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Mushtaq Bhat

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Ulysses & Penelope

Acrylic on Canvas
100 x 100cm. 2008

Ulysses & Penelope

Of Odyssey's of soul and bodies wallowing in salty waters, of maritime tales, of longing, of being for years one toke over the line1 and of coming home, to be received with open arms, without breach of faith, love's-labour-lost or to put it in a more modern jargon, without any too big surprises or shocks!

Ulysses, the cunning Trickster. He fought in the first great war of the West against the East. No, unlike Achilles he did not scare the shit out of the Asian Hector, who in turn once scared the shit out of the Doric Greeks, and who moreover, if we are to believe Homer the greatest bard of mankind, was glibly deceived by Athena during his combat against Achilles. Who knows Hector may have otherwise accidentally aimed his spear the next time at Achilles heels? No, Ulysses was the cool calculated guy, he never got hot or emotional like some other epic heroes. He was actually a real peasant bourgeoisie, though born an aristocrat and did all he could to avoid the draft or more appropriately the Agamemnon's (or for that matter, the Presidents, the Priest's or the Rebel's) call to arms. What did he care if Paris (or any Dictator) eloped with Helen (with some vital resources like water, oil or the votes or the savings of the sleeping public)? He was happy with Penelope and his cute little and extremely faithful son Telemachus!

He was a master of tricks, but unfortunately for him, Menelaus, the bureaucrat responsible for overseeing the recruitment and very impatient with draft avoiders, was a much more foxy guy. As he appeared at the honey sweat groovy home of Ulysses with its wine and olive groves, Ulysses could think of only one stupid trick to avoid the draft. Penelope was unfortunately not much interested in politics nor was she cunning enough to come up with some more plausible excuse to keep her loving man and the father of new baby at her side. So Ulysses devised his own trick, which was his habit. He pretended to be mad. So out he goes and starts tilling the fields with a plough, like any of his menial peasant servants. But Menelaus was neither convinced nor so easily to be put off. So he orders his hoplites (soldiers) to grab Telemachus, the infant child of Ulysses and lay him down in front of Ulysses plough, just to check if he was really mad, for then he would not notice it! This worked, Ulysses grabbed at once his child and stopped pretending to be mad. So it came that one of the greatest heroes of the western civilization was forced to leave his happy home and become probably the greatest legends of all time, by dint of an almost childish ruse. The fates, eh?

Ulysses, Penelope and Menelaus, Hoplite and infant Telamachus.
Ulysses trying to avoid the draft by pretending to be mad
Digital Temnograph

So from Troy (one of the oldest Asian cities) to Cyclops (probably some agriculturist or semi-pastoralists in North Africa) all had to witness the hypertrophy of the man's cerebral cortex. Here was the man of strategic- planning, overrunning all the foolish stupid brains of the world. The idea of the Trojan-horse was probably really his. And his tales of woe have one of the happiest endings in western literature.

Yet he was not all that modern. He was scared of the voices of the sirens (probably the songs of the whales) but he sure was a very rational sea man. Goethe was extremely impressed by Homer's nautical knowledge. Some think only a blind man would have had such an acute perception of the sounds, sighs and cries of the sea, the ships and the winds! Till the coming of the Anglo-Saxon sea faring man, I believe such acute perception remained unsurpassed, except for the Arabs maybe. The Arabs gave us Sindbad, the English no less than three heroes, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver and Long John Silver and from the new world, we got the monumental character of maritime tales, Captain Ahab. On hand these figures, you can literally witness the irrevocable Entzauberung der Welt, the loss of the magic in the world. Melville is a new-age Homer, acutely perceptive, with a gigantic soul, an ocean of feelings and a galaxy of experiences, but the magic is gone. However there is this still lingering ominous touch of poetical magic in the exotic and the unknown that characterizes his diction but he had the soul of a fully enlightened modern rational Christian, so the magic is now transported to the will-power of man and the mystery of the beast.2 Although Melville was a product of the mercantile system, his Ahab is no way a utilitarian, driven by expediency, the Market for blubber. His Ahab is from the classic age, in contrast to Melville himself. Melville was a son of the Earth and of the Salts of the Oceans, nevertheless he had the genius to infuse his observations of the mechanical material world with a great poetic sensitivity. Probably the last great traveler of the western hemisphere, who was still capable of empathetically feeling the spirit of the Rocks, Streams, Mountains and Oceans and the pulsating "Souls" of its inhabitants. Darwin and Humboldt although decidedly not utilitarian, however seem to have received the nature's song in a different refrain. The mountains were geological phenomena only, not expressions of some cosmic dimensions, resonating with what must certainly be with and in us too, but what we have lost and left behind somewhere on the way. For Melville, it seems that they were both and his Odyssey is that way as multidimensional as the original and in a way an epic too.

1  taken from the Brewer & Shipley song (One Toke Over The Line, from the album: Trokia 1970). In our context it is meant literally, evoking the image of someone, who has already purchased a ticket and crossed the threshold (turnstile), denoting a step already taken. However, checking it up at Songfacts.com, it seems that the title may have some different connotations for different persons and which honestly never entered my mind. Apparently the word Toke referred to a marijuana puff for the music lovers of the time and may have been intended to convey this meaning by Brewer and Shipley, who have been mentioned as the writers of the song on the label. There are others who consider this song as spiritual, still some others as a typical folk song about home and romance. It made into the golden American charts and was quite popular at the time (1970-1971). Our use of the phrase is however quite literal and excludes other figurative associations, which maybe conveyed to a person of that generation and times and no doubt should be reinforced by the fact that the scene of action is the railway station, where the toke is needed to cross the turnstiles. The expression however aptly describes the state of Ulysses during his years of wandering after having set the sails homeward bound.
Prior to this edit, I had erroneously attributed this expression to the Grateful Dead. It turns out that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead just happened to have accompanied the musicians with his pedal steel guitar on some of the numbers in the album, though apparently not on this number.
2  somehow the whale was still a beast, even if a noble one and perceived with a an astounding acute observation and empathy. It is however not the whale of the modern times, it had not transformed itself completely to the class of the cetacean of Carl LinnĂ© and that of the modern paleontology.

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