Saturday, November 03, 2018

Odysseus, Master of Fake News

I’m listening to the Odyssey at the moment (Dan Stevens reading the Fitzgerald translation, and I’ve realized Odysseus is a chronic liar. He tells people whatever he needs them to believe – he’s a master of fake news.

Between Odysseus’s arrival back in Ithaca and the end of the saga, almost everything he says is a lie. Pallas Athena appears to him in disguise on the beach where he’s been landed, and asks him who he is. From Book 13 in Alexander Pope’s translation (available at

Yet, well dissembling his untimely joys,
And veiling truth in plausible disguise,
Thus, with an air sincere, in fiction bold,
His ready tale the inventive hero told:

He spins a backstory about being a prince banished from Crete, who after many tribulations arrived in Ithaca. Athena is amused:

"O still the same Ulysses! (she rejoin'd,)
In useful craft successfully refined!
Artful in speech, in action, and in mind!
Sufficed it not, that, thy long labours pass'd,
Secure thou seest thy native shore at last?
But this to me? who, like thyself, excel
In arts of counsel and dissembling well;
To me? whose wit exceeds the powers divine,
No less than mortals are surpass'd by thine.”

He responds:

"Goddess of wisdom! (Ithacus replies,)
He who discerns thee must be truly wise,
So seldom view'd and ever in disguise!”

Athena is Odysseus’s constant partner and protector, appearing in disguise to other characters (and to Odysseus) to advance his cause. They are made for each other: both are dissemblers. Just as one needs to be truly wise to see through Athena’s lies, as Odysseus says, the same is true of him.

Almost every part of the second half of the epic (Books 13 to 24) involves deception, and the challenge of discerning the truth. In disguise, Odysseus seeks shelter with his faithful swineherd Eumaeus (Book 14); when Eumaeus asks the stranger who he is, Odysseus responds with an elaborate lie. When he assures Eumaeus that Odysseus is on his way home, but Eumeaus (wise man!) doubts him. Realizing that it’s going to be a cold night, Odysseus invents an incident about the Trojan campaign to persuade Eumaeus to give him a cloak. The lies continue to the end: Telemachus to lies to Eurycleia, the faithful servant; Odysseus doesn’t trust Penelope, and she doesn’t trust the stranger who claims to be her husband; Odysseus even hides his identity from his father, inventing yet another backstory – and Laertes asks for proof when Odysseus reveals who he is.

At this point, I began to wonder about the daring exploits Odysseus related to the king and queen of the Phaeacians during his sojourn there, just before they helped him return to Ithaca. (He arrives in the land of Phaeacians at the end of Book 5, and the stories he tells stretch from Book 9 to Book 12.) Were these all lies, too, to arouse the sympathy of the Phaeacians and ensure their assistance? The Land of the Lotus Eaters; Odysseus saving his men from the Cyclops Polyphemus; the men tearing open Aeolus’s gift, which blows them to the island of the giants, who sink all the ships in the squadron except Odysseus’s; the forced (really?) sojourn on Circe’s island; his visit to the Land of the Dead and what he learned from Tiresias, the prophet; the temptations of the Sirens, and the monsters Scylla and Charybdis; Odysseus’s men killing the sun god’s sacred cattle, leading to the storm that sinks the last ship and kills every man aboard except Odysseus. Was any this true?

The suitors also lie. For example, after they realize that Telemachus has returned safely and evaded their plan to kill him, they debate killing him. After Penelope hears that they are plotting to kill Telemachus, who evaded their attack on his route home, she descends to the hall and berates them. The suitor Eurymachus assures her that Telemachus is close to his heart and should fear no harm, and the narrator reveals (and condemns) the falsehood: “Thus smooth [Eurymachus] ended, yet [Telemachus’s] death conspired.”

In Homer’s world, everyone lies all the time. As in ours, lies are condemned but universally practiced. Lying is part of life: men lie to women to get laid, and women lie to men that the offspring are his. Lying is at the heart of politics, as Machiavelli said to his prince around 1522, “[Y]ou must be a great liar … a  deceitful  man will  always  find plenty who  are  ready  to  be deceived.” It’s at the heart of commerce, as Bernard Mandeville said in The Grumbling Hive of 1705: “All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, / No Calling was without Deceit.”

It’s impossible to know if deception was more common, or more accepted, in Homer’s world of warring tribes and far-ranging sea-raiders. It may have been, if Gächter & Schulz’s 2016 paper “Intrinsic honesty and the prevalence of rule violations across societies” is any guide (Nature 531: 496–499; see the metrics page for mentions in news articles and blogs). They found that the honesty of individuals is lower in countries with a high prevalence of rule violations, which often have weak institutions, low material security and a high degree of individualism – which sounds a lot like Greece from the Bronze Age (in which the poem is set) to the Iron Age (when it was composed).

Of course, the Odyssey is (a) fiction – a collection of stories and seaman’s tales that its contemporary audience would’ve recognized as such. Still, it’s a truism that fiction reveals truth that reality obscures. Tennessee Williams said, “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” and Jessica Powell subtitles her just-published Silicon Valley satire as “totally fictional but essentially true.” After hearing all the lies after Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, would Homer’s listeners have questioned the tall tales told at the Phaeacian court – or was it obvious to everyone that they were fictions, but no less true for all that?

Fake news has many definitions. I’m partial to Webopedia's “false information or propaganda published under the guise of being authentic news”; Odysseus was certainly lying while pretending to be telling the truth. Many definitions tie it to political intent, e.g., “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views” (Cambridge Dictionary). Measured against our times, it sounds like a stretch to call Odysseus’s lies Fake News since he isn’t using the media, or trying to influence the political process. In the context of his times, however, he is: he’s creating stories the bards (the mass media of the time) would spread, and he’s shaping the perceptions of those in power like Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians, and the suitors who have taken over his house. And most of all, he’s doing it with the most persuasive of all justifications: survival.

Addition, 7 November 2018

On reflection, I’m struck by the links between fake news and fiction. According to Albert Camus, fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. When pedants chastise pedagogues for lying, they confuse what’s being said with how it’s being said. It was a commonplace during the 2016 U.S. election that the press took Donald Trump literally, but not seriously; and his supporters took him seriously, but not literally. (It’s still true; and for “press” substitute “elites” and “opponents.”) The countless quotes defending the truth-value of fiction suggests that writers feel threatened by the claim that their creations are mere invention – their attackers don’t take novels seriously, because they’re evidently not factual. I suspect that Trump terrifies his opponents in part because he’s a master of storytelling. He’s a master of rhetoric – not the bloodless technique, but the art of persuading the multitude.

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