As I reach the end of a busy third week of a new job, I greedily indulge in my first lie-in since term started. Now, I don’t mean to equate my lethargy with shipwreck. I hope too not to find cannibal giant or lotophage among my colleagues and students! But, as sleep that spills over people drips more tardily than usual from me, I’m put in mind of our old pal Odysseus.
τὴν μὲν ἰδὼν γήθησε πολύτλας δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς,
ἐν δ᾽ ἄρα μέσσῃ λέκτο, χύσιν δ᾽ ἐπεχεύατο φύλλων.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτε τις δαλὸν σποδιῇ ἐνέκρυψε μελαίνῃ
ἀγροῦ ἐπ᾽ ἐσχατιῆς, ᾧ μὴ πάρα γείτονες ἄλλοι,
σπέρμα πυρὸς σώζων, ἵνα μή ποθεν ἄλλοθεν αὔοι,
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς φύλλοισι καλύψατο: τῷ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Ἀθήνη
ὕπνον ἐπ᾽ ὄμμασι χεῦ᾽, ἵνα μιν παύσειε τάχιστα
δυσπονέος καμάτοιο φίλα βλέφαρ᾽ ἀμφικαλύψας.
And seeing this much-suffering noble Odysseus rejoiced, and he lay down in the middle, and poured over himself the fallen leaves. As when some man, in a far field, covers a fire-brand with black embers, a man who has no neighbours, saving the seed of fire, so that he need not light it from some other place, so Odysseus covered himself with leaves. And Athena poured sleep upon his eyes, so that it might enfold his dear eyelids and swiftly make an end of toil some trouble.
(Homer(?) Odyssey 5.486-93)
Odysseus’ landing at Scheria is his first legitimate chance for rest since he set out from Troy. Even if Odysseus does not fully recognise it, an audience fluent in the tradition knows he is safe. He will sleep again aboard a Phaeacian ship as he wends his way gently home at last to his native Ithaca. But perhaps most importantly – in this almost dream-world of the Phaeacians – Odysseus is allowed to reflect upon, very basically, what has happened. Here Odysseus spins his sorry yarn (however fanciful) of loss and temptation, a vocalisation of his internal reflection. His tears reflect a burgeoning conscious-awareness of all he has suffered. He might not have been overly taxed upon Ogygia, but he was not free as he is now, and nymphic shackles preclude his synthesis of an episodic experience into meaningful narrative. It is at rest, free rest, that Odysseus constructs meaning.
Rest and leisure are highly prized in ancient poetry. Virgil furnishes is with an example in Eclogue 1:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena;
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arva:
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
Tityrus, lying beneath the shelter of broad beech you meditate on woodland Muse with slender pipe; we are leaving native limits and sweet fields, we flee our native land. You, Tityrus, unconcerned in shade, teach the woods to echo ‘fair Amyrillis’.
(Virgil Eclogues 1.1-5)
Melancholy Meliboeus longs for leisure like that of Tityrus. Tityrus, embodying the Arcadian idyll of bucolic verse, reclines unconcerned beneath tree playing upon reed pipe. His cares are behind him. Confident in his position, he sits content in his otium.
Of course, the eclogues lie against a backdrop of Augustan reform, and there is perhaps more of the political than of bucolic within their intent (if that is not too taboo a word!). Nevertheless, I think one can detect something more fundamental informing the Tityrus-Meliboeus dichotomy; leisure is longed-for, and stress bemoaned. The same, I hope, holds true for us. Tityrus rests and reflects, much like Scherian Odysseus; a stressed Meliboeus instead focusses on what is happening to him at present – in trying to make sense of his ongoing plight and motion he cannot even accept Tityrus’ offer of restful hospitality.
Virgil’s stance on activity and inactivity resurfaces in a different guise in the Georgics, especially in what is arguably it’s most famous phrase:
….labor omnia vicit
Toil conquered everything, wicked toil…
(Virgil Georgics 1.145-6)
The pessimistic Harvard reading would seem to capture Meliboeus’ and pre-Scherian Odysseus’ predicaments. Toil has the better of our poor protagonists. But I much prefer a reading of the phrase closer to its Hesiodic model: it is by toil that we gain excellence and beat back natural degradations. So what place is left for inactivity? Let’s call back Tityrus.
Libertas; quae sera, tamen respexit inertem,
candidior postquam tondenti barba cadebat;
Freedom; which, late, nevertheless looked back upon me in my inactivity, after the beard began to fall whiter beneath the scissors
(Virgil Eclogues 1.28-9)
Tityrus seems new to leisure. Just as for Odysseus, for Tityrus rest and freedom are bedfellows. Though freedom finds him inertem, Tityrus will continue to shepherd, and he has attained to inactivity with whitened whiskers. It is perennially human that age and stress grey our chins. But Tityrus has clipped his stressful trappings, and has processed everything he has learned from his previous activity. His inertia after toil has become truly rest, and this rest is sanctioned by all concerned. For those of us acquainted with the Cambridge Latin Course beyond Caecilius’ proclivity for the outdoors, I adduce Lucius Marcius Memor in comparison. This obesus et ignavus character cuts a rather less likeable figure than our Tityrus (though the comparison may be more complicated with playboy Odysseus!), and one whose inactivity gains somewhat less sanction. Leisure after toil is rest, leisure without toil is laziness. Rest is accepted, laziness despised.
Odysseus is no lay-about either. For Telemachus’ full lifespan Odysseus has been grafting in war and other dangers. For half of this time he has been striving for home. For much of this period again he has been trying to win not only his nostos but the nostoi of his men, sadly to no avail. Little wonder Odysseus should need his Scherian sojourn to synthesise his sorrowful story. In this vein, I do promise that my Sunday inactivity is preceded by a week of hard work and usefully employed in reflection on what I’ve experienced throughout it, that it is rest and not (just) laziness. Work will wait until tomorrow. Heck, more important beings than me have taken a Sunday off…