Blow Smashed


From Disparate de miedo, 1815

From The New York Review of Books:

The earliest instance of a ghost in European literature, according to Bruce, is Elpenor. If you don’t remember Elpenor, you’re hardly alone. His own shipmates couldn’t remember him either. The youngest member of Odysseus’s crew, he was (in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation) “no mainstay in a fight nor very clever.” One of the victors at Troy, he is not even mentioned in the Iliad, one of the countless ordinary warriors caught up in the mayhem engineered by their bombastic, self-pitying generals. Elpenor means “hope.” This is one of several jokes Homer makes at his expense.

When, shamed by his men, Odysseus tells the seductive sorceress Circe (or Kirke) that it’s time to leave her enchanted island, she gives him bad news: “Home you may not go/unless you take a strange way round and come/to the cold homes of Death and pale Persephone” to hear the wisdom and advice of Tiresias. The next morning, he rouses his crew and all set sail for the land of the dead. All, that is, except Elpenor.

And this one, having climbed on Kirke’s roof
to taste the cool night, fell asleep with wine.
Waked by our morning voices, and the tramp
of men below, he started up, but missed
his footing on the long steep backward ladder
and fell that height headlong. The blow smashed
the nape cord, and his ghost fled to the dark.

The scene is doubly heartbreaking: first, because Elpenor is the kind of kid who’d go up on the roof to see the stars, rather than join in the macho misbehavior of the rest of the riotous crew; and second, because no one notices his absence.

“The Ghosts Are Laughing”, Christopher Benfey, The New York Review of Books