Wednesday, March 14, 2012

March Madness, The Odyssey, and St. Patrick's Day

Restless warm fronts have tangled with the cold fronts, producing storms that have swept through the Midwest.  March is madness, its ides a jostling parade honoring the Roman god of war, full of wind and sudden violence.

March is the month when people walk around bent over, as if in italics, holding on to their wraps and their wits, lest they be carried away.

St. Patrick's Day decorations, full of myth, reach out to shoppers all around, even at grocery stores, with tee shirts, cup cakes, and cookies frosted in emerald.  In Kentucky this month, our McDonalds offers a special shamrock mint shake that is green and tastes like peppermint ice cream.

We rightly call our national basketball tournaments March Madness.  The underdog Louisville Cardinals played the Irish of Notre Dame this last week, beating them with their dogged defense to get to the Big East championship game, which they also won.

I've read many books this month, reread and reconsidered others.  There's no better time to read the works of Irish crime novelists, such as Declan Burke, Adrian McKinty, and funnyman Colin Bates.  But basketball season always makes me think of Homer's Odyssey and George Sheehan's Running & Being.
"Against the wind, true grit and perseverance."

Offense is easy, you do it in animal man mode.  Defense is more difficult, it uses different parts of the brain, and it takes a higher level of character--which is to say, a higher level of consciousness.  You don't have to be interested in sports to identify with what George Sheehan says:

"There are days when nothing goes right.  There are days when you can't get the ball in the basket, no matter how hard you try. . .but there is no excuse for not playing good defense.'

"I've known those days.  Days when every shot is forced, every idea manufactured.  Days when invention and wit and originality disappear.  When nothing is new or bright or wonderful. . .And on those days I start to press and everything gets that much more difficult.  The feel is gone, and with it the touch, the ease, the brilliance that play brings.'

"The offense, you see, is play.  The defense is work.  When I am on offense, I create my own world.  I act out the drama I have written.  I dance the dance I have choreographed.  Offense is unrehearsed, exuberant, free-wheeling.  Offense is excitement which provides its own incitement, its own compulsion, its own driving force.  It generates its own energy.'

"Offense, then, is an art.  It cannot be forced.  It is spontaneous...and therefore there are days when it won't happen.  The brain's circuits will not open.  The playful right hemisphere remains inaccessible.'

"Defense needs none of this.  Defense is dull, boring, commonplace.  It is the unimaginative plodding attention to duty.  It is grit and determination and perseverance.  It requires--can I use that word?--an act of will.  There is never a day you can't play defense.  All you need is the decision to put out, to give it your all.'

"On defense I am another person, the real person.  Offense is a showplace for talent and even genius.  What defense discloses is character.  On defense, effort and energy are a matter of the will.'

"I try not to be proud of my offense.  My play, my creativity, is a gift freely given and perhaps just as readily taken away.  But I know that my talent is something I carry.  The real test comes when that is absent, when I am filled with fatigue and boredom, when I am off my game.'

"Defense then narrows down to character, the ability to persist in the direction of the greatest resistance.  There are teams, and successful ones, that no longer look solely to talent.  They recruit on character.  It is a long season.  There are days on end of giving of yourself, and talent is not enough. . .Only character can make me function when my existence seems to be, as Emerson said, a defensive war."

A defensive war may be tough, but an offensive war is easy.  It takes all the responsibility off of character.  The state absorbs and absolves all individual blame.  The Iliad was offense, but the Odyssey was defense.  The Iliad was the trip down the floor, full of energy and aggression.  The Odyssey was the trip back, reflective and defensive.

There have been several fine interpretations of the Odyssey, but my favorite during the last few years is Sailing Home by Zen poet Norman Fischer.  It is truly a remarkable work and it now resides on the shelf next to Finding Joy In Joyce: A Reader's Guide to Ulysses by John P. Anderson.

And if you haven't read David Eagleman's Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Self, do yourself a favor and get a copy.  Among many other valuable concepts he discusses is that of the "Ulysses contract," and the recognition that we consist of not one self but several selves, bargaining with a team of rivals about doing the right thing.

Also brilliantly touching on the Odyssey and human consciousness is Shimon Edelman's new volume, The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About The Good Life:

"The Odyssey, as one of its best translators, Robert Fitzgerald, noted in a postscript, is 'about a man who cared for his wife and wanted to rejoin her.'

"For three thousand years now, this story captivates listeners and readers not just because it brings the hero through spectacular hardships to a happy end, but also, perhaps, because it presents a puzzle."

The puzzle, Edelman says, is why Ulysses did not settle down with one of the many willing women he met, many of them daughters of kings and beautiful and probably good in bed.  "The goddess Kalypso on her island, though, demands an explanation" of the puzzle when it is her turn, for she has offered Ulysses not only a paradise but immortality as well.

Ulysses admits that his wife Penelope is but an old shadow compared to the eternally young goddess, yet he politely refuses all offers and makes his way home.  The answer to the puzzle is not given and the audience is left to decide for themselves.

Those of us who know unconditional love have no trouble with this puzzle, while the Ayn Rand psychopaths among us will never get it.  Edelman says:

"The mind of Ulysses cannot be understood solely in terms" of abstract or materialist principles, "no matter how large these loom in Kalypso's calculus of desire."

Highly recommended.


  1. Another truly inspiring post on reading and life! I have not read Declan burke and I am giddy to order some right now! After I get Maryanne Robinsons essays hoo ha!

    Thanks for your great writing and eclectic thinking.


  2. Thanks for stopping by, Candy. I thought you had already read Marilynne Robinson's essays. A year or two ago, Clem and several others at the Cormac McCarthy Society forum were discussing THE DEATH OF ADAM, and I reviewed ABSENCE OF MIND there sometime back.

    For those who don't already know, Candy Minx maintains her own blog at this link: