We come back, then, to Odysseus, the trickster par excellence, introduced in the first line of the Odyssey as "craftyshifty" a man of many turnings, or devices. One of his standard epithets is polumechanos "much-contriving, full of devices, ever-ready." It was he, in fact, who conceived the Trojan Horse, one of the earliest and most successfully deceitful engines of war. Listen to how Athena compliments Odysseus: "Only a master thief, a real con artist," "Could match your tricks even a god" "Might come up short. You wily bastard," "You cunning, elusive, habitual liar! --Staley Lombardo"
These traits, as any psychologist will point out, are closely associated with the birth of the self-conscious individual. The ability to harbor secrets the discovery and preservation of a private place within oneself where one can concoct schemes, deceive others, contrive plans, invent devices is an inescapable part of every child's growing up. The child is at first transparent to those around him, with no distinct boundaries. If he is to stand apart from the world as an individual, he must enter a place of his own, a private place from which he can learn to manipulate the world through his own devisings.
Granted, such manipulative powers may be exercised for ill as well as good, and the Greeks sometimes appear to us remarkably casual about the distinction. But, in any case, the gaining of such multivalent power is inseparable from growing up; to give people greater capacity for good is also to give them greater capacity for evil. In what follows, it is the conscious capacity that I will speak of as having been necessary for our development, not its employment in a negative or destructive manner.
What I want to suggest is that, to begin with, technology was a prime instrument for the historical birth of the individual self. And the Odyssey is almost a kind of technical manual for this birth for the coming home, the coming to himself, of the individual. When you realize this, you begin to appreciate how the "My name is Nobody" story, which seems so childish and implausible to us, might have entranced Homer's audiences through one telling after another. You can imagine them wondering at Odysseus' presence of mind, his self-possession, his ability to wrest for himself a private, inner vantage point, which he could then shift at will in order to conceal his intentions from others something no one lacking a well-developed ego, or self, can pull off. And they doubtless wondered also at his self-control, as when he refused his immediate warrior's impulse to respond in kind to the Cyclops' aggressions an impulse that would have proven disastrous. Instead he pulled back, stood apart within himself, and devised a trick. In reliving Odysseus' machinations, the hearers were invited into that place within themselves where they, too, might discover the possibilities of invention and craft. It requires a separate, individual self to calculate a deceit.
The classicist George Dimock has remarked that Homer makes us feel Odysseus' yearning for home as "a yearning for definition." The episode with Polyphemus is symbolic of the entire journey. In the dark, womb-like cave, Odysseus is as yet Nobody. Homer intimates childbirth by speaking of Polyphemus "travailing with pains" as his captive is about to escape the cave. Only upon being delivered into freedom, as we have seen, can Odysseus declare who he is, proclaiming his true name (Dimock 1990, pp. 15, 111). Further, every birth of the new entails a loss a destruction of the old and the thrusting of the sharpened beam into the great Cyclopean eye suggests the power of the focused, penetrating individual intellect in overcoming an older, perhaps more innocent and unified vision of the world (Holdrege 2001).
To grow up is to explore a wider world, and Dimock points out that, first and last, Odysseus "got into trouble with Polyphemus because he showed nautical enterprise and the spirit of discovery" not because of recklessness or impiety. "In Homer's world, not to sail the sea is finally unthinkable." Perhaps we could say, at great risk of shallowness: in those days, to set sail was to embark upon the information highway. There were risks, but they were risks essential to human development. Homer certainly does not downplay the risks. Having been warned of the fatally entrancing song of the Sirens, Odysseus plugged his sailors' ears with wax, but not his own. Instead, he had the others lash him to the ship's mast, sternly instructing them not to loose him no matter how violent his begging. And so he heard those ravishing voices calling him to destruction. His desire was inflamed, and he pleaded for release, but his men only bound him tighter.
You may wonder what the Sirens offered so irresistibly. It was to celebrate in song the great sufferings and achievements of Odysseus and his followers, and to bestow upon them what we might be tempted to call the "gift of global information." In the Sirens' own words:
Never yet has any man rowed past this isle in his black ship
until he has heard the sweet voice from our lips.
Nay, he has joy of it and goes his way a wiser man.
For we know all the toils that in wide Troy
the Argives and Trojans endured through the will of the gods,
and we know all things that come to pass upon the fruitful earth.
"We know all things." The rotting bones of those who had heeded this overpowering invitation to universal knowledge lay in heaps upon the shores of the isle of the Sirens. Only the well-calculated balance of Odysseus' techne only the developing self-awareness with which he countered the excessive and deceitful offer enabled him to survive the temptation. As Dimock observes about Odysseus lashed to the mast:
Could a more powerful example of the resisted impulse be imagined . . . ? Odysseus has chosen to feel the temptation and be thwarted rather than not to feel it at all.
Here we see the perfect balance between the open-hearted embrace of life with all its challenges, and artful resistance to the ambitions of hubris. The temptation of knowledge leads only to those rotting bones unless it is countered by the kind of self-possession that enables us to resist our own impulses. The external gifts of techne come, in the end, only through the strengthening of the techne of our own consciousness. When you look today at the mesmerized preoccupation with the sweetly sung promises of salvation through digital information, you realize that our own culture honors the Sirens far more than it does the healthy respect for risk, the self-discipline, and the inner cunning of Odysseus, man of many devices.