The essence of comedy is the triumph of “la forza di natura/- nature over intellect. And the happiest tale of all is the odyssey that ends with…laughter in the house.
To begin with, the Happy Ending. Aristotle calls it the essential joy of comedy, and gives this example: mortal enemeies of tragic drama confront, but suddenly convert. Instead of dueling to the death, Orestes and Aegisthus make friends and stroll happily off-stage. “Nobody kills anybody,” Aristotle adds almost ruefully. Indeed, in the typical comedy denouement, High Noon turns magically into lunchtime.
It has been this way since the dawn of Western literature, which is to say, since Homer. The Iliad defines the action of the tragic hero. First, a question of honor ignites the uncompromising wrath of Achilles and estranges him from the rest of the Greeks. Later, when his only friend, Patroclus, is killed, he is cut off from anything human. He refuses to eat or drink, and broods obsessively on the fated brevity of his life. He has grim consolation in the knowledge that his “glory” will live after him. Yet never once does he think of his wife or the son who will fall heir to this glory. Even Sophocles’ Ajax does this much before his death. So does Hector, the social hero Homer presents as a contrast to Achilles. Hector, the defender of Troy, fights not for himself but for the preservation of family and society. Achilles has no such concerns, and as the Iliad ends, he has moved so far from mankind that he becomes merely “inhuman fire.”
The fire of the Odyssey is quite the opposite; it is heart and hearth and the cooking of supper. This is our first comedy, and the only joys it presents are the joys of this world. But at the outset its heros is isolated from all earthly ties. We first glimpse Odysseus at the farthest point from humanity, on an island in the midst of nowhere, at “the navel of the sea.” Though he is here with the nymph Calypso, he longs to leave, to struggle to regain homeland and home, wife and son. For this mortal domestic existence, he is even willing to sacrifice the eternity of transcendental bliss that Calypso offers:
then answered her and said:
do not be angry with me over this.
I myself know very well Penelope,
although intelligent, is not your match
to look at, not in stature or in beauty.
But she’s a human being and you’re a god.
You’ll never die or age. But still I wish,
each and every day to get back home,
to see the day when I return.
Achilles forswears precisely what Odysseus desires. He abandons the world to gain an eternal intangible, whereas Odysseus makes the opposite journey for the temporal tangible. ( to be continued)…