of one's navel

From Greek omphalos (navel) + skepsis (act of looking, examination). Ultimately from the Indo-European root spek- (to observe) which is also the ancestor of suspect, spectrum, bishop (literally, overseer), despise, espionage, telescope, spectator, and spectacles.
I've liked the word omphalos -- so strange, so sonorous -- from my first acquaintance with it in James Joyce's Ulysses. In "Telemachus," Buck Mulligan calls the Martello tower where he and Stephen Dedalus live "the omphalos." The word reappears in Stephen's consciousness in "Proteus":
The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.
I later learned (yes, bass-ackwards) about the part the word plays in Homer's Odyssey. The island of Ogygia, where Calypso keeps Odysseus as her love-slave, is said to be near the sea's omphalos, suggesting a center point, as far away from any mainland as possible. Ogygia is the middle of nowhere.

The passage from Ulysses is taken from an online edition:
Ulysses A hypertextual, self-referential edition

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