“Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.”

That’s how the first stanza ends in Emily Wilson’s brilliant new translation of The Odyssey. It reads as if Walt Whitman wrote it, with the rhythms of our modern times, so it sounds contemporary—Odysseus comes alive. That first stanza begins by addressing another figure:

“Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
When he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea . . .”

Get to the origin, discover the source, find your way home. What is the cause of this pain, and how do you, Muse, Goddess, or mere poet, redeem the suffering of this man, who seems clever enough—cruel enough—to survive even our world, these modern times?

“He is more sensible than other humans,” Zeus says—we’re still in Book 1—when Athena accuses her father of forgetting Odysseus, leaving him to languish on the shore of Calypso’s island, begging to be unbound from the immortality she offers him. How is he more sensible?

Because he wants to die? For that is what it means to refuse Calypso’s offer. Maybe he’ll get home if she equips him properly, maybe not. But if he leaves the island, he’ll die like every other human being, sooner or later. “I can hold on to one thing,” he says as he leaves the island that would make him immortal: “certain death.” (Book 5)

Many years ago, Julian Jaynes wrote a book about the difference between the heroes of The Iliad and The Odyssey, also the Old Testament and the New. What makes Achilles and Odysseus so different? What separates Abraham and Jesus, or rather, what separates the prophets from Peter, the lowly fisherman who, by denying Jesus, sets what we know as History in motion? Erich Auerbach already had some good answers in Mimesis, but Jaynes went further. He wrote about the origin of consciousness, something like what we call narrativity, in the breakdown of the bicameral mind, which was, and is, something like schizophrenia.

Achilles doesn’t know any better than to do what the voices in his head—the gods—tell him to. Follow their commands, take your revenge, make the right sacrifice, kill everybody in sight, and clear out when you can. Abraham has more scruples, and more rules to live by, but he’s still listening, still obeying those voices. Achilles and Abraham know that the law is not made in the present, by living human beings, it is given by the past, by divine authority.

Odysseus knows better. He improvises according to the circumstances at hand. Poseidon, the god of the seas, hates him for this, but we moderns know what it’s like to live that way, according to nothing that comes before us. Odysseus doesn’t want to live by the script the gods have written, but he doesn’t know why—he just keeps revising it, trying to tell a different story.

He talks to himself, as in Book 5, when, after escaping Calypos’s island, he has to decide—having washed up on yet another foreign shore—whether to stay by the river or keep moving.

“He crawled on land and crouched beside
the reeds and bent to kiss life-giving earth,
and trembling, he spoke to his own heart.”

That is the moment of introspection Achilles could never have experienced. That is the moment of what we call consciousness—or, following Auerbqch, narrativity, the time when we could pause and say, how does what has happened change what we can think about what hasn’t?

Here’s how Odysseus puts it to himself:

“’What now? What will become of me? If I
stay up all wretched night beside this river,
the cruel frost and gentle dew together
may finish me: my life is thin with weakness.
At dawn a cold breeze blows beside the river.
But if I could climb the slope to those dark woods
And go to rest in that thick undergrowth,
Letting sweet sleep take hold of me, and losing
My cold and weariness—wild beasts may find me
And treat me as their prey.’”

In Book 6, he faces another kind of choice. Expose himself to Nausicaa’s slaves, risking renewed imprisonment, or stay hidden, facing certain starvation?

“Odysseus woke up, and thought things over.

“’What is this country I have come to now?
Are all the people wild and violent,
or good, hospitable, and god-fearing?
I heard the sound of female voices. Is it
Nymphs, who frequent the craggy mountaintops,
and river streams and meadows lush with grass?
Or could this noise I hear be human voices?
I have to try to find out who they are.’”

This is the way—by asking himself, what’s next?—he learns how to narrate the future (that’s how Jaynes defines consciousness) like we do, where he will die, like we do. And it costs him a lot of years. Why does this “godlike“ man want so desperately to be just another human? Why do we?

There’s a clue, again in Book 1. Zeus is pontificating, as always, he says,

“This is absurd,
that mortals blame the gods! They say we cause
their suffering, but they themselves increase it
by folly. So Aegisthus overstepped:
he took the legal wife of Agamemnon,
then killed the husband when he came back home,
although he knew it would doom them all.
We gods had warned Aegisthus, we sent down
perceptive Hermes, who flashed into sight,
and told him not to murder Agamemnon
or court his wife. Orestes would grow up
and come back to his home to take revenge.
Aegisthus would not hear that good advice.
But now his death has paid all debts.”

Except that it didn’t, Zeus, now did it? All it did was set a cycle of revenge in motion. You might even say, according to the Nietzschean formula of The Geneaology of Morals, that this equivalence—this indebtedness—cursed us, and made us look for heroes who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, live up to the legacy of Orestes. But then maybe it’s not a curse? That is what The Odyssey, as translated by Emily Wilson, makes us ask.

Odysseus is a patient man. He keeps waiting, keeps plotting, keeps wondering—how do I get out of this cave, this storm, this predicament? He hesitates. He waits on circumstances, but he never lets them determine the future. That’s why he orders his crew to tie him to the mast when they’re in range of the Sirens. He’s just a sailor, after all, hoping for the best. He knows better than to summon waves or to defy the wind. He is “godlike,” but not as Achilles is—he’s not much interested in immortality, however it appears.

But what is he waiting on? A time when he doesn’t have to kill somebody to prove that he’s a man, a warrior? When he might appeal to an authority that isn’t divine, or figurative, or just unknowable?

Yes, he’s waiting, for twenty years, on a time when he doesn’t have to deliver on that Orestian promise of revenge. He stays away, he keeps wondering. keeps wandering. His son, poor Telemachus, is still trapped within the cycle, and they eventually collaborate, of course, on the slaughter of the suitors.

That’s what makes the poem tragic, and compelling  Unlike Achilles, Odysseus is still a hero for us, in our modern times, because he doubts, and resists, the moral standards of his time—he keeps wondering. But in the end there’s no way out. He takes the Orestian way because there’s no other available.

Hamlet faces the same dilemma. He seems passive because he’s waiting, too, hoping for a different answer, another way out of the revenge cycle. So does Huck, mere witness and yet willing accomplice to another brace of bad choices. And so, too, does Sister Carrie, our new Antigone, seem the passive receptacle of past choices—until she refuses them.

These are heroes because they don’t belong in their time, they belong with us. Right next to us. They’re not ahead of their time, what a stupid idea, they’re athwart it, and they say so. They seem timeless because they won’t stay where they come from—they invade every other world, including the one we live in.

Odysseus the intruder, the wanderer, got there first. Like I said, he wants to die. He doesn’t want to live forever, as Calypso begs him to, as her husband. He weeps all day, every day, hoping to find Penelope, his wife, willing himself back to the beginning of the story he’s been trying to tell. Back to the imagined origin. Calypso explains to Hermes,

“I vowed to set him free,
from time and death forever.”

And he refuses. When Calypso says she can’t understand why the mortal would refuse, neither can I, except that I know love requires embodiment, and immortality erases this human condition. So now I know, like Odysseus, why I want to die.